No Comment

Pass Control

Here is my latest monthly travel column as it ran recently at 3 Quarks Daily:

Gangtok, Sikkim

The northern Indian province of Sikkim, between Nepal and Bhutan, borders Tibet. To visit, non-Indians require an “Inner Line Permit/Restricted Area Permit” issued by the Government of Sikkim Tourism Department.

It’s because of history. China chased the Dalai Lama from Lhasa over these mountains and off the throne in ’59. India took in his cadre and donated a whole city, Dharmsala, to their cause. The Chinese have raised hurt feelings to high art, and by this those feelings were gravely wounded.

Besides, the Tibet/Sikkim border isn’t drawn to either sides’ satisfaction. These are barren, forbidding, 12,000 foot mountaintops that nearly 2500 people died fighting over in the 1960s.  (The border at Nathula only reopened for trade in 2006.) So they like to keep up with where foreigners are.

The Inner Line Permit is a sheet of legal sized pulpy paper with wood chips. You can get one at the provincial border for free with passport photos and photocopies of things. It cautions that we must not overstay or go beyond the restricted areas, and must register at all check posts. It has us commit to paper what Indian intelligence probably already knows: our arrival point, arrival and departure dates, names, nationalities, and passport information. This form requires a bureaucrat’s stamp. The bureaucrat’s stamp is money.

We hurtle to a stop (driving is purposeful here) outside a building labeled Ministry of Handicraft and Handloom and present ourselves and our papers to two gentlemen inside. We wish to enter Sikkim via Rangpo town.

The presiding official wears a Millet brand down jacket with a tall, zipped-tight collar. He examines our materials for several minutes. First, there will be no small talk. This is official business, too grave a matter for that. Nor, for that matter, will there be any cordiality.

I think he’s demanding respect with his silence. TAKE ME SERIOUSLY. This is his domain and these are his number of minutes and it is not our privilege to question or expedite things in any way. Look here now: I can slow down anybody I want.

But the road to Gangtok spreads before us. He holds our progress in his hands right now and we will – if we won’t do anything else – we will note it. He pulls a ledger to his blotter and begins recording our passport and visa details both on the ledger and on our permit.

The official and his colleague preside across battered metal desks. Facing them, we have the better view.  Picture windows at their backs reveal the permanently stirred up frenzy of the street, and on the other side of it, well, Ricki’s Cocktail King.

The Ministry of Handicraft and Handloom is sort of a rambling, half open, ad hoc thing. A clock ticks and a bird causes a ruckus somewhere up in the rafters.

Ultimately our application to enter Sikkim causes no incident (or uttered syllable), and in time, out comes The Stamp. It pounds around a few places, gathers steam on ink pads and at last lands on our new Inner Line Permit. Naive as we are, we imagine we’ll be on our way.

And underway we are, not to Gangtok but under our driver Sunil’s escort, picking our way on foot across a frenzied lane and a half of pocked tarmac on the road to Sikkim, descending a hill toward a bridge and right past Ricki’s Cocktail King. Must say, I cast a longing gaze.

Chaos prevails over here. Over here, besides clerks in interior rooms, other clerks stand in windows open to the street, windows labeled Excise Tax and Forestry Department and more, pay windows for goods carriers inbound to Sikkim where men stand belligerent and flushed and point and holler. Their vehicles are what causes the frenzy.

We stand facing green pastel walls in an office lit by a swinging bulb.  Two new gentlemen. The inferior clerk sits at his superior’s side on a rolling office chair that has no back, wielding sheaves of paper, fretting. The boss man sits behind a half window with space for pushing critical documents back and forth beneath the plexiglass.

Letters on his window spell out “C. O. I. Verification Officer.” The C. O. I. Verification Officer takes our papers, examines them with a practiced eye to detail and, alas, frowns. He wears a high-collared parka similar to the gentleman in the Ministry of Handicraft and Handloom, but it is Kappa brand, not Millet.

With all the joy of a cat in a cloudburst, he reaches for a sheaf of papers like his adjutant’s and begins his work. Which consists of copying our same details into his papers, performing a vital verification, no doubt, of the work of his conniving colleague up the hill.

There will be a delay now, for the inferior clerk riffs his stack of papers, shakes his head and speaks. The C. O. I. Verification Officer puts down his pen and gingerly leans back in his chair. It creaks. It is one of those chairs that at a certain point in its trajectory of recline, collapses all at once the rest of the 45 degrees backward. So the Verification Officer is careful, and when his chair settles without capsizing he and his clerk discuss matters for a time. At length, with no small amount of labor, the officer summons himself upright and hands his clerk a stapler.

