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  • Writer's pictureSavidu Dias

My five-day trip to India: Navigating through incompetence during a pandemic

Updated: Oct 11, 2021

As of the day of writing this, I have been to 8 different countries. I’ve had unpleasant experiences in all of them, but never have I ever hated any of those visits, until I went to India two weeks ago.

A little bit of backstory for those of you who do not know about me; I am planning on moving to Finland in pursuit of my graduate studies. This may come as a surprise to some of you, but you need a visa to enter other countries.

This is where our story begins. To enter Finland as a student, I need something called a Residence permit. Unfortunately for me, I cannot get one in Sri Lanka, which is where I’m from. Why you may ask? Because apparently they don’t do biometric identification here.

To get one, I need to visit their VFS office in New Delhi. Also at the time of writing this, we are in the midst (hopefully end) of a global pandemic. Therefore, international travel isn’t the easiest thing to do.

So yeah, I had to travel to Delhi in the middle of a global pandemic just to give my fingerprints.

So, to go to another country, I had to first go to a different country. To give my fingerprints.. No, I’m not mad at all. Why would you think that?

How does it work?

To get a Residence Permit to Finland, the first thing I needed to do was to send an online application. This was done through their online portal called Enterfinland. Once I have submitted the application and paid the processing fee, the rest is a waiting game.

I submitted my application on the 2nd of June 2021, and received an appointment for biometric identification on 29th July 2021. The pandemic situation in India was not good at the time (still a lot better than it was a few months ago), so they did not allow international travel. I declined the appointment, and had to play the waiting game once more.

Nearly a month later, I received another appointment through email on the 1st September 2021. This time, the date of my appointment was on the 22nd of September, and international travel was allowed by then.

There was one additional sentence in this email this time.

I needed to get a visa to enter India. But this time, I only had 12 days to do so. This is where the problems began.

Let me lay out how the rest of this story played out in the form of a timeline. Because why not? This is my blog, and I can do what I want.

Getting the Indian visa

At first glance, you may have noticed something odd about the timeline. I needed to provide the Indian visa by the 13th, but I got it on the 17th. What happened here?

Let’s rewind back a bit to when I got the appointment email. I needed an Indian visa, but I did not know what kind of visa it should be, or where I should go to get it. There was little to no information in any of the Indian immigration websites.

My first guess was the High Commission of India in Colombo, because it seemed like an obvious option. I called them to find information about how I can apply for a visa. The guy who picked up was absolutely clueless and had no idea. Thereafter, he proceeded to yell at me for not knowing the information he should know. I would rate their service 1/10 because this was not the worst interaction I had to deal with Indian officials during this trip. More on those later.

Eventually I contacted a few Sri Lankans who had gone to Finland for studies and got the visa information from them. The type of visa that we need to enter India for this type of visits is called "x-misc" In hindsight, I should have done that in the first place and avoided getting yelled at by the mean Indian man.

I needed to get the visa from IVS Lanka. They had very little information on their website as well, and their contact information is absolutely useless because they never responded to any of my emails or phone calls.

I downloaded the visa application form from their website, and decided to pay them a visit on Monday, 6th September, because I could not reach them. At this point, I wasn’t even sure if I needed to get an appointment first. Fortunately, I did not.

I submitted my application at their office, and was told that I could collect the visa by the 14th. I needed it by the 13th, but whatever. I responded to the appointment email and they agreed to extend the deadline to the 14th.

Hmmm…. But your timeline says you got the visa on the 17th, what happened here?”. I know what happened on my own timeline GEEZ. Let me explain.

I waited until the 13th, but there was no word from IVS. I called them many times, but it was hopeless. They never answered. And when I say that I called them many times, the actual number was 21.

I went to their office once again on the 14th, as I had no other options. Lo and behold, they haven’t even begun processing my visa yet. Somehow, they had the nerve to tell me that I have to make the payment to begin processing. Apparently they should have called me when I was supposed to make the payment, but they never did, and didn’t bother to do anything until I visited their office again.

