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I’m not quite sure how I had managed to avoid the Indian Postal Service until today. I didn’t realize I was missing one of India’s greatest bureaucracies in action.

Normally when I have to mail a letter, Daniel can send it from work. But I wanted to mail some presents to friends in the UK and I figured it was a little more complicated so I should do it myself. Of course, I’m really a fool for assuming that something more complicated would be a better task to take on.

The difficult to identify Bandra Post Office

I arrived with my lovingly packed presents in hand. The presents themselves represented one of my favorite things about India: they were two unique hand-made gifts and I’d wrapped them in a beautiful hand-painted yellow wrapping paper made from recycled paper. But my I-Love-One-of-A-Kind-Amazing-Things-Made-In-India joy for my presents was soon mockingly destroyed by the fact that India’s own postal service wanted to crush my spirit.

 

I tentatively walked into the Post Office, or, more accurately, what looked like an abandoned building. Confused by the darkened hallway, I walked up to the only window I could find. Heavy wooden shutters were open onto a window with heavy wooden bars. The only large opening in these bars was well below my height (clearly, and understandably, made for small Indian women), so I ducked my head down and said hello. The representative looked back at me, amused. He seemed delighted by the fact that a gangly white person in a kurta had to be so uncomfortable to talk to him.

My new friend and his wooden bars

“I’m trying to mail two packages to the UK. I want to use the regular Indian Postal Service.”
“No Indian Postal Service now ma’am.”
“Why not?” I replied
“Ma’am, Postal Service only until 2pm”
“Oh, you mean it won’t go out until 2pm tomorrow?”
“No, we do not process after 2pm. You can only do Speed Mail now, but its ok because then you can track it. Look at the sign.”

The very useful sign

I looked over to my right at a large red sign that indeed had a whole listing of times for different services. Of course, you wouldn’t know these times unless you were standing in this particular post office. And, of course, it also made no sense. Why couldn’t they process their own mail system after 2pm? I decided to not ask these kinds of questions to a man sitting with a ledger instead of a computer. In fact, when I looked behind him stack upon stack of dusty old ledgers sat haphazardly as if they’d been there a lifetime.

“Hand me the packages, I’ll weigh them to determine the cost.”

I did this and he started opening and looking through them- and not in a gentle way that indicated his love for artisanal wrapping paper (I know, I’m lame), but in a way that one would normally handle trash.

He actually opened them...

“Oh… sir… I… those are wrapped. They’re presents!”
“So?”
“So…. You’re ripping the paper.”
“I just want to see what they are.”
“For customs?”
“No, I’m just interested. What ”

I stood there, dumbfounded. He looked up and me and saw that I wasn’t amused so, as a gesture, he started to tape it all back together. With packing tape. I gave up trying to salvage my paper.

“Ok,” I responded, “So how much is it to send two packages to the UK?”
“Well if you send separate it is 900 rupees for each. If you send together it is 1,000 rupees. It is based on weight, you see.”

I didn’t really see. It made no sense. But I made the executive decision to send them together (the packages are going to two friends anyway, so I figured they’d see each other). My new friend told me to go outside and deal with a guy who would help me with my customs form.

What could he possibly be making?

Baffled as to why this would take place outside, a new man gestured for me to come towards him on the sidewalk, so I just went with it. I tried to explain that I’d need bubble wrap or paper or something to keep everything from breaking. But he wasn’t’ really listening.

I started to stare intently at what he was doing – what was he doing? He had taken what looked like a piece of burlap and was sewing it with a large needle and a piece of string. I couldn’t make out what he was creating. So I just stood there, in the street, where homeless people were sleeping and one child was urinating while a man from the post office sewed something together that apparently was needed for international packages. No one else seemed to think this was weird. To them, I was what was weird.

Finally it came together – he was sewing a sack to put everything in. Was this intended as my bubble wrap or buffer?

Yes, my presents are inside

No, no it was not. This was my package. There’s no “International Mail Box” I was being given or even a padded envelope. I was required to send my packages via burlap-sack. Then handed me a customs form to fill out and I wrote in all the details and gave it back to him. He started sewing the customs form onto the parcel. I had to stifle a laugh. It was just too absurd. Really? Really? I’m standing on the street while a man sews a customs form onto my burlap parcel?

He handed it back to me and told me to go inside to pay. I went back to my original friend and gave him the package.

