Delhi Dilemma

Posted on May 27, 2017 under Storytelling with 8 comments

Indian visa woes: A tangled web

“ If you’re not paying attention to your head and your heart, India will bury you.”

W. Karl Smith.

The dream vacation.

 After spending close to six months in India doing volunteer work, it was time for a little R&R, traveling through Northern India with my brother, Don. I flew to Delhi from Southern India and spent a few days checking out the sights and sounds of one of India’s busiest ( and most polluted! ) cities. Don’s flight from Canada was delayed 24 hours. I discovered that Delhi is actually a beautiful city, rich in history and culture. It rained the day before I arrived and even the pollution wasn’t nearly as bad as expected.

Our plan was to visit Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. While we had a general plan, we hadn’t nailed down any specifics other than the fact that the Taj Mahal was first on the list. The day before commencing our trip, we went for a walk in Lodi Garden, a magnificent green space in Delhi and home to thousands of birds. To get back to our accommodations, we had to cross a busy road. Now, being Sunday, the traffic wasn’t bad so I made a run for it. I’m used to this death defying feat. Don lingered a bit and just then, a middle aged Indian man more or less guided him across the road.

Shahji (* ) walked with us for a few hundred yards. His day job is a chef but during his free time, he takes visitors on city tours with his auto rickshaw. He offered a guided two hour tour for Rs 100 ( $2.00 ). We took his phone number and after a few hours decided that this might be a good way to pass the afternoon.

The tour was excellent and Shahji knows his city well. He asked us about our travel plans and when we told him that we were going to “wing it”, he strongly urged us to go to a tourism operator and arrange the whole trip, complete with a driver. The last stop of the day was at Delhi Tours Dot Com. We were ushered into the office of Manuj, a dead ringer for the Australian golfer, Jason Day. With a pen and paper, he sketched out the twelve days and gave us the cost, including all accommodations, some train travel and a full time driver. It didn’t take us long to sign up.

North Americans live and die by the clock. Our lives are chopped up into one hour intervals of carefully planned activities. Indian runs on IST… India Stretchable Time so we weren’t overly alarmed when our driver didn’t show up at exactly 8:00 a.m. on Monday morning. Our driver, Jeevan, (*) had trouble locating our accommodations which wasn’t a big surprise with it tucked down an alley way.

( *Names have been changed. )


We headed off to Agra to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal. It didn’t disappoint. While we were having our lunch at a café in Agra, Jeevan secured the services of a professional guide. Rajah is a history professor at a local university and he does guiding on the side. He was worth every rupee that we paid him as he explained the history of the place in great detail and showed us things that the casual observer simply wouldn’t notice. It was late afternoon when he headed off for the “pink city” of Jaipur.

 Along the way, Jeevan pulled off because there was a fort that he thought we would enjoy seeing. From the moment we exited the vehicle, we were pestered incessantly by young boys wanting us to hire them as guides or buy cheap merchandise. This is quite normal in India but near the end of a long day, it was a bit much. Truth be told, it was quite irritating.  By the time we reached the spot where buses escorted you into the fort, we both decided to take a pass on this.

It was around 10:30 p.m when we finally reached the Regal Raj Hotel. A throwback to the time when Britain reigned over India, the hotel was elegant and reeked of the British influence. We were very tired and very hungry and planned on going to the restaurant before closing time. Before eating, we went to our rooms to drop our bags and freshen up. I had scarcely put down my knapsack when loud pounding on my door startled me. The desk clerk who checked me in, looked like the proverbial “deer in the headlight.”  “Sir. Your visa has expired and you cannot stay here tonight.” When I said that I would deal with it in the morning, he didn’t move and insisted that I leave the hotel. Don’s room was only a few feet away. I mimicked the desk clerk and pounded on his door with a sense of urgency.

For those of you who do not know, my brother is a retired lawyer. We all went down to the front desk and Don convinced the hotel staff that we would resolve the matter in less than 24 hours as we planned to stay a second night. Hotels are not allowed to accept guests with expired visas and must report this to the authorities within a 24 hour time period. Needless to say, a sleepless night ensued.

