Five days to go (is four too many)

Packing out 2 weeks (or more) before departure can make you crazy. You have packed up all of your personal belongings and yet you hang around. You hang around because you are shipping your stuff from one country to another and you need to wait around for customs shipments and the like. You need to hang around “just in case.”

Yet, I would think that most people when moving do not move all the personal things out of their home, leaving only impersonal borrowed furniture, watch all their things drive away in a truck and then sit around the rather empty house for two more weeks. Not ever having a “normal” move I am not really sure. But if I were to have a move that was not orchestrated by the government, I think I would leave the very next day if not that night. I daydream about such a move.

The first day or two after the pack out, I felt exhilarated. The pack out meant departure was near. And regardless of whether you are happy to leave or not, leaving brings about a sense of excitement about the next move. For me it meant I was soon to embark on my wild and crazy nomadic home leave plan. It meant nine weeks traveling with my daughter (and 2 with my cats – hush, I’m sure it will be GREAT). But then the excitement rather wore off. I just don’t want to be here anymore – coming home to the soon-to-be-someone-else’s home that is full of the same generic furniture found in all your colleague’s homes all over the world. I had much of the same furniture in Jakarta and I am sure I will have it again. With our own wall art and decorative pieces, we can make this furniture our own. Yet, when our personal pieces are stripped from the home, it feels empty even with furniture still inside.

At the beginning when you arrive at post the home is similarly empty. However at that time you are busy settling in. You are getting to know your neighborhood, your new city, your new job and colleagues. You figure out the way to the supermarket and the department store and you stock up. Maybe you buy plants or flowers, a few new local pieces to add a touch of local flavor to the new home? But now, I am not buying anything. Well, I should not be. Though I went to the supermarket last night and bought a block of cheese, a dozen eggs, a stick of butter, a head of lettuce, a bag of tortilla chips, 2 avocados, and a packet of bolis (icees) for my daughter. I have 5 days left and I am spending the weekend in El Paso. I already had 7 eggs at home…. I’m not sure what came over me.

On Monday night, the night before my home and furniture inspection, my daughter took my black eyeliner and drew all over one of the white bathroom walls. She has never drawn on the wall before and I could only think it was part of some terrible cosmic pack out too early joke that she would choose to do so that night. Friends on Facebook suggested I use the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. I am sure it works great in most circumstances. My circumstances unfortunately were it was 9:30 pm at night, I live in Mexico, and I am packed out. I found I still had some first aid kit alcohol wipes, tiny sized, about an inch square. So I painstakingly rubbed my daughter’s first abstract art piece in charcoal off the bathroom wall. Some of the paint came off as well. Shhhhh, don’t tell anyone, I did pass the house inspection the next day.

On Tuesday I went to pay my final phone bill. The Consulate staff at the General Services Office (GSO) recommended I did not pay my final bill at the bank but rather at the TelMex kiosk in the store located in the mall across the street from the Consulate. Unfortunately the ATM in the lobby of the Consulate was not functioning (a somewhat regular occurrence) so I went to the mall to use an ATM there first. Except there, the first ATM would not accept my card, despite three tries. So I thought I would go to the TelMex store and see if I could pay with credit card. I was informed that was impossible as it was “not compatible with their systems.” Sure, I could understand that given it is 2014 and credit cards are used by only a handful of people in the world. (heavy sarcasm here) So I went to another ATM on the other side of the mall only to find it charged $3.50 for the privilege of withdrawing my own money (compared to the usual $2.40 charge at my usual ATM). I circled back to the first ATM to find someone using it successfully! However, three tries later, I still could not withdraw money. One more ATM left in the mall and it charged $6.30 to withdraw money! I returned to the Consulate without pesos and without paying my bill, exhausted and dejected.

I was able to pay the phone bill today (hooray!) but came home to find my daughter had an unexplained rash. The nanny showed it to me as soon as I walked in the door but explained it was only on her upper back. Except it wasn’t. It was also on her lower back, and chest, and tummy, and shoulders…and within 45 minutes it was also on her arms and on her cheeks. As I write this she is happily watching her Cat in the Hat DVD and seems to be in good, though itchy, spirits. A plus of being posted to a US-Mexico border post is I can take her to a doctor in Mexico or drive across to a pediatrician in the US. I’m in a wait and see mode right now.

Tomorrow is the Consulate farewell party for me and two other departing officers. After which I will have four days left in country. It will likely be three too many.

