Tuesday, March 27, 2007
A green card gives its happy holder the right to live and work in the United States, but it also stipulates that the residence is "permanent", which actually means that in order to enjoy its benefits, the resident must actually live in the United States. So pretty much, if you don't use it you lose it... This is a fact lost on some people - and I am personally acquainted to a few of those - who have acquired a green card through one of the legal avenues but prefer to live abroad, and come each year for a short vacation thinking they have fulfilled their residence duty. What they don't know, is that their green card is already lost, just nobody has figured it out yet. If you ask me, I think the green cards of those people (who will remain nameless) would be better off in the pockets of some of those poor devils who cross the southern border illegally in hope for a better future. At least they want to live and work here...
Now, to come back to more concrete matters, in order to keep this precious right of permanent residence, I had to apply for a reentry permit - a document that will give me the right to stay abroad for more than one year and not lose my green card. I only have to apply for it before I leave, I don't have to wait for a decision, but they are usually granted. It will be sent to my mother-in-law's address and she will be sending it to my mother's address in Romania where we will pick it up - assuming it will be approved by then - you never know, when it comes to government efficiency...
Yeah, and it comes at a price as well - $170, and a lot of obsessing over having filled the right boxes on the form...
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
At the office, I've been working frantically on my last feature, which has to be finished and tested before I leave. Things haven't been so smooth and I've been lagging behind in some areas that should have been figured out long ago. But everything should be ready now, a couple of more days for testing, then it's all smooth sailing and maybe some bug fixing; It would be irresponsible to undertake anything major when I'm two weeks away from leaving my job.
I'm a little sad that I'm leaving all this behind, but my mind hasn't been on my job for the last few months, ever since we decided to go on full-throttle with the plan. It's hard to do both: be 100% focused at the office and work on the trip at the same time, especially as I had to spend some hours doing trip planning while at work: calling foreign consulates during day time, going to the post and figuring out all the quirks with the Romanian consulate for all those documents that I needed... but I catch up at night; I have spent many late hours at the office these recent weeks.
Today I had a general physical exam, the last doctor visit before departure - better do it now, while I still have medical insurance; I just wanted to be sure I would be healthy as I leave for this trip, and it turns out that nothing is wrong with me, at least according to the blood tests and the x-rays. The head?... don't know...
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
If you’re like me, from a country that has only recently joined the – how should we call it... bottom part of the "first" world, maybe – then whenever you are traveling abroad you will need lots of visas. We Romanians have not needed visas for travel within Europe for a few years now, but bilateral visa agreements with, say, African countries have not been a priority of our recent governments. Quite understandably, we were trying to get admitted into the E.U. first. So while Angela needs three or four visas for the whole trip, I need about 15 to 17...
Adding to that the entry/exit stamps and the previously used passport pages, it became quite obvious that my passport would not have enough space for the whole trip. So what’s to do?
The first idea was to ask the consulate for additional passport pages, but they said that this could not be done. Angela, who probably took for granted the fact that if Americans can add pages to their passports on request, people of all other countries should be able to do so as well, was especially outraged. I, on the other hand, expected it – it all depends on the attitude one has toward bureaucracy – if you had to deal with it all your life, like me, you just shrug your shoulders. Clearly, the path was to get a new passport, while using the old one to stack up as many visas as possible before getting the new one.
I went to Portland to meet the Romanian consul as he was offering his services in the area and got a power of attorney to be used by my mother to apply for a new passport for me in Romania, since things were much faster that way. The passport office in my hometown didn't accept it because it was missing the transcription of my marriage certificate (I had checked the "married" box on the form and the consular officers told me the certificate wasn't needed) and the old passport (which, they assured me, I wouldn't have to send over...)
The plan changed: now we will travel to Romania after getting out of Africa and I will apply for a passport in person in my home town; by then I will surely not have any empty page left for the visas needed to enter the Asian countries.
But in order to be able to apply for a passport in my hometown I need to have a Romanian ID card (my current one expires in March). To obtain the ID takes time (if you don’t know people…) but I can have it ready by the time I get there by getting a different power of attorney to my mother (all those documents are not for free, mind you). Either way, nothing works without the transcription of the American marriage certificate into the Romanian civil document registry… which requires a lot of documentation: the marriage certificate with an apostille from Olympia (so I drove to Olympia and back one morning) my passport, her passport, my birth certificate, and hers...
My lucky star was shining after all: the Romanian consulate was visiting Seattle today, and they are authorized to give Romanian marriage certificates. My passport arrived back from the Belize embassy yesterday so I had everything I needed to apply for both documents… fingers crossed! There’s a light at the end of the tunnel!
