Wednesday, November 24, 2010

It's All About the Shoes

(I made good progress towards the 50,000-word novel for November 30th, so I'm rewarding myself with a quick blog before I go to sleep.  Yes, this is fun for me.)

You know I like shoes.  Especially the really pretty, sexy, expensive kind with ridiculous heels that Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik make so well.  (You know, the kind I can't afford to buy this year, but which I will reward myself with when I have a paycheque again.)  Sometimes even the kind of shoes that I can't actually walk in, but that look oh-so-pretty when I am perching elegantly on a bar stool.

I don't have any shoes like that with me; there's no room in my cool small backpack for the frivolous. But it still comes down to the footwear; this is apparently always going to be an overriding concern in my life.

Take yesterday.  I went for a hike up Arthur's Seat, the ancient extinct volcano in the middle of Edinburgh.  It's a good hike, not particularly steep but lovely, and with some breathtaking views at the top.  Problem is, because it's an ancient volcano, the top is all rock.

Wet, slippery, Scottish rock.  Tricky to navigate in the Blundstones I foolishly wore (instead of my hiking boots) and hard as, er, rock when my footing inevitably gave way and I crashed down a few feet.

No harm done.  Nothing broken, just a bruise or two.  But you can bet I'll worry more about footwear in the future.

The fit young Scottish boys on Arthur's Seat had to worry about their shoes, too.  They weren't just walking up the mountain, they were running up it -- and in some pretty heavy-duty shoes. That must be why they have the legs to wear kilts.

The afternoon had me thinking about footwear, too, as I went into the "Real Mary King's Close" -- now a tourist attraction, never a real street named after any Mary King.  (Pity, really -- it's my grandmother's name.)  It's a small section of the original 17th century "closes" that have been opened to the public, underneath the current city of Edinburgh that was built over top of them.

Back in the 1600's, closes were real, narrow, dark streets where the poorest of the poor lived.  Tenements rose as much as ten stories above the 6-foot width of cobblestones, and little daylight would have filtered down to street level (even on one of Edinburgh's rare sunny days).  Families lived 10 or 12 people to a room, with just a bucket in the corner to take care of those pesky calls of nature.

This bucket could be emptied only twice per day, once at 7 in the morning and once at 10 at night, and the youngest member of the household was relegated the job.  With a loud cry of "Gardy loo!" out would go the family's accumulated raw sewage, to join the filth of their neighbours in running down the close towards the stinking cesspool of Nor' Loch.  (This loch no longer exists -- it was drained, and turned into the Princes Street Gardens.)

Can you imagine what you'd be walking through when you stepped outside your door?  I don't think a pair of Jimmy Choos would cut it.

It's all about the shoes, I tell you.

p.s. Although right now I am not being terribly practical.  It's chilly in here, late on a snowy Inverness night, and I'm wearing flip-flops.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Where the Angels Play Bagpipes

Scotland is a magical wee country.  I don’t even mind the greyness and the drizzle, because it’s just so damn beautiful in any weather.  And I think I could quite happily live in Edinburgh — it’s not a big place (half a million or so), but it has a lot to offer, it’s very beautiful, and that gorgeous (wet) Scottish countryside is just a short trip away.  Moreover, I can happily listen to cute Scottish boys talk all day, I love the accent so much.

I’ve had a couple of days here to wander around, within the city itself and beyond.  Edinburgh Castle, of course, which I love — it has such a palpable sense of history, and the pedigree to boot (the oldest part of the Castle, glowering up there on its rocky perch, dates back to the 12th century).  Yesterday I had a wander in the countryside up to Pitlochry in the company of my ex-boyfriend-turned-friend (and chauffeur for the day); there’s a delightful pub which brews its own ales (the Ale of Atholl was delicious) and a cute wee loch nearby (Loch Faskally, about 1/1,000,000th the size of Lake Ontario — they don’t do big lakes here, but they certainly do lovely ones).

Today I caught a Lothian bus (for the princely sum of ₤1.10) out to the village of Roslin, home of the famous Rosslyn chapel.  The bus leaves from Princes Street in downtown Edinburgh and lets you off about 45 minutes later in front of the Roslin pub, from which you have a wee walk down the hill into the Glen of Roslin and to the site of the chapel.

The chapel is lovely and historic in its own right, dating back to 1446, and managed a few thousand visitors a year up to a few years ago.  Numbers exploded, however, when the Da Vinci Code was published, and in 2006 nearly 180,000 people trooped through the Chapel.

So I have to puncture the illusions of any Da Vinci Code conspiracy theorists out there first.  Roslin (Rosslyn) does not translate as “Rose Line”; it’s from the Gaelic meaning “rock pool”.  There’s no mysterious Egyptian symbols in the chapel, no Star of David (Hollywood filmmakers glued one up — without permission — for the making of the movie, which left a scar on the ancient stone), no boxes of ancient documents in the crypt itself, no Rose Line, no evidence of any Holy Grail whatsoever; Dan Brown never actually visited Rosslyn and made up those details. 

There are legends a-plenty, as the burial chamber under the church has been sealed for 300 years:  as well as the Holy Grail, many things from the Ark of the Covenant, to the mummified head of Jesus himself, to a piece of the “true Cross”, to Veronica’s veil, to more of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been rumoured to lie beneath.  But the family that still owns Rosslyn won`t permit the chamber to be opened:  of course, this only adds fuel to the legend’s fire.

But Hollywood nonsense and other speculation aside, the Chapel is breathtaking.  It was built over a span of about 40 years, but is still only a fraction of the much larger church that was originally planned by the then-Baron of Roslin.  Work stopped in 1484 when he died so the rest was never built, but what is there is still extraordinary.  The Chapel and the surrounding land are still own by his descendents more than 500 years later; the current owner, the 7th Earl of Rosslyn, is a policeman in London.  (Any readers of Elizabeth George will probably draw the immediate parallel that I did to her fictional detective!)

Every pillar, every arch, every window, every metre of the stone roof is covered with carvings.  (I'd show you, but I wasn’t allowed to take photos indoors.)   Some are whimsical, some are beautiful, some are serious, some are slyly humourous.  My favourites, perhaps, were the Apprentice’s Pillar and the carvings of the master mason’s and apprentice’s faces; the master mason, so the story goes, was so envious of his apprentice’s much finer work that he slew the boy on the spot with a mallet.  He was hanged for the offence and his face was carved on a pillar in the chapel, from which vantage point he looks upon the pillar for eternity.

But it’s hard to choose a favourite.  Quirky little pre-Christian pagan symbols of fertility share space with angels and demons and the Dance of Death (a reminder to all that mortality recognizes no rank or privilege, as Death the skeleton drags people of all strata of life off to their eternal fate); the seven Acts of Mercy lie side by side with the seven Deadly Sins (with a couple interchanged, whether deliberately or not).  High Gothic arches soar up to the heavy stone ceiling, elaborately decorated with flowers and stars.  Smiling stone angels play bagpipes as well as harps. (And beneath one of those angels lies a carved figure fast asleep, an unlikely occurrence if there ever was one!  Have you heard bagpipes lately?  I love them, but they’re loud.)

Oh, wait, I know what my favourite is.  It’s a saying carved across one of the stone arches, which translates from the Latin roughly as:  “Wine is strong; the king, stronger; women, stronger still.  But truth conquers all.”  (A medieval feminist or two must’ve had a job there.)

There are other mysteries as well, beyond the over-hyped Dan-Brown-fuelled Holy Grail mania.  There are carvings above one window that appear to be Indian maize (“corn”, to us nowadays); not surprising, perhaps, until you realize that the chapel was completed before Columbus set sail for North America — where corn was endemic then, not yet known in Europe or beyond.  One of the many rumours that swirl around Rosslyn is that Prince Henry of Orkney (grandfather of the Chapel`s founder) set sail to North America one hundred years before Columbus was even born, and spent a winter with the Micmacs in what is now Nova Scotia and Massachusetts.  (Take THAT, Spain and Italy, Scotland got there first after all!  Oh, wait, that`s still well after the Vikings, so never mind.)

The Chapel is being restored now, as 500 years have taken their toll; until about 9 weeks ago, it had spent 13 years living under a huge steel “umbrella” to keep the rain from leaking through the roof and to allow the sandstone inside to dry out.  Previous attempts to shore it up have been misguided, to say the least; a coating of cement was applied to all the stone in the interior in the 1950’s.  Not only did this cover the glorious pink and gold colour of the Scottish sandstone, it also sealed in the moisture that trickled down into the stone through the roof and caused the sandstone to begin to crumble away.

