Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Got the visa

I finally managed to get Kavita's visa extended. I went to pick up her approval letter from the Ministry of Interior on 15 December.

I went to then proceeded to the Immigration and Passports office in G-8. I submitted the whole application. I was instructed to proceed to the State Bank in G-9 Markaz (or also known as Karachi Company) to deposit the fees which were 17,200 rupees. There was a whole line of fellows, including some very old men, who offered to fill up deposit slips for me for a mere 50 rupees. I was in a mad rush otherwise would have indulged one of them. I ran into the Bank and was shown the queue full of men (which started outside the building) and, then a separate counter for women where women were being served by the same men. I took this advantage and paid my fees. I rushed back to G-8 and submitted my application.

When I went back to collect the passport, some clerk explained that I needed to go back to the Bank to re-verify the deposit slip. This made no sense at all. It was a chaotic scene with many applicants crowding around the office. I saw some Europeans, some UN passports, some Somali applicants and so on. Somehow, I didn't make my usual noise and went back to the Bank to re-verify the deposit slip. 

I lost a day in doing so. The folks at the Bank told me the Passport office's request was complete rubbish. 

But anyway, I went back to the Passport office with the stamped slip and finally managed to get Kavita's passport with the renewed visa. 

Friday, 9 December 2016

Zia ul Haq won't approve Kavita's Pakistan visa application

It's worthwhile sharing the experience of getting Kavita's Pakistan visa extended because it's a real lesson in nation states, borders, colonial hang overs, and, identity. 

Kavita has visited Pakistan 4 times now. Her first visa was issued by the Pakistan Embassy in Morocco under whose jurisdiction Liberia lies. I had earlier traveled to Sénégal where my father had served as Pakistan Ambassador in the mid 90s and, confidently thought I'd combine a holiday with a visa errand. I was wrong and, they informed me that I would have to apply visa Morocco. So, I talked to my father on the telephone who put me in touch with his former colleague from our days in Dakar who told me I should write to the Ambassador in Morocco. Of course, I followed all the protocol and, sure enough, after sending off the application, Kavita's shiny American passport via DHL, the visa was issued without any hassle in a couple of weeks. Kavita received a 6-month visa. 

We came to Pakistan in 2014 and, stayed for about 8 months because ebola had caused such a crisis back in Liberia that everyone advised me to stay away. During this time, my father accompanied me to the Ministry of Interior to meet with some desk officer who helped us to get an approval letter. My father was quite nervous during this time and, tried to hush up the whole thing that Kavita's father is an Indian. We extended Kavita's visa easily. 

Then I briefly came back to Pakistan in 2015 to get my own passport renewed. I suppose I could have sent it to Morocco to get it renewed but I wanted to combine the renewal with a visit home. Kavita of course accompanied me on a valid visa.

Earlier this year, I came to Pakistan for a month and a half and, had renewed Kavita's visa by sending her passport to Morocco. 

This year, I rushed back to Islamabad on hearing about another break in at our home and, Kavita's visa would expire in a week's time. I thought I would just renew her visa while I was in Islamabad. 

The experience of renewing her visa on my own this time was an interesting one. 

When one's on holiday back home, getting up early enough and then rushing out in a mad, crazed chaos is itself an accomplishment. I hadn't bothered to refresh myself on the process. I went first to the Immigration and Passport Office in G-8. The office was actually closed but because it's Pakistan, the folks in the office itself decided to advise me. They first inspected Kavita's passport and her Pakistan visa and declared her visa was still valid. Then, they advised me to see the desk officer who also agreed but said it was better to extend her visa. He explained what to do at the Ministry of Interior: make copies of the passport, bring along passport size photos, etc, etc. He said I should go there next morning at 9 AM. 

I spent a good amount of time in F-10 Markaz making 2 sets of photocopies of any relevant documents I could find, including a copy of her ID card at Maroof Hospital. 