Officials stride the length of the old office floors, and you can feel their footfalls through your shoes. A small, older gentlemen enters, putters here and there, then heads back and down the darkness of a hallway. His movement leads my eye to a hand-painted sign farther down, the entrance to the Forestry Department. Between us and the sign an open electrical box on the wall sticks wires out into the hallway, where there is just the faintest smell of piss.

On his own schedule, the C. O. I. Verification Officer completes his work and looks none too happy about it. The Stamp comes out and pounds around the C. O. I. desk and onto our papers. And we are free to go. Silently. Gravely.

•••••

Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire

Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire

Abidjan is thick with thieves, “beaucoups de bandits,” a driver named Simeon warned us, although in French even bandit sounds genteel (“bawn-dee”).

Normally in these arrivals I opt for studied disengagement, burnished internally with bemusement, for here is the pageant of humanity. But not this time. Just now I am not in the mood for touts who surround your car and open your door for a tip, or stand in the street and wave their arms to guide you into your parking space. Today, just run ‘em over. We’ve flown since predawn, stopping in Bamako, and I have been ill since Cape Town.

Here is a new ruse. The local boys use signs with peoples’ names to get access inside the pass control gates, then make like officials who are going to open another pass control lane for you, grab your passports and expedite you through the lines – which really works – with the acquiescence of the real pass control clerks, for tips.

They’re on you tight as a surgical glove, then the baggage cart cadres pile on just outside the pass control desk. These fellows artfully monopolize every last baggage cart and attach themselves to you. I give the pass control expediter a dollar – we have no local money – and he demands ten. “Get lost,” we explain and finally, at unending length, he does.

Been down this routine. We tell the round little man who appoints himself to help at the bag carousel (additional to the goon with the cart), “We do not want your help, we will not pay you, go away.” He smiles and laughs because that is surely a big joke, and doesn’t move. I say the same words slowly and seriously. He shakes his head, for a terrible wrong has been done him, and slowly, eventually, leaves. But he is back, outside at the curb, for one last try. His cousin is a taxi driver, see….

•••••

Havana, Cuba

Havana, Cuba

Two open aisles confront Citizens and Residents in the arrivals hall, Miami. We’ve just flown the 43 minutes from Havana, March, 2012, during the brief Obama era flirtation with Cuba, on one of nine flights to Florida listed at Jose Marti Airport the morning of our return. (We arrived at U.S. Passport Control with our enabling paperwork, a sort of license to travel to Cuba, at the ready, anticipating red tape. In the event, the agent didn’t bat an eye, just waved us in. “Welcome back.”)

Everyone hurries to fill the queues that snake around way behind the pass control booths. The lines back up pretty quickly. You learn to hustle off the plane because it’s like airport check-in lines in reverse, if you pick a lane where there’s some indefinable problem, or the agent’s just having a bad day, each person in front of you could mean an extra six, eight, ten minutes. (Pro tip: If there is a choice of stairs or escalator between the plane and pass control, ALWAYS hustle up the stairs. Most people don’t.) 

You try to discern how many are in what-sized groups. If those two right there are sisters and they approach the clerk at the same time, it may be quicker than if they go separately.

Have you ever been about eleventh in the queue with two booths open and you see an officious agent stride in, as if to open a third? You can’t move too soon, it might be a feint, but if he means to inaugurate his own little fiefdom in booth three, you aim to jump at just the instant to lead the flow to his booth, as soon as he opens, circumventing the ten in front of you. Timing is everything.

You can see the guy now. He’s deliberate, balding enough that he went ahead and shaved his head, sanctimonious maybe a little, with a good posture (they’re all erect and upstanding), young, unhurried, air of authority, intent on Representing Our Country Correctly.

He’ll open his briefcase. He’ll shuffle and arrange his papers. You can’t quite see all the fiddling he’s doing inside the panels surrounding his booth, but you figure he’s turning on his computer. At least, he faces the screen. You’re ninth in line now. You guess his computer has to have a little time to boot up. Maybe you get to talking with the sari-clad woman in front of you. She thinks the guy’s pretty good-looking, you guess, but that’s not what you talk about. You conspire to be the first in his line when he opens.

You read his facial expressions. Is he a helpful kind of guy? Will he hurry to accommodate? Now you’re eighth to the front and you’ve already been here fifteen minutes. Your bags are spinning around on the carousel out there by now. Nah, you decide he’s not going to be your savior. He’s being very deliberate, doing things you can’t see behind the plexiglass. You can still attribute his movements behind his counter to his follow-the-procedures work ethic, if you’re being kind.

