Thursday, March 3, 2011

Would You Steal a Loaf of Bread?

About six weeks ago I went to Ghana, via van, for a tennis tournament (see last post for details).  It was a last minute trip and I had not gotten the proper visas to enter either Burkina Faso or Ghana.  It’s an empty, helpless feeling standing in front of a border official as they flip through your passport searching for a visa that you know isn’t there. 

Before they looked up to meet my eyes I knew the conversation that was coming.  They were going to firmly tell me that I’m not allowed in their country, followed by an intentionally drawn out pause, unless I pay some ridiculous last minute fee. 

To pay for last minute visas and other amazingly related fees added up to about a month and a half of my Peace Corps salary.  Something I simply couldn’t afford to pay.  Fortunately, I was traveling with the national team and they agreed to pick up the tab.

To experience such difficulties while traveling with an American passport forces me to think about what it’d be like if my passport was a different color.

I worked in the Maldives, a country composed of a tiny collection of islands south of India, for about a month a few years ago.  I was shocked at how many Maldivian employees kept asking me about the validity of these online visa lotteries they were hearing about.  All they had to do was send in some personal information and a credit card number (assuming they had one) and they could be a big winner of a British or American visa.  They might as well send some cash to a Nigerian Prince while they’re at it.  But this is how desperate they were to gain access to another part of the world.

This train of thought inevitably leads me back to home, the good ol US of A.

To share with you my motivation for this post I’m going to refer to an article from The Economist,  December 2010.  The article is about Mexican illegal immigration into the US and follows the path of a couple different families across the border and describes their lives working as undocumented workers on the farms of Southern California. 

For much of the time it just felt like another article trying to make me feel guilty for being born American, but then I came across an interesting study.

One of the biggest complaints in regards to illegal immigration is that they’re stealing American jobs.  In an attempt to acquire some empirical data for this claim the United Farm Workers (UFW) created a campaign called “Take Our Jobs”, which invited willing Americans to join the manual farming workforce of approximately 1 million comprised mainly of Mexicans.  In tough economic times 3 million people visited the site, but 40% of the responses were hate mail.  Out of these 3 millions visitors only 8,600 expressed any real interest in actually attempting this work but they made lofty demands for high pay, health benefits, relocation allowances and other benefits associated with American jobs. 

Personal side note: there’s no way our food would be as cheap as it is if we were paying every farm worker competitive pay and health benefits.

Interesting conclusion, in late September, after a summer of this campaign trying to give jobs back to Americans, seven, not seven hundred or seventy, seven American applicants were actually in the field picking crops. (or three according to

Immigration policy is one of those topics that you try to avoid when making casual conversation.  It never fails in quickly igniting emotional responses, which believe it or not, I feel are totally justified.  Show me two American parents that wouldn’t mind if their jobs were taken by illegal immigrants making it difficult for them to put food on the table for their kids.  Or to have a medical system overrun by non-American citizens driving up the cost of their health care and dragging down its efficiency.  Most American parents will do what they have to do for the health and well being of their children, I know I would.

But the problem is, that’s not just an American quality, it’s a human quality.

As a mother or father, brother or sister, wouldn’t you do almost anything to help a family member who is starving or needs medical attention but has no way of getting it?  If you can say yes to that question then why are we surprised when we see citizens from other countries doing the same?

Like I said before, this is not a simple issue, and everyone wants the best for their families.  I’m not saying let’s throw open the gates and let everyone run into the land of plenty, but I am saying we should keep an open mind when new policies are introduced regarding immigration.  Ignoring the problem or building higher walls will not deter the parent of a child in need.

The author of that Economist article drew many parallels between today’s Mexican immigration and that of Oklahomans fleeing the dust bowl of the 1930s depicted famously in John Steinbecks historic novel “The Grapes of Wrath”.  

These American parents did whatever they had to do for their families and we can expect these Mexican parents to continue to do whatever they have to do, for as Steinbeck wrote: “How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children?  You can’t scare him-he has known a fear beyond every other.”

Migrant farm workers

Fields of tears

They came to America illegally, for the best of reasons

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, sorry, what were you saying?

A year ago I went with our Malian tennis team, by van, to Ghana.  It was the worst travel experience I had ever had and swore to never do it again.  That promise was ringing in my ears as I stepped onto that van again a couple weeks ago, to head back to Ghana.

As we were leaving Bamako, with my back already sticking to my seat, I rationalized;  I’m a year wiser and tougher, this won’t be a big deal. 
The most vital additions to this trip were 1) a seat change, 2) peanut butter and jelly 3) ear plugs 4) a wash cloth and 5) travel pillow (rookie mistake last year).

A few hours passed and I truly felt as if I had evolved.  I have a bit (a bit) more language to use with the kids and I busted out a deck of cards and taught them old maid and crazy 8s.  Laughter filled the van, magic was in the air and there wasn’t any room for the heat!

That is until the old maid became annoying and the heat overbearing and everyone retreated to their respective corners of the van.  This is where big number 1 came into play.   Our driver and the main Malian coach, Bouare, sat up front, and the kids thought they were doing me a favor last year giving me the single seat next to the door.  Not so much.  There’s no room to stretch out and the window was (still is) broken so it slides open on it’s own which means waking up to a heated sand blaster to the face.  

No more!

