Bike Tour - Visa and other Challenges, and the Lucky Breaks
I have no idea how tough or easy it is to get a visa to USA or any country in Europe NOW. When I undertook my Bicycle Tour, challenges came in various shapes and sizes.
Poor India, Rich India
For a start, one was allowed to carry a maximum of US$ 500 (by the Government of India whose Foreign Exchange Reserves were meagre then; now it is some billions and I can carry a lot, probably unlimited money when I travel overseas) and all my friend and I could manage was $ 350 each. Leaving home with that kind of money with a view to seeing the world was itself pretty adventurous, and we added to the fun - adventure if you like - by leaving the country with just the Benelux visa - that is, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg. One was advised to get all the visas before leaving, but that would have meant less money in the wallet, which wasn't wise.
Gov of India to our Rescue
All fine. We were all set to take off. But, did we? No, not that easily. This was because Afghanistan was under Soviet occupation and Iran-Iraq war was on. Well this was 1980. And it looked like, as one might put it with some literary taste, the whole tour was in jeopardy. And so we went to the Gov of India and appealed to them for help forthwith, for a tour of this kind, we argued, needed all the help it could get. We met the right guys at the right time at the right place. And the result was the recognition of our splendid idea and the worthy cause, and the appointment of some cozy quarters in a cargo vessel, owned by the Shipping Corporation of India. We occupied the Owner's Cabin, only second in rank and comfort, next to the Captain's - the Cabin boasted a drawing room with a fridge, TV etc plus bath. A little apartment virtually, self-contained in every respect. The voyage lasted about a month during which we halted at Avonmouth and made a short trip to Bristol, at Antwerp next for just about a day and finally disembarked at Rotterdam to the cheers and goodbyes of all aboard, and began OUR BICYCLE TOUR.
British Visa Tricky, French The Toughest
Although the general rule was to carry all the visas before leaving home, the fact we did not do so did not hurt us much. We did not need a visa for Germany and all Scandinavia, provided we travelled through these countries for no longer than 3 months. But then, when we were about to re-enter Germany on our way back from Scandinavia, we learnt that we needed a visa, which we got without any problem. Italian was easy, and Greek was given us gratis.
While we were at Dover, having sailed from Ostende, we were witness to some peculiar scenes at the port of entry - some people breezed through as if they were taking a walk across the Customs, while some were stopped and interrogated at length and made to show the contents of their wallets. We were watching all this unperturbed, for we only had one version, one story to tell about our financial circumstances - The True Story. Finally, all the news clippings and the much-publicised fact that the Lions Clubs had been helping us along the way seemed to tilt things in our favour, and the official granted us a month.
We actually tried for the French visa at 4 countries, in vain. It went like this: We had to show the French authorities the visa for the country we were coming to France from plus the visa for the country we were going to leave France for. Imagine, if everyone had done this to us, we would have been stranded and at the mercy of the Indian Embassy. As it happened, we ran into some luck, Dame Luck to be precise, two of the kind in fact. At the French Embassy in London, the lady in charge of visa issues agreed to give us the French visa if we got the Swiss visa, for Switzerland was our destination after France. At the Swiss Embassy, we met the other lady in charge, who was so thrilled to know about our tour that she took time to scan through the news clippings and issued us the visa with unconcealed and unalloyed delight. It all took just a few minutes. We literally ran to the French Embassy to present the lady there with our prize and demand that she keep her word. She did and that was how the French visa materialized!
Enough for now, I guess. More, maybe, later.