Friday, February 18, 2011

Ethiopia: From Nazret to Addis, Part 2: Immigration Hell

Ah, the visa extension process. Forget everything the Ethiopian Embassy says on its U.S. website. A three-month visa at Bole Airport? Forget it! A three-month visa at the Immigration compound in Addis? Forget it!

Source: Ethiopian Embassy (US) website
 

[Note: I've sent an email to the Ethiopian Embassy in D.C. asking that it provide correct information on its website. I'll update the outcome in future.]

The extension process is a little like an old Twilight Zone episode where it turns out Hell is where one spends an eternity in a waiting room.

First, I climbed a wide cement staircase, noting two entrances to the compound: women on the left; men on the right. A woman guard at the top of the steps, when I asked where I needed to go to extend my visa, waved her baton, and said "end of the line." I explained, yes, that's fine, but I wanted to know about where to go for my visa extension. "I know. End of line." Yeah, OK. To the end of the line I went.

The women's line moved fairly quickly, and I met my friendly guard again, and she pointed me to the immediate left through the gate. There, an attendant logged my name, passport info, and a painstaking description of my camera into a large ledger. She took my camera, gave me a laminated card with a number on it, put a similar card in my camera case, and put it into a drawer. I understood that I'd use the card to reclaim my camera when I left the compound.

Next stop: Body pat-down.

Photo credit: Kigaliwire
Then to the adjacent glass building where I entered a largish waiting room with a table in the front of the room. Another waiting person obligingly gestured to me to take a seat. I asked "Do I take a number?" He said, no, there weren't many people at present, so shouldn't be a problem. In short order, I was called to the table, and a pleasant man gave me a form to complete, and instructed me to go outside the compound and have my passport pages photocopied (the page with my main info plus the one with the E. visa pasted onto it). I asked rather incredulously, "I go OUTSIDE the compound to get a photocopy. And then I bring it BACK?" Yup.

I left the compound (I realize now I likely left by the men's entrance. Oh well. No lightning struck.) I asked the woman guard where the photocopy place was, and that happy person gestured with her baton to a stone outbuilding immediately below her. I saw a clutch of humanity hovering round a barred window. I asked a man if he was in line for photocopies, and he said, yes, but then he said, no need to stand in line, just go to the window. So I presumed this was one of those dog-eat-dog situations where the assertive bird gets the worm (the early bird be damned). Then I learn, "no photocopy." Well, hell.

So I cast about for an alternative, feeling irritated with this stupid system, and tried to ask the male guard, whose first concern was that I NOT walk through the men's entrance, but once he understood my question, he pointed in a general direction to the left, where all I saw was a phone booth. So, to the air in a rather loud voice to anyone who might hear and know the answer, "Where is the photocopy? That guard over there [and I pointed to the woman guard] told me to the right, but there's no photocopy there!"

Thankfully, a man pointed me to the precise location, and said, "one birr" per copy, and then, "watch your bag."

Much appreciative, I walked down the rest of the steps, only to have one of the circling wolves glom on to me. "Do you know where the photocopy is?" "Do you have the $20 for the visa"? "Do you .....?" I curtly said I had all I needed and made my way to the copy store, with him glued to my side. While he stood at the doorway, I successfully negotiated the photocopy process and picked my way back through the wolf pack and back up the steps, through the women's entrance, through another body pat-down, and back into the glass building. I found a seat to wait my turn again.
Photo credit: Excel Math

I noted a woman, possible Ethiopian, at least in origin, and a large, Caucasian man, perhaps Italian, enter. The woman was rather sour-faced with an imperious air; the man smiled and mumbled. Both were in their 40s or 50s.

Presently, the pleasant official called me back up to the table, jotted some notes on my form, and instructed me to go to Room 77. Next building.

I walked to the next building and found Room 77, encountering a lot of people sitting on chairs and a bench outside the room. Clueless, I raised my eyebrows in a universal Ethiopian sign that can mean: "Hello!" or "I see you and acknowledge your presence" or to wait staff, "Please come here." Or in this case, "What do I do now?"

The same kind man who helped me out in the glass building indicated I should just take a seat, which I did, trusting that the process would be revealed to me. At first glance, though, there was no apparent system for people getting to the next immigration official in an orderly fashion. But soon I saw there was a woman in charge of tending us sheep, keeping us moving from one seat to the next, when, as a lucky petitioner came before an official, s/he created an opening at the "head" of the chair line. How quickly we became trained to the system.


When I finally got into Room 77, that imperious woman and her mumbling, smiling companion waltzed straight into the room! She walked right into the middle of the room and the large mumbling man plopped himself into a chair! The chair I was to sit in, as a matter of fact! I told him, basically, "Hey! All of those people out there (gesturing to the corridor) have been waiting a long time! They're in front of you!" He just smiled and mumbled at me ineffectually as if to say, "Gosh, I'm just doing what I'm told. What can I do?" I made a similar comment to the woman that I'd made to the man, and she just looked at me unblinkingly, without apology or movement.

Photo from Manchas: Espectador emancipado
Anyway, it was presently my turn at one of the official's desks, where a behemoth CRT monitor served as an excellent barrier between me, one of the unwashed, and her, the official. And that damned imperious woman attempted to inject her business in front of me, at which I presented her with another raised brow, Ethiopian-style, this time meaning, "what the hell do you think you're doing?" Same response from her as she'd given me before.