It’s still utterly lovely despite some decay.  I don’t claim to have had any mystical revelations about the meaning of life, despite the conflux of two energy lines that is also reputed to be found in the centre of the Chapel.  But it’s still magic.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Are Ye Sco'ish, Lass, or Are Ye Naw?

I tried to have haggis this morning for breakfast.  It comes with the "Full Scottish Breakfast" from the Southern Cross Cafe next door to my hostel.  It's not bad, actually, but after a few bites I can't stop thinking about what it is I am actually eating, and it becomes too revolting to continue.  So I stuck to the other greasy high-fat delights on my plate instead, after just a wee bit of haggis.

The older Scottish fellow at the next table was disappointed in me.  He had started chatting to me when I sat down and had been thrilled to learn I was a "MacLellan" (and hence an authentic Scot).  But the haggis left on my plate made him question that:  "Are ye Sco'ish, lass, or are ye naw?"  (Are you Scottish, or not?  That's my attempt to render the accent in written words.)

Not, I guess.  At least if one of the criteria is eating haggis.

They do have some good Scottish cuisine, though.  This is the country that invented the deep-fried Mars bar, after all.

Yes, I'm in Scotland -- Edinburgh to be exact.  I came up on the sleeper train from London yesterday, so arrived about 7:15 a.m. into the cold and dark of an Edinburgh morning (it was nearly 8 by the time the sun came up).  I was more or less awake, though, since the train wasn't at all full so I could snag two seats for myself and lay down to sleep.  Quite civilized, really, even if rail travel here is much more expensive than I remember!

Hostel is just off the Royal Mile, so it's an easy walk just about anywhere tourist-y.  Gloves and hat may be required tomorrow, though -- it's definitely colder than Toronto.  Surprisingly, though, it was also bright and sunny today, so very pleasant to walk around.  And thanks to my expensive unplanned Chilean jacket purchase, I was quite warm (and after checking prices in a NorthFace shop for the same jacket here, the vast amount of Chilean pesos I paid doesn't seem like such a bad deal compared with the number of British pounds I'd have to fork over.).

At some point I am meeting up with my English ex, who is now married with two kids and living in Edinburgh.  I'll let you know how that goes once it happens, but it may be a little weird.  Especially if he's picked up any hint of a Scottish accent -- now THAT I really can't picture.

Still a little confused about what time it actually is, and the fact that it gets dark so early here doesn't really help.  I think I'm mostly over jet lag, though, thanks to a lovely relaxed visit in London (Steve and Sarah are wonderful hosts -- let me know if you're ever going and I'll put you in touch :) ).  And if I'm not, it doesn't matter all that much, except that it'll be good if I manage to be awake during the limited hours of daylight available.

Must go in search of dinner now, then possibly a walk around downtown Edinburgh.  Or else just hanging out in the hostel with the Australians.  (How is there anyone under 30 left in Australia?  Everywhere I go in the world, there they are ... not that it's a bad thing.)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Random Facebook Test

I think I finally got the problem with importing my blog to FB Notes fixed.  (This worked swimmingly up until about 4 months ago, at which point it stopped altogether for no apparent reason and, furthermore, went on to refuse to recognize my blog feed to allow me to post manually.  So have been resorting to Twitter links and manually copying page URLs as link.)

If you're reading this on FB, it's fixed.  If not, I still have a problem.  (Or rather, Facebook does.)

On the Road Again

(do do, do do, do do, do do .... you can't tell from the screen, but I'm singing to myself.  Unfortunately I don't really know any more lyrics than "...on the road again ..." so it's a bit annoying.)

I'm hitting the road again, in case you haven't already heard.  I'm flying off to London tonight, where I haven't been for SIX YEARS!  (Sorry, had to capitalize that, it just seems so wrong that it's been that long.  It's my second home, how on earth did I stay away that long?)  I'm staying the first couple of nights with friends in Earls Court (right around the corner from where my friend Stacey lived when we were both living in London), for which I will owe them big -- Sarah especially!  (Steve chose to be my friend, but she inherited me by default when she married him.  Fortunately she is a lovely person, and very kind to put up with random Canadian crashers.)

