01Feb2013

Boxing Day at Nepali Immigration

Nepal-Visa-Hassles

“Do I HAVE to come, Mum?” says Zac, as I drag him out of bed and bodily towards a taxi, en route to Nepali Immigration, Kathmandu.

“YES,” I snarl. “They may need to see the person the passport belongs to and if you’re not there we may not get it done today and then you won’t see Dec and Kiera in Beijing.”

Load-shedding, at least, appears to be on our side today, with power outages not scheduled till evening.

“OK,” Zac says. “I’ll come BUT on condition that MY computer gets the charge today, not yours, because we may not be back in time to swap them over.”

Work, I think. I need to do some WORK. WORK!

I’ve got a backlog of paying gigs to complete, blog posts to write and stories to pitch, that I’ve been hoping to catch up on for over a week now, while chasing helicopters around bloody Lukla, visas around Kathmandu and — yeah, hands up — recalcitrant Gurkhas around discotheques.

“Fine,” I say. “You have the power for the day. Don’t blame me if we run out of cash and I have to sell you to a prayer wheel factory. Now let’s get going!”

Because, if there’s one thing more festive than Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at the Chinese Embassy Kathmandu visa section, it’s Boxing Day at Nepali Immigration.

Back she goes into the defiantly uncomputerised office out back, where people are shuffling papers. They go into a huddle that’s more of a rugby scrum. Someone is summoned from a back office. They discuss the interesting challenge Zac’s passport presents in depth and at leisure.

I show Zac’s passport to the security guard and try and explain the problem. He points me to one of three majority-Western queues at a series of windows on the ground floor.

I do a quick time calculation. It’s probably going to take 45 minutes to an hour to get to the front of that queue, and, because there’s a tonne of other Westerners there, it’s almost certainly not the right queue.

There’s no information window, but there is a woman who doesn’t seem to be doing much, so I go up to her, show her the passport and explain the issue.

She frowns. This is clearly a novel problem.

Back she goes into the defiantly uncomputerised office out back, where people are shuffling papers. They go into a huddle that’s more of a rugby scrum.

Someone is summoned from the back office. They discuss the interesting challenge that is Zac’s passport in depth and at leisure.

And she’s back!

“Administration,” she says. “Fourth floor.”

Wow! I think. This is going really, really well. We’ve been here well under half an hour, and we already have directions to someone who might be able to help.

If you’ve had as much experience of Third World bureaucracy as I have, you’ll know that there was absolutely no irony in that sentence.

Up we troop to a whole bunch of open plan offices with expensive glazing, presumably bought by some Western aid donor whose budget clearly didn’t stretch to paying people to sit in them.

One open plan office is occupied by a man who is, I assume, single-handedly administering Nepali Immigration. He doesn’t seem too busy.

Zac sprawls, uninvited, on his leather sofa, picks up something from the desk and starts to play with it.

“ZAC!” I say. “We’re in a government office! Show some respect!”

My spawn rolls his eyes.

I write it all down, in my best formal hand-written letter style with addresses at the top and everything, sign and date it. Wow! We’re making up our own paperwork. Chinese bureaucrats would NEVER do that! Although Chinese immigration officials would never put the wrong date on a visa so perhaps the point is moot.

The bureaucrat is in his 30s and keen to help. Lord love Nepal, I’ve been terribly rude about it lately, but the Nepalese ARE lovely (and Kathmandu really is a wonderful city, provided you’re just wandering around looking at stuff rather than, ya know, trying to get anything done).

I explain the problem. “There has been a mistake with my son’s visa,” I say, pointing to the errant 2012. “And we need a visa for China, but they cannot issue a visa for China while he is in Nepal illegally. So we need a correction. With a stamp.”

The guy thinks for a while.

“You need to write a letter,” he says.

“A LETTER!” I gabble hysterically. “But we have tickets to China on Sunday! I can’t write a letter!”

“No, no,” he says. “You need to write a letter explaining the error and requesting a change.”

Then I get it. There isn’t a form for this situation, so we are extemporising.

He hands me a piece of paper and a pen. “OK,” I say. “Do I put my Nepali address or my English address?”

“Nepali,” he says.

“OK,” I say. “How does this sound? ‘To Whom It May Concern, Due to an administration error at the airport, where we purchased our 90-day visas on arrival in November, my son, Zachary Sutcliffe, has a visa marked to expire in February 2012, instead of 2013, on his passport, number [redacted]. I am writing to request that you correct the error on his visa. Yours sincerely,…”

“Yes,” he says. I write it all down, in my best formal hand-written letter style with addresses at the top and everything, sign and date it. Wow!

We’re making up our own paperwork. Chinese bureaucrats would NEVER do that! Although, Chinese immigration would never put the wrong date on a visa, either. Swings and roundabouts, I think. Swings and roundabouts.

If I leave him unattended with the bureaucrat’s computer there’s every bloody chance I’ll come back to find him upgrading his browser to Google Chrome, defragging the hard drive, or giving the thing a quick tune-up so it runs faster, and then he’ll look all wounded when people start yelling at him.

“Now,” he says. “You need to buy a 10 rupee stamp.”

