A Travellerspoint blog

Victoria Victory!

Initial steps on the path to being an international traveling family

Canada_Bear.jpgIt's been a while since we returned from our trip to Victoria, and I wanted to answer the pressing question - "did we get arrested at the border trying to smuggle in a Chilean exchange student?"

In short, no. Thanks to all of Anne's pre-work at the consulate, the border crossings in both directions went very smoothly. Lesson learned to put in the time to figure out what paperwork you need for travelling, and persevere through the red tape...

Other lessons learned:

  • Speaking calmly and smiling is your best bet for smooth experiences with Border and Customs Control officers
  • Keep ALL your documents, and keep it all handy (e.g. keep your Victoria Clipper boarding pass for parking garage discount)
  • You can usually count on your fellow traveller - don't be afraid to ask
  • Don't be afraid to say "I don't know" to the kids
  • Don't be afraid to say "Let's try it" with the kids
  • Take a chance - you might like it (like Leah with the zip lines at WildPlay - she was totally scared of the unknown; but once known, she wanted to do more MORE MORE)
  • Carry paper copies of bus schedule, a good map, etc -- you can't count on wi-fi or GPS to work.
  • Talk to the locals, get suggestions, set out without specific agenda . . . you will find the best adventures that way.
  • Kids are driven by food. The smell of popcorn, the sight of a Starbucks -- leads to the immediate need to purchase! There's always a delicate balancing act between packing food and hoping to find en-route.

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Challenges:

  • From the kids: "it's nice to travel, but I'm really looking forward to going 'home'" -- what if "going home" is over a year away?
  • Packing: we still packed big bags for 3 days... but, we were able to carry it all. Re-emphasized that carry-on luggage is the way to go (we got to get off the Clipper first while the people with checked bags waited...)
  • Being there on time: as hard as we tried, we were pretty late getting to the boat to depart Seattle. However, we did get lucky with our "special room" on the Clipper to Victoria (primarily because we were late - and that the Clipper crew took pity on us)

Overall, a great trip. The city of Victoria is a fun place to spend a long weekend. We loved Roger's Chocolate, Miniature World (as cheesy as it sounds), walking through the Fairmont Empress, having lunch at the Parliament building, visiting the Royal BC Museum, seeing Sammy the Seal at Fisherman's Wharf, and swimming in the pool at our Worldmark hotel.

We're looking forward to going back to Victoria soon!
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Posted by noahv 10:44 Archived in Canada Tagged travel planning lessons Comments (2)

T.M.I. - Can We be Plugged in Without Being Tuned Out?

Navigating the Dark Side of Mobile Technology as We Travel

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pres·ent
n.

1. A moment or period in time perceptible as intermediate between past and future; now.
2. Now being considered; actually here or involved.
3. Readily available; immediate.
4. Alert to circumstances; attentive

For our upcoming adventure, one of my primary goals is to be present. I want to be open to new ideas, people, and experiences. I'm looking forward to being "out of touch" with my comfortable Seattle life sometimes as we explore the larger world. Ideally, my family will be on the same "Carpe Diem" quest – but will technology help or hinder us? I am anticipating some challenges . . .

Challenge #1

ME

I will start right off by confessing a dependent relationship with my iphone. I treasure the ability to call up Google Maps and just follow the purple line to my destination. I love having a portable calendar that is synched with Noah, three schools, and two soccer teams. I rely on my contacts list and the ability to "google it" anytime. Yesterday I called up my sister in Singapore and chatted with her on Skype face to face ON MY PHONE -- for free! How cool is that??!

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Although I admit that in many ways technology has made my life easier, I also get a bit sentimental about the days when DVD players didn't come standard in mini-vans and face-to-face conversations between people occurred regularly on trains and in coffee shops.

Pressing Questions for Myself

  • Do I really need the constant information and entertainment? Is being "bored" no longer an option? Staring out the window obsolete?
  • Does the fact that I CAN share experiences immediately via Facebook or Twitter make that a priority?
  • Is logging on to "Trip Advisor" better than asking locals or visiting the Tourist Office?
  • Will I be able to turn off the navigation system and fly by the seat of my pants?
  • Can I get OK with being lost or not knowing if the Sounders won?

Good thing we are writing a blog – and I can keep you posted.