Don worked into the wee hours to determine how to resolve my problem. With no Immigration offices in Jaipur, one website suggested that in cases like these, the local Superintendent of Police might be able to issue an extension to my visa. With the full knowledge that Indian officials can detain, arrest and imprison people with invalid visas, ( not a trifecta in which I wanted to participate ! ),  I entered the police station with some degree of trepidation. Not surprisingly, we encountered communication problems and after an hour or so in a stuffy office, which became the gathering point for several other staff, we decided to bail ( No. I don’t mean post bail! ).

Given the language issues, it became obvious that the only way that this problem was going to get resolved was to turn around and go back to Delhi.

The first leg of our trip was scuttled on the spot.

 We spent a long day of traveling and arrived in Delhi at rush hour. The reported population of Delhi is 23 million and it seemed like every citizen was on the road that night. It took forever to travel the last few kilometers. We went to check in at the Marble Arch Hotel ( No “Hallelujahs” there. LC ). One look at my visa and I was “persona non grata.”

I think that the last time that I slept on a floor might have been after a pub crawl at university. As it was late at night, my options were limited. Jeevan called the owner of Delhi Tours who agreed to let me sleep on the floor of an office on the second floor of his building. Charming. With no washrooms in this building, I was forced to use a public bathroom 25 yards away. Around 3:00 a.m. I carefully stepped over several homeless people to get to the bathroom, and found it locked for the night. It was obvious that a nearby wall had been used for this purpose more than once!

After my beauty rest, I met up with Don and our driver. Plan A was to visit the Indian Bureau of Immigration ( BOI ) in hopes that we could quickly remedy the situation. We arrived very early ( to get a good seat! ) but were told that the office only opened at 10:00, despite the website indicating 8:30. With time to kill, Jeevan directed us towards a large Sikh temple less than a block away. Because we were foreigners, we were given a guided tour of the premises. Everything about the temple was impressive, none more so than the dining area and kitchen where 10,000 to 20,000 free meals are prepared and  served daily to anyone wanting to eat.

We returned to the BOI and ascertained that this was not the place to have our problem resolved. Plan B took us to the FRRO: Foreign Regional Registration Office. My heart sank. It was late morning and the temperature was creeping slowly towards 40 degrees. Herded into an open air space with a roof for cover, were hundreds of people standing in line. And despite being a covered outdoor facility, the heat was, nonetheless oppressive. So was the atmosphere.

Many people were in rows of benches awaiting a call for their appointment while the rest of us were placed in two rows. We were extremely fortunate and grateful that two Europeans were standing right beside us. They have been in India for years and from time to time have to report to the authorities to clear up visa matters. We were not encouraged when the women told us that this was her fourth trip to FRRO this week. It seems that thwarting desperate people is part of the punishment for contravening immigration rules.

We finally made it to the front of the line to meet the receptionist, a pleasant enough man who has a very difficult job as he is always dealing with people who are stressed out. It is doubly difficult when the tools of your trade are a pencil and paper. I prayed that the lead wouldn’t break in the pencil before he dealt with me. We knew this already but he told us that I had to formally apply for an exit permit and that once I had all my paperwork together and submitted electronically, I would receive notification for an interview.

The first and most important question they would ask at the interview was where I was staying. I didn’t want to admit to sleeping on the floor at a tourist agency so I needed to find a local address. I placed a call to my dear friend, Sister Anastasia and within an hour, she had made arrangements for us to stay with a religious order. It took us 2.5 hours to travel 20 kilometers. We were greeted by a Franciscan brother and shown to our rooms. We had a short rest and met with a few of the Brothers who had no idea why we were there.

One of the Brothers was the head of the organization and he said that staying there was a bad idea as it was in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh and the FRRO was in Delhi. We were ushered into a vehicle and driven back into the state of Delhi. We were taken to another facility ( Boy’s Home and School ) operated by the Franciscans. I would now have a local address to put on my application.

Don decided to make Delhi his home base for the duration of his time in India.

The next morning, we put on our “game faces” very early and started to amass the documents we would need to hopefully satisfy the authorities and get the all important first interview. By late morning, all was in order and we headed back in to the maw of Delhi. We had received a very important piece of advice from a woman in the lineup the previous day. She told us about a young guy who operates a service to complete and upload all the forms. No pencil and paper for this smart man. This is what he does for a living so rather than tempt fate, we decided to pay whatever he charged to ensure that this was done properly.