One of the countries whose names I came in contact with by way of my stamp collection was Belize. I used to think that the name Belize was too strange to be that a country, it sounded to me rather like the name of a girl. What made this country so odd in my eyes was the fact that I didn't have any context about it, no history and no location (until I looked it up in the atlas), it was known to me only as a stamp. Obviously people were living there... what language were they speaking?
But it seems that now, 20-odd years later I will be making my way into the land that is still tucked away safely in my stamp album in Romania. The visa, stamped on the passport, just arrived in the mail today! Tomorrow, the South Africa visa package goes off to the consulate. I met South Africa through the stamps as well; I remember they were marked "RSA" and I had to ask my dad what those letters meant...
Monday, March 12, 2007
|1||Fly from Seattle to Cancun, rent a car, drive to Valladolid||Valladolid|
|2||The Ek'Balam ruins and Cenote Diznup||Valladolid|
|3||See Chichen Itza on the way to Merida||Merida|
|4||Merida, tour the town||Merida|
|5||Side trip to Celestun and the flamingo reserve||Merida|
|6||Day trip from merida to the Dzibilchaltun ruins and the beach town Progreso.||Merida|
|7||The Convent Route by Car, Merida to Ticul.||Ticul|
|8||The Puuc Route by car, Ticul to Uxmal.||Campeche|
|9||Relax day in Campeche||Campeche|
|10||Drive from Campeche to Rio Bec||Rio Bec Dreams lodge|
|11||See the Calakmul ruins||Rio Bec Dreams lodge|
|12||Relax day at the jungle lodge||Rio Bec Dreams lodge|
|13||See the Chicanna and Becan ruins||Rio Bec Dreams lodge|
|14||Drive from Rio Bec to Tulum||Tulum|
|15||Tulum ruins, hanging out on the beach||Tulum|
|16||Drive to Playa del Carmen (initially planned to drive to Cancun and drop the car) and back, drop off the car.||Tulum|
Continue overland by bus to Belize.
- Orange walk - visit the Maya ruins at Lamanai (2 days)
- San Ignacio - outdoor activities - visit the Aktun Tunichil muknal cave, horseback riding, the Cahal Pech ruins (4 days)
- Tikal - visit the Maya ruins at Tikal (afternoon ond morning), sleep at the jungle Lodge (1 day)
- Antigua - Visit the most beautiful colonial town of Central America, hike the Pacaya volcano, relax (5 days)
- Copan and La Ceiba - visit the Maya ruins at Copan and continue to La Ceiba on the comfortable Hedman Alas tourist bus (1 day)
- Roatan island - Dive and obtain the Advanced open water certification, explore the island - the place the most expensive internet ever (7 days)
- San Pedro Sula - Ferry from Roatan to La Ceiba and the Hedman Alas bus to San Pedro Sula where we seemed to be the only tourists in town. (1 day)
- Quito - Visit the churches and colonial streets of the old town, the vibrant areas of the new towm, Mittad del Mundo (the equator line), the Otavalo market, take the teleferico to the Rucu Pichincha mountain (5 days)
- The Galapagos islands - A boat cruise of the most incredible archipelago in the world (8 days)
- Cuenca - Spanish lessons (aborted early due to price misunderstandings), stayed with a very nice local family. (4 days)
- Baños - relax in this small mountain town, horseback riding, diarrhea, doing nothing but watching the rain... (5 days)
- Lima - Visit the majestic colonial old center, and the modern Miraflores neighborhood, stay in an old colonial house turned hostel (3 days)
- Cuzco - Acclimatize before the Inca Trail, visit the beautiful but very touristy town and the Sacred Valley, hike with Michael and Mor (6 days)
- The Inca Trail - High-altitude torture. Nice but hard! Ending back in Cuzco on the last day (4 days)
- Cuzco - wanted to relax, but had to deal with stolen money (1 day)
- The Tambopata river - Explore the jungle of the Tambopata national park and go back to Cuzco (5 days)
- Copacabana - Relax at the posh "Las Olas" hotel after the too much hiking done in Peru (4 days)
- La Paz - Explore this amazing town, look for travel deals to Uyuni and further, get some good food (5 days)
- Uyuni - Altiplano at its best. Tour the salar de Uyuni and experience life in a little, freezing-cold town, with nothing to do! (4 days)
- Tupiza - Horseback-riding, relax and prepare to cross into Argentina (3 days)
- Salta - Relax and recover after the Altiplano (3 days)
- Buenos Aires - Rent and apartment, explore the city, eat lots of steak and do some shopping (2 weeks)
South AfricaAugust/September 2007
- Pretoria - Get used to the vibe of the new continent and apply for visas for other African countries (5 days)
- Cape Town - Visit the beautiful city and its waterfront and apply for more visas (4 days)
- The Karoo - Take a rental car and drive east with copious stops at wineries throughout the wine country, and the Karoo. Stop in Franschhoek, Montagu and Oudtshoorn (4 days)
- The Garden Route - Keep driving along the beautiful South Atlantic coast and stop for the night in beautiful places like Buffalo Bay, Tsitsikamma national park, Hermanus and Simons Town (8 days)
- Back to Cape Town - via a tour of the cape peninsula, for a couple more days of sightseeing and (of course) wine tasting (2 days)
- Sesriem Canyon - See the southern desert, the canyon and the red sand dunes
- Swakopmund - Stroll through the streets of this relic town of colonial times
- The Etosha Pan - Animals, animals, animals!
