Africa, Travel

Myth-Busting West & Central Africa

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Keita Fodeba Acrobatic Centre, Guinea

In December 2018, my partner Oscar and I set off on a ten month long journey from Ireland to South Africa (although we didn’t know we would get that far at the time). This is just some of what we learned.

When it comes to long-term traveling through West and Central Africa, there are a few things that will almost certainly happen to you. You will get used to waiting for things, you will see big red sunsets, you will come to view Laughing Cow Cheese as an exquisite delicacy rather than the assault on cheese that it really is, and you will never, ever, be bored. 

But there are plenty of other things that aren’t so certain, things that people who’ve never stepped foot on the continent might have you believe. The journey my partner and I recently finished from Ireland to South Africa took us through many little-explored countries like Mauritania, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Before we left we were informed, often and passionately of the unspeakable dangers that awaited us upon our arrival. 

Speaking of the Congo, a colleague imparted these sage words over the top of a cup-a-soup:

“They don’t value human life in those parts of the world.”

And then,

“They’ll just kill you.”

People don’t tell you things like this if you’re planning a trip to Italy or the Rocky Mountains, so hearing enough of it from enough people is all it takes to turn even the most level-headed individual into a paranoid racist. 

Since finishing the trip, we’ve received heaps of questions from anxious travellers, ranging from the perfectly reasonable to the ridiculous: “should I cut my trip short to avoid getting a disease?”, “how much should I pay in bribes?” and ,”should I bring a gun?”.

If you’re planning a trip to West/Central Africa or even just lightly penciling it on the bucketlist, it might help to know which commonly-held opinions have a nugget of truth in them, and what is unapologetic bollocks. Here are just a few commonly perceived  myths about traveling in Africa which deserve to be challenged:

You will get very sick 

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Fetching facial mozzie nets, Northern Congo

It’s true that a flick through your Health Guide for International Travelers brochure will reveal a dearth of alarming ailments commonly contracted in Africa. Your travel doctor will probably want to immunize you against every single one of these alarming ailments. Your travel doctor may even let out a theatrical sigh for each new country you point out on your itinerary, but that doesn’t mean you need to wrap yourself in an anti-bacterial poncho and tiptoe your way through the continent. 

While it might seem like every second person who’s been to Africa has a harrowing malaria story, it’s entirely possible to travel the length of the continent without so much as a symptom. Neither my partner or I took malaria pills for the length of our journey, and despite being bitten literally thousands of times, we were totally fine. My legs are permanently scarred from mosquito bites, at one point my feet were so swollen with bites they looked like infected Christmas hams with toenails, and still, no malaria. Many Africans who’ve lived their whole lives there have only contracted malaria once or twice.

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Infected Christmas Hams

That’s not to say you shouldn’t take precautions, malaria can be incredibly serious if you get it, and you should cover up, wear mosquito repellant and bring enough anti-malarial pills for a few emergency doses* but it’s by no means a given that you’ll get it.

Same goes for bilharzia, dengue fever and other scary illnesses, take precautions and you’ll be fine. You’re only likely to get Ebola if you deliberately go to to the heart of an outbreak zone, which is a) silly, and b) very easily avoided. 

Your travel doctor may advise you not to eat street food in Africa to avoid diarrhea and hepatitis. This is ridiculous. To cut out street food is to deprive yourself of the tastiest and most authentic fare in West Africa, not to mention the price and the fact that it’s literally all that’s available in many places. We ate street food almost everyday for most of our trip and got moderately sick once each in ten months. In comparison, we were sick much more often and more violently during a not particularly intrepid five week trip in Thailand and Vietnam. 

*all of the African-based doctors we met advised against taking our Malarone pills long-term as they are so hard on the body. An emergency dose is four pills a day for three days. 

