While I have enjoyed almost every single minute on the road and have truly appreciated the dozens of emails that have gone something like “sounds great! Wish I was out there doing the same thing,” there are then days like today.
I wish it was all wine and roses out here. Alas, it is not. Traveling overland through Africa can occasionally be a bit of a chore.
As many of you know, I am in Nairobi. Although, in my opinion, this city appears to have gotten a little bit of a bad rap (its referred to as Nairobbery by many), I really don’t want to spend too much time here. I am ready to push north as soon as possible. The problem is that I need a visa to get through Sudan — and that is supposedly not an easy thing for an American to get.
So I set today out to get started on that process. And I wanted to try to find my way around Nairobi a bit on foot — since its appeared to be pretty safe to me in the downtown area the last few days — and since the Sudan Embassy appeared on the Lonely Planet map to only be 7-8 blocks away.
I got started around 10 a.m. this morning. I walked around the corner to where the Sudan Embassy was on the map. I didn’t see any sign for the embassy where it was supposed to be. I asked a couple security guards in the area where it was. They gave me some complicated directions that seemed to indicate the embassy was 4-5 kilometers away.
Let me pause at this point and make a quick point about asking directions in Africa. Everyone here is INCREDIBLY helpful. Everyone wants to help you find whatever you are looking for. I probably have asked for directions 50 times or more in the last 4-6 weeks. I have yet to ever get a “I don’t know” as a reply. Every single time, the person I ask just starts kicking some directions back to me.
Problem is that about 75% of the time, the person I am asking has no idea what they are talking about. I’ve talked to a number of travelers about this phenomenon and it happens to everyone else all the time also. There is something about the African mindset that thinks it is better to try to help you, even if they have no really effective way to actually provide help. Its nice, in its way, but its also a little frustrating.
So, I trundle off in the direction that these guards told me to go, but I was thinking to myself, “my guidebook is only 2 years old, what is the chance that an entire embassy has moved in that time frame?” When I got about two blocks away, I ran into a policeman and asked him for directions also. He pointed me back to where I came from and basically told me it was in a high rise building at the same place my guidebook indicated. I turned back around and went to the building.
I got inside and asked the security guy at the desk what floor the embassy was on and he told me. . . the embassy had moved about 4-5 kilometers away. OK, so the original security guards next door were right and the cop was wrong (though all of them sounded equally convinced they were 100% right — which makes deciding on which directions to follow a bit difficult). The guy at the desk told me I could take the number 8 bus right to the embassy. Well, not really a bus per se, more like a run-down van, but just as effective. Just tell the driver on the bus to let me off at the Sudan Embassy. The number 8 bus stopped only a couple blocks away.
I found a number 8 van and asked the driver about the Sudan Embassy. He told me it was on his route. I paid my 20 shillings (about 25 U.S. cents) and felt pretty proud of myself that I wasn’t going to pay about 750 shillings for cab. A short while later, the driver told me to get out and pointed down the road.
I walked down the road a little bit and the Sudan Embassy was right there. I walked up to the front gate and asked about a visa. A very, very nice guy came out in a few minutes and told me that part of the embassy was closed for the day. It was about 1 p.m. That part of the embassy is only open from 9 a.m. until noon. I asked him how many days it would take me to get a visa and he said “two.” I asked again to make sure and he repeated it back to me.
Right now, I am literally knocking on wood in the internet cafe. I’m hoping that just writing that hasn’t jinxed me.
He said, “just make sure you have all your stuff in order. It is fast here. Don’t worry.” I asked him what I needed, just to be sure. Passport. Two passport photos. Money. And a letter from my NGO saying how long I was going to be working in Sudan.
I told him I wasn’t going to be working for an NGO there. I was just traveling through quickly. He said it might help me to get a letter from my embassy saying that. OK — I thanked him profusely and told him I’d see him tomorrow morning. I then looked on my map for where the U.S. embassy was. It was outside of town on the other side of town — looked to be about 6-7 kilometers away on the map.
Knowing a cab would cost me an arm and a leg, if I could even find one over on this side of town, I decided to take another number 8 bus back into town and either take a cab from there or find my way via bus/van to the U.S. embassy.
The van took me back downtown. I asked a couple cabbies how much to the U.S. embassy. Everyone told me 1,000 shillings ($12-13 U.S. dollars or so). I’ve been overbudget for a while and was getting pretty cocky about navigating via the bus/van thing, so I said screw that and went around asking van drivers and such which one I needed to take to get to the U.S. embassy.
It was about 2:30 at this time. I gave myself about a half hour to see if I could figure out what van to take. After asking around for a bit, I came to a semi-consensus (like getting directions, figuring things out like this by asking locals needs to be done on a triangulation basis — ask 4-5 people and see if most of the signs point the same way). Consensus was the number 11 van, and most people thought I could find one a couple blocks away. Which I did.
Out to the other side of town, which is a beautiful, tree covered neighborhood, with a number of embassies in the area. Found the U.S. Embassy around 3:30. As I was walking up to the security gate, I literally muttered to myself, “let’s hope that U.S. embassy personnel actually keep moderately real office hours.”
Nope. The office that does U.S. citizen assistance closes at 3 p.m.
Now look, those of you that know me, know that I was very prone to having quite short office hours myself. That is, when I felt like working at all. But when I was a government employee, I actually did show up at the office from 8 to 5 or 9 to 5. I was getting paid by taxpayer money — I thought it was usually a good idea to at least be there.
I want a foreign service job when I’m done with this trip.