Borders and Visas

Day 26 of the bid to write a blog post a day in May and time to tackle two things which will get in the way of any long-distance travel plans.

Not the standard border – arriving in Whittier, Alaska

TWO things in life are certain, according to Benjamin Franklin, death and taxes.

And however you choose to do it, two things are certain for travellers – borders and visas.

They are (mainly) more of an inconvenience or necessary evil than any great hurdle, but they can delay you long enough to disrupt plans or force a quick rethink when somebody has changed the rules.

But no amount of complaining or arguing is going to change all that – chances are, it is merely going to extend your wait. That guy with the right to say yea or nay is going to be behind that desk all day, it makes no difference to him if you wait there with him or not.

The majority of borders you travel through will be fairly straightforward, your passport acting as the one piece of official documentation you need and it all comes down to whichever security

Some countries will require a little more while others will always come up with that extra piece of paper you never knew existed and which somebody crossing the same border days before had crossed without.

That’s borders (and chunks of travel in general), just accept it, sit back and wait for someone to let you through – sometimes they will eventually become as keen to send you on your way as you are to get moving again.

But to help you along, here is some totally not comprehensive advice on easing your way through the process of securing visas and crossing borders.

The world’s second biggest country, just in case you missed it

Visas

Visas come in three main types – online registration, physical pieces of paper in your passport (both of which you need in advance) and those you can pick up at the border. Most will cost you something so budget ahead.

Online registration such as an ESTA for the USA can be pretty quick and you will get an answer in hours or a couple of days (had an ESTA granted in minutes after filing it in a checkout queue at the airport after forgetting the old passport with my US visa in).

But if you need an actual visa or stamp in advance, chances are the form will be a bit more complicated and require either an appointment at the embassy, sending your passport off or both.

Some (Russia and China, for example) require a letter of invitation while the different picture requirements add extra variety – India and the USA require very definite sizes, other countries need specific background colours (which made for some interesting trips to photo shops in Ghana).

Visiting an embassy differs hugely.

For an American visa in the UK, it means a trip to London for an appointment and an interview. If granted, you should get your passport back in about a week and make sure you take note of what you can and can’t take in with you for security reasons (pretty much nothing goes in).

In the case of Mongolia, the bloke told us we could have it back the next day until we told him we were only in London for the day. For a small fee, we had it back in half an hour.

All this sending your passport off means you can only have one application going at a time, so plan ahead, starting with finding out how long the visa lasts – no point getting the visa before you go if it runs out before you are in (and, more importantly, out) of the country.

Which means for long trips, chances are you will be chasing visas on the road.

If going with a company, they will know the best places to pick up visas (often grabbing two or three while staying in major cities) but for solo travellers it means a fair amount of research before the off.

The process of securing the visas varies, ranging from a few hours to several days and it can be hard to predict.

Our Mauritanian visa in Rabat was pretty much the quickest in a few hours – having all queued up to basically pay and apply through a hole in the embassy wall – while others took much longer.

General rule of thumb is at least a few hours waiting around the embassy, filling in a form and a quick meeting with whoever is making the decision. It may take a while and a fair amount of paperwork so get comfortable.

Always a good idea to have something reasonably clean and smart (embassy shirts) stashed away rather than rolling up in shorts and flip flops. A good book is not a bad idea either.

Don’t get me started on single or double entry visas or officials who take a rather different view to what an expiry date might actually mean.

Eventually, you get those precious pieces of paper or stamps in your passport and it is time to head to the border…

Feeling at home on the Nigeria-Cameroon border

Border

Any self-respecting traveller will have tales to tell of bizarre or nightmare border crossings – 56 hours camping at a remote Nigerian-Cameroon crossing, the whole train carriage being lifted onto new wheels between Mongolia and China, the unexpected air conditioned cafe at the shiny new Sudan-Egypt border or the US border official at Niagara not believing my night would be spent on the floor of a bus en route to New York.

Modern technology is transforming many borders – that ESTA you applied for will pop up on the border guard’s screen when your passport is scanned and, increasingly, you can do all that yourself at self-service passport desks.

But it is not all time saving, as border crossings away from the tourist trail will quickly prove.

One of the joys of Africa is its ability to make things unnecessarily complicated, so every new piece of technology to deal with border arrivals merely adds a new level of bureaucracy.

Yes, they use computers to deal with the details, logging all the information. As well as entering them into the old-fashioned ledgers by hand which they have always done.

Remember, each crossing involves going through this process twice – into one country and out of another, sometimes yards apart, sometimes miles. They all like to be a bit different.

