Thursday, 3 April 2008

Sending my daughter to Siberia

Well, I’m not actually, but that’s where I would have sent her if I’d known beforehand the truly mindboggling hoops I’d have to jump through to get her a simple holiday visa to the USA, land of hope, glory and endless reams of paperwork.

I went to a real live travel agent to book my daughter’s ticket because I didn’t want to trawl through scores of websites to find a flight I could afford, and I knew that getting a visa would possibly be slightly complicated, so I wanted to hand over that onerous responsibility to someone who knows what she’s doing, as opposed to me, who last visited the States 15 years ago and is completely clueless.

The travel agent, a lovely woman with the most hair I’ve ever seen on a human being including people in circuses, found me a reasonably priced flight, did all sorts of typie-typie things on her computer, then declared the ticked booked. ‘You just have to get a visa,’ she said, smiling widely and looking just a bit like a coconut with a mouth painted on.

‘No, no,’ I said. ‘You must do that. That’s why I came to you.’

She shifted a large hank of hair out of her eyes and said, ‘Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t allow third parties to secure visas.’ I could tell by the way she said it that she said it quite often, and that it never made her clients very happy.

Oh well, I thought. It’s only a visa. How hard can it be?

As hard, as it turns out, as Mad Bob’s head.

Bear with me here.

First, you can’t just phone your nearest US Embassy in a friendly, enquiring manner and ask how to go about getting a visa. Oh, their number is there in the phone book, for all to see and use if they wish – but no-one answers the phone.

Rather, you must go to your nearest Pick’n’Pay and buy (yes, buy) a PIN number for the princely sum of R83. With the PIN number you’re given a Johannesburg phone number to call - so no sharecall and certainly no toll-free service, sorree for youuuu.

When you call that number, you’re guided through an annoyingly complicated process by a pre-recorded voice, creepily speaking with a South African accent but making all its Ts into Ds – ‘Make sure you’ve god your PIN number handy. Punch id in ad the sound of the tone. Wanna go to a pardy? Pud on your ten-gallon Sdedson and dans the nighd away.’ (Okay, not the last part, but that would have at least made it fun).

Finally, after punching keys on your phonepad like a speed-freaked accountant, you’re connected to a real live person, who informs you brusquely that you have nine minutes (and I have to wonder how they arrived at this apparently random time limit) to make your appointment – because all this costly phonecall does is secure the visa applicant face-time with an Embassy lacky, nothing more, nothing less.

During your nine allotted minutes you’re required to supply an awful lot of information, so you begin getting anxious and wondering if, when your time expires, you’ll be required to fork out another R83 to complete the conversation. (Simple answer: yes.) So you speak unnaturally fast, and there’s a lot of ‘Pardon?’s and ‘Please repeat that’s and ‘How do you spell that?’s, so it’s all quite stressful.

The first thing I asked was where the appointment would be held – because the person doing the travelling has to go for a personal interview to ‘secure a visa’ and I live 100km from the nearest city, so this is obviously a fairly vital bit of data where I am concerned – but the operator told me politely that he ‘wasn’t permitted’ to ‘divulge the address’ until I had ‘provided him with the requisite information’.

In heaven’s name, why? After I’d put down the phone, just out of interest I googled ‘US Embassies, South Africa’ and the address I’d been provided with popped up, right there on my screen. So any old oke with access to the Internet can find the address of the US Embassy in Westlake, Tokai (for anyone who’s interested), but a perfectly legitimate citizen who’s paid R83 for the privilege of actually getting the information isn’t allowed it until she’s blurted out her entire life history? It’s just madness.

Anyway. I got an appointment for my daughter for a few weeks hence, and then asked if there was any time available other than the crack of dawn because, I explained, I was coming from quite a way away, and there would be morning traffic, so making a 7.30am appointment meant I’d have to leave home at about 5.30 in the morning.

‘No,’ he said.

‘Why?’ I asked, near tears (and using up precious seconds of my nine minutes).

‘It’s not permitted,’ he said. (I could hear pages rustling. I think he read this response from a list of Snappy Answers to FAQs.)

