3. Visas, Staples, Glue and an Angel (29 July 2004)

The Assistant Police Commissioner

This is the person who HOLDS YOUR LIFE IN HIS HANDS when you first come to India.  All foreigners with visas permitting them to stay for more than 180 days must register, within 14 days of arrival, at the Police Commissioner’s Office, which is conveniently located in one of the busiest and most congested areas of central Bangalore.  The building itself is a beautiful architectural splendour.  The entrance is a long courtyard with a exotic trees and potted plants.  I was lulled me into a false sense of peace and calm.  This, until we entered the “single-window” office (which has 6 separate windows) where our first stop was before two kindly looking men whose job it is to ensure that everyone has the necessary documents for registration before going to the registration window (I will call them the triage guys).  Everything went downhill from there.

The false sense of peace and calm I had upon entering was shaken as the triage guys told us that we have the wrong visa type.  Not knowing what type of visa we actually had, or what type of visa we actually needed, this was a big surprise. 

When we received our visas in Oslo, we were thrilled, since it was not at all apparent that we would get them, and we had spent days showing them off to our friends and family in Norway because they are so beautiful…colourful and cheery.  Of course, it never occurred to us to check the visa type, since the visas were issued by the Embassy of India in Oslo which, we assumed, had some kind of link to India itself.

What we failed to realise was that the Indian visa was like the entrance to the Police Commissioner’s Office…behind it’s beauty lurked a maze of bureaucratic entanglement that even Kafka would not have understood.

For those of you dying of the suspense, we both were given visa type “B”s which are business visas.  The triage guys agreed that Hans Einar should have a visa type “E” which is an employment visa.  And my visa type should be “X” for multiple entry only (I didn’t think the triage guys would appreciate any humourful musings on having an x-rated visa so I remained silent).

The triage guys informed us that we would need to see the Assistant Police Commissioner (the APC) himself and we were duly ushered to the WAITING ROOM.  The WAITING ROOM is a scary place.  It was full of people…waiting.  The first thing I did was to look for a machine which would hand me a number (for example 79) which would be called after the person holding the number 78 had finished.  There was, of course, no such number machine.  Instead, our NCA colleague (I will call her our NCA angel) said a few words to the guy sitting outside the APCs office and we were asked to kindly be seated.  Within a few minutes, we were ushered into the APCs office…where the APC was still dealing with the person holding the imaginary number that preceded our imaginary number (I will call him Number 78).  Number 78 was being summarily dismissed with a wave to the APCs hand and told to come back on Monday.  Then it was our turn.

Our NCA angel explained our predicament to the APC.  He listened carefully, nodded his head in understanding, agreed with the triage guys that we had the wrong type of visa and said that he would need to see a copy of Hans Einar’s work contract in order to make a final decision on his visa.  There was no doubt that I should have an x-rated visa.

The next day, we drove back to the Police Commissioner’s office, still conveniently located in one of the busiest and most congested areas of central Bangalore.  We marched directly to the triage guys, without taking in the beauty of the entrance.  The triage guys seemed happy enough to see us and looked through Hans Einar’s work contract with appropriate seriousness.  They then told us that they would be able to issue us resident’s permits if the Embassy of India in Oslo sent the APC a fax correcting our visa type.  We were then asked to deliver the work contract to the APC who, when we showed up in the WAITING ROOM, was not there.  Our NCA angel found out that he was, in fact, not at work that day (this, on the day he had told Number 78 to return).  I bet Number 78 didn’t get past the triage guys…

Back at the office, we planned our next move.  The NCA office in Bangalore would phone the NCA office in Oslo, who would then contact the Embassy of India in Oslo and ask the person who issued our visas to send a fax to the Police Commissioner’s Office.  Seemed straightforward and I, at least, felt smug in our efficient planning and clear thinking.

At this juncture, I will introduce a word I seem to use often these days:  “oops”.  Oops, that I was smug in our efficient planning and clear thinking.  Oops, that I assumed it could all be taken care of quickly and with relatively little hassle.  Oops, we are in India.

It turns out that the guy who issued our visas at the Embassy of India in Oslo was happy to send a fax to the Police Commissioner in Bangalore…as long as the Police Commissioner in Bangalore sent him a fax requesting that he send a fax.  OOPS…

I will be a bit sketchy about the third visit to the Police Commissioner’s Office, since I had decided that the best thing I could do to be supportive to my husband was to not go with him.  I decided that my creative energies would be better utilised staying in our hotel playing online backgammon with my mother and sister.