And there could well be the odd health check or extra paperwork to worry about – we headed through West Africa on the heels of the 2014 ebola outbreak so getting our temperature taken (via the ear) was pretty standard, as well as producing your yellow fever vaccination certificate.

The record for all this, for a group of up to 20-odd people, was inside two hours (they wanted to go home as much as we wanted a beer) but chances are you can box out much of the day for getting through the whole border process.

Simple rule of thumb, more tourists and travellers they get coming through, quicker it will be. They are just more tooled up to deal with it.

Again, it is best to accept it, settle back and await your fate – getting frustrated is not going to help anyone or make the guy who always seems to be waiting for that final clearance to do anything to get it sorted quicker.

Sit back, read a book, change some money (if anyone asks, didn’t tell you that), play cards, relax before you head off on the next leg of your journey. Best to leave the camera alone.

And that piece of paper in your passport is a pretty good memento of the trip.

The border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. The one that’s not a big waterfall
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54 Hours At The Border

THIS blog attempts to provide readers with an inside view of life on board a big yellow truck as it meanders its way around Africa.

To that end, here is the minute-by-minute account of our attempt to cross the border from Nigeria to Cameroon. Throughout the 54 hours it took us, it was unbelievably hot.

This is what we know about. Somewhere in the background, Oasis head office and unknown officials in a range of countries were lobbying on our behalf to open the gates into Cameroon.

Whoever made the fateful call or sent the e-mail that made the difference, we thank you. But in a way, think we are sort of glad we had this experience.

(Most timings, particularly before the idea to write this appeared some point around lunch on the first day, are estimated. Or taken from Ale’s watch, which is even more of a guess.)

Sunday, February 15

6am (Bush camp, somewhere between Calabar and the border): First sounds of cook group getting up and beginning the process of preparing breakfast. Spend next 20 minutes or so wrestling with the twin dilemmas of how long it is feasible to remain in bed with people walking around my mosquito net and how long before the need to visit the little boys’ bush can be delayed.

6.28am: The latter wins the battle and, having waited for somebody else to undo the lock on the back of the truck, it is a quick sprint onto the back to drop off various items from my tent and collect both toilet paper and one of the shovels.

6.30am: Head off into the undergrowth in search of a decent spot which has not already been taken – or worse, still is.

6.37am: Return to truck, wash hands and make cup of tea from boiling kettle on fire. Sit and wait for breakfast to be ready.

7am: Official start of breakfast, although most people are already milling around and waiting for the clearance to dive into pile of eggy bread.

7.01am: Dive into pile of eggy bread.

7.15am: Wash up plate, fork and mug, flapping to get dry before putting away in the correct containers.

7.20am: Roll up sleeping gear and pack up tent, squeezing it into locker which, despite a tidy up in Calabar two days earlier, is packed to bursting. Change shirt and attempt to tidy hair in vain effort to look reasonably smart to cross border.

7.30am: Take up position on truck, pick up book (dug out of truck’s library yesterday to provide something to read while sat on the truck) and wait for the off.

8am: Roll out of camp.

8.30am: Arrive at town of Ikom, 37km from the border. Cook group shopping (loads of vegetables and bread for dinner, breakfast and lunch with our group on duty from the evening).

9am: Head off in search of cold drinks to spend some of my remaining Nigerian naira. Directed towards fuel station by group of locals keen to have their pictures taken with the large white man.

9.15am: Change remaining naira into Central African CFA as it is illegal to take currency out of the country.

9.45am: Both trucks pull away from Ikom and head towards the border.

9.55am: Toilet stop.

10.15am: Stop on side of road so we do not arrive at border earlier than we intended to.

10.45am: Desperate attempts to go to loo again before we head off as opportunity could be limited.

10.50am: Both trucks head for the border.

11am: Fairly swift progress through first couple of checks, once couple of guards have come on truck and shaken all of our hands.

11.20am: Head 100 yards down the road to closed gate onto bridge heading over river and into Cameroon. Go no further.

11.25am: Finish book.

12.10am: Enthusiastic and noisy church service makes its way down the road to the trucks, complete with drummers.

12.30pm: News comes through that we are missing couple of vital bits of paperwork. It is Sunday, so no chance of getting them. We are going nowhere today.

12.45pm: Church service and drummers return.

12.55pm: Fresh news: Elderly guy in crisp white suit at rear of church procession is the town’s head of immigration. Dispatches Raphael, our newly-acquired Cameroonian fixer, to town over border to contact chief of police and ease our passage.

1pm: Lunch on truck.