When I did go to the Ministry finally, I had a very hectic and frustrated morning. I specially booked an unmarked Metro Cab car because taxis aren't allowed in the complex. Did Metro Cab send me a marked taxi or a private-looking car? A taxi! So, the taxi remained parked outside while Kavita walked into the complex and made several trips up and down, sent by one desk to another. I suppose we got some good exercise but because we had left on empty stomachs (I can never accomplish breakfast, getting up on time and getting out the door on time in one go) and, I felt terrible at dragging Kavita up and down. 

The main hall at the Ministry of Interior where applicants submit and receive applications is a small one. It's packed and, there is really no sense of order. There is a desk specifically for Afghans and, then another one. When the officers arrive, they are perfectly willing to let the applicants crowd around them and then haphazardly deal with everyone. It's perfectly fine to push your way through and demand your application be looked at. So, when I presented Kavita's application, the fellow there got very intrigued that Kavita's father was Indian. He didn't look at any other part of her application and, told me to go to a fellow named Zia ul Haq who was at the India desk. Can you imagine a more apt name? 

I was a bit puzzled because I didn't remember being at any India desk when my father had brought me to the Ministry back in 2014. Anyway, I found Zia ul Haq who dismissively but politely explained to me that Kavita had a US passport which didn't mention the nationality of her father and she would need to go through a normal desk.

I went back to the main desk where of course, the fellows were no longer there and were on lunch break. It was a Friday so lunch break was an extended one and, Jumma Namaz would naturally lengthen the break. 

During this time, I decided to take a lunch break myself. Our Metro Cab was dutifully waiting outside. We rang up the driver and, he pulled up. We went to Super Market for lunch. We had some sandwiches at Cafe Rouge. I always forget that everything at Pakistani restaurants is full of mirchain and, didn't enjoy the sandwiches much. I got a couple of snacks from United Bakery for Kavita and then headed back to the Ministry. 

I went back to the main hall where of course I couldn't find the officers and the security guard advised me to go back to Zia ul Haq and, let him write on the paper that he wouldn't approve Kavita's application. This didn't help. During this walking up and down, I telephoned my father who told me he would find the relevant desk officer and, sort things out. 

The reception staff noticed me going up and down and, finally told me to go up to the 6th floor and find a certain Mushtaq Ahmed (the person who first sent me to the India desk). By this time, my father had managed to contact him through some friends at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I went up and of course Mr Ahmed met me kindly and, received my application. 

I was so relieved. 

Of course, it was a bit of a stressful and tiring process. I cursed all the names I could think of including Jinnah and Gandhi and Nehru and other figures who dreamt of modern nation states and enlisting themselves in history books. Who said Partition is over? Kaun kambakht kehta hai?

During this whole process, did anyone even notice that Kavita is hardly 4 years old, a loved child, innocent of the concepts of borders (which are invisible to begin with), and, only wants to watch cartoons? 

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Traveling home

I flew back to Islamabad on Friday and arrived in the early hours of Sunday, 4 December, flying along the most familiar route from Monrovia to Islamabad via Accra with Emirates. 

Waiting to check in for the Arik Air flight to Accra at RIA.
I was pretty excited about my trip because it's so familiar and, Kavita is a good traveling companion. As long as you explain to her what's going on, she cooperates, wakes up to walk out of the plane and along the miles-long corridors of the Dubai Airport, and patiently waits when we have to wait. Also, she's a cartoon fanatic and, Emirates and other airlines have an impressive selection of entertainment on board which keeps her very, very busy.

Kavita and I woke up extra early to start getting ready to catch the 1140 AM Arik Air Flight to Accra from Roberts International Airport (RIA). We had to give ourself at least an hour to be able to get to the Airport from Randall Street. I had enough time and, even stopped at the handicraft shops across Mamba Point Hotel to make a last-minute purchase for gifts.

