After I realized that getting to San Francisco was a dream, I tried to be more realistic. Being a Sri Lankan, I had no free access to anywhere and I needed a job before I could even set foot in a country. Alongside short volunteering opportunities, AIESEC also provided year long internships which was exactly what I wanted.
The original plan was to my internship year abroad unlike everyone else who did it locally. This meant living by myself and supporting myself for a year in a country I have never been to before. I felt sure that if I asked for a position at the company that I volunteered in Malaysia, they would give it to me. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do something new.
It was now around July. I needed a minimum of 11 months in an internship before the next semester in September. I started searching months before my batch mates. I spent days searching and applying for opportunities across Europe and Canada on the partly functioning AIESEC portal..
I knew my chances were slim so I wanted a backup. I did several interviews with local companies and got an offer from all three of them. They were some of the best software companies in Sri Lanka and it was tempting to abandon my seemingly wild goose chase. But a part of me just couldn’t let me do that. I thought that if I gave up, I would spend the next year dreaming about what could have happened if I persisted. There was one company I was very interested in but due to a schedule clash, I ended up giving a lecture to my junior batch instead of going for their company visit. This was secretly the first step in their recruitment process andI wonder what could have happened if I had gone for that visit.
Hunting for internships on the AIESEC portal was a trying process. A lot of the opportunities I applied to didn’t give me any response. I didn’t even know whether the opportunities were still open. I had a similarly frustrating process while applying for my exchange to Malaysia so I was expecting this. But this was on a different scale. I applied to over 15 opportunities and heard back from less than 5.
When I occasionally got a reply, it was still a hit or miss. I might have a skype interview that went well and they would not respond again. What was more frustrating was getting no response after I had taken the time to do a task for them. Still the worst part of the entire process was the rejection. Once I was acing the their interviews and tasks for an opportunity in Copenhagen. Finally the race was between me and one other candidate and the company picked him. They said that he was more experienced in data mining than I was and that if they had the capacity to hire 2 developers they would have taken me on too. But they didn’t.
I was now running out of time and out of hope. I had only a few days left to notify the local company if I wanted to start with them. This was the straightforward option. It was open, available and predictable. But I couldn't take it. So I kept scrolling down the AIESEC portal.
Early on in the process, I found an opportunity in Prague that I liked. When I got no response through AIESEC, I tracked down the company and contacted them directly. To my surprise, they got back to me. I immediately started building these fantasies of what it would be like to be in Prague. I did the research and the math. It looked incredible. But then they asked me to do a task and evaluated that I was less experienced that what they were looking for. I heard my fantasies shattering in my head. From then on, I avoided getting too attached or fantasizing about an opportunity until the last word. I mentally dismissed the idea of getting to Prague or the Czech Republic.
Almost a month later, I got an email from an opportunity that I had applied to ages ago. It was again from the Czech Republic. I was feeling very dejected by now but out of habit I responded without expecting success. To my surprise, the process kept moving forward. I had a chat with the CEO, did a test and a task. I could not believe it when he said he chose me.
10 minutes later, the euphoria was replaced with anxiety as I researched the visa process. Getting a working visa for the Czech Republic was not going to be easy. What made it even more complicated was the lack of a Czech embassy in Sri Lanka. There was only a consulate that promised to contact the embassy in New Delhi on my behalf but never did. Eventually I contacted the embassy directly and that marked the start of the long, unpredictable, anxiety-inducing roller coaster ride that is immigration.
Communicating with the embassy was a lottery draw. Some of the emails I sent were completely ignored. When they responded, I had to be lucky to get a response relevant to the original question. This was when I started making my emails simple and brief without any emotion or detail.
I discovered that 9:30 is the lucky time with the most chance of getting a response. A few weeks later, I finally managed to receive a long list of required documents. I also discovered that they were not willing to accept my application remotely over mail. This meant that I would have to fly to India to submit my application in person.
Putting aside the elephant in the room, I first had to get all these documents. This included a police report, a medical report and verified copies of my qualifications. Getting each of these documents proved to be a challenge in its own right. Moreover all of them had to be approved by the foreign affairs ministry in Sri Lanka which took its role very seriously. Initially I was glad to find some instructions online. Soon I found that this was too good to be true when they revealed the secret conditions for each document after I waited 3 hours in a queue.
I requested the police report at HQ which triggered a wholescale investigation into me. Officers from the cities that I lived in visited the two address to investigate whether I was a criminal. To complete the process, I had to get a report from the mayor of our area who asked for my original birth certificate. I was incredibly grateful that my parents documented me properly and kept my records safe.
I got my medical report at a private hospital which involved x-rays, blood and urine tests. The ministry then told me that I had to prove that the doctor was real and pointed me to the medical board that managed all the doctors in our district. To get my high school degree verified, I had to go to the British council which oversaw Cambridge examinations for the entire country. With the documents “super verified”, I was back to the ministry for another 3 hours to get that small stamp at the bottom of each.
Just when I thought that I was getting to the end of the document hassle, I discovered a bonus requirement. The embassy only accepted documents in Czech and the translation had to be done by an official translator. I was dumb struck. How on could I ever get documents translated into Czech in Sri Lanka? We had no close ties with Czech Republic to warrant the need for translators. My Dad stepped in here and somehow found a place in the depths of Colombo for the translations. I didn’t ask questions; I was just grateful that he could do the impossible.
There is something satisfying about collecting these documents. It was a complete verification of my character on paper. It’s like crafting something in Minecraft, you had to collect a variety of resources to finally craft what you wanted.Getting back to the elephant in the room, I still needed to go to India to submit my application. I think my parents thought that I would give up before this. But they saw me spending days going to one ministry after another and slowly discovering the entire governmental system in Sri Lanka. It was then they realized that I was going to really go through with this.
