March 9, 2006
Sorry for being snobby about visa, but I dont know why I have to be the poorest creature to be created to always have tragedies with visa, especially in this trip. From the Indian visa in Nepal, Pakistan visa in India, and now, Pakistan visa extension.
As what I was believing, Pakistan visa was easy to extend, as the country is promoting tourism now. My visa was about a week left when I was in Muzaffarabad, and Rashid, the guy from our NGO, said that if that possible, than it would be very easy to extend. He just came back from Islamabad Monday 6th, and on Tuesday we started our ‘visa extension struggle’.
First of all, instead of directly went to the DC Office where the extension and passport paperworks are done, we visited the Muzaffarabad SSP (I dont know what this stand for), the man with highest position in police department in Muzaffarabad. U know, in Pakistan you can go anywhere with connection. Knowing someone in the high position is always a good thing. Mr Kurshid, the Muzaffarabad SSP, is a very friendly man with very authoritative deep voice. He knows Rashid very well, and we hoped that with this connection, the paperwork would be easier. He tried to call the DC officer (DC Shahab), as DC, stands for Deputy Commisioner, is the only authority to issue visa extensions for foreigners. But DC Shahab was not in his office. Mr Kurshid said it shouldnt be problem, we should approach the DC officer directly, and said that we knew Mr Kurshid. We even taken pictures together with the SSP so it can be another proves of relation. I was thinking that Mr Kurshid would give us letter of introduction or something, but no. Rashid said it was needed. I think it would be a bizzare way of prove that we know the superpower man in the police department just by verbally and no document proves. Hopefully it wouldnt be problem.
The DC office, was supposed to be located near the Madina market. But what was left there just a building demolished by earthquake. It was said that DC office was moved somewhere else. And it was not so easy to find. It was located down south the city, in the building was used by Pakistan International Airlines. It was bizzare that the DC Officer office was signed as ‘tourist information’ and the passport application counters was something under the banner ‘huge discount’ bla bla bla.
The DC shahab was not there. The secretary said we should came back some hours later. But just exactly the time we were leaving, the DC Shahab came. The first question he asked, “From India?”, means whether I got my visa from India. I said “yes”. He looked at my passport and visa.
“Sorry, we can’t do that.”
The next possible place was Islamabad. I was not prepared to leave Muzaffarabad that day, but considering my visa was only 5 days or so left, so I had to go. The feeling was understandably anxious. Rashid has arranged some transport and a friend for me to assist me in Islamabad. It seems that he was very experienced with Pakistani bureaucracy, and he foresaw already that I would have problems there in Islamabad. He said he knew even the AC (someone with high position in police department, but I, again, dont know what it stands for) of Islamabad, and he was ready to contact him to help me. Again, ‘connection’ comes first to the Pakistani’s mind when it deals with bureaucracy.
The same afternoon, I took the bus (100 Rs) to fly me from Muzaffarabad to Rawalpindi, where I stayed in my usual hotel. It was 5 hour journey, but under anxiety with burden of visa limit, I felt like dozen of hours in the bus. Rashid had introduced me to Dr Zahid, one of his best friends, with personal car so he could take me from office to office in Islamabad. I told him that I was assured that I only needed a letter from NGO to extend my visa. I had the letter already, and I was full of confidence that time that it would be easy. And I never thought that if it was without Dr Zahid, I might probably end my life in Islamabad.
Dr Zahid is an interesting man, from Baluchi border with Afghanistan, and was raised with Pasthun blood. Claiming himself as extremist, he debated with me about the definition of terrorism and secularism. The debate itself might be written in another article, but I want to consent this post only about my visa struggle.
The office we went was the Passport Office, H-8, Islamabad. It was my third time in this office, and all the previous visits were miserable experiences. Was wishing for better luck today. The guy who talked with me 2 weeks before that I only needed letter from NGO now said that the letter of the NGO should be stamped by the Ministry of Interior. So we had to go to Ministry of Interior, to meet a guy named Mr Bhati in R section, and get his signature. OK, another type of Pakistan bureaucracy. I was starting to feel something bad would happen, Zahid said shouldnt be problem. Well, Pakistanis are more experienced about this. So we started to go to the Ministry of Interior.
But to your surprise, going to the Ministry of Interior is not at walking distance to go to your neighbour. It was located in completely another polar of Islamabad, a city with huge, long, and empty roads. Luckily we were in personal car, so we reached the Ministry quite fast. But, alas, we lost the paper where the name of the man and location we should meet. I only remembered R section. On the gateway it was written that the visa section only opened at 11 until 12 (1 hour of working time…, excellent) in the gateway of Ministry. It was still 10. So it was one hour to spend around. Zahid went to the bank in blue area for his own business, i just waited. Around 11, we went back to the ministry and saw a huge crowd outside the door. There were two sections, one is for Afghan nationals and origins, plus journalists, I bet these are those unfavorable section. The other section is for foreigners, tourists, NGOs. In front of the door it was written that on 10:45 am tokens would be distributed to visitors who made the queue. But there was no queue. Everybody just standing. And it was 11:15 am. I thought the tokens were distributed already and we missed it. But on 11:20 someone inside the office started to distribute the tokens. Everybody was fighting for the tokens. So instead of distributing one by one, he just threw the tokens the air, and visitors grabbed the token based on lucks. I got number 12, but I saw another token on the floor with number 10. Quite lucky enough. Someone who had came much earlier had to be satisfied with number 17.
