Monday, February 14, 2011

A "Homegoing" - Part 2a: "Getting there" lessons

Getting there involved wa-a-a-y more than I expected - especially since, unbeknownst to me at the time, the window in which I'd given myself to meet Gerald in-country (on, or about Nov. 21st) was only opened a crack!
"They do not know the world in which they live"
Marian Wright Edelman
That day sadly, she was talking about today's children (which, in itself, is profoundly instructive).  How can the children "know" anything of this world in which they live, if their parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, or any of the people in their lives have no idea either? 

And while there are some teachers capable of helping children "know," let's not forget that most of their world views have been reduced by the system in which they work and, were also educated!  As it turns out, that "cracked window" is a great analogy because it speaks to how absolutely non-global, and unexceptional the lived experiences of many in this country - particularly Black folk - continue to be.

Luckily, the county library provided an unrestricted view of the world for me as a young child.  You could know as much as you wanted - and it was close by.  In only a five-block walk down King St. to Calhoun, I could lose myself in the lives of people and places far-removed from those I knew.  And I could take them home, because I had a library card!  On the fire escape, with my nose buried in a book, is usually where my Mama found me when she got off work (raisin' holy hell as she came through the back door, because I'd not yet swept the sidewalk or something).

Later, because we had to fulfill a two-year, foreign language requirement before we could graduate, I had another opportunity to know a little of the world.  My choices?  French or Spanish - that's it! While it's changed a lot since then, some things remain the same (do peruse the other links within the link, a prime example of why we're viewed as "ugly Americans"). 

It was my distinct privilege, to learn French from two Black women who made it such a fun, and culturally interesting endeavor, I decided it'd be my major in college (despite the loud protestations from my mother and guidance counselor who both told me, "You better major in Education, or Business Administration so you can get yourself a real job!").

Then came the military, that "safe" (tongue's firmly planted in cheek here), three-hots-and-a-cot place, where I, and many of my kinfolk sought to escape the lives we'd been living, as well as the pigeon-holed opportunities awaiting us after high school or college if we stayed. For a year, I was immersed in the Russian language and culture.  Native, Russian-speaking instructors exposed me to a culture I'd known absolutely nothing about other than to be suspect - and afraid. (I was in the military dammit!  And we were in a "Cold War"  - with them!).

I knew nothing about international travel before this trip.  Yes, I'd lived in Central America for a couple years - but the military handled all of the paperwork to get us there.  We just showed up with the husband's orders, smiled for the camera and got our passports.  The household goods and car shipments, as well as the booking of our seats (including the dog's)  - was all their doing.  And that missed opportunity at "knowing," was at the time, just fine with me.

But when I began the process of getting to The Gambia on Nov. 5th, it became crystal clear to me that I'd assumed much, - and didn't know JACK!  

I told the husband, sons and Gerald that I was definitely going.  Then I went downtown Nov. 9th. to renew my 14-year, expired passport (paying extra to expedite it).

The next day, I hopped on Govarm.com looking for a ticket.  I had a budget within which I was working for the round-trip ticket, hotel stay and pocket money - so the shorter, more expensive flight was definitely out of the question. I did find a considerably, less expensive flight though.  I'd leave here at 6:50 a.m. on the 29th, arriving Banjul at 6:20 p.m. on the 30th.  I figured, "What the hell!  I like reading (and looking out the window) - so, Nov. 10th, I booked it. I emailed the husband my reservation so he'd know how to track me, then foolishly sat back feeling pret-t-ty good about what I'd accomplished. Hell, I thought I was good to go!

But when the husband Skyped me with a question the next morning, it started the "stone" rolling on what would seem like (due to my "cracked window," world view) a Sisyphean task - of "getting there."

"Did ya call Sprint to let them know you'll be travelling overseas?"  Confused, I asked, "What for?"

"Well, your phone may not work over there you know (How in the hell was I supposed to know that?  Last time we were overseas there were no cell phones!) - you just might want to call them and check it out."  When we disconnected, I did - and it didn't.  I had to buy a new damned phone - which was not in the budget (I did, however, get a discount, seeing as I was in the "up-grade eligible window" and all).  It was Nov. 11th, and the phone wouldn't get here for a few days.
   
I called Gerald Nov. 12th, to give him my itinerary, since he'd already told me he'd arrange for me to stay at the hotel he'd been calling home in The Gambia for 4-6 months intervals a year, for the last four years or so.

"Fantastic!" (his favorite word) he said excitedly. "It's a beau-ti-ful place, you will love it! You can walk right out of your room and onto the beach! They know me there, and they'll give you a good rate! You have your visa from the embassy, yes?"