It’s dangerous 

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Not very dangerous dudes, Ghana

Many people’s ideas of Africa are still heavily influenced by the World Vision ads of yore, movies about endless civil war, and bleak news stories about famine and disease. It’s the images of Blood Diamond’s camo-clad warlords and people dying of Ebola that stick in people’s minds. For many foreigners, Africa represents an amorphous blob of violence and poverty rather than 54 unique countries with distinctly different cultures and ways of life. Given the amount of negative verses positive media coverage of most African nations, that’s somewhat understandable. What’s important to remember is that, if you go, your lasting impression of any West/Central African country is unlikely to be linked to poverty or war or disease. There’ll be colour and noise and intensity, but not nearly as many forest-dwelling guerrillas as you might expect.

Think abut the amount of danger you might face walking around Paris, London, or Berlin. Statistically, it’s higher, it’s just that those cities are so large, populated and full of tourists, not much gets in the way of day to day business. Just days after deadly terror attacks in major European cities, things are generally back to normal – tourists wander the streets, workers dodge cordons to get back into the office. Compare that to the deaths of four French tourists in Mauritania in 2007, which led to Air France cancelling its flights from Paris to Atar, crippling tourism in the Adrar region for no less than seven years. 

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The Mauritanian desert, a tourist-free zone for ages

The amount of ‘danger’ in Africa is hard to quantify because the idea is so vague. What I can tell you is that the only time we felt genuinely unsafe was in our dealings with law and order officials. The everyday people we met were – like people at home – far too busy living their lives to bother with hassling us. On the contrary, in places like Guinea and Nigeria, people are so pleased to see foreign visitors, they go out of their way to make you feel welcome. We were helped out of ditches and welcomed into homes all the way down the continent. Many people are also hyper-aware of the consequences of messing with tourists in countries which are trying desperately to attract tourists. Our pockets weren’t picked, we weren’t threatened by civilians (not sober ones anyway), and the only sour patch was a break-in of our truck in Senegal, which looked to have been carried out by a bunch of kids. 

Africa is super cheap

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Luanda, Angola

One thing people traveling through Africa consistently underestimate is the amount of money they’ll spend – low wages = low cost right? Not always. This is the exact attitude that results in dreadlocked white tourists coming to Africa and living off $1 a day as a ‘challenge’. You should do this under zero circumstances because you won’t last long and you will also look like an absolute dick.

As a New Zealander, visa prices for various West African countries vary wildly and seemingly without reason ($2USD per person for Nigeria and $106 pp for Angola. WTF.) You’ll have to pay for visas in almost every West/Central African country you pass through, and because there are so many small countries along the West Coast, the cost racks up quickly. 

Desperate to get online? Internet prices will also hit you a lot harder than you might expect. Mobile data is insanely expensive in a lot of countries, and with next to no free WiFi options, you can pay up to $10NZD/€6 per gb of data, depending on which country you’re in.

And then there’s your Pringles addiction. While street market shopping is wonderfully cheap, practically everything in African supermarkets is imported, and a big shop of packaged goods and Western treats will likely cost an absolute bomb. The key, always, is to buy local. Buy local food, stay at African-owned establishments, use local services. It’s good for the people and it’s good for you. Win bloody win.

Which brings me to:

Everyone in Africa is poorer than people in ‘the West’

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Good looking people in good looking clothes, Benin

While there are plenty of people in Africa who live on next to nothing, extreme poverty of nineties NGO commercial proportions is now largely limited to inland, drought-stricken countries like Niger and the Central African Republic. The vast majority of people you’ll meet in West/Central Africa will be well fed, and dressed much more sharply than you. 

Presentation is important in Africa, and even people in remote villages won’t drive their motorbikes or battered late model cars unless they’re gleaming. You’ll regularly spot people trudging down orange dirt roads in immaculate white outfits. How do they keep them so clean? It’s one of the great mysteries of our time. 

