How did we end up in this mess? A quick refresher…
We were originally booked on a Spicejet flight from Kathmandu to Bagdogra (Nepal to India) on our way to Kalimpong, but Spicejet was going under (no one would sell them fuel at the time), and cancelled the flight, so we hastily booked a flight on the amazingly named Yeti Airlines, from Kathmandu to Bhadrapur (domestic, landing just inside the Nepal border). Our Nepal hosts (Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory) booked a car to drive us to Kalimpong…a 7 hour drive. We arrived, the car (a hip-hop mogul-worthy Tata Scorpio) was there, and we set off.
We drove across the border, a long bridge with soldiers in one uniform at one end, and soldiers in another uniform at the other. The border is wide open, with people walking, cycling and driving back and forth with total freedom. No one is passing through any sort of official checkpoint at all: there is none to be seen. The driver stopped and went into an office, and we got out thinking we were going through immigration, passports in hand. He emerged from the building, shoo’d us back into the car, we got in, and off we went. The next few minutes consisted of us peering out the back of the car at the receding border-area chaos, saying ‘That was so weird! We didn’t even talk to anyone! Did we submit paperwork beforehand? What the…. just happened!’ Anyway…off we went for the 7 hour drive through the mountains to the Jesuit-run Gandhi Ashram school in Kalimpong.
At 5am the next day I woke up with the words ‘oh ****!’ on my lips.
We never went through immigration, which meant we did not have an entry stamp, something immigration/passport control at Mumbai airport would absolutely require when we left the country at the end of the trip. Blue stamp when you come in, red stamp cancels it when you leave. The massive wheels of Indian bureaucracy would tear themselves apart when we tried to leave the country. We had a blue stamp from our original arrival, but it was cancelled with a red stamp when we flew to Nepal. We were now in the country illegally…our driver had unintentionally smuggled us into India! Oh dear.
Band meeting. Options discussed. Father Divya consulted. We went to the Tourist Registration office and explained the situation. Our passports were flipped through. Tea was served. Phone calls taken and made. They can’t help us. We have to go back to the border.
so…we went BACK, 7 hours through the mountains, to the border before taking the train to Kolkata, to get our precious blue stamps.
We found the Indian immigration office – it’s really not obvious, tucked away, well back from the road – and went in, filled out our paperwork, and I was first up to see the immigration officer. He idly asked some questions while he flipped through my passport, and then stopped, frowned, and said ‘where is Nepal exit stamp? You are still in Nepal!’ Yes, that’s right. Despite our obvious presence in the Indian immigration office, without that magic Red Stamp from Nepal — as far as the Indian Bureaucratic Machine was concerned — we were still there. Time to re-enter Nepal… so we could officially leave.
It’s close to 5pm at this point, and the officer informs us that the immigration offices on both sides of the border close at 6pm. We’d better book it!
So we walk across the border to Nepal (a 500m bridge, again no one blinks an eye…how many borders like this are there left on earth I wonder), find the Nepal immigration office (also not obvious), and, despite the excruciating peering-over-bifocals-one-finger-typing of the Nepali immigration officer, get our exit stamps. Time check the clock on the wall in the Nepali immigration office…it’s 5:40pm…yikes…we have to boogie back to India or the immigration office will be closed, and we will be stuck! BUT! Then we remember! Nepal is its own timezone, 15 minutes ahead of India! We have time to do it!!
So, we walk back to India, again passing multiple groups of armed Nepali and Indian soldiers, who again totally ignore us, go to the Indian immigration office, get our stamps, and are off!
Moral of the story: get your stamps, people.