So, this was fun.
We sailed through customs in Gaborone just over two weeks ago. I had been worried about the details of how customs would work – we weren’t coming in as tourists and I wasn’t sure what kinds of evidence the customs officers would want to see proving that I was actually supposed to be here, working with the university, supported with funds from outside Botswana. I had been told conflicting things – don’t worry, you won’t have to show anything and you can work on the resident permit once you’re in-county. Worry, you’ll have to show everything, notarized and in triplicate.
As it turned out, we didn’t have to show anything. We handed over our passports, got them stamped by a man who asked us no questions, grabbed all of the luggage which, to my true surprise, managed to arrive on the same plane as we did, and strode out into Botswana.
I like my passport. A lot. It is slowly accumulating stamps and visas and tells an increasingly interesting story about my life. I like to look at it, and I’ve been known to take it out and flip through the pages for long stretches, admiring the differences in stamps, looking in wonder at the brightly colored visa sticker we got in Vietnam, tracing several years’ worth of wanderlust date-by-date, smiling at the stamp that reminds me of the U.S. customs agent who put it there and handed the passport back to me saying “welcome home.”
So, the day after we arrived, I flipped my passport open. My new entry stamp for Botswana was placed directly next to the stamp I’d received here two years ago. Because I was exhausted and am not great with numbers, I glanced at the new stamp and said to Steve, “Hmm. This is weird. Why did they write “VOID” over my stamp?”
He took a look. Then he looked at his passport. “That doesn’t say VOID.”
United States passport holders typically get a 90-day visa. What I thought said VOID was actually V10D, which translates into “Valid – 10 days.”
Luckily, we had the full support of the university and the U.S. Embassy here. By that afternoon we knew who to talk with, where we needed to go, and when we needed to be there. The human resources contact at UB picked us up at the hotel, drove us to the immigration office downtown, walked us through an incomprehensible series of visits to one service window after another, then took our passports, kept them for a few days, and returned them to us with 90-day resident permits and instructions on how to extend them in October.
It all turned out well, and the visit to the immigration office with other expatriates from Zambia, India, and Pakistan was – despite the confusing bureaucracy – really enjoyable. We had a great time talking to the economics professor from Zambia, who had studied in the U.S. and who sagely told us that travel writes our story and that each new stop changes who we are, saying “after all – I bet you never expected to meet a Zambian who studied at Syracuse this morning! Already, you have a new chapter in your story.” We cringed (inwardly, I hope) when the chemistry professor from Pakistan told us he was born and raised in Islamabad but “it isn’t like what you think,” reassuring him that we believe about half of what we see on the news. We got recipes and shopping tips from the Indian wife of another professor. By the end, we exchanged phone numbers with several of these people who were basically strangers but who left us with offers of housing assistance, dinners, and expertise navigating the university.
It’s impossible for me to reflect on the whole experience – from that “voided” stamp to the exchange of numbers – without realizing two things. I’ve been turning them over in my mind quite a bit as an American, with questions and misinformation and suspicion swirling around immigration and visa issues in my own country.
First – it is entirely possible that we could have ended up in Botswana on expired visas. Even with the tremendous help of the university, the bureaucracy could have taken so long that we could have overstayed our allotted time even while trying to get things sorted out. As it is, we spent last weekend without our passports, so I don’t really know if we did overstay or not. I can tell you that just the idea of it threw me into a panic – a true, jolt-awake-in-the-middle-of-the-night, panic. How would I teach? Would I jeopardize my time here if I couldn’t get the visa extended? Would I make trouble for my hosts at the university? What would happen if I were stopped by the police on an expired visa?
All of this is to say what I think that we in the U.S. often either forget or don’t assume – it can be very easy to overstay a visa. Maybe it is an oversight at customs. Maybe someone is trying to navigate the system. Maybe something went askance in our own labyrinthine bureaucracy. My point is, I very quickly became one of those people who might have been in a country illegally. And it was a mistake. I wasn’t trying to cut corners or skirt procedure. I just got the wrong stamp and was lucky enough to have people around who knew how to fix it fast. And I sincerely suspect that anyone, anywhere, on an expired or soon-to-expire visa is in the same situation and has the same waves of panic.
Second – those people around us, who fixed it fast? Those other expatriates at the immigration office who chose to engage with us and offer us help and advice? They made all the difference. So have our friends who stopped by the hotel to check on us. Or our friend Lynn who left work yesterday to actually get in the car with us to show us where we could go and do laundry. Steve and I aren’t technically immigrants, but we are doing something here that has proven a lot different – and a lot more difficult – than the travel we’re used to. Transitioning to Botswana has been hard. Sometimes I feel completely overwhelmed. Sometimes managing to get the smallest thing right seems like a miracle. I ask ignorant questions all the time. Sometimes I ask the same ignorant question over and over again and still don’t quite understand the answer. It is tiring and occasionally (more occasionally than I wish) frustrating. I’m profoundly grateful for the help and kindness of friends and perhaps especially of strangers – each of whom has met us with patience and goodwill.
Yes, we were invited to come here. Yes, we’ve come in for a temporary period of time to do a specific thing. Yes, we’ve gone through all the legal channels. But many of the people we’ve met and who have helped us don’t know that. All they know is that we’re a long way from where we came from and need a lot of help to do even some of the simplest things. And they have all responded to us with goodwill. They’ve been patient. They’ve made efforts to make us feel comfortable. They’ve taken the time to help us learn a few words, and some of the local protocol, so that we have a better sense of where we are and how things work. Those gestures speak something about the culture of the Batswana. They also speak something about basic humanity, I think. Some days, those gestures are what keep me from feeling like I really have no idea what I’m doing. They keep me from feeling like I’m doing everything wrong. They’ve helped with the homesickness I didn’t quite expect because, even though we’re surrounded by strangers, we’ve been met with kindness.
There really is something to be said about welcoming the stranger. My own country is in the thick of debates and disagreements about immigration. I’ll be the first to admit that my situation is not the same as that of many people who immigrate by choice or necessity. I know that there are deep nuances to these issues and that the political, social, and cultural ramifications of global movement scare people and feed into nationalist sentiments. But I can tell you this – being half-a-world away from everything I know, and yet being met with kindness of even the smallest sort, is a demonstration of the recognition of the humanity of the stranger in the most basic sense. It has buoyed me far more than I can express during these past two weeks. And it certainly adds layers of understanding onto what we so often want to assume is a simple issue.
All opinions are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.