Phantom trains in Italy

 

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The Verona-bound phantom train in question.

If you ever need to take the train from San Martino Buon Albergo to Verona, or really from any town to a city nearby, double check where you’ll be catching the train. Or maybe just take the bus.

 

We bought tickets to go from San Martino Buon Albergo to Milan and the day of our trip we sat at the train station waiting a train to Verona, our first point of transfer. We watched the name of our train creep up the arrivals board as it grew closer to departure time. We made friends with a few other tourists who were also waiting for the same train. But the train just never came. The train number passed up and off the board while we eyed the tracks and took turns running out to the parking lot because maybe, just maybe it was actually a bus? None ever came.

 

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Waiting.

 

Ten minutes after our supposed departure time, I ran back to a nearby café to see if they knew what was up. They confusedly pointed me back to the train station. “It hasn’t arrived,” I told them. They were baffled.

We gave up on the train and caught a bus to Verona, now half an hour late for our train to Milan. We had a train to catch the following day from Milan to Grenoble, France. And that would be an expensive ticket to buy again.

 

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On the bus to Verona. At least some transit is available, though we’re going to be late.

 

The bus dropped us off at the Verona train station, where we prepared ourselves to argue our case with a Trenitalia attendant. But the guy at the ticket kiosk took one look at our tickets, heard our story, and after punching some numbers into the computer, handed us new tickets. And the phantom train that never came? The attendant shrugged his shoulders and remarked that he didn’t know what happened either.

Two minutes with the Tokyo Police

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We were short on cash and time, so in one of the stations Stoytcho and I split up to handle two tasks: getting money from an ATM (my job) and buying us train tickets (Stoytcho’s job). I walked up to an ATM in the station and stuck my card in to find it flatly rejected, something not uncommon for foreigners in Japan. That would’ve been the end of it, had a pair of police officers passing by asked if I was alright. I can’t remember whether they asked me in English or Japanese, but I remember that I responded in Japanese with a simple, “I’m fine, it’s just that my credit card doesn’t work.” I guess they hadn’t expected me to respond in their language and there was a pause. Then one of the officers asked “Could you please show me your passport?” This is normally not a problem, except Stoytcho had the passports in the bag he was carrying. Oh no.

One of the major problems with my Japanese is that certain phrases I use frequently are beautifully fluent, but when someone asks me an out-of-the-ordinary question I find myself struggling to put together a sensible sentence. It must’ve been bizarre  (and mildly suspicious) to watch a person go from fluent-sounding to half-coherent as I explained “My friend…he took them with him in a backpack, he’s just over…” and I couldn’t remember around the corner. I dug frantically through my bag, hoping to find a photocopy of my passport. I had one, but when I showed it, the officer asked for the original. She wasn’t unfriendly, but she didn’t use the cute, peppy voice she first addressed me with.

Stoytcho rounded the corner at that moment, saving me from potentially being arrested or brought in for questioning or whatever they do with foreigners who don’t have their passports with them. When he came over, the officers nodded and looked at each other as if they suddenly believed my story – at 6’4” and blonde, Stoytcho gave my foreigner story a thousand more points in credibility. The officers hardly glanced at my passport once I dug it from his bag, and they didn’t even want to see Stoytcho’s passport. They just turned around and walked off.

Why exactly the above scenario happened is hard to say. We asked an American friend who now lives in Japan about it over dinner, and he said that once upon a time several years ago they had an ATM fraud incident, and since crime is rare in Japan it became a huge deal and now the police are ever vigilant for people hanging out near ATMs. But I’ve got my own idea. I spoke Japanese my first few Japanese sentences perhaps a little too well for how I look and got mistaken for a Nikkeijin, someone of Japanese descent from abroad. While I’m half Chinese, it’s hard to tell that I’m anything beyond half-Asian, so it wouldn’t be surprising. But that’s also risky; the Nikkeijin are mostly viewed with mistrust. They were invited back to Japan from abroad on special work visas in the 90’s to quell a labor shortage, but face discrimination from the native Japanese population and now comprise a large number of the unemployed. I’ve heard people associate them with trouble and crime. So it wouldn’t surprise me if the officers saw a half-Asian kid who spoke Japanese a little too well loitering near an ATM and thought there was a problem.