And that’s just in the regions, you’ll be staggered by the amount of glamour and wealth in cities like Lagos, Abidjan, Brazzaville and Luanda. We’re talking cigar cases and $200NZD Pictionary sets in the supermarket wealth. Ferrari, Lamborghini and Sunday brunch at the yacht club wealth. That’s not to say that the money always trickles down, but once you add in West Africa’s growing middle class, you can see why ‘the poor African’ stereotype is starting to become a lot less relevant. 

You have to pay bribes 

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Nigeria: Land of the Bribe

Almost as widespread as the malaria horror story is the exorbitant bribe story, and while it’s true you’ll be asked for money and gifts a lot by police and military in West Africa, that doesn’t mean you have to give them a cent. Answering a request for a bribe with a fistful of cash isn’t doing you, other travellers, or African society at large any favours, so unless you have absolutely no other option (unlikely), don’t pay it. I’d budgeted hundreds of dollars for bribe-paying based on other people’s stories before the trip, but we ended our African adventure having only paid one small bribe to a Congolese cop who had threatened to destroy our car and was in the midst of shuffling Oscar into an overcrowded prison cell when he demanded it. 

All the roads are terrible 

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The shiny new road linking Nouadhibou and Atar, Mauritania

Think of an African road and what comes to mind, a rutted dirt track with potholes bigger than dump trucks, or a shiny and unblemished highway? The reality (on main trunklines at least) is increasingly, the latter. A staggering amount of Chinese investment in West Africa means brand new highways, bridges and other infrastructure are popping up at an astonishing rate. While it’s an awful lot more fun to take the truck-swallowing back roads, you could drive into the depths of the Mauritanian desert or almost the entire length of the Congo without ever leaving brand new tarseal. Tackling the wet season on four wheels, even on the dirt roads, is also totally manageable. You’ll need recovery gear (we had a high-lift jack and sand tracks but no winch) and as long as you don’t mind doing a bit of superficial damage to your wagon, you’ll be fine.

You’ll be killed by a hippo/lion/gorilla/crocodile/snake/rabid dog etc

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Akodessewa Fetish Market: where to find wildlife in West Africa

While Southern and Eastern Africa are the home of many a beautiful and potentially deadly creature, the sad reality is there are so few lions, gorillas and elephants living wild in West and Central, it would practically be a miracle if you were killed by one. Deforestation and illegal hunting have decimated wildlife populations in West Africa, and even snakes are hard to spot outside of sanctuaries. After ten months of barefoot and be-jandled trudging through desert and jungle, neither of us were nibbled, stung or otherwise molested by a scorpion, spider, snake, or anything else. Even in Southern Africa, where big hungry creatures are much more plentiful, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be attacked. We camped metres away from hippos, lions and elephants in Namibia, but generally wild animals are too scared of humans to venture too close. 

To conclude…

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Cuties, Benin

To conclude, the main point here is that travel in general is dangerous. Leaving your house is dangerous, eating three day old leftover chow mein is dangerous, but there’s absolutely no point in writing off an entire continent because it’s a bit unfamiliar. 

In my years of traveling, I’ve been closer to being killed in a terror attack in central Barcelona, more sexually molested in the historic Japanese city of Kyoto and have had more stuff stolen in my home country of New Zealand than during my time in Africa. 

Almost nowhere else in the world offers the opportunity for adventure like West Africa, widely considered one of the last frontiers of travel. The experiences you’ll have there are so genuine and so uninfluenced by mass tourism, you’ll wonder why you ever queued to get into a museum or battled a sea of selfie sticks to get a glimpse at a fountain, statue or ‘gram-friendly landmark. At times it’s bite-your-nails-to-bloody-stumps frustrating, but the rewards outweigh the misery ten to one. 

There are plenty of myths about traveling Africa, but one absolute truth: you’ll have the time of your life. 

If you want to see what West Africa is like with your very own eyeballs, check out our adventure on Youtube here.

Want more tips on visa costs, borders and all that niggly stuff? Check out our guide to West Africa here.

