I read an interview with the author Lawrence Osborne, an expat Englishman pitched as an heir to Graham Greene. Osborne lives in Bangkok and I was in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, at the time. He said, “This part of the world is full of escapees.” I thought: “It’s true!”
Osborne went to Thailand for the cheap dentistry but stayed for the quality of life. It helped that one New York Times article sustained body and soul for six months. In the interview, he spoke of his peripatetic existence, years of wandering and scraping by, not caring about money as much as experience. The only thing he really needed, aside from that money, was his passport.
But I’m Indian, so my passport is a bitch.
Access to the Various Countries of the World Is Not Available to All Human Beings Equally
The grey parts of the world are countries I can’t enter without a visa.
The places below in blue and green are the ones my husband—English, like Osborne—can enter freely.
Even when a visa is possible, it’s far from simple. My country is materially wealthy, and has around 200,000 dollar millionaires, but it also has 180 million people living in poverty. Aspirational Indians, mainly from the vast demographic existing between these two extremes, have been eager to get out over the years, to make their way in the world, any way they can. Because of this (and also the way many go about their exit) other countries are wary. As a matter of course, for a tourist visa application to even approach success, I need to present bank statements, letters of recommendation and introduction, return tickets, hotel bookings, proof of employment and tax records. I have to convince the relevant official, beyond all reasonable doubt, that I’m planning on going home at the end of my stay.
As a writer, my income is not regular, I don’t have a place of work; I don’t have a two-week holiday block; I don’t even have a regular working day. I don’t have a safety net. I have a certain amount of fear all the time, but I crave my independence too. I only wish, like Osborne, I could trade the insecurity for freedom of movement.
The Visa Run
Now picture this: I’m sitting at the Thai visa centre in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It’s one of those outdoor courtyard setups, a corrugated plastic roof that changes colour with the burning sun, rows of plastic chairs connected horizontally at the base, marked by the pen graffiti of the bored, and there’s always one that’s broken, which bends way too far back. We move in a slow line, a silent game of musical chairs. There are about a hundred people here. They are almost all white. Western travellers and expats. I eavesdrop on their stories of hardship, what they have to go through just to keep on staying in Thailand. Sometimes they have to wait three whole hours when they apply for the new visa. Sometimes they don’t have access to a photocopier inside the centre and have to pay for the one outside . Sometimes the officials don’t smile at them. Every year, the price goes up. Occasionally I detect a sense of disbelief that they have to do a visa run at all.
I might blend in with these people on the surface, but they are nothing like me. Though I sit patiently, I want to shake them, say: Do you know how lucky you are? How virtue is bestowed upon you by your birth, by the land that owns you? Do you see that you can dress in rags while I must watch how I present myself at all times, knowing what the sight of my passport will do? I want to ask: How many Indian backpackers have you met? Not students, not immigrants, but backpackers, freely exploring the world? Do you realise how the world belongs to you? Do you know how long other people have to wait for something as simple as a passport?
We move slowly toward the window. Glue sticks, scissors, pens, folders of documents. My visa application is about to be rejected.
First World Problems
But why am I even queuing here, in this old French colonial city? First world problems, you see. I didn’t want to spend another season at home in Goa trying to write a novel while friends, relatives, and acquaintances arrived on holiday, expecting to be entertained. Also, my paperback was coming out in the US, and my brother in Hong Kong had a son I hadn’t yet seen.
To kill several birds with one stone, my husband and I decided to spend six months on the road. I found reasonable tickets and a friend to cat-sit our apartment. We worked out an itinerary: first Hong Kong and then San Francisco and New York, where we would stay with family and friends. At the end of it, an impulsive plan to spend three months in Chiang Mai in Thailand, writing.
I got my visa to the US in Delhi first, before we left. It turned out to be the easiest one. The officer looked at me, heard me speak, shuffled through my overabundance of papers, saw that I was already married and that I paid taxes in the US because of my novel, and even had my novel reviewed in The New York Times . This gave me ten years. (I did watch applicant after applicant get rejected while I waited, though.)
But when I tried to get a Thai visa in Delhi, they said I could only get it within thirty days of arrival in Thailand, and that I should therefore get it in New York. Dissolve to New York, two months later: A stern Thai official is telling me I cannot get a visa here as an Indian because I am not resident in America; I have to go back to India to apply for it.