My mom was terrified when she heard my plan to go to India alone. She saw India as a place filled with scammers and organ robbers. My dad played it cool but I knew he was concerned as well. At the insistence of my mom, he finally decided to travel with me to New Delhi as ‘moral support’.
Looking back, I was naïve and optimistic about the visa process. I read online that it can take up to 60 days for the visa to be approved and I assumed that it was the worst case scenario if my documents had defects. Since I personally collected and verified each document, I was confident of their authenticity. I imagined that I could get the visa in a few weeks. I planned to apply in New Delhi and then fly to Czech Republic. So packing a large luggage with the stuff for CZ, we set off to New Delhi.
Dumping the entire stack of documents at the counter, the officer pulled them through and casually returned some of them saying that they were not required. This was after I had paid and spent several hours on them. He pointed to my proof of accommodation document and asked me to reach out to my contact in CZ to submit a notarized copy. After paying for the application, I asked him how long it would take. His answer crippled my plans. Dazed, I asked him “Would it somehow be possible to get this in a few weeks?” He shook his head and replied “It is definitely going to take 2 months, maybe even more”
Back in the hotel room, we started brainstorming. It was already October and I had to start now if to have an internship that can count for my degree. I was briefly excited by the plan of getting to CZ on a short term visa that could be issued sooner while the long term one was still being processed. But AIESEC did not support this by citing the issues they had before.
Soon the inevitable dawned on me. I had to wait.Since I was already in India, I wanted to make the most of it and travel. I asked my dad and surprisingly, he agreed. I guess he saw how much of a blow this trip was for me after all the effort I put in. So he returned home with my large luggage. Only then did it hit me that I was now alone in New Delhi. Pushing past the initial panic, I checked into my first stay at a shared hostel and spent a week travelling across India. I travelled to the birthplace of Buddhism while reading books about Buddhism. I was searching for a way to deal with the bad cards that life just dealt me.
Back in SL, I did something that I am not proud of. I told my university that I was already in CZ. It was the only way I could have the required 11 months. Their review process was minimal so it was easy to fake. I even wrote emails describing the weather and the transport to sound more convincing.
Due to this lie, I couldn’t be seen by my university. I couldn’t meet any of my friends because word would spread. I lived on the street next to my university and that didn’t help either. If I stepped out of the house there was a chance that I would be spotted. This was an instance where being well known by my lecturers and batch mates did not help. I had just unknowingly signed up for months in isolation and hiding.
What made this worse was the lack of an agenda. I had nothing to do. The semester was over and my friends had started their real internships. I had offers to work but the shortest contract was 6 months. I couldn’t commit to that because of the pending visa. While the idea of staying at home, provided for by parents and doing nothing might seem like heaven to some, for me it was hell. I wanted to do something productive with my time but couldn’t figure out what.
The uncertainty was slowly killing me. A visa application was not a guarantee. They could still say no. All the effort and time I spent might be for nothing.That lack of a process to track the progress of the application didn’t help either. The only contact I had was the embassy email which kept copying the same message. “Your visa is being processed. We will contact you when the process is complete”. It was a black box with plenty of room for me to fill with doubt and pessimism.
All factors added up, this was one of the most challenging periods of my life. I spent my days at home with visits to the gym and the occasional visit to a relative being the exception. I decided to build an app so I spent day and night working on it. I told a few trusted friends about my treachery and met up with them in secret a few times. I truly believe that it was my gym routine, app and these chats that kept me sane. This was my entire life for 4.5 months.
My mind didn’t make this wait easy. I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen if the application was rejected. All this suffering would have been for nothing. I knew that I brought all of this on myself. If I did a local internship like everyone else, I would not be going through this.
The ultimate tipping point came after 60 days. This was the standard deadline and the visa should have been issued by now. But it wasn’t. There was worse case deadline of 90 days so I kept waiting. The 90 days passed as well and there was still nothing. I was now fighting to move on. Every day I thought to myself “You idiot, just give up. Give up and all of this will be over.”
I desperately tried to make myself believe that. But I couldn’t. No matter how much I shouted at myself, there was a small voice that said there is still a chance. It hadn’t been officially rejected yet. But if I am wrong, then I am wasting even more time. That small voice stood firm. You are going to see this through. You either do or die.
After months of work I published my app. That left me with more time to ponder my fate. I started looking for local internships again. I was trying to move on but my persistence refused to. One day, I finally had enough. I walked to my university and in to the office of the internship coordinator I had sent the fake emails to. I admitted my deception to her. “I lied to you”
It is over. I can finally move on now. I didn’t have an official rejection yet but it didn’t matter. Two days later, I found myself thinking about other local companies to apply for internships at. YouTube was on autoplay and the orange light from the sunset come into my room through the balcony. Out of habit, I turned on WiFi on my phone as “Start again” started playing. “3 emails received”. Expanding the notification, I noticed that the first one was from the embassy. Tapping the email, I read it twice to make sure that I was reading it right. The visa was approved!
Filled with excitement, I told my mom. Of course, she credited the latest ritual she did. I was barely listening. Why couldn’t this have come just 2 days before? But then perhaps this was my trial. Maybe I had to tell the truth first. I wasn’t going to waste any time now. I ran to the DHL office down the street to find out how to mail my passport and found it closed. As I was coming back, I saw my dad pulling our SUV into the garage. As he stepped out, I excitedly told him that it had finally worked.
A few weeks later, I found myself on a plane. It was the longest and farthest trip I have ever taken in my life, for the longest stay away from home that continues to today. Knowing what I know now, I know there is no way that I could have ever predicted what happened next.