His  “office” was conveniently located on the major road outside the FRRO,  squashed between two take out eateries. He skillfully started processing our papers, took a photo and scanned documents. He even had a laminating machine for those who needed the service. As he waited for my stuff to upload, he started waiting on two other people. There was an attractive lady waiting for her photo. As papers flew, I had this thought of finding her picture affixed to my application in error, causing quite a commotion at FRRO.

When you are in a bind, you will pay any amount of money to extricate yourself. We discovered that his basic fee was Rs 150 but the add ons, copying, photo and uploading of documents, brought the grand total to Rs 370 or about $7.40 Canadian. He hit the send button and instantly, his computer kicked out the completed application along with all the forms…. and an appointment at FRRO the following Monday. A sense of relief washed over us but we knew better than to get too excited. We were still a long way from the finish line but at least we were in the starting blocks.

With nothing more to do than wait four days, Don decided to head back to Jaipur ( to have tea with the Superintendent of Police?! ). I headed back to hang out with the Franciscans to spend some down time and take in all the Easter services.

Holy Week is about penance, suffering and redemption. By the end of the weekend, I was wondering if officials at FRRO had placed a call to the Brothers insisting that I attend all services. I won’t bore you with all the details but the grand finale, the Easter vigil, last 3 hours, 5 minutes and 27 seconds. Yes, I was watching a large clock on the wall, wondering if this is what eternity feels like. Oh yes. A re-enactment of the Way of the Cross was held on Good Friday on a soccer field with no shade. The temperature was 42. Penance.

I met Don bright and early at the FRRO on April 17th and a crowd had already amassed. We were told that just about everyone in the waiting area was from Afghanistan. I chatted briefly with an Afghani man and he said that he was hoping to gain entry to Canada as a refugee. Somehow my situation seemed pretty minor. Trying to figure out the mechanics of the waiting room is a bit tricky. At the front of the room there is a sign that says, “May I help you.” The intent is honorable but when there is no one manning that booth, it’s redundant.

The Afghanis were all instructed to line up on one side of the room. This nearly cleared out our section and we found ourselves a few rows from the front… close enough to see the paper and pencil! Miraculously, shortly before 10:00, I was at the receptionist’s desk and moments later, held a small but treasured chit of paper authorizing me to enter the gates of Hades.

The room designated for Foreigners is pleasant enough and incredibly, is air conditioned. It has about 14 separate wickets to serve the public and several other offices around the perimeter. I took my seat beside a lovely man from Australia who has been volunteering for years at an Ashram in India. He’s been through the drill many times and his peaceful demeanor was that of someone who had learned to accept the quirkiness and inefficiencies of the Indian bureaucracy. His demeanor changed radically a few hours later after visiting 8 different officials. His situation was far less complicated than mine and when the paymaster asked for Rs 14,000 ( about $280. ), he nearly lost it. Of course, he wasn’t expecting a fee of this magnitude and didn’t have the money on hand. He was forced to leave the building to get the required funds which meant he would be lining up again later in the day. His serene manner had all but vanished.

My wait was only 30 minutes before my number came up. I approached the counter and stood in front of a stern looking man. I handed him my passport, said good morning and smiled. He didn’t even grunt. He flipped through all of the paperwork ( or so I thought ) that had been uploaded a few days ago. It didn’t take long before a dark cloud appeared on his face.  My only saving grace is that I had braced myself for this. No one goes through this process without serious scrutiny.

My passport, visa and stamped passport arrival date had been uploaded with all of my other documents. He told me that I would have to exit the building and bring back hard copies which I did later in the morning.

Because I had worked in Hyderabad and Kannyakumari, he wondered what I was doing in the Delhi branch of FRRO. I could see myself catching an afternoon flight to one of these cities. I patiently explained the chronology of events which brought me to this office. He handed me back my passport and all of the paperwork and sent me to a “special room.”

The next guy was every bit as cheerful as the first and when he started shaking his head, my worst fears were realized. I knew that this was going to be a marathon. Luckily, I had run the Boston Marathon twice and understood the notions of pain and persistence.

He sent me back to the waiting room, indicating that my matter would be reviewed by his superior.

The waiting room reminds me a bit of a merry go around… without the music. Once you start the process, along with dozens of others, the place is in constant motion as frazzled tourists are directed from one wicket to another for no apparent reason. Everyone walks around and round in circles like zombies, occasionally sitting while awaiting a fresh set of instructions. You just know that everyone of them is thinking, “How in God’s name did I get myself into this mess and how in the hell am I going to get out of it?”