1.15pm: Discover have been pipped in the race for the two half-decent books in circulation.

2pm: Clearance to go for a swim in the river.

2.05pm: Guinea pigs sent down to check out river.

2.15pm: Head down track to river.

2.17pm: Jump into river.

2.18pm: Discover river not as clean as hoped.

2.55pm: News update. We are going nowhere today.

3.30pm: Much lying about, reading, sleeping. And trying to keep cool. First exodus to the village bar.

4.30pm: Beers opened out of the eskie.

Our home from home (and shower) on the border
Our home from home (and shower) on the border

5pm: Surrendering to our fate, move trucks away from border and set up camp on the side of the road, a few hundred yards down the road. Verge vegetation given a quick chop to create kitchen area.

6pm: Start cooking – spaghetti with a vegetable sauce/gloop.

7.15pm: Discover someone has used all the hot water to make drinks, so have to boil another kettle to cook spaghetti.

7.30pm: Water still not boiled.

7.45pm: Water boiled, spaghetti in, trying desperately not to overcook vegetables.

8pm: Serve dinner. Joe outlines plan for the next day.

8.18pm: Dinner finished, tents up, first people turn in for the night.

9.50pm: Final few call it quits. Put up mosquito tent alongside Nala.

11.45pm: Had enough of sliding down the slope and turn tent around.

Monday, February 16

5.15am: Local preacher begins very loud, very long sermon to wake up the village.

6.10am: Finally admit defeat and get up to make breakfast.

7am: Kitchen all set up, kettles boiled and bulk of the toast done. Breakfast is served.

7.20am: Break off from breakfast to pack away tent.

7.30am: Breakfast ends. Pack away kitchen.

8am: Everyone clambers onto other truck to head back to Ikom for internet access to e-mail relevant embassies or consulates and ask for help in getting across border.

8.55am: Arrive Ikom.

9am: Copy draft letter to British Embassy in Yaounde asking for assistance. E-mail copy to rest of British passengers for them to use.

9.31am: E-mail to embassy finally sends.

9.57am: E-mail to most of the others finally arrives.

10.31am: Kris gives up trying to compose a new e-mail on my laptop.

10.35am: Ale and Linda borrow my laptop to translate the e-mail into Spanish and Dutch to send to their embassies.

10.45am: Man lights rubbish fire next to truck.

10.46am: First person leaves the truck to avoid the smoke.

11am: Get laptop back. Hope Joe won’t notice the wi-fi hot spot from his phone being used to check Facebook.

11.20am: Joe turns off the wi-fi hot spot on his phone.

11.50am: Kris appears with tray of unidentified meat and rice. Large chunks of it left uneaten, despite being passed around the truck.

1.30pm: Final few people return from internet cafe up the road and we begin the journey back to Mfum.

2pm: Back at base, sort out lunch.

2.30pm: Having sat down on one truck all morning, settle down for a quiet spell led on the other – anything to escape the heat outside for a while.

3.30pm: Decide it is time to check out the bar.

Ben's Place
Ben’s Place

3.40pm: Hit head on roof of low doorway into the bar. Served large, cold beer by Ben, who claims to be 15 but looks younger. Bar has been renamed Ben’s Place.

6pm: Wander back to the truck ahead of dinner after a few, very welcome beers. Slightly the worse for wear.

7.30pm: Excellent meal of fried rice, supplemented (to much excitement from some corners) by the first of the truck supply of Spam.

8.05pm: Just finishing off tidying up when the storm, which has been threatening for a while, starts to become a reality. Wind whips up as we race to get everything cleared up before it really hits.

8.15pm: The lightning which flashed in the distance for much of the previous night moves in and is joined by the odd clap of thunder.

8.20pm: First drops of rain begin to fall.

8.22pm: Suggestion that we take this opportunity to have a shower out in the rain.

8.25pm: First items of clothing removed.

8.27pm: Much to the surprise of any passing locals, a group of white folks in their swimsuits and underwear are standing alongside a big yellow truck in the middle of the road to the border. During a thunderstorm.

8.28pm: Not actually raining hard enough to have a shower.

8.29pm: Water lockers are opened, buckets filled and we are lined up in the middle of the road. First sign of cameras as inhabitants of other truck have wandered down to find out exactly what is going on.

8.30pm: Buckets of water are thrown over us. Possibly the most refreshing – certainly the most bizarre – shower of the trip.

8.40pm: Bucket showers over and pictures taken, it starts raining more than hard enough to have a proper shower.

