A Brief History of a Journey Through Sri Lankan Bureaucracy, a/k/a a Day Trip to Colombo to Extend Our Visa

Where to start on a blog? I’ve never done this before and don’t quite know what to do! Nicholas and I are volunteering in Sri Lanka for 4 weeks, teaching English to monks and renovating temples. At the end of the 4 weeks, JP and Alex will partake in their wildest spring break ever, flying as far from Denver as they can – 3 days of total travel – for just 7 days on the ground in Sri Lanka. Their time zones will be upside-down (by 12 1/2 hours, since Sri Lanka has its very own time zone) for only a short while, but it will be worth it to be able to share this country with them at the end of our journey.

Rather than “journal” the happenings of each specific day, I think I may instead share my thoughts on different aspects of our adventure… Nicholas may join in with his thoughts from time to time, as well.

Our primary reason for coming to Sri Lanka is to volunteer, but the opportunity to learn more about a different culture is undoubtedly appealing and the reason we chose to volunteer abroad rather than in the U.S. Some of the time we are learning about the more exotic aspects of Sri Lanka – Buddhism, Hinduism, life in a tropical culture, the experience of new foods, how to speak Sinhalese, etc. – but this past Friday was a learning experience of a different nature.

A Brief History of a Journey Through Sri Lankan Bureaucracy,
a/k/a a Day Trip to Colombo to Extend Our Visa

We need to extend our visas because we will be here longer than the typical 30 day electronic visa that is granted online prior to arrival. While we could wait until the end of the 30 days, we want to get this done in advance so we can focus on our volunteer projects, and we have decided to head to Colombo at the end of our first week. We wake at 4:20am, pack our bags in the dark to avoid waking the other volunteers in our separate dorm rooms, and leave the volunteer house outside Kandy for a drive to Colombo. We have hired a car and driver, thinking it might be faster and more direct than the train. At the volunteer house, rumors had swirled of nightmarish waits at the Department of Immigration and Louie, a British volunteer, had warned us of a strict 1:00 pm cut-off for some part of the process (exactly which part, no one was sure). Since the lateness of trains here is measured by a quarter-day (trains can run a quarter-day, a half-day, or a three-quarter day late) prudence dictated a private car so we could line up at the Department of Immigration prior to opening time and avoid the 1:00 pm cut-off.

Our 18 year old driver, Samandha, drives to the wrong office, even though Dumi, AJ, and Dhammike (various coordinators at the “Green Lion,” the Sri Lankan agency running these programs) had repeatedly assured me our driver would know exactly where to go. After he asks several tuk-tuk drivers idling in traffic how to get there, I pull out my iPhone and find a route. It is a little disconcerting to drive through some of the admittedly random neighborhoods and short-cuts Siri finds to avoid the choking Colombo traffic, but we eventually arrive, just 30 minutes after opening time. Time for the real fun to begin.

The mass of humanity entering and exiting the Department of Immigration and Emigration is strangely orderly for the Asian subcontinent and almost surreal when compared with the chaotic traffic we just left behind. It seems vaguely dystopic, almost Orwellian. We enter the first room, a cavernous hall with at least 75 rows of chairs, each row with seating for 25-30 people. At the front of the room, counters for “Passports,” “Citizenship”, “Residents,” and “Non-Residents,” all with orderly lines of people in front of them. Women in saris, burqas, hijabs, and other long dresses, men in western clothes and sarongs. Crying children, happy children. Even a food court with a “Burger Bar” (for all intents and purposes, a fake Burger King…) for all the hapless applicants (including us) who will spend their entire day in this building. Ceiling fans circle lazily above, creating little to no breeze. Louie told us that if we missed hearing our number called, we would have to obtain a new number and re-start the entire process — by now worried, we look at each other and wonder how we would ever hear our number called in this gigantic room…

A security guard notices us (there is no “blending in” in Sri Lanka – we stick out like sore thumbs) and motions us towards the neighboring building. “Fourth floor,” he says in a heavy South Asian accent. On the fourth floor, a wave of cool air greets us. Air conditioning! Signs point to Areas A, B, C, D, and E. We make our way to C – “Visa Applications.” More rows, but fewer than the first cavern we walked through. A line to enter and obtain an application for a visa extension, a line to have a passport photo taken, a line for the glue to affix the picture to the application, and a line to obtain a token number allowing us to submit the application. Application firmly in hand, we eventually proceed to Area A. (Or maybe E? At any rate, a different area than Area C.) Within this new Area are three sub-areas, areas A, B, and C. Three women behind what looks like a reception desk, huddled around what looks like a workbook from grade school. They incline their heads towards rows of metal seats. More waiting and more lines. This room is filled with people holding visa extension applications and passports. I see passports from France, Germany, England and Kazakstan around us. Several groups of monks filter in, and soon we are surrounded by a sea of orange, crimson, and eggplant colored robes holding Burmese passports.

