Did I ever tell you that I’m secretly an airport addict? I don’t even know if that’s a thing. But I actually like fooling around airports. An airport is a place where you can see a lot of people of different cultures. It’s an interesting place especially if you yourself are traveling.
The first time I flew, at least after my childhood, was around October 2013. I’ve been to a quite a few airports and that’s when I discovered that I liked airports a lot. It’s a bit difficult to explain. There are things in life that you just like and you can’t always find an explanation that will make sense to other people.
As I’ve joined Automattic, a distributed company that also comes with quite a bit of traveling around the world, I’ve decided to start this series called The Airport Diaries. What I’ll basically do is, in addition to specific posts about why I’ll be traveling, what I’ll have learned and experienced, and a recap of everything that happened, I’ll also be sharing things that I experienced and liked specifically at the airports that I’ll have gone through.
If not for you, the reader, I’ll document these to look back on in the future. This is how it helps.
Early this month, I took a short trip to India to attend WordCamp Pune 2015. It was full of new experiences. So much that I pretty much forgot to take my camera out and take photographs as I was traveling. But I’m not going to let that stop me from writing up a recap.
This is the first post in a three-part series of my trip to India. In this post, I’ll be writing about how I got to India, things that I’ve experienced while going there and returning to home, and not everything in between. On the next part of the series, I’ll tell you a few things that I’ve learned about India having been there for the first time.
And on the last part, I’ll recap everything that happened at the grand event, WordCamp Pune 2015, the event that I was there for in the first place.
So, let the trilogy begin!
Getting the Indian Visa
People from other parts of the world may have this idea that because Bangladesh and India are neighbors, and that you literally can walk to India from Bangladesh — something I would never recommend anyone do — it would be easier to get to India from Bangladesh.
The reality, however, is quite the opposite. I’ve had many people tell me, and I can confirm following my own experience, that it’s actually more difficult to get an Indian visa from Bangladesh (for Bangladeshi passport holders) than it is to get a non-immigrant visa to the United States. I know, it sounds crazy, but it’s true.
The automated system is designed in a way that makes it impossible to get an appointment date. Without the help of a broker, that is.
Initially, we all planned to apply for a tourist visa so that we could go to India and visit. The process for Bangladeshi passport holders to apply for a tourist visa is fairly complicated. It seems easy on papers. You fill up an online application, and you get an appointment date, and then you visit the visa application center to submit your papers and other documents.
However, the trickiest part is to get an appointment date. The visa application website has a restriction that you cannot try more than a few times (I forgot the exact number. I think it was 5) per day to get an appointment date. And after [I think] about 7 days, the online application expires and you have to resubmit the visa application.
It’s the perfect system to stop average folks from getting an appointment date without going to a broker of sorts who would make you pay extra and get an appointment date. I’m the kind of guy who likes to do things by the book as much as possible. Having gone through the Indian visa application system, I realized it’s nearly impossible, if not totally impossible, to get an appointment date for a tourist visa from Bangladesh. You just have to get through a broker. Everyone recommends it. And now I know why.
Fortunately, though, I later ended up receiving invitation letters to the event we would be attending and thus I applied for a Conference Visa, which allowed for walk-in interviews. Luckily enough, there was no interview per se. We walked into the visa application center, submitted the fee and the papers, and we were given a passport delivery date. It wasn’t confirmed whether I would get a visa, so it was purely luck.
Then came the even more frustrating part. On the mentioned delivery date according to the slip, I went there and was told that my passport hadn’t returned from the High Commission. They were not sure when it would be back and made us wait until the sundown.
I went there the following day with the same luck. Some people told me that the visa application center sends SMS confirmation when the passport is ready to be picked up. In fact, one of my friends who had applied for the same visa got the SMS for passport delivery. Sadly, the HCI rejected his visa application.
Still, somehow I was not convinced that I would get an SMS notification. Around two weeks later, I just picked a random date and went there to see if by any chance my passport had arrived. I didn’t have high hopes, but I did get the passport back on that day.
I hadn’t received any SMS confirmation. And the application status on the visa application website said it was still “processing” while in reality it had just been delivered to me. How nice!
