Thursday, December 20, 2012

Arghhhh, I Just Want to Get Into Your Country

Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get a visa? Nope, not the credit card kind. That's fairly easy as they want you to have poor money skills and pay them all sorts of interest. I'm talking about a visa to get into a foreign country. Surprisingly difficult.
Today I finished up my application for a student visa for India. In total, I've spent about six hours over the last week trying to get this ready. If I didn't live 1,000 miles from the consulate it might have been faster to do it in person. I was asked all sorts of questions on my application like:

-my occupation
-my parents' occupations and nationalities
-what other countries have I visited in the last ten years
-what university I'm visiting
-have I ever visited India or been denied a visa before
-are any of my grandparents from Pakistan.

I have to ship an envelope with a proof of address, another passport picture (in addition to my actual passport), a letter inviting me the visit the university, proof that I will be able to financially support myself while there, and about $ be paid by money order. Then hopefully, they'll mail back my passport with a super fancy stamp in it. Or, someone may simply use it to steal my identity and buy a llama.

One other problem, I didn't even know what a money order was. Besides hearing of them as a potential payment method for a Snuggie, a Perfect Meatloaf, or some other crap sold on infomercials, no idea. That seems a little lo-tech for my generation. And sadly, the shipping process was so intricate my bank was closed by the time I got there. That's what happens when there were five inches of snow last night so it took three times as long as normal to get there and the only parking spaces were not yet plowed.

Money order, I'm going to deal with you tomorrow.

Then maybe, India will let me into their country. You'd think they would want it to be easier. After all, tourists bring in the big money. Even when they are poor college students.

Until next time, God bless America.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Part 2: Clickety Clack on the Track

Da da dahhhhhhh! Time for Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Part 2!

As I'm sure you can guess, Part 2 will be about trains. I could mix it up and do the automobiles first but I'm sure there's at least one OCD person who would be bothered by the lack of order. So, trains! Above ground trains only, subways are a whole different thing.

I've only ridden two different train routes in my life. I choose not to count taking the little steam train at our local children's zoo or riding Thunder Mountain in Disney World. Though the latter costs more than my actual train trips.

These two train trips were fairly different experiences. First, I'll begin with the more successful. After all, everyone loves an optimist.

I took a train from Milan to Venice and then back again later that same day. This was my first experience of even remotely independent international travel. One other student and I took a day trip together during a free day of our study abroad. She and I got up incredibly early, so early in fact that the subway was closed. I didn't even know the subway ever closed. There was a gate across it! We took it to the train station and bought our tickets at an automated machine (thankfully, it had an English setting, incredibly easy to figure out and could avoid interacting with potentially unpleasant workers). We got on the train, got to Venice, and made it back to Milan in the evening with no problems. The train was clean, comfortable, spacious (little tables of four places at all the windows), and right on time. I felt so accomplished, a master of public transportation taking the subway and train in the same day without any direction.

The second trip was not as easy. I took a train from Warsaw to Krakow. Thankfully, the ticket was bought for me because the few people in Poland who didn't speak English were in such inconvenient jobs. It quickly went down hill from there. To begin, the train was over half an hour late, and while this was happening departure board continued to say it was leaving on time. An announcement came over the speaker in Polish and everyone on the platform started leaving. Panic! Was it cancelled? The board still said that platform half an hour ago. Thank God someone translated and said the platform was changed. The numbering system was so odd it took me longer than I would like to admit to find the new platform. At least I didn't miss it.

Eventually, the train left. Then there was the problem of finding my seat. It wasn't nearly as spacious as the Italian train (and I had 8 weeks worth of luggage as did the 7 other people I was traveling with). It looked a lot like this:

Um, I'm not sure everyone's bag is going to fit. They were not expecting people with weeks worth of luggage, or luggage at all it seems.

The other passengers were definitely not happy with the large bags. I was repeatedly glared at reproachfully. As they were speaking Polish, they may even have been insulting me but I like to think they were nicer than that. And really, those seats weren't any bigger than airplane ones. I have a bigger personal bubble than that.

