JOHANNESBURG—The situation was not ideal. I was at the Johannesburg airport, waiting in a cold, bare room occupied by plastic chairs. I had been pulled out of the immigration line for not having my yellow fever certificate: you don’t need one when traveling to South Africa from America, but you do need one when traveling from Tanzania. The woman who was supposed to stamp my passport and release me to the domestic section of the airport where I could catch a flight to Cape Town instead said curtly, “They are going to refuse you entry. You need to go back to Tanzania,” and took me to the airport clinic.
The clinic had handed me over to immigration, where I was waiting to be served deportation papers. I had been waiting for five hours. My company were other illegal immigrants—a man from Malawi with a forged work permit; a woman from South Africa, her Nigerian husband, and five-year-old son; a man from Zimbabwe who seemed to have committed no crime other than leaving his teenage baby mama; and the CEO of a $90-million dollar company who had left his wife, kids, and yellow fever certificate in Zanzibar for vacation and was coming for a week of business meetings.
I had called my sister, who was in Cape Town, from the CEO’s Skype account, and explained the situation to her. I had tried to call my parents, but my Tanzanian cell phone account ran out of money in less than thirty seconds. I was contemplating how I would travel back to Tanzania without bankrupting myself, when the man from immigration—part of the third shift of officers whom I had entreated and failed to get food or water from—entered the room. “I think someone from America is calling for you,” he told the CEO. The CEO left and returned, “Anita, I think your parents are calling you.” My dad had found the number of the room outside the holding cell, and told me that he was faxing “Kenneth” a copy of my yellow fever certificate and that “Kenneth” was going to take it to “Annette” at the public health office, and that I just had to find these people and make sure they kept their promises to the worried father on the phone.
It’s embarrassing to say that this was not the first time my parents bailed me out of a difficult situation abroad—it wasn’t even the first time during this trip. When I was having trouble with my host family last month, my mom searched online and found a hostel twenty minutes away, explained my situation to the hostel owner, and sent me directions to the place via text message. When I caught dengue fever in Honduras a few years ago, my dad came and stayed with me for a week in the hospital in San Pedro Sula.
Indeed, it is embarrassing that I get into these situations at all, given how much I have to report to my parents when I’m abroad. Every time I travel I give them a spreadsheet of contact numbers, for people they can call who will know where I am at any given second. I can be sure that if I don’t pick up the phone for a few days, I will hear about it from someone around me. Even God is being called into service: the other day I found a rosary in my suitcase. I thought this worrying would stop after I turned 18, or maybe after I turned 21. Or maybe now, even, that I am about to graduate from college, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that that’s not the case.
Two hours later, after shuttling back and forth between the immigration office, the airport clinic, and the South African Air check-in counter, I was escorted through immigration and past a massive line of passengers. “It seems that if you know someone big or important the rules don’t apply to you,” the airport official accompanying me complained loudly to the man stamping my passport. No, I wanted to say, you just need great parents.
Anita J. Joseph, an editorial chair, is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House.