I felt the "stone" rolling back down the hill a few feet.  "What visa?  And what damned embassy, Gerald?!"  I started to feel a little anxious, mainly because my carefully-cultivated-over-the-years, being-in-control-of shit, was totally non-existent now.

"Oh Deb-o-rah," he said exasperated, "You know you will need to contact the Gambian embassy for a visa, don't you?  If you can't get it before you leave, then you can get one from the airport in The Gambia once you arrive - BUT, you might get stopped at immigration in Brussels when you go to change planes, and if you don't have the proper papers you could be stuck there!"
 
"Stuck?? - Oh, I'm not doin' that shit!" I told him emphatically.  I told him quite confidently (steeped in my ignorant American-ness), "I'll contact the embassy."  We chatted about the fact that I'd had to buy a new phone.  He said, "When you get here, you can buy a Gambian SIM card and your calls while you're here will be cheaper.  I said, "What!  Buy a SIM card??"  He said, "Yes, then your local calls will be much cheaper because you won't be first, calling to the U.S. to call here" (so much for Crystal from Sprint's spiel about my saving money).

I asked him what I should pack because I'd started reading about the country online and I didn't want to offend their Muslim culture.  I asked him if the women were covered, he said no, African Muslims do not cover, but Arab Muslims, of which there are some - do.  I said, "Alright Gerald, you'll be at the airport to pick me up - right?  And you'll call me back in a little while to let me know that the room is all set - right?"  He said, "Yes! Yes! No problem!"  It was a phrase with which I'd become very familiar during my entire time in The Gambia.
 
On Nov. 13th, I started to feel a little antsy because Gerald hadn't called me back to confirm the room was set.  When the husband Skyped me later that morning, I shared my concern about where I was going to be staying.  I told him I was just going to make my own reservations somewhere for a few days so I'd be sure to have someplace to stay until Gerald let me know what was what.  He thought it was a good idea.  So when we disconnected, I went back to Govarm.com and made a reservation at the Laico Atlantic Banjul  for three days, arriving Nov. 30th.  I felt better.

I decided to go to the State Department's - International Travel site for The Gambia on Nov. 14th and 15th.  I wanted to see what else I might need to know.  Turns out - it was plenty!  I signed up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program listserve at the Embassy in Banjul.  At least if something happened to me, somebody else in the country would also know I was there.  Then I read this:

ENTRY/EXIT REQUIREMENTS: A passport, visa, and evidence of yellow fever vaccination are required...There are no uniform procedures for Gambian immigration officials and the best way to avoid any potential problem is to get a visa before entering the country. A $10 (U.S. dollars) tourist levy is charged upon arrival at the airport. Payment is only accepted in U.S. dollars, British pounds, or Euros.
At least my decision to get the visa before I left was a good one.  And the 411 on the tourist levy in U.S. dollars was helpful.  But, a yellow fever vaccination?  Hell, I hate needles!!  I bookmarked the Bureau of Consular Affairs website, read about the "bumsters" (yes they call them that there too), and when I got to the Medical Facilities and Health Information section and read the following - I felt that damned "rock," rolling backward again:

Before visiting The Gambia, you may need to get the following vaccinations and medications for vaccine-preventable diseases and other diseases you might be at risk for at your destination:
  • Routine Recommended if you are not up-to-date with routine shots such as, measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus (DPT) vaccine, poliovirus vaccine, etc.
  • Hepatitis A...travelers to developing countries with "standard" tourist itineraries, accommodations, and food consumption behaviors.
  • Hepatitis B Recommended for all unvaccinated persons...
  • Typhoid Recommended for all unvaccinated people traveling to or working in West Africa, especially if staying with friends or relatives or visiting smaller cities, villages, or rural areas where exposure might occur through food or water.
  • Polio Recommended for adult travelers who have received a primary series with either inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV) or oral polio vaccine (OPV)...
  • Yellow Fever CDC yellow fever vaccination recommendation for travelers to The Gambia: For all travelers ≥9 months of age...Vaccination should be given 10 days before travel and at 10 year intervals if there is on-going risk...
  • Meningococcal (meningitis) Recommended if you plan to visit countries that experience epidemics of meningococcal disease during December through June.
  • Rabies Recommended for travelers spending a lot of time outdoors, especially in rural areas, involved in activities such as bicycling, camping, or hiking...
  • Malaria:  Areas of The Gambia with Malaria: All. (more information)
If you will be visiting an area of The Gambia with malaria, you will need to discuss with your doctor the best ways for you to avoid getting sick with malaria. Ways to prevent malaria include the following:
  • Taking a prescription antimalarial drug
  • Using insect repellent and wearing long pants and sleeves to prevent mosquito bites
  • Sleeping in air-conditioned or well-screened rooms or using bednets
All I could say was "Lawd, have mercy!"  I couldn't even remember the last time I had any kind of shot!  And Polio!?!  Really??  Was the "Dark Continent" overlooked when the Salk vaccine was successfully introduced - in 1955??? {smdh}

What with waiting on my passport, getting the visa, and now - all of these damned shots! - I was cuttin' it as close as close could be!  I had exactly two weeks to make this happen!

