Paraguay Makes It Easier To Obtain Tourist Visas

paraguayPlanning a trip to Paraguay? Don’t know where Paraguay is? Haven’t heard of it? I feel you; it’s not the most well known destination (psst, it’s in South America). But I’m headed there in a few weeks for Gadling, and until yesterday, the biggest stressor in my life was obtaining my Paraguayan visa.

For the intrepid few who venture to Paraguay, the rewards are many– rich indigenous culture and cuisine; a sub- to tropical climate and virgin rainforest; amazing biodiversity; gorgeous campo (countryside; Paraguay has a strong ranching heritage); generous people; inexpensive everything; exquisite handicrafts; remote national parks; and Jesuit missions. Until last month, however, getting a visa (required for U.S. citizens, among others) was a bitch.

According to the Paraguayan Embassy & Consulates website, in order for me to enter the country, I had to cough up $100 (money order or cash, por favor), and two copies each of a utility bill with my current address, proof of “financial solvency (oh shit) or company letter, and round-trip tickets – this in addition to the usual passport/visa photos/pre-paid, SASE. Paraguay may be the poorest country in South America, but they sure don’t want you setting up shop there.

After several calls to my “local” consulate in Los Angeles, I was told that I could have my visa back within a week. This was all well and good, but my tickets were delayed due to a processing glitch until several days ago, and I leave on March 17. Experienced travelers know better than to expect their passports or visas to arrive in a timely fashion, especially when coming from a Latin American consulate (I’m not trying to be a jerk; it’s simply a cultural difference with regard to the concept of time). By yesterday morning, having returned the previous night from a three-day backcountry ski trip, I was seriously wondering if I was going to make it to Paraguay.

Since the L.A. Consulate had apparently decided to take a long siesta (no one ever picked up the phone, despite my calling them obsessively since late last week), I finally got ahold of someone who spoke fluent English in the New York office. And guess what I found out? You can now get a Paraguayan visa in-country, right at the Asuncion airport, for $160!

Weeks of anxiety melted away. I went to the bank, had them shred my money order, and tucked a crisp Benjamin into my passport holder. Stay tuned for my upcoming adventures in South America’s most under-rated country.

[Photo credit: Flickr user marissa_strinste]

Lonely Planet’s Best Worst Pick-Up Lines For Travelers

heart
“I hope you’re not a monk, because I’d love go Tibet with you.” Cue sound of detonating bomb.

Our friends at Lonely Planet recently compiled a list of the best worst travel-themed pick-up lines, via Twitter. The results are hilarious, as well as cringe-inducing. Some of our favorites:

“This may not be India, but since I saw you, I’ve felt like I’m in Lucknow.”

“You must be from Paris, because you’re driving me in Seine.”

“Hey girl, you’re looking Varanasi.”

“Would you allow me Dubai you a drink?”

“Did you overstay your visa? Because you’ve got ‘fine’ written all over you.”

We were always taught that puns are the lowest form of humor. But it seems there’s a time and a place for everything (we were also taught not to use cliches in our writing). Here’s hoping these come-ons give you the, uh, tools you need for a great Valentine’s Day. Good luck out there.

[Photo credit: Flickr user debaird™]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: I Was Once An ‘Ilegal Immigrant’ In China (Part 2 of 2)

urumqi airport aviation hotelRead Part One of This Story

The Urumqi Airport Aviation Hotel had a huge bug zapper behind the reception desk that gave off a piercing blue glow. I was handed a room key and a glossy brochure that brightened my mood considerably.

“Built in 1974, Airport Hotel locates in Urumqi ariartion airport that today is over 6000 meters! It joints the terminil building by a bridge. It is such a perfect hotel to choose if you traveling by air!..To have a tasteful meal here is dream here. According to your requirement, Airport Hotel restaurant might prepare you all kinds of local delicious…Other hotel services include beauty center, taxi, tour trip, Shopping, and complete checking in procedure arranging conference.”

