I always knew it would happen one day.
Having successfully arrived in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Angola without the necessary visas, I had been pushing my luck.
But last weekend in Eritrea, the luck ran out.
Let’s be clear: I’m not interested in taking unnecessary risks. In each case where I’ve had to take my chances on traveling without a visa, it was because all other options had exhausted themselves. I would have much preferred to have the necessary permission instead of trying to pull off an East African wedding crasher routine. Nevertheless, sometimes the best laid plans fall by the wayside, and that’s when you have to make a decision.
In Saudi Arabia’s case, the New York consulate came through with the visa at the last possible minute—and then promptly mailed my passport back to Portland, instead of holding it for local pickup on my way out of the country as agreed. Angola just kept the money and returned my passport without a word—and without the visa.
Eritrea, however, was the worst offender of all. Having paid for the visa a total of three times and waited a full 90 days with my passport at their Washington, D.C. embassy without results, I was in a quandary. With only 15 countries left on my list and 13 months to go, I couldn’t keep putting it off.
I decided to go for it and travel to the country anyway. What choice did I have? Passive resistance wasn’t getting me very far.
I managed to obtain my Egypt Air boarding passes in Madrid with only minimal subterfuge. Airlines are responsible for ensuring that passengers have the necessary approvals before traveling, so I knew there would be an interrogation of sorts. I decided I wouldn’t lie if directly asked about something, but I wasn’t above leaving out a few key facts if necessary.
It wasn’t that difficult; the agent was bored and had already printed the boarding passes when she remembered to check on the visa. I showed her my paperwork with a smile (but without the visa) and she wished me a good trip. So far, so good.
After a four-hour flight to Cairo, I powered up with an espresso and chocolate muffin. While sipping the coffee and preparing to board the final flight, I thought about the possible outcomes for the night ahead, based on ten years of experience in convincing random countries to allow me to visit.
Outcome 1: It would take some doing, but I’d get the entry visa upon arrival after pleading my case to various higher-ups. Predicted odds: 50%.
Outcome 2: I would get the entry visa upon arrival without any trouble at all, and my whole concern would be for nothing. Predicted odds: 25%.
Outcome 3: I would have a serious problem, would not get the entry visa, and would be thrown out of the country or thrown into jail. Predicted odds: 25%.
We landed after 2am and I was wide awake with nervous excitement. What would happen? How would the night end? Do Eritrean prisons have WiFi?
The plane parked on the tarmac and I rode a shuttle bus to the terminal with all the other passengers, most of whom were Eritrean. I began to feel relieved as the bus made the short trip; despite the late hour, everyone was smiling. Some of them caught my eye and said, “Welcome to Eritrea!”
“Welcome home!” I said in reply. The friendliness was a good sign, I thought.
Upon arrival at the first immigration blockade, however, I quickly realized that Option 2—the easy entry without any trouble—was definitely out.
“You don’t have a visa?” the first guy asked, seeming genuinely surprised.
“Not yet,” I said, projecting confidence and wearing my only nice shirt of the trip. (I had even made sure to tuck it in before landing. When crashing a country, you only get one chance to make a first impression.)
I had no visa, but I was not without ammunition. “Here is my landing card, my passport photo, my hotel reservation, and my return ticket,” I said, presenting the papers with a flourish. “How much does the visa cost?”
This ruse often works. Four years of arguing with numerous government leaders in West Africa followed by another six years of frequent international travel has taught me the power of paper. If you don’t have the right piece of paper for the job, bring lots of other paper instead.
Unfortunately, the paper-pushing trick didn’t work on the first guy, and the second guy I was referred to didn’t even look at any of the printouts. I kept getting passed off higher and higher until I finally ended up in the office of the Chief Immigration Officer. It was here I would make my last stand.
Alas, this final challenge didn’t begin well. In another ominous sign, the Chief Immigration Officer was not nearly as friendly as the smiling Eritreans I had rode in on the bus with. I tried some light banter: “Wow, I’m really excited to be here. Do you guys have a hop-on, hop-off bus? Any theme parks I should visit?”
