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The Mobile Lawyer -- One Lap, No Jetlag: Visas, Dollars and Bureaucrats (and cabbies, again)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Visas, Dollars and Bureaucrats (and cabbies, again)

I need to write this while it is fresh in my mind, because I don’t want to make any notes about it or have to think about it again for as long as possible.

TIP: Big travel tip. Always, always keep $300-$500 of U.S. Dollars in your possession somewhere. Obviously, you don’t need to keep the money literally on you at all times, but have a stash of U.S. cash somewhere in your luggage. If you get under $300, buy some U.S. money at the next possible place you can buy it. . . because you might just end up somewhere you can’t get dollars. And that is bad.

English is the lingua franca of the world. If you are going to know one language, there is no doubt that English is the one that is going to get you the farthest. Corollary: the United States might be in decline or disrepute in some areas of the world – OPEC might be considering changing payment for their oil from dollar-based to euros or some basket of currency – crazy people out there might want to run trucks full of explosives into our embassies – George W. Bush might (indeed) be Satan, but. . .

The U.S. greenback still rules. There is no substitute.

After my screwed-up situation at the Kenya/Ethiopia border from Saturday to Monday, it took me until Tuesday afternoon to get to Addis Ababa. I was under the impression that I would be able to go to the Ethiopian immigration office Wednesday morning and get my visa, so that I could proceed on to applying for my visas for Sudan and Egypt.

I’d just been through bureaucratic hell at the border. What form of selective amnesia came over me to think that I’d just be able to walk in and some bureaucrat would slap a visa into my passport? Seriously. What the hell was I thinking?

I first went to the U.S. Embassy Wednesday morning to talk about my situation with them. Although I was suffering from some sort of selective amnesia, I was coherent enough to realize that I might just get arrested when I showed up at the Ethiopian immigration office, in the heart of Ethiopia, without a valid visa in my passport, though I did have an entry stamp from the border. The people at the U.S. Embassy were fairly amazed at my story and even more amazed that I had somehow, luckily, gotten to Addis. They had me fill out a registration form, giving them the hotel I was at and my other information, in case something (arrest being the primary concern) happened to me and told me to give them a call later to tell them ‘how it worked out.’

My taxi then took me to the Ethiopian Embassy to get my visa. I went to office 77, which is the office for foreign nationals. I explained my situation. They were confused and sent me to office 80, down the hall. The people in office 80 then sent me upstairs to office 97. Mr. Dematow’s office. The head of immigration. The person that twice (at least) rejected Paul and my appeals at border to be let in – only to finally change his mind when the South African bikers traveling with Paul went over his head to someone in the Foreign Affairs office. Basically, he never wanted to let us in and only did so under direct orders from someone higher up on the bureaucratic food chain.

That person higher up wasn’t with me now.

I profusely thanked Mr. Dematow for him letting us into his wonderful country and explained that I just wanted to go ahead and pay for my visa, get legal, and follow all the rules and regulations to properly be in Ethiopia. He told me that a visa wasn’t necessary. If I would just call his office the day before I was to leave his country, he would call the border post that I was going through and make sure that my exit would be expedited. My entry stamp signaled that I was in Ethiopia legally and if I had any problems, I should just call his office.

I’ve worked in government. I’ve dealt with more than my fair share of bureaucrats. I’ve been through the red-tape parades as a lawyer. I recognized the content between the lines.

This guy was pissed. Someone higher up had jumped down his throat to get us across the border and he wasn’t happy about his turf getting encroached upon. He wasn’t going to do anything more for me, unless he had to. He shushed me out of his office with false hospitality – “don’t worry. Everything will be fine. Enjoy Ethiopia.”

As I saw it, there were three possible problems with me not having a valid visa: (1) I was still going to travel some in Ethiopia and if some cop asked me for my ID, I could get arrested in small town two days away for being here illegally, (2) I still had to apply for a Sudan and Egyptian visa and they might reject me because I didn’t even have a valid Ethiopian visa, and (3) even if I got a Sudanese visa, I could get detained at the Ethiopian border when I tried to exit. None of these possibilities seemed appetizing.