“But they told me—” I plea.
“But I already have a ticket from New York to Bangkok!”
Not his problem. “Go back to India,” he says.
Meanwhile, my English husband is politely handed an application form because he can get his Thai visa from anywhere.
Research on my iPhone, walking the Upper East Side, trying to find somewhere to pee, tells me my options: I can still get a fifteen-day visa on arrival in Thailand as long as I show hotel bookings and return tickets and sufficient money in my bank account. But this is problematic. Our Airbnb booking in Chiang Mai is for a two-month duration, betraying our intention of staying longer than fifteen days. More damning, we have no return ticket.
Our remaining weeks in New York are cloudy. What will happen when we try to fly? Even if I manage to get a fifteen-day visa, what then?
Interlude at the Airport
Because airlines are responsible for returning visa-rejected arrivals to their port of departure, they often behave as preemptive immigration officials. Mindful of the bottom line, they can act more zealous than the real ones. Even when we left India, the young Indian guy at the Singapore Airlines check-in counter scrutinized my ticket to Hong Kong and finally demanded to see my return ticket. I said there wasn’t one; we were flying from Hong Kong to San Francisco. He demanded to see the return ticket from the US. I said there wasn’t one. “Well, show me your return ticket to India?” he said.
I didn’t have one. “Is that against the law?” I asked.
He went through my passport, examining all my visas, flicking backward and forward through the pages for a long time, finally demanding to know what I did for a living, why I was travelling to Hong Kong, why I was travelling to the US, why I was away from India for so long. He demanded to know when I would return. I said I didn’t know. He was greatly disturbed by this, offended, even. He continued pressing me, until one of his seniors had to step in. “This is none of your business,” the supervisor told the young airline official.
The Plan, and How the Plan Panned Out
In the weeks between my rejection at the Thai visa office in Manhattan and our departure from JFK, I came up with a plan: get into Thailand on the fifteen-day visa, dump our stuff in Chiang Mai, then go to Laos or Cambodia ASAP, and obtain a long-term visa there. All the backpacker websites and message boards explained how easy it was; they gave step-by-step guides. There was even a “visa express”: a bus that took you on an overnight journey and deposited you directly at the visa office in Vientiane. First I had to get into Thailand, though, which meant I still needed to show a ticket out of Thailand within the fifteen-day visa period.
There’s a certain Indian airline that allows free cancellation of a ticket within twenty-four hours of purchase, highly prized in situations like this. From this airline I bought a ticket to India on a date within the fifteen days. I printed it out, and immediately cancelled it. It was this cancelled but printed ticket that I presented to the airline at check-in, and which I intended to present to immigration at Bangkok.
But the check-in guy at JFK had a really long look at it, and for a while I thought he was going to enter it into the system and uncover my deception. This terrified me, made me frightened for what I would face upon arrival in Bangkok, and so at the layover in Singapore, I bought another ticket back to India and printed it out in the business centre, knowing that, now the NY-Singapore leg was over, I could present this real ticket to immigration in Bangkok and still have the time to cancel it afterwards in the airport without incurring a penalty.
Once in Thailand with my fifteen-day visa, I turned my attention not to writing, but to the visa run to Vientiane. I looked again at the numerous websites explaining how to go about it, how easy it was. But wait a minute . . . was it easy for Indians ? It occurred to me t hey’d all been written with Western backpackers in mind. I contacted the owner of one of the most comprehensive and knowledgeable sites, and tried to get specific information about Indian passport holders. He confessed he had no idea.
We went to Laos (visa on arrival) anyway. We stayed in a colonial hotel. We drank good coffee in the morning and salt fish and beer at night. The next day we went to the Thai visa office, queued up on those chairs, listened to the complaints and woes of the backpackers, watched as they submitted their applications, watched as I was told, just like in New York, that Indians couldn’t apply here, that they couldn’t apply anywhere but from India. I would have to go back to Thailand and work it out from there.
A few days later, in a dingy office at the border of Laos and Thailand, I got another fifteen-day visa, standing alongside a wealthy-looking Chinese lady. And, after fifteen days, utterly defeated, I flew back to India on yet another ticket to get my visa, leaving my husband to wait in our rented Airbnb in Chiang Mai.
