When I used to do silly things as a child, my mother would tsk tsk me, “Rootie Schtootie,” because schtoot in Hebrew means nonsense. Today I am Rootie Schtootie-ing myself on her behalf, because my idiocy / vanity has cost me my best West African adventure yet. (Though my mother – who is, to put it mildly, not a fan of my travels – will be thrilled.)
Let’s go back in time two years. After chasing paperwork across three continents, I finally had all my documents in order for my first Czech passport. (By Czech law, my father passed his citizenship down to me at birth. If my mother had been Czech, this would not have been the case, because – as is integral to this story – the Czechs are patriarchal.) While Czech citizenship was no big deal at first, as of 2004 it afforded me entry into the European Union, and was thus the most magical thing in the world.
So as I was finalizing my forms at the Czech Embassy in New York two years ago, I was already daydreaming about my new life in London working for the BBC. (Insert fat Brexit tears here.) Perhaps I can blame my subsequent error in judgement on that whimsical mood. When the embassy staff asked me if I would like my new passport made out to Ruth Fertigová rather than Ruth Fertig (because the Czech naming convention adds ová to women’s surnames, e.g. Martina Navrátilová, Eva Herzigová), I thought about how glamorous and exotic that sounded, how my Czech-ified name would be so much softer and lovelier than the German version of it, and I answered, “Why not?”
I’ll tell you why not. At some point many months ago, I hatched a plan to road trip from Benin to Cote d’Ivoire, starting in Ouidah for the annual voodoo festival on January 10 and passing through Togo and Ghana along the way to Abidjan. I didn’t have time to properly plan this logistics-heavy undertaking until I got back from my most recent video shoot on Christmas, and once I did, I ran into problem after problem.
First one, from which most of the others stem: after a year in which I’ve traveled more than ever before, my American passport is nearly full. This is cause for great pride, but also great consternation. With only three blank pages left, there is not enough room to fit the four visas and entry / exit stamps I’ll need for my next trip, and there’s also not enough time to order a new one. The American embassy no longer adds pages to passports, and even if they did, they don’t have any appointments available until January 23.
At first I figured I would simply travel with my still-empty Czech passport rather than my American one. But as a travel agent pointed out to me yesterday, I could potentially get stuck at the Dakar airport if the Senegalese passport control people ask me where my entry stamp to Senegal is. When I show them my American passport, the name won’t match that on the ticket, and in this age of heightened security measures, there is a tiny chance that they could kick me off the flight.
I would take that tiny chance, except that there is also a rather larger chance that Ghana is going to deny me a tourist visa. That’s because they require you to get them in your country of official residence, and apparently they are pretty strict about it in Dakar. I’ve heard two stories of non-Senegalese people being rejected at the Ghana Embassy, though in both cases they talked their way around it via all sorts of entreaties and threats and eventually ended up with visas in hand.
I was feeling confident I could do the same by pretending my Czech self speaks no English and very little French and bursting into tears. But if that didn’t work, I’d have to reroute my itinerary to skip over Ghana, which would mean I wouldn’t get to explore Accra, one of the places I’m most looking forward to. And considering the ballooning cost of the trip, I want to do it right or not at all.
Which brings me to the problem of the tickets…
I want to fly from Dakar into Cotonou, travel overland to Accra, and then save nine hours of driving time by flying from Accra to Abidjan. I had assumed I would use airline miles to pay for the tickets, but American Airlines, for maybe the sixth time, has failed me. I have 60,000 seemingly useless miles with them – every time I try to redeem them they tell me there are no available flights or partner airlines. I also have 85,000 points with Chase but – after two hours of Skype calls that mysteriously cut out on me ten or fifteen or twenty minutes into the call – they priced out this trip at more than 83,000 points and I was like, um, no thanks. (For 83,000 points I could also fly from New York to London, round-trip, twice.)
The best tickets I found were on Air Cote d’Ivoire for a whopping $870. That’s almost a thousand dollars I had not planned to spend. But I had counted on this trip for so long and wanted it so badly that I bit the bullet. I tried to buy the tickets on Air Cote d’Ivoire’s website but their online ticketing system was down, or maybe it was never up. Intermediary companies like Kayak only offered nonrefundable tickets and God knows that is too risky for this situation. So yesterday afternoon after a half day of flight research I went to the airline’s office downtown. It took the agent more than an hour to find the same itinerary at the same price. Then he told me that I would have to pay for the tickets in cash that same business day or risk a change in price. It was 4:00pm, their office closes at 5, and there is an approximately $500 limit to my daily ATM withdrawals. I cocked my head and smiled at the man so long and so tauntingly that he averted his gaze.