There are no words in the dictionary that I could string together to describe the incompetence of the Indian official staff I had to deal with throughout this visit.

When I told them that I never received a call from them, and I have called them 21 times, they didn’t seem to care about it one bit. After a bit of heated back and forth, they assured me that I could get my visa by the 17th.

Now I have to convince the Finnish embassy to extend the deadline. They agreed to extend the deadline to the 16th, but refused to extend it further. If I don’t show them my Indian visa by then, they would cancel my appointment.

I wrote this lengthy email in response.

They responded saying that they will wait until the 16th and if I have not received it by then, let them know about the situation.

On came the 16th of September, and to no avail, still no word. At this point I was beyond frustrated. I called them a few times knowing that they would never pick up the phone. But surprisingly… no, there was no surprise. They never answered.

After that, my two remaining brain cells got together and set up an auto re-dialler and kept it running for about half an hour. If you don’t know what a redialler is, it’s basically a program that keeps calling the same number over and over again until you tell it to stop.

Of course they never picked up. But I made an interesting observation. Take a look at these screenshots.

You can see that there are times where the redialler called the same number multiple times within a minute (eg: (10) Outgoing call . 9:31 am). This is because the line was busy at the time. When you try to call the number, it immediately ends the call if the line is busy, and the redialler calls the number again immediately. Therefore, we get many calls within the same minute until the line on the other end stops being busy.

You know what that means? This means there’s actually people on the other end of the phone call. They’re aware of the incoming calls. It’s just that they are actively choosing not to answer them.

A few hours later, I got an email from the Finnish embassy asking me about the status of my Indian visa, and I responded with this newly found information.

They finally agreed to wait until the 17th for the visa.

A few hours later, the most shocking thing happened. I actually got a call from IVS saying that my visa is ready for collection. By this time, I’ve had classes all day, and had no energy to give them a piece of my mind, so I just thanked them and hung up.

The next day, I went into the IVS office early in the morning, picked up my visa. Confronted them about their incompetence. As usual they did not care one bit. I didn’t go any further, because I got what I wanted. I’d rate their service 0/10. At least the dude who yelled at me picked up the phone.

The moral of this part of the story is, if you’re thinking about visiting India, don’t. But if you have to, don’t expect their visa office in Sri Lanka to be competent. Make sure you do things well in advance.

Entering India

According to the current guidelines for international arrivals to India, the following is required for international arrivals during the pandemic.

  1. Negative RT-PCR report

  2. Submit a self-declaration form online.

For more information on the process for international arrivals, check the New Delhi airport website.

Booking a flight

Booking flights in during a global pandemic is a tricky process. Not only are they expensive, but they could also get cancelled if there aren’t enough passengers. Keep this in mind, it will be important later. Also, it will be on the exam.

My appointment was on the 22nd. However, I booked a flight on the 20th just in case. If my flight gets cancelled, I could catch a different flight on the next day. If that flight also gets cancelled, I could catch a flight early in the morning the day after, and rush to my appointment.

Getting a PCR Test

After booking your flight, the next thing you need to do is to get a COVID PCR test. However, it needs to be done at least 72 hours before arrival in India. Therefore, you need to find a place that does PCR tests and gives results as quickly as possible.

I looked into a few options and decided to book an appointment at Durdans hospital (which is also where I got my PCR test earlier) because they give the results within 12 hours. Here’s a few things I wasn’t told before going in.

If you are getting tested for international travel, you also need to bring in your passport and airline ticket. Lucky for me, I had my passport with me, and I was told to share my ticket through email.

I did my test. It didn’t hurt nearly as much as the first time. And a few hours later, I got the report saying that I’m negative! Which is also the first time I had a negative PCR test. Check my blog here if you’re interested in reading about the time I got a positive result.