We reached the Airport on time thanks to Morris Duo, NATC's driver.  Haresh accompanied us and, we bid him farewell at the Airport. As always, it's always hard to say good bye. In fact, I get traveling blues at least a week before I have to get on a plane, especially when one knows when one is flying across continents, time zones away.

Kavita and I easily checked in with time to spare. I met a lady from whom I had purchased a high table with stools for use for a staff corner for our office  via the Expats Google Group (a very, very useful and entertaining forum where so-called expats, "re-pats" and, Liberians exchange information, post vacancies, sell items when they leave town, post complaints about restaurants and, vent frustration) and, we made some small talk.

Before I knew it, we were on board the plane. I find going through RIA very, very easy. It's like being home. It's small and, if you're friendly and polite, you'll breeze through. It's better than Islamabad Airport for international departures and arrivals for sure. 

On the bus taking us to the Arik Air plane.
The 2-hour Arik Air flight was pleasant and, I enjoyed reading the in-flight magazines that featured countries worth visiting in Africa. The service was pleasant.

We landed at Kotoka Airport in no time and, I walked into the terminal and, wondered how many times I had taken this journey back home. It was already the second time in 2016. I was mentally ready for the 4-5 hour transit in the Airport until the 1830 hrs Emirates flight to Dubai. There were a few other transit passengers who were waiting to be herded to their onward flights. I met a French-American lady who had been in Monrovia for 2 weeks for a consultancy with the World bank. She said she enjoyed her work in Monrovia. She complained that her office had booked her to Monrovia via a very long route via Addis and, now she was pleased she was going back via Dubai. She lives in Delhi and works with an accounting firm. She and I chatted and, I gave her my business card as she was going to be back. I explained to her we would collect our luggage, exit the Airport, walk through the Arrivals, through the car park and, then re-enter the Airport through the Departures gate. She couldn't believe that's what we had to do and, said but when she had arrived last time, they didn't have to exit the Airport.

I just politely nodded saying I had taken this journey so many times and, was used to it.
Aboard the Arik Air flight from Monrovia to Accra
Kavita looking down at the world. A very amusing incident happened on board. I was alerted by neighbouring passengers that Kavita was hurt. I looked next to me to see Kavita was dabbing a bleeding finger with some tissue papers. She became upset when I saw it and, then got angry at the neighbours. She only showed me on the condition I wouldn't touch her finger. It turned out to be a minor thing but it seems she has a habit of not telling anyone when she's hurt. 
So, we collected our luggage, walked down the ramp, left the Airport, walked through the crowd of folks waiting for their loved ones, past the Chinese fast food outlet on our right, and walked through the Car Park and up a slope. We re-entered the Airport through the Departures Gate. Recently, the Airport has installed a baggage screening right at the Entrance which wasn't there before.

Landing in Accra.
Kavita and I checked into Emirates and, there was no anxiety because our suitcases were quite empty and, there was no chance of being excess.

We went upstairs into the Departure Halls and, zipped past all the booths although I did get a little annoyed at how many times we had to produce our passports and yellow fever cards for checking over and over again. I lifted Kavita to let the thermographic capture her lack of fever and, then took off my glasses to get myself checked too. I explained to Kavita why we had to remove our shoes and things for the baggage screening once more. She was quite intrigued and so were the Airport Security staff when I explained to her that these guys wanted to make sure we weren't bringing anything "bad" on board.
At the fantastic Sanbra Lounge at Kotoka Airport, Accra.
At the fantastic Sanbra Lounge at Kotoka Airport, Accra.
I went straight up to the trusty Sanbra Lounge and, where I learned that they had reduced the pass price from $ 25.00 to $ 20.00 for women. Kavita was of course free. We excitedly entered the lounge, parked our carry on luggage in a comfortable corner and then headed for the snacks and drinks corner. We gobbled up samosas, pies, tiny-size humus and bread, fresh fruit and some baked goods. Kavita drank a fizzy drink while I asked for a hot coffee. The pass includes free WiFi and, we spoke to Haresh via a WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger video call, whichever one worked best.

