/ 28 November 2008

Very appealing letters

As a professional Ethiopian woman living in Addis Ababa, I venture abroad quite a bit on work-related trips. The official letters I’ve flashed at embassies have always produced the neces­sary visas. But that changed when I tried to arrange a personal trip.

Last year I wanted to meet three of my best friends in Scandinavia. We’ve known one another for 15 years, since our student days at Addis Ababa University, and without their daily emails life would be dull. They’re studying in Sweden, Norway and Germany and, because I wanted to see the places two of them have been calling home for several years, we thought it would be great to meet in Stockholm and take in Oslo and Copenhagen too.

Having had no trouble at embassies before, I freed a few hours one day to drop off my application at the Swedish Embassy. And that’s when I started missing my official letters.

Arriving at 6.30am, there was already a long queue. Ninety-nine percent of people are applying for immigrant visas, but the Swedish Embassy does not have a system to deal with different types of applicants. So rain or shine, on a street with no shelter, you wait in a line that moves at a snail’s pace.

All the messages you get indicate that you are not welcome; you and a few others start complaining but there is no one listening. At 1pm you are told to come back tomorrow as they don’t work in the afternoon. By this time you have started contemplating giving up the whole thing, but you read your friends’ emails, think of the good old times and get nostalgic. So you agree to brave it out.

The next day, equipped with all the patience you can muster, you return to the embassy. Finally you walk in smiling, happy to have made it — and you’re greeted by an unfriendly lady. She doesn’t look you in the eyes, she’s looking at something behind you. She gives you a snappy ”yes”, ”no” or ”I can’t say” in reply to your inquiries.

You want to blast her with a lecture about the role of embassies and proper behaviour towards clients, but by now you have learned that logic does not work here. So after two mornings of lining up and 10 minutes inside the unwelcoming reception, you hand in your papers. You are told to return after a week.

A few days later I called the embassy to be told: ”Sorry, but your visa application was rejected because it was not found to be urgent.” I am never good at smart comebacks when I’m shocked, so all I mumbled was: ”What — urgent?” Receiving the same reply, I hung up in fury: what does urgency have to do with a tourist visa?

My friends and I decided not to accept their decision without telling them how we felt. So I faxed an appeal letter telling them exactly what they’d done and what I thought of it. I felt so happy!

Then I needed the pleasure of hearing their voice after they’d read my fax, so I called to ask if they’d received it. ”Yes, we have,” was the reply, ”and ma’am, your visa has been approved. Please come and pick it up.” If I was shocked when I was denied, I was dumbfounded when I heard this. And that was how my ”embassy appeal letters” — EALs, as I would like to call them — began.

Off I went and had a great time with my friends. I found Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen to be amazingly quiet compared with the hectic hustle and bustle of Addis: how lively and loud would Addis sound to someone from these cities, I wondered.
A year passed and another vacation approached. This time a friend and I planned a road trip from Ethiopia to Egypt, via Sudan. We decided to follow the Blue Nile from its origin in Ethiopia all the way to the Mediterranean.

Planning was fun, but visa issues loomed — Thank God I am no longer the naive girl I once was. I submitted my application early and waited patiently. The embassy made me call week after week, telling me each time that they’d received no response from Cairo.

But when a Norwegian friend went to the Egyptian embassy she was told she could have her visa in a few days. So the obvious message to me was: ”An Ethiopian doesn’t qualify as a fun traveller.”

After a whole month of waiting and only five days left before our departure date, I decided that my patience had once more worn out and it was time for my EAL! Ten minutes after the EAL was faxed my phone started ringing — ah — déjà vu.

Leaving the busy life of Addis and travelling northwest was peaceful. The rugged mountain chains and the farms we passed were lush green in late May. Crossing the border into Sudan, we were welcomed by the vast desert, a wave of heat and the calm and friendly people of Sudan.

But heading up north in Egypt, we reached Aswan, where everything changed and we were in for a bit of a shock. The quiet and private time we had while visiting Sudan was suddenly invaded by thousands of tourists and the super-energetic Egyptian boys who just would not leave us alone.

Back in the bosom of Addis, though, I swore to myself never to let any embassy prevent me from such incredible travelling experiences, even if I have to fight for visas for the rest of my life.

Arswema Andargatchew is an environmentalist who works for an NGO in Addis Ababa


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