The Barbados Visa Experience
Phil & Nikki Hoskins
Wed 15 Apr 2009 19:10
Our detour to Barbados was to obtain the American Visas we needed to spend 6 months of summer out of the hurricane belt, which for our insurers ends at 35 degrees north. Above that latitude we are insured - below it and we are not - simple as that! Although hurricane warnings are now very accurately predicted, and the likelihood of being in the way quite slim, its still a risk we would not take. Besides the Chesapeake is a highly regarded place to idle away 5-6 months and to take a break from the tropical heat of the Caribbean. Of course we should have secured our Visas before leaving home but it was forgotten in all the rush to clear UK waters so Barbados was the only real option, being the only Caribbean island before the Bahamas where we could get them. We didn't fancy calling into Nassau. For yachtsmen there is a short circuit in the system called a crew Visa. When we contacted the American Consulate in Barbados before leaving Lanzarote they told us to just come straight to the Embassy with the completed application forms filled in on-line and that we could be fast-tracked through the system as crew. Perfect. Other applicants have to go online to book an appointment for the 'interview' which can take weeks.
Well, we arrived in Barbados on the Thursday and decided to get the process underway the next day rather than wait until Monday because we'd heard that in some cases the Visas had been issued the same day for crew. That meant we could possibly clear Barbados by the weekend to head up to the Virgin Islands and have some fun. But it didn't quite work out that way. Where we were anchored in Carlisle Bay it was a mile dinghy ride into the Careenage where it was safe to leave the dinghy for the day (locked). The engine was playing up since the skipper had managed to snap off the gear leaver back in Spain. However, we made it to the quay and walked to Heroes Square where the main taxi pick-up is in Bridgetown. A US 10 dollar taxi fare found us delivered to the American Embassy in a business park some way out of town and we marched into the Visa section with all our paperwork.
"I'm afraid the rules for crew Visas was changed a few weeks ago Sir" said the very large security guard in the reception office. "But we had called by phone to confirm back in February" we said. "I'm sorry Sir" she said. It was all going horribly wrong.
The revised rules for crew Visas were that, like everybody else, you had to book an appointment online. We were not allowed to do it there and then in the Embassy office. The security lady wrote down the address of an internet cafe in a shopping centre 'close by' saying there may be cancellations on Monday. HHmmm! A 14 dollar taxi ride later in a car adorned with religious slogans with the radio tuned into an evangelical station with a preacher in full 'hell and damnation' flow found us at a shopping complex where it took half an hour to find the internet cafe - in reality there were 3 computers at the back of a stationery shop. A further 10 dollars later and we were hooked up to the net and onto the appointment site. We went into April - no appointments available. May - no appointments available!! Had we just sailed 2000 miles to Barbados to wait 2 months for an appointment! Maybe we should ring the Embassy and plead our case again. Back into the site looking for the phone number we then noticed there were 2 appointment calendars running. One for tourists and one for students and crew. We had looked at the tourist calendar. This time we looked at the students and crew section and bingo there were appointments on the following Monday. Today was Friday. So, having booked our appointments we took a 15 dollar taxi ride back to Bridgetown and back to the boat.
Monday found us back at the Embassy having shared the taxi ride this time with our friends from Skyelark. Only the taxi driver couldn't remember which estate the Embassy was on! There followed an interesting but frustrating drive through various shanty estates on the outskirts of Bridgetown whilst the driver figured out just where the complex was. Needless to say his tip went west. We arrived just before the appointment time. Being an American Embassy - and we're sure that most Embassies are the same - security was taken extremely seriously. All electronics are locked in cages outside the security area and all bags scanned. Phil had to remove his belt holding his shorts up - which then meant having to hold them up manually whilst his belt was handed to the security staff ready to be scanned for explosive materials. "Any cellphones, cameras must go outside into the cage" the security lady pronounced. So out to the cage with the camera. Phil (still holding his trousers up) asked why on earth we had brought a camera into the American Embassy in the first place. Small domestic followed on the way to the cage outside. Our backpack was then scanned and immediately caused some concern with the white gloved security lady who asked Nikki to remove the batteries the from the bag. Another trip to the cage with the spare camera batteries. "There's still somfin' in there honey - looks like a memory stick" . Another rifle through the bag and out came the computer memory stick with all our financial information - another trip outside to the locked cages. Phil still standing around holing up his shorts wondering why the memory stick was with us but not daring to ask. With the bag and belt returned Nikki was then made to drink some of the water in our water bottle to prove it was non harmful.
Having negotiated this phase of the procedure we passed into the next area where the interview and payment booths were situated. We sat down under freshly hung portraits of President Obama and Vice President Clinton whilst a loop tape video was running close by extolling the virtues of life in the USA. The waiting room was full of students and we rather felt our age somewhat. (We wondered if the student whose tee-shirt bore the slogan "Kiss My Beautiful Golden Ass" would have any trouble obtaining his own Visa). After 10 minutes our number 137 was called and we presented our documents to be scrutinised, which had been completed online a while back in Lanzarote. The required passport sized photos we had produced back on the boat in Bridgetown. Twice in fact, as the first photos we had taken with the cherry wood bulkhead as a background was not permissible. The images had to be on white background so we used the blank side of the North Atlantic chart we have onboard. The rules for the photos were meticulous in detail - top of head to bottom of chin between 28-33mm, centre of eyes to bottom of picture no greater than 32mm. Unfortunately our first attempts did not quite conform to these exacting standards so the ace on-board photographer set about changing the size of the images to achieve the desired measurements. This had the hilarious effect of completely altering our facial appearances - Nikki looking horribly bloated from some tropical disease, skipper looking thin and drawn akin to a Mexican bandit. So we had to retake them again and eventually had the correct measurements without too much distortion despite having to have the ears showing and looking vaguely like the people we are.
At the Embassy we paid our non-refundable 262 dollars at another window and again sat down again under the Obama/Clinton pictures to await the final procedure. The Visa Interview. We were duly called up in front of the American representative who asked what brought us to this part of the world - "A Visa " we responded and explained where we had sailed from and where we were going in the States. After a couple more questions that we obviously gave the right answers to we were told "Your Visas are approved". Was that it? At last - we'd achieved the objective after many months of worry. However, they could not prepare them that day and asked if we would come back the next day to collect the passports. That was good news! So back to Bridgetown in another taxi followed by a repeat journey back to the Embassy for the third and final time the next day where our passports awaited with the Visas stamped (images of us looking even more ghastly) with the essential information. A final furious taxi ride back to the Deep Water Harbour in the 'Hell and Damnation special' with a very unreligious demand for 20 US dollars for the fare (re-negotiated downwards to 13US by our co-skipper) and we were ready to clear customs and leave Bridgetown the next day.