Sunday, 11 October 2009

The Amazing Race 15, Episode 3

Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) - Phnom Penh (Cambodia)

The Amazing Race was back in Cambodia this week. I’ve talked before about landmines and the continuing issue they pose throughout Cambodia. If you are thinking about going to Cambodia, you can make your own decision as to whether that’s a risk you want to take.

You may not think that my fear of mines in Cambodia is well-founded, and I may not think that your fear of, for example, swine flu (at least as a reason not to go to certain countries) is well-founded. The greater danger in both countries may be road crashes. But fear is neither an accurate measure of danger (airplanes are scary to many people, because of our instinctive fear of heights and falling, but are actually very safe, while cars seem comfortably familiar but are actually very dangerous) nor under fully conscious control.

Unless one of the purposes of our trip is to overcome a fear we ourselves believe is unwarranted, or unless we expect other benefits that will more than offset the fear, it doesn’t make sense to go someplace where we expect to be afraid all the time — regardless of whether we or anyone else thinks that fear is rational. “Will I be too afraid to have fun?” is a separate question, but no less important in travel planning, than “Will it be safe?”

Fear and danger aside, what can we learn from this episode of “The Amazing Race”?

Why you can’t count on an airline to find the best flights

As has been the case so often on “The Amazing Race”, none of the racers figured out what would have been the best flights (with the usual caveat that price is no object if you are in a race where someone else — the TV producers — pays for your airline tickets regardless of cost).

The racers started between 18:53 and 19:32 local time from the “Reunification Palace” (former seat of the government of South Vietnam as well as residence of its rulers, preserved and open to tourists as a fascinating museum exemplar of a 60’s-modern dictator’s palace) in the 1st “arrondisssement” (district) in central Ho Chi Minh City. Tan Son Nhat International Airport — incorporating the runways of the former Tan Son Nhat Air Base, and today as during the American War handling both civilian and military flights — is in the 2nd “arrondissement” (district), less than 5 miles straight down one of the biggest streets in the city from the palace.

Barring exceptional traffic, the first teams and possibly even the last ones should have gotten to the airport in time to catch the last flight to Bangkok at 20:50 on Thai Airways (TG). After spending the night in the airport in Bangkok (typically more crowded than the airport in Ho Chi Minh City, and busier at night, with less chance of finding a quiet place to sleep, but still OK) they would have been able to get one of the early morning flights from Bangkok to Phnom Penh on either Thai Airways or Bangkok Airways (PG), arriving around 9 a.m.

Instead, the racers all waited until noon the next day for the first direct flight from SGN to PNH on Vietnam Airlines (VN), arriving more than 4 hours after the morning flights from Bangkok they could have been on. (The city name was changed to Ho Chi Minh decades ago, but as often happens in such cases the IATA airport code, SGN, continues to reflect the former name, “Saigon”. The same is true for St.Petersburg, Russia, which remains LED for “Leningrad”.)

The racers asked the Vietnam Airlines staff if any other airline had an earlier flight, and were told, correctly, “No”. But they didn’t ask about connections that would get them there sooner. And if they checked online or with a travel agency, the optimal route via BKK wouldn’t have shown up in default displays of through connections, because of the length of the layover. Only someone who thought of the routing themselves, and checked separately for SGN->BKK and BKK->PNH schedules, would have found it. A knowledgeable and motivated travel agent would have done so,or possibly someone at the Thai Airways counter (since BKK is their hub), but probably not any other airline. Especially not Vietnam Airlines, which had a direct (albeit later) flight and didn’t want to lose the business of 36 (including the film crews) full-fare last-minute passengers.

How not to lose your passport

Sometime after arriving in Cambodia and showing his passport at immigration and customs, Zev dropped his passport on the ground and lost it. Zev and his partner Justin didn’t notice when it went missing, and weren’t sure later where it had been lost or even whether it might have been stolen. When they couldn’t find the missing passport before all the other teams finished this leg of the race, Zev and Justin were eliminated.

What can you do to avoid the same fate?

First, keep your passport someplace secure and out of sight. Zev appears to have kept his in an external waist pouch, which is vulnerable to snatch thieves (slash the strap, grab, and run) everywhere, and robbers (“Give me your pouch or else!”) in more violent places.