- The Waterberg Plateau - Hike up the escarpment and take a look at the immense plain that lies below
- Windhoek - Spend a couple of hours in the capital of Namibia, do some shopping, drop some people and move on
- The Okavango Delta - Camp for two days among the meandering waterways and wake up with the elefants
- Chobe National Park - Take a cruise along the this river teeming with life
- Livingstone - Spend a few days in this sleepy town hanging out with other backpackers at the Jollyboys hostel, celebrate our one-year anniversary swimming in Devil's Pool on top of Victoria Falls, hook up with the tour group again.
- Sinda school - Meet the students and the teachers at this rural school near Lusaka, play soccer with the kids and teach an impromptu math class.
- South Luangwa National Park - Wake up among elephants and giraffes in this amazing corner of Africa
- Lilongwe - Stop in the sleepy capital for a few hours to refuel.
- Lake Malawi's Beaches - Cruise in our truck from beach to beach, swim, drink and relax.
- Dar es-Salaam - Drive all the way across the country to the old capital.
- Zanzibar, Stone Town - Visit the beautiful but dilapidated Stone Town and get lost in its maze of alleys reminiscent of Venice.
- Zanzibar, Nungwi - Spend a couple of days in Nungwi, a village at the northern tip of Zanzibar island, with beautiful sandy beaches, sprawling tourist resorts and decent diving.
- Serengeti - Cruise for two days through the most famous game park in the world.
- The Ngorongoro crater - A few hours spent in this gigantic caldera teeming with wildlife will make you forget all the ugliness in the world.
- Nairobi - We didn't really visit the country, we just spent two nights in Nairobi, where our tour ended.
- Cairo - Get lost in the largest and most overwhelming metropolis of the Arab world.
- Alexandria - Spend a couple of days on the Meditarranean and meet my friend Murad who repatriated after years in America. Take a night train to Aswan.
- Aswan - Visit the fabled ancient monuments of the southern Nile (instead we met Ismael and spent five days talking to him and his extended family, going to Nubian weddings and drinking a lot of tea).
- Luxor - Fend off the attacks of the tenacious touts in the hassle capital of Egypt, visit the majestic temples of Luxor and Karnak and the tombs and temples of the scorched Valley of the Kings. Fly to Sharm el-Sheikh.
- Dahab - Five relatively hassle-free days of divine diving in the Sinai peninsula. Take the bus back to Cairo for a last day of shopping and bazaar-browsing.
- Nafplio - While away some lazy November days in this gorgeous town and visit the surrounding medieval and classical ruins. Sprinkle every meal with tsatsiki and lots of wine.
- Mystras - Spend a day exploring this uniquely-preserved Byzantine hill-town. Sprinkle every meal with tsatsiki and lots of wine.
- Monemvasia - Take refuge between the walls of the last still-inhabited Byzantine fortress turned tourist attraction on the shore of the Aegean sea. Sprinkle every meal with tsatsiki and lots of wine.
- Delphi - Is there any better place in the world to plead for the help and grace of the gods? Sprinkle every meal with tsatsiki and lots of wine.
- Athens - A nice albeit uninspiring city, home to possibly the most celebrated ruin in the world, the Parthenon. And to great shopping and the 2€ Starbucks cup of drip coffee. Sprinkle every meal with tsatsiki and lots of wine.
- Rome - Five days in the most celebrated metropolis of the world is never enough. I love this town. I'll have to return... again and again.
- Madrid - Discover the real meaning of "tapas" and marvel at Picasso's masterpeices in this incredibly lively and cosmopolitan European capital.
- Seville - Take it easy for a few days, get lost in the meandering streets of the old town and enjoy a bit of warmer weather.
