Fayes T Kantawala is trying to get to Europe

In a glamorous turn of events, I have been invited to a wedding in Italy, so one of my life goals is achieved. My policy on weddings is strict: considering how many nuptials there are in Pakistan on any given day, especially in the winter, I have made it a policy to not attend any event unless I know either the bride or the groom well enough that we have shared at least one embarrassing incident. There are of course factors that force me to make exceptions (blood relatives, filial guilt, a good after-party) but generally the policy has kept me in good standing and ensured that when I do attend a wedding, it’s because I actually want to be there. I believe this helps everyone involved and more people should adopt the rule.

In this case, the wedding means I have to get myself a Schengen visa. Summer is the time when anyone who has international travel plans and a Pakistani passport begins the long and arduous task of applying for visas far and wide. It is one of the things that unites us as a people, this leper status at international embassies, and has been the constant backdrop against which I have made travel decisions for as long as I can remember. We can’t take jaunty trips on the spur of the moment. Last minute tickets are not for us. No, every trip I have ever taken has been carefully planned, booked, funded and its itinerary filled out in triplicate in front of an officious visa office bearer before I’ve even considered what I should pack.
It is one of the things that unites us as a people, this leper status at international embassies

In Lahore we often have to travel to Islamabad to be able to get most of our visas. I have always envied people in Karachi the comparable ease of having consulates in their city that issue visas, but over the years the process has become so strict and regulated that even they have to fly to Islamabad, so at least there is relief that most of us only have to take a four-hour drive to The Most Boring City. The latest hurdle to getting any visa is that most embassies have retreated behind the high walls of the diplomatic enclave, and you have to take a bus from a different location in order to be able to get to your appointment in time. The whole process is strict, cumbersome and in many ways humiliating.

You probably thought, as I used to, that getting a visa for a county when you are already abroad may be easier. It’s not, really, or at least not for every country. I know that when you live in America getting a visa for Canada doesn’t take very long, presumably because they think if you’re already in the States you are less of a flight risk. This may or may not have changed since the Trump election but, you know, fingers crossed. Before I went to Mexico for the first time I had to fill out extensive paper work and get an appointment at the Mexican consulate in New York weeks in advance. They wanted all sorts of details I wasn’t prepared for, and I even had an hour-long interview. The one thing I do remember vividly from that appointment is that all the visa officers were seated behind these glass kiosks. There were stepping stools to help you reach eye level, but most people at that consulate line were 5 foot 5 and below. When I didn’t use the stepping stool, people began taking pictures of me on their phone and pointing me out to their giggling children. It took them seven weeks to give me the visa, which I thought was odd but in all likelihood an indication of just how long it takes Mexicans to get visas to come to the U.S.

The process for obtaining a Schengen visa remains difficult and exhausting for most Pakistanis

The same was also true of the tiny island of St. Lucia, where I had to show more paperwork than I had ever done before, and all for a three-day trip. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the Pakistani cricket team was playing a match there at the same time, and they assumed I was traveling because I was an avid cricket buff. Thinking that was a better excuse than an all-over tan, I did not try to convince them otherwise.

I’ve been applying for European visas since before the Schengen visa existed. It made it easier to be able to pick any of the countries in the EU and see who had the shortest waiting time. The last time I applied for a visa in America was at the Dutch Consulate. They needed all the same documents you do in Pakistan – hotel reservations, proof of funds, travel insurance, passport pictures, travel history, your firstborn, etc. – but at least one could walk in during working hours and stand a chance of seeing a visa officer.

I tried to get an appointment a few weeks ago to begin my Schengen process. At least I don’t have to drive four hours and spend a night in Islamabad, I thought, progress is mine! But things have changed here. No one sees you without an appointment. The Italians’ next slot for one is in February 2018. The French (for reasons that remain deeply suspicious) want you to go to Atlanta for an interview no matter where you live. The Dutch don’t even give appointments anymore. So I’ve decided to change my plans and apply through Spain, thereby guaranteeing that although the wedding is in Italy, I will spend most of my time in a country I’ve longed to visit for years.

Wish me luck. As I do you. May the visas be with us all!

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