Tag Archives: Visa

US Consulate, Again? Cape Town, South Africa.

12 Jan

Yep. I’m back at the US Consulates office. By the time this rendezvous around the world gig is up, I will be well versed in Passport/Visa hell.

Step back. In Hanoi, Vietnam had my identity stolen. Passport, Visa, credit cards, dinero, license… You name it, gone. US Consulate office in Hanoi issued me an emergency passport with 4 pages. Why do pages matter? Good question. Who knew that to enter South Africa you need 2 pages. Australia and New Zealand asks for 2 as well. Rumor has it, US asks for 3 pages. Now, what the border patrol babes do with these pages is another matter. But, a rule is a rule. The other rumor is they won’t allow you into their country if you don’t have enough pages for their measly stamp.

For those who have trouble adding, I now have 4 pages. But, I need 6 pages and a possible extra for Dubai. So, I’m in a crumple. Tall US lady in Hanoi told me that Cape Town US Consulate office could issue me a “real” passport, but they need 2 weeks for turn around. Oh, the real passport is“free.” I laughed when she said that because Hanoi US Consulate office charged the girl with no cash, me, $135 US dollars for an emergency passport. Don’t get me started.

So, I emailed Cape Town US Consulate’s office to make arrangements about my “free” and “real” passport. Paula in Cape Town responded and said the US Consulate’s office is closed on December 27th for a national holiday. What national holiday? Found out later in South Africa, if Christmas falls on a Friday or Saturday, you get the Monday off as well as December 26th, Boxing Day. And, Boxing Day is a holiday to box up your gifts, not to smack people.

Anyway, Paula said, I need to come to the US Consulate’s office on the 28th. But, I would not be able to get a “real” passport in time because offices are closed New Years Eve. Little did I know at the time, I would have had time for a “real” passport for the US Consulate’s office express mails your “new” passport to any location in South Africa. Paula was a sharp one.

Paula recommended to issue another emergency passport, so I can use both. That’s cool. They know what they are doing, right? Right…

I hire a taxi on the 28th. It costs me $40 US dollars to drive 24 minutes. People in Cape Town believe anything more than 8 minutes is FAR. By the time we get there, it’s noon. Unlike Hanoi, the Cape Town US Consulate was on lock-down alert. Three security guards escorted me inside. They called the back office. It rang and rang and rang and rang. They called everyone on the list. NO one was there. All at lunch?

They pass me a laminated piece of paper that says, “Starting January, all US citizens and inquiries will need an appointment. Times: 8:30 am – 11:30 am.” I smiled and said, “It’s not January yet…and I pay taxes.” The two security girls laughed. I just smiled, getting annoyed.

It’s approaching 12:30. No one is picking up. One of the security gals meanders ever-so-slowly to the back office to take a look. She saunters back 15 minutes later and says someone will call me. The front desk phone rings. I pick up. A woman tells me, I need to come back tomorrow and schedule an appointment.

Anger. I mean, I could feel tears welding up for I was about to loose it.

Me: “I’m a US citizen. All I’m doing is dropping off my passport so you can make another emergency passport….I’ve been emailing Paula about this…”

US govt worker: “Paula is out of the country. On vacation. You need to make an appointment. Paula was to tell you about the appointments.”

Me: “She didn’t, or else I would have scheduled an appointment. I paid $40 to come out here…”

Govt worker: “We don’t take walk-ins. And, you’re not eligible for an emergency passport.”

Me: “I’m sorry. Can you repeat that? And, tell me what does Paula do here?”

Govt worker: “I need to put you on hold…”

By this time, I’m thinking I’ve been emailing with the janitor, instead of an authorized, trained consulate worker. I was at my breaking point. Could feel it. But told myself, who has the power here. They do. Calm down. Relax. It’s not the end of the world. Plus, her putting me on hold may mean she’s sending security to toss me to the curb.

Govt. worker: “We can provide you extra pages. But, you need to make an appointment. We changed the policy a few weeks ago. Paula should have told you this. There is no one here…”

Me: “I’ve been emailing Paula since December 13. I have records of our emails. She said I’m eligible for an emergency passport, and mentioned nothing about appointments. It says you take an appointments until 11:30 am. I was here a few minutes after, yet no one was here. Can I please just drop off my passport?”

Govt. worker: “No. You need a stamp from the cashier to process your passport. And, the cashier has left for the day. It costs $80 for extra pages…”

Me: “Well, why didn’t you say so. Of course, the cashier left. And, Of course I need a stamp…”

The govt. worker appeared behind the wall. She handed me a card with an internet address and email and told me I needed to go ONLINE to make an appointment. They do not schedule appointments over the phone or in person. My response, “Of course you don’t…”

I got back in the taxi and was miffed. At the Hotel Lady Hamilton, I told my story to my new BFFer, front desk worker from Zimbabwe. Guess what the first thing uttered out of his mouth. “That’s discrimination…What about the US citizens who don’t have a computer or access to a computer or internet? What about the US citizens who can’t read? Or, can’t type? What about the poor, who don’t have $80 US dollars for pages? Your country is telling you only those people with money, computer, internet and can type can make an appointment to their country’s consulate’s office?”

I thanked him profusely for making me angrier. I didn’t even think about it in those terms. Now, I was super-fired up. How dare they!

Yes, I’m blessed for I have a netbook and money to PAY for hotel internet connection. I logged on to the US Consulate’s website. No mention NO where on how to make an appointment for Cape Town’s consulate’s office. Johannesburg, Yes. Cape Town, no. So, I fired off an email requesting a time for tomorrow. The same govt. worker emailed me back saying “I gave you a card with the website address. You must do it online, not by email.” You’ve GOT to be kidding me.

Now, I more than fired up. I took screen shots of their homepage and client services pages and indicated their webmaster/marketing department has NOT updated their website since they’ve made this policy change only minutes ago, hence my email. The only way to access the appointment page, is through Johannesburg. Last I checked, this was Cape Town. I recommended she forward this email to the webmaster so they can create links appropriately.

Then, I secured my 9:30 am appointment. Another forty dollars down the drain, I arrive at 9:20 am. And, they see me around 10:30 am. All I had to do was sign a form and pay. I waited for the cashier for a good 30 minutes. She decided to take a cig break. I mean, she is leaving at 11:30 am and must have a break. I paid. Smiled. There was no use of even complaining. They are not going to change. Government workers are the same, regardless of country. And, many exude the same dispassionate energy. Though, Hanoi was different. Thank you travel angels for Hanoi!

After paying $80 for additional pages, I walked over to the DHL desk (express mail). US Consulate makes it clear they do NOT want you back. So, you have to pay more money to express mail your passport to your location. Well, I’m moving every other day, so how does this work? The woman was very nice and we came up with some contingency plans. Passport to wine country was an option…

I walked out praying. Praying, once again, for passports safe arrival. Man, this passport should be considered holy paper, considering all the praying I’ve done about this little blue bound book. Oh, did I tell you, it looks fake? Even Cape Town US Consulate’s office looked at it strangely. I bet it’s my photshoped picture. No wrinkles. No bags under the eyes. No spinach in the teeth. They just don’t recognize me in person. That MUST be it. That, and the purple lines and smoggy marks running through the picture.

Got the passport in wine land. Came with extra pages, that looked more stapled than glued. It looks even worse. Need to continue praying for the passport.  I hope they let me in Dubai…

Verbal Vomit Update of Vietnam & Cambodia

11 Dec

Get ready for massive verbal vomit. This is not a dry heave, we’re talking massive expulsion of words, thoughts, verbs, pictures and adjectives about Vietnam and Cambodia.

Now, let me give you some direction for the slow readers or skimmers.  For those who have not even read about Thailand excursions, I recommend starting with Bangkok by Night blog and work your way up.  All of Thailand was written in November, so if you go to the button under “recent posts” and click on November,  all the fun, filled and exciting Thai tales ranging from dildos to Tiger Woods will be before your bright eyes.

As for Vietnam, I had a few challenges.  The blog started off chronicling my journey into “adventure, outdoorsy” travel – with massive biking, trekking and kayaking.  Then, it turns a 90-degrees when I had my identity stolen.  Yep, passport, Visa, credit cards, $$ stolen in a country we terrorized 30+ years ago.  Try that one for size.

The stolen identity tales all have the title “Stolen Identity.”  Please start with the first one labeled “Stolen Identity,” and then move up to Day of Reckoning and end with Snowballing in Halong Bay.

I’m well aware that violence, crime and sex sell, so many will want to start with Stolen Identity.  But, don’t forget to read about dead bodies, Ho Chi, pelvis pain, marriage proposals and the Vietnamese DAY tribe tales starting with the blog called Good Morning Vietnam, Hanoi…

If it were me, I would start with Good AM Vietnam and work my way up to get the full story for the adventure travel and stolen identity are all wrapped together.  But, that is me — I lived it.

Cambodia takes a bleaker tone.  I went Cambodia primarily to understand Israel.  Sounds strange, I know.  Trust me.  I know.. The Cambodia story is told through Chet, my guide.  He survived the Khmer Rouge’s terror in the 70s, 80s and 90s.  And, his story is powerful and haunting.

While in Cambodia, I did hit temple-land.  Check out the pics in the pic section.  Much better than the words.

Again, thank you for your comments, questions and random thoughts about my journey. Keep them coming.

Everyday, presents itself with a new gift. And, finding the world is a very small place… Enjoy the ride…

Cu Chi Tunnels. Saigon by Night. Vietnam.

11 Dec

I made it out of Vietnam! The whole passport/border control gig at the airport was uneventful. So uneventful that they did not check my passport, visa or asked me to undress. Impressive for me. Even more impressive for future terrorists. I’m just happy I’m up in the air in route to Cambodia. That sounds very, very strange to me. I mean, Cambodia???

Before I go any further, I do want to announce that I DID receive my ATM and Credit Card today – Day 5. Ultimately, FedEx did their job. Delivering my cards on time so I can do the American thing – spend more $$$.

Taking in these last few days. I have not had time to journal. But, I do feel compelled to share a little about about Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). It will be brief.

The adventure junket ended in Halong Bay. The three of us returned to Hanoi to catch flights to our next destination. For Tour-burn, it was off to Siem Reap, Cambodia to tour the temples . For me, it was Ho Chi Minh City – for more cycling. No resting for this pelvis.

When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, I noticed all the signs said Saigon. I was confused. What is the proper name for the largest city in Vietnam?

This is what the locals told me….Saigon’s name was changed to Ho Chi Minh in 1975, after US bolted and Viet Cong ate Southern Vietnam. The folks in S. V-nam haven’t taken to the name – or communism for that matter – and still call their city Saigon. People in Northern Vietnam – taken to communism – call the city Ho Chi Minh. But, when you’re checking luggage at the airport, the AIRLINES call it Saigon.. Yet, the AIRPORT calls the city Ho Chi Minh. We’re back to confused communism, Vietnamese style…

If you ask me, which I’m sure the Vietnamese welcome my opinion, I prefer Saigon. Has nothing to do with communism or the embalmed bearded man. The name Saigon sounds more exotic. Has more energy. Seems eccentric. Fitting for a city with 6 million motor-bikes and 10 million riders. Think about it. Say Ho Chi Minh City and what comes to mind? For me, I picture a desolate, dusty Indian Reservation being corrupted by gambling. Not exactly fitting.

Focus. What did I do in Saigon for 1.5 days? Took to peddling. Wanted to see the city and tour the tunnels. Sam, the bike guide, arrived at the hotel at 8 am. I had the routine down. Grab a helmet. Raise the seat. Pop some pills for pelvis relief. And, start peddling. Our destination was the Cu Chi tunnels, built by Viet Cong to fight their enemy – their South Vietnamese brothers and our troops. Jungle warfare at its finest.