- Barcelona - Meet Robert and Eva, neither a native of this town, but both quite knowledgeable about its ways. Enjoy a bit of Gaudi's legacy and... well, just enjoy...
RomaniaDecember 2007/January 2008
- Bucharest - Spend a few rainy days with my aunt in the capital.
- Cluj-Napoca - Meet the family and the friends from high-school. Enjoy a few weeks at mama's hotel.
- Budapest - Admire the beauty of a real imperial city in the coldest period of the year.
- Istanbul - Shed a tear for the fading ruins of Constantinople and gorge yourself with pide and baklava in the streets of mysterious Istanbul.
- Trivandrum - Discover the flavors, the street dust, the dark temples and the overwhelming human crowds as you enter the magic country of a thousand languages.
- Varkala - Relax on the fine-grained beach under the tall bluff and drink some beer watching the sunset over the Arabian Sea.
- Kollam - Visit the lagoons around Monroe island. Take a boat cruise through the backwaters all the way to Aleppy.
- Kumily/Periyar National Park - Spend some days at higher altitude, away from the maddening heat of the coastal plain.
- Cochin - Back to the sea in this old Portuguese colony.
- Chennai - An insanely busy and large town; a nacessary experience for anyone who wants to understand India. Appy for the Thailand tourist visa.
- Mamallapuram - Share the company of a few lost hippies in a quiet setting by the sea.
- Mysore - Immerse yourself in the art of the filthy-rich maharajas and enjoy some cool weather and the lack of mosquitoes.
- Hampi - Peace of mind among thousand-year-old ruined temples.
- Palolem, Goa - Beautiful beaches, great food, easy people and cheap beer. I didn't want to leave. Ha!
- Mumbay - The New York of India where extreme poverty meets unapologetic luxury in a fading European colonial setting.
- Aurangabad - See the Ellora caves carved in the side of the mountain by thousands of skillful devotees for the glory of the gods.
- Agra - You can't just come to India and not visit the Taj Mahal, the wonderful shrine of love built by Shah Jahan. Too bad it's set in the middle of the biggest shithole town in India.
- Varanasi - Take a boat ride along the Ghats and take a walk in the labyrinth of back alleys among the paan sellers and the stoned hippies.
- Kolkata - Finish the Indian adventure with a stay at an expensive business-class hotel, a visit to an elegant bookstore and dinner at the most famous restaurant in town.
- Railay/Ao Nang - Celebrate the return to civilization and cleanliness with a stay in the overpriced but beautiful islands of the Andaman sea coast.
- Bangkok - Crazy and relaxed, modern and traditional, this fascinating metropolis will knock your socks off.
- Siem Reap / Angkor - You cannot believe that a place like Angkor Wat exists until you actually see it. The heat is crushing but the stone doorways keep calling.
- Phnom Penh - Enjoy French baguettes, a chic colonial ambiance and the gruesome reminders of history in a town reborn from its ashes.
- Don Det and The Four Thousand Islands - Discover an isolated place that has not yet been put on the mainstream tourist trail, and hang out with the other hippies brave enough to get away from safety, civilization and electricity.
- Pakse and the Bolaven Plateau - Rent a scooter and drive on dirt roads through the gorgeous fog-covered mountains. Careful with the gas pedal...
- Vientiane - Good international food, French colonial remains and a capital city relaxed enough to be negotiable by bicicle. Apply for the second Thai tourist visa.
- Vang Vieng - The hippie nation could not be better represented anywhere else. Despite shroom shakes, pizza parlors and deadly drinks, this place still keeps a country-town feeling where people sip a few beers after dinner and go to bed early.
- Luang Prabang - A gorgeous mini imperial capital deep in the heart of the mountains. Do not miss the Scandinavian Bakery and the night market!
- The Mekong - Take a two-day river trip to the Thai border.
Thailand (again)April 2008
- Chiang Mai - Go crazy at the Thai new year, get splashed on the street with buckets of water and dunk strangers when they don't expect it.
- Ko Chang Island - Save the few last days of the trip for the beach...
- Bangkok - spend the last day shopping and eating in Bangkok's exquisite malls.
Sunday, March 11, 2007
One unavoidable question for each traveller is "how many pairs of shoes should I take?" Without much hesitation I opted for the magical number three. One pair of Keen trekking shoes for most of the out-of-town walking, one pair of (presumably indestructible - according to the people who swear by them) Tiva sandals for the aforementioned sandy beaches and suspicious showers and a third pair of sturdy neutral-looking walking shoes, mostly for city walking.
