How We Almost Got Locked Up Abroad

By 17 Aug ’12Travel

Of my Favorite Stories, this is in my Top 5. This happened during my trip to Zambia in August 2008.

So, LaShaya, Sheree and I are headed to Zambia proper after flying into and spending 5 days in Malawi. Lake Malawi is really neat by the way, and is the subject of a whole ‘nother (yet to be written) story. Because my gate-checked bag didn’t make it off the plane (key factor in a different story), we had to travel from Sengha Bay by pickup truck, make a stop in Lilongwe to pick up all my worldly possessions, then head to the border via minibus and taxicab. It was maybe 5pm when we finally reached.

Yes, you can fit 9 people in a Toyota Corolla, in case you were wondering.

So we get to the border. This is literally two brick buildings next to each other, the distance two homes on a suburban street would be. There are a couple of guards along the street where the invisible border line is checking credentials of cars. Chill situation.

Shaya and I hand our passports over to the guard in the window. He gives them a really long lookover and we get the sense something is amiss. Sure enough, he tells Shaya her visa has expired. Now, it’s obvious from her (by then pretty full) passport that she’s made the trip between that border and others nearby several times, and that she’s a Zambian resident. He counts the days since her arrival and since the day we were leaving was the 5th day, her 5-day visa is supposedly overdue by one day. We’re going to need to turn around and go back to Lilongwe — which I think was about a 4-hour trip — and pay a fine at the immigration office to have it corrected.  This isn’t really an option, as
1. it’s going to be dark soon and it’s best not to move at night.
2. we have no idea where to stay in Lilongwe, which was a major issue when we first got there (another story).
3. this dude is full of shit (as you’ll see momentarily.)

So Shaya argues. Returning to Lilongwe isn’t an option. He is firm. When she starts speaking Nyanja so he knows what’s up, he changes it up. She can pay the fine directly to him, but he, of course, won’t be able to write her a receipt. You already know what that is. His “fine” is 5,000 Malawi kwatcha (don’t do the math on that yet.)

Now, PC volunteers don’t get paid, really. They get a living stipend commensurate to the local average that will cover needs and keep one relatively comfortable. They have to buy their own furniture, food, everything. So LaShaya flips out. That’s a lot of money. Other people are in line behind us by this point, so we move our baggage outside the building so that Shaya can go to the back office and talk this through. So Sheree and I sit along the outside wall and are barely able to hear LaShaya pleading with the guards half in English, half Nyanja

“I don’t think I have enough kwatcha.” “We don’t need enough. I’m not paying it!”

After about 45 minutes, LaShaya comes out utterly dejected, talking about having to find a place to sleep for the night. Sheree and I are like no. This is crazy. Whatever the amount of the fine, we’ll just pool together and pay. I whip out a calculator and do the math on how much 5,000 kwatcha is in USD.

$32.

Sheree and I look at LaShaya like she is completely insane. “We’ve been standing out here while you argue over $32? Are you serious?” “But $32 is a LOT of money for me!” “Well it’s not for me. Let your Big American Friends pay for you this time.” She kind of balks and takes it. I want to wring her neck. We give her a total of $30, knowing the guard will be impressed by the US dollars and that he has no clue what the exchange rate even is. Keeping that $2 made us feel like we won something.

Counting out our racks on racks of bribe money…

LaShaya goes back to pay the bribe. Meanwhile, Sheree is keeping a video/photo diary, narrating what’s going on via her brand new camera. Brand new because she’d lost her old camera at the club a couple days before the trip. Word has spread that there are three unaccompanied black females causing a stir at the customs house. Who are American. One of whom is lightskinned and very tall. One of whom has a huge afro. One of whom can inexplicably speak fluent Nyanja but has a U.S. passport. We learn over the course of the trip that these are all wild anomalies. So more guards start to gather to take a gander at this craziness. I notice one guy walk up behind Sheree, say something to his female associate (who is obviously his chick) and say to me, “Tell your friend she has a nice camera.” I wait for him to walk out of earshot and quietly caution Sheree that she may want to put her camera away, because the situation feels uncomfortable. “Why? I’m a journalist!”

Put a pin in that.

LaShaya comes back out, bribe paid, and reminds me that the guard still has my passport. He won’t release it to her, so we go inside together to retrieve it. As we walk back down the hall, past the window we’ve been standing under for the past hour+, relieved that this ordeal is finally over, we hear

“Stop her! She has a camera! She is a spy!”

There’s a bunch of scuffly type noise. A wail of dismay.  3 seconds later Sheree is being carried toward us down the hallway by our friend and another guard. “What?! I’m not a journalist! I was just taking a picture!”

LaShaya and I look at each other. We sigh. She silently turns to follow Sheree into the office from whence we just came. “I’ll watch our stuff,” I say.

Sheree had been filming LaShaya hand the money off through the office window and was taking photos as we left. They are both begging the guards not to arrest her or take her camera, since she’s just a tourist, not any kind of journalist-spy. At some point our friend comes out to let me know that Sheree is going to jail. I ask,

“Can’t you just take her camera?”
“We’re going to take her camera AND put her in jail!”

I do the math — if we call Sheree’s parents tonight, it will take them about 4 or 5 days to get to Malawi. If they won’t let her out, maybe LaShaya and I can finish the trip and let them work it out?

I imagine Sheree’s ill fated photo looked something like this, rotated 90° because there were blinds, with a black American girl instead of a white Ethiopian jet.

LaShaya’s head pops out the door. “I just want to make sure you’re not out here popping off or anything…”
“I’m not popping anything. Somebody has to be able to call the Embassy.”

Gradually the conversation changes. Shaya is explaining that it’s a digital camera, and the photos can just be deleted off the memory card like a cell phone picture. There’s some kind of demonstration. An hour and a half after I left the building, Shaya and Sheree appear. It’s dark by now. We get our stuff and walk approximately 15 dejected/relieved/embarrassed/grumpy/exhausted steps to the Zambian customs building across the border.

“Hey! So which one of you got arrested?!”

Half the guards there had been looky-looing earlier.

“It was her.”
*motions in Sheree’s direction*
“I WASN’T ACTUALLY ARRESTED!”

“Hey, hey! Don’t get mad. Leave that behind. You’re in Zambia! We’re nice people over here!”

And that was our exeunt from and introduction to the Warm Heart of Africa. Both nations claim the title. Go figure.

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