Ghana visa application and my passport with Ghana visa stamp.

Our world is built on a shared trust in strangers who we hope are competent. From the earliest prehistoric trade routes to this very day, trust is implicit in the transport and exchange of goods and services. Without trust our anthropocentric world would unravel. 

These days many politicians, media, social media, extremists, and angry individuals try to undermine our trust in each other. But universal trust prevails – in some measure for selfish or self-preservation reasons. We need and want stuff – SARS2 vaccines, Gucci bags, in my case, Cheetos. We trust strangers of all cultures, religions, races without thinking how important that trust is. We take it for granted. We benefit from it constantly. Recently, however, I abruptly put my trust in strangers to a test. 

We are going on a birding trip to Ghana, West Africa, flying there from our home in Mexico. Ghana is one of many countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, that require tourists to apply for a visa in advance of their travel. Ghana’s application process is detailed, tedious, and expensive, but more vexing, it requires mailing one’s passport with the application. 

You have to relinquish your passport to strangers. 

In Mexico, my passport is the single most important proof I have of my existence and the only document that permits me to reenter the United States – without enormous hassle and expense. I do not have a U.S. passport card. David, my spouse, does. He will vouch that I was not happy about parting with my passport. 

On February 1, after submitting our visa applications online, we shipped printed copies of the applications along with our passports via DHL in Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico to the Ghana Embassy in Washington, DC. 

I stood in the DHL office on the main street of Navojoa having a thrum of apprehension about this process. It is a friendly and dingy place. These two factors go hand-in-hand where we live. Mexicans, as a general rule, are habitually friendly, and dust, especially during the dry season, is ever-present. An insidious, translucent film seems to coat all surfaces and windows. Why dust when it will be back tomorrow?

We turned over our documents to a young woman who was, yes, friendly, as well as calm and competent, able to accomplish the task at hand and engage in small talk at the same time. I watched her eyes and hands as she double-checked details she had entered into the computer. 

She knew we were turning over valuable documents. I think she saw me twitching. But, really, that’s her job, day in and day out, to take charge of items that other people prize, or, at a minimum, want to be handled competently. What is routine for her was consequential to me. We had pre-paid the Ghana Embassy $100 each so they would expedite issuance of the visas. The expedited DHL cost (3-business-day delivery) to ship each application was $40US. 

The young woman in the DHL office was the first in a line of innumerable strangers on whose competency we now relied. My trust was wavering. David’s was not. I also started to dwell on the whole stochastic process of two packages containing our passports, each weighing about 6 ounces, making a round trip of approximately 5,000 miles across an international border, moving by truck, aircraft, and conveyor belt. Random variability – what might go awry – over that space-time continuum rattled me. Not David. 

At some point I reminded myself of the recent successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, South America, now orbiting almost a million miles beyond the Earth’s orbit of the Sun. That made my concerns seem trivial. 

I tracked the packages on the DHL app, rather obsessively. You may wish to skip the following information, even though I find it fascinating, even momentous. Each leg of the journey and each sorting facility involved how many strangers entrusted with my passport? Several? Dozens? Do they love or hate their jobs? Are they male, female, other, married, single, divorced, widowed? Do they have children? Grandchildren? Do they have a dog? A cat? What music do they listen to? What did they eat for breakfast? Did they eat breakfast? 

Here is the path of our packages. 

February 1-2: Ground transport from Navojoa to Ciudad Obregón to Hermosillo, all cities in Sonora, then by air from Mexico to DHL’s global hub in Cincinnati, during which time our packages had to clear U.S. Customs. At this point, there was a choke – caused perhaps by the weekend of reduced staffing? 

Monday, February 6: our packages left Cincinnati at 2:48 am – my sympathy to the people who work the night shift. Things sped up. 

5:58 am: packages arrived at Ronald Reagan National – a wince remembering him, the earlier kid-gloved version of Trump. 

9:42 am: packages “out with courier for delivery” – please, driver, no T-bone at an intersection. 

2:22 pm: packages delivered to the Ghana Embassy on Embassy Row – which is between the Israeli Embassy and the Embassy of Bangladesh and across the street from the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China. Do employees from these embassies meet each other for lunch?

The Ghana Embassy personnel now had 7 business days to process and return our visas. The intervening weekend added two days to the process. 

Wednesday, February 15: I received an email that our packages had arrived at our UPS Store post office box in Tucson, Arizona. 

Another wait. I felt like I was swimming in a vat of molasses. The young woman who has a courier business taking mail and running errands in Tucson for people living in Alamos was going to Tucson on February 20, returning February 24. No hang-ups, please, at U.S. and Mexico ports of entry, no T-bones at intersections. 

Friday, February 24, 9:16 am: after walking our dog at a ranch on the edge of Alamos, we picked up the packets from the courier. She was sitting on a high curb under a cottonwood tree across the street from her apartment. Of all the competent people across Mexico and the United States who had handled our passports in the last 24 days, she was the only one we know. Her name is Ashley.

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