Thursday, July 9, 2009

Ouagadougou International Airport

After airports like Toronto’s Pearson International, London’s Heathrow, and Paris’ Charles de Gaulle, arriving at the airport in Ouagadougou is a unique experience. After descending from the plane onto the tarmac, we waited until buses arrived to take us to the terminal only a few hundred yards away. Once there, we crammed into the arrival room like a herd of cattle in a pen. The only way forward was through a narrow bottleneck manned by a lone inspector who checked at our vaccination booklets to make sure we had our yellow fever shot, an obligatory condition for getting into many West African countries. No line-up for this. People just kept pushing forward and sticking their booklets over shoulders, under armpits, around heads, and under the man’s nose until he took them, checked them, and handed them back.

Once past this man, there were two men who checked our passports to make sure we had valid visas. From there, we were directed towards one of four people in little booths who verified the information we’d written on our entry cards and, if all was in order, gave us an entry stamp in our passport.

Then it was out into the baggage retrieval area, where a veritable sea of people stood several deep around the conveyor belt loaded with an assortment of suitcases, bags, boxes, and bundles. Individuals darted in and out retrieving their belongings from the moving belt as they went by, with baggage carriers loading them on trolleys or hoisting them on shoulders to carry outside for their clients. My bags took quite a while to show up, so the baggage carrier I’d enlisted ran off to serve several other clients before finally coming back to me. Busy guy! It’s amazing how much these guys can carry or load on a trolley! I guess since their livelihood depends on maximum effort in minimum time, they go all out when they can.

The last step before getting out of the airport is the customs check. Normally the baggage carriers are able to help you get through this last leg fairly quickly. But the lady glancing at my bags was curious. She made me open one up. It happened to have an ice cream maker in it that I was bringing back for our centre kitchen, a gleaming new stainless steel machine still in the plastic wrapping. “Ooooh!” she exclaimed. “And how much is this machine worth?” I couldn’t lie: “About 200 Euros,” I said. “Well, that’s going to cost you a bit in customs fees,” she replied as she turned to call over her superior.

When he arrived, he asked what the machine was and I told him. Thinking to inject some humour into the situation, I explained (with appropriate animation) how hot it was in Burkina for us expatriates and how much we craved some nice cold ice cream to help cool us down. As a matter of fact, we could invite him to come and join us in tasting our first batch! By this time, both he and the lady were chuckling. “Go on, then,” said the man, waving me through.

As I said goodbye to the lady, she said, “It wouldn’t be amiss to give us a little something for letting you off so easily.” I had to agree that they had indeed let me off easy. “No problem,” I replied. “I’ll get something to you.”

Once outside, Kathy was waiting for me. The baggage carrier aggressively pushed his loaded trolley through the crowd, clearing the way for Kathy & I to get through. It would have taken us twice as long by ourselves. “They’re going to want at least 25,000 francs,” he said once we’d reached our truck at the far end of the parking lot and he’d loaded our bags in the back. This is about $60, and we didn’t have that much. “Well, 15,000 then,” he continued. This was still more than we had. Kathy pulled out a 5,000 bill. “Not enough,” said the baggage carrier. Kathy scrounged around and found a few more small bills, making a total of 8,000 francs. “I guess that’ll have to do,” he said, and hurried off back to the airport, no doubt hoping to snag another client or two.

Afterwards, I told my story to a trusted Burkinabè friend in administration and asked him what I should have done. “You did exactly the right thing,” he said. “If they had kept the machine, it would have taken us weeks to get it out of customs, and very likely there would have been a few pieces missing. They just don’t have a good place to store stuff like that securely at the airport.”

“What about the 8,000 francs that I gave them?” I asked. “Nothing wrong with that,” said my friend. “You didn’t try to bribe them to do something they shouldn’t have done. They had already let you go, which they didn’t have to do, and you were showing your appreciation. It’s like giving someone a tip. And in this case, it was well worth it!”

No comments: