As some of you know, I’m spending the next year in the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Area as a volunteer for the World Wildlife Fund. I will be working with Angelique Todd, who is nicknamed “The Gorilla Whisperer”. My main job will be to help habituate the gorillas, but I will also be helping to run a lab that will examine whether humans are transmitting diseases to the gorillas. If you are reading this, you are (probably) invited to come. Seriously though, I am a little (see: very) nervous and I would love to have some friendly faces break up the year!
T-minus 60 days: Finding the Visa Application
There is no website for the Central African Republic’s embassy. I did find a number and an address on the State Department’s website. I call, and a lady picks up. I tell her I want to apply for a visa, she tells me to hold on and I hear the phone get passed around for a while. Another lady picks up, and I repeat my request and she slowly, a little incredulously, asks me in broken English: “You… want… a visa… for Centrafrica?”. I confirm this. She gives me her personal cell phone number and instructs me to text her my email, so that she can send me the application. After a few days and a few reminders, I finally get it in my inbox. As my friend said, the application looks like someone wrote it in Word and opened it in older version, messing up the formatting. Hopefully now that I put it online it will be easier for others to find.
T-minus 28 days – Applying for the Visa
I find the embassy and give them my application. They tell me to sit down, and so I wait. I strike up a conversation with the other person in the room, and we have the obligatory “So why are you going?” discussion. Thirty minutes later, my visa is ready! Yay! It consists of a form stamped into my passport, with the lines hand-filled. She messed up a line and had to scribble over what she wrote, rendering it illegible.
Flying into Addis Ababa, where I have a 3-hour layover, provides beautiful views. The sun has yet to breach the horizon and it bathes the flat landscape in its soft warm glow. Thin wisps of mist hug the curves of the small hills. All I could see are endless crops, creating a pattern that had no discernible order—a quilt of various shades of green in irregular shapes. It’s gorgeous.
A few hours later we are descending into Bangui. I realize that I’ve never seen so much… undevelopedness. When I first look out, there are veins of dark green forest crisscrossing a lighter green plain. I alternate between emotions of “wow, this is so cool” and “what the hell am I doing what the hell am I doing”. This continues for a long while, until we come across a brown river. Along its bank are the first signs of human settlement. A few minutes later, Bangui comes into view: tin roofs separated by red dirt roads and lush palm trees. The first paved road I see is the runway. I later realize all the roads are (mostly) paved, but are covered in a thin layer of red dust.
Some of the passengers, including myself, disembark the plane (it was continuing to Douala, Cameroon). We wait while the bus fills up… so that it can take us to the airport 150 feet away. After going through immigration and baggage claim, I proceed to wait for 45 minutes in the beating sun, insisting to all the locals loitering around that no I do not need a taxi, and yes I am sure they are coming soon, and no I do not have their telephone number. I finally give in and pay a ludicrous amount (10 dollars!!) to be taken to the WWF HQ. I keep expecting the staff to show some recognition as to who I was, to no avail, until a lady typing at her desk finally says… “Vous êtes Madame… [looks at her computer screen] Laurel?”. I squeal out an excited and relieved “Oui!”. She was just about to tell the driver to go pick me up!, she says. Oh well.
In the morning I take off for the 10-15 hour, 500 km trip to the reserve. Wish me luck. There’s something awesome yet terrifying of following your dreams.