Monday, January 2, 2012

An Unparalleled Practice Experience in Equanimity

My meditation teacher and friend from Seattle, Ven. Dhammadinna, quite eloquently used those words to describe Delhi. These past 24 hours have been as well.

In short: I had a lot of bureaucratic run-around and got stuck in Bangalore for an extra day. In long...

6pm last night: arrive in Bangalore airport from Trivandrum, ready to head to Bangkok. My flight doesn't leave until 1:30am, but it's not enough time to go anywhere, and I'm tired.
7pm: eat a terrible Cafe Coffee Day sandwich, as it's the only thing to eat in the limbo before checkin.
10:30pm: check-in opens for my flight. I have 3 hours; what could go wrong?
10:35pm: get to immigration. I survey the 12 officers; who looks friendly? I pick the wrong one.
10:36pm: "...sir, I think you will not be flying today."

Let me explain. Remember my lengthy rant about trying to figure out the ins and outs of the "two month rule"? After literally two days online, the best I could figure is: you're not allowed to re-enter within two months of leaving, unless you get a re-entry stamp from an embassy in the country you're visiting in between (Nepal in my case). You can get that stamp if there's an emergency OR if you're just touristing in neighboring countries. The stamp says "visitor must register at the Foreigner's Regional Registration Office (FRRO) within 14 days of re-entering the country." So I tried to do so in Darjeeling, but the guy there said "you only have to register if you're staying in the same place; since you're touristing around, no need." I pushed him a bit, but he wouldn't register me. So I figured, that sounds reasonable; the registration is probably for the "emergency" case and not the "tourist" case. Heck, I don't know if I even needed the stamp from Nepal. And what can they do? I'm already back in the country. I put it out of my mind until... now.

10:38pm: he sends me to the officer at the end of the line. That officer confirms, yep, see, you didn't register, and the stamp says "you must register." I explain that I tried, but there is no reasoning with him. He tells me to wait over there.
11:30pm?: a couple times, different guys explain the same thing to me. I try all the reasonable arguments: "I tried to register", "but I just need to leave the country", "please isn't there anything you can do, I have to meet some people", and "look at me I'm pitiful". I don't know what has even a remote chance of working; obviously none of these.
11:40pm: officer #2 gives me the address of the FRRO and says "you just go there tomorrow, get the stamp, no problem." Yes problem! Goddamn...
12am: From just outside the airport, I try to contact someone at Bangkok Airways to change my flight before it takes off. Of course, they fly one flight a day from Bangalore, so there's no counter, so I have to call on the phone. Both their local office in Bangalore and their office in Bangkok are closed, of course.
12:30am: A kind Bangkok Airways representative is helping me. He asks where I'll stay. "I don't know! I'll go hunting for a hotel at midnight?" He points me to the hotel-reservations counter. I take a place as close as possible to the FRRO; it's still 5km away and costs $20. I don't have much choice.
12:35am: I take a cab to the city. Again, not much choice. It's the absurd-for-India price of $15.
1:30am: Arrive at the Hotel T.A.P. Silver Square. At least it's clean. Ignore the garbage on the stairs and the nightclub one floor below. For once, I thank God for the 11:30pm city-wide closing time.

6:30am: Wake up, snooze my alarm, then finally roll out of bed and catch a tuk-tuk. tuk tuk tuk tuk tuk. It is important that I...
7:30am: Get to the FRRO before it opens at 9am. I am the first one there. I start reading Game of Thrones on my Kindle.
8am: A couple early birds show up.
9am: The FRRO is ready for business. I get a form and a number. My number is 001. So that means I'll be out of here quickly, right?
9:15am: I talk to a fellow at the Scrutiny Desk (yes) and find out that my required documents are mostly just passport copies (easy) and proof of where I'm staying. So... my hotel. For some reason, they need proof that I am staying at my hotel for one night. And this proof comes in the form of a letter, on hotel letterhead, stating my name, passport number, and duration of stay, with the hotel manager's signature and (I kid you not) official seal. I head for the hotel to get this thing.

tuk tuk tuk tuk tuk. (I usually only take tuk-tuks when I'm in a hurry. I took a lot of tuk-tuks today.)

9:45am: Ask my hotel guy for a letter on letterhead. His printer is broken, and he has no letterhead. The other hotel owned by the T.A.P. group has letterhead, but it is 5 traffic-choked kilometers away. He does have an official seal, though! I decide to type up a thing, have him sign and seal it, and plead that official letterhead was "not possible."
10:00am: Find out that the only internet cafe around opens at 10:30. This city runs late.
10:30am: Show up there. It's some fancy-pants Reliance rent-an-office deal and the least money I can pay to type for 5 minutes and print is 225 rupees. Whatever! Okay! Please, my wallet is too heavy! Also, their computers are terrible. Well, at least I have 4 whole hours of internet. I type a thing and print. I type some other letters too ("dear FRRO, I would like to request blah blah, here is my itinerary") just in case.

