Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Guide to Bangui

A guest post by @Anahi_Ayala who visited this CFA-zone country, that was home to the infamous former Emperor Bokassa, and which now has another grandiose project from a modern-day self-styled emperor - Gaddafi

Getting There: From Nairobi, you can take a direct flight to Bangui that's just over three hours, and a round trip costs about $1,000. Alternatively, you can fly with Ethiopian Airlines. However this is a longer flight - with stop over in Addis Ababa of 4/5 hours, then another flight to Douala (Cameroon) where passengers proceeding to Bangui are not allowed to disembark during a 1hr 30min) and then you take off to Bangui - and so the entire trip including layovers, is around 12 hours.

Visa's are done before hand, and the process is pretty easy and they usually give 3-month visas. There is no tax to on arrival, but to leave the country you pay a 10,000F tax (~$22 USD).

At Bangui Airport, the customer system is pretty meticulous: They search the bag of each person, and if you have goods that they think you have to pay extra for they will start shouting crazy prices - But you can settle it down with some bargaining and perhaps paying a bribe.

Getting Around: A taxi to town costs around 1500F ($3). People normally use shared taxis (which fit in as many people as they can) and there are also buses which leave from the main bus station in Bangui and go almost everywhere in the country. These take long time to arrive due to crazy conditions of the streets and sometimes break down along the way. Another way to do long distance travel, is using cargo vans (People sit on the top of the cargo. Some of the destinations (like the north of the country) take around 4 or 4 days to get there, while others like Obo can take around 7 days.

I was always going around by myself and had no problem, but one needs to be careful anyway since here in CAR poverty is at the extreme: a teacher salary is around $200, meaning that a normal person get around $50 a month. So if you go around with $100 in your pocket and people see it, is not good. I have friends here that got robbed in the street, but never anything violent: people just take your money from your pocket when there is a crowd.

Corruption is also widespread so if you get stopped by a policeman and you are doing something illegal this can cost you a lot of money. The interesting part of this is that the local population gives you advice in the street if they see you are doing something stupid – like someone told me to remove my phone from the back pocket to put in the front, or at the airport they came to tell me that my luggage did not have a padlock and that it was advisable to get one.

Security outside Bangui is another issue. The road from Bangui to Obo (South East of the country) is often attacked by the LRA (Lord's Resistance Army), so no one really uses it (you can take a UN flight to go there, twice a week, which costs $100 per ticket and you need to reserve to see if they have space – maximum $15 per person). The route from Bangui to Bambari (North) is also often attacked by bandits - normally there is no violence involved, they just rob you, get money & anything valuable and then let you go. The entire 5 regions in the North of the country are controlled by different rebels groups and the government suggests not to go there. Only private charters go there and there are no humanitarian agencies working in those areas, only visited by the Diamond Mines people (who have no problem going in and out).

Getting around, you spend around 8000F (including eating outside) in Bangui ($18). Outside Bangui not more than 3000F ($6)

The local language is Sango, but each region also has a local dialect. The national language is also French, but outside Bangui, few people can understand it and it is rare to hear them use it, and no one understands English

In Bangui there are around 3 newspapers published which publish not more than 500 copies: the quality is horrible, as they are all politically driven and the news is distorted in order to favor the political side take by the newspaper. Also there are no newspaper in English.

Business & Infrastructure: Where to Stay: There are several hotels in Bangui, all very expensive and with terrible services. One of the best one is the J&M hotel, which cost around $100 a night for a single room. They claim they have internet but it does not really work properly. They have 4 different locations: the J&M one is the best one, the others use the name but have a lower quality of services and rooms.

Another hotel is the Hotel du Centre or Hotel Central. It also costs $100 a night and the service is terrible: rooms are dirty and everything is broken. The hall of the hotel looks like an old school pub and it smells old.

There is a super luxury hotel that is being built by Gaddafi (well, was Gaddafi). It is supposed to be super fancy, with swimming pool and super nice rooms, but I have no idea how they think it will stay open as there is simply no way they can sustain the costs as there are not that many people that need a hotel in Bangui!

Another possible place to stay, is a center managed by the Nuns, and is part of the main cathedral of the city. The center is supposed to be for the missionaries that come to work in the country, but they also host guests for short time. It costs around $50 for a single room, the rooms are super simple but clean and they also offer breakfast with the room. You can have lunch and dinner of you want too for an additional $10. The nuns are very nice and dinner, breakfast and lunch are all served in a common room and at a common table (fixed hours: 7AM, noon and 7PM).

Electricity is not reliable at all, and it often went away in the middle of the day and during the night. Every office here has a generator to survive. I counted in my office and on average the electricity goes away every 30 minutes or one hours, sometimes for short periods, but sometimes for hours. Outside Bangui there is no electricity in the main cities or in the villages: everything works with generators and normally around 6pm, depending on the places, everything turns dark. Likewise, with water provision, there is no water in the houses, and everything is taken from water pumps.

Communications: Safaricom has roaming here but I did not use it to tell you how much does it costs. You can register with Orange and Telecell for them to activate your SIM card, but this may take more than 48 hours for the activation to actually work. If you want to use a USN bundle for this, you need to find a unblocked one (Orange had no bundles available anymore when I was here). All those bundles are second hand Huawei modems: You may buy a broken one, a blocked on and so on - and once you manage to have one that is working, you need to go to Orange or Telecell with your modem, the SIM card and the computer for them to set up the parameters. For Moov they said you just need to send an SMS, but I will only believed it if I see it then, since here everything is different when you ask then when you actually do it.

Overall, the cost of an international call is around $1/minute and using data on your mobile phone is a nightmare with local SIM cards.

Food & Life (Bars): The main dish is fish (capitain) and something very similar to Ugali, but done with Tapioca. They eat a lot of meat - goat, chicken and beef, but almost no vegetables. The local beer is called Castel but they also have Sudanese beers and Mocop Beer from Cameroon. One beer is 1000Fc ($2.5) in Bangui and around 500FC ($1.75) outside Bangui.

Shopping & Sight-Seeing: The main shopping area is the market in the center of the city called Marché Central and it is just blocks from Bangui's port. They have beautiful clothes and very good handcrafts. There is no such a thing as a shopping mall in the all country.

One place to visit in the country is the Les Chutes de Boali (Boali Waterfalls) which is around 2 hours away from Bangui. In Bangui there is the Musee de Boganda (Boganda Museum), which offers artifacts of the Central African Republic's history, and a collection of musical instruments. Another thing to see is the Place de la Republique, at the very heart of Bangui, with its large white arch were built as a monument to Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the corrupt dictator who was overthrown in 1979.

Shockers: How poor it is, how miserable, how there is absolutely nothing and how devastated it is, and the fact that they eat dogs, cats, and rats. That’s weird.

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