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It Started With A Kiss... By Dr. Richard Hames

So goes the first line of a popular song by the group Hot Chocolate - music dating from the early eighties. Let me assure you that this post has nothing to do with kissing or sex – or even hot chocolate come to that. Its just a teasing title. My saga actually started with a visa! But (like it says in the song) I never thought it would come to this!

I spend a great deal of my time working with governments, trying to navigate around bureaucratic blockages. Public servants cutely refer to the garbage they create as due process. From experience I have become acutely aware of how this management factory can slow things down, especially when bureaucracy is held up to be an art form. But I've also become surprisingly adept at figuring out how to take legitimate shortcuts. Or so I thought...

So it came as no surprise when it took me a little longer than expected to renew my Indian visa. Little did I realize, however, that the process upon which I was about to embark would be so inflexible and frustrating. I had a couple of weeks to go before I needed to be in Chennai for one of my clients. Plenty of time. I easily located the Indian Consulate in Bangkok. It was just down the road from where I live. What could be more convenient?

When I arrived at the security gate I learned they had recently outsourced the visa service to a third party. No problems. The new office was only a short motorbike taxi ride away. But here I encountered my first tiny glitch. As it turned out this was a sign of bigger and better things to come.

Thai nationals, you see, can process their visa within a day. Very efficient. Foreigners, however, need a minimum of five working days. There was no express facility. No under-the-table service. Fine. No stress. Clearly organizing my visa in Bangkok was out of the question. I would need to revise my plans. Again, no worries. I was travelling to Melbourne in three days. I would get it done there where, as an Australian citizen, I would presumably be able to get the visa within the three days I would be in town.

I arrived in Melbourne on Sunday evening late. Early the following morning I went online to locate the Indian Consulate in Melbourne. It was in Coburg. I would need a taxi. I tried calling the designated number to ascertain office hours. After all I didn’t want to make the journey only to discover they were closed. I tried several times but in vain. The line seemed to be permanently diverted. I would need to take a punt on the office being open.

I was staying with friends. Charles was dropping Veronica in the city and offered to drive me to Coburg. I accepted. I had just three hours to get this task over and done with. I would leave my passport at the Consulate and pick it up again on Wednesday afternoon when I had only one appointment. I was flying out to Singapore that evening.

I took a ticket, grabbed a visa application form and awaited my turn in the queue. My number was 521. The light box flashed 497. I waited. And waited. Number 502 must have been a student of philosophy as he was questioning every clause in agonizing detail. 503. 504. 505 - An entire family. 506. 507. By this time I had been waiting about half an hour and was getting slightly tetchy.

Twenty eight minutes later my number was called. I leapt to the counter eager to lodge my application and get to my first appointment of the day.

I am so sorry sir. You have come to the wrong office. We recently outsourced our visa service. You need to go to Docklands. This information was conveyed with the usual Indian charm and much nodding of the head. I smiled through gritted teeth. Okay. If I could hail a taxi on the street I could get to Docklands, which was back in the city, and lodge my application. I might just get to my appointment on time.

As luck would have it a mother with two young children in tow was just alighting from a cab at the entrance to the Consulate. Perfect. I hopped in and gave instructions to the driver. Within a few minutes my new acquaintance, coincidentally one of the many Indian students in Melbourne, had managed to manoeuvre his way into the only traffic jam in the entire city. We weren’t moving. We were well and truly stuck. The minutes ticked by…

Patiently I explained an alternative route to the driver who, judging from the gist of the conversation, had now adopted me as his new best buddy. He was born in Mumbai, had three brothers, studied business at RMIT, had a girlfriend back in India and another one here…. By the time we reached Docklands I had enough information to produce an entire cautionary tale on this young man’s life.

As I bolted from the cab he shouted something after me. But it was pouring with rain. I waved a brusque farewell and escaped to the welcoming warmth of the foyer. Most of this new building was unoccupied so it was quite easy to find the Indian Visa Service. I rummaged around for my passport. Strange. I always keep it in my left jacket pocket when I am travelling. That is the only pocket that buttons up. But it wasn’t there.

I must have turned an ashen shade because two young women rushed to my side as though I was about to cark it. My passport, I heard myself intoning several times like some disturbed inmate from an asylum. I’ve lost my passport!

Are you sure it isn’t in your other pocket sir?

Now you must appreciate dear reader that a question of that nature, posed at that particular moment, was destined only to inflame the situation. Of course it isn’t in my pocket, I snapped back.

No sir, it is here. My best buddy had entered the room holding my passport triumphantly above his head. You left it in my taxi dear sir. I tried to call you but you did not hear me.

I didn’t have the heart to tell the poor guy the truth. Thanks. Thanks a lot, I croaked. He chuckled quietly to himself and waited. Thankyou, I said. More warmly this time.Will you be needing my services further dear sir? No that’s fine. I’ll manage, I heard myself stutter.

I turned around. There was no queue! I strode past the ticket dispenser right up to the counter. Good morning. I need a visa.

Now if you have been paying attention, dear reader, you will no doubt have guessed what comes next in my fable. The tall Indian gentleman on the other side of the counter started nodding his head from side to side. My heart sank. We need five working days sir…

I didn’t hear the remainder of what he said. I turned and slunk out of the office. Fortunately I had five days at home the following week. Theoretically I would be able to go back to the consulate in Bangkok and get the visa – two days before I left for Chennai. But there was no leeway for any further stuff ups!

Monday morning. Back in Bangkok. I was second in the queue - behind a German who wanted to go to Goa on the way back to Munich. I quickly filled in the application form, had my photograph taken and paid the fee required for a multiple entry visa. I was handed a receipt by a charming young Thai man with impeccable English who told me to return on Friday morning before 10am with my passport.

This I duly did. Then around 4pm I went back to the visa office to collect my passport complete with visa. Painless really. Except that I then did something really foolish. I sat down and worked out how much it had actually cost me, in time and money, to get this visa which I needed for a single day’s visit to Chennai.

The visa itself was 1,200 baht. Service charge 400 baht. All up around $55. Actually getting the visa was far more expensive. My new best buddy charged me $22.60 for one of the most memorable cab rides in history. I gave him a $10 tip from a visibly shaken yet grateful passenger for returning my passport. Petrol in Bangkok going to and from the consulate a total of three times?Minimal. Let’s just write that off.

But my time… I invoice my thinking time and offsite preparation time for clients at around $800 an hour – about half my normal per diem. I clocked up a total of 3 hours and 22 minutes before I had a visa stamped in my passport. A grand total of $2,753.60!

So I would like to thank all the government bureaucracies around the world for making life so complicated. A special thanks from those of us who constantly traverse your increasingly meaningless borders. You make the task of visiting your countries almost unfathomably crazy. Let’s be honest. Visas have absolutely nothing to do with national security or the prevention of terrorism. They are simply an archaic excuse for legalized extortion and should have no place in a globalized world. You know it and we know it.

By the way, does anyone know to whom I should send my invoice? Obviously I wish to claim compliance expenses to the tune of $2,698.60. Should I send it to the Indian Ambassador here do you think? Yes. I am sure that would be it. I’ll mail my invoice tomorrow.

Strange though. I never really thought it would come to this!

FOOTNOTE:
I have just had to deal with the French Consulate in Bangkok in order to get a Schengen Visa for my wife. In their wisdom the French bureaucracy now insists that all interaction with them be via email or their website. No telephone bookings are accepted. Nor do their security personnel speak French (or English come to that). My anguish is a more frustrating story than even my Indian visa saga! But as you probably wouldn't believe it I will leave this story for another time!

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