There are quite a few hurdles that come with being a volunteer in Nepal, and one of the more bizarre processes is the business of obtaining a working visa here.
Both Athena and I are here as offical members of staff for our respective partner organisations, Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital (TUTH) and Kirtipur Municipality respectively. These are each semi-government and government organisations, under the purview of the federal Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration. When our organisations enlist the help of a volunteer from a foreign country (us), they require sign-off from the relevant persons within the ministry before they can eventually procure our working visas.
The word eventually here is key. The process of compiling paperwork, verifying documents, submitting it to the relevant bodies (especially interdepartmentally), and prodding just the right amount so as not to raise the ire of some key stakeholder is a long and complicated one. But with this process comes the liability of delaying an incoming volunteer long enough for them to realise that maybe all they really wanted was a sea change to somewhere along the NSW East Coast, or simply more flexible working hours at the job they already have in Sydney (a hypothetical example, of course). So in the meantime, Athena and I are here in Nepal on a Tourist Visa, which entitles us to stay in Nepal for 90 days, with multiple entries for an additional fee (which Athena required for the sake of her training in Mumbai).
Within two weeks of our arrival, we’re joined with our partner organisations as offical members of staff, bearing a title and responsibilities, but omitted from the payroll. For those curious, the Australian Government funds the Australian Volunteers Program, as part of its foreign aid budget. For most of the people who read our ramblings on this blog, this means that your taxes feed, clothe, transport, and shelter us while we try our best to build capacity here during our stint, so thank you!
To the surprise of nobody, the 90-days of our Tourist Visa were coming to a close, and neither of our working visas had been procured. For us, this meant heading to the Department of Immigration and extending our tourist visa for another two months.
Athena had taken the time to use the Department of Immigration Online Portal, producing a completed application form to print and submit at the Department of Immigration office. So with documentation in hand, we cut our Friday workday short and made our way to Kathmandu’s bustling centre to submit our application and payment.
Inside the Department are a series of touchscreen computer terminals that provide access to the Department of Immigration Online Portal, allowing walk-ins to prepare their documentation onsite. With documentation in hand however (which Athena had prepared at home and printed at work), we approach the stall immediately to the right to check for propriety, before being instructed to take it to a further window to pay. There are no credit/debit card facilities—which struck me as odd—as the payment stalls have IME Bank writ large across their facade, so when we asked if there’s an ATM nearby, we were instructed to walk to the front gate, and use the IME Bank ATM there. The Rs. 500 (~$AU6.49) surcharge appended to all ATM withdrawals are apparently too precious to part with for this operation.
After payment is complete, we take our documentation to yet another counter, and submit it along with a receipt confirming our payment, surrendering our passport for processing. At this point we’re asked to sit, and await the return of our passport by the clerk. So we sit. And we try to estimate the time we’ll be waiting by trying to recall the order of the other tourists who’ve made their way to the Department for the same reasons as us.
We’re hungry because we each left work at lunchtime to make it here before they close at 2:30pm today (Friday traditionally being a day where businesses close early). And we’re sitting at what must be a staircase leading straight to the canteen downstairs—because people who are clearly not tourists, yet aren’t wearing business attire keep producing plates of food that are walked up to the subsequent floor or towards the stalls, disappearing behind the booths to where our passports are being processed.
Finally, my name gets called, and I receive my passport; now renewed for the final two months that the Department of Immigration are allowing us to continue being “tourists”. Shortly afterwards, Athena’s passport also emerges, bearing the same conditions and an identical newly affixed, passport-sized form on one of its previously blank pages. At last! we can think about where we’d like to eat. Somewhere special perhaps? After all, we left work a little early to process our visa extensions, and we finally get to have lunch in the city together on a weekday (which is unusual as we work in different directions from home).
But the lure of the canteen downstairs amidst the summer afternoon heat is too much. The Department’s canteen is large room, separated in half by bench tops, and tucked away beside a large undercover vehicle parking area. As we walk in, we’re greeted by one of the Didīs (elder sister in Nepali)—who can clearly see that we’re hungry, but not yet convinced about the quality of the food—who rattles off a list of our options.
We opt for tea, and a samosa; but looking around we see the other customers enjoying aloo paratha, and order two for ourselves. We should know by now that unassuming kitchens like this turn out some of the best food that Nepal has to offer. We’re glad we ordered the aloo paratha, relishing it as we consider our predicament.
For this moment we’re tourists, although we’ve been working for two months already as officials of our respective (semi-)government partner organisations. And we hope that in these next two months, our trinity of identities coalesce into one, lest this once and final extension to our tourist visa runs out, and we’re asked to leave the country prematurely.