Thursday, March 6, 2014

A Visa to Congo

I recently decided I wanted to visit Congo.  Back in November I went to Uganda to trek for mountain gorillas.  Upon my departure from Uganda I was supposed to go to Rwanda for a two day speaking engagement at the university.  Due to lots of trouble with flights my Rwanda trip was cancelled, I was sent to Ethiopia and then went home.  Since I had already agreed to teach at the Rwanda University College of Technology for a few days, I wanted to honor that commitment.  As I was discussing my second attempt at this trip with my Rwandan contact I mentioned my desire to visit neighboring Congo.  A few days later I had a new friend in the Democratic Republic of Congo and will now be visiting in late April.

DRC is not the easiest country in the world to enter.  Of course, they don’t make you provide an ancestral map going back ten generations along with a blood sample like China does.  But they definitely do make it a challenge.  And then there is always the question of whether I will get to the border and they will actually let me in.  Of course, I won’t be sure of that until April 20th.

Yesterday I arrived at the Congolese Embassy with my passport, visa application, bank transfer confirmation stating I deposited the appropriate visa fees, official letter of invitation from the university, official letter of invitation from the travel agent who is arranging my trip, a detailed itinerary including all scheduled stops in DRC, a certified copy of my passport, a certified copy of my Botswana residence permit, a certified copy of my yellow fever vaccination card, and two passport photos.

When I arrived it was mass chaos.  There were easily a hundred people clamoring to gain entry into the Embassy with one very unofficial looking official deciding who he wanted to assist next.  This is when being a minority is helpful.  He took one look at me and asked what I needed.  I informed him I had already spoken to Kennie in the visa office and I had all my documents in order and needed to drop them off.  The gentleman took my documents and passport and walked away.

About ten minutes later I was about to have a heart attack.  I wasn’t 100% sure he really was someone official who worked there.  In Africa you meet a lot of people who claim to be official or employed somewhere and then they try to rob you.  Or perhaps they really are official.  But they will refuse to give you back whatever you need (ID, passport, credit card you just used to purchase a ticket with) until you give a “tip.”  If they don’t think the tip is generous enough you may have to go through several rounds of tipping until they agree to relinquish whatever they are holding for ransom.

I also realized that with so many people milling around and all the associated chaos I wasn’t confident I would recognize him when (if) he did return.  For all I knew he could have been in a back office trying to sell my passport on Craigslist.  Fortunately he did return in a reasonable amount of time (less than 30 minutes- probably a record short wait for me here) with a receipt saying I could pick up my passport the following day.  The simplicity of the receipt did not instill a lot of confidence in me:
Today I returned to the Embassy under extreme distress.  Again, mass confusion.  But, again, my inability to blend in helped.  I walked in holding my passport receipt directly in front of my face so you couldn’t miss it.  Several customers waiting to be helped flagged down the appropriate employee who took my receipt.  As I was waiting for him to return with my passport I was recommended several restaurants for my trip to DRC, invited to stay with someone’s grandmother, told what to do to avoid paying a bribe at the border, and learned that Snoop Dog has apparently changed his name to Snoop Lion.  Overall I would say it was a very enjoyable day at the Embassy.  Now, let’s just hope this thing works next month:

1 comment:

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