Backpacking-with-Ana-in-bangkok

A Little Disturbing … No Officials Ask for My Minor’s Travel Documents

Now that Ana and I are firmly back from our six months in Southeast Asia, I feel compelled to reflect back on some of the technicalities of traveling. There will be more stories, but some aspects preparing for our trip were far more stressful for me than needed…and once on the road a bit more disturbing. You see, in the weeks leading up to the big trip with my niece Ana, I was a nervous ball of energy rocketing around St. Petersburg. Ana had never left the country before, so I orchestrated all the paperwork for her passport and arranged the documents to leave the country with a minor who is not my child.

I stressed, I worried with my friends at weekly dinners about glitches we might encounter, and I planned out my speech to the immigration officials about our six month adventure homeschooling throughout Southeast Asia. I had it all scripted at the passport counter: They would raise an eyebrow at how very unconventional we are by leaving on this trip. I would laugh and talk about my years of traveling and writing. Ana would pitch in a happy “yay!” for good measure. The officials would look at the paperwork signed by her parents, ask her a few questions, then stamp us on our way.

traveling with a minor documents
The documents I took with us to legally travel around the world with my niece Ana, a minor child not my own.

The reality?

No one ever questioned us. Not one single question. I flew out of the United States on an international flight to Thailand, via South Korea, and no one blinked an eye when I passed over the passport for a child who:

  • Does not share my last name.
  • Is quite obviously a minor at just 11 years-old.
  • Has a passing resemblance to me (eye color and race is about it).
  • Is leaving her country of residence.
  • Was sullen and pretty unhappy when we first left.
  • Is not my child.

I have crossed international borders and entered and exited five countries with my niece (the US, Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Cambodia), and never once did anyone check to make sure I had the right to travel with her.

This fact disturbs me. A lot. So much, in fact, I will likely keep her passport locked up in my parent’s bank safe once we return because if I can so easily leave with her, what’s to stop anyone else from leaving the US with her?

I remember reading about some new laws in the US, about both parents having to show consent for a minor to leave the country as a way to stop custody disputes from ending poorly. I never paid much attention to this sort of news, since it had little relevancy to me, but I always assumed those people traveling with children were at least lightly questioned, particularly if they were not traveling as a happy little nuclear family, with mom, dad, kids and perfectly matching last names.

Clearly I was wrong though, because no one gives two hoots.

Okay, to be fair, the very last month, when we crossed into Cambodia overland from Thailand, one official working on our Cambodian visas walked over and asked if Ana was my daughter. I thought, “thank god!” but responded, “no, she’s my niece.”

And with that he turned and walked away, then came back moments later with our passports (and our shiny new Cambodian visas inside), and gave us a large smile as he shooed us on our way.

Air Bagan plane on tarmac
Ana and the GotPassport.org family get ready to board our Air Bagan flight from Chiang Mai to Yangon, Burma.

When we sent away to the Burmese embassy for our visas, I even tried to give them my paperwork, and the woman said “we just need your passports, nothing else.”

Here’s the thing, I’m not much of an alarmist, so when we first left the US and immigration gave us surly, uncurious permission to board our international flight, I chalked it up to a fluke. And honestly I was still recovering from the final days of packing stress, so it didn’t phase me much. Then, as we began crossing borders via bus, boat, plane, and train…it hit me that no one is asking questions and caring about the situation. I printed out paperwork in triplicate and stashed it in three different bags, yet just yesterday I unpacked it here at home, and it is still as crisp and unused as the day I pulled it from my printer seven months ago.

Frankly, I don’t know if this is normal. I had assumptions going into this trip that crossing borders would be a chore, but a necessary one to ensure the safety of our children. I wanted this to be the case to justify my faith in our system.

backpacking in bangkok
After 6 months on the road, my niece and I packed and ready for the airport after a delicious street food pit-stop in Bangkok, just before our final flight home-ward bound!

Before I left, I had planned to write a post along the lines of “here’s what you need to travel with a minor not your own.” Instead, I’ll note that this is what I brought with me and have never once used:

In case you also feel a need for over preparedness, those are links to view blank versions of the files I used, linked to a shared Google document; I modified the documents from other sources I found online and tweaked for them international travel and my unique situation. I am not a lawyer, nor do I have any superpowers to create official documents. In fact, I designed these for my specifics, so use at your own risk, ask your lawyer to look over them, and all that jazz. In other news, I had each of the notarized ones done twice, one for each parent, and the Guardianship document in particular is unique because of the length of our travels, and how young my niece was during our trip. I felt better for having it, but might not have done one for a shorter trip…really comes down to a personal judgment call and research on the current laws before you leave!

