To Afghanistan And Back: The Process Of Getting A Visa

“I need to include a prepaid, self-addressed Priority envelope to get my passport sent back,” I said to the young man at the mail counter.

“Oh, are you sending this to the passport processing center?” he asked looking up from his computer.

“Um, no … the Embassy of Afghanistan.”

His response to my answer was silence, but I could see the wheels turning in his head, wondering why in the world I was sending my passport off to the Embassy of Afghanistan, but professionally polite enough not to ask.

Like many countries, to get to Afghanistan as a US citizen you need a visa, and to get a visa you must fill out an in-depth application that includes a letter of introduction. Despite the handful of conflict zone tourism groups, for Americans, getting to Afghanistan as an individual requires being somehow connected to an organization, media outlet, or business operation that has an affiliation to the country that can basically “invite” you to come.

Wanting to promote the country as a destination for culture and unique experiences, the Embassy of Afghanistan offers information for travel groups that organize trips for those interested in traveling to Afghanistan. Note that the United States Department of State warns against travel to Afghanistan.

Since I was going to volunteer with a nonprofit, I had a one-page letter of invitation from Mountain2Mountain, explaining what the organization did in the country and what I would be doing while there. Then it was on to the visa application, which included providing a passport photo and a three-page document with questions ranging from the purpose of my journey (no I was not going for a convention/conference) to the number of children that would be accompanying me (zero) to whether or not I had a criminal record (no). The entire visa application is clearly laid out on the Embassy’s website; given the amount of foreign aid workers, journalists and nonprofit volunteers that head into the country, it’s no wonder that they have streamlined the process.

Visas do of course take time and money to process, and for a short-term, single-entry visa good for 30 days, there was also a $100 Money Order that had to be made out to the Embassy of Afghanistan. Fortunately I got to write that in myself and managed to avoid odd looks at the bank.

To be perfectly honest, when I put my passport, application and Money Order in an envelope and watched it get thrown into the pile of other mail, I wondered if I would ever get it back. Parting with your passport is a nerve-racking thing.

Considering where I was headed, I expected a much more complicated visa application process, but the Embassy was quick and within a week, it was back in my mailbox, in the exact envelope that I had addressed and pre-paid for Priority shipping; there’s no point in skimping when your passport is in question.I put trust in the organization I was going with and its connections on the ground; a conflict zone is not a place you want to go into blindly, knowing the right people in the right places is what keeps your security risks at a low.

Eventually I had a passport complete with a visa in my hand. That left other logistics, like a stack of crisp new hundred dollar bills to avoid unreliable Kabul ATMs and a temporary membership to Global Rescue (always good to know you can count on an evacuation in the event of serious madness, illness or otherwise).

The usual rules for extreme travel apply to Afghanistan: hit up the travel doctor to make sure you have the right immunizations (no one wants Typhoid after all), make sure you have a stash of Imodium and pack a good first-aid kit.

The travel part is easy; if you can stomach a 13-hour flight from DC to Dubai and then a 12-hour layover before getting on a three-hour flight to Kabul. United and Emirates both have partnerships with Safi, an Afghan airline, meaning that you can check bags at your departure destination in the US and they’ll make it all the way to Kabul many hours and time zones later. The hard part was the emotional side of things.

After weeks of planning and discussing with Shannon, I was still uncomfortable telling friends and family about my upcoming trip; traveling to Afghanistan initiates certain reactions, many of them unwanted. It was my first time traveling to a conflict zone; I trusted Shannon and Mountain2Mountain‘s connections, but that didn’t stop me from being nervous and even a little hesitant.

I was quick to find that many outside of my core peer group didn’t want to hear that hesitation; if I was the one choosing to go then I better keep up a united front. Choose to go to Afghanistan and you better feel good about the decision. Just imagine how stressed they were that I was choosing to go to such a dangerous place in the world. So I stopped telling people about it, internalizing my emotions and sharing them only with a close group of friends.

But the inside of your mind can be a dark place, one that can easily spin out of control, and you need a reality check once in awhile; that’s what sharing your concerns with others does for you. Of all people, I have the travel doctor to thank for putting things back into perspective.

“If you don’t mind me asking, why are you going to Afghanistan?”

I explained to her that I was volunteering with an organization and would be producing a series of public photo exhibits, with larger-than-life photos, many of them taken by Afghan photographers.

She looked me straight in the eyes and said, “good for you.”

It was a sincere response, far from the emotionally loaded ones I had been getting.

“Wow, that’s the first time I have heard that response, ” I said. “Thank you.”

A woman that deals with all kinds of travelers going to all kinds of places on a regular basis, proceeded to give me a full rundown of the calculated risks that we take every day in our lives, and that ultimately, I would probably be killed in a car crash walking down a street in my home city of Portland.

“Not that you shouldn’t weigh the risks, but just remember that we encounter risks every day and no one thinks twice about them,” she ended with.

The sentiment was duly noted, and I embarked on a series of long flights and connections fully protected against the risk of Typhoid.

At the end of October, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it’s like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.

