Monday, November 20, 2006

Getting a Visa to Enter India

Acquiring a visa to enter another country is stressful no matter where you want to go; India is no exception.

I'd been told that I shouldn't apply too soon, since the visa starts from the day you receive it, not from the day you arrive; and apparently it can be difficult to get an extension to your visa once you're in country.

I had options. I could mail in my visa application, along with my passport; or I could take it to the appropriate Indian Consulate--which in my case, coming from Pennsylvania, had to be the consulate in New York City.

I decided the risk was too great to send off my application by mail, especially since my departure time was imminent. Moreover, on the NYC Indian Consulate website there was an ominous note indicating that, because of a significant increase in demand for passports and visas, it could take two weeks to process a visa, not including the time it would take to mail it back and forth.

So I downloaded the visa application form from the website and carefully filled it out. I added supporting documentation about the Fulbright award, along with the Government of India clearance which had been acquired for me by the Fulbright representatives in New Delhi. I'd already renewed my passport. It was good till 2016.

I had all my ducks in line; I was ready to go to the consulate.

NYC is 6 hours drive from my home town of Ligonier, in SW Pennsylvania. The Indian Consulate office in NYC opens at 9:00 am. I wanted to get the visa taken care of the same day, so I figured I needed to be the first in line.

On the advice of my wife, Marilyn (whose advice I ignore at myperil!), I planned to drive into Newark International Airport, park the car there, and then take trains and subways to Lexington Street in Manhattan. A Fulbrighter friend, Denise Burnette, who teaches at Columbia University and whom I'd met in June at the Fulbright to India orientation in Washington, DC, had given me precise directions on which trains and subways to take to get to where I needed to go.

I hit the road shortly after midnight, last Friday morning (Nov. 17). Traffic on the interstates was light in the middle of the night. As a result, I got to Newark International Airport, 16 miles from downtown Manhattan, by about 5:00 am!

No problem, I thought to myself; I preferred to be early rather than snarled up in some nightmarish New York congestion. So I parked the car in the airport parking lot and headed for downtown Manhattan.

Surprise, surprise! At 5:00 in the morning, even in NYC, you're one of few travellers on the train or subway system, and those that are sharing the ride with you are essentially semi-comotose. More to the point, though, there were all these uniformed attendants standing around waiting for the surge of rush hour traffic and they all wanted to help me find my way around.

It was wonderful! I love New York :)

So... the upshot was that I was standing outside the Indian Consulate by 6:00 am. And yes, I was the first in line!

On the walk from the subway station to the consulate, I'd passed several retaurants, so I moseyed on back to one of them, ordered a coffee to go, used the bathroom, and strolled on back down past the consulate into Central Park, where I sort of made myself comfortable, gathered my wits, and sipped a very welcome first hot coffee of the day.

But I didn't dally long in Central Park. I'd come a long way to be first in line and I didn't want to lose my spot.

About 7:00 am, just 5 minutes after I parked myself next to the gate that led down to the basement of the consulate where passports and visas were processed, I was joined by the second in line, a young Sikh from the Punjab in India. Within half an hour there were maybe 30 people in the line, and by the time they opened the gate at about 8:40 am there must have been 100. And they kept coming throughout the morning. I estimate there must have been well over 400 by midday.

Anyway, the process was simple enough. You got a numbered ticket, like at the supermarket deli counter, and when your number was called you went up to the counter to submit your visa application and passport. You were then given a numbered receipt and, because I was #1 (*smile*), the lady told me to come back at midday to get my visa.


It seemed an interminable wait, though, because I was dog tired. I tried to revive my flagging spirits by going back to the restaurant where I'd bought the coffee. I treated myself to a healthy Eggs Benedict breakfast. I lingered in the heady, aromatic atmosphere of the restaurant, reading a book while nursing cup after cup of coffee. I left a generous tip on the table for the waitress to see so she wouldn't try to hustle me out of there.

It worked; she hustled others, but not me :)

I dawdled back to the consulate on what turned out to be a bright, sunny, warm, November day. There, outside, I stopped and chatted with several others who were waiting with me. One was the Sikh lad whom I'd already met in the line. He was a graphic designer for a newspaper publisher. He'd lost his passport when, trusting the mail, he'd sent it off to the New Zealand Embassy to get a tourist visa stamped into it.

His tale of woe made my day; I no longer felt I'd wasted time and money slogging it into NYC.

Shortly after midday we were told to form a line to collect our visas and, lo and behold, I picked mine up without a hitch, retraced my steps to Newark International Airport, picked up my car, and moseyed on back to SW Pennsylvania.

I got home around 8:00 pm, having stopped along the way to grab a MacDonald's large fries and a mess of McNuggets. By 9:00 pm I was in bed.

I slept for 14 hours......

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