Conversations with Strangers

When I was in my final month of Graduate school I was on a train from Boston to New York and struck up a conversation with the gentleman next to me (inspired by the books we were reading). Turns out he lived in Newport, Rhode Island and ran a sailboat chartering business. By the time we got to New York he asked me to send him my resume for a summer job. Despite the fact that I had never even been on a sailboat, I got the job -- and that one conversation led to two amazing summer adventures! I learned how to sail and got to live on Weatherly (a 12 Meter Americas Cup Defender) in Newport Harbor! How much I would have missed if I had been hooked into headphones on that train?

Challenge #2

NOAH

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My husband (and partner in crime) is an official computer geek and has worked in the wireless industry for over ten years. He will probably write a rebuttal blog entry extolling the virtues of modern technology tools.

He knows it bugs me when he chooses technology based connectivity over person-to-person conversation, looks up stuff on his phone during dinner, or worse – listens to his music on ski lifts with me! He usually respects my wishes. He may even make a solid argument about conversations via technology being no less valid. We shall see . . . .

Challenge #3

THE KIDS

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Does anyone else think it is strange to take a school age child out to a restaurant only to have him play on his DS at the table throughout the meal? I have seen this more and more in the past few years and was even sitting next to a family recently whose child was playing a loud game without headphones as the adults chatted over the noise. Crazy!

I drive by our local middle school almost every day and see a vast majority of the kids walking in groups but not talking to each other – they are either listening to headphones or texting. Is it unrealistic to hope that won't be my kids?

OK, so my kids don’t have a DS or a fancy cell phone, but I am not opposed to using the videos and games on my phone to entertain them during longer trips. I also think it can be positive for them to be able to "tune out" sometimes. listen to their own music, etc. We plan on purchasing e-readers for them before the trip (possibilities here) and will have my old Iphone loaded with their music - but otherwise we have some decisions to make.

Essentially I think that, for me, it comes down to manners. I am not OK with my kids being rude because they are distracted by their "devices". So we will have to set ground rules for appropriate usage. That will take a whole new post!

Challenge #4

Safety

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Tourists tend to make easy targets for crimes of all sorts.
Wikitravel has some good general tips for how to avoid being a victim as does the US Government.
Most major cities have warnings about pickpockets and scams.

The core message in these "alerts" is that we (as visitors) need to be alert and aware of our surroundings in order to avoid being a target of crime. I guess I'm thinking that pulling out an expensive tablet as a map or wearing headphones might make us seem wealthy, less attentive, and thus an even bigger target. What do you think?

Striking a Balance

When my sister and I travelled through Europe in 1988 it was with the ripped out pages from "Europe on $30 a day" as our guide. We called home every week or so, read whatever paperbacks we could find in English, kept journals, took lots of photographs (with film even), and sent postcards.

Our family 2012-2013 adventure will involve more sophisticated gear, but I believe that the essentials of travelling are the same. We can use technology to help us with all those things listed above and more. We will just need to balance our opportunities to "tune out" with our mobile devices (perfectly appropriate sometimes) with the goal of engaging with a new environment and soaking up the experience.

I think the key to achieving this balance and being more present is time. Our plans involve longer stays in fewer locations with community based volunteering jobs as well. We may cover less ground - but experience more.
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I truly hope my ramblings have sparked good conversations. Please share your perspective!!!

Thanks for Reading! Hope you get the "Presents" you Desire and We Wish You a Joyful 2012!

Up Next -- More on the Role of Technology as We Gear Up for "World Schooling" our Kids

Posted by annevl 20:30 Tagged children technology world trip safety Comments (6)

First of the Lasts

In which I reflect on entering the window

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Today is Thanksgiving (here in the US). So,

!!! HAPPY THANKSGIVING !!!

Besides the typical turkey, stuffing, thanks, and family, this holiday is the first of the last for us (well, technically Halloween was). What that means is that we're into the window of "this is the last time we'll do <this> before we leave for the trip". While that may seem a bit sad, I'm trying to spin it positive.

Instead of looking at today as "the last Thanksgiving before we leave our comfy confines and familiar routines of our life here in Seattle", I'm looking forward to figuring out where we're going to be for Thanksgiving next year (looks like either Patagonia or Rapa Nui aka Easter Island). I'm also looking forward to the next Thanksgiving after we get back from the trip - what great stories we're going to have to tell around the table with our family and friends, and how special it's going to feel to be back with the ones we love.