The next day, Thursday, I went back to the U.S. Embassy to explain my concerns and see if there was someone there that might be able to call Mr. Dematow and talk some reason into him. The folks at the U.S. Embassy were really helpful and nice. They completely understood my concerns and someone called Dematow about them. After a short while, they came back and told me they had talked to him and he said there wasn’t any problem – I just needed to come back to the office and apply for a visa in the normal manner.

This would have been helpful information to know yesterday, when I was standing in his office, right upstairs from where I needed to get the application.

Took my cab back to Ethiopian immigration and went back to office 77, to get the application and fill it out. The person in that office wrote something on the back of my form in Aramaic and sent me to office 82. That person wrote something on the back of my form and sent me to office 80. More writing and sent to office 97. Mr. Dematow’s office. The acid test.

His secretary sent me on in. He told me, “You need to start downstairs,” and I said, “Yes sir. I’ve applied downstairs and been through those offices. They sent me up here to your office,” as I handed him my marked-up application. What I didn’t know at this point was that a few hours before, Paul had been in this same situation, and Dematow tried to put him off with the “your entry stamp is all you need” story that he’d given me yesterday. Paul was able to get the Foreign Office person to intercede at that point and make sure Dematow approved his getting a visa. I’m not sure it was that or the U.S. Embassy calling him on my behalf, but after a few pointless questions about my travel plans in Ethiopia, he made some more notes on the back of my form and sent me back to office 77.

Back in office 77, after a long wait (I’d killed about three hours in the various immigration offices at this point), they took my picture for my visa and sent me to office 78 --- the payment office. Whooo hoooo. I was going to get approved and get my visa!

I went in and sat down. The lady at the desk looked at my application and asked me for $20. I asked how much that was in Ethiopian birr. She said they didn’t accept birr, only dollars.

Yes, I was in an official Ethiopian governmental office and they wouldn’t accept their own currency for payment. If I was a currency trader, I’d say this was a pretty good indication to short the Ethiopian birr.

I didn’t have any dollars on me and by this time, it was almost 6 p.m. I couldn’t get back to my hotel and get the last $100 bill I had on me and make it back. The woman told me she’d hold my application form and I should just come back at 10 a.m. the morning and pay. She seemed really nice and sincere, but I didn’t sleep too well that night. I figured there was about a 50-50 chance that I was going through the entire process again the next day.

The other problem I had at this point was that I didn’t have enough dollars to pay for my Egypt and Sudan visa. According to what I’d read, the Sudan visa was $100 and the Egyptian one was either $15 or $30. I only had the one $100 bill left on me. So, in the morning, before the immigration office opened, I took a cab to the main branch of the biggest bank in Ethiopia, Dashen Bank, to buy some more dollars.

There they told me that I could only buy dollars if I had an airline ticket showing I was leaving the country. I told them that I wasn’t leaving by plane, that I was going to go overland to Sudan. “I’m sorry. We can’t give you any dollars.” “Is there any place I can buy dollars in Addis?” “I don’t know.” Problem. I went to another bank and a Forex office. Neither even offered the option of getting dollars if I had an airline ticket; they just looked at my like I was a moron when I asked if I could buy dollars.

I went back to the immigration office and the woman that waited on my in office 78 remembered me. She pulled my application off the pile on her desk, as I said “thank God” under my breath, and asked me for me $20. I handed her my $100 bill. She looked at it for a second and said she couldn’t accept it.

A caveat to my earlier tip about carrying U.S. dollars: for some reason, the only dollars accepted around the 3rd world are the new dollars with the oversized portraits of the people on the front, the ones they started making in the mid-90s. If you have ‘old’ money, it isn’t going to get accepted anywhere. An additional note, they money also cannot be ripped in any fashion – I had a bill turned down previously because there was a quarter-inch rip in it. I’m not sure what they would do if someone had written on the money, but I wouldn’t count on it getting accepted.

I’d been aware of this situation for months and my $100 bill was one of the new ones. . . but it was a 1998 bill and she told me they only accepted bills minted after 2001. Why, you ask?? Don’t ask why. There is no explanation.

I begged. I pleaded. I told her that it was my last U.S. bill and that I’d already unsuccessfully tried to buy some more, but could not find a place to sell U.S. Dollars to me. I asked her to run it through her machine that detected forgeries again (she’d already run it through three times).

