The Sa Thi World

28 February 2016

I have finally managed to come back to the Land of the Gods. It had been in my plans for many years, well, since I returned to Sri Lanka in 2012, but just couldn't make it. But, this time I did it. I finally did it.

How it all started was...very randomly actually. Yes, I did want to go back to India, but didn't have any plans made. One day I was just going through my email and had a promo email from "Find my fare.com" giving 25% off deal on air tickets from Colombo to Chennai return. On Air India. I like flying in Air India because, one thing, they are not a budget flight so, I would get TV & entertainment,Yeyee! And they are super cheap too. Not as cheap as a budget flight, true, but I find it value for money, reasonably priced. Budget flights would be only a little less and you have to pay extra for food, and they are shaky and all that.

13th November 2015, was the last day of the deal. I just spontaneously decided to buy the ticket. Went to the Findmyfare.com office at the World Trade Centre Colombo and just bought it. In my excitement and complete un-planned-ness I had even forgotten to take my passport. But hey, got everything sorted. I was not very sure for how long I wanted to be there. So, Initially booked my ticket for just 10 days.

Once back home, I informed my friends from my "Indian past" that I will be going to India on these days, and they were also excited. Some had already planned to be there on the same days too. But, Kishan was gonna arrive only on the day I was supposed to leave. So, I wouldn't meet him...oh :(

Created a Facebook event for everyone to see so that we could all meet up together in the land we all met once upon a time. The land that made us a family. So, since Kishan would join late, and also since its the month of Holi, and I have never actually experienced it, why not stay till Holi and do that too? Only in India right? It would be in such vain if I had to come back just a day or two before Holi and not celebrate it there. So, the rational thing to do would be to extend my ticket.

That can be done once I get my visa. Getting the visa was not as simple as it was 5 years ago. Ofcourse, 5 years ago, all I had to do was fill in a form and hand it over to the Indian Embassy in Sri Lanka along with my passport. I was offered a scholarship, so the Indian Embassy in Sri Lanka pretty much handled everything from the ticket to the visa till the point I was dropped off at my school in Agra. But in 2010 December too I went to India and it wasn't this complicating. Now there is a form to be filled online, a 3 months bank statement needs to be attached and the visa fee was LKR2310/= +service charge LKR42/= + ICVVF charge LKR100/= total amounting to LKR2452/=. I remember in 2010 it was only LKR530/= and all I had to do was fill out a form and give it with my passport and photographs.

So, for those who are planning to apply for Indian visa these are what you need. Fill the online form https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa/info1.jsp , get a printout of it. Attach a 3 month bank statement for over LKR25,000/= , Photocopy of National Identity Card or valid ID, Photocopy of Passport and the original, 3 passport size coloured photographs with white background.

All these information can be found online https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/ & http://ivsvisalanka.com/OnlileApplication.aspx

Photocopy services are available at the IVS Lanka office at Bambalapitiya (MAP ). If you go to any photo studio they will know what type of photo to take when you tell them "for Indian Visa". Even at the IVS Lanka office photo services are available. The prices there are not that different from what you would spend at any other place outside. It looked like a convenient way of getting things done. Most people actually did that.

And also even to fill the online form you don't have to go through much hassle if you are not that computer savvy or wasn't familiar in these matters. As a matter of fact, even though I had an already filled printed form, there were mistakes on it and so I had to fill a new form. For that there are "service centres" I would call them, just opposite the IVS office to help you out. For a normal tourist visa for one person I paid LKR300/=. I know it is a lot of money for a simple form to be filled. But when I thought about all the hassle I would have to go through to go back home, fill the form and come back, this seemed like a better idea. Even if I had gone to the nearest internet cafe, I still would have had to pay pretty much a similar amount to get it done myself. These people know how it should be done to make sure you get your visa. So why not?

Once the reception has checked everything is in order, you get a token and go upstairs and wait till your number is called. Then they check everything, get your mobile phone number and that's it. 4 days later I got a sms saying my visa is ready. Went there after 4pm on a weekday [non holiday] and picked it up.

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bill for my Indian Visa

The only issue I had with the visa was that, since they give visa from the date you apply rather than the dates you travel. So even if I am travelling a month from now, if I apply today, I will get visa from today onwards. That is why I took a 3 months visa although I wanted only for one month. Since I applied in mid February, though my travels are from end of February, I got my visa from the day I applied to 3 months forward. Therefore, in applying for Indian visa, you have to wait till the last moment or have to get visa much more than what you actually need if you want to plan ahead.

That is why the rest of my planning, like, to extend the ticket and railway bookings were dragged on to the last minute. The first thing I did once I got my visa was go back to the Findmyfare.com office and extend the ticket to a full month. So now I can meet Kishan and celebrate Holi for the very first time!

Ticket extension at findmyfare.com cost me LKR3900/=. When I spoke to Air India directly they quoted the same price and said that if I get it done from my travel agent it would be LKR1,000/= lesser. But, it didn't happen. To be honest I wouldn't recommend findmyfare.com as a good travel agent. They DO have good deals, so you can't deny that. But, don't expect anything further than that. The staff at the office is not too friendly. They make sure they ignore you and go ahead with their own chit chat. The customer care hotline is not very efficient and most of the time you can't even get anyone to talk to you. It's just bad customer service altogether. So, I wouldn't go back if not for the deals. That's the only thing they are good for. If you want a truly helpful,reliable travel agent these guys are not the ones.

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Now, my new plan is to leave on the 28th of February and arrive 4 weeks later on the 26th of March! OMG! what am I going to do with all that time!

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Next big problem in mind are the train tickets. How am I going to get them. Contacted GABO travels in Colombo, they tried to help me, but I was just too late. Everyone knows you cant book Indian Railway tickets in just a week. So I just have to come up with new plans of how to get around.

Where am I gonna stay? Well...from the moment I booked the ticket, I knew I was gonna try out "Couch Surfing". Couchsurfing.com is an online community. People from different parts of the world brought together by this website and as members they would help each-other in their travels. In hosting, giving a place to stay, taking you out to a meal, show you around or even to just be friends with helpful tips on travelling in your own country. Finding locals of the country you are travelling to and experiencing their country through their eyes. Have always wanted to do it, but never got the opportunity. I am already in the Couchsurfing group of Colombo. I have hosted, met couch surfers coming to Colombo. Have taken them to see places, have given them tips of Dos and Don'ts of Sri Lanka and have helped them get around here. But I have never been on the other-side as the 'traveller'. This would be my chance to experience the world of Couch surfing. Ofcourse, if my family got to know about this, since they have no idea what it is about, they would freak out! But, who's going to tell them?

Anyways, as I said, from the day I bought the ticket, I have planned out the places I was going to visit and have sent requests to couch surfers in those areas to host me. Now THAT itself is one heck of an experience.! All the messages you get when you post a public event on the site..! My Lord! Especially, when you are a girl...hahaha...some are just plain hilarious and some can be a nuisance. You just have to know how to handle it and whom to chose as your hosts.

All in all, time went on, plans were made, jitters, excitement, fear all wrapped in one. I almost decided not to go at all. But, finally gathered up my courage to go on a much needed trip. Back to India. But this time with a twist. Not staying in hotels. Risking it all to stay with locals. People you have only chatted online with. Leaving your trip on the hands of Complete Strangers!

If you don't do it, you will never know. So here I go... Couch Surfing India.!

Published by SaThi