So, even though it may seem like it's the "last time", it's also marks the beginning of the next chapter. The "first of the firsts" -- scary and exciting at the same time.

In a few hours we'll be digging into the cranberry sauce, sharing thanks for what we have now, and looking forward to the next chapter. I'm very thankful for the opportunity that we have in front of us to write this next chapter. It's going to be a trip...

Posted by noahv 09:41 Comments (1)

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Consulate . . .

International Travel and Bureaucracy - Lessons Learned in Pursuit of a Canadian Visa

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The Back Story

It all began with a Chile - USA Skype conversation last June with our future exchange student, Juanchi. When asked what he didn't want to miss during his time in the US he replied, "Visit Canada, Can we do that please?". He said he had been looking at the map and how close we are to Canada etc. Not wanting to squelch his enthusiasm, I promised to look into planning a long weekend trip to Victoria, BC as long as he took care of acquiring the necessary visa.

Well now, this wouldn't be much of a story if it were as easy as that.

Using our Worldmark points, I did book 2 nights in beautiful Victoria, British Columbia, where we have never visited before, for the second weekend in October.
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Flash forward to the end of September, when Juanchi informs us that he decided it would be easier to get a visa once he was in Seattle.

We managed to track down the required paperwork from AFS (exchange organization) so that Juanchi can get back into the USA from Canada but we still didn't have a Canadian Visa for him and I was scrambling to find someone to tell me what I needed to do to make that happen. I made a study of the Canada Immigration Website. Although they don't accept phone inquires, the Seattle Canadian Consulate office DOES take visa applications...in person...between 8:00 - 10:00am....Monday-Friday.

So, I decide to take the day off work, write Juanchi a note to miss school, throw every document I can think of into my bag, and head downtown. In my naiveté, I imagined sitting down with a helpful woman dressed in a hand knit maple leaf jumper who would patiently walk us through the visa application process.
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Misconception #1 -- The Consulate Staff are there to help.

The Consulate Office is one of the least hospitable places I have ever been. We had to pass through a security gate where the guard confiscated my tea and warned me about turning off my cell phone. There were rows of uncomfortable chairs filled with uncomfortable people and not a magazine in sight -- just a ticket dispenser (old school bakery style) and a digital display of the next number being served. Consulate personnel are safely ensconced behind bulletproof glass. When Juanchi began a conversation with a family from Colombia - we were warned (over the loud speaker) to keep quiet.

Our number flashes on the display and we proceed to the designated immigration officer. I slide our documents through to him and then attempt to explain that J is an exchange student, living with an American family, etc,. and that we just want to go to Victoria for the weekend.

He (IO) says, "This application is incomplete".
Me:"OK, can you please give me the missing form and we can fill it out?"
IO: "No"
Me: "Where can I get the form?"
IO: "The Internet"
Me: "OK, what should we do?"
IO: "Not my job. You should have come prepared. No applications will be accepted after 10am."
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Misconception #2 -- Watching the reality series "The Amazing Race" for the past 10 years has been a waste of time.

Oh no! Thank You Amazing Race! It is now 9:05am. We race from the building (after grabbing my now cold tea back from the security guard), ask the first non-touristy looking pedestrian we see if there is a nearby place with computer, speed walk the 7 blocks to the Fed/Ex Kinkos, insert credit card, and call up the Canadian Consulate Website on the computer.

Meanwhile, the Colombians are in the same boat - entering Kinkos just after us. Juanchi turns to me and whispers, "Think Amazing Race, we can beat this team!" Ha! Love this kid! Juanchi gets on the computer, fills out the forms, prints them out, and we are off racing back to the consulate (Colombians in hot pursuit).

Misconception #3 -- Speaking English is an advantage when dealing with Canadian Bureaucrats.

Back through the security gate we go, bye bye tea, hello new service number. At this point it is 9:38am. We are hopeful and upbeat, and a little short of breath. I glance over to the lady next to me and notice that her application has a fancy cashiers check on the top. Crap! I bet they require a fancy check to pay for the visa. I whisper to the woman and she says that yes, they don't accept personal check or credit cards. I take a deep breath as I remember that there is a bank on the main floor of the building. No problem, I'll just run down there and be back with a cashiers check before our number gets called. But for how much? I clearly recall that there are different fees for different types of visas.