Train travel seems very dependent on the specific line. I really enjoyed the first, but the second not so much. Their bathrooms were gross. I know many people take the train for all their travel and it can be pretty awesome. I'm just not quite that lucky it seems.

Until next time, God bless America.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Part1: The Weirdest Flight of My Life

Hello all! I greatly appreciated the indignation on my behalf after not receiving a lollipop for a plethora of vaccinations this week. That should definitely be standard practice. I would go and complain if I'd had any nasty side effects.

Now, to today's topic, TRANSPORTATION! I understand you may not be quite as excited as I am but I'm sure you will be soon. And, it may seem a little redundant after Buses Make Me Nervous. But, that does not cover an important issue. How to get from one city to the next? There are three main ways...

Planes, trains, and automobiles! 

I've used all three and I'm sure you are at rapt attention waiting for my thoughts on each. First we have,


I've only taken a plane between international cities once. It was an....interesting experience. I flew from Rome to Palermo and obviously back the other way. There weren't many choices for getting from Point A to Point B as Palermo is not on the mainland. I am extremely thankful I didn't have to take a boat. (I live in the Nebraska which couldn't get much more landlocked so I am incapable of walking on boats.)

Back to the flight. It was on a regional airline called EasyJet. It came with one bonus, or possibly detriment, of reduced security. I didn't even have to take off my shoes through the metal detector! Ahhhh, the small pleasures of life. I did get patted down though (but I set off the metal detector so can't really complain about that. And, it was less invasive than the normal procedures in the U.S.)

I was a little amazed by certain aspects of this flight. It was extremely delayed (which isn't really that weird these days), but the behaviors of the other passengers upon landing were so odd. I think this is better presented visually.

This illustrates the minute we landed. And by that, I mean we just hit the tarmac and are still taxi-ing around to the gate.
As you can see, that's me in the corner with a "Wtf?" expression. We had just hit the ground and immediately everyone jumps up, grabs their bags, starts chattering away in Italian (some on their phones), and crowds toward the exit. I was so amazed. Where was the surly stewardess to tell them, "The pilot has not turned off the fasten seat belt sign." Or, "Any and all electronic devices must remain off until an announcement is made that they are safe to use." Maybe I should drop out of engineering school and be a stewardess. I think I've got this down; I would rule the cabin with an iron fist.

While this was going on, I chose to simply stay seated, with seat belt securely fastened, until we stopped at the gate. It's been ingrained into my mind and I did not want to get flattened by the mob rushing to the exit or be stuck in the face by a bag from an overhead bin which, did in fact, shift during the flight.

These sorts of flights are quick and fairly cheap. The whole experience was a little strange to me because things occurred which would get you arrested by the TSA. But, it got me there without any sort of physical injury. I just kept wondering what other corners were cut. I don't advocate using a plane unless you have a specific reason (like the Mediterranean Sea) because you don't want to have to waste time in an airport. Blech.

I'll be sharing my experiences with trains and automobiles soon. I think each deserves its own attention.

So until next time, God bless America.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

I Feel Like a Pin Cushion

This week I finally started my preparations for travel to India. A visa is in the works (I hope, the university is supposed to be taking care of that). But, on Monday, I did something equally important.

I was stabbed with a ton of needles! And no, it was not exciting like that exclamation point may lead you to believe.

The university has a Travel Clinic intended to help students like myself avoid disastrous, jungle diseases. I was given a total of five vaccinations which covered seven diseases, varying from flu to typhoid to polio. My boyfriend has been calling me Typhoid Carrie this week. I hope I won't unknowingly cause an epidemic of pertussis or diphtheria.

You know it's a lot of shots when they won't even give you a band-aid for each prick. They start stabbing you close together so they won't have to be wasteful with medical supplies. It feels pretty cheap when I'm only given three band-aids for five shots. I didn't even get a sucker. Damn.

My appointment was with a five foot tall Chinese woman. She looked a lot more menacing when various needles were laid out on the counter. The teddy bear designed quilt laying on the cot didn't help the creepy factor. I was glad I got to sit in an office chair instead of on that. It seemed like a horror movie waiting to happen. I guess it's only on faith that I was immunized for those diseases, it'a always possible it was a conspiracy to give me the plague.