An hour later, I was called back into the “special room.” “This is going to take time,” said Mr. Congeniality.  I was thinking hours. He was thinking weeks. I told him that my flight home was on Sunday ( which he already knew as I had to submit my flight details ).  “This will take at least a week to resolve.” I had previously spoken to someone who told me it took three months to get his problem resolved.

My heart sank. Disappointment swept over me. While I had enjoyed every minute in India ( until this unfortunate set of circumstances ), I was more than ready to go home. I didn’t let my chagrin show. He told me that he would be sending communications to the organizations with whom I had volunteered and that he would call me when he had an update. I smiled, shook his hand, thanked him for his help ( ?!) and left the building.

Even though one can mentally prepare themselves for unpleasant tasks, the reality of these situations is another thing all together. Here you are, half way around the world, where language and communication is a serious barrier, trying to get home. This, after spending six months working for the poor… the poor of India. It is psychological warfare. I kept thinking of refugees and wondered how they possibly kept their wits about them when fleeing the horrors of war and then having to deal with immigration issues.

One footnote. I was feeling a bit beat up but I didn’t have to look far to see others in far worse straits. A woman wearing a burqua was pacing the floors waiting for her number to be called . She was accompanied by a physically and mentally challenged young son who was having tantrums every five minutes or so. My heart went out to her.

While waiting to hear about my fate later in the week, I decided to use my time constructively and volunteered to teach some classes at the school next door. I did some PowerPoint presentations on my time in India and had a long seminar with the grade 11s & 12s about the garbage issue and how North America handles its waste.

As the week wore on and no phone call from FRRO, we decided that it was time to engage the services of an immigration lawyer. On Thursday, we established contact and by Thursday evening, she was working on my file. She told us that she had seen hundreds of cases similar to mine and that she didn’t think that the problems would be too difficult to resolve in a short period of time. She told us to be near the FRRO office late Friday morning to wait her instructions.

I packed all my luggage and headed into the city.

It was another very hot day in Delhi with the temperature soaring to close to 43 .We walked the well known sidewalk outside the FRRO compound and decided to find a cooler retreat. Just up the road was the Hyatt Regency Hotel. On our way, we were accosted by several small children begging on the sidewalk… an all too common and regrettable site. Even though the Hyatt was only 300 yards away, it was worlds apart from what we had just witnessed.

We grabbed some coffee and sustenance, not knowing how long things would take to unfold. The hotel had all the trappings of wealth. The people sunning themselves beside the pool inside the gated facility might be totally unaware of the poverty a few paces away.

At 12:15, my phone rang with the electrifying news that I would, in all likelihood, receive my exit permit that afternoon. There were a few formalities at the FRRO that need to be tidied up and then I would be on my way. We were pretty pumped up as we nearly ran to the FRRO  down the street. This time, things were markedly different. There was no standing in the queue and when I handed the receptionist my documents, he scribbled something down ( in pencil! ) on a chit of paper and said that Don was allowed to accompany me.

We entered the main office and within minutes were standing at the counter in front of a middle aged lady. She had some papers of mine in front of her. “There are two more conditions that need to be met before we can issue your exit permit. We need to send an officer to verify your residency and when that is completed, we need to conduct a criminal background check.” We asked if that was being done this very afternoon. To our utter dismay, she said that this could only take place next week and if things went well, we could come back on Wednesday. “Cancel your plane ticket,” she said. We had already made that peremptory strike in anticipation of more problems.


 After being told less than an hour before that the coast was clear, we now knew that neither of us would be flying home on the weekend. We stood out in the non- air conditioned hallway to call the lawyer and her agent in Delhi who had done the footwork. The intense heat was magnified by frustration as repeated calls to the lawyer ended in mid sentence. Dropped calls are common.  According to the lawyer, there had been a misunderstanding regarding my possible departure.

We walked up a flight of stairs and went to the office where they organize inspections at your stated residence. The dimly lit, dilapidated and joyless office was inhabited by three people who indicated that they were on lunch break. We finally gained access and were told that an officer would be out to see me on Monday. We went back down to see the lady behind the counter one more time. Even though she was sitting there with no evidence of food, she looked up and said, “I’m on my lunch break. Take a seat.”

