1.10 pm IST, 35,000 feet over Kandahar, Afghanistan
I am on my first flight abroad and the excitement is palpable. The sound from my Helsinki bound Finnair engine is a monotonous drone and the dusty, brown middle-eastern terrain runs endlessly as far as my sleepy eyes can see. Jagged mountains, deserted plains and a seemingly irrelevant river make for an incredibly picturesque view. The cloudless sky and the midday sun bake the parched earth. And my sleepy mind directs my eyes to look out for militants training in these desolate hills. There is a fleeting thought of being able to spot Osama run with his men in a secret trail which I could shoot with my 4X optical zoom enabled Canon Powershot A570IS from this paltry height. Alas, such fantasies are short-lived as we soon meet turbulent weather - the kind which forces you to wear your seat belt and start praying. I wonder what atheists do during such times? I guess they'd be listening to music on their iPod.
Many people i know will wish to plug iPod headphones in their ears instead of the customary cotton plugs during their cremation. What a product!
Nonetheless, the turbulent weather allows me to flash-back into the whens and hows of this trip.
On May1, 2007 Sharan, (my dearest school friend), now graduated from the University of Virginia, & I spoke of travelling together to a foreign destination. The oft and well travelled bloke meant it in all earnestness but for me, it was simply a distant dream as is the case with many fellow middle-class Gujarati 21 year olds. And going to phoren is akin to asking Salman Khan to act. Surprisingly, I was very comfortably able to convince my father to grant me a Rs.1.5 lakh budget for my trip to Europe for which I had to contribute 50% of the amount. And that casual conversation, the kind in which you tell your father you want to buy a BMW and he continues reading the paper, was where it all began... Only this time around he looked up and said - Sounds good. *Still pinching*
So now, armed with theplas, bhakris and and a lifetime supply of other sundry 'gujju' food items, I reminiscence Sharan's trip to India in December 2007 when we laid the foundations of our trip. By pulling up maps of Europe and juggling between logistical and financial constraints, we were finally able to zero upon a 23 day trip spanning 3 countries and a one-day trip to catch the Mont Blanc in Chammonix, France as an added attraction. 8 days in Switzerland, 6 days in Italy and 9 days in Norway was how it eventually mapped out. Sidestep.com, Tripadvisor.com, Swissrailpass.com and other angelic .coms came to the rescue. Sharan blessed the internet and wondered how men in the pre-internet era planned a trip. The advantage of booking in advance meant we got reasonably good fares for our flight and hotel bookings. For example - My Finnair flight (Mumbai to Zurich and Oslo to Mumbai) cost me Rs.33,000. So unlike my spontaneous domestic travels, time in such a case is literally money. After completing all the bookings online, the next obvious step was to obtain the respective VISAs. The dreaded 4 letter word of which a first time traveller such as me - had no idea of. Procuring a VISA in my case was A) Time-consuming and B) Draining - the reasons being multifold.
Firstly, I was ignorant. Secondly, I was a blank passport holder. And thirdly - my application was unique. To go to Italy, Norway and France, I had to apply for a Schengen Visa. The Schengen Visa suffices for entry into 15 countries which have signed the Schengen treaty. The contries being Austria, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxemburg, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden The Netherlands
For a blank passport holder, obtaining a Schengen Visa is challenging purely by virtue of the number of documents they ask for : (The Swiss ask for more or less the same application)
Me thinks, they must be asking for an Encyclopedia on Self, Family and Country if you ever dare to apply for residency. The process of obtaining a Schengen / Swiss Visa is chaotic and painful to say the least. And I was not surprised to see agents thronging these consulates on behalf of the once-upon-a-time humiliated passengers. Unless you are prepared to spend 5 hours of your morning in a queue waiting endlessly for a humiliating stress interview (interview compulsory for first time visitors) or if you have no choice - don't do it. The embassy, especially in the peak season was brimming with people waiting from 6 am (embassy opens at 8 am) The unabashed, loud gujarati conversations will consistently fill in the suffocating embassy office at Maker Chambers 4, Nariman Point and remind you that wherever you are in the world, even if you don't find an Indian - you will find a Gujju. Go Gujju's!. I was fortunate enough to have applied through my friend Disha (rockstar) at International Travel House in Parel. And even though i was supremely hard-pressed for time, I am ON my aircraft flying on schedule which talks volumes about their efficiency, my desperation and the very important thing called destiny. For first time travellers like yours truly, I recommend their guidance if you are applying from India. As per the Swiss Consulate's requirement - you MUST apply for the Schengen or any other country's visa you intend to visit before or after Switzerland before applying for the Swiss Visa. The Swiss Consulate (rather ridiculously) asked for Sharan's visa as a pre-requisite to grant me a Visa. Since he was in USA and applying late - I obviously could not submit it. They also told me that I may have to postpone my trip till I was able to submit his visa copy. What nerve! At that moment, in my heart, I had shown the Swiss consulate my middle finger. My money, my time, my energy - and after having succumbed to all their innocuos documentation requirements, they still threaten me trip-postponement. For 2 days, in deep-stress, I procured a letter from Sharan (forged one ;) with the help of my friend Devina who fabulously forged his signature) stating his inability to send the visa. I sourced his passport and I20 copies. And finally after a reinterview (this time a considerate, sweet lady) - I struck gold! Anyway, its been great learning. I now know what not to do. The Schengen Visa, the Italian Embassy states, may take upto 10 working days. I got it in 4 days itself. But be wise to give yourself room for re-application. The Swiss Visa takes less than 3 working days. The earlier you apply - more the time to accomodate last moment mishaps. No Travel House/ Agent guarantees a Visa so pointing a finger is futile. If your apllication is sound, genuine and in time - invariably you will get it. I can write an essay on the Trials and Tribulations in getting a Swiss/Schengen Visa. Again, experiences are subjective - so some may ride it easy ... others may get harassed. With more trips (hopefully) i'll be able to judge the process better. Anyway, i've been typing for quite a while now. I am really looking forward to meeting Sharan at Zurich. My only concern is that my delayed flight from Mumbai may not allow me to take my connecting flight to Zurich. I remember excerpts from Bachchan's blog and Harivanshrai Bachchan's words - Man ka ho to acha. Man ka na ho to aur bhi acha. If what your heart desires, happens - good. But if what your heart desires does not happen - even better. So, on that optimistic and poetic note - I end my lil' note from the skies. It was Visa centric, I realise, but then as a self-enrolled member of the travel community, sharing such information is vital.
Anyway, they're screening a Finnish soft-porn movie in some time. Time to tranquilize those hormones.
P.S. - I am back from my trip but these are my entries which I MUST post or else it'll be a horrid waste of phone memory. And since some of you are STILL kind enough to visit my blog. Please be party to the suffering. And no - I don't write for myself.