I’ve always wanted to visit India. When the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) announced they were hosting a trip to visit several parts of the country, I knew that this was my chance. The trip offered a great combination: access to three of India’s US Embassies/Consulates and their staff as well as a tour around the country to see many of its sites. Protima (who, in case no one knows, is Indian) and I decided to go together and add a few days of vacation as well, since who doesn’t want to vacation with their boss?
Grounding Myself to India
As I fell asleep to the sounds of fireworks over the hotel on my first night in India, I knew this was going to be a great trip. The fireworks were for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Waking up refreshed the next morning, I was super excited to get the day started. First and foremost, breakfast. I had been craving a real Indian Lassi and was thrilled to see it available at the hotel buffet along with homemade yogurt in all sorts of flavors. I tried the prune as it was one I knew I couldn’t commonly find elsewhere. I also had mango and lime juice with a Masala omelet. Yum!
The gardens where we ate our breakfast were set upon a lawn with perfectly manicured mowed squares of grass. Protima’s mother, Shaila, who was joining us on this part of the trip, said that if I stood in the garden barefoot, it would help me become “grounded” to India, connect me to the country, and ward off any further jet lag. Well, I couldn’t pass up that opportunity so I threw off my sandals to touch my feet to India.
We then met our tour guide who walked us to our van. Although not pleased that the front windshield displayed the phrase “Tourist” for all to see, as I clutched my enormous camera to me, I figured there was no point in trying to hide it.
We started the tour in New Delhi (the part of the city built during the time of British rule). We saw the government seat including the Presidential Palace, the Parliament Building, and Ministries of every cabinet. We drove past the US Consulate as well as the consulates of other countries on a street created just to house all the foreign offices. Having been to many capital cities around the world, I have to say that this is one of the most logical layouts as well as one of the most aesthetically pleasing.
In order to connect old to new, we boarded the Delhi underground metro system. There are cars set aside for women only but we decided to get on the mixed car to ride our way through the city. Air conditioned and spacious with a cell phone signal as well as electrical outlets for charging, the subway also had orderly marketed sections on the platform to allow for exiting in one area and boarding in another. The Delhi subway, in short, put the New York subway to shame.
As we exited the metro into Old Delhi, the sights and sounds were in complete opposition to what we had left in New Delhi: loud horns, electrical wires sprouting from every possible surface, fruit vendors, popcorn sellers, and rickshaws fighting for our attention. I had mixed feelings about getting in the rickshaw but seeing as there was practically a physical brawl over who would drive us, I decided to just enjoy the sights and sounds around me. As I was driven around, I couldn’t help but notice all the beautiful colors and patterns the women have on their clothing. Their dress seems comfortable yet beautiful and I wanted to join in. We went on the search for the perfect tunic (called a kurta). Overwhelmed by color and pattern, I tried on a few kurtas and decided on one with green and pink with white embroidery. I love it.
For dinner we wanted to try a local restaurant favorite called Karim’s. They are known for great kabobs, and they were indeed delicious. Driving back to the hotel, we traveled through neighborhoods where everyone had strung lights for Diwali. The festive mood could be felt throughout the city. I couldn’t believe it was just that morning I was standing in the grass connecting myself to India.
Long Day’s Journey into Night
We were supposed to leave Delhi and arrive approximately three hours later in Agra for an afternoon visit of the Taj Mahal. Instead we sat in traffic for over five hours, but not just any traffic. Bicycles, motorbikes, small putputs, small cars, big cars, buses, and trucks all were packed onto the thin roads with vehicles driving directly on the lane lines instead of between them and beeping over and over to indicate that the car in front of them should move over. Drivers also were going against traffic when “needed” and entire families were crowded onto the back of motorcycles while they squeezed amongst impossibly small gaps between buses. Cows, goats, and the occasional camel sauntered across the road as cars beeped and slammed on their brakes to avoid them.