[Photo credits: Anna Brones]

International Business Travel Tips, From Business Travelers

business travel

After posting our 10 Tips For International Business Travel, readers responded with some engaging comments. Chiming in with additional tips that work, their ideas for international business travel have an undeniable common sense. Based on their personal experience, with some lessons learned “the hard way,” readers shared not what they heard would be a good idea, but what they did that worked. Take a look and see if you agree.

Bring Local Currency With You
“Take foreign currencies with you,” advises Rosie in her comment, adding “In France, you cannot go to a bank to change dollars, you need to go to the Post Office, but they will NOT exchange $100 bills unless they have been verified as genuine by the French Banque de France. And this could take a minimum of 3 weeks. Apparently, a lot of fake $100 bills ‘manufactured’ in Russia have been floating about.”

Notify Credit Card Companies In Advance
Annie recommends, “notifying your credit card company(s) of your itinerary. Also if on a cruise notify them of the name of the line & where they bill from. My card co. did recognize the name of the billing co. & it was really annoying as the card co. doesn’t have 24/7 call service. Also check your medical insurance! Medicare participants especially need to check their supplemental as most only cover $10,000 out of the country (except emergencies in Canada).”

Scan Documents, Be Prepared, Know What To Do
“In addition to carrying copies of your documents and cards and leaving a set with family, scan copies to your email account,” commented reader brinniewales. “This helps considerably in case everything you are carrying is lost or stolen and/or no one is available at home to respond to your immediate needs. Internet cafes are available around the world, so those copies of documents and cards are just a few clicks away.

If your passport is lost or stolen, and if possible, check the government website to determine the requirements for a replacement passport before going to your embassy or consulate. You may be able to complete the form online and print a completed copy to submit. Photos are necessary so, if necessary (if not taken at the embassy), take the appropriate number (and size) of photos.”Have A Backup Plan and Know The Rules
Lou had a bunch of comments including, “Leave a complete list of the contents of your wallet and valuables home with someone who can immediately report these items to credit card companies, law enforcement, US Customs or insurance companies.

Business travel may require a VISA where tourist does not. Business travel laws and rules vary in most foreign countries. Also items you travel with may be considered for tariff. It’s smart to have a letter of invitation from [your] client stating your business.”

Better Than An App For That
“Here’s a good idea for protecting your valuables and keeping track of your iPhone, your iPad, your laptop and even your camera, keys, luggage and passport,” wrote Gordon. “Two years ago, I found Okoban and obtained tracker tags for a free global lost and found service. I put them on all of my valuables.”

It paid off in Rome. I left my passport at a restaurant at lunch. That afternoon, I received a text message from Okoban saying that my passport had been found. I did not even know it was missing.”

Know Your Cards And Don’t Assume
Hanky wanted us to know that he “just returned from Europe a few weeks ago, so my experience is fresh.

  • Be sure you have a credit card that can be used internationally, i.e. Citibank cards in the US are not used in Europe, call for the upgrade at least one month early and they will send a new card that can be used in all locations.
  • Be sure you call all your banks and credit/debit cards to tell them your travel dates, so they don’t reject a bill.
  • Be sure you take the appropriate electric converters, we stayed at the Ritz and even they did not (have any to loan)”

Share Your Story, Work The Maps
Reader Joy has multiple suggestions too, advising:

  • Give someone at ‘home’ your complete itinerary, and numbers where you maybe found.
  • Take foreign money with you, and be ready upon landing to get where you need to be.
  • Do not assume anything, so be prepared. Maps help too. (show and tell cab drivers).
  • Take all medicines with you, in your possession, and not in luggage.

Thanks to all who commented, these are great tips we think others can use too. You lived and learned and we benefit. See more comments at “10 Tips For International Business Travel” or add yours here.




[Flickr photo by _tar0_]

The ultimate guide to Carnival in Rio: planning, packing and logistics

Attending Carnival in Rio de Janeiro tops many a bucket list, and for good reason. Not only is Rio Carnaval one of the world’s sexiest festivals, it’s also an important cultural event for the people of Brazil. Last year, more than 4.9 million people participated in the week-long festival of parades, parties, and carousing in the streets, and the number is expected to increase yet again this year.

In short, Carnival in Rio is an event of epic proportions, and trip preparation can be as much of an adventure as the festival itself. The hotels are overpriced, the tickets are sold out, and it’s tough to tell the real advice from the travel agents trying to sell you on a package. This guide, compiled from my research and paired with tips from Brazilian friends, will hopefully provide a starting point for planning your own Carnival adventure. If you think anything’s missing, please share your knowledge in the comments!


The Basics

Carnival is an annual festival that kicks off 46 days before Easter, in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday and the start of Christian Lent. In Rio, the main events take place across the city over five days, from Friday to Fat Tuesday, and include both organized and spontaneous parades, balls, concerts, performances, and general revelry. The 2012 festival will run from February 17 to 21; see this list for future dates.

Getting There

Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão International Airport is Brazil’s largest international airport, with non-stop flights from many cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. A round-trip ticket from a major U.S. city will usually cost you in the neighborhood of $1000.

