July 29th 2015
I roll over and fumble to silence my unnecessarily obnoxious alarm. I peer at my phone’s tiny screen: 5am on Thursday morning. Blearily, I role out of bed and trip over piles of clothes to reach the washroom. After splashing my face I stumble back into my room – slightly more alert – and start haphazardly tossing the clothes into my backpack. I guess I’ll worry about outfits when I get there. Who packs the night before, am I right?
The reason for the early morning and the last minute packing is that today Jeremy, Shelby and I are finally going to Rwanda! My amazingly awesome, fun, cool friends Erica and William happen to live in Kigali, and they graciously invited us to come visit. So, at precisely 6am, we load our bags into the taxi waiting outside.
In Canada, a 6am ride to the airport would probably mean seeing a few other cars, and maybe some early morning joggers. But not in Kampala: in the 45 minute trip to the airport we drove through markets already bustling with people, while kids in uniform trekked to school on the dusty road. I guess now I know why it’s always too loud to sleep in!
After navigating the busy markets we arrive at the airport two and a half hours before our flight. We congratulate each other for being so on the ball. Heck, the security hasn’t even opened yet! Little did we know what we were in for. Here’s the breakdown of our airport adventure:
7am – Once the security opens, we stroll over to the check in counter. We’d been told that we had to apply for a visa three days before departure, so on Monday evening we dutifully filled out the online form (alright, mayyybe I did mine Tuesday morning. Always the procrastinator). Anyways soon after, we received an email asking for our letter of invitation, so we hastily messaged William and he whipped one up. I updated my application, and Wednesday night my visa was confirmed. Perfect. At that point Shelby and Jeremy hadn’t gotten their visas yet, but we figured it was no big deal and we could take care of it at the airport. But boy were we wrong.
Fun fact: Canadians are actually the only people who have to do the online application before going to Rwanda. We are the only ones who need a letter of invitation from someone within the country. Why? Because after the Rwandan genocide the Canadian government pissed off the wrong people by harboring some suspected perpetrators. Even though Rwanda no longer has DCO status, these potential perpetrators had their Rwandan citizenship revoked, and faced persecution if they returned. So, Canada took them under their wing. Much to the disgruntlement of the Rwandan government.
Of course we didn’t know any of this background when we showed up at the airport. All we knew was that the airport staff wouldn’t give Jeremy and Shelby their boarding passes until they saw their visas. Which they didn’t have. We tried to explain that they had applied three days beforehand, and even gave them the two tracking numbers. The airport staff took these, and went to make some calls to Rwandan immigration. They told us to wait…(famous last words).
7:30am – We’re told to keep waiting. Our flight doesn’t leave until 9:30am, so no rush. The airport has free wifi, so everything is fine.
8am – The airport staff ask for our letter of invitation, which they scan and send to Rwandan immigration. They say they’ll hear back soon. We’re feeling optimistic.
8:30am – The man who was helping us tells us his shift is over, but that he’s told his co-workers our story and they’re looking after it. He wishes us luck.
8:45am – The new staff member comes and asks us for Shelby and Jeremy’s tracking numbers. We explain that we’d already given it to the guy before. This gets us nowhere, so we give it to him again. We’re back to square one. The man asks to borrow one of our cell phones since his is out of phone money, and he makes a call. He hangs up, looks at us, and casually tells us that the visas won’t be processed until tomorrow so we’ll just have to fly out then.
I’m sorry, WHAT?
Obviously, at this point we’re trying to stay calm but we’re more than a little panicky. What does he mean we can’t fly out until tomorrow?! Our flight leaves in less than an hour!
We get the number the man had just called in order to speak to the Rwandan side directly. The man on the other end tells us there is nothing he can do, but he can give us the number of immigration. He hangs up. He hasn’t given us the number.
The airport staff tells us that our best bet is for me to get on the flight and to try to reason with immigration when I get to Kigali. “Great”, I think “I’ll just hop on a plane and leave Shelby and Jeremy behind. THAT makes sense”. Also, that’s a telling sign about Entebbe Airport if the best way to get something done is to go somewhere else…
Alternatively, we’re told to go to the RwandAir office and cancel our flights. We can rebook when they get their visas. Grudgingly, we head up there to do so, but we haven’t given up yet. We start calling everyone we think can help: Erica, William, the Canadian consulate, the guy with the immigration number. No answers.
