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!

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