Tuesday, July 6, 2010

On borders

I know this is a little out of sequence, but bear with me... I'll get to visiting my homestay family soon.


I hate borders.

That’s not an existential commentary on the arbitrary divisions of our world (that’s a whole other post); it’s just a gut-level truth. Borders scare me to death. I have PTSD from a certain incident at the Montana/Alberta border in early 2008, and now, every time I approach a border or a customs official, I come over all clammy and jumpy, convinced they're going to reject me out of hand.

It doesn’t help that most officials at borders tend to be brusque at best and Grade-A douchebags at worst. From the perspective of someone who derives a disproportionate amount of happiness in life from crossing borders, these power-tripping mouth-breathers - who can decide my immediate future on a whim - are pretty much Public Enemy #1.

The result of this paranoia is that when I disembarked in Nairobi a month ago and approached the customs official to get my visa, I was a bundle of guilty-looking tension, all forced cheeriness and eye-averting nerves. Partly this was because I was planning to come in on a tourist visa instead of a work or journalist visa, and I was sure the guy knew I was hiding something. He was not disarmed by my chipper attempt at a Swahili greeting, instead gazing black holes of suspicion into my soul. He grilled me about where I’d be staying, what organizations I’d be affiliated with (“Who is Salim Amin?” “Oh, I might do some volunteering with him before I go on safari…” And the thought bubble over my head read, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE LET ME IN!)

He eventually stamped my passport, of course, and I slumped with relief. Reprieved… until the next border crossing, three days ago, into Tanzania.

I was dreading this one for the usual reasons, but because I was coming by bus I also wondered how it would work if I was denied. The bus would continue on without me, and what, I’d just cool my heels until another bus passed by, heading back to Nairobi? It was a weekend, and my bus was packed. What if there wasn’t an open seat until Monday? Maybe I could hitch a ride with someone. Maybe a Maasai family would adopt me.

There was a cruel fake-out before we got to the border. We stopped and a guy in an official-looking uniform boarded the bus and took a cursory stroll up and down the aisle. I tried to blend in. (Mental image: me and twenty-nine Kenyans. Which of these is not like the others?) He left without looking at me twice and I allowed myself to hope that maybe this was just how it was done on the road border. Maybe I wouldn’t even have to pay the obscene visa fee.

Twenty minutes later, we reached the real border, and it was just as massive and imposing as the prison-like Albertan facility where the mustachio’d asshole with the Napoleon complex rejected me two and a half years ago. It was also swarming with con artists and taxi drivers and old Maasai women aggressively hawking jewelry. Here, sister, special price for you. You need to use the bathroom? Here, my friend, I will show you! And oh, by the way, that’ll be a hundred shillings. Zip up and pay up.

After getting my exit stamp on the Kenyan side, the actual border was alarmingly unsupervised. There was just a gate, and the Tanzanian customs office fifty yards away on the other side. I sidled through, kicking up a cloud of red dust and looking around in confusion, waiting for someone to swoop down and arrest me.

But nothing happened. I wandered into the Tanzanian office to get my visa, cautiously elated. The woman behind the desk asked me the purpose of my visit, and I replied in Swahili, “I stayed with a family in Tanzania four years ago, and I’ve come back to visit.”

Money exchanged hands. I waited on tenterhooks. A stamp stamped.

I was in!

The rest of the drive passed in a bumpy haze of glee (and dust… a lot more dust). I spotted white-topped Kilimanjaro in the distance. We sped past Maasai villages and lonely tall narrow figures stilting by in their crimson and purple shukas. My grin got bigger as I watched Mount Meru get closer.  

At last… back where it all started.

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