My first meal in China was something of a blind man’s banquet. The Airport Hotel Restaurant had no English speakers or menu, so I had to resort to circling dishes listed in my Lonely Planet phrase book.chinese foodI pointed to the Chinese characters next to five or six dishes but my waitresses kept shaking her head and eventually walked away. I was convinced that the warm Liquan beer I was drinking was all I was going to get, but just as I was about to get up to leave, she and two other servers arrived with five steaming entrees, a bowl of soup and a plate of cooked peanuts.

I was thoroughly confused but since Xinjiang Airlines was paying, I didn’t bother to send anything back. The Airport Hotel felt a bit like a very strange college dormitory in that most of the guests kept their doors open and had their television sets blaring. There were three channels – all showing a badminton match between Indonesia and Denmark.

My room had an assortment of odd signs, each containing various warnings. My favorite was one on top of the TV that read: “Don’t touch it yourself!”

heavenly lake tianchiHow does one pass a weekend under de-facto house arrest in Xinjiang province? I decided to take a day trip to what the Chinese call Heavenly Lake – two hours to the east. Tianchi, (Heavenly Lake) is a majestically serene lake flanked by the 5,445-meter high Mt. Bogda, known as the Peak of God. The excursion and a relaxing Sunday spent chatting with novice English speakers at an Urumqi park helped me forget that I was a passport-less illegal immigrant, at least for the weekend.

On Monday morning, I rose early and sat in the lobby of the hotel, listening to the hum of the blue bug zapper as I waited for my parole hearing, which was scheduled for 9 a.m. I waited impatiently until about 10, when I received a call from a woman at Xinjiang Airlines who told me to call her Holly.

“Dayveed, we have problem” she said. “So sorry but we must come toomahwoaw. The cahmandeeng offisah not heya today, call back toomahwoaw.”

“Holly, I want my passport back TODAY!” I pleaded. “I want out of here, I’ve got to get to Shanghai! I’ll pay the damn fine! Please get me out of here.”

“Today is not paw-see-bull!” she said.

I slammed the phone down and went out to find a phone card to call the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Trying to find the number and figuring out the local phone system took some doing but the call produced immediate dividends when I got through to a local Chinese employee at the embassy who promised to look into the mater and then called me back a half hour later.

“Mee-stah Sem-eee-nah-rah, the Chinese said they’ll be there in 10 minutes,” she said.

I regretted that I hadn’t figured out how to call the embassy even sooner, and weeks later, I realized that the embassy’s intervention came less than 48 hours before the U.S. House of Representatives voted on granting China permanent normal trade relations. The Chinese were on their best behavior once I got the embassy involved.

Ten minutes later “Holly” and a colleague of hers from the airline, Miss Yang, arrived and greeted me nonchalantly. And five minutes at that, two Chinese soldiers arrived at the hotel.

“You must pay 1,000 yuan now,” Holly instructed, before pausing to add, “please.”

My de-facto captors wrote up a myriad of reports on a “Fancy Lion” notebook that had a cute image of a kitty on it. I was given no less than 5 receipts to sign, so if the penalty was a bribe they were going to have a serious paper trail to cover up.

I paid the fine and before the soldiers left I showed them an article in that morning’s English language, China Daily, a state controlled newspaper, which stated that the government had set the poverty level at 635 yuan per year ($76).

“So you see,” I said, “you have fined me more than one year’s wages for a Chinese worker, all for arriving here one week late on a perfectly good visa.”

The group studied the article for a few moments and then Holly interpreted the response of one of the stern faced officials.

“Yes, but he says that you are not a Chinese peasant,” she said. “You are American, and you have much more money. We think this is not very expensive for you.”

chinese visaThey handed back my glorious looking passport, which had never looked so resplendent. I was granted a 24-hour visa, and the girls from Xinjiang Airline agreed to accompany me downtown to extend it.

The visa office had a sign in English that was engraved on the wall, “strictly enforce the law – enthusiastically serve the people.” I was sold on the former but needed convincing on the latter as I plunked down another $40 for a month-long visa. As the three of us walked out into a steady rain, Holly tried to console me before saying goodbye.

“You know, we are trying to change but it takes long time,” she said. “Maybe the next time you come China, things will be easier for you.”

