Wednesday, November 9, 2011

It's finally happening!

For at least three years now, we've been telling our friends that we'll go on our RTW (round the world) trip. We were surely going on our journey, but it felt so far away at times. For the longest time, we really didn't have a concrete idea on when we would actually do it.

Sometime around August 2011, things started falling in place. We zeroed in on a quarter, and then a month, and then a week and finally a date. About two weeks ago, we finally bought our tickets.

We are heading to Colombia on December 4th from Los Angeles. As we cross things off our checklist, reality is sinking in slowly but surely.

In the past 2 weeks, we've made the following rather drastic moves:

  • Informed our respective workplaces of our intention to quit
  • Notified our landlord
  • Bought our air tickets to Bogota, Colombia. (buying a one way ticket would make it more dramatic, but consulates wont like it, so we got a return ticket)
  • Started consolidating our finances to a more travel-friendly account
  • Obtained credit cards that dont charge a foreign transaction fee
  • And going crazy with visa runs
In the next 25 days, we have: friends to say bye to, a house to vacate, belongings to purge, valuables to store and visas to get.

Busy, busy!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Colombia Tourist Visa For Indian Citizens (San Francisco Embassy)

When I first looked at the visa requirements for the Colombia tourist visa for Indian passport holders, I was baffled. They seemed to ask for two of each document. I ended up carrying a LOT of paper to San Francisco that day. Thankfully, I think they meant one for each applicant. We had gone to their office while waiting for our Peru visa, so we knew all the details beforehand and went thoroughly prepared.

We were in and out of the consulate in 20 minutes! The visa will be ready in one week, we were told by a very friendly lady who works there. She said she was the only one in the office right now, so its taking her time. We told her about our six-country plan and she agreed to try to expedite the process. She also told us that a lot of Indians have been visiting the consulate to get visas.

Documents we took for EACH applicant

  • Application form
  • original passport
  • $95/person (apparently its $100 for non-Indians). Still steep!
  • 2 photographs
  • bank statements
  • US visa copy
  • Airline reservation (and date of exit from Colombia)
  • Hotel reservation
The consulate is at 595 Market street. There is a chipotle and peets coffe shop (next building). Security guard will check your ID and let you in at the ground floor. There is a paid underground parking garage in the Red Cross building, at 2nd and Mission Street. From the garage, the consulate is a 5 minute walk away.

After waiting for 3-4 business days, I was getting anxious not having heard from them. We called repeatedly, but were not able to reach them or get a status update. So exactly a week after submitting our docs, I showed up at the consulate and thankfully, the visas were ready. The same lady greeted me, and remembered who I was and didnt even ask for my receipt. Only one of us needed to go to get both passports.

On to Argentina now!

Peru Tourist Visa for Indian Citizens (From San Francisco Consulate)

I knew six friends who recently obtained Peru tourist visas. So armed with the knowledge of their experiences, we went to the Peru consulate around 9.45 AM. You pick a number as soon as you enter, but the number doesn't seem to bear any significance. Someone from the closed office area will walk to the waiting room and talk to you randomly.

It seems like we caught them on a busy morning, so after waiting for a while, they asked us to leave our documents and passports and come back at 1. I asked them if I could give them the passports later as I wanted to make color copies of all pages to drop off at the Chile consulate next door (more here) and the young guy who took our papers agreed.

We returned at 1 pm after lunch and had to wait for some more time. If the door to the office area opens, immediately stand up and walk towards it, and try to attract someone's attention. Eventually we were noticed and our application was picked up by an older lady who seemed senior. She also took a lot of help from Swami during our visit in the morning to fix her computer troubles (that didn't seem to win us any favor though).

The next hour and a half was like living in a slow motion picture on a very laid back island. The lady re-typed our application form on the computer and had a fit when we told her that we plan to stay in Peru for a month without any air tickets (in or out).

"You're going by bus? From Bolivia?" (with shocked expression)

"Yes, but from Ecuador", I said with resignation. Swami has trouble with Ecuador and Bolivia and interchanges them again and again and I just give up.

