Get Outta my Dreams and into my CAR
Here I was, over 130 countries visited, on my quest to see all 193…and almost all of the “tough” ones done. I’d purposely visited the harder ones first, to get them out of the way in the beginning. And this strategy had paid off: For example, if I’d waited much longer to see North Korea, I’d have missed it completely; Trump banned Americans from visiting the DPRK shortly after my trip there. Venezuela has all but stopped issuing visas to Americans…glad I popped into Caracas while I could. Cuba was one of the very first countries I ever visited; I ventured there back when it was very illegal. Iraq was my 100th country. All this being said–and all these places visited–I still had a couple stragglers; a few “tougher” countries that needed to be seen. The Central African Republic, or “CAR,” was one of them. Time to check it off.
Listed as one of the 20 least-visited countries in the world, and for good reason, CAR boasts the infamous “Level 4 – Do Not Travel” category on the State Department’s website. It was the very last of the more “riskier” African nations I needed to visit. Libya, Mali, Burkina Faso; heck, even Somalia had been checked off the list already. I’d saved some of the sexier African countries like Zanzibar (Tanzania), Angola , São Tome, Comoros and Mauritius for last. But I’d have to get in and out of just one more “dodgy” nation before the path would be clear. I was ready.
Get ready for lots of acronyms here. My one week trip into the heart of Africa would include three new countries on the itinerary: The Republic of the Congo (ROC), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the CAR. It sure was a long way to travel for just a week, but that’s all the time off of work I had, and that specific cluster of countries was a big blank hole on my map that needed to be filled.
Getting to Africa this time was pretty straight forward; As exotic and far away as The Congo is, the capital was only two stops away: San Diego to New York to Casablanca to Brazzaville. Brazzaville to Kinshasa (DRC) was an easy seven-minute boat ride across the river. But getting from the DRC to CAR was a pretty complicated ordeal, despite their physical proximity. There aren’t many commercial flights in and out of the capital, Bangui, for obvious reasons. But you’d think there would be a direct flight from the capital of its neighboring Congos; either of them. Not only wasn’t there a direct flight from Kinshasa or Brazzaville, but there wasn’t even a “one stop” service. I ended up spending the entire day flying; going from Kinshasa to Lomé, Togo, then stopping in Douala, Cameroon, before finally touching down amongst the UN and World Food Program airplanes at Bangui International. The sun was setting as I stood in line to wash my hands in chlorinated water flowing from a plastic cooler. My vaccination card was checked before I could even approach the immigration counter. I was now in Ebola territory. I was deep, deep inside Africa. And there was no turning back now.
Water for Good
Earlier in the year, listeners of my radio show, along with friends and colleagues, helped me fund a clean water project in the CAR. The $20,000 in funds raised through my radio program went exclusively to build a well in a rural village far from the capital. While a journey overland to visit our new well in the Berberati village would be too dangerous to undertake (I tried), I would be able to meet the staff from the Water for Good organization while in Bangui. By the way, you can find more out about our water campaign HERE.
My guide/fixer for my visit was Farel from Water for Good. He found me before I found him, introducing himself to me before I even hit the immigration window. Soon we were on our way out of the airport, en route to the hotel.
RAMBLIN’ RANDY TIP: At time of this publication, a visa is NOT NEEDED for American citizens wishing to visit CAR, although apparently the airlines have not yet been informed of this! Sure enough, while checking in for my flight to CAR in Kinshasa, the airline counter folk demanded to see a visa for CAR. Only after pulling out a stack of paperwork, including official statements from the CAR government concerning visas, was I able to continue on. Even the Water For Good office in the US told me I should get a visa in advance, but I knew better.
If you’re an American traveling to CAR without a visa, I recommend you take the same documentation I did. Just email me and I’d be glad to send you the PDFs; they are official communications from the CAR government, exempting Americans from having to apply for a visa for stays under 90 days. I also emailed the airline well in advance, and received an email confirmation from them that visa to CAR is not required. Finally—and just in case—I brought an invitation letter from Water for Good. I wasn’t taking any chances. And it all worked out. Always do your research before your trip.
