crossing borders in east africa is always an interesting experience. i have found that people really want to help me get through the border quickly, and sometimes will go out of their way to make this possible. yesterday, while crossing the kenya border with 3 friends from north america, i had such an experience.
we arrived at the border (the malaba crossing point, for those of you keeping track) by bus from kampala. exiting the uganda side of the border was quick and easy: fill the form. stand in the line, have passport stamped, done. no problem. it should have been this easy on the kenya side as well, but somehow it became confusing and more difficult.
the form for a visa were tucked away somewhere random, but those were found easily enough. we filled in our details and jumped back into line, standing in the hot midday sun. there were two customs agents working at two windows, therefore there were two lines. we were all standing in one, that was moving well enough, when a lot of space opened up at the second line. one of the border police had us move to the shorter line. then a few minutes later he came back and asked if i would just collect all the passports for my group and come into the building. "this will be faster." he promised.
four sets of shrugged shoulders later, i had three other passports and all of our visa money in my hot little mitts. the guard led me back into the room where the agents were sitting, receiving passports and money and issuing visas. i was given the seat (window!) between them and told to wait. this is when the confusion really began.
the agent that was to help me ignored me for a few minutes… he asked where the others were, and i said they were outside of the room. he looked at me indignantly and said "well they need to be HERE." pointing out the window. i couldn’t see them anymore, so i phoned one of the girls who popped her head into the room. i relayed that they need to be THERE, pointing out the window, and they went THERE.
i was then asked if they had their passports. i said, "no, i have them here."
"WHY?" he demanded still incredulous.
"uh. well. that is what the border guard told me to do. he asked that i collect all our passports and money and bring them to you."
"give them their passports."
so i handed the passports through the little window and each one had their own. check.
"where is the money?" he asked.
i skipped a beat, waiting for the "shoe me the money!" line, but it never came.
"i have the money for the for of us."
"each of them needs to have their money for their visa."
catching the eye of one of my travel companions, i nodded for her to come back into the room. i handed her the money and relayed that each person needs to have their own cash. she takes the cash and redistributes it among the friends. before this point i had begin to wonder if this was really worth it or not. it was looking like a solid "not" at this point. i even asked this fellow "should i not just go stand in line with my friends?"
now, remember how we just redistributed the money that i had collected? someone else comes to the window, and pays for her $25 visa with a $100 bill. the agent turns to me and demands (nope, didn’t ask. demanded) that i break the $100. so, i get to collect all the money from the girls again…through the window, and break the large bill for him. (the interesting thing is, he had a box full of american money that he very easily could have made the change from. so i’m not really sure what the big deal was.)
finally my friends were up. each handed him their passport and visa application, had her picture taken and was moved aside. at this point i said, "sir, should i not be out there, too, so i can also turn in my paperwork and passport?" again, remember, i was told to "sit" when i asked if should be out there with them. he turns to me again, looking at me like i’m an idiot, and says "YES." i just smile and say, "ooookay. thank you, sir." i join the line, turn in my passport and paper, have my photo snapped and then we wait.
they agents seem to have collected everyone’s passport from our bus before doing any visas. i suspect that they were doing it this way as an attempt to be efficient. i’m not sold that this is the most efficient way. i digress. we waited for a bit, moved around the corner and waited for a bit longer.
my friend the border guard, who i now feel has seriously led me astray, comes up to me and says "now, you, the leader! why are you out here? you need to be inside to collect the passports. being a leader is a very important job, you must do it well!" so, yet again, he leads me into the customs room and i’m sorting through passports to find ours. i’m also handed two other passports of two other non east africans. apparently we were all in the same group…all being foreign and such, we MUST all know each other.
i hand back the passports of three of our four members, as well as two other expats whom i’ve never seen before. our canadian counterpart says, "hey, where’s mine?" so i’m back in the room. the guard makes a joke about her being the youngest so she had to have her passport stamped last. irregardless, we finally have all of our passports, are OFFICIALLY in kenya, and able to board the bus again.
a million hours later, we finally reach nairobi–far after we were supposed to. this means that we have missed our next bus connection to mombasa and need to find somewhere to stay. conveniently, the bus let us out in front of a cute little place that translates to "the butterfly" where 5 of us crammed ourselves into a triple room for the evening. as i type three of our five are still snoozing pleasantly away, still catching up on the lost sleep from yesterdays early morning. we’re spending the day in nairobi and taking a night bus to mombasa, which should yield some more interesting stories, i’m sure.