From London, I'm going to head up north for a big loop around Scotland, stopping on the way to visit my English ex in Edinburgh (where he now lives with wife and two kids -- I still find this a bizarre concept, but hey, good for him).  Some of you know that story already, but if not, I'll probably fill you in one night on a future blog post after I've had too much Scotch, or something.  Stay tuned.

I will also, of course, be stopping in Oban, the ancestral MacLellan homeland.  Last time I was there, I met an Aussie fellow whose last name was also MacLellan -- we compared notes and figured out that we were probably related, as we thought our respective great-great-grandfathers had left about the same time.  And HIS ancestor probably got caught and shipped to the penal colony, while mine hightailed it for the safety of the Maritimes in Canada.  (Rumour has it the first MacLellans in Canada fled Scotland for stealing sheep -- I like to think it was an act of political protest against the English landlords of the time, who booted small tenant farmers off their land in order to raise sheep instead.  See here for the story of the Highland Clearances.)

Then I'll swing over to Northern Ireland, where my mother's family hails from.  In fact, the O'Neills were kings of Ireland once, but as that was about one thousand years ago, I doubt it'll get me any special treatment today.  I've been to Belfast in the north, but nowhere else, so I'm looking forward to checking out more.  If time permits, I'll probably hit Dublin as well, and check out some of my old haunts (if I can find them, 16 years after I lived there).

Then it's back to London, and home again on Christmas Eve.  After Christmas I'm heading east -- India for sure, possibly Vietnam or a few other spots in southeast Asia too, and maybe Australia for the summer sunshine before I return to work in April.

*Sigh*  I'm not sure I'm going to be able to cope with being a working professional person again.  But, as my money will definitely have run out by then, it will be necessary at least for a while.

But in the meantime ... yahoo!!  It's been 13 years since I was in Scotland, and 14 years since I went to Ireland, so I'm over th moon about both.  (So what if it's going to be grey, and rainy, and cold!  That's what pubs and whisky are for -- a surefire way to warm up in the gloom of Celtic winter.)  Most of you probably know that I lived in London for a while in university, and -- while I don't want to move back -- I miss that time in my life.  I remember most feeling so very, very alive -- the highs were higher, the lows were lower, and while it wasn't all endless joy and happiness (I also got my heart broken), at least I felt something.  I had too much time in the last few years where I didn't feel especially bad, but didn't feel especially good either -- just kind of blah (and numb is no way to live -- I'd rather put up with the pain as well as the joy than live flat).

There are things I will miss here, of course.  I don't get to see the finale of Battle of the Blades, which I am seriously addicted to.  (Although now that Theo Fleury is gone, I am less so.)   Only in Canada would this show make any sense at all, so I don't expect I'll find it on BBC.

I'll also miss George.  That's Stroumboulopoulos, FYI, on whom I have a wee bit of a crush.  (Smart, funny, engaging, kinda cute -- really, what more could I want?)  I won't get to watch him every night at 11:05, unless the BBC has also cottoned on to the charms of Strombo.  But I'll probably survive that too -- there might be a few cute Celtic boys with adorable accents around to distract me.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Best Days of Our Lives

When I look back now
That summer seemed to last forever
And if I had a choice
I'd always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life
Bryan Adams, Summer of '69


I feel sorry for anyone who thinks high school days were the best years of their lives.  My theory is that anyone who enjoyed high school, peaks there, and never goes on to do anything worthwhile or memorable afterwards; those of us who were geeks or freaks or misfits of any kind go on to change the world, create new things, find happiness and joy and fulfilment beyond anything the cool kids in high school ever knew.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, for a number of reasons.  Some high school friends got back in touch, via Facebook, after nearly 20 years, which made me think about my own high school days.  There’s a bigger context to this, though, so bear with me as I try to explain. 

I’ve been saddened, over the last few months, by some of what I’ve seen happening in the world.  On any number of fronts, it seems to be becoming an angrier and less tolerant place, and the hatred and alienation seem to be growing.  Whether it’s the Tea Party movement in the U.S., or the deep divisions wrought on Toronto by the recent mayoral election or the riots during the G20, or the dismaying news that Sarah Palin can be ranked (by Forbes magazine) as the 16th most powerful women in the world, these are not times that inspire me with hope and optimism for the future. 