When my girlfriend arrived in Shanghai, I was there waiting for her with a bouquet of flowers and an outstretched fan with her name stenciled in Chinese characters on it. We were married the following year and shortly thereafter I joined the U.S. Foreign Service and found myself interviewing visa applicants on a daily basis. I never told anyone that I was once an illegal immigrant myself.

Read Part One of This Story Here

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.”

[Photo credit: Avixyx, Dayou X, on Flickr]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: I Was Once An ‘Illegal Immigrant’ In China (Part 1 of 2)

chinese soldier with maoAfter three months of arduous solo travel along the Silk Road, I was ready to cross my final frontier. I’d been forced to deviate from my plan to travel overland from Cairo to Shanghai, and was on a Xinjiang Airlines flight from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to the Chinese city of Urumchi when a moment of terror washed over me.

While leafing through all of the exotic visas in my passport, I began to recount in my mind all the border shakedowns I’d experienced on the trip. I had been denied entry at the Syrian, Kazakh and Azerbaijani borders, was hit up for bribes at the Moldovan, Turkmen and Georgian frontiers and had almost been refused the privilege of leaving Uzbekistan.

You hear a lot about how we live in an increasingly connected, borderless world where everyone speaks English, believes in free market capitalism and has minty fresh Dentyne breath. But on this trip, taken right after the turn of the millennium, I had encountered a big continent whose borders were patrolled by avaricious officials who washed their uniforms in Barf® brand detergent, ate horse meat pizzas and definitely did not speak English or take American Express.chinese visaRelieved that I was about to navigate the last hurdle with officialdom on a difficult trip, my reverie turned to panic when I discovered a line on my Chinese visa that I hadn’t noticed before. It read:

Enter before 00.05.11

barf detergentIt was May 19, and my heart began to race as I tried to figure out if the enter-by date referred to November 5 or May 11. I realized that I’d been granted the visa at the Chinese consulate in Chicago on February 11, before the start of the trip, and figured that I must have only been given 90 days to enter the country.

I’d never been to China before but knew that authorities there aren’t exactly renowned for their flexibility. Would they detain me? Deport me? Fine me? I had no idea but I was due to meet my girlfriend, Jen, in Shanghai in two weeks. My plan was to spend the fortnight crossing the country by train, with plenty of stops along the way.

The Bishkek-Urumqi flight left only once a week and if I was repatriated to Kyrgyzstan, how would I make it? I had already put our relationship on rocky ground by taking off for four months and feared that if I wasn’t in Shanghai when she arrived, we’d be finished.

As our plane touched down in Urumqi, a city of more than 2 million residents about 4,000 kilometers northwest of Shanghai, a panel above my head came unhinged and dangled from the ceiling in what seemed like a bad omen.

urumqi airportAll of the other passengers pushed and shoved as we made our way toward the passport control except for me. I was in no hurry to meet my fate. I tried to analyze the faces of the Chinese officials at the end of each scrum, but couldn’t decide which way to go as they all looked equally severe and uncompromising.

I felt nauseated when my turn arrived and the uniformed official leafed through my passport, pausing for only a moment to glance at my Chinese visa.

“Weah is yo vee-sah?” he asked, in English.

I pointed out my Chinese visa but he shook his head dismissively.

“This is failed vee-sah”, he said. “I must speak my leader.”

My heart sank as I was escorted away from the passport control area a few minutes later, after the crowds had gone home. A uniformed officer named Akbar, who could not have been more than 21, told me to sit down on the luggage conveyer belt, as there were no other seats.

Akbar, was an ethnic Uighur – a Muslim, Turkic people that once dominated Xinxiang province but now make up less than half its population. He was the lone Uighur working in the airport and said he would serve as my interpreter.

The Chinese are notorious for squashing any notions of independence amongst the Uighurs of Xinxiang, so as I waited to learn my fate I tried to not so subtlety win him over to my side by creating an us against them mentality.

“Is it hard for you, being the only Uighur working here?” I asked, rather clumsily.

“No, we are equal in the army and we are a national protected minority!” he said, defensively.

“But I read that there were some Uighur politicians that were arrested recently,” I said.

“Where did you read this?” he asked.

“In America,” I said.

