Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Ensenada, Enchilada, Empanada…

Three great Mexican things that begin with ‘E’ and end in ‘ada’. Two of them are of course delicious foods, and the third, a town in the peninsular state of Baja California on the north-western coast of Mexico, not far from the US border at San Diego.

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This is where my cousin Kirsty has lived and worked for the past 5 or so years with her husband Oscar and now her 2-year-old son Samuel. They work for an organisation called Youth with a Mission, which has bases all over the world. They do some amazing stuff here; Oscar mostly works with a program called ‘Homes of Hope’, building houses for many of the poor families in the area who cannot not afford proper shelter. Kirsty works with a children’s ministry called Circulo Andante (Walking Circle), where children in one of the communities where Homes of Hope are built meet weekly to participate in fun activities based around maths, reading and bible stories. The program hopes to teach children the value and importance of education and help motivate them to keep going to school. Their website is here if anyone is interested in more info on what YWAM is about: http://www.ywamsandiegobaja.org/

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When I arrived in Ensenada, Kirsty had arranged a room for me on the base with the lovely Kayla who was looking after hospitality. For a nominal fee I got my own room and 3 meals a day with all the staff and students living there. The base is about a 30 minute walk from the centre of Ensenada and overlooks the beach on the opposite side of the street. From the outset, everyone was warm and friendly and I felt very welcomed.
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My first few days in Ensenada were spent catching up on sleep and trying to find the Baja California Language College, where I’d hoped to do a couple of weeks of Spanish classes to help me get around a bit easier in Mexico and Central America. I phoned them and it turned out their building was not useable at present so they were running classes at the arts centre. After going there trying to find the school, it turned out there wasn’t an actual school there, they just ran lessons at the tables in the foyer! But the college had good reviews and you didn’t have to buy any books, so I put my name down for the following week.

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I ended up doing 2 weeks of classes, but got one-on-one tuition with my maestra (teacher) Lupita as there were no other students at the same level. It was quite intense, like real school! I was doing 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, and always had homework as well. During my lunch breaks or after I finished class at 2.30pm, I would usually try to find something new to eat. There were tacos de pescado y camarón (fish and shrimp tacos) on the waterfront boulevard- they usually batter the seafood and serve them in a small flour tortilla and you then add salsa, mayonnaise, cabbage, tomato and coriander. I had tostadas de ceviche from a stand tucked on a back street behind the arts centre- raw fish or seafood with lime, cucumber, tomato onion and coriander on a crunchy fried tortilla (like a hard shell taco, but flat). Again you add your salsas, pineapple, lime, and the seafood is usually piled high so that you eat some off the top with dry biscuits down to a level where you can safely pick up the tostada to bite it! I found tacos de carnitas at a little stall just up the road, which are shredded pork tacos, and empanadas around the corner- deep fried pastries filled with sweet or savoury goodies. Everything was delicious!

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Some days Lupita and I did excursions for the last hour or so of class, to museums, where I got to practice my reading and expand my vocab as all the signs were in Spanish, or supermarkets, where I got to practice numbers and names of food items, tick off a bit Lupita’s shopping for household cleaning products, ogle at how many varieties of beans and chillies were available, see the cheapest vanilla essence ever at 32 pesos (<$3) for a litre, and inevitably leave with half of the panaderia (bakery) in tow…

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The panaderia is one of my biggest weaknesses. I cannot walk past without buying at least one, but usually several breads, pastries, or sweets. I got Sammy’s tick of approval though (maybe not his mum’s!); but he would shout ‘Pastel!’ (cake) upon seeing my purchases (an essential word in any two-year-old’s vocabulary) and was pretty happy to share! And boy did it need to be shared, the slices are enormous! They sure know how to make an extravagant cake here…

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On the few days where I couldn’t get picked up from school, I walked home, occasionally being approached by randoms. One of these was a guy who would sit on the pavement and follow the same spiel in both Spanish and English each time: “Tengo dinero? Do you have any money”, to which I’d reply “No, lo siento” (No, sorry) and then he’d yell out “Muy bonita senorita! You’re very beautiful!” as I went by. Sorry, still no! Another time I met a guy I called ‘Lupe el borracho’ (Lupe the drunk) as he smelled quite strongly of booze. He popped out from a side street and asked for money because he was hungry (even though he was strangely holding a bag of tortillas at the time) and I said I could buy him food but I wouldn’t give him money. He agreed to this deal (despite his load of tortillas) and we went into the nearest restaurant. Lupe at first wanted to order 20 buffalo wings (which I thought was a little excessive, not to mention more expensive than I was anticipating!) so he decided he would have fries and coke. I probably should have got him something more nutritious but oh well… I did get some good repetition in practicing my Spanish, because we went through introductions 3 times in the 15 minutes or so I was with him! After, he offered to walk me home, but even though he seemed harmless, I thought it wiser to politely decline than let a drunk follow me back to the base! He didn’t seem to mind too much, thanked me for the food, went his separate way, and I didn’t see him again.

Outside of school I managed to keep pretty busy too (surprise!). On my first weekend, Kirsty, Oscar, another YWAMer Brandon, Sammy and I went for a drive out on the ‘Ruta del vino’ (Wine Route) in the Valle de Guadalupe, a major wine producing region in Mexico. We first visited L.A. Cetto where we went on a tour of the wine making facilities (with Kirsty whispering translations to me as we went) and then got to try some wines.

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They have this new rule that no-one under the age of 18 is allowed in the bar area so we had to tag team, with Brandon and Oscar keeping Sammy company outside while Kirsty and I went in first. When we came out, Sammy had taken off all of his clothes and was prancing around in his nappy! Classy boy :-p  Kirsty just shook her head and said ‘I don’t know why all the other kids can keep their gear on but my son can’t…’ (Some days, she will get him all dressed and then go to get herself ready, but by the time she’s done, Sammy has pulled off all his clothes and thrown them on the floor! Really not a fan of clothing…) We then went to another winery (Sammy still refusing to don any outerwear) where we indulged in an antipasto platter and a woodfired pizza for lunch. It was a lovely day in all.

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On the Sunday that weekend there was an inaugural International Food Festival on in the main plaza which we were pretty excited to check out. They had the flags of all the different countries up as we approached (including Australia, Canada and Switzerland who all had representatives in our party) but when we actually looked at the stalls, it turned out ‘international’ only really encompassed Mexican, Spanish and Italian food here. The Mexicans thought it was overpriced and weren’t overly impressed, so we walked up to the old faithful ‘Corner of Goodness’ at the corner of Castillo and Juarez St where we ate amazing tortas, Mexico’s answer to the kebab- flat rolls filled with meat, cheese and salad. This corner also has awesome fish tacos and aguas frescas– soft drinks like fresh limonada (lemonade), agua jamaica (‘hibiscus water’, a sweet Ribena looking and tasting drink made from hibiscus petals) and horchata (my fave, a milky, cinnamony rice-based drink). After the tortas, we went back to the festival for dessert (some pretty tasty gelati) so were all well and truly stuffed!

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It was decided that the YWAMers would have to get involved and expand the cultural diversity of the festival next year. Kirsty has started forming grand plans for her Australiana stall, with an Aussie style sausage sizzle, home-made lamingtons and perhaps imported meat pies… Rheanne needs to figure out how to do poutine in Mexico and Mirjam can bring some Swiss delights too 🙂

The YWAMers are all a social bunch, so there were plenty of other events to keep me occupied during the week too. We had a birthday dinner at one of the couples Tammy and Eddie’s house, with home-made tacos de carne asada (roasted meat). The night ended with Mexicanos vs The rest of the world in bilingual Cranium, with the middle of the table becoming la fronterra (the border)! Another couple, Danny and Danae also had their housewarming, which featured a delightful sangria. There was also a very competitive group Pictionary round robin on night, we learned how to make tortillas with Oscar’s mum, another evening went to a free salsa class in town (run in Spanish by an Argentinian lady who spoke 90 miles an hour!), and also a fun day at a nearby water park where aside from the giant wedgies, we enjoyed the straightforwardly named waterslide, Tobogan (Slide).

