Tangent Time: The Great Indian Visa Debacle (August 2015)

Our last day in Sri Lanka was spent relaxing in Negombo and preparing for our next flight to Mumbai. My pinterest-ing was out of control and I was super excited about our trip to India. I was ready for the country of contrasts, colour and spice. We had booked a two week trip around the Rajasthan area seeing many of the sights India has to offer. I had reservations about the hygiene and unwanted attention from Indian men, but other than that I was really looking forward to my exploring the cities and getting a taste of Indian life. We decided on a  tour with Gecko in order to make our trip as hassle free as possible thinking we would go back another time to explore on our own once we were feeling a little more comfortable.

We intended to stay our last night with Patrick in his quaint guesthouse. We spent the evening having  a few drinks and eating our weight in pasta from the Rodeo Pub. After dinner and a few drinks, I began to feel a little nauseous and put it down to anxiety about our very early flight ( we had to be at the airport just after 4am) to New Delhi via Mumbai/Bombay the next day. We decided to call it a night and get a good night’s sleep. We arrived home as the feeling in my stomach worsened and I began to cross off what I had eaten that day suspecting food poisoning.  I packed my backpack ready for the morning and we organised for Patrick to take us in his tuk tuk to the airport. That night as Rhys slept soundly beside me, I deteriorated getting up and down through the night with a fever, hot and cold sweats, diarrhoea and vomiting. I know that isn’t the most flattering image. I’ve had traveller’s tummy before (in Indonesia) I knew it would all be over soon enough and I just had to try and keep my fever down and my fluids up, but alas it was not a restful sleep.

As I watched the clock tick by, I eventually decided I might as well get up and shower before our alarm went off and Rhys woke up. He had stirred a few times during the night to see if I needed help, but I tried not to wake him as I figured it wasn’t much good both of us being zombies the next day. I felt a little better after my shower and even managed to slowly eat half a croissant as we piled our bags into the (well overloaded) tuk tuk with the surfboards strapped on top. As we arrived at the airport, we said out goodbyes to Patrick and headed into the mostly deserted airport. We exchanged the last of our Sri Lankan money into Indian on our way past the money exchanges offices and then we checked our baggage in with Sri Lankan airlines. We sat in the cafeteria as my condition started to intensify again before making our way (slowly) to the gate to await our flight. I was trying my best not to look too sick just in case they didn’t let me on the plane, choosing to discreetly make my way to the bathroom (very quickly) whenever the urge to throw up began at the back of my throat (I am sorry so many of my stories involve vomit). I couldn’t keep the croissant down as we went through the final security check point and entered the gate lounge to wait. Finally, our flight was called and we lined up ready to show our passports and ticket for the final boarding just as the male flight attendant began to look a little puzzled.

As he flicked through our passport pages, he asked for our Indian visas. We tried to explain that we were just obtaining a tourist visa on arrival but had completed the forms (digitally) to show at the other end to save time. I showed him my phone with the completed form in my emails. In his broken English, he tried to explain that what we had was not sufficient and that we needed to have a different visa. The worry and panic began to overtake the sick feeling in my stomach as he told us to move out of the line and sit down to await our fate.

At closer inspection of the email (that we had filled out late at night, the night before we left for Sri Lanka after a few too many celebratory drinks) we saw that indeed it was not an etourist visa form, but a digital form  that needed to be sent away and approved by the Indian embassy. As we realised our mistake, we tried to communicate that we could perhaps just scrap the initial form and instead apply for a tourist visa on arrival forgetting that we had filled out anything else. Unfortunately, for reasons that were lost in translation, this did not seem to be an option.

The attendant just kept telling us to sit down and wait while they got the rest of the passengers on board. We sat anxiously for another 10 minutes while the staff discussed options amongst themselves telling us to just “sit and wait please” every time we tried to ask about what was happening. Everyone had boarded the plane and we still weren’t getting any explanations about whether we were going to make the flight or not. By this time I had spewed a few more times into my plastic bag while Rhys began to get agitated about the situation and lack of information. They had taken our passports away and not returned them and our bags were still on the plane. We tried to ask questions but the language barrier seemed to cloud any clear communication. No one would give us a straight answer and the longer we waited the more tense it became.