I want to share how V-nam tourists’ materials describe these famous tunnels. Needed some tweaking so I made some edits:

The Cu Chi tunnels are a historic revolutionary vestige and the base for the Viet Cong in the Anti-American resistance during the American War…. Tunnels were used as a place of eating, accommodation, meeting as well as unique battle formation, which took its part in the fight against the enemy for saving our country.

It was also the place where over 20,000+ of our soldiers were killed. Take a look at the pictures below of the tunnels… Small. And, the government expanded the tunnels 40% so tourists could crawl though to experience the full effect. Let’s just say, my H&M black leggings now have holes in the knees. Had to crawl. There were NO tall people in Viet Cong army. Or, fat people for that matter.

Other “must do” tourist attractions at the Cu Chi tunnels included shooting your choice of guns – AK 47, Automatic machine guns, pistols, riffles… Pay the dude $5 and fire away. I opted for that AK 47. My shoulder will never be the same. I hit my target, thanks to taking riflery at summer camp… Only in America, can kids grow up learning to shoot weapons at camp. I digress..

After tunnel crawling and rifle shooting, we jumped back on your bikes. I popped some more Advil. We toured through the country side of Saigon. I noticed group of people gathered in the distance. Sam slowed down. Stopped. He said, “Stop. Try this…” I whipped my leg over the bike seat and missed. Pain again. I limped up to the group of people. Notice furry creatures in cages. Furry creatures were rats. People are lining up to eat rat. Doesn’t get much better than this.

Rice farmers catch the rats in their fields and the women sell them on the side of the road. And, here I was the tall foreigner scared of something they ate. Damn straight. Scared is not the right verb. It’s more like repulsed. And,vomiting was not part of the day’s scheduled activities.

So, here’s this cute woman in her PJs. She’s about 20 or so. Her kids are running around half naked.

Her job is to grab the dead rats in the bucket, and with a pair of scissors in one hand, cut off the legs, tail and head and toss the body into another bucket. The next woman wearing Pjs, grabs a knife. Opens it up. Pierces it with a stick and cooks it on an open fire, on the side of the road.

Now, if you don’t want to eat now, you can always just buy the no extremities rat. The Pjs women plopped the rat in a clear plastic bag. And, off you go on your motor-bike or on foot with a rat in hand. Kodak moment…

Saigon by Night

Sam struck a cord yesterday. He complained how foreigners come to Saigon just to tour the war, talk about the war and leave thinking about the war. They don’t want to see the NEW Saigon. He said, “Saigon is not war. Young people don’t even know about war. Business people don’t care about war. War is old. I want show you Saigon not for tourists.. Tonight…” I’m IN!

So, off we went on his motor-bike to see the NEW Saigon. This NEW Saigon is suburbia.

We’re talking four or five story homes. Lawns with sprinklers. Screened windows. Streets with speed bumps and stop signs. Sidewalks for people. Gate guards. This is NOT your one-party, communist controlled country. It’s Reston, VA. It’s Lake Mary, Florida. It’s reeks of wealth. It reeks of inequality. It reeks of excess.

Sam: “Homes here are $1 million to $2 million US. Pay in cash. We don’t trust Vietnamese dollar. People here invest in gold for years and years. People rich. People here are government workers. Shipping. Textile manufacturing. Work with US…Work with China. Rich…”

Me: “People are sitting on $2 million in cash? No bank loans, home loans, car loans in Vietnam? Not even credit cards?”

Sam: “No. No credit cards either. We save. We don’t understand how you buy on credit card. We know each penny we have and spend everyday. I save between $1,000 and $2,000 US a month. Took me two years, and I bought my house with cash. Saved everyday…”

We zoomed passed homes, town homes and apartments ranging from $250,000 US and $2,000,000 US. Sam continues to be amazed only ONE family lives in a house with four or five rooms and three bathrooms. He screamed into the night, “Look! Only one family… Look! Only one family. This family only have 2 kids. And, four rooms. Have three stories. Only one family! Look! Only one light one. Whole family in one room. Look!”

In Vietnam, they squish a family of four, six or eight – we’re talking grandparents, aunts and uncles and randoms – into a one story house with just two or three rooms. He’s amazed by space.

I was amazed by paying in cash, investing in gold and automatic garage doors. I bet these families have washer machines, dryers and bleach. NO underwear, sheets or Pjs were hanging from these pricey windows. How bad did I want to knock and use their washer machine and dryer…

We cruised on over to his neighborhood. He wanted to show me his new house. San was proud. He bought his home two or three years ago. It has 4 rooms and he rents THREE of them to families. We darted through dark streets. We turned left on a dirt road filed with water. He said, “this is temporary. Govt. building a 20 story apartment building at end of my street. Next to my house. Take 2 years. A lot of flooding now. Putting in new sewage system…water…very good for me.” Yea, not good for me for this nasty sewage is forming a new life on my clean jeans.

By this point, he has proposed. When I said, “We just met…little early?” He changed tactics, “Then, you come and live with me. You single. I single. Same age. It works.” I said, “Oh, is it that easy. You single. I single. Boom, that is it.”

He said, “Yes. Easy. I like you. When you see my house, you will know.” That is a lot of pressure because I can’t insult his home for I feel certain he lacks closet space, kitchen counter-tops and water pressure. We pull up. I see two pad locks on his patio door. Barb wire around the roof. Home sweet home.

He unlocks the first padlock. Then, another one greets us on his front door. I giggle inside. When he show’s me his kitchen, he’s proud it is NOT attached to his house. He said, “Too messy. Too smoky. It’s better out in patio.” Fab.

His house is nice. Clean. One bedroom downstairs. Two working bathrooms. No closet space. Super-small fridge with space for only a twelve pack of Coke Zero. And, a Buddha shrine to boot. The decibel level of the construction site and padlocking the doors would drive me to drink. I just don’t see Sam’s home as my final resting place. Don’t feel it. I tell him as much. He really looks sad. I’m not taking time to analyze this one…. I’m about to land in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The capital.

Last night, over 300 people were killed in Phnom Penh. Trampled. I saw it on CNN this morning. They say too many people were crossing a bridge? I don’t know the details yet but it is bad. Cambodia government said worse crisis since Khomer Rouge. The dude that killed over ¼th of the population. That’s hard to swallow.

Welcome to Cambodia. Two for one. Killing Fields. And, Killing River. I just hope they let me in…

Snowballing at Halong Bay. Stolen Identity.

11 Dec

Snowballing. That is what they call it. When the mind just goes to the unimaginable places. When you run through worst case scenarios, and the next thing you know you’re sittin tall and pretty in a Vietnamese prison or scaling a fence into Cambodia. That is where I am now.

I’m waiting. Waiting to hear if “they” secured a legit Visa. Waiting to hear if I can leave the country. … Leave for Cambodia. Can we please laugh? Cambodia out of all places… Surreal. This is surreal.

I arrived in Halong Bay about two hours ago.

Halong Bay is in North Vietnam, surrounded by untouched coastlines and islands. Limestone rock. Clear blue water. Think Avatar but in the water.

My transport was perfect Vietnam. Perfect. No foreigners. Just me chugging along side of beer drinking, motor-bike riding men. My soul inhaled every second. An adventure for I really had NO idea where I was going. I just kept moving from car, ferry, motor-bike, bus, feet, boat, ferry, boat….until I reached what Handspan Travel calls a resort.

Let me step back and walk you through how I got to Halong Bay. Ha dropped me off at the hotel after we stuffed, crammed and cajoled Christmas presents in a box to be shipped to America via a ship. This took over an hour.

I had about twenty minutes before my driver was to pick me up to start my three, four or five hour journey to Halong Bay – depending who you asked. I perched myself on a one-foot stool outside our hotel and watched the world go by. I get why men and women can sit for hours on a sidewalk in this country. This place is sensory overload and pure entertainment. Much better than Mad Men, Price is Right or the Amazing Race.

A V-nam policeman in one of those nasty green uniforms was approaching. The rank color of his uniform and sour expression caught my eye. He looked about 21. And, he wore his angry proudly. Like a badge of honor.

He was searching for his prey. With each step, his eyes darted to V-nam to V-nam finding who was in violation of whatever the rule was for the day. He spied her. Unlucky for me, she was sitting a few feet away. He did not notice the tall, white Westerner. His legs picked up the pace. And, bee lined for the older woman sitting on her hind legs – you all know the yoga pose that kills your Achilles…that one.

Her bamboo basket was full of nuts and potatoes for $.15 or $.25. She comes from the countryside to make a living in the big city of Hanoi. Thin frame. Face lined with sun damage and wrinkles. When she smiled, she showed off only a few teeth. Her hands were gnarled, weathered and muscular. Her white shirt was now stained with cooking grease and picked-off dirt. Her brown pants were made out of what looks like burlap fabric. She tied her fashions together with a brown, orange and blue scarf. Worn plastic flip flops encased her tired feet. Clearly, she was out of place among the shop keepers of Hanoi.

I watched.  She smiled at the Foreigners. Please buy. She smiles at the V-nam residents. Please buy. I can feel him approach. Within seconds he was hurling insults and her. He raised his hand and hit her. In the street. Next to me! I’m taken back. What do you do? I stood up.

She looked embarrassed. Mortified. Now, all were watching. She collected her things. Bowed her head and walked as fast as possible. He looked around to receive admiration and respect from his fellow V-nam-ers. But, all he got was coldness. They all just stared at him and turned their heads. They don’t want to be next.

I just stare at him. His eyes settled on me. I could tell he did not see me standing there, but it had little impact.  He probably believes he was protecting me. And I have to wonder. Is his assault because of me? I reported a crime on this street. Now, I see street patrols everywhere. Is the word out. Foreigner’s passport and visa was stolen – look out – the police are watching.

I feel sick to my stomach for an old woman from the countryside was not the thief. She’s the target. And easy victim. I bet it was a V-nam teen on drugs. A rich kid. Not a poor peasant. I inhaled. Exhaled. Tried to comprehend what I saw. And, understand that I had no power to do anything. I asked God to protect her.

Off to Halong Bay…

The driver picked me up and I settle in for a good 3 hours of bad driving to a flat-bed boat for motor-bikes. I later found out my driver was a bus driver in his previous life. That is why we did not pass trucks and yielded to motor-bikes. I wanted to pop him along side the head and tell him to move it. Slow drivers KILL me.

I’m typing away to distract me. I mean we are moving at a snails pace. I look up. We are in ship yards, passing by hundreds of thousands of containers. There is no tour bus or foreigner in sight. No one. Where in the hell are we? Is the driver lost? He picks up the phone. Talks. I try to make out any hint of stress in his voice. Nothing. We are not lost. I can not believe any travel agency would take foreigners out here. It’s like an episode of the Sopranos – V-nam style. My time is numbered.

We make a slow left down another dirt, rocky road. Yep, this is the place they shoot people. We slow down next to a makeshift hut on the side of a ship yard. Looked desolate. This is NOT a ferry station. No dock in sight. Men – only men. There’ all sitting on foot stools smoking cigs and drinking beer. Staring at me. I’m staring at me too.

My driver hands me my bag. Points to another hut with words and set’s off in that direction. I follow. But, he motions for me to stay. Great, now I standing in the middle of ten beer guzzling V-nam motor-bike men. Just standing. I stare at them for they are staring at me. Stare game is on. What seems like 3 years later, my driver reappears with a cig in his mouth and a ticket. He points down the road.

I guess that is were the ferry is? He nods. I motion do leave now? He shakes his head. Wait. I sit down. He goes over to the car and gets on his phone. Why do I think we are in the wrong place. The only thing keeping me sane is we are near a canal. Water. About an hour later, a put-put boat pulls up . It’s a flat bed boat for motor-bikes. And, another small hut for people. This is the ferry? Ferry for foreigners. Think again. Loving this adventure for I’m so at their mercy.

All of a sudden the men jump to their feet. The must have heard a bell. Or, one of those silent signals only certain species can hear. They finished their beers, start their motorbikes and leave me in the dust. The driver points. And, motions to me to follow on foot. I do.