The 10,000 Club (or What Do I Do Exactly?)

The other day a colleague mentioned we should hold a small party for a someone who would be leaving our section of the Consulate for another and in the process toast “the 10,000 club.” I must have had a quizzical look on my face as she went on to explain that surely I too am a member of the 10,000 club – the club for Consular Officers who have adjudicated at least 10,000 visas. She mentioned it’s a pretty big deal to be a part of this club as not all officers get there.

I do not think this club is a real club. I doubt there are secret handshakes and induction ceremonies or even awards and recognition. (Or I have yet to receive my engraved invitation!) It is just a way for some of us to participate in a little self-congratulation for having reached a milestone, an often unsung one, in our Foreign Service Officer careers. So yes, I am a Foreign Service Officer. And yes, that means I am a diplomat. Right now though my specific position is that of Vice Consul and what I do is interview visa applicants and adjudicate their cases.

All U.S. Foreign Service Officers spend at least one year of their careers adjudicating visas. Often officers spend a full two-year tour doing so and increasingly, as there is a rising demand for visas to tour, work, study, and live in the U.S. particularly from countries such as China or Brazil, some officers spend three or four years of their careers adjudicating visas. That is what I will be doing. I have spent two years here in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico adjudicating visas. I spent my first 14 months working in the Immigrant Visa (IV) section and then my last nine in the Non-Immigrant Visa (NIV) section.* I head next to Shanghai, China where I will work my entire 2 years in NIV (unless I am the lucky recipient of a rotation to another section such as American Citizen Services). I will work in two countries with a lot of demand for visas. Basically, I am going to adjudicate A LOT of visas.

Did I join the Foreign Service to adjudicate visas? Well no, not exactly. I joined as a Political-coned officer right from the test registration. However, adjudicating visas is part of the process of becoming one. I’ll be honest here, no need to sugar coat it, there are days this is hard to do. Day in and day out interviewing people “on the line” can be mentally and physically draining. On the IV side, the cases can be emotionally draining as well. I have cases from the IV side I will never forget – some because they were so heartwarming and some because they were so heartbreaking. With IV cases, which are very paper intensive, we are generally expected to conduct 5 interviews an hour. With a 5-6 hour interview day, that is 25-30 interviews a day. Mission Mexico standards for the NIV side are 80 interviews and 40 interview waiver cases per day, though in many posts other than Juarez the sheer volume of applicants is so high that officers are interviewing more like 120 or 150 applicants a day.

Soon after my arrival in Juarez, just before the end of the fiscal year 2012, Mission Mexico reached 2 million visa applications (and issued about 1.3 million NIV visas)! The only other countries to currently issue more than a million visas a year are China (Hello, second post in Shanghai!) and Brazil.

And so today, yes the very day that I am posting this, I reached and surpassed 15,000 NIV visa adjudications. From my IV time I adjudicated just a few short of 4,000 and exactly 100 fiancé visas. I have only a few days left in Juarez but I have two more years in Shanghai – so the 10,000 club is just the first of many milestones I will reach.

*Yeah, so 14 months and 9 months do not equal 24, but rather 23 months. It’s true. I have not lost all my math skills since joining the State Department. I arrived in late July 2012 and I depart 1 July 2014. It is all perfectly legit.

Packed Out!

On Monday morning I was out of bed at 6 am. I have trouble sleeping the night before a pack out. Once up I popped open my Diet Coke (I am not a coffee drinker – have never had coffee actually – but I do love my caffeine in the form of the ambrosia that is a nice, cold can of DC), and I put on my pedometer. I had some breakfast and then I got to work.

At 7 am the nanny arrived. I had thought I would not want her to be there just yet, I liked the quiet solitude of working in the house with my daughter sleeping, no one else there. But my nanny, besides the times she drives me absolutely nuts, is actually not only a great nanny but a helpful person. Also once the movers arrived she took my daughter out to the park and a neighbor’s house so she would not be bothered by all the packing.

I could have sworn from the pre-pack out survey that the movers were arriving at 8 or 9, but they did not show up until 10:30. All the better as I was still puttering around preparing piles and hemming and hawing over my clothes – I would need work clothes for two more weeks but I am about to head out on 9 weeks of travel / Home Leave, so I did not want too much.

When the movers showed up I felt a little disappointed and concerned. Again, the boss at the pre-pack out survey (when they look around at all your stuff to get an estimate of weight and volume) had implied it was going to be a long day, but they would surely be finished by 5…or 6 pm. And here were the packers, just 1 man and 2 women, arriving at 10:30.

