India Separates Weak from Worthy

North Bend, Wash.

The Indian visa application was a test. We passed, barely.

Known around the world for its British-designed, stultifying bureaucracy, the visa process was riddled with inconsistencies, incongruencies, mis- and dis-information. That it was a test of wits and that we survived, is the only way to think about the three-day battle with the on-line application form and the eight-day battle on the phone with the Cox and Kings call center in Mumbai when my passport disappeared in the paper shuffle.

Black Beauty is driven hard — as hard as we can at 58 mph — and put away wet. One last early morning wash in North Bend, WA to remove the winter road salt before she’s stabled. We’ll be riding tuk tuks, taxis and rickshaws for the next few weeks.


India has been promising Visa-On-Arrival for its tourism visitors for years. Visa -on-Arrival means a traveler, bearing a passport granted by her home country presents herself and her passport to an Immigration Officer. Because her home-country has given her a passport, and with a payment of no money or a small amount of money, $50 to $150, the country she wants to visit her grants entry for a tourism visit.

Thailand has used Visa On Arrival for more than 25 years. The Visa is granted literally on arrival. We’ll get our Thai entry visa on Friday when we arrive in Bangkok and present our US passports.

Other countries use Visa on Arrival through an online system. Send an image of the passport, along with a credit card payment, and travel approval is granted. Visas are a popular way for foreign governments to pick up extra revenue from visitors.

Cox and Kings was the only option for would-be American tourists to obtain a visa when we started our Visa process last October. Given the tech giants that India has spawned and delivered to the Developed World, it was a terrible website. It barely worked. MacGyver sat hunched over the computer for an entire weekend working his way through an incomprehensible application that asked ridiculous questions.The biggest concern was the depth of personal information it required, sort of, maybe, and then, well, no you don’t need to send that.

Typically countries want basic information to grant a visa, name, address, passport number, date of issue, place of issue, birth date and birth place and when and where you intend to travel in their country.

In addition to this information the Indians wanted our Social Security number, our Driver’s License number, even our religion. It riles us that Verizon Wireless holds us hostage, demanding our Social Security number and our Driver’s License number to activate our cell phones even though we are guaranteeing payment through a credit card. It’s a grotesque invasion of privacy by American corporations and no one cares. We had no intention of sending every piece of our identifying information overseas to an unknown repository.

If Target can get hacked why not Cox & Kings on behalf of the Government of India. Delving through the layers of the application we realized we could get away with sending the regular, but, minimal information.

Once this incredibly complicated, time consuming, confusing, contradictory application was completed we sent our passports away.

Then began the India test’s second phase. We sent both our passports, as instructed, in a single package, since we are one family, with a single return FedEx waybill. We used our own FedEx number because we could not make the Cox & Kings website spit out its waybill. The package was received in two days in Atlanta and promptly sent to the Indian Embassy. Whew! Looking good.

We each received an email confirmation — this may work — the following day our visas were approved. We received another email that our passports were picked up from the embassy and were being returned to us. Yippee!

Then it fell apart.

Five days later a FedEx arrived. It contained MacGyver’s passport, with a visa. My passport was not in the FedEx.

The following day I received an email that my passport was “ready for collection at our Atlanta application center in one business day.” Uh, no. It’s not even close to our home, and we were almost 2,000 miles away, loaded and driving.

The bureaucratic runaround began. There was no phone number for the Atlanta processing center. We were instructed to contact New York. We took to Google to see if we were alone. We were not. Hopeful tourists complained of lying, ineffectual, incompetent workers at the processing centers in San Francisco and New York. Call New York, Mumbai answers.

Experienced at logging our activities 24 hours a day, every day as truck drivers, we started a new log. Recording our hold times  before we reached a representative. We were promised an email in 24 to 48 hours to update the status of my passport. I knew, if I had been standing in front of him, he would have been shaking his head at me.

There is an Indian “head shake”. It is a visual-verbal and you can see it used in this great travel video. It’s a cultural, conversational response. Canadians have something similar, a word, sorry. Sorry can mean 12 different things ranging from yeah sure to no fucking way, and not often does it actually, sincerely mean I’m sorry.

Indians do the head shake to variably mean, okay, I’m listening, I heard you but I don’t care, yes, no, whatever, and I don’t give a shit.

And even though I know what’s happening, I don’t really know how its being used. Oh and they smile. Canadians don’t tend to smile on the “sorry’. We look at people stoically, sorry.

So I hung up and we waited.

Over eight days we made three phone calls to New York, and talked to the call center in Mumbai. Each time, promises, but no results. Finally MacGyver had had enough. Laying in the bunk while I was driving, he made one more call that lasted one-and-a-half hours. We timed it. Talking around in circles with the call center employee, who was reading a script, demanding to speak to a supervisor or to have my passport put in a FedEx while he was on the phone.

When he closed the call I was exhausted from listening. Within half an hour of hanging up, my computer dinged. An email. The passport was on its way.

“He sure as hell didn’t want to talk to you again,” I told MacGyver.

 My passport, with a visa, arrived two days later.

We depart tomorrow, Shanghai, Bangkok, Mumbai, and south to Kerala, a surprisingly un-Indian place where educated, socially-conscious locals have developed “a social construct” that Forbes magazine says “would give Mitt Romney a hemiplegic migraine.”

We will report on what we find.

And the long awaited Visa-on-Arrival system? It launched a few weeks after our ordeal ended. Typical!

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