He picks up my bag. Together we navigate the rubble and dirt roads to the mini-ferry boat. By the time we arrive, the motorbikes are on and everyone is waiting for tallgirl.

I get on the boat. Only one seat left up front. Everyone is quiet. Staring at me. Gosh, I hope I don’t trip or burb or fart. They’re look is of “what are YOU doing here?” This type of scrutiny is unnerving. It’s like I’m in a freak show – what will the white, tall woman do? Will she sit? Drink water? I decide to sit.

The motor starts and we are off. I think to myself. Wait… I did not ask for details of this transport. I’ve been so consumed with Visa, passport and money – that I have NO idea the name of my final destination. It’s in Halong Bay.

But, it like saying, I’m going to swim in a lake in Central Florida. I just hope and pray I can figure this out. Calling all travel angels again. They must be resting for I’ve kept them occupied these last few days. So, I settle in and just wait.

We putter on. About an hour later, we arrive at another desolate ferry stop. I stay on the ferry. Not sure if this is my stop. I show the ticked to the boat driver. He motions to me to get off – NOW. I did. No one is there waiting for me. There are NO foreigners. Just V-nam men on their motor-bikes. I walk over to the ticket lady. Show her my ticked. She smiles and motions this is the place.

But, the place to do WHAT? I’m to hop on a bus. There are four buses sitting in the dirty parking lot. Now what. I breath. I walk around and take pictures. I will give it 15 to 20 mins and then ask to use someone’s cell phone. I have Ha’s phone number. I watch the people. Someone caught an octopus. They are playing with it now. Guess, it’s super for later.

I wait. Take pictures. Wait. Give it another 10 mins. Then, another 10 mins. I figured no harm in calling Ha. I reached for some Vietnamese dollars. I look around and I’m down to three people. Octopus players and me. Then I heard some loud voices. A man in blue appeared. He is staring at me and saying loud things. I smile. He motions for me to follow. I do. Love how I just follow people I can’t communicate with. He points to the four buses. I smile. I stop. I mean, which bus. He grabs my hand and walks me to the red bus. Red is my favorite color. YEA for me. He points. I get on. I smile. He grunts. Clearly he had to deal with foreigners before… I sit down. No one is on the bus. I just wait. Wait. And, wait.

Within in 20 mins, the bus is bombarded by heard of Vietnamese families, teens and elderly. Packed in minutes. And, we’re off. The scenery is amazing. Limestone mountains standing tall in the bay.

Winding through small villages. Doors and windows open. Families sitting on the floor eating rice. TV playing in background. Kids playing outside. The world marches on. The bus starts to make random stops. People get off. Where do I get off? I decided I’m not moving until I see lamp post lights. Electricity. Need to see electricity. I’m sure my resort has electricity. Little did I know…

We arrive at a mini-town. Looks like a fishing village. Outdoor restaurants. Cafes. Hostels line the street. I’m the last one off the bus. The driver asks, “where you go…where you go..” I respond, “I don’t know…I don’t know…” And, just smile. A man appears in motor-bike helmet. My name is scribbled on a piece of paper. AM-DAY. Yep, that’s me! He smiles. Grabs my arm and leads me to his motor-bike.

Someone how he gets my one piece of luggage on his bike along with my 6 foot bod. We set off. Streets are dark.

We zoom along the bay. The moon is full, guiding us. I feel like I should be cold, but I feel warm all over. I look out over the water and think, “Are you KIDDING me? I’m in Vietnam. Riding by moonlight on some RANDOM man’s motor-bike along the water, windy roads, over the mountains to an unknown destination.

I’ve been robbed of an identity. But, right now, feel so rich inside. Overwhelmed with gratitude that I’m here. I mean REALLY. Who is this person? It’s not me – Not the tallgirl who is Ms. Marketer/Communicator worker-bee. Not the person who gets up at 5 am and works until 10 pm. Works weekends. Works and works… Has no life outside of work. Who needed to blow it up big to fill her cup up with joy – again. Well, ladies and gentleman, my cup is being filled. Being replenished. Renewed by a country with a generous spirit and complicated culture….

We stop at a shack. Motor man gets off. Tells me to stay put. He grabs an oar and a life preserver. Tells me to put on the preserver and he will carry the oar. I follow directions. Now, I’m sporting a helmet and life preserver as we jet off again in the dark night. This is a sight.

We make it to another dock. This time we are greeted by an old, delapidated boat with a bamboo canopy. A woman is there to greet me. Not really. She’s giving her husband, the motor-man, the 411 on me. She’s in her Pjs.

Motor-man then grabbed my hand. Looked into my eyes and apologized for his country. I was taken back. What in the world was he talking about? I just smiled. Again. Just smiled. I nod. Then, he said his wife just told him I was robbed. Everything gone. She looks at me with sadness. Motor-men grabs my arms and says, “sorry for you…sorry for you…some of my people are bad… sorry for you… Vientiane good country. Good people. Not all bad. Please come back…” Tears welded up. Am I really going to cry wearing a motor-bike helmet and a life preserver? NO. I smiled. Told him I will be back and jumped on the rickety boat.

The boat driver looked about 90 and no teeth. But, he was strong. He hand cranked the motor and we set off. The only light was the full moon.

He’s navigated these limestone mountains and floating fishing huts for years. I felt safe.

Once again, I pinched myself and thanked God. How am I here? What is it I need to learn? Observe? See? Take with me?

I am so grateful. Even grateful for this experience. God has blessed me with so many angels to carry me these past two days. I was not in control. Still not for I’m in V-nam and NOT Cambodia. My mind keeps saying – you will relax when you get to Cambodia. I have many more hurdles. And, need to hear back about my Visa.

In the meantime, I am puttering through the waters of Vietnam with an old man. He looks at me. Looks at me with a sense of sadness – for me, not him. I get the feeling they are embarrassed by their countryman’s action of harming a foreigner. How much things have changed since Vietnam War. Think about it.

I’m thinking about it all. And, inhaling the air around me. Its one of those times I want engraved in my heart and soul. If I ever loose my short term memory, I pray this day, this hour and those minutes of traveling to Halong Bay will be seared into my soul.

After an hour of puttering, we pull up at the resort. This is a NO star resort. It’s a negative star. Why? No electricity or water. Water tank busted. And, back up generator down.

The resort is on a remote island. I could care less. Ang met me. He led me to my bungalow. Mattress on the floor. Bamboo with holes as a roof. Rustic is a good word. I smiled. Very happy to be hear with Ang and Tour-burn.

I wonder outside my hut to the patio area and order a beer. I’m telling the guys my story. I say the word Visa and my body tenses up. My mind snowballs. I’m trying to act cool. I believe we call this an anxiety attack. I keep talking. I wanted to blurt out to Ang, “Hey. Call Ha NOW and ask for a status on the Visa. It’s 8:00 pm at night. She should have heard something – no word means I’m screwed. CALL NOW…”

Instead, I calmly talked about my ferry trip and wonderful motor-bike ride. They did not notice that I’m having a complete freak out attack inside. By the time I’m finished with my story, my mind has placed me, once again, in a V-nam prison. Irrational, I know. But, the mind can do that to you.

I sip my beer. Sit back. Act cool. And, calmly say to Ang, “Hey, can you call Ha? I’m curious if she heard about my visa. Status?” He said, “Sure. I go now.” He gets up from the table and walks off. I start to over analyze. He’s leaving the table. Not good. Why can’t he talk in front of me? He knows something. I’m screwed.

I strike up a conversation with Tour-burn… “Tell me about kayaking today? What did you see? Do?”

He wraps it up in 45 seconds… You have GOT to be kidding.

I’m looking for a distraction. Give me something here. Anything. I can’t feed off this information. I just smile. Forget it. I just sit in silence. If he wants to talk, fine. But, I’m not doing the work here. I have more important things to think about, like breaking out of V-nam prison.

Minutes pass. No Ang. We are hitting the 10 minute mark. Next is 15 min. Clearly, no visa. I’m starting to make contingency plans. OK. What if I can’t make it to Ho Chi Minh City. Just fly straight from Hanoi to Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Wednesday instead. That will work but my CREDIT CARDS and ATM will be resting in Ho Chi Minh at the travel agency. Then, what… It will work. It will work. I have options. Always options. I’m FIIINNNEEE… As Stephanie would say. FFFIIINNNNEEEE.

We’re hitting the 20 min mark. I blurt out to Tour-Burn who is just sitting and staring next to me, “I’m screwed. No Visa. Ang is not back yet. I’m here for the long term… I do LOVE rice….”

He actually agrees with me. Idiot. Doesn’t he know I need reassurance, not agreement. Men can be so clueless sometimes. I smile at him. Shake my head and stare out into darkness. Where was that inner peace. Joy. Nirvana I felt only an hour ago. Gone. I think back willing it to calm me.

I hear Ang behind me. He is silent. Bad. I hear his voice. “Good news! You got the Visa… We are good.” I wanted to scream, “Where have you BEEN? It took more than 20 mins to find out this news??? I mean, I’m at the point of buying a cemetery plot in V-nam.”

Instead, I jumped up and hugged him. No need to freak him out. I thanked him. Thanked his company. And, told him that I was nervous because it took so long. He said, “Oh. Bad reception. And, I got other calls I had to take…” I did not want to hear that because this was all about me. I’m the customer. And, I’m top priority. Let it go—

I felt my body relax. Check another box. Got the Visa. Question now is it real? Who is this “expediting” agency. And, will it work? Faith baby. Faith. I pray for faith. Protection. And, mounds of patience. We’re not there yet. But, we’re getting there. Travel Angels unite! God, just get me to Cambodia.

Vietnam Immigration. Stolen Identity.

11 Dec

It’s 7:45 am.

I’ve been in the hotel lobby since 6:30 am. Emailing the bank. Travel insurance companies. And, contacting the travel agency I’m working with in Cambodia.

Yes, there ARE travel agencies in Cambodia. I went ape-crazy on them the night before. I got an email saying they did not receive payment for my flights OUT of Vietnman to Cambodia or anything else. My credit card told me differently. I pulled out my “this is unaccepable” card. And, put a PS in there that my whole life has been stolen in Vientman. So, this is NOT a good time to try and rip me off.

Yea, got a response on that one. I felt bad. Of course, they found the money. The company actually is amazing. I mean superb too. It was all bad timing. They are so traumatized by my situation, that they are meeting me at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to take me to dinner. I email Vo, my travel agent contact, that I need my confirmed flight information that says I’m officially scheduled to leave Vietnam on the 23rd. This is a MUST for immigration. She sends it to me in a matter of minutes.

Ha walks in. It’s maybe 70-degrees and she’s buried in a red, ski jacket and a new pair of jeans with rhinestones. She smiles, grabs my arm and off we go on her motor-bike. She brings me a better helmet today. One that fits. And, one I can get off. I think I embarrassed her yesterday walking around the bank and immigration with my motor-bike helmet on.

We pull up at the former French prison – aka V-nam immigration. And, sprint to the Visa for foreigners desk. Our girl is there. She smiles at us. We sit. Feeling confident. We’re next. Ha shows her our paper work. She touches the paper. And, starts chatting up a storm. Ha looks upset. Annoyed. None of this is good. I just wait. Trying to ready body language and expressions. Other people walk up to the desk to look at my paper work. I wonder what they are saying. I just stand there. Reminding myself that I’m not in control. Ha still is holding on to my arm, reminding me to be still and silent. She huffs. Grabs my paper work and sits down. I follow. Sit down next to her in the plastic chair.

Me: “What? What happened?”

Ha: “She said need 3 to 5 day for Visa. Business days. Today is Friday. Not good. I make call…”

Me: “Wait. If I need to change flights, I can. I mean..there is a solution here?”

Ha: “I make call. Not good. Not happy. You stay here. Don’t move.”