“And you believe these things?” he asked, looking disgusted.

It was just my luck – I’d been set up with an Uncle Tom Uighur. Just as I was pulling out my photo album of shots from back home as we sat together on the empty airport’s lone luggage belt, three of his colleagues joined us.

The crew looked at my shots of friends, family and Chicago street scenes with rapt attention. I pointed to a photo of my girlfriend and mentioned that I was meeting her in Shanghai and thus would really, really prefer not to be deported.

chinese soldiersAfter what seemed like hours, a gang of more important and nastier looking soldiers beckoned us. The Uncle Tom Uighur and I were led into a room that had cheap folding chairs along the perimeter of its four walls. We sat down and I did a quick head count. There were eleven uniformed officers, all training their eyes on me, the American with the “failed vee-sah.”

One of the officers read me the riot act, in Chinese, and the Uncle Tom Uighur interpreted.

“You have violated our border by trying to enter with a failed visa,” he said. “You cannot enter China with this visa – you are an illegal immigrant.”

I took in what he said along with the flurry of angry sounding Mandarin that filled the room.

“Wait a minute,” I interjected. “I’m not an immigrant; I’m just here for a visit.”

He ignored me and continued.

“You must write down what you have done, and admit that you agree with what I have just said,” he said.

I was elated. It sounded like all they wanted was a confession. If a Cultural Revolution style self-criticism was all they wanted, I was happy to comply.

“What exactly do you want me to write?” I asked, eager to cooperate.

He relayed my question to the others in the room and several of them chimed in, but Akbar’s interpretation skills seemed to be lacking. I could tell by the look on his face that he was confused.

“You must admit to your crime,” he said.

Knowing full well that neither he, nor anyone else would fully understand my confession anyway, I decided to have fun with it.

Dear Xinxiang Frontier Border Control Authority,

“I David Seminara, who arrived on flight 718 from Bishkek, fully admit to the grievous crime of arriving in China a week late. I fully recognize the serious nature of my transgression, and its implications on China’s 1.2 billion citizens, who have no doubt been waiting with baited breath for my arrival. I am sorry if my delayed arrival has in any way jeopardized either Chinese national security or Sino American relations.”

The khaki uniformed guards began passing around the confession and it seemed to please them.

“Now you must sign your name,” Akbar said, thrusting my absurd confession back at me.

I was just about to sign when the thought occurred to me that once I signed a confession they could impose any penalty they liked. Maybe I’d seen too many American movies, but I didn’t want to sign it.

“I’m not signing it until you tell me what the penalty is,” I said.

My refusal seemed to touch off a storm of indignation in the room.

“You must sign, you have a failed visa!” Akbar yelled.

“First I want to know what the penalty is,” I repeated.

The group began to loudly confer for several minutes, and to me, they sounded like thieves arguing over how to split their booty.

“You must pay 1000 yuan ($125) and also you must buy a new visa,” Akbar said.

urumqi airportIn retrospect, the amount of the fine doesn’t seem exorbitant, but at the time, a dorm bed in a Chinese youth hostel cost just 10 yuan, and I was traveling on a razor thin budget, so it seemed like a king’s ransom. I assumed that it was negotiable.

“But the visa itself cost only $30,” I argued. “Why should the fine be $125?”

As Akbar interpreted my comment the room exploded in a cacophony of angry sounding Mandarin. My head began to swirl from all the menacing voices. I tried to haggle with them by pointing out that my visa hadn’t expired, claiming penury, and reiterating that I had to meet my girlfriend. I also showed them my plane ticket home, but they were unmoved. Visa applicants are supposed to apply in their home countries, but the Chinese law doesn’t account for people like me who leave the country and are gone for longer than three months before entering China.

I asked to see the amount of my fine in writing and this seemed to whip the room into an even more hostile lather.

“YOU MUST PAY OR GO BACK TO BISHKEK!!” Akbar shouted, clearly exhausted from the exertion of trying to interpret with multiple people talking at the same time.

Minutes later, someone produced a pamphlet, in English, that specified that fines for entering the country with an invalid visa ranged from 500-2000 yuan.

“Fine, how about I pay 500?” I asked, still hoping to save a few bucks.