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And how could I forget the soccer! It’s quite the event going to watch the YWAM soccer team play (starring Oscar). One of Oscar’s friends Walter has two gorgeous dogs, Bella and Maverick, who he took along to watch also. Pretty much as soon as we arrived I was given dog sitting duty as the guys had to go play. At first Bella and Maverick were super excited and I thought it was going to be the longest game ever. In addition, Bella is a big shepherd and looks intimidating, even though she’s the sweetest thing ever, but everyone was freaking out walking by her, and I felt like everyone was looking at me like ‘Why would you even bring the dogs to a soccer match?!’ (which I was kinda starting to wonder myself!) Anyway, they soon settled and were fine and then at the end of the match got loaded back into the 11 person van… along with 19 people squished on top of each other in seats and in the boot! So it was a cosy and fragrant ride home…

Driving in Ensenada (even when not in a van full of pets and sweaty men) is another fun experience. The roads are a bit bumpy and haphazard due to being close to a fault line and the earth constantly shifting, so I learned to drink most of my coffee before riding to school otherwise half of it ended up on my jeans. Another feature of Baja California driving which warrants a mention is the crazy ‘4 Altos’ (4 stops)- a four way intersection where every car has a stop sign. WHAT?! When I asked ‘Who has right of way at these intersections?’, I was given the obvious answer… ‘Whoever gets there first.’ Sounds simple enough, but if two cars arrive at a similar time, there is almost always uncertainty and one just waves the other on. Excepting a case involving a red-headed Mexicana (who shall remain anonymous) who demonstrated the finer manoeuvre of just barrelling through and cutting off whatever other vehicles are at the intersection (which may or may not be police cars…)

On our way to San Diego one weekend, said red-headed Mexicana was somewhat vocal in the lines of traffic at the US border, finding it infuriating that people did not follow a logical pattern of ‘give and take’ merging- one from one line, one from the other. There are perhaps some latent road rage issues which have to be dealt with after 5 years in Mexico… 😉

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Up in San Diego, Kirsty and I received a big package mostly full of chocolate from our wonderful nan, and then were excited to go to San Diego Zoo, which had an Australian Outback section opening in Spring 2013- since it was the 19th of May, we assumed it would have opened recently. But we were out of luck, as it didn’t open until May 24… 1 week prior to the end of Spring. Grrr!

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There was an Australian café, ‘Sydney’s Grill’ open however, and we were excited to see sausage sandwich on the menu. Kirsty was going to cry if it came with a frankfurt/hot dog style sausage but it was a legit meat sausage thank goodness. Unfortunately the rest of the sandwich was rather ordinary… oh well! Smother it in tomato sauce (not ketchup) and it’s all good 😉

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The San Diego Zoo is huge and very well kept. Anchorman was not lying when making a big deal out the panda exhibit… it is by far the most popular animal there! The line was ridiculous, and we decided not to waste our entire afternoon queuing so unfortunately did not get to see what was so amazing about these famous pandas… But I saw a red panda instead. As well as some polar bears, the hippo’s butt and one of my faves the sunbear.

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We also went on the ‘Skyfari’, a chair lift across the zoo grounds which was pretty impressive, and Sammy got to play in the kids’ section (as soon as he saw a playground, he would charge towards it shouting ‘Playyyyy!’). He went up and down the slide countless times, each time looking as excited as the last. Until the time came to leave and the tanty would look like it was about to start… Kirsty bargained with him that he could have one more slide, but wasn’t allowed to cry afterwards. So he climbed back to the top and then just sat there, looking like he was thinking, ‘well, if I wait here, then I’m still having my last slide and I won’t have to go yet…’ but eventually coming down and keeping his end of the bargain! So despite not being able to visit the outback, we had a great day out.