Le Trio Coffee, Vientiane. They do it as well as anyone. photo by Matthew Parker
As this insignificant little drama of mine played out, hundreds of thousands of humans with arms and legs and eyes and teeth and memories were fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. I watched them on CNN in one of the lounges in Singapore as I headed back to India, refugees heading for Europe, packing their bags and taking off, families carrying whatever they could, photo albums, falafel makers, cats, people clinging to their passports, fleeing ISIL and Assad and civil war and drone-struck towns and borders that are blown into dust, nation-states that have crumbled, which have been toppled, reshaped indefinitely, in barbarism, rape, slavery, torture—the casualties of hatred, ideology, lies, deception, ambition, calculation and expediency. I watched the TV back in Delhi. A shelled city; Homs before and after. Buildings and corpses look one and the same, riddled with bullet holes, unclaimed. The living keep on because they have to.
Humans in an exodus: trudging, lurching, flinging themselves toward the EU, drowning in the sea, living in tents, in the woods, in shelters, in strange cities far away, on the edge, neither here nor there, but desperate to live all the same. Paperless, homeless, failed by institutions, by leaders, by neighbours. Clinging to humanity all the same.
Later, I woke up in another hotel bed, in a cabin in the Himalayas, listening to the call of peacocks and a distant train that winds its way across the mountains. I switched on Al-Jazeera and made coffee. “It’s not fair,” a well-spoken, photogenic Syrian boy said in excellent English, living in a makeshift camp at the Greek border with Macedonia, teeming with disease, ankle deep in mud. “If only they could feel what we feel.”
Sometimes it seems to me a miracle that so many worlds exist on the same planet and don’t fall inside one another and collapse. How do we do it? Even more so in the age of social media, where everything exists all of the time. How can I lie in that hotel bed, the pillow fluffy and white, and see this happen, and not only not fall apart, but thrive, make my coffee, walk along a trail, sit in a meadow and revel in the glory of nature?
From gapyear.com: “The more adventurous still often find themselves in South Asia, in countries like India , which is a great place for volunteering placements, and Nepal , popular for adventure travel like trekking. ”
It’s amusing and frustrating to read about your country in such a way. India has always been a projection of the fantastical and unorthodox and wayward and spiritual. India as the physical site for the West’s psychic lack, the irrational mirror. Concomitant: the plundering of India by the East India Company, by the British Empire, by Californian yogis. Here’s the deal: We’ll take your treasures and dignity and wealth and knowledge and curse you with holiness in return. India is the place to come find yourself. One of those places to visit in order to develop character or realise how lucky, generous, compassionate, brave, and open-minded you are, before you go back and get a job in the real world.
In 2014 the VII photographer John Stanmeyer, working for National Geographic , won World Press Photo of the Year for his shot, “ Signal ,” depicting African migrants on the shore of Djibouti City trying to catch a phone signal from neighbouring Somalia. On the visa run in Laos we did the same, standing on the deep sandy banks of the Mekong while local boys played football, using our Thai SIMs to try and catch the signal over the border at Nong Khai (and checking Facebook when we did).
This photo has stayed with me, arriving in odd moments and re-entering my mind during early coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis. So many photos of refugees with their phones, taking photos, checking for a signal, trying to stay in touch with loved ones (sometimes on Facebook).
Around the time, The Washington Post published an article called “ The Black Route ,” which detailed one family’s journey from Aleppo, Syria, to Austria. The father Ahmed’s Samsung smartphone featured heavily; the former deliveryman had plotted their entire route on GPS. They also used it to take photos, to document their journey. There’s one photo of Ahmed with Mostafa, his brother-in-law, on the beach at Tilos, a Greek island off the coast of Turkey.
On Quora I found this question:
Why is it that Syrian refugees can afford high-end smart-phones to take selfies, while I, as a Canadian, can’t? Well, I probably could, but its [ sic ] hardly a priority when it comes to my disposable income.
As I wished the travellers at the Thai visa centre in Vientiane could understand what it was like to have to explain myself everywhere I went, to have my country treated as a kind of playground, a testing ground, a baptism by fire, I suspected I would never understand what it is to be a refugee, without home, country, safety, possessions, tired all the time.
