Travel from the U.S. might get a lot more expensive

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This is a break from our regular travel blog to let you know that if you’re here in the U.S. (or your country’s currency is tied in some way to the U.S. dollar), traveling might become a whole lot more expensive. This has to do with events at the World Economic Forum in Davos a few days ago and current U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin basically not saying he wanted to see a stronger U.S. dollar. What this means is Mnuchin (and Trump’s administration) may back policies that lower the value of the U.S. dollar against other currencies (like the Euro), mostly so things made in the U.S. cost less in other countries and they will buy more. It’s a way of getting other countries to buy more things from the U.S.

Unfortunately, this kind of policy is also going to shaft you as an American traveling abroad. Because while in the big trade picture it means that U.S.-made stuff is cheaper for other countries to buy, it also means your U.S. dollar is going to be worth less when you convert it into Euros, or Swiss Francs, or Canadian Dollars, or Japanese Yen. So for example, if you trade 1 U.S. dollar now for Euros, you would get 0.81 Euros, or 81 Euro cents. When Stoytcho and I started our travels in Europe a couple of months ago, we got 85 Euro cents for 1 U.S. dollar. So now when we exchange currency, we get 4 cents less. That means when we go get a meal for 20 Euros, we’re paying $24.69 instead of $23.80. And this is a small example. Back in 2014, 1 U.S. dollar was worth only 75 Euro cents; if it goes that low again, that 20 Euro meal will be $26.67! That’s almost 3 more dollars (and more than 10%) on top of what we were paying.

Not every travel destination will have this problem, and we can break countries down into three categories: developing nations like Vietnam or Colombia, countries that tie their currency to the U.S. dollar like Ecuador and China, and developed nations like Canada and most Western Europe. In the case of developing nations, the cost of travel is likely to rise but will probably remain fairly affordable because it was so cheap to begin with, so if you’ve got that backpacking tour of Southeast Asia planned, you’re probably fine. Likewise for countries who tie their currency to the U.S. dollar*, their currency will just change with the U.S. dollar and prices should stay about the same–barring any kind of crazy trade war fallout. But the developed nations like Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Norway will be way more expensive to visit because they already had comparable prices for things to begin with AND your U.S. dollar will be worth less when converted into the local currency. That $500 USD you planned for 5 days in a hotel could become $550 a few months from now.

In summary, if you’re planning to travel from the U.S., brace for the chance that your money might be worth less. Be prepared and save up some extra.

And on the upside, if you’ve been dreaming of a U.S. vacation, visiting here won’t be as painfully expensive. You’re welcome!

* While I won’t distinguish how countries do this, there are a couple of ways – Ecuador and Panama simply use the U.S. dollar as their primary currency. China does much more complicated stuff to control the price of the yuan against the U.S. dollar, but the outcome is that the yuan generally follows the dollar in short to medium lengths of time.

Riga in 24 hours

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Twenty-four hours is hardly enough time to get to know a city, so here’s a skin-deep view of Riga, Latvia. Like Tallinn, it’s another city caught between the tourist-attracting beauty of its prewar architecture, gritty Soviet buildings, and glossy modern storefronts. Of particular note is the gorgeous Art Noveau architecture.

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Travel in the Time of Trump: How to Build Two Thousand Years of Hate

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A Google Maps guide demarcating the line of the Great Wall across China. The white far above it is the Chinese-Mongolian border. Source here.

When you travel through hostels so often, you go through the same conversation with different people over and over. The questions follow an unwritten script, with little variation: Where did you come from? Where are you going? What have you seen? Where are you from? You ask and answer these same questions every day, getting to know the flow of people through your room, trying to understand who they are and how they see the world.