If it hadn’t been for our appointment at the Taj Mahal (which reportedly closes at 5pm) I would have enjoyed all this. Indeed, for the first hour I did. The colorful saris of the women on the back of motorcycles, the different types of cows (with large camel-like humps on their back), and the colorfully-painted trucks were mesmerizing. But as we were moving maybe twenty kilometers in an hour, it became clear that we would not be making it to the Taj Mahal before 5pm. Oh no! I was terribly upset. And the constant horn beeping was not helping. The Taj Mahal was the one thing I was most excited to see on the trip. I thought about the often-quoted saying about the world being divided into two parts: those who have seen the Taj Mahal, and those that have not. Would I be forced into the latter category? As a group we decided that if we didn’t make it by closing, we would move our plans for the next day and see the Taj tomorrow instead. Feeling better that I would get to see it, I slept as we drove.
All my concern was for naught, as when we arrived at the Taj Mahal we were told they would still let us in. The images I saw next were unbelievably gorgeous. I had seen pictures of the structure so many times, but standing in front of it as the red sun was setting was nothing like the photos. On the building itself were decorations and words of the Muslim Morning Prayer that at first look like paintings but are actually intricate inlaid marble and semi-precious stones. Up close, the artistry seems impossibly difficult to execute. We also went inside the tomb to see the coffins of the man who commissioned the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan, and the wife to whom he dedicated it, Mumtaz Mahal.
By the time we exited the building, night had set in. I must have taken over two hundred photos, trying to capture the experience for friends and family, but I knew I couldn’t do it justice. They’ll have to visit themselves, and I will gladly come back with them.
There was not too much sight-seeing to report on our journey from Agra to Jaipur as it was mostly filled with driving; however, on our way out of Agra we did visit the Unesco World Heritage Site of Fatehpur Sikri. Built by a 16th century ruler who was tolerant of all religions, this enormous complex showed impressive grandeur. As a testament to his religious tolerance, he married a Muslim woman, a Hindu woman, and a Christian woman—all of whom had their own quarters in this enormous complex.
As we were walking around the Fatehpur Sikri, Protima tripped over one of the ancient drainage systems that snake through the 16th century complex. Although only her pride was hurt in the fall, her mother was upset and worried that she would trip again on our visit. The guide also seemed concerned. The result was that throughout the tour whenever we would go up or down stairs and there would be a divot in the floor or another drainage hole, they would both turn around and warn her to be careful. I, on the other hand, knowing that she was getting embarrassed at the constant warnings, would turn around and warn her in mock earnest. I’m pretty sure this joke will not get old as we have many ancient palaces and fort tours to come (all with plenty of steps and divots). I can’t wait.
As our final destination for the day was Jaipur, we drove throughout the afternoon past fields of farms, small towns, around roundabouts--always dodging the many cows that walk along the road. We stopped for lunch at a rest stop along the highway and Protima’s mother, Shaila, concerned about the cleanliness of the plate and silverware, proceeded to drip her acclaimed grapefruit seed extract over everything and scrub them down. The restaurant had many flies and one of them landed on the plate. As he wet his feet in the extract that had collected on the bottom of the plate and licked it, he appeared to topple over in the throngs of death. After a few minutes of struggle, he succumbed to his injuries. Cause of death: an overdose of grapefruit seed extract. This appeared to prove Shaila’s point that the extract kills all bugs and unwanted elements. I just hope humans can’t overdose as she has been consuming a LOT of the stuff!
Pretty in Pink
Jaipur is known as the pink city and it certainly lives up to its name with the old city built entirely with facades of a pink-like color. The city has mandated that no new buildings can be built in the old section of the city to try to maintain its character. The old city has gates (made out of pink, of course) that are wide enough for cars to drive through but not wide enough for a flow of traffic. Therefore, congestion builds up around them. The streets are lined with small businesses and monkeys sit on top of the pink rooftops. Camels pull carts and of course cows walk all over the place.