I have bought the Keen and the Tiva at REI not long ago, but I haven't yet decided anything about the third pair. It should be something that looks good with jeans and khakis, but I won't mind if I were refused entry in a Michelin restaurant because of my shoes being too casual.
I'm sure Angela would think three pairs of shoes for a whole year is blatant insanity but as long as she carries her 36 pairs herself I won't mind...
Saturday, March 10, 2007
The main reason to get a computer is to update this blog. I need an Internet connection for it, but in between i-cafe stops I can download pictures from the camera and write some text for later upload.
One other reason is online banking: we'll have to pay the credit card bills and transfer money between accounts and hell knows what else, and I don't really trust any public computer, I've been in this business way too long... Granted, I still have to use somebody's network, and if they don't have a wireless I'll have to beg for a tap. But I want some degree of assurance that my passwords don't go where they shouldn't. I'm not visiting Nigeria but I'll be quite close...
I won this Fujitsu Likebook P1510 on eBay, from the Fujitsu online store. I think they just got the newer models, the P1610 and they were getting rid of the old stock online. I won it for $875, but with tax and shipping it ended up costing around $950.
It's not a power-house but it's just the right thing for the traveller: it has a 1.2GHz Pentium M, 1GB of RAM and 30GB of hard drive, USB, etc. It has integrated 802.11g wireless and an Ethernet port and more importantly, it fits in any kind of backpack without grabbing all the space. This way, if I get really paranoid about hotel theft, I can always take it with me to town in a small day-pack.
I looked at plenty of alternatives before I chose this one, but there weren't many really viable ones. I didn't want to type with the thumbs so the PDA-like newcomers like the OQO model 02 were out of the question; I needed a real keyboard. The problem was that most of the ultraportables, like the Sony Vaio PCG u101 (out of production) are only sold in Japan. You can get some of them from specialized resellers in the United States or private sellers on eBay, but I wouldn't chance it, some of them still have the original Japanese Windows. At least I got a 90-day warranty from Fujitsu and legal software. 'Cause you know, the most reliable thing when travelling around the world has to be your computer...
Thursday, March 8, 2007
I just gave notice at work today. Four more weeks.
When I first mentioned it to my manager, he reacted with "so, you've had enough?"
No, it's a great job, but my wife and I have decided to take a year off and travel around the world, etc
It was indeed a tough decision. I like my job and it's the best job I've had so far. I felt a lot of stress recently, but that's not the job's fault; it's mostly an undesired side-effect of my trying to juggle too many things at once: work, family, trip planning, hobbies, writing... it wouldn't be easy on anybody, unless you're Dilbert's pointy-haired boss and you know how to delegate everything...
Most of the people that I shared this news with are very curious, where I'm going and what I will do. It's certainly not your average job departure. My manager and his manager suggested that they would be delighted to have me work in this group again when I come back. It would be nice, but of course they can't promise anything, and I don't expect them to. A lot can happen in one year.
OK, now we're really on, there's no way back.
Sunday, March 4, 2007
Imagine being on vacation somewhere on a tropical island at a resort, and everybody you meet at the bar is talking about how great the diving on the coral reef is and how awesome that German wreck from the second world war looks, how the canons are still pointing toward the sky, as they were when it was sunk by British planes. Wouldn't you feel a little left out of this conversation and a little frustrated for not being able to see those wonders yourself?
That's mainly why I took up Scuba and got certified this weekend for open water diving. It's not something that I couldn't live without, and I was definitely not very happy to have to do my certification dives in the cold waters of Puget Sound, but any healthy adult who, like us, plans to travel to many places which are also famous diving sites (Belize, Honduras, the Galapagos islands, Egypt, to name only a few) would be foolish not to do it. The other reason, is to keep an eye on Angela and prevent her from grabbing a shark by the tail.
From last year's Jamaica trip Angela and I had "Scuba diver" certifications. "Scuba diver" is the entry level in the diving experience hierarchy and should be used to go to a maximum depth of 40 feet. Now we got our "Open water" grade which will enable us to dive up to 60 feet deep; it's enough for now. To upgrade from "Scuba diver" to "Open water" we had two options: either do the full open water class again, together with other 10 people or so and two instructors, or get a referral "upgrade" training, pay about the same price and have one instructor just for the two of us. So we chose the latter, did a couple of pool sessions, the written exam and the two dives today, and we're done! The water was freezing and we couldn't feel our toes after getting out but diving is a good shot of adrenaline no matter how miserable the conditions are. And once you're down there you forget everything about the cold, it hits you only when you're back at the surface.
The next step - advanced open water certification (100 feet) in Honduras!