On Nov. 16, I called the International Travel clinic on the base to make an appointment for the shots.  I could get some earlier, but the Yellow Fever shot was only given on Tuesdays - and it was Tuesday (I later found out the reason for the Tuesday thing was because they weren't opening this very expensive vial for just one person, they needed at least a few people before cracking that seal.  So they scheduled as many as they could on Tuesdays).  I got a Nov. 23rd appointment.  "Still okay, I've got six days before I leave" I said to my uninformed self.

I felt the anxiety building again and when the husband Skyped me - it showed.  I just let loose a torrent of "How in the hells?! and WTFs??"  He told me he'd see what he could find out about getting the visa and email me.  He did, attaching the application and adding, "of course you need your passport number because you have to write that on the back of a passport picture you need to send them."

Down rolled the "rock" again.  I still hadn't gotten the passport (it had been exactly a week since I'd applied for renewal -expedited).  I was pretty much stuck at that point.  Frustrated as hell, I started second-guessing my decision.  After all, I didn't know anything about where I was going, and I sure as hell didn't know much about getting there; and I didn't know anyone there but Gerald! While I knew he'd look out for me and show me around, I know him well enough to know that his single-mindedness regarding his "Center," would leave me with more than a little free time. And yes, I wondered if I'd be safe.

Look - along with that learned fear about the "Dark Continent" (a measure of which, I admit existed) - I'm a 54 year-old look-alike for an "in-shape" woman, who's been smoking since age 12 - with no desire to be "locked up abroad" for carrying an illegal weapon!  Hell, if I ever had to run for my life, I'd be a dead somebody! So yeah, I thought it was more than reasonable to wonder about that.

But anxiety slowly turned to determination when I got my new phone on Nov. 18th.  I called Crystal back and she walked me through the features.  But still no passport - which meant, still no visa.  On Nov. 23rd at 10:30 a.m., I got an email from the State Department saying they'd finished processing the passport and it had been printed.  Since I paid to have it expedited they said, "You should receive it on or about Nov. 25th!  Still blindly hopeful, I kept my 3 p.m., shot appointment.

The doctor was a pleasant enough young lady with an Italian-sounding name.  We talked about where I was going, and why.  Then she told me - I had to get five shots!  She called her assistant in to do the deed and said she'd be back to go over how I should take the Malaron (to combat malaria), the Cipro (in case I got a bacterial infection cuz I forgot and drank the local water) and the Imodium (to stop the resultant diarrhea - from drinking the local water) for which she'd be writing me prescriptions.  She said I needed to start the Malaron and have the yellow fever in my system for at least 10 days before I left.  I said, "Well that can't happen - I'm leaving on Nov. 29th!"

She said, just a little too forcefully for my taste - "You're not going to Europe!  You're going to a Third World country!!" . Without missing a beat, I said, "I guess there's no chance of me getting any of these things in Europe right"  And then just as quickly I asked, "Have you ever even been to Africa?"

She gave me a weird look and dead-panned, "Well, you have a bigger chance of catching them over there that's for sure.  And no, I've never been to Africa.  Have a good trip."  With my biggest shit-eatin' grin, I said, "Oh I'm sure I will - even though it's a Third World country!" - and left.

Whether it was true or not, her Europe vs. Third World comment annoyed me.  But I knew I shouldn't play with the 10-day thing - so I surrendered.  Besides, there was no way I'd be able to get the visa and make that Nov. 29th flight.  When I got home, I changed my departure date to Dec. 4th.  Yeah, it took a little extra from the budget, but I'd gone this far already.  I couldn't quit now!

To be continued - A "Homegoing" - Part 2 (b):  "Getting there" lessons

2 comments:

Bonn Group said...

Check out the “Black Online News Network” (BONN) www.thebonngroup.com . BONN is the largest network of online news portals to date targeted to African Americans. Its current digital network consists of 100 unique and interconnected web sites covering a wide range of today’s hottest topics on the radars of African Americans worldwide.

Yeast Infection said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...