Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Amazing Race 21, Episode 7

Istanbul (Turkey) - Moscow (Russia)

[The fastest scheduled connections from Istanbul to Moscow, visible on the CRS display in the TV show but not suggested by a competing airline or attempted by any of the racers: Ukrainian airline Aerosvit (VV) via Borispol Airport, Kiev (KBP) .]

The most difficult task for the contestants on The Amazing Race 21 in the latest two-part episode in Moscow was calculating what time it was in various other cities across Russia’s eleven time zones, based on the time in Moscow and the difference between the time in each zone and Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) or UTC.

Everyone makes mistakes from time to time (so to speak) in time zone conversions. I’m pretty good at mental arithmetic and visualizing the relationships between places on the globe. But when I really need to keep track of the time in two places at once, I wear a watch with two dials.

Do you add or subtract hours to convert from Tomsk time to Tuva time? Is it earlier or later? Is it a.m. or p.m.? (The easiest way to avoid this error is to use 24-hour time.) Do they use some version of “daylight savings time”, and if so, when is it in effect in each of the places between which you are trying to calculate the time difference? (In the USA, for example, there’s a five-hour difference between Honolulu and Washington in winter, six hours in summer, because Hawaii doesn’t use daylight savings time.) Is it yesterday, today, or tomorrow on this or that side of the International Date Line?

For the racers, the big problem was in figuring out how the time differences between zones had been specified: as offsets from GMT/UTC, not offsets from Moscow time. They had to realize that if Moscow is in time zone UTC +4, and Irkutsk in time zone UTC +9, that means that the current time in Irkutsk is five hours (9 minus 4) later than Moscow, not nine hours later.

If you aren’t sure how your local time relates to UTC, check the time zone settings on your computer, which are invariably specified in hours before (-) or after (+) UTC. In the USA, Pacific Standard (Winter) Time is UTC -8. Since Moscow is UTC +4, that makes San Francisco twelve hours (-8-4) different from Moscow time, i.e. exactly on the opposite side of the world (although both are in the northern hemisphere so they aren’t actually antipodes).

At the finish line, however, it didn’t matter how long each team had taken to figure out what time it was in each other city. James (a former member of the rock band Megadeth) and his lawyer/tour manager partner Abba would have been unable to continue in the race without Abba’s passport, which was stolen along with their backpacks when they left them in a taxi they asked to wait for them while they got out to grab their clue and directions to their next task.

It’s easy to mock a team that managed, in the course of the same trip around the world, both to lose all their cash (found on the floor by another team during an earlier episode) while putting it into a hidden zippered pocket, and later to allow a taxi driver to make off with all their bags and one of their passports. But if you travel enough, eventually you will lose things — important things — no matter how careful you think you are.

Once I left my passport in my jacket in a restaurant where I stopped for a meal on the way to the airport. I was lucky: my passport was still there when my friend came back for it an hour later. But I, or any of you, could easily have found ourselves in James and Abba’s situation.

On my last trip around the world, I lost a credit card when I dropped it on the floor of a train station, without realizing I had done so, while putting it back into a zippered pocket inside my clothes. My travelling companion left an ATM card in a hidden pocket inside her clothes when she washed them, and the heat of the dryer deformed the card enough to render it unusable.

In the course of my travelling life, I’ve been pickpocketed twice (losing one “dummy” wallet and one cellphone), had clothes stolen out of my luggage once (a sweater and some socks pulled through a gap in the zipper the length of a padlock shackle, in a train-station left-luggage facility), had a hand-bag snatched in a bus station while my attention was diverted by an accomplice, and fended off another snatch thief who tried to grab my cellphone from a zippered pocket but succeeded only in tearing my pants to shreds.

Any of these things could have happened in any country in the world — including at home.

So the question to ask isn’t, “How could he be so stupid as to leave his passport in his pack in the trunk of a taxi where the driver could make off with it so easily?” but “What should I do when something like this happens to me?”

I discuss strategies for carrying vital documents and information at some length in The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World. One key point that many people overlook is that it’s actually easier to replace your documents than to undo the damage that can be done, very quickly, if vital documents or information like credit card numbers or passwords falls into the hands of an identity thief.

Think carefully about what information such as account numbers or passwords is stored in your phone or on any other computer or device you are traveling with. Assume that a thief who steals your wallet is likely to steal your phone and (if you have one) your computer at the same time, and may also have shoulder-surfed some passwords in the Internet cafe you visited just before they picked your pockets of your phone and wallet and/or snatched your bag. If an identity thief gets your e-mail password, you don’t want to have a copy of your passport in that e-mail account.

In light of some of the current travel e-mail scams, I’ve begun to think that it might be useful to prearrange a private code phrase to use if you need to contact a friend or family member back home in an emergency. Identity thieves who get access to a traveller’s e-mail account have taken to sending messages like this to everyone in their victim’s e-mail address book:

I’m sorry for this odd request because it might get to you too urgent but it’s because of the situation of things right now.