But they exceeded my expectations. They got right to work and worked quietly and efficiently, taking only one short 30 minute break around 2 o’clock, when two more men arrived with the truck to start loading the boxes. Imagine my surprise, dumbfounded surprise, when all was done, the truck driving away with almost all of my worldly belongings at 3:30, a mere 5 hours after the movers had arrived. This is my fourth “pack out” (move with the government) and only the one from DC to Mexico had taken less time. That was due entirely to the vast majority of my things already packed and in storage in a warehouse in Maryland after my return from Indonesia. My pack out to Indonesia and the one return both took two days.

Of course later that night I started thinking maybe they were too fast… Maybe I will open up my boxes of things in Shanghai 8 or 9 months from now and find some of my things did not survive the moves… Well, nothing I can do about it now. I tell myself that to try to calm myself down.

So yeah, my fourth pack out is complete! I would say they do not get easier, only different. Departing from DC to Indonesia I was a single woman living in a three bedroom, one bathroom rent controlled apartment in Washington, DC. I did not own a lot of things, but I did have some furniture I put into storage. Leaving Indonesia 2.5 years later I had acquired two Jakarta street cats and was 8 weeks pregnant and a tad ill to my stomach at pack out. At my third pack out from DC to Mexico, I was leaving the one bedroom temporary housing provided during my training, but with a six month old baby. I now leave Mexico with a 2 ½ year old. I think I prepared better, but I still was not all ready when the packers showed up. I’m not sure I will ever be completely ready. The next pack out will be sometime early next year, hopefully in January if I successfully pass the first attempt at my Mandarin Chinese test. We will again be departing from temporary quarters during training, the majority of my things awaiting sea transport from a Hagerstown, MD warehouse.

At 3 pm the Consulate brought over the Welcome Kit – this is generally a large trunk of items such as bedding, towels, plateware, silverware, coffee maker, pots and pans, TV, etc., the items that should help you get along when you have only what you could pack in your suitcases (or in your car in the case of border posts). We received the Welcome Kit when we first arrive at post, and again after our pack out. I waved goodbye to the truck, or rather my things, as it pulled away.

At 4 pm my nanny returned with my daughter and I braced myself for her reaction. I had been feeling like a rather wicked mommy not buying her anything new recently (with the exception of toys that were inflatable!) and many of her toys recently had been sold, given away, or packed up. I should not have worried! My almost 2 ½ year old daughter is a travel pro! She has, by the way, already lived in two countries (US and Mexico) and traveled to five other countries (UAE, Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, Ireland, and the United Kingdom twice). For her second birthday I signed her up for her own United Mileage Plus account. In May, after flights to Cancun, Ireland, Salt Lake City, Cincinnati, and Manchester, England, she is already a Silver level member! My little Diplotot!

She entered and started cantering (she loves horses and pretending to ride them) and whooping and hollering Yeehaw! to hear the near echo quality in our now almost empty house. She pulled the cushions off the sofa to do some jumping. She played with her few toys still in the house with extra gusto. And she found the fly swatter in the Welcome Kit to be an amazing new toy (If you see my earlier post about Mosquito Terror, you may understand why. She is taking on her fear and conquering it!).

Still, it has been only three days since the pack out and though part of me likes the very minimalist style of the house and my closet right now, the pack out is the harbinger of my impending departure and though there is much I will miss, I am ready to go.

P.S. By the time the movers left the pedometer was over 13,000 steps. That’s over six miles IN MY HOUSE.

P.S. P.S. My UAB only weighed 324 pounds total!

Pack Out Eve (2014)

It is the night before pack out. It’s 10:30 pm. I am exhausted. I have spent all this weekend preparing my things for the arrival of the movers Monday morning. Tomorrow. TOMORROW!

I took several boxes across the border to Goodwill this afternoon. By my calculations, I donated $472 worth of goodies. In addition, I took two other donations, to Goodwill and an El Paso children’s home, in the past month. I am now close to $1000 in donations. I also took several bags to recycling and several more to the trash. I have made a large pile of items near the front door that will all go into the air freight or unaccompanied baggage (UAB) that we will receive in late August to have at our temporary housing in Virginia during my training. I am given 250 pounds of UAB for myself and an additional 200 pounds for my daughter. Four hundred and fifty pounds total. I have no idea how much my pile by the door may weigh.

