Monday, June 18, 2012

Landing Card Syndrome

There is one thing that still unsettles me a  bit when I travel and that is the moment when we approach a country and the airline crew starts handing out disembarkation cards...or landing cards as it is more commonly known as. For me a landing card is just an association with arriving at a developing country, and I have too many of those in Africa with unpleasant stories attached to them.

For a start I hate filling in landing cards. As with many other type of forms you get either not enough space to fill in what they want to know or you have no idea what they actually are asking for. Secondly I have to get up to find my pen and passport because I keep it my laptop bag and I can never remember my passport information. South Africa also used to have landing cards. Later it was replaced with a SARS or income tax form. The South African Revenue Services wanted to know how much money you bring into the country so that they could tax you. I always lied on these forms and it was never really checked. Not that I ever brought in anything of much value, but I was always too lazy to count the money on me or add up the value of all the gifts I had brought back from abroad. So I just made up a figure. Fortunately this disappeared and now we can also claim to have at least a smoother entry into the country like in most First World countries. The fact remains that filling in a landing card to me is like a reminder that I am entering a country where I know there is going to be some sort of crap coming my way.

This morning I was on my way to Congo and when I saw the crew member walking down the aisle with little white forms in her hand, it was as if reality had struck me once again. You are about to receive an less than pleasant reception! One would think that I am immune to these places by now, but it is that surprise element at these airport arrivals that you just cannot get rid of. It gives you a funny feeling on your stomach when you see the card coming your way. Is my visa going to be OK or are they going to ask me 20 USD because the signature, according to them, looks smudged? Is my Yellow Fever Card yellow enough or does it have to be the brighter yellow? Do they want to see a Ordre d’Mission despite the fact that I needed it for my visa application, or will they request to see another document that I obviously don't have on me? BTW, these are things that I have experienced before, so I am not making it up.

It's been just over a year since I last visited Congo. Every time I leave I hope that it has been my last trip, but I always seem to come back again. Over the past ten years I have seen improvements in the airport buildings, improvements in the departure procedure and the fact that I can now fly straight from Johannesburg to Pointe-Noire on SAA is also a huge improvement. We landed safely and I made my way to Immigration. When you enter the Immigration area some dude who took it upon himself shows you where to line-up and once you have presented your passport and landing card to a usually very unfriendly Immigration officer you are up for your next challenge. By the door as you enter the arrivals hall where the luggage is delivered you still have to face two people in white overcoats who wants to see your Yellow Fever card. Never look lost, that is a sign of weakness that will be exploited by whoever can tell you a bullshit story like that your yellow fever card is not the right colour. After that you enter the arrivals hall where there is always a huge commotion going on. It always seems as if there are already more people hanging around the carousel than the actual amount of passengers disembarking. This “welcoming crowd” are just police officers, custom officials and luggage handlers; not friends and loved-ones. They are waiting outside. Make sure you grab your own bag before a luggage handler does otherwise you might have to negotiate a price to get it back.

Before you can finally leave you have to show your baggage tag to guys dressed in blue and white uniforms. I'm not sure where they fit in, might be airport personnel. Finally you have to open your luggage at Customs for a manual search. By the time I walked towards Customs I've already heard of two passengers who didn't receive their luggage. I guess getting to Customs unscathed could've been considered a "good day" for me then. The only worry I had left was that I was told earlier by someone that they have a new restriction on bringing in food. Apparently there is a new "import tax" on food, 10 Euros for whatever you have on you. I had some sachets of instant coffee, instant soup and a chocolate with me.... worth about 10 Euros in total. I was not going to pay a 10 Euro "food tax" on something that cost me around 10 Euros in the first place. Fortunately for me as I opened my luggage, the Customs official was distracted and she never checked long enough to see what I had "stashed" in my luggage. I received my white chalk signature on my suitcase and I was good to go. 

Although the arrival today was very simple compared to what I have been through in the past, I am sure that they can also start using computers and do away with the landing cards at least. That should give me a few minutes longer before I get that knot in my tummy.

1 comment: