In March of 2015 I crossed “complete a yoga teacher training course abroad” off of my bucket list.” After considering beautiful spots like Bali and Costa Rica, I decided to go straight to the source and began planning for my first trip to India. As part of this preparation, I looked into getting an Indian visa. When I typed “Indian visa” into the Google search bar the first result I saw was “tourist visa on arrival.” I clicked on the link and learned that India had recently created a new visa option, the Tourist Visa on Arrival, which is a 30 day, single-entry tourist visa, available to a limited number of countries. America was on this list, Italy was not. What I understood was that, traveling as an American, I could take care of my Visa once I arrived–“on arrival”–as I had in Tanzania and Bangkok.
I didn’t think more about the Visa until about a week before my flight when I decided (slightly uncharacteristically) to double check. I googled again and searched a bit more. I discovered that “on arrival” didn’t mean “on arrival” at all. The process to obtain a Tourist Visa on Arrival requires an online application and a 72 hour processing time, after which you need to print out a confirmation email and bring it with you in order to finish the process on arrival.
I completed my digital application about 48 hours before my flight. I had my first near panic attack upon hitting the submit button and seeing the message that my application would be processed in 72 hours. Uh oh. I found a number and called immediately. I explained the situation and asked what I could do. The Indian Visa office employee told me, calmly, that most applications are processed within 36 hours. “It shouldn’t be a problem ma’am, it’ll come through in time.” And it did. I had my confirmation the next day and by nightfall had a printout and was feeling confident again. This minor scare and the relaxed, nonchalant attitude of the employee that I spoke to, gave me a false impression of the severity with which the Indian government regards its Visas.
During my first week of yoga school, one of my classmates mentioned over lunch that she would need to change her flight and leave our program early. When we asked her why, she told us that she made the trip on fairly short notice and could only manage to get a tourist visa that was good for 30 days and not extendable. Everyone else nodded, seemingly accepting the ‘leave-early’ plan as a logical solution. Everyone except me. I spoke up: “It’s only a couple days though, right? What will they do? They will want you out because your visa has expired, and you’ll want to get out to go home. Both sides happy, no problem.” The incredulous, slightly panicked looks that I received in response made me seriously consider for the first time my own tourist visa, set to expire 4 days before my flight back to Amsterdam.
What was I thinking, you may be inclined to ask. Well, as I mentioned earlier, I was thinking it wasn’t a big deal. I understand that for someone who is fairly well traveled this seems like a hugely rookie mistake. True. However, until this point, any time I had traveled somewhere that was strict about visas (Russia and China), a softball team had handled my business. I have also been to Tanzania and Thailand. Both required visas, but both were issued on arrival, requiring only a short form to be filled out at the airport and, of course, a fee. My visa experience and knowledge was disproportionately small as compared to my overall travel experience. I didn’t know better.
After this enlightening (terrifying?) lunch time conversation, I looked into my situation. I googled it. What I found were mostly travel blogs and forums with anecdotes ranging from my “not a big deal” mentality to some pretty concerning stories about missed flights, high fines and even jail time for overstaying Indian visas, sometimes by only a few days. My anxiety level rose a bit more. I sent 3 emails, one to TVOA–the tourist visa on arrival office–one to the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, and a third to CKGS, the third-party company that deals with Indian Visas for Americans. I learned about CKGS from my yoga classmates, who had actually managed to lock down legitimate visas.
All three replies were short and sweet. CKGS told me that “We do not deal with Visa on Arrival,” and referred me to the Indian government website. TVOA told me, simply, “Visa on Arrival is a 30 day, non-renewable visa. You cannot overstay.” The U.S. Embassy replied, “Please confirm citizenship,” even though I had included my U.S. passport number and visa number in the original email and stated in the first line, “I am an American citizen visiting India”. I was not making progress. I replied to the only email that allowed for one and told the U.S. Embassy, again, that I was American and could they please advise as to how to proceed. The reply, prompt if nothing else, said “This case has been satisfactorily closed.” What?!?
Over the next couple of weeks, I tried a few more times to find an answer from an authority. I called TVOA and was told “you cannot overstay, it’s impossible.” I replied that it was, in fact, possible and asked what, in such a circumstance, I would need to do. When I was told again that this situation was impossible, I tried another approach: “Well, what would happen if, hypothetically, someone WERE to overstay a Visa on Arrival?” “Ma’am, you cannot overstay a Visa on Arrival. You must leave.”
I talked to Nagesh, our yoga instructor who has been dealing with groups of clueless foreigners for years now through the yoga school. He told me he would check with a friend of his who used to work at the Foreigner Relations Office. Later in the day, he came back to me, having called said friend. “There is a solution,” he told me. Of course there is, I thought. “You need to change your flight.” Wait, what?! That is not a solution. “Or…there is one other possibility.” . . .edge of my seat anticipation. . . “You can fly to Nepal, apply for a new Visa on Arrival, and fly back.” Ummm…ok. Nepal could be cool…for 5 hours. I would miss a day, maybe two of class…unless I could make the trip on Sunday, our day off…
I was already imagining my family’s reaction to my telling them that I had spontaneously “hopped over” to Nepal during my time in India. That sounded fun, and was the only possible solution so far other than ‘show up at the airport and beg/cry,’ so I checked some flights that night. I was shocked to find no flights to Nepal for less than €400. I decided that the €400 combined with the day, maybe two, of missed class was too expensive and crossed ‘Nepal hop-over’ off my list.
During my time spent poring over travel blogs and India forums, I had not found a solution to my specific predicament. I did, however, piece together that the FRRO (Foreigner Relations Office) in New Delhi seemed to be the place with the power to fix just about any “stupid foreigner” problem. I made a plan. I would complete my yoga course as planned and graduate on Sunday with my class. I would take a train to New Delhi Sunday night and sleep there so that I could go to the FRRO office first thing Monday morning and throw myself at their mercy.
Satisfied with this plan as the best I was capable of at the moment, I wanted to put the situation out of my head. I didn’t want to ruin my experience by stressing out about what may or may not happen. Before I could do that I needed to let a few people at home know what was up…just in case. I texted my friend in Holland who had agreed to pick me up at the airport. I briefly laid out the situation and let her know that there was a chance that I wouldn’t be there when I said. I would keep her posted. Then I texted a friend in the U.S. who knows my parents well. Streets and I had been skydiving together a few years before and had exchanged our parents’ phone numbers before we jumped, you can figure out why. I gave her the rundown of my visa situation and told her that there was no reason to worry my parents now, but that if she hadn’t heard from me by a certain time, that she should call them and fill them in. I let her know my New Delhi plan so she would have a last known location to look for me.
Plan in place and text messages sent, I put my phone down and put my visa to the back of my mind. I dove into my final week at yoga school, making improvements in my practice, asking questions of my teachers, bonding with my classmates, exploring the town of Rishikesh. I climbed a couple hundred stairs before dawn to watch the sunrise from a mountain-top temple; I played cricket with the neighborhood boys in a field of trash and cows; I hitched a ride on the back of a scooter to make it to satsang on time; I led my classmates in a yoga class that I designed.
When Sunday arrived I felt like I had absolutely made the right decision. I was so happy to be involved in our graduation and honestly felt like whatever consequences I was to face in New Delhi would be worth not missing out on one single moment of this experience. After our ceremony, we said our emotional goodbyes, took a few more pictures and then I climbed into the car with two of my classmates-turned-friends and set off for the next part of my Indian adventure. . .