Bumps Along the Road

One thing that still leaves me completely dumbfounded is how fortunate we were with the weather on this trip. When we loosely assembled the itinerary, we attempted to put ourselves in particular regions at the best times of the year, weather-wise. One of our friends from Auckland suggested that January was a great (and dry) month for hiking (one of our top priorities), and we knew we needed to be out of Thailand before the start of the heavy June/July rains. The only part of the trip we thought was a big risk was heading to Queensland, Australia in February – the peak of their monsoon season. While we endeavored to plan for little rain, we never expected to have virtually no rain. In our first six months of travel, we had exactly two days that were total washouts (one in Airlie Beach (Queensland, AUS), and one on Kangaroo Island, South Australia). We had one brief (hour-long) storm tear through when we were at Elephant Nature Park (northern Thailand) at the end of April, and never saw precipitation again until early August (our third rainout in the Polish Tatras). After that, we saw virtually no clouds or precipitation again until reaching northwestern Europe (Belgium, Netherlands) at the end of October.

Splendid weather aside, every journey is going to have some bumps along the road. They may be the gentle knots and dips of a rolling country road, a moderate frost heave that erupts unexpectedly from an otherwise smooth pavement, or a massive pothole that warps your tire on impact. Luckily for us, the bumps were few and far between, typically giving just a minor jolt before the path smoothed out again:

 

(1)  Missed flight from Auckland to Christchurch, New Zealand (05 January)

  • Surprisingly, our very first travel day was actually one of the bumpiest. After arriving late to LAX the evening of January 3rd (the night we left on the trip), we were told we couldn’t have our next boarding passes because we didn’t have a flight (proof of exit) out of New Zealand… oops. We desperately pulled up Expedia, booked a flight to Australia, and sprinted to our gate… only for our 11 p.m. flight to Tahiti to be delayed by nearly four hours. Apparently, our plane had been left in a hangar across the airport (I don’t know, I was confused by that one). Consequently, our subsequent flight from Tahiti to Auckland was late enough that we missed our domestic flight across New Zealand.
  • Resolution: We were able to easily book another Air New Zealand flight that departed only 45 minutes later. Other than the $130 change fee we had to pay, we weren’t really out anything. 45 minutes on top of 21 hours of flight time was totally not a big deal, and we were even treated to a complimentary glass of wine onboard. The short, 1.5-hour hop over to Christchurch felt like more of a relaxing, scenic flight as we cruised along the coastline.

 

(2)  Broken GoPro (Koh Lanta, Thailand, 15 April)

  • Water leaked into our freakin’ GoPro while we were snorkeling in the Andaman Sea. The water entered the memory card bay and corroded both the card and the compartment. We were fairly frustrated, as we were well within the depth specifications for the camera, and it had been used all of a dozen times.
  • Resolution: GoPro customer service sucked big time, and couldn’t figure out how to get the appropriate return shipping label to us. Thus, we carried around the broken GoPro for the remaining eight months, unable to take video with our handy little gadget. Luckily, we’d already completed most of the activities for which we intended to use the camera, and still had video capabilities from the phone and DSLRs. We were just annoyed that we couldn’t replace something we had just purchased specifically for the trip (and now that we’re back with a domestic address, we’re hoping they don’t insist it’s too late).

 

(3)  Lost debit card (Houay Xai, Laos, 04 May)

  • Stephan had one of those moments of absentmindedness, and forgot to grab his debit card after using it in a machine in Laos.
  • Resolution: He contacted Charles Schwab when he realized it was missing, and they immediately mailed a new card to Vientiane for no charge. We were super happy with their customer service, as well as with the helpful FedEx employees in Laos’ capital. Easy peasy, and I had my debit card to use in the interim.

