Rwanda - Visa Issues and the Plastic Bag Police

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Rwanda  ,
Friday, April 20, 2007

Finally, sadly, but full of great memories and friendships, I left Uganda. My last night at Backpackers, the staff along with some other friends, threw a good bye party for me. It was a feast, and all out their own pockets. I was touched and mean it when I say that some of the best people I have met in my life, I met in Uganda.

But, after almost five months, it was time to get on the road again. I bought the ticket, and early in the morning caught my last boda-boda ride in Uganda to the Jaguar bus station. All the way down to the border, I debated whether or not to stop just before the border and spend the weekend in Lake Buyouni. I had heard constantly just how beautiful the lake was, and was interested in staying. As the bus approached Kabale, the connecting stop, I decided I would ride it all the way to Kigali. After all, I had spent five months in Uganda, and my visa expired on this day, so I thought I would play it safe and leave by the day specified. As a point of remembrance, when I had returned from Nairobi, I had asked for and received a three month visa so I would not have to leave the country again in a month. Though reluctant to issue, my stupendous flirting with the female customs agent had netted me three months. Or so I thought.

The bus pulled up to the border, and everyone began the typical customs shuffle - line up, stamp out of the country, walk across no man's land, be hassled by money changers and kids asking for your change from the country you are leaving, reach the new country's customs office, wait in line, smile extremely politely, hand your passport over, wait, pay for your visa, avoid more money changers, find your bus, hope no one stole your big bag underneath the bus, get on the bus, finally move on in new country full of hopes and dreams. This time was a little different.

I stood in line and finally reached the front of the queue. Facing me was another female customs agent. This one did not look like the flirting type. She held out my hand for my passport while I waited with a pleasant, if slightly vacant, look on my face. She stared down at my most recent visa, and then snapped "This says three weeks."

"What? No, I'm sorry. It's three months. I asked for a three month visa at the border at Busia. They gave it to me. It's three months."

"It's three weeks. Right here." She held up my passport, and sure enough, the sprawling handwriting on the visa that I could not read for the last three months suddenly transformed before my eyes into an inarguable "Three wks".

"Oh, I'm sorry. I asked for three months. They told me three months. I think it's for three months."

"Three weeks." There was a distinctly unfriendly edge in her voice. Technically, there were any number of outcomes this state of affairs could have, including such things as fines, or even being arrested and detained for a while. In this situation, I did what I have discovered is a reasonably successful strategy when dealing with any government official in developing countries (for that matter, many developed countries as well), I smiled like and looked as stupid as possible. It's amazing the effect that simply standing, being quiet, and looking as happy and stupid as a seriously inbred cocker spaniel can have on a person. I stood there, the line growing longer and more restless behind me, smiling and shrugging my shoulders. The customs agent's angry accusations and demands simply bounced off me. She looked over my shoulder at the increasingly agitated line, and then with a sound of disgust, gave me back my passport and told me to leave. Stupidity wins again.

I quickly made my way over to the Rwandan side of the border. After a very pleasant and completely uncomplicated procedure, my passport was stamped and I was welcomed into the country. As I walked over to the bus, I noticed my bag and a few others were on the ground. A customs officer was there, waiting for the owners of the bags so they could be searched for contraband or dangerous and illegal substances. Little did I know the threat to Rwandan national security I was carrying.

The guard gestured to me to open my bag. I unclipped the top, and opened the bag. On the top of my bag were my dirty sandals wrapped in a plastic bag to keep rest of my gear clean. The guard immediately went stiff, and said "You can't have that! They are illegal. You need to get rid of it now!"

"What? My sandals are illegal?" I asked, somewhat confused.

"No. That plastic bag. No plastic bags are allowed in Rwanda. You must get rid of it now."

Now, I admit, I was a bit surprised. This was the first country I had ever been to where they seemed more concerned about people smuggling plastic bags than, say, drugs or firearms. Then I thought, "Good for Rwanda. What a forward thinking policy. This country must be more environmentally aware than any other country I'm come across. Yes, it's annoying to have to stuff my mud caked sandals into the rest of my bag, but if it's for the environment, well then, a small sacrifice."

I took my sandals out, pushed them down on top of my bag, and turned with the plastic bag in hand, ready to do my civic duty. "Where should I put this officer?" I asked.

"Oh, just throw it down on the ground anywhere. It's ok."

In the words of Blood Diamond, TIA (This Is Africa).

Environmental menace so efficiently dealt with, we continued to Kigali.

(Postscript: In the last few weeks, I have noticed that Rwanda is undoubtedly the cleanest country I have visited. Walk the streets of Kigali, the capital, and you are hard pressed to find anything litter at all. Frankly, it is impressive.

As another note, in case you think I'm exaggerating this story, this is a practice enforced beyond the borders. While riding on buses around Rwanda, there are sporadic police checks in which police get on the bus and randomly demand to see inside of people's bags. More than a few times, I have seen or heard people quietly panicking, afraid their plastic bags would be discovered, stuffing them under seats, or down the front of pants. Viva la resistance.)
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