Monday, March 10, 2014

Visa, visa, visa...

Here we were, Ajey and I all set to drive to Shanghai tomorrow to apply for our tourist visa to Japan (yes, we're going to Japan during spring break - yay!) - stop by the embassy, drop off the application, then spend couple of hours doing lunch and some shopping - what could be more perfect?? Well, I thought it might be a good idea to actually take a look at the Japanese Embassy's website to confirm hours of business, documents needed, visa fees - all those pesky little details! And what do you know - the website is available only in Japanese or Chinese - no English!!! After struggling with Google Chrome for a few minutes (few minutes, couple of hours - whatever!), I hit on the solution - why don't I just call??? Good plan - except - should've seen this coming - the automated answering service? Only Japanese or Chinese!!!! No English!!!!

Lucky for me, I know a wonderful person who not only is Japanese, but also a good friend - one distress call from me, and several more calls later, MW was able to come up with the information that we didn't need to go upto Shanghai at all - we could hand in our application in Wuxi. Has to do something with our Chinese resident visa being based in Wuxi - I don't know, I'm just happy to find out before we drove all the way to Shanghai! Seriously, this had never come up in all the searches I did to get the visa information - must have been hidden in the fine print!! And yes, note to self - don't wait till the day before to look up visa information on the official website!! It was just a few months ago, when our Dubai visa application kept me up for a few nights - and now this! You would think that after applying for so many different visas, things would get easier - but no, each time is a new adventure!

For the last 15 years or so, it almost seems like I'm always in the process of applying for some visa or the other! The first ever, of course, was the F1 student visa to the US - this was the one that changed my life forever! It seems a bit silly now - but at that time, the hype and glamour surrounding this visa was indescribable! The queue outside the US Consulate in Mumbai - some people had actually slept on the pavement so they would be first in line - the small waiting room inside, the officer asking questions in a molasses thick American accent, the relief at being approved - and yes, the apprehension and the dawning knowledge that this was just the very beginning of a very long journey!! The H1 work visa followed the F1, as did the Permanent Resident Card or Green Card. Our relationship with the nice people from Immigration Services continues to date - not being US citizens we are required every so often to fill out a bunch of legal forms, not to forget the fingerprinting!! Oh well, the only way out of this is to become a naturalized citizen - but that would mean giving up my Indian passport - and that's not happening, for sure!!

Moving to France was a lot easier - with the new EU regulations, we could travel to most European countries with our EU resident card. We never did make it to the UK - the visa requirement was a big part of that!! And although we drove unfettered through most of continental Europe - ironically, my funniest visa story does come from our time in Europe! The summer before we left France, we decided to take a cruise to Greece - the perfect vacation to end our perfect years in France!! The itinerary included Italy, Greece, and surprisingly a day's halt in Croatia. Italy, Greece - both EU, no problem! Croatia - visa required for Indian citizens. After spending hours on the phone with travel agents and the cruise people, I was assured that I did not need a Croatian visa, as long as I agreed to stay on the ship for that one day! That seemed to be no hardship, so we went ahead with our reservations - our first cruise, exciting!!

Of course, in Venice as we tried to board the ship, we were told we couldn't get on without a Croatia visa. Deep breath - seriously, I need to somehow find a Croatian embassy and get a visa in the few hours before the ship depart??!! Oh no - no running around necessary - for the paltry sum of $200 each, we could get our passports stamped with the visa, right there on the dock! No paperwork, no waiting - visa on demand!! The whole thing reeked of a scheme to fleece unsuspecting, captive travellers like us! After all, what's the worse that we could do - our cruise was fully payed for, there was no way we were walking away!! Not to say that we gave in easily - we waited on the dock for better part of the day, with a line of senior officials coming ashore to mouth platitudes! The high point was when Ajey started to propel Manasi towards the entrance - she has a US passport, she should be able to get on the ship, and Manasi clinging to me for dear life, really thinking her dad was going to make her go by herself! Did I mention she was 3 at the time?!! At the end of the day, there was no option but to pay - the only consolation was that we made them work for every penny. And yes, we did spend a day in Croatia - after all this, wild horses couldn't have kept me away!!

I do understand the need to get visa, I really do - and I also understand bilateral relations between countries, and reciprocal visa agreements! But lot of times it feels like we're being penalized for holding Indian passports - we need visa for every single country we might want to visit, except maybe Nepal or Bhutan! These days, with our travel schedules - a good chunk of my time is spent in researching visa requirements of different places! At the very least, a standardized process for all countries would have made life much easier! And maybe, a frequent flier visa process could be initiated?? I will admit that sometimes I do envy my American friends who can visit most countries with just their passports - that would be so wonderful!

A parting anecdote - when we decide to move to India, I was ecstatic that for once, there would be no visa issues to deal with! Our house-hunting trip, we landed in Chennai at 3am and drove to Asiana hotel - exhausted, jet lagged! The clerk at the check-in desk kept fiddling with our passports, flipping through the pages randomly, comparing Manasi's US passport with ours - I finally lost patience, and asked him what he was looking for. He apologetically confessed that he needed to see our visas - yes, that's right, the one thing I thought I was getting away from!!! Ajey said later I over-reacted, and the poor man was just doing his job - but the word 'visa' acted like a red flag - I most emphatically stated that we had Indian passports, and as such, we were Indian citizens, free to come and go from our country as we wished, and that no-one better dare ask me for a visa here!! 'Emphatically stated' - who am I kidding - I was yelling a little, if a little actually means a lot. Not my finest hour, but in my defense, I was had been on a flight for over 15 hours, it was the middle of the night, I was tired and I just needed a room - right that very instant!!

To Wuxi tomorrow then - and hopefully, there will no glitches (fingers crossed)!! And maybe I'll even convince Ajey to go to Ikea after we're done...

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