This to-be-written-about holiday happened months ago - in May/June. I haven't been writing - it feels like I've forgotten how to write - but I'm going to give it a shot anyway.
The last time I took a trip similar to this one, it was the summer after my first year of college, and I was nineteen, carefree, and in the prime of my youth.
Okay, maybe not carefree – I have never been carefree, I’ve always made sure of that. And maybe not even in the prime of my youth either, because I’m not completely sure what prime-of-youth is, or whether I was ever actually in it. Maybe when I was ten or something.
I suppose it really started (the process, not the trip) when I went to Delhi last year to see Mawii before she traipsed off to King’s College, London, for her master’s degree. At some point one of us said, Oh, we should really make a Euro-trip happen next summer, and then the other one said, oh that would be amazing, I think it’s actually possible, and the conversation gets pretty predictable from there.
I mentioned it to my mother as early as December and by the time February rolled around, tickets to England and Portugal were being booked. Mawii and I – okay, Mawii – had decided that Portugal was the best option for several reasons, primarily financial, and I agreed. She was doing the research all by herself, poor girl, she just sent me pretty photos of Lisbon and Porto, and I was like, hell yeah, that’s fine, let’s do it.
But before actually doing it, there was the little matter of getting the visas (a worry for both my mother and Mawii, since it involved my being responsible and non-passive), and also getting leave from work.
I – having obviously learnt absolutely nothing during the course of my adult life – was not worried. How could there be a problem?
Which is a question I will never ask rhetorically again, because that was the source of all the problems that became the bane of my life during the next couple of months.
One of the problems was getting leave from work.
I was actually just about to go into detail. The subject matter alone is enough for three separate blog posts. But it just occurred to me that my boss might read this blog. I don’t think he does, but he’s aware it exists. (Ram, are you out there?) So I’m going to be wise and let it go.
Leaving that aside, there was the little matter of the visa – visas, I should say. Because I needed two.
Two little hells rolled in one.
It took two weeks of solid maternal nagging for me to connect with my travel agent – incidentally, the same guy who got me my last UK visa for Christmas 2014. I remembered him. I didn’t want to connect. But I had no choice. I went across there on a Saturday. I’d pulled an all-nighter (vodka) and I was stressed (dealing with the hangover caused by vodka), and I was very upset (because of a terrible fight also caused by vodka.)
I am happy to report that I no longer drink vodka.
Anyway, so when I arrived, the travel agent put me on the balcony that adjoined his office. Not literally, obviously, he just told me to go sit there, and I did. For three hours. I didn’t actually get angry or anything, I was too zonked to even really react. But I would look at him with anguish every time he said, “Just twenty minutes more, Madam,” which was something he said many times. And then I would go back to mindless Facebooking.
The three hours took such a toll that when I finally sank into the seat in front of his desk, he looked alarmed and asked me if I was feeling alright.
Yes, yes, I said weakly yet graciously. I feel alright.
He remembered me from last time too, or more accurately, he remembered my mother, because the second thing he said to me was, “We’ll get everything done at the earliest so your mother won’t get angry.”
I wish I could inspire that sort of fear in people.
Thanks to the previous trip, I actually already had most of the documents that were needed. The Embassy is a convenient five-minute walk away from the travel agent’s. So a couple of days later, he packed me off accompanied by one of his henchmen.
It was an extremely awkward walk. You can’t just ignore someone who’s escorting you somewhere, can you? So I desperately tried to make conversation – and, appropriately, since I was going to England, I plucked a subject that is much discussed there.
“It’s very hot today,” I commented.
“What’s Bangalore coming to?”
Silence. Obviously a question not worth responding to.
“Do you think it’s going to rain soon?”
After two minutes of re-grouping, I tried once more.
“They’re saying the monsoon – “
I don’t remember much of the passport interview. I do remember having to get passport photographs taken. I also remember the photographs being horrifying.
“I look horrible.” I said to the lady.
She gave me a tight lipped smile.
“Like a convict. I don’t suppose you can take another one?”
“Will they even recognise me at immigration?”
She looked me up and down in a manner I can only describe as insulting and said, “Yes.”
I’d applied for a UK visa as well as my Schengen visa. Like I said, I don’t remember much, so I’m guessing it all went relatively smoothly. Hurrah. I was done.
Unfortunately, when I reported back to the travel agent afterwards (he made me call my mother then and there to prove he’d done his part), I received the unpleasant news that I’d have to go back for a second interview to get my Portugal visa.
It was a minor hindrance at that point.
But it was going to be my downfall.
My UK visa was delivered to office a few days later. Now I had to go back to the travel agent with it, and whatever other papers I had, and set up the interview for my Portugal visa.
This is where something that was most definitely not my fault happened.
So the day I got it, I texted him saying, I’ve got it.
PLS SEND PHOTO OF VISA IN PASSPORT, he replied.
It took me about six frantic minutes to locate the new visa, since I already had a few expired ones there, and I sent him the photo.
GOOD. COME TODAY, he texted the next day.
I had to work late that day, and the day after, so I told him I’d come two days later.
I received an airy affirmative.
Back I went, with all my stuff, and the man had the audacity to tell me that I’d left it a bit late. He’d set the interview for Saturday.
“What do you mean by a bit late?”
“It will be fine. These things happen like that!” An airy click of the fingers.
The airy click of the fingers reassured me.
