Traveling to a foreign country can make you a bit nervous. Our trip to Africa a few years ago left me asking a lot of questions. And having spent 40 hours traveling (23 hours of flight time) from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada to Lilongwe, Malawi left me with a lot of time to turn questions over in my head that went beyond whether the stove was left on at home.
Do I have all of the right vaccinations? Did we bring the right type of Malaria medications? Isn’t this the country that I read about where some weird barbed fish likes to swim places that are normally for exit only, resulting in a painful internal growth? Or is it the place that the locals remove those tape worms by hanging a weighted stick off of it? The internet has been a wonderful tool for opening up travel to strange lands. However, it has also permitted obscure tropical diseases and bizarre medical conditions to be broadly distributed with clever headings like “Check this out!” that leave you wishing you hadn’t ever seen that.
Having traveled with groups of friends for many years now, we have been able to find a careful balance of being prepared, but not overly paranoid. One aspect that can be nerve wracking on occasion is foreign customs and immigration services. Traveling with a group is a careful balance of trying not to sound nosy with your companions as to whether they have all of their documents together, and being comfortable that they will not be the person that thought a couple of joints were “no big deal.”
Arrival in Lilongwe was uneventful, other than immigration officials being puzzled that we were not missionaries or foreign aid workers. The temporary two day loss of my bag resulted in such fantastic customer service, immediate compensation, and a sense of custody by the airline, and in one of the poorest countries in Africa, made me embarrassed by the level of disinterest and poor attitude I generally receive in North America. We spent a few days in Lilongwe with friends before traveling to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania with our group that had now expanded to seven.
My friend from Malawi assured us that we required no visa or special paperwork in Tanzania. Our arrival from Malawi clearly wasn’t on the normal tourist path into Tanzania, and our group stood out from the regular commuters and visitors. We were quickly broken off the herd by a sharply dressed man. His uniform was impressive, with ribbons, medals, and serious looking designations on his shoulder boards. He had intercepted us just as we were about 10 feet away from the large sign in English that said “visitors with no visas please pay $50 USD here.” “Do you require visas?” he questioned formally. “Yes” our spokesperson responded, also selected because he was the tallest and palest of our group.
“I will require your passports and $50 cash in US currently please.” He requested, putting himself between us and the window which we realized there were at least 4 different signs explaining that we needed to pay for and receive our visas there.” “We will pay at the window as required” my friend carefully responded. “No. I need $50 from each of you, and your passports.” He explained, still polite, but very serious and formal. I am always confused on the terms as to when you are supposed to surrender your passport, but I have always made the assumption that anyone with a sidearm is welcome to any of my possessions. I led the way in handing over cash and my passport. When we collected all seven passports, and $350 from us, he walked the two meters to the window, and handed them to the clerk inside. Then he waved us around the waiting area that all of the other passengers were lined up at, and to the baggage recovery area beyond. “Go get your bags there please.”
We picked up our bags, and our friend Peter decided it was time for a pit stop. The rest of us waited in the protective circle that zebras try to hold off the lions with, although our sweaty t-shirts and shorts probably wasn’t very good disruptive camouflage in an environment of long pants and sweater vests. As we waited, our new friend showed up holding six passports in one hand, and a seventh in the other. “Which of you is Peter Joseph please?” Of course he was still in the bathroom, and we asked carefully if there was a problem. He only responded with ‘I must speak with him directly.” I had visions that his passport wasn’t valid for the six additional months we had told him about; that he had an error or omission in his passport; or his profession on the local documentation was offensive to local customs. When Peter returned, the official said “Are you Peter Joseph Krawchuk? Born on June 20, 1969?” My friend responded sheepishly that he was, and we waited for the hammer to fall. The official broke out into a huge grin, and said “My name is Peter Joseph Krebdula! I am born on June 19, 1969! We are brothers!” After a short ‘family reunion,’ an exchange of e-mails, he ushered us out of the immigration hall, and on to our domestic flight.
Somehow we didn’t go through any immigration process, and we left with a sense of bewilderment. To this day, Peter Joseph Krebdula still writes my friend an e-mail every year on his birthday giving his best wishes…