A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

You've read the blog... now get the book. The Blogger's Guide to Beijing is now available in eBook format in five volumes from Amazon. Click here for more details...

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The sad tale of trying to get an Indian visa…

The following is an extract from a blog of my friend Sushmita Bose that I wrote for her in April 2009.
Yesterday night at 9.54 pm, I got this email from Brian. Think I told everyone that Brian plans to visit Delhi next week and he's been trying to organise an Indian visa. I thought this was hilarious, so will leave you with this till I get back to Dubai. (He was nice enough not to call me up and complain, and instead sent me a hugely entertaining mail.) And please, please, let's just enjoy this and not detect racist undertones! Also, let's all pray that he DOES get a visa; he's supposed to fly out next Thursday night. Meanwhile, enjoy!

Yesterday I set off for the Indian Consulate near the Creek which took me hours to get to in the heavy traffic. Parked in the grounds of the Saudi consulate (thanks Saudis!) and walked round the corner to the Indians who were totally unhelpful. Walked halfway round the building before finding a room at the top of a flight of stairs which said Visas. (Well, actually it didn't. A sign saying visas was pointing the other way, but as it was the only room which looked like it could be used for some kind of service I assumed it was this one.) Aha, thought I (well one does, doesn't one?) Is this the right place for tourist visas, asked I, eyes all a-flutter, broadest smile extended to a guy who was standing there, staring into space - or where he probably assumed space to be. No no. Not here. You must go Pose Offeece. But I've downloaded the forms from the web site. See. I have them here. No no. Pose Offeece. You go!
Well this didn't seem right somehow, so as I wandered yet more corridors I waltzed into one called Attestation and asked there. Tourist visas??? No. Upstairs, says Indian chappie pointing back the way I had come. Upstairs again. Visas?..... No. Pose Offeece. Go yes?
Brian goes yes. And out into the blinking sunshine again, round to the Saudis, retrieve car and wonder what to do next.
Brainwave. I will go to the Pose Offeece. (Now why didn't I think of that before?) I head to Media City where I know there is one. Hello. I'm trying to get a visa to visit India. Can you help? This is a Post Office. Yes I know that, but I was told you could help. No Sir. This is a Post Office. Goodbye. Oh OK. Goodbye.
I jump back into the Brainmobile and head for home. Get on the web. Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi says residents of Abu Dhabi can get a visa in 36 hours. I fill out new forms with my old Abu Dhabi address (what a wheeze! No one will suspect a thing!) This morning I drive to Abu Dhabi. Park outside the Saudi Embassy and walk round to the Indian Embassy. (What is this relationship Saudis have with Indians?) A Filipino security guard assures me you cannot get tourist visas at the Indian Embassy. I assure him I know better as it says you can on the web site. Oh OK, he says, backing down in the face of my superior knowledge. That way....
I go that way..... No signs saying visa. Not even signs pointing the wrong way. I go to the Attestation office (thinks: what do they do in an attestation office???). I see an Indian version of Bruenhilde (ie you wouldn't want to cross her path on a dark night down an unlit alleyway). Tourist visas??? I ask with my number one you're-the-girl-of-my-dreams smile spread across my face. Ha ha ha. No no. You have to go to Empost, she explains to me. They changed the rules two months ago. Didn't you know? But the web site says I can get a visa in 36 hours here at the Embassy. Ha ha. Tsk Tsk. No no. Empost. You go to Empost. Geddit? Empost. I got it. Empost.... And off I toddle.
I head back home, only stopping for an obligatory Big Whopper at my favourite petrol station, drowning my sorrows in a regular coke with no ice. I get on the internet. Empost. Yes. There it is. Where it is? There it is not a donkey's shake from the Indian Consulate I was at yesterday. (I have now discovered that Empost and Emirates Post are two separate organisations. Strange, since as I found out later, they occupy the same building.)
I drive to Empost, entering the building which says Emirates Post and discover tucked right down the far end a small counter with an Indian skulking behind it. A sign says Incredible India. I take this to be a good omen. Tourist visas for India? I ask. Yessir, he says, brightening up now that someone appears before him who doesn't look like he is going to berate him for the machinations of the Indian Consular service. Please sit over there. I sit over there. 30 seconds later he invites me into the back office. How can I help you? I'd like a tourist visa for India. Yessir. What kind of visa do you want? A tourist one. Yessir. And what kind do you want? (hang on a moment. I'm getting feelings of déja vu.)
How many kinds of tourist visas do you issue? We don't issue them. Hmmm. I think we have a miscommunication problem. Errr, I'm here to apply for a tourist visa, say I proffering the forms to him. Yessir. Ah you want a six month tourist visa. Good. We're back on track. He fills in an electronic form getting the details from my form. Where did you get this form? Off the internet. But it's the wrong form. Oh you got it from the Indian Embassy web site yes? Yes. Oh you should have downloaded it from the Indian Consulate web site. They use a different form in Abu Dhabi. (I checked. They do. It says Abu Dhabi on top instead of Dubai!)
Never mind; my new Indian best pal pulls out another form from his desk drawer and asks me to fill it out for him. I fill it out. He asks for money. I give him money. It will be ready in three working days he says....which means you will have it next Wednesday. (huh? Three working days? Not sure I get the maths there.)
What happens if it is not ready by then? It will be. But what if it's not? It will be. But who can I call if there is a problem? There won't be a problem. Yes, but what if there is? Here's the phone number of the courier. But what if the problem is that the courier company haven't yet received the passport? They will have. I see this conversation going off into the sidings. Perhaps it really will be OK. But I'll be happier when I finally get the passport in my hot and stickies again!
And there was I thinking that US Immigration took a lot of beating!
Wish me luck!

Part 2:
Have you ever tried turning off the alarm clock only to find the ringing doesn’t stop? Happened to me this morning. At 7.30. (Ouch. Didn’t know the day started before 8 ). My phone was going (if I’ve told them once at the office, I’ve told them a thousand times….) But no, it wasn’t the office. That Mr Brain? Sure, says I, struggling to come to terms with there being daylight outside. We have your passport. Oh wow, says I… but it’s only Sunday today. Yes sir, It is Sunday (I can hear this guy wondering down the phone if this Mr Brain is thick or something.) Where are you today? I’ll make sure I’m here at home if you tell me when you are coming.
(Am I dreaming this? But no. The sun is still shining.) We will deliver to your apartment between 2 o’clock and 4 o’clock. Is that alright? It surely is, says I. I’ll be here.
Now, I’ve been trying to work this out ever since I handed my passport in on Wednesday last. I was told my visa application would take three working days … and that I would therefore get it back next Wednesday. Well, I finally figured that out. Three working days would include Thursday; not Friday, it being UAE weekend. Not Saturday nor Sunday (India weekend), so Monday and Tuesday and delivery Wednesday. Voilà. They don’t call me Genius for nothing (no I usually have to pay them first ). But now I was being told I would get my passport back today. Hang on a minute. They didn’t say I would get the visa, just that I would get back my passport. Worry, worry, worry. So much so that I couldn’t get back to sleep. And at 10 to 8 swung out of bed and into the shower. Six hours till delivery. Plenty of time to pop round to the office, dash into the supermarket and still be back with hours to spare. But first I can’t face the day without the obligatory poached eggs on toast; and coffee; and juice (not necessarily in that order) and then I check the eMails, and then find myself doing some research for the next article I’m writing; and before I know it half the morning has gone.
Ding dong. (I’ve never heard my front door bell before – only moved in to the apartment a month ago and no one has come round unexpectedly when I’m in before.) Good morning Sir. Your passport. (Hang on. It’s only 11.30. I wasn’t expecting you till 2. Ah well, no worries. I’m glad to have been in when you called.) Please sign here… and here…. And also here…. My signature becomes ever more illegible as writer’s cramp starts to set in. Thank you sir. Have a nice day. And you too, say I cheerily in the direction of a back that is receding fast towards the lift. I have been given a well-sealed see-through plastic bag. None of your cheap inferior quality plastic bags. No way. This would pass muster in a hospital, sealing some incurable virus from the outside world. Maybe they go to the same plastic bag supplier? Impossible just to rip it open. A pair of scissors is needed. I hack away, wondering what I will find inside.
And there, in my passport, affixed to the middle page of the passport (eschewing 15 empty pages before it and 13 empty pages after it) is my new Indian visa. Bliss. Relief. But what’s this? Not a two-visit visa as requested (and paid for). Not valid for six months as requested (and paid for). I had even told them I wanted to go back to India again in September. Nope. This is a multiple-entry visa valid for only three months. So I guess I will have to go through the entire process once again come the summer (I'll be older and wiser by then, of course!) But hey – I have my visa and I really am thankful for small mercies. So watch out Delhi…. here I come

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Concerto for Nokia and Orchestra