Arriving in Delhi

Now that we have everything sorted out, all we have to do is go to Delhi right? Nothing could possibly go wrong! Yeah, it didn’t. Things actually went surprisingly well. My flight got a bit delayed, but overall, the process of going through the airport was almost as usual, except for the thermal screenings.

The plane from Colombo to Delhi was an Airbus A330, which can typically hold between 250 and 300 passengers. However, this flight only had 23, including myself! The cabin was empty for the most part.

I don’t think that I have ever been in a flight where I had an empty seat next to me. It was a surreal experience to be flying in an airplane with nobody in sight.

After landing in India, I had to deal with Indian officials once more at immigration. I’ve had a very bad first impression in the last few days, so my expectations were very low. The biggest problem I had was finding the immigration counter for international arrivals. Myself and some other Sri Lankans from the flight looked left, right, and center but could not find anything. There was nobody around to ask for directions either.

Finally we went up to some security person and asked him. He yelled at us and told us that he doesn’t care, just go to any counter. A few of us went into the counter for Indian passport holders fully expecting something to go wrong.

I was first in line from our group. When the guy at the counter saw my Sri Lankan passport, he did not put any effort to hide the fact that he was annoyed, and made an audible groan, as if I’m the reason his wife left him. He took a few minutes to go through my documents, and actually let me through!

And there I was. Finally in India. Although I was only there for a few days, it is the 8th country that I’ve been to!

Pre-appointment shenanigans

I managed to get into India two days ahead of my appointment. What did I do during those two days? Absolutely nothing. I could have gone sightseeing, talked to the locals, or whatever else tourists do. But I stayed inside my hotel room for the most part.

The main reason for this was that although I was traveling to another country, this was not on weekends or holidays, and I had lectures, and assignments to do. The fact that I spent a lot of time getting ready for this “trip” meant that I was actually behind on my work. So I used the free time I had to catch up with my work.

I stayed in a hotel called “The Park, New Delhi”, which was actually quite good, but also a bit expensive at 4,000 INR per night (12,000 LKR/ 50 USD). The staff were not as rude as the officials I have dealt with. Actually, the Janitor of my floor was really nice to me, probably the only nice person I met while I was there.

I chose this hotel because it was close to the VFS office I had to go to (only a 10 minute walk), and supposed to be very careful on social distancing, which was completely not true. Their lobby was crowded, and most of the people there weren’t even wearing masks. In fact. A lot of the people in India weren’t wearing masks. It felt like everyone was pretending that they didn’t go through a period where thousands of people were dying each day. Anyway, this is what it looked like at the bus stop right outside of my hotel window.

The other issue I had with the hotel was that their WiFi was absolute garbage. Their internet speeds were a whopping 60 kbps. I needed to pay 500 INR per day if I needed faster internet. Lucky for me, my Dialog connection from Sri Lanka had 2GB of data roaming for that day, and I also bought an Airtel sim at the airport that gives 1.5GB per day.

Using data roaming is expensive, and 1.5GB a day wasn’t enough for me. So I went out for a bit on the 21st to an Airtel store to get some more data. I only had to pay something like 150 INR for 15GB of additional data, as opposed to the 500 INR/day scam of an internet connection by the hotel.

Another problem with the internet in India is that TikTok is banned. I could not find a way to get it to work, even with a VPN. Not quite sure how they do that. A friend of mine suggested that I watch a show called Taskmaster to fill the TikTok void. It’s a hilarious show, and everyone on this planet should watch it. So that’s where most of my mobile data went while I was there.

Apart from that, I spent most of the day studying and working. I did go out to eat while I was there, but nothing fancy… except for this chicken salad bowl I got at Chipotle. Ah yes, I travelled to a exotic country and ate at Chipotle.

Appointment Day

The day has come. Today was my special day. The day every boy dreamed of ever since they were young. The day you give your fingerprints to a foreign government.

