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Sunday, 29 November 2009

Planning a Trip to America ~ Part 7- at Stars and Strips lounge

The day of interview finally arrived. It was scheduled at 10am. I had to go with valid proof of my journey, valid documents, and appointment letter (downloaded from the net.)

I got up early (it said very clearly on the rules page, that if I missed the appointment then I would spell trouble). The first fear that gripped me was what if the alarm did not go on. I know, I know, 10am is not early. But for me it is because I am a late riser. And I had to go to the other side of the city. That means I need to leave two hours early and one hour I would need to get dressed, so the perfect time would be to get up at 7am. I set all the clocks in my house at 7am, plus my mobile phone and also told my two friends to call me to wake me and nobody betrayed me. Morning, at 7am, I was mobbed with too many wake-up calls.

Got dressed up and headed towards south Mumbai. The traffic was too much. Why do they have so many signals on Mumbai road? Or rather, why do they have so many cross-road junctions everywhere? On the days when you wish to hurry, your transport is likely to halt at every signal on the road and you are destined to be caught up in traffic jams. Braving all this hassle, I reached the embassy building at 9:45am, just fifteen minutes before my appointment time. I approached the attendant outside the Visa Application Centre (Tirupati Apartments) and I was directed towards ‘Stars and Strips Lounge’. Two fierce-looking men sat at the desk outside the lounge that checked my receipt of Rs250 and gave me coupons for entry, drink and snack. I was then directed towards the locker room. (As I mentioned earlier they did have a locker room for their distinguished guest, and they had wasted my one full day when I was carrying a camera the other day and nobody would help me) I deposited my handbag, mobile phone and all my belongings into the locker room. I was allowed to carry my wallet and my documents. These formalities took so much time that the bus that was supposed to take me to the other venue (at American embassy) for interview had already left. I was feeling guilty at arriving so late.

I was asked to wait in ‘Stars and Strips lounge’ I looked at my watch, it was 10am. I approached those fierce-looking men, informing them that it was past my appointment time and I was getting late and could he arrange to reach me at the venue that was about ten minutes away. He informed me that I had missed my 10am bus and would have to wait for the next bus. Cursing myself, I entered the lounge and headed towards a small kiosk in the room. There were soft drinks, tea, coffee, cakes, croissants, sandwiches, etc. I had no appetite for eating anything in the morning; I used my drinks-coupon to buy coffee. There were more than fifty people in the lounge, all the aspiring visa seekers, killing time by watching the cricket match on TV. Cricket does not interest me, so I just sat there, staring into the space or at people surrounding me. Young girls praying silently, young men fidgeting with their folders and documents, old men, women, some of them in deep meditation, all hoping that they would not be refused their visa. The atmosphere is very tense and vibrations no good. The time ticks slowly, and at 10;30am the bus finally arrives to transport the next batch of people to the other venue at American Embassy.

To be continued….

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Planning a trip to America -- part 6- Submitting Visa application papers

Breach Candy (also known as Bhulabhai Desai Road) is a place closer to famous religious monuments like Haji Ali Mosque and Mahalaxmi temple. It also has a Breach Candy hospital, an elite Breach Candy Club, and eateries which are quite popular with the expats.

Breach Candy is a hip place and shoppers’ paradise. This is the place where American embassy chooses to have its two venues, one for submitting visa papers and other for holding their ‘interviews’. The venue for submitting the papers is surrounded by the row of shops selling trendy clothes, watches, sunglasses and has some elite supermarkets that sell exotic foods that may not be available in other parts of the city. On any other day, I would enjoy walking down this street, window shopping but on the day of submitting my visa papers; I was in no mood to do anything else.

I returned to this venue the next day again, this time sans camera. (as I mentioned earlier that I had to waste one day because I had camera in my bag the previous day) the security guard checked my bag, silenced my cell phone and satisfied that I was an innocent citizen just seeking visa, I was granted entry to go through a narrow gate, down the steps into a heavily guarded office. I looked around noticing that there was no piece of art that would have attracted my attention enough to click the pictures even if I had camera on me.

There were five windows and enough seats to wait for your turn. I was the only person entering this office and I submitted my papers. The woman behind the window scrutinized my papers and was not happy with my photograph. They are very particular about the photograph. Photo format should be exactly as it is required. In my photograph some strands of hair were falling on my ears. She asked me to go to the photography cabin and click my picture in accordance to the requirement.