Then all the items I have piled in the guest room are for the ocean freight or household effects (HHE) that we will not see again until a month or two after our arrival in Shanghai, some 8 or so months later. All Foreign Service families receive a maximum of 7200 lbs of HHE regardless of family size. I am not worried about that weight. I arrived in Juarez with 4800 lbs and my goal has been to depart with at least 1000 less. I’m pretty sure I have done it, though I will not find out for sure until the truck pulls away tomorrow.

Unfortunately I have a bunch of little odds and ends still tucked away in drawers. I expect those drawers will be opened and dumped into a box and then wrapped up. Despite my best efforts, and I have really done a good job here (much better than my pack out of Jakarta, Indonesia three years ago), I am going to open up some boxes in Shanghai and wonder, “what was I thinking?” It is inevitable. It is a time honored Foreign Service (or any situation where one constantly moves) tradition to pack up random things. When I arrived in Jakarta I found the movers had packed up my bedroom trash can complete with all the trash contents still inside!

I am worried though how this pack out will affect my daughter. Tonight, I carefully selected 10 of her 35 DVDs (we do not have “television” here, i.e. no cable or antenna or anything of the like, just DVDs) to remain with us the last two weeks and then be packed up in the car. The other 25 DVDs will be in the UAB. I tried to pick the 10 DVDs she has been requesting the most in recent weeks. But what if she asks for the “snow” episode of the Backyardigans and it is not among the favorites?

My normally pretty easy going two year old has been a little more prone to temper tantrums in the last few weeks. I cannot be sure if this is the result of the packing process or because she is nearly 29 months old. All I know is that I am taking a huge heaping dollop of mommy guilt right now on top of already being in an irritable pack out eve mood.

Maybe it is not my two year old that has been more temperamental? Maybe it is me? Though moves are a regular part of the Foreign Service and have been a regular part of my life for some time (approximately ten moves in the past ten years, probably at least twenty in the past twenty), it does not mean that I enjoy the actual process of moving. With the Foreign Service at least a bunch of movers show up to help me do this. Though to be honest in my pre-Foreign Service and Defense Department moves, I never really had a house full of things to move. It was whatever I could carry on the plane or ship ahead of me. That was it.

I’m not even sure if I am making sense anymore. I am just so tired. Unfortunately I will have to wake up early tomorrow before the movers arrive to try to do some more last minute preparations. I still have not decided on my closet full of clothes. What stays with me for two more weeks and then goes in the car? What goes in UAB and in HHE? No idea right now.

I guess the bright side is that by tomorrow evening, probably by 5 pm, this will be done. The decisions, for good or bad, will be done.

An Unplanned Visit to a Thai Prison, January 2002

As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of emails I sent on past travels.

In December 2001 and January 2002 I took the five week winter break between my first and second semesters of graduate school and headed back to Southeast Asia. I spent the first two weeks in Indonesia, on the island of Bali, with my then-Balinese boyfriend. Originally we had planned to travel together for the rest of the weeks, but soon after my arrival it was apparent the relationship was not going to last. So, we broke up and on January 1 I flew into Bangkok to begin three weeks of travel split between Cambodia and Thailand.

On January 18, 2002, I had planned to join the usual guesthouse-organized visit to an elephant camp in northern Thailand, except I woke up to late. That sleep in resulted in one of the most extraordinary unplanned activities I have ever done while on vacation. I sent this email that same day, right after visiting the prison.

I stayed up rather late last night talking with my two dormitory roommates, so I slept in this morning and gave up trying to get out to see the elephants on my own. I had breakfast and went for a short walk, but I wanted to do something. The night before one of the dormitory roommates has shown me a nice map of Chiang Mai and suggested I might want to visit the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison. I did not even know if I could get in or if I really wanted to. I wondered what I would say to get in and would I sound convincing and would they think I was a journalist.

Generally, when people think of Thailand, they think of the beaches and mountains, beautiful ruins and great shopping, tuk-tuks and traffic and backpackers. I doubt prisons come into many people’s minds when thinking of Thailand, though of course they are there.

So I walked down to the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Facility, which is located almost in the center of the four kilometer square city walls of old Chiang Mai. I walked up to the gate, which was two metal slabs of a kind of celadon green, with a small square hole that slid open for people to talk to the guards inside. It rather made me think of the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy arrives at the Emerald City. Someone inside opened the gap and asked if they could help me. I said, “I want to go inside.” They told me to wait a moment. This seemed almost too easy. After some time – the gates open to let in a truck and some Thais carrying plastic bags of food – two female khaki-uniformed guards come out to speak to me. They ask me if I want to visit the American prisoner. I say I do.

