She gave me a nervous smile as she turned towards me. The tremor in her hand was evident. Her nervousness powered my confidence. I composed my features to present the most languid picture that I could.
"Is this your first time?" she asked.
I gave myself a mental pat on the back for calling it right. There was no mistaking it...She was a 'Visa Virgin'. I had spotted the traits the minute I had taken my place behind her in the queue outside the UK visa application centre. First giveaway, someone, presumably her father had accompanied her. Second, they were both crouched on the pavement poring over the visa forms, checking or rather rechecking her documents for the nth time. But that question from her clinched it!
A queue at any visa centre or embassy is an amalgam of a few prototypes. The easiest ones to pick out are the 'Visa Virgins'. They have the appearance of students outside their examination centres, going over possible questions and formulating ideal responses. At some point, the accompanying relative will materialise with a thermos of tea or a snack to bolster them for the mammoth task ahead. The other prototype is the seasoned traveller. He appears bored. He can easily spot the others in the queue from his group and ever so often they will exchange their secret club salute - the eye-roll accompanied by a 'What's all the fuss about?' look at the rest of the queue especially the virgins. But don't let their oh-so casual look fool you; it's as natural as the coiffed just-out-of-bed hair on the cover page of a magazine. And of course there's the 'been there, done that but the butterflies still won't leave' category...and that's the one I belong to! We look like we are sailing smooth but that's only because we've already navigated these waters before. We look composed and confident but that's only because we don't want to be mistaken for a 'visa virgin'.
Preparation for a visa application is a complicated affair. As I go over a country's consular website for visa-related information, I look longingly at the list of countries whose citizens are exempt from the visa requirement. I squint and look again, willing 'India' to appear in that list but it rarely does. The next task is to choose the category and check the corresponding list of required documents. And this is where I switch to my Facebook account and start harvesting wheat on my Farmville account. Aah! Life is so much simpler on a simulated farm! But, sooner or later it's back to real life and preparing a checklist of necessary documents. And of course the precise instructions for photographs! Every consulate has its own requirement of size, background colour, etc. Some even specify the proportion of size of face to size of photograph! The cameraman at the local studio instructed me as I posed for my picture.
"Madam, the ears must be seen, or they will reject the visa."
I discreetly sucked my cheeks in and looked at the camera.
"No, no" he said, not pleased with my effort. "Still cannot see."
"Not possible" I informed him. My ears are flat and my cheeks are fat!"
"You have to try, madam."
I tucked two fingers behind each ear and jabbed at my ears pushing them out as much as I could. I quickly moved my fingers away, hoping that my ears would hold that position for the few seconds till the cameraman got the shot.
He clicked and checked the result. He shrugged. It was no masterpiece but it would just have to do!
Fortunately, the visa forms are a fairly easy part of the whole exercise except for that dreaded question.
'Have you ever been refused the visa for any country?'
I remember the times I used to check the 'No' box with a flourish, until, four years ago when it all changed. Of course I have nobody but myself to blame! I had put myself in the line of fire. I, a single Gujarati girl of marriageable age had dared to apply for an American visa. I was denied. The official document said I did not show sufficient evidence of intending to return to my home country. Translation: We think you are going to find a Gujju Mr. Green Card and become Mrs. Green Card in the suburbs of New Jersey.
So, now every time I fill a visa form, I must slowly check 'Yes' for that dreaded question, fill in the relevant information and relive the events of that fateful day.
The forms have been filled, the mug shots clicked, the queue has been endured and the interviews tackled...but the worst is yet to come. The wait! The agonising wait for the verdict! I picture my application making its way through the assembly line of scrutiny. I think of the various bumps that might fetch me a denial and think of my options.
"I'll just holiday in Simla. Or better yet, I'll treat myself to something expensive with all the money I'll save." And I wait...
Visas are believed to have come into existence at the turn of the 20th century. There have also not been many great discoverers since then. The visas probably deterred the hopefuls from their ambitions. Christopher Columbus had it easy. It is no longer just about getting your ship, hiring your crew, and equipping it, you also have to weather the storm of the visa queue.
A city-girl trapped in the soul of a nomad, the only thing that gives me almost as much pleasure as travelling, is writing about travelling. In January, I will set off on a 23-day solo Spanish sojourn from where I will post a live travel diary of my day-to-day happenings. For the next eight weeks, watch this space as I share tips on planning a solo trip and some anecdotes from my earlier experiences.