Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Thirty Dollars And Three Years

You may have noticed I've picked up the pace, covered more miles, since that marinade in Goa. There are two reasons: Talia, and my Indian tourist visa. The first reason arrived straight from New York City fresh and frenetic, ready to move, and with a limited amount of time, just as the second reason was due to expire. So, travelling with Talia meant I'd have to get a new tourist visa; in early February, when I decided to stay until April, I knew I'd have to be in another country by Feb. 22, since India requires visitors to exit to get a new visa. The upshot is, when I received that email in Bangalore saying my ticket to the United States had been changed, we pointed our steps towards Thiruvananthapuram, the closest major major port to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, where I could visit the Indian High Commission.

selling gramophones on the street

There were a few places along the way that we'd had enough of before the time we'd allotted to them had elapsed, so we found ourselves in Thiruvananthapuram (a city which didn't seem worth the trouble it takes to say its name) five days before February 21, which was a Wednesday, one of the two weekdays the United States Consulate's Citizen Services is open, from 2-4 pm, and before I could apply for an Indian visa, I needed to renew my passport, which was due to expire in late April. This business of documents, aside from imposing a time-frame, was causing me various irritations. First of all, I had hoped for a cheap, picturesque sail from the southernmost tip of India to the seaside city of Colombo, but after quite a bit of searching around, even unearthing a slew of newspaper articles from 2003 about a new port complete with immigration offices, and shipping companies ready to begin passenger services, whose phone numbers I went so far as to acquire, I resigned myself to the fact that Sri Lanka is only reachable by plane.

Then, when I checked into plane tickets during my stay in Fort Cochin, I found that Sri Lankan airlines has a monopoly on flights from India, so they charge ridiculous prices. I decided to wait and see if the price came down or something else turned up. Meanwhile, Talia, of a markedly more optimistic bent of mind than I, became convinced that it must be possible to extend or renew a tourist visa without leaving India. Her openness to possibility has usually been refreshing and instructive for me, but in this case, it led me to a protracted wander through the labyrinth (if it can be assumed to have so much structure and intent) of Indian bureaucracy. I won't bore you with a play by play of the amazing difficulty of tracking down a valid phone number, calling closed offices, and visiting offices where the person believed to have information was on a mysterious "central government holiday." It's enough to say that at the end of a long process, the answer, issuing from a small, dim room piled with dusty files presided over by the Foreigner Regional Registration Office(or as I'd come to refer to him over my days of tracking him down, the Fro) was, "no," and the fact that it had taken so much effort just to get to a human being who could verify my initial understanding of the absurd regulations was maddening.

supplicant and The Fro

Seated on a rickety wooden chair across from The Fro, who occupied a school desk of the type we used to hide beneath during nuclear attack drills in the 1980s, I felt, after all that time spent finding him, I deserved some explanation. I asked him, "So, what happens if I overstay my visa?" Throughout our brief exchange he had been referring to a dirty photocopy affixed to the inside of a folder that he'd dug out of a pile. The paper he looked to for guidance was the same list of vagueries I'd found on several websites, and before answering me, he checked it again. I already knew there was no information about penalties there, but he looked up and pronounced, "30 dollars."
"Really, that's all? So, when I go through immigration at the airport, I just pay them 30 dollars?" "Yes, 30 dollars."
"Are you sure?"
"Well, I'll just stay then. It's cheaper than a new visa."
"Madame, for your safety, you must leave," he stated angrily.
And then said, "People are waiting," gesturing toward the line that I had just spent an hour in.
"I really don't care. I've been trying to get information about this for a week, and I finally get to you, and you don't know anything. What is the penalty for overstaying my visa?"
"Arrest and...for how long?"
"Three years."
"So, the penalty is 30 dollars and three years in jail?"

"What?," you say. Now you know how I feel.

