Escape from Kathmandu (or, How to Con and Influence Apathetic Power Brokers at the Indian Embassy)
Call me a brat, call me ungrateful, or call me just plain stupid, but it took me about five hours to tire of Kathmandu.
I had arrived one April evening after traveling all the way from Tibet, and by dinner, I was itching to leave. I had been here before, and I had friends waiting in India – just killing time until I got there. The problem was that I had no idea when I would make it. I had no Indian visa, and it was Friday night in Kathmandu. The embassies wouldn’t be open until Monday.
I killed time that weekend with a group of Japanese travelers I had met in Tibet, but my anxiety only simmered. But by Sunday, it had reached a boil. By the time I got into bed that night, I swore I would do anything to get my visa the next day. Little did I know that fate was going to test that pledge.
I arrived at the Indian Embassy first thing on Monday morning with Toru and Kei, two Japanese friends. The visa line was long and sluggish. Between 9 a.m. and closing time – noon – I inched forward about a meter and a half. In my state, the lack of speed wasn’t really an issue – I would have waited until nightfall for a visa. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. At the stroke of noon, a turbaned Sikh came onto the embassy lawn and made an announcement.
“We are now closed,” he said. “We will not accept any more visa applications today. You come back tomorrow.”
I expected a riot to ensue. Instead, the crowd of one hundred-plus visa seekers reacted with a smattering of lackluster groans and an orderly dispersal. We were left alone on the grass, stunned and utterly depressed.
“Go,” said the man, shooing us with the back of his hand. “You are finished for today.”
We moved toward the gates, dragging our feet and dreading the seemingly inevitable repeat performance tomorrow. We hadn’t just lost one day. Visas took a minimum of one week to issue here. The embassy utilized an antiquated “security check” procedure whereby they faxed your personal information to your home country’s embassy for a background scan. If your embassy was efficient, they called the Indians immediately with an all-clear message. If your embassy wasn’t – which describes the embassy staff of just about every nation – the Indians simply waited a week and assumed you weren’t a mass murderer, terrorist or drug dealer. Today’s delay meant my earliest departure would be next Tuesday. I was determined to remedy this. I just wasn’t sure how.
The three of us moved slowly toward the gate, glancing back to see if anyone was following. The coast was clear. This was our chance. For what – who knew?
We returned to the lawn and inspected the premises. Every door to the embassy was shut and the visa clerk’s window was barricaded with a piece of plywood. I pushed it gently, but it was no use. Sealed.
Next we tried the doors. There was one in particular, where we had entered earlier in the day for our “preliminary screening” with the Sikh. I walked over and saw that it was cracked open. Our first break. The three of us exchanged uneasy glances.
“Should we go?” I said.
“Maybe,” Toru said.
Toru and Kei conversed in Japanese. After spending the last year in Japan, I understood enough to catch that they were talking about their English abilities. Toru’s skills were fine, but not native. Kei spoke no English at all. Naturally, I was selected to burglarize the Indian Embassy.
I pushed through the door cautiously. It opened to a long hallway with a half-dozen more doors – any of them possibly leading to my intended destination. I tried the first one to my left, which seemed to lead to the room where the visa clerk had leaned from his window. A few feet in, I heard voices, then clanking dishes and silverware. This was the place, but it was lunchtime. The brightness of our idea was fading fast. Yet it also seemed too late to turn back.
A few feet in front of me stood another door, this time half open. I pushed through and arrived at a small entryway. I had an unobstructed view of the next room where two clerks were scarfing curry at their desks.
I cleared my throat to attract their attention. It worked.
“Can I help you?” one asked.
“Um, yes. I was…wondering,” I moved forward to prevent them from chasing me out. “Um. I need a visa.”
“Visa? Talk to him.” He pointed to companion, a balding, sour-looking man who was just tucking into his meal. His desk was piled so high with papers that he had to peer over them to see me. He was indignant at the sight of me.
“What are you doing here? The visa office is closed,” he bellowed. “Come back tomorrow.”
“I know it’s closed,” I replied in the sweetest, most timid voice I could muster – a tone that sounded like mocking farce, really. “I was waiting outside for three hours. I was just wondering if…”
I moved forward a few more steps so that I was now in their room.
“It is not possible,” the clerk insisted, growing angrier. “You must come back tomorrow.”
“I know, I know. But I was hoping I could just ask you a favor. Just this once, I’m…”
“A favor? Why should I do you a favor? Who are you?”
“Just a traveler.”
I gained a few more feet, so that now I was standing directly in front of him.
“What is your country?”
“America?” he sneered. “Tell me, how many favors has America done for the Indian people?”