Shoe Repair, Take 3

It’s that time again! The zipper on my left boot has been slipping more often and yesterday, with a final tug, a side of the zipper pull slipped off the teeth. I’ve been able to tie the boot shut with some string, but it won’t last long.

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Er…it works for now.

With some help of google and the hotel staff, we look up a local shoe repair shop and get a written description of the repair we want and we’re off. It takes us a while to find the place; sandwiched between a new teahouse and a restaurant, the shoe repair storefront looks more like someone’s house. But a no-nonsense older woman comes out when we knock on the door, followed by her husband. After taking a glance at the shoes and our note, she nods and we talk business. She wants around USD $30 for the repair and won’t take less. We don’t have a lot of power to talk her down, so we try a different tack: could they resole Stoytcho’s flip flops as well for that price? We pantomime this action, putting new rubber onto the bottom of his flip flops. She gets it and agrees–we’ve got a deal. Stoytcho takes off his flip flops and, now barefoot, hands them over to the woman. Meanwhile, the man is turning my boots over in his hands, evaluating, assessing, and thinking of repairs.

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Stoytcho, barefoot because he didn’t bring a spare pair of shoes.

Three days pass before we can return to them to pick up the shoes. When we arrive, the woman smiles and retrieves our shoes, perfectly repaired. For my boots, they removed the old zippers and added new ones in for both the left and right shoe so they match. They’ve also done some sewing where the threads between the leather parts were failing, and added glue at some of the weakened seams between leather and rubber sole. Stoytcho’s flip flops are a bit more of a patch job: they found some old black treaded rubber and glued that onto the bottom of each sandal. It’s crude, but works like a dream. They don’t slip on the wet tile and marble in wet bathrooms, nor out on the sidewalk.

We thank the couple and give them an extra tip for their awesome work. Then it’s off to take more steps and continue our trip around the world.

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Ok this was totally in Hong Kong instead but LOOK AT THOSE FRESH, GOOD-AS-NEW BOOTS.

P.S. If you’re looking to repair your shoes in Hanoi, we can definitely recommend these two. You can find them right around here (+/-1 on the address number):

Hiking Tumpang to Bromo: Day 2

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Epiphytes hang from a tree along the road to Bromo.

This is day 2 of our hike from Tumpang to Bromo, an ambitious (and overly optimistic) expedition that’s wilted in the relentless tropical heat under the weight 50 kg of gear. Our path is here:

While this hike is do-able, it’s way harder than Google lets on, especially given the near-continuous uphill ascent, the tropical heat, and heavy packs with all of our stuff. Here’s the short summary of the hike verdict:

We sleep through sunrise and wake up around 9 to the sound of people walking around our tent. Then we see a hand slip underneath the rainfly and try to lift it and Stoytcho shouts “HEY!” The hand retreats. We dress for the hot day ahead and emerge from the tent to find a group of guys hanging around our tent, waiting for a ride out to the fields to start work. They’re curious, and stare at us with sheepish smiles on their faces. Our tent, with its slick orange-and-grey rain cover hiding everything, is a UFO – unidentified field object – for them.

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The poor guys hang around after we decamp, waiting for their ride to the fields.

We decamp and continue our hike in the increasing thickness of the day’s heat. Though we’re now continuously climbing in elevation, it’s not fast enough to shake the drag of tropical weather that wearies us at every step. When we stop for a break to check our progress and refill our water, we’ve only covered 2 km in an hour. We’re not going to make it today at this rate, so it’s time to change tactics.

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The morning moon and bird hanging over a tree along our hike.

Back on the main road, we stick out our thumbs in hopes of catching a ride. It fails spectacularly. At first it’s because the trucks are full of farmers catching rides to their fields, so there’s no room for us. Then comes a string of ojeks, some of which are so low-powered that they already have a former passenger running up a steep hill behind them, only to get back on at the top. But empty trucks also bafflingly pass us, sometimes honking with driver grinning. Are they making fun of us? Finally, a passing ojek driver honks and with a laugh, throws us a thumbs up. Holy crap, they don’t know we’re looking for a ride—they just think we’re giving them a universal sign for “good job”!

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Two cheerful guys along our hike, who return our thumbs up and we’re like WAIT WHAT no one knows we’re hitchhiking.

