"This is when I realized I didn't have my passport."
"Nice to be laughing with the locals rather than laughed at by the locals."
"...preferably really, really hard and in multiple locations."
"It's sprawling, messy, unsophisticated and off-putting."
One Big Table
Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa
July 3, 2003
Wasting Time Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Thursday November 6, 2003
All I wanted was an Egyptian visa. It should have been simple enough, but this is Africa.
First I simply needed to cash about $70 US dollars in travelers checks. The first two banks we visited said they must see the receipts for the travelers checks before they would cash them. Never mind this is not an American Express requirement... and never mind that many people leave the receipts at home to the checks can be replaced if stolen.
I didn't have my receipts. They were stolen in Buenos Aires with my digital camera. When I went to some AmEx offices to replace the receipts I was laughed at. Don't carry travelers checks.
"But then one got spooked." So off to another bank which didn't need to see receipts. Things were going so well. It required two people huddled over a desk to fill out the appropriate forms, punch the calculator for minutes on end, confer with bosses and make photocopies. But then one got spooked. He started staring at the signatures on the checks, looking back and forth at my signature, counter-signature and passport signature. Things were heading south.
He disappeared into the branch managers office for several minutes and returned to tell me he couldn't accept the checks. After he'd made me sign them. Appointing himself professional handwriting analyst, he said my signature didn't match on the two lines. Further prodding revealed that my signature on one of the two checks was fine, but the other didn't match and was unacceptable. This despite the fact that they'd watched me sign both at the same time.
"Trying not to laugh at them too much." I left and returned with a fresh check, this time asking if I could practice on a piece of paper to see if my signature was acceptable. I tried about ten times and they were happy with about three. I figured my odds of getting it right on the check were pretty slim and decided not to risk it. Trying not to laugh at them too much I took my money for the one good check, accepted my receipt and left. I had enough for the visa.
Getting to the Egyptian embassy wasn't easy. Not wanting to spend $2.50 on a taxi, we tried to take a minibus. These blue Toyota vans are all over the city going everywhere... except, it seems, the Egyptian embassy. The few going that way were full and it's just our luck that Ethiopia is the only African country that doesn't get a thrill out of overloading its public transport. We walked most of the way, and after forty minutes or so were within a few blocks of the Egyptians. This is when I realized I didn't have my passport.
"Is it in the hotel room?" Did it fall out in the minibus? Did I leave it at the bank? Is it in the hotel room? We got in one of those $2.50 taxis and found it back at the hotel, where another $2.50 taxi returned us to the Egyptian embassy around 11:30. A sign said visas applications are accepted only from nine until eleven.
One of our few pieces of good luck... the reasonably nice lady didn't fuss about our tardiness. We filled out the forms and returned them. She asked for payment and a bank receipt for the cash... to be sure we didn't change money on the black market. Matt had no receipt. I produced the one I'd gotten at the bank that morning. It was unacceptable. It had no stamp. All receipts must have a stamp, she said. And she's absolutely right. This is Africa. Everything from passports to visas to hotel receipts to restaurant checks has to be appropriately stamped... preferably really, really hard and in multiple locations.
"Only after an hour were were allowed to give her our money." More good luck... she said we could bring the receipts when we return tomorrow for our visas. But she said we couldn't pay yet. We must wait. Turns out we must wait an hour. Not really explained, but only after an hour were were allowed to give her our money. After a return to the bank and some persuading, they agreed to put a stamp on my receipt.
Not really the most interesting story, I know, but it's the best I can do today. For sitting through that, I'll tell you a funny thing that happened on the minibus back from the Egyptian embassy. Apparently the police are really cracking down on overloaded minibuses. If they see too many heads in the seats, they'll stop them and fine them.
At one point we were overloaded and the conductor tapped a guy sitting by a window. He knew exactly what to do and quickly hunkered down out of sight of the cops. The older woman sitting between him and me thought she'd help out with the deception and casually placed her purse on top of him. Everyone onboard thought it was quite funny. It's nice to be laughing with the locals rather than being laughed at by the locals.
"About the only nice thing I can say about it." Saturday we plan to head north and check out all the historic sites around Ethiopia, of which there are many. Addis has a very nice climate, owing to its high elevation... and that's about the only nice thing I can say about it. Otherwise it's sprawling, messy, unsophisticated and off-putting. After a week here, I'll be very ready to head on.
Unfortunately there's hardly any internet outside of Addis Ababa, so it could be a while before you see any updates. Maybe two weeks. Hang in there and I'll tell you all about it.