As interesting as the pink streets are, it was the Amber Fort that truly amazed me. It may be one of the coolest sights I’d seen so far in India. Maybe it was because I hadn’t seen images of it before we arrived (unlike the Taj Mahal) but driving up to the fort/palace to see the hills surrounding the fort snaked by the walls of the fortress bring to mind images of the Great Wall of China. Then the fort and palace come into view way atop the hill. Yellow (or amber) in color, it is a site to behold.
Some people take elephants up the hill to the palace but our tour had sadly just booked a jeep. Still, we got to see the elephants in all their glory, faces painted from Diwali festivities during the week, as they circled around the main courtyard of the palace. Apparently they are all named after Bollywood actresses!
Driving, Driving, and More Driving
We spent the entire day in the car driving from Jaipur to Udaipur. A drive that was supposed to take six hours turned into eleven hours but I am now coming to accept that this is the way things go. The one detour we made on the drive was a stop for lunch in Pushkar, a holy city that holds an annual camel festival (which was taking place the following week). In preparation there were tons of camels being brought in from other parts of India. At one point there was a herd of camels in the middle of the road. They parted as we drove by them, and we got a close up view of their faces. I loved their dark eyes and long eyelashes! Many were decorated for the festival as well.
Udaipur: Venice of the East
Today we didn’t have to travel anywhere. We were waking up and going to sleep in the same city! The morning was spent buying presents for friends and family. When we came back to the hotel, we had a dip in the pool and then got ready for a boat ride on Lake Pichola. Leaving the hotel, the air smelled of flowers. It was the perfect time of day in late afternoon when the sun is just starting its descent. The town of Udaipur is known as the Venice of the East and as the boat floated by bridges and passed beautiful buildings with their front parlors reflected in the water, I could see why. We passed the old Palace that sits in dominance over the hillside that slopes into the lake. At the city’s gateway along the water, women washed their clothing in the lake water as small children swam about them. An old lady waived to us as we went by and the sun set just as we re-docked back at our hotel. I decided that it was a perfect day.
Return to Delhi
Back in Delhi it set in that the vacation part of the trip was over and it was now time to get to work. After all, the reason we came to India was to meet with US Consulate officials so we could get to know the people that make the decisions behind our clients' visa applications. Today, we went to the US Embassy in Delhi. It was an experience alone that made the trip worthwhile. The only other US Embassy I had toured was in Bucharest, Romania, and while that was informative and a learning experience, the US Embassy in Delhi is much larger and processes many more applications. Here we got an overview of the applicant’s experience: the line out in the front of building, the biometrics line, and where the adjudicators screen visa applicants. We saw one case denied and another approved. The consular officers we met with were all very reasonable and explained the reasoning they go through during adjudications and what documentation they look for. They emphasized that they preferred to hear the applicant articulate his or her reasons for wanting to travel to the US; they did not necessarily want to only look at the supporting documentation. They told us that they have been working diligently over the past year to “lower the temperature” on the interview process, as previously there was the feeling that the interview process was too adversarial. They are working to change that.
Some statistics specific to the Delhi Embassy:
Nonimmigrant Visas (NIV):
• They process approximately 600-800 applications per day; sometimes 1,000 in the summer months;
• Eighty percent of applicants are from Punjab; they also accept applicants from Bhutan;
• Applicants should plan to arrive five minutes early--no need to arrive earlier than that;
• Biometrics are captured offsite at an application processing center so the first step is to verify the applicant’s identity by having the fingerprints recaptured at the window. Those prints are then compared to the prints captured. Average interview time is two to four minutes; for simple cases, no need to waste applicant or officer’s time;
• The goal is to get them in and out in thirty minutes once they receive the token;
• Ninety-seven percent of all applicants are given a decision the same day;
Immigrant Visas (IV):
• They process approximately eighty per day;
• All applicants arrive at 8:00am; all interviews are generally complete by 11:00am;
• The process takes approximately one hour;
• Ninety-five percent of IV applicants are from Punjab.