Despite my brilliant attempt at making friends, the boss didn’t seem very interested in getting to know me. An offer of a complimentary Turkish Airways amenity kit from a previous flight was also swatted away.
I sat and waited, feeling optimistic (“60/40 odds,” I told myself. “Maybe even 70/30″). Calls were made. Officials were dispatched to check the records to see where I had previously applied for visas at the embassy in Washington. Long conversations about me were conducted in a language I didn’t understand, although naturally I assumed that the phrases “bestselling author” and “popular Facebook page” were spoken.
The longer I waited, the more the odds improved—or so I thought. Another rule of these situations is that if you keep sitting around patiently, eventually they’ll get bored and let you in. Unfortunately, every immigration rule has an exception. All of a sudden, the waiting shifted to action, and the action wasn’t good.
In Which It All Comes To An Abrupt End
I couldn’t believe it, but after two hours of making new friends while gently pleading my case, I was going out on the return flight to Cairo… which now left in ten minutes. No way! But indeed, that was the plan, and I had no vote in the matter. I was assigned a handler, marched outside the airport, and guided around to the departure area in front. I was disappointed and sleep-deprived, but as I was given a hand-written boarding pass, I remembered to ask the all-important question: “Can you add my Frequent Flyer number?”
Yes, if I was really going to be deported, at least I’d earn miles for it. It’s 1,130 miles from Asmara to Cairo, plus any special “last minute deportation” bonuses that happen to be available this week. Lesson: never pass up miles or points when they come your way.
Everyone else had boarded and the plane was ready to go. My handler, the Egyptian Airlines station manager, and a couple of hangers-on walked me back out the tarmac and up the steps of the waiting plane. Inside the cabin, the station manager handed my passport to the purser and instructed him to return it only upon reaching the transit desk in Cairo. I never like to be without my passport, but such was the price to pay for being deported.
The plane took off and I dozed against the window, looking down at Asmara as we prepared to leave Eritrean airspace on the way back to Egypt. Exhaustion was creeping in after staying up all night, but the whole time I was thinking about one important question: does this count as a country visit?
Ask the Readers: Does This Count?
People often ask what my criteria is for visiting a country. Long story short, I don’t really have any. My one rule is that I don’t count airport stops—I can’t just be in transit somewhere. I’ve been on two flights that have touched down in Khartoum, for example, but since I didn’t get off the plane, I still can’t say that I’ve been to Sudan.
This case is trickier, though. I’ve paid to go to Eritrea on multiple occasions. I did make it to the airport, and even outside the airport. I had an extended interrogation session with several interesting people. It wasn’t like going on a tour of the interior and stopping by a few villages, but it was certainly a story-worthy experience.
Even if it probably shouldn’t count as a true visit, the honest truth is that I really don’t know if I’ll be allowed back into Eritrea, at least anytime soon. After 90 days of pestering the embassy and paying the fee three times, they still returned my passport with no visa.
The Eritreans I talked with have all been very friendly, much like the Ethiopians I know. But the government has a reputation for being hostile and highly secretive. Eritrea is in a long-standing conflict with Ethiopia, and the U.S. government is on the side of the Ethiopians. I’ve never held any position in the government and don’t have anything to do with politics, but when it comes to immigration and travel restrictions, these things matter.
When I visited Angola last year, I also had visa problems and wasn’t expecting to be able to enter the country, instead planning an extended transit. After much stress with the embassy and repeated payoffs, I had finally made my peace with accepting that the Angola visit might need to have an asterisk next to it. Much to my surprise, however, when I went there I was actually allowed free reign of Luanda—thus obviating the need for the asterisk. I’m tempted to put this visit in the same category, but I’d like to know what you think.
For those who are still reading, have I officially been to Eritrea, or will I need to regroup yet again and make another plan?