Monday, March 27, 2017

Tales from the Road: International Breadcrumbs

I was in the safe the other day and way in the back, down at the bottom, I came across bags of money!!!

Yeah, if only. . .

You see - I used to do a fair amount of international travel for my job and one thing I learned early on is that you need cash, as in local currency, when traveling most places.

Surprising?  Maybe not to most, but here in the US I live off my two cards, one debit, one credit, (One Visa one MasterCard. I use the credit card like a debit, paying off the full balance every month.) and can keep the same $20 bill in my money-clip for months, Usually right up until The Wife snags it off me to pay for a fountain-drink or something else small. (When that happens I always insist on getting the change back which I tuck away in The Van to be used at self-pay stations.)

Another thing I learned early on was that exchanging money is a pain in the ass, not to mention expensive. So I didn't unless I had to. Instead I tucked any leftover currency away to use the next time I was in that country.

Now that my international travels are much less frequent - OK, lately pretty much non-existent, though I do keep my passport current just in case - I suppose I should take it all down to the exchange and convert it back to US dollars, and someday I might. But for now I'll just tuck my little stash of international breadcrumbs back into the safe as reminders of where I've been,

There's the 'usual' places like Canada.

When I was a kid growing up in Michigan with relatives on the other side of the border we used to cross back and forth with little more than a "Where were you born? Have a nice day." Even when I was in the military with a Top Secret security clearance stationed near Boston no one ever said boo when I took the shortcut home across southern Ontario.

Nowadays - well let's just say things have changed.  US bound passengers actually go through US Immigration and Customs inside the Calgary Alberta airport and I've missed more than one flight out of there because those frightened little bureaucrats are jacking around with people just because they can.

It got so bad that airlines were asking for passenger's contact numbers so they could be informed of customs wait times and plan accordingly, but that didn't do me much good since the Calgary - Houston flight was an early one and customs didn't open their doors until an hour before it's departure.

One of the other 'usual' places was Mexico.

Now Villahermosa, despite it's name, is not the most picturesque part of Mexico but it is the administrative heart of Mexican off-shore oil exploration and production.

The airport is small, with a single luggage kiosk for incoming international flights. You picked up your bag, dropped it on an xray machine (Presumably checking for firearms) then pushed a big yellow button on a post near the output end of the machine. If the light above turned green you were done and walked on through to find your ride, if it turned red, and in all my trips there it never did for me, you put your bag on a nearby table and opened it up for inspection.

Like Calgary, the return flight was early, the first one of the day, and the immigration office where you got your exit stamp didn't open until shortly before the flight was scheduled to leave. Unlike Calgary, if there was a delay the flight would be held.

The flight isn't long, just a couple hours on what amounts to a commuter plane, but the down-side is, when you disembark in Houston you are as far away as you can get from Customs and Immigration so not only is it a very long walk, you will be at the end of the line of all the other incoming flights and in a country reputed to have one of the worst entry processes in the world, Houston's Customs and Immigration is probably near to being the worst of the worst. (When did we become frightened little wimps who think our only resort is bullying??)

Though the UK did join the EU, it did not buy into the Euro, so I needed the Queen's pounds there.

Normally I barely carry any cash at all and I certainly don't willingly carry coins, but you don't really have a choice in the UK since any denomination less than 5 pounds is in coin and not available in notes.

Getting into the UK is simple, after presenting the visa that you filled out on the plane to immigration (You are either going there on vacation or for a conference/training. Never check 'going there to work' because that's a whole lot of complication!) you are faced with three lines through customs. EU citizens, something to declare, and nothing to declare. The EU and nothing to declare lines are nothing more than short passageways that bypass the customs check stations and there may or may not be a customs official standing near the end watching you go through while holding your passport up for the cameras.

I found the best way for getting around the UK is to use the train system for longer distances, (There's a train station right inside both major airports.) other public transport for medium trips and to be prepared for a lot of walking which is the only way to handle those shorter excursions.

Just outside pretty much all the London train stations you can buy a day ticket (Unlimited off and on again) on any number of 'tourist' open-air double-deckers. They have a set route and by making a full circuit you can get the lay of the city, as well as a lot of information from the 'barker's' running patter, then the next time around start jumping off at points of interest and either getting back on at the same spot or take a stroll and jump on at one of the other stops, all well marked both on the street and on the map you get with your ticket.

Brighton is another train-ride destination with more than enough museums and beach-side stuff to keep you busy for a day or two, and if you are near London over a weekend you won't go wrong spending a day in the Sussex countryside on the Bluebell Railway.

Oh yeah, and be forewarned, the shops close at 5 so don't expect to go to the mall after work!

As long as we're in Europe, my least favorite trips were having to go to France.

I know, I know, that's not what you heard, but in my experience France, and the French, suck.

The food you ask?? Frankly I'd rather eat English fare than the swill I encountered in France. At one conference I attended there the food was so bad we collectively demanded the set menu be scrapped and we be allowed to order from the normal menu. 'That's fine,' we were told, 'but you will have to wait until day after tomorrow because tomorrow's chicken cordon-bleu is already being defrosted.'   !!!Defrosted!!!!