Second, keep vital documents (passport, ATM or credit cards, etc.) separate from anything you need to get into often. A “hidden” stash is useless if you go into it in public. If you know you are going to need your passport, a bank card, or the like, get it out in private, before you are in a crowded or public place, and wait to hide it away until you are back in such a place.

Zev appeared to have kept his passport mixed up with a thick pile of other papers, such as the clues and directions for the race, that he kept having to pull out and look at. It was probably at one of those times that the passport came out of the pouch as well, and was lost.

The one time I lost something important on my last trip around the world, it was when I was hurrying to put away a credit card in a train station where I had used it to buy a ticket. I thought I slipped it into a hard-to-get-at inner pocket with the tickets, but apparently I dropped it on the floor. I should have waited to stash the tickets and credit card until I was somewhere private where I could do it carefully.

The last place Zev and Justin remembered having the missing passport was at the airport. Once you’ve made it through the last passport inspection, and the guards say that you are free to go, it’s awfully tempting to hurry on into the new country that awaits just outside. But that’s exactly when you should stop, and put your passport away securely and out of sight before you go through the final door or opening in the barrier into the welcoming scrum of friends, family, and taxi-touts meeting arriving flights. Do whatever it takes to block the view of what you are doing — go into a toilet stall, go behind a partition or face a wall, turn your back, spread your coat, screen your companion from public view, or do whatever you can — but don’t wait until you are out in the crowd to put your passport away.

What to do if your passport is lost, stolen, or damaged

No matter how careful you are, it’s possible to lose your passport, or have it stolen (uncommon, if you are careful to keep it on your person but under your clothes and out of sight — most stolen passports are stolen from places they never should have been) or damaged. Water damage is perhaps most common: passports are surprisingly resistant to prolonged damp, even in the humid heat of a money belt against your body in the tropics, but can be ruined by total immersion or getting caught out in a heavy rain.

If your passport is missing or unusable, contact the nearest consulate or embassy of the country that issued it (e.g. the USA if it’s a US passport) as soon as possible. It’s more important to contact the consulate or embassy, so that they can blacklist the missing passport (so you are less likely to be held responsible if it’s used by someone else) and to start the replacement process, than to make a report to the local police. Procedures vary by country of citizenship, of course. But for US passports, it may or may not be necessary to make a local police report of the loss or theft. If it is, the US consulate or embassy will tell you, and can probably provide instructions for how to do so.

If you don’t know where your country’s nearest embassy or consulate is, or you can’t get there or contact them (perhaps because you’ve lost all your money along with your passport), have someone such as a relative or friend back home contact the State Department’s Overseas Citizen Services office, which can give them the necessary information to relay back to you about what you should do.

Don’t expect the U.S.consulate or embassy to lend you money while you are waiting for a replacement passport. If you’ve been left destitute after a robbery, natural disaster, etc., you’ll probably depend on the generosity of people around you to put you up and/or lend you enough to tide you over until you can get money (or a replacement ATM or credit card you can use to get money) sent from someone back home.

Other ID (e.g. drivers license) or documents (credit cards, etc.) may help establish your identity to the consular officer when you apply for a replacement passport, but those are likely to be carried in the same place as your passport, to be lost along with your passport. The most important single thing that will expedite replacement of a passport is a legible photocopy of your missing passport. Keep a set of copies of all of your vital documents — on waterproof paper if you can find it, such as is sold at some print-on-demand map kiosks — in each piece of your luggage that might be separated: suitcase, day pack, purse, laptop case, etc.

If you are travelling with someone, especially someone of the same citizenship who still has their passport, they should go with you to the consulate or embassy to testify that you are who you say you are. Someone back home may also be able to confirm your story or supply other evidence to the State Department to assuage any doubts they have about your identity.

The embassy or consulate will get the State Department to send the file from your last passport application, quiz you about it to see if you answer the questions the same way you did on the application, and scrutinize whether you and your signature resemble the photo and signature on file.