Why in the name of all that crawls on god’s green earth would the only time available for a face-to-face interview be at 7.30 in the morning? Again, just crazy.

Ignoring the sound of my quiet sobbing, he then read out to me the remarkably long list of documentation my daughter would have to take with her for the interview: letters from her father (estranged, so that’s going to be interesting), myself and her school principal giving her permission to travel alone and the assurance that she wouldn’t take the opportunity to defect and spend the rest of her life serving burgers at McDonald’s…

… I said to the dude, ‘Do you really need a letter from me? I’ll be coming with her to the interview. I’ll be, you know, bringing her there, so I'll actually be there myself, in person.’ And he said (and I swear there was a slightly ominous tone in his voice), ‘That may be, but you won’t be permitted to attend the interview with her.’…

… her air tickets; her passport; her ID book; an unabridged birth certificate; and, if her visa is granted, a cool thousand bucks to pay for it…

‘Hold on,’ I said, cuffing away my tears [Tony, that was for you]. ‘Unabridged birth certificate?’ (The eye-popping price of the visa hadn’t yet registered on my frayed cerebral cortex.)

‘Yes, unabridged,’ said the dude. I imagined him adjusting his Sdedson and reaching for his six-guns.

Now let me say this: my children are fairly well travelled, and are in possession of their own SA ID books and passports, and have had, for various reasons, to present proof of their identify to several different authority figures over the course of their young lives – but not once, EVER, have they required an unabridged birth certificate.

For those who haven’t had truck with the US Embassy before, it’s a birth certificate that states the name of the mother and the father on it – and that, quite genuinely, is the only thing that sets it apart from the abridged version that most people get by with for their entire lives. And here’s the real kicker – it takes EIGHT WEEKS to get an unabridged birth certificate out of Home Affairs. I know this because I applied for one for my daughter today.

Sadly for me, the appointment I finally got for my daughter with the US Embassy is in four weeks, so we won’t have her unabridged birth certificate in time. So it’s off to Pick’n’Pay in the city with me tomorrow (a two-hour, 200km round trip, and let's not even begin to think about the price of fuel), to buy another R83 US Embassy PIN number, so I can make another appointment.

I just have to ask a question (and I’m not being facetious here, I really want to know). Does all this ridiculous red tape actually stop fundamentalist Muslims (or whoever it is who’s got it in for the US these days, and let me tell you after this palaver I’m one of them) entering the country with a bomb hidden in their shoe? Is it really necessary to put ordinary, generally law-abiding citizens through this bizarre, expensive, time-consuming pantomime?

I’ve never been a fan of the USA – no, not even when it was the world’s flavour of the month. Now I really hate it. And, as I say, if I’d known, I’d have sent my daughter practically anywhere else but bloody America.

Land of the free? Coalition of the willing? My farting arse.

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Muriel said...

Mysterious ways. First, when I tried to contact the US embassy on the website the dude provided (, my computer refused to recognise the address; and second, my computer is now so virus-verskrik that's it's actually reverted to the Norton home page. Conspiracy?

Sting said...

It's very difficult to get a visa to the states in many countries. At least u can call and speak to someone to make an appointment. I don't think we get that in Nigeria. Everything is done by mail and u can imagine how long it takes.

The whole process sounds really stressful. I hope it's worth it for ur daughter when she finally travels. I didn't like it here when i first came, it took me 2 yrs to get used to it.

Muriel said...

I have to admit I didn't realise other countries battled equally (or more) for US visas, Sting. And to do it all by MAIL??!! I just wouldn't have the strength!

meggie said...

What a hideous process! Can't you talk your daughter into going somewhere else??


Muriel, first off, fantastic comment on Crabmommy's blog about the BJ. Second, as an American, and on behalf of all Americans I apologize. If it makes you feel any better it's almost as difficult to deal with things like driver's licenses and insurance companies here. Yes, we suck, but like in a totally awesome way.

Muriel said...

Thanks, Gray Matter Matters, for your very gracious and like totally awesome response. I've decided that, come hell or high water, my daughter WILL make it to the States this year. I'm not going to let either SA's or the USA's bureaucratic bastards grind me down...

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