Friday, July 30, 2010

Tackling International Travel

Early on this week, I tackled a project that I've been procrastinating on: international travel to a family wedding in Brazil. I'm so excited about the wedding, as it is for my favorite family member, whom I'll call Darren. LoveHubbie and I are just crazy about Darren and his fiance, but making the arrangements is something that I've had enormous resistance to, so much so that I wondered how in the world I would ever make this happen. I've been procrastinating about it for months, and so finally decided to make it a "Be Brave" project this past Monday and Tuesday.

It may seem silly to have something so routine for many people be a Be Brave project. But that's how Be Brave things are--specific to each individual. There is so much about this trip that evokes enormous fear in me, and if it were anything or anyone else I just wouldn't do it.

To start with, there is the crime and danger in the areas of Brazil we are traveling to. Our close friends traveled to Brazil a few years ago and although they are seasoned travelers and very, very tough and savvy, they were robbed on the street. Add to this complete unfamiliarity with Brazil as a country--everything from the language to the culture and more (although this could be rectified, of course, with some study). Add in a very long plane trip of multiple legs with LoveHubbie's plethora of health issues that must be worked around. Staying in touch with LoveHubbie's business while traveling.  Taking just carry-on luggage instead of my usual multiple extra-large suitcases whenever I go anywhere. No computer. No phone. No jewelry. No wedding ring. Severe mosquito allergy. Migraines without a pristine diet. And getting there and back in a week.

So, I got some support (my assistant Sylvia) and we dug in on Monday. I estimated 10 man hours to do the whole thing. First we made up a calendar and selected days to travel and planned LoveHubbie's business on either side of the trip. Then we broke up the trip into two sections, one from Seattle to Miami (which takes a full day), and the second from Miami to the town of Salvador in Brazil (another day). We wanted to spend a night in Miami going there and returning to break up the trip and making it easier and less stressful.

Then we needed to make the flight arrangements. We need airline tickets and hotel reservations before we can get an agent to apply for an appointment to get our visas. Yes, really. It is a many step process.

We first priced plane tickets online to get an idea of how much things cost. Then we called the travel agent in Florida who had helped other family members easily make airline reservations. Unfortunately the agent was unable to help us, as there were some flights still available, but none with seats available on the dates we wanted to fly. Alternatively, we could fly when her computer suggested, which would take us on a 30 hour trip without any breaks. She said we should call the airlines directly to see if they had additional seats available. We were in the process of doing that--calling around looking for seats----when I remembered that LoveHubbie had wanted me to use frequent flier miles. So we called our credit card company's reward department, hoping they'd have seats.

We went through the whole itinerary with the credit card customer service person, who approved it. He then transfered us to their travel awards section. We went through the whole itinerary again, and the travel agent attempted to book the flights. His computer came up with a suggested booking, and he said we'd have to use that (another 30 hour tour). Alternatively, we could get a special waiver from the credit card company, and we could stay overnight in Miami; it would cost more miles, but we had them to spare.We agreed. The travel agent tried to transfer us back, and the call was dropped.

So we started all over again, going through the layers of computerized voice mail. We eventually reached a different credit card customer service person. This person had some notes about our case, fortunately. However, it ended up that the travel agent had taken our frequent flier miles and booked a ticket with his suggested but inappropriate junket. So we explained everything for a third time, and got awarded the special waiver. Next we were transferred to a travel awards agent again to cancel the erroneous ticket and get a corrected ticket. We went over everything a fourth time. This lovely woman, named Kadeesha, worked with us for almost an hour. At one point we needed to tell her our exact names as on our passports. The problem was whether or not the middle names were each written out or abbreviated, which I had no idea about. So I had to go on a passport hunt, but miraculously found both in several minutes.

We had finished everything we'd thought, and then Kadessha's computer froze up and crashed. So we started all over again. Fortunately she hadn't lost the seats or the pricing (we'd had to pay above the amount of the frequent flier awards). She had lost the rest, but we were getting really good at going over our itinerary by now.

Sylvia worked on the computer while I was on the phone and together we spent 6 hours on the flight arrangements. But we did it!

On Tuesday we thought we'd have no problems getting the hotel reservations. How hard could this be? Sylvia easily found a hotel with a shuttle in Miami, but we needed a late checkout because of the odd times we'd be arriving and leaving. She kept getting different stories on the cost and could not get any of the reservation people to agree to guarantee the late checkout for us. Finally we got a manager and made the arrangements.

Next were the hotel reservations at the wedding site. This turned out to be harder. First we had to find out what type of international calling I had on my phone. We couldn't find any bills with account numbers or contact numbers--the bills had vanished, as they are wont to do when you need them. When you don't they seem to be all over the place! Thus, we had to contact the phone company. The company said we didn't have service with them. Finally Sylvia found a special number for the phone company where our service was acknowledged and they confirmed that I already had calling capabilities to Brazil. It was included in the package I'd bought at one time for calling to Canada.

