x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The Practical Traveller: turned away on the doorstep of Eritrea

Chris Guillebeau finds that travelling anywhere without advance permission is not for the faint of heart.

Sitting in the Madrid airport cafeteria, I contemplated two recent challenges in travelling the world. The first was completely my own fault - in planning back-to-back trips to Eritrea and Chad, I had confused the date. When your flight leaves around midnight or arrives shortly after midnight, this is a common error. I've often wondered why airlines schedule flights for times such as 12.10am. Whenever I've checked in for a flight with such a departure time, inevitably I see at least one passenger receiving the unfortunate news that their flight departed the previous day.

But of course this wouldn't happen to me, right? My flight to Asmara, Eritrea's capital city, left Cairo in the evening and arrived at 2.50am the following morning. That was easy but, for whatever reason, I thought I was returning the next evening on the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt. Checking my itineraries a few days in advance, I discovered the truth: my Lufthansa flight left a day earlier than expected, and then arrived the following morning in Frankfurt.

This was a big problem. I was scheduled to transfer to an Air France flight back to Africa the same morning I showed up in Frankfurt. Coming in a day late simply wouldn't work.

The Eritrea itinerary was set in stone and couldn't be changed. Fortunately, I had exactly one day left before my Air France itinerary would also become non-changeable in the 72-hour period before departure. On the way back to this week's transit hub of Madrid, I quickly located another flight leaving the following day. In fact, the itinerary was exactly the same. I was travelling on miles, so I had to pay US$150 (Dh550) for cancelling, but the miles were immediately redeposited back in my account. Spending $150 to correct a mistake of that order was acceptable, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

The second challenge was more uncertain. I was bound for Eritrea, but after months of waiting I still had no visa. My application had been on hold at the Eritrean consulate in Washington, DC, and repeated inquiries to check on its status proved unsuccessful. I was never given any information other than "maybe next week". When I ran out of weeks to keep waiting, I finally pulled my passport and decided to go for it anyway.

Travelling anywhere without advance permission is not for the faint of heart. I knew that several things could go wrong, and it wasn't an ideal situation - but I felt like I had no choice. To prepare, I made sure I had as much paperwork as I could muster to support my trip. Into the file folder went printouts of my hotel confirmation, copies of my return ticket to Frankfurt and evidence of many other trips.

I had two obstacles to overcome. First, I had to receive a boarding pass to Asmara at Madrid airport. Airline staff are responsible for ensuring that all passengers have the necessary documentation. Over the years I've learnt that this practice varies in enforcement; some staff are thorough inspectors; others simply don't care. I dressed nicely and smiled at the agent as I handed over my passport.

The agent asked a few questions, but dutifully issued the boarding pass, as I hoped. Success! I was now going to Eritrea. What would happen when I actually got there was anyone's guess, but I took courage from the initial victory. An hour later, I was momentarily flummoxed when the boarding agent also asked to review my paperwork, but quickly recovered and managed to board the flight.

I knew the next challenge was the more important one. As the plane approached the Horn of Africa, I reviewed my plan. Honesty is the best policy, so I wouldn't lie to anyone. I would simply explain that I hoped to visit as a tourist, and all my attempts at procuring the visa were held up by the embassy. I had copies of my hotel reservation and return itinerary, and no plans to permanently immigrate to Eritrea. (Another good reason to travel with only carry-on luggage.)

Nevertheless, the moment of truth would only come when I approached the immigration counter and asked for a visa. We landed on the Tarmac in the dead of night, then disembarked into a waiting shuttle bus that led us to the immigration hall. The queue was frantic, and I made sure I was in the front - not the first passenger, but definitely not the last.

"Good morning," I said to the officer with a smile. "Is this where I apply for a visa?"

As expected, there was some confusion as he looked at my passport and then looked at me. "You don't have a visa?"

"Not yet," I said hopefully. "But here is my passport photo. Do you need me to fill out a form?"

"Wait, wait," he said as he called his supervisor over. I was summoned to a dingy waiting room and kept up the banter.

"Thanks for helping me," I said. "I've heard many good things about Eritrea."

Unfortunately, the luck I had seen thus far ran out at the final checkpoint. Despite my best effort at being friendly, I was unable to persuade the supervisor. A few hours later, I was put on a plane right back to Cairo - the journey ended in failure, albeit an interesting one.

Travelling to Eritrea without the necessary visa wasn't my preferred plan. If I could have done it another way, I would have. But placed in the situation I was, I'd likely do it the same way. If I had kept waiting at the embassy, I might never have received the visa and I might never have made it to Eritrea - one of only 15 countries remaining on my quest to visit all 193.

Similarly, I wasn't happy that I had confused the date on my other ticket. But in the end, the change worked out fine. I flew to Frankfurt, went to the lounge for a shower and some breakfast, then proceeded on to the Air France connection that would return me back to Africa. No harm done, in the end.

Chris Guillebeau, 33, is the author of The Art of Non-Conformity, published by Penguin. He is on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world, and is currently on number 178. Next week: running in Mainz, Germany????