“We’ll be landing in approximately twenty minutes.”
The voice of the co-pilot trailed off as he switched frequencies to listen to the conversation between pilot and air traffic controller at Mumbai international airport, in what was then known as the city of Bombay. Back in the rear of the plane I joined other passengers who were making last minute entries on immigration forms. The line titled visa needed special attention and I’d waited to retrieve my passport until the last minute to get those details.
I’d been thinking of this last trip to India where I was to orientate my replacement after transferring to Singapore, and it was with regret I realized I may never return. We’d moved to Singapore for the sake of our children’s education at an expatriate school, but would never forget friends left behind, or the many years of happy assignment there.
I’d cleared immigration and customs in this airport many times past and knew the procedures almost by heart. As I thought of the complicated entry requirements in force at that time a strange foreboding came over me. Taking out my visa again I took a more careful look. This stamp was different to the usual, and I suddenly experienced fear it wouldn’t get me past immigration officials.
The alarming reality was the next stopover was Teheran, and if I wasn’t permitted entry the airline would most likely start me on a return journey from there. This was the middle of the revolution so no tourist would voluntarily make a stopover in Teheran at that time.
What could anyone do fifteen minutes before landing? Such problems were quite beyond my ability to solve, and I rapidly assessed my options. Finally, I had to admit there was no way I was going to be able to get out of this fix. A miracle would be needed.
In those days arrival at Bombay airport was a test of fortitude and skill. In the distance were immigration counters, and in between a jam packed crowd of arrivals. Glancing around I noted the skill of those who’d passed this way before. They eased through the crowd at amazing speed using the right elbow to prepare a way much as the bow of a ship slices its way through an ocean. I’d developed these skills over time and made my way forward. You could tell new arrivals by their confused looks and their peculiar spinning motion as a surging crowd caused them to revolve on the spot.
It was late evening and the immigration official looked exhausted and ready for bed after processing countless numbers of people on his shift, but he went through procedures with amazing precision. It was obvious my visa puzzled him, but he didn’t want to admit it as it was obvious I’d been granted entry many times before. He searched the pages of my passport over and over trying to reconcile this obvious difference; then suddenly made his decision. The passport was stamped, and I was in! I suspected he’d made an error of judgment, but who can argue with a miracle?
But the story does not end with that miracle. After completing my orientation assignment it was time for me to leave Bombay and return to Singapore.
Kasakai! I greeted the immigration official in the Marathi language and he smiled in appreciation. It was unusual for a foreigner to greet him in his own language and that set him at ease. However he had a job to do and he began the routine of flipping pages to see who I was, where I’d been and whether there was any special reason to deny my exit.
His eyes lifted in surprise, “Where’s your visa to enter the country?”
I pointed to the only visa stamp I had and waited apprehensively for the outcome.
“That’s not a visa!”
Well I gave the only answer I could give under the circumstances. “Then why did immigration let me in?”
Now that was a difficult question and my new immigration friend trudged unhappily to his superior officer’s cubicle to get instructions. The officer peered around the corner at me and threw up his hands in a gesture of frustration. Another troublesome foreigner! When would they learn? He pushed my immigration friend out of his office. This was a decision he would have to make all by himself. His superior didn’t want to be troubled with the issue.
My visibly shaken immigration friend returned to his desk. He would have to deal with this situation without any higher up support.
“You’ll have to go to the Central Government immigration office down town tomorrow and get a visa to enter India,” he said.
“I don’t have money to do that, and my permission to stay here has expired this evening,” I replied.
“Perhaps you should deport me as an illegal entrant? I said hopefully.
Once again my immigration friend returned to his superior’s office to seek counsel. I saw the arm waving him away once again.
He returned, sat at his desk and looked unhappily at my passport. Reaching for his departure stamp he thumped it down on my passport. “Don’t ever enter India again on this stamp,” he declared with finality.
“No sir, I won’t,” said I in my most humble voice.
I rushed to my departure gate and sat down thankful he’d been kind enough to exercise his authority and help me out of a difficult situation. Miracle number two had been experienced on that trip.
What did I learn from that experience? Never take a visa stamp for granted. Make sure it will not only get you into the country of your destination, but out again as well.
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2014 All rights reserved”