How to avoid the nasty implications of overstaying your visa, some sweating it out required.
It was always a good idea in Goa to look down at your feet once in a while. Months of treading the dusty roads and trails of red sand took their toll and when your head’s in the clouds there’s no more important time to keep your feet on the ground. I remember I was once worried that I had picked up some kind of skin disease. There were strange markings up and down my ankles and they seemed to be growing. I sought the opinion of a friend.
“Isn’t it just dirt?” He suggested. Sure enough, the age-old cure of soap and water worked wonders.
Sometimes though it was necessary to take a scrubbing brush and really go at those obstinate layers of grime that encased your toes and heels. Looking after your feet was obviously a good long-term investment as I planned to use them a considerable amount in the years to come. It was just that they were so far away that only once in a blue moon did I remember them at all.
This was one of those rare, prudent afternoons. I’d pulled up a jug of water from the well and felt proud that it had only taken me about 5 minutes of bashing the jug around on the end of the rope to do so. Once I got the hang of it though I was all I could do to resist the temptation to fill up every spare bucket in the house. I was beginning to recognise my toes as belonging to my feet when I heard a hiss from the jungle at the far end of the garden.
“Tom! Hey Tommy!” It was a friend I’d known for several seasons but whom I didn’t know all that well. I had no idea what he wanted but he sounded so nervous that I walked over at once. “Hey Tom you got a problem with your visa, right?”.
I didn´t ever talk about it but he was right. Of the year and a half that I’d been India I´d spent the last 12 months illegal. My friend knew I ‘d spent the summer in the Himalayas and probably put two and two together and deduced that I hadn’t left India in a good while. He shot paranoid glances to the side and then handed me a plastic bag.
“Well, take this and do what you have to do. Give it back to me when you´re done and I´ll bury it somewhere.”
“But what is it-”
“I don’t want to know. Just do what you got to do.” He whispered mysteriously and disappeared down a sandy trail into the bush.
I headed back into my house like a kid with a wrapped up Xmas present. I locked the door and emptied the contents of the bag onto the bed. Out fell a collection of wooden blocks, the kind used to make stamps. In this case exit, entry and visa stamps. I’d been given a kit to forge my way out of the country.
I’d never quite been able to work out what happened to you if the police were to catch you with an expired visa. I remember one morning that I walked in stoned to a cafe and overheard the conversation:
“Did you hear what happened to Jan? Oh, bad trip, man he got caught without a visa up in the mountains and now he´s in Kulu jail. He´s been there months already… “
I walked straight back out again. I wasn’t allowing that kind of story into my reality. Either way I had to face this sometime. Unless I was going to change my name to something unpronounceable and become an Indian saint for the rest of my days. In reality though I was sick to the soul of this country. The Indians had driven me so crazy that pretty soon I was going to end up hurting someone. It always seems to work like that: when you return to India you can’t imagine how you stayed away for so long. When it’s time for you to leave, however, you’d strangle the Buddha himself if it helped you get out any faster.
Until this moment I was still pretty vague as to how i was going to get out. My friend, Robin had told me I might have to literally throw myself at the feet of some immigration official and beg for mercy. If I cried enough and played up to his ego he might take pity on me and give me the necessary permit to leave.
Plan B was to hire a shepherd to sneak me across the border with Nepal. The frontier is long and porous and smuggling is commonplace. Then I’d just have to strike a deal with Nepal immigration to give me an entry stamp and I’d be set. Finally, I’d just decided to forget about it and just trust to Fate. It had always taken care of me before.
Now though all I had to do was was backdate an exit stamp so that it looked like I’d left the country the year before. Then i would give myself a new visa and a new entry stamp so that it would like I’d flown into Bombay just three months before. I was lucky that this solution still worked; that very year they introduced a new sticker system of visas which were very difficult to forge.
I got the actual numbers for the dates made in the local town that actually had a shop that made things like tiny wooden stamps. They only sold two colours of ink pads, red and blue. Fortunately they were exactly the colours I needed and I wondered where the immigration officials did their shopping.
The next few days were spent in nervous rehearsals with the visa stamp on blank pieces of paper. My previous Indian visas had been pretty shaky and blurred but i figured that a good impression would make just that at the border. Finally I bit the bullet and slapped the oblong stamp onto a clean page of my passport. I pressed down hard on every corner of the block and lifted it gingerly away. The print was pretty smudgy but i could live with it. Every day I’d look at it again and ask myself if it looked real to me. The answer changed each time depending on my mood.