Luckily, though, I did get the visa. It was just a single entry, one month visa, so that was a bit frustrating. I was hoping for at least a multiple-entry visa with 6 months validity. Oh, well.
My travel itineraries were planned and confirmed weeks before I even applied for the visa. Although there were direct flights available from Dhaka to Mumbai, the closest international airport to Pune where the event would take place, I chose a different route and went to Mumbai with a layover in Sri Lanka. This was partly because I couldn’t find a flight that landed on Mumbai at a convenient time for all of us. The plan was to leave Mumbai in the morning for Pune and I didn’t want to do that alone.
Will I vanish into thin air?
I have a colleague in Sri Lanka who would be traveling to India. So my plan was to pair up with him from Sri Lanka. This way, I would land on Mumbai with him and the travel arrangement would be far easier. I was specifically stressed out about this as I haven’t had any solo travel experience prior to that.
However, the first flight from Dhaka to Colombo (Sri Lanka) still had to be solo. That was a bit stressful as I knew the airport securities are pretty tight. I always had these things going on my mind: Have I brought all the documents and papers? Have I packed something restricted on my carry-on? What if they don’t believe that I’m going to attend a conference (because I’m pretty young in terms of attending a “business conference abroad”).
I went to the Mihin Lanka counter which was the operating partner for Sri Lankan Airlines, the airline I had chosen to fly with. The agent at the counter, during the check-in process, asked me questions that I didn’t really feel like she should have asked. Things like “what I do for a living”, “why I’m going to India” should not be asked by the airline counter. Rather, the airport security and immigration police are the ones who should be asking those questions.
So, even before I crossed the immigration in Dhaka airport, I was a bit annoyed. I’m not a frequent flyer so I don’t know if that’s the norm. But it didn’t feel like to be questioned at the airline counter.
On the other side of immigration
Surprisingly, the immigration officer didn’t ask any question at all. Even the final security check-up before boarding the plane went so smoothly that I was getting suspicious. If you can believe it, at the final gate, the officer just asked me what my name was and asked for the boarding pass. I happily gave it to him, and then he ‘explained’ — something he didn’t have to do — that he was just checking to make sure I was on the right gate.
You rare get that kind of thing from officials in Bangladesh. So I left the country in a rather good mood. 😀
I finally didn’t board the airplane that you see in the Instagram photo above. Turns out, we had to get down and board a bus that took us to the plane. The interesting thing is, that was the first time I ever boarded a bus in an airport. I’ve been through a lot of flights two years ago, but those flights would go to a destination outside of the Asian sub-continent. So I assumed that if you’re flying to a relatively nearby country, this is the way you board the airplane. It wasn’t the same when we boarded the plane on Mumbai airport the way back home, though.
The plane was definitely smaller than those big planes that I had boarded on the previous journeys. But it was a nice experience. The staff was helpful and friendly, the seats were nice and comfortable; although the economy seats had very little legroom, it didn’t matter much for a 3-hour flight.
To and From Sri Lanka
I arrived at Sri Lanka’s Colombo International Airport in the late afternoon. After yet another short bus trip from the airplane to the airport, I entered the airport that I think follows the “Short and Simple” rule. The airport felt neither too small nor too big to me. It’s so simple that it just makes sense. Of course, that wasn’t the case when I first entered the airport. But that was the case when I was returning home.
Basically, you enter the airport from the same gate (at least I did both of the times). And then if you want to enter Sri Lanka, you have Visa On Arrival counter straight and Immigration on the left. If you’re transiting to another flight, you go right to the transit area or you head to the Transfer Services counter where they can point you to the right direction.
I met my colleague in the transit area of Colombo International Airport. He had arrived about an hour or so before the departure of our flight to Mumbai. He was the first Automattician that I’d met. And it was truly a pleasant experience to meet someone from this region.
We got to know each other, talked about stuff, and when the time came, we boarded the flight and landed on Mumbai Airport late in the night (or early in the morning, 2am early in the morning, depending on what your definition of morning is).
The LA of India
Getting around in India has been the most comfortable part, thanks to Uber.
Immediately after setting foot into Mumbai airport (the name of the airport is too long to remember and is too complicated to write without a typo), I began to feel that I was in Mumbai, the Los Angeles of India. There were artworks of Bollywood superstars on the side of the wall as we were proceeding towards the Immigration.
Looking through the array of photos I’ve taken, I sadly realized that there is no photo of the Mumbai airport’s arrival area. I think I was a little too stressed about crossing the immigration (again) and I didn’t feel like shooting pictures.
Thankfully, the immigration officer didn’t ask for anything beyond the boarding pass. And in under 4 minutes, I was allowed into India. Crossing the immigration line, I was waiting for my colleague, and failing to find him, I proceeded to the luggage belt hoping to meet him there as he would have to go there anyway.
Oh, I forgot to tell you the most important thing about this airport. Mumbai airport is H-U-G-E. I mean, so huge that you could easily mistake it for an airport of the western countries. Even my colleagues had shared the same feeling. The airport is so big and beautiful that you will remember you’ve been there once you’ve been there. (Does that make any sense? 😕 )
The Uber Experience
Thanks to my colleague, who had been a Uber user for a while, and thanks to the fact that Uber operates in India, getting around in India has been the most comfortable part in our entire journey. There were auto-rickshaws and taxi cabs waiting outside the airport and who knows how much that would’ve asked for had we taken them to the hotel. With Uber, we just ordered a car on the app, and the driver arrived within minutes. Then, after arriving at the destination, we just left. All payments are handled by the app. It was quick, efficient, and pretty much effortless. I could totally see why Uber is seeing such tremendous success around the world.
There were some situations when we had trouble communicating with the driver as not all of them seemed to have working knowledge of English. But for the most part, Uber pretty much made the experience of getting around in India fun.
We stayed the night at a hotel called Hotel ibis that was very near to the airport. The hotel was okay, and we didn’t spend long enough time to actually review it. We checked in late at night and we checked out early in the morning. We went back to the airport as another colleague was coming to Mumbai. After his arrival, we headed out to Pune on a car that was sent by The O Hotel, the hotel we would be staying at for the next three days.
The Experience in India
This post has already become too long for average readers. And I have quite a bit to say about my experience in India. So that’ll be covered in the next part of this series. The tl;dr is that the experience of staying in India for about a week has been fascinating. But that’s partly [probably] because I didn’t have the true Indian experience. I say that because if anyone came to Dhaka, stayed at The Radisson Hotel, and didn’t move around at all without an air-conditioned car, and stayed under air conditioned room and restaurants all the time, I would say he hasn’t experienced Dhaka at all. I hope that makes sense. If it doesn’t, wait for the next post. 😉
Heading Back Home
We left WordCamp Pune venue pretty much as soon as the sun vanished over the horizon. It was a straight drive to Mumbai on the same car and the same driver who had brought us to Pune from Mumbai. We managed to see part of a festival where many people were climbing on top of each other. It seemed like a pretty popular festival. The driver told us the name of the festival but as you’d expect, I forgot it five minutes later.
We arrived at Colombo International Airport after a little over two hours’ flight onboard with Mihin Lanka. That’s where we parted ways. After saying goodbyes, and not in a too sad way because if all else goes well, we’d be meeting again next month, I began my hour-long wait at the transit area of the familiar ‘short and sweet’ airport.
I was a bit exhausted after the day-long WordCamp event at Pune, more about which you can read at the third and final part of this series. So it wasn’t long until the boarding began and I hopped onto the plane to Dhaka.
There are still a lot of things to be said in between leaving the airport in Dhaka and arriving at the airport in Dhaka. But this post is already way past what I’d write on an average post. So if you made it this far, special kudos to you! 😀 If you’re interested, follow the blog or follow me on Twitter @aisajib for the next post in this series where I’ll talk about a few things that I couldn’t help but notice during my short stay in India.
I’m already missing the thrill of traveling to India and going through multiple airports. But the good news is, another travel waits for me next month and I’m surely looking forward to enjoying it to the fullest. Am I the only one who enjoys air travel this much? 😛