 

(4)  Botched guestroom reservation (Dalat, Vietnam, 08 June)

  • After an eight-hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat, we arrived at our pre-booked guesthouse only to discover that the guesthouse was closed (it was under renovation), and had not booked any reservations for weeks. We were fairly well stunned, and learned that the error was on the part of booking agent (the guesthouse apparently doesn’t even book through that particular agent).
  • Resolution: There was a bit of panic here. We had no internet access, were a few miles outside of the town center, and had no idea where to stay (and being summer, we knew many guesthouses and hotels were booked solid). Luckily, the young man and his grandfather who owned the guesthouse allowed us to use their WiFi, recommended a couple nearby guesthouses, and even gave us a motorbike ride up the street to our new accommodation. They even insisted on serving us tea while we got everything straightened out. So, so nice of them! If you’re ever in Dalat, we’d definitely recommend YK Home Villa. Even though we didn’t stay there, the guesthouse looked gorgeous, and the owners are obviously some of the nicest, most generous people. That said we do not recommend using laterooms(dot)com for booking accommodations. On top of totally failing with our reservation, they were incredibly rude, unhelpful, and uncaring when we contacted them about the error.

 

(5)  Attempting to acquire a Russian visa (Beijing, China, 29 June)

  • Of all the bumps in our impossibly smooth road, for me, this was the one gaping, jagged pothole from hell. We’d read a lot about applying for a Russian visa and knew that, because we were outside of our home country, we’d never be granted a full tourist visa. We were unable to acquire one at the start of our trip in January, however, as the visa can be issued no more than 60 days before entering the country. Thus, we were resigned to apply for a transit visa, something our Trans-Siberian booking agent assured us was both quick and easy to obtain from the Russian Embassy’s walk-in service in Beijing.We arrived at the Russian Embassy 45 minutes before its opening, assuring we’d be first in line, six days prior to departing Beijing on our train to Mongolia (the first part of our Trans-Siberian adventure). When they finally opened the doors, the curt woman behind the window brusquely informed us that an appointment was required, and that they were booked out for more than two weeks. We immediately felt sick. We’d already booked, and paid for, our 10-day trip, as all travel through Russia must be formalized before applying for the visa. Luckily, we found out the Russian visa office – a separate facility a few miles away – could issue our documents… though we had to have all the paperwork submitted before mid-afternoon to have the process initiated that day. Thus, we flung ourselves into the street at the first cab we saw, and headed to the office.

    Once at the visa office, the entire process took a grueling four hours to complete. The application is a ~10-page document that is completed online and printed. It’s one hell of an application, and requires information including (but not limited to) proof of all transit/accommodations through Russia, detailed employment history (including references), education history, immediate family members, and every country you’ve visited in the last 10 years (with travel dates). The very first field on the application requires you to specify at what location you’ll be applying for your Russian visa. After our agent assured us we’d be applying at the embassy in Beijing, that was the drop-down option we selected. However, we were forced to go to the visa office… a different location. To have that one silly field changed on our applications by the gentleman behind the desk, it cost us 50 Chinese Yuan ($7 USD) each. We rolled our eyes, but agreed. We were then informed that we’d be incurring a rush fee. The paperwork had to be sent to and returned from the de facto embassy (the lovely place up the street that refused to see us), which required one day on either end, meaning we now had barely enough days for even rush service. I struggled not to pass out as I anxiously watched the clock’s minute hand tick away, only to have the man then tell me that now we’d each incur an additional $169 fee for expedited services. From there, it rapidly spiraled further downhill as the clerk was displeased that our tickets were (1) photocopies and (2) written in Cyrillic. I struggled (though ultimately succeeded) in interpreting the information he needed, though he would have preferred I venture to Mongolia to pick up hard copies of the tickets and hand-deliver them to his desk in Beijing. As if I wasn’t at the peak of my anxiety and annoyance, he then informed us that the background on our professionally-taken visa photographs were “not white enough.” He refused to accept them (although five other countries gave us no trouble), and directed us next door to the mall to have them retaken in one of those little photo booth things. More time, more money, more hassle. By the time we found the photo booth (either no one spoke English or no one knew of such a photo booth), we were both yelling, and I was in tears. I’d had it.

