My mind was made up, 2016 was going to be the year I finally cracked India, the mammoth continent-sized country which has been sat at the top of my travel bucket list since a friend suggested I read Shantaram and after sampling the delights of authentic South Indian cuisine when directing a food series for BBC. I decided in four months could do justice to Sri Lanka and Nepal and just about scratch the surface of the vast, daunting travel mecca that is India. People told stories of having medical ailments cured by ayurvedic doctors or finding themselves during silent meditation retreats in remote ashrams. It all sounded like scenes lifted straight from Eat, Pray, Love, but I guess I should remain open to new experiences and if I’m going to ‘find myself’ anywhere, it’s got to be India, right?
LISTEN TO ADVICE BUT DON’T BE SCARED OFF COMPLETELY
I did my research by speaking to as many friends, colleagues and random acquaintances as I could about their varied experiences of a country which draws people back again and again. I took notes on possible itineraries, the merits of travelling in pre-booked 1st class train carriages vs. the scrum-like chaos (but rich people-watching potential) of 3rd class and top tips on how to avoid the notorious Delhi belly.
I heard endless stories of the harmless but unsettling ‘Indian stare’ my blonde hair would inevitably attract. But I was equally encouraged by all the nostalgically told anecdotes of frenetic cities which overwhelm the senses, warm and welcoming people who will counterbalance any negative experiences you have with leering men or overzealous touts and a country so rich in spectacular palaces, jaw dropping monuments and colourful religious festivals that you will run out of superlatives to describe them. I decided these things outweighed the dirt and disorder, the impossible-to-navigate public transport and the frustrating bureaucracy encountered at visa offices before people had even departed.
LEAVE TIME FOR PLANNING
Booking flights was easy enough, friends advised to book with Jet Airways and I found a great value multi-stop ticket with Flight Centre. But in my excitement, I proritised non-urgent things like stocking up on mosquito repellent and paying frequent visits to my local library to pour over travel guides, quenching my curiosity about what lay ahead. Predictably, I left the most important things to the last minute – a new passport! visas! travel insurance valid longer than 3 consecutive months! So after a frantic week scrambling together the necessary paperwork and blagging my way into the India visa office without an appointment, here’s my advice for turning around a trip to South Asia at the last minute…
GETTING A LAST MINUTE PASSPORT
2015 for me involved 9 flights, 4 new countries and 2 new visa applications. A mere two weeks before my trip to South Asia, I was flipping proudly through my battered burgundy passport, reminiscing about crossing borders on foot in South America and obscure stamps from Maccu Piccu and the Galapagos Islands, when it dawned on me that I only had 2 blank places remaining. A couple of frantic google searches confirmed my initial fears – India required 2 blank pages for a 6 month multi-entry visa and Nepal required one. I was know cursing my bragful array of colourful stamps from nearly a decade of backpacking adventures.
Luckily, you can acquire a new or replacement British passport in just 4 hours for not much more money – I managed to get an appointment within 2 days and after arriving at 7.45am, my passport (I upgraded to a 48 page jumbo sized one this time!) was ready for collection by midday. Top tips – make the appointment as soon as possible, you can’t get them for the same day. The call takers are extremely knowledgable and staff, from security to the cashiers, calmly reassured me that the new passport would be back in a matter of hours.
EASY PEASY – GETTING YOUR SRI LANKA VISA
If only the Indian visa was this straight forward! I simply applied online and had email confirmation within a day or two. Even with my new passport and passport number, they didn’t bat an eyelid at immigration and waved me through without having to repurchase (despite small print suggesting otherwise). If you don’t have time to organise this in advance then you can just buy one at the airport.
NOT SO EASY – GETTING YOUR INDIA VISA
Things have changed in recent years and I’m not even sure how long my advice will be valid for, as guidelines and rules seem to alter on a monthly basis. But if you live in London, your best bet is to get yourself straight down to VFS (who handle all Indian visa applications) at their Goswell Road or Paddington and submit your passport in person. They are scrupulous about having the necessary paperwork and be prepared that filling your visa application in online is a minefield. Questions like ‘do you have any visual markings?’ are surely just designed to baffle would-be tourists. I’d advise calling Scotts Visas if you want to ensure your application will be accepted or have any particular concerns (a second Pakistani passport, like my friend has, can cause big delays) – www.scottsvisas.co.uk
If you work for a media organisation, even if you’re not a journalist or filmmaker, you’ll generally be required to show a letter from your employer guaranteeing you will not be undertaking any work whist in India (this should be printed out on headed paper ideally but I’m told handwritten ones have also been accepted). If you work in the media, people often advise to just put ‘housewife’ or ‘consultant’ to avoid any further questions and get your visa processed quickly – not that I’m condoning this.
There is also some confusion about WHEN you can go into the office without an appointment, I was told be one VSF call taker that I could drop in from 3.30pm – 5.30pm and another call taker insisted it was by strict appointment only. What I found is that it’s quite possible to get through without an appointment at all and save yourself a 2 day wait. I had the necessary print out of my online application and correct size passport photos and found that if you charm the security guys, show them your paperwork and tell them you have an appointment at the time you arrive at (even if you don’t), they often wave you in. Once you’re past them, just wait for your number to be called. It was actually a breeze – no wait time at all and a pretty straight forward, pleasant experience – contrary to what I’d heard from other travellers. I was told the official line that it could take a minimum of 5-7 working days but had my 6 month multi-entry visa ready for collection within 2 days! Just in the nick of time… Thankfully.