Ladakh: Dumb Luck, Dreams and Visa Kung Fu

This is a story about the mystery of mountains, a San Francisco swami, a stroke of good luck, a dabbawalla and the fine art of resourcefulness.

Long, long ago in the late 1990s, I lived in San Francisco. And next door to me lived a man who would one day become a swami. And he told me of a land called Ladakh.

But before I get to that, a photo.

Audrey Wins Grand Prize from ANA Airlines - Seattle, Washington
Audrey Wins Grand Prize from ANA Airlines

Last June, Audrey and I attended a party celebrating the launch of the ANA (All Nippon Airways, a Japanese carrier) Dreamliner route from Seattle to Tokyo, thanks to a very last minute invitation from a fellow blogger. On our way into the party, Audrey dropped her business card into one of those big fishbowls.

Don’t know what they’re giving away…”

Fast-forward a few hours and there’s one final prize: two business class tickets from Seattle to anywhere ANA flies in Asia. I’ve never – and I mean never — seen Audrey move so fast in my life as she did that night to take the stage when her name was announced. Think of the running start that gymnasts take before they do they do the vault.

Me? I won nothing, other than the right to beg to be the companion she’d take on the trip.

LESSON 1: Put your card in the bowl. Caveat emptor: It’s likely you’ll end up on a newsletter list or two (or three), but you might also win a free ticket to go halfway around the world in style.

We got to planning straight away.

Where should we go?” Talk about a phrase of almost unequaled beauty.

We could return to Japan, but we’d already been there. Maybe countries we’d yet to visit like The Philippines or South Korea?

But then a thought crept into my head: If it’s business class, let’s go as far as it can take us. We looked at the list of possible cities. Mumbai was about the furthest. Problem was: we’d each been to India twice. (Notice that I’d hijacked Audrey’s free tickets almost instantly.)

Then, the answer. Ladakh, a remote mountainous region in northern India. And why Ladakh? Because of a faded photo I once saw on a neighbor’s wall in San Francisco over 15 years ago.

LESSON 2: When you win something, take it as far as you can.

San Francisco to Ladakh: A Connection

For this story, we have to go back a ways, to the pre-Audrey days (As difficult as it sometimes is for me to believe, I did exist before her).

In the late 1990s, I lived among leftover beatniks and hippies in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. Amidst the crowd, our neighbors Nikki and William, a separated hippie-type couple – fascinating, difficult to figure out, full of life experience, early day Burning Man burners, Indiaphiles. William would eventually become a swami in India and take an oath to only wear orange for the rest of his days.

Among the various bits of eclectic strewn about their living room was a photo, slightly rippled and faded, featuring a landscape like nothing I’d ever seen in my life.

What’s that?!” I asked

Ladakh. You should go there.

You know, I don’t even remember what for exactly. Deserts, barrenness, lakes of unparalleled blueness.

Why do we go anywhere? To go. To explore. To satiate our curiosity. To learn.

William painted a canvas of an exceptional place in India – one that was cool in the summer, one where Buddhists hang out in the hills. It was a faraway place whose name ended with a hard consonant and a soft consonant, aspirated and spoken in the tone of mystical faraway lands.

Ladakh. Mountainous. Tibetan. Buddhist. Remote.

To add to its forbidden-ness, the roads to Ladakh are usually only open two months out of the year.

Ladakh was there, in my head firmly. And it would remain.

LESSON 3: Ask questions. Always. Even of the seemingly mundane. Your curiosity will be rewarded by answers that will seed your dreams.

Dreamliner Nightmares

After the fragments of our 2012 and early 2013 schedule began to fall into place, we realized that the only time we’d really be able to take advantage of the tickets was June 2013 (as in now).

A vision. Ladakh. Now is the time. The roads would likely be open. That’s all that mattered. Roads that would get us there. So we were set.

Umm, not really.

The Dreamliner begins to run into operational problems – you know, the issue with the melting batteries, smoke and all — and was eventually grounded. We went back and forth with the ANA representative wondering if we’d even be able to use the tickets.