"Where are your tickets?"

"We dont have bus tickets yet. We plan to get them as we go. But look, we have air tickets in and out South America."

"But what about Peru?"

"Not for Peru. In to Bogota and out of Buenos Aires." Sigh! This was getting really tiring.

"This is Bogota, not Peru. What will you do in Peru for one month?"

"We'll hike the huayhuash circuit and the inca trail". Twice, I almost said.

"Dont you have a job? How will you afford four months?"

This is when we show our bank statement. She looks at a random figure on my salary statement which says $323.50 and goes "Thats all?" How on earth am I supposed to travel with $323.50? I show her the bank statement. Arent they supposed to be reading bank statements all the time?

Finally, after showing the money, she says "$60". I am just thrilled that its over.

Now we get finger printed, thumb impression-ed and photographed and finally step out of the consulate with our visas at 2.30 PM.

Documents to take for EACH applicant:
  • Original passport
  • Application Form
  • Bank Statement
  • (dont give unless asked) Pay statement . It might be mistaken for a bank statement and someone might think your 15 day salary is your bank balance. Or horror, they might think your 401K contribution is your bank balance. Keep it away.
  • $30 per visa in cash
  • copy of US visa
  • hostel reservation (we booked for one day in Cuzco)
  • airline reservation
  • (not asked) photograph
Consulate is at 870 Market Street. Fedex is at 726 Market street for last minute tech/copy needs. Bank of America ATM is at the corner of Market and 4th street.  Form and visa requirements. 

Chile Tourist Visa for Indian Citizens

Please use this report as a guideline only. Always call the consulate/visit their website for exact requirements, and carry every piece of paperwork you possibly can. 

The Chilean consulate in San Francisco is a small office in the Flood Building at 870, Market Street. When we walked in, there was only one other person before us. I had already downloaded application form and tourist visa requirements from the website. At the consulate, the staff used the same document to verify our documents. Specifically, we were asked for the following documents:
  • Color copies of ALL pages of passport. I took black and white copies for the blank pages, but color for everything else. This is because they dont keep the original passport. We didn't have our color copies of all pages (only had the main page). I had to run back to the FedEx office at 726 Market Street to take copies of our passports. 
  • Proof of income (Bank statement, pay check, letter from Company)
  • Proof of residence in the U.S.A. or VISA for a third country.
  • Hotel reservation (Hotel’s name, address and telephone number. If staying with family or friends, please provide name, address and phone number).
We were not asked for airline reservations. But I'd call them to confirm or take them anyway. We had no flights in/out of Chile anyway.

After talking to the staff, we faced the following setbacks:
  • We had only one copy of hotel reservations, while they wanted one for each application. The assistant there was very helpful, she offered to make us a copy.
  • The visa will take 2-4 weeks to process. The papers have to be emailed to Chile and the visa will be mailed to the consulate in SF. Since this is the Christmas season, he said this was rush time. After the visa arrives at the SF office, we have to go there to get our passport stamped.
  • You have to enter Chile within 90 days of visa issue. The visa is valid for 2 months from the date of entry. This will be a slight problem for us. For this reason, plan the Chile segment of your trip carefully. And also dont apply too early for visas. 
Updated to add:

After exactly 2 weeks, we received an email that our visas were approved. We were given a date and time to appear for the interview, which I was able to reschedule to an earlier date via email easily. In fact, I appeared an hour late for my stamping and there wasn't a problem. We were finger printed and were given more papers to carry with us for showing at port of entry. The cost is $60/person for a single entry visa and you'll be asked to make a deposit in the Bank of America which is in the next building and bring back the receipt. Some paperwork, signing and thumb printing and we were done in under 2 hours.

Our South America Visa Experiences - part 1

A good thing about San Francisco is that the three South American consulates of Chile, Colombia and Peru are within blocks from each other. In fact, Chile and Peru consulates are on the same floor of the same building. Colombia is about three blocks away.