I met the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of Arcelor Mittal Liberia and, excitedly told him about our IT company. I was quite surprised to meet a staff of Arcelor Mittal and, to learn that after a new discovery of additional deposits, the company was going to scale up.  I told the CFO that we had been trying to get Arcelor Mittal as a client, and once upon a time, NATC had bagged all the major mining companies like Putu Iron Ore Mining Inc. and BHP Billiton. He explained some problems he was facing with procurement and, was surprised at the exorbitant high prices that local vendors were quoting. I proudly told him not to worry and, he should give us a chance. We exchanged contacts and I immediately sent him an e-mail introducing our company to him. What a great moment!

Kavita and I proceed to take our shower in the Lounge's bathrooms and, then, I bought some gifts from the Duty Free. It's always good to keep extra gifts with one, never knowing when you need to impress someone or for when you feel extremely obliged when someone invites you over. I packed everything in our carry-on luggage and then proceeded to the Departure Gate. A fellow asked for our passports (again!) and, when he saw Kavita's US passport, all he said with a smirk was "Trump!"

How are you supposed to respond to this, especially because we had Kavita in the US so we could escape the bitter relations between India and Pakistan? Did he not realise the geopolitical situation in which Kavita was born in the US, the country that continues to bomb Pakistan through drone attacks and, uses its most vile military dictators for its own imperial interests?

We are waiting for the bus to take us to the hotel.
I just grunted and, kept walking to the Gate where they started boarding. Apparently we were in section E which was being boarded first. Still, there was a bit of a stampede and, as usual the Airport and Airline staff watched it without really helping anyone or organising manic passengers who wanted to race to their seats, probably to make sure there was enough space in the overhead compartments to stash their carry on bags.

Well anyway, we soon boarded and, excitedly took our place in our seats. We were seated to a very nice Canadian lady (originally from Zimbabwe) who was en route to Dhaka for business. She was working in the pharmaceutical industry. She was extremely sweet and, didn't mind when Kavita put her feet on her lap when she was sleeping and, would help Kavita with  her headphones or passing the food tray.

I managed to watch quite a few movies: Ghostbusters, Lights Out, Tale of Tales, and only 1/4 of Equals. That's pretty good for movie watching, no? I absolutely loved the new Ghostbusters and, the feminist interpretation is brilliant. The women were hilarious. I was also blown away by the fascinating Tale of Tales and, its brutal intertwined stories. It was unlike anything I've seen in a long time.

Kavita was busy of course with her cartoons. Emirates definitely has an impressive selection of films and TV shows.

It was soon time to land in Dubai and, I was greatly looking forward to my day-long stop-over in Dubai.

Lobby of the Al Bustan Hotel, the hotel given to us for our stop over by Emirates. See photographs of the rulers of the UAE.

Lobby of the Al Bustan Hotel where we waited to be checked in.
Instead of landing in Dubai, the pilot informed us that due to heavy fog, the flight would be diverted to Sharjah. So, there we were - landing in Sharjah instead of Dubai in the early hours of the morning. No worries, I thought to myself. This can't cut too much time out of my day-long stop-over. No need to panic. I would still have time to shop, enjoy Dubai and meet Haresh's sister.

We landed at Sharjah Airport. It looked like a much smaller airport than the ultra-modern, glitzy, ever-expanding, and 1-landing-plane-a-minute Dubai Airport. The plane landed, taxied and, we sat in the middle of the runway for a bit. The captain informed us he was waiting for guidance to be led to the terminal. We were led away and, then were parked in the plane until further notice. By this time, we were quite tired of watching films and, it was time to sleep. Kavita was easily able to sleep but I slept in fits, turning from one side to another trying to get comfortable. In between being awake and  being  squashed in the most awkward angle in a small airplane seat, we heard the pilot announce several times that the flight was going to take off in 20 minutes or that he was still awaiting instructions from Dubai.