She walks out. Walks back in. Opens her purse. Grabs $200,000 VND (Vietnamese dollars). Then, shoves the money and my passport into an envelop. Stands up and walk to the V-nam immigration agent.

NO. NO. We’re NOT bribing the communist… Not worth it. I want to get out of Vietnam, legally, not through prison time. I grab Ha’s arm and whisper, “Not good. No. I don’t do this…I will change flight..”

She shakes her head. Motions to me to shut up. And, continues to talk to immigration lady. I can tell immigration lady is not budging. Ha’s hand is on the envelop. I’m starring at the envelop. If she moves it, I’m grabbing it from her. I don’t do this. No way. I can tell Ha is exasperated. Her voice sounds annoyed. But, she is smiling. Her hand never leaves the envelop. She waiting to play her card – or not. She decides to fold, grab my paper work and walks out of the office – leading me by the arm.

She whispers, “I have a friend. Take care of this. May cost you $$. Like $100 US dollar for Visa. Ok? You Ok?”

Me: “Ha, not a problem. As long as it is legal. In US we have companies that are in business to expedite passports and visas. That is all they do – if this company is legit, that is good. My country just charged me $135 for an emergency passport..ok? It’s ok…I have travel insurance. Money not a problem. It must be legal..”

Ha: “I make phone call. It’s legal. Ok. Don’t move.. OK?” She assumes I have some great place to go…

She returns a few minutes later. “Ok. Let’s go. They get you Visa in one day. I negotiated. You only pay $80.” Her smile returned. Yep, she is my travel angel.

On with the helmet. And, onto the motor-bike. We speed through the streets in search of a random office. We pull up. I wait outside. She’s gone for a while. I wait. Find a curb. I’m turing into a Vietnmese. Love curb sitting. This time, I’m not wearing my bike-helement.

She walks out – smiling. “Ok. We good. Get Visa in one day.  Now, you go to Halong Bay to Kayak with Ang. I get you there. Bus pick you up in 2 hours. Take ferry. A bus. A motorbike. And, another boat. Spend one full day at Bay. Ok?”

I respond, “ROCK ON Super star! I did NOT think I would see Halong Bay. I’m so grateful that my heart hurts…

Day of Reckoning. Stolen Identity.

11 Dec

No sleep. Maybe 2 hours. I wake at 4 AM. Need to repack for prison or kayaking. Either way, there is a full hour of sorting, folding, tossing before I kick off today’s festivities at 7:45 am.

The hotel lobby greets me around 6:30 AM. I’m back on the phone with the ATM folks at USAA. It’s 5:30 pm Central Standard Time. The real people are working. Real meaning NO night answering morons telling me my ATM card will be in my hands in 15+ days. I go through it again with New ATM gal. She puts me on hold forever and ever. I took it as a good signs. She’s either asking questions or going on a cig break. Either way, she’s meeting my expectations. She’s doing something.

For whatever reason, I keep reminding these ATM gals they are working for an international, military bank. It’s like I want them to take ownership in their brand promise. It seems to have zero impact.

New ATM gal looks into other rush options and it seems like night ATM gal was right. We’re talking about ATM in hand in 4 to 5 business days via FedEx, no guarantees. My heart says – there is a faster way. But, I’m in Hanoi. In a lobby with poor internet connection. Without an identity. So, not much I can do right about now. Release it. Purge the I’m in control monster.

An email pops up from Dad. It’s the secret code needed for Western Union. God willing, Benjamen Franklin and I will be celebrating a la rice wine tonight. But, I must prove my identity to get the money. Government issued ID, which leads me to the US Consulate’s office in Hanoi. This whole day hinges on an emergency passport. The worst part is to get me out of the country, hinges on a communist immigration bureaucracy.

Hello, anxiety? I pray – “God, help me let it go. Protect me. Keep me safe. Send me your top travel angels. Allow me to give this day to you – be gracious, humble and thankful…Thankful I’m NOT in Russia…”

And, then she appeared. My pint-sized travel angel. Quite frankly, I’m not feeling all that confident. What is it about size, clothes, and, overall, first impressions that can set you in a tailspin.

She walked over to me wearing a big smile and introduced herself as “Ha.” I asked her, “Like in HA?” She said yes. I hear myself saying… “ha..ha…ha…This is soooo NOT funny…Please, God…we’re not doing funny today…”

Ha is about four-foot eleven. Sporting jeans, with colored rhinestones spelling the word BeBe. Her little purple polished toes are squished into black, open toe flats. It’s chilly out – like 75 degrees – so she’s bundled up thick glow-in-the-dark blue sweater. Her black hair is slicked back into a tight pony tail, making her look like 16 instead of 22. She’s wearing no visible signs of makeup. Has a few acne scars. And, her mouth carries too many teeth for her small mouth.

She tells me she’s the office receptionist. REALLY? The office recptionsit? Ha…Ha…Ha… Yea, this is getting funnier by the second…

We sit down for she comes up to my arm pit. She describes, in broken English, our game plan for the day. I just listen. Control my breathing. And, take in this little person who is going to find me an idenity and an exit out of V-nam all in ONE day.

Ha: “Get taxi. Go to US consulate. You get passport.  By taxi, go to police to get stamp. Office manager take you to police. She know people. By taxi, we take police stamp and passport to immigration to get Visa…ok…ok…You call US consulate now. Tell you’re coming…ok?”

Me: “Ok?”

I’m trying so hard not to overwhelm her or me. I have so many questions. I quickly determine which questions to ask now and then pepper her with in the taxi on the way to US Consulate. Because, this is NOT that easy – way tooooo many variables. And, I need to calculate and debate. Role play scenarios. Do a decision tree analysis. Game theory…. Just can’t walk into this blindly, can I? Is it possible for me to let go control of these three ginormous “to do” items without questioning, understanding and over analyzing? Inhale. I look at her. My God, I don’t have a choice. I’m in Ha’s hands.  God, are you listening?  It’s time to call in for reinforcements.

Inhale again… “Ok. I do have a few things I need to tell you before we get started…. My father…..” Voice trails off. Tears sprout from my eyes. You see, I have not cried yet. So, why not just let it rip in the lobby. Why not cry so much that black mascara showers my cheeks. Cry so much my lips blow up like Angelina Joelie. Cry so much that I finally have color in my checks. Perfect timing for guess what today is? New passport photo day. I got up even earlier to shower, blow dry the hair and apply cover-up, eyes and lips. Because we all know this photo will haunt you for years… ha…ha..ha..

When I said my Dad’s name, feelings of genuine love and relief overcame me. I miss my family so much – especially in times like this. And, just having their support and prayers is truly indescribable. There are no words. But just tears of gratitude. Tears of thanks. Tears of love.

Ha grabbed my hand and looked into my eyes, “I’m here. No worry. I take care of you…No worry…” I looked into her deep, dark, soulful eyes and knew her little 80 pound frame would be carrying this 6 foot body these next two days. God sent her to me. And, I’m grateful. We’re going to do this – No worries.

I shook my tears away. Repeated out loud…. “Brain… need to be focus… Brain…find logical, rational thoughts…Emotions are for later.” I am NOT kidding. I really said that. I laughed at myself and that my emotional, wackiness subsided. I uttered Western and Union and Daddy in the same sentence without having a nervous breakdown. We’re off to a good start.

Next thing I know, we are in the back of a cab in route to the US consulates office. Ha asked me within 30 seconds of our trip if I have a boyfriend. I laughed. GREAT distraction. I said, “No…Not as of 5 mins ago… Why? Do you have a tall, smart brother?” For whatever reason, she thought that was so funny. She said, “No tall in Vietnam. We short.” She told me about this boy – in high school – with whom she has a crush. They go out with a large groups – eat sunflower seeds and drink green tea. They’re just friends, but she likes him more. The taxi stops in front of a big, ugly yellow building.

We get out. She grabs my arm to lead me. She’s not letting go – and never did for 2 days.

We march to the building with my country’s flag. Wanted to climb up the pole and kiss it. The guard said, “you in wrong place. Passport office moved…” Ha looked shocked. And, then she turned it on. My word, she’s got it. She has the FLIRT gene. God is GOOD! I got a Vietnamese Choppy! (Choppy is my stepsister, BFFer.. She’s one of the top flirts out there..) Next thing I know, V-nam military leaves his post and is escorting us down the sidewalk. He points the building. Ha smiles, never letting go of my arm.

As we are crossing the street she asks, “What do you do when you’re sad?” The question startles me. It’s a little out of context as we fight traffic with our feet. I scream over honking horns, “I write. I have a journal. When I’m sad– I go to a place –by myself – and write…and pray…later, like 1 week or 1 year later, I look back and see how much I’ve learned…and, you? What do you do when you are sad?”

Ha said, “I write too! And, listen to my favorite music. I go outside of Hanoi, where it is more quiet. I like to write. I have a journal…” Perfect. We have something in common. And, by this time, we are in front of a gray, oversized building. I head inside to see what the US consulate has in store for me.

Second floor. Second window. There are only two or three people in the lobby. None are from the US. Not sure if this is a good sign. I ring the bell on window 2.  A Vietnamese lady speaking perfect English greets me. I tell her my situation. She nods. She says she received my email and has a copy of my passport. Then, she uttered words I longed to hear, “We’ve been expecting you…” I LOVE my country. L-O-V-E!

Relief flooded the body. She told me where to go for new passport photos as she handed me a stack of documents. As I wait for the photos, I can fill out all the paper work. Wanted to kiss the woman. The words, “she’s been expecting me” rings in my ears as I skip down the steps.

Ha is waiting for me outside. We head down to the Kodak store to pose for pictures. I pass by a mirror. Damn, this is going to be one ugly photo. I quickly whip on some lipstick so I would not fade away. Kodak V-nam dude takes one photo and tells me to wait. Only one photo? Can’t we go for the best of five? Back to ugly. I just nod and smile, reminding myself it is out of my hands. I start to fill out the paper work. Ha is holding my arm – still. I told her I’m not going anywhere. She says, “Friends hold each other when sad and happy…” I smile. Look over at the Kodak V-nam dude and he’s touching up wedding photos. Yea, we will be here for a while.

About thirty mins later, I have the passport photos. Not that bad. He photo-shopped the dark circles Red puffiness. And, kept my oversized lips. And, my skin looks flawless. Like HIM! And, like the photo. Who knew redesigning your face was included in the $1 price?

Back at the consulate’s office. I turn in the paperwork and sit down. Wait. Wait. The Director of Passport (I guess that is her title) called me over. She is a fellow TallGirl too! We bonded. Good energy. I told her what happened. Told her I’m taking time off to travel. Told her I’m thankful I’m NOT in Russia. She agreed. Or, China. She agreed. But, she DID say, “BUT you’re in Vietnam…” I smiled. And, later found out what was behind those words.

Tall consulate woman said, normally, she only issues a three month emergency passport. But, she will extend it to 7 months for me. She recommend once I get to Cape Town, for I’ll be there for 2 weeks, to contact the embassy and have them issue me a REAL passport. This emergency passport will cost me $135 US. I told her, “I have NO money. Nothing. And, I can’t go to Western Union without a govt. issued ID. “

She told me to borrow from the Travel Agency. She said to come back between 3:00 – 4:00 pm to pick up the passport. In the meantime, I need to go to the police now to get a formal incident report with a stamp. Bring it back and the US consulate will write a letter to the V-nam immigration requesting an emergency Visa. I thanked her profusely. And, thanked God the place as not packed so all the govt. worker bees can focus on my issue. I’m serious too. The place was DEAD.

I tell Ha about the $$ situation and ask to borrow $200 US dollars. She smiled and said, “Ok. I call friend. Wait 20 mins, Ok? We get green tea.” We sit on two stools for micro-mini people on the sidewalk, in front of the US consulate building. And old woman with narley hands, dirty fingernails and no hygiene hands us two dirty glasses full of tea for $.15. I take. Drink. And, say a silent toast to Tour-burn for gifting me his cold for I’m consuming large doses of antibiotics to kill all bacteria on sight.