I woke up early in the morning, had breakfast at the hotel. Took a shower, and off I went to the VFS office. My appointment was at 11 AM, and I was there at 10. A bit early, innit? So the security people didn’t let me in. I waited outside for half an hour and went in afterwards.

After that, I realised that I might not have enough cash on me. So I went out again, ran to an ATM, got some cash, and then went back inside. See what happens when your two brain cells don’t cooperate?

I brought my laptop with me because my entire life depends on it. Haha I’m a slave to technology. Anyway, it turns out they don’t allow those inside, so I had to leave it somewhere outside, and pay 200 INR/hr for it. Nice.

I was given a number, and it was time to wait again. How long did I have to wait? I went in at 11:00 am, and came out at 2:20 pm. It was a horrible experience. First of all, although I got a number, the people there just cut in front of everyone and went in.

There was one guy outside who was in charge of… something. When I tried to go into one of the rooms, he physically pulled me back and told me something in Hindi. When I showed my passport and told him that I’m not from India, and asked him to repeat what he said in English. He said it again… in Hindi. Apparently the dude does not speak English.

Why are you working at a VFS office if you can't speak English?? Why would an international VFS office hire someone who doesn’t speak English in the first place?

My only source of information on what I need to do doesn’t speak English. Great. I know what you’re thinking, why not ask any of the other people who are waiting? Shut up. That’s social interaction, and I don’t support it.

After waiting for a few minutes and watching how other people do it, I managed to get into one of the two rooms. This one doesn’t take fingerprints. They mostly went over my documents, and asked a few questions.

Thereafter, I had to go to a counter outside and show the same documents. In addition to that, I had to provide copies of the pages of my passport, and photos of myself. There were places inside that did all of that.

After all that, I had to wait until they called me in to take my fingerprints. This took so much time. They took 15 - 20 minutes per person to get their fingerprints. It was so frustrating just to wait and do nothing the whole time.

After over an hour, they finally called in my name. After I went inside, I was asked a few questions, mainly regarding how I want my Residence Permit to be delivered. Since I was not going to stay in Delhi until my permit became available, I told them that I wanted it delivered to Sri Lanka.

The person at the biometric counter certainly took their time. They printed the same label over and over again because they didn’t like the size. No wonder it took so long for the others. Finally, they took my fingerprints, as well as a photo. Afterwards, I was told to go to counter C2 and make my processing payment of 6213 INR.

I paid my processing fee and off I went. My work here is done. Now all that’s left is to go back home, right? RIGHT?

Disaster Strikes

After giving my fingerprints, I picked up some lunch on the way, and went back to my hotel room. I listened to my last lecture of the day, and laid back to relax after a hectic day. I watched Taskmaster for a few hours, until I got this email.

Remember earlier when said that the tricky part of traveling during a pandemic is that flights could get cancelled? Well, it happened. My flight which was supposed to be on the 24th got cancelled and the next available flight was on the 27th of September.

You might say something like “but your timeline says you got home on the 25th”. I know what my timeline says! Just let me explain what happened!

I did not want to stay in India for another 3 days. I told the news to my family, and after a few hours of brainstorming, we decided that the best option for me was to change my flight booking to go to Colombo from Chennai, and find a way to get myself to Chennai.

I booked a domestic flight that takes me from Delhi to Chennai. Although it was last minute, it was surprisingly cheap at around $100. This one took me to Chennai the next day at 5:30 pm, leaving enough time for me to catch my next flight to Colombo.

But then comes another problem with traveling during a pandemic. Before arriving in Sri Lanka, I needed to have a negative PCR test report once again. However, it takes around 24 hours to get the results. I was told of my flight cancellation at 7:00 pm.

Lucky for me, the Delhi airport conducts PCR tests that give results a lot quicker. There were two types of PCR tests, RT-PCR and Rapid RT-PCR. I contacted the Delhi airport, and was told that the only difference between the two is that you can get the results of the rapid test within an hour, whereas the regular PCR test takes about 8 hours. Apart from that, the rapid test costs a bit more, but they’re exactly the same. How naive was I to believe them.

