The scream, Edvard Munch

The scream, Edvard Munch

I hesitated to post this for a few days (not least because I can never seem to spell the word bureaucracy correctly), but I’ve decided this story is worth sharing, if only so that it prepares other travelers for what they might face. As an added bonus, a usability bug made the experience about 10 times as bad as it might otherwise have been.

I and my children are in India on an entry visa (accompanying my husband). Due to an error on the part of our travel agent, my visa expires in a few weeks (November 18th), more than a month before I am due to leave India. This is because (unlike what our travel agent told us), our 6 month visas began on the date they were issued, not the date that we entered India. As a result, I needed to visit the FRRO (Foreign Regional Registration Offices), at the old airport about one hour from my home, in order to request a visa extension. According to what little information I could find online, we would need to submit a request, and if accepted, we would then wait up to two months for the visa to actually be extended.

Being somewhat familiar with the difficulties of interacting with this office, I prepared as well as I could (printed out the official government form, filled it out, gathered the necessary photos; a copy of my husband’s employment letter; a new letter stating that IIIT Hyderabad wished us to stay until the end of may (carefully written to include the passport and visa numbers for each of us), a copy of my husband’s registration (he was required to register when he arrived, as a resident of Hyderabad, in addition to having a valid visa), and all of our passports. I also requested the help of the IIIT Hyderabad employee who has experience with the FRRO (and can speak Telugu, Hindi, and English) and arranged for our driver to be available. I left the children behind, because I knew that the chances of success were about 0.

Sure enough, when I arrived at the office, I was told that I had filled out the wrong form. Additionally, I was told that I and the children all needed to register as Hyderabadi residents in addition to my husband (news to us!) and that I would have to pay a late fee ($30 each), and bring a letter verifying my residence at IIIT Hyderabad. I filled out a new form, which they provided, with the same information as the old, and was then sent home to get bank checks ($30 each, plus $80 each for the visa extension) and fill out an additional web form for registration. This meant going back to campus to collect my paycheck in cash, and then to the bank to get the bank checks. I was unfortunately sick with the flu, so the day blurred by, but the whole effort took from about 9am to 5pm.  I was given a 10am appointment the next day when I could complete the process.

That night, my husband and I both struggled to fill out the web form, with no success. After completing the whole form, we repeatedly ran into a bug in which it requested an exit date, but claimed that each date we entered was invalid (either because it was before the arrival date, or after it). We tried every possible combination of exit and arrival dates with no success, and were stumped as to how to complete the visa extension process.

At 9:15am (15 minutes late), my driver showed up without his helper (who apparently did not want to come and/or had assumed things would go smoothly from here on out, which I doubted highly). No one on campus could explain what I should do about the broken form, but finally a friend suggested I simply print out each page of the form in the hope they would accept them (a long shot). And hour and 40 minutes after we were supposed to leave, and a full 40 minutes after our appointment should have begun, the kids and I (all still sick) began the journey to the FRRO. When we got there, they would not accept the printouts. Luckily, I had my laptop and a 3G modem with me, so they assigned a technical support person to help me fill out the form (a laborious process given the network speed we had over the modem). He made a few adjustments, and we ended up with the very same bug. However, through some miracle unexplained to me, the piece of paper we needed to proceed magically appeared on the printers of the FRRO.

At this point, things got very strange. The man whose desk I was near (and who had been yelling at people left and right all morning) tore into me for wasting their time when clearly I knew how to print the form. He told me to go to an Internet cafe and fill it out again for the kids when I tried to explain that I had no idea where the printout had come from and ask for further help. He did not seem to understand that I already had an Internet connection. I went ahead and filled out the form again on my own (for about the 10th time in the last 24 hours), got the same error, and went to find the person who had magically appeared with the missing piece of paper. In doing so, I apparently entered forbidden space, and this time the angry yelling man tore into me so loudly, and so threateningly, that the children were in tears. He told me he would revoke my ability to stay in Hyderabad if I did not go to an Internet Cafe and refused to let me seek help from the tech support person. Everyone assumed that I was at fault for the form’s problems (classic!).

I hate to admit it, but at this point I was in tears too. I don’t handle being yelled at well. No one seemed willing or able to help us, and I was ready to leave India in November when my visa expired rather than continue this process. I sat down and tried to collect myself, and at that moment, I was reminded about the other side of India. A complete stranger walked up to us and handed the kids candy with a smile, telling them to cheer up. The IIIT helper accompanying me suddenly got moving and found a way to bring the tech support person back. Suddenly, I had all of the forms I needed.

You might think that at this point things would proceed smoothly. You would be wrong. I won’t go into as much detail about what happened next, but a few highlights: I was in trouble for not having registered within 2 weeks (or at least 3 months) of arriving despite never having been told to register; I was only going to get a visa until December 8th (still too early) because my husband’s registration (not his visa) expired then; I was kicked out for engaging the kids in a card game (they were miserable, and needed entertainment, but the people in the waiting room are not allowed to enjoy themselves because the FRRO folks are working!); I was stranded outside on a curb for about 30 minutes because my driver and helper had absconded to get themselves lunch (not thinking of us); I had to cancel my 3:30pm talk because all of this took until 5pm to be complete (despite my original appointment being at 10am); and finally I was told to return (without the children, thank goodness) next Tuesday to complete the process.

As it happens, I am simultaneously applying for my swiss visa (which requires birth certificates for the kids for some reason, which I have had to request from the states they were born in as they have vanished from my house in Pittsburgh). Even with those bumps, it is a far easier process!

Wish me luck finishing all this off! I still don’t know whether my new visa will expire on Dec 8th (in which case I will cut my trip short rather than face all of this again!) or in May.