January 11th, 2019 12:35 PM:
‘You have to pay 100 INR to store that’, said the desk receptionist, focusing intently on replying to a message on his smartphone after taking a quick glance at my hand.
For a pen-drive? What harm do they possible think I can cause with this 2-inch minuscule object used to store files?
I felt incredulous, but powerless. Rules are rules, especially when you are at a Visa Facilitation Service. In their eyes, everything remains binary, zeros and ones, black and white. They don’t realize that most things in life are not black or white, but rather a shade of grey. Shifting myself uncomfortably from one foot to the other, I glanced at my hand and then at the receptionist, hoping that my helpless face and hesitation might change his mind.
‘Alright. Here you go’, I said solemnly in the end, handing him two fresh 50 Rupee notes.
‘Sign your name in the register and enter’, he took the money from my hand without glancing at it. For all he knew, I could have handed him a worthless piece of paper.
I began writing down my name, briefly pausing to chide myself for having worsened my handwriting since Columbia. Once he was satisfied, I quickly hurried over to the entrance where another barrier stood. A scanning machine. Should I have just lied and taken the pen-drive inside? I doubted if that antiquated machine could have deciphered my plot.
Having passed the barrier, I entered a room filled with people sitting on metal chairs and staring at their phones. I told myself, this is it. Just a few more minutes and you will be halfway done with getting your visa. Heck, even all the way done. Of course, I knew a ‘few minutes’ would be a euphemism for a couple dozen minutes in the end.
I thought back to about six months back, a day when I sat down and ferociously searched for ‘Which are the best countries to visit in Europe during February?’. I spent hours reading about the countries, their weathers, events happening in February, flight costs and more. That day, six months ago, I had made up my mind. I would shift every other event and activity in my life to surround and revolve around this trip, my sun. Surprisingly, it did not take a lot of convincing to get my parents on board. I spent months talking to people, ardent travelers, getting their views on which country to visit and what sim card to buy. I used to create Google Documents and Spreadsheets filled with information that I probably would never use. This was my trip, something that was so personal to me that I flinched at the sight of adding on more people. I tried for weeks to find someone else who would be interested in accompanying, alleviating my parents’ fear of safety and my fear of boredom. However, of the few people I found, I couldn’t get myself to say yes to anyone. This was my trip.
I sat down in the front row, habitually, and took out my file. Do I have all the documents. Check. Are all the documents in order? Check. Do you have all the answers planned? Check. I had quite a few mental checks before I looked up to see what was in front of me. There were representatives sitting in booths, asking questions. I expected them to be German, but they were all Indian. Behind the representatives were huge taped posters of the various countries in Europe.
I started from the far left and quickly scanned. Germany, of course, Malta, Hamburg, London, Italy, Hungary, France. I was a little disappointed, why was there no Belgium? One of the four countries I was visiting included Belgium (Germany, France and Spain being the other three), the only country where I was about to travel solo. It was the cerise on top of my well-crafted tour cake. I scanned again, meticulously this time. Germany, Malta, Hamburg, London, Bel.. oh wait! I had missed it the first time. For no explicable reason, this made me immensely happy. The Belgium poster had a beautiful and tall cathedral that spanned the entire poster. In front of the cathedral were hundreds of people standing in rows and marveling at the beauty of the beast. Behind them, there was a carpet, but not just any carpet, it was a carpet made up of flowers. Beautiful, colorful and lively flowers that would take your breath away in person, and make you yearn to be there in person. I looked at that poster for a long time, until my token number was called. (I was looking at the Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium, I later realized)
I shot them with a smile and a chirpy ‘Good morning!’
The agent was in his mid 30’s, and he smiled back politely. I gave him my passport first, a routine I’ve imbibed since 2015 when I first went to an airport.
‘Pass me the documents, please’, he said mechanically.
I gave it to him with confidence. While he was perusing them, I waited patiently and gave explanations when necessary.
‘Yes, those are my brother’s payslips and IT returns, as I am not employed yet’
‘No, I’m not a student, but I just finished my Master’s in the US’
‘Yes, those are the flight tickets. I start from India, finish the trip, and then go back to the US for my job’
‘I am planning to attend a short conference in Germany, but my main purpose is tourism’
‘Yes, I start my job at Salesforce, in the US’
‘No, I was in the US until December actually. But my native is Chennai’
Although I answered with confidence, the barrage of question started to worry me a little. This got multiplied when he stopped another agent who was walking to get her opinion. I could hear bits and pieces. ‘Business visa right?’ ‘She says conference’ ‘… US after trip…’
Now, my rational mind flipped to the other side and began overthinking. Before they could finish discussing, I jumped the gun to ask,
‘Is the visa type the problem? I know I am attending a conference but that has nothing to do with my work or my college. It is purely out of interest. If you want, I can apply in the business category’, I rambled on, hoping they would see through my masked pleading face.
‘Ma’am, that is not the main problem here’
‘You cannot apply for a visa from the Chennai consulate when you’ve been in the US until December’
‘You have to have been here for at least 3 months to apply’
It didn’t make sense to me. That’s not a valid reason so say no. I had all the documents! This is not FAIR. I brought everything you asked me to. How can I change something that’s immutable now? You are going to refuse my visa based on technicality?
I could feel the dream slipping away. A dream I had conjured up and nurtured for months, slipping away in a few seconds. As the tears began slowly welling up, I took a breath and got my footing. I was not going to let it go so easily.
‘Okay Sir, I understand what you’re saying. I had no idea about this rule. Now I’ve booked all my flights and paid the travel agency. Tell me what I can do.’
He saw my doggedness. He stood up and went to the agent sitting in the next cubicle, possibly someone with a few years more experience. I shifted to the next cubicle, and shot him with a smile and ‘Good morning!’. As he explained the situation, all I could think about was the cathedral and the magnificent flower carpet. I won’t get to see that anymore.
Agent 2.0 turned to me. ‘You can submit the application now, but it would most probably get rejected. I’ve seen cases like this before. A better alternative would be to call the german consulate and explain this situation to them. Tell them everything. Tell them why you could not attend the interview in the US. Tell them about the bookings, the conference, everything. And then pray that they give you approval’.
My heart sank further and further. My view of Germans was that they too were binary. But it was my best, and probably only, shot. I asked him for the email and contact number.
January 17th, 2019 9:45 AM:
It had been almost a week since my last visit to the VFS. Every day for the past week, my Dad and I had been taking turns and calling the German Consulate, explaining the situation and pleading them to let us apply from Chennai.
I parked my scooter and walked up the flight of stairs, thinking if I should be sending another email to the Consulate. I was returning home from the Badminton court. As I entered, my Dad gave me a few minutes to settle, and then said solemnly:
‘I called them, ma. Today he told me firmly that they will not allow you to apply. I think you should let it go’
I didn’t say anything. I remained quiet and went into the bedroom, and began furiously searching for the Belgium Consulate’s number. As my brother heard the news, he called me. I refused to talk, so he texted me.
Arun: ‘Pooja, I’m so sorry to hear this. Why don’t you call the Consulate once as well? One last time.’
Not knowing what else to do, I dialed their number, and clutched the phone fervently hoping they would not pick up. I knew what they would say, and I wanted to live in my reverie.
‘Hello?’, said the same agent.
‘Sir, Soundarya speaking. My Dad told me….’ I began explaining the situation and pleaded for one last time, telling him the amount of money I spent and how important this was to me. Once I finished my soliloquy,
‘Hmm, you know what? Give me 2 minutes.’
January 21st, 2019 1:05 PM:
I entered the VFS for the third time, hoping third time’s a charm. I had come just a few days back to submit my application — a fiasco that demands a whole article for itself. But, that phone call I made had been the spark. It tipped the agent over the edge, and made him cross the line. It convinced him to go a step further and help me, and my Dad. It proved to me, once again, that persistence is key.
I went through the same scanning machine once again and entered the room, to see another set of people staring at their smartphones. They called my token number right away this time.
‘Hi! I’ve come here for passport pickup’
By now, all the agents sitting behind the glass door knew me, and knew my situation. The girl fumbled for a moment and finally found my envelope. I thanked her and walked out, my heart in my hands.
I went to a quiet place devoid of people, sat down and opened the envelope. I had always been an optimistic person, the kind of person who, in the face of all odds against them, still thinks there is hope. I opened the envelope to the receipt of 8500 INR first, a hefty fee that I had to pay to apply. Next came a letter written in German, which my A1 level mind could not comprehend. Finally, I took out the third letter written in English. It read:
‘Your visa has been refused’
Anyone who knows me well, knows I am a frugal person. Having been raised by parents who struggled for food in their childhood, my brother and I understood the value of money well. Anyone who spoke to me for a while over the last 6 months would also know how thrilled I was about this trip. I went to sleep thinking about the adventures I would have in the streets of Europe, meeting strangers who become friends and eating authentic food (which would be a struggle as I am vegetarian).
Losing $1000 and this trip was, to say the least, a crushing feeling. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, I knew this was a blip and people suffer from significantly bigger problems. It took me a few days, but then I was fine. I got closure, which I had been wanting since January 11th. And now it seems so far behind that I can write about it, even humorously.
If I could call this another lesson in my life, I would say it taught the following:
- Call up a travel agency before you book your tickets, explain your situation and ask them if they see any impending problem. Without spending any money, you get an expert’s opinion that would avoid future losses.
- If they tell you about a probability of rejection, book refundable flight tickets. You would be paying probably 5% more fare, but for a 100% return.
- Persistence is key. A ‘No’ does not always mean a ‘No forever’. Like many of you might have experienced, a little push can do great wonders.
My final two points might seem proverbial, but they are indeed true:
- Some things, if not most, are out of your damn control. The sooner you understand this, the easier it will be.
- Everything happens for an unfathomable reason. Something that you realize in hindsight.
P.S. I will be spending this month working with a friend of mine on his startup in Boston instead. Something that I’m equally excited about — so maybe this was the plan all along?
This style of writing is tangential to my usual content — just something that I wanted to try out. My main reason to pen down this melancholic experience was to prevent others from making the same mistake.
Image Courtesy: Google Images