A few doors down, I spotted a travel agent who reserved the same exact itinerary for me, told me that I could pay with my credit card, and assured me that the tickets would be classed as refundable and changeable. But she also told me that I could have issues boarding the flight from Dakar to Cotonou, since my American passport with my most recent Senegal entry stamp wouldn’t match my plane ticket, which would be made out to Fertigová so that it would in turn match my visa and my Czech passport.
The idea that I could encounter problems going back and forth between two different names hadn’t occurred to me before, but it would have had I not had my head up my fantasizing ass in the Czech embassy two years ago. I really have no excuse since I’m used to a dual passport system in which I use my American passport to leave and enter the States and my Israeli passport to leave and enter Israel. (My Israeli passport is in New Jersey with my parents at the moment, because I had thought, “Who needs to have three passports in one place?” Me, as it turns out.)
Anyway, I left the office with 24 hours to figure out what to do before the reservation expired. Was I making a big deal out of nothing? Surely, yes, just as I had last year when I found out that Senegal officially requires an onward ticket to enter the country, and I had only a one-way ticket. Since then, my experiences with Senegalese passport control – I think I’m up to 11 entries and exits by now – have been fast and easy, and they’ve provided ample evidence that no one is going to be concerned with my entry stamp when I leave for Benin. But, just like last year, a lot of time, money and effort (not to mention hopes and dreams) are on the line.
Mamie wisely advised me to consult with the Czech Embassy in Dakar, since they are experts on the complications of ová. I called them first thing this morning to check their hours and address, because embassies are open for service about two hours a day and in Dakar they are never where Google says they are. The two minute-long automated message was entirely in Czech, of which I understood the first two words, “dobrý den.” I waited for the English or French version to follow, but instead the line clicked and hung up.
It’s at that point that I sort of gave up. I could have soldiered on and taken a cab thirty minutes uptown to the Ghana Embassy to try my luck with a visa, but I had no more will to search out their hours or phone number. Even if the visa effort was a success, after that I would have had to take a cab an hour back downtown to the travel agent to pay for the ticket in time. (Because it’s Dakar, where not one thing is easy, you cannot simply pay with your credit card over the phone.) I then would have had to spend the next week rushing around to the Benin and Togo embassies for their visas, and applying for the Cote d’Ivoire one online. And I would have had to do all this while working against the clock to get a video edit done before leaving town. If after all that my travel plans were derailed at the Dakar airport, I would lose hundreds of dollars: the cost of the first leg to Cotonou, the refund fees for the other two flights, and the visa fees for four countries. Even discounting that incredibly unlikely scenario, the fact remains that after a three-week shoot with not one day off, I’m tired. Getting things done in Dakar is about six times harder than getting things done in New York. I don’t have it in me to expend any more effort on this.
Meanwhile, if I wait until January 2018 to do the same trip, I will almost certainly pay more for the tickets – no matter where in the world I am at that point – but the process will be a million times easier. If I’m in the United States, I’ll be able to apply for the Ghana visa in my country of residence and get it stamped in my shiny new passport, no problem. (And then I’ll also be able to add Lagos, which is just a few hours from Cotonou, to the trip. I was assured by multiple people that there is no way in hell to get a Nigeria visa outside your home country so I didn’t even bother trying for it this time.) If I’m in Europe, which is a distinct possibility, I will be an official resident there and will similarly have far fewer problems getting the Ghana and Nigeria visas for my Czech passport, which I would use for all my European and African entries and exits.
By then I’ll also have had the time to go to the Czech Embassy in New York when I’m back for a visit this spring, to ask them if they can reissue my passport in, you know, my real name.
It will hurt to lose the Fertigová mystique, but I will comfort myself with the knowledge that my love for the name is inherently hypocritical. The whole concept of adding ová to women’s names is a product of the patriarchy, the thing I hate most in the universe. I was in Prague with my parents a few years ago when I saw a street sign called Dvořákova. I asked my dad if the street was named after the composer’s wife. I don’t know if he got the nuance right, but he said that no, in fact ová translates to “belongs to,” and so the street sign meant that this was Dvořák’s street. He then jokingly extrapolated, “…Just like you, Fertigová, belong to your father Fertig. And when you get married you will belong to someone else.” (My father did not choose his audience well. I looked at him much as I did the Air Cote d’Ivoire guy.)
Anyway… onward. I do have enough room in my American passport for the Cape Verde jaunt I was hoping to do in February, so I’ll just start planning that now to distract me from the sadness of missing out on what would have been the best trip ever.