Friday, May 11, 2007

This customs official seems to be trying to tell us something

Accra, Ghana
April 26

Now hold on a sec here. Just let’s wait one moment and make sure we’re understanding one another. My French is not perfect and neither is this Togo customs official’s English, so I think we need to clarify what he just said. He kind of mumbled as he was leafing through Trish’s passport, but I thought I heard the words “give” and “me,” and I definitely heard the word “money.”

OK, yep, I heard correct. There’s a penetrating look in his eyes that he’s go zeroed in on mine. “You understand?”

I’m not going to nod, though, or say anything, but indeed I do understand. There’s no need for him to continue his lecture about how lovely it is for us to be able to go on holiday, and how hard it is for a Togolese to apply for a Canadian visa. We get it.

Tomorrow is Togo’s Independence Day and this embassy will be closed and our official friend, “John,” is well aware that in order for us to make our Monday flight out of his country’s capital city, Lome, we need our visas today, now. He’s not being very coy about it, either; planned to knock off a little early this afternoon, he says, get a jump on the celebration. And then we showed up at his office door. The wheels of bureaucracy are going to need a little grease.

But I must admit I’m at a loss. I have no idea how much to give this guy, or how discrete I need to be about giving it. He doesn’t seem to be in any rush, talking in broken English about us and Canada — which he keeps confusing with the United States, reminding us that we are from “the richest country in the world” — and how he’d like to go there some time, want to trade places?

We need a private conference. Fortune brings the chance our way when a couple of Germans who John knows show up at his window. He tells us to wait outside.

Trish and I agree to offer 20,000 cedis each, so 40,000, which is around five bucks. The visas cost about $50 together, so, I don’t know, 10 per cent? I put an extra 10,000 in my shirt pocket with the bribe, just in case.

The Germans come out all smiles and waves and then John comes out too, carrying a big red ledger, but he doesn’t look at us and instead knocks on the door next to his. He goes in there and comes back out a moment later and tells us to follow him back into his office.

There are two ledgers on his desk, the red one, which he keeps closed in front of him, and a purple one which he turns around and holds out to us as he gestures that we should sign. “As you can see, I have done my best,” he says, “and now I am waiting for your reaction.” Our passports are nowhere to be seen.

As Trish signs I lay the 40,000 on his desk. He doesn’t say anything. I sign the ledger and he still doesn’t say anything, or take the money. I add the 10,000. “It is okay,” he says, and opens the red ledger and there are our passports. He hands them back to us. The visas are inside. John opens a desk drawer and picks up the bills and puts them away.

Then he turns into a tour guide, telling us about other places in Togo we really should visit, but we’re not in the mood to make friendly. We got what we wanted and so did he, so when he stands to demonstrate on a large wall map behind his desk we stand too, thank him and take our leave.

There’s no handshake, no apologies and no hard feelings. Indeed we do understand each other — $5 is a pittance, and he’ll need beer money for the festival, I’m sure. But it’s greasy in here. Like the abrupt end of a deal politely gone bad, when you know you’ll never see this person again, and you’re thankful to get away cheap. G.

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