When the next empty truck approaches, we change tack and wave our hands frantically. The driver stops and looks out the window, and we point toward the truck and ask “Bromo?” He nods, and we ask “Harganya berapa?” (how much does it cost?) With a shake of his head, the driver motions for us to get into the truck bed. We scramble up and drop into a pile of wood planks and cardboard boxes as the truck lurches forward. In minutes, we we’re flying up hills that would have taken us hours to walk, gazing down sheer cliff drops alongside the narrow road over the two-foot walls of the truck bed.

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The view from our new ride.

The truck drops us at the entrance to the national park, where we get a nasty surprise: entrance to the park for foreigners costs 220,000 IDR ($16 USD) per person, which is most of the money we’re carrying. We try to explain that we haven’t got much and it has to take us all the way to Cemoro Lawang, but the park guard isn’t interested. He isn’t paid enough to care. We dig around and find enough to pay the fee for admission to an apologetic girl at the admission booth. She speaks enough English to kind of understand the situation, but can’t do anything beyond offer us our admission tickets and a “sorry.”

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The ticket booth at the Tengger Park entrance.

We continue the ascent up the hill by foot, trying to flag down another ride for free since we now only have only 200,000 IDR to take us through Cemoro Lawang and down to Surabaya. Most of the trucks that pass us are tour jeeps, so they’re either full of tourists already or they’re not going to be giving out any free rides. We finally flag down a huge construction vehicle the size of a semi, but there’s nowhere for them to pull off to let us on so we’re forced to jump on while it moves slowly beside us. We find ourselves in a mess of bent rebar and cement buckets beside construction workers—these guys are going up to Bromo to build something. They take us a few minutes to a turnoff, then the drivers tops and scrambles up to tell us it’ll be 100,000 rupiah for a ride. We tell him we haven’t got any money and get off. It looks like we’ll be hiking the rest of the way when another black pickup pulls over at our shouting and waving and motion for us to get into the back.

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The view from our first truck looking up at the sky, under a pile of rebar (and my pack).

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Two guys stare at us as we sit in the back of a pickup truck, headed up to Bromo.

It couldn’t get any luckier. These guys drop us off in Jemplang, the highest point in our hike, and point us in the direction of Bromo in the wide valley below. They’ve been so kind to us that we ask “Harganya berapa?” but the guys in the truck smile and shake their heads. “Terimah Kasi” is all we can offer them.

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Staring down into the Tengger crater.

The Tengger Caldera:

We make our way downhill for the first time in hours, descending to the floor of a miles-wide valley. Steep hills flank us one side, erosion lines snaking down their sides. A towering cliffedge rises to our other side, a near-vertical wall that seems too perfect for mountain erosion. And it’s not. This sheer cliff beside us is the rim of the ancient Tengger caldera, the wall of a hollow more than three miles across made by an explosive volcanic event millions of years ago. We’re merely ants, crawling on its surface.

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The road through Tengger caldera’s prairie, with hills on the left and the steep rim of the caldera on the right.

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Wildflowers in the Tennger caldera prairie.

The west side of the crater is lush green prairie, cut only by the dirt tracks used by humans for travel. It’s beautiful and isolated, silent except for the cooling wind coming off the surrounding mountains and an occasional vehicle engine. Clouds drift over us so slowly, we can see and feel the shift between sunlight and cloud shadow. We hike by families picnicking, couples resting by bikes, and newlyweds doing photoshoots, all lost in an endless sea of waving grass.

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Young lovers.

We proceed eastward as the sun dips in the sky, signaling the disappearing daylight hours in the moments we can see it. The clouds have become thicker, forming a wall before us. The landscape is also changing: the endless prairie has faded to a few sparse patches of grass huddling together on an increasingly barren landscape. This is the start of the sandsea, the barren desert of brown-black dust and sand between the prairie and Cemoro Lawang.  We hike on, breathing in the chilling air, using the wheel tracks of ojeks and trucks to guide us in an otherwise featureless landscape. Occasionally a vehicle materializes from the mist wall before us and passes by, dissolving back into the mist from whence it came.

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An altar at the edge of the sandsea.

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An ojek (white dot to the left) approaches us in the distance in the sandsea.

