Getting my Pakistani visa

I have not traveled very much in my life, at least not internationally. So, in that way, this has been quite a remarkable year for me. Kris and I traveled to Ireland for a Christmas holiday early in our married life. I presented a paper at a conference in Aix-en-Provence in my last year as a graduate student, after which Kris joined me and we drove around France, took a train to Amsterdam (arriving, quite by accident on the Queen’s Birthday), before flying back to Seattle from Amsterdam. Excluding Mexico and Canada then, the only other significant travel before this was the trip to Singapore, Bangkok, and Siem Reap three years ago.

Largely, getting a visa is relatively easy for Americans. Many countries grant Americans tourist visas automatically upon arrival in the country. Long time blog readers will recall that we did have some trouble getting our Chinese visa. The Sri Lankan visa process was tricky, but then we were applying to reside in Sri Lanka, not just be tourists in Sri Lanka. (In fact, Sri Lanka is a country that automatically grants tourist visas to Americans upon arrival.)

Well, I have already given away the surprise in the title of this posting, but I was invited to travel to Pakistan by the United States Educational Foundation in Pakistan (USEFP) and I returned  yesterday from a nine day visit to that country. I am now back in Sri Lanka, safe and sound. I did not post about my trip in advance because I knew that some readers of this blog would be alarmed at the prospect of me going to Pakistan. But let me say that, just as the news reports about Sri Lanka give one a grossly exaggerated view of the danger of traveling to Sri Lanka, the same can be said for Pakistan. I can honestly say that at no time while I was in Pakistan did I feel the slightest anxiety about my safety.

But, of course, before I could travel to Pakistan, I had to obtain a visa. This turned into the most uncertain and most expensive visa application process to date.  I started by finding the web site of the Pakistani High Commission in Colombo (“High Commission” is the English-system term for “Embassy.”) I then tried to email to get instructions on how to apply. Every email address that looked even remotely appropriate turned out to be dead email addresses. Despite hating talking on the phone because of my hearing problems, I finally contacted the HC by phone. A nice person gave me the correct URL for the instructions to apply for the visa. So I downloaded and studied the requirements.

Requirement number one, since I was not a tourist, was a letter of invitation from my hosts, the USEFP. This was duly and timely supplied. Requirement number two is to fill out a long application form. Not too bad. Requirement number three is a fee of about $100. This seems somewhat odd and discriminatory against Americans, since a Sri Lankan traveling to Pakistan would have only had to pay a visa fee of $1.  I was to learn later that the reason the fee is so high is that this is what the US charges Pakistanis (and Sri Lankans and Indians, among others) to come to the US. Requirement number four is two 1″x1″ photos of myself.

So, I gather all this stuff together and head off on a three hour train ride to Colombo. A tuk-tuk takes me to the Pakistani HC. A big, beautiful plaque proclaims this gate to be the Pakistani HC. I tell the guard that I am here to apply for a visa. He takes me inside where a woman tells me that I have to go to the other entrance where they accept visa applications. So I turn toward an interior hall and ask if this is the right way. No! I have to go back out onto the street, walk about 100 m (100 yards) back up the side street that this entrance faces, turn left on the main road, walk maybe 35 m from this side street to the next side street, then 100 m back down the side street to the other side of the same house.

I do so. Now I find myself at the end of the side street, not a sign in sight. I walk around a bit. I back  track a bit to see if I missed a sign, then finally try a little alley to the left of the end of the side street with a half-open gate at the end. I approach the gate and discover that there is a plaque on the part of the gate that is open that proclaims this as the Pakistani HC, but with the gate open, the sign is not visible from the road.

I walk into the courtyard where I find a covered, outdoor area furnished with down-at-the-heel living room type furniture. To one side are parked the motorbikes of the HC employees. A Sri Lankan policeman strolls around the courtyard, bored to tears. There is an oldish man sitting on a chair in the covered area. He asks what I want. I tell him I wish to apply for a visa. A flicker of surprise appears, briefly, in his eyes and then his expression returns to its impassive state. He motions me toward a window in the side of the building. Again, a brief flicker of surprise, and then a cold glare that I last saw on the faces of Cambodian border guards. I hand him my papers and he begins to examine them. He actually seems to warm up a bit as I really did seem to have everything in order. Things were looking up. After asking me to take a seat, he goes off to consult someone and comes back after some time. There was just one problem, he said. You have to explain your presence in Sri Lanka by means of a letter from the Fulbright Commission. I am to arrange to have the letter sent and then come back in a few days.