Last night’s companions were a trio of Mongolian women here on holiday and one stayed in last night, where we played through the unwritten script with her, asking and answering. She was here with her small governmental department on vacation; the whole group decided to head up here to Ulan-Ude and Lake Baikal for the Mongolian national holiday of Naadam. She asked about our travels and we told her about the world trip, although she was sad to hear we had passed over Mongolia. I explained it was because of flight prices (it was actually cheaper to fly to Ulan-Ude than Ulan Bator), but that Mongolia is on the list of dream destinations. We spent the next hour talking about Mongolia, the woman telling us about the vast open plains, the vivid nature, the nomadic people, and the delicious food.

At some point the question of my identity came up, and I explained that my father is Chinese and I am half Chinese. The woman was a bit taken aback, but she exclaimed, “Yes, I can see it. You don’t look quite European! You would fit in here with the Buriyati or even in Mongolia.” I laughed and told her, “I know. I look like a local girl almost everywhere.”

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A bronze statue in Ulan-Ude representing the nomadic Buryati tribes. The Qin Dynasty built the Great Wall ostensibly to keep similar Mongolian tribes from invading China.

In the morning, the Mongolian women rushed to pack and leave the hostel for Baikal. As she was leaving, the woman we talked to last night bade us farewell and excitedly hoped we would come to Mongolia one day. Her eyes twinkled and she had a warm open smile. “But please…” she exclaimed, “maybe don’t say anything about being part Chinese! Because in Mongolia, we don’t like the Chinese people. When people insult each other, we say that a person is a son of Chinese.”

Her imminent departure made her speed rushed, but also deeply honest. “I have nothing against you. But I want you to be safe. And you see how the Chinese treated us. They built a giant wall at our border to keep us out. And now where is the wall? Very far in Chinese territory, no? Because they have taken so much from us, we hate them.” She paused, but was still smiling. It seems the contempt for Chinese people did not translate to contempt for Chinese (or half-Chinese) persons like me.

Then she was gone and I was left to parse the feelings of the interaction. My enthusiasm for visiting Mongolia wasn’t dampened, but her words about the Great Wall rattled around in my head for a while. For most people, the Great Wall is an archaeological and architectural marvel, amazing if only for length alone. To find out that it was a symbol of hate for Mongolians was surprising, although in retrospect not all that weird. If your neighbor builds a big, unfriendly wall bristling with weapons pointed at you, you certainly aren’t going to view it dispassionately; you’re going to think they’re a dick and you’re going to hate that neighbor. So the wall, maybe at first borne out of mutual hatred, becomes a symbol of that hatred.

The China-Mongolia-Great Wall story might be a well-timed allegory for us in the United States. Trump wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which he argues will solve problems for the U.S., such as immigration and violent crime. But let’s set that aside and remember that this point in time is only a moment in Mexico-U.S. relations. If we do build a wall, even if it is successful, what is the cost of that success? Like the cross in Christianity or the American Flag, a wall would become a symbol of our country and a message to our neighbors. It might be a long-lasting, dark stain on our relationships. So no, I can’t tell you that the wall wouldn’t solve some of the immigration problems. But I think that it would be good to remember that the last huge wall built created two thousand years of hate.

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The bronze statue’s twin, a Slavic-looking man on a horse that represents the European settlers in Buryatia, looks out to the horizon.

Talking politics when you don’t speak the language

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A view of the presidential palace in Bogor Gardens.

Indonesia is a diverse, pluralistic nation with over a hundred different ethnic groups. It’s also got politics, so political talk is inevitable: currently, the city of Jakarta is in turmoil because the former Chinese governor Ahok was convicted of blasphemy, while the man who accused him and drove the campaign for his blasphemy trial, the Muslim cleric Anis, is taking control as governor. Any takers for a serialized TV show on this stuff?

We’ve had a few chats on Trump and the state of the states while here, mostly in English. And they people who we’re talking with range from sympathy to total surprise when it comes to our reaction regarding Trump. A friend who directs policy at a nonprofit shook her head with us at the insanity already unfolding in the states – things like the immigration travel ban and the proposed wall with Mexico. Then there was the uniformed military officer in Bogor Garden who wanted a selfie with us. He asked what we thought about Trump after the photo, and was genuinely perplexed when I put my face in my hands and replied, “Terrible. Embarrassing. Bad.” Then again, Indonesia (and much of Asia) has a history of leaders that the Western world condemned for being dictators and strongmen. Trump’s tactics are likely to appeal to them.

