The Time I Nearly Got Stranded at a Desolate Border Crossing

Enjoying beautiful Zanzibar on the trip that almost wasn’t.

Though I had gone abroad several times in college, my post-graduation summer trip to Africa was my first trip abroad without being accompanied by an organization, my school, or my family. Instead, I skipped town with a dear friend of mine for a ten-week adventure through Egypt, Kenya, and Tanzania. As if getting accustomed to bathing in a bucket  and peeing in a hole in the ground (descriptively known as a ‘squat toilet’) weren’t enough of a learning experience, I also acquired bargaining skills. Okay okay, so maybe bargaining is more aptly applied to situations where one is bargaining for souvenirs. Perhaps it is more articulate of me to say that I learned the importance of begging.

You see, my friend and I would now call ourselves quite savvy travelers. Having traveled Africa and southeast Asia together, we are pretty well-versed in the necessary skills to get around in rough environments- we know how to read maps, we can calculate exchange rates easily, we can travel on a budget, we can problem solve in a short amount of time, and we can adapt.  But we also learned some tough lessons on the road and learned not to make the same mistakes again.

In the summer of 2008, after spending two adventurous weeks in Egypt and six weeks in Kenya volunteering and going on safari, we had planned to spend our last two weeks in Tanzania. From Nairobi we booked a 12-hour bus ride that would take us to Dar es Salaam. We considered stopping near the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro en route to do some day hikes, but made the decision to head straight to Zanzibar and perhaps stop on the way back to Kenya. The morning of our departure, we missed our 5:30am alarm and by some miracle woke up just minutes before we needed to leave our hotel. We were pretty tired so I still don’t know how we managed to awake on our own but we made it just in time. We had booked the last two seats on this bus to Tanzania so we had to sit apart from each other. I had been given a window seat towards the back while my friend Lauren was sitting in the last row next to a seven foot giant. Although not ideal, at this point we were glad we didn’t miss the bus. We made it to the Kenya-Tanzania border midmorning and gathered all of our belongings and luggage for the border crossing. We stepped inside the border office to purchase our $50 Tanzanian visa. We got in line and noticed that all of the signs hanging inside said ‘Visa $100’. Our first thought was that this was a classic we are going to rip you off at the border situation. After all, we were the only non-East African residents in sight. Lauren and I each had exactly $50 USD for the visa. The official signs posted all said that they only took US dollars and would not take any other currency. Holy sh*t. We were in the middle of nowhere at a remote border crossing. If the bus left us here for lack of a visa, where would we stay? How would we get back to Nairobi? The thoughts entered my mind, but then I just decided that there was no other option but to get back on that bus. On my last ATM withdrawal in Nairobi, I had decided to pull extra money out for our final night in the country, as we were returning to Kenya for one night before our trip came to an end. Between that and the little Kenyan money that Lauren had, we had the equivalent of $105 USD in Kenyan shillings. I deemed it necessary to keep $1 worth of Kenyan shillings ‘just in case’, so with our Kenyan shillings and US dollars, we had about $204 on us- just enough for two Tanzanian visas if the border was willing to take other currency.

I asked Lauren to give me her passport and I stacked ours together and compiled all of our money together. We stood in line nervously, trying to push out thoughts of being stranded in the Kenyan bush, and seeing our dreams of a beach paradise staying just that- a dream.

When it was our turn at the counter, I don’t think I really even greeted the woman. I shoved our passports and wad of money on the counter and said in a desperate plea, “This is everything we have. We thought the visa was $50 USD and we have no other money. Please, please, please take our Kenyan shillings.” Or something to that effect. She told us she would have to talk to her supervisor, took our passports, and she went back into an office and shut the door. It was grueling. Those few minutes felt like a lifetime. We were freaking out and had no idea how we could possibly have made this mistake.

She finally came out and said that they would accept it. I think we nearly cried. As soon as our passports were stamped, we practically ran out of the office. It didn’t matter that our bus wasn’t air conditioned and that people kept closing the windows on us. It didn’t matter that our bathroom break for the entire bus lasted about five minutes and that I barely made it back on to the bus after I went and that people had to chase after our bus who were in line behind me. We were not left stranded and were headed for a beautiful paradise off the coast of Tanzania.

We rolled into Dar es Salaam around 10:30 at night. It was of course pitch black, and though exhausted, we needed to haggle on a taxi. After agreeing to pay double what our guide book suggested (though we knew gas prices had soared since the time of writing), we agreed to get in the cab as long as he took us to an ATM first- because our $1 in Kenyan change that I had clung to was not going to get us very far!

We learned that even if your guidebook gives you a price, you should probably check it the night before you are to depart for the border- because things change since the time of writing. And I also learned to carry more US dollars on me at all times. When we finally did reach Zanzibar, I artfully bargained our hotel room in half and then made a final plea to get it to a price we could afford. Our original guesthouse we selected was booked so we had to stay somewhere more expensive but I bargained to below guidebook prices during tourist season. This whole pleading/begging thing was starting to work out!

Oh, and I should make one last mention that this wasn’t my last border crossing issue but certainly the most stressful!

What’s been your biggest challenge at a border crossing?

10 thoughts on “The Time I Nearly Got Stranded at a Desolate Border Crossing

  • I have only crossed the Mexico border a few times, I can’t imagine this stress. Good tip though on the check prices prior to leaving. Something I could totally see me forgetting to do, and being in your exact situation.

  • For me, I was stranded at the border of NE Togo/NW Benin on a trip from Ghana in 2005. We took moto taxis from Kara, arrived at the border, told the moto taxi drivers we were fine, got our passport stamps and then… waited. There was no one. No cars, no motos, just the one customs office worker. We assumed there would be somewhat regular traffic and at the very least we would be able to hitch a ride. It worked out, though, as after a few hours a family of Canadian missionaries showed up and it turned out they were on their way to the same place as us :)

    • When I was originally going overland from Rwanda to Zambia (before I changed plans and flew to Malawi) I was very nervous about this type of situation happening. In those remote border crossings, there’s a lot of local transport that will take you to the border but then you must walk across and find transportation onward. Luckily I only had to do that once and I was able to find a taxi for the 12 km ride to the next town.

      And I was also confident when I hitchhiked from Botswana to Namibia as it was so stressful just waiting around and hoping to get picked up. Glad it all worked out for you though!

  • I once had to change bus companies between Ecuador and Peru at 4am and the Peruvian bus company said they overbooked and didn’t have my ticket. I was not being stranded at 4am so I told them I didn’t care I would stand the whole time.

    But even then that is nothing compared to be stranded where you were.

    • I think the scary part about being stranded at the border I was at was that, at the time, I was not as resilient of a traveler then and would have been so panicked. If it happened now, I’d probably freak out a little but then realize that I’d find a ride to a town nearby and find transport from there. And also the fact that it was just so remote was a little scary. I’m glad you held your ground about your bus ride though and that you made it!

  • If I keep saying we have to travel together one day, it will happen — right?! :-) I have a strong feeling you roll with the punches much better than I do but I think I’m a pretty good travel companion O:-)

    I’m so sorry we haven’t had our Skype date this week! It hasn’t been the laidback week I thought it would be.

  • Believe it or not… my most stressfut time at border crossing was actually flying from Spain to London. How can that be? I, somehow, was able to make myself through the check in in Spain with only my spanish ID. When I reached London, I had to go through the passport control. I was convinced I could show them my ID and that was it. Well… it wasn’t! I called my home, asked my family to please scan a copy of my passport to a number they gave me, and had to show details of my return flight. This was about 10 years ago… and ever since, I’ve never flown with my spanish ID again!

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