The short drive out of the airport and to my hotel was fun. You never know what to expect for the first time on the ground every time you visit a new country, especially in Africa. Bangui was chaotic and super rural. There were people everywhere and little fires on each side of the street to illuminate shops and pathways. Lots of dirt. Ten minutes later we’d arrived at the gates of The Ledger Plaza Bangui. Our car was checked for bombs and we were let in. This place was a palace!
I could write an entire blog on this bizarre hotel. Bizarre, because it had the appearance of a five-star property, in the middle of one of the world’s poorest countries. I’d gone from mud streets and wooden shacks, to 50 foot ceilings, lots of marble and gold doorknobs. What a contrast. The Ledger would be my home for the next four nights. I had a quick dinner at the buffet, then it was lights out. Big day tomorrow.
The next morning, Farel met me in the lobby of The Ledger and took me over to our first stop: The Water For Good headquarters. I took a tour of the premises, which included offices, a conference room and machine shop where they repaired water wells. I met some of the staff, snapped some photos and then we were off. We’d cover a lot of ground today.
One of the specific reasons I enjoy the mission of seeing every single country in the world so immensely, is because just when you think you’ve seen it all, you see something else; something that truly surprises you and that you never could have expected or even imagined. To date, I’ve visited 38 African nations and, candidly, I wasn’t sure there were any surprises left. Boy was I wrong.
The one thing I will always remember from the CAR, were the people on the “C-A-Rs!” Never in my life, including anywhere throughout my travels in Africa, had I ever seen anything like this: small cars with anywhere from a dozen to 20+ men inside and on top of the vehicle. If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it. How so many people could fit on top of these small cars–and not fall off…or break the car–is mind boggling.
One thing was for sure. The folks on top of the cars did not like having their picture taken. I was pleasantly surprised with an aggressive bird (middle finger), loud shouting and a sour grimace from the first car I took a picture of. Even though I was in the confines of Farel’s car, and snapping a picture from behind our windshield, the man of top of the car seemed absolutely furious and insulted that I took a photo of him. This would be the case with each and every one of the half-dozen cars packed with people that I captured photos of; even though most were heading in the opposite direction on the highway. How these men were so observant I’ll never know, after all, two cars heading towards each other on a highway pass one another pretty fast, but nonetheless, almost every time, I was busted! Luckily, we were both going in different directions, and our car (a newer SUV with no riders on the roof) would certainly outrun theirs, even if we were traveling in the same direction. I couldn’t imagine the ass-kicking I’d be in for had this not been the case!
First Time Listener, Long Time Caller
Our next stop was Water For Good’s radio station in the village of Boali. The shortwave radio station situated on the top of a hill is used to share weather updates, public health initiatives, and hygiene lessons with the surrounding communities. I met the staff, toured the studios and rested a bit before we moved on to our next stop.
I host a syndicated radio show back home, and one of my favorite things to do in other countries, is visit the radio stations there. Here’s a page with over a dozen international radio station visits.
Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls
I’m not a huge waterfall geek; I’m not the kind of person who will hike for three days to reach falls, nor get overly excited about visiting one, but Boali Falls actually knocked my socks off. Right out of the movie Romancing The Stone, the falls were absolutely stunning. The huge, rip-roaring spout and huge, cavernous, green opening looked like an entrance to another world. The giant and super bright and deep-colored rainbow tied it all together for an experience I will never forget. The fact that there was not another tourist in site made it that much better. Sadly, Farel and I encountered a group of young men posing as guides, that attempted to shake us down for cash, for the privilege if visiting. I don’t mind giving a small tip to “security” or “guides” of a special place like this, but they were asking for a lot of money. Luckily they weren’t violent, just persistent. I let Farel handle business, as we walked back to the car to head home.