It’s not just political, either; intolerance seems to be growing at a very personal level.  Or perhaps it’s always been there, and it’s just becoming more acceptable to voice; either way, I am sad.  How many stories have there been, lately, of gay teenagers committing suicide because they can no longer take the harassment and the taunting, being made to feel like freaks for being honest about who they are?  How is it that an elected school board official can rant on Facebook about wanting this very thing to happen — and when he “apologizes” on the Anderson Cooper show, he’s clearly thinking it’s a big waste of time?  (Have a look at what passes for his "apology" .) 

How is it that almost every debate I had with anyone about Smitherman in the recent election, seemed to degenerate into an anti-gay rant on the part of those opposed to him?  (Forget having a reasonable discussion about his policies.)  How did reasonable, intelligent, professional people (me?) get branded as “elites” who are out of touch with the needs of the common person?

How did this atmosphere of hate and intolerance sweep politics and the rest of the world?  Chris Hedges (author of Death of the Liberal Class) would argue that the traditional “liberal class” — the media, the universities, the church, the arts, the labour unions — has abandoned its traditional (and necessary) role as the catalyst for reform, for social change and for greater equality.

Me?  I think it’s because more and more people are refusing to grow up.  We’re all still in high school.

Think about it.  High school is a microcosm of all of this intolerance and bigotry and narrow-mindedness.   There’s a very limited range of tolerable behaviour and characteristics in high school, and if you fall outside that range, your life is probably going to be a living hell for five years.  (Sorry, four, now — I’m dating myself, since I actually went to Grade 13.)

Some people still cling to the notion that these were their “Glory Days”, but (with apologies to the Boss), I just don’t buy it.  Maybe that’s true if you were lucky enough to be one of the small minority who were acceptably pretty, acceptably athletic, acceptably conventional and non-threatening to the high school societal norm — those “popular kids” that I detested so much.  (I certainly wasn’t one of them.)

And you know what I’ve noticed?  Those people who ruled the world in high school — the pretty, the popular, the jocks — never seem to go anywhere after that.  The cheerleaders become bored housewives with addictions to Valium just to get through the tedium of their days, the jocks get potbellies and drink too much, telling endless stories about the only time in their lives they felt like they were worth something.  It’s just sad, really.

The losers, on the other hand, go on to change the world.  Albert Einstein nearly flunked out of high school, and I’m willing to bet that Bill Gates wasn’t invited to many high school parties.  The geeks, the nerds, the weird kids, the ones who are too smart or not pretty enough or gay or too fat … well, they get to have lives that just go on getting better and better and better, as they discover they can be whoever they want to be and find other people like them in the bigger wider world.  (As long as they can make it through high school, at least.)

I was in the second category.  I had a few good moments in high school, but you know what?  Mostly I hated it.  I was too smart; I was very shy; I was awkward and unsure of myself and never felt like I fitted in.  I also had a dad who had just become a deacon in the Catholic Church.  Now, I’m glad he is — it obviously brings him much joy and fulfilment, and he believes passionately in what he does — but then, especially when my Grade 9 homeroom teacher announced it to everyone, it didn’t help me to feel any more “normal”. 

I spent most of my high school years just wanting to sink into the wallpaper and disappear.  Thank God, at least, I had two good friends (Mattina and Denise, I owe you big!) to get me through it; I remember grade 13, when they’d both left my school, as the loneliest year of my life.   I was smart, for sure, so — even though being the “smart kid” doesn't make you any friends in school — I survived and got out.   (It still affects me now.  Why do you think I’m too prone to throwing myself headlong into work now?  It’s the adult equivalent — like academics then, it's the one thing now that I'm sure I'm good at.  And I still sometimes have trouble believing people actually like me.)

But it got better.  Oh, it got so much better!  I loved university, and moving to England afterward, and coming back to Toronto and starting a professional career and discovering I can kick ass at it.  I love that I’ve gotten to know people who were just as messed up as I was in high school and that we’re all now comfortable in our own skins and okay with being ourselves.

Rick Mercer has a great rant about it.  (Missed it the first time around, but thanks to Strombo for bringing it to his show — and for giving me the chance to see my two favourite CBC men in one place!).   And there are many other talented Canadians who have banded together for this “It Gets Better” video

The last one is specifically about growing up gay, but I think it can apply more generally to any of you who, like me, were "different" in high school.  And if you are gay — like a large number of my friends, some relatives, and many coworkers — you’ll probably appreciate it all the more. 