But the sandsea is not silent. There’s this dull rumble at all times, like a simmering of malcontent just beyond the wall of mist. Finally, there’s a break in the mist wall that reveals the source of both sound and overcast sky: the volcano Bromo, exhaling a continuous miasma into the sky above us.

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Our first view of Bromo, spewing gas into the atmosphere.

The last few kilometers of the hike are messy, as the poor visibility ahead and crisscross of tracks left by tourist vehicles and dirtbikes make it hard to find the trail to Cemoro Lawang. We finally find a row of concrete posts leading in the town’s direction and follow it. Though there’s no change in the landscape, each step draws us closer to the town, to putting down our packs, to a room with a bed in a place that hopefully takes credit cards.

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Nearly there: the concrete posts that lead out of the sandsea to Cemoro Lawang.

Suddenly a form materializes from the mist before us, an oasis of a lone tree surrounded by a wall. Scattered remains of flower and food offerings lay on the altar before it, and we stop for a few minutes to rest. The temperature continues to drop and we can feel the cold through our jackets. A few meters on, we find the east lip of the crater, a steep road zig-zagging up to Cemoro Lawang. It’s our final ascent in the creeping dusk; it can’t have taken more than half an hour, but it feels like an eternity.

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The sacred tree at the base of Cemoro Lawang.

Cemoro Lawang, perched on the crater’s edge, is utterly silent. By some miracle we have phone reception (many thanks, T-Mobile) and manage to find a hotel on Hotels.com that we can pay via credit card. After checking in, we walk the streets looking for an ATM, and our fears are confirmed: there are no ATMs in Cemoro Lawang (as of April 2017). Luckily, the hotel restaurant and a handful of others take credit cards. Freed from our packs, we sit down to a hot meal of stir-fried vegetables, rice, soup, and tea.

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Cemoro Lawang is in a cloud today and the streets are devoid of people. Still, buildings mean beds and warmth and food.

In the end, I can’t say that hiking from Tumpang to Cemoro Lawang is something I’d recommend to everyone. But given the chance, I’d do it again. We saw parts of Indonesian life that are otherwise unseen, the streets of villages and families living beyond the bustling cities that make up Java’s economic heart. We were the recipients of endless kindness and curiosity and warmth. And we like to think we gave the folks at Google some good corrective data about their walking estimates—the elevation feature that’s now standard in walking routes was added shortly after.

UPDATE: Here’s a map of our hike from Tumpang to Bromo.

Hiking Tumpang to Bromo: Day 1

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A rusted road sign pointing the way to Mount Bromo.

Having successfully hiked a dormant volcano (Merbabu), it was time to hike a live volcano in Java! Bromo was the best choice because it’s between Jogja and Jakarta, where we’ll be flying out to Vietnam after the hike. But searches online didn’t bring up any multi-day hikes around Bromo, and it’s only a couple hours up the volcano from the nearby village of Cemoro Lawang—hardly a hike at all! Online searches also revealed that getting to Bromo from Jogja could be tough. Most visitors come from Surabaya in the north or Bali in the east, meaning that there’s little infrastructure to get there from any other direction. After several hours of searching, I found that we could get from Jogja to Malang by train. There were rumors online of a minibus that could take us from Malang to Tumpang, and from there it seemed that most travelers hired a vehicle to take them the rest of the way. That’s neither reliable nor cheap.

But this might be the perfect chance for a multi-day hike. Google Maps indicated that the 30km distance between Tumpang and Cemoro Lawang is about 9 hours of hiking, which should be perfect for a two-day trip! Since we won’t be coming back to Jogja, we’ll have to carry everything we own plus food and water on this hike. That’s about 50 kg (110 lbs) of stuff. This is a great idea, right?

The train ride to Malang and minibus ride to Tumpang are without incident, with the exception of the mini-bus itself being a really mini mini bus. Seriously, Stoytcho has to double over inside it, we barely fit with our packs, and we’re somehow back here with a whole Indonesian family. Our driver is chainsmoking out the window.

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Stoytcho, crammed into minibus line #70. That tan thing in the lower left is MY knee.

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A street entrance (Ken Arok) in Tumpang; many of the large streets in these towns sport ornate gates like the one above.