The girl in the photography cabin had a digital camera mounted on a tripod, a computer and a small printer on her side table. She clicked my photograph and then checked the picture in her computer, not satisfied, clicked one more picture and removed the ugliest photograph of me with a full charge of Rs100 for her labor. I must tell you that she was no good photographer With all my hair strung back behind my ears, droopy eyes and no smile to add the rosy-ness to the face, I resembled a terrorist and I was sure anybody would be refused visa with such expressions. Not even a second thought would ever change their mind. Silly!!!

Anyways, I returned to the window to deposit my photograph and the girl had enough time to go through my papers.

‘What do you do?” she asked me when I returned.

“I am a coordinator with a special school, I collect funds for the school, maintain two blogs for the school ( from my six blogs that I update regularly), counsel the parents of the special children, hold workshops for special teachers and am also a committee member” I said.

“That’s not a job” she said, handing me my papers she said, “Write here that I am ‘unemployed presently”

I looked at her from the corner of my eyes; wondering if it is necessary to show salary slips to confirm that I am not idle? I wanted to ask her but I was in no mood to argue. I took the application form from her and wrote ‘presently unemployed’ signing my name beneath those words.

Fully satisfied, she asked me if I would want to wait in comfort and without stress at ‘Stars and Strips lounge’ on the day of my interview. I was asked to pay Rs250 cash (no credit card is honored for this service) and to come just thirty minutes prior to my interview time.

To be continued……

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Planning a trip to America - part 5- No camera please!

After organizing all my papers, fixing a date for interview online, and getting all the proofs to show the validity of the informations on the application form, I headed to the office to submit my papers.

Just submitting the papers should not be a problem. Right? But since problems follow me everywhere, they accompanied me to this office too.

The office rules states that following items are not allowed:

*All battery operated or electronic gadgets such as mobile phones, digital diaries, pagers, cameras, audio/video cassettes, compact discs , MP3’s, floppies ,lap tops, palm tops or portable music players.
*All ladies hand bags/purses. Only a small ladies pouch in hand will be permitted.
*All bags such as travel bags, back packs, brief cases, suit cases, leather, jute or cloth bags and zip folders. Only a plastic bag containing your application related papers will be permitted.
*Any food item.
*Sealed envelopes or packages
*Cigarettes / cigars / match boxes / lighters
*Any sharp object such as a pair of scissors, pen knives or nail filers

Okay, I did read the rules that following items are not allowed at the embassy for security reasons, but shouldn’t they have some lockers, somewhere at the entrance where people can keep their stuff if they have it on them?

Being a blogger, I normally carry camera with me everywhere and thoughtlessly, I was carrying one on that day too. The security guard refused to let me in and wanted me to deposit my camera else where. Where could I deposit my camera? I knew nobody in that area and going home/retuning back to the office would take me more that three hours. I was desperately asking for help, but nobody could help me, security guards said that they were helpless, ‘rules are rules’ they said and they had strict instructions to follow. damn!

This office is in a busy area and there are line of stores adjoing this office. Just next to the office was a supermarket that had facility of depositing the extra shopping bags of the people who entered the store for buying grocery. I dumped my camera into the plastic bag and approached the supermarket, depositing my bag at the entrance. I told him to hold on, I would be back and then I would shop at his store. But he refused to keep my plastic bag informing me that he had permission to keep the shopping bags of the people who were inside the store and not for the people who were seeking Visa next door. I tried several stores but none were helpful. I didn’t know what to do? Submitting the papers should not take more than ten minutes but I could find neither a friendly neighboring store nor any helpful security guards to hold on to my camera for ten minutes.

A young man standing at the corner of the street saw my desperation and wanted to help me. He volunteered to hold my camera till I was back. Should I trust him? How could I? He had no fixed stand. It was an expensive camera, what if he took it and walked off while I was inside the office submitting the papers. Where would I find him? I was weighing my options. He seemed sincere and kind (no doubt about that) but it was the risky to trust a stranger. Sulk* sulk*

I took a taxi home, I decided to return back the next day, without a camera.
I had wasted one more day……..

Ps: few days later I learnt that they did have facility of lockers for distinguished guests who waited in  'Stars and Strips lounge’.

More of that later……

Monday, 23 November 2009

Planning a trip to America - Part 4- Application form

This is the continuation of my previous entry.....
So, here I was, poorer by US131 dollars, applying for US Visa after obtaining the bar code.

Since I was applying for tourist visa, I needed to fill the forms DS156 and DS157 which, besides entering all the necessary data, like name, address and other details of my existences, also had some queries that required digging my grave for the lost skeletons.