The next day, I checked out of the hotel, and arrived at the Delhi International Airport at 12:00 pm. My flight was at 5:30 pm, so I had plenty of time between now and my flight. I went to get my Rapid RT-PCR test. Inside, I was told that most airlines (including Sri Lankan) do not accept Rapid test results. I called Sri Lankan airlines, and they confirmed that they in fact do not accept Rapid test results. Oh how dumb I was to believe the word of the Indian officials.

At this point, my flight to Chennai leaves in about 4 hours, and I do not have enough time to get a regular RT-PCR test. Then my two brain cells got back together again and came up with a solution.

The results take 10 hours at most. My flight from Chennai to Colombo does not leave for another 11 hours. The results of the test are sent through email as well. Why don’t I take a regular PCR test here, go to Chennai, and show them the report on my phone? My only worry right now was that if they would accept reports that are not printed out. I had no choice. I took the risk and got the PCR test.

Then I checked in to my flight to Chennai, waited 3 more hours, and finally got on my flight. Apart from worrying if Sri Lankan Airlines would accept a non-printed report, I was also thinking about what would happen in the highly unlikely situation my report came out positive.

After landing, and turning off airplane mode on my phone, I received an email notification saying that my PCR test report is ready. I opened the attachment, and the report said that I am negative! Although the chances of being positive were highly unlikely since I was only in India for 3 days, it was still a thought that never left my mind. Now all that is left is to catch my flight from Chennai to Colombo.

Adventures at Chennai International Airport

I arrived in Chennai at 8:15 pm, and my flight to Colombo was at 12:30 am the next day. So I had around 4 hours in my hands. I had to make my way through to the international arrivals part of the airport. Going with the theme of my disappointing experience in India, there were no signs indicating where I should go, and every person I asked for directions was rude and disrespectful.

I eventually found my way to a sign that pointed to the international flights part of the airport. This led me to a room that looked like a really long tube. And when I say long, I mean LONG.

I walked nearly 15 minutes until I reached the end of the building. That’s how long it was. And what was at the end of the building? Another sign pointing to where international arrivals are. That must mean that I should keep following the signs right? There’s no way a sign in India would lie to me. Well… at the end of the building were two more officials. Oh joy.

What was the problem this time? I don’t know. They just said that I can’t go through the doors on the right. Why? They didn’t say why. Just that I can’t go through. Instead, they told me to go back until I find a staircase to the left, go down the stairs, go out of the airport, and keep walking until I see the entrance to the international arrivals building. Honestly I wasn’t even surprised at this point.

I went through a completely run down part of the airport until I finally found the arrivals building. Who was at the arrivals building? That’s right, more officials.

The airport seemed completely empty. At this point, I have walked around the airport for about half an hour carrying all my luggage along with me. I tried to go through the first entrance on one end of the building, and some security guard told me that I can’t go through there, and I have to go to the next entrance. I walked to the next entrance, and I was told to go to the one after that. This went on until I reached the other end of the building. I was very frustrated, and asked the last guy exactly where I needed to go. He finally gave me some directions to one of the entrances I went to earlier.

I asked the guy if I could go in, and he said no. I had to wait till 10 pm until they began checking in just to enter the airport. To be fair the airport was genuinely empty. I waited once more, and people started gathering around the entrance. I hated every minute of this. None of the people at the entrance were wearing masks. There were police outside who didn’t even care that people weren't wearing masks. So I stood around 30 maskless people for nearly an hour until they finally started checking people in.

I went into the counter, and showed my PCR test report on the phone. They said that they needed a printout of the report, as I expected. Lucky for me, I had a whole speech planned while I was waiting.