Rats! Well, it is not too bad. As the HC is not too far from the Fulbright office, I take a tuk-tuk over there. In addition to the very friendly people, the new Fulbright office (the  US  Sri Lankan Fulbright Commission, USSLFC) is one of the better air conditioned places in Colombo and I was cooked after waiting in the open air at the Pakistani HC.

Hold on, the USSLFC  people say. For me to travel out of the country, I need the permission of the USSLFC  board of trustees. Translated, this means no letter today. Sigh. So I do a few errands and take the three hour train ride back to Kandy, bloody, but unbowed. On the train, on the way back,  I get a phone call from the superintendent of the visa section of the Pakistani HC in  Colombo (the guy who was sitting behind the window). He tells me that the Pakistani consul wants to see me, can I come back tomorrow at 10AM. Oh, and they still need a letter from Pakistan. Well, no, I  tell him that I can’t come back tomorrow because I have to teach, but I can come back next Tuesday. Yikes! I say to myself. Why would the Pakistani consul want to see me? As for the letter, I assumed that since he already had a letter from my hosts in Pakistan, he had misspoken and really was referring to the letter from the USSLFC.

Well, I was a bit freaked about the consul meeting. I contacted the USSLFC and the  Fulbright liaison at the US Embassy in Sri Lanka and asked for a clue what this might be about. Should I go alone or should someone from the US Embassy accompany me? I almost, but did not say, “You did not see the look in the superintendent’s eyes! Can I please have a Marine come with me?” That is when I learn that interviews are routine. The US Embassy interviews every applicant for a visa to the US.  I was told it was likely he just wanted to ask me questions about why I was going to Pakistan. Wear a tie.

Fast forward to next Tuesday. The USSLFC board had approved my request by email and a letter was waiting for me at the USSLFC office. I hopped on the train (or I hopped as well as I can hop at 0610  in the morning) and rode back down to Colombo. A tuk-tuk took me to  the USSLFC office where I picked up my  letter, then off to the Pakistani  HC.  I proudly turned over my letter and was shown to the consul’s office for my interview. The consul (actually is business card said “counsellor” so I am less sure that he was “the” consul) sat behind a large desk. I sat on a chair across the desk from him and there was a muted TV in the corner of the room off to my right that was showing what looked to be the Pakistani equivalent of CNN.

The consul started by calling me a brave man for volunteering to come to Sri Lanka. I told him that I was not so much brave as a better than average calculator of statistical risks. Then he asked why I would take on the perhaps increased risk of going to Pakistan. I told him that I was not crazy, that evangelizing about computation science was not worth dying over, but that I had confidence in the determination of the USEFP, backed by the US Embassy in Pakistan, that I could make the trip safely. As it was, my travel was restricted strictly to the capital city of Islamabad.

Then he asked me what I perceived to be the cause of the trouble in Pakistan. I do not know what possessed me to say anything other than “I don’t know”, but I said, “Well, it can’t be helping that the US is killing people in Pakistan in Predator drone attacks  without the permission of the Pakistani government.” “Exactly!” he said, and he launched (if you will pardon the pun) into a half  hour lecture on the situation in Pakistan. The drone attacks were killing civilians as well as militants, the people in the country were angry, causing them to sympathize with and support the militants. He told me that no one had ever conquered the people in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The British (“upon whose empire the sun never set”) could not conquer these people, the Russians with all their brutality could not conquer these people, and the Americans were failing in their  efforts to conquer these people, so “Why does the West expect tiny Pakistan to do what no other country in history has been able to accomplish?” The drone attacks are big news in Pakistan and three times during the half hour lecture images of drones appeared on the TV. Each time they appeared the consul interrupted his lecture to point the drones out to me. Basically, I replied with sympathetic noises, because I am sympathetic. Frankly, I expected that Obama would have stopped the drone attacks upon taking office. It really is a provocation and an insult to an ally to be bombing  their country without their active participation. At the end of the interview, pleasant words were uttered and it looked promising once again.