For example I had to list all the countries I have visited in last ten years (Hello! I have visited so many places in last ten years that there was not enough space to list them all in that small dotted line. Over the last ten years I have traveled every year, some place or the other, Asia, Africa, Europe, and no embassy has asked me so many queries, neither at the embassy nor at the immigration)

And the next question: List all the countries that have issued me passport in last ten years (my last passport was issued in Madrid and my new passport is issued in Mumbai, now any stranger would wonder why my passport was issued in Madrid and what am I doing in India? Americans might think that I have no home that I might be a gipsy.)

Another question: Not including your current employer, list your last two employees… now this is tough to answer…I have never worked under somebody…ever, always been my own boss. When I started my career as a special educator, I was the head teacher, worked for two years and went traveling to Surinam, came back to Mumbai after four years and worked in the same school for another four years, again migrated to Spain and worked in my own retail store for another ten years, now back in Mumbai since last five years and I do blogging and social work….I have worked all my life but I have no proof, no paper work, no proper salary slip to show. What do I do?

Another question: List of all the charitable or social organizations that I belong to, or contribute or work with…..(Yes, I do work as a NGO with charitable institution for mentally challenged and do help the school in raising funds. There are many other things I do besides that like: blogging for that school,  holding workshops on teaching method for teachers, counseling the parents,and I am also the committee member and do take active part in decision making at the school, I normaly do all my work, keeping a low profile, don't like too much publicity, must I really brag???)

But, why do I have to write so many details in this application form when all I want to do is take one month holiday to Chicago and go for a road trip with my group of cousins?????

To be continued………

Friday, 20 November 2009

Planning a trip to America – part 3 - Pay before you apply

While visiting other countries in the world, all we need is valid passport, a booked ticket and photographs, but visiting America needs lots of planning and no agent can do it for you. You have to self-apply for the visa and that too online.

First things first…you have to pay before you apply for a visa. Yeah right! Did I hear some one asking ‘What if they don’t give you visa?’ Hahahaa…!!! Your money is gone down the drain, and it is not a small amount, mind you, it is rupees seven thousand plus….I am told that they refuse many applicants per day and swallow up their hard earned money to pay the salary of those insensitive people at the consulate.

Well. I went to HDFC bank to pay for the visa, no, not any HDFC branch, (there are so many HDFC branches in Bandra area, but none were authorized to accept the payments for the visa) the nearest HDFC bank was more than 10 kms away and during rush hour, it takes more than forty minutes to reach that bank.

In hot sun, I took auto and reached the bank. I was directed to a desk that was manned by two people stationed for this purpose (yawning away). I showed them the photocopy of my passport and they made a ‘USA MRV VISA FEE DEPOSIT SLIP’ (three copies) that had barcode sticker.

This is the barcode number that we are suppose to use to book our appointment online

Three hours wasted for just paying for the visa. (For someone who opts to use public transport in Mumbai city, the time wasted will be more than that)

to be continued……

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Planning a trip to America - part 2 - The hassle

“You will get American visa easily” said my cousin, “You own a property, you have visited USA before and you have clean record. You shall have no trouble.”

“They normally don’t issue visa to person who is single,” said my other cousin “You might have problem there. They are very strict”

So, how come there are so many illegal immigrants in America??

I fail to understand why there is such a fuss about acquiring American visa (in India). What is the counsulate officer thinking while issuing visa?

America is the land of immigrants, According to the statistics, the United States accepts more immigrants than any other country; in 2007, its population included 38.1 million foreign-born persons (that is appr. 12.6 % of the total population.) and yet, there is so much hue and cry over this visa. People eagerly ask you the questions that are asked during the interview.

Some months ago, my friend had applied for tourist visa and she had received Visa for ten years. There was celebration in the house, there were smiling visitors, non stop phone calls, all eager to congratulate and learn the details of the interview that was held behind the closed doors.

Everybody who has applied for this visa has a story to tell, be it of acceptance or of refusal. There is a mourning period if there is refusal, and a day to celebrate on acceptance.

No other country in the world makes such a fuss over issuing a tourist visa like America (consulate in India). Not that I know of.

Planning a trip to America – Part 1- The party

My cousins and I have made plans to make a road trip from Chicago to Texas to Mexico border. We plan to rent out a caravan and drive through different cities, exploring each town, tasting the local cuisine, visiting the places of interest and above all, to spend some quality time together in a foreign land.