We managed to stay parked on the Sharjah Airport tarmac for 6 hours. My day-long stop-over in Dubai was half over. We finally took off and, landed in Dubai at around 1 or 2 PM.

The Zimbabwean lady and I exchanged some remarks over the experience. The crew were not explaining anything clearly, weren't really that friendly or even bothered to smile. She was not happy with the service and, said so much that the flights serving so-called developing countries are always full of rather unkind crew. I shared my observations too, especially  how the crew is extremely unhelpful and only 1 in 10 actually smile or offer to help.

Kavita and I stumbled out of the plane, the last passengers. I convinced Kavita to wake up and, walk out with me. The poor thing was exhausted but I was firm and, we started walking towards the Exit. She had a small tantrum when I washed her face and brushed her teeth in the bathroom. After she calmed down we continued walking but she kept weeping and, I felt terrible and tired. I simply couldn't carry her and, pull 2 wheelers and carry my back pack. My bags were full of change of clothes and gifts for our day in Dubai.

This took a good half hour or more, over moving walk ways, one after another, past bathrooms, connecting flight counters, past adverts for posh Dubai residences, into the massive elevators that coast down, gliding down against the waterfall, and into the main immigration hall. I headed for the Emirates desk which processes transit passengers who have hotel vouchers. Of course none of the Emirates staff at these desks was particularly concerned about how exhausted I was. I was sent from one desk to another across the massive marbled, gleaming hall. Kavita patiently dragged her small pink Dora wheeler while I pushed mine. I patiently waited in the queue for 20 minutes until someone cut the line and I blew my top off. I informed the lady that I was exhausted, having sat in a plane in Sharjah for 6 hours, diverted because of the fog and, I wanted to get served. The fellow who cut the line let me go ahead and, the lady at the desk told me I was at the wrong counter!

I went to the right counter, got the ticket I needed and proceeded to the immigration queues. I insisted I be let into the short Business Class line because of my child and how exhausted I was. That worked and, after a few minutes, we were out of the queue. I showed Kavita the immigration officer's hands with ornate mehndi. We then walked for another good few minutes past the baggage collection (we didn't need to collect our bags since they were booked straight through to Islamabad) and, were out. We headed to Exit 1 where Emirates transit passengers are taken by bus to the hotel.

Our lunch at the hotel.

Lining up to get on the bus to the hotel.

We were told to wait for the bus which after waiting for 30 minutes. It was already about 3:00 PM and my flight was at 9:30 PM. There was no way I would be able to do anything. I used the WiFi to connect to Haresh and then sent a message to his sister. I could have taken a taxi straight to his sister instead but I had hardly any time to do anything worthwhile. Also, I didn't hear back from her so it was better to just go to the hotel to freshen up and, catch maybe an hour of sleep at the most.

I helplessly made noise at the counter, explaining how bone tired I was. Finally, the bus arrived and, we were taken to Al Bustan Hotel. There were some French passengers behind us in the queue and some Indian ladies in the front. Kavita admired one lady's daughter's Frozen back pack. We managed to check in and, were told lunch was available until 4 PM.

It was a pleasant lobby and, Kavita and I walked straight to the restaurant through a gleaming shopping mall full of formal party dresses which Kavita kept admiring. "Ami, look, princess dress!" she called out. The shopping mall was perfumed and I was struck at this different and familiar world I was in, so different from my day to day life in Monrovia, on Randall Street.

We had a good lunch at the restaurant. It was a buffet with a good spread. Somehow, the chairs reminded me of a very sterile, generic canteen. We finished our lunch and, went up to our room which was in fact a suite! It had a living room, a kitchen, and a bedroom. How I wish I had had the whole day here: a nice hotel room provided by Emirates. We had only a couple of hours to freshen up. We took a warm bubbly bath, and took a nap for an hour.

