Checkpoint Charlie snafu…

Passports are the bane of my existence. The last 10 years of my life have been spent filling out visa application forms, explaining to people why they should let me in their country and why a Mexican girl speaks “normal” English or carries around tons of books. Sunday wasn’t any different. It was all going great until the officer realised my green eagle bearing passport was different from Charlotte’s red and golden unicorn one.

“You are not English?”

“No, but I live in England. I work in England.”

“You have visa?”

“No, the Rwandan Embassy in London said I could get one on the ground. Just a normal tourist visa.”

“No, but where’s your visa? You need a visa”

“I am here to get a visa. That’s what I want. I have dollars, and I am happy to pay for my visa. Thank you”

“No, but…….she can go in, you need a visa. The Embassy don’t know. That’s the rules. “

The border between Uganda and Rwanda makes the crossing between Tijuana and San Diego or Reynosa and Texas look like a 5 star resort hotel. You arrive at the crossing in Katuna, Uganda. You have to find a small office where you get a stamp on your passport marking that you’ve left Uganda. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you are in Rwanda. On the contrary.

There’s a stretch of land about 500-800mts long that is “no man’s land”. Not Uganda, not Rwanda, nothing but parked lorries waiting to go through the border, people’s houses on the side, a couple of vendors and people waving wads of cash in your face asking if you need to change Rwandan francs into Ugandan shillings or vice versa.

When you eventually reach the Rwandan side, you are in “Gatuna” (the K magically transforms) and a quiet nurse takes your temperature with a wireless gadget to make sure you don’t bring Ebola into the country.  “Go get visa now”, we were instructed by a statuesque soldier carrying a rifle. So we hurried to join the queue at the immigration office.

After ten minutes at the immigration window, a small army of officers were huddling around both our passports. A word in Kinyarwanda, a word in French, and the odd word in English: “visa”, “British”, “country”, “Mexico”…

“You need a visa, apply online. You apply, and you wait 3-5 days and then come back. Your friend can go through. NOT YOU.”

“But…..we only have a week to go to Rwanda. We need to be back in Kampala soon. Please, I will fill out any forms, and even pay extra to expedite the process (wink, wink), stay longer, answer questions. Anything, please.”

“NO. HERE. ” (Hands me a paper with a website address and a phone number). “Go online, call this number Monday. See if they can help, but not today. Sunday. People are in church.”

His sharp, short-sentenced English burned straight to my core. I know he wasn’t trying to be mean. Rules are rules. I know the incorrect advice of a middle level diplomat in London was of no concern to a middle level immigration officer half a world away, but I still felt betrayed.

Don’t get me wrong. I ADORE my country. I miss Mexico every day and I carry our flag proudly with my work and try to make my family back home proud. I love my culture, and I took pride in teaching a couple of Spanish words to a group of kids who regularly walked with us in Bwindi. But I AM TIRED of conversations that u-turn as soon as someone learns my nationality.

“Oh the job would be yours today if you had a different passport”

“Ah! so you need someone to sponsor your work visa? That’s a bit tricky”

“Did you see Theresa May woke up on the wrong side of the bed and decided to amend immigration rules so it’s MORE impossible to stay and work in the UK?”

“Yeah…..what you need to find is a husband. Then you can stay”

In the end, I had a little cry and we returned to Kabale. I filled out the goddamned application form and told my life story to a lovely man at the main immigration office phone center in Kigali who took pity on me and expedited my visa. (Thank you Emanuel)

So we drove to the border again, walked through no man’s land again, and got nothing but smiles from the same immigration officers from the day before once I had the right bit of paper they needed. My green passport now has a little sticker with illegible handwriting on it that says I am allowed in this country.

Fucking passports.

More from Kigali soon.

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