9am – The Rwandan immigration number is texted to us. Jeremy calls – the woman on the other end doesn’t speak English. I call – I get far enough to learn that the lady on the other end is named Gertrude. She asks what I want to talk to her about.
Ok, so wrong number. Jeremy is pissed. I’m pissed at him for being pissed. Shelby quietly hands us chocolate. We try to breathe.
9:15am – Our flight leaves in 15 minutes. Erica calls me back. I tell her the story, explaining how for some reason it’s going to take a whole extra day to send an email, and in the meantime we’re stuck at the airport. She’s apologetic and confused (in the background I can hear W swearing). Erica tells us William will go to immigration and try to get the visas fast tracked.
9:36am – We cancel our flights. The man at the desk tells us it’ll cost us each USD 100 to rebook them. Our blood temperatures are rising – we don’t have that money to spare, but what can we do? We go back downstairs and wait for William to call.
10:09am – William calls. Good news! He kicked up enough of a fuss to get the visa process sped up. They should be emailed within half an hour. Phew.( It isn’t until later that we find out that he accidentally – and then purposefully – told immigration that there were three kids stuck in the airport in Kampala trying to get on a flight. Whatever works right?)
When William hears about us having to pay a fee, he says he’ll head to the RwandAir office in Kigali to see what he can do. We wait for him to call.
10:48am – The visas arrive via email. No word from William, but the next flight to Kigali leaves at noon. We have to act fast if we want to get on it. We decide to go try to get on the next flight, and pray that William gets back to us before we have to pay.
10:51am – We ask the man at the RwandAir office if we can get on the next flight, and he responds by making two unrelated calls and sending three emails. Finally he looks up and tells us that the gates have already closed for the noon flight. He says they close at 11 – it’s 10:58.
At this point I’m mad. Through clenched teeth I tell him there must be something he can do. He looks at my red face, picks up the phone, says a few words, puts it back down. He says we can make it but we’ll have to run! No mention yet of the extra fees.
11:02am – We’re back at check in, showing the new woman there the visas on Jeremy’s computer. She sees that he doesn’t have the official copy, and instead only a screenshot that says ‘approved’. She tries to tell us it isn’t sufficient. She calls over the manager. Having witnessed our whole fiasco, the manager looks at the screenshot, looks at Jeremy’s shaking hands, and decides to let us through. We rush to the baggage drop area, where there’s a line.
11:16am – I have my ticket and my bag has gone through. A police officer cuts in front and gets his ticket. Jeremy and Shelby step up to get theirs. The system shuts down. Great.
The two staff casually sit back, calmly debating what to do. We tap our fingers – our flight leaves in 45 minutes. The next one won’t leave until 5pm. After what feels like hours, they each pull out manual boarding passes and start laboriously filling them out. The woman ‘helping’ Shelby asks her the same question four times.
11:25am – Tickets are done, bags are checked. William calls: he just talked to the manager on our end, who told him the ‘Morgan girl’ had just gone through. He apologized about the confusion, and said we wouldn’t have to pay a penny (or in this case a shilling).
11:39am – We’re through security. We’re at the gate. She’s taking our tickets. She’s motioning for us to board the plane. All seems to be in order. Do we dare congratulate each other or will that jinx it?
In some sort of airport shuffle, the lady who had been checking Shelby in is also collecting our boarding passes on the plane. No wonder she wasn’t in a rush! Given the lack of emphasis on time here, all the airport staff must have been bemused by the stressed, red faced mzungus who were kicking up all the fuss.
We’re on the plane. The pane is taking off. We did it!
8:30pm – We’re sipping cocktails at an art gallery overlooking the hills of Kigali and recounting the morning’s adventures to Erica and William’s friends. Everyone laughs, and we chalk it up to just another travel adventure. What a life!
In conclusion, here are the lessons I learned from our airport fiasco:
1) Don’t piss off the Rwandan government.
2) Show up five hours before your flight.
3) William is the best person to have in a pinch.
4) Don’t take no for an answer.
5) Always have chocolate handy.