TL;DR of my speech was that all of this happened because they cancelled my flight, and I had to get everything prepared in a rush. If they needed a printout, that is not my problem. Eventually, they told me to email the PDF, and I checked in.

I went through immigration, surprisingly with no issues. It’s finally almost over. I can smell the finish line. The whole airport was a ghost town. I made my way to the boarding area and this is what it looked like.

Since I got there early, I was the only person in here for a while. This was probably a once in a lifetime experience. I walked around and experienced a glimpse of what a post-apocalyptic world would look like (if airports still had electricity). I was very tired from the long day I’ve had, so I went to my gate and sat at the very front.

Then I watched some more episodes of Taskmaster until it was time to board the plane. There were slightly more people this time; around 30. It was still a cool experience to have a lot of the plane all to yourself. I will probably never experience something like that again.

Once the plane took off, this whole nightmare of a trip will be over. Well, sort of. Although it is not the case anymore, during the time I arrived in Sri Lanka, all international arrivals must undergo quarantine for 24 hours. Therefore, I must go into quarantine after I have landed.

Quarantine in Sri Lanka

After landing in Colombo, I have never been happier to be in Sri Lanka. The biggest notable difference at the airport from the last time I was there was that I must now fill out a health declaration form. And in addition to the passport, they also check your PCR test report, and proof of vaccination at the immigration counter.

All of the arrivals were given a coloured token with a number. The quarantine center you go to depends on the colour of your token. Fortunately for me, my parents had already made quarantine arrangements before I had arrived. I just had to follow these instructions.

I found Major Shankha at the airport, and told him about Anton ayya. I was given a blue token, which meant I was to be taken to the Jetwing Ayurveda Pavilions hotel in Negombo. They put all of us into a bus and took us to the hotel.

At the hotel lobby were a bunch of tables, and on the tables were forms we needed to fill out with our details.

After filling out the forms, we were given room keys, and informed about the quarantine procedure.

  • They will take the PCR test in the morning

  • Payment for the hotel and PCR test will be made at the same time.

  • All people with negative PCR tests were allowed to leave once the reports become available.

  • We are not allowed to leave our rooms unless told to do so.

  • We will be contacted through the hotel room phone.

And off we went into our rooms. My room was very big and spacious. Here are some quick videos of my room the time I arrived, and the next morning.

It was a very long day with lots of twists and turns. But I finally made it back!

As you can see, I wasn’t tired at all.

After having my breakfast, I got a call on the room phone to come outside for my PCR test. They took the payments at the same time as well. The cost of the hotel was 12,000 LKR, which was extremely cheap considering the quarantine costs. In comparison, it was around 16,000 LKR per night when I was in quarantine the first time (again, you can read more about it here).

Apart from the COVID PCR test, everyone who returned from India also got tested for Malaria and Filaria as well.

Like last time, the best part of quarantine was obviously the food, so here are some photos of the meals I had during my one-day stay.

I didn’t do much while I was there. The hotel internet wasn’t that good, and I didn’t bring my router like last time. So I spent most of my time studying and reading some research papers. You know, nerd stuff.

The next morning, I got a call from the hotel staff saying that I can leave, as my PCR test had come out negative. Before we left, we were given our test reports, and off I went back home.

Final Thoughts

I was debating with myself whether I should write about this, but looking back, I thought that this would be an interesting story I could share with the 3 people who end up reading till the end.

What annoys me the most about this whole ordeal is that I had to go through all of this, just to give fingerprints. It felt like a huge waste of time and money. Speaking of money, I did a bit of accounting after returning to Sri Lanka. The cost of the entire 5-day trip in the middle of a pandemic was 204,866 LKR.

Gather around kids. So what did we learn from this story? Absolutely nothing. If you managed to read this far into the blog please comment/reply “taskmaster” on whatever platform I shared it on. If you’re ever planning on traveling during the pandemic, make sure to give yourself plenty of room to work around, because you never know what could go wrong.

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