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Preparations Archives

Name Dropping

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One of the few differences between the "Don't Leave Home Without..." section early in Lonely Planet's Cambodia and the same section in LP's Vietnam guide is: "Other hand things to bring are business cards, as Vietnamese deal them out like a deck of playing cards."

I had a stack of business cards from my old job, but they wouldn't be of much use while traveling, as all of the contact information was for that office. And anyway, "business cards" didn't seem quite right; I'm not engaged in any particular business at the moment, except that of traveling.

While re-reading Truman Capote's novella Breakfast at Tiffany's, I came across what struck me as a timely suggestion. My talented friend Debbie offered to letter-press the idea into lovely thick card-stock, while adding her own touch by inking the edges red and gold. You can read her design blog for the full story, including the relevant literary citation, but here's the results.

PGcard.JPG

Coolest Consulate Ever

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You may remember me remarking on the coolest consular website ever, the Indian consulate in Buenos Aires, home of Cafe con Visa. On September 27, I wandered across Recoleta and other of the posh areas of Buenos Aires to that consulate as part of my long-running quest to get an Indian visa. To give a short version of the story: I had planned to get my visa when I was in Houston, but did not realize (as it's not well-explained on the website) that you can only make a walk-in visa request in the specific Indian Embassy assigned to your state of residence. Thus, if I wanted to get a visa in the U.S., I needed to be in Chicago.

On the other hand, embassies outside the U.S. could give me a six-month visa if I dropped by during my travels. I tried in Lima, but they pointed out that a six-month visa would expire before my arrival in India, and encouraged me to try Buenos Aires. Since I wanted to see Cafe con Visa anyway, this wasn't such a bad thing.

And let me say, it lived up to expectations. The waiting area for visa applications is on an upper floor of a gorgeous office tower in one of Buenos Aires's nicest locations. A brilliant sunny view pours in through wide windows, lighting an open space filled with a long table, bookshelves full of helpful information on Indian business and tourism, and best of all, wifi and free coffee. Embassy staff were ceaselessly helpful, and while there was the typical amount of sitting, waiting, and filling out forms one expects in government processes, the affair was actually quite pleasant. Other applicants around me were similarly cheerful and upbeat.

Bureaucracy has an unpleasant reputation, usually deservedly so. Anyone who has ever tried to get a passport in person in New York knows about waiting in multiple lines in cramped, dingy, dirty spaces, as functionaries behind glass security windows move with no particular urgency. Even when I dealt with Japanese bureaucracy--which is generally quite competent and efficient--the sense of the impersonal and uncaring was palpable. Cafe con Visa is unique in my experience: a government agency seemingly designed to make interactions with it pleasant, professional and respectful. Perhaps it is not the Lost City of Atlantis or the fabled Cities of Gold, but it is the most surprising discovery I have made on my travels thus far.

Remember our regrets about A Space Place Storage, which responded so badly to a break-in and had none of the basics you would expect from a storage place (such as working door locks)? Well, it seems that while we may have removed all of our things, and received a refund of our initial payment from this awful storage company, they felt no need to stop charging us a monthly fee.

Nor did they reply to an email asking them to refund us two months' worth of "fees" put on our card. When I called this morning, the woman on the other end of the line (a) insisted that we call her on the non-toll free number, (b) "couldn't remember" the email she had sent us confirming the refund, and (c) suggested that we call her back at the end of the day. Given that international phone calls are expensive and Skype difficult, and their behavior so shifty in the first place, I asked for all future communication to be in writing.

That's one problem with long-term travel. You can leave your home behind, but certain aspects of it (such as fly-by-night businesses) will follow you.

Since our wedding, our signature cocktail has been a Godfather: equal parts scotch (or bourbon, we're flexible) and amaretto. But on an airplane, it's not like there will be a flight attendant trained as a bartender. Still, we wanted to start out keeping the tradition.

Which works if PG orders an amaretto and I order a scotch, and then I mix the drinks at our seat. So the journey has started the right way.

The Cool Indian Consulate

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So I've been having a little trouble getting an Indian visa, which will hopefully get sorted out. Looking at options, however, I've scanned the Indian consular sites for South America and half of Asia. This wins the prize for most helpful and friendly consular website ever:

Cafe con Visa: "First, we invite you to have a cup of coffee. Or if you prefer... tea, chocolate or capuccino... Your visa will be ready ... pronto."

I've been meaning to write this up for a while, as it's a story from before we set off on the road. Pallavi took the lead in finding us inexpensive storage outside Manhattan, and had a number of good locations picked out. At the same time, I was selling some of our possessions on Craigslist and came across an ad for $99 climate-controlled storage. The ads are still up there, for this firm, and if you're thinking of storage in the New York area, I can't recommend against this company highly enough. [1]

Bleg: Travel Insurance

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For as long as we're in the United States and Canada, we're covered by the COBRA extensions on the insurance we had with our employers. Once we get on the plane to Ecuador, however, we're on our own.

We need travel insurance to fill that gap, by covering any emergency medical/dental care we receive overseas, as well as our evacuation to the U.S. in case the emergency occurs somewhere with subpar health care.

So far, we've had trouble finding such insurance. Most plans limit the length of a trip to 90 days or less; we need a plan that covers close to a full year. We'd ideally also like to pay less than $1000 per person for the plan, and are willing to take on a high deductible in return. Have any readers had experience with such a plan?

Enough with eBay

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After my earlier problems, I reposted my computer on eBay, again specifying local pickup. The auction ended yesterday, and the first thing I received from my buyer was an email saying, "hi, are you going to ship this macbook? I asked because you the shipping method is pick-up only..."

You know, I think the question pretty much answers itself. Whatever eBay's virtues for professional auctioneers or people who do a lot of shipping, it has very little protection for non-professional sellers.

eBay and Nigerian fraud

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I now have first-hand knowledge of why eBay and PayPal were two of the first companies to work with Google on their email identity verification system. On Friday, eBay notified me that a MacBook that I had put up for sale went for its full Buy It Now price. Given that the item was for pick up only, I expected an email asking where the buyer could meet me. Instead, my "buyer" sent me a message "apologizing for the inconvenience," but informing me that he would release PayPal funds from escrow after I sent him proof that I had sent the computer to his Pastor's wife in Nigeria.

Two minutes later, an email arrived informing me that PayPal was holding the funds pending proof of shipment. Although a pretty obvious fraud, the email was close enough to have tricked someone who didn't look carefully (or notice the obvious spelling errors). Google's identification program worked as advertised, however, and spotted that the Paypal email was not genuine.

Thus followed a few days of trying to convince eBay to cancel the sale. Today, after my second online chat with eBay support, they finally credited me back my fees. (The computer is still for sale here, if you're interested.)

A Public Service Announcement

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For your convenience, the waiting lounge at the New York Passport Office, just like airplanes, comes pre-equipped with screaming babies.

One hint for a round the world trip: check your passport not only to make sure that it won't expire, but also to ensure that you have enough pages for visa stamps.  That way you won't have to make last-minute appointments with the Passport Office. (If you ever do need to do so, here are instructions.)

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