Thus far in our journeys, we had been spared the agony of excessive bureaucracy. True, we had a slightly hair raising experience when trying to get to Australia, where obtaining a visa for Cyrus took longer than expected, a delay which almost caused us to forego our incredibly cheap flights. Fortunately, things came together in the last few days before our departure, and we somewhat reluctantly left Hawaii. There are worse things than being stranded on a tropical island in the Pacific.
It seems that Cyrus being born in the U.S.A. to a Canadian mother and American father who jointly decided to give him a different last name than either of them causes some confusion to bureaucratic types, not to mention the fact that he had also become a Canadian citizen and was travelling with a Canadian passport. We were travelling with every possible document that could appease the gods of bureaucratic anality, and they had worked up until that point as our ace(‘s) in the hole.
Until that point. For we had decided that it was high time that we went to India. Now before you thank Ganesh for our good fortune, I shall reveal to you a hair raising story of bureaucratic lunacy that will leave you shaking you head, and wanting to call someone who is in a position of power and yell at them. At the least, it will leave you cursing low level bureaucrats.
It started with our decision to go to India more than 2 months prior. Being somewhat cautious when it comes to having all the legal ducks in a row, (or is it a line? I can never remember), I had gone to the Indian consulate in Chiang Mai to find out what we needed to do to obtain a visa. Visas are mandatory prior to your arrival in India, but as it turns out, only take 10 days to obtain from a consulate, and as they begin on the day they are issued, you ideally want to obtain them 10 days before you want to leave. Had we been in Bangkok, we could have received one in 2 days from the embassy, but we had enough time on our hands to spare ourselves the 700-kilometer journey, and had no desire to spend any more time in that City of Angles to the South.
Then we hit snag #1. When we first started planning our grand journey, one of the first details we looked after was getting our passports. Violet needed to get her first ever passport, and Theresa and I needed to renew ours, but Cyrus’s was good for more than 2 years. The girls and I got ours, and left Cyrus with his, knowing that we would not be gone for that long, and if we were, we would deal with it when we had to.
Almost 1 year later, we actually began our journey, and one small oversight on my part, until that point, was a nearly universal rule that a passport must be valid for at least 6 months from the time when you return to your home country. At the Indian consulate, I learned that Cyrus’s passport would expire 5 months from when his Indian visa would end. I’m sure you could have seen this coming, even if I could not.
We quickly got ourselves in gear to get a new passport for Cyrus. After jumping through the usual number of hoops, including getting Nico to sign for Cyrus in faraway California, and getting passport photos taken in a fly-by night photo shop, we had an application in and processed, and after a few raised eyebrows, had a brand new passport in hand, issued by the Canadian Embassy in Bangkok. The passport photos had been somewhat of a challenge, due to the aforementioned photo shop, who thought it acceptable for Cyrus to have his hair covering his eyes in a passport photo, but the gods of bureaucracy had pitied us, and had allowed a photo that would have clearly been rejected if submitted in Canada.
Now, with several thousand dollars’ worth of plane tickets booked to lead us safely to the lovely state of Goa, India, we went to the Indian Consulate once again, some 12 days before our departure date, forms pre-filled and shiny new passport in hand, and set about to clear our only remaining obstacle in visiting those mystical shores.
This is really where snag #1 really begins. After reviewing our paperwork and passports, the consulate clerk informed us that in order to obtain a visa for India, Cyrus would need a valid entry visa from Thailand in his new passport. I had seen this coming, and had already visited the Thailand immigration office to enquire about this, and had been informed that using both old and new passports together was acceptable.
Acceptable, unless you are trying to get to India, that is. We were told by the Indian consulate that while using both passports was fine for us to leave Thailand, it was not an acceptable way to receive a visa to India. We were told to go back to immigration and get them to transfer the visa, or do another happy fun border run to Mae Sai. Yeah, right, we couldn’t wait to do another border run. Who wouldn’t want to spend 8 hours in a van and deal with more bureaucracy and, oh, did I mention before how sketchy the border into Myanmar/Burma is?
So, off I was to the Thai immigration office again. This time, I explained how the Indian consulate had requested our visa be transferred, and could they please help us out. I was led into the back of the office being shuffled from person to person until the head honcho said (in her best English) “No! Cannot! Cannot! You no need to transfer visa. Tell India use both passport!” I explained that they had already said that this was not okay, but she suddenly seemed to forget how to speak English.
Feeling somewhat dejected, and wondering where I had gone wrong, I left the office and made my way home. Here I was, caught in a legal loophole, two bureaucracies unwilling to budge, leaving us stuck in the middle. Upon getting home, I called the Canadian embassy in Bangkok, who informed me that getting the visa transferred should be no trouble.
The next morning, I called the Canadian consulate in Chiang Mai and explained the situation, and the representative (who is Thai) said that the immigration office was just being difficult, and that she would write me a letter to take to them asking for their assistance. Problem solved, I went and picked up the letter and went to the immigration office with it.
This time, upon explaining my situation at the immigration counter and presenting my letter from the Canadian consulate, I was told that it would be no problem, and was given the visa transfer form to fill out. After handing in the paperwork, I was asked to come into the back of the office again, and explained my situation to the lady at the back desk. She went to the very back of the building, and soon enough came back to ask me to follow her back.
I was once again faced with the same lady from the previous day, who once again said, “No! Cannot! Cannot! You no need to transfer visa. Tell India use both passport!” I tried to explain that I had a letter from the Canadian Consulate, and had been told that immigration did this sort of thing all the time, and that I could not get to India without her help. She started ranting in Thai, and said something to the officer at the next desk over.
Imagine my surprise, when I saw an American friend of mine there with his Thai wife. As the immigration officer stormed off, I explained the situation to them, and the Thai wife said, “I think this is a case of ego. She said the Canadian Consulate can’t tell her what to do, and she doesn’t want to help you.” So there it was. This was not a case of ‘cannot’, it was a case of ‘I don’t want to.’ All over a simple stamp.
Once again dejected, I went home and called the Canadian consulate and explained what had happened, including the translation of what had been said. The Canadian representative was flabbergasted. She couldn’t understand what was happening, and said that she would make some phone calls and see if she could work things out. I then called the Thailand immigration head office in Bangkok, who confirmed my suspicions. When I told them that the Chiang Mai office would not help me, the lady gave an embarrassed laugh, and said I should talk to the Indian Consulate again, as I would get no help in Chiang Mai.
The next day, we decided to make one last effort, with Theresa going to the Thai immigration office, and me laying low. I hid behind the coffee shop at the immigration office, while Theresa applied her abundant charm to the situation, and half an hour later, came back with the hopeful news that they would grant Cyrus a visa extension and stamp the new date in his new passport. She also mentioned that some lady had come out from the back of the office when she was explaining the situation and scanned the crowd, presumably for yours truly, but not sensing my roguish presence, allowed Theresa to continue.
We didn’t really need the extension, or the $60 fee, but after filling out the forms and submitting it, Cyrus (or I should say, Theresa) was granted the stamp, and we were free to go, hopefully to India. A quick call to the consulate confirmed that we had successfully jumped through their hoop and we would be free to get the visa when it was ready. I give my lovely wife all her due with her cheeky smile and a laugh full of mischief that can melt the hardest of hearts. There is a story of her entry into Guatemala, without a passport but with a chocolate bar and a smile, or the time she entered Belize again without a passport and this time with a rotting sheepskin on her backpack… although I think those are stories for a different time…
And so, to all the low level officials out there just trying to feel like you have some measure of power in your pitiful jobs, I salute you (with one finger, of course!) Sawadee!