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One great bit of hanging out in Ensenada so long was getting to spend time with Sammy too. He is such a gorgeous kid and at such an exciting age where he’s starting to talk and his personality is coming out. He just graduated into his ‘big boy bed’ while I was there, which he was pretty stoked about as he was free to come and go and didn’t wake up upset that he was trapped in his cage (crib). He is really into trains at the moment, especially Thomas the Tank. I left Ensenada knowing all the words to the theme song… That and the Veggie Tales song. Which is when Kirsty said, ‘Mandy… I think its time for you to get outta here!’

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Sammy speaks a good amount of Spanglish, though he does have a few characteristic words of his own! Sammy is ‘Nammy’, Mandy is ‘Manny’, Mickey is ‘Kikky’, his Mickey shoes are ‘Kikky sheeoos’, his chair is ‘chayarrr’ (my favourite one!), and popcorn is ‘co-co-co-corn’. He had Kirsty and Oscar in fits saying popcorn over and over again! Another funny thing he did was when he was running around in his superman outfit and people would ask, ‘oh! Are you superman?’, he would reply ‘No. Super Nammyyyyy!’

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In terms of his diet, he is pretty much a carnivore, eating 3 serves of meat off his taco before he’ll even think about eating the tortilla (and only after Oscar says ‘No mas carne!’). Veggies are not his favourite- he will pull a mushroom out of his mouth if it sneaks in with the meat in his lasagne! And sometimes you also have to remind him to take bites, as you’ll catch him trying to stuff an entire quarter of a sandwich into his little mouth- he’s definitely a boy! He’s a big fan of desserts like his Aunty Mandy, thoroughly enjoying pastel and crepas! He also loves fruit, though he is fussy about its appearance… One day I was cutting a mango and Sammy could barely wait for me to get it out of the skin, but when he came across a piece which wasn’t shaped like a square (like one of the slivers off the seed) he would throw it back at me with disdain! Ooook, uniformly shaped mango only in this house, thank you very much…

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One big highlight of my visit was my birthday weekend, where I got to go out with Kirsty, Oscar and a team from Texas to help on a Homes of Hope build. Last time I was in Ensenada I was lucky enough to get to participate in some builds, but this was the first time I helped from start to finish and it was an awesome experience. Everyone works hard as part of the team, nailing up the frame, the walls, the roof; or trimming the windows and interior walls; and even a lot of the local kids got involved with the painting.

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On Saturday, Kirsty got a cake brought down to the site, as it was my birthday, Marina’s birthday (one of the girls from the kid’s club Kirsty helps run who had decided she wanted to come and help on the build too) as well as one of the guys from the team Jackson’s birthday in 3 days. Luckily we escaped the Mexican ‘mordida’ tradition where you take a bite of the cake with no hands and your face is pushed into it, as I hear Oscar is somewhat intense when it comes to mordida!

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On Saturday night I did manage to get out for a celebratory beer with Ricky and Miriam (when Ricky managed to pour it in the glass anyways… :-p ) Afterwards we randomly ran into Kayla, DJ and Natalie in the carpark whilst buying a late night snack of elotes (corn) in a cup, and were lucky enough to score a lift home in the back of their pick-up! A memorable birthday all round 🙂

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On Sunday morning, it was back to the build site. After a solid few hours’ work, the family cooked us all a delicious lunch of tacos de carne asada with fresh tortillas before we again went back to put the finishing touches on their house.

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This team had also chosen to furnish the house, and it had a double bunk bed, complete with bedding, curtains on the windows, lampshades on the lights, an oven and gas bottle in the kitchen, a dining table as well as cutlery and crockery. It was all colour co-ordinated and looked fantastic! Some of the team also went shopping and bought a whole lot of household goods and groceries for the family too.

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It was truly incredible to see that from a concrete slab and many piles of wood on Saturday morning, grew a complete two room, fully painted, wired up, and furnished house for a family up in the colonias by Sunday afternoon.