Then I put in the blue exit stamp. Perfect. I was clearly a natural forger and I wondered if I could make any money out of this business. Feeling on top of the world I slapped down the new entry stamp and realised at once with horror that i´d forgotten to change the ink pad. Exit was always blue. Entry had to be red.
Aghast, I saw only one option left open to me. I´d have to smudge it out with blue ink. I dipped my thumb in the ink pad and then smeared it across the entry stamp until it looked like a baby octopus had died on that page. I held up the passport to the light to review my handiwork. No, no, it was too suspicious. Why would there only be ink on that page? I’d have to make it look as though ink had been spilled and had soaked through the passport. Only then would it look natural. I smeared my thumbs again and proceeded to apply ink to the top middle of all the previous pages of the passport, cunningly diminishing the size of the stain as i went. I held it up to the light again. Perfect. It now looked just as though someone had smeared ink all over the passport with their thumbs for no reason at all.
A little disheartened by this I put another entry stamp beneath it’s smudged-out brother and remembered to use the red ink pad this time. Now i just needed to put it in the date. There.
“No! For fuck’s sake, no! “ Somehow I had succeeded in picking up the wrong date stamp. Now it looked as though I’d come in the year before and my new visa was also expired.
I threw my passport into the corner of the room and began to weep in desperation. I was condemned to live in this goddamn country forever. I´d become one of those toothless old hippies who had thrown their passports in the river back in the 60s and who now resembled a lower-caste scarecrow. A lifetime of penniless celibacy awaited amongst a billion grinning Indians, all of them out to bite away at my sanity like mosquitoes.
Then one of the gods sent me a brainwave. The ink was still wet! I dived into the pile of clothing in the corner of the room and rummaged around for my passport. I found the relevant page and began to dab away at the ink with my wetted little finger. The ink came away on my pinky.
Six weeks later i was rolling up to the border of Nepal in a bicycle-rickshaw. I gave a lift to a banker from Delhi and I figured he might be a useful ally. As our driver’s knees bobbed up and down, pulling us through a serene grove of pine trees I began to feel that everything was going to be okay. We rolled across a long bridge over a huge river and felt glad I hadn’t just tried to sneak across the border the night before. I would have drowned.
The immigration post was on a slope going downhill into Nepal and I reckoned that meant the feng shui was in my favour. A stern-looking official came out and barked:
“Passport.” I handed it to him, open at the visa page and smiled. He held my passport at arm’s length and stared at it for a long time. I tried to strike up a conversation.
“So tell me, sir, does it ever snow around here? It must be hard to get good mangoes at this time of year but I bet there’s good fishing in the river!”
No response. He just kept staring at the visa like he was trying to see through an optical illusion. Slowly he began to flick back through the pages of the passport and as he came across my ink-work he looked up at me severely.
“What is this? “
“Oh, ji, it was my baby boy, his name is Krishna. He is only 3 years old, ji! Well, once morning he take pens, he take camera and make big mess everywhere. Ah, Krishna! “
The official had already stopped listening and had headed back into his office with my passport. Okay, that’s it, i thought. He´s going to ring Bombay airport and find out if I really did come in on that date. A moment later, though, he returned with the log book that all travellers passing this point must fill in. I think it was only the cost of the telephone call that saved me.
As I filled in the details the official exchanged a few words in Hindi with the banker who had been waiting patiently to the side. He turned to me with a sly smile.
“The policeman wants to know if you would like to give him a small baksheesh.”
“Well, how much?”
“20 rupees.” (about half a dollar)
“But of course!” I cried and the official smiled for the first time since I’d arrived.
I’d actually come prepared for full-length baksheesh negotiations in case my forgery was detected. I had ten dollars in both my left and right shirt pockets, twenty more in the back pocket of my jeans and another fifty in my sock. My plan was to pull out the money as if it were all I had left. As negotiations went on I’d reach for the next pocket saying “okay, but this really is the last of my cash”.
That night I was on a bus to Katmandu and I bought tea and biscuits for all that I met. I was out. Free. I was never going back (I flew in again ten months later). I looked for a shrine to Ganesh, the god of good luck but I was in Buddhist lands now and couldn´t find one. I finally settled for a sticker of the elephant god which I stuck on my guitar.