Once we’re dropped off in Tumpang, the walking begins and the folly of our choice reveals itself. The goal is to make it halfway (15 kilometers) today, but as we trudge along the road with hot tropical sun beating down and ojeks whizzing by, we realize we’re slow. Really slow.

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Ojeks pass us on the road (Jl Raya Tulus Ayu). This guy has his whole food stall attached to the back of his ojek.

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Stoytcho hikes along the road, later in the day.

We climb foot by foot up hills and through villages, where people come outside their homes to stare at us, wave, and smile. We’re funny and weird wherever we go, with our massive packs and sunblock-smeared skin. People riding ojeks up and down the road pull over and want selfies. We try to buy a couple of bananas from a roadside stand and the woman there first wants to sell us the bunch for 5000 rupiah; when we clarify we just want two bananas for 5000 rupiah, she laughs, then pulls two from the bunch and hands them to us. “Gratis,” she smiles and waves us off. We’re insanely grateful, but I feel bad because we have way more money in our accounts than she’ll amass in a lifetime. But we’ll later find out there are no ATMs in Cemoro Lawang and cash will become scarce, so we’re lucky to have saved money here.

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These kids stopped their ojek to take a selfie with us. Their camera and mode of transport are definitely more glamorous than ours.

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The gift of a banana on the road.

By nightfall we’ve made it only 11 km, to the rest stop just past the town of Gubugklakah, and we’re utterly exhausted. We set up our tent across from the rest stop, Ponco Kusumo, where all of the jeeps that run tours to Bromo are lined up in the fading light. There’s barely time for dinner before we fall asleep.

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We reach Ponco Kusumo Rest Stop. Stoytcho’s expression says it all.

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A moth hiding in foliage nearby.

THUD! WHAM! BRRR-AM! We’re awakened around 21:00 by what sounds like a whole marching band by our tent. Our first thought is that some of the teenagers who passed us earlier in the day are playing tricks on us now, but doesn’t seem to be in line with the Indonesian attitude. The noise continues as we lay there, wondering what to do. We eventually crawl out of our tent to gaze over at the rest stop, where lo and behold, there is an actual marching band. It’s the local school band, and this is where they practice on Sunday nights, far enough from the town to avoid disturbing anyone.

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The local high school marching band practices in the rest stop parking lot, far enough from town to avoid disturbing anyone (except us).

We can’t sleep, so we wander over to the rest area to get a cup of hot tea and watch the band practice. There are about a dozen people here watching the practice, some parents and friends who came up to show support, give someone with an instrument a ride, or just to hang out on a Sunday night. It’s surprisingly similar to watching high-school band practice in the U.S.—the students work on marching in time with a senior student up front correcting them. They work on getting the timing of the piece right. The music starts strong and polished as they cover the most practiced parts, and then no, that’s a little too fast: start over. The only difference is that we’re at an open-air rest stop in the middle of a tropical island, and some kids less than half our age have started a small fire—a common Indonesian pastime.

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A high school student practices flag waving with the marching band.

A group of curious guys catches sight of us and starts to ask us questions. They don’t know English and we don’t know Indonesian, so Google is our interpreter. They ask us where we come from and what we’re doing out here, and we tell them about our travels and our hike toward Bromo. One asks where we’re sleeping and we point out into the murky darkness at our barely-visible tent. With each answer we give him, he responds with an ever increasing pitch of “oohhhhhhh!” as if he were a kettle coming to a boil. I wonder if at some point his excitement will launch him from the ground with enough acceleration to reach escape velocity.

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Our buddies for the night, full of questions. Thanks to Google Translate, we found out they’re high-schoolers, all around 16 or 17, and they want to know all about the world.

Band practice winds down around 23:00 and the students slowly disperse, loading into trucks with their flags and drums or climbing onto precariously balanced ojeks with their instruments and speeding off into the night. We’re getting drowsy too, so it’s time to head back to our tent. Goodnight Ponco Kusumo rest stop. Goodnight Gubugklakah. Goodnight Indonesia.

UPDATE: Here’s a map of our full route from Tumpang to Bromo.

Getting Russian Visas in Sydney

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We visit the Russian Embassy! Please don’t block us from the country for taking photos, we were just excited. 