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An Indonesian war monument and poorly-placed deer amusement park sign near Bogor gardens, where we had one of our Trump conversations.

But for our last night in Jakarta, we got the same question about Trump from locals in Glodok who DEFINITELY didn’t speak English. They were the guys who made our dinner at their nasi goreng cart. They wanted to know the usual at first, why we came to Indonesia and whether we liked it and where we were from. After using my broken Indonesian to convey we were from the U.S., the two exchanged glances and one of them asked, “Trump?”

Ohhh boy, where to start. I started with the “Bad for the U.S., bad leader,” description, but the guys didn’t understand that. After trying to explain for a few minutes, I gave up. Then the guy asked again, “Trump?” but this time he accompanied it with a thumbs up/thumbs down motion. BRILLIANT! I made a dramatic, emphatic thumbs down motion, which set the two guys off in laughter and excited talking.

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The two nasi-goreng chefs who taught us to talk politics without using words.

Now it’s my turn: I ask “Ahok?” and give the same thumbs up/thumbs down motion. I’m curious to know what they think of their former governor, now convicted of blasphemy. I would guess since we’re in Glodok (an enclave of the Chinese minority), they would like him. I’m totally surprised when they give the thumbs down, and make a motion like calling to the sky: blasphemy. He blasphemed Allah. This sign language politics communication is working pretty well.

I ask one more question of our two nasi goreng chefs: “Jokowi?” This is Indonesia’s current president. He’s aligned with Ahok, and one of concerns of the Western world and among the Indonesians is that this Ahok-Anis affair bodes poorly for Jokowi in the next election. They fear that Indonesia will become increasingly pro-Muslim and anti-every other minority in Indonesia, electing people with more hardline views. But I’m surprised again by our two chefs; they both enthusiastically give a thumbs up for Jokowi! His popularity remains unscathed, at least with these two locals.

So the next time you’re in a country and can’t speak the language, you can still talk politics (or anything!) in the simplest possible terms. Just say the word and give a thumbs up/thumbs down. It’s not going to get you a detailed political analysis, but it gets you a feeling, and you might be surprised at how much you can communicate without words.

Travel in the Time of Trump: Trump’s New Zealand fans

Despite our first run-in with Trump’s visage in Auckland, Trump does have fans here in New Zealand. Yes, New Zealand—that nature-loving, outdoorsy, free-healthcare fairly-socialist country in Oceania. I was confused at first, too.

Who are these people, and why do they support Trump? Like in the U.S., the people that support Trump seemed to be predominantly rural or small-town. They might have had ties to the U.S.  And again like in the U.S., they were very, very showy of their support.

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A pro-Trump sign under the U.S. flag in rural New Zealand

Encounter 1: The “Make America Great Again” hat

Somewhere along the Coromandel coast, neither here nor there, we stopped through a small town for lunch and groceries. On grocery duty, I collected our groceries and stood in line at the checkout. A guy no older than 25 got in line behind me. He was wearing the iconic red hat with white lettering : “Make America Great Again”. I didn’t think it was possible for Trump to have supporters here in New Zealand, so I asked him, “You’re wearing hat ironically, right?” “Not at all,” he replied with a straight face. I was floored.

“Why?” was my first question. He responded with the usual, that the system and Hillary Clinton are corrupt and screwing over America and Trump would fix things, especially immigration. Then he mentioned something about Obamacare, and I had to stop him. “You realize that New Zealand has universal healthcare, right?” He looked uneasy and shrugged, “Yeah, it…works for New Zealand, I guess.”