Ha and I watch the world pass us by. We go through different scenarios of our day. “What if… What if… What if….” Next thing I know, a kid who looks about 12 pulls up on motor-bike and pulls out a wad of cash. Hands it to Ha. She giggles, bats her eyes, touches his arm and yanks the $ from his little grubby hands. He blushes. My word, she is good.

We got the $$. Next stop, her travel agency office to tackle the next cog – Vietnamese police department. I have to file a formal report with the police if I’m to get a Visa. Ha said, “Office manager know police in neighborhood. She take you. On motor-bike… You go with her..” I nod. What am I going to say, “no?”

We arrive at Handspan Travel Adventures and the Office Manager introduces herself. Didn’t catch the name, so I called her Ann. She hands me a motor-bike helmet. Next thing I know, I’m straddling little Ann as we fly through the busy streets of Hanoi. I’m actually smiling. Having fun.

We pull up in front of the police station. Buzz kill. Fun is over. The Vietnamese police station is like something out of a military, war movie. Like Platoon. This station is sandwiched between an assortment of shops — coffee, stuffed animals, handicrafts, stolen movies… We park the motor-bicycle out front. Ann reminds me of my story. We rehearsed it several times. “Stolen passport. Stolen $200.”

I believe she was more concerned about the street names than anything else. Apparently, Hanoi is divided into police districts. The police departments are judged by crime reported in their district. Less crime reported, the better for the police station. Some areas – like the touristy areas – the police departments are HYPER sensitive to reporting crime. If something bad happens to a tourist, then the department is severely reprimanded. I did NOT know this. I would have been vomiting in a toilet if so.

We walked up the three concrete stairs. No doors. Few plastic chairs scattered to the side. Two men in olive green, polyester uniforms look up. NO smile. They said a few words to each other. Younger man leaves. Older man of 50+ sits and stares. He is wearing German, style square glasses. Faint gray mustache line his lips. Skin is smooth. Shirt is open. No hair on his chest. Ho Chi Minh portrait hangs above him. His, uniform is too large and swamps his small frame.

His eyes say it all. He does NOT give a shit. Only thing he cares about is good sex and good rice wine. He looks past us as we walk closer to his desk. His desk is perched in the middle of the room. It’s his thrown. I look over my shoulder to see what is holding his attention. Then, I look down in embarrassment. GIRLS GYMNASTICS is on the TV. He’s entranced. So, I revise my comments. Let’s add good sex with little girls to the list.

We sit. I slump over a tad. Body language of the submissive foreigner. Ann sits up. Leans forward. Tilts her head and smiles. Everyone is listening. I notice police from the backroom got word a “foreigner” is here – so now we have a party. Shit. V-nam Police Pervert is not going to cave. I slump over more and look down. I repeat, “look humble.. respectful..listen..”

Ann starts. Police Perv is intent on watching gymnastics. He looks at me a few times as she continues to tell my story. Does not say a word. Nothing. She stops. He’s silent, like he did not hear a thing. He tilts his head. After a few moments of silence, he looks at me quickly, turns to Ann and says, “was not stolen…she lost her passport.” Ann translates. I give him a look of confusion. And, shook my head. I said the word S-T-O-L-E-N very slowly. He sighs. Great, he’s part Russian.

A younger man looking on says something. Police pervert reaches for a folder. Starts to go through it while looking at the gymnastics. There’s no motivation to find the document. Younger police man opens a file cabinet and yanks the sheet out. Hands it to Ann and smiles. Maybe THIS is her friend? She fills out the form for me. Her writing. Police pervert is paying no attention. But this time, the room has cleared. It’s anticlimactic. Maybe its a blessing he was distracted by flat chested, little girls twirling in leotards.

Ann writes my passport was lost. I grabbed her pen. Wrong verb. I scribble in caps STOLEN. What is it about verbs. They can make or break you. It’s always about the verb. If it is lost, I get no stamp. She looks embarrassed. She keeps writing. Then, hands it to me to sign. I sign it hoping it will not come back to haunt me. I mean, it’s all true – but signing a V-nam police document in a communist country… Makes me skirmish. Again, calling on my faith and travel angels.

Police pervert looks over the document. Says a few things. Puts it down and continues to watch TV. Now and then, he looks outside to see what’s happening. Ann says, “he can’t speak or read English. I need to translate to Vietnamese.” I reminded her, “Please say the word stolen…” She finished. Pushed the paper back to him. Police pervert sighs. Not happy about missing his gymnastics. Stands up. Shakes his head and walked in the back room, leaving us out front.

Ann and I move to plastic seats in the corner. I notice more and more people are coming in to sign a paper and give the police money. I ask, “What’s going on? Crime reports?” Ann laughs, “No. The police charge for parking motor-bike out front. Money business for them.” Of course the do… Got to love seeing capitalism at work in police departments in communist countries.

We wait. Watch. Ann is nervous, but tries to appear calm. I’m reading every expression in the room. I ask, “what’s happening now?” She said, “Police meeting. Decide to sign or not. No like signing…Bad. Crime needs to be low here. No good to have crime with foreigners…” This was my OH SHIT wake up call. I knew what she meant. I just sat there, praying. Ok God, it’s ALL in your hands. I’m just watching. I tell myself – it’s a movie…I’m really at the movie chomping on family sized popcorn and supersized Coke Zero. I’m just an observer.

Police pervert walks out about 20 mins later and tosses the paper at us. Ann looks surprised. I mean, shocked. I just smile not knowing what happened. She thanked them, grabbed my arm and ushered me out with great speed. Those red high heels can walk fast. She said, “Helmet fast. Get on motor-bike.” I did. We sped off. She starts to laugh. I can’t hear what she says, but I scream PART-AY really loud. She giggles even louder.

We pull up at Handspan Travel Adventure’s office. She gets off. Looks at me and said, “You lucky. Very lucky. Very lucky. Three or four hours at police. Never sign. You lucky. Lucky…” I said, “No luck. We’re blessed. Travel angels are with us…” She giggled, “Yes, angles… and dragons…” She kept on rattling off more. I smiled. And, asked her to make several copies of this police report.

I ate some lunch. Big bowl of carbs, washed down with a beer. Next thing I know, I’m on the back of a motor-bike heading to US Consulate’s office. Ha is in the driver’s seat. We pull up around 2:30 pm. I’m to pick up the passport around 3:00 pm, but hoping to get it sooner so we can make it to immigration and Western Union. The guards now know me. I sprint up to the second floor. Ring the bell at second window.

They gals ask for my police report. I gave it them. They were surprised I got one – and got one so fast. They said, “That is not normal in Vietnam… Usually takes days for police report…You are lucky…”

Hmmmm… maybe police pervert wanted me out of his country for I’m not his type… Or, he had to make crime quota for the month… Or, saw that I was NOT one of those narly backpackers who drink, vomit and poop all over his streets. I don’t care. Just blessed. I sit down. Thank my travel angels. And, wait. And, wait..

About 30 mins later, I walk out of US consulate’s office with my passport in hand. I have a 7 month extension. Hurray! I have an identity. I will say the passport looks fake. Looks like some kid did it on power-point. As long as it gets me out… Gets me to Cambodia…

Ha and I are back on the motor-bike and race to Western Union. I smiled. It’s now almost 4:00 pm. Ha and I bet we can get the $$ in minutes and be at V-nam immigration by 4:15 pm. It’s right around the corner. We submit my paperwork and pick up Visa the next day. Life is good.

Snag.

The V-nam bank using Western Union services was slower than slow. The girl who helped me had trouble dialing a phone and using the fax machine. I did NOT know what to do. I can’t tell her to hurry it up b/c I need to get to “immigration” in time. She has my money. I need to be nice.

Then, Ha stomped in. Highly annoyed. It’s been 15 mins and she not tolerating slowness right now. She lays into little girl in a pretty suit. The girl looks mortified. Ha and shy girl come to a solution. Make a copy of my passport for Western Union files. We go to immigration and come back after to pick up my money. Done. We bolt. No need to put my motor-helmet on, because I was wearing it in the bank. Saving time. And, we’re off… zooming through the crowded streets. Going a zillion miles an hour.

We pull into the V-nam immigration. The French used the building as a prison back in the day. Perfect setting. As we’re pulling in, everyone is leaving. It’s 4:28 pm. Govt. workers going home. Ha ignored this and motored through. She was making fun of them – their schedules – and the fact they don’t work.

We park the motor-bike. I can’t get my helmet off. It stays on. Ha grabs my arm. She guides me through the crowd. Smiling. Talking. Responding to these govt employees. They all look at me. Who knows what she is saying. They smile back. I look like the Jolly Green Giant wearing a blue bike helmet. I feel it too.

We are walking up some stairs. Ha still has my arm. A woman asks where are we going. Just so happens she works in the Visa department. She looks through my paperwork and says we’re missing a document. I need a stamped letter from the hotel saying to confirm I was there. Ha looked very upset. She was trying to convince the woman to follow us to HER office to start processing my Visa now. Ha REALLY wanted to wrap all of this up in one day. From where I sit, I have an identity and money waiting. That’s called a miracle…

Back on the motor-bike to Western Union. She stops. I hop off and run across the street. The bank is closed. A large garage door covers the entire storefront window. Workers can’t see out. I can see them through the cracks. I’m NOT leaving without my money.

Wearing my motor-bike helmet, Jolly Green Giant starts banging on the metal garage door. You can see the scene now. Tall blond. Jeans. White long sleeve t-shirt. Pink hiking boots. Striped socks. Pounding with both hands as hard as possible. People behind me stopped. I feel their eyes. I hear Ha, “Amanda…No! We ok…No more bang…Stop!” I started to laugh.

Ha grabbed my arm and says, “see what happens when I let go of arm…you go crazy….I take care of this…no worry…”

Don’t ask me how, but we find our way into the building. A security guard waits for us in an some random garage for motor-bikes. We walk through a long hallway and enter the bank through the back door. I see slow Western Union girl. She smiles. Hands over the Benjamen Franklins. I LOVE him. I ask for a receipt. Slow girl takes a good 10 minutes to turn on and make a copy of the receipt. My word… I could NOT work here.

We’re back on the motor-bike. It’s getting dark. Ha drops me off at the hotel with instructions. “You ready at 7:45 am. Sorry about immigration. No worry. My country slow. We fix…”

I thanked her again and again. Told her she was my present. My gift. And, to keep holding on to me so I won’t go crazy. And, I needed her more than she knows…

Stolen Identity. Hanoi, Vietnam.

11 Dec

Wanted adventure.  Got adventure.

Entire identity was stolen from me last night. Passport. Visa. Credit cards. Driver’s license. Cash… You name it. Gone. All in the name of shopping. The first time I’ve shopped since I left the land of free press.  BAM.  Talk about buzz kill.

I’m sitting at the US Consulate’s office in Hanoi, Vietnam. Waiting.  Thought now is a good time to start chronicling these last 18 hours.

The US Consulate’s office is what you imagine. Grey blue walls. Gray tile floors. Obama, Hilary and Joe all staring at me – smiling. I’m not taken much comfort in their rosy disposition.  Instead, I want to cry. I need to cry. I feel it in my throat. The enormity. The violation. It’s settling in.

Last night was just adrenaline. Today is –oh shit. I’m in a wanna-be Communist Country with out an identity. I keep pushing my mind to the positive. God is good. I mean, I could be in Russia. I could be in jail in Russia. They they imprison you for being without a passport.

I keep going to the positive.   Well, I could be in China. I could be in a jail in China where I would be a just another faceless number buying my time.

God is good. I’m in Vietnam. This capitalistic communist country recognizes tourist dollars are needed for their economic survival. I’ve got that on my side. God is good.