“It’ll be ok, right?” I said, hoping he might tell me about the greatness of ‘Speed Mail’.
“Ma’am, only God will tell.”

I guess in three to five business days I’ll know how the sack held up.

My customs form being sewn on

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I am getting the sense that there’s a theme for me in Mumbai: when I want to do something, India often has other plans. And in the race between me and India, I’m usually not on the winning end.  I wrote last night that Daniel and I were off for vacation.  Unfortunately, we were paid a visit by the notorious Indian bureaucracy. They hadn’t met us yet and they surely wanted a day of our time.

We got to the airport, checked in and then went to exit immigration. I was asked some questions and checked through – a new red 16th of June exit stamp started drying in my passport. But as I prepared for us to continue the immigration officer asked Daniel “Where is both your registration?” We explained that we had been told that we only needed to register for residency once we were going to be here for more than 180 days. Alas, we were wrong.

In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, immigration has tightened up considerably (similar to the US after 9/11). And niceties that used to fly a year and a half ago are just not so anymore. Instead of falling asleep on Malaysian Air we were taken to Indian customs.

We sat in a room with no windows and nothing on the white walls except constant black scuff marks from years of office chairs leaning against walls. Our captor sat at a desk with only a plain blue Duty Officer sign on the wall to identify him. He made us wait as he thumbed through a worn ledger, uninterested in our plight. When he finally eyed us over his wire rim glasses he said simply, “Sorry, rules are rules. You did not follow the rules.” We tried to reason with him. We were handed a booklet and told, “This pamphlet says you cannot leave until you register.”

Daniel scanned it. “Where does it say that in this pamphlet? I don’t see it.”
“Well, it doesn’t say that directly, but that is the rule.”

We were at a stalemate. Our passports were looked over and discussions were had in Hindi while we sat. One Duty Officer talked on a red phone in the corner. Our officer continued to be disinterested. We tried to reason some more. Surely if we came back and registered it wouldn’t be a problem? Apparently it was.  My passport was taken and a crisp CANCELLED was written across my new red stamp. We were done for the night.

Dejected, we waited by Malaysia Airlines for our bags to come back to us. We sat on the floor like the pathetic losers we had been deemed to be – it was our own fault for believing what we had been told, and that was that.

Our poor driver had had to return to the airport and wait for us to be freed, for our bags to come, and for Daniel to finally be able to rebook our tickets after circling through various parts of the airport with various guides giving us varying instructions.  We got into the car exhausted and hoped to make it back to our guesthouse quickly. Late at night there apparently are no traffic rules in Mumbai and our driver merely honked at red lights as he went through them.

We woke up the next day with a new determination to get our residential permit and so off we went to the Foreign Regional Registration Office. It was a madhouse. Lines were everywhere depending on what your purpose was. Luckily our line was inside the office in air conditioning. Even luckier that we weren’t from Pakistan, where a separate floor altogether awaited nationals from India’s rival who were trying to declare their own detente.

Our room was like a world snapshot. In one corner an Eastern European woman tried to encourage her children to cry louder so there would be an incentive for their name to be called. In another, a woman in a burka searched through her fake Louis Vuitton bag to find her cell phone and start texting. Two older African women, held steady by canes and their feet resting on their bejewelled pink flip flops, kept entertained by whispering to each other and laughing. Daniel immediately made friends initially with some other expats while we waited. I watched a brightly colored 24 hour news channel celebrating its 1 year anniversary while breaking news banners played constantly at the bottom.

Our names were called and I was asked to sign forms. “What is your occupation ma’am?” I was asked. I tried to explain that for my time in India my visa wouldn’t allow me to earn money so I didn’t really have an official occupation at the moment.  “Housewife, then. You should have written housewife!”. And so it was done.

We cut out passport photos and pasted them into various documents- arts and crafts immigration. Every page of our passport was examined. Other documents were needed and sent for. We went in and out, hours spent re-watching the news channel and observing the new people who walked in, wondering why each had come to India to make their life for the time being.

Finally, we were given our Registration Report and Residential Permit. It was official – no turning back now. We are residents of India, perhaps because we have now been given our bureaucracy baptism by fire.  And as residents I would dare say we are now allowed to go on vacation. But I won’t bet on it until I’m out of the country and sure that India has no other imminent plans for me yet.

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