When we started on this trip, we knew we’d have to stop somewhere to get visas for Russia and China. Both of these countries require visas for U.S. citizens, but both prohibit you from applying more than three/six months before you intend to enter the country, so we couldn’t apply for them before we left the U.S. Because neither of us speaks Russian and I’ve heard you can get a Chinese visa fairly easily in Hong Kong, we figured Australia would be our chance to get the Russian visa squared away—in a country that speaks English and has a Russian Embassy. For those of you looking to do the same, here’s the short of it: you can get a Russian visa with a U.S. passport from the Sydney Embassy. It can be a visa for any duration (we got 3-year, multi-entry visas). BUT they cannot do express processing, so it will take two weeks and you’re subject to the fees charged to U.S. citizens, not Australian citizens.

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The Russian Embassy in Australia, nestled in a green, tree-lined neighborhood in Sydney. 

A few days into our Sydney stay (after we had settled into an apartment we decided to rent weekly), we visited the Russian embassy to ask about the visa process. We arrived around 11:30, which was late in the day for them—they close at 12:30 pm. After taking a number in the front office, we sat down and passed the time in reading and work under the watchful eyes of a framed Putin photograph. 12:00, then 12:30 came and went. The number of people dwindled. Though closing hour had passed, the embassy employees stayed and worked through all of us. We came up near the end.

When our number was called, we walked up to the counter, showed our passports, and asked what we needed to do for visas. More specifically: how long would visa processing take? Which application form (U.S. or Australian) would we need to fill out? What length of visa could we apply for? How many copies did we need? The employee’s English was fairly good, but it took us a while to get all of it sorted out: We could get expensive express service and have it done in two days. The visa could be for any possible duration or number of entries. We should fill out the U.S. application (though it turns out they’re all the same form). One copy of the application each.

Given that info, I took my time in filling the forms out and we didn’t return until a few days before we were due to fly to Indonesia. We handed over the forms to the same guy we talked to last time. But he looked over the forms and shook his head. “We can not make express service for non-Australia passports here,” he told us. Oops!

He hadn’t realized last time that we don’t have Australian passports. There wasn’t much we could do about that, so we opted for the regular service. The employee handed us a receipt and told us to come back for our passports in two weeks. We went home, paid some fees to reschedule flights, and extended our apartment rental. Thank goodness we’re staying with some friends of a friend. They were awesomely accommodating about the situation.

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The Russian visa, at the end of all this work

Brief respite from New Zealand’s rains

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After three nights of rain and only one chance to dry our equipment, we’re uncomfortably, intimately aware of the constant damp feeling. The tent and sleeping mattresses started to get that standing-water mildew smell. Our packs, which worryingly hold everything, got a bit of rain exposure. The clothes we’re wearing never feel quite dry. And don’t even get me started on our socks.

But today we ran into a dry patch! Out past Taumarunui, the sun broke through the clouds and shone with a reassuring intensity. It held until noon, so we pulled off at Ohinepane campsite to have lunch and give everything a chance to dry. Sunlit grassy fields greeted us and we spread the equipment out around us.

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We took the chance for a leisurely lunch. We watched butterflies flutter by and some chickens hunt for worms. We greeted another group the came up to the campsite by canoe. We shared the covered kitchen area with them and exchanged travel stores.

The first sign of trouble was a dimming of the sun’s rays. Stoytcho and I peered out from the kitchen’s overhang and saw the massing clouds. “I’m gonna run to the restroom, then we’ll pack up.” Stoytcho called out as he headed to the camp’s toilets. “Sure,” I replied, only half-attentive. Stoytcho was gone only two minutes when there was an ominous darkening and the sun was gone. It was time to start packing stuff away.

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I had just finished rolling up the sleeping bags and mats when the rain started. Thick, scattered drops plinked down on the car and what remained of our gear. I grabbed everything I could and started throwing it into the open car doors. I finished just as the rain intensified, pouring torrents down onto the campsite. I threw myself into the car, and Stoytcho jumped in a few minutes later.

We sorted out the back seat and started the car, heading back toward the Forgotten World Highway. We drove for most of the day as the sky vacillated between gleaming sun, gloomy clouds, and giant raindrops. New Zealand’s weather is a fickle mistress indeed.

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But at least the imposing clouds made for gorgeous, atmospheric shots of New Zealand’s countryside!

Boots repair (#2?)

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Tink!