So, what happened. How in the world am I seeing the inside of one of our nation’s consulates  in a country we terrorized only 35+ years ago.  It goes back to shopping. Two main points here. Vietnam is on sale. And, US dollar is one degree stronger here than other Asian countries. Oh, I almost forgot, the post office is in walking distance from my hotel. The shopping stars aligned. So, I took to the markets to spend US dollars.

Wait. The US Consulate’s office is blasting God Bless America over the sound system. They have a video of clean, happy Americans eating pie, BBQ, riding motorcycles, drinking beer and smiling. Who are these people? I want to be them right about now. Kudos to the video editor for it looks like the US is diversity sensitive. I look around. Is anyone watching the video? I’m the only one. Have tears in my eyes. I love our country. I’m soooo ready to cry right now.

Back to yesterday.

Of COURSE, I was pick-pocketed five minutes away from my hotel. Just bought a bowl with a hole for chop sticks. Yes, liking the chop sticks thing…. I paid with cash. Put my mini-wallet in my backpack. Walked out of shop with three bags. Meandered down the street looking at counterfeit Northface jackets and Gucci shoes. Cruised into the hotel lobby. Reached for my purse. Noticed my zipper was slightly open. Hmmmm.. Yes, I did the hmmmm thing. Felt heart start to race. Felt light headed. Felt sweat. Body going straight into adrenaline mode before I even reached for my bag. Spirit knew I was FUUUU before the mind did.

Breathing got labored. I started to wave my hands next to my face, thinking it would cool me. I took a deep breath and went into search and destroy mode. Dumped everything on the hotel lobby marble floor. Two mini-Vietnamese front desk girls looked on in horror. Words have not been uttered yet. Just crazy flapping of the arms and shit spilled on the floor. I look up at them and bellowed, “Call Ang now. Call Ang. Call Ang. Call tour operator. Passport stolen. Need him here now. OK?”

Within seconds, I’m out the door. Walking as fast as possible – if not jogging – back to the last store. Trying to navigate motor-bikes, taxis, bikes and walkers. At this point, I didn’t care if I were hit because I would feel NO pain. I’m now sprinting. Within minutes, I’m back at the shop. I walked in calmly. I wanted to see the expression of the girls’ eyes – afraid or questioning. If it’s afraid, they are going down. If it is innocently curious, then they are scratched off my “who done it” list. By now, I had a long list for everyone I passed on the street are guilty.

The two girls were helping another customer. One waved. The other smiled and walked over.  They are excited to see me.  They don’t have it. I hastily ask about my wallet? They look frightened now for their store will possibly be named in a police report.  No longer my problem.

I sprinted out the door. I’m actually surprised I found the shop for Hanoi is one big cluster of streets, markets, shops and traffic. Each street looks and sounds the same. Run down French architecture and a lot of honking. I spied a $3 pedicure place. Damn, I wanted to get a pedicure, but now can’t because I have NO money. Not even $3! I’m screwed…

I’m back at the Hotel Serenade in minutes. I shouted, “Where is Ang? Call him? Where is he?”  I called Tour-Burn and asked him for Ang’s number. No, I did not have his number for it was in my WALLET. The front desk lady handed me the phone.  She was clearly frightened of me. I told Ang what happened. Twenty-six year old appeared at the lobby minutes later.

By this point, I’m back in my room. For whatever reason, the hotel hooked me up with an AWESOME room overlooking the streets of Hanoi. Big king size bed and over-sized tub. But, no internet connection. How do I know? Well, I called the front desk. Raised my voice in hysteria about “no internet connection.”

Seconds later the hostess at the restaurant appeared with a cable cord in one hand and hot water for tea in the other. Why can’t it be vodka. After she fiddled with my computer, she declared “Room no internet. Near street and far from router. Cable no good.”

It did not makes sense but I had a solution.  I will take Magic Jack and the 1980’s phone from Wal-Mart to the lobby and work off their computer. I had to call the bank to cancel my life line of $$ and have them reissue new cards ASAP.

It’s around 7 pm. I’m seated in the hotel lobby with my 1980’s phone. French tourists were walking in from a day of touring. They were loud. Ang is sitting next to me –just watching. He won’t leave my side, yet has zero solutions so far. I ask, “I’m sure this has happen before. This is common, no?”   He responds, “First time happen to me… Vietnam is very safe…” Great. Got a newbie here.

On the phone with USAA ATM hotlink. I’m mentioning their name because I’m floored. Here it goes… This is after hours lady…

Me: “Hi. I’m a USAA member. Bank with you. I’m in Vietnam and had my passport, ATM and credit cards stolen. I need for you to cancel my ATM and reissue me a new one.”

ATM gal: “Wow. That is terrible? Where are you?”

Me: “Vietnam. Hanoi. Capital City. Yes, it’s bad. Can you please stop my ATM.”

ATM gal: “Not a problem. I will take care of it. Your new card should arrive between 14 to 21 business days.”

Me: Pause. Shake my head. Brain was screaming, NOT AN OPTION. “That will not work. I need for you to FedEx the new card immediately. I need you to overnight it.  It must be here in 2 days. I leave Hanoi for Saigon in 2 days. ATM is the ONLY way to get any money. Don’t forget, I’m in Vietnam.”

ATM gal: “With international express mail, I can’t guarantee you when it will arrive. You didn’t carry checks?”

Me: Did ATM gal really just ask me about CHECKS? All credibility just flew OUT the door. “Yes, you CAN guarantee international shipping. Fed Ex has a tracking system. Their whole business model is based on the premise of getting random stuff to people anywhere in the world in matter of hours or days – not weeks or months. You pay up the nose. But, they will get it to you. I think there is some confusion here. I need my ATM fast. I need for FedEx to deliver it to my hotel in 2 days. I leave in 2 days…”

ATM gal: “You will need to call Fed Ex.  Do you have a pen.  It’s 1-800-Go Express. It’s an easy number. Tell them you have the $8 option. That is what USAA uses…”

Me: “$8 option? I will pay the $80 option….. And, don’t I need a tracking number before I call them……. And, what I’m hearing you say is if I call this 1-800 number and say “$8” option they will know what I’m talking about? Look… I need my ATM. And, you are a military bank – you have people living all around the world. I’m SURE you can send cards to people within days… I’m positive..”

ATM gal: “Let me check for you. It looks like we can’t guarantee it but there is a chance we can get it there in 4 to 5 business days. So, we’re looking at next week sometime. Do you have a physical address?”

I think to myself. FedEx ships on the weekend too. Has this lady missed the memo on international shipping? And, does she realize she works for an international bank, not some community bank in farm-town USA where Fed-Ex stands for former Federal employees? Yep. This is what you get when working with the after hours on call folks. I WILL be calling back.

Now, I needed to think through dates. Where in the hell where will I be in 4 or 5 days. I don’t even know what day it is. My bottom has been glued to a bike seat for 3 days and, after that, I’ve been trekking for another 3 through the jungles and rice fields of Vietnam. It could be Thanksgiving for all I know. Mind is calm. The day Tuesday pops in my head. It’s the 17th. So, in 4 days, I will be in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in route to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Couldn’t get any less civilized right about now. And, I’m not staying at a star hotel with a reputable name. So, sending my cards to a random, no star hotel in Ho Chi Minh or Phnom Penh was not an option.

I turned to Ang. I needed to make this kid useful. I asked, “Hey, does your company have an office in Ho Chi Minh?”

He said, “Yes. We do.”

I responded, “Write down the address. Do they speak English there? And, is it a physical location or just a PO box….”

He answered my zillion in one questions. Who knew I could come up with so many questions about an office location… “speak English? Receptionist speak English? Manger at this location? Telephone work at all times…Back up generator during power loss… Open on weekends? Hours of operations? Do they understand what signing for mail means? Have they heard of Fed Ex? Do they have the authority from their manger to sign????” Questions kept coming until I felt assured that this travel agency, Handspan Travel, can handle the signing and holding of an envelop with precious goods. Yes, Tall Girl is still in control, bully mode..

I get back to ATM lady.

Me: “I got an address for you in Ho Chi Minh. Yes, that is right. They use both Saigon and Ho Chi Minh. Today, we’re using Ho Chi Minh…. What do you mean the computer won’t let you put in Ho Chi Minh…what do you mean there is not enough lines for the address…what do you mean the address defaults to ‘Street’… what do you mean that the phone number does not fit…”

Yes, this was the call. So, in my mind, I will never see the ATM card. I need to think of another option. Next was the call to the credit card side to shut down my card. Another dozy. I never thought getting a credit card would be SO impossible. They give them out to students at college campuses. My word, they were mailing them to us when Enron was crashing. Giving them out to people who can’t pay, yet can’t get it to those that can pay. And, you wonder why they are in such a mess. Shock city. Focus.

Call with credit card lady at USAA went something like this…

CC lady: “Glad you are OK. Of course we can stop payment on your credit card and reissue you a new one. Do I send it to your home address listed in the system?”

Me: “No. I said I’m in Vietnam, not Winter Park, Florida. I need it sent to me in Vietnam….that should not be a problem for you are a military bank. An international bank with clients living all around the world. And, credit cards seem to fly by themselves. So, I’m confident there will be NO problem getting me my new credit card in 2 days…”

CC lady: “It normally takes longer. It will be in for an emergency credit card with Master Card. It’s up to them on when they process and send it to you. We ship by FedEx and you should have it in 7 business days.”

Are these people mad? I’m mean REALLY!!!! I have NO money. Nothing. Not a cent. I’m thinking of opening up a Viet-Comm banking account right about now. I’m thinking they can get me a card in an hour, not days and days and days. Unreal.

ME: “What I don’t understand is you are an international bank. And, you can’t get me a new card faster. I need this expedited. I will pay.”

Turns out, she can get it to me – NOT guaranteed” in 3 to 4 business days, if I’m lucky. Turns out that her system allows enough room for the address, but not enough room for the company name. Computers…. UGH. I hung up and decided I will be looking for a new bank. Citibank is everywhere.  This is truly ridiculous. I have no money. Need to figure out $$. So, who do you turn to in crisis situations, DADDY!

I called Dad. It’s after 7 am there. He’s up. He’s probably at work. I got him before he walked out the door. I tell him the situation. Calm, cool and collected, he says, “I’ll wire you money. Western Union. No problem.” What is it about Dad’s and daughters? They have that gene to solve problems of hysterical, emotionally wrecked daughters who are sitting penniless in communist countries.  I felt confident I would be seeing the green back by the next day. Love DADDY!

Ang gets a call from his agency. He informs me that a woman from Handspan Travel will be at the hotel at 8 AM to take me to the US consulate’s office and local police department. Told me not to worry. By this time, I’m not worrying about anything. All I wanted was a beer and some rice. It’s out of my hands. I am no longer in control. Bully, demanding, I’m in control of everything Amanda has been purged. And, it SUCKS. So need a drink because the next 48 hours will be a wild ride.

Ang, Tour-burn and I head to dinner. We opted for a restaurant with windows and chairs over 2 feet tall. I ordered steam broccoli with my dinner. They brought me steamed cabbage. I told Ang – this is not what I ordered. I’m in a mood. Over it. And, I’m fighting for my steamed veggies tonight.

Ang and the waitress go at it. I mean, he is attacking her. She’s attacking him. They get the menu out. I just watch. Mind is checked out. Mind is in a far away place. Ang finally says, “They fry broccoli, not steam. Only steam cabbage.” This would NOT fly in the states. I just nod. Reached for the soy sauce, chillies and chop sticks, and began to consume my steamed cabbage.  No need to ask questions, just salt the shit and move on.

Back at the hotel, I crawled into my super-sized bed. Can’t sleep. Mind races to random places. Somehow my neurons find their way to V-nam police station.  And, V-nam immigration offices…. I think I slept about 2 hours. So, I was emotionally primed when I met – who would later become my travel angel… The adventure continues…

What do you mean the Train Wheels are too Small? Gettin’ into China

25 Sep

It’s September 23. Friday. 11:23 AM. On the train. About three hours away from Beijing. I’m sure you are so sick of another damn train blog. I’m tired too. I’m on the top bunk. Stomach pains. Smelling cig smoke. Listening to the door bang and bang and band. Our compartment saddles up next to the working toilet. They say the air condition is on – so all windows are bolted. I’m becoming desensitized to recycled cig, urine air.