As for the rest of it, I just had to blog about it because even now as I try to adjust my expectations and assumptions, it still strikes me as odd that if I have a kid’s passport in my hand it’s that easy to simply disappear off the grid.

What’s your take on this? All I have is my experience to hold this against, but have you ever been questioned when traveling with your own minors or someone elses’ ? Do you think the border controls are too lax? Am I overreacting here?

Be a Travel MacGyver on the road with these four items!

A Little Creativity… Six Tiny Travel Packing Hacks for Travel MacGyvers

Traveling lacks predictability. For a Type A-er like me that causes heart palpitations at random times, but I also love the constant pressure to think on my feet and come up with instant and creative solutions to problems I never anticipated.

Sometimes this means just verbal and active solutions, but other times it’s a mad scrounge through my backpack to find the needed ingredients to diffuse that bomb in my hostel room.

Wait. Errr. You mean there’s no bomb?

A Little Vignette…Finding the Cultural Norms in Jordan

Culture shock doesn’t have to be, well shocking, sometimes it’s more of a gentle adjustment. My recent trajectory took me from Thailand, where I lived for several months, to Jordan, a country I had never visited in a region I had also never visited.

A read through Jordan’s Wikipedia entry before I left Thailand yielded some new perspective and political understanding, as did a look at the internal Jordanian news sites and a read through the blogosphere. In short, I knew what to expect, but still had some fun encounters and adjustments I’d like to share – these moments, or vignettes if you would rather, were my firsts introductions into the Jordanian culture and I’d love for them to be yours too!

chinese steamed dumplings

A Little Foodie Story … How a Vegetarian Survived China

We all but shoved these moist mounds of joy into our mouths. I couldn’t help but think, “Where have these fat round dumplings been all of my life? How have I not had this concoction of vegetable greens, onions, and seasoning exploding over my taste buds until this very moment?”

That was a good day. My best foodie day in China, actually. Sadly, it didn’t go well from there.

There’s only one other country in the world where I was as hungry and frustrated as China, and that was Bosnia back in 2009 when I lived off of spinach and cheese bureks and my twice-daily shiny green apple from the supermarket.

A Little Story Time…The Universe Kicked Me Hard

Last week I was complacent. I like my brief expat life here in Chiang Mai. It’s been comfortable, a good social life with the other expats, and it’s been easy more than anything else.

I know where I’m going to sleep every night. I know enough Thai that the my vegetarian foodie worries in new countries subsided, and I have a flat-mate, a friend here who has my back.

Well, the Universe gave me a slap-in-the-face lesson on complacency last week. Let’s set the scene here and be a fly-on-the-wall; I’d like to play back a moment last week that snapped my lackadaisical attitude back into focus.

Chiang Mai Gate Market (South Gate) seen from behind
Setting the scene: the Chiang Mai Gate Market (South Gate) as seen from behind

_________________________________________________________________________________________

FADE IN:

EXT. CHIANG MAI GATE MARKET — NIGHT

Large fluorescent lights illuminate the white tiled floor outside the Tesco Supermarket as SHANNON and JODI approach. They walk up the steps laughing and gently step around the rounded old woman selling puffed rice from oversized burlap sacks. They step up to one of the three brightly painted ATMs lining the supermarket’s outside walls.

Nearby, Thai and foreigners shoppers CHATTER and walk by as Shannon and Jodi dig through their purses.

SHANNON
But veggie lady’s pad see ew was so tasty tonight; what are
we going to do once we’re back in the US?

Jodi shrugs, still digging through her purse. Shannon pulls out her small red wallet and steps up to the ATM. Shannon finds her debit card, inserts it, and nonchalantly covers the keypad with her wallet as she punches in her PIN and follows the on-screen instructions.

SHANNON (CONT’D)
Seriously, though, a life without daily rice?

JODI
(sighing)
I miss it so much every time I go home; my mom even thinks
I’m weird when I eat rice everyday for breakfast!

SHANNON
(shrugs)
Not gonna, lie, I like Western breakfasts, but half
the world eats rice for breakfast…what’s so strange about that?

