Monday, June 8, 2009

Shimla (8/6/09)

Shimla was pretty uneventful. I met Connie at 7am at the YMCA. It was quite a hike from the bus station and I had to hire a porter to help with my bag because of the altitude. All of Shimla is on the side of a mountain ridge and it was pretty much half an hour of climbing stairs to get to the YMCA. For those of you who might not know from hearing about my last trip, Connie is a good friend (also from Ohio) who graduated from Smith in 2005 and spent 2005-2006 with me in India at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies. It was really good to see her. The YMCA was okay. Our room was a bit dirty and disappointing, but I was only in it for 24hours so it didn’t really matter much. We checked email, had coffee at a couple of neat places and then I tried to get an inner line permit, which was a disaster.

For those of you who don’t know India, beaurocracy there is a disaster, as is anything involving any paperwork or government office. (redundant?). I needed to get an inner line permit to travel through Upper Kinnaur, because it’s so close to the border between India and China/Tibet. When Connie and I went to Sikkim in 2005 we needed travel permits. At the time I thought that was a mess, but this was possibly worse. According to the government of India, the travel permit regulations exist in order to ensure that tourists pass through Kinnaur safely (and don’t stay too long). The way in which they guarantee this is to require that everyone be part of a tourist group of at least 4 led by a registered travel agency. The travel agency takes responsibility for the wellbeing of the traveler(s) and the government signs off of it. What one must do is to get a letter from the travel agent stating that one is traveling in a group and then take that letter to the District Magistrate, who signs off on it so that one can go get the actual permit. However, no one actually goes in groups of 4, with or without travel agents, and it wasn’t as straight forward as it sounds.

Here’s what happened. First, I went to the District Magistrate’s office (which was in a corner in a maze of hallways in a cluster of buildings with little to no signage) and waited until the DM could see me. I (with all manner of appropriate Indian government official deference) requested an inner line travel permit. He became a bit flustered and said, “No, no, no. There are only two of you. That is not possible. First you must go to a government approved travel agent and they must sign you up for a group tour and then write a letter indicating this”. Or something along those lines. So I said okay, Connie went to the post office and to get a coffee, expecting this to take another half hour or so, and I went to find a travel agent.

I went to the first agency I came to and told them the DM said I needed a letter to get an inner line permit. They said, “Yes, sure. You fill out this application and we write a letter saying that we take responsibility for you and you give it to the DM. It costs 200Rs.” I said okay and filled out the application while they wrote out the letter and they told me to pay when I got back. I took the two sheets, which were stapled together with a couple of passport photos, and I went back through the maze of buildings to the DM. He looked at the stack of papers, became flustered again, and said, “No, no, no. You need a letter. This is an application. This is not correct. I told you that you needed to go to a government travel agency and…” blah blah blah. I tried to interject (respectfully) to say that there was a letter, it was just stapled underneath the application form, which was on top, but he would not listen. Finally, after lecturing me for a few more minutes about not listening and following directions he rifled through the sheets and saw the letter. Then he said oh, and read the letter. AND THEN he said, “No, no, no. This is not an adequate letter. It does not state that you are going in a group.” I said that it did and pointed out the line where it said exactly that, and he said no it was insufficient because it did not state that the group was of 4 or more persons, and then lectured me some more. He was also quite confused that Connie was no longer with me and kept saying that this letter was only for one person and that there were two of us. I said okay, I’ll go ask them for a better letter, and made my way out the door.

I told the travel agent that the DM said the letter was insufficient and he looked confused. I repeated exactly what the DM said and the travel agent shook his head a few times and then inserted “in a group of 5” in the middle of one of the lines on the letter. I said thank you and then took the letter back to the DM’s office, where I waited outside for a bit. He looked at it, looked at me, and said, “This is the same letter! I told you that it needed to say…blah blah blah”. At this point I was hot and exhausted and irritated and losing most of my public official tolerance so I slightly rudely interrupted and said no, it was not the exact same letter, the travel agent had specified the group number, and pointed that out to him. He sort of harrumphed, read it over several times, and asked me where the girl who was with me and the other folks in the group were. I said Connie wasn’t going that far and I didn’t know the other folks in the group, that the travel agency had arranged the group tour, as stated in the letter, and that I assumed they had or would be coming through the office the same as I was. He read it a few more times, finally seemed satisfied, signed my application and told me I had to go to another building to get the permit.

I found that building with some trouble (his description was that it had a green roof) and waited for someone to help me. A younger guy read over my application, saw the DM’s signature, looked at me a bit, and then had some sort of conversation with his coworker in Hindi about how the letter said I was going in a group of 5 but there was only one of me. He didn’t ask me about it, but from what I was able to understand he seemed to find it odd that the DM had signed the letter when there was obviously only me. Nevertheless, he took my picture with a little computer camera and printed 5 copies of my permit, with an awful out of focus picture that was barely recognizable as me in the corner. He handed all five copies to a man who walked off and who I was apparently supposed to follow. We went alllll the way back to the DM’s office! The DM read all 5 identical copies, signed them, and gave me yet another lecture about how this was for my safety because Kinnaur is a dangerous place (landscape, not the people) and I could get lost and that it was best that I go in a group and that the travel agency would take good care of me and so on and so forth, completely oblivious to the obvious farce of it all, of which everyone else seemed to be completely aware of and complicit in. He gave the 5 sheets back to the guy who had accompanied me, who turned and walked away. I assumed I should follow him. He went back to the building with the green roof, they charged me another 200Rs, and handed me one of the sheets of paper. Where the other four went, I do not know.

I looked at the young guy who took my photo and said, “That’s it?” as if the end of such a complicated process warranted fanfare of some kind. I wanted a congratulations or a handshake or at least a sympathetic nod. He said that was it and I was on my way. It occurred to me at this point that there was really no need to go back to the tourist agency and pay them the first 200Rs, because I had the permit and there was no way the DM would ever know, or that the tourist agency could track me down. But since I’m a nice person, I went back and paid them. For reference, I exchanged my money at 46Rs to the dollar, so 400Rs is about 9USD, which may not seem like much but is actually a lot to pay for a freaking piece of paper in India.

It was at least an hour and a half after Connie left me at the DM’s office when I stumbled into the coffee shop where we’d agreed to meet. I finally got the sympathetic look I’d wanted earlier, then Connie and I reminisced about the miserable time we’d had in Sikkim getting travel permits (again, for going near the Chinese/Tibetan border, although at the other end of the Himalayas). We had dinner at a nice restaurant up the road. We sat on the roof and drank beer and watched everyone walking by. The next morning we checked out of the YMCA at 7am and got in a taxi on our way to Kinnaur.

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