“oh shit…” The words escape my mouth as I sit with my friends in the lounge. We were making plans for George’s birthday at the end of July; a trip that includes a jump across the border. It was a week after I had quit the Peace Corps and turned in my PC passport. The passport I entered the country with. The only passport that had an entry stamp in the colorful back pages. The only proof that I indeed exited the USA, and entered the Kingdom of Swaziland. “Shit… this is a problem…” I say again as I try to imagine explaining this to anyone that can help me.
When you are a Peace Corps volunteer you are issued a special “Peace Corps Passport”. It’s kinda like diplomatic grade, in case of an evacuation or emergency you can flash this sucker and get some special perks. When I decided to leave the Peace Corps I had a week of paperwork, medical checkouts and interviews. Its an intense process, and becomes 5 days of checking off items on a list and running around to every person employed in the office. When I came to the box checked “surrender passport” I thought, I have my personal passport, thats all I need. It wasn’t until a week later it occurred to me that this personal passport was full of blank pages. I immediately emailed the boss at head quarters, requesting a copy of the stamped page. Reply states “ Sorry, your passport has been returned to Washington DC. Call the US Embassy. Good Luck.” “oh crap….”
I called the Embassy 3 times before I got a live person, in the form of a harsh American accent with a southern twang. “Ummm… yeah Jenifer…let me check…” he mumbles into the phone. I hear some shuffling as he rests the phone on his chest and yells down the hall “HEY STEVE! STEVE! There’s a Peace Corps chick on the phone… she doesn’t have a stamp… can she get in trouble for that?” I laugh to myself as I pull the phone a safe distance from my ear. “ummm… Jenifer…” he says. “It’s Ginger, but yes?” I respond. “ Yeah, we aren’t sure… you should probably go down to the ministries of Home Affairs and get that sorted out; oh and you should probably get a letter from the PC.” hopeless, I think to myself as I hang up the phone. I email back the big boss at the PC office and request a letter.
It’s been 2 weeks since my “Oh shit” moment, and 3 weeks since I quit the PC and have been in the country without any kind of entry stamp. As I head to the ministry of Home affairs I’m a little nervous- I have a bad feeling sinking in the pit of my stomach. George and I walk up to the old, dirty concrete building. It’s 6 stories of solid concrete slabs, it looks like a basement rising above street level. The sidewalk is broken into pieces, and the gravel is slippery underfoot. As we pass through the chain-link fence with the barbed wire coils on top, I am happy to have George with me. There is no signs or directions to lead us to the right place. If I was alone I would be lost already- I would avoid this windowless building that stands solid and as welcoming as a prison block.
We enter and pass through crowds of people gathered around the reception desk and carry on through a dark hallway. Everything is dark, and dingy. Wires hang through missing tile holes in the ceiling, and piles of old papers, broken lights, spare parts seem to collect in every recess. We are looking for a door that says “stamp extension”, as we shimmy past lines of people waiting aimlessly by locked doors.
We find the door, and George enters first slinging a few words of Siswati. The room is tiny and claustrophobic with worn desks, filing cabinets and a couple chairs which requires you to climb over a table before you can reach them. It is dark in this little room, despite the large window on the back wall. It smells like wet cement, mildew and old sweat. The woman behind the desk smiles a giant Swazi grin and asks for my passport. The smile slowly fades as she searches the empty pages in the back of the book. We start with the story, getting about 4 words in before she is out of her chair and trying to squeeze between us and the filing cabinets for the exit. We stand there, confused for a moment- do we follow? “COME!” she says with a slight hint of annoyance.
We follow her, without a word spoken, down the maze of dark hallways. She stops at randomly in open doorways and exclaims “Zodowa!?” and then continues to the next door. We continue trailing behind her, trying not to loss sight of this stout, round woman in the orange sweater in the confusion of the crowded, narrow hallway. Eventually we get to the end of the passage, and she throws my passport down on a cluttered desk, says a couple words and leaves. We stay with my passport.
We stand in the doorway of this office, waiting for someone to pick up the passport so we can try and explain again. An older woman, picks it up and begins to search through the clutter on the desk for an empty form. We stand there silently, like statues, waiting for her to speak first. Waiting… waiting… waiting. 10 minutes go by, 20 minutes go by… then she looks at George and explains in siswati she is waiting for a man to return with the right paperwork– we continue waiting. She calls me in once to explain why I had 2 passports, and I try as simply as possible to give my reasons. I feel good, that at least someone has asked me a question after all this time, and feel reassured that this isn’t as shady as it looks after all. As I lean back against the scuffed, dirty wall, George whispers, “she didn’t get anything you just said… not a word…” I let out a heavy sigh… “I’m going to be deported…” I think to myself.
We have been trapped in this cold, dank building for over an hour now. I’ve uttered literally a handful of words, and have no idea whats going on. I’m starting to panic, and feel like a lost child. The older woman finally emerges from the office, and explains to George in Siswati, that she is writing a statement for me, and I will have to pay a fine to get my stamp. George isn’t worried at all, he paraphrases the translation, and resumes his wall lean. My head is full of questions. What do you mean a “statement”? How much is the fine? How much longer is this going to take? She returns, and speaks again to George. I have no idea what she is saying but I hear the words “police station” and “finger printing”. WTF?! At this point I’m sweating bullets, and George calmly says, “don’t worry, it’s fine.” How can this be fine? What is written on this police statement the woman keeps waving around, but I haven’t read yet?