Jodi looks up, her brows are furrowed and the entire contents of her purse are grasped in her hands and wedged under her arms.

JODI
I don’t know where my ATM card is.

SHANNON
What do mean it’s—

JODI
It should be here, in my wallet. That’s the only place I keep
it! If it’s not here, I just, I really don’t know where it would be…

Shannon pauses to look at the empty wallet Jodi is holding up for her inspection. Shannon turns back to the ATM and jabs at the touch-screen several times, body still turned toward Jodi.

SHANNON

When was the last time you used it?

JODI

I have no idea. Before Songkran?

SHANNON’S POV

The ATM as money spits out of the machine and an insistent BEEPING noise is heard. Shannon’s hand pulls out the bills.

BACK TO SCENE

Jodi is shoving items back into her purse.

SHANNON
Maybe you put it in a different spot?

Shannon fans out the money, quickly counting the Thai baht as she turns her back to the ATM, fully facing toward Jodi.

SHANNON (CONT’D)
You know, so it wouldn’t get wet during the water fights?

Jodi shoulders her purse and shrugs.

SHANNON (CONT’D)
I mean, that would make sense…we didn’t take more than the
bare essentials outside the house, right?

Shannon inserts the crisp and colorful Thai baht into her wallet, the CLICK is audible as she fastens the wallet’s clasp and drops it back into her purse. She siddles up next to Jodi, and gives Jodi’s arm a little pat before they walk side-by-side toward the TESCO entrance.

INSERT: THE ATM

CLOSE ON the machine BEEPS incessantly, flashes some lights, and then spits out Shannon’s ATM card.

BACK TO SCENE

The machine is flashing lights and BEEPING as the glass Tesco doors automatically slide open; a burst of air conditioning blasts Shannon and Jodi, fanning out their hair, as they enter the Tesco chatting to each other about groceries.

FADE OUT

THE END

_________________________________________________________________________________________

And this my friends, is what had Jodi and me sitting at our dinning room table incredulously staring at our empty wallets two hours later.

At the precise moment Jodi discovered her lost card (which was eaten by an ATM two weeks ago under much the same circumstances) I was in the process of losing my card.

Before we discovered my card had just been eaten by the bank machine we weren’t too concerned – I had borrowed money last month (when I did the EXACT same thing at an ATM down on the Thai islands) and we knew it wouldn’t take long for her card to get here.

Then we discovered my card was missing too. And that let off little creeping flames of anxiety into my system. Here we were wrapping up our time in Chiang Mai, just six days left, and we’re out of money. Like, seriously, out of money.

No safety stash of cash was going to cover the remaining expenses and since we we’re leaving we were flummoxed. Where should we send the card? How are we going to solve this?

Why the hell did we both lose our cards at the exact same time?

What is the lesson here?

We batted questions and speculations at each other across the table. And as it sunk in, we concluded the Universe was handing us a lesson on complacency.

I’m a solo traveler by nature, as is Jodi. We’ve both traveled for years now with mostly just our own wherewithal to keep everything together.

Then we moved to Chiang Mai, got comfortable, had another person nearby to trust, and, well, we got complacent.

A Team Chiang Mai gang gathering!

We stopped paying attention.

I consider getting an ATM card eaten by the machine a pretty rookie mistake – something I was very cautious about when traveling alone because I knew I’d be in dire straits without a friend to lean on…I am so conscious and careful when I’m traveling solo that I never lost my card on my RTW trip.

And yet with six years of solo travel between us, both of us did lost our cards this month (and I did it twice!).

This experience humbled me; I came to Chiang Mai so that I could be relaxed and at ease. But at the same time, I’m not in my home country, I am at the mercy of a flimsy square of plastic and there’s an extent to which I need to remember it’s always wise to be aware.

Complacency and awareness are not mutually exclusive, but for me, they have been over the past few months. This week I head to Jordan as a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board and they have so kindly agreed to accept the FedEx package with my debit card.

As I leave Thailand and head out on this next leg of travel I can’t help but believe the Universe was telling me to pay more attention. And though I wish I didn’t need the reminder lesson, I’d rather it come in this form rather than some of the more challenging issues that can crop up on the road!