In our suite. Too bad we didn't have the full day to enjoy it.

Walking through the Mall in which was the Hotel.
The alarm woke me up and, I couldn't understand at all where I was. I quickly dressed and, then woke Kavita woke up. We were back in the lobby downstairs at quarter to 7 PM.

We drove back to the hotel in the shuttle bus with a few more passengers. Kavita spoke loudly about everything while everyone listened to her observations and stories.

Checking back into the Airport was quite smooth. We had had our boarding passes issued back in Accra so all we needed to do was breeze through. Thankfully, the officer checking weight of the carry on luggage let us through when he weighed my bag which was 10 KG instead of 7 KG. I told him, we had been diverted because of the fog, and he let us go. I didn't have to unpack and distribute the weight in the 3 bags we had.

We went through the baggage screening, checked our gate number and, then went up close to our Gate. We checked out a few shops on the way, including the perfume shop. All I did was browse and, Kavita chatted to the perfume ladies who were extremely charmed by  her.

We treated ourselves to Haagendas ice-cream and Burger King burgers. I had the burger packed and, walked to the Gate. Kavita somehow remembered how the last time she was upset at this very counter and, a kind lady had carried her while I struggled with all the bags I had in my hand. She even remembered the toy the lady had gifted her (this was the Chinese girlfriend of a Pakistani fellow). I was flabbergasted with her memory. We showed our boarding passes to the lady at the counter and took the lift down to the Gate.

The hall was full of passengers, mostly Pakistanis of course. Such a moment makes one feel like you're already in Pakistan.

I went to the front of the Gate and, went straight to the plane. We were one of the first passengers. We seated ourselves and, of course Kavita put on some cartoons straight away. I tried to watch something but promptly fell asleep. The flight was only 2 and a half hours long and, before we knew it, we had landed.

We were again the last passengers out of the plane. Kavita was asleep and, I gently woke her up. I asked the crew to help me take my bags to the front of the plane. The fellow was so surprised at my request. He said he wasn't allowed to leave the aircraft. Was I speaking another language? I told him, sure, I would just wait for my daughter to wake up because I couldn't carry her and my hand luggage.

Time and time again, I am shocked at how unfriendly and unhelpful the Emirates crew are. They don't smile, let alone help you. We criticise rude restaurant staff and, even stop patronising establishments and, here we have dished out several thousand dollars for an international flight only to be met with arrogant and vain crew who are at best sky waiters and waitresses who seem to be only concerned with getting the meal service done and over with.

We disembarked the plane and, I carried Kavita down the flight of stairs to the bus in my arms while ground staff eagerly helped me to put my bags in the bus. It was the early hours of Sunday morning and, surprisingly bearably cool. I was expecting freezing cold weather in December in Islamabad.

We patiently queued in the immigration lines behind British Pakistanis who I enjoyed observing, the fashion, the accents, the kids' antics and, family dynamics.

The Immigration Officer noticed that Kavita's Pakistan visa had nearly expired and I explained I would extend it.

It took about an hour to collect our bags at the conveyor belt because apparently there was a strike and, it took forever for the bags to come out. Kavita slept in my arms and, after some time, we were finally done and able to exit the Airport.

This was a long, tiring journey home. 

Friday, 2 December 2016

Shopping at Bosh Bosh on Camp Johnson Road

I don't know why people complain there's nothing to get for gifts in Monrovia for occasions in town or to buy souvenirs for friends and family back home. Whether it's artisan shops in Mamba Point to several fashion boutiques to lappa in Waterside or picking up jars and jars of Liberia Pure Honey from all major supermarkets, there's a lot of ideas for gifts and souvenirs. There's even several varieties of Liberian coffee in nice packaging and, Liberian tea

As I'm off to Pakistan, I went to Camp Johnson Road to look for gifts at Bosh Bosh. I also peeked into Mango Rags next door. My friend Manita accompanied Kavita and I on our shopping spree.