The Miraculous Story of the South African Visa

It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes the work of government workers, TSA agents, baggage claim lost and found workers, and more to ship Kalli, Jacob, and Ryder to South Africa in one piece.

It started with my ambivalence to commit.

Yes, it should come as no surprise after 8 years of never staying in one place, culture, language, or time zone, I found it difficult to choose a place to stick with.

It wasn’t for lack of wanting. I’ve been ready since 2015 for it, but it wasn’t so easy to make a sudden switch. Even when we’d talk about settling down, other things would come up. Visas would interfere. Flight deals would allure. And we’d be on our way again. I realized that it’s been 8 years of this lifestyle. I turn 32 this year. A fourth of my life. That’s no small venture to change.

I got accepted to three universities to study music therapy, and I also accepted all three universities. That means, in my life, I have only applied to four universities, and I have also accepted all four universities. Strange. Well, what happened was this: The German school actually cancelled on me. They decided to delay the program a year. The South African school application came after I’d already started ArtEZ in the Netherlands. And therein lay the dilemma.

ARTEZ

ArtEZ Conservatory, Enschede, The Netherlands

I was loving my internship and loving my classmates and school, and it seemed strange to give it up. But—lifestyle is better in South Africa for us, weather-wise, cost-of-living-wise, recreation-wise. Ultimately that informed my decision, as well as the fact that the University of Pretoria is the third or so best university in Africa, and around 700th best in the world. The internships I would be working in would be varied, giving me a chance to work with all kinds of client groups, and the education would include art, dance, and drama therapy introductions as well as in GIM-Guided imagery. And, influentially as well, Jacob does not like living in Germany, weather- and culture-wise. It made him feel out-of-sorts. See?

ryder germany schoolout of sorts

But even after I broke the news to the European school and internship, which was difficult for me, it suddenly looked as though I might have broken up with one to get left by the other. It’s what happens cosmically when you lead people on, you know. I had chased down police clearance, FBI and radiological reports, birth certificates and student contracts. I thought I was prepared for a visa application. But then I discovered first, that it is only in Berlin that you can apply; and second, it would take 8 weeks.

It was January 6th. I was supposed to be in South Africa by the 30th of January. The good thing about this wake up call was that I became sure that I did, indeed, not want to stay in Germany.

I spent a long, sleepless weekend waiting for the time zone difference to abate so I could make Monday phone calls.

I called embassies in the US and no one would answer. I finally got a hold of the New York one, who told me they would process it in 5-10 days. Joyfully, I said, “Really?! You guys are amazing!!” To which he replied, nonplussed, “Ma’am, this is New York.” and hung up the phone.

Indeed.

The US really doesn’t do the bureaucracy that Germany seems to cling to like life support.

I had to deregister Ryder from school in Muenster—oh, whoops, you have to do that six weeks in advance. So I had to go pay another month’s fees because it’s just not possible to terminate with only 3 weeks notice, and I signed in the contract about the Fritz. The what? The thing that means if I don’t derigister I have to pay.

I had to deregister with the Muenster housing authority. Register and deregister, that’s what Germany’s all about.

I had to close our bank account with PostBank.

Jacob was in the process of trying to extend our temporary residency permit to stay in Germany-but they were asking for things like purchasing insurance with no lifetime limit, and taxes from the US. They weren’t satisfied with Jacob’s claim to be an author for a profession. Ultimately we decided rather than chase down more paperwork, we’d risk it and overstay 10 days. We didn’t know if we’d be detained at the border. Although I’m sure I looked as guilty as hell, because let’s just say I don’t have a poker face, no harm done. Stamped.

I decided to stay for the intensive week with my university to say goodbye to my fellow students, and to spend Daniela’s birthday with her on the 20th. I bought my tickets for Chicago on the 21st. We’d fly through Berlin from Dusseldorf. I got roundtrip tickets for about 350 euros with Air Berlin. Ryder and Jacob had to go with me to Chicago to get their visas too. Then, from Berlin, I bought one way tickets with Qatar Airways to Cape Town. Exactly 10 business days later. That’s what they said, right?

Little did we know at the time, but while we’d invited someone to help take Ryder to school and stay with us while I did my intensive week, it turned out that we would be returning to the US pretty much at the same time as she was, rather than staying through March as we originally told her. It was fortunate to have her around to help clean and pack up, but our Airbnb host was still less than impressed. It’s Germany-there’s nothing that disdains them more than chaos. She said it was like a sauna in there. Jacob likes to walk around without his shirt on, and it was winter: we never turned the heat off. She talked about the environment and the costs and the mold for a while. Good practice for my German skills anyway. And then there was the discussion of the copious amounts of food left over-she could keep it—guitar, does she want it? I don’t have a case for it and can’t find it. “You never had a case,” she says. “You walked in here with your guitar in your hand when I met you.” I’m speechless. I have no memory of losing my guitar case. I accept my level of chaos has moved to a new level and charge on ahead. “You want these shoes? Skateboard?” She stops me. “Leave anything you want in the apartment and I’ll take care of it.” I left that apartment relieved, because it’s stressful to live in Germany when you are not a detail-oriented and immaculate person, but also feeling like a bag lady, because I was bringing so much stuff with me. It’s a rule in our traveling relationship, Jacob and I, that I can bring as much stuff as I want, as long as I carry it and he goes separately from me so he doesn’t stress at being compelled to help me. He’s a light packer. I’m a packrat.