Though very demoralized, we left the building later in the afternoon feeling that the lady who had waited on us was actually sympathetic.

We went back to Don’s Hotel. It is called Hotel Blessings. No blessings were to be found on this day. I ordered an Uber cab. Five minutes turned into 20 ( it was just that kind of day ) and when the driver finally arrived, he said the order had been cancelled. Another cab was ordered. Frustrations have a way of multiplying.

There are times in your life when you’re feeling a bit low and then you get some dirt kicked in your face for good measure. I had become accustomed to the route back to my residence so when the Uber driver headed into one of the worst slums in the city, I was perplexed… and demoralized. Row after row of dilapidated dwellings with grinding poverty in evidence at every doorstep. And for some unknown reason, the quickest route that day, according to the GPS, was all on the back roads including a stretch resembling a logging road back home. Because it was nearly five o’clock, every village ( and they were all poor ) was jammed with traffic making the drive all the more stressful.

When I arrived home, my nerves were jangled and my spirits low. I started the walk up to the second floor of my residence and heard an all too familiar sound. My facility was undergoing masonry work. For the past week or so, the workers have been installing a new marble staircase which requires a lot of grinding and sanding. The grinders and sanders decided to work until 9:00 that evening… right outside my door.

The next day, I discovered that my health insurance was expiring in two days along with my cell phone contract. These are some of the consequences of making a mistake with one’s visa.

The following Monday, I received a visit from an FRRO officer at my residence. It was his duty to confirm with the head Franciscan that I had been dutifully staying with the Brothers… and that I had been behaving myself! One more thing on the checklist completed.

With cautious optimism, I headed back to the FRRO office on Wednesday as requested the previous Friday. The optimism was short lived as I was informed that two reports that they had requested from colleagues ten days earlier, had not been completed and that my file would not move forward until such time as the reports arrived. When asked how long this could take, the agent said that his colleagues have 15 business days in which to complete the onerous task of a one page report. As I was “only” at day 10, there was a good chance that I wouldn’t be leaving India for another week to ten days.

We spent the remainder of the day trying to find ways to expedite the process. We were also both having cell phone problems and unreliable internet access. Patience is a virtue. We weren’t feeling very virtuous.

It seems that every day, the ride home in a cab, has some distinguishing feature. A few days ago, I sat in a lineup for gas. You would think that a cab driver would have his tank full before making a long trip. You would be thinking incorrectly. This was no ordinary lineup. It was on a major thoroughfare and was backed up for about a kilometer. It took us an hour just to get to the pumps.

After the latest disappointing visit to FRRO, I was on my way home when my latest driver also need gas. We only had to wait a half an hour this time ( must be a gas shortage or the price was due to go up a rupee in the next few days ). When we reached the pumps, I was asked to get out for safety reasons. This was fortuitous as I needed a pee break.

It is simply not possible to find the right words to describe the washroom. It had a squat toilet and a urinal. Luckily I didn’t have to use the toilet as a swarm of about 500 flies hovered directly above it. The stench of the room left a lot to be desired!

I finished off yet another frustrating day with the comfort of a new book given to me earlier in the day by Don. “Freedom at Midnight” is the story of how India gained its independence from British rule in 1947. I was wondering how I would gain MY independence. Being held against your will is a new and unpleasant experience.

In order to expedite the process in Kannykumari, I got in touch with Sister Anastasia who was on retreat. To this point, no one had contacted her from FRRO. She decided to take matters into her own hands and left the retreat ( a 3 hour drive from Kannykumari ). She arranged a meeting on Friday with the FRRO delegate in the nearest city: the Superintendent of Police in Nagercoil, a 40 minute drive from the convent.

Our legal advisors were understandably concerned that another FRRO locale was getting involved this late in the process. Their worst fears were realized. As Sister was meeting with the Superintendent, she placed a call to me. It was obvious that this guy wasn’t aware of the contents of my file in Delhi. He wanted to start a fresh file. She handed him the phone and in broken English he suggested that I would have to fly to southern India, to Nagercoil , and start the process all over again. He assured me that I would have my exit permit in thirty days. I tried ( in vain ) to explain to him that the process was already 90% completed in the FRRO in Delhi.

This was not a good news kind of day. The roller coaster had bottomed out once again.