At this point, I noticed he didn’t have a New Zealand accent and asked where he came from. He told me he had moved to New Zealand with his parents from the U.S., but he had travelled around to a few other countries. We swapped travel stories. I wanted to keep talking with him, mostly because I was confused. This was my first face-to-face conversation with an ardent Trump supporter and I wanted to know: who are you? How do you think?

Somehow, we got back to the topic of immigration and the guy got particularly excited. He told me Trump would finally clean up America and throw out all of the illegal immigrants. America would be safer. My first instinct was to ask him what planet he lived on, because crime was already on the decline in most cities (linkout) and I grew up in a community of many illegal immigrants. I walked the streets alone as a kid. I was safe. But statistics don’t change minds, and anecdotes are met with “that’s just your experience. You were lucky.”

So instead I drew on my negotiation and consulting experiences. I wondered if I could get him to see through the eyes of an illegal immigrant. “Why do you think these people come to America?” I asked. The guy shrugged, “For a better life, for work.” I figured that was a good start and pressed on, “Okay, and so you really think a wall is going to stop them?  You might deport some, but more will come. And there’s already a wall, and it hasn’t stopped them.” He had a response, and I responded back with something. We came to the conclusion that they came because Mexico couldn’t offer the same standard of living, and improving the Mexican economy was the best way to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants.

From here the conversation took a wildly speculative turn. The guy ended up being a fan of marijuana legalization, so we imagined a world in which the Mexican economy was powered by a marijuana equivalent of the vineyards and wineries, with people traveling from around the world for tours. I have no idea if that’s even possible, but it seemed like a better endpoint than “kick all of the illegal immigrants out and it’s not my problem.” I finished by asking him, “And if these people came legally from Mexico, it would be fine?” “Yeah, totally,” he replied.

Encounter 2: A sign in the hills 

It was easy to write off the first experience as an outlier, the result of a guy who moved to New Zealand but who in his heart was still American. But driving through the center of the North Island on the last day, among the rolling green hills at sunset, we came across the sign (above). We screeched to a halt and got out, staring. Posted beneath the American flag, the sign declared, “PRES. TRUMP. GO THE DONALD; MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

There was nothing else for miles, save a few fences and a fluttering New Zealand flag. Stoytcho and I looked around for clues to who the owners of the Trump sign were, but to no avail. The only information we could find was a sign at the next turnoff that read “BURR FAMILY DAIRY FARM. AUTHORIZED ENTRY ONLY.” Stoytcho pointed out that we couldn’t be sure it was their sign. But from the location, flag, and all-caps signs, it was clear that someone wanted their support of Trump to ring loud and proud in the New Zealand countryside.

UPDATE: These signs DO belong to the Burr Family Dairy Farm. Looks like I wasn’t the only one who noticed them, and it gets worse; the adjacent sign with their name on it reads in tiny font “If you […] are a left wing tosser, DO NOT ENTER.” So that settles any ambiguity on their political point-of-view.

 

Travel in the time of Trump: Auckland

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A flyer in Auckland’s downtown for a protest against Trump’s inauguration.

Even from afar, the image of the new U.S. president was unmistakable. We encountered the above flyer while walking around Auckland’s downtown, and when we walked across the street to read it we found it was for a protest of Trump’s inauguration. For those of you unsure of what “Aotearoa” is, it’s the widely-accepted Maori name for New Zealand’s North Island.

Though sparse on the details of their discontents on the flyer, the Aotearoa Against Trump group had plastered these flyers along the streets for nearly a mile. On some, people had scribbled a Hitler-like moustache onto Trump’s face. Others had profanity scribbled onto them. And yet others were partly ripped down, either by those angry by Trump’s election or angry at the protesters.

Trump is an unarguably a polarizing figure in the Americas, but his appearance as a protest target here in New Zealand illustrates how global that polarization is.  Some people in Auckland took the time to design this flyer, print it out, and put it up all over Auckland’s downtown. People also (ostensibly) showed up for this protest against Trump. Others vented their distaste through profanity or portraying him as Hitler. I wonder if there was also a counter-protest.