  • Resolution: We angrily pulled ourselves together, took the most pissed off-looking photos I’ve ever seen, and returned to the visa office with our new, sparkling-friggin-white pictures. We handed over the final exorbitant sum of $616 (plus photo fees, which I’ve honestly blocked out at this point) for two expedited visas, and sneaked our paperwork in before the day’s deadline. Ultimately, our applications were approved, and we picked them up in time to embark on our Trans-Mongolian journey. Obnoxiously, though, when we retrieved our visa-clad passports, we did note that, rather than grant us the full 10 days, they used our proposed exit date, ensuring our Russian exploration would expire in only 7 days – and not a minute longer. Thus, instead of spending an extra three days touring around and spending our money in their country (hello?!), we were forced to leave. Obviously, the overall result was positive in that we obtained transit visas, albeit abbreviated… but really, the whole experience still chaps my ass.

 

(6)  Untimely dropped cell coverage (Split, Croatia, 29 August)

  • While our Google Fi plan resulted in dropped coverage in a couple of countries that were supposedly covered, the most inopportune loss of service was upon our arrival to Croatia. After a 9-hour bus ride from Sarajevo, we arrived in the port of Split and walked a mile or so to our AirBnB accommodation. Upon reaching the apartment building, we noticed that we had no cell coverage and no WiFi. We were supposed to contact our host upon arrival to retrieve the key and apartment number (not provided on the listing), however you can only contact the person through the AirBnB app… which requires you to be online. Thus, I sat on the sidewalk in the dark with our backpacks for the next hour and a half, while Stephan attempted to locate the correct apartment and some reasonable WiFi to contact our host.
  • Resolution: Following a long wait (and me almost getting run over by a car who decided to drag race down the sidewalk), Stephan finally got into the correct apartment with the help of some friendly neighbors and a nice bartender back in town who offered him a few minutes of free WiFi. Additionally, Google Fi generously reimbursed us the cost of one month of service for failing to provide coverage during our 10-day stay in Croatia.

 

(7)  Ferry foul-ups (Dublin, Ireland, 03 & 17 November)

  • Alright, this one’s still pretty fresh and was actually discussed in excessive detail here. But to summarize briefly: after taking the ferry from Holyhead, Wales to Dublin, we were unknowingly dropped off at Dublin’s ATM-less ferry terminal (i.e. glorified warehouse) with no Euros, and with no means to acquire any. This forced us to hoof it several miles into town in the dark and driving rain.Next, for our return trip (Dublin – Holyhead), our ship was cancelled without notice, and we nearly missed the only other morning ferry (departing 45 minutes before our scheduled ship) back to the U.K.
  • Resolution: Although soaked and grumpy, we eventually made it into town – largely on foot, but at long last with the help of a stray taxi cab. On the reverse trip, we were fortunate to show up well in advance of our scheduled ferry departure, leaving us enough time to hop on an earlier ferry after ours was cancelled. Ultimately, we reached our destination at both ends of the trip without appreciable delay or financial consequence. We just wish the ferry line (Irish Ferries) ensured passengers were acutely aware of the limited terminal amenities. Moreover, since they have email and cell phone contacts in their booking information, it would be nice to set up some sort of automated notification in the event of a cancellation or itinerary change, similar to what many airlines now do.

 

In sum, these were really trivial (and infrequent) challenges to be met with. Neither of us was ever once ill or injured, the weather was fantastic, and we had surprisingly few travel delays given the amount of transit we did across three continents. I mean, I clearly still harbor some bitterness about the notoriously restrictive Russian visa process, and I do hope that, now that we’re back in the States, we can get our lemon of a GoPro replaced. But really, we could not have asked for more. And while we did face this short list of fleeting setbacks, every one resulted in a positive outcome. In the end, what’s life without a few bumps along the way? It’s those little trials that surprise and challenge us that ultimately make us better appreciate the smooth ride.

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