Time to Come Clean: I Almost Got Deported
The most stressful few hours of my time in Guyana occurred in March, when I was under the impression that because I didn’t have a long-term visa to be in the country, I was going to be deported.
When you arrive in Guyana you’re given a three month tourist visa. You can extend your visa, but it requires a lot of paperwork. As Mercy Volunteers, we were instructed to apply for our visas over the course of our time here. We were under the impression that no one would ever question how long we had been in the country, but when the time to leave Guyana arrived, we would be banned from entering the country again for at least one year. Unsure of whether we would want the ability to return, we looked into extending our visas. The process for getting a Guyanese visa is the single most frustrating paper-work related process I have ever gone through. We had to jump through so many hoops, wait in so many lines, collect so many papers and different pieces of information. The entire process from beginning to end took months. MONTHS! It is a direct result of the work ethic in this country. It was an extremely frustrating process, to put it simply.
I ended up getting my visa extended in April. That means I was illegally living in this country for more than four months between the time my tourist visa expired and when my extension was approved. Unfortunately, in March, before I had my visa extended, I ran into a problem. I was well aware that I couldn’t go anywhere near a border without it being revealed that I was living in Guyana past my visa, but I had no idea that crossing through Guyana would be an issue.
There’s a town on the southwest border of Guyana and Brazil called Lethem. It’s the only legal access point into Brazil from Guyana. It is on the opposite side of the country from where I live in Georgetown. It’s the largest settlement in the deep interior of Guyana, however, this doesn’t mean much. There’s just a few thousand people who live there. My hope is to post many, many photos of this trip in a coming post. For now though, all that’s important to know is that Lethem is a long journey from GT. It takes anywhere between 14 and 18 hours to get to Lethem. The first hour of the trip is on a paved road. After that, it’s not even really a dirt road, it’s just kind of a path. The pot holes are large enough to drive INTO. The driver has to swerve the entire way, all 400+ kilometers. The drive is beautiful. You cross through all four Natural Regions of Guyana, so you get to experience rainforest and savannahs. You cross over rivers, pass by native villages, swerve through thick forest. It’s beautiful.
Despite the beauty, my trip was rocked a little more than I was expecting when we encountered check-points along the way. There were probably four or five times when the mini-bus would pull off on the side of the road and everyone would have to empty out of the bus and walk up to a free-standing building in the middle of nowhere and show their information/passports to the agents. The first few times this happened, the people at the checkpoints didn’t even look through my passport to see if my visa was valid. Unfortunately, about halfway through the trip, right after we had made our way across a river crossing, we reached another checkpoint. Here, I handed my passport to the officer. He flipped through it, checking each page. When he got to the page with my expired visa he stopped. My heart kicked up a notch. He stared closely at the page. In his broken English, he started mumbling words like “expired” and “illegal” and “deportation.” I tried to explain to him that I was well into the process of applying for a long term visa, that the paperwork was “processing” but he wasn’t really interested in hearing what I had to say. He got on his cell phone and called somebody to see if he should detain me. When he got off of the phone, he told me to go ahead to Lethem but that I’d have to stop by immigration at the Brazil border where ‘they would deal with me.’
I climbed back into the bus, feeling defeated. The whole rest of the way to Lethem, which was another five or six hours, my thoughts ran wild. I was so annoyed with the visa process, but I was mostly just thinking about my students. What would they do without a full-time teacher for the rest of the year? Also, I SO did not want to be sitting on my couch at home all of a sudden within the next forty-eight hours. I took photos of the pristine beauty that was popping up around me in the rising sunlight, but I was really flustered. The officer had warned me that he was calling ahead to make sure that I reported to the immigration officers in Lethem.
When we arrived in town, the bus driver took us to the drop off point and we unloaded from the bus. I looked at the driver and asked, “what do you think I should do about this?” He told me not to worry about it, he said he would go ahead to immigration and ask them what to do. I waited there, at this little bus shack in the tiny town on the edge of Brazil that I knew nothing about. I wondered how many more hours I’d be in Guyana. When the driver returned, he waved his hand nonchalantly in the air. “Don’t worry about it. They said no police officer has the right to deport you.”
And that was that. I spent the next two days in Lethem and then nervously boarded the bus again, wondering if I’d have any trouble on the way back through the country. Each time we got to a check point, I would nervously walk toward the buildings, but I kept finding myself walking back to the bus without any issues. When we reached the checkpoint with the man who had threatened to deport me, his partner was the one to look at my visa. I purposely pulled my hat low over my face and then turned my face away from both agents as I waited for the bus to depart. I felt like I had dodged a huge bullet. Perhaps he had recognized me but assumed I had already been dealt with. Either way, I’m just thankful to have survived the trip. Fifteen hours later, when the path opened up into paved road and I knew there would be no more checkpoints, I felt like I had won the lottery.
Two weeks later, the paperwork for my visa went through. I’ve been in Guyana ever since, and I’ve appreciated it so, so much more. This fiasco really shined some light on how badly I wanted to continue to be here, how much I really love my Guyanese existence and what I’m doing here.
Reason this blog entry didn’t see the light of day until now: some things are just so, so frustrating to relive.