Is There A Local Word For Culture?
I was talking to an Emirati the other day about what in his eyes made the United Arab Emirates so special. His eyes lit up as he prepared to indulge in what appeared to be one of his favourite monologues.
The UAE, he intoned, has only been in existence for 36 years – yet in that short space of time it has given rise to one of the highest per capita incomes in the world whilst at the same time is a melting pot for nationalities from right across the globe. “Here you will find freedom of expression and huge opportunities for everyone, which is why there is such a huge influx of people and why so many people are making large amounts of money.”
I forbore to tell him that the money was in the main being made by the locals on the back of the hard work of imported labour – mainly from south and south-east Asia – who were becoming more and more disillusioned with the way ever rising prices were diminishing what was once an attractive get-rich-quick proposition but that now meant that many an Indian or Pakistani worker could in fact be better off if he found a job back home.
But his clincher really got me thinking. “You could think of the UAE as a cultural meeting point and here you will find cultures from right across the world are all well represented and embraced.”
Now, this was an argument that took me totally by surprise. I have lived in the Middle East now for nearly ten years – the majority of it in Saudi Arabia, where the local cultures are there for all to see and experience. Love it or hate it – and I have to say I am personally very enamoured of the Saudi traditions – you cannot escape the ever present culture of a proud people.
But the UAE? Apart from a few short dances involving Emiratis throwing model rifles in the air and waving their canes about, whenever there is a grand opening or a national day celebration or whatever, I had never thought of the Emirates as being cultured in any way whatsoever.
“Look what is happening in Abu Dhabi,” he continued, warming to his theme. “There they are building a new Guggenheim museum, which will stand cheek by jowl with a new Louvre. Go to the Emirates Palace Hotel where there is currently an exhibition of the works of Picasso. Or look no further than Al Ain where every year they have an international music festival which is vying for a place on the international music festival circuit.”
I could hold back no more. I have visited the Picasso exhibition three times and could count on the fingers of one hand the number of Emiratis I have seen there.
And this year I actually did go to the Al Ain music festival, unlike the majority of Emiratis. For nine days there was a series of concerts held in a variety of venues such as the Al Jahili fort – superb backdrops for what could have been some memorable evenings. But no, in fairness they were memorable, though not as high class cultural events, unfortunately.

On one evening, for instance, they had the first performance in the Gulf of Mozart’s Don Giovanni sung in Arabic. Singers had been imported from Lebanon and Egypt and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra flown in from Poland to perform in front of the local sheikh, together with anyone else who cared to drop in for a bit of culture.
True to local tradition, the sheikh arrived about 40 minutes late, everyone followed in to take their places and the concert began. The sheikh appeared to enjoy himself and laughed at the bit where Leporello sings about the “conquests” of his master which include 1,003 seductions in Spain alone. (Could this have ever happened in Saudi? Well apart from the fact that concerts are banned in the Kingdom, who would ever dare perform an opera about a womaniser bent on seducing every female he meets?) But if said sheikh can laugh at the naughty bits, then it must be OK – so everyone else joined in the muffled laughter so as to be in with the crowd. With plenty of Yalla Habibis and Leporello hardly able to keep his paws off  Donna Elvira’s tits (got a good guffaw from Al Sheikh!) a good time was had by all.
No one minded when Don Giovani (also referred to as Don Juan in a couple of places and even Al Don - now that’s more like it!) laddered his pop socks when his sword got caught up in his costume. When the Commendatore was killed, they used a red sash to represent the blood covering his white tunic (no, not a dishdash!). Very convincing, until the red sash slipped off the body, and the body had to come to life again just long enough to move it back onto his chest!
It wa a shame though that come the interval the sheikh suddenly remembered a pressing appointment elsewhere and as he hurried off, so did the majority of the audience leaving the performers singing to a half empty house.
Fast forward two evenings to the first performance of بيتر والذئب - Prokoviev's famous children’s masterpiece Peter and the Wolf sung in Arabic. Here the rich tones of a famous Arab actor were accompanied by a student orchestra from Italy. He had a beautiful voice and it was quite poetic to listen to - he even did the duck and bird voices a bit like a tom and jerry cartoon!
But as the evening wore on, and as the next work to be performed was Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, a cacophony of mobile phone calls almost drowned out the strains of the orchestra. Concerto for Nokias and Orchestra might have been a better title for Beethoven’s classic. Emiratis, it appears, (and it was almost entirely the Emiratis who were behaving in this way) are inseparable from their phones, even when it involves interrupting a public performance to the detriment of everyone else.
So my conclusion from albeit limited experience here in the UAE is that the local tradition of throwing money at something, purely to proclaim to the world how cultured the Emiratis are, fools no one. And the relative handful of expatriates who actually bother turning up to these events only underlines how uncultured the place actually is.
A place on the international music festival circuit? Hey. Pass me my mobile phone. Just don’t make me laugh!