LESSON 4: Even free stuff can burn a hole…in your brain.

She suggested, “Fly from San Francisco and take the Dreamliner back to Seattle once it comes back online.”

OK, done. We can do that. Any excuse to visit San Francisco is always welcome.

My Many Passports and Visa Kung Fu

Next up: we needed Indian visas. Ah, visas, the big multi-headed hydra. A complicated mating dance with faraway places stacked with bureaucrats.

Get this: India, the outsourcing center of the universe, actually outsources its visa application process. Sounds like lipstick on a bureaucratic pig to me. But do I love the luscious irony of how the Indian government endeavors to eat its own outsourcing dog food.

In Berlin, we could only get 6 months. For although we were German residents, we were not German citizens. Hugely disappointing.

Then we stepped back. There were other paths, paths around the most apparent option.

We’d always coveted 10-year visas to India, but we’d basically have to make our way back to the U.S., our home country, to get them. The India visa outsourcing process requires that you have residency in the locale at whichever Indian embassy or consul you happen to be applying. The only place in the U.S. where we have provable identity: San Francisco, thanks to our California drivers licenses.

Aside: It strikes me that that the maze of our personal identity is so complicated that one day someone will figure it all out, whereupon Audrey and I will be hauled off to a Turkish prison for the rest of our lives. Cue scenes from the Midnight Express, please.

How do two Americans living in Berlin with only two days planned in the United States before a flight to India obtain 10-year India visas from an Indian consulate in the U.S.?

Enter some visa kung fu, young jedi. (Holy mixed cultural references, Batman!)

It goes something like this:
1. Pull your hair out trying to fill out online visa application. (I was already thin on top, but after this, bah!) I completed and submitted 10 draft applications before I finally got it exactly right. The India visa outsourcing center warned ominous things were in store if we submitted our applications incorrectly.
2. Mail your application and passport to sympathetic family member (moms are great) in the United States. Have them purchase money orders for visa and outsource company fees.
3. Sympathetic family member FedExes everything to the India visa outsource center in San Francisco.
4. Visa outsource center does the rest and sends our passports with India visa stamps inside and to a fabulous friend in San Francisco.
5. Fabulous friend in San Francisco hand carries passports to Toronto where we meet for TBEX.
6. Open up passports in Toronto, see the 10-year visa and do a happy dance.

But wait, how did you go from Berlin to Toronto without your passports?

Ah, good question. We each have two passports. Two American passports. And shockingly, this is actually legal for U.S. citizens if you can offer a good reason. Our good reason when we applied for ours last fall: “We are planning to travel to Israel and we hear that the Israeli authorities might not look kindly on passports mobbed with stamps from the Middle East, Iran included.

Boom. Second passports. We still haven’t made it to Israel, but these skinny 2-year validity passports came in handy – they went to San Francisco for processing while our primary 10-year valid passports went with us from Berlin to Toronto.

Complicated, yes. Doable, absolutely.

LESSON 5: Exploiting permutations and combinations, that’s resourcefulness. That’s also the secret to life.

LESSON 6: If you are a traveler from the United States, don’t let your U.S. driver’s license expire. You never know when you might need it to apply for a 10-year visa to India, or elsewhere.

Final Destination: Mumbai & Ladakh

So what are you actually going to do when you get to India?

Although we have a general route in mind, the actual details are fuzzy. (Translation: we really have no idea). We’re taking a plan-as-we-go and adjust-as-we–talk-to-people approach. This gets back to our travel roots, this is the way we roll.

We’ll be in Mumbai for a couple of days, where among other things, we’ll follow a dabba-walla (alternatively tiffin-wallah) for a day. Tiffin wallahs are the guys (and there’s a vast network of them) that deliver home made meals in stackable tins to family members working across the city.

Stay tuned for some cool dispatches from a luggage compartment of a local train.

We’ll also spend a morning and “community day” at Dharavi, Mumbai’s biggest slums, with Reality Tours & Travel, an NGO invested in the community. Our visit to townships in South Africa was enlightening and broke down many stereotypes; we expect the same at Dharavi.