 

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Africa, Travel

The Price of Freedom: 33 Hours at the Nigerian Border

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“Miss, where are you going? What are you doing?” the alleged helper clamoured as I fumbled with the toilet keys at the Sémé-Kraké border crossing between Benin and Nigeria.

I resisted the urge to divulge my exact plans for my hot date with the toilet, opting instead for “I don’t need any help, thank you”, through teeth worn by hours of forced smiles at seven previous African border crossings. 

‘Help’ is never far away when it comes to entering Nigeria. Within seconds of our arrival, four men, not in any kind of uniform, descended upon us like a heavy rain. 

“Sir, come with us! You have carnet? We go here!”

“Madam, we are friends, I help you now”

“Don’t worry my friends, Nigeria is a free country!”

The emphatic assurance from border officials or their associates that any West African country is free should send shivers down ones spine, because it usually means the exact opposite. A Trojan horse of a phrase used to disguise systemic corruption and layers upon layers of bureaucratic bullshit. The Nigerian immigration system is a 17 tier gateau of red tape, complications, bribes and general inefficiency. Caucasian people are not really in a position to complain about any of this, as it was the European colonizers who charged into the country, ransacked it’s resources, took the people as slaves, demolished any sense of national identity and meanwhile instilled the idea that filling out stacks of paperwork was the best way to go about things. When the British disappeared in 1960 they left behind a steadfast commitment to doing things the most difficult way possible, and the idea that you can demand whatever you want as long as you genuinely believe you have the right to do so.

In short, the border process was not super awesome.  

Day 1

We arrived shortly after nine, fully prepared for difficulties. In the first room where we were told to wait, we came across an Australian we’d met on the road previously. Bleary-eyed and sprawled on a mattress on the floor of the office, John informed us he’d been there for two days, after paying $200USD to an agency for an approval letter which turned out to be fake. 

10am: We were escorted to another office, and introduced formally to an immigration officer who we’ll call Jacob, who’d be helping with our application. We had been in contact with Jacob for no less than three weeks, but Jacob had wisely chosen our day of arrival to begin working on our application. 

People came and went, fat wads of cash changed hands between fixers (independent operators who take cash payments to help foreigners with the visa process) and immigration officials. Jacob had several loud and overly performative phone conversations where he stressed to someone who may or may not have been on the other end that he was working hard on our application.

“I have slept only three hours my brother! This is now an emergency application, I am working very hard to get these people a visa!”

At around 1pm an official in the office we were in started playing an easy-listening country compilation from his computer. 

In an attempt to sweet talk Jacob into productivity, we asked him what his favourite thing about Nigeria was.

“My favourite thing is the freedom”, he quickly replied. 

Don Williams crooned in the background. 

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2pm: The Sémé border seemed like less of a workplace, and more of a lads club where men (and a few women) of different ages and rank swanned about, eating, napping, reading the newspaper, watching TV, and generally doing whatever the fuck they wanted, with the occasional interruption of stamping documents and answering calls. When serious looking men in berets popped their head in the room (usually when things were getting rowdy) the lads in question stood to attention, saluted, and wiped the grins from their faces faster than you could say ‘Nigeria is a free country’. A few minutes would pass, and the atmosphere dissolved back into one not dissimilar to a classroom of naughty school kids. 

3pm: At various intervals, a grey-haired immigration officer popped in to try and recruit our 19-year-old Swiss friend Geraldine as his second wife. 

Later, a local man of unknown employment came in and tried to convince Oscar to take a second wife. It was starting to seem as if no one was going to leave the building until a member of our party got married at least once. 

3:30pm: While outside washing my hands for lunch, a young female officer asked if she could have my rings. I told them they had belonged to my dead mother, a convenient truth which I had hoped would guilt her into submission. “Give me this one then”, she said pointing to a copper bracelet I’d bought in Senegal, and I wondered how many more dead relatives I’d need to acquire before people would stop asking for my stuff. 

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3:45pm: We shared a bowl of semo, a maize-based paste, and egusi soup made with bitter leaves and chunks of goat. It was delicious, things were looking up. 