Eventually, we saw our backpacks come off the plane and then we had to worry about whether they had remembered our surfboard bag too. Finally, an attendant confirmed that all our bags were together and to follow him. He had our passports and told us to sit in a chair just near the departing gate  entrance while a security guard completed some paperwork. After an hour and a half of sitting and waiting while phone calls were made to superiors and the right questions were asked. It still seemed to us that no one knew what to do or what the procedure was to reject us from the airport. A different man came and escorted us to another section of the airport (not official, just outside s tea shop. Go figure.) and told us to wait again. During this time, I needed to vomit a few more times rushing frantically to find the nearest bathroom as I had now lost my bearings, only just making it to a shop and asking hurriedly for a plastic bag while the woman looked at me with confusion and then disgust as I threw up in front of her. Another hour passed and we were led back to the main airport entrance where our bags were screened again before they pushed us out a side door and into the hot, humid Sri Lankan air. At 4:30am, we had arrived airport only to find ourselves standing in the same position 5 hours later. We had our bags but no idea of what to do next (having never been rejected from an airport before) and we were still in a state of shock about what had happened hoping it was all a bad dream. We decided to go back to our accommodation to access the wifi and try and figure out what our options were. The worst part was we knew we had a connecting flight out of India to England in two weeks time that we would miss unless we could organise an alternative.

We hailed a cab, knowing how much we should pay and agreed on a price of 1000 rupees. Once loaded up and driving, the cabbie started trying to bargain for a higher price. In our exhaustion, we argued back and probably got a little too angry at him trying to haggle with us after agreeing on a price already. The cabbie thought we were newbies fresh off the plane that he could bully into paying more, when in reality this was our third airport trip and we were in no mood to take any of his shit. It got to the point where we had only been driving for a couple of minutes but Rhys and I were demanding he take us back if he wouldn’t accept the agreed price. The cabbie refused and then proceeded to lock the doors, keeping us essentially captive customers. The silence and our anger filled every crevice in the small van and the cabbie did not say another word until we arrived at our destination. We got out and gave him the 1000 rupees, but he wouldn’t accept it and kept asking for more. In the end, we refused to pay on principle and after such a hectic morning as well as being sick, I couldn’t deal with anyone anymore choosing to retreat to the air-conditioned room for some solace as the cabbie drove away in a huff.

In hindsight, I still feel that the cab driver tried to take advantage of us but after it was all over, I realised we were stressing over a small amount of money that didn’t really matter to us. It was all about the principle of agreeing on a deal for me. Thankfully, Patrick welcomed us back a little confused, but with open arms. We explained what happened as he made us tea and organised a fresh room for us. After a few hours of researching, numerous phone calls to Web Jet, Sri Lankan Airlines and World Nomads, we were running out of options and nobody seemed to want to help.

We even made a special trip to the Indian embassy in Colombo in an attempt to get the visa approval. We spent a whole day organising our visa paperwork, getting passport photos taken, photocopying documents and paying to have the forms completed by some guy in a makeshift office across the street from the official embassy. We waited in line to submit it all only to have the lady tell us that we would not be able to apply for a new Indian visa and have it approved and returned before our London flight as they had to send our passports away and it can take up to 10 days.

Web Jet (who we had booked all of our flights through) told us the flights couldn’t be changed or cancelled from their end and to call Sri Lankan Airlines. Sri Lankan airlines told us that Web Jet booked the flights and therefore they couldn’t change or cancel our flights and our travel insurance told us they would not cover the cost of any new flights or accommodation as having the correct visa was our responsibility. So we were out of luck, couldn’t change or cancel our flights or make it to India in time to catch our connecting flight to London. We also couldn’t just fly earlier to London as our working visas didn’t begin until the 15th of August meaning we would have to enter on a tourist visa and then leave the country and re-enter on our working visas. Talk about a messy situation! So we did what any sane person in our situation would do… we booked flights to the Maldives in an attempt to forget our woes.