We stopped for lunch and I had a big piece of carp that I was pretty sure was caught immediately after I ordered it. Pretty cool. Then it was back to town. It was a long drive and the roads were bad, but the views were awesome and I got excited every time a car with loads of people on the roof appeared on the horizon. Farel was amused by my sheer excitement and delight; this was an every day sight for him, but so different and special for someone like me.
Somewhere along the line I realized that I was never “stamped in” to the country. Somehow I’d left the airport the day before without getting that official immigration stamp in my passport, which could lead to problems when I try to leave. Farel was nice enough to take me back to the airport and get it all sorted out in a matter of minutes, something I know I wouldn’t have been able to do that quickly. It was apparent that he was very connected and had no problem getting me stamped in, even though technically I was already “in!” He convinced the lady at the counter to set the date on her stamper back to “yesterday” and make my stay legal. Thank you Farel!
I lounged for the rest of the day back at The Ledger, enjoying another expensive dinner buffet (that was the only option available), and then some shut eye. I’d explore on my own tomorrow.
Man About Town
I’d take it fairly easy on this second and last full day, sleeping in and lounging around in my bathrobe, and wasting a good part of the day away before leaving the confines of that huge hotel. Sometimes you’re motivated to get out and explore, and other times you’re just not. I couldn’t explain my mood; maybe a little lethargic? Perhaps it was the fact that there just wasn’t a lot going on for a tourist: There really isn’t a “Top 10 Things to Do in Bangui” list, so I kept my expectations low. I honestly hadn’t the slightest idea what I was even looking for. I also wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to be walking around by myself. After all, CAR is a Level 4 “Do Not Travel to” country; but I’d done enough research and talked to a handful of friends who all had recently been there, and they’d walked the streets with no problem; so I would too. I finally left the guarded compound after noon, hanging a left on Avenue de l’indépendance and heading into town, unaware the walk would be over two miles.
Most of the stroll into town was uneventful, walking over a shoulder of red dirt on the side of the road. As I neared the city center the scenery became more lively. I passed a market on the right, full of little stands selling clothes and household goods. There were lots of men manning little carts stuffed with beautiful, fresh baked French bread that looked like yellow torpedoes. Kids on bikes were in charge of crates of eggs; eggs stacked very high in pyramids. How did they not all come crashing down, I don’t know…very impressive! I saw a “public service” billboard with a drawing illustrating the dangers of tossing hand grenades into fires. The More You Know. Interesting stuff.
Rollin’ on the River
Even though I was just in the DRC two days ago, my fascination with borders–especially interesting ones, like river borders–stoked the flames of my curiosity enough to try and find the official crossing. It wasn’t where I expected, on the docks near downtown; but instead, a quarter of a mile east, and it turned out to be one of the coolest little ports–if you can even call it a port–that I’ve ever seen. A small, concrete “customs and immigration” building and a set of stairs leading down to a handful of old, wooden pirogues on the muddy banks of the Ubangi River. That was it. There was something just so raw and real about this crossing, something that intrigued me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. There was a desk set up, outside, with two women sitting behind it; some sort of immigration or visa processing stand. I’d seen something similar when I was crossing from the ROC to the DRC a few days earlier. An older gentleman named Kolasko did his best to communicate with me, as I struggled to ask questions about boats and the system to get across. He rattled off some words in French, none of which I understood, but overall he was friendly and seemed happy to see me. We even took selfies together, which I was grateful for: my snapping photos of strangers hadn’t been well received up until now.
The Other Side
I toyed with the idea of taking one of these boats to the other side; to the village of Zongo, DRC, just to say I did. And I probably would have if it wasn’t close to sundown. But I didn’t feel like chancing it today, maybe next time. I didn’t care to be stuck in Zongo overnight, or for some reason be refused entry back into CAR. I’d already successfully checked DRC off the list; felt I should quit while I was ahead. Instead, I enjoyed observing the folks who did cross, loading themselves and their belongings into those frail looking boats and then pushing off for the trip across the river, fighting the current to reach the banks of a completely different nation that lie just across the water. It looked 50% fun and 50% scary. I’ll do it next time, I swear. Zongo, you’re on notice.
Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay
After ogling that cool little port for a while, I popped in to a restaurant-bar that was just a few feet away, for a beer and to soak in more views of the river. Made of wood, open-air, and situated right on the water, La Tourangelle was right across from the French Embassy. I enjoyed my “33” beer among a few other foreigners that were doing the same.
Not From Around Here
Before I could order a second beer, I ended up befriending a man named Fadel, who was Lebanese, and working in Bangui as wood exporter. Fadel was in charge of a big lumber company here and it was interesting to hear his story. Later we were joined by his comrades, Mafut (Syrian) and Mohamed (Egyptian). I was very intrigued by all of their stories, where they came from (I really want to visit Syria), and how the hell three Middle Eastern men ended up in the Central African Republic chopping down trees. Fadel was super gracious and bought me a drink, but I passed on the hookah offer. He was even nice enough to have his driver drop me back off at The Ledger. Good peeps!
So a Lebanese, Egyptian and Syrian walk into a bar…besides what sounds like a set-up to a pretty funny joke, what had transpired that night was a real-life United Nations summit. As much as I refrain from getting too “preachy” on any of my blogs, the picture above is a good reminder that we’re all the same, and should all be able to get along in 2020. I know it’s more complicated than that, and I may be oversimplifying it, but nonetheless, four guys from all of the world, with obviously very different backgrounds, sitting down for a beer in the middle of nowhere was pretty cool.
Speaking of the United Nations, I guess now would be a good part to talk about all of the foreigners I ran into here. None of them were tourists. There were a couple businessmen and workers, like Fadel and his bros, but most of the outsiders here were from the UN. They all wore similar uniforms, but with patches from their individual countries on their sleeves. The team was called MINUSCA, which is an acronym for Mission Multidimensionnelle Intégrée des Nations Unies Pour la Stabilisation en Centrafrique (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic). The CAR is still recovering from a violent civil war, and it is my understanding that the over 10,000 MINUSCA troops are here to help keep the place stabilized. Perhaps all hell would break lose again if these guys weren’t here. I don’t know enough to speak intelligently on the situation, but here’s the Wikipedia article on MINUSCA.
I was absolutely intrigued by the mix of people serving on the ground here in Bangui. I passed through a busy intersection that had a big, armored UN vehicle perched on the corner. A soldier with a blue helmet manned the giant gun on top. The whole setup was surrounded by barricades and barbed wire. Yet the passersby went on about their day as if this was normal. Oh, how I wanted to take photos of this, and more importantly hear the stories from the people involved. Like, what was that armored vehicle on standby for? What might happen? And why this street? These are the kinds of things that make me go home and spend hours online, studying a region. Did the local population here welcome the UN? Do they like them? Or think of them as occupiers? These are the things I need to know!
Before leaving Bangui, I counted soldiers from Algeria, Bangladesh, Burundi, France (of course), Mauritania, Senegal, Togo and Tunisia; and I’m sure there were a ton more countries involved. I actually had fun spotting the different flag patches on the soldiers’ uniforms, and got excited when I saw a new country…especially because I’d been to every country whose flag patches I’d spied. I really wish I had a chance to talk to some of these soldiers, hear their stories, take pictures, etc. I’m so interested in all of this; it’s so fascinating to me. Oh, and the owner of The Ledger was a Libyan, so there’s that.
You Can Check Out Anytime You Like, But You Can Never Leave
It’s kind of hard to complain about a canceled flight after you see how people live in places like CAR. You realize just how blessed you are during a trip like this. So I will spare you all the details, but I really got screwed on this trip, coming and going. If you read my ROC article, you’ll remember that my flight from LAX to Brazzaville was canceled without any notice to me. I’d hit bad luck trying to get home too. It was bound to happen sooner or later, I guess I’d been pretty lucky so far. That luck ran out today.
