I am supposed to be in India right now. I was supposed to leave this past Sunday afternoon and spend about 36 hours flying to Goa to visit my husband’s father’s family. We were going to have a wedding reception so I could meet his father’s family who couldn’t come to our wedding this fall, and we were going to spread his father’s ashes. We were also thinking of taking a side trip to Hampi or Jaisalmer, because we’d have three and a half weeks in India to kick around. And we were looking forward to spending some Christmas holiday time at the beach.
But I haven’t even left Austin because I am in visa hell.
Getting a tourist visas to India was supposed to be simple
According to all the sources we’d looked at, getting a tourist visa to India is a simple, quick process. The visa lasts for 30 days after it’s been issued, so you don’t want to apply for it too early. It’s supposed to take 72 hours to process — max — with most applicants boasting they got theirs within 24 hours of applying online.
Because we were extremely busy the week before we were supposed to leave, my husband and I didn’t apply until late last Tuesday night. Still, that was five days before our intended departure; his mother had received her visa within four days of applying. We thought we’d be fine.
We received the confirmation email stating that our visas would be emailed to us within 72 hours. So we waited. And waited.
My husband was anxious that the quality of the application wasn’t perfect. He wanted to pre-empt their need for something we’d missed. We emailed asking if we were missing something — better passport photos, perhaps? It took 36 hours to get a response, and the response was: “Your application for a visa has been received and is in process. You will receive an email when it is ready.” When we checked the status of the visa online, we saw the same thing.
After 48 hours had passed, Ravi started calling the eVisa office. Their phone tree led to nowhere and often hung up on him. He would wait on hold for hours and get nowhere. Surely, we thought, the visa would be in our inboxes the next morning, early, if we just went to sleep and stopped worry about it.
His mother arrived Saturday afternoon to travel with us. When we woke up on Sunday morning — 96 hours after we’d applied — and still didn’t have our travel visas, we weren’t sure what to do.
Canceled flights and unhelpful ticketing agents
Convinced that this was some kind of fluke due to the busy holiday season, we went to the airport Sunday afternoon with our luggage and my mother-in-law, figuring we could find some way to get to Frankfurt on the first leg of our trip and wait for our visas there if we needed to. They should come in while we’re on the first leg, my husband and I thought, and then we can print them when we get to the Frankfurt airport and board the flight to Chennai. Easy.
But the people at the Lufthansa check-in desk couldn’t give us our boarding passes for Frankfurt if we didn’t have the visas for India, because the tickets were all on a single booking. They handed us a card to call the reservations desk and sent us away. We sent my husband’s mother ahead through the security line, since she had her visa and her boarding passes, and told her we’d meet her on the plane (we hoped).
After calling the Lufthansa reservations line, we learned they couldn’t separate our tickets into separate bookings because we’d booked through a third-party travel agent, Kiwi.com. We would have to call them to change our tickets.
So we did. And Kiwi.com told us they couldn’t do it. It was impossible. All we could do was cancel our booking and they would seek a refund for us. But we’d have to get on the computer to manage our booking; the customer service agent we were speaking with wasn’t allowed to do it. Also, it would take up to 30 days for us to get a refund on our $3,000 tickets, and it wasn’t guaranteed we’d get anything.
We got on our cell phones by the security line at the Austin airport and tried to cancel our tickets before the flight left. You had to request a cancellation from Kiwi and hope that it went through before the boarding doors closed. Even then, Lufthansa declared us “no shows” and refused to give us a refund of more than $150.
Unsure of what to do next, we decided we would have to go home.
Superstitions and anxiety while constantly checking email
We got a rideshare back to our apartment, our tails between our legs and all the wind swept out of our sails, trying to figure out what we could do next. We checked our email every minute or so, refreshing, refreshing, refreshing. Still no visas or word from the eVisa office.
The hours wore on. Was there a way to make a visa come through, I wondered? Like if you go to the bathroom in a restaurant, your food will suddenly arrive. Or if you wear white pants out in public, your period will magically start. Maybe there were passive things I could do — like not think about it, or plan something else — that would make the visa appear in my inbox.
