We were hot and cranky. We knew the line was too long, yet it remained somehow indecipharable in total length and start and end points. The room was packed with used-to-it Indians and put-out foreigners, and felt tighter than a Volkswagen bug full of Milwaukee residents.
I blinked sweat out of my eyes as I turned toward Aliyah. She looked as miserable as I felt.
"This isn't worth it," she said. "Let's leave."
And so ended a fruitless 24-hour journey through India's lumbering, antiquated and horribly inefficient bureaucracy. A word to the wise: Pack your patience and leave your rationality at the door.
After an early morning trip Thursday to the gym (I had made the mistake of asking Coach for suggestions on shoulder lifts. By the time we left, my shoulders felt like two of Mike Tyson's speed bags.), Aliyah and I took an auto rickshaw to the Foreigners' Registration Office in R.K. Puram in South Delhi, as per the requirements of my employment visa.
We arrived 45 minutes before the office opened. A man who looked vaguely Mongolian was organizing a sort of bag queue, where everyone let their backpack or purse hold their place in line so they could sit anywhere in the courtyard. A fine idea, but impractical in India. As soon as the office opened, bags were kicked aside, elbows impolitely poked at adjacent torsos, and all semblance of an organized line disappeared into a sea of international anxiety.
The line was finally sorted out, and within 20 minutes we reached the front. "Success!" I thought. "No, no, no, no," answered Ganesh. An Indian official (whose hair was died an unnatural and disconcerting shade of red) told me that to register I'd need four copies of an application form, four passport photos, two copies of my passport, two copies of my visa, proof of employment and proof of residency. He seemed surprised that I had not brought all this documentation as a matter of course. So we left. And had tea at the Hyatt. Their raspberry crumble muffins are delicious.
I spent the rest of the day getting pictures taken, printing and photocopying documents, and going with our very helpful real estate broker to the local police department, where a 100 rupee bribe got me a police-verified proof of residency.
Feeling good about my prospects for success at the registration office, I returned to the apartment to find Aliyah scrambling to convert her visa status, which her would-be employer now insisted as a requirement before she started work on Monday. Excellent.
We made phone calls and lists, and set out our gameplan for a successful day navigating India's absurd bureaucracy. We woke up early Friday morning and returned to the Foreigners' Registration Office. This time, Aliyah went native and dashed to the front of the informal queue when it dissolved into chaos. Straggling near the back, I entered the office to find Aliyah fourth in line. Well done.
The faux redhead, seeming pleased with the stack of documents I had assembled, told me to wait near Counter 2. I did, and watched the first man get turned away for reasons I didn't understand and a European girl denied because she lacked the proper stamp on one of her forms. "Suckers," I thought.
A Nigerian man went to the counter, got into a screaming match with the bureaucrat behind it, and got his papers approved. I was next.
The mustachioed public servant looked through my papers. He smiled. It seemed as if everything would be OK. Then he started making a list of documents I was missing: a request letter from my employer requesting that I be registered, an undertaking letter from my employer saying that they undertake responsiblity for me while in India, and a rental agreement.
"But I have a letter from my employer!" I demanded, pointing to my contract letter. The Indian man shook his head from side to side and smiled. I growled.
"And I have police-verified proof of my residency, with my signature and my landlord's!" I cried. The Indian man again shook his head from side to side and told me to come back Monday. I argued. He just kept smiling and shaking his head. Grrr.
Next we decided to be frustrated by Aliyah's business. We took an auto to Khan Market, where the internet promised the Ministry of Home Affairs Foreigners Division office would be. It was not there. We were directed to an office 10 minutes away. Our collective temperature, already high, rose.
We arrived at the next office and were directed into a dank, powerless room (no lights, no air conditioning). Aliyah was given number 103. Thank Vishnu they were already on 95. After too much waiting for eight numbers, a woman called 103. We asked her many questions about visa conversions. She didn't answer, and instead just wrote down Aliyah's passport information, handed her a slip of paper and directed her to another office up the lane. Apparently, we had only been waiting in the reception line, and were only now being admitted to the actual office.
The office was the hot, sweaty, crowded Volkswagen bug. We took one look at the hundreds of people crammed inside, the incoherency of any formal line or procedure, the utter pointlessness of waiting, and decided to bail.
So we went to get ice cream.
The place was The Big Chill Cafe at Khan Market. They have old movie posters on the walls and keep the air conditioning at a teeth-chattering 18 degrees C. One of the waiters wore a 'Free Tibet' t-shirt.
Aliyah had a chocolate brownie sundae with swirled vanilla and chocolate ice cream with pieces of chocolate cake in it, all topped with hot fudge. I had the Minty Monsta Sundae.