8.42pm: Scramble back onto truck and all try to get dry and changed while remaining decent. Some better at it than others.

9pm: Stops raining.

9.05pm: Group heads back to the bar. Decide it is too wet – and threat of rain too high – to sleep in mosquito tent, so set up full tent for first time since Senegal.

9.07pm: Discover batteries in both my torches are flat. Collar Martyn to help.

9.09pm: Martyn’s phone, which had been providing light, goes flat.

9.11pm: Matt, Martyn and myself – all of whom have had a few beers – set about setting up tent on the side of the road without a light.

9.20pm: Somehow, tent is up properly. Matt and Martyn head down to bar, but opt to sort out bedding first.

9.35pm: Decide against heading down to bar and opt for early night. Plug myself into iPod, lie down on airbed and discover big stone right under the middle of the tent. Move over to the side.

9.37pm: First set of headlights glares through tent from the road. Debate getting up and putting rain cover over tent to block out some of the light. Decide far too much trouble.

Tuesday, February 17

7.45am: Relative lie-in. Emerge from tent with sore back.

8am: Official start of breakfast.

8.20am: Breakfast is served. Fried spam met with rapturous response – or total disgust.

9am: Quick truck clean.

9.10am: Take down tent.

9.25am: Finally succeed in getting tent into its bag.

9.30am: As most people head back to Ikom for a change of scenery, head back to truck to lie flat on sore back and crash out.

11.30am: Matt, Steve and myself opt to mark 48 hours at the border by walking down to bar for a Coke. Slow walk down as all the locals and the police/military at the checkpoints want to say hello, ask how we are and when we are leaving. Discover bar has no cold Cokes, so have a couple beers instead.

1pm: Wander back up to truck to find the others are back. Have lunch.

1.30pm: Settle down for a quiet few moments on the truck – there’s at least a bit of shade provided by the seats. Some others head down to bar.

2.15pm: Kris loses all hope and declares we will never be allowed into Cameroon. Despite early confidence from most of us, there’s not too much disagreement from those on the truck.

2.40pm: Walk back down to bar with one of the locals.

2.47pm: Joe heads in opposite direction from border on back of motorbike, but denies anything has happened.

2.50pm: Settle into bar with a beer and dealt into the ongoing game of cards.

3.30pm: Steve sticks head through door, tells us to drink up and be back on the trucks in five minutes.

Mfum
Border Etiquette – Waiting to cross outside Ben’s Place

3.31pm: Give up attempting to down remains of bottle of gassy beer in one and leave on the table.

3.33pm: Matt and myself are stopped at police checkpoint. One very vocal guy not in uniform insists we sit down and, we think, demands we buy him a drink. Explain to the guys we had spoken to earlier – the ones with guns – that we think we are about to go and they usher us up the road and quieten the other guy.

3.37pm: Arrive back at truck and break news of Steve’s announcement to those lounging on the seats. Several goes needed to convince them. Frantic attempts to sort everything out and tidy up camp.

3.40pm: Rest of the bar dwellers return, some on back of military motorbikes clutching beers bought at the bar to use up our remaining naira.

3.50pm: Trucks head the few hundred yards back down the border, followed by Joe, still on back of motorbike which had taken him to Ikom after he got a call to check his e-mails, only to be summoned back.

3.52pm: Karla and myself called off truck. May need to head over on the other truck as the only ones not already stamped out of Nigeria.

Ben, left, says farewell to some of his best customers
Ben, left, says farewell to some of his best customers

3.54pm: Everyone called off truck. Final assault on bar to use up naira. Beer and assorted drinks loaded into locker which had been emptied in case we all had to share one truck.

4pm: Steve drives Nala across border, followed minutes later by the other Steve in the other truck. We sit and wait at bar, taking pictures with the locals.

5.10pm: Passports returned, fully stamped out of Nigeria and into Cameroon.

5.13pm: Finally exit Nigeria and walk across the bridge between the two countries.

5.15pm: Cross into Cameroon.

5.17pm: Tread in dog muck (at least, hope it was dog) on the side of road under construction which welcomes us into Cameroon. Not alone.

5.28pm: Board Nala.

5.30pm: Everything stops for flag-lowering ceremony to close the working day.

5.31pm: Leave Cameroon border

5.33pm: Hit first major bump in Cameroon.

5.45pm: Clear Cameroon Immigration and finally head into country number 11.

NB: Just as the finishing touches were being put to this post, a couple pulled into our base in Limbe, Cameroon. They successfully crossed the same border in just four hours. But did they have as much fun? We would like to think we paved the way for their rapid crossing.

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