for the longest time

a sabbatical rest, day 64

If you said goodbye to me tonight
There would still be music left to write

—Billy Joel

We finally got our long-term VISA, one day before our tourist VISA expired. This required a four-hour trip to the immigration office, and a small army of colleagues and bureaucrats arrayed against each other over arcane issues and interagency turfs. Maybe. It’s not actually clear to me what was going on, since no one spoke to us in English. They spoke English. They just didn’t speak to us.

Apparently, there were two complications: the internet was slow or down, and they had no category for what I’m doing. So, there were some online queries with other agencies involved, but we ended up with study VISAs since the university department I’m working with thought it best to avoid bringing the Ministry of Labor into the conversation. (I’m volunteering my time.)

We weren’t uncomfortable. We sat on a sofa in the director’s office while he and Lokendra, my faculty colleague/guide, chatted about politics. The administrative assistant brought us decent coffee. (What, no tea?) A staff member came in and took my passport and went away for a while. He came back with a sheaf of papers, probably copies of all the documents we have been providing for the last three months. The director signed the cover sheet and then the administrative assistant took us downstairs to the cashier to pay for my VISA. When we didn’t have quite enough cash, she literally took everything out of my hand and told the cashier it was enough.

They then repeated the whole process for Katie, with a side trip to an ATM. This time they took a little more money than what they quoted me, but maybe they were catching up. I can’t actually read the receipts.

After that, she took us to another floor, where we waited in a less comfortable but not uncomfortable waiting room for non-tourist VISAs. There were about 15 people waiting, and some delay because the power was out. A coffee break, too. We had a nice conversation with an ex-pat from Missouri who was waiting to have his VISA renewed. By this time the office was closed, but they still worked through the line and finally came out with our passports and a fresh, newly stamped VISA inside.

Google maps took us down a sketchy-looking alley that turned out to have nice flowers along the wall and we walked back to the apartment. Later Lokendra, the department head Chiranjivi, and the staff member who met us that morning and arranged a cab came by to celebrate. Katie served us tea and papaya. They seemed relieved, so much so that perhaps I should have been more anxious.

This culture depends very much on networking. Lokendra had political connections to the director of immigration. Chiranjivi had gone to school with some of the directors of other agencies involved. Another faculty member, Debraj, had been checking in with the different agencies since before we came. I’m sure others were involved. There were a lot of backchannel conversations that moved this process forward, and other than sitting around in an office longer than I might have expected, this was not difficult or intimidating. I was never asked a single question. But the network worked.

Slowly. Bistari. Time here is more like a placid river with unexpected undercurrents than a calendar or clock. We got a call and rushed over by cab, but after that, no one seemed in a hurry. You have to abandon western notions of efficiency to make progress in eastern cultures and manage your frustrations. It took us a whole day to get a stamp in our passport. Some of my colleagues put two months into it.

I’ll keep studying this. (I have a study VISA after all.) But we have a stamp. And sitting around in the evening with new friends, chatting and laughing about our success, it seemed like enough. A blessing, actually. Enough is a blessing more often than we know.

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