Thursday, June 03, 2010

fun in the sun in dubai

just because i’m in the UAE doesn’t mean i can’t keep up with my current hobby: fighting with the kazakhstani bureaucracy.

i flew to dubai because i learned at the last minute that my visa extension would not go through. dubai has a direct, relatively cheap, flight from almaty, so i planned to fly in, get the visa and fly back again. (at least to almaty. getting from almaty to taraz is its own hassle).

the problem is that the kazakhstani consulate honors both the friday-saturday weekend that is the norm here in the UAE as well as the saturday-sunday weekend they have in kazakhstan. which means they are only open for four days a week. so while i thought i was scheduling a trip that would include 3 work days, in fact, at least as far as the kaz consulate is concerned, it is only 2.

another problem is that the consulate is only open for four hours a day. (woe to those kazakhstani diplomats and their sixteen-hour work week!), 11am to 1pm for applying for stuff and 3pm-5pm for picking up stuff. the 11am opening seems to be the norm for this place. this place doesn’t seem to wake up until 10 or 11am. but unlike the consulate, those other places are all hopping late into the night.

anyway, yesterday was my first day in dubai so i got right to work. i slept in (at least it felt like it—10am in taraz is 8am here), wandered the shuttered suqs of deira and then at a little before 10am took a taxi to the consulate of kazakhstan. i left that early not because the consulate was far (it should have been a 5-10 minute ride) but because i wanted to camp out at the entrance and get in when they first opened.

it was really lucky that i left that much time. the consulate proved to be pretty hard to find. the address i got from the internet was “deira baniyas road, green tower, room 302.” you’ll note there is no street number. they don’t seem to have street numbers here. (my hotel’s address is the same: “sabakha road, across from the sabakha bus station” is what the business card says). i’m not sure why not. street numbers are useful!

so while the taxi driver knew where deira baniyas road was, he had never heard of a “green tower.” “twin tower” he kept offering as we cruised down the street slowly. “no, green tower,” i insisted. “maybe you were told “twin tower” but wrote down “green tower?” the driver suggested. “no, this is a print-out from the consulate web site, it clearly says ‘green’” i said showing him the paper. he left me at the twin tower. “we are here” he said when we pulled up to the building, as if i couldn’t read the words “twin tower” on the side of a non-green building.

i got out anyway. the security guard at least had heard of the green tower (or at least the “al-burj al-akhdar”—did i mention how nice it is being in a country where i actually speak both of the languages?) he pointed down the road.

i’m not sure exactly how hot it was in that treeless stretch of concrete that i walked along at around 10:30 yesterday morning, except that it was frigging hot. yesterday’s high in dubai was 46 degrees C (about 115 F) and this place is extremely humid, i’m guessing between 80 and 90%. i walked for what seemed like a really long time (but may not have been more than 15 minutes). i could see most of deira baniyas road stretching out in front of me. there was not a single building that looked green.

then i passed a bunch of luxury hotels and used a trick i learned in nairobi. when you’re in the developing world and are a white westerner, you can walk into any foreign luxury hotel without being stopped by the guard no matter how dirty and smelly you are, provided that you walk in with confidence. i strode into a hyatt, soaked up the a/c for a minute and then did a loop through the lobby (to make it look like i was coming from a room), marched up to the concierge and asked her to help me find the green tower. she called around and eventually got me detailed instructions.

it was just another 10 minute walk down the road before i came across a silvery-blue tower labeled “green tower”. (maybe in the right light i could imagine a vague green tint to the glass). over the entrance flew the flags of kazakhstan and morocco.

i went inside and got in line outside the consulate’s locked door. there were already 2 other people waiting, though it was only 10 minutes before it opened. by the time it opened there were 7 people camped out. i was number 3 until i got inside and learned i hadn’t filled out the visa application (why didn’t i print one out from the web site!), so i had to get out of line, fill out the form, and then get back in line at the back.

the line was painfully slow and the guy at the window kept leaving for no apparent reason, sometimes even when the person at the window was in the middle of a question. when i finally reached the front, i asked the guy how long it would take to get a visa. “3 to 4 days” he said. “by friday?” i offered. “no, monday.” “i’m catching a plane on friday night, is there anything you can do to speed up the process?” “no” he said.

he then asked me for my passport (check), the completed visa application (check), a passport photo (check), my letter of invitation to kazakhstan (check) and a photocopy of the photo page of my passport (d’oh!). “um, where can i get a copy of my passport?” i asked. “downstairs” he said. i ran downstairs and asked the guard where i could photocopy my passport. the guard had no idea. then i realized that i had a photocopy of my passport crammed into my money belt. it had been there since we left the states in december. i checked and, sure enough, there was a dog-eared copy of my passport in there.

i ran back upstairs, waited until i got back to the front of the consulate line and presented the frayed page along with my passport. the guy at the window frowned when he saw it, but accepted the paper. i tried again, “is there any way you can issue my visa before my plane leaves on friday?” i asked. “no” he said. then he handed me a document that i needed to bring down to the bank on the first floor of the building. i would pay the bank the amount of the visa fee, the bank would put it in the consulate’s account, then i should come back up and show him the bank receipt—no cash payment could be made to the consulate official.

so i ran downstairs, waited in line at the bank, paid the bank the equivalent of $100 (included a 5 dirham service charge) and then went back upstairs with the receipt to wait in line again. when i got to the front, i gave the guy the receipt and again asked if there was any way they could speed up the process. “no” he repeated for the third time. “but i have a plane ticket leaving for almaty on friday,” i protested, “what would you do if you were me?” i asked. “you must change your ticket.” he said. so i pulled out my air astana flight confirmation printout, which showed the date and time i was leaving and clearly said “non-refundable non-changeable.” he looked at the page, then looked at me, and then said “sit down, i will think about it.”

i sat in the waiting room for the next hour, watching person after person come in to bang their heads against the wall of kazakh bureaucracy. one french guy said he was personally invited to speak to the foreign minister of kazakhstan. but he didn’t have a copy of the letter of invitation. after he was turned away twice by the guy at the window, the french guy totally freaked out, calling the minister of foreign affairs himself in astana on his mobile to complain. still he left without a visa.

at 1pm, my friend at the window came out to kick everyone out of the waiting room. “we are closing” he said. “what about expediting my visa?” i asked. when he gave me a blank look i said “remember, i am catching a plane to almaty on a non-refundable ticket. you were thinking about whether you could get me the visa faster.” he said “come back tomorrow at 3pm”, which i’m hoping is a good sign.