Not only did we get to see the US Consulate today but we also visited the Indian Supreme Court--a great inside look at their court system. It is not common to get to visit. We had to get very special permission and go through massive levels of security. At the Court, the attorneys wear barrister robes like you see in the UK and there are numerous courtrooms that they are all running between. We got to sit in on some arguments in the main courtroom. There were three justices on the bench. The case I saw seemed to be about wages and labor disputes but it was hard to hear in the packed courtroom. We were told that except for the cases that get special expedited processing, cases can take twenty years to be heard! I was struck by the endless piles of paper that seemed to be grouped all around. In the short time we spent there it was difficult to get a true sense of how the justice system works in India but I certainly will think of the backlog in the Indian system when I’m complaining about processing times in the US.
Land of Temples, Flowers, and L-1 Blanket Petitions
Going from Delhi where I wore a wool sweater to Chennai where it was ninety degrees was a big change. Chennai is less of a tourist attraction and more of a city that gets down to business. Unlike the Embassy in Delhi, the Chennai Consulate grounds are not as manicured and the building seemed much older; however, the consular officers were equally as kind and willing to engage with us. We learned that the Chennai Consulate processes twenty-five percent of the world’s H1B and L visa applications. This is an amazing figure. Our discussion focused on Blanket Ls since this is the only Consulate in India that processes them. We were left with the impression that what they are really looking for during a visa application is for the applicant to articulate what he or she is coming to the US to do (sense a theme here?). What is his/her job? What is special about his/her knowledge and expertise (in the case of L1Bs)? Their explanations of how they adjudicate petitions all seemed reasonable. Discussions such as these make a visit across the global very worthwhile. Since our days as immigration attorneys are spent trying to provide the US government with the documents and information they need to make an adjudication, it is invaluable to hear from the officers who see our petitions, get a sense of what they want to see, and experience a little of what our clients will face when they appear at the window with their visa application.
Some of the specifics we learned about the Chennai consulate:
• Chennai processes nonimmigrant visas only (as mentioned, they are the sole jurisdiction over Blanket Ls for India);
• The goal is to have applicants in and out in one hour total;
• Chennai is thirteenth largest in terms of visa volume: 1,200 to 1,300 applicants per day and 230,000 applicants per year;
• Interviews start at 8:00am and end around 12:00pm;
• Hs and Ls account for about fifty percent of each day’s workload;
• Chennai is also sixth in the world for student visas;
• Each officer conducts about 120-140 interviews per day;
• New officers go through a five-week training program;
• Average interview time is three minutes;
A highlight of Chennai has to be the food—here I had what has to be one of the best meals of my life. We went to a restaurant called Southern Spice where we had a multiple-course meal consisting of various small plates. Chennai-style food, and indeed south-Indian food, tends to use a lot of coconut milk and be heavily spiced—two things that I love. They served us our courses on a banana leaf placed on gold-plated platters. We had ordered the seafood dinner, which the chef chose specifically for us after hearing what foods and spice-level we like. One of my favorite small dishes was the denji rawa fry-semolina-crusted soft shell crabs. The rice crepe or “appam” that accompanied the meal was milky and moist in the center, crispy on the edges and extremely light. They prepare it individually in a shallow pan like a crepe and serve it hot. The lightness of this appam, compared with the heaviness of the coconut curries, was in perfect contrast. The highlight of the meal for me was one of the various desserts we were served. It consisted of jaggery (a carmalized-brown sugar sauce) stewed with bananas into a brown soup-like mixture. The description and look of the dish is nothing like the taste. It was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.
The meal was followed by the famous pulled coffee of Chennai. In Chennai the coffee contains chicory and to make it frothy and light they use two bowls to pour the mixture from one bowl to the other over and over again. Each time they pour, they widen the distance between the bowls until they are a full arm-span apart.
Chennai to Goa--AILA visits Alila
If I thought the temperature wouldn’t get any warmer, I was wrong. As we stepped off the plane in Goa I was hit by a wall of heat. There was a strong rainstorm when we left Chennai and so the flight (especially the take off) was a bit harrowing; however, we landed in a beautiful place. Surrounded by palm trees rustling in the wind, we drove past rice fields and long horned cows grazing along the side of the dirt roads. We arrived at our hotel, the Alila Diwa Goa, and I couldn’t help but think the hotel was chosen because of the name’s proximity to our group’s name (AILA). As the day was coming to an end, we walked to the beach to catch the sunset over the Indian Ocean. The views were beautiful.
