Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Renewing your Indian Passport in the U.S by Post

India Passport
This process is no longer valid as the passport applications are now handled by Cox and Kings Global Services.

I recently renewed my India passport by post at the Houston, TX conuslate. You need to mail your passport to the appropriate consulate, based on your physical address within the US. The whole process took about 3 weeks for me.

There are several documents that have to be attached with your application and here are some key points compiling them.

Photo requirements: There're about 9 passport size photos that are needed to be sent/attached with this application. Walmart quoted  $32 for 10 photos, but I did this via an app on my Windows phone. I bet iPhone and Android have something similar in their store. The way this works is, you take the photo against a white background using this app, the app then puts 6 replica clicked photos on a single "photo", and you then print this collage on a 4X6 inch glossy paper at Walmart (or any other pharmacy) for 45c. So I got 12 photos for ~$3 using this method.

Notary: There're at least 3 documents that need to be notarized. This can be done by either going to a public notary or at any Bank of America or Wells Fargo branch and they will do it for free! Here is an article on notarizing photo copies, if you face any issues.

Cashier's check/DD: Please note that personal check or cash is NOT an accepted form of payment for postal application. You can get a cashier's check or a demand draft in favor of "BLS INTERNATIONAL SERVICES USA INC" at any bank or grocery store for a small fee. This needs to be done before you fill out the online BLS order form, as you will need to input the # in the form.

Shipping Labels: This needs to be done before you fill out the online BLS order form, as you will need to input both tracking numbers for shipments in the online form.
Below are the steps I followed for I bet FedEx has something similar though.
1. Create a UPS personal account from their website.
2. Create two shipping labels (for the packaging type specify UPS Letter)
      (a)  Destination BLS address
      (b) Destination: Your home address
File Number

Online Application: This was pretty straight forward, the only tricky part was a field called
"File Number". This can actually be found on the last page of your current passport. Here is a sample form filled out, that I found on the internet.

Nationality Verification Form: You need to submit 3 copies of this form, here is a sample. The only confusing part is point #14 on there, it seems like you can't enter your home address in India as a reference, so I had to use other addresses of relatives in India.
For #11, I entered the date I first left India for the US.
I left #15 blank.

Affidavit form for change of appearance: This is mandatory only for Houston jurisdiction, and needs to be notarized and signed.

Below is the grand checklist in the order I attached them, with the application:

1) Signed checklist
2) Original India passport
3) Cashier's check for $116.20 (Appropriate fee can be found here)
4) Passport renewal application
5) BLS order form
6) Envelope with 4 photos
7) 3 copies of Nationality Verification Form
8) Colored photocopy of the first five pages and last two pages of the passport.
9) Notarized color H1B VISA photocopy, as proof of valid VISA.
10) Notarized Lease copy as US proof of residence
11) Notarized Change in Appearance and Signature (Only needed for Houston consulate)
12) Return waybill for UPS
13) MS Degree copy for ECNR requirement

Once you mail in the application, it can be tracked here. My status started showing the next day after UPS delivered it to BLS.
Here is the entire timeline.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Alaska: The last frontier

Sunrise in Anchorage
Bears larger than bison, national parks the size of nations, and glaciers bigger than other US states. Me and my wife recently did a week long trip to the great state of Alaska. We chose the state for it's unique and distant geography.