What I learned about that third day at the Police Commissioner’s Office was that (1) the WAITING ROOM is accurately named and (2) we were invited back for a fourth visit at which my presence was requested.

Our fourth visit was a learning experience.  We learned that when an official form in India is marked “affix photo here” the affixing agent must be glue (no staples).  We learned that there is a glue store amazingly close to the Police Commissioner’s office.  We learned that when the APC makes a handwritten note on my registration application, the same handwritten note must also appear on Hans Einar’s application…and that this should be done in two separate trips to the APCs office.

Our fourth visit was semi-successful.  We both got registered.  We will both receive resident’s permits, but for 15 days only, during which time we have to get our visa types changed by the Embassy of India in Oslo.

I won’t go in to detail about how, when we finally made it to the registration window, the glue had seeped through two copies of the forms with my computer-printed photos affixed, removing the ink from the photos themselves and leaving a reverse impression of my face on the back side of the forms.  OOPS…

2. Driving in Bangalore and Eating in Bangalore (24 July 2004)

“Driving” in Bangalore

I put driving in quotation marks because we haven’t done any of it ourselves since we arrived.  We have been chauffeured around Bangalore by Mr. Kumar, a very able driver and magician.  Driving in India is magic because you see it happen before your eyes but have no idea how it really works. 

Bangalore, like most large cities, has roads with dividing lanes and driving regulations.  The problem for me, as a westerner, is that none of these seems to function as I would expect.  I have come to realise that the painted lane markers on roads are used to help drivers centre their cars directly on top of the white line and driving regulations are mere guidance as to how one could drive if one wished.  The Bangalore traffic authority regularly reminds drivers of this guidance with signs such as “Follow Lane Discipline”.  The signs are, of course, mere guidance as to how one could drive if one wished. 

Drivers in Bangalore seem to follow their own inner lane discipline which, as far as I can see, involves no form of discipline whatsoever.  At any given time of day or night, the width of a two-lane road has 5-6 vehicles, not all of which are in a forward-moving direction.  By “vehicles” I mean cars, trucks, auto-rickshaws, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles and cows.  The cows, like everyone else, follow their own inner lane discipline, which usually consists of standing perpendicular across a few of them.  This in no way hinders drivers of other vehicles.  They merely cross over to the opposite side of the road to avoid the cows.

The licence plates in Karnataka State (of which Bangalore is the capital) all begin with KA followed by numbers.  In Bangalore, the licence plates are numbered KA01-06.  The auto-rickshaws have their licence number painted on the sides of the vehicle.  Those carrying the licence plate KA05 are especially interesting as the “5” looks like an “S”, which, when pronounced, aptly describes the driving conditions in Bangalore:  total “KAOS”.

"Kaos" in Bangalore...

“Kaos” in Bangalore…

Yesterday we were stuck (and I mean stuck) in a traffic jam for 15 minutes.  A small scooter with a driver and two passengers was weaving in a perpendicular manner through the halted traffic when Mr. Kumar remarked that carrying two passengers on a scooter was not allowed.  Blocking 5-6  “lanes” of traffic in order to make a right-hand turn into oncoming traffic elicited no such comment.

Too much traffic?  Cross over to the oncoming traffic lane.

Too much traffic? Cross over to the oncoming traffic lane.

I have yet to see an accident in Bangalore, but I read about them in the newspapers.

I did see one very interesting contraption that I have not seen elsewhere.  A red traffic light had a counter attached that counted down the number of minutes/seconds until it turned green.  I think this is an excellent invention which alleviates some of the stress of being stuck in traffic: at least you know how long you will be stuck and, while waiting, can relax and take in some of the roadside sights of Bangalore.

Southern India Cuisine

In a word, it is excellent.  We have been back to the same restaurant, Nandini, several times to delight in a south indian meal called a “thali”.  First, a large silver tray in the shape of a banana leaf is placed on the table.  Its shape is very handy since what follows is the placement of a large banana leaf on the tray.  This is followed by a server who arrives with a very large bowl of rice, spooned on to the banana leaf with a flat utensil.  The diner has the choice of having ghee (clarified butter) sprinkled on top of the rice.  Then, another waiter arrives with 8-10 small silver ramekins containing very good vegetarian things.  There are spicy things, not-so spicy things, a soupy thing, a buttermilk/custard thing and a very sweet dessert thing.  There is apparently a particular order in which to eat the things but I will have to spend more time learning about this and the names of the things.  Only one thing is eaten at a time…no mixing. 