So here’s my wish … that society gets over the growing pains it’s going through right now, graduates from high school and makes it back to an adult world.  And learns a little tolerance along the way. 

P.S.  This is a little off topic, but maybe that’s why I DO count so many gay people among my friends and acquaintances:  they can understand what it’s like to have been a misfit.  Although I realized one day recently it probably doesn’t do my love life any good, as I was sitting in a bar on Maitland bemoaning the lack of decent straight men … to the 4 or 5 gay men I was having drinks with.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Passage to India

I'm in travel limbo again temporarily,  My passport is in the hands of the visa gods (in this case, the Indian Consulate) and I'm hoping it makes it back unscathed.  In the meantime, I can't cross any borders or flee the country in any fashion.

But that's not so bad, actually, as I haven't yet had the definitive word from my boss about whether or not I get an extra three months off.  (He did agree, but then back-tracked with an "oops, I have to get MY boss to agree" ... still waiting on that one.)  My planning assumption is that I get the extra three months; if not, I'll be pushing up India travel plans from January to, oh, as soon as I get my passport back.

It's a funny thing, getting an Indian visa.  I like, at least,, that everyone is required to have one (those pesky Euros don't get away scot-free as they do in South America, which pissed me off repeatedly) but, oh, the bureaucracy!  

First there's the application itself.  There's a very detailed description of requirements for the visa application on their website, with very precise measurements for the accompanying picture.  They want to know where else you've been in the world in the last 10 years (10 years?  I ran out of room and just gave them the most recent six countries because that's all I could fit in the space), whether or not any of your recent ancestors hail from Pakistan (implying that your life is about to become much more difficult if the answer is yes -- guess there's still some hard feelings there), where you will be staying while in India and what places you plan to visit.  If you've been there before, where did you go?  Where did you stay?  Can you provide references of people you met whilst there?

Oh, and if you want to stay for more than six months ... please be aware that you will be required to take a blood test for HIV within the first month of your arrival (and if you test positive, you will be immediately sent back home).

Then there's the delivering of the application.  You have the option of (1) mailing, with an additional processing fee of $21.75, or (2) dropping off in person between 9:00 and 2:30, paying only the $62 tourist visa fee.  I opt for #2 (since I have all kinds of time and rapidly dwindling money), only to discover that I don`t actually go to the Consulate (conveniently downtown) to deliver it, I go to the outsourced visa processing centre in some backwoods corner of Toronto to which I never go.  Okay, I think it is Leaside, technically, so maybe that's not backwoods (but it's still well out of my 'hood and required 45 minutes on public transit).  

I leave home in the morning, optimistically expecting to get there, drop off the application and have time for an afternoon movie.  (I am supposed to be writing, as it's National Novel-Writing Month, but I don't yet have an actual idea for said novel so am planning to distract myself for a while.)  I arrive to find a waiting room jammed full of people -- at least 100 -- and am handed a ticket number and asked to sign in.  #157, I think, is not so bad (they were on #101), and the harried guy at the receptionist desk tells me I can leave and come back later.  "You try maybe one hour," he says to me in his heavily accented English.  "They ready then.  Is okay.  No problems."

Great!  Off I go to the nearby Tim Horton's, to hang out with a coffee and an absorbing novel (Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, set in Bombay and offering a compelling, if troubling, portrait of the city).  I eavesdropped on conversations shamelessly -- I've spent a lot of time writing in coffee shops over the past couple of months, and almost always come away with great material.  There's a whole strange subculture in the city's coffee hangouts and I've met some interesting characters.

Slightly more than an hour later, I hustle back to the visa place, to be greeted by the same frazzled guy at reception who sternly ordes me back out again.  My cup of coffee, it appears, was not allowed in with me.  Gulping it down hastily, I go back in, crossing my fingers as I do so that they hadn't skipped over my number in my absence.  Glance up at the electronic sign board ...


Okay, so this is going to take a bit longer than I thought. 

I read more of my novel, desultorily, and chat to other people in the waiting room as the clock ticks ever so slowly.  There is a large contingent of people who appear to be Indian, or of Indian heritage, and a small handful of pale obviously-not-Indian people like me.  Most of the former seem to be arranging visas for children or spouses to go home for a visit, and the latter taking off for India to, like, “chill out in Goa or something, man”.