The official talked on the phone, looked at the monitor, looked at my passport, repeated the above, then said, "Inside!" Fortunately, I had observed another official give the same command to another petitioner, so I knew this meant, "Go inside the draped area next to me so I can take your picture." So I hopped to it. I walked inside and sat on the chair in front of the camera, just as I heard her disembodied voice command, "Sit down." I looked up at the camera, and I heard the same disembodied voice say, "Down." So I obediently lowered my chin. Snap. I figured it was OK to emerge from the draped area and sit again by her desk. She informed me that new regulations meant I could only extend my visa for 30 days at a time. Because my departure date is March 23, this would require me to go through this laborious bureaucratic process again just for two days extra time in Ethiopia. Not to mention having to pay another $20 for the privilege. I tried to explain this to the official, but she was immovable from the policy. She told me to proceed to Room 78.

And so I went. Fortunately, only a handful of people was there. Being now broken in to the ways of immigration, I slid into the appropriate chair and moved into one closer to the "head" as each person before me was processed and moved out. When it became my turn, I explained again about the mere two extra days over 30 that I needed on my extension. The official appeared empathetic, but expressed powerlessness. Luckily, another petitioner (I think a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Ethiopia) helped me out, saying basically, "Wow, this makes no sense!" He suggested I go to a manager who would have the authority to exercise flexibility. To Room 80 I went!

By this time, I had a headache. From the shortage of caffeine thus far today, the return to some altitude, the bureaucratic web I was in, or all of the above, I don't know.

Daoist Hell: Feudal Government. Photo credit: This Trolleybus Goes East
I entered Room 80, where I encountered a number of seated men,and an unoccupied executive desk. I sat in an empty spot on a couch by the wall, and attempted to gain a sense for the process in this room. Gleaning no hints from the men, I asked generally, "Will the manager return"? Yes. Good. I continued to wait. When the manager did enter the room, the men in the two couches immediately in front of the desk stood up, ready to make their petitions. Once one left, a man from "my" couch moved to one of these couches. OK. I've got the hang of it now. I watched the other petitioners closely to get an idea of how I I should best present my case. In fairly short order, I made my own way to a couch in front of the desk, and awaited my turn.

Meanwhile, damned if that woman and her mumbling man didn't show up in Room 80! Jesus!

When it came my turn in front of the manager, I attempted to dazzle him with my tiny bit of Amharic, a dash of obsequiousness, and a pretty smile. Of course, as an experienced problem solver who deals with plaintive petitions all day and every day, he wasn't fooled for one moment. At first, he took the hard policy line, but as I pointed out my flight itinerary and appealed to his reason, he took my passport and left the room. I followed, but quickly lost him, thinking he went down the hall to Room 77, but not finding him there, I retraced my steps and encountered a woman in the corridor (a fellow traveler "in the rooms" this afternoon) who gestured toward an entirely new room. I entered that room, where I found the manager, still holding my passport, engaged in a lively discussion with a sturdy woman official in uniform. He completed the discussion, left the room, and I followed him like a duckling back into his office. He wrote a note on my paperwork, told me he approved a visa extension of 35 days, and told me to go to Room 77. Thank you, thank you!

I walked briskly back to Room 77, found my appropriate place in line, and commenced to waiting again. When I saw a couple who had been in Room 80 bypass the seated queue and enter directly into Room 77, I ventured the same, showing my note to the "sheep herder." Merciless in her sense of order, she directed me back to my place in line.

In this go-round for Room 77, I sat next to a Sudanese man. We came to a tentative philosophical agreement that Life is About Waiting. He suggested the two of us swap passports. A Rwandese man on my other side had questions about replacing a woman's visa (presumably his wife's). I asked the Sudanese man to save my seat while I walked the Rwandese man to the glass building where one gets the form (before getting the photocopies), but we found it closed, so we returned to our places in line outside Room 77. I allowed as how there is a tiny chance I might go to Rwanda in July. Sadly, this man probably was unable to complete his business today, as an immigration official seemed pretty insistent the woman needed to present herself in person, even though the man stressed that she was very sick.

[We meet in these bureaucratic halls and our lives connect for moments, each with our little sagas, but then, like molecules, we bounce off again, never to know how things end up for others.]

Finally, I got back into Room 77, and holy hell! That imperious woman and the smiling mumbler marched right into the room again! I gave her a hostile look, which slid off her customary unblinking, stolid stare. I got to the same immigration official I had before. She perused my stuff and eventually instructed me back to Room 78 for payment.

For the second time, I entered Room 78, and took my place after the Sudanese man, who preceded me. We chatted again, practicing how to say "no problem" in Amharic (chiggray-yellum, sort of). We watched one of the officials insert a $20 bill into a machine that seemed to check it for suitable crispness. (Ethiopian officialdom does not like worn dollars.) Looked like this one was rejected.

In time, I sit again by the immigration official. I paid my money, she kept my passport (!), and told me to return Monday afternoon (at 4:00 p.m.!) to pick it up.

I left the building and stopped at the pat-down vestibule to retrieve my camera. The attendant got it out of the drawer, carefully checked the camera, the reclaim card she'd placed in the bag, the reclaim card I gave to her, and the ledger entry, then returned my camera to me. In a friendly way, she repeated my first and middle names, and we exchanged thanks and goodbyes.

I left the Immigration compound, walked down the steps and into the thick of the wolves, all eager to sell me something. As I negotiated a taxi fare, twice someone touched my butt about where my faux rear pocket is. OK, the first time could have been inadvertent, but the second time it happened, I exclaimed, "Hey!"

The taxi took me back to the Ankober, where I relaxed, although I still suffered that headache. Later, I went out for a take-away pizza and bottled water.

When I asked for napkins to take with me, the waitress helpfully told me that in Amharic, this was "soft." Ah, so now I know "soft" can mean napkin, kleenex, or toilet paper. I'm glad to add this bit to my little repertoire of Amharic knowledge.

I was happy to end the long day in a spacious room, cool air coming through the window, water in the flush toilet, and the BBC and familiar American shows on the television. I went to bed, I think at 7:30!

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