Americans traveling to Brazil will need to obtain a tourist visa from the Brazilian embassy or one of its regional consulates. The process can take up to several weeks to complete, so start early! The fee is $140, payable only by U.S. Postal Service Money Order, and you’ll need a copy of your travel itinerary. Additional requirements vary by consulate, so double-check with yours to see what else you’ll need.

Sleeping


Locating affordable Carnival accommodations becomes more impossible the closer you get to the main event. Most hotels, hostels, and guesthouses inflate their rates by up to four or five times, and even then they book out quickly.

For hotels, expect to pay around $200 for a budget guesthouse, $500 for a mid-range hotel, and upwards of $1000 for a luxury property. A recent search for hostel dorm beds turned up average rates of $100 per night, and most places implement a minimum stay of up to a week.

Friends in Brazil recommended that I check out apartment sublet sites like Airbnb and RioApartmentRental.com for the best deals. While some savvy hosts offer “Carnival Packages” with minimum stays, for many, it’s business as usual. Plus, since most hosts are cariocas (Rio de Janeiro residents), you may be able to get the inside scoop on experiencing Carnival like a local.

Packing

February is the height of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, so pack for high temperatures and lots of sunshine. On the streets, it’s perfectly acceptable for men to go shirtless and women to wear bikini tops. If you’re planning to attend a fancy ball, like the famed Magic Ball at the Copacabana Palace Hotel, you’ll need an elaborate costume or black tie attire. And if you’re feeling adventurous, throw some wacky stuff — feather boas, cowboy hats, oversized sunglasses — into your suitcase as well! You won’t need an excuse to don them.

Getting in the Spirit

One of my favorite parts of trip preparation is immersing myself in the destination’s culture. Music-wise, I’ve been enjoying the Brazilian samba mixes on 8tracks, especially songs like Ai Se Eu Te Pego by Michel Teló, Samba da Benção by Bebel Gilberto, and the original version of The Lambada (J-Lo‘s got nothing on Kaoma).

On the reading list is Carnival Under Fire, a portrait of Carnival-atmosphere Rio from Ruy Castro, one of Brazil’s best-known essayists. Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus), a 1959 Marcel Camus film set during Carnival, also came highly recommended. And let’s not forget the apps! To practice your Portuguese, try downloading a free Portuguese language learning iPhone app from MindSnacks and the powerful Portuguese Brazilian Traveler Pro translator from Odyssey. There’s even a Carnival bloccos app to track the best street parties.

In part 2 of this guide, I’ll dive a little deeper into Carnival itself: the blocos, the balls, and the highlight of the whole festival: the samba school parades in the Sambódromo!

Check out the second installment of The ultimate guide to Carnival in Rio: parties and parades. And stay tuned for on-the-ground coverage of Rio Carnival 2012 starting on February 17th!


[Flickr images via sfmission.com [2], Laszlo Ilyes]

Enterprising New Yorkers help ease Chinese visa woes

Had a problem getting a Chinese tourist visa in New York City? Apparently you’re not alone. Travelers around the web have reported consistent frustration with the Big Apple’s PRC Consulate, with issues ranging from rude employees, to inconsistent approval policies, to prolonged waits.

Travel visa bureaucracy may be nothing new, but the city’s entrepreneurial reaction to it has been intriguing. As NPR reports, some enterprising New Yorkers have managed to create a surprisingly successful business, operated out of a mobile van, to help travelers deal with the hassle.

Adam Humphreys and Steven Nelson, owners of Lucky Dragon Mobile Visa Consultants, have become a beacon of hope for travelers turned away by the consulate’s downright baffling policies. For a flat rate of just $20, they’ve set up a mobile van that operates across the street from the consulate, offering printers, helpful advice, updated application forms and fluent Mandarin speakers to assist with travelers problems. According to the report, the business has been wildly successful – the pair are reportedly clearing upwards of $500 a day.

Have you experienced problems getting a Chinese visa? How did you handle it? Leave us a note in the comments.

[Flickr photo by Zach Klein]

Collect virtual passport stamps with VisaStamper

passport stampsIt’s a favorite ritual for many travelers to leaf through their passport (often while waiting in an immigration line), reminiscing on each stamp and the destination it represents. When a passport is lost or expired, losing all those hard-earned stamps can be tragic. VisaStamper is a new website that creates a virtual passport, with photo-realistic stamps for each place you visit. The site currently has passport stamps for every country, with city-specific stamps for the US, UK, Australia, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Ireland & Germany, and more every day. You can share your passport stamps on Facebook and Twitter, and collect “points” for each stamp in your VisaStamper passport.

VisaStamper works via your computer’s IP address location, automatically generating a stamp for the country you’re currently in. You can “backdate” your virtual passport by submitting your destination list and dates via email, though an easier form is in production. Apps for iPhone, iPad and Android are on the way in the new year to work via GPS and make sharing even easier.

Sign up and start collecting at VisaStamper.com (you can check out my stamps here) and visit them on Facebook. Happy (virtual) travels!