Our token number is NR 5025. A man at the front is calling out numbers frantically, though he only calls one at a time and sometimes 15 minutes elapse between one number and the next. There doesn’t seem to be a need for the frantic calling. We sit waiting, afraid to pull out a book to pass the time – distracting ourselves might result in potentially losing our spot in the process. English is the lingua franca here, so we are not listening for our number in Sinhalese, but each time he calls a number we wonder – did he call NR or AV? Something in the 5000s or 1000s? Eventually he calls NR 5020. We sit at attention. NR 5020 does not immediately jump up and we know this spells doom for NR 5020. NR 5020’s turn is lost. He moves on the NR 5021, giving NR 5021 even less time to show up before moving on to NR 5022. Confusion reigns and he quickly moves on to NR 5023, then NR 5023 and NR 5024. Are they all losing their spot? We ready ourselves and jump up when we hear NR 5025. Then he restarts and calls all the numbers, up through NR 5030, and inclines his head towards the corner. “Go there,” he orders. His lips are turned up in an almost, but not quite, imperceptible smirk.

We are eventually ushered behind closed doors where another immigration officer sits at a large wooden desk. There is a computer monitor, turned off, and nothing else other than the application of the French man who sat next to us muttering profanities next to us all morning. We prepare ourselves for questioning, but the officer merely writes our token number on our applications, takes our passports, and tells us to go wait back in Area C. I politely ask how long it will be and whether there will be enough time to use the bathroom. I receive a smile and an “Of course.”

Back to Area C – the first Area C, in the waiting area for the “Visa Issuing Counter.” There is a big sign stating that applicants should be advised the waiting time for the issuance of a visa is approximately four hours. “Four” is crossed out in various colors of pen. Previous frustrated applicants have scribbled “7” and “13” and “8” to replace the “four.” Nicholas nudges me and points to a large sign on the wall lists the “Visa Application Fees.” The fees for US citizens is $100.00. Steep. The fees are variable and I assume that they are somehow related to the wealth of each nation – after all, fees for Haitians are $1.50 and for citizens of the UAE $163 – but the fees are variable seemingly without reason. Germany: $26.00. Uzbekistan: $80. Syria: $8.00. And the most expensive of all – Tanzania, at $200.00. If your country is not listed, you’ve hit the jackpot. $6.00.

Some time passes. We’ve had chocolate wafers and water for breakfast and an order of french fries from the Burger Bar for lunch. Behind the Visa Issuing Counter, another immigration officer starts yelling out numbers. NR 5024. Really? Nicholas and I jump up. NR 5018. What? NR 5002. NR 5004. This part, clearly not orderly. We sit back down. NR 5025 is not called.

The woman from Kazakstan continues to stand at the counter. About 60, with a bright orange t-shirt, capri jeans and peds, numerous bracelets on her wrist and even more earrings in each ear. Bright orange plastic sunglasses perched on top of bleached and spiky hair, also an orange hue. She taps her fingers on the desk impatiently. The monks have joined us now, along with a nun. The nun, who also has a shaved head, wears a grey robe. She is listening to music using her Apple earbuds and clutching a backpack. One of the monks is reading a Buddhist script; the other, something in English called “Problems and Responsibilities.”

Nicholas nudges me. “All of the older Indian women in here look mad.” He’s right, but I think everyone in here is beginning to look a little mad. I’m actually having fun watching everyone and observing this process, so hopefully I don’t look mad.  “Also, that monk is texting on an iPhone. Is he allowed to do that?” Monks and nuns are clearly not cloistered inside four walls here. It seems we have some learning to do. Perceptions and realities will adjust for both of us during the next few weeks.

NR 5025 is finally called, though I realize it feels a bit like waiting for luggage to arrive on the carousel and baggage claim in the airport. We never know whose suitcase will show up next, or why, or when. Or even how. And just like at the baggage carousel, when our number is not called, we wonder if it has somehow been lost. We move to the next line, where we pay $200, give up our passports again, and are motioned back to the first area. We must wait one last time for NR 5025 to be called. When it finally is called, it seems almost anti-climatic. There are no other stamps to get, fees to pay, or lines to wait in. We can leave. We walk out, still waiting to be stopped and told we have to do something else. When we make it to the sidewalk, visas in hand, we smile. All part of the adventure.

Now it’s on to another adventure – trying to find an ATM that will work. A story for a different day…

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