He didn’t give me a chance to answer.
“None!” he bellowed, spraying me with saliva. “You denigrate and humiliate the Indian people. You steal our scientists and engineers. Why should I do a favor for you? Don’t you see how much work I have?”
“I know we haven’t helped India. It’s horrible. But I ask you this just once. I have special circumstances.”
“What special circumstances?” he asked, calming down slightly.
“I have an airline ticket for next Monday, and if I don’t get the visa today, I won’t be able to go.”
“Show me the ticket,” he said, eying me suspiciously.
“I don’t have it with me.”
“You’re lying,” he said.
“I didn’t think I’d need it,” I insisted.
It’s true – I was lying. I stood there embarrassed, trying to think of a rebuttal. Then, an amazing thing happened: Totally unprovoked by anything except, perhaps, the glazed, pitiful look on my face, the clerk held out his hand. Perhaps it was a miracle – how else can you explain spontaneous kindness from an embassy employee?
“Give me that,” he said, snatching the visa application from my hands.
He silently scribbled a few notes onto my application.
“Thank you,” I said. I didn’t dare say anything else. Any further conversation seemed likely to obliterate what little good will I established. Then I thought better of it.
“And I promise to help an Indian in the United States.”
He stopped writing and cast me the same fierce glare that had greeted me just moments ago.
“Here,” he said, handing me a receipt. “Come back on Monday afternoon.”
He added almost as an afterthought: “And don’t bother helping any Indians. I doubt you could do much.”
I thanked him profusely for his help and the insult, and backed out of the room. Once I was safely outside, I announced the news to Toru and Kei. They rushed into the embassy at once. I’m not sure what they told the clerk, but I heard every word of his response.
I had succeeded in shaving one day off my waiting time, but I still had a week to wait. After another two afternoons in Kathmandu, I realized that this simply wouldn’t do. I had friends waiting for me in India, and I had already exhausted most of the short-term leisure possibilities of Nepal. Immediate action was required.
On Friday morning, I woke at 7 a.m. and marched straight to the Indian Embassy. There was a chance that the U.S. Embassy had replied to the security clearance request, meaning my visa would be ready. If so, my name would be listed on a special bulletin board. I knew it was hopeless, but I had nothing to lose.
I lingered on the embassy lawn for a bit, nearly faint with anticipation. I finally worked up enough courage to approach the board. There were a dozen names – none of them mine.
I scanned the embassy compound, taking in the endless lines and dour faces. There must be another way, I thought. Certainly there was. I just had to ask.
I took my place in the shortest line – the one leading into the “screening room,” over which the Sikh presided. The line moved quickly this time, and within thirty minutes I was at its head. I began to feel dizzy, standing there with nothing but my receipt and knowing that I was surely in for a tongue-lashing. Finally I was summoned. I took a seat in front of the glowering Sikh.
“Where are your papers?” he demanded
“Actually, I don’t have any papers. I just have…”
“No papers, no service,” he said, looking to the doorway. “Next, please!”
“Wait,” I said, digging my nails into the arms of the chair. “I just have a question.”
“What is it?” he asked irritably.
“I actually put in my application on Monday, and I wanted to see if it was possible to get my visa today instead of waiting until Monday.”
The Sikh frowned.
“I have a bus ticket for tomorrow, and I might lose it if I don’t go.”
“Why did you buy a bus ticket for tomorrow when you knew your visa wouldn’t be ready until Monday?”
“I figured the visa would be ready today.”
“That’s too bad. Anyway, you can get a refund on the ticket. Next!”
The next visa-seeker was already moving in. Time to think fast.
“Wait,” I said again, digging my nails further into the chair. “There’s something else…”
What, I wasn’t sure. But I had to buy time. As I racked my brain for a plausible explanation, my eyes scanned the room. Above the Sikh’s head was a calendar. Last Friday was marked as a holiday. It was the Buddhist New Year – the same day we had arrived in Kathmandu.
“It’s because of the holiday!” I said. “I came here last Friday and you were closed. So I had to wait until Monday and…and that threw my whole schedule off.”
The Sikh’s frown deepened, then he slowly extended his arm. I handed him my receipt.
“Have you been to India before?” he said.
“How long will you stay?”
“About two months.”
He scribbled a few notes on my form and handed it back to me.
“Take this to the window on the other side of the building. You can pick up your visa at four o’clock.”
An immense wave of relief passed over me. I ran back to town and bought a bus ticket for Varanasi the next morning.
Karma worked its magic the next day, of course: On the first leg of my journey, a small child vomited on me. On the second bus, I was robbed.
But it was a small price to pay – especially for an escape from Kathmandu.