Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Conspiracy of Dunces

I don’t know what the process is like getting visas in the United States. But I cannot, and will not accept that anything could be as complicated or quite frankly, as stupid as the rigamarole we’ve experienced during the past two days.

We were told by Cleve long ago that it was best to get our visas in Kisangani, the closest main city, approximately 500km from here. While there are district immigration offices nearer to us, we were told that the visas they issue are not always “legitimate” and could cause us problems later.

So, knowing all of this, we sent our motorbike driver with a festoon of cash and specific instructions to Kisangani to get us some new 3 month visas.

Had it only been so simple!

Someone, anyone, please send cable television to Congo to give some of these people better things to do with their lives than track the patterns and movements of whiteys.

One of our employees had stayed in Buta, a city approximately 150km from here to pass the New Year with his girlfriend, who lives there and sells beers and private dances (though we’re not entirely sure what else). While there, I’m told the head of the immigration office tracked him down and stopped him along the side of the road.

At least I’m told. The moment I became involved happened when this chief immigration guy called me, randomly, on the telephone.

“Hello Mrs White!” he said, as though he didn’t have my passport in front of him and was somehow unaware of my name. “I am here with Seba, who was going to go ALL the way to Kisangani to get your visas, but we want to do your visas here! In Buta! Did you know that I am the chief of the entire sector of Bas-Uèle? I have your passports! Kisangani is SO FAR! You don’t want to go to Kisangani!”

“What!?” I said, stunned. “You have our passports?”

“Yes, yes,” he replied, “and we’re going to give you new three month visas! Much cheaper than Kisangani! And Kisangani is SO FAR!”

“Um,” I said, not quite sure to respond because fuck (pardon my French), he already had our passports, “isn’t it against the law to get our visas in cities other than Kisangani?”

“No, no,” he said, “don’t you remember me from when you were in Buta? I talked to Kisangani! It’s just fine! Kisangani is so far!!”

“Uhhh...” I honestly had no idea how to respond. Here was a man who had our passports, was 150km away from me and I had no driver and no motorbike and really, if you think about it, very little recourse.

“It’s really not illegal to get our visas in Buta?” I repeated, slowly, to make sure he understood me. “If I go to Kisangani later they’re not going to throw me in jail? I don’t really care much for jail. And I want real, official visas.”

“Yes, yes, ” he continued, yessing me to death, and he laughed, “you will not go to jail! It will be fine! They are real official visas!”

I was stuck. “Well, um, okay.”

I talked to Polycarpe later in the day, who had also received a call from our “friend” in Buta, and it was Polycarpe who had discovered that our driver had been stopped on the side of the road and taken to the immigration office.

“I don’t know why the driver *gave* them your visas!” he said, frustratedly. “Sometimes, he is a little stupid. Maybe next time I will go with him.”

But I asked Polycarpe if he figured that everything would be alright, and he said that yes, he thought it would so I stopped worrying about it and the affair, in my mind, was finished. Our driver would return with visas, we’d save money since he didn’t go all the way to Kisangani, and it would be done.


Ha ha!

Later in the day, Papa B, our friend the local immigration guy came by and wanted to talk to us about our visas, and why were we getting them in Buta and not in Kisangani. Um, how is our business circulating ALL OVER CONGO?! Was there a Muppet News Flash?

I got annoyed with him and told him that the visas were already procured, that I was fine with it, that everything was on the up and up and really, I didn’t care to talk about it any further. He said that was fine, ate all of the rest of our pineapple, and left.

We turned on the generator yesterday because I had a BUNCH of edits to make on the computer, thanks to a wonderfully comprehensive email I’d gotten from my adviser at Columbia, helping me finalize my IRB proposal.

The generator had barely been on ten minutes when not only did Papa B return to the house, but he brought his superior, Whiny Mister Weaselface.

We’ve had generally pleasant dealings with WMWeaselface before, so I didn’t think much about it when I told him, Thank you for the visit, but we’re using the generator right now and gas is expensive and we’re trying to get some work done could you please come back later.

“NO!” he bellowed, trying to act about 200 pounds heavier than he really is. “We have very important work to discuss RIGHT NOW!” and he stormed onto the patio, clearly uninvited.

“Oh come on,” I pleaded, “the visas thing is already finished. I don’t want to talk about it anymore!”

“You are here illegally!” and he grimaced meanly, shaking his flimsy folder of papers at me.

I had to laugh. “Seriously? Should we just leave the country tomorrow then?”

“Yes, okay.” and he nodded solemnly.

Despite my laissez-faire attitude, this whole thing was really getting on my nerves and I’ll admit I got upset.

Actually,” I said, probably condescendingly, “our visas are good until the 6th of January so we’re legal until then! You’re just gonna have to wait!”

“No!” he hissed, “they expired on DECEMBER 6th!” So I had to begin counting for him. October 6th-November 6th-December 6th-January 6th -- three months.

“But your visas are from September 6th!” he cried, clearly losing ground. He pulled from the flimsy folder a copy of our visas, clearly issued on September 6th.

“But we didn’t enter the country until October 6th,” I said, exasperated. “Visas don’t start until you ENTER the country.” I tried to take the folder from him but he clutched onto it, preciously. He shuffled the papers inside, filtering through the countless photocopies he had demanded of us when we first registered in the city.

“Honestly, [WMWeaselface],” I said, “why do we bother giving you all these photocopies if you don’t even bother to read them??”

And finally, he pulled out the page photocopied of our entrance stamps into the country - again, clearly dated October 6th.

“Uh, uh,” he stammered. He was wrong. He knew it. “Let me see your passports!”

“You know that our passports are in Buta,” I said, completely frustrated, trying to maintain my calm even though my legs were trembling in anger and I could feel the flush in my face.

“It is ILLEGAL not to have your passports! I’m going to call Kisangani and notify them you are against the law!” he cried, seeming to have found a new banner to stand under, however illogical.

“Alright,” I said, ”enough. Get out of our house.“ I beckoned towards the door, but he wasn’t ready to give up. I was, however, ready to forcibly expel him if need be. Especially considering he’s approximately the size of an adolescent boy.

Thankfully it didn’t have to come to that. I repeated, ”Get out of our house. Come back later when Polycarpe is here.“ and Papa B, to whom I am grateful despite his constant greediness, ushered his colleague out of our gate and encouraged me to lock it behind them.

The crazy thing is, the guy who called us from Buta is WMWeaselface’s BOSS. So not only did he not have a leg to stand on, but really, it was none of his business to begin with. Frustrating to ME too was that at the very SAME TABLE on our patio, I had discussed a month earlier with WMWeaselface the date of expiry of our visas, and he had confirmed for me that it was in January.

Why does everything have to be made so complicated? And additionally, this bureau of immigration whose proclaimed purpose is to ”protect immigrants to the country and ensure their security“ is doing exactly the opposite.

I asked Polycarpe, who is friends with WMWeaselface, to please let him know that it would be good manners of him to give us an apology for his behavior yesterday.

And, with luck, our driver will arrive today with our visas, and they will look official and not scrawled in CRAY-PAS.




laurenlief said...

!!! Exclamation Point!! Is it really safe to send your passports away without you attached to them?! Don't get sent to Congolese jail, please. I love you!

Laura Darby said...

No, it's not particularly ideal OR secure, but at least it's with a *trusted* employee instead of just some random jerk. And unfortunately with only one motorbike and one driver and two people with passports, and a HUGE urge not to ride a motorbike all the way back to Kisangani, it's the best solution!

And I'm trying to avoid jail! Really I am! I don't think my ankles would fit into their tiny leg irons anyway...