The best laid plans…

I know it’s been a long time. For many of you, I’m sure it appears I’ve dropped completely off the radar. Usually, I begin my postings with some kind of apology, citing time constraints as the reason why I haven’t updated the site in so long. Or replied to the ever-growing pile of emails in my inbox, for that matter. And if it ain’t broke, why fix it, right?

So yes, I have been busy. First of all, the usual excitement at Deep Griha. There’s never a dull moment at that place, and I’ve been getting involved in various projects, helping out where I can. At times it’s been hard work, but I’m learning constantly and soaking it all up.

Back in December, I submitted a proposal for Deep Griha to Commonwealth Connects (a pan-Commonwealth development initiative focused on information communication technology). The proposal was entitled ‘ICT skills training for urban slum communities in Pune, India’ and for a couple of months I kind of forgot about it. Then, out of nowhere, I received an email inviting me to present the proposal at the Commonwealth Connects 2007 conference, to be held in New Delhi on 23-24 March. It’s always nice to receive some positive feedback and since I don’t have any formal training in development issues it’s good to know that the proposals I write are generally along the right lines.

The only hitch was that the conference was scheduled for a week after my visa expired. But things can sometimes be arranged…

My plan was simple: head up to Delhi a few days early, procure a 14-day visa extension from the Ministry of Home Affairs, attend the conference, then overland it to Nepal. As luck would have it, my old buddy Matt was making plans to trek in Nepal around the same time. Bingo – we’ll team up. After a few weeks clowning around the Himalaya, return to India on a fresh visa. Job done.
Of course, it didn’t work out that way. The MHA didn’t like the sound of me attending a conference on a tourist visa, not least one organised by a commercial sounding name like the Commonwealth Business Council. The fact that the event was co-sponsored by the Government of India, the keynote speaker was President Kalam and that a load of ministers and officials would be in attendance didn’t make any difference. The problem is that tourist visas are (ostensibly) non-extendable, and can’t be converted to any other kind of visa – such as a conference visa for example.

My old Pune University batchmate Jasmeet had met me outside the visa office. He’s a Delhi local (Dilliwala?), and as he rightly pointed out, “You don’t know how the system works.” We quickly embarked on a whistlestop tour of various government departments in an attempt to get the necessarily clearance. Jasmeet showed exactly the right kind of dogged persistence combined with infinite patience which seems to be the way to go about these things. I just played the role of ‘bemused foreigner’, a part I was born to play. At one stage, we managed to get as far as some junior undersecretary in the right department, but by then it was getting late. “It’s 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and your visa expires on Sunday. It would be very difficult to get much done in time,” he told us.

So that was that. I was left in somewhat of a dilemma, because with my visa expiring in just two days I had to leave the country sharpish. I did have a train booked from Delhi up to near the Nepalese border, but of course that was scheduled for after the conference. There’s a long waiting list for tickets so getting something the next day would have been impossible. We enquired at a respectable-looking travel agency in Connaught Place about flights to Kathmandu, leaving in the next couple of days.

Everything was booked out, on all airlines. Not good.

What about Colombo, Sri Lanka? (Always a good backup.) Nope. Nothing available at short notice. Okay… getting desperate here… what about Bangkok? Possible. But only a one-way ticket, because my visa was about to expire. What’s that got to do with the agent? That’s my problem, I protested; I’d get a new Indian visa once I arrived. Nothing doing. I pointed out that last time I booked a ticket to Bangkok the agent refused to sell me a single ticket, due to non-existent (or at least, non-enforced) Thai regulations. That’s why I ended up thinking about returning to India to study (lucky for me, as it turned out). This time, I wanted a return ticket, and they’d only sell me a one-way passage out of the country. Shi baba.

“What we need,” I said to Jasmeet, “Is a proper Indian travel agent. You know, some guy with a telephone.”

It didn’t take long. We passed a bureau de change and Jasmeet asked the man inside about travel agencies, and lo and behold he led us to exactly the kind of place we were after: guy with phone. Within half an hour, I had a flight booked to Kathmandu, leaving the next day.

So here I am. The plan is to kick around for a couple of weeks until Matt arrives, then hit the trail. I’m here earlier than scheduled, but that’s not the end of the world. First impressions are good and I’m looking forward to exploring the Kathmandu valley over the next few days. Watch this space…

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