Thankfully, I have avoided terrible side-effects as yet. The worst that has happened has been terrible pains in both my arms. (After all, with five shots they do two in one shoulder, two in the other, and the last on the underside of an arm, stupid polio). Two days after being poked I can once again lift my arms above my shoulders. Success.

Until next time, God bless America.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Time to Get Serious

There's something important I'd like to discuss today that isn't very pretty. It goes along with Geometric Shapes = Genders ?. Now that you know whether you are a circle or a triangle, there is another critical issue. Because really, when you're traveling, it's bound to happen. You'll be walking down the street like Henrietta here and all of a sudden, you need, visit the facilities.

But where? No idea what's behind that door. And the only things nearby are a Medieval church and a sketchy food cart. I doubt those will be much help. What she needs are...

Europe doesn't quite work like the U.S. Here we have some sort of shop all over if you need a stop. 

Look! A Starbucks. 

Over there! A Walgreens. 

Hooray! A gas station.

All shops (except those in the mall) are generally large enough they have their own bathrooms, too. So, we Americans (or maybe just us Midwesterners, I don't know how it works on the coasts) aren't used to this search. Therefore, I've compiled the top ten ways to find one.

1. Restaurants. While we have Starbucks, Walgreens, and gas stations on every corner, Europe has an Italian restaurant on every corner. I've never liked this option very much because if the hosts and hostesses are paying attention, you get glared at. The restrooms are always hidden in the back and someone will wonder who is loitering. I was always worried about being threatened with a fork in some languge I don't speak or having to buy something.

2. Coffee shops. These are pretty easy to find. And unlike bakeries, it is assumed you'll want to hang around so it'll have a bathroom. I can't believe some bakeries don't have bathrooms. Argh.

3. Subway stations. If you are lucky enough to be in a city with a subway, there's a good chance there is one down there. It is possibly staffed by an angry man. The one I visited was. I guess he doesn't like working underground.

4. Bars. This is one of my favorite options. People like bars. And people walk in and out of them regularly. You can walk right in and no one will question you. This is a good way to avoid the glares of restaurant workers who want you to buy something or get out. Instead, the bar tender doesn't care and can pretend you are just sitting outside.

5. The Mall. Easy enough if you can find it. You can even stop and buy a cupcake if you want.

6. Fancy Hotel Lobbies. This is my absolute FAVORITE option. Fancy hotels are used to the fact that people come and go so you never get questioned. Feel free to loiter in the lobby. It might even be air conditioned. Ahhhh. And, since they are often used for meetings, there is always an open restroom right off the edge of the lobby. No danger of having to ask someone where it is. **Disclaimer* I do not recommend using the facilities of a hotel where you aren't staying, that'd be taking advantage :) *Disclaimer**

7. Museums. Why yes I did just want to visit the Pharmacy Museum, it wasn't for any other reason. (I really did visit the Pharmacy Museum in Cracow, and not because of this. I did enjoy all the herbs I recognized from Harry Potter potions class. Did you know there really is a thing known as bezoar?) This is a rather expensive option but you might even learn something on your way out. Oops, that might have turned you off.

8. Public Restrooms. I hope they are nicer than port-o-potties in the park. Many cities have odd, underground buildings where you can pay for a use. There is always some woman sitting there to make change. These are, at least usually, clean and are sometimes on the maps. Convenient.

9. American Fast Food Restaurants. They are always prepared. Try the KFC or McD's, they are fancier than ours. Especially if it is a two story building. Then they just think you're eating in the other room.

10. And, I hope you don't have to resort to this....a Bush! Every male person I traveled to Europe with used this option at one point. That isn't a good idea. I even saw one man getting a little chat with the police for this reason one evening while walking by myself. Awkward.

There you go. I hope it helps you some day. If you're all really nice to me, I may even throw in my super secret tip number 11!

Until next time, God bless America.