There was a moment’s hesitation whilst the border woman looked up from my forged vaccination card to size me up. “No…this doesn’t look right” she frowned, handing my certificate to another officer, who seconded her reservations. I had had to keep my subterfuge simple, the addition of a simple pen stroke, something designed mislead and misdirect rather than raise questions. Anything more overt would be overextension on my part, a hard lesson learned from experience. Now they were both leaning forward, squinting, noses practically touching the paper I’d folded over and over again, creases designed to confuse and further obfuscate the change I’d made. “Already expired” the woman finally pronounced, giving my vaccination card a dismissive backhanded flick in my direction, the universal sign for “get this shit out of my face”. The second officer already had the faint crease foreshadowing a smile and looked ready to motion me aside where we could “discuss” the fine. It didn’t take much imagination to see dollar bill signs emanating from his head like some cartoonish thought bubble. The woman meanwhile was turning in her chair, eyes glazing, flushing my shitty prospects from her mind. I reached for my vaccination card, sighed the sigh of resignation that precedes doing something stupid, indulged in that blissful 1/2 second fantasy where things actually go my way, and then opened my mouth.
“Pardon, mais je crois que vous vous trompez” – “I’m sorry but I think that you’re mistaken”. The officer’s chair stopped mid-swivel. Although negotiation is a matter of course, the pair seemed somewhat taken aback. The growing smirk of the one and the vacuity of expression of the other had disappeared. It hadn’t taken me long to come to the conclusion that courtesy is a ruefully one-sided affair. I held the woman’s gaze a moment then let my eyes fall in what I hoped would be taken as a sign of deference rather than of guilt and then chanced what I hoped to be a disarming smile (you’ll notice a lot of baseless and naive ‘hoping’ going on in my narratives, a counterbalance to the crying in the shower scenes which I mostly edit out… or as far as you’re concerned simply don’t happen), though it appeared to either be lost in translation or else simply ignored as the woman simply pursed her lips and settled her rifle in my direction. She snatched the card out of my now trembling hands and I readied myself for the further tightening of the screws of scrutiny.
I imagine that these encounters follow a rather typical trajectory in which 1) Introductions are made 2) Documents exchanged 3) Problems found by officials 4) Problems denied by traveller 5) Possible reference to peers or superior who corroborate original official (with an expected cut of the profits) 6) Payment terms suggested 7) Negotiation 8) Payment 9) Passage granted. This simple flow chart of course neglects the intricacies of negotiation and further complications engendered by the original forgery which might involve an almost “snakes and ladders” like progression where any simple misstep might require additional documents be furnished, other officials engaged, running from one department to another, all the while the imagined dollar bill signs radiating from each encountered official gathering into some dark, brooding and imminent financial thunderstorm. I was still in stage 4, with stage 5 involving possible escalation and involvement of additional personnel and further complications. Something had to be done. And so, with a second sigh of resignation that precedes doing something stupid in as many minutes, I played my hand.
It was a maneuver straight out of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”, “change the landscape or the theatre of the battlefield”. With an innocent and nonchalant “What does this look like to you?” I needlessly involved another Muzungu in the line next to me. He was part of an organized tour and someone whom I hoped would fall under the auspices of the tour organizers who would undoubtedly speak Swahili and/or have some influence. Of course they could simply disavow any connection or complicity and leave me dangling from this fetching new noose I’d crafted for myself, though they might also not want to appear unsympathetic to their clients. These thoughts raged briefly as I made my gambit.
As if his grimace weren’t enough of an indicator, a trail of under-the-breath expletives beginning in “fucking” and ending in “fucker” muttered through tight lips confirmed my suspicions… this Muzungu wasn’t happy. Although we’d had a few pleasant exchanges while waiting he seemed to have an altogether different opinion of me now, not to mention harbouring a profound regret at having made my acquaintance. “I…I don’t know…” he finally managed to utter without even a glimpse of the object of contention. “But it kinda looks like it expires next year”. Hope rekindled? The border woman’s eyes narrowed and then with a sound that was something between a squawk and a growl she motioned for him to hand over his card, studiously comparing the two as though my deception were all part of a larger conspiracy. I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps I’d gotten my head wedged in the steadily narrowing window of opportunity. Several moments later the woman practically flung the man’s vaccination card back at him, while still holding mine along with any other cards she still intended to play close to her chest. Fortunately, it was then that the guide for the tour operator interceded. Some soft spoken words in Swahili were exchanged and suddenly I found myself liberated, my vaccination card accepted, my passport stamped, the keys to the kingdom given. It was a complete about face that had me equally wrong-footed. My brain told me to make sure things were sorted with the border woman, to find out what the hell had happened, whilst my body was already half-way out the door. My sense of elation was weighted down by suspicions…things had gone a little too smoothly. I stood west of the Rwandan border, my feet firmly on Congolese soil, already a befuddled target.
As I exited the border control offices, the guide (who had just finished his own round of negotiations on behalf of his clients) generously offered to give me a lift to the national park office. Although neither of us had made mention of his role in getting me clear of the vaccination card kerfuffle, it was clear, I was indebted. And so, as I climbed into the air-conditioned, tint-windowed SUV and he introduced himself, I was filled with all the misgivings that being introduced to a man named “Innocent” in the Congo might entail. Of a sudden I was taken by an involuntary shudder, what kind of a devil I had just shaken hands with?