So we called Brazil. We had to look up how to do so on Google--what the country code was and how to do it via a wikihow.

When we reached the hotel for the wedding venue in Brazil, no one there spoke any English or Spanish (Sylvia speaks Spanish). We could not get beyond our hellos. We had a feeling that the people at the Brazilian inn were trying to give us another number (it sounded like a number, at least, based on their pacing) but we couldn't tell. So we had to give up. The reason this is so important is because we have to have a confirmed hotel reservation to submit the visa paperwork. Fortunately, our Brazilian relatives will help us with this. I emailed them and they will make the arrangements with a U.S. account and we will deposit the money here.

Next we attempted to fill out the visa paperwork. This is all done online but with no explanation of the online entries. For example, I have to fill in all of the names I have ever been known by, all five of them.  The stories behind each of these names are many. But then I had to choose the reason for the name changes, and I had only two choices. Neither one fit for most names. Most of the other entries were like that, and no one to ask about what they really wanted. We left the form partially filled out and much of it with guesses. When we then tried to print it out, it suddenly turned into a single page format with OCR bars instead of readable text. We printed out the single page, even though it was just a page of bar codes. Perhaps it is meant to be like this! Then I went back and using the back button, accessed the previous pages of the visa application. I refilled in all of the data (which of course had vanished) and printed it out. Backed up, refilled info, printed out. I finally had copies of all of the pages.

Time spent on Tuesday = 10 man hours altogether. Total time so far = 16 man hours for Sylvia an myself.

Now, on to visa photos, bank deposit for hotel reservations, confirmation of hotel reservation for visa, yellow fever vaccine, and more visa application paperwork. We'll pick this up on Monday, when perhaps we'll be ready to get an agent in San Francisco. This agent will hopefully be able to get us an appointment at the Brazilian consulate in San Francisco. If they can do this, the next step would be to have our visa application looked at.

Believe it or not, my anxiety about this is greatly diminished because we are moving forward very slowly, but in the right direction. And I at least can see what needs to be done here. My fear of being overwhelmed has abated. This could actually happen.


patti said...

Thank heavens for Kadeesha! What a long and drawn out process! You were right to be daunted by it.

It sounds as though you are much closer to getting to Brazil and it's so true, once you begin to make progress, fears drop away.

You will have a fabulous time at the wedding O, keep that foremost in your mind x

Olivia said...

Yes, Patti, how true. The end result makes the process doable! And I am SO grateful for Kadeesha. Many blessings inherent in this whole process. Love to you, Patti, O

laundrygirl said...

Hey Olivia!
One of my blogger friends Ali is an expat and she owns a house in Brazil. Her husband is from Brazil. They both lived in in various countries until this past year when they moved to California. If you want I could hook you two up if you'd like to pick her brain and get better acquainted with Brazil. Even if you two emailed each other (maybe you have a list of questions...) I'm sure she'd be willing to help.
I don't know how comfortable you are with this so here's her blog address.
In fact, she's going to Brazil for 3 weeks soon!

Olivia said...

Kristine, that would be great; you can give her my info if you don't mind or me hers, either way. I would love to talk to her. Thanks Kristine, xoO

CrystalChick said...

Wow, that is some project you've been involved with.
The time and trouble will all be worth it when you get to share in Darren's special day.
Wishing you all the best for the rest of the plans.

Anonymous said...

You are very brave. I would have given up and called it "not meant to be."

Olivia said...

Thanks, Mary; I know it will absolutely be worth it. It's just funny because I thought, "Well just get a passport, book a flight, and you're on your way!"--not so! Thanks for the encouragement, xoO

Olivia said...

Hi, Kelly, We just "crossed" as I was posting a comment on your blog at the same time! Someone else suggested that to me and I thought about it and THAT thought was more intolerable than the thought of all of the overwhelming preparations. But I hear you, Kelly :) xoO

Rick Hamrick said...

O--while we are not in the midst of an adventure such as you are on, planning international travel, we are on an equally interesting journey, ours into the impenetrable land of health insurance.

Because we don't have a corporate employer for which either of us work, we came to the point of needing medical insurance.

Miraculously, our auto-insurance company had a new program which connected us with a health insurer, and supposedly greased the wheels.

The sales guy said we could have insurance in about a week. It would not cover pre-existing conditions, but we could live with that. We just wanted to make sure catastrophic stuff was covered.

It is now seven weeks later. We are not yet insured, and I have invested 10 or 12 hours in 30-minute increments over that period trying to simply push the canoe back into the river.

The insurance company keeps running aground, I keep freeing the vessel and pushing it into open water.

We'll see who prevails: poor systems design, or pure bullheaded stubbornness. Don't bet against me. I have Easy World on my side!