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Anyone for Vanuatu or the Grenadines?

Suresh Subrahmanyan, advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby

river

I recently spent an enjoyable holiday in Sri Lanka with my extended family. The weather was hot and humid but we were put up at a comfortable hotel in a seaside resort in Kosgoda. Seafood aplenty, washed down with lots of beer and generally lying about like beached whales under umbrellas and getting our quota of Vitamin D. I am not much of a one for crabs, lobsters, squids, clams, oysters and other delicacies from our mighty oceans, but everyone else was gorging the stuff like there was no tomorrow, while I nibbled away more conservatively at some veg and eggetarian fare.

I don’t swim so I could only admire the sea from a safe distance, except to allow a frothy wave to lap at my feet and ankles. Poet Sylvia Plath’s wonderful quote came to mind, ‘A second wave collapsed over my feet, lipped with white froth, and the chill gripped my ankles with a mortal ache.’ That is stretching it a bit but then, Ms. Plath was rather big on mortal aches. Played a bit of ping-pong, after decades, in the evening and one or two of us nearly came to grief attempting ambitious forehand and backhand smashes, managing only to fall heavily on our posteriors. Happily, no fractured limbs or mortal aches and we are still here to tell the tale.

So much for a brief synopsis of a somnolent holiday. The real reason for this piece is something entirely different. To my regret, we discovered that Sri Lanka was now offering entry for Indians into their lovely island country without having to pay an entry fee for visas. The regret stems from the fact that we had already obtained our visas a few weeks earlier, and had paid our USD 20 per head with no hope of a refund. Not that the fee was extortionate but still, one felt somewhat diddled out of something for nothing.

Now that I am back home, I was happy to learn that as many as 60 countries are offering Indian tourists visa-free entries. It was the work of a moment for me to study closely each of the 60 countries to prepare for my next holiday. What a delightful prospect awaits all Indian citizens. They can just flash their passports and waltz into any of these wonderful countries. One has watched with envy Europeans and Americans do that all the time at London Heathrow, JFK or Charles de Gaulle or wherever. Let us take a closer look at them, shall we? I mean the 60 countries, not the Yanks and the Europeans.

Taking it alphabetically, we kick-off with Albania, about which I know next to nothing. As a budding child philatelist, I liked their colourful postage stamps. The country is located in the Balkans abutting the Mediterranean not far from Greece, so I am guessing the scenery and food should be good. And with any luck, cheap. I will salt Albania away for future consideration.

Moving on to sunny Barbados in the West Indies, how can we cricket-mad Indians not want to visit the home of Sir Garfield St. Aubrun Sobers in Bridgetown? I believe the great all-rounder, arguably the greatest ever, is hospitable and happy to pose for selfies. If pressed, he just might invite you home for tea. Rum might be on offer if you are there when the sun goes down. Barbados, you betcha.

Bhutan is virtually like travelling in India, so it won’t count.

To the British Virgin Islands I shall give a wide berth, as it will be no different to travelling across to Sri Lanka or Goa. And anyway, it is in the Caribbean, where I already plan to visit Barbados to discuss cricket and raise a glass or three with Sir Garry. One can have too much of a good thing.

Cook Islands next. It is somewhere in the South Pacific, and if you are prepared to fly for close to 30 hours, take another 48 hours to recover from jet lag, only to stare bleary-eyed at the ocean and some mountainous scenery, well, good luck to you. Perhaps I should not be so pessimistic. This is the South Pacific we are talking about. Who knows, you may spend Some Enchanted Evening on the golden sands and you may see a stranger. The rest is up to you.

Dominica, El Salvador, Fiji, Grenada, Haiti and Jamaica are really more of what we have already talked about. Of course, if you are seeking a quick divorce, then Haiti is the hot spot for getting it done in the blink of an eye. Americans, who plan their divorce even before taking their marriage vows, were seen frequently landing in Haiti to effect a lightning quick separation, clearly a much more arduous process in the United States. And the icing on the cake? You can also get married again to your new flame almost immediately after the divorce papers are signed! It’s an all-in-one marriage and divorce package in Haiti. Avant-garde rock musicians Steely Dan, said it best when they sang these memorable lines from their funky number Haitian Divorce, ‘Oh, no hesitation / No tears and no hearts breakin’ / No remorse / Oh, congratulations / This is your Haitian divorce.’

Kazakhstan, Macao (SAR China), Micronesia (how much?), Mauritius, Montserrat, Nepal (that is virtually India, and sometimes China), Niue (never heard of it) so might be worth checking out. Oman, Qatar and Senegal do not greatly appeal to me. Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent, the Grenadines and Sri Lanka are like going to Goa. Trinidad & Tobago (we can check out Naipaul’s house for Mr. Biswas) and Tunisia, Thailand (aren’t we fed up with all those massages?), and what on earth, come to that where on earth is Vanuatu?

We then come to Botswana, Bolivia and Burundi. Not terribly keen. Cambodia is worth a visit. Don’t know much about Cape Verde Islands and Comoro Islands, though. What is with this obsession with a profusion of islands? Perhaps the tourism industry has been under the cosh and these islands wish to make it easier for people to visit them, buy some property and settle there permanently. Fugitive jeweller baron Mehul Choksi is holed up somewhere in one of these islands, so there just might be a darker agenda to this visa free lark.

I am not sure how observant you are, but we have gone clean off the accepted alphabetical order. When I say ‘we,’ I am referring to some functionary in Delhi’s North or South Block. I mean, how do Botswana and Cambodia come after Vanuatu, wherever that is? The government moves in a mysterious way, its wonders to perform.

However, we trudge on manfully. Or should I have said, personfully? A red line appeared below that word as soon as I typed it in, but what the hell? If Microsoft is ignorant of gender etiquette, there’s not a lot I can do about it. Back to these destinations that our government is so keen we should visit. Any takers for Mauritania, Mozambique and Myanmar? Didn’t think so. Mind you, I was two years old when my dad was posted briefly in Burma (now Myanmar), and I do have one or two faded, sepia bromides to remind me. I guess I will just stick to those memories and let sleeping Burmese lie.

Palau Islands? Again, with the islands, this one a closed book to me. Rwanda and Samoa? No, thank you, not even if you fly me first class at government expense. That goes for Sierra Leone and Somalia as well. These are what Wodehouse (bow in reverence) once described as 78 rpm countries (revolutions per minute). Seychelles only reminds me of that school boy tongue-twister, ‘She sells sea shells on the sea shore,’ but little else. Bringing up the rear are Saint Lucia, Tanzania, Timor-Leste, Togo and Tuvalu. Really?

Hurrah and huzzah, just two more to go. Two familiar names – Uganda and Zimbabwe. Whatever its current situation Uganda, part of East Africa, I shall always associate with Idi Amin, whose very name gives me the collywobbles. Beheaded human trophies in his freezer and so on. Nevertheless, among many Asian British passport holders who migrated to Britain from East Africa, notwithstanding Enoch Powell’s tantrums, were Rishi Sunak’s parents. Their boy has done well, hasn’t he? And he married that nice, rich girl from Bangalore. Not that the well-heeled Richie Rich Rishi is scraping the bottom of the barrel. That does not mean I will visit Uganda, but I shall fly to Britain. Once more with feeling.

The list ends, predictably on Z for Zimbabwe. I may have fleetingly considered Harare to take in a bit of cricket, but Zimbabwe’s cricket has taken a nose dive and they do not appear to be too interested in the game. Mind you, they once beat India in a World Cup fixture in England, but that was just one brief, shining moment. I have a simple question for Zimbabwean cricket. Where have all the Flowers gone? Perhaps I should focus on big game hunting, for which that part of the world is celebrated. Must watch Hatari! again.

If those 60 nations, which have come up with this generous bilateral agreement with India to let our denizens enter their ports without let or hindrance, are not quite to your taste, you can always opt for visa on arrival (which could involve some tedious form-filling at their airports) for such destinations as Azerbaijan, Benin, Colombia (you may never return), Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Lesotho, Tajikistan, São Tomé and Príncipe amongst others. More well-trodden nations like Singapore and Malaysia are on that list.

As for the United Kingdom, United States, France, Germany and all the other glamour countries in Europe and elsewhere, you will continue to pay through your nose, run from pillar to post, and when you finally do obtain your visa, you will wonder if it was all worth the trouble. Our Foreign Minister, Dr. Jaishankar had a Deepavali tea meet with his Japanese wife at 10 Downing Street last week. Presented Rishi with a cricket bat autographed by Virat Kohli. Surely that alone is worth the price of a visa-free entry into the UK for Indians? Not all Indians can get married to British ministers, leave alone Prime Ministers. Prime Minister Modi, only you can make the waters part. We are waiting.

Also read: Discovering travel through books

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