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

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The Sri Lanka Series: Arugam Bay (July-August 2015)

Arugam Bay

The bay is perfect for swimming and spectacular to look at.

The bay is perfect for swimming and spectacular to look at.

Getting ready to head out for another day of surf and sun. Had to teach the hotel staff how to use an iphone and you can see her finger just in the top left corner.

Getting ready to head out for another day of surf and sun. Had to teach the hotel staff how to use an iphone and you can see her finger just in the top left corner.

We chose to visit the upcoming surfing spot of Arugam Bay as friends had been in previous years and bragged about how great the surf was. It tends to work best in the off season meaning the surfing season is from June – October.  Arugam is a very laid back strip that sits on a large bay with a range of point breaks both north and south. The bay is beautiful for swimming, boasting calm water with rolling waves that break onto a sandy shore. The locals all come down in droves on weekends where whole families scream with glee, jump on each other and play in the shallows. Arugam’s main point is gentle most of the time but does have a bit of a rocky shelf which can attract the odd sea urchin. Some surfers wore booties, but my partner and I both didn’t bother and chose instead to just try and avoid the bottom as much as possible.  My partner was a little disappointed with the surf when we were there, as it didn’t really get bigger than 4ft and there is a minimal tide difference (so it just stays the same) and the wind was howling from about midday. There were also a lot of people (and beginners) trying to do their thing in the shore break which is not ideal when you have come specifically to surf and you have to worry about avoiding them as they bob around on huge foam boards.

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A couple of waves caught by Rhys.

A couple of waves caught by Rhys.

I chose not to bring a board with me (my partner bought two), but hired both a mini mal and malibu on different days and had an awesome time while getting a great tan. Upali is the accommodation and cafe which sits right on the main point and provides a perfect (and shady) reading or blogging spot when my partner was surfing for long hours. Once we were all surfed out, we would walk back to the main strip and score a cabana (usually at Funky de Bar) that looked out onto the water. Funky de Bar was also home to a litter of puppies and anyone who knows me knows how much I LOVE dogs. We would eat, drink, play with the puppies and be generally merry which isn’t hard to do in a place as beautiful as Sri Lanka.

Puppies! This is my happy place.

Puppies! This is my happy place.

Mal sliding was my favourite past time when it was a little smaller.

Mal sliding was my favourite past time when it was a little smaller. We hired this 9ft mal for a couple of days.

We stayed at The Hotel Paradise for 10 days and it catered to our needs really well. Not only is it right in the middle of town, it was clean and cheap plus the staff were very accommodating. I would definitely recommend an air-conditioned room though as it was still quite hot at night and nice to escape the heat in the middle of the day. The Hotel Paradise also do a curry buffet for 400 rupee which was so tasty and filling. You can’t really beat that.

Boats are lined up everywhere and fishing is the main economy.

Boats are lined up everywhere and fishing is the main economy.

The food in Arugam has a lot of variety and can cater to all budgets and taste buds. Some days we lived off roti and Sri Lankan curries (the one from Munchies Shack was the best in my opinion) and other days we would splurge a little more and eat BBQ whole fish done over a fire, delicious burgers and cocktails from Zephyr, and real coffee and breakfast paninis from the Hideaway cafe during the day and fruity cocktails with reggae at night from the bar. There are a few touristy shops if retail therapy is your thing, but I wouldn’t dedicate too much time to it.

The Hideaway Cafe did the best coffee I had in Sri Lanka and delicious brekky paninis. Their bar had a reggae vibe at night and served awesome cocktails too!

The Hideaway Cafe did the best coffee I had in Sri Lanka and delicious brekky paninis. Their bar had a reggae vibe at night and served awesome cocktails too!

Arugam Bay in the late afternoon from Mambos. Enjoying a beer and some peanuts sold by a local.

Arugam Bay in the late afternoon from Mambos. Enjoying a beer and some peanuts sold by a local.