tuk tuk tuk tuk tuk

11:00am: I hand the guy at the Scrutiny Desk (indeed) a stack of documents. As he paws through them, I realize I never went back to the hotel to get the manager to sign/seal that letter. It ends "Signed, (blank)". Oh god. I just bluff my way through; somehow, in about a half hour of scrutiny, he never notices or cares.
11:30am: "You go upstairs." Woo- level up!
11:31am: I go to Desk 5 and am told, no, go to the IO/ISH desk. Okay. There is a brief interlude when a lady distributes Happy New Year cake to the workers.
11:40am: IO/ISH Lady scribbles something.
11:45am: Desk 5 Guy scribbles something.
11:50am: "You go to the bank, ask for a DD. Demand Drop." What? "Demand Drop." I get the sense it's a money order. I also get the sense that I have to pay 1395 rupees ($28), y'know, because I was late registering. Because of Darjeeling FRRO guy. This is why you build money cushion into your travel budget!
12:00pm: I find a Bank of Baroda. They give me a form for a Demand Draft. (oh.) The cost, including DD charge, is 1505. Ah, but they cannot debit the money from my account, I need cash. I have very little cash, because I thought I was leaving the country. I go to use their ATM; it is broken.
12:10pm: Find another bank. Withdraw 3000 rupees. Realize that they might balk if I give them 2000 for a 1505 bill, so I look for a way to get 5 rupees change. Spy a coconut guy.
12:20pm: One delicious coconut later, coconut guy has no change. I marvel at the fact that, in the critical path to get my FRRO registration and thus to leave the country, I am trying to find change to pay the coconut guy. If you give a mouse a visa... Luckily, a nearby guy has change.
12:30pm: Get the DD. I recall that Desk 5 Guy also said I should get a xerox of the DD. Why? Was it just for my records? Well, I'll try anyway. At the first xerox shop, the guy is out, and they don't have xeroxes anyway. I get it at the second shop.
1:00pm: Desk 5 Guy sends me to Desk 2 Guy to hand him the DD. Desk 2 Guy gives me a receipt and sends me to "the desk that way." Up more stairs? Nope, the people upstairs are confused about why I'm there. I ask Desk 2 Guy again, and he says Desk 5. Well, why didn't you say so? Desk 5 Guy asks for the xerox, which I hand him, and breathe a sigh of relief that I got it. And then: "You come back, 3 o'clock." That is a good sign!
1:10pm: Eat a biryani at Kebab Palace, let slip a sigh of relief, and figure I better get on to my next task: rebooking my flight. I call Bangkok Airways. Prakash and I are having communication issues, so he invites me to just go there in person. It's near MG road, so near my hotel, but far from the FRRO.

tuk tuk tuk tuk oh shit

1:15pm: Realize I left my bag, including a few probably-inessential documents and my Kindle case. My Kindle case contains two months' worth of bottle caps and ticket stubs, and my Kindle. Not the end of the world, but ... damn! We're almost at Bangkok Airways, so I just figure I'll get it later. Now there are three major things I'm worried about.
1:30pm: Prakash at Bangkok Airways is friendly, but can't rebook me, and can only refund $80 of my $240 ticket. This is because it was for yesterday, and I just didn't show up. But but but I was trying to call, and I only just had this visa issue, and and ... to quote They Might Be Giants, "Lose, sucka! Lose again!" I would be slumping back to the FRRO, but I'm still panicking about my Kindle, so instead I high-tail it to Kebab Palace.

tuk tuk tuk tuk tuk

2:00pm: They've got my Kindle! Yes yes yes hooray thank you thank you. I don't know how to thank people a lot in a short time, or I would do so.
2:15pm: Kill time by looking up ticket-to-Bangkok prices. There is really only one flight to take, and I guess it will cost me $180. What can I do? I dawdle and don't book anything, because I'll just book after I get my FRRO stamp, just to make sure.
2:50pm: I am so excited, like a kid on Christmas, I can't wait, so I go back to Desk 5 Guy at the FRRO. He has me sign a paper, writes something in my passport, and I am done! Sweet sweet victory, and in under 8 hours too.
3:10pm: Back at an internet cafe, I find that my $180 ticket has jumped to $250. What! In those 20 minutes! There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. I figure I'll call Prakash, maybe there is something he can do. He's busy but he says he'll call me back.
3:30pm: Is there ever something he can do! I thought my ears deceived me as he said "It will be just 1500 rupees." ($30) I guess he found some loophole because it was a one-way ticket or something? Whatever, I am not asking questions. I am motoring it over to Prakash's office.

tuk tuk tuk tuk tuk (I am getting good at this by now. All the tuk-tuks have meters, but they'll actually pull the "meter is broken" nonsense and ask you to pay a higher fixed price. If they do that, just walk away instantly. They'll track you down and magically their meter will be working. Also, grab the guys driving down the street, not the ones waiting; they'll usually just give you the meter fare. The waiting guys will try to get meter + 20 or worse.)

4:14pm: Cosmic shout-out of thanks to Prakash for working this out. Ticket, FRRO paper, and Kindle in hand, I am a happy man.
4:30pm: I go back to my portable office to handle some other future airline ticket bookings. My credit cards are declined, and my frequent flyer booking has an unspecified error. Lose again!
6-8pm: finally shower, take a nap.
8:30pm: head to the airport.

tuk tuk tuk tuk bus bus bus bus

10:30pm: boarding pass in hand, I approach the immigration desk with some trepidation. A kindly older fellow inspects my passport. I explain how I went to Nepal and Bhutan for three weeks in November. He points to my FRRO registration and even the re-entry stamp from Nepal and says, as the camera zooms in for the punchline, again I kid you not:
"You were just visiting Nepal and Bhutan? Then this was not necessary!"


  1. i am giving you thousands and thousands of virtual hugs for getting through this! victory and triumph are yours my friend, and I promise you that Seattle is boring and rainy.

  2. We read your story together and we're speechless....

    Such amazing detail- we could feel your inexorable pain.
    But great punchline.
    So glad you are out now.

  3. Thanks! And thanks for reading. One of the worst parts of this was realizing that I'd have this absurd complicated experience, which I could laugh about later (I have to get a coconut, to get change, to get a Demand Draft, to take to one desk, to take to the other desk, to get an FRRO registration, to leave the country) but whom will I laugh about it with? So thanks for letting me share it with you.

    This experience had its weird perks; at least it was an interesting day. Unusual mix of emotions: fear (of having to stay longer), anger, frustration, and triumph. Overall, mostly but not entirely unpleasant.

  4. how hilariously awful! glad it all worked out at least!