Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Like Whoa: Nepal Visa Woes, Part 1

Despite our recent cheery blog posts and the genuinely cheery moments they reflect, there has been a large cloud hanging over us this summer (and I am not talking about the standard daily monsoon rains).

It all began when I received a job teaching at a local college. It seemed like a great opportunity for a number of reasons, but one large benefit would be that it could provide a work visa for me as well as a dependent visa for Claudine. Nepal allows you stay in the country under a tourist visa for a total of five months in any given calendar year. Beyond that, if you wish to stay in the country you must do so through another kind of visa. For those not married to a Nepali, research visas and students visas are usually the way to go (and we plan to write in depth about how to procure those in posts next week). Work visas for foreigners are somewhat rare here in Nepal, largely because the rules for granting one create a very high and difficult barrier for employers and employees. For this reason, many thousands of foreigners working in Nepal (most commonly with aid organizations) are doing so under student visas or research visas.

As an aside, I understand that visa laws and bureaucracies are maddening and awful in most countries, including the United States. Our experiences in dealing with visas here have been painful, but in sharing them it is not my intention to unfairly single out Nepal as a model of dysfunctional government administration (though, this caveat is not intended as an endorsement of Nepal's bureaucracy, either -- quite the opposite).

My visa hunt began in earnest at the end of May. For almost two months I would devote countless hours to trips to different educational institutions and government ministries. It was a summer of letters, signatures, seals, meetings, and mistakes. Oh so many mistakes. "This hand-delivered letter was supposed to be sent directly by the college." "We received the letter from the college, but it was supposed to be written by a different department." "This letter has the appropriate author but lacks the appropriate content." Tear out hair. Fix problem. Discover new problem. Repeat.

I swam upstream in the Nepali bureaucracy for weeks. The hardest part was not having the appropriate information and not having a trustworthy, thorough source. I trusted my college to know what they were doing, but in the end discovered they were clueless (though they did not make that entirely clear to me during the process). I talked to numerous bureaucrats and asked questions. I received misinformation, sometimes I believe inadvertently, sometimes I believe purposely just to get me out of their hair. I went to the Department of Immigration to find the door locked during normal operating hours. A man outside unaffiliated with the Department informed me it had moved but was unable to point on a map where it was now located. There was no sign on the door, no contact number -- just a desperate hunt in the heat for a relocated government office and a functioning ATM (you see, I had run out of cash that day because, due to an impending citywide strike, most cash machines were out of cash...but that's a story for another day).

On the bright side, I can now give one hell of a tour of Nepal's government buildings.

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The Ministry of Education, where incomplete information masquerades as help.

Sign outside the Ministry of Education. This should have been my first clue that navigating the bureaucracy might not be as easy as I had planned.

Department of Industry, if I never see you again I will die happy.

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The (relocated!) Department of Immigration where I had my heart broken repeatedly. A small piece of my crushed soul still resides here. I refuse to return to collect it.

Singha Durbar and the Home Ministry. How is it possible that you inspire emotions exactly opposite of the love, comfort, and safety that home is supposed to inspire?

Weeks of work later, I had properly advanced my application from my college to Kathmandu University to the Ministry of Education to the Home Ministry. Time was ticking down, as my tourist visa was due to expire in just ten days. There was still time, though, to pass the application from the Home Ministry back to the Ministry of Education and on to the Ministry of Immigration all before I would be forced to leave the country.

What could possibly go wrong?

See Part 2 for the answer.

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