If they like your looks, especially if you are white-skinned and sound like a native speaker of American English, you might get a replacement passport the same day. More often it will take a couple of days, sometimes up to a week. If you are alone, non-white, and speak with an accent, it might take considerably longer to convince them you’re not an identity thief. Yes, this is unfair, and the State Department may deny it, but like it or not it’s the way things work. They are under orders to presume the worst of any applicant for a passport or visa, and the burden of proof is on you. If you don’t like it, get Congress to make it easier for citizens of other countries to come to the USA legally, so there would be less incentive for them to try to get US passports.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 11 October 2009, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

If you watch Elimination Station on-line, it clears up what happened. Justin had the passport in with other things and, when they went to the monkey temple, he pulled out his headlamp and dropped it in the dark temple. (In fact, they didn't even have to go into the temple for the task, so it was a double error). It got turned into the U.S. Embassy by the temple staff, so he had an easy time of it.

Posted by: Miriam Nadel, 14 October 2009, 18:24 ( 6:24 PM)

Unfortunately, I can vouch for the suspiciousness of our diplomatic corps abroad, but also for their basic decency. I, too have had to have a passport replaced abroad (because I accidentally laundered it); the man at our embassy gave me a gentle tongue-lashing: "We're not happy with its condition, sir." I agreed, acknowledged my mistake and had it replaced within the hour. Though I was definitely in my twenties and backpacking around Bangkok, I am White and a native speaker of American English. Most importantly, I believe: I had the mutilated passport on me.

In Viet Nam a few years later, I made the acquaintance of a lady working at our embassy who was very nice to me as someone from her hometown, but also definitely had a patronizing attitude toward the locals' standard of living (in some ways understandable, since the Vietnamese themselves have no patience with being poor; one of the surest ways to spot a newly-arrived tourist is that s/he gushes about the presumed purity of the "simple" local lifestyle, and is horrified that everyone is just as crazy for modern conveniences as anyone in the West).

Finally, I once had occasion to visit our consulate in Vancouver, British Columbia. Despite being White, middle class and (I couldn't help overhearing) clearly in possession of a ream of paperwork proving his recent marriage to an American, our consular officer told him quite candidly to wait around in Canada until the very last piece of paperwork came through because if he headed south before then, the border guards would be *REQUIRED* to assume he was up to no good. What that might be was left unsaid; apparently it was the mere fact of an alien attempting to enter the U.S. claiming a status he did not yet fully have which would be the problem, IN AND OF ITSELF.

This is certainly what my stepfather experienced when he came home separately from my mom after their honeymoon. Perhaps complicating things, he'd flown to the OTHER country of which he has citizenship (Italy, rather than Argentina where they'd been); he wasn't even allowed to board the U.S.-bound plane in Rome, and was delayed OVER A MONTH in his final return!!!

What all this tells me is that our border people's new acronym, ICE (for Immigration and Customs Enforcement) can in some cases be a good way to describe them. I myself have experienced varying receptions by these folks, from the totally routine to raised eyebrows that I didn't do a bunch of shopping on a month-long Viet Nam visit. What they thought those times that I *DID* come home with a crate of stuff -- books -- I'll never know.

Bottom line: Potential visitors to the U.S. should do what you advise in your book: be nice, respectful, and above all, forthright with any American in an official capacity. What they definitely SHOULDN'T do is cop an attitude (show their annoyance). Most American law enforcers take that itself as a criminal act, and can make your life miserable if you do. Yes, this is unfair. But like it or not, this is just the way things work.

Posted by: Ben Bangs, 17 October 2009, 09:54 ( 9:54 AM)

A follow-up: Several readers e-mailed me with the same suggestion: scan your passport and other documents, and e-mail the scanned images to yourself. As one put it, "When I travel, I always keep a scanned image of my passport (as well as other important documents including airline tickets and travelers checks) in my email account. That way, even if everything is lost, I can easily make copies almost anywhere."

I've though of this, but haven't done it.

The problem is that many travellers have their e-mail account info and passwords compromised while they are on the road, often without realizing it until the damage is done. An identity thief can get your password from, for example, a keystroke logger installed in a cybercafe. I think it is safer to leave copies of your documents with someone trusted who isn't travelling with you, but who could e-mail them to you if necessary -- if you have such a person -- rather than keeping them in your e-mail all the time, where anyone who ever gets into your e-mail password could also get your passport info.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 20 October 2009, 18:26 ( 6:26 PM)
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