Tuesday, February 13, 2007


I hate bureaucracy. Unfortunately it is an inescapable part of our modern lives. When it works it is an essential way of maintaining accountability, oversight and a degree of responsibility. When it doesn't you begin to feel like you're being crushed between the cogs of a huge, impersonal, unstoppable machine (I always picture Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times). There are different forms of bureaucratic annoyance and, after having encountered them often during my trip, I have come to develop a three-tiered classification of the different types.

The first is Paper Bureaucracy, where the amount of time and effort needed to accomplish a task (like buying a train ticket) is disproportionate to the desired result. This form of bureaucracy usually involves being shunted from one office to another and filling out repetitive forms in triplicate. This type of bureaucracy is the least offensive and, as long as you tick all the right boxes, you eventually reach your goal. The second form is By The Rulebook bureaucracy where an individual (invariably very low down the pecking order) has been given instructions which they will not deviate from one iota. These people's minds are impervious to reason and logic and the rules will not be bent no matter how ridiculous they may be. If you are lucky and persistent enough it is sometimes possible to wear them down or at least get to talk to a superior who is able to grant some leeway. It is the last form of bureaucracy, which I call Little Emperor Bureaucracy, that is the most pernicious and difficult to deal with. In this form people who occupy a bottleneck position in the system (and again, these people can be, and often are, near the bottom of the pile hierarchically) seem to gain an inflated view of their own importance. They often administer their own form of arbitrary justice and follow protocol according to their whim with no rhyme or reason. And because they are the gatekeepers to your advancement you are obliged to jump through their hoops (which can include baksheesh, though thankfully I haven't come across that yet). Just pray that one of these Bonapartes doesn't take a dislike to you because then you are screwed.

That is, however, exactly what happened to me at the Ethiopian embassy here in Djibouti (because after 10 days I am still here). The first time I went to the embassy I had just been released by the police and despite rushing over I was 20 minutes late. I pleaded to be allowed in to at least talk to someone, get some information or at least get the application form. The guard at the gate stubbornly refused and after the stressful time at the police I uncharacteristically broke down and made a bit of a scene (in retrospect I believe all my subsequent problems may have stemmed from that). The next morning when I turned up bright and early I was calm and polite. The guard took my passport in and returned a few minutes later telling me I could get a visa at the border. Because I had been given the same information at the embassy in Sana'a I didn't press him too much on it. So, happy and cheerful, I booked my train ticket and packed my bag.

It turns out that 3rd class is just an empty freight carriage with a lot of people sitting on the floor. We arrived at the Ethiopian border in the middle of the night and I hopped out with my passport and $20 in hand. However, visas are not issued at the border and I was detained whilst the train carried on. In the morning there followed a bunch of repetitive conversations all along the following lines:

"Where's your visa?"
"I went to your embassy in both Djibouti and Sana'a and they told me that I could get a visa at the border."
"Why didn't you go to the embassy in Djibouti?"
"I did, and they told me that you would provide me with a visa."
"No, we don't issue visas. You should have gone to our embassy."
"But I did!"

I was told to wait (I've been doing a lot of that lately) while someone would contact their superiors in the central immigration office. At 4pm I was given the unsurprising news that I was being sent back to Djibouti. So the next day (actually I had to wait an extra day as it was the weekend) I went to the embassy to apply for a visa, again. The guard still wouldn't let me in and told me that I couldn't get a visa there. No explanations, no reasons, nothing. I was seriously annoyed and confused. Everybody I've met has told me that getting visas for Ethiopia is a simple formality and can be done in a day and here I was being totally stonewalled. So instead I got someone to collect and hand in the application form on my behalf. That proved unproblematic. But upon going to collect it the next day I found out the application had been refused because I had no residence or work permit for Djibouti, which is a load of bollocks because many foreigners have got visas here without those permits. So, for some reason I had become black-listed.

This has left me with three options, neither of which is ideal. I can either go to Eritrea instead, though there nowhere near as much to see there. I could fly into Ethiopia and get the visa at the airport, but that would go against my no-fly principles, cost a lot of money ($120) and I might even be refused a visa once I get there. Or I could even try to catch a boat up to Egypt, though I would miss out on some interesting countries along the way. I am mulling over my options, but in the meantime I am exceedingly grateful to the guys at Dolphin Expeditions (Bruno, Nicolas and Vicente) who have let me crash at their place for free during all this time, and not only that, but have also fed me and generally put up with my oddities as well. Without their help, support and generosity I really would have been up a creek without a paddle. (If anyone is planning to head to Djibouti they are the ones to get in touch with to organise trips and scuba diving in the area.)

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