We’ve all been through it: visiting a foreign consulate in the fervent hope of persuading an official to give us a visa. Indeed, one of the pleasures of travel is to fatten our passports with colorful stamps of unpronounceable and exotic places. Doing this while on the road, gives an extra sense of importance to days usually spent gawking at people and sites. And you just never know what to expect in these places. Sometimes on appearances, it looks bad, but turns out well.
Take a visit to the Mauritanian embassy in Dakar, Senegal, for example. A uniformed guard casually holding an AK-47 tosses his head in the direction of a stairway that leads to a series of high-ceilinged rooms where a lone fatigued man has the power to give me a thumbs up or a thumbs down on the course of my trip. The catechism begins: “Why you go Mauritania?” “I’ve wanted to go there my entire life!” I smile, hoping he likes me.
“What your papa’s name? Your mama’s name? The work of your papa? Why you alone? Where your husband?” This goes on for a while. He pushes the application across the counter and waves me off to a sofa where I can sit and fill it out.
At the bottom of the page, Box 15 is going to be a problem. I return to the counter to ask: “Is this serious? You really want the name of every country I’ve been to in the last ten years? All of them?”
He simply stares, and I start the Herculean task, feeling like one of those people on Ripley’s Believe It or Not, who can inscribe the entire Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin. Should I abbreviate Trinidad and Tobago and Bosnia and Herzegovina? Will the visa be turned down if I do? Then how would I get to Dakhla, Morocco, from Dakar? The room suddenly goes dark; the power has gone out. The room temperature quickly matches that of the outside – swelteringly hot. I’m told to leave.
Fortunately, in this part of Dakar, the rioters aren’t setting any cars on fire or blockading intersections in protest of the incessant failure of the electrical grid, and I return the next day, greet the armed guard with bonjour, and bound up the steps. I’m handed my passport and there it is! A beautiful visa stamp, promising adventure ahead and that never-to-be-quenched feeling of somewhere new on this earth to go.
Although permission to pass through territories has been required since ancient times, passports, as we know them, did not become commonplace until the early part of the twentieth century. Until that time, for the most part, all you needed was a letter attesting to your good character. How times have changed. Now we have to deal with biometrics, reciprocity, letters of invitation, and the competence of whoever is manning the desk. Will our future world require DNA samples, as well?
—Pamela Barrus, TCC President