One of the guards informs me that only her parents, brother and sister are usually allowed to see her, but I stand firm. I want to visit the American prisoner. So she tells me to go across the street to the store to buy some things for her and then come in for a visit.
I walk across the street wondering what I should buy. What would this woman need? The guard told me I could buy some soap and a toothbrush and toothpaste. So I purchase these items as well as a bottle of Coke, some talcum powder and some lotion. There is not much to buy in the store and I do not know anything about this woman other than she is American. At the cashier there are some other foreigners trying to buy some things for themselves. They are confused; they do not realize this is a store for prison visitors to buy items for the prisoners. A man at the counter tries to explain this to me and when I tell him I am buying these items for a prisoner who looks surprised. I pay for my purchases and fill out a piece of paper written completely in Thai. Someone tries to help me but one of the questions is the name of the prisoner and I do not even know that. I start to write “American Prisoner” when the clerk speaks with some guards and then turns to me and says “Rebecca.” Yes, I am here to see Rebecca.

The slip is stapled to a bag and thrown into a pile. I protest. I tell them I will be visiting Rebecca and I want to bring her these items. I want to visit her! I sound so sure. Do I really? They inform me it will be delivered to her and I am directed to a small office behind the store. There I wait on plastic seats waiting with a group of Thais. A guard calls out some names and some people waiting come forward and then cross the street to the prison. I wait for my name to be called. The guard merely looks around for me and nods. I want to get my gifts I bought at the store but I am told those will be delivered at 3 pm. It is now 2:05 and visiting hours end at 2:30. I am told to cross the street. This time the green gate is opened to me. I am now inside the prison.

Inside is yet another waiting room with more plastic chairs. There are many people here, perhaps 20 or 30, even some small children. I am told to place my paper in a small wooden trough hanging on some bars. I place it there and step inside another small room where there are people standing in wait. A Thai man next to me tells me in English, “Now we wait.” From there I can see another area. One the outside are guards who are checking the plastic bags of food, writing the names of the prisoners on them, and then passing them through a small window. Beyond that is the visiting room. I can see a long row of chairs and a glass partition separating the visitors from the prisoners. There is a lot of chatter in Thai, most people appear happy. A buzzer sounds and the visitors in the visiting room stand up and file out, a new group of visitors file in. The prisoners are led out, a new group is led in. I wonder what to do. The helpful man tells me, “You will be next, in the last group.” Then a young woman comes up, she looks at me and speaks to the man. She turns to me and asks, “Are you here to see Rebecca?” I tell her I am. The man asks, “What is her relation to you?” I tell them, “just another American.” I ask them, “Do you think that strange?” “No,” the man tells me, “Rebecca will be happy. It is hard in the prison.” He tells me the woman next to him is his daughter. He tells me she used to be inside the prison and she knows Rebecca. The buzzer sounds and the man’s daughter tells me she will take me in to Rebecca.

Rebecca does not have an American accent. Her age is hard to tell. A guard outside told me she has been in prison for about 2 ½ years. I would say she is 35 or 40, but I have no way of knowing. She has reddish-brown hair cut short, and held to one side with a barrette. She sounds German but speaks English well. And yes, she is very happy to see me. She asks my name and why I am in Chiang Mai. She tells me she was born in the US, but only lived there one year, and grew up in Europe, mostly Switzerland. She is in prison because she changed money with another traveler, receiving traveler’s checks in exchange. When she tried to cash them, they were of course with another person’s signature. She tells me she tried to exchange at two places. She says her sentence was 2.5 years for the first attempt and three years for the second. When I say that sounds harsh, she tells me that actually her sentence could have been 11 years but since she plead guilty she received half the time. I am astonished. Surely, this seems wrong.

She has been in prison two years and seven months; she has two years and eleven months to go. She lives in a cell with 150 other women. She tells me the hardest thing is the loss of privacy, but that things are better now as she used to be in a cell with 250 women. She tells me most of the women in the prison are in there on drug-related charges and most are hill tribe women who do not understand as opium is a common cash crop for their tribes. Rebecca tells me that before the sentences for these women were not too long but now they are often for life or even the death penalty. In comparison, Rebecca’s sentence seems light.

