It wasn’t. Remember when my brothers had passport trouble trying to come to Indonesia? They had new passports issued when they returned to Delhi--new passports, entirely blank of, say, an Indian visa or entry stamp.
“Where is his Indian visa?” the officer asked.
Calmly, I explained the situation in detail, showing the passport’s date of issue, a mere month before, and place of issue, the U.S. Embassy in Delhi. I told him that the family was moving, never to return to India, and his old passport was packed away somewhere, probably winging its way towards America.
The officer stared at me. “He needs an Indian visa,” he said, shortly.
I stared back. Had he been listening at all? “He doesn’t have one in this passport.” I repeated my explanation.
“Where is his old passport?”
I repeated myself all over again.
The officer thought for a moment. “He needs an Indian visa.”
I thought about explaining yet again and went with the more sensible option instead. “Is there a supervisor I can talk to?”
So that is how The Duke and I found ourselves in a back room of the immigrations department, arguing with yet another portly, bearded, and utterly bored Indian immigrations officer.
“He needs an Indian visa,” the supervisor told me.
I sighed, and began the story again: “He’s been living here in Delhi. His new passport was issued at the U.S. Embassy here. His old passport is—"
Holding up one hand, the supervisor interrupted me. “Listen to me. Listen to me! He needs an Indian visa!”
“Yes, yes, I know. But he doesn’t have one in this passport, and our plane leaves in an hour. Is there anything I can do?”
“Listen to me. Listen to me! He needs an Indian visa!”
I think I can be excused for snapping a little bit here: “No, you listen to me. He does. Not. Have. His. Indian. Visa. In. This. Passport. What can we do so our flight does not leave without us?”
The supervisor thought for a moment. “You can show me his old passport with his Indian visa.”
I bit down, hard, to suppress the scream rising in my throat. “Maybe there’s another solution?” I ventured, after a moment or two of deep breathing. “Maybe there’s a…a fee he can pay.” I crossed my fingers and hoped my hint would be taken. “You know, like a fine, for the trouble we’ve caused the customs department. What do you think? $100?”
“He needs an Indian visa.”
I gave up on subtlety. “I have $200 cash in my wallet. I’ll give it to you right now this second if you’ll stamp his passport.”
Bribery in India is a fine art, an elaborate negotiation of power and status, one that I had clearly just mistaken for a mere exchanging of cash. The supervisor looked at me disdainfully and came back with, “Listen to me. Listen to me. He needs an Indian visa. Otherwise we don’t know whether he’s in the country legally.”
I wondered, shouldn’t the fact that he’s in the country now prove that he, at one point at least, had an Indian visa? As I did, inspiration struck. “Fine,” I nearly snarled. “Let’s pretend he doesn’t have an Indian visa. Let’s pretend he is here illegally. Deport him!” My shouting and wild arm motions were attracting attention now. “Just deport him! He’s a criminal! He’s got no visa! Throw him out of your country! We’re never coming back here anyway, we promise. So just deport him!”
The supervisor would have none of this. “No, no,” he said. “Listen to me. If he were here illegally, we would not deport him. We would put him in jail. He needs an Indian visa.”
“Jail?!” I shouted. “So because he’s here using your resources illegally, you’re going to keep him here illegally? That doesn’t make any sense!” I was nearly hyperventilating now, crazy with the thought of The Duke not allowed to leave India and/or in jail. (I'm not sure which is worse.)
After about fifteen more minutes—I kid you not—of lobbing back and forth “He needs an Indian visa” and “He doesn’t have an Indian visa in this passport”, during which the supervisor told me to listen to him at least six more times, and also suggested, in response to my agonized “what can I do?”, that I simply leave The Duke behind, at which point I pondered whether the jail cell that would likely be mine after punching a customs official would at least be next to The Duke’s, the supervisor conceded that perhaps, perhaps, a photocopy of The Duke’s Indian visa would suffice.
With that news, I sprinted to the airport’s only pay phone, only to learn that a. The Duke didn’t know our father’s cell phone number and b. there is no 411 in Delhi. Nearly panicked, I finally found the number to my family’s hotel at the airport’s information desk, and, upon hearing my dad’s voice, burst into tears.
“Dad,” I sobbed into the phone, “they won’t let us leave! We’re going to be trapped in this hot, chaotic, nonsensical, utterly godforsaken country forever!”
My dad instantly agreed to drive the photocopy to the airport. With only about forty minutes to our flight, the twenty-minute drive would mean cutting it close. I went back to the Singapore air desk to tell them about our predicament and extract a promise that the plane would not leave without us.
The employee at the Singapore desk was very solicitous, promising that of course the flight wouldn’t leave without us, if he could, um, if I didn’t mind, please, take our baggage tags.
I knew what that meant and, luckily, managed to snatch them back from his hand just in time. I argued with him for a few minutes about whether or not I should relinquish my baggage tags, and thus my guarantee of getting on the plane, and was just in the middle of clarifying, loudly, that “a customer who has just paid five THOUSAND dollars for a seat on the plane should not be left behind because a set of IDIOTIC immigrations officers from YOUR COUNTRY, SIR cannot solve a SIMPLE problem, which would be PERFECTLY EASY if they, like every OTHER nation in the 21st century, had computerized records at customs OR even a basic attitude of CUSTOMER SERVICE” when a man in an expensive suit walked up behind me and called me by name.
This man, as far as I’m concerned, was a hero, but really he was an employee from the exclusive hotel where my family had stayed the night before; his job was greeting arriving customers, and, occasionally, rescuing departing customers. Smoothly, calmly, he pried The Duke’s passport—but not his baggage tags—from my grip and marched off to sweet-talk the supervisor. When my dad arrived, photocopy in tow, the suited man retreated into the backroom and, after fifteen minutes of heaven-only-knows-what, during which my dad and I played keepaway with the Singapore Airlines employees trying to grab my baggage tags, the suited man emerged, with a surly supervisor agreeing that yes, maybe we could leave India.
Triumphant, and mentally taking back everything I said about customer service—the bit about computerized records still stands--The Duke and I went back to the original officer, who, still bored and barely looking at the passport, glanced over at his boss and stamped the necessary documents. Trying to be good winners, we thanked him graciously and were turning to go when he stopped us.
“When will you return to India again?” he asked.
The Duke and I stared in disbelief. I knew he hadn’t been listening. All our resolve to be good winners flew out the window. “Never!” we shouted, nearly in unison, sprinting down the hallway behind the Singapore Airlines employees, waving our baggage tags and laughing with the joy of our soon-to-be freedom from Indian bureaucracy, and also cats. “Never!”
No saga is complete without an epilogue. A mere hour later, my mom and Klement arrived at the airport, where they, too, spent nearly two hours fighting with immigrations officers over the exact same dilemma, just this time with Klement’s passport. (Listen to me, people. Listen to me! Computerized records.) A mere five hours later, The Duke and I arrived in Singapore, ready to begin backpacking across Malaysia, Vietnam, and Cambodia. A mere nine days later, The Duke and I landed in San Francisco, where the immigrations officer on duty glanced through our passports, gave us an entry stamp and, looking up briefly, said, “Welcome home.” And a mere nine days and one second later, I cried.