Mozambique was only supposed to be a transit country between Malawi and Zimbabwe on our tour of Africa, but I will forever remember it as the place that detained me for almost an hour at the border to Zimbabwe.
T.I.A. This Is Africa.
T.I.A. is a phrase that we use a lot to describe the frustrations of Africa. For instance, it is the most exciting thing ever if a toilet facility has running water, and pretty much unheard of for it to have toilet paper, soap, or paper towels. Grocery stores may or may not have the produce Charles, our amazing cook, needs for that day’s meals. We had to stock up on diesel before entering Malawi because there is none in the entire landlocked country due to the expense of getting it from the seaport in Mozambique.
There are huge, really weird and scary looking bugs absolutely everywhere, inside and outside (not to mention the annoying swarms of flies, moths, and mosquitoes). African time is like Italy time (nothing ever happens quickly or when it’s supposed to).
On this particular scorching hot (47 degrees Celsius!) day in Mozambique, we were stopped for a half hour as we waited for a crane to pull an overturned truck from across the road (the crane was unsuccessful, and we had to inch our way around the truck in order to get by). T.I.A.
We always sigh “T.I.A.” after going through the crowded border crossings between the southeastern African countries. The Mozambique border is notorious for being the most difficult border crossing. I found this out and more as I forked over my passport and yellow fever vaccination certificate to the Immigration Officer at the Mozambique/Zimbabwe border. Instead of letting me pass like she’d done for everyone ahead of me, she held onto my passport and vaccination certificate and started scrutinizing the certificate.
The people behind me, including my brother, were let through smoothly as I stood there waiting nervously. The Immigration Officer started whispering to the other Immigration Officer next to her, pointing at my certificate. What the heck could be wrong with it? I thought. I had gotten the required vaccination and my doctor had clearly signed it and even stamped it with his official looking stamp.
They called our tour guide Gino over, then escorted us both into what must have been their detention room. It was a tiny room with just a desk and chair and no windows. The Immigration Officers started discussing with each other something in very serious tones.
I had no idea what was going on as they were speaking in the official language of Mozambique, Portuguese. Thankfully, Gino’s native Spanish allowed him to keep track of the conversation.
He whispered to me that my doctor had mistakenly noted the date of my vaccination as 2012 instead of 2011. (Stupid doctor!) The Immigration Officer didn’t want to let me through the border unless I got another vaccination certificate.
There was no way in hell that I was going to let them poke me with a likely dirty needle full of the scary live yellow fever vaccination. I figured I’d just have to stay in Mozambique forever.
Gino kept eavesdropping on their conversation. After a few more tortuous minutes, I felt a bit of relief. Gino explained to me that they didn’t want me to get another vaccination – they understood that I had actually gotten the vaccination, that my doctor had merely made a mistake with the date – it was just that the corrupt system they were used to had influenced them to find any reason to pocket some money. They wanted me to pay $75 to “buy” a new certificate.
My naive travel mind assumed I’d have to pay to get through the border. Experienced Gino said there was no way I was going to pay – letting them get away with this encourages them to continue to do this to other visitors. A back-and-forth part Spanish, part Portuguese negotiation ensued, with me looking from Immigration Officer to Gino to Immigration Officer having no idea what my fate was going to be.
The Immigration Officer kept looking me up and down, then glancing at my American passport in her hand, then staring back at me with disdain. I tried to look confident, but my hesitant face and shaking legs probably gave me away. She really looked like she wanted to lock me up right then and there. I just really wanted her to give me my passport back so I could make a run for it.
Gino is apparently a genius at negotiating in Sportuguese (or Portugnol, as he calls it). After holding my passport and yellow fever certificate hostage for almost an hour, the Immigration Officer slowly handed them back to me, looking like she wished she was handcuffing me instead.
Gino and I booked it out of there. I was relieved to my bones – as was my brother, I think, when I finally reappeared. He had heard rumors that they were going to stick me with an African needle, but they wouldn’t let him back through the border to stop them.
A few important lessons were ingrained in my head from this experience. First, especially when traveling in the third world, it is important that all travel docs are perfect to a T before leaving home. (My legal-trained mind should have noticed the date discrepancy on my vaccination certificate, but I guess I’m out of practice.) Government officials are always looking for a reason, no matter how minor, to make some extra cash. Second, traveling with an experienced overland travel guide is a must for a naive traveler of Africa like myself. Without Gino, I may still be at the border in Mozambique wondering what the heck the officers wanted from me.
I was able to laugh about this nervewracking incident afterwards, especially when I realized I had been wearing my black-and-white-spotted, Victoria’s Secret “PINK”-rhinestoned, boxer short pajamas the whole time (due to our 4am start of the day).
Now we are in Zimbabwe (phew, I made it!), a country that so far seems much more developed and Western-influenced than the other African countries we have visited. Next stop: Matobo National Park!