Formerly 'Rambling with a cantankerous old mule"
I’ve always been relatively normal. Sure, I have my quirks and fair share of issues but then, we all do: My parents were divorced when I was only 4 or 5, and for a while I had three step-siblings, and then … I didn’t anymore. At my all-boys’ school I chose to play the more-interesting (shocking perhaps) female roles in our annual dramatic productions; I dropped out of university with a month to go; I’ve had more jobs than I can count on my two hands; I’m still single at the age of 43 and, apart from a bicycle and my camera equipment, I have no assets of which to speak. But at least I had all my marbles. More or less.
For the past few months though, a certain embassy has been steadily pushing me over the edge, as can be seen by the accompanying photos. On Monday I wrote a “faux” letter to them, describing the eternity it’s taking for them to issue my visa. If you have the patience and endurance, why don’t you read on to experience my frustrations and hysteria vicariously with me? And if you don’t, at least it was good for my psychological well-being to write it. So there.
As I have mentioned often here on my blog, I have travelled extensively. I’ve also lived in several countries apart from my own. Belgium (back in the 1980s) was definitely the easiest to get into – and I actually managed to stay for nine months after my tourist visa expired with but a tatty piece of paper stamped by the police commissioner of our village saying I could be there. I travelled the whole of Europe with that piece of paper. But the world has changed since then. Mongolia in 1999 was simple too. Old “hooknose” at the French embassy seemed to have something against me and made it as difficult as possible for me to enter and stay in her country. But I did anyway. And Madagascar was a nightmare – suffocated as I was under the avalanche of paperwork and bureaucracy. It took them a year to issue me my residence permit, but that was fine because I was already in the country.
Most of those trips have been to help out in local churches. It’s what I love. When my friends Brian and Lisa contacted me last year August to ask if I’d consider coming over to help them in the USA’s northern neighbour, I considered it seriously. Of course, I had my excuses for not going – too numerous to mention here. One of them was that I had a good, stable job. But then in September I found out I’d be losing that the following month and so I started taking their request more seriously. I began by researching the type of visa I would need – especially as I was planning on going long enough to be beneficial to them, the church and me. I also applied for my South African Police Clearance certificate – which can take 6 weeks to three months to be issued – just in case the embassy would need it.
After exhaustive research it seemed as if I could enter under a Charitable or Religious Work category. Sorted. It seemed simple enough. After all, I’d been successful with most of the previous countries’ visa applications … I wouldn’t even need a Labour Market Opinion (LMO) – which can take months to come through.
At the end of October I handed in all my papers, my passport photos neatly pinned to the bottom right-hand corner of the application forms, my financials in order, and letters from my former employer extolling my virtues. I paid my $75 dollars and was told I could return a week later to collect my visa. (One can only pay by bank guaranteed cheque or dollars, so I exchanged around $200 – just in case I needed more later.)
“Good morning,” I said cheerily. “I’m here for my visa.”
But instead of handing it over, the surly woman behind the plate-glass snapped: “Please take a seat, someone will come to speak to you shortly,” After half an hour another woman called me into an interview cubicle.
(It’s amazing what thoughts go through one’s mind in this sort of situation. “I wonder what they’ve found out about me? Could it be those Belgian beer glasses I liberated from cafés in Liège 25 years ago, or the stuff I got up to in the army in the early ’90s?”)
“I’m sorry, we cannot issue the visa – we think you need an LMO. But you might not. The church you’re going to can apply to the department that deals with LMOs for an exemption.”
So, I asked the church to figure out which ministry was responsible.
The response came back quite quickly: “We do not think he needs a Labour Market Opinion.” It was even on an official-looking letterhead, eh.
So I took it to the embassy. Being my third visit, the security guards were starting to recognise me.
“Nope, wrong ministry,” I was told. “Please try again …” the same surly woman said (of course, not telling me how to get in touch with the correct department.)
The church back in the Americas tried again … and again … and again to find the correct government department … Christmas came and went. So did New Year’s. Eventually early in January I had my response: “It appears that the temporary foreign worker may be exempt from the requirement to obtain an LMO under C50 – Charitable or religious work.”