Like the UK, to go any distance in France use the train system. There are automatic ticket kiosks outside the stations, just be prepared to be a bit thick skinned (Good advice for being in France in general!) as you will have to take a moment during your turn to decipher the maps and buy the right ticket.

Need to get from Paris to London or the other way around? Forget flying. Take the Eurostar train through the Chunnel  instead. Much more relaxed and once all is said and done, it takes about the same amount of time, door to door, as flying. Like Calgary, UK customs is located in the Paris train station. Unlike Calgary, this is not US customs so the process is much more friendly, respectful and efficient.

Nigeria in the 80's was - well, let's just say it was a challenging place to go.

Back then Shell Oil, mostly staffed with expats, owned an island near Lagos that they turned into a resort and was heavily patrolled. On weekends they would ferry employees to the island for some R&R.

In those days the experienced traveler to Nigeria stocked up on 49 cent Bic pens, all except one of which you kept hidden deep in a pocket lest they all be taken at once. It seemed like no Nigerian official, and believe me there were a lot of officials to get through, was ever issued a writing implement and if you didn't have one on you for them to use the two of you would be stuck just looking at each other while the process came to a grinding halt. And not once was my pen ever returned to me!

If your company had a no-bribery policy there would be a clause in it somewhere excepting Nigeria because without something crossing palms, nothing ever got done there.

But Nigeria is a shining example of the people verses individual phenomenon. For Westerners the Nigerian people can be - shall we say, difficult - to deal with, but the individuals I had any prolonged contact with were hard-working, open and amiable. In fact the best intern I ever had was a young Nigerian woman. She was so good that I arraigned for the company to fund her last semester of school and sponsor her work-visa in exchange for staying with us for two years after she graduated.

On pretty much the opposite end of the spectrum is Singapore. This country (Actually there's some debate as to whether Singapore is a country or a city.) is clean, ordered and efficient.

It does have a weird mix of cutting edge and old colonialism. One popular lunch spot is the Polo Club where you can sit out on the covered veranda and watch players practicing just like the expats of the early 20th century, (Back then though entrance to the club was highly restricted.) and you can still stroll the 150 year old Botanical Garden. On the other hand there's a multi-storied 'mall' in the city with hundreds of shops devoted to nothing but electronics and technology. as well as all the new, high-tech playgrounds on top of impossibly tall buildings around the harbor.

Getting around Singapore by taxi is easy and safe since, like most everything else there, taxis are highly regulated and you can count on the fare being - well, fair.

On the other hand, daily life in Singapore is also highly regulated. Unless you are willing to pay a stiff fine, don't dare act like the ugly American and drop you cigarette butt or spit your gum onto the sidewalk (Bringing more than a pack or two of gum for your own consumption is not allowed because there are only a few 'approved' gums and they are only sold at pharmacies.) TV shows and movies are highly censored and if you find you need to buy a disposable razor it can be found in a locked cabinet behind the counter at the pharmacy.

OK, I have no idea how or why I ended up with a single Indian Rupee.  I was scheduled to stop in Mumbai for a few days on my way back from Singapore once, but the deal fell through and my expertise was no longer needed.

Ever heard of Bucaramanga Columbia??  Not many people have, despite being the 5th largest (economically) city in the country.

Bucaramanga sits in a mountain valley astride highway 45A which, northbound, eventually works its way through the mountains and jungles to the coast and southbound, through more mountains and jungles, to Bogota.

It's one of those places you can't get to from here. From the US you fly to Panama and pick up a flight the rest of the way from there. From much of the rest of Central and South America you fly to Bogota and catch a flight.

Like Caracas Venezuela, where I've actually spent a lot of time but for some reason have no currency in my safe, Bucaramanga's climate is near ideal. Basically you just need a shelter over your head, and many restaurants are just that, no walls around the dining area at all. Beyond that, non-sealing jalousie windows and open-walled living rooms adjacent to courtyards are abundant. If you are into eating fresh food either city will be a mecca of gastronomic delight.

Unlike Caracas where you could travel an hour or so north to the coast then east through coastal bannana plantations on primitive dirt roads, fording unbridged rivers to find pristine, untouched beaches, or spend a couple more hours heading west up the valley then north over the mountains on a narrow track spotted with crosses (Where people fell off the road) to a more developed set of beaches where you can spend the night in a hammock under a thatched shelter and eat the freshest of seafood from cart-vendors, Bucaramanga is far from the beach, but there are a number of beautiful if challenging mountain-jungle trails with trail-heads practically within the city limits.

I haven't checked exchange rates, or even counted the currencies I have, but I would imagine it's more than enough for a really fancy couple of dinners out. But I think for now I'm just going to put my breadcrumbs back into the safe and hang onto them for a while. . .

1 comment:

  1. Some of that collection you have brought back some memories. What little I have left is scattered, shall we say. I do have a small jar of all the coins mixed. Paper money is most likely in books on my shelf after they were used for bookmarks. Who knows, I might have enough to cash in to buy another bag of dog food for the hounds.