Arugam Bay is the perfect location to make your ‘base’ so you can do day trips north or south and see all that the area has to offer. There is also an elephant gathering place west of Pottuvil near the big waterhole. The two times we went past, we were a little too early and then a little too late. Get a local to take you and time it for late afternoon to witness a spectacular sight.

This was the safari sunset so I will always remember it as a pretty great day.

This was the safari sunset so I will always remember it as a pretty great day.

North of Arugam Bay are secluded accommodation options away from the bustle of the main strip. There are a couple of surf points and I spent two very relaxing mornings at the Whiskey Beach cabanas and cafe. It takes about 10 minutes by tuk tuk and costs around 1000 rupees return (or 1500 rupees to the Lighthouse point) and usually the driver will wait for you, or come back and collect you at an agreed time. Pottuvil Point is worth a look if you are up that way already, but probably not as an individual trip. Most drivers tag on an extra 500 rupee for the trip.

Can I live here? An old house at Pottuvil Point.

Can I live here? An old house at Pottuvil Point.

Pottuvil Point.

Pottuvil Point.

South of Arugam there is Okanda and two national parks. Okanda is a dusty 40 minute drive south and we visited on two separate occasions. The first time was a part of our local led ‘safari tour’ just to have a look. The second time was early in the morning on a surf expedition but there was also a week long Hindu festival on. (Check out Tangent Time below for my story about my ‘celebrity status’.) Okanda beach is beautiful, the surf was little bigger but still quite messy.

The view from the shrine was magnificent! It was VERY windy when we were up there.

The view from the rock near the shrine was magnificent! It was VERY windy when we were up there.

One of the local tuk tuk drivers (we called him ‘No Teeth’ for obvious reasons) drove us to various points a couple of times and we discussed with him the possibility of us taking a safari tour to check out some of the wildlife in the area. We paid 3000 rupee (plus we gave a large tip at the end as we were stoked with what we did and saw) for a couple of hours driving. No Teeth promised we wouldn’t pay if we didn’t see any elephants or were unhappy with the quality of the tour in anyway. It sounded like a pretty good deal to me. He picked us up from our hotel at 1:30pm and we set off. Not even 15 minutes had passed when we spotted peacocks (as plentiful as pigeons in Sri Lanka), a herd of buffalo bathing in a pond, a mongoose and witnessed our first elephant sighting. A large bull was standing just outside of the bush line and was visible from the road. We watched him for about 15 minutes before moving on with No Teeth promising we would see plenty more on his ‘special tour’. We hiked up to the Okanda Kudumbigala Forest Hermitage Shrine and fed the monkeys biscuits we bought from a local stall. They were mischievous and naughty, just as monkeys should be, and I have developed a bit of a love/hate relationship with monkeys. I find they are very sweet one minute being all friendly and cutesy, but as soon as you are out of food, they turn on you (and each other) going feral and vicious in the blink of an eye. Once we climbed to the top of the temple, we were treated to breathtaking 360 degree views of the whole area and it is definitely worth the walk up the stone steps (if you can call them that, they are more like strategically spaced rock grooves). Ladies, don’t forget to enter the shrine you will need to take or wear a long skirt and cover your shoulders. I took two sarongs with me so I could take it all off afterwards.

This is No Teeth and my partner Rhys.

This is No Teeth and my partner Rhys.

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Monkeys and crocodiles.

Monkeys. How cute is this guy?.

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These guys you can see, the others not so much.

I knew what was underneath the water...eek.

I knew what was underneath the water…eek.

No Teeth then showed us crocodiles up close (and a little to close for comfort) in a nearby creek. They didn’t do much, just lazed about on the banks, but I was more afraid of what I couldn’t see under the water as we stood on the edge of the river watching them. I didn’t really want to test fate. We visited Okanda, to see what it was like and saw that they were setting up stalls and shops for some kind of festival which we discovered to be a Hindu event later on. Finally, we went on the hunt for more elephants. We spotted a group of four adult elephants quite far off in the distance opposite a large (and mostly dry) waterhole. Eventually, we found a family of about 7 adult elephants and a baby. We were apparently getting too close as the bull began throwing dirt, grunting and stamping. Needless to say, we backed away slowly. It was amazing to see this whole elephant family out in the wild living (mostly harmoniously) with the villages. The fence in the image actually goes around the village to keep the elephants out rather than to keep them in captivity. I felt honoured to witness these beautiful exotic creatures in their wild habitat roaming freely.

