Hello! I’m writing this second blog post on my flight from Washington DC to San Francisco, where I will spend one week in preparation with other Fellows for our trip to India! I’m seated next to my friend Elise (check out her blog at http://archive.globalcitizenyear.org/author/elise-steenburgh/) and we’re both super excited to meet our new cohort.
But since I have several hours until our arrival, I wanted to take this moment to tell you of my travel preparations so far.
Almost everything’s been fairly straightforward. In the past few weeks, I’ve received three necessary vaccinations and anti-malarial pills. I’ve bought a headlamp, a money belt, sturdy sandals, writing journals and several novels. I’ve (barely) started a basic Hindi acquisition book and have read several essays on Indian history to learn more about the country. The only difficult part of my prep has been the visa application process.
And by difficult I mean a nightmare.
For those of you who have not yet dealt with the Indian embassy, it is about as efficient as a snail with insomnia. It took me TWO MONTHS (TWO MONTHS) to acquire a visa. Thankfully the embassy finally issued one, but only after four separate visits to DC.
Trip 1: My parents and I started the online application in June, with an appointment to submit the documents in mid-July. After we were forced to restart the multi-step and redundant online app several times, we were ready to submit. We woke up early, drove to DC, and turned in the application. The CKGS employee skimmed through the documents, frowned, then told us that we submitted the wrong one; interns should apply for employment visas, not student ones. Understanding but disappointed, we drove home.
Trip 2: I emailed GCY for a visa guide and restarted the application. Even with the program’s help, the online application took several hours to complete. I printed every relevant piece of information related to my travel: forms on the GCY website, emailed GCY forms, employment forms on the visa website, financial forms, my own employment resume, the appointment receipt. The final application stacked to 30 pages tall.
I had to wait until after my trip to Switzerland to submit the application and turn over my passport. But the day after my return in early August, I drove to DC and submitted the forms. This time, no problems… I thought.
Trip 3: A week later, I was sitting in a friend’s basement when a gmail notification appeared on my phone: visa approved – in transit to CKGS. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Two minutes later, another notification: visa not approved – missing financial information. I nearly cried. I immediately drove home, called my parents, and emailed GCY. I was sent the another financial form, clarifying that the program would pay for my travel, insurance and living expenses.
The following morning, my mother and I drove to DC. After waiting for two hours, I was finally called to the desk. The CKGS skimmed the new paperwork. “We need a letter that saying you are paying the program, which in turn is paying for your expenses” he told us.
Despite having already submitted a document that stated exactly that, my mom and I rushed to the the closest free wifi spot: a local Starbucks. I pulled out my laptop and I typed our financial obligation to GCY. I sent the message to my father, who formatted it onto his office letterhead, and sent it back. Then my mom and I rushed the nearby UPS store, reprinted the letter and signed it in from of the UPS notary.
We ran back to CKGS office. It was closed. At 2:00 pm!!!!
Peering around the corner, I found a female employee leaving a locked office. I asked if she could please take our notarized letter. “No no we are closed. Come back tomorrow.”
Still determined to submit the application on time, we snuck into the office through a double-sided backroom. Inside the employees were eating lunch. “You should not be in here”, one said. We pleaded with him to take our forms. He reluctantly agreed. We were done… we thought.
Trip 4: Two days later, I receive another gmail notification: visa not approved – come to embassy for interview. At that point, I shouted a series of words I’m not allowed to use in a student blog.
I called my parents and the program with the bad news. The following morning my father, mother, and I dressed formally – in button downs and a dress – and drove to the official consulate. We arrived around 9:15, to a dim basement room with only one employee sitting behind a glass pane. “ Sorry to bother you but I was called here for an interview. Do you know when that will be?”, I asked.
“I do not know”, he replied. “Probably before 1:00”
He was right; it was at 12:45!!! Aaaaaaaaaaagh!!
After the long wait, we were sent upstairs into a smaller, more comfortable room. We sat down exhausted. We prayed that the interview would go well, that I would still be able to travel, that all our work had not been in vain.
I stiffened in my chair as an older Indian man entered with my now towering application. He sat and nonchalantly spoke, “I do not understand…who is paying for your trip?”
We told him that we were paying the program, which in turn, was paying for my other expenses.
“But you are working. And you are not making money???” he asked.
Again we told him about the program.
“Man, this is crazy… this is crazy… this is crazy,” he murmured, while Indian covers of Disney songs echoed from the office behind him.
“This is crazy,” he said again. “You should be making money!” He then proceeded to tell us about his own past jobs, his own family, and his own travels. He spoke for ten minutes while I sat silently across the room. He spoke about his decision to move into the government work, his eventual engagement to his Vietnamese wife, and his decision to continue government work to pay for his son’s healthcare, moving, leaving, then re-moving to the US. At the end of his speech, he handed me my passport and stated, “Here is your visa.”
I was shocked. I only said two sentences during the entire interview! I literally had not spoken a single word in ten minutes and he still gave me the visa!
As I left, I struggled to contemplate the the weird bureaucratic “Heart of Darkness”- type journey I just went through. It started in the comfort of my home with an online application. And it ended in stressful meeting room with a grey-haired Indian man, narrating his entire life story to a Bollywood rendition of the Lion King.
This would normally be the part of the blog where I would draw a profound conclusion from my experience. But I honestly don’t know what to make of what happened.
Despite the bizarre and frustrating obstacles, I now have my visa! I’m now finally prepared to travel to India, and hopefully will have more exciting (less frustrating) stories to blog about in the coming weeks !