What’s your take-away…any other lesson we should be learning from this glitch?!

glass of milk in laos

A Little Travel Memory … Please Sir, I Want Some More

As is the norm in North America and Europe, I drink milk.  In fact, my dad is the poster parent for the National Dairy Council because I drank at least two glasses a day well into my twenties.

Then I went to Southeast Asia.

And stopped drinking milk. Outside of Western countries, dairy consumption often drops down to almost nil – anything that needs milk will have either powdered milk mixed just minutes before served to you or soy milk as a normal substitute. For the first few months in Southeast Asia I suffered acute milk cravings.

A Shot of Milk in Luang Prabang, Laos
A Shot of Milk in Luang Prabang, Laos

So when I saw a menu in Luang Prabang, Laos with the phrase “glass of milk” on the menu I did a happy dance in my head.

And then they served me a thimble full of milk. Okay, fine, it was a shot glass.

A shot glass of ice cold deliciousness. While I was sad to have so little, my traveling companion Laura and I embraced the humor of the situation and this newly discovered cultural quirk while I downed my thimble of milk and we called it a day.

Since then, I’ve learned some of the history and reasoning behind the utter lack of milk and dairy. It baffled me at first to see cows roaming the hillsides and yet no milk and cheese culture.  Lactose intolerance, though, is rampant in Asia. Consider this, Europeans ,on the whole, show as little as 5 percent of lactose intolerance while that number ratchets up to 90 percent in some Asian regions.

My dairy induced longing on my round the world ended when I set foot on the Indian sub-continent and fell in love with curd. There, like the US, a mere thimble full of milk is scarcely enough.

Any secret cravings when you’re outside the US?

A Little Debacle…How NOT to Do a Visa Run

I’m not exactly sure why I was so woefully under-prepared for my seemingly easy visa run to Malaysia last week, but let’s chalk it up to sheer laziness and a touch of travel arrogance.

Thailand gives visitors from the United States (among other nationalities) an easy 30 days on-arrival visa if you enter the country by air. Coming into Thailand, that was simple enough. And rather than apply for a Thai visa from the US, I figured I’d just do a visa run in Southeast Asia once I was settled into Chiang Mai, and apply for a double entry visa (that enables about six months in Thailand with some extensions and requirements).

Colorful street corner in the historic Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia.

So my planned visa run was all shiny, happy rainbows and puppies in my mind. Travelers rave about Penang, Malaysia; the city is a melting pot of culture and food from all over Asia, perhaps moreso than any other single country in Asia. With dreams of South Indian dosas in my near future, I booked my ticket, hopped on the plane and assumed all would flow seamless from there.

I mean, I’m a pro at this right?

Huge sigh from over here. Especially when I met my friend Paddy in Penang.

I slugged into our Penang hotel late in the evening and after our hugs of hellos (she’s a fellow Chaing Mai expat, also on her visa run) she shoots me a beseeching look:

“Hey, Shannon, I didn’t realize Malaysia has different power outlets, did you remember an adapter for our laptop cords?”

Blank stare from me.

“Uh, no. Crap. They have different outlets?!”

A delicious masala dosa for breakfast in Penang, Malaysia.

An innocuous start to the visa run, we searched out an appropriate adapter, entered into a hilarious bartering debate with the man running our hotel reception; our receptionist brokered the deal in hushed tones in the back corner of the hotel, as if we were attempting a shady transaction of an entirely different kind!

A mere 5 Malaysian Ringgit later (at 3 Ringgit to the USD), we procured a cord adapter and began plotting out our trip to the Thai consulate in the morning.

Paddy: “So, I know I’m super lame, and you’re all prepared, but I forgot my passport sized photos for the visa, so can we stop and take photos before the consulate tomorrow?”

Of course, not me I had a neat stack of 18 nicely cut passport photos…sitting inside my house in Chiang Mai.

Every question out of Paddy’s mouth had me kicking myself in the rear.

Nope, I didn’t print out the application. I have no idea what time the consulate opens. Nor how many days a visa takes. (Same day pickup  in Penang for a Thai visa, by the way).

And my plan of a double entry visa?

Foiled. Penang doesn’t issue double entry Thai visas.

This is the point where I deserved a public flogging from the Universe. I had, literally, hopped onto a plane to Penang with no plans, no research, and just a smile on my face and, thankfully, my passport in my pocket.

Tools for a visa run: Passport, money, converter, photos, and a pen!