It was now Friday again with a long weekend looming. We passed along the latest information to our lawyers and decided to do some tourist things to take our minds off the ever increasing frustrations. At the end of a good day, I headed back to my residence. The traffic was unbelievable. Once again, my cab driver ducked in to a gas station. Mercifully the lineup was short.

The last five kilometers of the trip is on a narrow road. It is an industrial area and there are hundreds and hundreds of lorries ( transport trucks ) . It is always slow going but on this afternoon it was bedlam. We inched along, with every driver honking their horns. This phenomenon intrigues me. There is absolutely nowhere to go in conditions like this yet every vehicle owner and motorcyclist insists on leaning on the horn. When you’re dealing with your own personal aggravations, this doesn’t help the situation.

With two kilometers to go, the traffic stopped dead. I knew what this meant. There must be a train coming as the barrier was down. When this happens, everyone just turns off their cars… and the air conditioning. Beads of sweat formed on my brow. Frustration and heat can be mortal enemies. When the train finally passed, the traffic began to move but at a snail’s pace. Hundreds of horns joined in unison. I thought I might go mad.

The source of the problem became evident as my cab waited on the train tracks for several minutes. On the road up ahead was a stalled vehicle. One brave soul was doing his best to direct traffic but there was very little patience and brotherliness being shown. Nobody wanted to give an inch. It seemed like an eternity until we finally entered the village of Khuna. I had been in the cab for well over 2 hours, a drive which normally takes 45-60 minutes. We made the last sharp left turn into a narrow alleyway leading to the gate at the entrance to the grounds of the Franciscans.

I stared in disbelief. Was this some kind of cruel, sadistic joke? Walking down the alleyway were two women carrying what resembled Scottish cabers draped over their shoulders. But rather than lying perpendicular to their shoulders, these twenty foot long sticks of lumber were running horizontally across their backs preventing any vehicle from passing them. After my driver honked his horn ( of course! ), they switched their load so that we could enter our compound.

I staggered out of the car feeling like I had gone twelve rounds with Mike Tyson. But I checked and I still had two ears.

As I opened the door to my residence, I heard the all familiar sounds of cutting, sanding and grinding of marble. The workers were back and decided to work overtime, virtually outside my room until 9:00 that night.

And the internet was down. And there was no hot water. A few mosquitoes buzzed around my head.

I spent a few quiet days regrouping while Don visited some historic sites in Delhi. I quietly lamented the fact that I would be missing both of my granddaughters’ birthdays this weekend as well as a presentation that I was supposed to be delivering to a Senior’s conference. The topic was about retirees traveling abroad. Had I been able to attend, the first thing that I would have advised the audience was to check the issue date of their visa.

Another consequence of my unfortunate oversight was that my anti-malarial pills were running out in two days time… and the state of Delhi is in a malaria zone. While I continued to hunker down in my rural town, Don scoured Connaught Circle and was able to find replacement pills, much to our relief.

On Tuesday, May 5th I received a call from Sister Anastasia at Stella Maris informing me that officials from FRRO were coming to visit her today. This was good news as this appeared to be the last requirement. Later that evening, I received a call from Don. Our lawyer had told him that I was to present myself at the FRRO on Wednesday at 11:00 a.m.

After suffering several setbacks and getting my hopes raised and then dashed, I refused to let myself believe that the end was near but this was certainly an encouraging message to receive last in the evening. The bulk of my luggage had been sitting in Don’s hotel for days. He suggested that I take my remaining bags with me… just in case I got my “get out of jail free” card on Wednesday.

Wednesday dawned like most other days. You could tell it was going to be hot. I made the familiar trip to the school next to get one of the teachers to book an Uber cab for me. Because of the school’s quirky location, it was imperative to have a Hindu speaking person give the driver directions.

I rendezvoused with Don at Hotel Blessings and we made our way over to the street where the FRRO is located which is just down the road from the Hyatt Regency. We decided to fortify ourselves with one of the most expensive cups of coffee in the city at the Hyatt. I ordered a muffin and the waiter came with a full carafe of coffee and a plate full of fancy danishes. We knew from previous experience that this would be a very expensive “pick me upper.” When I asked for the bill, we were both astonished when the waiter said, “No charge.” Was this to be a good omen of things to come?