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The best bit of the day was the key ceremony, where the keys are handed around to everyone involved in the build. When the keys come to you, you can share your experience and give your well wishes to the family. The gorgeous 6 year old Carly had quote of the day, saying ‘I had so many parties I was meant to go to this weekend at home, but I had even more fun here than I would’ve had at any of them!’ When the keys finally get around to the family, they get to open the door and go inside to look around. They shut the door, and after a minute, we all knock and they invite us in to be the first guests in their new home. Inside the home is blessed and we say goodbye. It’s a perfect culmination of all the weekend’s work.

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If anyone is interested in looking at a slideshow of the weekend made for the team: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKBbyXb56pY

Or at the full collection of photos to see just how much work went in from everybody to bring it all together, you can find it here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ywamsdbaja/sets/72157633792538249/

I finished my YWAM visit up in Tijuana, where the YWAM conference on the theme of community development was running. It felt like going on a little holiday, as I’d been in Ensenada a while and the base in TJ is pretty swanky!

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I got to enjoy the first 2 days of the conference, but then the time came to say goodbye to Kirsty, Oscar and Sammy and my newfound friends 😦 I left to fly down south of the Baja Peninsula for some new experiences with couchsurfing!

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The US of A(lot-of-difficulty-entering-the-country)

So just as a warning… this will mostly be a text-heavy rant (which some of you will probably have already heard first hand) but just in case you can’t be bothered reading my whinging or don’t want to hear it a second time, leave now! BUT if you are planning on travelling anywhere overland from the States, maybe read on, you may learn something from my mistakes!

Ok. So when I last left off, it was 4am (4AM!) and I was off to Bangkok Airport to catch my flight to LAX to visit my cousin Kirsty and her family in Ensenada, Mexico.  Got to the airport in 10 minutes on the handy transport service from the airport hotel, no worries. Jumped in the short queue at Malaysia Airlines to check in and when I got to the front was asked a few questions by a woman wearing an up-do, heavy black liquid eyeliner and glittery eye-shadow (I did mention it was 4am right?):

‘Do you have a visa?’ No, I don’t need one with an Australian passport.

‘So you have an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) then?’ Yes ma’am

‘Do you have a copy of it?’ No, it said I didn’t need to print it or present it at the airport, but I have a copy of it on my computer if you need the number?

‘You can print upstairs on the 6th floor at CAT telecom, then come back and see me…’

So off I dash, and after waking the lady sleeping on the desk with a jacket over her head, asked how much it is to print… Luckily it was only 10 baht, about all I had after leaving the last of my Thai currency with Ben who had one more day in Bangkok. She said it needed to be emailed to her, but I had it on my laptop and there was no free wifi… Thankfully she had a USB I could borrow (mine were in my checked bag downstairs) and I got the document printed.

I went back downstairs with a copy of my ESTA and handed it to the lady. She looked at it and put it on her desk then handed me a piece of paper and said:

‘Could you write down the address of where you will be staying in America?’ I’m not staying in America; I’m just passing through on my way to Mexico. It said on my ESTA I could just put ‘in transit’, so maybe you could just write that…

‘Hmm, could you show me your ticket to Mexico?’ No, I don’t have one. I’m going to travel overland by car with my cousin who lives there.

‘What about your ticket home?’ I don’t have one; I don’t know when I’m going home yet!

‘Well you need a ticket out of America. We need to make sure you have all the correct documentation or we will get a fine if you don’t get let in at immigration…’ I have done this trip before… I’m sure if I explain at the other end it will all be fine!

‘Did you have a ticket home then?’ Well, yes, but…

Lady confers with other staff… Another lady chimes in, ‘It’s true, one time we had a girl sent all the way back because she didn’t have all of the right papers…’

My lady says: ‘Do you have your cousin’s address?’ Um, no, but I could get it on the internet if that is what I need to get on this flight…

‘Yes that would be good…’

So off to the 6th floor to wake the CAT telecom lady again, and ask if I could use the internet. She said ‘100 baht’ which was the price for 20 minutes and I said ‘But I only need 5 minutes! Can you give me less?’ and she said, ‘sorry, minimum 100 baht’. Damn!

