Happy New Year!
Count down to departure: 1 day
I have little to report regarding my imminent adventure, so I thought I would take this time to write about the mundane details of preparing for this trip. I imagine a post of this nature will put most to sleep, but there may be a few students who will be interested in knowing the minutia so they can plan their own trip. With that being said, this post will likely be long and boring.
Establishing a placement
The first step was to contact the CMC (Christian Medical College) to confirm that they would indeed, take an occupational therapy student for a fieldwork placement. This was much easier than I expected it to be. I searched the CMC website until I found a contact I felt might be able to help me. My first inquiry ended up being a dead end. A week following my first inquiry, I tried again with an alternate contact (also found by researching the CMC website). Within a week I had a response. The response was basically, “I am pleased to hear from you, but I cannot answer your questions. I am forwarding your email to the vice-principal of the college.” Thirty-minutes later the vice-principal of the college had emailed me with, “We would love to have you come. Please send the dates you would like to study here. Also, there is a packet of information for you and a form for you to fill out.” I have to be honest—I wasn’t expecting such a smooth, quick, positive answer. The email was an unconditional “Yes.” With excitement and a little bit of “what the heck am I getting into,” I forwarded the email to our Fieldwork Coordinator. It is my understanding that she ran this proposal through the chain of command at the university to make sure all parties from UPS were on board. Once I got the nod of approval from her, I sent the vice-principal the dates of study and began filling out the form (it is about 15 simple questions).
For travel in India you need a visa. In this case, I needed to procure a student visa. Sounds easy, right? There are a few key points you should keep in mind when getting a student visa for India. Many of these points are probably common knowledge, but here is a quick list.
- Visas are time sensitive. Visas are issued by the consulate and are valid from the date of issue until the end of the granted time period. I forgot this little detail when I started the visa process the first time. I thought I was going to be a good little traveler-student and not procrastinate in getting my paperwork all lined up. Ha! Just before I sent out the paperwork I realized that if my 6-month visa was approved, it would have expired while I was still in India. Whoops! You can apply for a 12-month student visa, but it is not recommended by the CMC. So mind the calendar when you go to apply for you visa.
- Visas are not free. Shocker, right? It costs about $200 for the visa, shipping, etc. Don’t forget to include the cost of your visa into your budget for the trip. Also, they require money orders to be sent s payment for the visa. I should clarify this. Travisa (the organization that handles the processing of the Indian visas) gives you the option to pay with paypal/credit card when you are completing the form online, but then tell you “Just kidding. You actually need to pay with money order.” If you find some way to get around that, good for you. You are starting off on a better note then I did!
- There are a lot steps to filling out paperwork for the visa. Best advice here, just carefully read the directions and follow the steps. It is a little complicated, but Travisa will walk you through all the steps. There is a list of items required for students to send in with their visa paperwork; things such as: proof of address, passport, letter of admission, original passport-sized photos, etc. Most of the items are easy to acquire—simply photocopying your driver’s license will be sufficient for proof of address. However, the letter of admission stumped me. I am not going to be enrolled in college courses at the CMC, therefore I am not officially a student at the college. I am a US student (enrolled in courses at UPS) who is getting education from staff and faculty at CMC. I emailed the vice-principal (who, incidentally has been my main contact at the CMC) for help on this matter. Within twenty-four hours she had responded to my email with an official letter (with a seal and all) attached to her responses stating, in short, “Emily will be studying at the CMC as an elective student from Jan 7 to Mar 29.” I guess that was good enough because my visa application was approved. One of the items required on the list was specifically for medical students. This item caused me unnecessary indigestion from worry. Save yourself the pain and agony, please. The item requested is a letter of approval or “non-rejection” from the Indian MOH (Ministry of Health). Acquiring this letter is a long, drawn out costly process. I skipped it. Here is how I think I got around this requirement. The CMC is essentially hosting me as an Elective Occupational Therapy student, not an official medical student. True. I am a student in the medical field, but I believe the wording allowed me to get around that hurdle. Note: write “Elective Student” on the visa form when asked what type of student you are.
- Visas don’t take too long to get. Allow approximately two weeks for shipping/processing/handling. Note that the Indian Consulate observes all the Indian/Hindu holidays of which there seem to be about 18 a week, and some of the US holidays. I sent my visa application in over the Thanksgiving holiday and had it back to me within two weeks.
Buy a plane ticket
I did not purchase my plane ticket until I had my visa in hand. With my concern of the lack of letter from MOH, I didn’t want to have a plane ticket without legal permission to enter the country. I purchased my ticket about eight weeks before my departure. I had been eyeing ticket prices and this turned out to be the cheapest time for me to buy. Not that I think “cheap” and “plane ticket to India” are words that really belong together in a sentence. My port of entry into the country of India will be Chennai, which has the closest international airport to Vellore.