WHA’?!

I have to POST it?!

But we need to be in CHINA on Sunday.

“What?” I say. After over four days trying to escape from Lukla, plus Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at the Chinese Embassy, I’m now feeling fragile in the extreme. “But…”

“Go downstairs,” he says, “Buy a 10 rupee stamp and bring it back here.”

Ah! OK. It’s a stamp as a way of cash exchange, a way of assuring that the 10-rupee processing fee remains an island of incorruptibility in a nation that, tying with Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Azerbaijan, ranks worse than Russia on the global corruption scale.

Baby steps, I figure. Baby steps.

“Where do I buy the stamp?” I ask.

“In the kitchen,” he says.

Right, I figure. There must be some kind of cashier’s desk out back by the kitchen – it’s not, actually, unusual in my experience of third world bureaucracy for the cashier bit where you buy your penny stamps to process your paperwork to be positioned by the staff canteen, which also enables the touts who can “expedite” your paperwork to look like they’re doing something other than waiting for a tourist who lacks the contacts and/or language skills to do their own bribes.

“Zac!” I say. “Come with me!”

“I want to stay here!” he says.

“You can’t!” I say. “You need to come with me.”

If I leave him unattended with the bureaucrat’s computer there’s every bloody chance I’ll come back to find him upgrading his browser to Google Chrome, defragging the hard drive, giving the thing a quick tune-up so it runs faster, or just buggering around with the wallpaper, and then he’ll look all wounded when people start yelling.

That’s weird. There doesn’t seem to be a cashier’s desk. I wander through. No. We’re out in a sort of car park, with no cars. I try another door. Nope, it’s the cleaning cupboard. With more dirty mops.

On the ground floor, I ask directions to the kitchen, which is in the basement, featuring the usual run of depressing, grimy formica tables, a mop for redistributing the dirt that clings to the painted floor, a kettle boiling on the kerosene stove, a fridge full of weirdly coloured liquids all describing themselves as tea, a mountain of packaged noodles, and a menu that, I’d imagine, consists of rice, dhal bhat and tarkari, or noodles.

That’s weird. There doesn’t seem to be a cashier’s desk.

I wander through. No. We’re out in a sort of car park, with no cars.

I try another door. Nope, it’s the cleaning cupboard. With more dirty mops. That doesn’t look right.

“Mum,” says Zac. “His English is actually very good. I think he meant buy a stamp IN the kitchen. That’s what he said.”

“What?” I say. “Oh, yeah. Buy a stamp IN the kitchen.”

A guy has appeared behind the counter and is pouring tea into neat china cups. “Namaste!” I say, namaste-ing. “I need to buy a ten rupee stamp.”

He rummages under his piles of packaged noodles, pulls out a plastic bag with a rubber band around it, and extracts a small, red postage stamp.

I hand over a ten rupee note, and we process, in stately style, back to the fourth floor.

Oh god! We have a file! It’s going to be like my Indonesian driving license! We will never escape! I’ll be going from desk to desk acquiring piece of paper after piece of paper as Zac’s file gets fatter and fatter! In awful, car-crash-esque slow motion, he then does precisely what I thought he might do.

“Here!” I say, triumphantly, presenting my 11 cent processing fee.

As in Indonesia, the Nepalese government is a major employer, which means there’s no incentive to efficiency, since efficiency would mean fewer jobs and higher unemployment, so our friend, who appears to have nothing else to do today but sort out our issue, spends a while looking for his stamping pad, a while longer precisely moistening the stamp, and a while longer affixing it to the letter, for which he has started, I notice with a sense of foreboding, Zac’s very own file.

Oh god! We have a file!

It’s going to be like the time I got my Indonesian driving license! We will never escape! I’ll be going from desk to desk acquiring piece of paper after piece of paper as Zac’s file gets fatter and fatter.

In awful, car-crash-esque slow motion, he then does precisely what I thought he might do.

He pulls out a red pen from his pen pot, and a ruler.

He rules a neat red line through the date on Zac’s visa.

And then he writes the correct date in red pen, and hands the passport back to me.

Job done!

If I have to spend St Stephen’s Day at the Chinese Embassy, the day after St. Stephen’s Day at Nepali Immigration again, then Monday and Tuesday of the week after at the Chinese Embassy, AKA seven working days, all for a visa that lasts only 30 days, I think I might actually cry.

“But,” I squeak feebly. “This won’t do! I need it for the Chinese Embassy! It needs… It needs… A stamp! An official government stamp!”

He looks at me. The stamp appears to be a problem. But, obviously, being Asian, he’s not going to admit it.

“OK,” I say, extemporising wildly, for if I don’t come back with some form of Chinese-acceptable documentation we are going to miss our flights and our friends and have to spend not only Christmas but New Year in Kathmandu. “I need something I can show the Chinese. Something official!”

I’ve resigned myself to the fact that we will, in total, be spending not only Christmas Eve and Christmas Day but St Stephen’s Day and the day after St. Stephen’s Day at the Chinese Embassy, as well as most of today at Nepali Immigration, but if I have to spend St Stephen’s Day at the Chinese Embassy, the day after St. Stephen’s Day at Nepali Immigration again, then Monday and Tuesday of the week after at the Chinese Embassy, AKA seven working days, all for a visa that lasts only 30 days, I think I might actually cry.

