East Africa Visa Battle: Tanzania to Uganda

East Africa Visa Battle:
Tanzania to Uganda

Jan 23
It was a crazy and stressful morning, but I really did not care that much and knew life would find a way to work itself out somehow…

My friend Jasmine and I arrived at the bus terminal in Bukoba, Tanzania by 6:20 via motorcycle taxi.  She had to pay for my motorcycle because I only had $0.40 worth of Tanzanian money left in my pocket.  We climbed onto our Greyhound-sized bus that drove for an hour and a half north to take us to the Tanzania/Uganda border.  The bus arrived at the Tanzanian side of the border where everyone had to get off and wait in line for a passport exit stamp.  Then, we walked across No Man’s Land to the Ugandan immigration office.

There was a long line up into the tiny shack and people were pushing and shoving to get inside.  Outside of the small building, a faded paper sign said “Visa $100”.  So the Ugandan visa was $100, but I knew that there was something called the ‘T12-East Africa Tourist Visa.’ The price of that visa is also $100, but it is for Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya.

After about 20 minutes, I was at the front of the counter with an immigration officer.  I asked the man at the counter if I could get the East Africa Visa.  He told me, “Give me your money.”  I asked, “Is this for the East Africa Visa?  I want that and not the Uganda visa.”  He said, “Give me your money.”  I asked, “Is this for the visa I want?”  He said again, “Give me your money!”  So, I handed him a $100 note, not really knowing what I was getting.

He looked at my $100 and told me, “Is no good.  Is 1999 bill.  We only take bills from 2006 onward.  Give me another one.”  I told him it was all I had.  He replied, “Well, you will have to go back then.”  I looked at him and asked, “Really?”  He said, “Yes.  We cannot take that bill.”  He pointed and said, “Is a bank over there who may take…”

I told Jasmine that I likely had some serious problems.  The bank immigration man had pointed at was on No Man’s Land between both borders.  On the walk to the bank, I gave the thieving/scamming money-changers a chance, hoping to scam them for a change and told them that I had a $100 but that I wanted two $50 notes.  They were confused, but one guy had a $50 and his friend had a $50.  They wanted to see my $100.  I handed it to them.  They took a quick look and said, “No, cannot take…”  They pointed to the 1999 year and handed it back to me.  Uh oh…

I walked to the bank and a security guard with an AK-47 was standing in front.  When I pulled on the front door to find it locked, the man with the gun told me that the bank would not open until 09:00.  I had no idea what time it was.  When I looked at my phone, it said 08:41.  Okay, twenty minutes…

There was time to spare and there was no longer much of a line-up at the Uganda immigration office, so I went to ask the officer again, who assumed I was there to give him $100 for the visa, “Is this visa you have the East Africa Visa?”  He got angry at me and said, “If we did not have it, I would tell you!”

Well, why can’t you just tell me that you do have it then?  I see you are enjoying your power, Asshole…

On the way to the bank, I saw the most beautiful African girl that I have encountered since I landed on this continent.  However, I was on too much of a mission for my mind to even think to talk to her and I just walked past as she was standing and chatting with someone.  She entered my view and became a memory that will flash through my mind once an hour for the next couple of days just as fast.  When I got back to the bank, the security guard told me, “Six minutes…”  I stood there waiting.

Money changers began approaching me with their usual sinister hopes of swindling me somehow in the exchange.  Never use money changers at a border.  You cannot return to fix an issue once you are through the border and they are home-free on their cheat.  Without words, I just pointed to the bank when they would approach me.  Another man came up to me from one of the money changer shacks and asked why I was waiting to get into the bank.  I asked him, “Why do you ask?”  There are times when I really get tired of everyone wanting to know my business and I had too much on my plate at the moment to want to have a conversation.  He smirked at my attitude, told me he worked in the bank and to just be patient.  ‘That is pretty much what I am doing…’

In those six minutes, my mind was thinking about the jam I was in.  Jasmine did not have any more money and I did not have any money other than a $100 US banknote that was no good, $4 US in one-dollar bills and $0.40 in Tanzanian money.  That was it…

Everyone on my bus was through immigration and I was certain the bus was just going to leave me with Jasmine on it.  I was playing out the scenario in my mind:

The bank does not take my $100 bill.  Or they want $20 to change it, which I do not have.  But why would they even change it as this is not the US where USD is the local currency and you can just exchange old notes for new ones at the bank?  So, I probably cannot officially get into Uganda…

Should I just sneak through the border on the bus, pretending I have a visa because the guards never check passports, then get money in Masaka which is the first city an hour into Uganda, come back, and then buy the visa?  That is a lot of work.  Am I going to go back to Tanzania right now and my trip will change and I will go to Zambia and then Mozambique, heading south instead of north to Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya?  But how will I get back into Tanzania?

I still have a month and a half on my visa, but they have already stamped me out.  All they have to do is get rid of that stamp.  But they will want money to do this.  I can be charming, but the officials will want a money bribe too much to do me any favors.  But, if I have no money, surely they will take pity on me and not leave me stuck in No Man’s Land.  I already have the visa and I have not actually entered another country even though I have been stamped out of theirs.

There is no way I am going to give them another $50.

