My first impressions of India are also nearly my last.
I have arrived in Mumbai on a sultry January evening, after an eight-hour flight from wintry Zurich. En route, I daydreamed of temple processions, spicy meals on banana leaves, and houseboats bobbing in Kerala’s backwaters.
I am meeting friends travelling from the opposite side of the globe, for a trip almost a year in the planning. We will toast our reunion with a bottle of Swiss Fendant.
At passport control, the official rifles through my passport front to back, back to front. He glances at me, frowns, looks puzzled, asks for my visa. Visa? In months of e-mails, visas never came up, something I rashly assumed was being taken care of by my friends. Incredibly, I have failed India’s entry exam.
I glance at lines inching steadily past mine, but cannot look at the person behind me. This is like being caught with my hand in a candy jar. The official taps my fat passport. “Everyone have visa to come India,” he says, head wobbling, and waits.
For what? How can I wish a visa into pages already full of stamps from other, less rigorous border crossings? “OK, how do I get a visa here in Mumbai?” I ask.
“Not possible,” he replies, nodding faster. I stifle an appalled giggle, recalling the affectionate descriptions of this trait on the India Mike blog. Lightheaded, I look around, willing myself into the country. What a dim wit I am! My scalp tingles.
The chap furrows his brow and consults with a colleague at the next window, then smiles and tells me to come along. Relieved, I pick up my backpack and follow. Signs point toward double doors opening onto baggage claim. Dream Trip, here I come.
Just short of the doors, my guide turns into a glassed-in office. A trio of portly bureaucrats in perspiration-blotched shirts commands a tiny empire: desk, photocopier, and assorted administrative flotsam. In unison, the men mop foreheads with white handkerchiefs. By turns, each takes a seat at the desk, swivels for a moment, rifles through the papers before him, then bounces up to go about his duties. A fan whirrs futilely in the corner of the room. Two scruffy fellows beside a policeman appear to be in some sort of trouble. I can’t wait to get out of here.
The passport control official leaves. The triplets confer. One copies my passport. Another sits at the desk, studying my airline ticket. The third flips through a clipboard. The lilt of Maharashtra officialdom eddies around us. I smile feebly. It hasn’t hit home that I too am a “guy in trouble.”
Two, young men in crisp blue shirts enter. Smiles flashing, they ask me to follow them. We head toward the double doors, and I prepare for hugs of reunion.
Suddenly I am whisked into an unused gate area, shrouded in drapes. Surprised, I ask about my visa. “It’s working on,” one of them replies. When I mention my friends, he says, “We see.” Oh dear, are these well-mannered fellows guards? He yammers into a walkie-talkie, and announces cheerfully, “We check, no one waits you. Your luggage is ready and flight soon to board,” he continues. “Here is boarding pass!” My flight?
As we hustle toward departure gates, I realize these people are really, really not going to let me into India. I find myself on the intake side of a security belt. Do they think I’ll try to bolt?
While queuing I am allowed to telephone my friends. “They’re sending me back to Zurich!” I wail. “How could this happen? You’re a travel agent! I thought you would have my visa!”
“You’re a world traveler,” comes the answer. “Surely you knew to get a visa!” I am mortified. Having left logistics to my friends, I’m on the way out of India, not in. How could I be so stupid?
A turbaned guard glares from his perch behind the x-ray machine, and tells me to hand over the phone. His colleague in a pink sari motions to empty my backpack onto a table. In what seems an unnecessarily prudent act of border protection, the wine is confiscated. “Not allowed waiting area,” the guard says briskly. Delirium is setting in.
At the gate, dismay turns to panic at the spectre of a month-long trip to India launching without me. Passengers waiting to board share India travel stories. Meanwhile, I’m experiencing stages of grief. After a brief meltdown, I apologize to everyone around me.
My escorts are now behind the check-in desk, and one asks me to come forward. He hands me a new boarding pass stamped “6B.” I’ve been upgraded to business class for the ride back to Europe.
Waiting to board, I have time to marvel at my situation. Where did I get the idea that a visa would be issued in Mumbai? Normally, I would never have overlooked something so basic; and I’m chagrined at my uncharitable reactions under stress. I did not insult anyone here, but I certainly had dark thoughts. After a multi-cultural career on three continents, I am ashamed of the stereotypes that bubbled up, even as self-talk.
Finally, though, calm washes over me. I grasp the absurdity of the matter, and accept my expulsion. I even begin to forgive India, her bureaucrats, the security guard. I am also newly appreciative of the demands placed by my own country on anyone travelling to its shores. India has simply required of others what is expected of its own travelling citizens. As I step into the gangway, my former guards smile, wave, and call out “Happy trip home!”
Settling into 6B, it strikes me that my “attitude adjustment” in the Mumbai airport entry halls may be ideal preparation for my soon-to-be-resumed trip to India, visa in hand. First, though, I’ll have a word with Swiss Airlines, for letting me on a flight without one in the first place.
Anita Breland’s travel adventures have taken her to Latin America, Asia, and North Africa, as well as around Europe. An American based in Switzerland, Anita blogs about travel, food, and culture at Anita’s Feast.