Saturday, July 11, 2009

Shanghai to Yangon by Land - Prologue

Discomfort, pain, and anxiety are probably the very core of a good trip. If you have an easy time of it, you're having a vacation. If you're really suffering, then you're traveling. – Paul Theroux from an Interview by Greg Lowe on January 19, 2009
The thing I do most is look at maps. I study them. If I'm going to a place, I get all the maps and look at them. There's a lot of information on a map. – Paul Theroux from an interview by Dave Weich of Powell's City of Books on May 18, 2000

Non-refundable tickets or reservations should not be purchased until all visas and passports are secured and in your possession. - India Visa Service
It was 4:00 AM, October 29, 2008 and I was lying awake in bed. In just 48 hours our neighbor Dave was scheduled to pull up in the driveway to take us to the airport for our 6-month trip to South Asia. However, I was not awake from the excitement and anticipation of the upcoming journey. I was awake because we had sent our passports and visa applications to the Myanmar Embassy in Washington DC on Oct 10th but our passports were still not back in our hands.

How did we get ourselves to the brink of disaster? Here’s the story.

Earlier in 2008 we had spent 5 months travelling around southern Asia in China, Myanmar, and Laos. This time after many hours of watching airfares, studying maps, guidebooks, and climate charts, creating and abandoning many scenarios, we decided to re-visit China and Myanmar and add India and Nepal.

Thus on September 10th, we bought round trip tickets from Raleigh to Shanghai; leaving on Oct 31st 2008 and returning on April 30th, 2009.

On September 11th, I set out to the Post Office to mail our passports and visa applications to a visa service in Houston, Texas. In order to get a Chinese visa while in the United States, one must apply in person at a Chinese Embassy or Consulate, or apply through a visa service agent who appears in person for you. This will set you back $130 per visa plus the agent’s fees, usually $15 for normal service. Why Houston? There is a big Chinese community in Houston and we had used a visa service there before with no problems.

On the way to the Post Office, I was listening to NPR who reported that Hurricane Ike, a Category 3 hurricane at the time, was aiming at Houston. Even though I had the envelope addressed, I thought about returning home but instead threw caution to the wind (not like my usual self) and sent our passports, visa applications, a self-address Priority Mailer, and a check for $290 straight towards what turned out to be the “third most destructive hurricane to ever make landfall in the United States.” Yikes!

Ike struck Houston with full force on September 13th. My heart sank when it was report that windows were blown out in downtown buildings and that power could be out for weeks.

I tried not to think what would happen if we did not get the passports and visas back on time.

On Monday the 22nd was I able to make phone contact with the visa service. Hoorah! They said they had our materials and that once the Chinese Consulate opened we would get our visas in week or so. Two weeks later on Oct 4th we got the passports back with 1-year multiple entry visas pasted inside. Sweet!

The next day I completed the online applications (including online payment) and FedEx’ed our passports and self-addressed return FedEx Mailer to the India Visa Center Washington DC.

On Oct 6th I received this automated email from the India Visa Center:
Dear John Meckley jr (sic),

Travisa Outsourcing has received your application (#823837095) for an Indian visa. You applied for a Tourist Visa. Requested duration of visa is 6 Months Multiple Entry. We have processed your payment, and will submit your application to the Indian Embassy/Consulate shortly.

[Credit card info deleted by me]

We will notify you again by email once your application has been processed and is ready to be mailed back. You can keep track of your application every step of the way by using our Track Passport tool.

Sincerely,
Travisa Outsourcing
On Oct 9th I received this automated email:
Dear John Meckley jr (sic)

Travisa Outsourcing has received your passport (application #823837095) back from the Indian Embassy/Consulate. We have verified your visa has been processed correctly. You applied for a Tourist Visa. Requested duration of visa is 6 Months Multiple Entry.

Your passport is being sent back to you via the following method: FedEx
Tracking Number: 864572576817 (Please note that package tracking information may not show in the FedEx system immediately)

Sincerely,
Travisa Outsourcing
Getting the India visas was easy; a far cry from our previous attempt in 1997 when I had to call several times and send additional money. But that’s another story. This time the process was fast, automated and efficient.

So it’s now Friday October 10th. We have one-year multiple-entry Chinese visas and 6-month multiple-entry Indian visas in hand. Our trip starts in 3 weeks on the 31st. Do we get our Myanmar visas here in the US or not? Either way works. If we don’t get it here, then we can get it in Kunming, China like we did on our last. We check the Myanmar Embassy web site which says the Visa processing time is 6 business days. Sounds doable.

On Friday October 10th, I mailed (with Delivery Confirmation Receipt) our passports, visa applications, a self-address Priority Mail envelope, and an “official check” from my credit union for $40 to the Myanmar Embassy in Washington DC. Monday the 13th was Columbus Day and our package was not received by the embassy until Wednesday the 14th. Still two weeks to go.

Our friends Sean and Leslie from Anson County visited for three days. We went to the State Fair.

On Friday the 24th I anxiously called the Myanmar Embassy. I talked to a nice young lady who told me that they had our passports, applications, and official check for $40 and that we should not worry as the visas were almost ready. “Just waiting on one signature” she said.

Later that day we picked up Sun-Ling’s cousin from airport. She had come to the US from Shanghai to work at Disney World in Orlando as part of a study-abroad-for-a-semester program and was going to spend a long weekend with us. This kept us from thinking about what would happen if we did not get the passports and visas back in time.

On Monday the 28th our guest left, we early-voted for Obama, and I called the Myanmar Embassy and the polite young lady said that our passports were “in the mail”.
Our flight was at 8:00 AM on Thursday. If we did not receive the passports by Wednesday then …

When we did not receive the passports in Tuesday’s mail, I couldn’t sleep that night and I tried not to think what would happen if we did not get the passports and visas back on time. I should also report that I spent about 3 hours on Wednesday afternoon looking out the window watching for the mail truck. When it came I briefly chatted with our mail-lady and explained the situation. She reassuringly told that it would probably come the next day.

First thing on Wednesday, the 30th, I called the Post Office, talked to our mail-lady, and she said she had a parcel from the Myanmar Embassy and calmly told me that we could come to the Post Office and pick it up now if we wanted to or wait until the afternoon when she would deliver it. We were down there in 20 minutes. Whew! In 16 hours, we would be leaving for the airport. Too close for comfort.

I’m glad the passports came and we never had to execute Plan B. In fact, there never was a Plan B.

Note from John: This has been a hard post for me to write. Getting the flow of the narrative right has been tough. The ending still needs work but I’m going to publish anyway or I’ll never get on to the next part of the story.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the reward must be greater than the sum of all the discomfort, pain and anxiety:)
a friend of my parents once said you had to travel through hell to reach haven -- he was referring his unforgetable journey from shanghai all the way to tibet many years ago without fast airplane or tain.
--weiqing