Sitting here. Watching China reveal herself to me. A lot of building going on in Northern China. Then, you hit nothing – looks like scenes in Avatar. Spotted the great wall an hour ago. It was built in Northern China to keep the barbarians out – and the annoying Khan family from Mongolia…

We boarded the “to” China train yesterday AM. Last night was the highlight. Leaving Mongolian was easy. We had a two hour stop. No bathroom. No leaving the train. After the Mongols wished us well – we headed off to China border only 30 minutes down the road.

We pulled up around 9 pm and left at 1 am. Not only had they check our passports, but also take apart each car and change the wheels. That’s right. Change the wheels. The train tracks are smaller in China. They took our passports. Locked the toilets. Locked us in the train. They ripped apart each train and drove it into a tunnel where they jacked us up about 10 feet.

It was a weird sensation, watching other trains being lifted up into the air by over sized jacks or whatever they’re called… And watching the many, many Chinese changing the big wheels. (Job security) When it was our turn, they slowly lifted us up. We could not feel a thing. We were not moving. But, we were – then we here major clanging and the metal scrapping. The train jolted. Jolted. And, it was silent. They lowered us down and then they slowly started reconnecting the train. There’s a new restaurant car – selling Chinese food instead of Mongolian. Bring on the rice baby!

Next stop is Beijing.

From Poland to Russia. That’s a domestic flight.

9 Sep

And, lift off! LOT – Polish Airlines – is in the air in route to Warsaw with final destination — land of Peter the Great – St. Petersburg, Russia.

Excitement. Apprehension. Wonderment. Those are the feelings right about now. I’m just relieved I made my flight because we’re off to a rocky start. I hate typing those words since my travel day has just begun. It’s 6:28 AM my time or 12:28 AM (EST).

My head hit the pillow around 1 AM and I woke around 3:30 AM. Taxi – Audi station wagon – wisked me to Krakow airport around 4:30 am. My taxi drivers is the same dude I bribed to drive me to DHL only weeks ago. It was nice to see his face. Safe hands… At least for the next 29 minutes or so.

Ok. So, my final destination is St. Petersburg, Russia so one would safely assume that I would be departing at Krakow’s international terminal. Makes sense. Right? I need to learn whenever I “assume,” I’ll wind up lost or screwed.

Taxi man drops me off. We wish each other “good life” and my feet briskly carry me to the international terminal It’s cool out. I have 2 t-shirts, jacket and scarf. Try to wear as much clothes as possible so they won’t charge me extra for baggage weight. Every ounce counts here.

It’s 5:05 am and the the place is DEAD. My flight is to take off in an hour. The only airline operating is Lufthansa – those folks are going to Munich. Hmmm… I don’t understand. I don’t even see a LOT kiosk or LOT gate. There’s no LOT.

I stand in the mini-airport and just look around. I inhale. OK. What am I missing here. I’m tired. Unlike Beirut, signs are in English. No LOT. There are a few stragglers hanging around – think homeless or old men up all night – and a few stragglers in line for Munich. I walk outside. Does LOT have their own terminal and in my haste of wishing Taxi man “good life” I walked in the wrong door?

Nope. No LOT terminal. I walk back in. This time my breathing starts to get heavier. I look at the time. My flight leaves in 50 mins. I spy some security dudes, lazily strolling around, heads down, in deep conversation. I walk behind them. The rollers on my bag echo off the walls.  They take no notice of the frantic hysteria on their tails…

“Oh, excuse me… English… do you speak English?”  They keep walking. I say it again, “only louder with a higher pitched tone.” They turn. “English?”

The taller, darker one says, “Yes.” I show him my flight itinerary.  He just stares and smiles at me. It dawns me he can’t read.  “Can you tell me where I check in for LOT? It’s going to Warsaw at 6 am. My final destination is Russia. Can you help me?”

He pointed to an office door with a LOT sign. I smiled. Good. Can’t imagine checking in at an office, but at least I know LOT exists. The sign said it does not open until 5:30 am. It’s 5:11 am. I’m clearly in the wrong place. I get in line at Lufthansa.  Airport people know each other. They know the system. Security – another story. Plus, they have to speak basic English.

I wait. Wait. And, wait.  People in front of me are going to the States and something is wrong with their VISA. Shit. It’s VISA again… I wait. Stare at the time. My eyes scan for LOT people. LOT badges. LOT anything. It’s 5:16 am. What happens if I miss my flight to Warsaw and then to St. Petersburg. I know what happens – but I’m still have time to fix this.

My hands start to swell. Mouth turning dry. These men line up behind me with 7 or 8 foot tools. Looks like they are carrying canoe paddles. Their loud. Polish. Speaking in constants. I can’t hear them. My eyes pour in the back of the family in front of me. Come on lady, le’ts move it. Do you have a VISA or not?

It’s now 5:20 am and the LOT door is still closed. The women moves. I smile. The Lufthansa kid smiles back. Thank you lord! I tell him my situation. Annoyance emerges. He said, “you are at the wrong terminal. Warsaw is domestic. It’s 500 meters.”

Flashback to High School crew days. Is 500 meters the entire race or the sprint? I asked, “can I walk?” He repeats, “it’s 500 meters.” Looks like I’m sprinting. The clock now says 5:26 am.

I inhale. Clasp by bags. And, haul ass through the vacant terminal. Out the door. Run into another security teen. I ask him, “Domestic?” And point. He nods. Smiles. Nods. Damn, he doesn’t speak English. He has that look.

Down the sidewalk. Keeping my head down, I start to pace my breathing.  I tell myself — no pain in shoulder or hand…there’s no pain… I notice the sidewalk is made out of the same bricks I used to pave the shed floor at Habitat.  I feel comforted by the bricks.

Stay focus. Around the corner, there’s a building. Is it? Nope. Cargo. I trot by. Next building is big. It has to be it. Nope. It’s security. The sidewalk is dark. No lights. No cars. I keep trotting. You have GOOOOT to be kidding me. Am I going to get friggin lost trying to find the domestic terminal in airport the size of Burger King. Prespiration. My stomach growls. Legs are tired. Heart moving to fast. Break it down to the obnoxious fast walk thing where the hips are bouncing back and forth. I’m willing my backpack rollers to turn faster and faster. I round the corner. There’s light. Stairs. And, the red lights “domestic.” Made it! Now, let’s hope the gate is not closed.

I see LOT. LOT exists. There are 2 people left in line to check in. I exhale. My throat is so dry that I begin to cough. Now dry heave. I’m dry heaving. Fab. The nuns look at me.  My eyes are watering.  I’m doing the controlled dry heave.  Where is my gum. I have no liquids for I’m about the go through security. Gum. Grab the gum. I pawn through my backpack, trying to control the urge to  barf. Clearly, I’m not in shape. Gum inserted in mouth and throat goes from sand paper to soft scrub. I step into line acting like everything is “cool.” Of course I didn’t just trot 500 meters to catch a domestic flight to Russia.  Who does such things….

I’m checked in. Gate guy wishes me a “good life.” Second time I heard it this AM, and it’s only 5:48 AM. The line for radiation is 20 feet. (Don’t know meters). I line up behind a nun. I look at the sign of “what not to carry on.”  They’ve listed kayaks,canoes and martial art weapons like brass knuckles,  nun-chucks and bayonets.  I sooo wanted to whip out my camera.  I mean a Kayak?  Did someone try to convince them that it would fit in the overhead space?   What is a nunchuck?  Of course, I read numb-nuts.  I could not stop laughing.  I mean out loud giggling.  I pictured the whole numb-nut and kayak scene.  Thank you God. My anxiety level is slowly resuming normalcy. Throat is secreting moisture on its own.

It’s 5:55 AM and my flight leaves in 5 mins. I’m next through the strip search of security. Two pilots and four flight attendants que in behind me. I make it through the pat down. It’s 5:57 am and I jump on the bus to take me to the LOT plane. I sit. It’s quite. One other late comer is on the bus. The bus does not move. Seriously. Am I on the wrong bus now?

It’s 5:59 am. I’m about to stand up, then the flight crew boards the bus. Please don’t tell me that’s our pilot. The bus lurches forward. We round the corner. I look out the window, searching for a LOT plane. We pass the security building, cargo building – the buildings I just trotted by moments ago. We head to the international terminal. Yep. You guessed it. Bus stops at international terminal only 60 or so feet from my launching pad only 30 minutes ago.   I knew from Poland to Russia was international.  Well, I got a quick jog on the way to the flight.   That’s all I can ask for.

I board the plane with 10 windows along with the flight crew. It’s not our pilots, just stewardess.  The ride along pilots butt in front of me and grab all the first class seats. I make my way to the back of the plane tuck my knees in. We lift off – the world is slowly waking up. I think about today – the people that will leave this world. The people that will come into this world. The people getting a promotion or the ones getting  terminated. The people who will go hungry another day and those who will embrace gluttony.  The people who want to be heard and those who are silenced.

Today is a beautiful day. Full of hopes. Full of fears. Full of life. I’m so blessed to be flying thousands of meters, feet and inches above watching God unfold this day to me. I’m gearing up for Peter the Great and Putin.

The cabin is quiet. The flight attendant hands me a 6:39 AM snack. Princess cookies! Love them. Today is going to be a good day.

I landed in Warsaw. We were welcome with another dose of radiation and a pat down.   I found a cafe that served hot sandwiches, across from my gate and started humming “Last Christmas” by George Michael.  I ordered a latte and a sandwich which I prayed was not drenched in mayo. I realized Warsaw muzak is playing an eight-track of GM for the next song is Careless Whispers. I smile.

As I sipped my coffee and stared, I tuned into the sophisticated ladies sitting next to me.  One woman is from Bulgaria woman looks like Olivia Bensen from Law & Order SVU. The other two are older – blonds – and are Lebanese. I believe they live in Beirut. A Bulgarian woman is asking them about Beirut. My ears perk up.

Bulgaria woman asks, “I haven’t been to Beirut. They wear regular western clothes, right?” They respond, “Why of course!” She goes on, “Well, I went to this party in Bulgaria. These Lebanese women were there. They had scarfs. But, then they were dancing on the tables. I was like, WOW!  WOW!  This was a Lebanese woman. When they moved fast the the scarfs came undone.”

Beirut lady, “The West side of Beirut is more progressive. You know in France they are doing a lot of questions about this. They are not letting people cover their face. And, the Muslims are upset.”   Bulgaria woman is silent. She is not going there – not giving her opinion. Conversation changes to weather.  I applaud her.

Bulgaria woman continues on…”They are educated in Lebanon, no? Women are educated. I met women in Kuwait.  They are not educated. They are covered but can’t read. In Lebanon, the woman are safe. They can work. It’s comfortable. They are safe. They have more freedoms than in other countries. Men don’t bother them.  They are safe.”

Bulgaria woman, “I did not like LA. I like San Diego. I like tan. It’s not good for the skin. But, in moderation. It’s good.”

Bulgaria woman, “Your husband is tall? That’s good. It’s nice to be tall. Tall is good.”

Beirut woman, “I was model. They come to my house to ask if I could model. I was tall. They come to my house to ask my father.”

Bulgaria woman, “ I was 16. This man comes to my house. I look Arabic you know.  He was Arabic.  Older.  I have curly hair, dark and the Arab uni-brow.  You know, the Arabic look…. He brings my father rice. He says he wants to marry me. My father got angry. Very angry. He angry with me. 16. Not married at 16. Nooooooooo…  I’m not married now. I’m 38. Yes, I look young. It’s because I’m not married, no?”