She does not tell me any of this angrily or sadly, but matter-of-factly, and even with a slight smile. She has smile lines around her eyes and I wonder how many are from before prison. She admits that she wrong to have done what she did and appears to accept her punishment. I let her talk. She tells me she is glad to talk to someone. Although she has learned Thai, she is currently the only foreigner in the prison. She jokes, “I have been here 2 ½ years and they haven’t managed to catch another foreigner.” The buzzer sounds. She asks me how long I am in Chiang Mai and I tell her I leave tomorrow. I feel sorry to say it, if I were staying another day I could buy her a few more things. She tells me she very much enjoyed our ten minutes and thanks me for coming. She tells me my visit will make her weekend much brighter. I am embarrassed I did not get her more things or that my visit, from a total stranger, could mean that much to her. When she rises, she presses her hands to the glass and I press mine opposite hers. She waves goodbye enthusiastically. I wave in return.

A Blast from My Travel Past

Just days ago I received a LinkedIn invite from someone I met a long time ago.  It was a very pleasant surprise to have communication again with A, who I met while backpacking in Romania in 2000.  It brought me back to that time, when I was in the midst of an 11 month solo backpacking trip through Europe and Asia, long before I was a mom, when the Foreign Service, even my graduate degree, was just a twinkle in my eye.

I do not have any email stories from that time in my life.  I know I sent some, but the Internet was a much newer thing, and anything I sent during that time is lost to cyberspace.  Romania was sort of a turning point in my trip, most certainly when I look back at the people I met there and in the weeks just after.  I had already been on the road for 3 months.  Beginning in Helsinki, Finland, I had made my way through the Baltics, to Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bavaria, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Hungary to arrive in Romania.  I was getting tired.  I nearly missed a train change at the Hungarian-Romanian border when the train stopped somewhere around midnight and I noticed I was alone.  I was wide-awake as I had been primed to fear strangers coming onto the train to rob me or gas me and do me harm.  I stepped off the train and noticed there was another train on an adjacent platform idling its engine, while my own train engine was already growing cold.  There were a few men, wearing dark clothes, moving like shadows around the train yard, lit only by a few poor lights.  I asked them if they spoke English.  They did not, and only laughed.  Somehow, I do not remember how, I figured out the other train was the one I need to be one and I changed, grateful then for the other passengers.

Once on the right train and with the morning coming and more passengers, I allowed myself to sleep.  And so I missed my stop at Sighisoara and ended up disembarking at Brasov.  In Brasov, I was harassed by two bus ticketing thugs, who muscled me off a bus and then demanded money and my passport when I did not comply.   Because it was midday I defied them, arguing with them, telling them with bravado I did not feel that if they wanted money from me I would be happy to accompany them to the nearest police station.  I only escaped when I jabbed my finger unexpectedly into the chest of one of the men, yelled “leave me alone!” and turned and ran as fast as I could for several blocks.  I lost them.

Then on my final day in Bucharest I was attacked by dogs.  No kidding.  I was walking along, minding my own business, headed for the Palace of the Parliament, the world’s second largest public building (after the Pentagon), when out of nowhere four dogs appear and surround me.   They are barking and jumping and nipping at me.  A woman leans out of a nearby window on the third or fourth floor to yell.  I think she is telling me to be quiet and not the dogs.  Maybe I am screaming?  The dogs start tearing at my clothes.   I know one dog had my left hand in its mouth.  Another was pulling at my pants behind my left knee.  A third was pulling at my right pant leg at my ankle.  I have never been able to remember what the fourth dog was doing.  A man approaches and holds off the dogs and tells me to run.  I assume he told me in Romanian, but in my head I heard English and I took off like a shot.  I ran across a large street, I’m not sure how many lanes, and the dogs did not pursue.  I catch a glimpse of myself in a tinted bank window and I look like a crazy person.  My hair is a mess, my fast red and tear splotched, my pants torn.  I collect myself and limp a few more blocks to the Palace of the Parliament.  There I first request a ticket for the next tour and then a first aid kit if they have one.

It is after the tour I head back to the hostel.  I start every time I see a dog.  And there were a lot of dogs.  According to the “Welcome to Bucharest” brochure I find at the front desk of the hostel upon my return, the approximate population of Bucharest is 3 million people and 2 million dogs.  The brochure explains that the dogs have become wild and rabies shots are required if bitten.  I think about whether I would have wanted to know this information before my incident, and cannot make up my mind.  What I do know is that my plan to depart Romania that evening on the night train to Bulgaria seems too much for me to take on.