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An intact poster next to a torn-down poster for the protest. These were two of about twenty posters we saw in our walk around one corner of the downtown area.

You could argue that the opinion of Auckland’s residents on the U.S. President doesn’t really matter. They’re not U.S. citizens and they don’t live in the U.S. It’s none of their business. But Auckland is the capital city of a country that the U.S. will have to work with, as an ally and a trading partner. The dislike of him here is a reminder that harsh rhetoric wins few friends and has ramifications outside of the election, influencing how other countries view the United States, and us as U.S. citizens. And while Trump and his allies may want to “put America first”, anything the U.S. does will have global ramifications and everyone outside the U.S knows it. Our country might find ourselves with fewer allies in the next four years.

Travel in the time of Trump: Arica, Chile

One of the interesting parts of our trip is finding out how the world reacts to President Donald Trump. We get to see the situation on the ground and hear from normal people, far from the rhetoric of politics. Since this isn’t a point of view you normally hear, these experiences provide insight into how things in the world have changed since the election. These posts won’t have as many pictures, they won’t be as touristy, and they may be uncomfortable.

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The cityscape of Arica

After spending the night near the bus terminal, we moved toward the town’s center to get a cheaper room. Stoytcho wasn’t doing so well in the desert heat, so I left him with the bags in the shade of a building while I went off to ask for room prices. In the meantime, he had an interesting encounter with a passing old man:

Old man: Where are you from?

Stoytcho: The United States

Old man: Ah, Trump! Very good. You like Trump?

Stoytcho: No, not really…

The old man looked surprised.

Old man: Oh, why? I think Trump will be good. Trump will be good for the United States!

Stoytcho: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t think so.

Old man: Well, ok.

The old man then shuffled off awkwardly, and I arrived a few minutes later for Stoytcho to recount the story. We’re not exactly sure what the old man thought about Trump on policy specifics, but know that there’s someone out there (outside the U.S.) who thinks Trump will make America great again.

Travel in the time of Trump: Peru Security Lady

One of the interesting parts of our trip is finding out how the world reacts to President Donald Trump. We get to see the situation on the ground and hear from normal people, far from the rhetoric of politics. Since this isn’t a point of view you normally hear, these experiences provide insight into how things in the world have changed since the election. These posts won’t have as many pictures, they won’t be as touristy, and they may be uncomfortable.

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Sculptures at Arequipa’s city hall

It’s been a while since we’ve had any lengthy talks with local people on politics. There have been occasional inquiries from fellow travellers, including jokes with some British friends that the Trump election was to help them cover for Brexit. And talk with the locals has mostly been business or answering questions about our travels. But the Arequipeños are fervent believers and actors in politics, and we weren’t able to escape the city without having one conversation about Trump.

It didn’t come from an expected place, either. We had gone to city hall to find some information on tourism, and then discovered that the city hall was home to a small museum on the city. When we went in, it was a bit dim, but we started looking through the glass displays that the ancient maps and traditional costumes of the region. In a few minutes, we heard a nice “Ah, perdon!” a security lady cried out, “I didn’t know you were here. Let me turn on the lights for you.” There was a click and several lights in the room flickered on, illuminating the exhibits. We thanked her and looked through the exhibits and sculptures to our heart’s content.

Just before we were about to leave, the security lady asked if we could sign a recordbook with our name and country of origin. I bent down to write my and Stoytcho’s name, and next to each wrote “Estados Unidos”. The security lady looked at it and smiled. “You’re from the United States? How lovely.” Then a worried look crossed her face. She pulled up chairs for us and sat down herself. And like a neighborhood mother that’s heard of some kind of bad news about your family, she asks “How is the U.S.? The election? Is it alright?”

We were a bit surprised, since you don’t really ever hear the words “Is the U.S. alright” together in a sentence all that often, as if it’s some kind of sick patient in the hospital. We told her that as far as I knew, there were protests and many angry people, but things were fine. But we have also been away from the U.S. for more than two months. All of our information was coming from news outlets online and Facebook.

