The longest itinerary I’ve ever heard of

One of my colleagues is supposed to be coming to Prague from Sierra Leone for a train-the-trainers session this week on open source software and specifically, on the open source software we make.

Sierra Leonians must feel like the most unwanted people on the planet, because the sheer amount of paperwork a Sierra Leonian must go through to get a visa staggers the mind.

The first thing he had to do was get his Czech visa, for which he had to travel to Accra, Ghana, and spend a week there while they processed the application. Then, with his completed application, he had to return to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to apply for his transit visa through London’s Heathrow Airport.

For the most unwanted countries in the world, it’s not like you can just change planes at Heathrow. That would be too easy. Instead, you must apply for a transit visa, which in many places is harder to get than the original visa.

At the British High Commission, a comedy of Kafkaesque proportions took place. A consular official told him that the next time he could apply for a visa was in mid-June, more than two weeks after our training was to end. He said that this was the only time the consul had to talk to our colleague.

Then, a day later, the consul himself took the time – 45 minutes – to explain that he didn’t have the time to review our colleague’s transit visa application. Nevermind that his government is supporting our colleague’s project. He is a Sierra Leonian, and out there embassies paint with a pretty broad brush.

With the time of his training getting ever closer, we decided that it would be far more complicated to get any other EU transit visa, so it would make more sense to try to route him around an EU airport. So we chose Cairo, the nearest city that CSA flies directly to.

The problem is that there aren’t any direct flights to Cairo from Freetown, Sierra Leone. So he began a five-day trip that was supposed to take him from:

Freetown -> Banjul, Gambia
Banjul, Gambia -> Dakar, Senegal
Dakar, Senegal -> Casablanca, Morocco
Casablanca, Morocco -> Cairo, Egypt
Cairo, Egypt -> Prague, Czech Republic

The emphasis is on “supposed.” Sunday at 4am, I get a half-panicked phonecall from our colleague, who was now in Dakar. The flight to Casablanca was cancelled, and the next flight would be on Monday. Which of course would mean he would miss all his connecting flights.

At least in Dakar the airline arranged a hotel for him.

Yesterday morning, we got another semi-panicked phonecall from Casablanca. The flight to Cairo was cancelled. But because he was from Sierra Leone, he could not leave the transit area. For this leg of the trip, the only thing we could book was business class, but apparently there’s not even a business lounge at Casablanca’s airport.

“There’s only one cafe in the transit area, and I was hungry, so they sold me a loaf of bread for six dollars,” our colleague told me.

Before this whole ordeal started, I asked him if he had done much traveling. He explained that he hadn’t been out of the country, except for during the war, when he fled to Liberia.

If all goes well, he’ll be arriving Thursday morning. At that point he will have been eight days in transit.

One of the other training participants, who is from Nigeria, decided to start a blog of Africans’ experiences with visas. Check it out here.

UPDATE 06:10 Wednesday 020604: We found out why his flight was cancelled: Air Maroc’s pilots are on strike until Monday. But they still haven’t let him out of the transit area, so this is the third day of sleeping on the floor.

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