Like some cabbies, some bureaucrats also aren’t agents of Satan. She finally relented and went ahead and took my $100, gave me four $20s back, and told me I could pick up my visa the next morning.

And speaking of cabbies that aren’t horrible people, I still had to find a way to get some more dollars to pay for my Egyptian and Sudanese visas. I do find it especially amusing that Sudan hates, hates the United States. . . but they will only accept our money at their embassy.

Someone had told me that I could buy dollars at the Sheraton Hotel in town, which, by the way, is one of the nicest hotels I have ever seen. It has to be the nicest hotel I have ever seen outside the U.S. or Europe and would be a five-star hotel if they transplanted it to London. I went to the bank office located there and they also told me I couldn’t get any dollars without a plane ticket out of the country.

So, the next day, I went to an internet café and made a fake reservation on for a plane flight from Addis to Cairo. I’d had to do this 3-4 times previously, in order to show various border agents proof that I was leaving their country (a requirement to enter some places). If you go through the booking process, almost to the end, you can print off one of the screens that shows your name, reservation, cost of ticket, etc. Show that to a border agent and you’ll get stamped in.

This morning, I went back to the Sheraton with my passport, my Ethiopian birr and my fake plane ticket, in order to buy some dollars. The woman at the bank looked at my reservation for a while and said that it didn’t show a ticket number. She needed a ticket number to put on her form. I told her that it was an electronic ticket and that they wouldn’t give me the actual one until I got to the airport. “Then you can buy the dollars at the airport after you get the ticket.”

Great. I’m pretty serious about this round-the-world-without-flying thing, but I’m not going to actually buy a $1,000 plane ticket, just so I can go cash some money to get the dollars I need to proceed overland to Sudan, Egypt and beyond.

I got back into my cab and noticed there was another foreigner standing at the cab stand. She had a bunch of cabbies surrounding her and she was crying. I asked my cabbie what was going on and he said that she was trapped here and needed to buy dollars to get out. “That’s MY situation!” My cabbie said, “O’, well if its OK with you, I told her that I’d go get her some dollars to exchange with her.” I told him that was not only perfectly fine, but asked if I could buy $300 from him as well. He told me it would take an hour or so to find it, but he could just drop me off at my hotel and come back in an hour with the money.

And so he did. Three $100 dollar bills. Official exchange rate is 11.25 birr for $1. Black market rate was 13.2 birr per dollar. I’d never been happier to overpay for something in my life. 4,000 birr later and I had $300 in my hands. Another good cabbie – right as I was ready to condemn the whole lot of them again. And my first black market exchange to boot.

Now let’s see what those Sudanese bureaucrats say on Monday, when I show up applying for my transit visa. At some point soon, I could really use a couple boring, mundane days. Really boring would be great. Sightseeing. Maybe a tour.

Who wants to loan me $250 to check into the Sheraton for a night?

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At June 27, 2009 at 5:29 PM , Anonymous aileen said...

Jeebs, that's a stressful couple of days right there! At least you got the money part sorted, and it must have been really reassuring to run into somebody in exactly the same situation as you. AND, there is something to take away from all of this and that is; if you can impersonate a lady crying then you'll get a cabby to help you out of any sticky situation

At June 27, 2009 at 11:58 PM , Blogger Tonia said...

Hey man. I was just thinking what a long ass post this is. I kept reading a bit. STRANGELY I have had this conversation about the brain rewiring based on internet fixation, with two very clever friends as of late. One sent me the article from The Atlantic, which I skimmed.... I have noticed the same thing. I have books stacked everywhere but if I have a spare hour I am online reading a line of this, a line of that.

Hope you are having a great time. Think of you a lot more than my communications would suggest. Know I'm outrunning your attention span with my comment so I'll leave with, I love ya, be safe.


At June 27, 2009 at 11:59 PM , Blogger Tonia said...

OH,and the judicial discipline committee voted unanimously that Judge Willard Proctor Jr. should be removed from the bench, due in large part to his ethical lapses and conflict of interest based on his operation of Cycle Breakers, Inc.

At June 28, 2009 at 7:56 AM , Blogger Lady Robin M said...

wow, my blood pressure skyrocketed reading this. take care, friend.

At June 16, 2010 at 12:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had similiar expirience in Borneo, they wouldn't accept dollar notes older then 2001. Luckily I had some from 2001


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