He explains to me that we are waiting for transportation to take us over to the police station, so we can pay the fine and then we can come back and get the stamp. After another 20 minutes of waiting we decide to tell her, we can just drive ourselves. This is a good plan, but how much is this fine? Turns out its more than what we have on us. We will need to call in a few favors from friends.
An hour goes by, running around town, finding the last few Rand for the fine. Once we have it, we return to the dungon. The older woman is heading into a meeting and explains the story to another younger woman. George pulls out the car keys and begins to walk toward the door, I stutter off behind him, followed by the younger woman who is carrying my passport and mysterious “statement”. When we are outside, I ask the woman, “may I see the statement?” she huffs, and then says simply, “No.” George is looking back over his shoulder with a worried look on his face, as I say “why not, it’s mine?”. “it’s the law” she says plainly and slightly shocked that I would question her answer. I’m about to continue my questioning, but george pulls me, next to him “if it’s the law, its the law” he says under his breath. I’m getting angry at this point- I can feel my blood boiling. We get in the car, headed toward the police station so I can pay a fine, and admit guilt for something- yet no one has told me what, or why and I have a suspicion George knows more than I do, because everyone is speaking directly to him is siswati. This is not the mood I want to walk into the police station with… but I can’t shake it.
We walk into the big, bright, empty lobby of the police station, a drastic change from the dark old building we have spent the morning in. The woman from immigration walks straight to the front desk and explains the situation (as much as she thinks she knows) and hands over my passport and secret statement of guilt. George then tells me he has to drop this woman back off and he will meet me back here. “WHAT?!” I think, “you’re leaving me here? Now?” As if he can read my thoughts he says “ please, try and stay calm. You will be fine. Just remember to be very respectful here.” This only makes me more angry, but I don’t have time to think about it as a huge police officer is directing me to the back hallway, to an office in the far corner. I’m sure this is the last time I’m going to see George without metal bars in front of me. I’m about to be arrested as a spy or something, but I obey, and walk down the barren hallway to the appointed office.
I enter and sit in a chair directly in front of the officer, who is busy looking down at some paperwork. She asks me a couple questions, and I answer as best and simply as I can. Then she hands me the secret statement and draws an X at the bottom of the page. “sign” she says. “can I read it?” I ask, remembering a movie I saw once about a couple of tourists in a foreign prison who signed something they didn’t read, and ended up spending 30 years locked inside. She looks at me cross-eyed, like this is a CRAZY request, “No. Just sign.” she states matter of factually. I have given up, so I sign, pay my fine and she escorts me back to the front desk.
Two officers are bent over the counter looking at my passport and a few papers I haven’t seen before. I try and listen in but all I hear is “section 4b….subsection 2c…14f…” they most notice me standing there aimlessly, because they turn over the papers and direct me to the benches on the far side of the lobby. I sit there, angry, confused, scared, shaking my leg so hard my boots are clicking against the tiles on the floor, and echoing through out the station. I don’t care in the slightest.
George enters shortly after, and I am both relieved and irritated to see him. Mad that he left me alone; that he knows more than me and that he can speak siswati in general, but happy for those same reasons too. Another officer begins to approach me and stops half way into the lobby to becon me. I stand, and follow her. I can’t even think to speak right now; there are so many emotions running though my brain, I fear if I open my mouth I’m going to scream or burst into tears- best to keep quiet. Entering another room, I’m put in a Que for finger printing. It’s over in few minutes and I leave with the black ink smudged on my fingertips- a souvenir for the day.
Shortly after we collect my passport and a receipt for my paid fine, to take back to the Home Affairs offices. We walk straight through the front lobby, and go back to the first woman in the orange sweater. I honestly can’t take anymore of this today, and I’m praying she is the last task of the day as we enter the tiny little office. She laughs to see us again, and talks to George. They carry on talking, as she finds a page in the back of my passport and stamps it. THANK GOD! I nearly exclaim out loud. I don’t even care what they are talking about, I have my stamp.
We leave, and I am more than ready to sprint to out the front door and straight to the car, but instead, we go to another office. He explains that he asked about an extension on my stamp so we don’t have to do this again for a while, that we intend on getting married, and he wants to keep me around. So now we have to go collect a few more forms for a visitors pass. At least this round is stress free. We look over the forms in the car and it seems pretty straight forward, a few questions, photos and a medical check. The medical form is the best part, and provides a well deserved laugh as it states:
“ I hereby certify that I have examined _____ and find that he/she is not mentally or physically defective in any way except _____ that he/she is not an idiot, epileptic, insane, mentally deficient, deaf and dump (no I didn’t spell that wrong…) deaf and blind or dump and blind and that he/she is not suffering from leprosy, tuberculosis, or trachoma.”
Apparently they are very concerned with having blind people, or “dump idiots” in the Kingdom.
At the end of the day, things went smoothly. Although it amazes me the lack of communication involved in the entire process, and further convinced me that US government officials sent to Swaziland must have done something worthy of banishment in their prior offices, because they are completely unreliable. If for some reason I am wrongly convicted of a crime while here, please send me lots of chocolate and earplugs (so cockroaches don’t lay eggs in my ears), because I will surely be there for a long time. For now, I am legally a visitor in the Kingdom of Swaziland… and I still intend on going across the border to celebrate Georges Birthday 🙂