Anyone who has been to India is well acquainted with the Indian head bob. It’s not a nod nor is it a shake. It’s as if one’s head has been temporarily disjointed from the spine and is bobbing about trying to relocate the hinge. So if you ask an Indian a question and get a head bob in response, you’re in for some guessing as to whether they’re in agreement or opposition.
In the process of getting together our Myanmar visa applications, we’ve met our fair share of headbobs over the past two days in Kerala. The visa application instructions are straight forward – submit a passport, completed application, passport pictures, confirmed itinerary and banker’s check to The Embassy of Myanmar in New Delhi. We were advised not to mail any important documents within India, so decided we’d give our applications to my mother to hand deliver on her January 2nd trip to New Delhi. The processing time is up to six weeks and we are already cutting it close to our February 10th departure to Yangon.
Our first task was to print the application forms and our itinerary. We headed into the closest town, Kottayam, which, with about a hundred thousand residents, is a small town by Indian standards. The results of our visit to a storefront marked ‘Business Center’ were flimsy paper sheets brushed with faint ink too hard to read. We asked to reprint, to which the attendant headbobbed, smiled and said that he was out of toner. We decided to try an internet cafe, but as we approached, the owner began lowering the shutter. “Connection too slow, I’m closing for the day.” We proceeded to a third spot, where finally we were able to connect and print. An hour into the our errand run, we had one task accomplished.
On to the bank for the banker’s check. Sandeep’s parent have a great relationship with their local bank – they even sent a plum cake to the house for Christmas. Yet they refused to create a banker’s check to The Embassy of Myanmar “due to US, India and Myanmar tensions.” We didn’t want to be difficult foreigners and risk the family’s removal from the plum cake list, so we moved onto bank number two. Upon entry, we were told “Systems failure due to power outage. All computers are not working. Sorry.” Onto bank number three, where we stated our request to the teller, Sonya. She responded with a polite head bob and no words. We stated it again. This time the head bob came with verbal translation. “Sorry, you need to have an account with us to get a bankers check.” Luckily, my parents had joined us for what was supposed to be an hour of errands and happen to have an account at the bank. Dad pulled out his ID and bank card. Sonya studied it and head bobbed in response. Sheepish smile and more head bobbing “Sir, I can only issue you a bank card if you have your check book.” My mother has a bag of tricks in which she carries the contents of my parents’ house on her shoulders. She rummaged through and produced the appropriate checkbook. More vigorous headbobbing. We waited. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Finally, Sandeep asked if this would take much longer. Head bobbing, smiling. Sandeep asked again, stating we would be happy to step out for some lunch if it would. “Yes sir, maybe another half an hour.”
We were already half way through the day, so refueled next door at a South Indian restaurant whose efficiency was a stark contrast to our’s thus far. No sooner had we ordered than waiters came out with our thalis – pre-set meals of side dishes surrounding a central mound of rice. As the dishes ran low, waiters spooned in refills.
Sonya had disappeared when we returned to the bank, so we explained the situation to another teller. He was the only one who didn’t head bob back at us that day. He just stared blankly. Some discussion, some headbobbing amongst his colleagues and he came back with the check. It was stapled to several other checks, and he meticulously unstappled it, examined it, turned it around and restapled it back to the stack neatly facing the other direction. Sandeep asked if he could have the check please. Another blank look. Sandeep pointed at the check and then at himself. Head bobbing, unstapling, check handed over. Another task finally accomplished, but by this time it was nearing evening and we had a baptism to attend. We made what we thought would be a quick stop for passport pictures.
If you ever want to know what it’s like to be an Indian model, pay a visit to Bhaven’s Photo Shop in Kottayam and ask for a passport picture. It will only cost $4 and you’ll be treated to a choice of background – Bambi, the Parthenon, Niagara Falls, or plain white. Regardless of background, you’re in for 10 minutes of blinding lights, headbobbing art direction, (“head up”, “smile”, “less teeth”, “more hair”, etc) and plenty of encouragement encouragement “gooood”, “yes”, “nice”, I was almost expecting him to headbob “work it baby.”
After our photo shoot, we were told that the pictures wouldn’t be ready for at least a half hour. By this time, we had run out of time and had to get Kayan ready for his baptism. With no pictures in hand, we asked Sandeep’s parents’ helper to pick up them up later that evening.
This morning the helper announced “there was a road block yesterday so I didn’t get the pictures.” After what we had been through, I wasn’t sure if he was speaking figuratively or literally. Being New Year’s Day and a Sunday, every single establishment in Kottayam is shut down and we had no hope of retrieving our pictures or taking new ones. All two hundred thousand residents must be sleeping off their 2011 hangovers – Kerala does have the highest liquor consumption per capita of any state in India after all.
My mother is off tomorrow morning with our passports, forms, banker’s check and itinerary, but no pictures. Therefore, our task tomorrow is to procure the pictures from Bhaven’s and figure out how to send them overnight to New Delhi.
We have no margin of error at this point, so fingers are crossed that our last segment of this errand doesn’t spill into day four.