Getting from Here to There: Shakedown in Colombo, Sri Lanka

November 26, 2008: Ten members of the Pakistan-based Islamic terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out a series of 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks in Mumbai, India over four days. Death toll––175 people, including nine attackers, and over 300 injured. Avowed enemies, India blamed Pakistan, as did the international community. Pakistan itself condemned the attack.

India immediately instituted a series of restrictions to reduce the possibility of terrorists entering the country. One restriction required non-Indian citizens to wait 30 days before re-entering the country once they left, unless the Indian government granted them a pre-arranged authorization.

The monumental Ruwanwelisaya stupa in central Sri Lanka evokes a sense of awe.

Off to India, We Plan Ahead

Just over two years later Rick and I joined Eva and Suresh, our Indian travel pals, for a month in their home country, including a nine-day visit in the middle of the journey to the island country of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), located off the southern tip of the subcontinent to the east.

Aware of the 30-day restriction for re-entering the country, we visited the Indian Embassy in New York City a month before our U.S. departure to get the necessary authorization to re-enter India from Sri Lanka.

“No problem,” the clerk told us, instructing us to visit the Mumbai airport’s Indian Embassy office to obtain the necessary authorization stamp once we landed.

After collecting our luggage from the 1:00 a.m. landing and passing through immigration, we made our way to the appropriate office. The on-duty officer reviewed our tickets and travel confirmations, then stamped our passports to indicate we had permission to re-enter the country after nine days. We felt confident we followed proper procedures.

Image: Adobe Stock

Not So Fast

“You are not allowed to re-enter India for 30 days after you’ve left.” The tall, slightly built Air India ticket agent in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, returns our one-way tickets to India’s third largest city Chennai (formerly Madras). After an enjoyable nine days indulging in Sri Lanka’s culture and visiting several of its monumental historic sights, we were prepared to return to southern India for the final leg of our adventure.

Ahead of us at the counter, Eva and Suresh experience a quick check-in as dual citizenship holders for India and the United States. They disappear around the corner heading for the plane, unaware of our situation.

“Your government provided us with the required authorization to allow re-entry,” I said, handing him our passports. He stares at the stamp for a minute; his pencil-thin moustache forms a straight line over his lips pressed tightly together. He closes the passports and hands them back.

“These stamps are not valid. You’ll have to go to the local Indian consulate office tomorrow to obtain the proper stamp.” Stunned, a wave of panic washes over me as I call Eva on her cell phone. It’s turned off.

“We have to connect with our Indian friends. We begin a South India tour together tomorrow morning.” I hear my own voice strident with anxiety.

“I’m sorry. I can’t let you board.” Officiousness distorts his features. With his deep, authoritative tones, Rick attempts to convince the agent otherwise, but he is resolute. Until…

Image: Adobe Stock

Clerk’s Brainstorm is a Shakedown

“There is one way we can allow you to board.” He seems to surprise himself with his idea. “You can purchase two round-trip tickets from Colombo to Chennai at full price. This would demonstrate your intent to return to Sri Lanka. Hopefully the Indian immigration officer will allow you to enter the country once you land in Chennai.” I look at the clock on the wall behind the luggage conveyor belt. About 27 minutes to take-off. “Once in India, you can go to a local Air India office and get a refund.”

His brainstorm makes no sense to us, but we decide to go with his plan as the only way to get on the plane.

“Fine. Here’s our credit card.” I pull the blue Chase Sapphire card from my wallet.

“No credit card. Cash only,” he informs. Ah. Now it makes sense. He’s shaking us down for money. My mind wants me to jump over the counter and commit physical harm.

“Really?! We don’t have enough rupees to pay for the tickets,” I declare.

“No problem. There’s an ATM on the other side of the airport. I’ll go with you.” 

With the agent in the lead, the two of us dart through lines of passengers waiting to check into flights, past families saying goodbye to each other, and around carts piled precariously high with luggage. Rick stays at the counter to guard our stuff.

Just outside the terminal’s main entrance, I withdraw enough rupees to cover the cost of the round-trip tickets. Containing my resentment, I hand over the cash. Back at the counter, he prints out two boarding passes and the return tickets and sends our luggage to be loaded on the plane. We race to the gate with ten minutes left before departure.

“Where were you?” Worry lines crease Eva’s face.

“The agent shook us down! Now we hope India’s immigration officer lets us into the country.”

After the short one-hour flight, we stand at Chennai’s immigration desk. Besides a quick look at our passport and a glance at the stamp, the agent waves us through without a question. So there never was an issue with the stamp! We get to our hotel, drop bags in our room and head straight for the bar.

Postscript

A week later we make our way to the Air India office in the state of Tamil Nadu’s southern city of Madurai. The receptionist escorts us into a large British Raj-style office. Behind the oversized desk empty of paperwork except for a few folders and a telephone sits a diminutive man in black suit and tie. We tell him our story, he reviews the tickets, and gives us a full refund. In the end, the ticket agent in Colombo scammed the company and sent us into a tailspin for a few hours.

And I wonder as we get up to leave, “Is the man sitting in front of us part of this scam?” One of the gifts of traveling is learning the ways of the world.

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