So, there you have it, India in a nutshell; a place that makes you say, "what?" and then refuses to answer. Utterly defeated by absurdity, I left the F.R.R.O. in a huff and went to deliver the verdict to Talia, who was far more shocked than I at the inevitability of Sri Lanka. I booked a ticket for the next morning, one day before my visa was expiring, but she needed some time to consider her options. On that particular evening, she was at a peak of frustration with India; she had been having stomach problems for some time, was a frequent victim of the ass/boob grab, her leg had been dented by a motorcycle carrying three men a few hours earlier, and I dare say she was experiencing some intense boyfriend-missing. As I packed, she lay on the bed, considering the idea of considering where to go. Despite her momentary listlessness, when her decision came, it came with force. She sat upright and declared, "Of course I'm coming to Sri Lanka! Where'd you get your ticket,"

view from an Indian Coffee House

Well satisfied that I'd exhausted all possibilities, we went to the Thiruvananthapuram airport on February 21, and eventually, flew away, ending the trail that had led through Mysore, Ooty, Fort Cochin, Allepey, and Thiruvananthapuram in the space of 19 days. It's only fair here to give credit to Talia and the Lonely Planet she arrived with. I wouldn't have been able to hack the frequent transits without a team-mate to share the work of travel, and although the Lonely Planet is often inaccurate and always heavy, it decreased my relocation anxieties and made the places we stopped digestible in short periods of time. The nice maps in the pages never tidied up the chaotic realities of the streets, but they did help to alleviate some pre-arrival tension by giving me a place to start and the illusion that I knew where I was going.

Don't ask me what that is.

On the other hand, I never became engaged by Kerala, and I don't know if that's because of the predigested nature of travelling with a guide book, moving too quickly to pay close attention to any particular thing, or just a low point in my own interest. In all, I spent 11 days there, and as far as I'm concerned, its saving grace, its most interesting institution, is the Indian Coffee House, a Keralan restaurant chain abandoned by its colonial founders and re-opened by its newly unemployed staff as a worker owned co-operative in 1958. The Allepey beach location features the only cheap, Indian menu on the beachfront, and when you order coffee, you acutally get a substantial amount of black liquid in your cup, rather than the typical thimble-full of powders (cream, sugar, and nescafe) and hot water, and if you order the coffee set, you get a whole pot, almost unheard of outside of tourist encampments; I was hooked from the get-go.

Even though the Allepey location was aesthetically uninspiring, a comfortably crumbling cement patio set far back from the beach, I regretted leaving behind my reliably delicious breakfasts, hot, flaky flat-breads and spicy vegetable mixtures. Imagine my delight when, exiting the Thiruvananthapuram railway station, a round structure with an upward spiraling pattern of gaps in its red brickwork bore the quaint Indian Coffee House sign; cheap, delicious food, architectural appeal, and a convenient location! Maybe because it's worker owned and volume means profit, the waiters take your order, serve your food, and bring your check quickly. And maybe for the same reason, they don't seem embarrassed about their uniforms, which consist of white shirt and pants, a cumber bund-like thing, and a head wrap that winds its way up to crowning fan-fold.

On a beach near Thiruvananthapuram looms a decaying, yellow hulk, its paint peeling against a temperamental sky, that must have been a warehouse or a customs center in its day. Now, 10 or 12 tables beneath an awning on a platform extending from beneath the eaves comprise an Indian Coffee House. There, I happened to have a waiter who was both friendly and functional in English, which gave me an opportunity to feel out the uniform situation; I had been wondering if they seemed as silly to the people who wore them as they did to me. For fear of offending, I didn't want to ask directly how he liked his costume, instead I asked him if he wraps his flamboyant turban himself every day. Judging by his face, he was aware that it's a silly hat, but he explained smilingly that he wraps it himself about once every two weeks, fan-fold and all, and the process takes about two minutes.

Rajendra Prasad, I.C.H. co-owner

Before I came to India, I was planning to do a month long yoga course near Thiruvananthapuram, and maybe I would have appreciated Kerala more if I hadn't abandoned that plan. The further I travel, exposing myself to constant strangeness, stimulus and change, the more I realize the necessity of having a point of focus, some detail with which to square the rest, and being a bit weary of churches, I never really settled on one there; if the time had been right, I would have done an Indian Coffee house tour.

another I.C.H.


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