Part of being a needgreater in a foreign country is making sure we are fulfilling all the legal requirements to remain in the country, even when that comes with considerable inconvenience or expense. In all truthfulness we have had it fairly easy here but we recently had some stressful times in this regard where we felt like we were just running around, jumping through governmental hoops.
The Guyanese government grants only a set number of visas for each religious organization operating in the country so the branch naturally gives these to missionaries, School for Kingdom Evangelizers (SKE) graduates, and long-term needgreaters. So as Americans who are only staying for one year, we need to rely on the three month stamp we get in our passport upon entering the country. We knew when we came that we would need to leave the country every three months and reenter, in order to renew our passport stamps.
The first time we needed to leave the country, we found a cheap flight to Barbados. The second time, it coincided with our friends’ visit to Tobago so we went there to see them. These trips were enjoyable but they also took a lot of time and money which could have been spent to stay in Guyana.
We had heard that some needgreaters had gotten an extension on their passport stamp so we decided to look into that. This involved submitting a letter and copy of each of our passports (including blank pages) and $35 US each to the Ministry of Citizenship in Georgetown. While the extension was processing we were not to leave the country so it actually gave us some extra time as well.
A few weeks after submitting our paperwork, we received a call that we were only being approved for one month, even though we had applied for several months. We were disappointed but, in the meantime, we had been able to get our yellow fever immunizations which would allow us to go to Suriname, which is closer to us and is a cheaper travel option.
When our extension was ready to pick up, we went to Georgetown and waited at the office (on a Monday) only to be told to come back again on Thursday. That meant another 2 hour round trip to Georgetown which effectively takes the entire day. We went back on Thursday, only to be told that the office had moved (!) and would most likely not be open for a few weeks. How they didn’t know on Monday that the office would be moving on Thursday, I have no idea… We decided to find the new office which we did by asking around in the neighborhood we had been told it had moved to. We found it and were told that, yes, the office was closed until they could complete the move and that they would call us when we could pick up the extension.
Two weeks later we got the call and went to pick up the extension. We got to the office very early, picked up our paperwork, took it to a copy center to make copies (as per instructions), and then took it to the Ministry of Home Affairs for the stamp in our passport. There we were told that the Ministry of Citizenship had failed to include a letter that we needed. Tommy had the presence of mind to ask if we could get the letter and bring it back to them and they agreed. This was about 10:00am and the passport office closed at 11:00 so if we didn’t make it back in time, we would have to stay overnight and come back the next day. Also we weren’t really sure if they would be able to find or be willing to give us the letter. So we raced back to the first office, waited, and they found the letter and gave it to us. We caught a cab and made it back to the passport office with 7 minutes to spare! We were told to come back at 4:00 to pick up our stamped passports. We went for lunch and then spent the afternoon in the Marriott lobby, taking advantage of the free, fast wi-fi, then we went back, got our stamped passports (hooray!) and arranged for a driver to pick us up in front of the office and take us the 2 hours home. Whew!
With all of that running around, we discovered that they granted the one month extension until July 20, even though we were not able to pick it up until July 10 so we still only had a week before we needed to leave the country. So, on July 16th, we went to Suriname.
The trip to Suriname involves taking a car from our village about 45 minutes to the ferry, going through immigration and customs where we purchased a one-time tourist card for $45US, a 40-minute crossing, immigration and customs on the Suriname side, and then an hour bus ride to Nickerie. We had heard of some friends who had trouble crossing and coming right back so we stayed overnight in a hotel which was surprisingly expensive at about $80US a night. Everything else in Suriname was very inexpensive though and we enjoyed some Indonesian food and picked up a few things in the stores that we can’t get in Guyana.
The next day we went back to the border and crossed back into Guyana. Here the border agent saw the stamp and interpreted it to mean that we were only authorized to stay in the country until the 20th. We reasoned with him that we had left the country before that and come back so it was a normal entry but he disagreed and stamped our passport and wrote July 20th on it, effectively only giving us three days in Guyana!
We were quite discouraged and debated if we should go to the passport office to argue this decision or if we needed to leave the country by a different border (which would be expensive as it would mean flying out to another Caribbean island or back to the states). We wondered if we needed to spend more time out of the country in order to convince the border agents of the legitimacy of our travel. In the end, we discussed with a long-time needgreater and he said that anything out of the ordinary, like an extension, doesn’t come with firm rules and the border agents can interpret them any way they choose so our best bet would be to leave and come back after the stamp expired.
So that is what we did. We went back to Suriname that same week, leaving on the 19th and returning on the 21st. This time we went to Parimaribo, the capital, and we made the most of it by staying at an Airbnb with a pool and treating ourselves to sushi (Suriname has a large Japanese population). On the way back we were nervous that we might get the same border agent or that whoever we got would object to us crossing the border twice in a week (With the problems in Venezuela, human smuggling is an issue at the Suriname/Guyana border.) but thankfully we had no problems and we got our three month passport stamp which will see us through until the end of our time in Guyana.
This is quite a detailed post but I feel it is important as it helps to explain why the needgreater or expat life isn’t always easy and why we need Jehovah’s support and the understanding of our friends during these stressful times. It also gives us another reason to look forward to a time when all nations will be united under God’s government and there will be no more of these man-made boundaries to divide us.