“And you voted for…?” she trails off. “Oh, Hillary. Definitely Hillary Clinton,” we respond. The security lady nods and says, “Yes. She seemed very good. Very capable and smart. I thought she would do a good job.” I sigh and try not to think about how much calmer things would be for my friends back home if Hillary had won the election. How there might not be people at my school at risk of deportation, or people who were worried for their rights or safety because they have brown skin or are queer or are women. “Yeah, I thought so too.”

There’s a brief silence, and then the security lady asks, genuinely mystified, “Why did people vote for him?” That’s a hard question, made even harder by the barrier of language. Our Spanish is conversational, but not politically savvy. Do we have the words to explain? And even more, what do we say? Do we say it was the poor, rural people that truly are disadvantaged and desperate who carried Trump on their backs? Do we say it was the disenfranchised who saw themselves in neither party? Do we say it was racist, middle class whites who voted for him because they didn’t like Barack Obama and thought Trump would maintain their power? Do we try to explain that there was a massive war of propaganda that coursed through this election on both sides, using lies to drag the lines of allegiance in strange ways? Like everyone who didn’t expect the election outcome, we’ve read the thinkpieces on how it happened, what we missed, on why.

We end up stumbling through an explanation with some help of Google Translate, explaining that there are some people who are racist and voted for him because they agreed with some of the terrible things he said. That there were some people who were poor and ignored by the party and wanted something different. And that our election system is also wacky, so you can lose the election by number of votes but win anyway because of the Electoral College. Security lady listens sympathetically and nods, or squints when she doesn’t understand. We clarify and do the best we can. In the end, she sighs. “He just seems so dangerous. Take care, alright?”

A security guard at a small museum in Peru has warned just us, two U.S. citizens, to take care against a U.S. President-elect might do us harm. These are strange days indeed.

BS.AS a Alaska

One of the interesting parts of our trip is finding out how the world reacts to President Donald Trump. We get to see the situation on the ground and hear from normal people, far from the rhetoric of politics. Since this isn’t a point of view you normally hear, these experiences provide insight into how things in the world have changed since the election. These posts won’t have as many pictures, they won’t be as touristy, and they may be uncomfortable.

Back when we were in Cahuita, one of the most notable features of our hostel was the Volkswagen minivan parked out front. It had the same homemade feel as the hostel, hand-painted in bright colors and filled to the brim with belongings. It popped against the green of the tropics, a vibrant, living animal come to rest under the shade of the hostel palms. That’s a great transport van for a hostel, I thought.

As the days drifted by, though, it became clear that the van didn’t belong to the hostel. A trio of young twentysomethings from the hostel tended the van like an ill beast. They cleaned it and checked things under the hood. From time to time I heard them start the engine, although I never saw the van go anywhere. And at night after dinner, we saw them retreat to the van for sleep.

Then a few days after we checked in, one of the twentysomethings approached us and asked if we wanted to buy some banana bread. She was cheerful and friendly, crowned with dreadlocks and accented with a slightly lispy form of Spanish that we struggled to understand. We asked why she was selling the bread. “To pay for gas,” she replied. “Do you need help getting somewhere? Maybe we know someone who can give you a ride,” we said. “No, it’s ok,” she shook her head politely, “We’re driving to Alahka.” “Sorry, where?” I listened harder to understand. She repeated herself, “Alahka. Alahska.”

Alaska.

It turns out that these twentysomethings were driving from Buenos Aires to Alaska. Six months ago, they had purchased a Volkswagen minibus, kitted it out with a sleeping area and pop out kitchenette, and started the drive. They parked and slept where they could, trading labor at hostels for the use kitchens and restrooms. They did odd jobs and sold what they could to get gas money. Currently, that consisted of banana bread made in our hostel’s kitchen and stickers they made to promote the trip. When we met them, they were estimating it would take a year and a half to drive up and another year and a half to drive back—a trip of three full years.