From Mumbai we fly to Srinagar in Kashmir for a night or two in a houseboat. This marks the starting point for the overland journey by bus to get to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. The route usually takes two days but we may stop off at villages along the way to trek into the Himalayas and visit Buddhist monasteries. We’ll also use Leh as a hub for planning other hikes in the area.

As for how we’re getting back from Ladakh to Mumbai to catch the return flight to Tokyo and then to Seattle on the Dreamliner, that’s TBD. We have a few options in mind, including a land route through Manali, but quite honestly, we just don’t know.

While we’d love for you to follow along in real-time with our Ladakh adventures, we’ve been told that connectivity and mobile data is rather limited in the mountains. It’s likely we’ll be checking out.

But for when we do have connectivity please follow along with our Mumbai and Ladakh adventure with the hashtag #dna2india on our Instagram, Twitter & Facebook streams.

So Dan, is this just a long way of saying you’re going to India tomorrow?

Yes.

Disclosure: This article and trip is entirely unsponsored. That’s to say we officially owe nothing to no one. Unofficially, don’t get me started. Om.

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Comments

  1. says

    Fantastic story, although I am exceedingly jealous that you won the tickets as I never seem to win anything in the “biz card in the fishbowl” life. Can’t wait to hear about your time there.

  2. James Weber says

    Crazy awesome story. Sounds like things worked out in a “meant to be” kind of way. As always, you guys are inspiring and awesome! Carry on and ill be following the feeds!

  3. says

    Ahh- so this is the story! When I met Audrey at the Travel Massive party (which was a highlight of the week in Toronto- meeting one of your favorite bloggers! Bummed I didn’t meet you!) she mentioned the “winning” and the road that’s rarely open. Very cool! I love the visual of her piking up like a vault gymnast to collect the prize!! Hilarious. Y’all are adorable. Have fun and look forward to following your tweets, fbook and insta feeds!

  4. says

    On a rainy Thursday morning, sipping coffee at my in-law’s a place starts to take shape in my head (while planning my first Asia trip) – Ludakh! What a wonderful start for my day. Thank you!

  5. Zoe McAlear says

    No matter how many times I come back to this article or see it posted somewhere, I read the title as “Ladakh: Duck Lumb…”. It throws me off every time. It must have something to do with the interesting consonants in Ladakh that I keep getting them mixed up.
    Anyways, wishing you guys a great trip – sounds like quite the adventure. I’m sad I won’t be at the family gathering in July to hear the stories, but if you happen through Michigan, let me know! :)

  6. says

    @Rhonda: I rarely win anything in the fishbowls either. But it’s nice to be married to someone who does.

    @James: Meant to be, indeed.

    @Lindsay: So you got the live version of the story. Cool. Sorry we didn’t meet. Next time!

    @Madhu: T If we end up in Delhi, we’ll definitely let you know. Thanks for a terrific invitation. Would be so much fun. Limited time might prevent us from a stop in Delhi this visit. However, we’ll leave things open.

    @Marinela: Travel dreaming over a coffee. Love the image.

    @Zoe: Lame duck, maybe? Thanks. Will do. Hugs.

  7. Sutapa says

    I know EXACTLY what you mean when you describe your experience with the 10 year India visa!! I tried to get an OCI card (sort of like a green card for people who are of Indian origin) and actually cried at the outsourcing center!! They then took pity on me and returned my passport (yes in those days they used to take the US passport ). So then I applied for the 10 year and while not exactly smooth, it wasn’t as traumatic but I still lost a lot of hair follicles.

    Good luck with Mumbai and Ladakh. You guys have travelled more than me in India so I would not presume to tell you what to do.

  8. says

    I’ve been so much luckier since I’ve been with Scott, so I know what it’s like to be thankful for any freebie that may come your way! Enjoy India – your visa process sounds ridiculously complicated and stressful so I’m sure you’ll enjoy the experience even more.

