How Do I get to Timbuktu?

It was all arranged so meticulously. I was to make the road trip from Nairobi to Namanga, where I’d cross the border from Kenya back to Tanzania. Another car and driver would meet me on the Tanzanian side to take me back to Arusha, and then on to Dar Es Salaam. I’d had a wonderful trip, travelling around Zanzibar before going to Nairobi and then the Maasai Mara. I was ready to go back to Dar Es Salaam, I missed my aunt and uncle. My hosts were a lovely young Gujarati couple in Nairobi, friends of my uncle (he has loads of them, all around the world). They had made my stay welcoming and comfortable. Now I was ready to get back to the house on Magore Street.

It’s true what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men…The drive was uneventful. We joined the queue at the border. My driver Paul said he’d make contact with his counterpart on the other side, so he’d be ready for me the minute I walked out the Tanzanian immigration building. I walked in to the Kenyan border post and had a friendly chat with the immigration officer as he stamped my passport. Then I walked up the few hundred yards that made up the no-man’s-land between the two border posts. When I got to the immigration building a peon of some sort said I had to wait outside till the officer was done with the bunch of tourists already in there. So I waited. And waited. It was taking inordinately long. I could see the air-conditioned coach they had come on, idling as it waited too. No one would tell me what was going on. Finally a group of 11 English men and women came out, quiet as can be, got on the bus and it chugged into the other side as a guard opened the Tanzanian gates.

I could go in now, so I went. Inside the building was an immigration officer at a rickety looking desk. He was rocking back in his chair with a big grin on his face. He waved me over and silently held his hand out for my passport. Without looking up at me he said “can’t enter Tanzania”. I’m pretty sure I squealed like a stuck pig at this point. “Your visa is cancelled” he said. “That can’t be right ” I said unwisely. He gave me a look that could have killed at two paces and flung my passport across the desk at me. “Next” he called loudly to the peon at the door. I had been dismissed. Already another group was entering the building. I looked at him in real distress but he refused to catch my eye. I stepped out and walked back towards the Kenyan post, beckoning to Paul. When he reached the gates I told him what had happened and that I was at a total loss what to do. “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it” he said. After a word with the Kenyan guard Paul asked me to walk back to the Tanzanian. With great dread, I trekked back there.

Paul went in the moment the group from inside exited. I stood there wringing my hands like a blithering idiot. Finally Paul emerged but he was looking downcast. He said he had tried everything with the man from begging to offering a bribe but nothing had worked. Another clerk inside had finally told him that no bribe would work this day. The English coach group ahead of me had harboured one with a South African visa. The man had demanded a huge bribe in Pound Sterling  from each of the eleven and was now sated. He need not take a single bribe for the rest of the month, the envious clerk had said. It was 1989, Nelson Mandela was still in prison and many African countries denied entry to anyone showing a South African visa.

Even as I took in these details my mind shut down. What could I possibly do? Telling Paul to wait there, I went in for a last ditch effort at reaching the man’s heart. I approached him cautiously, like he was a caged bear. “Sir” I said. The Indian in me knows the power of that word, specially on those least deserving of respect. He looked up, bored. He yawned hugely and did that rocking thing with his chair again. He called me over and asked me to sit. He took my passport again and studied it. “Still can’t get in. Still cancelled”, he said and smiled at his own cleverness. I knew the time had come to grovel. I couldn’t reach his acquisitiveness, perhaps I could reach his compassion. “Please sir”, I said in my most obsequious tone, “surely you can make it happen if anyone can “.  He looked up again but his cat-that-got -the-canary look was back. “But I won’t” he said in a tone of such finality. I was almost in tears by now. “Please sir?” I said again. He looked away and said “go now”. I’m pretty sure I was a genuinely pitiful sight because I felt like I was on the rack and he was  tightening the screws. “But where will I go sir?” I asked him. “Go to Timbuktu” he said callously.

I was aghast at his attitude. He turned away from me and picked up a file from his table. I stepped into the sunshine in a daze. What was I to do now? By now I was openly crying. I wasn’t a seasoned traveller, just a young woman on the adventure of a lifetime. A hand on my elbow made me look up. It was big, kindhearted Paul, he had waited. He led me back to the Kenyan side and took me to the small border post. Inside, he spoke softly to the officer on duty and gave him my passport. Through these exchanges I was a basket case, unable to focus on anything. “Miss would you like a drink?” the officer asked me. You could have struck me down with a feather. The Kenyan was being nice to me! The contrast was shocking. He called me over to the desk and said “Don’t worry, you’re welcome  in Kenya. You’re not the first visitor to sent back from that building”. He was busy with my passport and handed it back to me with a smile. I was so profuse in my thanks, he had to smile. “It’s all right, just doing my job” he said as he waved at me.

OK so now I  have a restored Kenyan visa but what do I do? In the end, Paul decided for me. We are going back to Nairobi he said and took me back to the cab. Back I went to my hosts in Nairobi. They were gobsmacked to see me back. Then began a series of phone calls between my host and my uncle. When I got to finally talk to my uncle, I burst into a fresh round of tears. Hearing the familiar voice was enough to turn me into a snivelling idiot once more. He told me he’d fix it, not to worry for another minute. So I spent a nervous couple of days in Nairobi waiting to get back to Dar Es Salaam and be with my uncle and aunt again. I got on that flight in Nairobi, a mass of nerves. I should have known better. When I got off the flight, there was my uncle at the gate, as dapper and suave as always. I rushed up to him and his smiling face calmed me down. He had an official looking man with him. “This is Mr. —- from the Prime Minister’s office and this is my niece”, my uncle said introducing us as casually as if we’d met at a cocktail party. The man smiled and said ‘welcome to Tanzania. I am sorry for your troubles at Namanga” he said. In the blink of an eye all my misgivings about Tanzania were shelved. We were taken into the Immigration Hall where an officer stamped my passport with a flourish and I was free to walk out into the sunshine of Dar Es Salaam. I felt as if I had escaped prison.

At home, in Magore Street, I looked with pleasure at all the familiar things, the Zairean parrots screeching away, the banana plants in the backyard laden with fruit as my aunt plied me with the most delicious fish curry and rice. It was the best food I’d ever tasted. My uncle told me that the immigration office was taking a no-holds barred look at the Namanga immigration post and the officer would be dealt with properly. I felt no sympathy for the man who had cavalierly told me to go Timbuktu. In hindsight, I think I should have asked him what time that bus left. At the time though, I had no room for sarcastic thoughts. I’d been busy being a sniveling idiot.

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2 Comments

Filed under Travel Stories

2 responses to “How Do I get to Timbuktu?

  1. Sandhya

    From Asia to Africa to Australasia to America. Now there should be no looking back. Make Atlanta Daily World your next stop!! Best wishes!

  2. Sandhya

    From Asia to Africa to Australasia to America. Now there should be no looking back. Make Atlanta Daily Herald your next stop. Best wishes!

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