Of course there is no one to ask. So, I pull out my iphone to find that information on the website. Bad idea! The security guard comes storming over to me and insists that I follow the rules or I'll be forced to leave. He then points to the sign that says, "no phones, no food, no beverages". I begin to explain that I wasn't using it as a "phone" per-se but he just glares at me and announces in a loud voice, "Turn off your phone NOW Madam". Just then our number appears on the display.

We are assigned the same consulate guy and he begins to look through our forms. "How are you paying for this?" he asks. Sheepishly I admit that I just discovered that we needed a cashiers check or money order.

Me: "Can you please tell me how much the check needs to be?"
IO: "That information is on our website."
Me: "Can't you just tell me the amount?"
IO: "No. You should have followed the pink checklist. Here are your forms back. Next time come prepared."
Me: "Pink checklist?"
IO: offers us an eye roll and points across the room to a small table.

Aw, gee. That would have been helpful! Time 9:51am. I leave J and our pink sheet in the waiting room and tell him to pull another number in 2 minutes. Dashing downstairs to the bank, I call up the info on my phone, find out that it is a $75 fee and, thanks to a speedy teller, am back up upstairs by 9:57am.

Ah Ha! This time we get called to a different immigration officer. She collects all of our documents and says our application is complete. I ask about the fact that he hasn't included a bank statement since he doesn't have a US Bank Account and she says that is fine since he is under our guardianship.
She gives Juanchi a slip of paper and tells him he needs to pick up his passport (with his new visa) the next day between 10:30 - 11:00am.

Misconception #4 -- Just because an application is accepted does NOT mean it is granted . . .

Since there is no way to be downtown from 10:30 - 11:00 and go to High School at the same time - I write Juanchi ANOTHER note and he catches the bus for a second visit to the Canadian Consulate. At 10:45am I get a phone call from an unlisted number. It is a pleasant sounding Immigration Officer who informs me that she is seriously considering denying Juan's visa application.

The mostly one sided conversation went something like this:
IO: Juan's application is incomplete.
Me: Oh, sorry. What is missing?
IO: There is nothing here proving that he can afford the cost of a visit. He is making a verbal CLAIM that you are his guardians and will be paying his food and lodging.
Me: That is true
IO: His application just shows that he is an 18 year old from Chile and a student in the US.
Me: I thought that his status and our guardianship were stated in his AFS paperwork.
IO: Did you use the checklist on the pink sheet?
Me: Yes, and I'm sorry that there was room for confusion.
IO: You should have included a certified letter verifying your financial responsibility for Juan.
Me: (at this point pulling out my best customer service voice -- despite what I WANTED to say) Oh, I am so SORRY. I hope you won't deny Juan's chance to visit Canada because of my stupid mistake.
IO: Well . . . I will make a note that I have verbal confirmation of financial competence and grant the visa. But . . . Madam. Next time come prepared with the proper documents.

Next time????

What are we in for as we begin to make our own travel arrangements and visa applications?
How can we use the lessons learned by my first foray into that morass?
But first . . . Victoria awaits!

Posted by annevl 18:17 Comments (3)

Gear prep

What to bring, and what to leave?

We've been building our list of must-take stuff for the trip. This does NOT currently include the "basics" - lightweight and quick-dry clothes and socks, good shoes, layers, underwear, etc. This is the "weird" stuff - the stuff that I might never have thought of packing.

We have found most of this during research on other peoples travel blogs, etc. (Wandermom has had some good insights, and we've found some excellent info from the case studies that Vagablogging does).

  1. Sewing Kit (fix stuff, plus needle for splinters, etc.)
  2. Dental Floss (impromptu clothesline, etc.)
  3. Compression Sacks (for packing, recommended "heavy duty")
  4. First Aid / Medicine Kit (bandaids, neosporin, tylenol, etc.)
  5. Sleep sacks (recommended silk)
  6. Silicone ear plugs
  7. Eye mask for sleeping
  8. Small waterproof backpack
  9. Universal drain plug

I just got the sleep sacks on clearance from REI Outlet (they have a great coupon right now - although I had to use the coupon 4 individual times to get the discount on each item :)

I'm sure we'll continue to add to the list - any suggestions? We're also looking forward to the Seattle Meet, Plan, Go! meetup next week, where we'll get a chance to talk with folks who have already done trips like this (I have another full list of questions to ask those guys...)

Posted by noahv 16:06 Archived in USA Tagged gear Comments (4)

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