Sunday, March 09, 2008

The visa saga continues...

(Part 1 of 3)

Two weeks ago I sat down and counted out the days left on my visa- I had fewer days left than I thought I did so I had to get out of the country within two weeks. It didn’t make sense to pay a lot of money to go to South Africa or Zambia, so my supervisor and I decided it made the most sense for me to go visit our programming partner in Cunene and run across the border to Namibia for a few hours.

I got on the direct flight from Benguela to Ondjiva (the capital of Cunene province). The flight was scheduled to leave from the smaller airport in Catumbela, which is 30 minutes away from Lobito. For some reason that’s not clear to me (like so many things here), you must check in and go through immigration control at the Benguela airport (1 hr from Lobito), then drive to the Catumbela airport to wait.

You might remember my visa fiasco from the last time I flew out of the Benguela airport. (Quick recap: Angola has immigration checks on all domestic flights. Two Benguela immigration officials are convinced, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that I am in gross violation of my visa.) Immediately after that run-in, Elisabeth, the head of our HR department, called some provincial government big-wigs, all of whom agreed that I was correct. The provincial people assured us that it would not be a problem in the future. We should have known better.

Just my luck, the exact same two officials who tried to arrest me last December were the ones on duty last Wednesday as I was leaving for Cunene. Great. Sure enough, they recognized me and my visa and once again threatened to arrest me and, in a new twist, fine me. Their supervisor happened to be there, so the called him over and explained their side of the story. This was frustrating because I have a feeling that had he looked at the visa on its own, he would have come to a different conclusion, just like every other immigration agent I’ve encountered in this country. Now that the three of them were against me, I plead my case, telling them in a polite way that Elisabeth called the provincial government officials and had the situation resolved. They didn’t believe me (!!!) so I called Elisabeth and gave the phone to the supervisor to talk to her.

The supervisor was reasonable enough, but not enough to be fully reasonable. He explained to Elisabeth that she had called the wrong people (even though they were the people they told us to call the last time). The three people then began to argue about what to do; the two original ones wanted to take me in, but the supervisor luckily won out and I felw out to Cunene because we showed evidence that we were trying to resolve the problem. “But you’ll have a serious problem when you try to come back in the country! Vai ver! You’ll see!” (Ha! They didn’t give my visa a second look at the border checkpoint.)

The bad news is that they DID make it very clear that if I showed up again without a written declaration from the people they indicated to us, I would be arrested and fined, no exceptions. That means that this latest trip to Cunene might have been my last, unless we can get this letter. It also means that I will have to drive to and from Luanda, which takes about 6 – 7 hours.
So, if I can’t fly in and out of Benguela, then how did I get back home from Cunene? A trip from hell, as evidenced in the following post.

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