Bulgaria woman, “I have a cousin who is married to a rich Lebanese man. Very rich. Yes, she’s still married. Doctor of a very rich woman. My cousin, very beautiful woman. She has no choice. She has to be beautiful or husband gets mad.”

Bulgaria woman, “I want to have kids. But, it’s not so easy. When you’re older. But whatever the God Will. Whatever the God will. I need to find a prince… But, there are no prince. I look, but no prince. Maybe I don’t need a prince.  Maybe I just need a baby.  I’m a nurse.” Lebanese women agree.

Bulgaria woman, “I like different things. I communicate very easy with people. I like travel.”

I like traveling too. Listening. Asking questions. Curious…. So, curious…. Another George Michael song – You’ve Got to Have Faith. They’re about to call for my flight to St. Pete. Need to brush the tooth, apply lip gloss, touch the VISA and “load’em up.” We’re off. Next blog will about landing and getting to the hotel.  Wish me luck!

Visiting Visas – Russia, China, Vietnam

29 Aug

Whether Maslow meets my traveling physiological needs – breathing, food, water, clean bathrooms and constant body temperature  — or not is really of no bother to me.  It is when I’m challenged by a high-school drop out or thug managing border security is when I become unglued.

Because of this, you would think securing a Visa prior to leaving would be a priority.  Nope.  Clothes and accessories were my only priority.

You see, I had planned to be in London for 2 weeks.  All the consulate offices are there so, the thinking goes, I’ll  just pop in and they’ll stamp my passport.  All will be good.  Easy Breezy.

On day two of my stay in London, I Googled  Russian embassy and mapped out its location on the subway (Tube).  Instead of going to the Russia Visa application center, I was knocking on the door of the Russian ambassador. First mistake.

Ironically, I walked right passed security and was only approached when I came closer to the ambassador’s front door. Some man said,  “Can I help you?”  Well, of course, “I’m from the United States of America and need a Visa to Russia.”  The man’s expression went from helpful to annoyance.  Not another one. He told me that I am in the wrong place and that was that

Several Tube stops later, I arrived at the Russian Visa application center – little KGB.  It is what you imagine.  Grey building.  No windows.  And, bad-ass blonds out of a James Bond movie working behind the desk. These women look violent.  I took a number and waited. My number was called by KGB agent 345.  She pointed in the direction of a computer. “Go fill out application.” And, boom, dismissed.

Thank GOD there was a young boy of 19 managing the computer.  I will flirt and he will help me, right?  The answer is yes.

When we got to the question of “what did you study in college,” my heart started beating faster.  Shit.  I studied politics?  The red head of anxiety raced up my neck.

I told tiny teen I studied the Science of Politics and asked if  that is “Ok.”  I tried to make it sound less threatening and more academic by placing the word science in front of politics.  He said, “why, yes.”

He asked me, “what organizations do I belong to?”  I momentary forgot.  Mead Garden gardening club?  Public Relations Society?  YMCA?   Tiny teen has a follow up question, “what does the YMCA stand for?”  UH NO.  It’s a Christian based organization, what if the rowdy Russians are anti-christian — boot me now?  I responded – “Young, Men’s Christian Association.”  I probed his eyes.  Did I notice a change in color.  Did his pupils dilate?

Tiny teen said, “oh, just curious.  I walk pass the sign everyday.”

I enthusiastically offered, “you should look into joining.  It’s a great organization.”  What the he—.  I’m schlepping YMCA memberships to a Russian in London.  Stop the madness.

Tiny teen went on to ask me about my terrorist activities and if I have enough money to get out of Russia. Passed the terrorist questions with flying colors.  Money?  Really?  Do you think taking a one-way train across your country to China is a red flag that I’m here stay?  This question made me laugh – I mean, my face muscles hurt from the Chester-cat grin.  “This TallGirl does not do cold.  And, Siberia and Mongolia is a little brisk in September.  You have nothing to worry about.  Not defecting to Russia.”  Humor does not translate.  His lips did not curl. His pupils DID dilate.

Tiny teen turned from sweet and fragile to stony and cold.  KGB  was kickin-in. “You need to show me that you have money in your account.  Bring me your bank statements.  Your bank must be in the UK.  And, then we can process your Visa. Oh, you can not use this computer or printer.”

First, pray that BOA has an office in the UK.  Second, I had to find a place to  use a computer and a printer.  This is what you have to embrace about traveling.  Nothing is easy.  And, it’s this inconvenience that makes the experience memorable, right?  Not up for a Russian Visa experience on this day…

Walked up to randoms on the street — b/c this is what dirty, smelly travelers do – and asked where to find a computer with WiFi and a WORKING  printer.  Some dude in overalls directed me to the YMCA.  The name YMCA twice in an hour — It was a sign.  And, hell, I was the advertising/ marketing muse at the Y back home so it’s time to cash in on that card.

Sauntered in with an air of arrogance and announced that I used to work for the Y in Central Florida and could I PLEASE use their computer/printer.  Petite girl with large brown eyes stared through me and smiled.  Too bad. Soo sad.  Our computers aren’t working.  Well, that had a familiar ring to it.  She said the shop with a yellow sign may help me.  She gave me the “make a left, make a right, make a right and around the corner” directions and off I went…

The shop with a yellow sign charged me $5 to download and print the bank statements.   It’s called extortion in the states, but I’m desperate.

Tiny teen reviews my statements and asks me to return in 10 days or so.  The part about “or so” got me.  I said, “well I need the passport by August 5 because I’m going to Lebanon.”  He said, “that should not be a problem.”

Did I just hear a conditional verb, ‘should?’  No. No. No.  We need active, definite verbs here.  Can’t mess with the passport.  Then, out of no where and with no filter, I said, “Should is not a verb I like… I need my passport…. and I know where you work….”  Then I smiled my big pearly whites… Wait, did  I just threaten, unintentionally, a Russian visa agent – possibly KGB?  Nice one.  He just looked at me.  I walked off — fast.

Fast forward ten days and a trip to Scotland, I’m back at KGB central.  The Bond ladies are  there.  They look more violent than before.  On this day, I’m to meet my friend Betsy at her flat for some celebratory cocktails and dinner. I’ve given this whole Russia Visa thing about 2.5 hours round trip, including tube stops.  It is more than enough — or so I thought.

Walk in.  Security guard with a big Russian badge offers Visas aren’t given out until 4 pm.  Excuse me?  No one ever told me this.  Nor, was this on the website or posted anywhere in the building.  Maybe it is a new rule for that day. I graciously thanked him for his bad news for it was 2:30 and I have 1.5 hours until I can get in line for the Visa pick up.  I’m to be drinking cocktails at 4:30 with Betsy.

Shiny badge guy guy handed me number #862.  I flew out the door in search of WiFi.  This time, I brought my laptop.  Now, I need to let Betsy know I will be late for drinks and to get started without me….  I spied a Starbucks.  Fab.  This is going to be easy.  Starbucks must have WiFi.  I bought some of their laced coffee with extra stimulates and and inquire about WiFi.  No Wifi in this location.  Shit.  I sat.  Stared at the window.  Exhaled.  Chugged the S’bucks. And, mentally prepared for the journey to locate WiFi in London.  I have 49 minutes.  Did I mention London is one of the financial capitals of the world?

Back to the YMCA – again.  Nope, internet is down today.  Looks like all Ys across the world are the same.   Went into a few shops run by lovely Indians and asked if they have a computer, WiFi — anything.  Nope.  Then, marched over to the yellow sign shop.  Put down another $5 and used his computer for 29 seconds.  Extortion.. I told Betsy to hold the liquor — things have changed.

I go back to the windowless building.  Plopped in a plastic chair. And,  take in my surroundings.  Where am I?  Yes, the KGB Bond girls are all blond, beautiful and exude violence dressed in fitted tailored shirts, tight skirts, high heels and tan legs.  Hair is pulled tight off their necks for severity or flowing down their backs.  The all look like they would put Sean Connery to the ultimate test. Or, win an ultimate fight challenge.  Either way, they win.

To my left are four Russian men wearing black or white t-shirts speaking in low voices and ogling over these girls. I think one KGB girl started to purr at their attention.   About a half dozen “customers” are in the waiting room, yet the place is humming with energy.  My eyes set upon the Russian propaganda of “did you know” facts.  “Did you know the Russian Federation comprises of 83 federal subjects?”  Their way of communicating Russia IS democratic and not really a totalitarian-Putin regime.    “Did you know about Southeast Siberia’s Lake Baikal contains 20% of the world’s total unfrozen fresh water reserve?”  Need to remember to pack a jacket.

The  numbers are moving.  KGB girl screams, “number 672″  . I’m 862. There are 6 people in here. This is interesting. I kick my feet up and watch.

She continues to count.  No one moves.  We hit the 700’s…next is 800’s… Finally, my number.  I hand KBG girl my ticket.  She takes it without smiling or making eye contact.  She walks to the box and quickly thumbs through the envelops, not once, twice but four times.  That is when I knew we had a problem.  She walks back.  “You have a problem.”  No, I don’t think so sister.  I smiled, “No, you have a problem.  The email sent said my passport is ready.”  She starred at me — ice blue eyes rested on mine.  I’m ready for war…Lebanon is calling.  Her voiced rang out and her counterparts all stopped and looked at her.  She abruptly turned on her heel and stormed off in the back room.  Great.  I thought, “I’m stuck in London. Journey over.  I haven’t even gotten my blog up yet…”

Twenty minutes later or so, she pushed the door open, looking even angrier.  She goes through the boxes again and again.  I was not leaving.  Finally, she pulls out an envelop and smiles and even, giggles.  She hands it to me and then says, “good bye.”  I translated her gestures as the passport was filed under Ms. instead of my name.  Who cares.  I got my Visa and passport and I was off to Lebanon.

Next Visa is China and Vietnam, which will be taken care of while in Krakow, Poland.  To make a short story longer, I’m sitting under four wool blankets freezing my ass in Gliwice, Poland praying that I will have a passport upon my return to Krakow.  It’s August, and yes, I’m COLD!

I decided it is much more efficient to Fed-Ex my passport to some agency in DC who can secure my Visas in a matter of days instead of dealing with the harassment.

So, how did I get here?  I decided to stay in a nice hotel in Krakow, Poland, feeling certain that they had access or knowledge about express mail.  Ha.  Another joke in the traveling journal.  The receptionist told me that Fed Ex just entered the market, so they know nothing of Fed Ex.  They only use DHL, which is closed Friday afternoons and opens again on Monday.   I arrived on Friday afternoon.

Next day, I bribed some kid $40 to drive me to DHL terminal in the middle of some field – about 75 mins outside of Krakow – on a Saturday so my passport and Visa applications will be sent on Monday, arriving by Thursday to passport central in DC.  We got lost.  He pulled over and asked an older man riding a bike with baskets on the front and back about DHL’s location.  No clue.  The guy appeared snockered…

We knocked on someone’s home.  No clue. Never heard of DHL.   His GPS indicated DHL was in front of us — but all we saw was a green meadow with yellow flowers.  I sat back,  Smiled.  This is in God’s hands.

Don’t ask how, but we found the place.  No one spoke any English.   It is at these times where faith in God and trust in your fellow man comes into play. Really, what are my options?  I filled out some forms.  Smiled.  Handed the lady my passport and prayed.

The goal is for the passport to arrive by week’s end.  I sent my passport to DC and while I’m filling cracks and mixing cement in Gliwice, Poland for Habitat, they are working on securing Visas for China and Vietnam.  When I arrive back in Krakow next week, my passport will be at fancy hotel – Visas completed – without a problem.

Reality is — someone in DC has my passport.   If my passport goes MIA, it looks like I will be extending my trip in Poland. Or, God will just open another door.  Maybe, I’m too marry the HOT, Polish, tattooed brick layer and, together, we fill cracks with concrete, live off sauerkraut and Vodka and have magical Polish sex for the rest of my life. God has a plan…And, I need to keep my end of the bargain of having faith…