The way to eat a thali is to pour some of the non-soupy, non-buttermilk things on to the rice and eat it…with the fingers of your right hand only.  Both of us have been to Malawi where food is eaten with the fingers of the right hand, so this was no shock.  However, it is still easy to tell that we are beginners.  We are the ones with leftover bits of rice and other bits sprinked around our banana leaves and our mouths.  I have yet to understand how the banana leaves and mouths of Indians show no signs of having eaten.  The end of a thali is, thankfully, a warm bowl of water with a lemon to wash the dirty hand.  For us beginners, a shower would also help.

1. Destination India, First Impressions (21 July 2004)

In July 2004, my husband and I moved to Bangalore, India.  He was posted as the Regional Representative for Norwegian Church Aid, one of Norway’s largest NGOs.  I went along for the ride.  Here are some of the letters I sent to friends and family in 2004 about our strange life in Bangalore. 

Arrival in Bangalore

We arrived safely, after a 7-hour plane trip from Amsterdam to Delhi, an overnight in Delhi and a 2.5-hour trip from Delhi to Bangalore.  We were met with a warm welcome from our colleagues at Norwegian Church Aid (NCA).  They have been extremely helpful in our logistical needs.

Our first full day in Bangalore was a very tiring administrative day.  It took four hours for me to get our personal effects out of customs.  And would you believe that, in the end, the customs officials UNPACKED everything that we had so carefully packed???!!!  It was a Kafkaesque experience that I will write more about when I have the energy (and the sense of humour) to relive it all.

Hans Einar spent the day in the Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) office…he got off easy!  All he had to do was to learn about all the business of NCA in Bangalore while I was traipsing back and forth between people whose names I couldn’t pronounce, whose English I couldn’t understand and trying to figure out what all the different signs on their foreheads meant.  The miracle of it all was that I had Mouli, the NCA administrative officer, with me.  He slid through the bureaucracy like a pro…but it was, nevertheless, Indian bureaucracy at its worst.  I hope I don’t have to deal with much more of it…but I’m sure I will!  I read something about this before coming.  The advice was to keep a sense of humour and relax.  I tried to keep that in mind as our personal belongings were strewn about on the floor of the Bangalore customs warehouse by men who held up boxes of Tampax, asking what they were, and waving a cheap plastic soup ladle around asking if my kitchen utensils have really been used…

It was, needless to say, an “interesting” day.  We are both quite tired.  I guess we’re recovering from the small time difference, lack of two nights’ sleep and the culture shock that is India.

When we arrived in New Delhi on Monday night, we watched a bit of TV in the hotel room.  I said to Hans Einar that I would feel comfortable in India if I could watch “24” and “Judging Amy”.  I no sooner said that then we switched channels and there was 24!  It’s about a year behind but it’s still here.  Then, last night, I was flicking through channels and there was Judging Amy.  The cable TV has about 70 Hindi-language stations with fantastically melodramatic movies and soap operas and several Indian versions of MTV, a lot of English-language channels and good old French TV5.  American sitcoms are everywhere and they even have Oprah.  India seems to welcome some aspects of globalisation…

The food is excellent, as you can imagine, and I am delighting in the mainly vegetarian fare here.  If there is meat to be found, it is only chicken.  I took two people out to a full lunch today.  We had a typical southern Indian meal: 8 different vegetable curries and sauces with rice served on a banana leaf.  Followed by dessert.  Total cost: Rps. 268 (USD 5, NOK 45).  A 650 ml bottle of Kingfisher beer costs Rps. 75 (USD 1.75, NOK 11) (Norwegian smugglers, delight!)

Some first impressions:

  • Understanding Indians speaking English will take some getting used to.
  • Understanding Indian driving habits will require some out-of-body experience.
  • Understanding that cows have more road rights than pedestrians will take some hours of meditation.
  • Understanding that a car horn is a means of communication, all day and all night, will take some good ear plugs and a cold beer.

That’s it for the first installment of news from Bangalore.  Both Hans Einar and I are healthy, glad to be here and excited for the adventures to come (Indian bureaucracy notwithstanding…)