I have no money, so I guess I am going to have to hitchhike back?  The Tanzanians will pick me up because I am foreign so that makes me interesting to them, but I have heard they want a little money for gas…  I will have to explain to them when they stop that I have no money at all…

That very circle of thoughts was running though my head in the six minutes I was waiting for the bank to open.

A younger man I did not recognize came up to me and asked me, “Are you coming because the bus is leaving soon?”  I told him I had to wait until the bank opened because I had a problem.  He left.  Someone came to open the bank at 09:00.  There were two security guards and before they let me in they said, “Muzungo (white-man), you must leave backpack outside before go into bank.”  I was wearing my entire big backpack as I would never leave it on the bus, especially at a border crossing where a bus could disappear into another country or hopeful hands could help themselves… 

However, one often needs to be protected from those who protect in developing countries… 
I said, “No, I need to take the bag inside.  My entire life is inside of this bag.”  They were friendly, but they had guns.  They told me that I could not take the bag inside.  I said, “I do not want to leave it out here…  People steal.”  They said that was what they were there for…to protect.  However, one often needs to be protected from those who protect in developing countries. The man with the gun had a genuine and warm smile.  I knew I was not going to win this.  I took off my backpack and set it close to the door.  They moved it a small distance from the door.  I moved it back and pulled one of the backpack straps inside of the door as it was closing so that I had some view of the bag.  They were laughing at my paranoia.  When the door was completely shut, I quickly opened it to see their faces, pointed at them in accusation, then shook my finger at them and smiled…  They liked that.  Safety in charm!

I told the man inside of the bank that I needed to change a $100 bill.  There were two tellers behind glass, one of whom was the man that had previously told me he worked in the bank and had told me to be patient when I was outside of the door.  I was impressed that he had not lied to me earlier and actually did work in there.  When they were nearly ready, an older man I did not recognize came into the bank and asked me why I was not ready to get on the bus as they wanted to leave.  It dawned on me that it might work in my favor to have him there…

I told the older man that I had money problems and then I told the bank man at the front desk that the change I needed was actually one US $100 note for another US $100.  The bank man looked confused and told me he assumed I was there because I wanted Ugandan shillings.  He asked to see my $100 note.  I put it in his hands and a moment later he looked disappointed.  He took it through a security door and was back behind the glass with the two tellers.  Under a black-light the three of them scrutinized the note for at least 5 minutes.  You could feel the pressure on the bank because the man from the bus was standing there with me and he needed this process to get moving.  A local man dressed in business attire came into the bank and was standing beside me at the next teller window that had no one in it because all three men were in one window looking at my bill…

Suddenly, the man who seemed to be in charge, who had taken my note in the first place, slid open the little window of the teller desk and handed me a new US $100 note.  That was it.  Nothing else.  No extra money.  No hassles.  No nothing.  It was just a straight up exchange of one bill for another.  I could not believe they made that exchange.  I could not believe they did that for free.  They had nothing to gain and only to lose by swapping me bills.  What were they going to do with an obsolete US $100 bill?  How would they get rid of it?  Never mind!  It was done!  They saved me!

I was so thankful for their help.  I told the guy behind the window, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!  Thank you so much!  I would give you a hug if you were on this side of the glass!”  The business man beside me was laughing and said, “Seriously?”  I said, “Yea,” and then I thought about the fact the Uganda recently made headlines for bringing in the death penalty for acts of homosexual behavior.  No wonder my reaction caught him by surprise…Haha!

As I rushed out the doors of the bank, the young guy from the bus who had been waiting for me asked, “Are you coming to Kampala?”  I said, “Yep.”  He said, “Hurry up!”

I dashed into the Ugandan immigration office where there was no line-up and I flashed my new $100 note and a smile at the officer who had not been very nice to me.  He lightened up and told me, “You are very lucky.  You are getting the very last East Africa Visa that we have here.”  The older bus man who had been in the bank with me came into immigration, likely following my cloud of dust as I rushed to the immigration office.  The bus man was standing at the desk beside me.  There was imminent pressure for immigration to hurry with the visa.  Three minutes later, there was a full page East Africa visa sticker installed in my passport that had my details hand written on it in pen.

East Africa Visa

BAM! Done! One East Africa Visa – Installed!

The two guys from the bus and I rushed out the door of the office and there were two motorcycles waiting for us.  They told me, “Get on!”  I climbed on behind the driver of one of the bikes and the younger bus man got on behind me and my giant backpack so that he was sitting on the fender of the motorcycle.  The older bus-man got on behind the other driver and we took off down the road.  In no time, we got to a gate where a man with a machine gun was standing.  He requested to see my passport.  I flashed him the East Africa visa.  He sent us through.

We drove about one kilometer further to where the bus was waiting.  When the bikes stopped and I got off, someone told me to pay the motorcycle driver.  I said, “I do not have any money!”  The foreigner does not have any money!  THE FOREIGNER DOES NOT HAVE ANY MONEY!  Well, both bus guys and both motorcycle drivers had laughing fits over that.  One of the bus guys paid both motorcycle drivers, I raced up the steps of the bus and 50 angry African faces stared at me.  They had been waiting 50 minutes for me.  The other bus guys climbed aboard, the door closed, and we were off…  I got through it all somehow…

And that is how I got into Uganda…


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