But this token is nothing compared to another hassle. When it came to our turn, the man who is responsible to give stamp said that we should get NOC (No Objection Certificate) from the C Section of the Ministry. What another bullshit. Zahid, grumbling, previously saying that these kind of bureaucracy was essential, now saying that the people didnt know what to do. I told him that bureaucracy made corruption, but he was sure that in Pakistan the officers are clean, they dont want money, but just dont know what to do with their position.
We went to C Section, not quite a short walk. After the struggle finding the office where we could get the NOC, the man overthere just saying, they dont do this work. But the receptionist asked us to come to his office. He asked for our NGO registration. We didnt have.
Another shut down.
We went back to the gateway where we previously met the officer who asked for NOC. It was 11:45 already. We told him no NOC, the man didnt do NOC. He gave us another man we should meet, that is Mr Bhatti, room 605, R section. The same man we were told by the Passport Office (but we lost the paper). We went back to R section, but the bureaucrat was busy of meeting. It was day of waiting and waiting. I told Zahid already, I would go to Gilgit immediately. He didnt recommend me to, he thought if it was impossible even in Islamabad, how it would be possible in Gilgit.
He suddenly remembered he had another man in the Ministry. As we believed before, connections bring you everywhere in Pakistan. So we went to Q section. This friend of Zahid is another bureaucrat. Zahid said bureaucrat should be faced by bureaucrat. After 30 minutes of waiting, the holy bureaucrat was ready to meet us. Just 5 minutes of explanation, Zahid was cut off. The bureaucrat friend said that we should go back to Mr Bhati and tried the legal way. He said in Urdu, that extension in Islamabad was made difficult, as it was pressure from America, and it probably easier to extend in other place. This time Zahid agreed with me that Gilgit might be the place.
Back to Mr Bhati, he was still in meeting. We got his mobile phone number though, from another helpful bureaucrat. Zahid talked by phone. Mr Bhati said as our NGO is unregistered, I didnt have permit to stay longer in Pakistan. Instead he would give me 10 or 15 days of extension, enough to leave the country. Luckily it was only phone talk, if we had met him in person, I dont know what this man would do with my passport.
It is a town located 600 kms away, up north, in the Himalayan mountain ranges. Cold and far away, and this trip is really unexpected. I didnt really want to go to Gilgit, and especially now under pressure that my visa would be only 3 days left when I reach there. But this might be my last option.
It was gruelling 20 hour journey from Islamabad to Gilgit. Luckily, thanks to Zahid’s car, I was zipped directly from Islamabad, back to Pindi to take my luggage, took the lunch, and sat in the bus. 650 Rupees for the ticket, but I felt nothing special with this amount. I was seated with so much anxiety, just thinking what to do if I couldnt have the visa. Planned to go back to Islamabad, either take the 15 day extension that Mr Bhatti promised, either fly to Sri Lanka where I can land without visa. But both were bad choices. Instead of thinking in optimistic way, I prefer to think the worst possibility, as it often happens to me, when I am optimistic, everything is failed.
20 hours, it was killling. The bus stopped for all prayers time. And I was in hurry. I wished to be able to extend my visa immediately when I arrived in Gilgit. And I arrived at 10 am this morning, thanks to God, just one hour delayed from the initial schedule. I went directly to the hotel where I stayed previously (Medina hotel), put my luggage, and went to the DC office in a second.
This is my second visit to the DC office. But the passport office was locked. What happened. I met an old man from the neighbouring office, whom I met previously 2 months ago. He still remembered me, and we had a gabshab (conversation). He told me that neither of the two passport officers would come today, I could come tomorrow. But I just wanted to calm myself down, so I chatted with him. Then another man from the neighbouring office also came, astonished by my Urdu, he invited me to his office, and asked me to show him my photos from Kashmir. Then after chit and chat, this and that, I asked again about the visa extension. He brought me to the passport office. It was still locked. Instead he brought me directly to the DC officer office.
I greeted the officer, and I said, “Mujhe visa ke grebi cahie” or “I need visa extension”. But the word I used, “grebi“, is a special word. You say grebi when you asked for extra rice or soup in restaurant, for free of charge. Grebi means extra. And I used grebi to describe the visa extension. The DC Officer was so amused with this. “Zabardast!!!” he said, astonished. He laughed for long time. In less than a microsecond, he gave me all of the forms I should fill. I filled fastly. This time not making mistakes of explaining my problem (I had professional visa instead of tourist visa, that officers might query what kind of ‘professional’ I am. That was the same problem in Islamabad that I got to have letter of No Objection). Right after I finished my form, he just noticed this ‘professional’ problem. I was explaining hard in Urdu, he gave me chance to speak in English. I thought of better explanation, I said I was a normal tourist, and this professional means professional photographer, as many NGOs needed me to take pictures of the social projects in Kashmir. We was satisfied.
My passport was stamped immediately. I was waiting for the authority signature then. Mr Bihal, in his office, was a very friendly man. Keep speaking in English no matter how extensive I replied him in Urdu, he showed his happiness that I spoke Urdu and offered any assistance during my stay in Pakistan. My visa extension was stamped neatly, signed neatly, and I loved it very much
All of my headaches just went off…. And Gilgit, the remote town 600 kms away from everywhere, was my savior. But I learnt a lot from this experience. From the diplomacy, bureaucracy, connection, power from the remote areas, and how Urdu jokes helped me from though times. Indeed, Pakistan experience.