Arctic Valley drive
Day 1 (Anchorage, AK) We landed in Anchorage on 6/27, Saturday early morning at around half past three in the morning. The rental cars companies don't open until five in the morning, so we waited at the airport to kill time. After
Artifacts at the museum
picking up the rental car we headed straight into Anchorage downtown for breakfast. Since the check-in time wasn't till noon, we then headed to the Arctic valley scenic drive after. The drive is about 40 min outside of Anchorage and the last 6 miles are on unpaved road, which makes it a little difficult to drive to the top. After coming back from the drive, we headed to the Tony Knowles Coastal trail near by for a nice walk along the coast. We rested for a while in the afternoon and later headed to the Anchorage Museum in downtown. This museum has some of the artifacts from the earlier settlers in the state.
The day came to end with dinner at the Namaste Shangrila Himalayan restaurant in town.
Seward Highway
The train arrives in Whittier
Day 2 (Whittier, AK) We had booked a Glacier cruise into the Prince William sound wilderness, which departs from the harbor in the small and remote town of Whittier, AK. Just getting there from Anchorage is half the fun, according to their brochure, and so it was! The drive from Anchorage passes through the scenic Seward highway (aka Alaska 1 Hwy) and goes through an unique tunnel just before entering the town of Whittier. The drive has some of the best scenic natural beauty I've ever seen. With mountains on one side and the Pacific wilderness on the other.
Prince William Sound
The one-lane tunnel, before entering Whittier, is shared by cars and trains traveling in both directions, and it usually needs to be aired out in between trips. This unique design that enables a single lane of traffic to travel directly over the railroad track saved tens of millions of dollars over the cost of constructing a new tunnel. It takes about an hour, if you miss your at the hour.
After having a quick lunch, we boarded the cruise at around at 1 p.m. It was raining pretty heavily that day, but we were told that's how the weather near the coast is most days of the year there. The cruise went into the Prince William Sound waters and it took about an hour to get to our first glacier. It got much more cold as we got close and deeper inside the waters, and the rain added to it. However, we were told that rain is actually good for glacier's health and it actually makes them look bluish (as seen in the photo above). It did however make viewing and clicking photos from the deck much more adventurous.
Exit glacier
After the three and half hour cruise we drove back to Anchorage, taking the 5 p.m tunnel.
Day 3 (Seward, AK)
Glacial river
The next day we had planned a drip one of Alaska southern harbors, Seward, named after for US senator William H Seward, who was the mastermind behind the Alaska purchase from Russia. The drive took us thorough some of the previous day's scenic route and into the Seward mount haven wilderness, on our way there. After reaching Seward, we had lunch at Ray's Waterfront and then headed to hike the Exit glacier. There is a 7 mile drive to get to the glacier and a 1 mile one-way hike to get to the tip. The glacier has been retreating since the nineties, and it probably won't be that long before it's gone. There're some really scenic stops getting to the top and a glacial river near the bottom, where you can hike to.
Us with our guide
The river float trip

Day 4 & 5 (Talkeetna, AK) We had booked the next three days up north in a small Alaskan town call Talkeetna. The town is about 15 miles from the nearest highway and the downtown is easily walk able.
Byer's lake
The town is unique because at the end of the town's main street is the confluence of three rivers - Takeetna, Susitna and Chulitna, with Denali national park as the backdrop and Mt McKinley visible (on really clear sunny days). The drive from Anchorage took about 2 hours to get to the remote town and after checking in we did a 2 hour river float trip on the Talkeetna river.
The next day we did a drive up the Denali highway north, to catch a glimpse of Mt Mkinley but it was too overcast to really see anything but dark clouds. Although, there is no denying the adventure of driving in the wilderness, weather sunny or overcast. We stopped by Byer's lake to do a small hike be
fore heading back to our lodge.

Hurricane Glutch
Hurricane Turn Train
Day 6 (Hurricane Turn) The next day we had book the hurricane turn train which departs from Talkeetna  during the summer season on a round trip to Hurricane Gulch, hop off at any given mile post. This train still operates as a flag stop service, allowing passengers to hop on and off as they please. This area is home to approximately 40 year round residents. They use this train as their lifeline to transport necessary goods from Talkeetna or beyond back to their homes in the wilderness. I must confess, I did not know the meaning of the word "remote living", until I saw how the people lived in this area. There are literally single home towns, on this track, and this train is their only connection to the outside world, as there is no dedicated electricity, no internet and only emergency/local phone service.
The entire round trip takes about 7-8 hours, from and back to Talkeetna.
Day 7 (Drive back to ANC) 
Can you spot McKinley?
The last day before we headed back home via our late evening flight from ANC, we decided to head up north one more time to try and catch a glimpse of Mt McKinley, as the sun had finally showed up. (Well, almost). We headed north to a point called Mt McKinley view point, which we had seen the first time we drove up there but did not venture in. The point is located about a mile inwards from the highway, uphill through twists and turns, to a private hotel called "Mt McKinley Lodge". We stood in the viewing of the lodge, as it was kind of seemed open to the general public too, and there is it was! Finally, we could see the mysterious and hidden Mt McKinley, in all it's glory. We took some photos and headed for the 3 hour drive back to the airport.

All in all, this was one of the most unique and adventurous trips we've had in recent times. I would go back in heartbeat.

What businesses did we use?
Anchorage B&B: A loon's nest
Talkeetna Lodge: Northern Guesthouse
Glacier Cruise: Phillips Cruises
Talkeetna River trip: Talkeetna River guides
Hurricane Turn trip: Alaska railroad