he night before I was to fly out of Mumbai, a colleague whom I was to meet in Kampala two days later wrote to me saying I would need an updated yellow fever certificate. I had been careless, and she had been diligent, and she had found out that Uganda had had an outbreak of yellow fever in April. I had taken a yellow fever shot in 2001, before a trip to Senegal; that certificate had expired in 2011, and I hadn’t travelled to yellow-fever affected areas after 2011. The Ugandan outbreak was new, and amid the fascination with Zika and other more exotic bugs, it simply hadn’t attracted the headlines.
I had checked her email only on the day of travel, when I was on my way to the Mumbai airport, leaving me no time to get the shot in India. But it wasn’t yet time to panic; I would get it in London. After reaching London on Saturday night, I checked the Heathrow website. It said Boots, the pharmacist, could give me the shot at the airport. So the next morning, after clearing security, I went to Boots.
The pharmacist said yes, they could, but only at the shop outside the secure area, in the departures hall. Rules are rules, she said. The pharmacist from the shop outside can’t come in; I would have to go out.
So I went to the security staff, explained my situation, and asked if they would let me go out. The officer was helpful. He would let me go, provided British Airways, my airline, would let me go.
So I went to the airline counter, where the woman listened to me with polite and sympathetic boredom and said the airline takes people out every hour in groups, but it is unlikely I would be allowed to, since there would not be enough time for me to go out, get my shot, clear security again and make it in time for my flight. It was 11.20am; the group would be taken out only at 12; and my flight was at 1.10pm.
I’m a globalized kind of guy, so I thought I would check with Dubai, my next destination. Dubai is a “first-world city”, after all. I emailed my hotel in Dubai, explaining what I wanted and proceeded to the departure gates in London.
After I had belted up, the pilot said there was a problem with the engine’s cooling system. We remained on the ground for nearly 2 hours—in which time I could have gone back to the terminal, got multiple injections and returned. But I knew it was pointless even to ask.
Meanwhile, my hotel in Dubai wrote to say there were three hospitals nearby and I need not worry.
So I thought.
At Dubai, the tragicomedy took an unexpected turn. I found that the three hospitals near my hotel were private. Only government hospitals could give me the injection.
When I checked in, it was midnight. The hotel receptionist said she had tried calling the government hospital, but the lines were busy. So I started calling them. After I called three different numbers, I was finally connected to someone who understood what I was saying, and she said she would transfer me to the right department. I told her I had to fly to Entebbe the next morning at 9, which meant I would need a really early appointment. She said I shouldn’t worry and put me on hold.
Time passed, as it does at such times, and then the music stopped and I heard the deathly finality of a busy tone.
By now I was too tired to worry.
I boarded my flight for Entebbe the next morning, hoping that the Ugandan immigration would be lax and that this was all a bad dream. But as we descended, I saw other passengers smugly take out their certificates to show with their passports. I felt vulnerable.
Before we could reach immigration, we encountered officials who were inspecting certificates. I told the officer that I didn’t know I needed one. The man smiled and pointed me towards a cabin that said “health”, where I saw a doctor and a nurse. I wasn’t alone—there was a Dutch consultant, who said he had a valid certificate but hadn’t brought it since East Africa wasn’t West Africa and he thought yellow fever had been eradicated here. The flattery didn’t work. I rolled up my sleeve and offered my arm. The nurse dabbed alcohol on my upper arm and there was a sharp, momentary prick. Forty dollars, she said.
She filled out my certificate, and I left. The Dutch consultant was still arguing.
There is a moral to the story. British bureaucracy remains inflexible. Dubai doesn’t have first-world efficiency. Western privilege no longer bends
rules in Africa. And Uganda can be pleasantly efficient.
Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.