journey to juba: the passport photo incident [crossing the border]

the sun had risen most of the way by the time the bus finally reached gulu. we were to find out later that this particular kampala coach had started at least in nairobi, if not arusha. i did not then and will not now speculate on if the driver had changed or not…

the bus was totally-packed. however, since we had booked the previous day we were given seats. or, potentially more likely, we were given seats because we’re white. these seats, however, were not together.

housemate was given what turned out to be the primo seat, in the middle of the bus and at the window. nice. elizabeth and i, at first, were together at the veryveryvery back of the bus, smashed in with our bags. the conductor came back however, to tell us that there was one seat all the way at the front of the bus–i made my way up to the veryveryvery front of the bus which meant navigating the aisle full of people and luggage. again. my flip flop fell off. again. and i made the remainder of the journey forward with it tucked under my arm and trying not to smack people accidentally with my bag.

when we took off i was only mildly worried when the driver didn’t seem to know how to get out of town. sure, it can be confusing which left turn to take toward atiak, i let that go. but when he didn’t know which way to turn at the t-intersection my confidence in the pilot was depleted.

the trouble with sitting where one can see out the front window is that you can see the road really well. so, basically, when i wasn’t forcing myself to sleep or at least pretend to, i was “driving” right along with the actual driver. only mildly stressful and probably only took 10 years off my life expectancy. no problem.

things were even worse at the back of the bus. the road to atiak is just awful–potholes the size of a sedan and corrugated like cardboard–and that awfulness is intensified by about a trillion from the very back of a bus. there was one pothole we hit at a high speed that even sent me, at the front of the bus, flying into the air. elizabeth said that she flew so high she hit her head on the baggage thingy, and then on her way down her chin collided with the seat in front of her, splitting her chin.

housemate and i learned of this after our arrival at the border, elizabeth disembarked from the bus and came to where we were waiting and we saw that her chest had blood on it. “um…what happened?” i asked pointing to the spot. she lifted her head and pointed to the wound and recounted the tale of flying, and how at least in this instance, it’s not all its cracked up to be. [as an aside, she ended up with 3 wounds from the ride to juba–the split chin, a scrape and a largeish bruise on her arm.]

so there we were at the border of uganda and south sudan, hoping that what we’d heard (that we could apply for and receive visa’s at the border) was correct. we followed our fellow busmates up the hill to the exit visa building where uganda happily stamped us out of the country and then sought out a latrine and lunch before boarding the bus to reach the entry point to sudan. which, by the way, is SUPER LONG. my question is, the people between the “borders,” which country do they live in? do they have to go through the process of entry and exit when they want to leave this space between countries? so many questions! i digress.

upon reaching the sudan side i realized that i had left my french-press travel mug somewhere at the crossing. so that was a bummer. (remember i’d already had my two lovely water bottles lifted back in gulu. sadness all the way round!)

we three gathered together before trudging up the hill to the south sudan entry offices. our trained traveler’s eyes were searching for the little square forms that are familiar at border crossings and airport entry points, but we found none. we were shepherded into the largest of the two rooms, and began what we thought was the proper process for a visa and stamp. false.

there are three desks in this room, each with at least one person behind it; no signs; and about 40 people pushing towards the front–no semblance of a proper line. housemate tried her luck with the gentleman on the far left: getting as far as getting a stamp [ENTRY] in her passport before he realized that she didn’t have a visa. he produced a form and even started filling it in for her.

"this is your entry stamp"

meanwhile, at the middle desk, elizabeth and i are being shouted at and shouting our responses to a woman behind that desk:

:blink: “UH. YES.”
e: “YES.”
at the same time me: “NO.” (internally, ‘CRAP!’)

so we followed our new friend out of this office and into the smaller office next door. to do this we had to jump the line, which i felt insanely guilty about, but no one seemed phased. ptl. after squeezing into this room, we were handed forms and told to till them in–the application for a visa.

since elizabeth already had her passport photos (not to self: always carry at least 2 when traveling, now!) she stayed in the “lobby” of the building filling in her form while i was literally pulled to a little shack to have my “photo made” for the visa application.

outside of this clearly made-from-scrap-wood-structure one of the doors had a white sheet hung on it with a small bench in front of it. i was instructed to sit on the little stool and smile for the man with the cheap-o digital camera in front of me. the seriousness + my lack of sleep + just the situation in general made me laugh, especially when the woman who had brought me over was demanding i remove my scarf that was folded and acting as a headband.