But by Saturday morning, I was feeling distinctly uneasy. My mother had been calling me incessantly, informing me in tones close to a shout, that there were only ten days left before I had to leave, and why couldn’t I get my act together, and why did I have to be so ‘casual’ about things – all the usual stuff.
“He said it’s OKAY,” I said repeatedly, but when I plonked myself down for the umpteenth time on the other side of his desk to collect the application form he’d filled for me, he said, “Hmm, left it a bit late.”
“WHAT!” I shrieked.
“It’s fine, it’s fine.” He said hastily, probably envisioning my mother’s voice ringing in his ears.
And off I went – on my own thankfully – to the Embassy.
It was a much longer wait this time, but after about an hour, I was standing in front of one of those people-behind-the-counters.
This was a lady-behind-the-counter.
She went through all my documents, checked everything, and then, just as I thought we were done, she said to me, “Ma’am, your application form is not valid.”
“What?” I said.
“The form has been filled out by hand. We only take computerised applications.”
“But this was done by a travel agent. A TRAVEL AGENT. It has to be valid.”
“Sorry,” she said, not sounding sorry at all.
“Listen, Ma’am. The application thing is the first thing I handed to you. You’ve been checking everything else for the past fifteen minutes. You could have told me that at the start.”
She gave me a shifty smile that anyone who’s familiar with Indian red-tape will instantly be able to visualise.
“Well, do I come back another day?”
“Unfortunately Ma’am, this is the last day you have. If you can come back within…” a glance at the clock, “…thirty minutes, we’ll manage.”
I wish I could describe the emotion that coursed through me. I can’t, but it was obviously extremely negative, to put it mildly.
Calm, I told myself. Calm.
“But everything else is fine, right? All I need to do is just come back with the application?”
“Absolutely nothing else?”
I ran out of there, and started sprinting down the road, but then I realised I’m incapable of sprinting, and I slowed to a fast walk instead.
Thirty minutes. Thirty minutes to go back to the agent, see if it was possible to get a computerised form, and return once more.
It would have daunted a lesser person, and I am a lesser person, ergo, I was daunted.
The fast walk changed to a regular walk. And, with the sun beating down on my head, the regular walk changed to a slow one.
I mean, it’s just Portugal. I told myself. Maybe it’s not meant to be. What’s the point? Maybe I should give up now and just go home. I already have the UK visa.
But then Mawii’s face, wearing an expression that she usually reserves only for me when I am being useless and an all-round lame-o, manifested in my mind. The slow walk picked up tempo. I couldn’t bring myself to reach presto yet, but I definitely wasn’t on andante.
“THIS FORM IS INVALID!” I yelled, bursting into the travel agent’s office. “HOW COULD YOU MAKE THIS MISTAKE?”
He and his henchmen looked up at me, startled.
As quick as I could, and as loudly as I could (there is obviously some part of my mother within me), I told him what happened.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” he said, turning and shouting something at one of the henchmen. “Ten minutes, just ten minutes. Plenty of time.”
To give him his due, I was out that door ten minutes later. And then back in the waiting room. Half an hour had passed, but I knew that they weren’t going to kick me up or close their counters, so I waited until my name was called.
As luck would have it, I got the same lady.
“HERE.” I said, shoving everything at her.
She meekly went through the documents.
“You need another passport photo.”
“BUT YOU TOLD ME EVERYTHING WAS IN ORDER! I ASKED YOU MORE THAN ONCE!”
I like to think that the look I gave her put terror into her heart because she said, “I’ll hold these for you. Just go down the corridor and get it taken.”
Back I went, to the same lady who’d taken my passport photo earlier. She remembered me.
“This is even worse than the earlier one,” I said, gazing down at the monstrosity that is apparently my face.
“You sure it looks like me?”
I don’t know why I bother.
Back again to the visa room, and then another forty minutes of waiting for my biometric thing. The guy who took my thumb print on the machine thought I was an idiot because it wouldn’t register. He finally pushed my finger down so hard I yelped. He ignored the yelp and told me I could go.
The auto-driver I hailed, asked me for fifty rupees extra.
“Yes, okay, fine,” I said, sinking down into the seat.
He looked disappointed. Probably regretting that he hadn’t asked for a hundred.
The story doesn’t end there.
A week later, and I had about three or four days to go until I left for the UK. But there was no sign of the Portugal visa. And worrying – because the visa had to be approved in Delhi, and then dispatched back to Bangalore.
My mother wrote all-caps emails to the agent, to the Portugal embassy in Delhi, and marked me in all of them.
It turned out that there was a ‘power problem’ in Delhi, and all the computers at the Embassy had crashed.
The end result?
I had to postpone my UK tickets by a weekend. Thankfully, there had been a few days’ grace before Mawii and I were leaving for Portugal. With the new dates, I’d be leaving the morning after reaching London.
My mother blamed me, I blamed the travel agent, he blamed the power situation in Delhi. It was a vicious cycle.
In the end, after a particularly aggressive email from my mother, I got a call from a man in Delhi. The situation still hadn’t been resolved, he said. But they were making it a point to send me a hand-written visa as well as an accompanying letter explaining why it was hand-written – to show to the Portuguese authorities.
It is very strange indeed that someone took the trouble to actually call me. I put it down to my mother’s e-mails. The woman had ostensibly put the fear of god into an entire country.
The handwritten visa came. And I left.
And so something that would have been a distant, almost unbelievable dream in college – going to Europe with Mawii – had, despite my best efforts, insisted on coming true.