Thursday, January 18, 2007

How things work around here: Passport/Visa edition

Before arrival in Angola, I was warned how difficult it was to deal with work visas. This is why I entered the country with a tourist visa, armed and ready with all the necessary paperwork, doctor’s notes, notarized transcripts and resumes, and so on, for a work visa. I was instructed by our Luanda Logistics Guy that I should bring this paperwork with me and apply for the work visa from Angola, which is why I got very nervous when the Angolan consulate in Houston wanted me to leave all this paperwork there. I had no trouble getting the tourist visa, but the woman at the consulate kept trying to tell me that they had to send the paperwork from there, directly contradicting what the logistics guy was telling me. It took me a while to convince her to give me back the paperwork, but she did, and gave me one of those "If you so say so" looks.

Oh, if only I had known! I entered the country on the tourist visa with no problem. I immediately turned in all the paperwork to Luanda Logistics Guy and was told that I would get the work visa in a few weeks. Skip ahead to the end of October. Luanda Logistics Guy comes back with an answer- NO WORK VISA FOR YOU! Oh, and “Also, you should have submitted all of this work visa paperwork from the United States.” ARGH! This was frustrating, but I didn’t think it would be a problem because, in theory, all I had to do was renew my tourist visa every three months.

My three months (90 days) came in the middle of November. I happened to be going to Luanda, and on a Monday I handed my passport over to the same logistics guy. DEFA, the immigration department, keeps your visa and gives you a receipt that you are supposed to use in lieu of a passport. In other countries this wouldn’t be such a big deal except that, thanks to Angola's Soviet-style bureaucracy, all air travelers are required to present documentation when they travel domestically. This means that I go through customs every time I fly. Now, back in November when I was going back to Lobito Luanda Logistics Guy says, “Oh, I just went to DEFA and they only accept passports Monday through Wednesday, so I’ll take it next week and today you’ll have to travel with this letter I wrote explaining everything.” I said, “I gave you the passport on Monday, why did you just take it today?” Blank… stare…. “Leslie, I’m very busy.” Of course, it's his job to know when to take visas to DEFA and then to take them there, but hey- he had things to do! I was seething, but let it go.

The driver who took me to the airport had my passport so I was able to get to Lobito, but getting through customs once in Lobito was another issue. The DEFA guy took one look at the letter that Luanda Logistics guy wrote and more or less laughed and said, “You can’t give us this. We need the passport or the receipt.” Manuel João, the awesome driver who was picking me up at the airport, was a little late, so I was trying to convince the DEFA guy that I was an upright foreigner, working for and NGO and, gosh, I just didn’t know ANYTHING about a receipt- aren’t I a silly woman, tee hee? Finally Maneul João showed up. The DEFA guy tried suddenly said, “You’ll have to go back to Luanda, then. Unless…” and sort of stretched his arms. I thought, “Oh, so this is how they ask for bribes!” But MJ held his ground and said, “No, she’s not going to Luanda, she’s staying here because it’s 5 pm and there are no more flights out today.” Then they suddenly found a problem with the entry-date stamp on the copy of the passport. It wasn't visible, so he said, "We don't know when you arrived in country." So I said, "August 26, 2006," which he wasn't expecting. At that point he finally realized he wasn't getting a bribe and that it was almost 6 pm and time to go home, so he left me off with a very stern warning.

The above story isa bit of a sidetrack, but shows how Luanda Logistics Guy operates. Or, in this case, doesn’t operate. He just does not do his job. I would say he is mildly competent in other areas, but in this area he is notoriously incapable of doing his job. He sent one employee off to South Africa, telling him he didn’t need a visa. 24 hours later the employee was sent back to Angola because he didn’t have a visa to enter the country. Another employee and his wife had to delay their return to the US by over a week because Luanda Logistcs Guy forgot that you have to have an exit visa. You get the idea.

Now- I turned my passport into him on Nov 18. I got my receipt from Luanda a week later, so I was in the clear. And then I did something dumb. Because everyone is required to carry identification at all times, when going out for drinks or to the disco I would put the receipt and copy of my passport in my pockets. In all the weeks I carried that receipt around, I never forgot to take it out of my pocket. Until one fateful night when I forgot, and the maid came the next day and washed my jeans! The receipt disappeared, along with any ability to travel beyond Lobito via airplane. I then thought, “Hmm, DEFA has had my passport for about two months now,” which is quite long. I asked our legal affairs lady here in Lobito and she said, ‘What?! That process should only take two or three days.” Uh-oh. So she started to track down my passport, and Luanda Logistics Guy says the last time he went it wasn’t ready. When pressed as to when this was, he said it was over 3 weeks ago, when he went to check on another ex-pat employee’s passport- way longer than it should have been.

We finally got word of my passport this last Monday. He said, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I have your passport. The bad news is that the extended visa expired on December 21st.” Okay, let’s get this straight. They held on to the passport for over two months, and when they finally issued the extension, they did so for a date that occurred over a month ago? I don’t think so. Basically, he forgot that my visa was in DEFA and let it sit there. In spite of the fact that this guy got caught not doing his job and completely lying about it, he refused to assume any responsibility for it.

It gets better! Apparently in-country extensions are a one-shot deal, and you have to leave the country before they expire. If you leave the country and come back, you get another 3 month visa- but only if you leave the country. So I will have to leave the country very soon- and pay a huge fine when I do- in order to be here legally.

And they are requesting that I resubmit all the work visa paperwork again (!!!), so that I finally get a work visa and avoid all this hassle. But there has been a change in policy, and now all foreign work visas- except for the oil company employees- must be submitted from their country of origin. This means that the lady at the Angolan consulate in Houston was right all along! Since all of this paperwork must be submitted in the US, I will have to leave the country every three months until I go on home leave! AND, the paperowork (notarized everything, doctor's letters, etc) has to be up-to-date, so all the paperwork I have from August 2006 won’t count. So when I DO finally get home, I’ll likely have to spend a few days doing this junk all over again. So terribly frustrating, and so terribly avoidable.

Oh, the confusão!


Cristina said...

am really enjoying your blog! A lot of confusão it seems. Bureaucracy at its best (or worst....).
My mom was born in Benguela, so it was great to see some pictures from the area. She and my grandparents later moved to Restinga....
I just got a job proposition to work in Luanda for an NGO, but i am sitting on the fence at the moment..... We have a one year old child.... so we are a bit cautious. But Aram seems to be doing fine!!! :)
Boa sorte com a papelada!!

Leslie said...

Obrigadinha! If you do decide to take the job let me know so we can do some networking. lasantamaria-at-gmail(dot)com.

sir_chancelot said...

You really seem to have an issue with the people from the oil companies. You might want to think twice about negative comments about them--that is, if you ever want to be invited to Thanksgiving dinner again. If I were one of them and read your blog, I would get some really bad vibes. The real object of you anger should be the Angolan government.

Leslie said...

Where in the post did I say anything negative about oil company employees? I thought it was clear in this post that my anger is directed at the guy who has totally mucked up my visa and passport.

Lilly said...

Visa's are such a big problem. Doesn't anybody know anybody in Luanda that can at least give us an update on a visa? We planned a wonderfull Christmas and it seems if my Friend will not be able to make it due to his visa...

... can somebody help us to keep n promise to his daughter...