The Visa Run
It is one of the Schengen Treaty’s side effects that as a European your are to much used to travelling to other countries without any entry ticket. But the world comprises more than what the EU-treaty legally covers and consequently you need a visa for travelling to India. That can easily be obtained by the Indian Embassy in Germany. 50 EURO is all it takes for a six-month permit to participate in the adventure India, other obstacles are rare. Our visa was valid till end of January, but we were far from willing to return home again. Thus, a visa extension was required. One tries to get some knowledge, makes phone calls, searches the web etc. Informations about the procedure are available in plenty. Many, too many, confusingly many. Experience reports in travellers’ forums are contradictory – “Faction” so to say. Official websites, that have been updated the last time some two years back and on which your screening for phone numbers to cross-check information takes long or is in vain. Confusing informations when calling the administration.
Why taking long walks if the solution might be around the corner? Thinking that I go to the next Foreigner Registration Office. Negative. “We are not in charge”, the officer says and refers me to Calcutta, the state capital. Several phone calls lead to the same conclusion: One should go there in person. One night train journey and 650 km later I find myself in the office of the Central Foreigner Registration of West-Bengal. Well equipped with passport and visa copies, new passport pictures, a reference letter of my partner company, clean shaven and with a proper shirt. Officer number 3 whom I tell my request and who diligently checks my documents, announces with an earnest expression on his face, that my case can only be decided upon by the police “chef” personally. He was only to available the next day between 10 am and 2 pm. “Please”, I say, “it’s quarter pas two, he should still be around, isn’t it?” No way. The next morning the gentleman sees me finally, to tell me after a brief examination that for in my case the office downstairs was in charge. The same office that had before directed me to him. Consequently, on day three in Calcutta again I see the same officers. This time I am forwarded to Delhi. Alternatively, I could opt for a flight to Germany where I could easily obtain a new visa.
From Delhi Airport, where to simplify things I have spent the night, I proceed directly to the Ministry of Home Affairs. Office time according to a phone call information between 8 am and noon, Monday to Friday. Delhi’s winter is quite infamous and after almost two hours of queuing, till at 9.30 I finally obtain a waiting number, I pretty well understand the reasons. Frozen to the marrow I proudly hold waiting number Two in my hands. Around 11 am things turn interesting with the arrival of the officer in charge for German nationals. I explain, present my documents, and I am requested to report again at 4.30 pm, my case will be considered. At 7.30 pm I receive notice that I have to carry a letter to the Foreigner Registration Office in Darjeeling, which is necessary before my case can be finally decided. Will my visa be extended or not, I allow myself to ask. I shall be confident, more information I cannot squeeze out of the officer. Slowly my nervousness increases. The visa expires in two weeks, and being in India without a proper visa is very bad.
From Delhi I proceed to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. After all not only my business visa has to be extended but the tourist visa of the rest of the family as well. And this is only feasible outside the country. The processing will need five working days, we come to know. The Indian Embassy in Berlin has to send a clearance first, and this process at last requires some time. Bad for us that a week-end will further prolong the process. On Tuesday we receive the clearance from Berlin and on the very afternoon finally the visas. Only four times we had to report at the Embassy. Here the counter officer shall be given a special note. He advised us after our first two hour queuing that in future we shall use the side entrance to immediately come to his office. Queuing with two children he considers a bad option. A luxury indeed, recalling that in January the temperatures in Nepal in the open waiting space are around 10 degrees Celsius.
After returning from Kathmandu and a short night break at Siliguri I head to Darjeeling at 5 am, in order to avoid any further delay. A strike one day earlier had paralized life in the hills, an early departure consequently is advisable. The Officer in charge at the Foreigner Registration Office receives the letter, reads it and announces that he is advised to order a report from Siliguri. The police station there has to give a “detailed report” about my business activity, my reputation and my person in general. This report than has to be sent to him so that he can forward it to Delhi. “Say again”, I cant hold back words, “this might take weeks.” I should not worry about that he explains, as my visa will be preliminarily extended till end of July, but subject to the report. But meanwhile I should not leave the state, and especially not India. Best will be if I stay back in Siliguri.
Three days later I report at the Siliguri police station to find out if the report has already been ordered from Darjeeling. “Newly arrived”, I am informed, “ come again tomorrow, our In-Charge has to thoroughly go through that.” Understandable, so next day I report again. The officer doesn’t lack creativity: an officially noted paper from the local court is required that ensures that my partner company will cater for me in case of need, he demands this time. Without that, he cannot clarify my case. Next day I present the paper, just to learn that checking it will require at least a day. Meanwhile my caring business friend has been there thrice and it is likely that the report is now ready. It just has to be send to Darjeeling, then to Delhi,…
I stopped bothering about the issue. After 24 days on the “Visa Run” I am exhausted. My visa is extended under reserve and as long as I don’t receive any other notice, I will rather keep quiet.
A tribute to few household basics
After spending few months in another country in most cases euphoria is replaced by soberness, according to the “model of culture shock”. If this is valid for ourselves shall not be debated here. But day by day continuously the number of all the little aminities that – being used to them for decades – you increasingly begin to miss. “Bread” some will think, a classic of the homesickness-symptoms of the Teutons. “Meat pastry”, the Saarland folks might assume, or “Grilled beef steak”. Indeed, one would not dislike. But this is not about food – the rich variety of the Bengali cuisine you can easily enjoy for a long while. Though we have already praised the excellence of our maid it is about basic household items.
