I've had to get visas in the past. Getting a permanent visa for the Czech Republic was an absoluteley harrowing experience, for example. So I guess I should have been more prepared for a hassle when I went to get a single-entry visa to Russia today.
Yesterday I found out that my invitation letter from my sponsor was not sufficient and I would have to send away for an official invitation letter from the Russian Ministry of Affairs. Within the day, and $45 dollars later, I had it. So far so good. Now this letter is to confirm that I have a place to stay. So now officially I am staying at the "Hotel Budapest". I can assure you I am not. This document then is a required forgery, provided by the state.
Nevertheless, today I went to the Russian embassy with all of my papers in order, or so I thought. I had downloaded application forms of the internet, I had affixed photos to the applications, and had in my possesion all of the other required documents. I was well prepared. I was not as well prepared for the scene outside the embassy.
The Russian embassy in Prague has a big fence and gate in front. A man with a blue, puffy face lets people in and out to keep the crowds down inside. So outside, it is a free for all. I tried to be diplomatic, but after nearly two hours I was smashed up to the front like everyone else. The whole time, mind you, there are people who are coming just for a pick-up and they wave their slip of paper and fight their way through the crowd. One lady that was aquiring visas as a job helped me out a little and I finally got in. I went through a metal detector, but my bag was not searched.
There was a very small Asian man right in front of me at the window. The man behind the window was staring at him, shaking his head. My compatriate was vaguely arguing, looking stunned. Within 30 seconds, the man behind the window called for the security guy, and the Asian man was escorted out to the crowd beyond the fence, the whole time looking confused and helpless.
Undaunted, I stepped up to the window and presented my "perfect" applications. He scoughed at them and handed me two, two-page applications to fill out. I sat down and got busy. The questions started getting hard.
Name every country you have visited in the last ten years, and the year visited.
For this question I was provided a single box about 3" X 1". Great. My first big European tour was 9 years ago, and I haven't exactly been sitting on my butt since then. Still, I could answer the question. Then came the questions that I could not possibly answer.
Name every school you have ever attended except "high school" and list their addresses and phone numbers.
List every non-profit group or charitable organization that you have ever worked for or donated to.
Then they ask if you have ever been arrested for anything or are or have ever been a drug-addict and so on. I told them what they wanted to hear.
I went back to the booth and the man behind the window asks for a copy of my passport and he wants the photos removed from the old application and fixed on to the new one (I should have known better but time was running out). I don't have a copy, and there is a copy machine right behind him, but he won't make one. I wander around in the lobby trying to figure this one out. There is no way I can leave and get back in. I ask the lady at the money desk. "Niet!" I get the lady at the next window to make me one, then I affix the photos to the new application, but by the time I get back to the window, the man behind it says, "We are closed. Come back tomorrow."
I step back, a bit dazed and prepare to leave. But in the meantime, the security gaurd (who also turned me down for a copy on his way to the back) has gone to the back. It is pretty cold outside, so before I go out the self-locking door to the courtyard, I am going to wait until someone else gives it a shot. Within a minute, a young, blond lady went out and found the gate locked. Well at least I got one thing right today! She comes to glass door pleading for help from me, of all people. I say in half shouts and sign language that the security gaurd is in the back. "Use the buzzer!" I say.
She returns to the gate where her boyfriend is waiting for her in the same place I had been imprisoned for the last two hours, and oh how I longed to be back there. Now I was stuck in the place that I had worked so hard to get in. After a while, the man behind the window yelled at me that they are closed and I should leave, I yelled back that it is locked. I yelled becuase you would have to to be heard: He is behind the window and I am now like 6 feet away from it. He waves his hand at me dismissively and disappears.
There are four other people remaining in the office. Two of them have presently finished their business and have figured out the problem in the courtyard. The three of us continue to wait near the glass door. Only two people remain with unfinished business. Both are quite old and dressed very conservatively. They finish up at about the same time, and head out to the courtyard immediately with the gentleman in the lead. The young lady who has now been standing in the courtyard for about 20 minutes steps aside.
The gate opens easily and we all follow him out.
I can't wait until tomorrow.