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A Necessary Inconvenience – Applying for visas on the Trans Africa

Here we have the second installment (it’s a long one – sit down with a cuppa) from Cade, Tour Leader on our Trans Africa Expedition.  Anyone who may have to or has had to, apply for a visa should read it!

Episode II – A Necessary Inconvenience

Getting visas in order to gain entry into West African countries and getting the runs are both considered a necessary inconvenience for all Trans Africa expeditions.  In fact, getting them both in Morocco in the first two weeks of the trip is quite literally a means of getting all your sh** out of the way before you are able to transcend the continent with greater assurance.  The visas are obtained in embassies that range in condition from Ritz to rubble, while the officials very fluid concept of officialism results in the visa application process being a very long and often painful exercise of persistence and patience.  So it was in Rabat where we were to spend nine days applying for visas for Mauritania, Guinea and Ivory Coast.

On an average every-day suburban side-street in Rabat potholes litter both roads and footpaths. Alley-cats lounge on parked cars, stray dogs scrounge through bins and plastic pieces of rubbish skip and dance in the breeze. There are no numbering of residences, few sign posts and the odd pedestrian. However, there is one side-street in Rabat that is considered quite unique.  Although this particular side-street does sport all the aforementioned qualities, along this particular side-street is a wall that stretches for a block and at a midway point along this wall is the one quality in particular that sets this particular side-street apart from all the rest; a rarely-spotted metal door.

The street itself is so unassuming that to the naked or uninformed eye, the significance of this rarely-spotted metal door would easily slip under the radar.  In fact, for one to clearly identify the significance of this metal door, there are two ways to do so.

The first way is by the large, angry mob of a hundred and fifty men that constantly surround it. The mob spills out onto the road and spends it’s time arguing, fighting and bustling internally for prime position in front of the door.  Actually, very similar scenes can be found around our campfire each morning where the twenty four of us bustle each other out of the way for prime toasting positions. Though both scenes serve as a boiling point for explosive violence, the only real differences are the sheer number of people and the fact that the focal point is not a campfire, but rather a rarely spotted metal door.  It is for this reason that just like our campfire, the door can be classified as “rarely-spotted.”

The second way to clearly identify the significance of the door is by the small sign next to it that simply reads “Mauritanian Embassy.”

Although everybody’s favourite door does have opening times displayed next to it, it also does seem to be temperamental in that the door only really opens when the door only really wants.  On our arrival we had been informed that on previous days, the door had simply chosen not to open itself at all. For as long as the door chooses to remain closed, the mob surge and slap their way to the front in the event they might be first in line when it does choose to open.

In order to join the mob you are first given a small, ripped piece of paper with a hand-written number on it. The idea is that you wait within the mob for three days for your number to be called and when it is, you have to beat the forty other people who have cleverly scribbled your number on a piece of paper and are now vying for your hard-earned position. Once you eventually do enter and pass through the door, you then find yourself in a small, dark room about the size of a cupboard where a man is sitting behind cracked glass. You give him this man your most treasured travel documents as fast as possible along with your money and you leave before he has a chance to throw them back at you. You then return to the door the following day to see if your application has been successful.

People are seldom seen emerging from behind the metal door, surging through the ocean of chaos with smiles slapped across their faces and wielding their passport victoriously above their head like an Olympic torch, visa page wide open. But more commonly they are seen slowly emerging from the raucous dragging their bottom lip to the edge of the mob, taking another number and restarting the long wait.  There are two options really; see, you can either put yourself through this long and tedious ordeal or you can simply be a woman.

Despite women being treated as secondary citizens in many West African communities, it seems to be quite the opposite with regards to the Mauritanian Embassy. Here the women are given top priority and called in first. There are so few of them that instead of waiting for three days, they are made to wait a mere fifteen minutes. But getting your foot in the big metal door doesn’t mean a thing as we found out when Marianne entered armed with our twenty four passports and was simply told to take the passports and come back the following day.  In this instance, all our collars and Colgate smiles were immediately rendered as useless as the numbers the men held in their hands.

Seeing as there is no longer a campsite in central Rabat, we were forced to bush camp in a nearby forest each night for the duration of our ordeal.  Each morning we would wake up and don our close-toed shoes, jeans and a collared shirt – not generally appropriate overlanding attire but very much so for the visiting of embassies. We would commute into town with the morning traffic, spend the day at the embassies and when business hours were over, we’d commute back out to the bush camp we called our home each afternoon.

This meant that while we thought we’d left the rat race behind to explore the African continent, the ironic reality was that within two weeks of the trip we’d found ourselves immediately thrust back in to the nine to five world, and a very real sense routine.  It also meant that by the time we’d obtained our Mauritanian and Guinea visas and walked into the Ivory Coast Embassy, our skin had a dirt-bronze tan, our facial hair was now holding the rest of our faces to ransom and we were discovering that there are only so many odours one can conceal with a whole can of deodorant.

In contrast to the Mauritanian embassy, the Ivory Coast embassy is like walking into a serene slice of paradise. For starters, rather than a metal door, there is simply an open doorway with a welcoming mat. There is a quiet, serene ambiance interrupted only by the overwhelming welcoming greetings from staff and their excited cheers at the prospect of granting visas for tourists to visit their country.  There is a comfortable waiting area with a floor so pristine you can eat off it.  The diplomat gives his personal mobile phone number for you to keep in contact with him and when the visa processing time appears to take longer than expected, is more than happy to open the embassy on a Saturday.  What is most appealing especially to those who have spent the last week bush camping, is their clean and functioning toilet.

The visa process is surprisingly highly technological as they have now switched to biometric visas which means finger scanning and photos are taken and sent to the main office in Abudjan before visas are granted.  However despite this, it is still the use of a single index finger that is enlisted by the diplomat to manually input all application forms into the system.  When this painfully slow process seems to take longer than expected, he opts not to enlist the help of his other remaining nine digits, but rather uses his index finger to dial a friend who confirms via telephone that he is to arrive in five minutes. Typically by “five minutes” he actually means the following morning.

Unlike the Mauritanian visas which resemble used beer coasters slapped on blank pages in passports, the Ivory Coast visa comes complete with a colour photo, bar-code and colour holograms. Rather than slapping them in, they are carefully cut and glued in individually by the hard working diplomat over a period of four hours. The only issue comes with the fact that they are actually stickers that can be simply peeled and pressed in a matter of minutes.

As a result of the bush camping over our extended stay in Rabat, our only showers came in the form of a can. Our shoes had become a simple a means of concealing our muddy feet while our jeans and shirts simply served to hide the layers of forest dirt that had been caked onto our skin each day.  Similar to the rings of a tree that when counted are able to determine its age, on receiving our third and final visa, these layers of dirt were counted and determined that our ordeal tallied nine nights.

It was all cheers and smiles on leaving Rabat and hitting the open African road. The only grumbles that came from the group were that of some of our stomachs. Despite our victory in the visa department and despite having left behind a hefty minefield deposit around our forest bush camp near Rabat, our bowels were reminding us that we still had some work to do with regards to our other “necessary inconvenience”.

Read Cade’s Episode I of the Trans Africa Expedition

Posted in Africa, All Blogs.

3 Responses

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  1. Adam Sutcliffe says

    Great work again Cade!
    Its sounds like you had a bit of a tough time there but it made me laugh on a snowy Wednesday at work!
    Keep em coming!

  2. Kenzie says

    Groundhog Day bushcamping. And Cade doesn’t mention how he bravely dived into the mob to rescue the girls.

  3. Tony says

    Quick question, is the Ivory Coast embassy near the Guinea embassy? Online maps for Rabat are dismal..

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