So it was back down to the check-in floor to the ATM to get cash out (which I didn’t want to do because I had to use my credit card since my travel cashcard didn’t work- another long story!). Then back up to CAT telecom to again badger the sleeping lady (I guess night shift isn’t normally this eventful?) and got on the internet. Found Kirsty’s address on the YWAM (Youth With A Mission) website, and thought while I was there I’d buy a train ticket to San Diego (even though this is still in the states) just to help strengthen my case that I was actually going there to meet Kirsty after I arrived in LA.

So after all of that, I went back downstairs, and passed the lady I had been dealing with walking in the other direction. I was like ‘Hey!’ and she said ‘Just go and see one of the other staff’. Thankfully there was still no line, but time was ticking and I was anxious to get on this plane…

After I’d re-explained my story, the new, less heavily made-up lady, said ‘You need a flight out of the US, that is the rule of the ESTA’ and proceeded to give me a print out of said rules with the pertinent point of having ‘an onward or return ticket’ highlighted in yellow. I pointed out that this did not say ‘plane ticket’ and wanted to know if I could just book a bus as it was stupid for me to pay for a flight when I could get there a lot cheaper in a few hours on the road! And that it was too expensive for me to book a flight home if I wasn’t actually going to use it!

‘Why don’t you book a flight somewhere cheaper than Australia, like Japan, or Korea?’ Because I’m not going to Korea or Japan! It’s just hundreds of dollars down the drain! I can’t afford to pay that much to PASS THROUGH the US for 6 HOURS! (The lack of sleep was finally getting to me… I felt a bit bad for taking this out on the poor airline ladies, but I just wanted them to LET ME ON THE PLANE! So I could at least TRY to speak to someone in the US…)

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Except no-one seemed to know the exact rules of what kind of ticket I needed, and I was reluctant to fritter away hundreds of dollars for nothing. However, when I was finally ready to relent and said ‘Fine, I’ll just go book a flight now’, they said, ‘Sorry, you can’t now, the flight is closed’. I looked at my watch- 5.30am.

They gave me back my luggage and barely holding back the tears of frustration asked them ‘Well, what do I do now?’ They said to come back to the Malaysia airlines office at the airport after 9am, book an onward flight and then once I had that, change my flight over (and pay the flight change fee…). I said ‘But there’s no flight to LA tomorrow is there?’ as I remembered from when I was booking, but she said she didn’t know and just to check at the bookings desk later.

Right. Well lucky for me, Ben was still at the airport hotel, so struggling my way out to the taxi level (the escalators don’t make any sense in there and don’t go to all floors, so wandering around and around each level trying to get the hell out just added to my early morning frustration!) I got back there at about 6 and sheepishly said to the reception staff ‘I wasn’t allowed to board the plane…’

I told them which room I’d been in and they sent a guy with a pass up with me, which was lucky, because when we got there despite hearing the TV blasting the news through the door and knocking loudly several times, nothing happened… so then the guy used the pass, but Ben being very secure had done up the safety latch so it was more knocking loudly and shouting through the 3 inch gap ‘Ben! BEN! It’s Mandy… WAKE UP!’ before he finally stirred and opened the door looking mighty confused.

I gave the first version of this rant to Ben, and then tried to text Kirsty to let her know not to go to San Diego on the Monday to get me. In a very happy coincidence, it was Sunday afternoon in Mexico and Kirsty was on Skype, so received the second version of this rant, with the conclusion that I would keep her posted on my progress… After that, I finally went back to sleep for a few more hours.