“But the Chinese Embassy knows what the problem is!” he says. “Can’t they SEE? And there is a signature!”

“I KNOW!” I say. “They KNOW exactly what the problem is. AND they understand how it happened. But they need it fixed, in an official way. Can we not write a letter? An official letter on headed paper?”

I can see he has headed paper.

Together we craft a letter to the Chinese Embassy. Then he prints it out on a sheet of heavy, water-marked paper which probably cost at least half of my 10 rupee processing fee and disappears into the bowels of the building, presumably to find someone with the authority to sign it.

“When we get back,” says Zac darkly, from behind his Kobo. “I am going to have SO much internet time for putting up with this.”

“I know,” I say appeasingly. “You’ve been really good.”

I can feel in my water that today’s feeble attempt to give up smoking again is going to last all of another half hour, tops.

I check the date on the visa, check the date on the stamp, ask Zac to check the date on the visa and the date on the stamp, then check the date on my visa again, because I’d rather saw my own arm off and beat myself around the head with it than come back to Nepali Immigration ever again.

Half an hour or so later, our friend comes back. There’s no signature on the letter, but he ambles off into the bowels of the building with Zac’s passport, which is progress, I guess.

I pop out for a fag. The head rush feels absolutely great, and I figure the spasms of self-loathing mean I’ve still internalised Allen Carr.

Back up to the fourth floor.

We haz stamp! It takes up the whole of the rest of that page in Zac’s passport, meaning the boy, who travels more than I do, what with flying off to see his dad and all, now only has one full blank page and a solitary half page left, but we haz stamp!

It’s a big, fat bastard of a super-duper official stamp that’s so huge and purple and, well, stampy that even the meanest-minded Chinese bureaucrat could not doubt its veracity.

I check the date on the visa, check the date on the stamp, then ask Zac to check the date on the visa and the date on the stamp, then check the date on my visa again, because I’d rather saw my own arm off and beat myself repeatedly around the head with it than go back to Nepali Immigration ever again.

“Thank you!” I say to the guy. “Thank you so much! You’ve done an excellent job!”

Which he has. He’s been incredibly helpful. He namastes, with a quiet dignity, and we’re off, the Kathmandu Loveometer now pointing at “Nepalis! Amazing People Doing Great Jobs in Trying Circumstances.”

Some prick tries to charge me 500 rupees to Thamel. The Kathmandu Loveometer doesn’t even wobble.

16 Comments

  1. Catherine Hartmann says:

    Am I a nasty person to be laughing out loud at your tales of frustration?

    • Theodora says:

      No, not at all! I’m just glad to be spreading some peace and light to the world… Wow. It’s been a month and a half, I tell ya…

  2. polly says:

    in that case, i am nasty too. !

  3. lia says:

    hahahaha. awesome!

  4. Dealing with immigration in developing countries is always a hoot! I applaud your calm approach! These situations often provide the opportunity for methodical thought!

    Spread the wanderlust.

    • Theodora says:

      “Developing countries”! Now, there’s the term I was looking for. I’ve had quite a bit of practice by now, so, yes, staying Zen was relatively easy.

  5. Michael Talbot says:

    In the photo of your visa stamp on this blog entry, your passport number is identified for the whole wide world to see. I wonder if this is sensible, given how criminal some people are in the whole wide world.

    (I’m hooked on your marvellous writing, incidentally. Thank you.)

  6. Ah, bureaucracy.

    Reminds me of the time I had to get a visa extension from the dreaded DAS in Colombia.

    In Medellin the place you pay for your paperwork is on the other side town to the office where you have it processed. Awful.

    • Theodora says:

      Oh god. And that’s not a small town, either, is it, Will? Which reminds me. I need to register with the PSB in Harbin on Monday. Fun, fun, fun!

  7. You must have the patience of a saint! I was declined once for a Vietnam tourist visa for some arbitrary reason and started yelling at the guy. Needless to say he wasn’t moved and I left in tears, only to realize I could just get one at the airport.

    • Theodora says:

      I have learned patience, I do believe. Although, even with my refined patience, that really took it out of me. And it continues…

  8. Rajan says:

    Really nice writing Theodora. I can only imagine your patience. I agree, the immigration personnel are very rude, annoying, unwilling to help and there is not any standard system. Even though I have Nepalese passport, I have been harassed several times for nothing.

    I apologize on behalf of those bastards and I am really sorry for the inconvenience.

    • Theodora says:

      I found everyone at this office actually extremely helpful, to be honest. It wasn’t the personnel that were the issue here — it was the lack of any system. And, with hindsight, quite why some of our $200 visa fee couldn’t have gone towards buying stamps so that people stamped the dates on our visas rather than handwriting them, I really don’t know.

      From talking to Nepalis, though, I think you would often get a harder time from your own countrymen than I would as a white Briton — even though Nepal was never a British colony, some attitudes remain quite colonial.

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