Monday, May 22, 2006

The trip that almost didnt happen

Remember me grumbling about how slow the Indian High Commission in Birmingham was in processing my passport application? Well, I was wrong - they werent slow (that is, if you didnt compare them with the UK Passport Office). I was told that it would take 4-6 weeks for my new passport to be issued, and that they would let me know by telephone when to collect it. This, despite my informing them that I needed my passport back as quickly as possible in order to travel abroad.

Anyhow, it didnt take the stipulated 4-6 weeks. In fact, it only took two weeks. I applied on March 9, and the passport was ready by March 22. Surprisingly efficient, you think? End of story, you think?


Although my passport had been issued, the Passport Department neglected to inform me of that fact. So I waited in good faith for about a month, after which I called up the HC to ask about the status of my application. I got their answering service. Apparently the HC has enough technology to go automated but hasnt bothered to incorporate any customer service, automated OR human. So, instead of being told how to contact anybody in the Passport Dept, I was asked, in a strongly accented (North Indian, methinks) voice, to leave a message. No assurance of "we will get back to you asap".

Still, hoping for the best, I left a message asking them to call me back on my mobile phone with any information.

Then I waited yet another week, with no response.

By this time, there was just over 2 weeks left for me to apply for my US visa. Which, obviously enough, I couldnt do if I didnt have a passport. Worse yet, within that period was the long Easter Bank holiday weekend, which meant that instead of 10 working days in which to apply for, and receive, the US visa, I only had 8 days.

This time I emailed the HC. Predictably (although I was still hoping for the best), no response.

Two days later, I was in something close to panic, so I emailed them yet again, explaining the circumstances in somewhat strong terms (to put it politely, ha). This stirred them from their apathy and I got a phone call the next day to "come and collect your passport, it is ready". Except that the phone call came on the Thursday of Easter weekend, so effectively I could only go the following Tuesday to collect it. That left 8 days for the US visa.

Which would not really have been such a problem, if the US Embassy in London had been a bit more reasonable. When I telephoned to ask for an interview date, they said the earliest available date was May 19. Not very useful as we were to leave on April 29 for the States and return on May 17. A polite email request for expedited processing of the visa was curtly rejected.

Panic stations.

Then Pete called around the other US Embassies and Consulates in the UK, and discovered that the one in Belfast, Northern Ireland, had the authority to issue travel visas. He immediately asked for the earliest appointment and was told that I should be there at 11am on Tuesday, April 25. Which was 3 days before we were due to leave.

It was a nuisance but I managed to wangle a day off work. We flew to Belfast on the Monday night and at 11a.m the next day, I presented myself at the US Consulate there. I wasnt very hopeful of the outcome to start with, but then I discovered that there were just 6-7 people ahead of me, no crowds and no touts. What was more, all the staff were extremely polite and friendly (what a nice contrast to the self-important puffed up specimens one finds in Western embassies in India - and for all I know, other countries as well!).

I was in and out of that office in 40 minutes - it all went smoothly enough. Except that when I asked if I could collect the visa before flying back to England that evening, I was told that they would only send it in the post. No deviations from that rule, no matter what the urgency. So we had to leave, hoping for the best.

And thank god, the visa arrived two days before we flew out to the States. It's the sort of tension and last-minute nerve-wracking situation that one doesnt need EVER, much less before a holiday that has been arranged and orchestrated by other people half a world away! Imagine if I hadnt got the passport, or the visa - everybody's plans would have been thrown out of whack and my sister and brother would not only have seen their efforts go to nought, but would have also wasted a great deal of their money on non-refundable tickets and bookings, etc.

Still, all's well that ends well, and we had a fantastic 16 days in the US. I just wonder why the Indian High Commission had to be so indifferent and - let's face it - incompetent when there was no NEED for it to be that way... especially as someone there had actually issued the passport well in time. What would it have cost them to let me know about it immediately?

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