Now, the next part is to apply for US visa. While my cousins, who stay in different parts of the world, have no difficulty in getting visa, in India, it is a long and painful experience. I have previously applied twice from Surinam (when I lived there) and then from Spain (another home) and have already visited America without any discomfort. But now, since I am back in India, I need to apply for Visa from here but I have come to realize that the visa issued in other countries is much easier than getting one from India.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Tea Party for Seniors Only

My friends and I organized and hosted a ‘tea party’ for senior members of my society today.

Every evening, I see few senior ladies of my building sit in the compound chit chatting. They discuss TV programs, news and all the gossip in the building. On the days when I am too lazy to go for my evening walk to a park near Linking Road or by the sea-shore at promenades, I opt for a casual walk around my building, but within ten minutes of my walking, these women start inviting me to sit down with them and join into their discussions. Their topics are interesting, no doubt, but nothing creative. During one of those meanderings, I decided to do my bit of adding some spice to their evening meeting and thus the idea of tea party popped into my mind.

I discussed it with other members of my society and younger group seemed interested to go by my plan. Together, we planned menu and games and the guest list.

They arrived, sharp at 6pm, smartly dressed.

We played two games, housie and passing the parcel and I must say, they were quite cooperative and sporty. The most entertaining part was the punishments like reciting two times table, ranting complains, talking about their anecdotes in their 20’s, and we were surprised to hear their stories. They talked animatedly, relating in details the stories of their youth and were very happy to find such enthusiastic listeners. They danced, sang old songs and were so very cheerful when they received gifts. Their eyes brightened up, thanking us for making them feel so special and wanted such parties planned regularly, some even suggested a picnic to some park.

The party was a great success with home cooked snacks like patties, sandwiches, cakes, dhoklas and vadis. There was cold drinks and tea. There was no pressure/obligations on who contributes what, everybody volunteered freely and there was even a take-away-gift for everyone.

And the happiness overflowed, such is the joy I received today in my building compound

Friday, 6 November 2009

Slow coach

Traveling by a public bus in the city of Mumbai is always amusing but injurious to the health, especially if you are suffering from BP. It takes lot of tolerance and patience to combat Mumbai traffic and frequent signals.

But, I always prefer bus to taxi for two reasons, one, that taxi is sheer waste of money if you are traveling alone for a longer distance and two, you get to see all kinds of people in the bus and some of them are really interesting.

Today I decided to take a bus from Bandra to Breach Candy, which should not take me more than twenty minutes to reach my destination if there is no traffic congestion on the road. The bus was empty and I got a window seat. After buying a ticket of Rs10 only (I was saving Rs120- taxi fare) I sat by the window reading a magazine.

In twenty minutes, the bus had reached Dadar, which is half way distance to breach Candy. A Senior Person (SP) in the bus was getting impatient and kept looking at his watch. Finally, he got up and started abusing the driver.

SP said, “You drivers are very inefficient, even when there is no traffic, you drive so slow, can’t you drive faster?”

Driver says “This is the speed I normally drive,”

SP-“You need a good driving practice, there is no traffic today and the roads are empty, why are you driving so slow, stop the bus, get up from that seat and let me teach you how to drive.”

And the argument went on and on with SP abusing him all the time, but the driver kept his cool and continued to drive at his own speed. Finally SP realized that he was wasting his time, he alighted the bus when he could take this slow speed no more.

I realized then that the bus was going too slow indeed. Well, what do we expect, for Rs10? Speed at Rs10? Not possible! I looked at my watch. Forty five minutes and only two-third of the distance covered.

Now I was getting impatient too. At the speed that he was driving, it would take me more than one hour to reach my destination.

Feeling helpless, I alight from the bus and take taxi for the rest of the distance.

Tranquility restored with little bit of extra cash for taxi fare.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

On the subject of Spirituality

This excerpt caught my attention today

“The subject of spirituality is far too complex for a worldly man to comprehend without the intervention and assistance of a perfect Master, just as no one has ever qualified as a doctor or engineer by simply reading books, the subject of spirituality is extremely difficult and one that can only be understood gradually over a period  of time.” Spiritual Links

And yet, every second person I meet has long lecture to give me on spirituality.

Agreed, I don’t really know what I do at the temple or at any religious structure (for that matter) except to admire the architecture. I see people shut their eyes and murmur, talking to God and I wonder how they pray. Sing His praises? Ask for favors? I was told that we should never ask God of anything and let Him decide what is best for us because if we force Him to give us something that we didn’t really deserve, then it may be granted but it becomes the object of suffering in our life.