It is at this point I meet A.  He is backpacking for a few months through Europe while on leave from a teaching job in the UK.  He tells me he is traveling to Bulgaria the next day and I can tag along with him instead of leaving that night.  I feel so relieved.   (especially as on the way to dinner that night with another hostel-mate, we watch a dog attack another person in the street)

And wouldn’t you know it.  As we try to leave the next day we are confronted by a fake policeman at the Bucharest train station.  As soon as we enter the station he approaches and requests to see our passports.  We hand them over.  He gives an exaggerated sigh and tells us that unfortunately our permission to remain in the country has expired and we will have to pay a fine.  We have had enough of these poor attempts at bilking tourists and we grab our passports back, tell him to shove off, and continue on our way.   Yet our trials with Romania are not complete.  At the Romanian-Bulgarian border a fake border officer boards the train and tries one last shakedown.  We almost fall for it until A notices the officer’s badge is flimsy, like a Cracker Jack sheriff badge toy, and hanging off his nondescript khaki uniform at an odd angle.  Minutes later the real guys come through and it is obvious our first guy is an imposter.

I travel with A for 5 days.  We visit Veliko Tarnova and Sofia and the Rila Monastery.  In Veliko Tarnova I search the Internet for information on rabies and grow a little concerned that my days are numbered.  A agrees to monitor my progress and let me know if I start frothing at the mouth.  He goes with me to the US Embassy in Sofia as I make inquiries with the Embassy doctor about my possible rabies vaccination plan.

After Sofia we parted ways.  I headed on to Macedonia and A went back to the UK.  He and his girlfriend were preparing for a visit to Iran, a country Australians could visit, though Americans could not.  His girlfriend was having an abaya made to wear while they traveled.  A and I kept in contact for a long while.  After his trip to Iran and the end of his contract in the UK, he made a plan to return to Australia entirely without flying.  He traveled by train across Russia to Beijing, south to Vietnam, then by bus through Southeast Asia to Singapore, then by boat through Indonesia to Bali.  It was only on Bali when he learned he had missed the boat to Australia and the next would be awhile when he finally hopped on a plane.  He joined Australia’s version of the Foreign Service and served in Vanuatu, then Afghanistan, when we lost tough.  Until now, when returning to Australia after 3 ½ years in Pakistan, on the recommendation of a friend he joined LinkedIn.

It’s hard to believe it has been nearly 14 years since we met in a hostel in Bucharest.  Those days in Romania do not seem that long ago.

Adventure to Tangier May 2002

As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of emails I sent on past travels. 

In May and June 2002 I backpacked solo for 4 weeks in Spain and 2 in Portugal.  In Granada, I met up with my Monterey, CA roommate, P, who was in Spain for language study, and we decided to make an impromptu trip to Gibraltar and then across to Tangier, Morocco.  What I remember most about Gibraltar was I had the best gorgonzola pasta I have ever had anywhere in a lovely outdoor cafe.  Strange that I remember that more than the Rock and the monkeys.  At the time of posting, this one day trip to Morocco is my only trip to the country and given all the things to see in the country I do not really consider myself having visited Morocco.  Tangier is like many border towns;   the city is more about getting elsewhere than staying put.  It is a gateway to Europe for many from all over Africa.  I did not like Tangier, something I very rarely say about a place.  But it was certainly an adventure.  

In Gibraltar, my friend P and I discover there is just one boat to Tangier a week, and that it departs on Fridays at 6 pm.  Well lo and behold it was a Friday around 3 pm.  So the information people give us a map and directions to the ticket office.  I was thinking we could just take a bus to the center of town, find the office, buy are ticket, quickly take the funicular to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar, then back down, then hop on the boat and viola, we are in Tangier!  Unfortunately few things work out like that.

It took us maybe 30 minutes to find the ticket office as we kept walking past it because the sign wasn’t very noticeable.  We go in and ask about the boat and they are all very friendly, but they inform us the boat is broken, but we can instead leave on Tuesday!  What would we do in Gibraltar all that time?  So we ask if they have boats leaving from Algeciras in Spain and they say they do and give us a schedule.  We thank them and leave.