The superintendent of the visa section showed me to the open-air waiting area, returned to talk to the consul, and returned about fifteen minutes later. It turned out that I had not misheard about the need for another letter from Pakistan. My letter of invitation from the USEFP included the information that I would be attending a Fulbright Alumni conference to be held at the Allama Iqbal Open University in Islamabad. They now wanted a letter from the Allama Iqbal Open University confirming that there was indeed a conference to be held there. Sigh, no visa today. Back to Kandy, empty-handed.

Well, that Tuesday was the day before the entire nation of  Sri Lanka takes off to celebrate Sinhala and Tamil New Year for ten days.  Things were starting to get a bit tight. But, hey, it was just one more letter, right?

The USEFP arranged to have the letter faxed to the Pakistani HC in Colombo. As expected, I did not hear from them until the end of the New Year’s break.  “Where is your letter?” the superintendent asked?  “I was told it had been faxed to you,” says I.  “It has not been received.” So off I go to fax my copy of the letter to them. The deadline is getting closer. I call the next day to ask if the letter had been received? “No.” I panic a bit. Maybe the HC  just does not want to tell me straight out that they do not want me to go to Pakistan and are giving me the runaround instead. After all, fax machines give receipts. In a last ditch effort, I re-send a fax of my copy of the letter and the USEFP  re-sends their fax of the original.

The deadline has arrived. My flight leaves early Friday morning April 24th. It leaves so early in the morning that I decide to spend the night in a hotel in Negombo (the town closest to the airport) the night before, so I can get some sleep before leaving on the long trip. I hire a car and driver to take me to the Pakistani HC on Thursday the 23rd. One of two things will happen. The visa will be denied, I will retrieve my passport, and be driven back to Kandy. Or the visa will be waiting for me and the driver will take me to Negombo, the town closest to the airport. I am uncertain enough that I do not even book the hotel room in advance, relying on the depressed travel industry for an available room.

My driver  comes at noon on the 23rd. We drive to the Pakistani HC and arrive at 3PM. This is an hour before they open their window  to hand out visas. But, as  I settle into an old sofa to wait, the old man in the courtyard announces my presence to someone and the superintendent of the visa section of the Pakistani High Commission in Colombo appears a few minutes later. I pay him the $100. He wants four photos. I am savvy enough by now that, despite the fact that the website indicated that only two photos were necessary, I am, in fact, carrying eight.  I hand them over without mentioning the discrepancy. And he hands me my passport with the Pakistani visa affixed therein.

So, off we go to Negombo. I decide to do a little scouting for my sister Shannon’s arrival and we go to the Brown’s Beach Hotel.  This seems promising as it is an Aitkens Spence property, the same company that owns the Kandalama Hotel. This hotel is relatively old and the prices correspondingly less. I am received in high style. Yes, they have a room. I, in turn, have a valid  credit card and a residence visa qualifying me for the resident rate. The room with breakfast comes to about $50. Upon completion of the financial arrangements, someone drapes a (cheap, but it is the thought  that counts) shell necklace over my head and a cold fruit juice is supplied. A ride to the airport is arranged for the morning (about $15) as is wireless Internet access in my room (about $12  for 24 hours).

The hotel is in a lovely setting. It is right on the beach. Every room has a balcony that overlooks the Indian Ocean. The downside is that once you leave the lobby area, the age of the hotel shows. The room could use a paint job. Some of the fixtures are dated. The rooms are not sealed against mosquitoes. But everything works, including the air conditioning, and for $50/night, it is a bargain. Not recommended for honeymooners, but recommended for people who want a reasonably priced place to stay on the beach.

So, I checked my email, sent a message to my Pakistani host that I was on my way, did some web surfing, had dinner at the hotel restaurant overlooking the ocean, missed Kris, and turned in early.

More on Pakistan in my next installment.




  1. Kara said,

    May 8, 2009 at 4:24 am

    Great visa story Tim, on par with some of the ones I hear from students and exchange visitors coming to the US (an 8 hour standing only line in London a few years ago, and no loo — for a couple in their 70s).

    Incidentally, it’s not just visa fees that are reciprocal with the US –it’s limits on length of validity.

  2. Anna said,

    May 14, 2009 at 8:45 am

    Wow, what a great story. Your persistence is admirable. Your negotiation of a tsunami of ministrivia is awe inspiring. And I am totally impressed that you wore a tie. Anna

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