And there are people who tell me how they wished they had not forced God by going on hunger strike, fasting for days on end, visiting every temple, bathing in holy waters, and doing everything that pundit suggested for the miracle to happen. And the miracle did happen but now, they wished they could be liberated from that bondage. My friend once told me “I have stopped begging God for anything because whatever I asked, has been the cause of my suffering”

For me, spirituality has different meaning. Showing compassion and respect to every human being, irrespective of his status, size or color. If we hurt a single person, then we are unsuccessful in life. If we cannot give happiness to people then it better to keep out and be on our own. Yes, there are days when I forget my obligations towards society, hello, I am not perfect, I know, and sometimes I do get carried away and make jokes which may hurt people (which of course I didn’t mean to). but I am grateful to my loved ones who remind me when I err. I have given them that much leverage. If I don’t allow them to guide me then who will?

But, being good is to do the best we can to make other’s life comfortable. Walk an extra mile to bring a smile on a weaker face. What is the use of lying, cheating and pretending what we are not, whom do we fool? Is getting love on those grounds so important? Is it really important to impress others? Why do we care so much about other people’s opinion to shape our lives? Why do we get upset if people don’t recognize us or agree with us? Why do we feel so happy winning some meaningless contest. These are momentary happiness and they may boost our ego, but just for a while. Shouldn’t we merge with our own conscience and be true to our self?

Doing what is right and being true to oneself is religion. That is spirituality for me.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Old age Blues

Off late, I have been highly disturbed by the plight of old people and I keep worrying about my own old age. Will I age gracefully or will I be a vegetable? Every palm reader has informed me of ripe old age, but would I like to live too long?? I believe they are cursing me. What else should I say? If I were to live to be very, very old, will I be as healthy as I am today? Not that I am perfectly healthy today, but I have got so used to living with continuous pain all my life that I cease to care.

But the pain I see in the senior people's life puts me into a depression mode. The other day, I was talking to this 65 year old woman. In her youth she worked as a lecturer of History and then graduated as an accountant in her brother's export house. Five years ago, she retired and has been depressed since then. With her deteriorating eye sight, she cannot read, her frail health (arthritis) has stalled her day-to-day activities. The only healthy organ in her body is her tongue, which is the source of sorrow to her happiness and to others too. She complains that nobody ever spends much time with her and she finds her days, way too long. I suggested old age home to her, where she could find company with her like-minded people but her family members were aghast by such suggestion.

In India, old people require too much attention and only a dedicated volunteer is able to give that kind of attention. But in times like these, there is scarcity of dedicated volunteers too. In Indian society, it is a disgrace to sent away your aging parents to an old-age home as a result the personal life of family members suffers. One of my close friends had to resign from her steady and secure job (of teaching special children in Dubai) to take care of her ailing mother who is suffering from Parkinson's disease and her father, who cannot see clearly. Her life revolves around her parents; her dedication towards them is amazing. It requires lot of sacrifices, she has neither any social life, nor movies, nor late nights, nor long walks alone by the sea-shore, nor does she have time to read a book! Many times, I see her highly depressed and I suggest her to do some short term course so that she can keep herself up-to-date, but she has no time to learn or attend any workshop.

In Europe it is different. During my regular visits to Spain, I find old people happy and enjoying every moment of their lives. I meet them at the beaches, at the clubs, and even at beauty parlors. They take good care of themselves, live on their own and are fashionably dressed. Some of them even have a novio(boyfriend) The state looks after their needs and they are treated like royalty. They have active senior citizen groups who go regularly on state sponsored trips. Even the sick and weak one is well cared for. The family members don't have to sacrifice their personal lives to volunteer their help. Last year, when I was admitted in the hospital for my broken arm, I was sharing a room with an old woman. Her laughter was so contagious that it had nurses and care takers in splits.

I am not saying that all old people in Europe are cheerful and all old people in India are depressed. It's just the attitude of the people. There were some sad ones there too who sat by their window, gazing at the empty street but those were very few. They are not like Indians, whose second nature is to worry and take unnecessary stress of things they cannot control and whine in self-pity over their incapability. European are more open and receptive. Maybe, it's the clean air, good food and quality of life style which keep them cheerful, the acceptance of living independently and not taking unnecessary stress of the family who are grown-ups now, or/and, of letting go of the responsibility of the household and a desire to enjoy the rest of the life in peace.

I don't wish to live in Europe, I like living in India, but that is the attitude I wish to maintain when I come of age. But can we live with that kind of attitude in India? Can we really live a stress free life?

Do you think old age is a curse???? What would you do to make your own old age interesting????

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