One should never say never. My own grandmother fled Pakistan during the Partition of India and Pakistan, witnessing atrocities on all sides, narrowly escaping, through the bravery of others, with her life. Her previously genteel world there was destroyed overnight. Violence comes from all sides, at any moment. No land is secure, and no border truly stable. History creeps, and it breaks.
Anecdote With Camels
Last year, my husband and I travelled to Ladakh, the northernmost region of India, whose capital city, Leh, was once an important station on the Silk Road. The trading routes came through Xinxiang into the Nubra Valley, and over the 18,000-foot mountain pass Khardung La down to Leh. When the Red Army sealed the Chinese border after the Communist Revolution, some of the Silk Road traders were stranded in India. And some of the traders abandoned their camels. The descendents of those camels live on sadly in the Nubra Valley, exiled in the high-altitude dunes of Hunder and Sumer.
An Arabian Silk Road painting from the nineteenth century. David Roberts/Library of Congress
On that trip we also travelled to Turtuk, five kilometers from the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. Sometimes described as the last village in India, Turtuk was part of Pakistan until the First Indo-Pak war in 1971. Then it changed hands. Villagers went to sleep in Pakistan and woke up in India. Fathers were on one side, mothers on the other, husband, wives, children, divided.
Until 2009 the region was completely off-limits, and until as late as 2014 even Indian nationals needed a permit to visit. Tourists could only travel as far as Hunder, where the sad camels reside. But a relaxation of the tourist rules has seen the region open up. We travelled in a shared taxi, the lunar, mind-zapping, Buddhist landscape of Ladakh changing as we moved westward, the wide valley narrowing until we were driving along the boulder-strewn road of a tight gorge. We wound this way and that, crossing over roaring water, dodging the sites of landslides, passing army checkpoints where our documents were checked and re-checked. Five hours on this road, squeezed into a taxi with seven other people, until we saw Turtuk ahead, a mountain oasis of fabulous cultivated land surrounding a river pouring down from above. The guesthouse we thought we’d stay in was being renovated, but its owner, a policeman, a big man in town, took us around until we found another place. For the next five days we wandered the village, played with the children in the fields, talked with the villagers, interviewed the zamindar, the old landowner from the historical ruling class, now living in pale destitution and obscurity with his ancestor’s seventeenth-century sword. One day, we walked to the final army checkpoint before the Line of Control, looked into the distance of Pakistan. It looked just like India.
A Note on Carpets
I’ve recently made a new acquaintance called Altaf, a Kashmiri gentleman, a dealer in antique and semi-antique carpets. I’ve always been interested in antique carpets, not only the carpets themselves, but the idea of selling them, of being in business, of moving a product. A product such as an antique carpet seems noble, challenging, a synthesis of commerce, art, and practicality. Knowing one can’t make a living from being a writer these days, I’ve toyed with other revenue streams. One is teaching yoga, which I’ve done for five years. Another might be selling carpets. Selling stories of origin, the harshness and beauty of the landscapes from which the rugs are made, the sense of danger. Talking of the warp and the weft, the type of dye used. Casting my new enthusiasm here and there, it became apparent that people were most interested in rugs from Afghanistan and Iran. From the tribal regions. From war-torn lands. From inaccessible places. This rug in my sunlit living room has travelled from a place I cannot and will not enter, but it is here, telling a story.
After five months and several thousand dollars worth of wandering, we flew home. Our first night back, I sat at my mother’s table and listened to the gossip. The interesting stuff, as always, came from her domestic, Rajesh. Like those refugees, like those migrants on the shores, he too clings to his smartphone. He sends her WhatsApp messages with photo greeting cards he designs himself, to which, for the sake of boundaries, she never responds.
Tonight he urgently recounts tales from his impoverished Bihar village. This time there was a scandal involving a boy and his sister-in-law, both underage, who were in love and ran away. A friend of theirs promised to lend enough money to get them to the nearest city—either Calcutta or Delhi—to find any work. But something went wrong at the decisive moment. As they left the village for their new world, the friend had no money to spare. So the young couple, chastened, doomed, had no choice but to return. They were separated on arrival and beaten mercilessly for their transgression, and their families were each ordered, by the village council, to pay a hefty fine, compensation for the lost honour. I asked Rajesh how much money they needed in order to start their new life: It was nothing more than twenty American dollars.