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India Trip Notes

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3-23-11 - Jumping through Hindustani Hoops

When Clay and I arrived in Chennai back at the end of January, we were fortunate to be able to spend the first couple of days with Gita who was here to go to a rock concert her son was performing in (see Saraang Festival from Feb. 2 report). I was also bringing Gita a manila envelope with some important papers I'd picked up at the San Francisco Zen Center's City Center on the way to the airport and was eager to get them to her before I lost them. Clay and I took two buses across vast Chennai to get to the IIT (Indian Inst. of Technology) where the festival was and entered a gate where guards directed us to a bus sitting at an intersection a hundred yards or so further into the campus, a bus which would take us to the open air amphitheater. As we approached the bus, a passing car stopped and there was Gita. She introduced us to two young friends and her partner Shouketh and we piled into the car. How fortunate.

The rest of what remained of that day and most of the next were spent with these friends. The young woman, Manasi (call me Mansy) had attended a Marine Biology school in Bolinas and been to Green Gulch and the City Center and wanted to spend time there but the additional $20 a day charge was too much for her budget, a fact somewhat disturbing to someone who comes from a place where traditional spiritual centers do not charge. They were all familiar with the SFZC and Crooked Cucumber which surprised me though that has kept happening.

Even more important they, Manasi and her friend Naveen, were familiar with Chennai and lived in a much better area for Clay and me to stay - somewhat close to everywhere we wanted to go - Krishnamurti Foundation, Theosophy Society, Mylapore Temple, Giri Traders, Marina Beach. I'd booked our hotel from California which was good because upon arrival we knew where to go - and started off low budget on crowded cheap buses to get there. But it was way out of the way. But our third day in Chennai we stayed at a place I'd recommend: The City Manor, No.76, L.B. Road IIIrd Street (near Jayanthi Theatr), Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai - 600-041, (044-4317-8271/8497) for 800 rupees a night, mid range price. We found it with Naveen who also showed Clay and me good nearby places to eat and shop. We got phones there (you can call me) and I got a UCB Vodaphone modem for my wonderful Acer Netbook for when there's no other wireless or Internet spot. - each of those cost about fifty dollars plus a rupee a minute to use.

For phone and modem Sim cards, we needed to fill out applications and submit triplicate passport page copies with additional photos which we had made across the street (eight for 60 rupees, about 1/10th of cost in US). If you travel here, bring that stuff or be prepared to make it cause most hotels want it - for them, Immigration, and local police. I also had to show proof of where I was living which was silly because I'd only be there a few days. All this is because of tightened security due to terrorist bombings, mainly the ones in Mumbai and Pune mentioned in this Pune report.

It had been a lot of unanticipated work getting our (Katrinka, Clay, and me) visas. I was just planning on us taking a trip to San Francisco to drop by the Indian consulate to get our visas and Linda Hess suggested I go online first to get the forms filled out. That saved us a wasted trip to the city though of course we would have made the best of it by going to Golden Gate Park or whatever cause we don't get there that often.

First thing I found out on the Indian consulate site was that they'd outsourced the visa process. Hey! We're supposed to outsource to you, not you to us. There was a link to a biz that took care of the visas and so I went to that site and read through a lot of intimidating material. They warned you not to buy your tickets till you had the visas. That was ridiculous because it also said that the date for your visa started the day you received it. So they're saying not to buy flight tickets in advance and I'd booked us on flights months in advance to be sure and save money and plan carefully. This get-a-visa website was so impersonal. You had to apply online and make a reservation to see them, only you could go into the secure area without a bag or pack, but couldn't easily ask questions in advance and there were other restrictions. And in addition to your passport, you needed two passport photos, proof of residence, and a copy of your birth certificate. And you had to print the application up and sign it and send it and the other stuff to them via mail or courier WITH YOUR PASSPORT. There was a $75 charge for the visa and a bigger fee for the biz that got it for you. Heavens. They advised you not to call because they were busy. I tried and the number was always busy. Horrors.

The last time I'd gone to India, in 2003, I'd walked into the consulate in Bangkok, stood in line a while, walked up to a window and was done in three minutes. Good lord. We fly out in three weeks I thought, why didn't I do this earlier? I was frustrated, felt a tremor of panic, and shut my computer down and went for a walk with Katrinka up the access road to view the surrounding hills, sheep, goats, horses, cows, trees, and clouds.

Back at the computer I'd not bookmarked the visa site so I wrote something on Google and yeah, there it was - oh, but there were others. I called one in Houston and talked to someone who said they could expedite it but it was too expensive. Then I noticed a place with an address in Japantown, my old wandering grounds in San Francisco, I called the number, a friendly voice answered, and everything was okay after that. Nice people on the other end who walked me through their online form and said yes, I need to get the same materials together but there was no need to pay for expediting it.

My mother kindly found my birth certificate. My sister happened to be in Fort Worth and mailed me a copy. Katrinka emailed New York City for hers. I had Clay's proof of birth from the US Consul in Osaka (he can't run for president unless we get a change to the Constitution - though I guess he could always do what Obama did). I made up a rental form with John whose barn we live in and we all signed it and went to UPS to get it notarized - with John who needed to get something notarized himself.. The guy we dealt with used to work for the Australian consulate, knew fellow Aussie John, and said we didn't really need to get it notarized but why not, and we got passport photos (should have gotten extra copies). When my birth certificate copy finally arrived we got everything together (except Katrinka's birth certificate which I later scanned and emailed them). I did not want to even Fed Ex our passports and wanted to meet these people. Katrinka and I drove in to the city. They were great, had no security, just a little office with a few desks and computers. They were young, friendly, reassuring, took care of us.

I made a mistake by writing in the application that my profession was writer. Had to drive back into the city and fill out a form that assured the Indian government that I wasn't a journalist and that my trip was purely for pleasure. I was advised to say I was a carpenter next time. India's gotten tough on all this. I met an Aussie guy in Dubai who couldn't get an Indian visa because he didn't have two adjoining blank pages in his passport. Never heard of anything like that. I won't get into it now, but the US immigration makes India's look like an open door. Worse than that.

One by one we got calls that our visas had come through, our passports were properly stamped and waiting for us. We picked them up on the way to the airport.

Now in Tiruvannamalai I'm renting an apartment from a policewoman who asked for nothing except the money. She's making me lunch now.

Mrs. God of the Israelites? They'd have no problem with that here in Tamil Nadu. This place is all about Shiva and his wife Paravati. "The power or energy of Shiva is Shakti, his spouse, of which Parvati is probably the most popular form. Shiva's first wife was Sati and his second wife was Parvati. They are also known by many other names, such as Uma, Gauri, Durga, Kali, Annapurna and Shakti."

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