It was a matter of changing trains just once-I managed to drag it all the way to Duren. There was a nice visit with Dani and her boyfriend. We got to meet her horse and see the house she grew up.

16229986_10158097147610076_1477966664_oon the horse

horse troll 2horse troll

After saying goodbye to Daniela after a slightly anxious ride to the airport-there was a strange traffic jam at the car wash—“Stupid Germans,” says Dani, “Of course the first sunny day all winter they head straight to the car wash.” We whisk in, all goes well, Ryder and Jacob are off to go through security—and I was stuck. I couldn’t move. I had too much stuff.

I had a massive red backpack, a front backpack which functions like my purse, Ryder’s Spiderman backpack, a plastic bag of snacks including something from Daniela’s favorite bakery, and my blue former diaper bag-turned toiletry bag. Altogether, it’s really heavy. There is not a square inch of space in any of it to combine them together. I was pushing it all on a cart, but then it was time to go up an escalator and I had to leave the cart. I got down on my knees to load up after trying to discreetly hide behind a post. And barely stood up and wobbled to the security line. I was sweating because I was wearing my trademark three pairs of pants in winter. I got questioned at security.

In my haste, I did not put all of my toiletries in the suitcase, which was already packed to capacity-needless to say.

The TSA man began unpacking my bag.

I had an exfoliant, a moisturizer, toner, and a clay mask.

“Is this liquid?” He asked.

“No,” I said, hoping to speed things along.

He opens it in all its green mushy glory.

“This is a liquid. You’re lying to me now.”

Feeling the need to defend, I say, “It’s not a liquid! You put it on your face like this and it hardens!” I demonstrate with my hands.

He pulls out the crowning glory, a can of tomatoes.

“You can throw that away,” I said.

“I’m going to have to throw all of this away,” he said.

He seemed to view me as a security threat at worst and at least, a sneaky deviant.

“Trust me, I did not want to bring this with me! Do you know how much that exfoliant is? $75!”

He looked impressed.

Well, it’s WORTH $75. It was technically free. I got it as a bonus.

He told me I could go ship it on the plane underneath. “Can I leave my stuff here?” I begged. “No, you have to take it with you.”

I start to leave.

“Wait, is this yours?” Another of my bags had to be gone through. A pair of scissors, a nasal spray, and a bottle of shampoo were discovered. Items had to be gathered to add to the checked bag.

I loaded up again. Red backpack, Spiderman backpack, blue bag, black bag, plastic bag. Race to the ticket counter. Drop the bag stuffed with liquids off. Jump in line through security again. Agent asks me how much it cost to ship. I said it was free. Another friendly agent wants to know where the crazy lady is headed. Chatting. Hear my name getting called through the airport. Last one on. No harm, no foul. Jacob said after hearing my account, “I never really doubted you. But I’ve been sitting here, anxious, for an hour. I could not figure out what was going on. You went through security like you never have flown before! When you have flown 100 times!” Guilty as charged.

I didn’t have Jacob’s birth certificate. I had to order them to Chicago. Missouri residents were supposed to apply at the one in Chicago, not New York. I sent Jacob’s birth certificate to the only person I knew in Chicago. The notary downtown who signed off our house.

We had an overnight layover in Berlin. The hotel agreed to store two of our suitcases until we returned, two weeks later, in their luggage room. Thank you, Mercure Hotel Berlin!

We had just been in Chicago only a couple of weeks earlier so it felt surreal to be back.

chicago trainChicago

We got an Airbnb and prepared to host my parents for a couple of days, and then Jacob’s parents for a couple of days. But first things first: off to the notary to get the birth certificate, which hopefully they kept instead of throwing it away because they had no idea who the heck we were. I had called to tell him, but wasn’t sure if he’d remember. Check. Next, to the embassy. Documents, documents, and more documents. Scolding for not having everything. Sending out to make copies and payments. We were supposed to have a lease. I don’t do leases before arriving in country. I did an apartment through booking.com that offered free cancellation for the maximum offered, one month. Ryder’s passport was going to expire. Had to go get a new one. Spent all day at that office. Last person out. Walked away with Ryder’s new passport in hand. Tuesday I had everything in. Then it was a waiting game. My parents came-we went to Navy Pier and the Chicago Institute of Art and Ryder painted a dinosaur and we ate pizza and crammed in so much within less than 48 hours. My in-laws came-they brought Henry, Ryder’s dinosaur who’d gotten left behind and his “best friend”, went to the zoo and the Natural History museum and ate bacon and pancakes and toast.

Friday I got a call. I needed proof of why I was living in Cape Town when the school was actually in Pretoria.

