I am a large mammal from a cold climate. Even Beijing in the summer is a challenge. Last weekend – when the mercury in Beijing finally popped 100 – an hour of pick-up basketball left me gasping and wheezing and generally feeling like I was a bottle of tequila and a trio of Mexican hookers away from reenacting the final seven seconds of The Chris Farley Story. So there’s really no rational reason for anyone in my condition to ever willingly visit India in the summer. The forecast is calling for daily high temperatures of 120 degrees, which I am pretty sure is the point where small animals — and possibly oxygen — spontaneously combust. I’m either coming back 35 pounds lighter or in a box.
Today, I picked up my Indian visa, and to make up for all of the bullshit First World whining I am bound to do over the next week, let me say that the India visa processing center is a pretty slick operation. At least I think it’s a pretty slick operation. When I went there to drop off my application, the place was almost empty. I immediately regretted asking why that was.
“Don’t you know? It is extremely hot right now in India. Nobody wants to go there.”
Apparently, sane people do not travel to India in the middle of July. Even the visa workers seemed surprised, and possibly a little alarmed, at my insistence that no, it’s for work, I’ve always wanted to go, and besides…how bad could it be? It’s entirely possible that one of the many documents they made me sign was a waiver in the event I get off the plane, take three steps across the tarmac and then collapse in flames like the Hindenburg.
In any case, it’s probably to my benefit that the staff had some time on their hands.
I’ve applied for visas to many countries over the years, and I usually approach the process with a heady mix of flop sweat, hostility and fear – which is exactly the vibe you want to project when convincing a government bureaucrat to let you stay in their homeland for an extended period of time. Part of the problem, okay most of the problem, is me. As my first grade teacher at Pollard Elementary School in Plaistow, NH once wrote in a note to my parents, “Jeremiah does not follow directions and often refuses to take the time to listen to all of the instructions.”
Not much has changed, only now I’m allowed to make excuses like “Fuck it, I’m impulsive” that would not have been well received by my first grade teacher.
Unfortunately, this also means that when grown-up me applies for visas it involves an all-too-avoidable three-step process. Step one: fill out the form in a hurry without reading the instructions. Step two: submit. Step three: find out from the visa office all the things I filled out incorrectly and/or forgot. Repeat as necessary. Actually, I’m lucky if it only takes three steps, I once spent a week in Hong Kong trying to get my China visa switched.
I was therefore unprepared for how (relatively) painless it actually was to get a visa to India.
One of the best parts of the Indian Visa Experience are the Visa Sherpas. Not real Sherpas of course, because calling them that would be culturally imprecise and Orientalist, but a team of chipper young staffers, all of them Chinese, who corralled me through the process, checked my documents, and were generally so eager to get me my Indian visa that I began to wonder if the office received a secret bounty of 150 RMB from the Beijing municipal government for every foreigner they shipped out of the country permanently.
Naturally I failed to read the directions regarding my “Letter of Employment Guarantee,” assuming, incorrectly as it turned out, that the letter should simply state how long I have been employed, where, and as what. Sign. Chop. Copy.
I had forgotten to include a line stating specifically that I wanted to go to India, for how long, and using which passport number. Totally my fault. But it was Friday. My office was closing early, and the idea of trekking back across town to reprint, sign, chop, and copy a new letter was not particularly appealing.
Fortunately my Visa Sherpa had a solution which, while perhaps not technically legal in the strictest sense of the word, at least didn’t require a round-trip taxi ride to Haidian. We walked across the corridor where an old woman and her husband had set up a kind of photocopy/computer/photo kiosk. The first thing we did was take a couple of quick snaps because I had – characteristically – brought the wrong size photos with the wrong color background. Then through the magic of MS Word and some creative formatting with the printer, we added the missing information as an “addendum” onto the already chopped and signed letter.
For what it’s worth, all of the information was totally legit, and if our method of bringing it together into a single document was a little unorthodox, rest assured our motives were pure and the sanctity of India’s borders was in no way (okay, only in a very, very, minute way) compromised.
I’ll be posting from India this week, and I promise I will try to avoid making any Tom Friedman-esque sweeping generalizations about the future of the world or “Chindia” or “Chindamerica” or whatever based on five days of heat stroke and Delhi fever dreams.
I will however probably bitch a lot about the heat.
 Like many countries, India has outsourced its visa applications in Beijing to a Chinese outfit operating from the Beijing Inn on Chaoyangmen Nei.
 Of course, like any proper Lao Wai I’m going to shift some of the blame off of myself and onto the Chinese government. The first time I went there I was missing form X and then the next day, when I returned form X in hand, I was told I was missing supporting document Y. The following day, I brought in form X and supporting document Y and was told I was still missing supporting document supplemental form Z and at that point I think I cried a little.