I moved on up to the two combined seats on the other side which felt like a penthouse.  I was living large, had a place to put my water bottle and could close the window.  Simple pleasures.

I was drifting in and out of a very damp afternoon nap when I saw something on the floor.  It looked like someone spilled something like milky oats.  I looked back and one of the girls had her head between her knees and the other two looked worse for fear of what they knew was coming.   I asked if we needed to stop, they said no, (Malians don’t cave easily to not feeling well) so in the meantime I leaned back against my window. 

It wasn’t two minutes later that a second course of those milky oats sprayed all over my right calf along with an even coat covering the center of the van.  I was shocked, the driver and Bouare noticeably upset and the boys were laughing.  It was strange. 

We pull over in the next village, pay some kid a nickel to go to the well and get a bucket of water and in true Malian form everyone gets out the way and watches the girl who got sick clean up the van.

I was still positive; it was going to take more than some projectile vomit to turn my spirits.

Aside from construction and expected delays the rest of Mali wasn’t too bad, which  brought us to the Burkina Faso border.

Rewind a week, I didn’t want to go on this trip.  I asked to stay back and keep training the kids at the academy (and yes, I was slightly terrified of the trip), but the powers that be insisted I go even though we didn’t get the proper visas in advance and said that they’d even pay.  Big mistake.

Burkina Faso is just a drive through country on this trip.  We did know that visa prices had gone up for BF to about $120.  The guys at the border were not up for any small talk when they saw I had no visa, they said a visa at the border is $200 and there was no way around it.  

There was a stalemate that lasted way too long.  A “normal” African border crossing takes anywhere from 30 to 215 minutes and we were heading towards the latter.

Finally, we were in.  Paid way too much to cross an imaginary line and enter a place with no discernable difference to the place we just “left”.

We spent more on my visa in Burkina then we did on the gas to cross the country, figures.

We spent the night in Bobo, pronounced as it looks.  It was around midnight when we realized we hadn’t eaten since that morning.  No one seemed to mind so this is where number 2 stepped up big, PB and J for dinner and it was magical.  We actually sprung for a little motel type place that had a shower right next to the bed, another unexpected luxury.

The next morning I was excited.  A great six hours of horizontal sleep and we were hitting the road.  What I missed during the border meeting the day before was that we had to get something else approved at an office in Bobo.   We went to four different offices, always getting pawned off to a different one, driving all across town to finally be told that we need to get the stamp at the Burkina embassy in Accra, Ghana.  That ate a good two hours of the morning, now a late start, that’s more like it!

Hello Ghana!

Last year I paid something like $25 for my Ghana visa in advance, so we were thinking maybe double that at the border. 

It was a Sunday, so as we walked into the barren office where the three “officers” on duty were sporting dirty t-shirts and sandals.  The man who seemed to be in charge had his shirt pulled halfway up and rubbed his belly as they watched some horrible soap opera.   I have no sympathy for these African soaps, they are absolutely horrendous, I could take my three year old canon point and shoot, three friends and some Mac editing and make a series 10 times better.  I digress.

The men barely notice we enter and it feels like they want to wait for a commercial.  They start shuffling through our passports and begin the paperwork.  My English and blue passport pull a little weight and they kind of sit up in their seats a bit.  It doesn’t take long for them to notice that I have no visa for Ghana.  They say I can’t enter the country, dramatic pause, unless I buy an emergency visa.  I was seriously for the da da daaa sound effect from somewhere. 

Ok, we knew this was coming, “how much?”  It takes him some time and he looks around which makes me think he isn’t trying to remember how much it is, rather how much he can get from us.  “One hundred and fifty US, and you have to pay another $50 for a guide to Wa (pronounced as it sounds) to get it officially stamped”.


A couple hours later our guide shows up and we're off, another run of the mill 150 min border stop. 

Wa wasn’t that far, maybe 100-115 miles, except that it’s all a dirt road obstacle coarse with washboards that rival LL Cool J in his prime.

Number 2 and 3 on the list made this 2.5 hour trip in the middle of the day bearable.  Malians love to really rock out so the ear plugs helped drain some of that out and dousing the wash cloth with luke warm water and cleaning up a bit made a remarkable improvement.

In Wa our chaperone took us to some offices where we were introduced to his superior.  I wonder sometimes if rank in some of these militaries directly correlates with bribe soliciting abilities.  

His superior was nice enough, except that his exchange rate made the $150 dollar visa more like $190.   But how do you argue with an officer about his exchange rate, plus, his office had air conditioning, so he must have been pretty important.

So that was Wa. 

We drove until about 3 am that night to a city named Kumasi.  Our driver pulled up on a sidewalk on the main road under a street light and slept for a good 3 hours. 

At 6 am we shoved off and headed to Accra, the capital of Ghana. 


This wraps up the highlights of the first half.  The return trip was pretty routine.  We got in a wreck in Kumasi, argued on the side of the road for an hour then waited another five hours to get a side mirror replaced.  Then we found out the guys in Burkina only gave us a single entry visa, even though they knew we were just driving through and then coming back ten days later, so you know, the usual stuff.

In the end, after the projectile vomit and border issues, it was all worth it.  In longer than any of the other coaches at the tournament could remember, a Malian won the boys 16 and under.  By winning the tournament Seydou now qualified to go to the African Cup in April held in South Africa. 

Here’s to roadtrips!