A fax was needed from my university professors. They sent it.

Monday and Tuesday I was with my old friend and roommate Andrea in South Bend, Indiana. I carried a suitcase full of bricks and Ryder all the way there and back by train. The special occasion was a birthday party: Ryan is also Ryder’s pen pal. Which actually means that Andrea and I are pen pals. But Ryder and Ryan became inseparable quickly.

Kalli and AndreaRyder and Ryan

Wednesday I went in to check after calling and not getting through. They hadn’t received the fax. What was more, the phone system was down, there was nothing they could work on, so they were going home early. I printed the letter myself and handed it into them. Then, for wont of anything else to do, I went in again on Thursday, to gently remind them that my flight was for the very next day.

I was waved to a back room in which I’d never been before.

I talked to the lady at the desk, and was almost immediately shut down. “The fax came in too late,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Cancel your flights, you won’t get your visa in time. There is only one lady who can sign your visa, and her son is sick. She won’t be back in until next week.”

I went home, a little stunned. Things always seemed to work out for me in these kind of situations. What had happened?

I called the airlines and tried to cancel. They said it wasn’t possible.

I went in again on Friday morning, the day of the flight. I brought Ryder. Intentionally.

Waved to the back again.

Same lady.

“You aren’t getting your visa!” she shouted.

“But, when should I come back?”

“Buy your flights for next Friday,” she suggested.

“My flights were $2000” I said…

“Nothing I can do!”

I went to sit on the couch for a bit. Ryder played on the iPad. I researched about getting a second passport—maybe Ryder and Jacob could go on without me with second passports and I could follow up later with the visas?

All of a sudden, the door slammed open and two black South African women stood there.

“You did not apply for your visa in time! It is not our fault!” began the one. “I came in on Monday of last week…” “But the fax didn’t arrive! We didn’t do anything wrong!” “I’m not angry with you” I repeated over and over. “Well you shouldn’t be!” The other lady started to laugh. “Is he with you?” she asked, pointing at Ryder. “Yes,” I said. “We can process your visa.” “I love you,” I said. “Really, I’m going to write you good reviews on Facebook and Google…” I’ll be back in 10 minutes.” she said and closed the door.

The girl in the waiting room with me, from Estonia, was shocked. She said God had answered my prayers. The guy in the waiting room, who said he’d been waiting 3 years for his birth certificate, had already yelled at the front desk lady and stormed out of the room.

I got the visas and hightailed it out of there. It was 11 am. Our flights were at 3:30 pm. Still plenty of time to check out and head to the airport.

At the airport, checking in, we found out there was yet another wrench. Our tickets were roundtrip back to Dusseldorf. There was no way, she said, that she could alter the luggage to arrive in Berlin. We watched all of our earthly possessions disappear headed toward the inevitable destination of Dusseldorf. I tried to find a quick flight from Dusseldorf back to Berlin so I could grab the luggage and come back. There wasn’t one in time for our flight that evening. I called Air Berlin. They said there was nothing they could do, but I could talk to staff on board the flight.

Flight attendant said she radioed land crew to tell them to get our luggage, but there was no way to know if they got the message.

I went to baggage claim lost and found. The lady, who was from Namibia, said there was nothing to do but wait. I did, and sent Jacob and Ryder back to the hotel. Our flights were at 5.

Not there, not there, they can’t find it, you’ll have to have them send it to you in South Africa. That was what I was told. But she persevered.

A man came out eventually holding the rogue luggage. I got their names and wrote them a thank you email. Have no idea if they got it.

THANK YOU, luggage lost and found at Berlin Tegel!

We arrived in Qatar for our layover. The flight had been delayed about two hours. We missed our connecting flight and got to spend a full day in Qatar. We went to the Museum of Islamic Art and to the souq. And got free food all day at a nice hotel. We arrived at our hostel the next day. Cape Town Backpackers. Booked last minute, and we discovered Cape Town is different in February compared to April. It’s summer-high season-everything was booked out. We had to change rooms even within the hostel three times.

While I was starting my internship, hiring an au pair, and taking classes in Pretoria, Jacob was looking for a place to stay. He found one. It involved lots of paperwork. We finally could move in March 1. All our suitcases could get taken out of storage at Cape Town Backpackers (thank you!) and moved in. Nothing was lost or stolen. Not even Henry, Ryder’s dinosaur, who once again got left behind and returned from one of our bounce apartments.

We have moved into a life of semi-routine. Ryder is in school and has a faux sibling-the au pair’s daughter. I got a year gym membership and a year’s apartment lease-both a life first for me. We are cooking dinner every night using Cook Smarts.

I had a bad dream this week that Jacob came home and said, “I found a better apartment. Let’s move!”

But it’s not true. We’re settled here. It was one last siren song of craziness to get to stability. It feels good to finally arrive.

Xhosa

cheesy grins

Kalli Hiller

Article by Kalli Hiller

Kalli Hiller is a voluntary vagabond who, with her husband Jacob, has traveled full time for the last eight years.

Kalli has written 369 awesome articles for us.

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