4pm: At the very least, we weren’t alone, over the course of the day we shared a waiting room with two Indian oil and gas workers, a man from Barbados called Andrew and his Nigerian friend Precious. Traveling with a local wasn’t helping Andrew’s case, it was day two of waiting for them, and so we waited some more. 

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Mercifully, the playlist changed from Don Williams to Craig David. 

5pm: As Craig David’s 7 Days played for the fourth time in a row, I started to wonder if it was some kind of musical foreshadowing of what was to come and how many days we would be required to stay at the godforsaken Sémé border crossing. There would be no making love on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday nor chilling on Sunday, but there would be mild sexual harassment and the loss of feeling in our arse cheeks, which is nearly the same thing. 

5:30pm: We heard word via WhatsApp that our Aussie associate John had been escorted to the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos, and quickly flung into a cell because of the fake paperwork debacle. 

“How long will he stay in the cell?”, we asked Jacob. 

“I don’t know. Everybody has their role to play”, Jacob said, ominously. 

At 5:45 a whiff of hope, a call from one big boss to another to say that our application had been approved, on the condition that we create a fake business, apply for a business visa instead of a tourist visa, and pay an application fee of $40USD. We had already paid the application fee when we applied for our tourist visas three weeks prior. We argued the second fee. It did not work. 

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At 8:30pm Jacob fell asleep, his energy had dissipated as quickly as our collective will to live, and he was snoring gently while I lay on the tiled floor, waiting for a cartoon anvil to fall from the sky and end my misery. 

9:45pm: We enquired about cheap hotels nearby, the closest was called the Freedom Hotel. Given our newfound understanding of the concept of freedom, a word which was beginning to lose all meaning, we opted to stay at the border 

The hours melted into one another. I paced the empty halls mindlessly. Geraldine valiantly fended off the advances of Jacob. Oscar called the company which operates Nigeria’s e-visa payment system from Connecticut about our problems. The people in Connecticut didn’t much care about our problems.

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23:58pm: Geraldine was writing notes in her diary. Jacob asked “What are you writing about? Are you writing about the Nigerian border? Is it the best?”

In fairness to Jacob, he had been there all day with us, watching dog videos on his phone while he waited for something to happen. He assured us he was doing it out of the goodness of his heart, and that he never asked unfortunate travelers like us for a penny. We concluded that Jacob must have an astonishingly short memory, as he’d asked for a tip of $140USD the day before. 

The man playing the Don Williams/Craig David mix tape had gone home. The hum of the air con provided the backing track to our existential contemplations. 

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1:08am: The afternoon rains had soaked the mattress in our roof tent to the core. Aussie John’s mattress, clean and dry, beckoned from behind a locked door which no one had the key to. Oscar opted to sleep outside on the concrete, where he was routinely poked by guards checking he was still alive. I folded back the car seat and waited for whatever punishment the morning had in store for us. 

Day 2 

8:30am: Stinking and cranky, we stumbled back into into Jacob’s office to ask what was happening with our application. Jacob told us to be patient, as if the concept was entirely foreign to a group of people who’ve just spent 22 hours at a Nigerian border post. 

10:30am: Defeated, we retreated to Benin, to wait for an approval of an approval. In Benin, at the very least, we could go for a wee without stragglers enquiring about our intentions in the toilet.  

2:30pm: A message from Precious and Andrew who were still at the border. I was starting to feel quite deeply for Andrew, who had left a Caribbean island paradise to spend 12 hours at a time in the company of Don Williams. Meanwhile, Aussie John had messaged to inform us he’d escaped the cells of Murtala Muhammed Airport, but was now under house arrest at the home of his Couchsurfing host, who had had to drive to the airport and relinquish his own passport in order to to bail John out. 

