After many years of thinking about going to India, I'm finally going. In 11 days. I currently dwell somewhere between excitement and anxiety.
India: the yoga mothership. The big kahuna of Hindu philosophy. And the home, of course, of the Taj Mahal. These are some of the reasons I've always wanted to go. Others include wanting to see an elephant. And also a tiger. Oh, and wearing a sari. The potential reasons are plentiful--some noble and others not. There are also many reasons not to go: dysentery, parasites, filth, poverty, the inability to drink the water, not to mention the 14-hour flight.
Ultimately, the good outweighed the bad. I've stocked up on Pepto Bismol, antibiotics, and several cases of lavender-scented hand sanitizer. Which just about makes me ready.
Except for the practical considerations to navigate like visas and vaccinations.
First stop: The travel clinic at my doctor's office. They determined I'd need immunizations for typhoid, polio, hepatitis A, and hepatitis B. Apparently, anyone who born after 1980 had to have Hep B (which protects against this blood and bodily fluid-borne illness) to get into college. But sadly, I was born before the cut-off date ("sadly" because I am too old to have been naturally included, and also because I now have to get another immunization). Hep A is something you wouldn't have unless you were traveling to a developing nation, as it's a water-borne illness. Typhoid and polio shots are also something we don't have to worry about in the US (or other developed world countries). So that was four shots right off the bat, and two require follow-up shots in 1-6 months. Great.
Next stop: Procuring a visa. It turns out that several years ago, the Indian Consulate outsourced this business to a private company. The double layer of irony that India--the outsourcing capital of the world--has outsourced the job of bringing people to India is not lost on me.
But anyway, the private company provides two options on their website: in-person same-day service or through the mail, which takes a minimum of nine days. Since they have to affix the visa to your passport, and since it seemed like...how should I say...a less-than-stellar idea to send my passport through the mail, I chose to go in-person. The office is located in Manhattan. I made a 10:20 appointment, arrived at 10:00, bringing with the required materials: my passport, my application (which you complete online on their website), two passport-sized pictures, and $76. Except...oh wait, I forgot to bring the cash.
Of course, I had my credit card, but it clearly states on their website that a credit card charge will slow-down your application. And since I wanted to expedite my application, I wanted to pay cash. No problem, I was so early. Right?
The less-than-pleasant guy corralling people in the line on the sidewalk told me there were not ATMs anywhere nearby (which I have a hard time believing in NYC but didn't want to waste time arguing or looking) and instead advised me to get cash-back at the Walgreens on the corner.
Fine. I've never done cash-back, but I was happy to give it a try. Looking around the Walgreen's, I realized I didn't "need" anything. So I decided to buy a banana--at least I could have a healthy snack later. It was $0.49. The girl behind the counter asked if I wanted cash back, and I said, "Yes, please. $80."
She stared at me as though I was an idiot. Or a lunatic. (I'm probably both.) "You can only do $20." She informed me.
I took the $20 and said, "OK. In that case, I'd like to buy another banana."
Rinse and repeat three times and I finally had my $80. Booked it back to the visa place...
...where I stood in line for the next hour and a half. Needless to state, they were not running on time, and my 10:20 appointment was for naught.
Around noon, they called the 10:20 people. I stepped forward to have the inspector confirm that my cell phone was off and I wasn't bringing any food or drinks in. Which was fine...except for the fact that I now had four bananas in my bag and there were no trash cans in sight (again - what?! There are trash cans every ten feet in Manhattan! Was I in a parallel universe?). So I gave one to the girl in front of me and then scarfed down the other three. Really classy. But at least I had my monthly dose of potassium. (They let me take the peels in to dispose of inside. Apparently, this was OK, but bananas were not.)
Suitably, food-free, we were finally herded inside the building...where we then waited in the second line for another long time. Eventually, interminably, FINALLY, it was my turn. Proudly, I handed over all my materials to the grumpy guy behind the desk. He checked to make sure I have everything (and, as an aside, it was shocking to me to see exactly how many people DIDN'T), and then I was herded toward a third line...
...where, you guessed it, I got to wait in line some more.
About two and a half hours from the beginning of this little adventure, I reached a visa person. She took all my materials and innocently asked, "How would you like to pay?"
I was shocked. As per their website, I thought it was cash-only in order to not delay the application. "Oh, that's only for the mail-in option," she informed me.
I thought ruefully of the unnecessary bananas I bought and scarfed down, and handed over my credit card. "So, when should I come back to pick-up my visa?" I asked.
She didn't look up from typing. "Oh, we don't do the same-day option anymore. Haven't for three years."
"But...but your website said..."
She cut me off. "Oh yeah. I've been telling them to update that for three years. But they don't listen. You'll have to come back tomorrow. Actually, you'd ordinarily have to come back tomorrow. But the Consulate is closed for Good Friday. So come back on Monday."
I told her I drove from Boston. I couldn't stay in New York all weekend. She suggested I pay to mail it home, which I objected to for the aforementioned reason of risking my passport being lost in the mail, AND it was another charge, AND if I was going to have to do it through the mail in the end, then why the heck did I drive four hours down here to bring it to you in-person?!
I choked all this back and asked if there's ANYTHING that could be done. Finally, a manager said that while the Consulate itself would be closed for Good Friday (though why a predominantly Hindu and secondarily Muslim country was closing for Good Friday is a separate question), there was maybe a chance that my visa might be in the second batch that the delivery guy who drop-off after hours later that night.
Well, geez. That was a lot of "mights" and "maybes" but I seized it.
I stumbled out of there and blinked in the bright daylight. (It was still daylight? I thought I'd been in there for days!) Starving, dazed, and distinctly worried, I wandered into Ariyoshi, a tiny Japanese place just down the block and revived my flagging spirits with some of the best miso soup and California rolls I've ever had. (Note: I substituted shrimp for the fish stick and it was awesome!)
The next morning I got an email and a text telling me my visa was ready. (Note: Sign up for these options!!!) I picked it up without a wait and was on my way.
Frustrating? Yes. Annoying? Yes. Illogical? Yes. But I bet this is good practice for being in India :)