At this, a young female officer, who had been silent until this point, spoke up, surprisingly, in English.

“Relations between our countries are not good now,” she said. “If a Chinese person tries to enter America with a failed visa he would be fined $500 and put in jail. You are an illegal immigrant – you must pay what we say!”

I asked to call the U.S. embassy in Beijing, but they claimed that the phone in the airport only worked for local calls. Exasperated, I offered to sign the confession and pay the fine, but Akbar and the gang weren’t done with me yet.

“You have to wait until Monday to get your new visa because the office in Urumqi is already closed today, and it is not open on the weekend,” he said.

urumqi airportIt was Friday afternoon at about 3 p.m. and I had no idea what they were going to do with me. The officers filed out of the interrogation room and I was told to sit back down on the conveyor belt. I had no idea who had my passport or what was going on until a portly man from Xinjiang Airlines approached us.

“We made a mistake allowing you to board the flight with a failed visa,” he explained, in English. “Since it was our fault, you will be our guest this weekend.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, suddenly wondering if perhaps my luck was turning.

“You will pay your fine and get a new visa on Monday but for the weekend, you will stay at the airport hotel and we will pay for your room and meals,” he said.

This sounded like a pretty good deal until I found out that the airport hotel was 40 km outside of town, in walking distance to nothing. I told them I’d pay for my own room in town, but they said it would be impossible for me to check in anywhere without a passport.

“Am I allowed to leave the city?” I asked. ” I planed to travel to the Heavenly Lake.”

“No, well, not really,” he said, clearly waffling.

I took that to mean that I was free to do as I pleased but without a passport, my options would be severely limited. As we walked out of the empty terminal toward the hotel, the reality of the situation began to sink in. I was spending my first night in China as a passport-less “illegal immigrant” under a kind of loose house arrest. What did the Chinese authorities have in store for me?

Read the final part to this story here

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.

[Photo credits: Ed-Meister, Upyernoz, Marc Van der Chijs, Isaac Mao, Eugene Kaspersky, Toasterhead, and Cornfed 1975 on Flickr]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Playing The Role Of Gatekeeper To America

mexico borderThere was a grown man crying at my visa window. It was my first week interviewing visa applicants at the American embassy in Skopje, Macedonia, and before I’d even had a chance to ask this man why he was applying to visit the U.S., he was sobbing uncontrollably on the other side of the bulletproof glass window.

“Why are you crying?” I asked, in Albanian.

The man said that his son in the U.S. was gravely ill and he needed to visit him right away. My computer indicated that this man had already applied and been refused for visas ten times in the past five years. The son had just had an operation and the man before me believed that his family was lying to him about his son’s condition.

“My son’s wife is a liar,” the man said, in Albanian. “I know it’s much more serious than they are telling me. I don’t know if he’ll make it.”As the man handed me a sealed letter from a hospital in the U.S., I braced myself for a heartbreaking story that I assumed would involve cancer, leukemia, a terrible car accident or who knows what else.

My eyes scanned the letter from the hospital and when I saw the worlds “soccer” and “ankle” I almost burst out laughing. As my visa applicant dried his tears in a handkerchief, I told him that his son had sprained his ankle playing soccer and would be just fine.

These are the kinds of mini-dramas that are acted out at U.S. embassies and consulates millions of times per year, as Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) screen applicants who want to visit, study or work in the U.S. Because of the crushing demand for U.S. visas around the world – last year more than 7 million foreign nationals applied for non-immigrant visas to the U.S. – all FSO’s are required to do a consular tour as junior officers.

Doing a consular tour is seen as a sort of rite of passage – paying one’s dues, so to speak. There are all kinds of horror stories about visa work – some people who are interested in joining the Foreign Service don’t follow through because they’re afraid of doing visa work and others join but expend a lot of effort bitching about the consular requirement.

I found that visa work could be tolerable, and even enjoyable under the right circumstances. Or it can be miserable, depending on workload, whom you share the visa line with and what level of support you receive from management. Here are a few points about visa work at the State Department and surviving the consular tour requirement.

Will you be Able to Say ‘No’?