Or perhaps there were active ways to supplicate the fates to make it happen, like burying a statue of St. Anthony upside-down in your backyard to sell a house that’s been on the market too long, or praying to St. Theresa. If I burned incense and meditated on an image of Ganesh, would our visas for India appear?
We continued to check our email inboxes religiously. We didn’t tell anyone we were at home if we could help it. The friends who were going to stay in our apartment were disappointed to learn that they had to stick with their families for another day — just one, we hoped. After three days, we stopped telling them any updates.
We drank a lot of wine. We ordered groceries to supplement that supplies we had. We made carbonara. We did some work. We stayed up until 2am, 3am, 4am every night, checking email and watching Christmas movies. We went and saw “Queen and Slim” at the movie theater.
Hope springs eternal, although journalists are suspect
On Monday morning when I awoke at 8am to check my email, I found an email from the eVisa office asking me some follow-up questions.
URGENT, the title said. RESPOND WITHIN 12 HOURS OR RISK HAVING YOUR VISA APPLICATION THROWN OUT.
I responded immediately. The questions were regarding my occupation, which I had listed as “writer” (the options available were not necessarily all encompassing, and I was trying to be honest). They wanted to know the names of the books I had written, what topics I wrote about, the names and addresses of my current and previous employers.
The entire visa application had been much more invasive than that, asking where my parents and grandparents had been born, my religion, my business in India. This felt like a drop in the bucket. I gave them everything. I’m a marketing content writer and business strategist. I have one book but it’s not about anything, really (I didn’t mention it was erotic fiction; hopefully that doesn’t discount me). I write about technology, healthcare, and business strategy.
Why would they care that I’m a writer? Apparently anyone who lists “writer” as an occupation is given this grilling these days, although it’s hard to say if that’s a new phenomenon. Even if we’re just marketing content bloggers, we are examined more thoroughly than “businessmen” or “housewives”. I’m pretty sure this is because the current government of India doesn’t trust journalists (similar to how our current government in the U.S. persecutes the fourth estate in so many ways).
I sent the response off as quickly as possible, and hoped I would have my visa within hours.
This morning when I awoke, there was nothing in my inbox. I wrote another email asking if they needed anything else or could at least confirm they’d received my response.
Radio silence ensued.
Resignation to a life in limbo
We have now passed the one week mark of having applied for visas that were supposed to take 72 hours. We have absolutely no idea what the delay is, or even if I’m going to get a visa at all. My husband received his when I received the questions about my occupation. He can go whenever he wants, but he’ll wait for me.
We can’t rebook with Lufthansa, even though those would be the flights that would have the least agony, because they only fly out of Austin four times a week. But we can’t book a flight with anyone until we know I have my visa, anyway. So we are stuck in purgatory. My mother-in-law had the restaurant in Goa change our wedding reception party to December 28 — a date that seems very presumptuous from my perspective.
Our flights home were canceled (Lufthansa policy, they told us), so we’re out the money from those as well. It currently looks like it’s going to cost $3,000 each to book flights that will get us there before Christmas.
Earlier this week we were blaming ourselves for not applying for the visas early enough. But now that it’s taken a full week with no end in sight, we understand that it’s absolutely not our fault. If we had applied two weeks early and our visas had come in three days, we would have run the risk of them running out before our 3.5 week stay was over. Damned if we do; damned if we don’t.
We are resigned to our life in limbo, not making any plans for anything and trying to soothe ourselves in other ways. I’ve gotten quite a bit of work done. We’ve been able to get some sleeping in. But we’re also anxious, depressed, and unmoored. We are at the mercy of a bureaucracy that refuses to tell us what is going on or what we can expect. There is no transparency into what happens next or how long I’ll have to wait. And we have no recourse. They won’t pay for our rebooked flights or reimburse us for time spent waiting, and we can’t ask them to. They have the sovereign right to make us wait as long as they want to allow us into their country.
And this is just for a tourist visa for two well-off Americans who want to see some family for a few weeks. We aren’t trying to escape a life of violence. We aren’t Muslim, we don’t have criminal records, we don’t have bylines on articles that are critical of the government lying somewhere in our pasts. We aren’t desperate to get away. We aren’t on any political hitlists. Imagine if we were.