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Days passed. In hindsight they kind of melt into each other but I can tell you two things that definitely happened. We definitely went back to Porto-Novo, Benin. We definitely spent an estimated 27 collective hours on the phone to Connecticut-based customer service representatives called Garry and Harry who took turns blocking and unblocking our card so we could attempt to pay for our illegitimate business visa. Our payment eventually succeeded 6 days after our initial debacle at the border.

Day 8

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We returned to the Sémé border at 11am, and to be honest it was nice to be greeted by the staff in the office as if we were old friends, because by that point, we kind of were. At the very least, we were deeply familiar with each others napping schedules. 

11:30am: Geraldine’s elderly suitor returned and said she wouldn’t have had to wait eight days to travel to Nigeria had she stayed with him as he would have used his wings of passion to fly her over the border. 

12pm: Jacob finished a tense call with someone. “Nigerian visa is not child’s play my friends!” he said with an unsettling amount of glee. “Nigeria is the USA of Africa!”

12:30pm: Jangly guitar gospel music had replaced Don Williams and Craig David on the computer speakers. I wondered if Jesus’s glory would shine down on us today, or ever. 

1pm: Movement. Sweet, sweet movement. We were informed our elusive approval letter had been sent and our government-issued chaperone Victor was ready to go to the airport, the only place where we could actually get our visas stamped. This meant we would metaphorically still be at the Nigerian border until the airport immigration officials decided our fate. It would be a 4-5 hour drive depending on the traffic but we didn’t care. We had tasted the air outside the Sémé border office, and it was fresh. 

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By 1:30 Victor was guiding us out of the border gates. Geraldine and I took turns sitting on each others laps in the back, which proved a pleasantly squishy alternative to the metal bench seats to which we had become so accustomed.

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There were 24 police, military and federal road safety checkpoints on the 87km drive. It took 4 hours. There were the all too familiar requests for food, money and gifts but the highlight was a 15 minute standoff between an impassioned Victor and a pair of federal road safety officers who claimed right hand drive vehicles had been banned in Nigeria since 1972, and that one of our tyres was expired. As we argued our case, an overloaded taxi van with no license plate, a missing headlight, and a gaping hole where the sliding door used to be chugged past, a cloud of black smoke spewing from the exhaust. 

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5:45pm: The Murtala Muhammed airport, ringed by a halo of pre-storm glow, loomed in the distance. 

6:15pm: We sat down in an office with a man who, after a few minutes of paper shuffling and quiet contemplation, decided he couldn’t help us. 

6:45pm: We were escorted to a crowded room, told to sit and not to use our phones lest we expose state secrets, or something.

7:30pm: With little ceremony and a decidedly underwhelming ink stamp, we were officially welcomed into Nigeria. Vignettes from our month-long Nigerian immigration experience swirled in my mind like a kaleidoscope of horror. We had made it. Outside, it promptly started to pour. My jandal broke and so I hobbled, barefoot, through the mud as waiting taxi drivers pointed and laughed. It was the perfect end to the perfect nightmare. 

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Our 33 hours at the border wasn’t a complete loss. I read most of a very good book on the Libyan revolution, I wrote this blog, I’m now deeply familiar with the musical stylings of Don Williams, and I can now claim to have heard just about every possible reason to hand over money to any given authority. Geraldine can go back to Switzerland knowing she has plenty of romantic options should she decide to settle in Nigeria, and Oscar can continue his life knowing that things can’t possibly get any worse than that time he spent 5 hours trying to sleep on urine-soaked concrete while being routinely nudged with boots and sticks. 

Who’s to blame for the state of the Nigerian immigration system? Is it the colonizers of old? The wealthy tourists who prop up corruption by paying hundreds of dollars under the table to ensure an easy crossing? Is it in fact the fault of negligent Connecticut based customer service representatives Garry and Harry, who I’m pretty sure was actually the same guy changing his voice slightly so he could blame the last lot of issues on Garry and/or Harry. After four long weeks I still wasn’t sure of anything except the fact that I could really do with a strong drink, and the assurance that I would never have to endure the freedoms of the Sémé-Kraké border ever again. 

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