It all worked out in the end (except, I only got a single entry visa, there was no getting out of that mistake), which does say something for spontaneity. Because of this snafu, however, I will likely leave Thailand a month sooner than planned. Rather than do another visa run, nearby countries, like Sri Lanka, are calling my name!

So with the debacle of doing it wrong in mind, below is a quick and simple checklist for visa-runs, visa applications, and really any plans involving the appropriate and easy procurement of a visa. Every country has different rules, as does every type of visa so please don’t take my word as gospel. Learn from me and do your own research too :)

Quick Tips: What you Need When Applying for Thai Visas

  • Your passport
  • Two passport sized photos
  • A black or blue pen
  • Print out the application online ahead of time if possible
  • Research the consulate or embassy’s opening hours
  • Confirm they are authorized to issue the type of visa you want
  • Know the exchange rate in the country you’re entering so you’re not rolled over by touts at the border
  • Research plug converters, currency and a place to stay in the city.

All I have to say is that my Malaysian visa run is a cautionary tale about what happens when you get lazy and think you have this travel thing “totally down.”

It’s always some sort of travel adventure over here in Shannonland.

A Little Confession…Yep, I Travel as a Vegetarian Hypoglycemic

I’ll tell you right up front the point of this blog post if you haven’t extrapolated an inkling of a notion from the title – for those who approach me with yearnings to hit the road and recite a litany of reasons they can’t do so: figure out the solution, it exists.

Street meats in Taipei, Taiwan at the Shinlin Night Market.

A common refrain I hear when I tell people I travel the world is “wow, I wish I could too.” And of course I tell them they can. And I talk about traveling is cheaper than most people assume. It opens your mind to new cultures, new languages, changes your perspective…the benefits are there.

But there’s always some retort. If it’s not money problems, it’s health. Age. Kids. Something.

Isn’t that life though? For the record, I faced obstacles too but I purposely choose which hurdles had a worthwhile payoff – and that payoff isn’t travel for all people. For some though, travel really is the Holy Grail and in that case it’s worth really assessing what’s holding you back from realizing your dream.

Two of the circumstances I face are a bit different than some travelers: I’m a vegetarian and hypoglycemic. The vegetarianism is really not a huge issue per se though it’s one of the first questions people ask me – I get a “Really?! Aren’t you hungry all the time?”

The hypoglycemia is a little more difficult, it means I have lower than normal blood sugar levels…my blood sugar yo-yos a lot. It has worsened in the past three years and the effects of having hypoglycemia means I have to ensure I eat very, very regularly, which can be hard to keep consistent on the road.  I was once left an emotional wreck at a food court in Thailand because I passed my “healthy” hunger point – I was teary, moderately incoherent, and minutes from passing out because the woman kept handing me pork and rice when all I wanted was rice.

It Smells So Good
Vegetarian cooking class in Laos

Those are the two obstacles I personally face that could seem insurmountable and yet each one has a solution – I adapted my travel style by traveling  slowly so I don’t encounter 20 hour food-less bus rides, and I stay flexible so that I could leave Bosnia after a mere week of meat-tastic foodie culture and one hungry Shannon.

To be fair, there are people with way harder obstacles. And some with easier obstacles.  But I figured I would be the first to put two of my biggies out there into the world (and trust me, those are just two of the myriad I can scrounge up) so that others can take heart: everyone has obstacles but the payoff on the other side is shiny-and-nice. I travel because I couldn’t imagine living without it; I love what travel brings to my life.

I feel like it’s easy to put obstacles in front of any goal as a way of covering up the fear under it all; “I can’t travel because I have student loans” – I call bull on that. Most obstacles are solvable you just have to want to find the solution. Nobody’s travel style is more “right” than another so the real opportunity is to find whatever works for you to realize your dream.

Figs!
Dried Figs! A fav snack: a bit of sugar and fiber, yumm :

Oh, and my secret tip and brilliant solution for other vegetarians, hypoglycemics, and really all other travelers: keep food on you. A granola bar, apple, nuts – keep them in your day pack. You never know when a short bus ride turns epic. Maybe it’s Ramadan. Or you’re on a hike and you get lost (so been there). Crap crops up when you travel, so do any travelers in your vicinity a favor by having snacks – everyone’s blood sugar can drop and simple snacks help prevent that.  :)

What sort of obstacles are holding you back from traveling, or what obstacles did you overcome before hitting the road?