You don’t know, maybe he’s getting out his own personal-issue passport stamp and inking it. Whatever he’s doing, he’s doing it behind that glass so you can’t be sure. Now three people move up in a group and now you’re fifth. You’ve had this guy in your sights to save you some time for seven minutes now and you might only have seven to go, but he can still save you those seven.

Fatalistic humor now with the lady in front of you. In another person or so, you’ll have to do a kind of blocking maneuver with your body to both keep your option to go to the new guy’s aisle and keep the people behind you from edging around you. Now you’re fourth. When you’re about third it won’t really matter if he ever opens or not.

He never lifts his eyes outside his booth, like every bartender you’ve ever disdained. You and the woman joke that he’s just back there playing video games, or that his lunch break doesn’t end for four more minutes and he’s not going to go back to work a minute before that.

He turns on the light behind his little sign. He’s ready to go and here is the big crush. Everybody’s been plotting just like you and people crowd into his queue and now you’d be fourth to the front with him – if you go right now – and you’re second where you are. So you stay put. Some guy behind you saves ten minutes.

Vaccine Tourism

“Be among the first to get Corona vaccine.” A Mumbai travel agency plans to fly “VVIP clients” to New York on 11 December for the vaccine and four hotel nights, for about USD$2369.

New 3QD Article Today

My monthly column at 3 Quarks Daily is up this morning. It’s about Passport Control in Sikkim, Côte d’Ivoire and the USA. Read it here now, and I’ll post it here on CS&W later this week.

Gangtok, Sikkim
Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire
Havana, Cuba

Oh My

It’s not the train’s fault. It’s the track:

India high speed train breaks down on first trip

Monsoon India in Pictures

The flooding in Kerala looks just terrible, doesn’t it? One official declared it the worst in nearly a century. It makes this photo essay in Nowhere Magazine from the monsoon in Delhi look almost quaint.

Nice Photo Essay from Kashmir

In case you’re not familiar with Nowhere Magazine, here is a nice introduction.

 

The Clerk’s Stamp is Money

And a reprise of the most telling post from a previous trip to Sikkim:

The northern Indian province of Sikkim, between Nepal and Bhutan, borders Tibet. To visit, non-Indians require an “Inner Line Permit/Restricted Area Permit” issued by the Government of Sikkim Tourism Department.

It’s because of history. China chased the Dalai Lama from Lhasa over these mountains and off the throne in ’59. India took in his cadre and donated a whole city, Dharmsala, to their cause. That peeved the Chinese mightily.

The Tibet/Sikkim border isn’t drawn to either sides’ satisfaction. These are barren, forbidding, 12,000 foot mountaintops. Nearly 2500 died fighting up here in the 1960s. (The border at Nathula reopened for trade in 2006. Goods worth just over $1,000,000 moved through in 2013.)

So they try to keep up with where foreigners are.

The Inner Line Permit is a sheet of legal sized, pulpy paper with wood chips still evident. You can get one at the provincial border for free with passport photos and photocopies of things.

It cautions that the visitor must not overstay or go beyond the restricted areas, and must register at all check posts. It has us write down on paper what the NSA already knows: our arrival point, arrival and departure dates, names, nationalities, and passport information. This form requires a bureaucrat’s stamp.

The bureaucrat’s stamp is money.

•••••

We hurtled to a stop (driving is purposeful in India) outside a building labeled Ministry of Handicraft and Handloom and presented ourselves and our papers to two gentlemen inside. We wished to enter Sikkim via Rangpo town.

The presiding official wore a Millet brand down jacket with a tall, zipped-tight collar. He examined our materials for several minutes.

There would be no small talk. This was Official Business, far too grave a matter for that. Or for that matter, cordiality.

I think he demanded respect with his silence, or at least TAKE ME SERIOUSLY. This was his domain and these were his number of minutes and it was not our privilege to question or expedite things in any way.

Look here now: I can slow down anybody I want.

Here sat a man whose circumstances were not like our own. If he stayed warm at night, it wasn’t by pressing a button on his thermostat. He had a stove, or something. But the road to Gangtok spread before us. He held our progress toward our nice hotel in his hands right now and we would – if we wouldn’t do anything else – we would note it. He pulled a ledger to his blotter and began recording our passport and visa details both on the ledger and on our permit.

The official and his colleague presided across battered and aged metal desks and facing them, we had the better view. Picture windows at their backs revealed the permanently stirred up frenzy of the street, and on the other side of it, well, Ricki’s Cocktail King.

The Ministry of Handicraft and Handloom was sort of a rambling, half open, ad hoc thing. A clock ticked and a bird made a lot of noise somewhere behind us, up in the rafters.