Yesterday we have visited four stationary shops before finally we could find a can opener. Coconut scrapers were available, but can openers? Similar experiences we can report about our toilet brush. For weeks already we are in search of a “all round brush”-model. Few days back we succeeded – an export article from Thailand. Who would have thought that one day we would miss such items. Light systems and child seats for the bicycle – if at all available they don’t suit us well. Our knives as well we had to bring to the knife grinder several times, before they lost their similarity with a hammer. A fenced baby bed that we had manufactured of cane, a child seat in special height to lift the little to dining table level. Detailed construction plans were drawn and exhaustively explained. The result definitely reflects our order. A fenced bed and a bar-stool with backrest where we can fix a “safety belt”. But in the practical test the products failed, faults became evident. The demanded distance of the fencing roasts was not followed, the little one can almost bring his head out. Almost. But (fortunately?) not fully. Result: stalemate. Without external help there is no back nor forth. The ordered fifth leg of the baby chair was added only after – we had anticipated it and explained it to the workshop owner – the little one kicked himself back from the dining table. Child safety is just not an area for compromises. The lotion doesn’t clean and the rubs last only for three dish washings. That is valid even if you use cold water for cleaning, like generally done here. Long live the fat dissolving power of “Pril” and the double cover of “Glitzi”-Scrubs.
The world is full of the most different habits and this diversity is highly appreciable. We wholeheartedly admit this as fans of a culture specific marketing approach. Promoting a globalised uniform masala is the last we intend. But a few achievements we would like to see internationally available. Be it “TUV” or good kitchen knives. The list is likely to grow.
Citylights and river islands – Calcutta and the Sunderbans
Slightly late for Carnival a salute to Cologne. The lively metropolis on the banks of river Rhine is not really known for silence and loneliness. Compared to Calcutta – leave beside the rushy carnival time – it is a retreat. The population density of the Indian Mega-City is ten times higher than that of the German town. This high concentration of humans has quite some positive impacts. There is a lot of culture, a lot to see, a lot to experience.
In College Street book stalls surround a park of quite stately extensions. The stalls are small and the books are piled up from counter to the roof. There are special stalls for all kinds of academic areas of interest. What in one stall is not available perhaps another one has in stock. Thus you wander from stall to display to display; always in mind the question how so many similar shops jointly exist for decades. To think that over it is best to drop in to the near-by coffee house run by the Indian Coffee Workers Union. There big thoughts are a well-established institution there. Cigarettes are smoked, coffee is sipped, snacks are munched – the Bengali intelligentsia, but mostly students, are frequent visitors. In the masculine characterized philosophers-ambience the few women catch one’s eye.
Goddess Kali was smashed into 51 pieces the other day and one of her toes landed in the south of what now is the City of Calcutta. A temple in her honor forms the centre of the Kalighat area. Hundreds of her followers flock along the small street towards the holy place. Only shortly after arrival at the metro station, foreigners are received by rather canting touts who offer their services for guiding a temple visit. In front of the temple lies a carpet of beggars of any age. Social charitableness and spiritual enlightenment seem to be an inseparable couple – just next to the temple is a branch of the famous mission founded by Mother Theresa. Few steps off in a house entrance a mother tickles her infant. The baby cheers happily, short moments of joy in a house without a roof.
Its negative sides Calcutta can hardly hide from his visitors. Much garbage, much noise and much crowd on the pavement. Above all this City is MUCH. Of all. This awareness particularly comes up when leaving the town towards the south, direction to the sea.
The landscape grows wider, the houses shrink smaller. Here as well the people live densely packed in the few villages and small towns and the car can only make its way through the masses in slow pace. But the settlements don’t cluster seamlessly like in Calcutta. Paddy fields, shrimp farms and factories characterize the area. The swamps that today in and just outside the city are dried up with huge effort to convert them into valuable development land, here they form the livelihood. The digged out mud is processed to bricks, the resulting holes are flooded and seeded with shrimp spawn.
In Sonakhali the journey ends at the jetty. The Sunderbans are a world of islands and cars are a rare sight here. On way down the river the raw material production for the shrimp farms can be observed. Women walk knee-deep in the water pulling fine nets. A both hard and dangerous livelihood, shark and crocodile attacks are not a rare event. In the Nationalpark the crocodiles are one of the major attractions. After sighting them the sight of deer and wild boar is a second category attraction. The tiger will see this differently, for him these animals forms the major source of nutrition. Its beat is the impenetrable mangrove forest – a beat that is not really one as with every high tide its marks are washed away. The Royal Bengal is a restless roamer and sighting it is a rare experience though no other Nationalpark account such high numbers of the predator. Lost in the tranquility and wideness of the Sunderbans world so hostile to humans the stress and strain of the City visit slowly fades.
The annual mela offers some entertainment. In the evening the inhabitants of the near-by villages assemble on the village square to marvel at the dance and song shows that are mostly performed by school children and local folk artists. The evening entertainment is preceded by sports and play programmes during the daytime. Men dressed in loincloth are competing in a game that reminds on rugby but without a ball. Women folks compete in a mixture of run and sleight of hand. Half run they have to put a thread through a needle’s eye. The youth is practicing long jump and short-put.
Life seems happy, and still if simply it is definitely not an easy life. Slowly, almost ashamed, the region is being allowed to participate in India’s economic boom. Dikes are fortified and the small brick paved pathways are broadened. Like an anachronism a motorbike breaks the tranquility of rural life. Perhaps it was the debate on climate change that helped the vast river delta to draw more attention. Whole islands have vanished, the reports say. But one can hear about growing islands and forestation programmes as well. The Sunderbans are in a transition. An how different the world can look at the latest becomes clear when again entering the streets of Calcutta.