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Daddy elephant. Not so happy to see us.

Elephant family roaming freely.

Elephant family roaming freely. The little baby is too much!

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This male was by himself near one of the roads to Okanda.

Tangent Time: When my partner and I returned to Okanda for the second time to surf it was early morning and the sun had just risen. No Teeth was supposed to pick us up from the front of our hotel at 5:30am but he didn’t show. We found out later that he had slept through his alarm. Instead, we waved down one of the many other tuk tuk drivers. No point getting up this early for no reason! Okanda beach was mostly secluded except for a couple of towels and bags left on the beach by the other 5 surfers who were already out in the water. My partner paddled out and I sat on the beach on a towel in a dress and hat with my camera at the ready. After an hour of taking some snapshots, I noticed that there were a few small groups of locals dressed in their best saris and suits making their way down the beach towards me. As they got closer, there was a lot of pointing and talking (that I couldn’t understand) as they all moved closer and stood around me. The kids waved and said hi excitedly. Some spoke a few words of English and asked questions about my name and where I was from. A lot of the boys stared or asked to take my picture, some wanted to touch my blonde hair or shake my hand. For approximately 3 hours this went on with each group that passed by. Most were polite, others not so much and some started taking pictures without asking or doing anything else. Just waltzed right up and started snapping. I began to understand a little more how celebrities feel. I was reading a book on my ipad mini and many of the children wanted to look at it and touch it as they had never seen anything like it before. I had to explain to a couple of boys that my ‘husband’ was out in the water so they would back off a little and move out of my personal space. One man who spoke excellent English explained that many of the locals were from very small villages far away and had driven for days just to attend the festival. He outlined that most of them would not have seen a white person in the flesh before either and that was why there was so much commotion.  It was such a bizarre experience that I won’t soon forget and I now have an appreciation for what it must be like being an animal in a zoo.

Just some of my new friends on Okanda beach. It seemed only fair that I take a photo of them when they were taking so many photos of me.

Just some of my new friends on Okanda beach. It seemed only fair that I take a photo of them when they were taking so many photos of me.

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

Elderly Shoutouts

I just had the most lovely encounter with an elderly lady and it compelled me to give a shoutout to anyone over the age of 65. (You know who you are, but I am not sure many of you read blogs?)

My partner and I were riding our bikes through Dover, England after spending the morning exploring the historically significant Dover Castle (totally worth doing). We were cruising down a large hill and came to a fork in the road. We weren’t sure which way to go so we pulled out our phone (yep, Gen Y-ers) to have a look at the map. As Rhys was doing this, I was looking around appreciating our surroundings and gazed up at a window in a house nearby. The window belonged to an old person’s nursing home and framed perfectly  in the window, enjoying the sunshine and view sat a hunched, little old lady in a wheelchair who had short white hair and was wearing a blue two piece suit. She was watching us, smiling widely and furiously waving at me in the sweetest way possible. My heart melted as I thought of my two grandmothers and I waved back.  She started to point to the right indicating the way we should go. I tapped my partner on the shoulder and pointed so he could wave too and thank her for helping us when, just as he looked up, she started blowing kisses the cheeky devil! Rhys obliged and blew kisses back and then we took her on her word (and hoped she didn’t have dementia) and peddled our bikes to the right as we waved goodbye. Luckily, she got us to where we needed to go.

I just want to encourage people to take a moment today and be a little kinder and a little more patient to elderly strangers and family members. Their life experience and understanding of the world far parallels our own and we should feel blessed to enjoy every moment we have with the special old people in our lives. Warm and fuzzies all round.

This post is dedicated to both my lovely grandmothers who I know are looking down on me and keeping me safe on my travels.

xo

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble