A soldier patrols at Charles de Gaulle Airport. PICTURE: AP
A soldier patrols at Charles de Gaulle Airport. PICTURE: AP

Mind your papers or you’ll go nuts

By Minesh Bhagaloo Time of article published Mar 12, 2013

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Johannesburg - There are no words to describe that sinking feeling when you’re standing at a check-in counter in a foreign airport and reach for your travel wallet in your backpack, only to find it’s not there.

This happened to me on a recent trip, in transit through Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. My passport and travel documents had clearly ended up in the hands of a Parisian thief.

My first step was up the escalators to the terminal security office, thinking that as in the Bourne Legacy movie I’d encounter a network of screens able to trace my movement and the hand that unzipped the front section of the backpack.

Instead I encountered a security outpost staffed by policemen who were not the most helpful. They told me it was impossible for them to monitor this kind of thing – and that the incident probably occurred on the internal train that we used between terminals.

I tended to agree, as there were some dodgy characters on that train, but rummaging through nearby bins in case they’d tossed the wallet after taking the cash proved fruitless.

So it was off to the South African embassy in Paris to see how they could help, with a bit of a time constraint as my connecting flight was leaving that afternoon and I had no intention of cancelling the trip and heading home.

Charles de Gaulle Airport is manic in the mornings, so taxi queues could have you standing on the snow-covered pavements for a while. The motorcycle taxis are not first prize in the French winter, but I jumped on the back, put on the smelly overcoat kept for desperate passengers and whizzed through traffic to the Proudly SA embassy.

Meeting fellow South Africans was quite a relief, and getting an emergency passport was simply a few forms, passport pictures and about E30 (R350) away. But, as with all embassies, be warned that it’s generally open for only a few hours early in the day.

Hats off to our team there. They sat me down in a little lounge and listened to my sob story, verified my information and provided the necessary documentation.

My issue was a little above and beyond, though, as I wanted to continue travelling and needed a temporary, not emergency, passport. The emergency is the standard and can be used once simply to get you back home. The temporary is as good as a normal passport and valid for a year.

The problem was that I couldn’t prove to our embassy that I had visas for my next port of call (or a Schengen visa, for that matter), but after much convincing that I’d get copies, and phone calls back and forth to South Africa, the embassy allowed me to sign an indemnity which would not hold it responsible should I get stopped at other borders – and issued a temporary passport.

Now bear with me, as you’re about to get a lesson in visas.

I cannot emphasise this enough: make copies of your visas and keep them in another part of your luggage. My destination was Morocco and neither the Moroccan embassy nor the consulate in Paris could help trace my visa (which the Moroccan embassy in South Africa had issued) or issue an emergency visa. My travel agent who’d arranged the visa didn’t keep a copy either.

After many calls by the organisers of the trip between Morocco and Paris, it was agreed that an emergency visa would be issued in Marrakech on arrival, but you try to explain that to the staff at the check-in counter in Paris.

They wouldn’t give me a boarding pass without a visa, which meant a lot more phoning and a guarantee faxed from the Moroccan side before I was allowed on the plane.

Enjoying the mountains in Marrakech, I thought my woes were over, only to discover that to fly back home through Paris, should I use the charter flight the rest of the group was using, would require a transit visa. The charter, in essence, would mean rechecking in at Paris, and they’d look for a visa.

The only way around this was to fly with the same carrier from Morocco, through Paris, to South Africa, checking in all the way to South Africa in Morocco.

Luckily I was flying Air France from Paris and they flew to Morocco too, so this arrangement was possible, and it was how I got home (but I had to trek to Casablanca to fly out with Air France).

In essence, I travelled without a single visa in a temporary passport, but there was a lot of calling, and hundreds of euros were wasted on taxis and extra flights. So guard your travel wallet with your life. I learnt my lesson the hard way. - Saturday Star

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