Amex For Visa?

20 04 2009



If a pot of gold fell from the heavens and landed at my feet, I might well splurge on a beautiful plantation house cooled by gentle sea breezes and blessed with a shaded hammock, flowering bushes, frolicking dolphins and a lifelong supply of English breakfast sausages. Given the general shortage of dolphins and plantations, I’d probably have to emigrate – but with pockets jangling with doubloons, I’m sure there’d be no shortage of countries welcoming me with open arms…if not sausages.


Many countries would be overrun if ever they threw open their doors to the world, but these are often the easiest ones to visit. It’s the ones in which life is so rough that the longest queues are for people fleeing to neighbouring refugee camps that can be the most difficult to enter!


Zaire likely never appeared on lists of the Best Places in the World to Live and certainly by the late ‘90s it wasn’t on the cover of Conde Nast. With war raging in the east and a dictator for whom the term ‘Kleptocracy’ was coined in recognition of his style of government, Zaire wasn’t exactly flavour of the month…but it was home to mountain gorillas. With flights booked, it only remained to obtain a visa – but how difficult could it be to visit such a country? Surely, they’d love any visitors not carrying AK-47s!


I phoned the embassy only to find the number out of service. More rummaging revealed a second address but the outcome was the same. Beginning to doubt the wisdom of sending my passport to an embassy possibly trying to avoid bill collectors, I resorted to a visa servicing company. They sent me the current forms and promised to hand-deliver the passport to the drifting embassy and return again to collect it. It seemed like a bargain even when factoring in their fee.


The package arrived and I carefully reviewed the requirements. The form was intimidating enough, but they also wanted half-a dozen passport photos, a not unsubstantial sum of money…and letters from my employer and bank manager. Apparently, Zaire was concerned that once I visited their country I would never leave. Therefore, they wanted proof that I had a job to return to and enough money to support myself for my 3 days in a country in which the average person earned less than one hundred dollars per year.


I’ll be the first to admit there have been vacations from which I never wished to return, but they usually involved sun-soaked tropical paradises – not Central African war zones. Perhaps if I was a diamond smuggler or a coltan dealer, Zaire might have been a tempting place to stay, but strangely enough I’ve always been a bit of a sissy when it comes to violent anarchy and rampant corruption.


Forms completed and letters acquired, I shipped off my passport and a wad of cash (in small denomination unmarked bills). A short while later I was asked to clarify a few points and re-submit my form. Weeks ticked by. Eventually, my paperwork arrived. When I later stood in the dust and neglect of the Uganda/Zaire border, the immigration official seemed surprised and disappointed that I already had my visa.


“Was this difficult to get?” he asked, holding the page up to the sunlight.


I nodded in the affirmative.


“You should have just bought it from me, friend…I do you a deal.”



Photo and post by:   Simon Vaughan © 2009




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