When my ex-pat colleagues and I travel, we pride ourselves on not being the typical American tourists: the loud, ignorant, intolerant ones who need to be handled with kid gloves or else they will explode from all the Otherness going on around them, even while they feel the need to comment constantly on all the Otherness (“Oh, look, Frank, it says YOO-bahn. I wonder if that’s like the subway? But then what’s the ESS-bahn? Oh, this is so confusing”). However, I’m embarrassed to say that I’m about to embark on a trip where I may have made a stupid American mistake.
My friend and co-worker H and I are going to Tanzania for Christmas vacation. We’re on completely different flight itineraries, though, because I used frequent flier miles for mine. As a consequence, I have a ridiculous 40-hour itinerary, including a 6-hour layover in Frankfurt and a 14-hour layover in Addis Ababa, plus a 7 hour layover in Dar es Salaam before I transfer to the regional airline that will take me to Kilimanjaro. When we first decided to go on safari, I checked the entry requirements for US citizens into Tanzania. The only possible health regulation that popped up was yellow fever vaccination, but after checking the CDC, WHO, and Tanzanian embassy and consulate websites for the US and UK, I decided that H and I didn’t need vaccines because we were traveling from Europe; H in particular has a much better arrival itinerary than I do and is flying from Sofia to Doha to Dar es Salaam and then transferring domestically within Tanzania to get to Kilimanjaro.
Then, I admit, I was totally irresponsible and didn’t follow up on or confirm this initial conclusion by calling the Tanzanian embassy or even contacting our safari tour operator in Tanzania, who surely would have told us. I got busy at work, and then there was some added drama, and then it was the holidays, and the time just slipped by (while simultaneously feeling like vacation would never come).
Fast forward to yesterday. The international teachers had had a really lovely and fun Christmas party on Friday afternoon/evening following the last day of school, and I woke up in a great mood on Saturday, happy to have an extra day to rest/prepare but also excited for my departure on Sunday. I decided to go through all the entry requirements again to make sure that I had printed everything I needed. This was when I actually delved further into the yellow fever vaccination issue and discovered that I had screwed up.
Pretty much, if you are going to Tanzania, no matter where you are coming from, the duration of your flight, or the location of your layovers, all the most recent information I can find indicates that you are supposed to have a yellow fever vaccination certificate. (I am fully acknowledging that I was a stupid American in this whole process, but I will say that it is confusing and there is a lot of contradictory information out there, including from websites that you would normally trust to be reliable and updated–and ones that indicate that they ARE fully updated, as of December 2012.) Where it gets a little iffy is how strict immigration will actually be with you at the different international airports in Tanzania, which of course I didn’t feel I could actually call an embassy and ask about, at this point. Our tour operator (who I finally did contact) said that they rarely checked her certificate and I should just come and “take the risk,” as she put it. Anyway, all the information I found also indicated that if you were caught at the airport without the certificate, they would just give you the vaccination right then and there for $50. This seems to be more a formality than anything else, since the vaccine takes 10 days to go into effect, but I suppose Tanzania can’t actually afford to send away all the stupid Americans who failed to obtain their necessary vaccinations, so they might as well make some more money off of it before they let you into the country to stimulate the tourism sector of the economy.
So it seemed like, best case scenario, I arrive and don’t get asked to produce my certificate and everything is fine. Absolute worst case scenario would be that I arrive and promptly get deported, quarantined, or am never even allowed to board the plane, but since it seems like that doesn’t actually happen, worst case scenario becomes getting a hypodermic needle in the arm, in an airport, in sub-Saharan Africa.
This worst case scenario not being exactly the most desirable, I started looking into other options. Unfortunately, when I called the clinic near our school in Sofia, they said they don’t stock the yellow fever vaccine, and the place they directed me to (which is apparently THE place to get your yellow fever vaccine and paperwork in Sofia) is closed on weekends. Finally, after having spent a rather obscene total amount of time on the internet researching this vaccination requirement and all of the different options, I discovered that the Frankfurt airport, where I will have a 6-hour layover, has a 24-hour medical clinic whose services include “vaccination immediately prior to flying.” I called them, and while the guy who answered had surprisingly weak English for 1) a German, and 2) one who works in the airport medical clinic, I think I understood from him that they have the yellow fever vaccine, that I can just walk in and get it and the paperwork for it, and that it would cost 90-120 euros (?!?!). However, my medical insurance covers 100% of travel immunizations, so I think I’ll get reimbursed for it, and anyway, it’s worth it to be stuck with a needle in Germany as opposed to Tanzania. Actually, out of all the places that I will be in the following 48 hours, including Bulgaria, I would most prefer to have any kind of medical procedure done in Germany, since at least I can get everything explained to me in English there. (And, you know, their trains run on time, and they have awesome Christmas markets, so that must translate into some kind of medical competence.) Technically the vaccine won’t be “valid” yet since it will take place just 2 days before arrival in Tanzania instead of 10, but if the alternative is for them to just stick me on the spot in Dar es Salaam, I don’t think they’ll nitpick too much over the date.
It remains to be seen how well this all works out, but I’m cautiously optimistic. If I can get the vaccine and certificate in Frankfurt, it’ll be a load off my mind for 14 hours in Ethiopia wondering if I’m going to be allowed into Tanzania. It also will make me feel more comfortable about leaving the airport in Addis Ababa to actually see some of the city, which I totally want to do. I’ll update on what happened (both to me and to H, who is not getting vaccinated anywhere before arriving in Tanzania) when I get a chance, and maybe this blog post will then become helpful and relevant to other stupid Americans like me.