Archive for April, 2010

37. Passport/Visa Stress

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

I had a Run Lola Run day a couple weeks ago. It was horrifying.

Cold sweat runs down your back. Your heart rate increases. It feels like the second hand is advancing in a smooth and rapid motion, rather than its usual ticking. There aren’t enough minutes in an hour; not enough hours in the day.


Just like Manni, in Run Lola Run, I called my girlfriend in a fit of panic. Short of breath, my world was caving in. I had to fly out of the country in a week and even though I’d sent my passport renewal application away a month ago, it still wasn’t processed (I found out later it takes 20 business days to process, not 20 days). The passport office didn’t even know where my application was. And since I’d sent it by snail mail — rather than by registered mail — it couldn’t be tracked. Like Manni, I was freaking out ‘cuz I fucked up.

I hopped on my bike and pedalled violently, until I couldn’t feel my legs. The passport office requested I provide proof of travel (i.e. a printed flight itinerary) within the next couple hours, so they could put a rush on my application (if they could even find it among the stacks of passports awaiting renewal) and issue me a new one in time for my flight. If it was lost, I’d have to re-apply from scratch (with new photos, a guarantor and all that other bullshit), also on a rush.

I got to my office, printed the itinerary, told my boss I was taking the rest of the day off, hurried home, dropped off my bike, and drove my g.f.’s car back to the passport office and delivered the proof of travel. The back of my shirt was soaked with sweat. “What’s next?” I asked the passport officer. “We’ll see if it pops up on the system tomorrow morning. If not, it’s Plan B: re-apply for a new one.”

Luckily, they found it and I didn’t have to go through the added stress of re-applying. It was over. But I didn’t exhale until my new passport was in my hands, three days later. Hats off to Passport Canada: Their staff was patient and helpful, and putting a rush on it only cost me $30.

Czech Visa in Bratislava: It wasn’t the first time I’d had a day like that. Back in ’02, my buddy and I arrived in Bratislava, Slovakia on July 31. We understood that we needed to get a tourist visa to enter the Czech Republic*, but we didn’t know it would take five to 10 days to get it. Since, we were scheduled to fly from Prague to Amsterdam on Aug. 5, we frantically ran around Bratislava trying to get passport photos and reschedule our flight. When the dust finally cleared, we changed our flight to Aug. 11. So, instead of heading to Brussels and Paris from Amsterdam, we spent the rest of our trip in Slovakia and Prague. Turned out to be more fun (and more affordable) than we’d expected.

*Apparently, as a couple of Québécois guys informed us, the CR imposed a visa requirement for Canadians in 2001, as a reaction to a 1997 Canadian policy that required Czechs to obtain visas to enter Canada. They told us a Czech film (it was actually a TV report on Czech Roma in Ostrava) had showed a family of Czech immigrants flourishing in Canada, which caused an influx of Czechs immigrants and led to Canada’s imposing a visa requirement for Czechs. The Québécois guys were right.

Vietnamese Visa in Bangkok: In ’07, I had another stressful, fun-filled visa day in Bangkok. It was my second-last day in the city and I knew I wanted to go to Vietnam (via Laos). What I didn’t know was that I had to get the visa while in Thailand. It takes at least a day to be processed. Fuck. So I sprinted from my Khao San-area hostel to take pictures of the Reclining Buddha and knock it off my checklist, then I jumped in a metered cab to rush to the Viet Embassy. The traffic was unbelievable; my stress level was climbing. I asked the cabbie how far. He said 20 minutes. I offered him a 50 baht tip if he could arrive in under 20 minutes. He hit the gas and suddenly we were flying, taking all kinds of short cuts on backroads. We got there in 17 minutes.

Once there, I had to fill out the the visa form (among other backpackers who were also tearing their hair out), run to an adjacent business to get my photo taken, submit the form and think on my toes. The visa officer showed me a price list. In order of increasing cost, I had to choose between: single-entry visa ready in three days (no), single entry visa ready tomorrow (?), multiple entry visa ready in three days (no), multiple entry visa ready tomorrow (?). Option 2 cost 2,500 baht (or $77 USD), which was half as much as Option 4. The officer grew impatient. She started tapping her pen on the desk. I picked Option 2 and decided I’d just see as much of Vietnam as possible in one fell swoop.

I picked up my visa the next day, in time for me to catch the night train from Bangkok to the Lao border. Another bullet dodged. When I boarded the train, my back was still drenched with sweat. But maybe it was just the humidity. Yeah right.

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36. Sewing on a flag from every country

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

flagpackI tried this, when I went on my first backpacking trip. It lasted all of five flag patches.

Ever try sewing a patch onto a weatherproof cordura nylon backpack, sans thimble? Not awesome. The patch is embroidered onto impenetrable wax. I thought it would be a good way to pass the time waiting for buses or right before bed. It wasn’t.

I wonder if anybody just started tacking them on with Krazy Glue…

Regardless, it was one of those things you look back on and ask yourself, “What the hell was I thinking?” Sorta like when you way overpacked on your first backpacking trip. Or when you did the double pack (big backpack on the back + small daypack on the front = retarded! See 6. Getting Pickpocketed). Or when you used to wear jammer shorts with striped tube socks pulled all the way up. Been there, done that.

With the flags, I learned I don’t need a merit badge per country — a stamp in the passport is satisfying enough and, from what I remember, cub scouts were a waste of time. The guys with the most badges were huge nerds.

One thing is certain: It’s a big beenou, an act of one-upmanship. It says: “Look at all the cool places I’ve been to. Wow, hey? Isn’t my patch collection terrific? This one’s really old (crossing arms in pride, head tilt). That was quite a few countries ago, heh heh. Yeah. I’m a real globetrotter (nodding).”

Even the Canada flag patch was a mistake. Other Canadians could already identify me by the MEC logo on my bag, the way I say “about” (I don’t say “aboot,” but anyway) and my passion for public health care. It was pointless. I soon realized I didn’t want people to interpret all these patches as: “Hey everybody! Look at me. I’m Canadian. I’m nice!”

I am pretty nice, though. Beenou. As for Americans sewing Canadian flags on their bags, well, that’s their prerogative (see 10. Anti-Americanism). I think.

Some of you would argue that I’m just a quitter. I tend to think of it less like quitting and more like developing good taste.

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Backpacking in the News

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Link to article: Have a Happy Meal in a Pagoda: McDonalds Invades Scenic China


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