That time I was detained at the airport in Cape Town, South Africa

My priority during my nomadic journey? Making sure I do not do anything to be deported, arrested or anything illegal. That is so important especially if one wants to keep moving from one country to the next, whether it is for work or tourism-related purposes. It is safe to say that I have all my ducks in a row when it comes to boarding a plane. Or so I think I do…

Until I did not.

travel passport

For the first time in my life ever, I was pursuing my nomadic slow-travels with someone I love. I fondly refer to him as The Geek. So, The Geek and I were off to an epic adventure. On the horizon: the Middle-East, Europe and then back to Africa. But first, we have to leave Cape Town, where I lived for a couple of years and where he visited me for a few months.

The Geek and The Writer

The Geek and I

At the airport

At the Immigrations counter, I present my passport. The officer lady frowns. I’m not worried – I get this a lot. Maybe it is my long Chinese surname. Maybe it is because she thinks I do not look Mauritian. Maybe she’s having a bad day. Maybe she’s wondering why I am leaving Cape Town – who does that?! It’s such a beautiful city even in winter.

– Where is your old passport?

– My old -oh, I see. The visa, the work permit for my part-time job, yes, it’s in my old, expired passport. You see, I no longer work here, so I am leaving the country for good. (Silly me, why on earth did I forget this?!)

-As per this passport, without the work permit, it looks like you stayed much longer and illegally.

“I’m going to have to ask you to step aside please, Ma’am,” she continues, gesturing me to the back of the Immigrations counter. No, not where everyone else went, with their passport stamped, ready to shop at Duty Free before boarding their plane. She meant the small dark office behind the counter.

The Geek and I exchange worried glances. He was at the counter next to me and had to move forward towards the boarding gates area to let the next person in the queue come to the counter.

Using my telepathic powers, I managed to let The Geek know the following:

“Hey my love, don’t worry, everything is going to be OK. I am not sure why she is saying that I am illegal but I will be fine. I know I have not done anything wrong so there is no need to worry. Plus, if push comes to shove, we can always call our lawyer friends if I get locked in jail. Well, not that I think it will go that far, you know, but just in case. Also, remember that if it is not God’s will that I should be boarding this flight, then there is no way I will be allowed to fly. So whatever happens, it is all good any way. Anyway, I am rambling on, I must go and do as she says otherwise she might get upset with me and think I am not being cooperative enough or challenging her authority. Oh, and babe? Please don’t text me because my phone is about to die.”

Detained for the first time ever (hopefully the last)

I step into the small dark office. At least, there is a comfy couch.

I silently prayed. For God to give me peace, to keep me from freaking out (I have an anxiety disorder), to keep The Geek free from worry, to have mercy on us because we bought so many tickets in advance for this trip! (The joys of being from a developed country where you must at all times show proof of onward tickets back to your home country). But it could also be that God is protecting me from going on this trip – for reasons unknown to me, it’s probably for my own good.

As I sat there, on my own while the Immigrations lady consulted her Supervisor, I could not help but think of that reality show where immigration officials proceed to a heavy interrogation looking for explicit answers about why they are on this trip. Here I was starring in my own reality show. Except, I am not sure how it is going to end. Can I call friends to vote me out of the office and onto the plane?

Not that I could call anyone either. I had only about two per cent battery on my phone and even with the ‘Low Power Mode’ option on, I was not sure how much longer it would last. And it’s been ages since I’ve been sitting in this small office.

After what seemed like an eternity and a day, Immigrations lady came back.

And then, the lightbulb moments floated in my head. Must have been the adrenaline and cortisol gearing my brain up to get me out of trouble.

Lightbulb moment #1 – I show her my pay slip. This is my last pay slip, received a few days ago, just before I resigned from the part time job where I had a work permit for South Africa. On the pay slip, the glorious dates of when I started employment. That’s proof that I am not illegal and have indeed been working for some years here. Perfect. (She declined, saying they cannot accept this).

Lightbulb moment #2 – Please call my ex-boss. I know, I know, it’s Saturday, but he is in the office, and he will definitely tell you all you need to know about my employment status. (She declined again).

Lightbulb moment #3 – My emails are on my phone! I certainly have a copy of my old passport somewhere in the Sent Items. Doing a search proves long and tedious. I cannot believe how often I have had to email with the subject ‘passport’, either for relocation purposes, job applications, passport renewals, visa renewals, criminal record clearance application… I open the one, no that’s the old passport, from over ten years ago, way too old. And just when I found the RIGHT passport copy I was looking for, it contained photocopy pages of visas and work permit that were expired! My latest renewed permit was not on there. This just goes to show once again how often I’ve had to deal with all that bureaucracy. And just when I began to panic, my phone died. Timing is a …!!

Lightbulb moment #4 – Use all your wit, charm, persuasive power you can. “I promise, I am a good girl. I am telling you the truth and for some reason, silly me, I completely forgot that I have to also show you my old passport. I’m not scatter-brained like this, maybe it’s the rush of having to relocate, pack up my life here in your country and- I don’t know what to do anymore, I can only pray that by some miracle-

Her phone rings. “Yes? Yes? OK. Yes. Yes. OK.”

She got up, with a wave of her hand invites me to come along. We get back to the counter and she stamps my passport.

“You are so lucky, have a good trip.”

Who called her? (Does God really have our phone numbers?) What was said to her?

But I digress.

Torre de Belem in Lisbon, Portugal

The point is I was able to continue my epic adventure of slow travels! I ran to my boarding gate, just in time and fortunately did not miss my flight. The Geek? Well, funny you should ask, turns out he does not speak telepathically, so he had been worried sick during the hour I was held up. But all is well that ends well.

What about you, have you ever had to deal with a situation with Immigrations officers at an airport? What was it for and how did you resolve it? Share your story in the comments. 

5 Discussions on
“That time I was detained at the airport in Cape Town, South Africa”
  • Amazing Story and glad it ended well! As for my part when going through London and Italy International airports I got sometimes asked way to many annoying questions!

  • At least you didn’t freak out! And it’s great that everything ended well in the end. I can only imagine your relief when she told you everything’s good. I have social anxiety disorder and I’m always imagining worst case scenarios like these when I travel lol. At least now you have an amazing travel story to tell haha.

  • GIRL what??
    I thankfully have never had to deal with this but it could happen in the future, now that I’m not a student anymore I have to go full expat routes to wherever else I decide to live! My sister once got detained at Amsterdam Schipol because she was underage and alone, but it was just until her friend who she was visiting came round with her parents to get her, that’s pretty good I suppose!
    Love your blog 🙂
    Julz |

  • I was interrogated once at an airport in USA but it is such a long story – definitely think because I was young and naive, I was allowed in. would be a different story now though!

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