When I woke, it was back to the airport. Malaysia Airlines confirmed that there was no flight to LA til Wednesday and that to change me to that flight would cost 3900 baht (~AU$130). The lady told me she would book me when I had the onward flight. I asked if it had to be a flight or could it be a bus (Kirsty had suggested booking a Greyhound which would at least be a ticket out, but cheaper than a plane!) but the lady didn’t know. She said I should go to the US Embassy to find out, but said it might be best to call them first as today is a public holiday in Bangkok (of course it was…) and it might not be open.

She gave me the phone number and then I went to the info desk to get a map with the location. They helped me change my notes for coins for the pay phone, and when I rang a girl answered and said yes, the embassy was closed today. I said I just need to ask a question about coming in with the ESTA, is there anyone I could ask? And she said they don’t answer questions over the phone, I would have to go to the embassy tomorrow.

Well that was a pain. I went back up to CAT telecom after that to see if there was anyone I could email, and ended up sending an enquiry to the US embassy in Canberra to see if that would get me a quicker answer than waiting to visit the embassy tomorrow. After that, Ben and I grabbed some brunch and decided to head back into the city for one more day.

We visited Jim Thompson’s house first. Jim Thompson was an American architect who later came to Bangkok as a military officer and fell in love with the place. After he left the army he came back to live in Thailand. He helped with reviving and growing the Thai craft of hand woven silk and promoting it internationally. His house combines 6 teak buildings up to 200 years old built in the traditional Thai style, which were brought from around the country to Bangkok. He filled it with traditional pieces of furniture, ceramics and art and he decided to open it to the public, donating proceeds to Thai charities and projects aimed at preserving Thailand’s cultural heritage. Unfortunately, when he was 60, Jim Thompson disappeared while visiting the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. Not a trace has ever been found to say what happened to him, it’s crazy. After that we hit the shops for a bit, had our last street pad thai and made our way back to the airport hotel.

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Next morning Ben’s flight was at 8am, so I decided I’d catch the airport transport with him at 6am. Unfortunately the hotel staff must have thought the flight was at 6am because they called a couple of times at 4am checking if we were coming down to get on the bus! Anyway, later on arrival at the airport we were greeted by a mass onslaught of people, as Thai Airways has one of those everyone-for-every-flight-line-up-here systems. We must’ve waited more than an hour, and then Ben had to go straight through security. After saying goodbye, I took the train into the city for my adventure to the US Embassy.

I found the embassy easily enough, but already before 9am there was a massive line of Thais with arm-fulls of paperwork out front. The girls checking people in eventually got to me and asked if I had an appointment and when I said no, told my story and said I need just need to clarify with someone exactly what ‘ticket’ I need to get in to the US, so they pulled me out of the line and said ‘wait here’. The girl went in and talked on the phone then came back out with the ESTA website written on a piece of paper. I said, ‘No, I already have that, but I was told I need an onward ticket and I want to know if it has to be a flight and if it has to be within the 90 days. I just need to ask someone who knows!’ she went inside again and I waited again in the sweltering heat. After a bit more to-ing and fro-ing over the next half hour, I was finally provided with the details of the US homeland security who were conveniently located across the road.

Over I went to see them and after handing in my phone and ID at reception was shown through to the waiting area. After waiting a while for the one person who was working to finish up with the guy ahead of me I went up and again told my story and the lady said, ‘oh, you need the border protection office next door. Just ask the security guard’. Sigh.

So I went back to security who let me into the correct office and then repeated myself again to the girl there, Maysa. She was not sure of the answer, and her boss was in Vientiane (Laos), but she said that she would email for me. It seemed the only option, so I went downstairs and found a coffee shop with wifi to email Maysa the problem and she said she would get back to me ASAP- I stressed that I really needed to know today to sort everything out as I wanted to be on a flight tomorrow!