The zipper pull on my boots snapped off. I guess this was bound to happen at some point given the abuse they go through. I’ve zipped them on and off nearly every day for the past year. These boots were my main pair of shoes for several months before the trip cause hey, they’re comfortable and have good support and grip. Wearing them also means I don’t have to check the weather daily, something I never got used to as a Californian living in the Northeast. I don’t need to worry about it if I just pop waterproof, weatherproof boots on every day.

But this broken zipper pull is a problem because it means more time and finger strain getting the boots zipped. It’s an even bigger problem because this is the left boot, which had some zipper problems back in South America that required stitching to repair—the zipper started tearing itself out from the rest of the boot. And it’s only month four of the trip, so a new pair of shoes is out of the question. So what have we got that’ll serve as a substitute zipper pull?

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Thank goodness I’m clever. When in doubt, hook a keyring loop to it! A tiny carabiner would have also been fine, but one of the easiest things in the world to find are keyring loops. Pick up a cheap keychain, pull one off a keychain you’re already carrying, or just pick one off the ground for free (like I did). You never know when it’ll come in hand to fix a broken zipper.

Stranded Gasless in the Northland

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The automated G.A.S. kiosk, a harbinger of our crisis.

It’s anyone’s worst nightmare on a road trip: getting stranded with an empty gas tank far from help because oops, it turns out that there wasn’t another gas station for a hundred miles. This is the sort of thing we futureproofed back home with a gas canister in the car trunk and a wary eye on the gas gauge during our two road trips across the States. So how did it happen to us in New Zealand?

We were prepared, but not in the right ways

Running out of gas was one of our worries when we first set out into New Zealand’s Northland, which is more sparsely populated than the rest of the North Island. To figure out how likely that was, we used both Google Maps and CamperMate (which was indispensible during our trip) to plot the number of gas stations on our route. To our relief, there were several, so running out of gas because of a lack of stations wasn’t an issue. Because we weren’t sure how extensive ATMs and credit card coverage was in the Northland, we also pulled out $200 NZD and stashed it for emergency. We double checked that our credit card worked here through some grocery purchases, and it looked like we were all ready to go.

The sparsely-populated Northland West Coast was where we hit trouble

The first half of our drive, which took us up the Northland East Coast through large settlements like Whangarei, Kawakawa, and Kerikeri were no problem. All of them had gas stations where we got gas without a hitch and continued on our way–some even had friendly attendants to pump the gas for us and pass the time with small talk. We grew used to this system, and so the first sign of trouble after our visit to Te Paki Sand Dunes didn’t raise alarm bells. We noticed the gas gauge was at a quarter-tank, so we found a G.A.S. station (it’s a brand in NZ) and pulled off. There was no sign of attendant, but we were happy to pump our own gas at the self-service kiosks, which seemed to only take credit cards. I popped my card in and the machine prompted me for a PIN.

For those in the audience wondering whether there’s a typo above, there isn’t. In Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, credit cards work on a chip-and-PIN system, meaning that you insert your card into the machine and then enter a series of numbers like you would at an ATM. In contrast, the U.S. credit card work on chip-and-signature, meaning we stick the card in the machine and it spits out a receipt for us to sign. Unsurprisingly, the two systems don’t always play nicely together. Since we in the States don’t have PINs for our credit cards, they don’t always work for purchases abroad.

I’d read beforehand about possible workarounds for the PIN problem, including hitting “Enter” without entering a number or simply typing “0000” and hitting “Enter”. I tried both of these combinations on the machine and both times it rejected my transaction and returned the card. “Huh, how annoying,” I thought to myself. We climbed back into the car and drove to the next station, only a few kilometers away. To our delight, this one had a convenience store attached to it, so when our credit card failed to work again we went in to ask what to do. The convenience store employee stared at us. “I have no idea what to do. I just work for the convenience store, and it’s not related to the gas station…” she told us. Oh dear.

Solving the problem and getting gas

We kept on driving for a couple hours, nervously watching the gas gauge edge down and stopping at every gas station to check if it was manned–none were, and every automated system rejected our credit card. Over debate, we settled on two possibilities: there was a small town coming up that might have a manned station. And if it didn’t, we were going to stop there and wait for someone else to come by and use the station, when we could ask to use their card in return for a cash payment.

