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Return Of The Visa Warrior!

I often wonder, how we are assessed when a Visa Officer reviews an Indian’s application for a visitor’s permit? What are the signs they’re looking for? How do they ‘categorize’ us? How often are emotions and the kind of day the visa officer is having a factor in whether or not a visa is granted? Who is considered a flight risk?

In my case, Visa officers tend to look at my project and my request for an extended duration visa (usually 6 months) or a post dated visa as a burden and an inconvenience. Their first reaction is resistance- to even hearing my pitch. They finally agree to pay attention when I tell them about my weekly column in Hindustan Times. And their tone softens and their words become politer only when they see the letter of endorsement from the Ministry of External Affairs.

Firstly we need visas for EVERYWHERE. Standard tourist visas range from fifteen days to six months. But when you’re planning to travel for up to a year (or more), like in my case; post dated visas need to be issued. How does a visa, that expires before I reach the country make any sense to the visa officer?

They start out by telling me that’s the only option available. In almost all cases I have had to escalate the matter to other officials at the Embassy. Almost always the matter is resolved- but not without first ensuring multiple trips to the embassy and delaying my project by a few precious days.

All my documents are in perfect order. I also have a letter from the Editor in Chief of Hindustan Times- Sanjoy Narayan. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive media partner than HT. I also have a letter from the Ministry of External Affairs, stating “It is requested that necessary facilitation for expeditious issuance of an appropriate visa, as per duration requested, may please be extended to enable her to complete the project as per schedule.”

Apparently, that’s not enough either.

It‘s made me aware that as an ordinary Indian citizen, it’s impossibly hard to plan and execute long haul international travel.

It took me almost 3 months to get the visas for the first leg of my trip. And I know I’m working with a similar time frame for the second leg. The nature of my request and all my experiences so far have made me jittery about being absent at the time of submission. I have to do all the queuing, explaining and submitting on my own.

In the toughest moments, I remind myself of the amazing experiences I’ve had in the pat six months, how enlightening it was to spend time with the heroes I’ve had the privilege of meeting and that the obstacles I face now, in hindsight, will be the biggest lessons of this journey.

To everyone who’s ever asked me why they haven’t met more Indian travellers on a round-the-world trip… Now you know. This reminds me of how envious I felt of fellow travellers from Europe, America and Australia and the freedom of movement their passports ensured.

I’m not asking for any special treatment… just a level playing field.

This issue is also restricting my movement in the country. I can’t make plans to travel or meet the people I want to. It’s also delaying the planned March departure. Fortunately, I’m an optimist to the point of being delusional occasionally. When people tell me something can’t be done, I like to give it at least one really good shot.

I hope in 2011, I can set a precedent with my project and force them to consider the, long haul Indian traveller the ‘new normal’ and not the anomaly!

Amen to that!

(As I post this, today I’ve already called the South African Embassy more than a dozen times and have yet to be connected to the consular or media relations division. I have also sent a fax and three emails since the 28th. Still, I persist. UPDATE: I received my South African Visa today- 3rd Feb 2011 Woot!)

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16 Responses to “Return Of The Visa Warrior!”

  1. Dola Majumdar says:

    I totally feel your pain, now imagine planning a trip when you live in smaller towns, in my case- Nashik. I also hate the suspicious looks by the officers, it’s disrespectful and they need to be sensitized. there should also be a feedback form, where one can have their issues heard.

  2. Sidhant Kapoor says:

    Two years ago, for a family vacation, my younger sister’s visa was rejected- we had applied for a family visa for 4 of us. mum, dad and i got a 5 year multiple entry visa to the US, but we had to can the vacation plans, cause obviously we wouldn’t go without her. I think she was considered a ‘flight risk’. she was 19 at the time!!!!

  3. Niharika Nath says:

    Applying via VFS is even tougher. the employees are badly behaved and poorly informed. at least at the embassy u can escalate the matter, at VFS you’re at their mercy & fancy. i hope you get all your visas, where to next?

  4. Gautam Ghosh says:

    I hate how the foreign staff treats everyone. So many of these embassies remind me that the world still looks at India as a third world country

    Like we’re all illiterate, poor and looking to open convenience stores in Indian neighborhoods abroad. the idea of ‘simply traveling’ for the sake of it, is thought to be a strictly western indulgence

  5. Dinesh Sirohi says:

    is it not possible to get visas once u start ur trip? maybe it will be easier from abroad, than from here, i can vouch for south america- i went with 1 visa, got three more while on the move. costs more than here obviously

  6. Truth Be Told says:

    All the illegal immigrants from punjab and bihar don’t help the matter either. everytime i go to any embassy i see it packed with people who’re soon going to be picking trash, driving cabs, doing dishes and selling key chains abroad

    I think the cynicism is expected

  7. raj says:

    I envy the migratory birds. No body shoots them down because they are coming from north pole or any other part of the world.I think evolution has been the biggest mistake for man

  8. Jassim says:

    Visa privileges are based on mutual arrangements and even India doesnt extend this to citizens of other countries….

    As an increasingly outward looking country, our foreign affairs ministry should work proactively at making international travel simpler for our citizens as well as for tourists who want to come to India

  9. Randhir Shekhawat says:

    Dear truth be told…

    i don’t think your cynicism is fair. If we focused more on ensuring a good quality of life for the ‘future cab drivers and trash pickers’ like you put it, they wouldn’t be flocking abroad, and we wouldn’t be seen as a third world country & people would get tourist visas easier.

    as they say- don’t hate the player, hate the game

  10. Mika Joseph says:

    hey someone just retweeted ur story & thats how i found ur blog- it will take me a while to catch up on all the articles, but fuck! ur living the dream, dont know how long it took u but im sure t’was worth it

    the other MJ ;)

  11. Radhika Alva says:

    i went for my interview at the US embassy, prior to leaving for Berkley and i was not asked a single question about my uni, accomodation or how many hrs i planned to work there. i had been told that they try and fox you to make you crack, but it was smooth sailing. it’s totally about how you’re packaged & the mood of the interviewer. perhaps on a bad day, my visa would’ve been rejected, happens ALL the time to ppl, stay focused, they have no reason to deny your visa… delays one can’t help! cheers

  12. Joseph Roca says:

    it’s pretty hard to get indian visa now. max grant is 6 months, u have to e away 2 months, before reapplying. it is fair i think. all countries are becoming careful with so much illegal work force coming in.

  13. Nina Katz says:

    does it help to have sponsorship letter in india? i will be happy to help you with one in South Africa with the Women Social Entrepreneurs Forum. you have my email now, best of luck

  14. Auriela Dectois says:

    a good reminder for people taking their EU citizenship for granted. as an avid traveller, i know how much it had helped me. i am sure that people from many developing countrys face similar challenges. the qualifying criteria needs to change maybe

  15. Priyanka says:

    If it wasn’t for u….i wud’ve freaked out……the moment i realised my passport missing…..the first person i called was u….am not happy bout what happed with u……but grateful that ur experience helped me keep my calm…

  16. Animesh says:

    It all depends. I’m totally with you on your sentiment, but not all visas need to be obtained in India. Many (perhaps even most) visas can be obtained on the road from a nearby embassy. All one needs is research, time and patience.
    I have already done one RTW trip, and I’m headed on another next month :)
    And yes, I’m an Indian living in India.
    And there are many more of us, including one guy called Guru who has been on the road for almost 3 years now!

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