Just out the door P thinks we should ask how early before departure we should check in, so we return to ask.  When we explain we want to leave the next day, the guy scowls at us and tells us in an exasperated way that the boats are broken.  Seems the whole fleet is indisposed!  We ask about other boats and the guy gets indignant telling us they ONLY know about the schedules for THEIR boats.  <sigh>

We decide to leave the next morning and get a hotel in Gibraltar for the night because we have wasted so much time finding out about these broken boats.  We find a nice place, put our things down and head to the funicular but are waylaid by a very friendly local offering a tour of the Rock.  It appears his tour only cosst 3 euros more than trying to go up ourselves and since things are spread out up on the rock, it would save us time.  We agree and are soon whisked into our very own van with our loquacious guide.  He keeps saying things like “girls” and “love” and the like to address us.  He talked a mile a minute, but I found overall it was a good tour, we learned a lot about Gibraltar (such as it was most likely an island before, because good ‘ole Chris Columbus said when he sailed by it, it was on the LEFT, meaning he sailed between the rock and Spain) and saw the Pillars of Hercules, part of the caves dug by chisel and dynamite when Spain tried to take Gibraltar during some historical juncture, and of course the monkeys.

The guide said we could have our photos taken with the monkeys on our shoulders.  I start to protest when suddenly 30 pound monkey jumps on me and the guide orders P to get my camera and take my photo!  And before P knew it she too had a monkey friend and I was trying to take her picture.  However, as I was taking her picture I dropped something, leaned down to get it and another monkey was on me.  Ah, the amazing fun on top of the Rock!

The next morning we were up early and out of the hotel at 7 am to catch a bus to the border. Unfortunately we discovered the buses did not start running until 8:30 am, so it being Gibraltar, and not a particularly large place, we started walking.  Once across the border and back in Spain, we caught a cab to Algeciras.  We made it to the terminal at 8:15, we think just in time to catch the 8:30 fast ferry, except no one wants to give us a straight answer.  We kept being told to go to this one counter to get the fast ferry, only to be told at that counter the ferry is broken.  So we are sent to another window where we are told that it is now too late to make the 8:30.  So we pay for the 9:30 slow boat.  We change money, get some refreshments, and head up to the departure lounge.

The ferry is nothing special.  It plods along slowly, taking 2.5 hours to Tangier.  But when we arrive in Tangier and go down the gangplank, we discover we need an immigration stamp which was given on the boat, 15 minutes before we docked.  It was the garbled message reminiscent of drive thru windows made about 20-30 minutes before we docked.  We were not alone back in the ship awaiting the return of the police; there were maybe 40 of us.  We had to wait maybe another 45 minutes for the immigration police officer to return and get stamped, and then we were finally allowed to enter Tangier.

We made it through the gauntlet of “official tour guides” and taxi drivers, probably only because most of the boat had gotten off earlier and the majority of the mob had grown tired of waiting.  We had a humorous conversation with two port policemen about how to walk up to the medina.  It was only maybe a 10 minute walk, but they thought we should take a cab.  We found some accommodation for only 50 dirhams a night ($5).  A “helpful” Moroccan (I think “enterprising” is a better word) showed us to a Moroccan restaurant.  He insisted it was not touristy.  But the waiter very confidently, in good English explained the three course meal.  It turned out that the meal cost $12 per person.  We seriously doubted many locals frequented that place at that price.  So we found bread for 1 dirham and a coconut for 3 dirhams and were fine.  We discovered our hotel room did not have a bathroom, and the only toilet was on the first floor, a rather smelly squatting affair.  But, we figured, it was for only one night.

We explored the Medina for about an hour.  Then we explored the new town and were rewarded with a McDonalds: cheap, recognizable food, a lovely view over the town, and nice toilets!  Yippee! (especially for the toilets)  We found an English cemetery.  We went back to the hotel.  After all the trouble to get to Tangier we were rather at a loss of what to do now that we were there.  An hour before the last call to prayer, the women and children came out into the streets, and so did we.  We got ice cream and explored the streets more and watched more people.  Then back to the hotel and more people watching from our balcony, then an early bed, because we wanted to catch the first ferry out the next morning.  (Both of us we had already had our fill of Tangier).

Of course when we arrived at the ferry terminal the next morning, the first ferry, at 8:30, had been cancelled, and we had to take the 9:30!  We needed that one, because Moroccan time is 2 hours before Spanish time, so it was 11:30 in Spain when we left Morocco, and after a 2.5 hour trip, it was 2 pm in Spain.  My bus to Cordoba left at 3, P’s back to Granada at 4.  Somehow by some miracle we both made our buses and I was off to Cordoba.