I stay or would I go now?
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
"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 ilovebrooklyn.com
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
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
"But you're not a tourist!" she retorted.
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
"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.
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!"
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
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
Laughing aloud, I went back to my seat and wrote, adding my own
"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
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
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.
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
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.
"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!"
more stories, past, present and future, keep visiting www.aprilwrites.com.