India, your faith is safe from me…

Of the many daunting bureaucratic tasks attending a flight around the world, few have seemed as ridiculously bureaucratic as obtaining an Indian Visa. Travel from the United Arab Emirates across the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal to Thailand requires a stop somewhere in the midst of those two long over-water legs. The logical refueling stop would be somewhere in India. A single stop would still leave two very long legs remaining, each over water and each straining the fuel reserves. Two stops, one on the western side of India and another on the eastern side, make sense from the standpoint of flight planning and fuel planning.

Alas, there are only a few airports in India, where general aviation is hardly known, where avgas is available. Jet fuel, yes. Avgas for piston powered airplanes, no. Or rarely. So the options are limited. We have chosen to make a first stop at Ahmedabad and a stop farther east – about as far as one can go in India – at Kolkata. That leg itself is no short hop. So then we determined that we need a visa to stop in India. It proved difficult at the outset to determine whether we needed a business visa, a transit visa, or a tourist visa. Stories abound from other GA flight across India of pilots required to sleep in the airplane because of a visa troubles or being forced to refuel and fly on, despite fatigue and weather. Another round-the-world pilot, flying ahead of us by a few days, was unable to surrender his passport for the two weeks required to obtain a visa and so flew a very long over-water leg to Sri Lanka and another to Thailand simply to avoid India altogether. (This was Adrian Eichorn, who is an FO for Jet Blue and needed his passport for his flying job.) We would like to avoid those two unnecessary long over-water legs if at all possible.

How hard can it be to make two brief stops in India to refuel? (Note: An old friend of mine who managed tax policy for GE in the Far East for many years said to Adam and me during a discussion of our plans, “Guys, I have been to India about a hundred times. Beautiful country. Wonderful people. Avoid it if you possibly can.” We should have listened, or at least been sufficiently cautioned.)

So we set out to obtain the proper visas. We engaged a company CIBTvisas that offers a concierge service that is supposed to expedite the process and avoid complications and delays. They sent us very detailed instructions about the application, which we tried mightily to comply with and Adam’s visa was approved relatively quickly. A matter of a few weeks. Of course, it was a little nerve-wracking dropping one’s passport in the FedEx box (a good few weeks for the bottom line at FedEx …) so close to departure, but there was no choice. Then came my application. First, it was rejected because the photograph was in some way non-compliant. So we took another photograph with a high-quality camera, adhering slavishly to the photo requirements. It was rejected out of hand. So I visited a local camera shop and had a passport photograph taken professionally. That application was also rejected – or more properly it was held up for a most peculiar reason.

CIBT contacted us to say that the Indian consulate would require me to sign an affidavit swearing that I would not proselytize while in India. If you knew me at all, you would know that this fear, the fear that I would try to convert anyone in India to belief in anything, much less a faith different from their own, is unfounded at best and comical to the extreme at worst. Adam, to his credit, is a bulwark of one of our major churches, a church that stands at the center of our community. He is not a proselytizer, either, but at least he demonstrates his faith with action in the most constructive way. Me, I wouldn’t even now which faith to promote. But, after signing a statement promising to keep my religious beliefs to myself throughout my two day stay in India, the consulate was apparently reassured that I would not overturn thousands of years of Hindu belief and worship by the sheer force of my preaching, reassured that I would not threaten quite possibly the world’s oldest religion, the Sanatana Dharma, the way of the Vedas,  the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and my visa was issued.

The agent at CIBT told us that he had never seen this requirement imposed before, so I was puzzled as to why I had been singled out. Yes, I have a beard. But, although I have never before visited India, I have seen pictures of it and I don’t think that mine will be the first beard on the streets of India. Why was the Indian consulate so worried about me, of all people? That puzzle has only recently been solved. Or, at least partially explained by this photograph found by a friend and colleague, who sent it to me only recently:

George Scheer and colleagues
George Scheer and colleagues

Note to the Indian authorities … Please observe that this photograph has been obviously photo-shopped. Your faith is safe from me.

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