The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

Obtaining Visas

Half of the world penalizes me for my nationality by requiring a visa to enter their territory. Half of the other half is in Europe. That leaves me with only about fifty interesting countries that I can visit without a visa. So more often than not, I am forced to apply for one.

A consulate is the first encounter with the destination country, and most countries make a genuine effort to make this first impression as horrible as possible. To start with, many times even the address is hidden from potential visa applicants.

Try locating the Malian embassy in Mauritania. It is a challenge like few other. The glitzy capital, Nouakchott, has no addresses to begin with. The city looks like a temporary settlement on the side of the desert, with sandy streets and taxi drivers who have no clue where things are. They expect you to navigate them to your destination, in French. Random passers-by on the street can only give confused testimonies of the place that you are seeking, and your best option is to ignore them.

Street in Nouakchott

The Malian consulate is nearby.

After hours of walking in the heat, I found the old location of the embassy. They had moved out from there about two years before. At this point, I gave up on my Malian visa. As none of its neighbouring countries would give me a visa either, I was coming up with a plan B to bypass the country by digging a tunnel under it. Then, as I was walking back to my accommodation through a series of unnamed streets, a Malian flag popped out of the dust. I stumbled upon the new location.

The building was dilapidated. A guy with a Kalashnikov let me in to the waiting room. Sand covered the furniture, which included a collapsed sofa with the sponge stuffing eagerly looking out at the world from the cracks in the plastic cover. This facility was complemented by two chairs with a total of seven legs. I had things to read on the table, French magazines from five years ago, and I also had company, about a thousand flies.

An official staggered in. He gave me a form and took about twenty dollars for same-day processing. I came back in the afternoon, and waited in the same room. Apart from the flies, there were also locals for company. They got their visa in about five minutes, but I had to wait more. An hour later came the consul himself, who could not figure out my nationality based on my passport. Having clarified that, he gave me a strange look, then handed me my passport with the visa. The next day I was on a two-day bus ride to Bamako. It was a success story.

The most notoriously awful visa procedure is always with India. I had the misfortune of visiting six Indian high commissions around the world, applying for a total of three visas. Theoretically they only issue visas for you in your country of residence, or in your country of origin. I do not have a country of residence, and I seldom visit my country of origin, which is the source of problems.

The Indian high commission in Uzbekistan played the Africa trick: they moved to a new location, but they did not publish where to. As I was digging through forums on where the high commission might be hiding, I found comments made by Indian citizens, addressing the staff of the high commission. They were asking to stop issuing visas to Uzbekistan nationals, claiming that that all of them went to Goa to become prostitutes. That was the moment I realized that Uzbekistan’s GDP per capita was lower than that of India.

Warning sign in Bangalore

You have to go through a lot of pain to get a visa to this country.

I finally gathered a vague idea of the district where the new location was. Exploring the leafy neighbourhood for a few hours, I eventually came across a gigantic, solid metal gate with a guard post on the side. The guards answered in the positive to my question whether it was the place I was seeking. They told me to wait. After about half an hour of waiting, a car arrived, and three skimpily dressed local women got out. A brief exchange with the guards ensued, and five minutes later a man in a spotless business suit emerged from the high commission. He looked at the girls up and down, then he looked at me. He nodded to the girls to go with him, and together they vanished behind the metal gate. This visa had an unusual price tag.

Another half an hour later I was finally allowed to enter. The compound was enormous, they had a private creek with small waterfalls. I walked up to the building, then turned right to follow a crooked sign that said “Consular Section.” Dreading the moment when the visa officials would ask for sexual favours, I handed in the form. The trouble came: the bloke told me I could not apply for the visa in Tashkent, as I was not a resident. The solution followed: an exception could be made if they accidentally found ten dollars extra between the pages. The deal was sealed. Compared to the girls, I got away with it lightly.

Bribes keep consulates going, but on-arrival visas were invented specifically to encourage bribing. Border officials in these cases have full control over your fate, and no oversight from above. If you do not pay up, you can go back to wherever you came from.

I was riding my faithful bicycle along the Mekong. I exited Cambodia through a remote border post, and approached the Lao People’s Democratic Republic on the other side. I had heard that they milked foreigners for twenty-thirty dollars of bribe on top of the visa, which was about the same price. I anticipated a fight.

Bicycle in the shade in northern Cambodia

Taking a rest in the shade before attempting to cross the Lao border.

The post looked abandoned, with tinted windows hiding what was going on inside. I knocked, nothing. I walked around, and considered riding on without stamping in. A bus packed with white people arrived from god knows where. The tinted window opened for an inch. An eyeball measured me and my bicycle, and then its vector of sight was cast at the bus. The owner of the eyeball finally said twenty dollars for the visa plus one dollar extra for processing. I guess he was expecting easier rewards from the bus-load of cash sacks. I gaily paid the one dollar bribe and rode on.

Similar one or two dollar bribes were made official in most Central American countries, where theoretically I could travel without a visa. Yet, I was forced to pay some vaguely defined tourism fee, and, in the case of Panama, they even contaminated my passport with a stamp proving the payment. “Affix a stamp on your ancestors’ derrière” was my reaction, although in different words. This is one of those cases when maintaining the payment system is more expensive than the combined value of fees and bribes, and it even takes up precious space in one’s passport.

The last drop in my miseries was the Ethiopian visa, or lack thereof. Since then I refuse to visit countries that require a visa from me.

I was travelling through West Africa, and none of the countries I passed through had an Ethiopian consulate. Ethiopia defines a delightfully retarded list of “tourist generating countries”: the citizens of these proud nations are entitled for on-arrival visa at the Addis Ababa airport. My beloved homeland is not on the list. Yet, there are twenty-five other clauses which qualify you for an on-arrival visa. One of these clauses says that if you spend more than three months in countries without an Ethiopian consulate, then you are good.

When I booked my ticket with the national airlines — the aptly named Ethiopian Airlines — I made inquiries in their office in Ouagadougou whether I qualified for the visa. Fervent calls were made, and the answer was affirmative. I had to confirm the flight in Togo in their office in Lomé, and I did another round with the question. The response was the same. The third round came at the airport, and they let me check in without any issues.

We landed early in the evening, and there was an endless queue for the visas. Two hours later it was my turn. Other passengers proceeded straight to the officers issuing the visa, but not me. A bystanding officer came up to me, and asked where I was from. I stated my biggest shame. He told me I did not qualify for on-arrival visa. I pointed out the clauses under which I did. By this time he was escorting me to the transfer desk, armed with two extra soldiers with machine guns, and he stopped listening altogether. I was put on the first flight to Egypt. Visa regulations are always arbitrary, but so are the unqualified morons who overwrite them at whim just because they can.

Welcome to warm Ethiopian hospitality

Ethiopian sarcasm.

The very concept of a country is outdated. The idea of a nation state is a utopistic hangover from the nineteenth century. A visa is an obsolete control mechanism to maintain the mirage of nation states, and also to let corrupt officials cash in and play dirty tricks on bona fide travellers; we are not talking about immigration, only about travelling. Join the boycott and stop visiting countries that violate the basic human right for the freedom of movement. In any case, do not go to Ethiopia. Your entry will be denied.

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