‘HOW CAN YOU BE SO CHILLED ABOUT YOUR UPCOMING TRIP?!’ Bharathi shouted, waving her arms about. ‘You are leaving in a few hours and have no idea where you are going, how you are going, what are you going to do when you get there!’
‘I have full faith in the power of your briefing’ I assured her. ‘And anyway, it’s only a month’s trip.’
‘ONLY?!!’ She said incredulously ‘ONLY A MONTH?! YOU THINK A MONTH LONG TRIP IS ‘ONLY’?’
‘Well, considering that I just came back from a 2 month trip just a few months back…’
‘YOU ARE TOTALLY SPOILT! I HAVE SPOILT YOU!’
Well … can’t argue with that…
The original trip was supposed to be an exploration of Russia! I would spend a month exploring Russia, then I would fly to Norway and Bharathi would join me there and take me on an awesome cruise to the Arctic circle! We would be going more than 80% north - spitting distance of the pole!
But the day I applied for a Russian visa - that cretin Putin declared war! I literally was at the Russian visa office when the war started! Bloody idiot - couldn’t he have just made some cutting remarks and left it at that? Read Gandhi! Be nonviolent!
Bharathi refused to even acknowledge that a war was going on, then she was confident that it would all blow over and ‘we would be home by Christmas’, then she was convinced that Ukraine would fall and the war would be over soon…but even she was forced to admit that changing her travel plans was necessary.
It’s a good thing she didn't have ol’ Vlad’s phone number - else she would called him and cursed him out! But then he would probably have screamed and run for the hills and called off the war…
Anyway - she rejigged the Russia part of the itinerary at very short notice, and made it into a Europe capital tour. Athens, Budapest, Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin and Oslo
So here I was - all set for a ‘Europe capital’ trip - I would be flying to Abu Dhabi and then to Athens.
Actually Athens entered the itinerary just because she found a cheap fare!
‘It’s just 70 dollars from Abu Dhabi to Athens!’ She screamed in delight.’WOOHOO!’
It actually cost double the fare to fly from Mumbai to Abu Dhabi, even on a no-frills LCC. The Mumbai - Abu Dhabi ticket was about 15000 INR and the Abu Dhabi - Athens ticket with extra baggage, assigned seating and priority boarding - was $100 - about 7500 INR. Crazy.
So here I was at the GoFirst check in counter - Go Air has changed it’s name to GoFirst for some reason - cribbing on Twitter about how long the line was and how only 2 counters were manned. Whether it was the effect of my tweet or the fact that the airport manager woke up - a couple more counters were added and line started moving faster.
I reached the counter and smiled at the check in lady. She smiled at me. The baggage handler smiled at me. I smiled at the baggage handler.
We had a real love fest going!
Then she asked me asked me for my papers - and flipped through my passport and looked confused.
‘But where is your Visa? Do you have a residence permit?’
‘No no’ I replied. ‘I have a US visa.’
‘But we are not flying to the US.’
‘No no… the UAE is giving visa on arrival to Indian citizens with valid US visa.’
‘Ah yes.’ She said - and pulled out her phone.
I sighed. I had been through this before in New York, when the Kuwait airways people made me wait for check in. They take a photo of your visa and send it to god knows where and wait for an OK message to come back before they will check you in.
I had found it particularly asinine to do this in the US. I obviously had a valid US visa - otherwise the US would not have allowed me to enter!
These guys totally harsh my buzz.
Anyway - I nodded my head and said that I would be standing by the side and waiting for that magical revert from whom so ever she had sent that message to.
After what seems to be half an hour, she shouts across the line of booking counters to her colleague and tells him to send my visa message.
‘I just noticed that my network is bad’ she explained ‘the message was stuck in my outbox.’
Then I waited for another half hour before a positive message came - WOOHOO - and she issued me a boarding pass.
GoFIrst’s flight was delayed - and rather ironically, GoFirst became GoLast - we were the last flight to land at Abu Dhabi.
I walked in with confidence! Last time I didn't know the drill in Dubai and had walked to the immigration dude, who had thrown me out and then I had gone to the Police dude, who had thrown me out - and then finally I had gone to the place I should have gone firstly - the Marhaba visa service desk, who issued me a visa on arrival in seconds.
But when I entered the terminal - there was no Marhaba. There were automated doors for people with visas - and there were some immigration booths for people who …were not comfortable with automated doors, I suppose.
I stood in the line - and was literally the last person in the whole terminal. It was me and that immigration sheik and the janitor.
‘Visa?’ He said - and I gave him the whole spiel about US visa and visa on arrival…and he gave me a sad look. Such complicated goings on - just when he was going to go into the relaxing room and put his feet up and watch football.
‘Come with me’ he motioned - and took me the Police officer in charge.
Oh no - that police desk again.
The guy behind the desk looked at me with dislike. I must have interrupted his football as well. The immigration sheik explained to the police sheik and they both gave me a dirty look. Bloody football interrupter.
US visa…blablabla…visa on arrival…blablabla
I wondered why I had to explain this. These guys were visa officers. This was literally their whole job. More than half the people coming to this country must be Indian. Why were they all shocked and surprised at hearing about Visa on Arrival? Idiots.
The sheik started tapping furiously on his computer - probably trying to find out the rules and procedures. They made me wait for almost an hour - and then the police sheik calls me in, and motions to his hand.
‘VISA’ he said peremptorily
‘Er - US visa…visa on arrival…’
‘VISA!’ He said again - and now I noticed that he had a credit card machine in his hand. Oh - he wanted the visa fees! That’s great - I took out my card and made the payment.
I thought we were done - but again he made me wait. Then finally he gave my passport to the immigration sheik - but just as he was about to stamp it - he must have wondered if he is doing the right thing!
‘WAIT WAIT’ he said - and went and called a third sheik - an English speaking one, this time
‘What job you do earlier?’ He demanded.
‘Job? Job? I don't do any job, my good man.’ I replied loftily ‘I am an author! I write books!’
This was not at the answer he was expecting, and it seemed to knock him for a six.
He scratched his head, and chewed his lip and said ‘Wallah Habibi!’ And all sort of stuff in Arabic - and finally decided that I looked harmless enough.
‘Ok. Stamp him in.’
WOOHOO! I was in! It took a very long time, and I was literally the only one in the airport at the end of it - but I was in!
Visa on arrival, baby.
I blog about my travels - and the thoughts they set off! Sometimes the simplest destinations can be the most thought-provoking!