“you remove that one!” she demanded, pointing at my head.
“no…” i said with a bit of whine in my voice.
“i don’t want.” i said still kind of whiny.

everyone laughed. including me.

my posture was criticized, but i just smiled and waited for the photographer to take a photo he was satisfied with.

i then waited five minutes-i spent the time filling in my application which did not have the infuriating question that kenya’s does regarding your husband or father’s full name. grrr– and was presented 3 smaller-than-regulation-passport-sized photos. and its potentially one of my favorite photos of me. ever. i LOVE that i have an extra copy (housemate was given 4, i wonder what happened to MY 4th?!) and that it is on my official entry visa to south sudan.

passport photo of awesome

the printer line just makes it so much better than if it’d printed “perfectly.”

i paid my 10,000 uganda shillings to the man with the camera, thanked him, and followed my guide back to the offices. she took my form and my photos and skipped the line again into the little office, collecting elizabeths’ on the way past (she was actually standing in line). when i tried to follow the woman into the office some “official” man stopped me and started yelling that i had to stand in line.

after trying to explain that the lady had my form, and had gone into the office, and that one would figure that i should also accompany my form, passport and photos; i gave up and just stood there, waiting and hoping for the best. one of the men from my bus widened his eyes at me and shook his head, clicking his tongue in disapproval for that display. we both gave a little laugh and shook hands at our shared joke.

eventually the woman reappeared from the little office and asked us to follow her back to the big office where she resumed her place behind the middle desk, stapled our photos to the forms and filled out the massive visa for each of us.

even though she had all of the information in front of her, printed neatly in block letters, she asked us to spell our names, our passport numbers and other information that would probably have transferred more quickly from the forms. ah well.

please note that my eye and hair color are “black.” um…

we were then officially stamped into south sudan, handed our passports, massive visa’s and wished well. all three of us met in the “lobby” and made our collective way back to the bus for the last leg of the journey to juba.

postscript: we thought we were in the clear, but we were wrong!

along the way to juba we stopped once for “short call.” this was the sign i could see out my window:

this didnt inspire bravery to wander

and then we thought we’d arrived in juba. i suppose, technically, we HAD arrived in juba, but rather we were at the juba-check-point. we had to figure this out on our own, though.

we stopped at what looked something like a bus park, so i assumed we’d arrived. a man got on the bus and told everyone to get off. everyone started to get off of the bus, but no one was taking their luggage.


we three took our bags with us, just in case–and housemate even called the mcc-er who was to pick us up, saying that we’d arrived. it eventually became quite clear-as a man was eventually shouting at us-that we were at the check-point and we urgently needed to go make photocopies of our papers.

so, we went to the building he was pointing at as he shouted “I TELL YOU IN ARABIC? [prounounced: uh-rab-ick] DINKA? ENGLAND?” housemate offered a timid(ish) “england?” and we were sent on our way to the building.

handed over our passports and visas to the men behind the two copy machines, paid them and were then sent into the next room.

here the lone man behind a lone desk was surrounded by photocopied and stapled papers or travelers. surrounded. HUGE stacks were precariously teetering on plastic chairs, in a suitcase against a wall under the window, all over his desk and on the floor.

he pointed to one of our entry stamps and said, “this is your entry stamp. this means you are in sudan.” thanks for that.

he then collected our papers and said that they were “just in case of anything, then we can find you and rescue you.” which was very sweet and probably supposed to be reassuring. however, if a stiff breeze had come along and entered that room just right none of us would technically be IN south sudan.

hoping that we were done with this bureaucracy we pushed our tired, hot, hungry and cranky selves back to the bus to find out that the shouty man was now insisting on checking everyone’s bags.  soooo we had our bags pawed through in front of onlooking crowds. one of our group may have sassed the man searching bags, and therefore had her bag searched a little more thoroughly than others. we all learned that lesson.

finally back on the bus we were set free to cross the nile and arrive in juba, in a confusingly named section of town “customs.” in a few minutes we were on a tarmac road (whoa) and in the bus park where J met us… finally!

later that evening there were burritos…
stay tuned for tomorrow’s episode:
journey to juba: juba-failed attempts but a damn good burrito
where we hear the blogger say “that was a damn good burrito!”


2 thoughts on “journey to juba: the passport photo incident [crossing the border]

  1. i chuckled all the way through this epistle, my friend! now we both have Nimule border post stories! My short version is that my entry stamp is dated 1 day AFTER my exit stamp! LOVE YOU

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