A common sentiment I’ve heard from friends and colleagues who worked at the State Department in a civil service capacity is, “I don’t think I could do visa work because it would be too hard to refuse visa applicants.”

U.S. law requires consular officers to consider most categories of non-immigrant visa applicants – tourists, students and the like – as intending immigrants unless they prove they have strong ties that would compel them to return to their home countries. In other words, most visa applicants are to be considered guilty until they are proven innocent, and in many poor countries, trying to prove that you won’t overstay your visa isn’t easy.

As a lifelong traveler, I too wondered before I joined the Foreign Service if I’d have a hard time enforcing the law. As a frequent traveler, my gut instinct coming into the Foreign Service was that almost anyone should be allowed to come and visit the U.S. But after I started the job, and saw how many people were abusing the system, my perspective changed, and I came to understand why the law is written the way it is.

Occasionally, I’d feel bad having to refuse people who had particularly sad cases, but you handle so many applications and hear so many lies that after a while, it isn’t really possible to conjure sympathy for everyone. There are millions upon millions of people who want to live in the U.S. and sadly, it just isn’t possible for everyone. If it were, our population would be 3 billion instead of 314 million.

There are some FSO’s who never really learn how to say ‘no’ to visa applicants. I know a few who had 97 or 98 percent issuance rates, but the vast majority learns how to do it with no real problem. Like anything else, practice makes perfect.

Is it Hard to Get a Tourist Visa to the U.S.?

The common perception is that it’s very difficult for people in developing countries to obtain tourist visas to the U.S. While many are denied each year and many more don’t even apply because they think they won’t qualify, or can’t afford the fees, it isn’t nearly as hard as people think.

Take a look at the visitor’s visa issuance rates in countries around the world, and you’ll probably be very surprised. In fiscal year 2011, the issuance rate in Mexico was 87 percent, in Brazil it was 96 percent, Russia was at 90 percent, South Africa came in at 95 percent and even Pakistan, Kosovo and Syria had issuance rates hovering around 70 percent. By my calculation, using the State Department’s total issuance and refusal figures, about 85 percent of visa applicants were issued around the world in FY 2011.

There are a number of reasons why the State Department issues more visas than it denies, and I explored this topic in a research paper a few years ago. I won’t go into all of these reasons here, but suffice it to say that it’s a lot easier to issue visas than it is to deny them. Applicants who get their visas head off to the U.S., while refused ones stay home and enlist their friends or relatives in the U.S. to call and send pleading messages to the embassy to get their visa refusals overturned. FSO’s are constantly asked to justify refusals but rarely are asked to explain issuances.

Bid Carefully to Avoid Visa Mills

For those who want to join the Foreign Service but are wary of having to do visa work at a so-called “visa mill” posts, where one might have to adjudicate tens of thousands of applications per year, do your research in the bidding process. I’ve done consular work at three overseas posts and none were considered “visa mills” but the consular workload at each post varied dramatically.

It might take a bit of research, but find out how the post you are bidding on is staffed, and then look at the total number of visa applications they get per year. It’s not an exact science, but you’ll get an idea for how busy you’ll be.

Better Have a Thick Skin

Visa interviews are high stakes affairs for the applicants and while most visa applicants are courteous – even if they are refused – you will inevitably have to endure some abuse at some posts. I know FSO’s who had applicants in Haiti cast voodoo-like spells on them, toss mysterious substances at them under the document slot, and worse. If you adjudicate enough visa applications, you will have people curse and condemn you.

But the worst vitriol sometimes comes in the mail. Many applicants say nothing when refused at the window, but write letters, or have their relatives or their relatives’ congressional representatives write letters alleging outrageous conduct that never occurred. I will never forget one failed applicant who wrote a letter comparing me to a Nazi prison camp guard.

Once in a blue moon, you might receive a thank you letter from an applicant who received their visa, but for every one of those, there are 1,000 complaints and all of them require a response. But for all the negatives, visa work can also be fun. You meet a lot of people, you hear great stories and you get to practice using the local language wherever you are. In limited doses, at the right post with good management, it can actually be enjoyable.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service” here.

[Photo by Omar Omar on Flickr]