There`s Mana, a half-Indian girl, who had come there to get an OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) certificate, who was told to come back another day when she had both parents’ passports and birth certificates; she had brought only her Indian father’s, assuming (quite logically, I think) that, as only one parent who was an Indian citizen was required to be eligible for the OCI, she didn’t need her Canadian mother’s documents.  Wrong, says the consulate rep; you need to bring both, even though your mother’s citizenship has absolutely no bearing on the process and we don’t actually do anything with her documents.  Mana opts to get a regular tourist visa instead of making another trek there; she’s been bumped to the end of the tourist visa line and will still be sitting there when I finally leave.

There’s Greg, the 20-something wanna-be hippie whose entire plan for going to India seems to be smoking as much hash as he can lay his hands on.  He waxes lyrical about the prospect, eyes lit up and hands gesticulating animatedly, as he tries to convince me to meet him at Anjuna Beach in Goa when I get there.

There’s Ash (not his real name, I don’t think), an authentic 60-ish hippie for whom time appears to have stopped in about 1967.  He’s still dressed the part and draws more than a few strange looks from the grandmotherly Indian matrons in nearby chairs.  He laughs indulgently at Greg, and tells us stories of his first trip to India, overland from London in 1965.  He stayed 5 years that time (and, I gather, financed his stay by running drugs to the States), but thinks this time he’ll only go for a few months.

There’s Paul, a smoothly charming business type who’s probably a few years older than me, who doesn’t appear to let minor nuisances like wedding rings (prominently displayed on his left hand) stop him from chatting up any women under 60 in the immediate vicinity.  I just laugh, but the young Mana seems to hang on his words; I roll my eyes and go back to talking to Greg and Ash.  Paul carries on a monologue on the theme of Indian bureaucracy and why it`s the most incompetent in the world (which the visa people behind the counter can surely hear, and I`m pretty sure they`re going to reject his visa when he gets there).

Every so often, after random stretches of time, a new number flashes up on the electronic signboard and someone else trudges up to the counter.  It seems like about a third of them are sent back to make some adjustments to their application form or are told to come back another day; I’m hoping not to be one of them.   Even the applications that are accepted seem to take some haggling first; this is turning out to be some kind of test to see who is deemed worthy of entry to the country.  (Er, not to be unkind or judgmental, but are there really that many people trying to sneak into India that they have to be this strict?)

Eventually it’s my turn.  I go up to the counter and present my passport and application form (complete with picture in which I manage NOT to look like a felon), and answer the smiling visa lady’s question.  No, I say, I don’t know exactly where I’m going to stay when I get there, and I haven’t booked the flight yet; she appears troubled by this until I explain more about my year off and the question of timing.  This satisfies her temporarily, but then she frowns as she looks at my picture; it’s slightly the wrong size, she thinks, and pulls out a ruler to measure.  3.3 cm instead of the required 35 mm (the guy in Black’s Photo apparently trimmed it a little too much) and she muses that maybe I ought to go get better pictures and come back.

By this time it’s well after 2:30, the time when they shut the doors and don’t let in new applicants that day, so I do my best to convince her to take my application today and not make me return tomorrow.  I give her my most guileless and winning smile and it seems to work; she stamps the form, takes my debit card and gives me the charge slip of $83.75 to sign.

$83.75?  Wait a minute.  That includes the $21.75 I was supposed to be able to save by coming in person instead of mailing.  No, she says, shaking her head smilingly, that’s not how it works.  She directs me to the website to read the price information; I try to explain to her that I did, and it said quite clearly (I thought) that I only had to pay the $62 visa fee, but as I don’t actually have the printout with me I can’t convince her.   I eventually shrug when I see that she’s leaning towards telling me to come back tomorrow; I pay the higher amount and take my receipt.

I wish Mana, Greg and Ash good luck.  It’s after 4 pm by this point and they’ve all (like me) been sitting there since the morning.  For all I know they’re still sitting there now.  (I thought getting a visa for Brazil was a hassle at the time, but in hindsight, that Brazilian consultate guy was a model of efficiency!  I had the visa within about 3 hours of applying for it.)

But, with luck, I’ll have a passport back in my hands by the end of the week.  Unless they find a reason to deny it and make me start all over again – I’m not holding my breath!