Stopwatch

A visit to the South African Consulate General

Today was a big day in my quest to Cape Town!  I traveled to the South African Consulate General in New York.  This office currently accepts visa applications between 9 AM and 1PM on Monday through Thursday (definitely get an updated schedule if you are planning to submit a visa).  I had spoken to the consulate briefly on two occasions.  One person had seemed distinctly unconcerned about my application, so I was a bit nervous about appearing in person.

The first challenge was finding the building.  The address puts it quite close to the East River in Manhattan.  When I arrived at 333 East 38th St., though, I was faced with a building that had NYU written all over it, quite literally.  I worried that I had confused the address with one for the campus.  In the lobby, though, I checked the building directory and saw that the 9th floor was truly the South African Consulate General.  I gave the security guard my driver’s license, and soon I was in the elevator headed to the ninth floor.

I was faced with another lobby, this time with a walled-off office behind glass.  I signed into the guest book, and I was buzzed through the door into another lobby.  The visa lobby immediately signaled to me that it is a place accustomed to despair.  Once again, the consulate personnel were sequestered away from the mortals by a thick wall and glass.  Because I arrived quite early in their business day (approximately 9:20 AM), only three parties were there, and two were slumped low in the chairs.

A woman roughly my age came away from the window and sat in dejection on the cushion.  “I gave them my application ten days ago.”  She said.  “They said they also needed these other documents.  I offered to send them by email, but they wanted me to come in person, again.”  She had taken the train from New Jersey.  An older gentleman (apparently a professor) was also in the office.  He was intensely frustrated because he needed his passport back today, but they’d mailed it out by FedEx that day.  A younger chap was there to pick up; apparently his visa was ready!  In whispered conversations among ourselves, I discovered that I was the only person for whom the visa office had elected to pick up the telephone.  The others had left unanswered messages or simply listened to endless ringing.

In this climate, I carefully approached the window with my DHA-1738 packet.  The woman accepted the papers, glancing at the index that showed the order of materials.  Her first considered act was to pull the packet apart, grabbing the documents she cared about.  “The critical skills stuff I don’t care about,” she said.  “That’s the consular officer’s business.  I can’t tell you whether you have all the required documents for that part.”  She continued pulling aside the pieces she did care about.  I mentioned that I was using “Corporate Account” status because of the funding agency bringing me to South Africa.  “That doesn’t matter to me,” she said, though she did allow me to write that on the cover sheet, shoving it back through the slot for me to do so (after all, she couldn’t attest to whether or not that applied).  I noted that Corporate Account status indicated an expedited review, and she replied, “I can only tell you four weeks.”  She paused.  “Why did you include fingerprints?” she asked.  I noted that the form included a space for fingerprints.  She shrugged.  She gave me the information so I could address the money order, and she supplied a receipt (for the money, not the documents).  “Okay, you’re done,” she said, essentially waving me away.

I returned to the seats, feeling crestfallen and nervous rather than relieved or excited.  I talked with the woman who had been at the window when I first arrived.  She noted that she had been working on a spousal visa since her wedding six months ago.  Now she had a ticket in hand for early November, but the consulate expected more documents on top of what she had thought was a complete application.  Would she be able to use her ticket, or would that expensive purchase go to waste?  The professor had left the room, but he returned with a sly grin.  He had seen the packages awaiting FedEx pickup, and he intercepted the one heading to his address.  He had his visa victoriously in hand!

A young fellow arrived in the office.  He was flying to South Africa in five days on an extended business trip of three months for his U.S. company, but he had received conflicting information on whether or not he needed a visa to go.  He had arrived with a couple printed forms in search of some answers.  As I left, I heard the person at the desk advising him to delay his flight to South Africa.  It sounds like his adventure is just beginning.

This visit marks the countdown.  In four weeks, I expect to be on a flight to Cape Town!

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