Would I stay or would I go now?

"192704! 192754! 192766!"

The lady at the Indian Consulate barked out digits as we sat on the edge of our seats, like lottery-ticket holders hoping she'd call our lucky number. I tried to approach the counter, protected by a plate-glass window with just a bank teller's slit to pass money and passports back and forth, to ask where my number had gone.

"Sit down! I don't have your passport!" she yelled, not unkindly, just trying to manage the chaos.

It was 5:20 on Friday. I had a non-refundable ticket to fly to Hyderabad, India on Sunday, but I didn't yet have a visa to get into the country. And she had already skipped over my number in the order of things.

Though I had been invited to India nearly two years ago, when I met Murali, the founder of a grassroots rural development organization at a conference in Guinea, it was just now that my visit had come together. Murali had been excited to learn that I was a former freelance journalist, as his NGO had been doing all kinds of great stuff in rural Southern India, but didn't have good documentation on their work to help them attract grant money and raise awareness for their causes.

Having a month's break between the fall and spring semesters, I seized the moment. Murali scraped together $1,000 towards my $1,600 ticket, and my stepdad picked up the rest of the tab as a Christmas present. I recruited two old friends from SF, now relocated to Brooklyn, to join me. This would be our third consecutive NYE together, each on a different continent. '04-'05, our Guinea/Senegal trip, was the greatest new year's ever, according to Lupe, as we spent it simply, roaming the darkened streets of Conakry, visiting friends, dancing, breaking cab-stuffing records (eight in an old Renault, including cabbie) - reminding me that the best times are the ones you make yourselves instead of pay through the nose for. (See Derek's blog for some great photos of our Senegal trip.)

So the three musketeers, together again, would form a documentation team, with myself as writer/graphic designer, Lupe as photographer, and Derek as videographer/tech support. There is certainly a lot to document. The organization (Modern Architects for Rural India, aka MARI) works on sustainable agriculture issues, fighting the sale of GMO seeds to their rural farmers; retrains former sex workers in new trades; researches and disseminates traditional water harvesting methods; provides microfinance to women entrepreneurs; campaigns against domestic violence; and all sorts of other interesting projects. The farmers' plight in Warangal, the town where the organization is based, is particularly poignant: several farmers have committed suicide in the past few years, feeling that they were already buried alive in debts and the current market outlook showing no hope of digging their way out (see this link for a BBC story on the topic, which quotes Murali at the end).

But first I would need a visa. And fast.

April vs. the Embassy: Round One

Murali had specifically told me to put the project as my purpose of visit, but apparently that was the wrong answer. Normally the Indian consulate provides same-day service for tourist visas, for which I was applying. Having taken a number from the little machine, I patiently waited an hour for my turn with the visa lady, who resembled an Indian Margaret Thatcher in more ways than her unflattering haircut.

She smiled, scanned my application, then frowned.

"Where's your letter?" she demanded.

"I didn't see any requirement for a letter in the application instructions," I countered. "I'm just applying for a tourist visa."

"But you're not a tourist!" she retorted.

Round Two

Still cheery at this point, I slinked away and got Murali to supply the requested letter, returning a day later. I was about to head to San Francisco for a weekend trip and was hoping to have my passport back in my hot little hands before I did.

"We have absolutely no idea when we will be able to give you clearance. Yours is a special case and we will need to investigate."

What? I couldn't believe it. I had gotten visas for some dozen countries, from Sierra Leone to Jordan to China, and never had any problems. I was an asset to the world, not a liability – how could they think otherwise?
"Do you still want to put your application in?" she asked.

"Of course!," I said, not seeing any other option. After all, I had already divulged my purpose, which had been found suspect. Ms. Visa Thing, who had years of experience in such matters, could obviously see past my girlish freckles and innocent blue eyes straight to my steely revolutionary heart. She knew that I was secretly plotting to organize the rickshaw drivers into unions, get the child brides to revolt and run away with their dowries, and deliver arms to one of the separatist groups in the Northeast. Maybe she thought I was really going to make my fortune as an exotic extra in Bollywood. Or perhaps she suspected that I was one of *those* kinds of volunteers – volunteering for Jesus to get the damned Hindus to trade in the sacred cow for the sacred cross. It was Christmas after all. I started to feel guilty just being in her presence, the way I do around cops and priests, like she had x-ray vision that saw my sins and secrets.

She handed me a numbered ticket, the kind you get at church raffles, with a number written on a post-it.

"We'll call you when we have made a decision. You can also call this number for more information. Try in two or three days. Do not lose this ticket under any circumstances or you won't be able to get your passport back."

Great. I lose everything, every day. It's a genetic disorder I inherited from my mom. How was I to hold on to a little red stub for an indefinite amount of time? I practically sewed it into my bra I was so worried I'd lose it.