I’m with family on vacation in [place], I know I didn’t mention anything about it to you but we are in trouble, we were mugged last night in an alley by a gang of thugs on our way back from shopping, one of them had a knife poking my neck for almost two minutes and everything we had on us including my phone, credit cards were all stolen, quite honestly it was beyond a dreadful experience for us but looking on the bright side we weren’t seriously hurt or injured and we are still alive so that is whats important. I’ve reported to the cops here and canceled all our cards, it appeared I had acted quickly enough or they almost would have succeeded in cleaning out my bank account. I’m really having some difficulties clearing our hotel bills and also need to pick up a voucher ticket at the counter for us to catch a flight back home as soon as possible.

All we need right now is $1,700 but anything you can spare pending when we get things straightened out will be appreciated and I promise to refund you as soon as we arrive home safely, western union is the best way to get money across to us. Please get back to me as soon as possible to let you know how you can get the money across to us.


I’ve been getting messages like this for a couple of years, but they have become substantially more frequent in the last few months. This is just one of several such messages I received this week, all purportedly from real people with whom I have corresponded at some point in the past. At least one came from an address strongly suggesting that it had been obtained from the e-mail client in a smartphone, presumably one that had been stolen, or lost and found by, or turned over to, a thief.

If your phone or computer is stolen or lost, you hope that the thief or finder will simply use it themselves. The real danger is that they will fence it to more sophisticated identity thieves who will misuse the data on it to clean out your bank account, open and abuse new credit card accounts in your name, or scam your contacts.

Returning to James and Abba’s passportless plight in Moscow, what can you do if you find yourself in a similar situation?

As I mentioned the last time this happened in the race, coincidentally also in Moscow, international human rights treaties guarantee you the right to leave any country and to return to the country of your citizenship, whether or not you have a passport. But in almost all circumstances it will be easier (although not necessarily easy) to get a replacement passport than to try to get on an international flight without a passport.

The first step is to contact the nearest consulate or embassy of the country of your citizenship. US citizens have the easiest time, since there’s a US embassy in almost every country in the world. (Yes, I know there are exceptions.) In the absence of diplomatic representation by your own country, citizens of the European Union travelling outside the EU can call on any embassy or consulate of any EU member for consular assistance.

The embassy or consulate might require you to file a police report of the loss or theft of your passport. But in many countries that’s a waste of time, and might require a translator (as it did for Abba and James) and/or bribes. So I’d check with the embassy or consulate first to see if a police report is required.

The inclusion of RFID chips in e-passports has made it more difficult to issue passports at consulates and embassies “in the field”, and governments consider emergency passports a security risk for issuance of forged passports. As a result, many countries are cutting back drastically on the issuance of passports at their diplomatic posts abroad, and centralizing passport issuance to the maximum extent possible at one or a very few passport manufacturing plants at home.

That means two things for travellers whose passports are lost or stolen while they are abroad:

First, while it used to be possible to get an emergency passport issued on the spot, in most cases US or UK citizens will now have to wait at least a few days for a replacement passport to be produced in a central processing facility in their home country, and sent out in the diplomatic pouch to wherever you are. When they say that emergency passports will be issued locally only in “life or death” emergencies, they now mean it, even if they didn’t use to.

Second, emergency passports are much more likely than in the past to be limited in validity. They might be valid for 90 days, or 30 days, or only for a single return journey to the USA. You are now extremely unlikely to get a replacement passport valid for the normal ten years without waiting for it to come out from the USA in the next diplomatic pouch, and might not get one at all without returning to the USA. How long a replacement passport takes to arrive from the USA depends on where you are, but could easily be a week in a small, low priority consulate or embassy.

To make matters worse, there are no real rules governing State Department passport issuance practices. Whether to believe your story, regardless of what evidence you have, and whether to authorize the issuance of a full or limited replacement passport, is almost entirely at the discretion of the individual consular officer you end up dealing with.

If the person handling your case suspects you’ve sold your passport or are part of a scam, or simply doesn’t like your look, they can give you the long form passport application questionnaire or delay making a decision indefinitely without giving you an official denial that you could appeal. It shouldn’t be this way, but this is a time to be on your best behavior. They know that you are at their mercy.

In general, US consular staff are notorious for providing less assistance to US citizens in trouble abroad than is provided by most other countries’ diplomatic staff to their citizens. I don’t think this is because of any malice on the part of US diplomatic personnel, but is a result of policies, from the top down, which prioritize “security” over service to the citizenry and allow front-line consular staff — many of whom would like to do more for those genuinely in need — to show compassion only if they are willing to jeopardize their careers.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 18 November 2012, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

All very good information. I have been so very fortunate--left my purse in restaurants, book stores, and have always been reunited with it.

At the Prague airport I realized I had lost my Visa Card and went to security to see if it had been turned in. The men there laughed at me for being so naive. Since it was a British Air Visa I went to the check-in desk at British Air and two young women had found my card on the floor and seeing who had issued it took it to the customer service desk there. I arrived in time to thank them and tried to pay them -- they refused with a smile and turned to leave. I tucked a $50 bill in the backpack of one of them.

Love your newsletter.

Posted by: Anonymous, 20 November 2012, 19:45 ( 7:45 PM)
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