I felt I was trapped in the Twilight Zone. Hadn’t I heard that somewhere before? I returned to the embassy – my car on autopilot – the letter in hand.
“Yes, except this is now no longer a tourist visa but a work visa, so it will cost you an extra $75,” she replied.
I didn’t have the money on me, so I returned the next day – my fifth visit. I breezed through security, knowing the drill by heart. Seeking out the same woman, I paid her.
“Since I saw you yesterday I see the person dealing with your case has requested a police clearance certificate,” I heard her say.
“Hah,” I beamed, “I’m ahead of you on this one! I already have one! Now you’re sure, sure, sure that’s the last of what you need from me?” I asked hopefully.
“Yes, I’m sure … Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” she told me.
After two weeks of nothing I popped in again. It was now the beginning of February and my sixth visit to the embassy. “Four weeks you’re meant to wait!” a new surly woman snapped. “Don’t call us, we’ll call you!”
After five weeks I went back, not trusting their “we’ll call you” mantra. By now the security guards and I were on a first name basis …
“No, no, no,” a new woman explained. It’s not four weeks, it’s four months from when you gave us your police certificate in January.
I nearly fainted. My mouth was dry. I staggered out and went for a double espresso. I’d learnt that protestation was futile.
A week passed when I received a letter from the embassy. “Do not reply to this email,” it started. “We hereby request the following documents in order to proceed with your application:”
- A South African Police Clearance Certificate (“Hold on, I’ve given that to them… Have they lost it,” I thought, horrified by the possibility.)
- A Madagascar Police Clearance Certificate (I felt an apoplectic attack coming on. “Who are they kidding? How would I get one of those? They’ve lost their minds …”)
The email continued: “If all the requested documentation is not received within 30 days from the date of this letter, your application will be assessed on the basis of the information that is already before the officer. Failure to provide the additional information may result in the refusal of your application.”
I went back to the embassy. Despite the futility of it all I begged, cajoled, cried, and explained that getting a Malagasy Police Certificate while in South Africa would be nigh impossible. I know the Malagasy system …
“The person dealing with your case has assured me that Madagascar High Commission will be able to help you with this request,” the apologetic woman in front of me assured.
“HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TO MADAGASCAR?” I shrieked hysterically … inside my head. Nightmarish images of the phantom “person dealing with my case” swam before me, he or she cackling sadistically.
I slunk out, slid into my car and flew to the High Commission of Madagascar. There I waited for half an hour in a queue that included me, myself and I. But that’s the way of the island – “mora mora”, meaning something along the lines of “slowly slowly”, or “the one with the most patience wins in the end if he doesn’t die of boredom first” … I wouldn’t have been surprised if the whole high commission had gone on lunch, leaving me to sweat for two hours. Eventually a sweet-tempered little man arrived to see why I was disturbing his routine. I explained my predicament as succinctly as possible. He laughed. He looked at me as if I’d just asked him to fly me to the moon and back in a Citroën 2CV, and laughed.
“You lived there way back in 2011?” he double-checked. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “We can’t help. How do you expect the Justice Ministry to find your details after all this time? You will have to go there and do it yourself.”
I shrugged, thanked him and left.
That was last week. Since then I underwent my medical – about 12 minutes to fill in forms, seven minutes with the doctor (one of only two in town who can do this sort of thing), 12 minutes in the pathology department having blood drawn and eking out a bit of urine, and another eight minutes for chest x-rays. Total payment: R1934 and change ($215) for 45 minutes of my time.
I also returned to the embassy yesterday morning to pick up my passport – so that I could book my ticket to fly to Madagascar next week.
“Are you absolutely, completely sure I need this Police Certificate?” I asked the woman in front of me, considering the price of a trip to the big island.
“I’m sorry, I can’t tell you that,” she replied. “You can always write to your case officer to ask.”
And so I did. I also asked if they would please let me know as soon as possible, as I have to leave by Monday at the latest. Ten minutes later I had a reply. I was floored that they had been so prompt, until I read it: “Your message has been received by the Immigration Section in Pretoria, South Africa. Our Service Standard is to reply to routine enquiries within 30 days.”