August 16, 2011

Travelling in Africa - of Visas and Yellow Fever Certificates

I promised to keep you posted on what happens when you go through immigration in Zanzibar. The arrivals hall, or should I say shack, was every bit as cramped and sweat-stenched as I had imagined when musing about this scene ahead of our trip. And no, it was not a breeze to get our visas, whatever was I thinking?




You actually can get a Tanzania visa ahead of time at one of their embassies and I’m sure we could have all driven to Pretoria for this task, but it seemed much easier at the time to just do it upon arrival. All you have to bring, we were told, are US$60 per person. Hence my recent trip to the bank to get $400 from our account, in itself an adventure as described here.

Except when we got there the price was now $50 per person for those of us with a German passport, but a whopping $100 for those of us with an American passport. They either think that Americans are willing to pay more, or it is some sort of retaliatory measure, but in any case there we stood, $50 short. As I’ve told you, we all have dual citizenship and often lug around the whole set of passports, but this time, for fear of unnecessarily losing one, we only brought the bare minimum as determined by our South African visas – three of each. Now costing us $450.

What to do? We had already stood in the sweltering heat for a good hour, not helped by a large group from Hyundai determined to hog the visa counter for themselves, half of them drunk beyond recognition from the four-hour flight from Johannesburg. Noisette was setting off to find an ATM that might be willing to part with dollars in exchange for one of our credit cards, while I stood there at the counter with the kids, my eyes firmly on the stack of our passports that was now sitting somewhere behind the glass. Occasionally an official would ask me where the missing $50 was – I had given them the $400 already – and I’d just shake my head and say sorry. Then they’d process somebody else and eventually come back to me, asking the same question, at which I’d shake my head mournfully once more.

The obnoxious Hyundai lady trying to keep other people away from the visa counter

In the end we were waved through, not with the actual visas but just some kind of stamp with scribbled notes in the margin. That is the beauty of Africa. If we’d stood at U.S. immigration instead and some snag like this had appeared, I would have been in panic mode. But here I had all the confidence in the world that it would work out. Someone must have decided that $400 was a pretty good haul and the extra $50 not worth extended effort. I thought it was a fair bargain: We had saved some money, but we had also paid more than we had originally thought. I had briefly considered offering up some of my South African Rands, which I’m sure they gladly would have taken, but then something told me to just wait it out. I was mildly curious what would happen upon our exit, when we had to fill out another set of immigration forms, and I half expected them to ask for a whole fresh $450, arguing that we never paid the $400 as we didn’t have any visas to show for, but all was well and we were allowed to leave the country without further ado.

Checking in at  Zanzibar for our return flight
High tech departure board

Equally high tech weighing of our luggage
The word "lounge" might be a bit of an overstatement

This is not so much of an expat tip but a travel advisory in general for Africa: Always make sure you carry a nice stack of Dollars or Euros with you, they come in handy everywhere, also for tips at the hotel. Always investigate prior to travelling what exactly the visa requirements are for that country, rather than listening to your travel agent. And if you want to save on visa fees, just offer up less and tell them that’s all you got – you might just get away with it!

Oh, and by the way: Remember how I told you about yellow fever immunizations and how you need them to be allowed to travel to certain countries (or to be allowed back coming home from these countries, I’m actually now not sure which way it is)? Well, let me tell you, the one thing no one wanted to see from us, ever, neither going into Tanzania nor coming back to South Africa, was our stack of yellow fever certificates. They just sat there in our backpack, unwanted and forgotten.



More on Zanzibar: