As I was traveling and sharing my itinerary with friends I would meet along the way, I would mention that I was going to Africa and specifically Kenya. Every single person I had met had either been mugged themselves or had never been and only had friends who were mugged while in Kenya. I had a panic attack about safety and decided to book a proper overlanding tour (more on that later) through Kenya and Ethiopia to ensure safety. As of writing this, I made it out of Nairobi without getting mugged and I consider it a personal victory.
But I arrived in Nairobi the evening before my tour group met and I was talking to someone about my trip. When I mentioned Ethiopia they asked about applying for their visa. I responded that I would just get it at the border, because in my notes it said “Ethiopia – Visa on Arrival.” She informed me that Ethiopia only issues visas on arrival at the airport and now I was going overland and could not get the visa on arrival. Interesting. Panic set in.
The next morning was a Sunday, but it was my only day in Nairobi, a big city with resources, to get shit done. I knew I only had two options: 1) Beg the Ethiopian Embassy in Kenya to give me a visa or 2) Ship my passport back to the U.S. and then get it sent to the border town in rural Kenya. Both seemed titanically impossible so I set about the first.
The Ethiopian Embassy was closed on Sunday, but when I talked to someone from the tour company, they said to try the American Embassy to see if they could help at all. I went to the new American Embassy (if you remember in 1998 the U.S. Embassy in Kenya did not fare so well) and arrived at the gates. A Kenyan security guard greeted me there and asked if I had a badge. I told her no, but I have my passport. She told me I was not allowed in without a badge.
I may or may not have made a scene.
WHAT!?!?! I AM AN AMERICAN CITIZEN IN CRISIS! MY EMBASSY SHOULD ALWAYS BE OPEN TO ME! I REFUSE TO LEAVE WITHOUT TALKING TO AN AMERICAN!!!!!
I’m sorry, sir, but that is not possible. No one is in the office today.
At the moment, two Americans sauntered out of the embassy wearing badges. They obviously worked there.
CLEARLY THERE ARE PEOPLE AT THE OFFICE! I DEMAND TO SPEAK TO SOMEONE!!!
After about 15 minutes more of this, I won, and was let in… through the first gate. At the second gate, I was greeted by more Kenyan security guards. They asked me why I was there. I explained my need of an Ethiopian visa and they said that no one at the embassy could help me. Instead of repeating my explosion, I took the calm route, because clearly they could already tell that this crazy white man was not taking no for an answer. I explained that if they were traveling in the U.S. and had a problem and went to the Kenyan Embassy and were told it was closed for two days, that they would be upset too. Traveling crises don’t happen on a Monday-Friday 9-5 schedule. They agreed and after about 30 minutes of negotiating, I was able to talk to the on-duty Marine posted at gate 3 who then connected me TO THE ON-CALL EMERGENCY PERSON WHO I KNEW EXISTED THE WHOLE TIME!!! I understand the guards were just doing their jobs, but it was very frustrating. Ultimately, the on-call person told me that they couldn’t really help me, but would write down that there may be an American citizen stranded at the border. Thanks.
I spent the whole night trying to find contact information in Moyale, the tiny border town between Kenya and Ethiopia. On my third attempt, I ended up connecting a couple of dots and locating the main expat hotel in this small town and I found a phone number for it. When I asked them how to ship something to them, they responded that you actually had it shipped to a private bus company in Nairobi (which I later found out was actually owned by the hotel) and then your package rides the bus up to the border.
The next morning, my tour left without me and I told them I would meet up with them in the afternoon. I then went to the Ethiopian Embassy. I waited an hour for them to open and almost as soon as I started filling out my first form I was briskly turned away. They also did not seem to catch my hints about a bribe. Plan #1 was not going to work.
I then set off for the mysterious bus company. Most of my time in Nairobi was spent in the fancy ex-pat districts with posh shopping malls and embassies lining the streets. This bus company was on the East side, which is to say, my taxi driver parked and I climbed over a pile of trash taller than myself to cross to the bus company. When I talked to them about shipping something to them, they acted like it happened every day and of course they could send up to Moyale. I then raced back to other side of town, went to FedEx, paid a surprisingly small amount of money to ship my passport from Kenya to the States and then a surprisingly large amount of money (4x as much!) to pay for the return postage. A couple hours later, my taxi met up with the group and the waiting game began.
As I write this, I am without my passport and without internet, only hoping that it makes it to the border. God speed.
UPDATE: I made it to Ethiopia, but Part II is even better – and by better I mean I threw another tantrum.