For the fifth time, I rounded the familiar corner and stared into the mosh pit also known as the waiting room for the FRRO. When you are a “veteran returnee”, you no longer get discouraged with the long , depressing lineups, the oppressive heat and the feeling of despair that hangs in the air. I took my place in a short queue. Yes, I was still given a small piece of paper with a number written on it, which gained me access into the inner sanctum. But now the receptionist told me to NOT wait for my number to be called but to go immediately to desk “A”.

The large intake room for foreigners was packed as per usual. There was no one in line for desk “A” so I pranced up and submitted my passport. “Your file is in order. Do you have a plane ticket booked for home?” I could scarcely grasp what this lady was saying. Of course, I didn’t have a flight booked as I didn’t know if or when I would be leaving India. “Bring me back a hard copy of your itinerary this afternoon and we will issue your exit permit.” I looked at the clock. It was 11:30 a.m.

I broke the news to Don a few minutes later but there was little time for rejoicing as we now had to scramble to arrange flights home. We decided to head back to his hotel as it was only a half an hour away and we knew that he had reliable internet and access to a printer.

Or so we thought.

 Don tried unsuccessfully several times to book my flight. I was trying to get a wi-fi connection on my iphone and was having troubles as well. A call to the front desk confirmed our worst suspicions: the internet was down. We packed up our stuff and headed one street over to the  “pancake” hotel ( see “ All That Glitters” ). Lo and behold, we were to discover , to our considerable chagrin , that the internet wasn’t working anywhere in the area.

It was now 1:30. We knew from experience that FRRO stayed open until 5:00 p.m. but you must be inside the building no later than 3:00 p.m. Time was quickly becoming a factor. We decided to grab a rickshaw and head over to the tour operator’s office ( where I slept a few weeks earlier ) to access their wi-fi. By 2:30, I had the precious plane ticket information in my hands even though the toner had run out on their printer and the details were barely discernible.

We were now facing rush hour and 43 degree heat. The tour operator arranged one of their regular Uber drivers to take us to the FRRO. He drove like a maniac and took several shortcuts down narrow alleyways. Did I mention that his air conditioner in the car wasn’t working? We were sweating bullets, literally and figuratively. It was 2:50 and we were minutes away from the FRRO. We entered a very busy traffic circle which also had a set of lights. Our driver turned off the car. That is never good news in Delhi. We didn’t need to enter the traffic circle but our path was blocked by an oil truck… for a precious 5 minutes.

We arrived at our destination at 2:58. I leapt out of the car and made a run for it…just in time for chai. Yes, tea time and lunch are sacrosanct just about everywhere in this office. I waited a few minutes and after my plane ticket was added to my two inch thick file, I was sent to the desk where I would receive the all important exit permit. I paid a modest fine and was out the door by 4:00. There was one small moment of panic when my credit card didn’t work… twice!

My flight for home was in eight hour’s time, just after midnight on May 4th ( “Freedom at Midnight“?! ).

We decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner, including three desserts!

They normally suggest that you arrive at an airport two hours in advance of your flight if it is international. We weren’t going to take any chances especially at an incredibly busy airport like New Delhi and gave ourselves the luxury of one additional hour.

Good thing.

These days at many major airports, the level of security is over the top. You can’t even get into the terminal without airport personnel carefully scrutinizing your plane ticket and passport. Of course, the printing of my ticket was barely discernable which immediately raised eyebrows. I was required to show the security guard the flight details on my phone. He also decided to scrutinize my exit permit. I had been assured at FRRO that no one would give me grief at the airport as exit permits are very common.

Two hours and three more security checks later, including Immigration where a great debate raged between two officers about my permit, I finally got into the waiting area for my flight. I had crossed the goal line and for the first time in weeks, I was able to exhale knowing that my ordeal was coming to an end.

Don booked his flight an hour after mine as he wanted to be 100% sure that I had left the country.

I showed my passport and boarding pass to the flight attendant and took my seat on the plane. Seated next to me were a young mother and her six month old daughter. A 15 hour flight to Toronto lay ahead of us. I wondered if Indian officials had arranged this as final punishment for my transgressions.

After an hour delay sitting on the tarmac, we were ready to taxi. This would be the last flight leaving Delhi that night due to weather. Don’s flight was delayed six hours which gave him the unique opportunity of sleeping on a tile floor in the Delhi airport.

As the wheels lifted off the runway, a smile crossed my face knowing that I would be on Canadian soil the following morning.

The baby began to fuss.




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