The next town, unsurprisingly, also had an automated gas station. Station is a stretch of the word; it was really a single pump next to the town’s tiny harbour. I tried the usual actions with the credit card, it still rejected the payments. No cash accepted, either, so this was it. We settled in for a wait, gazing across the harbor at a few bobbing boats in the black-blue bay. We cleaned up our stuff scattered around the car a bit and made ourselves look as un-disheveled as possible (which is hard when you’ve been camping for four days). And we waited.

Twenty minutes passed before another car rolled up to refuel. As the woman wrapped up her transaction, we approached her and asked if we could pay her cash in return for buying gas on her card. She seemed baffled, but said sure and set the pump up for another transaction. We filled the gas tank to full, then handed her the receipt and cash. SAVED!

Preventing the problem in the first place

We didn’t encounter this problem for the rest of our New Zealand road trip because we rerouted ourselves to pass through a major city every other day and filled up whenever we encountered an attended gas station. But the feeling that we might run out of gas in a rental car hours from any help, coupled with the fear that help would break our travel budget, was pretty stressful. Here are three things you can do to prevent this problem in the first place and take a lot of stress off your shoulders:

  1. Call your credit card company and get a PIN – This one wouldn’t have worked for us, but some U.S. credit card companies will give you a PIN if you explain where you’re travelling and ask for it. It doesn’t hurt to try.
  2. Carry a full gas canister with you – This is what we normally do on road trips, but we didn’t see this as an option with our rental car. Ask about a spare gas canister and rent one if you can, since it’s worth the peace of mind during your road trip.
  3. Plan your route to hit a major city every X kilometers – Since you can estimate mpg and can look up the size of the gas tank, you can easily figure out how far the car will go before it needs a refill. Plan your route so that you’re near a city when you’re running low, since cities will have a plethora of gas options and at least some are manned.

In an ideal world, your credit card works around the world without a hitch because the financial systems all play nicely together. And barring that, in a secondary ideal world, whether a location requires credit cards with PINs or whether it’s manned with an attendant who can help would be neatly spelled out under each establishment’s description. But neither of these things has come to pass (yet), so save yourself the worry and make sure you’re road tripping prepared.

When you don’t know where to shop

We’ve just had one of those moments where we are painfully aware we’re not in our home country, despite all the trappings of modernity that resemble the U.S. We’ve been driving for a day and it’s abundantly clear that we’re going to need a microUSB charger for the car if we want to have any hope of keeping the phone alive and navigating on this continent. Great, we just need to pick one up from the store. But the question is what store?

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Spoiler: it’s here, for those of you just on this page looking to buy a phone charger.

Back in the U.S., we’d just search for the nearest Target or Walmart, but here in New Zealand, neither of these big box chain stores exists. Likewise for electronics stores; a search on Google maps for Radioshack turns up nothing. Alright, it looks like Google Maps isn’t going to be particularly helpful. We could try searching online for the name of a big box store chain here in New Zealand, but that could lead us down a rabbit-hole of all the possible stores in New Zealand. And the phone battery is already dangerously low.

We resort to some simple logic. Where are big box stores normally found in the States? Strip malls and suburban areas, alongside supermarkets. So we search for PaknSave, the only supermarket chain we know here in New Zealand, and get a lead. Ten minutes later we’ve located the PaknSave and a few monstrous parking lots down, there’s a massive store called The Warehouse. It turns out to be the functional equivalent of a Walmart, complete with bargain basement prices on everything from USB cables to cheap fleece blankets. We buy our charger, a blanket for picnics, and as a splurge buy a $11 boogie board for the beach. We’ll have to shed these things when we leave our car camping behind, but hey, for now they’ll be fun. Three hours later and about $20 NZD poorer, we’ve got our phone charger and a few other things we don’t need. And we know where to get more if we want it.

This is all a reminder of how much innate knowledge we take for granted in our daily lives, from where to buy things to how the world around us works. We were in “easy mode” here, since at worst we could have used English to ask people for directions, though that would have taken more time. But what if we were in a country where we didn’t know the language, and what about all of the foreigners still learning English that visit the U.S.? When people ask simple questions like where to shop, there’s an easy tendency to say “That place, duh. How could you not know?” But we’re all only one country away from not knowing the answer.