So with a good plan and a great bit of luck, its possible to apply for all three visas on the same day. We came very very close, but due to unnecessary delays that plagued us during the day, we were only able to get Chile and Peru done.

  • Chile and Peru Consulate: 870 Market Street, 10th Floor. Easy to get in and get out.
  • Colombia: 595 Market Street. Security at gate and need to show ID's - so factor in 5 minutes. 
  • Fedex Office Supplies: 726 Market Street, for last minute copies/printouts etc. Very convenient.
We took the train from Sunnyvale to SF and then a cab to the Peru/Chile consulate on Market street. We reached around 9 AM. The consulates are located in the Flood Building on Market street, San Francisco.

  • We decided to go to the Chile consulate first as we'd heard from a friend that they dont need your passport to process your application. We submitted our paperwork. Visa would be stamped on passport after 2-4 weeks. They asked for all copies of the passport, so I had to make a trip to Fedex store and back for passport photos.
  • Next was the Peru consulate. Things were very slow here on that day. So we submitted the passport and docs and were asked to come again at 1 PM. When we went back 1 PM, we were out the door with the visa by 2.30 PM. Tip: if they ask you to come back by 1 PM, go earlier. If they see you there, they may get started earlier. Go armed with a book, snacks and infinite patience.
  • We missed the Colombian consulate because they had closed at 2 PM. But we did walk down there when our passport was stuck with the Peruvians to find out what documents were required. A very sweet lady at the consulate quickly told us what we needed and asked to deliver documents anywhere between 9 AM and 2 PM. We returned the following day again and submitted all our documents and original passport.

How to hit all 3 in one go:

If I had to repeat the day, this would have been our best-case scenario:
  • Arrive at Chilean consulate at 8.30 AM. Make sure you have copies of ALL pages of your passport (color copies of the non empty ones). Drop off documents at Chilean consulate.
  • Go to Peru consulate at 9 AM. Hope the stars are shining bright for you - if your lucky, someone will quickly do your stuff for you and you'll walk out with visa by 11 AM.
  • Walk the four blocks to Colombian consulate and drop off papers and passport there.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Tourist Visas To Travel In South America For Indian Citizens

Every Indian citizen who has traveled abroad is familiar with the travails of obtaining a visa to visit most countries in the world. This is true for South America too. When Swami and I first planned our trip, we were caught in the spirit of wanderlust inspired by scores of other travel bloggers. But of course, most of these travel bloggers came from 'western' countries, or countries whose citizens enjoy the freedom to travel to most places in the world without a visa. The reality came crashing down upon us in the last few weeks and I've been prowling the net for accounts by fellow Indians.

The deluge of paperwork, formalities, consular interviews that are more befitting a court of law, the time, money and effort spent in going to consulates can drive anyone insane. And to make things worse, the internet doesnt have a whole lot of information about other people's experiences. Its surely something to bemoan about, but we must consider ourselves fortunate to be able to travel this way in the first place, so we try to take it in stride and do the best we can.

As our date of travel approaches (Dec 4th, 2011), the need for prompt and efficient action is imminent where visas are concerned. Overnight, our living room starts to look like the command central of a records office.  Timing is key. If you get your visas too early, there may be a rule requiring that we enter within 90 days. If you get it too late, then you risk not getting the visa at all. How is one to plan an independent backpacking trip then? Can such a trip still be considered to be in the "its-all-up-in-the-air" variety?

The good news is, my searches on the internet for accounts by similar people have not been futile. There is a great thread on the lonely planet thorntree forums that sees active participation from highly spirited, perseverant and inspiring folks who dont give up in the face of absurd visa rules and regulations that require you to use up the trees! I have also come across some Indian travel bloggers.

So now, I will be adding to that pool of information. I went to SF today and visited the Peru, Chile and Colombian consulate in San Francisco (all blessedly within 5 blocks of each other - 2 in the same building on the same floor) and will publish detailed posts about my experiences at each consulate.