The CMC does not provide housing for their elective students. So, I have been on my own for this. They do offer housing if it is available. The vice-principal willingly gave me the name of the individual that coordinates on-campus housing as well as two lists of hotels in the vicinity. I emailed the housing coordinator to see if there was anything available at the CMC. She promptly responded, saying that she could place me at the Big Bungalow Annexe for the last month of my stay, but that I would have to find other arrangement for the first two months. She kindly attached the same two lists of hotels. The second list I was given came with a caveat: “We cannot comment on the quality or experience you may have with these hotels” was basically the sentiment delivered. I am taking that to mean that the first list is reputable… here’s to hoping. I took a random name from the list and emailed the proprietor. He quickly responded saying he had availability at his hotel. It is a single-occupancy room with a double bed, attached bathroom, and “uninterrupted power supply.” I’m set! To reserve the room, he simply required an email confirmation from me and told me that I was to pay when I leave. Seems they do things differently over there.
Receive proper immunizations
There are a number of ways to go about getting all the immunizations necessary for overseas travel. I chose to make an appointment with the local travel nurse at the county health department. Having worked recently in the healthcare field, I was current on all my “normal” immunizations, but required the adult polio booster, oral typhoid, and Japanese encephalitis (optional). During the appointment, the travel nurse reviewed all the horrible diseases around the world and made me feel quite sure that I would die a horrific death while overseas. She was kind about it, I will say that. There are a few things to consider with immunizations:
1.) They are expensive. Make sure you consider the cost when budgeting for your trip. My immunizations/prescriptions were almost as expensive as my plane ticket. Do some research on what you need for immunizations and see what insurance does or does cover.
2.) Some are time sensitive or require a series of shots. The Japanese encephalitis immunization is a two-series shot with the second on 28 days after the first. The rabies, which I opted not to take, is a three-shot series.
3.) Carefully consider your options. I mentioned above that I opted not to get the rabies vaccine because it is expensive (close to $600), and if I was bitten by an animal I am working at hospital with quick access to appropriate medical care. I did get Japanese encephalitis because it is contracted through mosquito bites which are harder to avoid than animal bites. Also, the mortality rate for Japanese encephalitis is very high, and Vellore is a high risk area for the disease. Better safe than sorry, right?
I also obtained prescriptions for doxycycline (for malaria) and azithromycin (for traveler’s diarrhea) from the travel nurse. My appointment with the travel nurse was extremely helpful and she offered many good tips for extended stay travel in India. She pulled out handout after handout on diseases, what to pack, dealing with culture shock, travel insurance, etc. It was well worth my time to visit with her.
Registering my trip
I wasn’t going to register my trip, but I figured since it was free, I might as well. Registering a trip with the Department of State simply lets the US government know that you will be in an area for a specific amount of time. This comes in handy if there was a natural disaster, civil/political unrest, or any travel advisory in the area you are visiting. If any of the above should occur, the US government knows there is a US citizen in the area that needs evacuation, or assistance. I’m not sure they will do anything about it, but at least they will know. Again, maybe not necessary, but free, so why not?
Obtaining travel insurance
This is again something that is optional; however it is cheap and is one of those “if I don’t get it, I will probably need it” things. It is very cheap, and could come in handy if I was seriously injured or became very ill overseas. The policy I have is good for the duration of my stay and expires upon my return. It will cover all costs of medical care in country, and will pay for me to be airlifted out of country, and (God forbid) will even ship my remains home with no cost to family if need be. What a deal, eh?
Arranging travel from Chennai to Vellore
I had originally intended to travel from Chennai to Vellore via train. However, when I began to think it through, I decided against it. I have been to India before and have ridden the rails. I love it. It is exciting and at times, death defying! J I opted against travel via rail because I wasn’t sure I wanted to haggle a taxi ride from the airport to the railway station, then figure out how to buy a ticket on the correct train, then find the correct train (people, in India, this is harder than it sounds), get off at the correct station (which they do not announce), then haggle a taxi ride to my hotel all on my first day in India. Someday I’ll attempt that, but after countless hours of international travel plus jet lag, plus initial culture shock, well… it just sounded like disaster. The vice-principal of the CMC had indicated to me that I could have them arrange a taxi to meet me at the airport and take me to my destination. I went with that option. After emailing the vice-principal my arrival information, she confirmed that a taxi driver would meet me just outside the airport with a placard that had my name inscribed on it, and for a set number of rupees, he would take my directly to my hotel two and a half hours away in Vellore. So, as long as I can get out of the airport and remember my own name, I should be good.
I think I may leave the details of this item for when I get settled in Vellore and can tell you whether or not what I have packed was beneficial or not. But for now I will say this. I had the pleasure of meeting a doctor who had spent many years of her life working at the CMC (more details on this later) and in the middle of a “what do I pack?” panic, I called her up to ask her. She, being wise and honest replied (in her delightfully British accent) “Just pack your sense of humor. Don’t take yourself too seriously, but treat everyone with great respect. You will be fine with that. Anything else you may need you can buy in Vellore.” Her sage advice didn’t help me decide what to throw in my knapsack, but it gave me a peace of mind as I tossed in some clothes and a few other supplies.
Just as I figured, this post is long and tedious. I have been “working” on this adventure for so long that some of my preparations have long been forgotten. I trust I was able to pull them all out of the depths of my memory and deliver them with accuracy and simplicity. If questions arise, please know there is an open invitation to ask any question at any time.