We tend to love getting ink stamps in our passports from the countries we visit. They are so colorful and fun to look at and collect, and look back upon months and years later. Visas (often more like stickers) can be even more fun and colorful, especially when they are the size of an entire passport page. The downside to Visas, of course, is that they cost money – and often a lot of money for Americans. Apparently the US is very tough on, and expensive for, those wishing to visit our country; so other countries tend to retaliate (rightly so in our opinion). I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been frustrated after reading something similar to, “A visa for country XX costs $25 for all travelers except those from the United States, for whom it costs $100.”) Ack! I wish everyone could just settle down and lower those fees back down to $25, in both directions.
Visas can be problematic in other ways. Some visas, like those for Kenya, Tanzania, and Turkey, can be obtained at the airport when you land. Others, like those for China and India, need to be obtained in advance. My story today is a bit about visas in general, but specifically about our journey to getting visas for India. Our attempts to obtain those visas were what you might call QUITE problematic.
Although we had many ideas for the first six months of 2013, we weren’t able to book our Around the World ticket until January of this year, and we left on our first flight just over a week afterwards. It didn’t make sense to apply for any visas before the flights were set, so we knew when we left in January, we still needed to do some work to get our Indian visas. No problem – I found that we could get them from the Indian Embassy in Israel, where we would be for two weeks in February. That should leave us plenty of time to find a day to take a bus to Tel Aviv, go to the Embassy, and waste a few hours waiting for our visas. HA!
When we arrived in Israel, we had already made some changes to our itinerary, and knew we could stay in the country up to 20 days if necessary, before our flight to Istanbul (not Constantinople). But we didn’t waste any time. Our second day in the country, Elliott spent hours online and on the phone. He learned you have to go through a specific travel agency because the Indian Embassy will not process Visas any other way (the travel agency makes for a smoother process, supposedly)! He called the travel agency THREE times trying to get the information we needed about the cost, hours of operation, and location we should go to. The woman on the other end was very brusque and even hung up on him once. He was told we’d have to give them our passports, and visas would take two weeks to process.
The next day, we dropped the passports off at the travel agency office in Haifa. Haifa is a good half hour’s drive from Zichron Yaakov, where we were staying. This meant we had to have someone drive us all that way since we didn’t have a car. The first thing they said was that there was no one who spoke English there, but then they tried to help us anyway with the English they knew. We were told again that it takes two weeks to get the Indian Visas, and we paid the full amount they said we owed them. Our flight to Istanbul (not Constantinople) was set to leave in two weeks and four days.
Three days later when we were visiting Jerusalem, Elliott’s mom called us with a message from the travel agency. They said we had not paid them enough and wanted us to come back and pay more. Apparently the girl who took our passports did not realize it costs MORE for Americans than for anyone else. (Wow, weren’t we just talking about that?) Elliott explained we had no way to get to Haifa without a car, and Jerusalem is FAR from Haifa – at least two hours away. He asked if we could pay when we picked up the passports and they said that was impossible. Then he asked about paying by credit card and they said okay. Then they changed their minds and said we could just pay when we were back in the area. Elliott asked if there would be any delay in getting our Visas. They said definitely not; the Visas would be processed right away. HA!
A week later when we were back in Zichron Yaakov, Elliott’s mom and her husband drove us to Haifa again and we paid another 200 shekels. The office told us we would get the passports by the end of the week, as we were originally told.
Two weeks since the day we had dropped off our passports went by, and we received no phone call that the Visas were ready. We were in Jerusalem for a second visit, which we had to cut short so we could try and resolve the “Visa Affair.” When we called the travel agency, we were told the Visas were not ready, the Haifa office did not have the passports, and they weren’t even sure where they were! I somehow wasn’t surprised. The Haifa office had sent them to their Tel Aviv headquarters, and the Tel Aviv office has a courier that goes to and from the Embassy. We were told that the courier would leave at 1pm and they would call us when they had our passports. We specifically asked that if the visas were not ready, to please bring our passports back to the Tel Aviv office as we were flying out the next day. Of course they did not call. We called back and of course the courier was not back yet, etc, etc, so finally we hopped on a train and went to the Tel Aviv office and waited. Supposedly the courier would show up, at some point, with our passports. Who knew if there would be Indian Visas with the passports?
It turned into a very long day. We went to Tel Aviv and walked 45 minutes to the travel agency office there. No passports. They said the courier “was not back yet” but it was later clear that the courier had never left. They tried to tell US to go to the Embassy to get our own passports. Since we didn’t have a mode of transportation to get there, they finally sent someone. When that person arrived at the Embassy, a representative from the Embassy called the travel agency and asked to speak to us. Elliott spoke to him and the Embassy blamed the travel agency for delaying the paperwork. The Tel Aviv office said they sent everything the previous week. Each agency blamed the other. But even if the Tel Aviv office had sent everything on the date they claimed, they didn’t explain why it took a full week for the paperwork to get from their office in Haifa to their office in Tel Aviv. And as far as we had been told, the Haifa office was working directly with the Embassy!! – If they had told us they had to go through the Tel Aviv office first, we would have just taken everything there to begin with.
Finally at 6pm we were given our passports sans Visas. The Indian Embassy said they could get the Visas approved while we visited Turkey, and that we could pick them up at the Embassyduring the 24 hours we would (luckily) be back in Israel. Remember, it was only a coincidence that we were even coming back to Israel for a layover – because we took a different airline and used a different award ticket for our “side trip” to Turkey and Dubai. But of course the Embassy didn’t care about coincidences. According to them, we were finally considered an “emergency” and they would deal directly with us from then on. You know what I have to say… HA!
At this point, for the record, we were out 760 shekels (over $200), several days of travel and a couple of round-trip train tickets, and the travel agency did NOTHING but cause us a lot of wasted energy and effort. Plus we took up gas, money, car mileage and time from Elliott’s mom and her husband! I was not happy. We took our empty passports and headed to the airport for Istanbul.
Just over two weeks later, we arrived in Tel Aviv in the late morning, and Elliott’s mom and sister met us at the airport, took a train with us to Tel Aviv, and then a taxi to the embassy. Surprise! The embassy would not even let us through the gate. They kept asking us to go away, and to deal with the stupid travel agency we had started with. None of us would leave and all four of us just stood there with our luggage. Finally a guy came out and listened to Elliott tell him the whole story, and how someone from the embassy itself had told us to show up straight from the airport, exactly as we were doing! Well, it was no surprise when they said they couldn’t do this now, come back later, we’re having internet issues, we’ll call you, don’t call us. Now we couldn’t leave Tel Aviv, and we had to drag around with luggage and entertain ourselves for hours… all while I was very sick. We went to a nice waterfront cafe, and plied me with OTC meds while we sat for a few hours killing time. We finally went back to the embassy and someone actually let us in this time. After much security searching, we were reprimanded for coming back before they called us, but with Elliott’s sister outside the gate watching all our luggage, and us inside with his mom in tow, I think it finally moved them to action. Twenty minutes later we FINALLY had our passports WITH the visas. They did a shoddy job and screwed up the dates on Elliott’s but it was good enough for what we needed. We took another taxi, another hour long train to his mom’s house, and finally we were done with that whole fiasco.
Two weeks. “The travel agency makes things run smoothly.” HA! But they couldn’t stop us from getting to India.