  9. MattW says

    I went to Leh last year, had the same fun with the outsourced Indian visa process and hassles at the Delhi airport but was worth it in the end. In November half the town was closed down for winter, it will definitely be busier at this time of year. Try the The Wok Tibetan Restaurant (eastern side of Main Bazaar Rd, head south from the mosque), run by Tibetan exiles, nice guys and cheap, tasty food.

    Friends have done the Leh-Manali highway… sounded quite long and torturous but scenery was spectacular. The Border Roads Organisation has a good sense of humour, watch the yellow-and-black signs along the side of the road :)

  10. says

    We were shopping for Indian visas first in Africa. There in Tanzania they promised us 3 months and kindly advised us to detour to Finland if we want more. In Malaysia they happily accept applications and fees and in a few days return you only a rejection notice. We got lucky in Yangon Myanmar and got a six month visa. It could have worked also Sri Lanka where people go to do visa-runs from India. If you plan to stay in India more than six months, better check carefully your visas. There might be limitations for the length of stay and requirements for forceful exits, visa-runs, and possible waiting periods between entries and exits. Enjoy India!

  11. says

    “The India visa outsourcing process requires that you have residency in the locale at whichever Indian embassy or consul you happen to be applying.” Not quiet true in the US. The process requires this for *mailed applications* (as they will only be returned back to the address on the ID in most cases, which is a serious pain). In-person applications are still the standard 3 hours in NYC (drop it off at 9am and return between 12:15 and 12:30 <- they are a sticker for picking it up in that 15 minutes though). I've done this three times (once for the 10 year business visa, once to move said visa into a new passport (as they are transferable), and once for the 10 year tourist visa for my wife (who has a different last name)). No secondary documentation/proof of residency (i.e. license) is required, even for me doing the dropping off/picking up (as I worked closer to the center at the time in April 2012).

    Enjoy Ladakh! (I'm a bit jealous!)

    @GlobalNomads That is definitely spot on and can be a serious pain for those of us with different requirements (i.e. tourist visas require either a detailed itinerary on first entry if say going to Nepal and then back to India or a few weeks/months in-between the next visit to India. Business visas, however, don't have this requirement (at least for the 10 year ones)).

  12. says

    I WILL NEVER PASS A BOWL WITHOUT DROPPING MY CARD IN IT AGAIN. I’m simultaneously jealous and delighted and can’t wait to hear about your travels in India. It’s one of those places I haven’t gotten to yet.

  13. says

    So exciting, you two! I love this… My grandpa always told my mom, “90% of success in life is showing up” – and I’ve been happy to live by that little line for years, now. Yes, I’ve probably entered one too many raffles and had to unsubscribe from ten too many e-newsletters, but I’ve also scored some pretty amazing opportunities. Congratulations on the win, and well done on the hoop-jumping. Go enjoy India!

  14. says

    This is so exciting, guys! I once heard an Indian man describe Ladakh as ‘ the moon of India’ because of its landscapes and I cannot wait to see the photos. I love both your persistence and your good humor in telling the story of this!

  15. Navina says

    Damn!!! r u guys out of Mumbai already? m so sad to have seen this post soo late… did u like the street food? fine dining? pav bhaji? pani puri? vada pav? chaat?…mouth watering? stomach wrenching?… i’ll be keeping my eyes open for a post on Mumbai…specially the food…(i’m from Mumbai & often refer to it as Bombay since thats what i’ve grown up with!)… and Ladakh is beautiful!! ur gonna have such an amazing time.. @Dan – ur photographs will be amazing out there… M so excited u guys r in India :) welcome to my country (and my city)

  16. says

    @Sutapa: Bureaucracy can truly bring us to tears, can’t it? Having said that, this process was relatively and surprisingly pain free. Though I think part of that had to do with the fact that we followed all instructions to the letter in hopes that absolutely no mistake could be made.

    @MattW: Thanks for the suggestion. We downed dozens of Tibetan momos across restaurants in Leh. We didn’t take the Leh-Manali highway, but instead traveled Srinagar-Leh via 2-day bus one way and overnight jeep the other. More story on that coming up.

    Love those road signs. We first saw them in Sikkim a few years ago. We’ll pay homage to all the great sayings in a Facebook fan page post in the next day or two.