I was stoked about my flight home on Qatar Airways. Business class on Qatar is one of the best experiences ever, and something I’d only done once in my life. This trip would be my second and I was really looking forward to traveling home in a “Q-Suite.” I’d fly on Qatar Airways from Nairobi to Doha, then Doha to Los Angeles. But I had to actually get to Nairobi first, and that didn’t happen. Long story short, my Kenya Airlines flights never arrived in Bangui to pick us up. Everyone waited for hours, with no news at all; until finally, about five hours later, the airport staff said “no plane.” That was it. No explanation, no news, no updates, nothing. At least none that I could understand.
Here was the kicker. Not one member of the airline staff actually worked at the airport. To make it worse, besides a flight to Cameroon that had already left, there were no other flights coming and going through that airport. I had tons of friends on Facebook try and help with suggestions like, “Take another flight,” “Re-route,” “Catch another plane.” But that’s just it: there were no other planes. At all. Bangui is pretty much one of the most far off, secluded and “in the middle of nowhere” places one could be. I would be stuck here at least another night. It’s not that staying in CAR one more night would kill me, but I was super bummed I would miss my flight home from Nairobi and I was also not thrilled about missing another day at work; I carefully, methodically and scientifically ration my vacation days down to the minute, and I’d be giving up another full day because of this mishap. What’s more, I didn’t know when a plane would even show up…could be tomorrow, could be next week! Not knowing was the worst. A fellow passenger explained to me that often, in Africa, when the planes aren’t full, they just don’t fly them…and blame the weather. Oh boy! I had to constantly remind myself of all my blessings, and to temper my frustration and anger. I was ready to go home. This would be my fourth night eating the buffet at The Ledger, and I just wanted Chipotle. (Again, I have to check myself, because for most people living in CAR, that buffet would be a dream come true.)
As instructed by Kenya Airlines via Facebook messenger, I arrived at the airport the next morning before sunup, hoping for a plane. Once again, there was zero communication from the airline or airport staff. Monitors nor a P.A. system did not exist here. Forget about WiFi. I even tried my phone’s cellular, but no dice. It was just a group of dazed and confused passengers hoping for the best. We stood outside of the airport as the sun rose; the airport workers hadn’t even arrived. Not a good sign. We heard a big plane land and all got excited, only to find out it was a Russian cargo plane.
When we finally entered the airport, I witnessed another passenger’s coffee get fleeced from him by security. They told him the item was not prohibited, as he argued, “It’s coffee. How is coffee not allowed?” At the gate he explained to me that they just wanted his coffee for their personal use. Makes sense, but that’s still a dick move.
The next couple hours I spent repeatedly cursing inside my head, having no clue if a plane was en route or if I was just standing there at the airport in vain. Rumors were circulating throughout the room, but no facts. It was frustrating. As each minute passed, I became more and more agitated. I just wanted out of there and have never felt so “stuck” in my life. Usually there is at least one other option to “leave” a place, even if it means renting a car and just driving away. Not here. I was here until the universe decided it was time for me to go. I rejoiced when I finally saw the Kenya Airways jet land. We all did. It was time to go home.
I was overjoyed arriving in Nairobi! Finally, civilization. Sadly, I was unable to re-book a new flight home on Qatar with my miles (I fly international using points and miles, almost always). But the good news was, I found a pretty decent route home on Ethiopian. I dipped into my United Mileage Plus bank of points and was able to score a business class flight all the way home: Nairobi to Addis Ababa, Addis to Chicago, Chicago to San Diego. Even sweeter, I got back in time to make it to work that same day, not having to use another vacation day. Boom!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: I’m a huge fan of amassing as many points and miles as you can; not just to book awesome, free trips, but to bank for emergencies as well. My United Mileage Plus stash of points has now rescued me multiple times, literally bailing me out of places I’ve been stuck and would’ve otherwise had to cough up thousands of dollars for new flights. Go HERE to see my list of what I think to be the most valuable travel credit cards. Flying for free is amazing!
And NOW…the REST of the (Insta)Story:
Special thanks to Water For Good for helping organize this trip for me, and especially to my man Farel who was very gracious and so hospitable. Get involved! Start HERE.