According to Google Maps, Alaska is 6,575 miles (10,582 kilometers) from Cahuita, Costa Rica. This distance encompasses six countries, countless stretches of empty road, and at least seven border checkpoints. I wasn’t terribly worried for them driving through dangerous parts Honduras or Mexico, though—they could clearly take care of themselves. The place I was most worried for them was the Mexican-U.S. border, or specifically, how in hell they were going to get across that border. I tried asking the woman selling banana bread about whether they had U.S. visas: she said they didn’t.

Getting a U.S. visa, even a tourist visa (B1/B2), isn’t a trivial task. Because Argentina isn’t on the visa exemption list, the three of them definitely need visas. At the time I wasn’t entirely sure how much work it took, but doing some research revealed that the application takes around $140 USD, an interview at the embassy in Argentina, and several weeks. That doesn’t guarantee you a visa, either: the U.S. government can choose to reject you if they consider you either a security risk or they think you’ll break the law or overstay your visa. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. government makes it very hard to enter the United States.

In previous years, I think they would have had a good shot at a visa, though apparently it’s always been difficult.  But every new visa restriction put in place by the Trump administration makes it seem less likely. It’s true that these restrictions are mostly on visa programs for refugees and long term migrants. But I don’t think it will be long before the administration starts cracking down on tourist visas under the pretense of protecting us.

Which always raises the question for me, “Protecting us from what?” The main response I’ve heard to this is terrorists and terrorism, but that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In the last 15 years, only 2 out of every 10 convicted terrorists is an immigrant; the remaining 8 were citizens born in the United States. And looking at all crime, immigrants that are not U.S. citizens (both legal and illegal) are less likely to commit crimes than native U.S. citizens. If we took at 1,000 people currently imprisoned for crimes, only 60 of them would be immigrants. Of these 60 imprisoned immigrants, 40 would be convicted of immigration-related offenses (like entering the country illegally). Only 1 of these 60 people would be imprisoned for violent crime; that’s 1 in 1,000 people imprisoned overall. If we want to prevent terrorism and violence in the U.S., shouldn’t we be using our limited resources to address 80% of terrorists and the 94% percent of crime committed by U.S. citizens? Are the crimes and victims of crimes committed by U.S. citizens somehow less important, less deserving of respect and resources? And while the argument is often about what we do or don’t gain by keeping immigrants out, what about the things we lose by excluding them? What about their creativity, their ideas, and the wealth they create?

I have no idea what will happen to those Argentinean artists bound for Alaska. Maybe they’ll make it. Or maybe they’ll run out of money or a vehicle breakdown will end their journey. I just hope that it doesn’t end because of overly-strict immigration laws at the U.S. border.

P.S.: I’m incredibly curious to know what applying for a U.S. visa is like. If you have a story of applying for a U.S. visa (either success or failure), comment or send me a message.

Travel in the time of Trump: Election Day and after in Mexico

One of the interesting parts of our trip is finding out how the world reacts to President Donald Trump. We get to see the situation on the ground and hear from normal people, far from the rhetoric of politics. Since this isn’t a point of view you normally hear, these experiences provide insight into how things in the world have changed since the election. These posts won’t have as many pictures, they won’t be as touristy, and they may be uncomfortable.

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The Mexican flag over a building in Mexico City.

When I picked Mexico as the starting point of our trip, we had just begun the 2016 election cycle insanity. Despite the election rhetoric in the U.S. at the time, the residents of Mexico City and the Yucatan were wonderfully friendly to us the whole trip.

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Driving the Puuc Route in the Yucatan. The only day we were ever stopped at checkpoints was November 9, the day after the election.

The first mention of Trump in Mexico was on November 8, election day. We were driving the Puuc Route and visiting ancient Maya ruins. At one ruin, we were buying our tickets for entry to one ruin when the clerk asked “De dónde eres?” (Where are you from?) When we replied we were from the U.S., he laughed and asked “Why aren’t you there to vote?!” We laughed, too. “We already voted by mail. And we didn’t vote for Trump.” The three of us agreed that we hoped he wouldn’t win—it would be terrible for the U.S. relationship with Mexico. Then we skipped off to the ruins.