    @Paivi and Santeri: Detour from Tanzania to Finland for more time on your Indian visa. That’s bizarre!

    We’ve been through the India machine a couple of times now. I have to say it gets better each time. And now that we have 10-year visas, we are happily set for a while.

    @John: You are absolutely right. I will correct that. The residency requirement for the India visa was attached to the fact that we were applying by mail. However, it is possible (we did it) to return the passport back to a different mailing address.

    Am glad to hear that visas are transferrable, as we hope to move it from the current passport (expiring in 1 year) to a new one. Though, I saw a guy at Mumbai airport immigration who just carried his old, expired passport (with the India visa) along with his new, current passport. They seem to accept that.

    @TurfSurf: It was even more remarkable than expected, which is saying a lot. More stories to follow. Keep dropping the cards in the fishbowls.

    @Bethany: True that about showing up. It’s at least a good first step :)

    @Roxanne: Persistence. Turns out we needed a lot of that throughout this journey. Stories coming up!

    @Navina: Thank you! Not sure if you’ve seen our post and thread about South Indian Food

    @Danimal: I’m dying laughing.

  17. says

    @Dan “However, it is possible (we did it) to return the passport back to a different mailing address.” They do now, but only after serious complaints due to some short sightedness. When the embassy first started outsourcing this (~2010 for trials), they only took the address that what was on your ID. It was a huge pain since US drivers licenses rarely have the correct one (ex: NYS ones are good for 10 years and are not reissued on address changes). The only way around it was to do it in-person, which added significantly to some people’s cost and after enough complaints they finally dropped that requirement.

    Yes, Indian immigration will accept visas in expired passports for the lifetime of the visa. The transfer, however, is free(!) and much less of a headache than explaining to some other country’s immigration why you’re carrying around expired passports. :-)

  18. says

    @John: Ugh. Glad to hear the visa process overseers came to their senses.

    I hope you’re right about the Indian visa transfer cost. On the Travisa website, I think it lists the visa transfer fee as $35. Hopefully this isn’t fully outsourced now and can be done at any embassy (I’m thinking maybe Berlin for us, or perhaps Washington DC).

  19. says

    @Dan: Ah, so it may be still ‘free’ (embassy wise), but the outsourcer still gets paid for the shuffle. According to the Berlin Embassy site transfers are 6€ + 2€ fee. Except if you’re British….then it’s 197€ + 2€! =:-| The 5 year UK tourist visa is listed at an eye-watering 957€…..yikes! Best to call ahead before deciding: http://www.indianembassy.de/pages.php?id=27

  20. says

    Ladakh is absolutely gorgeous – you guys are going to love it – if possible, find locals you can stay with in Leh and in the mountains… Look forward to reading your stories from there :)

  21. says

    Ladakh’s great, out of this world and nothing like the India picture we carry in our minds. I hope you guys are having/have had a great time there. You also live in our second home, Germany – what a small world!

    Great work on this blog and all the best!

  22. says

    That’s great that you not only won the tickets (just a little jealous)but that you are going to a destination that you were inspired by so many years ago! Very interesting story and I hope you have a wonderful time!

  23. Srivathsa says

    What amazing luck. We had our share too – we won return tickets once to Langkawi from Singapore after my wife dropped off some coupon at Carrefour.

    On the visa – it’s payback time for all the stuff we go through when we want an American visa :).

    Get in touch via email if you need a meal/roof over your head while in Bombay.

  24. says

    @Charukesi: We did in fact absolutely love Ladakh. The stories are coming this week on the blog and probably won’t end for a while.

    @Pratibha: Indeed, a small world connection!

    @Barbara: Thank you. The whole thing, luck and tie-back to years ago all just seemed to fit. And it was a terrific trip. Stories coming soon…

    @Srivathsa: I hear you. Visa treatment is almost always reciprocal.

    Thanks for the offer in Bombay/Mumbai. Though we are no longer in India at the moment, we may just take you up on your offer next time we’re there. Which neighborhood are you in?

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