Meanwhile, my email barrage with the US embassy in Canberra was proving slow and fruitless. They insisted on either not answering the actual question or only answering part of it! The first response to my spiel and questions ‘Does a bus ticket to Mexico suffice? Or if I do need a flight, does it need to be within 90 days of my initial entry to the US or can I book it for the end of the year?’ was: ‘ In regard to your query, it is a requirement that you hold a return or onward ticket for you travel under the Visa Waiver Program.’ Well thanks, but I have already been made well aware of that… However they did point out that ‘Travelers with onward tickets terminating in Mexico, Canada, Bermuda or the Caribbean Islands must be legal residents of these areas.’ Well, there’s a point I had not noticed before…

I then asked if this ticket could be for December, thinking maybe I could just book to go home for Christmas and in the meantime be in Mexico and Central America, but the response I got was: ‘In regard to your query, your onward ticket should be the ticket that you will use going back to Australia.’ WHICH WASN’T THE QUESTION!!

I wrote back asking again if it needed to be within 90 days and again specifying I will be travelling for several months and added that I may look for work in Canada after this, to which they then said the visa waiver program may not be appropriate and I might be better off with a tourist visa. However looking at the link provided, I would need to spend $160 and be somewhere for long enough that I could have an interview, to which I would have to bring ‘Current proof of income, tax payments, property or business ownership, or assets; Your travel itinerary and/or other explanation about your planned trip; Criminal/court records pertaining to any arrest or conviction anywhere, even if you completed your sentence or were later pardoned; and your current and all old passports. Original documents are always preferred over photocopies’!! Soooooo not likely from Mexico/ Guatemala/ Honduras!!

Luckily, amidst all this mess, good old Maysa from border protection delivered within the hour. A clear and concise:

‘Dear Ms. Amanda,

If you enter the US (including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) by air, in order to use the Visa Waiver, you must have an onward ticket that takes you to some place that is not Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean. The ticket must take you out within 90 days. The 90-day clock starts ticking as soon as you clear immigration.

Rgds,

Maysa’

Phew. So I went ahead and booked a cheap Air NZ flight just at the end of my 90 days to Melbourne thinking at least I could change it later and would end up getting some use from it… Then it was back to the airport to show the lady my documentation and change my flight. With all of that sorted, I went back to the hotel exhausted, texted/emailed all concerned parties that I was to fly tomorrow and vegged in my room all afternoon eating cup noodles. I had an early night because I was up again at 3.30am for my airport transfer at 4am.

This time I went through with no issues, they didn’t ask me for an onward ticket (maybe the lady doing my booking had noted it?) and let me go through. So after a total of around 20 hours in the air and a few more hours on stopovers in Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo, I finally got to LAX. I waited nervously in the long line at immigration hoping that I wouldn’t run into any problems…

The guy who checked me through asked what I was doing in the states, I said I was going to Mexico to visit my cousin tonight. He asked, where to next? And I said central America. He then asked me how I got so much time off, what I did for work in Australia, do I work privately or in a hospital and a whole bunch of other random stuff while he took my full set of fingerprints and then my photo, and let me through without asking me for any details on my trip to Mexico or my stupid $720 onward ticket!!

Oh well… At least I was prepared had I needed it… Since this has been so text heavy I will leave you with a few pics from the Pacific Surfliner – the train from LA to San Diego.

IMG_2397 IMG_2396

I met Kirsty, Oscar and 2-year-old Sammy in San Diego and after the mandatory stops at Oscar’s favourite burger joint In and Out for dinner, and Starbucks for vanilla lattes, I finally made it to Ensenada…

So team, remember to read the fine print, and for future reference, if you are travelling overland through the States, not only Mexico and Canada but ALL of the following countries also count in your 90-day visit: Anguilla, Antigua, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Barbuda, Bermuda, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands, Canada, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Curacao, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe,  Haiti, Jamaica, Marie-Galante, Martinique, Mexico, Miquelon, Montserrat, Saba, Saint-Barthelemy, Saint Christopher, Saint Eustatius, Saint Kitts-Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Maarten, Saint Martin, Saint Pierre, Saint Vincent, Grenadines, Trinidad, Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, Other British, French and Netherlands territory or possessions bordering on the Caribbean Sea.

Easy! 😉 Happy travels!

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