Ultimately our application to enter Sikkim caused no incident (or uttered word), and in time out came The Stamp. It pounded around a few places including our new Inner Line Permit, and, naive as we were, we imagined that that was that and we’d be underway.

And underway we were, not to Gangtok but under our driver Sunil’s escort, picking our way on foot across traffic asserting itself along the pocked lane and a half of tarmac that constitutes the main road into Sikkim, down a hill to the right past Ricki’s Cocktail King toward a bridge.

Nobody in there. (I cast a longing gaze.)

Chaos prevailed unruly on this side of the street. Over here, besides rooms with clerks inside, other clerks stood in windows onto the street, labeled Excise Tax and Forestry Department and more, pay windows for goods carriers inbound to Sikkim where men stood belligerent and flushed and pointed and hollered.

We stood facing green pastel walls in an office lit by a swinging bulb. Two new gentlemen. The inferior clerk sat at his superior’s side on a rolling office chair that had no back, wielding sheaves of paper, fretting. The boss man sat behind a half window with space for pushing critical documents back and forth beneath the plexiglass.

Letters on his window spelled out “C. O. I. Verification Officer.” The C. O. I. Verification Officer took our papers, examined them with a practiced eye to detail and frowned. He wore a high-collared parka similar to the gentleman in the Ministry of Handicraft and Handloom, only it was Kappa brand, not Millet.

With the joy of a cat in a cloudburst, he reached for a sheaf of papers like his adjutant’s and began his work. Which consisted of copying our same details into his papers, performing a vital verification, no doubt, of his could-be conniving colleague up the hill.

There would be a delay now, for the inferior clerk riffed through his stack of papers, shook his head and spoke. The C. O. I. Verification Officer put down his pen and gingerly leaned back in his chair. It was one of those chairs that at a certain point in its trajectory of recline, collapses all at once the rest of the 45 degrees backward.

So the Verification Office was careful, and when his chair settled without capsizing he and his clerk discussed matters for a time. At length, with no small amount of labor he summoned himself upright and handed his clerk a stapler.

During the process a small, older gentlemen entered, puttered here and there, then headed back and down the darkness of a hallway. His movement led my eye to a hand-painted sign farther down, the entrance to the Forestry Department. Between us and the sign an open electrical box on the wall stuck wires out into the hallway. There was just the faintest smell of piss.

In his own time, the C. O. I. Verification Officer completed his work and looked none too happy about it. The Stamp came out and pounded around the C. O. I. desk and our papers.

And we were free to go. Silently.

World Breakfast, Sikkim Edition

My post earlier in the week about the helpful Sikkim government sent me back to review what I wrote at the time. Here is a list of articles about the Indian state. Enjoy them over breakfast, Sikkim style:

The breakfast buffet as served at the Mayfair Hotel Gangtok, the Sikkimese capital: Coriander vada, chicken roll, pineapple, onion uttapom, aloo matar ki subzi, club kachori, dhosa (a south Indian pancake), idli (rice ball), various chutneys and onion and chilli accompaniments, fresh squeezed pineapple juice, mineral water and coffee.

The Government Is Here to Help. And Here. And Here. And Over There.

Here is a list of organizations funded in full or in part by some level of government that I wrote down while riding between M. G. Marg, a central pedestrian street, and the Hotel Mayfair in Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, India:

Forest Secretariat, Forest, Environment and Wildlife Management
Office of the Principal Accountant General, Sikkim
Sikkim Central Water Commission Office of the Superintending Engineer
Sikkim Government Press
The National Cadet Corps
The Regional Centre on National Resources and Sustainable Development
Office of the Ombudsman for the Area Engineers
Sikkim State Commission for Women
Sikkim Commission for Backward classes
Government of India Geological Survey
East Police District Deorali Outpost
The Office of the Director, Sikkim Fire and Rescue Service
The Sikkim Legislative Assembly
SARAH, the Sikkim Anti-Rabies & Animal Health Program
The Reserve Bank of India, Director’s Bungalow
The Directorate of Sikkim State Lotteries
Sikkim Information Center
Sikkim Welfare Board
Geological Survey of India
The Sikkim Relief Rehabilitation Committee for Tibetan Refugees
The Department of Tourism and Civil Aviation (!, a tall, imposing building)
East District Police, Deorali and Tadong Outposts
Forest Secretariat
State Trading Corporation of Sikkim
Urban Development and Housing Department
Family Counseling Center
Housing Welfare Society

There are a lot of characters in Sikkim, as you can see:

Click the photos to enlarge them. And continue your Sikkim tour in the India Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

•••••

Got time to buy me a cup of coffee?