Last year when I was booking a flight, I had just finished reading Doreen Baingana's Tropical Fish, Stories out of Entebbe, a 1941 children's travel book by Max Metzeger, which would translate Monica Travels to Madagascar I found at the local second hand bookshop, and a favourite of mine, Mia Couto's The Last Flight of the Flamingo which had just come out in fresh Slovenian translation, so I asked for flights to Uganda, Madagascar and Mozambique. The travel agent offered a cheap charter to Namibia, so I ended up booking a flight for that destination, which didn't turn out cheap at all in the end, but got me immmersed in the loneliness of the sand dune desert, offered an interesting sociological insight into post-apartheid racial relationships, and made me come back home with another load of books by Namibian and South African writers.
This year I made a reservation for Mozambique, I read a great story from a new collection by Rogerio Manjate, and Sierra Leone, I read several short stories by Sierra Leonean writers, and also some poetry by Syl Cheney-Coker. Mozambique would have been easier it seemed, obtaining the visa and the flight was cheaper. But now I really wanted to come back to West Africa, and Sierra Leone seemed an interesting option.
Prospects for Sierra Leone were not too good. The time was short, I had less than a month to get the visa and arrange everything. The flight from Brussels was ridiculously expensive, around 1600 euros, taxes amounted to one third of the price. I would have to fly from Venice, which is another three hour drive to there, and it was cheaper from there than from Brussels itself. There is no Sierra Leone embassy in my country.
I first tried to find a cheaper flight, found Kevin McPhillips Travel on the internet, which offered Astraeus flights to Freetown, e-mailed and called them, and made a reservation for a much more reasonable fare than I would with SN Brussels. I still needed to find a not too expensive flight to London. I made a reservation with the Slovenian airlines, but I was put just on the waiting list for the flight back from London home, that flight was also half of what I was paying from London to Freetown. Someone around here, seeing how desperate I was to go, then offered to give me his free mileage points for my flight, which in the end made me fly business class to London and drink wine from a real glass.
I still had to obtain the visa. Now this took a research, that reminds me on the scientific approach to work I sometimes have to embark. I first tried to find the embassies and consulates in Europe. I hoped I could get the visa at the Vienna consulate, as I could drive there, but calling them found out, that since 1 January 2006 Sierra Leonean visas have been issued only by embassies. He gave me the web site of the Bonn embassy. When I read, what I needed for the visa, I almost gave up: an invitation letter, stating my financial status, a return ticket, my yellow fever jab just expired a week ago, etc. It also meant that I would have to send my passport DHL, and wire the money for the fee. There is no agency in Slovenia, where they would do that for me, or give me any guarantee my documents and money should arrive safely. I called them, and the men said my letter can be e-mailed, my ticket can be just a reservation, but I wasn't sure, as that was not what wrote in the requirements. Then I checked the site of London High Commission, they also require a letter of invitation, and if I sent my passport DHL it would take around three weeks to get it back (too long for me). I would have to ask my London friend to help me out, and you know how busy people are, and don't have time to run around doing big favours for friends. Nevertheless I called High Comission, and they told me, a booked hotel would do, instead of an invitation letter. Finally I called the Brussels embassy as well. They don't have any internet site, but the talk seemed promising. I would still need an invitation letter, but that was about it. The visa would be issued in a day, the shortest time. They could fax the visa application form. But, the fee had to be paid in person at the nearby bank, so I could not DHL my passport directly to them and wire the money. This left me with two options, find someone in Brussels who would do that for me, or fly to Brussels (not a financially good option, and I didn't have the time either). In the meantime I contacted a Sierra Leonean friend in the States, if he could help me with the invitation letter, who contacted his sister who resides in Freetown, and she was kind enough to write this letter and e-mail it to me, I am greatful to both. I started looking for someone I know, who lives in Brussels. There are quite a lot of people from my country working for the European Union, translators, administration workers, politicians, and some I even know, but they are all very busy, the embassy office hours are in the morning, and you also have to run to the bank. Finally someone reminded me of our old class-mate from high school who left his career to accompany his wife, which meant he was not employed there, and might have time to do a such a favour. I got his e-mail, he still remembered me well, and was really willing to do it as well, “no problem, that's what I am here for” attitude. There are still good people on this world!