Wandering has its restrictions. A thousand years ago, one could just go anywhere based on where their feet found a way. The world, even in the 70s, had a lot more structure. Even more today. Travel is limited by our resources and legal constraints. Everyone needs visas.
These stories have shown me seeming to effortlessly cross borders. Usually, I knew which countries I was going to or through and made arrangements. I spent several days in Lagos arranging visas for several countries while I stayed with the Nigerian Ambassador to the Central African Republic. There was always travel paperwork to be done and to maintain.
Tomboctou, Tombouctou or Timbuktu was a dream state to me (see Walking Tomboctou). It was often spoken about as the most remote place on earth, being an oasis on the edge of the Sahara (at the northern-most bend of the Niger River). Tomboctou is a real place. After the afternoon sun has faded, some streets filled with men in blue robes and women in brightly colored clothes with beaded hair always seeming to be in animated conversation and laughter.
This was originally the southernmost trading post of the Tuaregs, where West Africans traded with the dessert people. But like all dreams, we eventually have to wake. To leave I boarded a two-engine prop Air Mali flight to go east-southeast to Gao, also in Mali.
As we climbed in the little plane to our cruising altitude, I saw the Niger River meandering below us through the Sahara of Eastern Mali. We followed the river, as dessert travelers like to do, heading over barren dessert back towards civilization. Both towns had small airports cut into the dessert with planes landing only once or twice a day.
I spent the night in Gao. Now I was back on my normal travel routine, in the back of trucks. I managed to reach the Mali border town of Wataguna (Ouatagouna) where I spent the night. This was still arid countryside, Sahel, with occasional isolated bushes.
Early the next morning, I caught a ride south to the Niger border station at Ayorou. The border itself was about halfway between Ouatagouna and Ayorou, but the border station was in the town, not out on the dusty road. So I was already half an hour ride into Niger when I checked in.
When the border guards there looked at my passport, they could see that I had originally crossed into Niger from Tamanrasset and had been admitted into Niger with the note “Vu au passage” – “Seen passing through.” The Border Guards on duty told me since I was trying to get into Niger a second time without a visa, I would have to go back the several days difficult journey to Bamako in Mali to the Niger embassy to try to get a visa (see Border Guards: Please wait until we finish bathing).
I tried to explain and reason with them … that when I had met with the authorities in Niger, they had said that it was acceptable and that they understood my predicament. Those authorities had said that I could stay in Niamey for a week, but after that I would be deported.
The Ayorou Border gendarmes repeated their demand that I go back to Mali … but at that point I had already exited Mali, now half an hour north on the road, and I didn’t have a visa to return to that country. I feared I would be stuck at the border as well.
They said that this was not their problem … (“Ce n’est pas mon problem… Il vous faut departe.” It’s not my problem. YOU MUST LEAVE!… GO BACK to MALI!
I froze and started crying. I recall falling into a lump on the floor of the Sûreté, crying and pleading to them to let me pass, to let me go on to Niamey, from which I promised to go straightaway to Ougadougou in Haute Volta, out of their country.
Finally, they relented. I could go to Niamey, but I must then leave Niger within 48 hours. I thanked them, feeling drained and exhausted, and left. There were many vehicles stopped for Border Control, so I was fortunately able to readily find a ride to escape to Niamey.
To this day, I have tremendous empathy for the refugees who have left their countries, fearing for their lives, many without all the paperwork required to travel the world these days. I know how easy it can be to end up in a stateless situation with no rights to go anywhere – left to your own devises with authorities on all sides preventing any movement. This is one of those unknown, unpredictable risks for people who are not used to international travel and only trying to survive.
No matter my passport, I had no Visas and had to throw myself on the mercy of the Border authorities who, thank goodness, had the humanity, or was it pity, to give me access to enter their country to correct my situation in Niamey. Border security can be a chancy thing, it depends not so much on the rules as the person at the kiosk who makes the decision. They have a lot of power over your life in those few minutes. Humility can be a powerful tool.
Later that day we stopped at the spectacle of a dead giraffe stretched out in the scrub along the side of the road. It had recently been struck and fatally injured by a truck, then apparently wandered a short distance just off the road. Once elegant and graceful, now just road kill; it would be left for the local scavengers of many species. On we drove.
When I reached Niamey, I checked in with the Sûreté. They were very friendly. They could see that I had stayed a week a month earlier. They also said that, unfortunately, since I had again entered Niger without a visa, that this time I needed to leave Niamey and Niger the following day. I agreed to leave and thanked them for their kind understanding.