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Carvings at a ruin along the Puuc Route.

When we woke the next morning, Trump had won the election. We penned this article out of sincere worry about what would happen, then spent the day being stopped at every police/military roadblock we passed through. The guards weren’t happy to see us, and took the liberty of rummaging through all of our backpacking equipment. They asked questions about every single pill in our first-aid kits and made veiled threats about locking us up if we were carrying drugs. We knew why. If a country had just elected someone to the highest office in the land that maligned and denigrated you and your people, you’d be angry too. Angry, but helpless to make change or retaliate against that country at any meaningful level. But if you’re a checkpoint agent, you can give someone from that country a hard time, and feel like you have done something.

At one checkpoint we told an agent in Spanish that we hadn’t voted for Trump. That didn’t help. The agent sputtered, then told us that it had nothing to do with that. “We’re looking for drugs! Tourists come down here with drugs and cause problems,” he insisted angrily. That’s an unlikely story, given that of the twelve checkpoints we passed through over the week before and after the election, this day was the only day we were stopped–twice.

We knew why they really stopped us. They knew why they really stopped us. And because we had alluded to it, suggested that they would be so petty, they gave us an even stricter search. The head agent demanded our passports. Worrying that the agents might not give them back, we asked if a photocopy would suffice. The agent said no. “You must have the original. It is the law that you need to take your passports with you everywhere.” So we rummaged through the disheveled mess that the agents had made of our stuff in the back of the car, searching for our passports. Stoytcho’s was easy to find, but mine wasn’t where it was supposed to be in the pack. “It’s not here” I told the agent, embarrassed. “You have to have it. Or else…” he made the motion of being handcuffed. I could almost feel the irony in his voice. “How does it feel? To be desperately searching in the dark for papers which prove your worth, with heavily-armed and terrifying government agents looming above you. This is quid pro quo. This is for what you’ve done to my people in your country.”

It looked like there were two choices: either I would have to beg to be let go, or let the agent book me. It was dark and we were exhausted from the day, so begging would be the faster way out of this situation. But I could feel a stubborn fury against authority rising in me, a desire to call his bluff. The paperwork on any booking is a pain, so what would he do if I was dead serious and said “I can’t find it. Cuff me.” Then again, they could also cuff me, throw me in a car, and have me sit there for a few hours, no paperwork needed. Thankfully, I neither begged nor offered my wrists, but instead called to Stoytcho, “Honey, have you seen my passport?” He remembered we had used it while checking into the hostel, and with a few moments to think we figured out where we put it afterward. We presented both of our passports to the head agent and he whisked them away.

What followed was a somewhat uncomfortable five minutes as we began repacking our belongings and the agents stood around the car. It was as if some spell had been broken, as if the agents had yanked a twisted mask from a figure only to find a regular person behind it. They mostly looked away from us, or down, or into the darkness where their commander had gone. One tried to make conversation with us. “Where have you been on your trip?” he asked. We told him in our broken Spanish about visiting Mexico City, and about our time in the Yucatan. That everywhere we visited had been fun and interesting. That overall we had liked Mexico. I could feel the fury in me from before ebbing, replaced with a mix of resignation and regret. I wanted to tell him that I was sorry for the way our country treated Mexican immigrants, and for everything the president-elect had said. I wanted to tell him that he had a right to be angry, and we were angry too. I wanted to tell him that I hoped things would be alright between the U.S. and Mexico. But I remembered what happened when we said we hadn’t voted for Trump earlier. I didn’t say anything.

The head agent returned and handed us our passports. “You’re free to go,” he said politely. “Thank you,” we replied automatically. He nodded, then waved at us and mechanically said “goodnight.” We replied “goodnight”, got into our car, and drove away from the checkpoint into the darkness.