The last leg of our trip took us to Mumbai and what a marvelous place to end a wonderful trip. We again combined business with tourism. First on the agenda was the US Consulate. As with our other visits, the officers were generous with their time and showed us around the enormous complex. The Mumbai consulate is newly built in the Bandra suburb. Unfortunately we toured the facility on a training day so there were no applicants in the building allowing us to see what it might look like on a typical day. Still, touring around the empty cubicles and waiting rooms was useful as we were able to ask questions and linger without interfering in the work of the consular officers. The clear message from the consulate was that they want to facilitate travel and truly want to approve the cases before them but that they wanted to hear the applicant articulate the reasons for travel and explain (there it was again…). While all of this was encouraging to hear, I hope their actions are consistent.
Some of the specifics we learned about the Mumbai consulate include the following:
• The Mumbai consulate has jurisdiction over five states; which consists of 280 million people;
• There are approximately thirty-two American staff members and sixty locally employed staff;
Nonimmigrant Visas (NIV):
• Eighteen NIV interview windows; only twelve are in use right now;
• During their training period, adjudicators will only handle one type of case at a time but once fully trained, all officers handle all types of cases;
• In Fiscal Year 2013, Mumbai adjudicated 216,000 NIV applications (fourteenth in the world):
o 22,000 H-1Bs;
o 12,000 F-1s;
o 14,000 H-4s;
o 116,000 B-1/B-2s;
o 21,000 C-1/Ds (second largest in the world);
• In Fiscal Year 2013, 54,000 visa extensions were issued without an interview;
When the applicant completes processing through ustraveldocs.com, based on their answers, they will receive a message that tells them they may qualify for interview waiver. Interview waiver cases take about one week to process;
• F-1s: There is a twenty-five percent increase in applications and a fifty percent increase in approvals;
• Average wait time is forty-five minutes; the goal is thirty minutes.
Immigrant Visas (IV):
• 21,000 IV cases adjudicated in Fiscal Year 2013 (down from Fiscal Year 2012);
• Cases involve every IV category, but mostly CR1, F-3, F-4, IR5;
• There are five full-time IV officers;
• Post employs individuals who speak eight of the most common languages in the Mumbai jurisdiction;
• IV cases are interviewed in a wing that is separate from the NIV cases;
• There are three booths that are equipped for privacy in dealing with potential fraud issue;
• The unit is now transitioning now to the DS-260 form;
• Starting in January 2014 they will be staggering IV appointments. The goal is to have IV applicants in and out in ninety minutes;
• On Nov. 18, 2013, the Mumbai Consulate issued their first fiancé visa to a same-sex couple;
• Difference in processing times for K-1 visa vs. CR-1 visa is very small;
After the Consulate tour, we enjoyed a tour of Mumbai including Marine Drive, the High Court, the city laundry (Dhobi Ghat), and the Gandhi Museum. We also took a boat the Elephanta Caves. On the island, we hiked up an enormous staircase lined with hawkers selling jewelry and monkeys trying to steal things from our hands. On the walk up, a friend and colleague who had previously visited the island warned of the monkeys' quick hands. On cue, a monkey jumped out of a tree, grabbed her soft drink, and drank it in front of her. Of course, I was right there to capture the moment on my camera. Once we got to the top, we were rewarded by an amazing historical site. The caves are lined with stone carvings of Hindu Gods in extremely intricate detail. Our guide told us what the symbolism of each carving meant and how the images and concepts fit in the Hindu religion.
As the boat was drifting back into the city, we landed just below the Gateway of India, an arch welcoming visitors to its shores. It was a fitting place to end my travels in India, because there’s one thing I know for sure: I’ll be back.