Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Travelogue: Abu Dhabi, Fujaira, Oman (unexpectedly), and adventures with Indian immigration

Of all the UAE provinces (districts? states? what do they call them?) our favorite by far has been Abu Dhabi, probably because it has the most greenery. Ironically, I didn't actually get to see a whole lot of Abu Dhabi myself because I went on a dune-bashing excursion, which was a hoot-'n'-a-holler, but in retrospect probably not the most effective use of the time. I did get to see the world's third-largest mosque under construction, which boasts the world's first-largest carpet at 70,000 square feet. It was quite an impressive sight, though personally I thought it, like many things under construction in the UAE, was a bit over the top.

Our final stop in the UAE was in Fujaira. We didn't actually get to see much of Fujaira itself because we went on a "mountain safari" tour that actually took us into Oman. (Oman is an interesting country geographically. It consists of three non-contiguous pieces.) We drove up a canyon to the top of a mountain. Despite being dry as a bone, people live there. I have no idea how they survive except that they raise goats. I would have loved to learn more about how the locals live, but we had a very taciturn guide who barely spoke English, and even though we hardly stopped we still made it back to the ship with only a few minutes to spare before we set sail again and headed for India.

And thereby hangs a tale.

Of all the places I have been in the world I have never encountered immigration hassles of the like that we have had getting in to India (though I am told that Brazil and China are even worse). Our adventures with the Indian immigration bureaucracy actually started months ago when we first had to fill out the paperwork to apply for a visa. The process is absolutely byzantine. You can't just get a form to fill out, you have to fill in your information on a web site. Now, I'm a computer security expert. I know all about how easy it is to use personal information to hijack someone's identity, and how easy it is to hack a web site in order to obtain such information. So I am very, very leery of entering personal information into any web site, let alone one put together by a foreign government. But there was no getting around it. We either took our chances on their web site, or we didn't get into the country. So I grudgingly filled in my name, birthdate, social security number, and a whole host of other personal details, some of which my own mother doesn't even know (yet). And then I did the same for my wife in order to spare her the trouble.

When I was done, the site said, "Are you sure that all this information is correct? You will not be able to make changes once you hit submit."

Now, keep in mind that the information I had entered did *not* constitute the official visa application. It was being used to generate a pre-filled-in paper form that I would have to print out, sign, and send in to the embassy. So I didn't pay much attention to this warning because I figured that in the worst case if I had made a mistake I could just start the whole annoying process over again and generate a new form. So I clicked "YES", printed out the forms, and gave Nancy hers to review to make sure I had everything correct.

It turned out that I hadn't. One of the things the form asked for was "name at birth." Nancy was adopted, and I had put down the name she was adopted under, not her actual birth name. So I swore up a blue streak and went to redo her form.

But the site wouldn't let me. As soon as I entered her passport number it said, "You already have an application pending. You cannot start a new one."

Apparently whoever programmed the Indian embassy's web site had never heard of a denial-of-service attack. (Fortunately, whoever programmed the Indian embassy's web site also apparently didn't know much about computer security in general, because it turned out to be pretty easy to hack the site to let me generate a new application anyway. For a country that prides itself on its software industry they are certainly not putting their best foot forward.

It gets better.

A few weeks after submitting the applications we get a letter from the Indian embassy with an extra form for Nancy to fill out. I had listed her occupation as "writer" and so she had to sign an affidavit swearing that she was not going to conduct any "journalism" while she was there. The irony made us both laugh out loud. Nancy writes children's novels. And it would be more accurate to call her an "aspiring writer" as she has yet to publish any of her books. And she doesn't keep a blog. (The icing on the cake was that when we finally got our passports back, I had been given a multiple-entry visa, but she got only a single-entry. We confirmed with the embassy that this was because she is a writer. From now on she has instructed me to put down her occupation as "homemaker.")

But wait, there's more.

Back in Qatar we met a couple with an interesting predicament. They had been told (in writing) that their Indian visas would be handled for them by the cruise line. They were scheduled to disembark in Mumbai and fly home on non-refundable business-class tickets. But the cruise line had dropped the ball and their visa applications had not been done. As far as they knew, they would not be able to leave the ship. Apparently a number of other people were in the same predicament, and some of them decided to leave the ship early and fly home from Fujaira instead. But these guys decided to roll the dice and hope that the Indian officials would let them go to the airport.

I'm being called to dinner so I'm afraid you'll have to wait for the next installment to find out what happened to them. :-)


Ross said...

At least you were able to get your visa from your home. When I was travelling to India in 2004, I had to physically go to the Indian consulate (in San Francisco) and apply for my visa in person.

Unknown said...

I feel so ashamed that dumb jerk officials get to make the rules, totally disconnected with the reality. I mean, what's the rule about spraying the arilines approaching India - my country is not the cleanest in the world! And I've seen, ashen-faced, the utter disgust on faces of foreigners who see the chaos and filth of my country.Yet, some dumb, stuck-up officials in some high-faluting policy meeting continue to make the rules and juniors down the line set them in stone. Blame the government of India for these follies? Why not. But all I can say (in compensation) is that most (yes, most) visitors to my land do get to meet nice, friendly people who make their stay memorable. Welcome foreign guests. Please remember, our attitudes are also a product of our history. In the past, people came uninivited and then refused to leave. And when they finally did leave, they carried most of our valuables with them. Welcome again, and I hope you enjoy your stay.