Round Three

I had such a fabulous time in San Francisco I forgot my visa woes until Monday, when I tried to call in for information. 9 am, no answer. Voice mail kicks in; "This user's mailbox is full." 10 am, no answer, full mailbox. 11, 12, 1, 5, and midnight, ditto. It was like trying to call the White House for an update on the whereabouts of Iraqi WMDs.

Well, I would just go back in person and pester them until they gave me what I wanted just to get rid of me. I returned on Tuesday, this time wise to the need to arrive an hour in advance to secure a good place in line.

The camaraderie amongst applicants was poignant: We all swapped stories and advice, non-Indians and Indians alike having troubles with the consulate's bureaucracy. By the time 4:30, the appointed document pick-up hour, rolled around, there were over 50 people lined up in front of the consulate. I was glad I had been smart enough to arrive early. When they opened the doors, everyone rushed in, all the while keeping the self-imposed order.

"Everyone sit down! No line! I will call your number if and when your passport is ready."

I shoved my way to the counter. "But you won't be calling my number! I just need to know the status of my application. I'm supposed to be traveling on Sunday," I said, hoping she'd hear the desperation in my voice and take mercy.

"I told you I had no idea when you will get clearance. Now please wait for our call. 154287!"
Round Four

I was in panic mode now. This was bad, very bad. I needed an in, and fast. I called up everyone I knew who might know someone on the inside – international aid workers, Indians, professors, visa expeditors – no luck. The best advice I got was from my microfinance professor, an Indian woman: "Sorry to hear of your visa problems. But don't try to go there without it – a friend did that and they sent her on the next plane back." And from another: "Do you think they are waiting for a bribe?"

Since my volunteering was apparently the problem, I decided to take a new tack. I would retract my application and reapply as a good little tourist. I returned the next day, again shoved my way up to her window and asked for my passport back.

"I have a non-refundable ticket. I'll cancel my volunteer project, but I can't cancel my trip."

She left the counter momentarily and returned with my passport, which was likely sitting in a pile with the other infidels', and no one had any intention of doing anything but catch dust with it.

She slipped a blank sheet of paper through the window slot and transcribed a letter to me: "To Whom It May Concern: I made an error. I am not a volunteer. I will not do anything wrong in India…."

Laughing aloud, I went back to my seat and wrote, adding my own touches like
"I will abide by all laws and regulations in India. And by the way, I have a non-refundable ticket to leave in four days."

She snatched back the letter. "Come back for your passport tomorrow."

Finally I had cracked the code. This was all I needed to do all along, and she had secretly been trying to tell me that when she asked me if I wanted to put in my application – that was my cue to take it back and void any mention of that rabble-rousing volunteerism.

The only hitch was that tomorrow was my final exam, which I had already had specially rescheduled to un-coincide with my thesis presentation. But the visa lady wasn't about to hold special hours for me, I knew, so I begged for another exam reschedule so I could make it back to the consulate in time. But just before I did, I got a message from the visa lady.

"Don't come today. Come tomorrow. The Indian embassy. Bye!"

This wasn't good, but not bad either. Of the hundreds of visa applicants, I was special enough to warrant a call. But that left my pickup for Friday – the last possible day before I had to call off my trip and spend Christmas in Ohio instead.

Round Five

Though I knew she was going to disassemble us, I came early to gain a strategic seat from which to leap up when I heard my lucky number. There were more people there than ever; it was starting to look like some kind of upscale refugee camp. She began to call numbers, people sprinting for the counter when theirs was called, and wishing their neighbors safe journeys, as many of us had gotten to know one another in the long waiting hours.

"192704, 192754, 192766," she called out rapid fire in a voice raspy from decades of calling out numbers over the din of impatiently waiting applicants. Someone needed to buy that emcee a mike. At $60 a pop per visa, and more than 100 applicants a day, the consulate could surely afford it. As much as I wanted to hate the lady who stood immoveable between me and my trip, I knew she had a hell of a job, and about as appreciated as the meter maid's.

I checked my watch. 5:20. The joint closed at 5:30 sharp, and there were still about 70 people waiting. I had already decided I was not leaving without my passport, visa or no, and if they tried to deny me that I would hold a Gandhi-inspired hunger strike. Let them try to arrest me if I refused to leave. That would be great publicity: Indian government arrests honors graduate student refused a visa because she wanted to volunteer to help the poor.

"688? 191688?"

"That's me, that's me! I'm going to India!" I jumped up and down as the crowd laughed and cheered.

The lady opened my passport to the visa, pointing to the line typed in "for tourism purposes only." We exchanged knowing looks. She smiled and wished me a nice trip. I kissed my passport, and were the plate glass not there, I might have kissed her too. God knows she needed some love.

As I was leaving, an Indian I had chatted with left me with these ominous words: "This is a training ground for what you will experience in India. Be prepared, young lady!"

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