Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Hardest Part of This Trip May Be Getting There in One Piece

It's now August 24th. I leave on September 10th. That leaves me 17 days until I depart on the first leg of my trip - to Amsterdam - but who's counting?? Every day the fact that I will be gone from the United States for at least the next 9 months becomes ever more real, and I find myself grasping onto the last few days of summer like never before. As the days get slowly darker I know that I may have only a few more days of pleasant weather before next May, so every day counts as much as 10 days counted for me in Virginia. In Williamsburg summer stretched to October and autumn took me all the way to Christmas. In Siberia summer is already over and winter will begin in October. In the words of the Stark family, "Winter is Coming," indeed. Some of my Game of Thrones watching friends have gleefully referred to my Siberian trip as my journey "North of the Wall".

Credit: Microcosmicmedia

At the same time, it is becoming ever more obvious to me how unprepared I am for my trip. Not only have I not collected the materials and supplies to bring along, but I haven't even purchased a suitable suitcase into which to pack them. This is partly because I can't decide whether I want to lug a 3 piece luggage set across Europe and 5 different connecting flights (as opposed to a large back pack). But pretty soon I'm going to have to make a decision in that regard. It's not that I haven't thought about what to bring, it's just I have a bit of inexplicable paralysis when it comes to my preparations. I have been distracting myself too successfully with friends, family, and work.

Is this too much luggage to bring?

However, my paralysis seems to be reflected on behalf of institutions beyond my control as well. Getting a Russian visa on my own has turned out to be one big bureaucratic headache. To get a Russian Visa, you have to receive a "Letter of Invitation" (LOI) from an institution or person who will host you while you are there. This can be a relative, travel agency, a business, or in my case, a university. However, to receive one you have to send your host institution your passport information, and they have to spend some money and apply for a letter. This process takes several weeks, if not months, and then they will finally send you an invitaiton.

Once you have your invitation, you can apply for a Visa. You must carefully fill out an online Visa application, print out several copies, to which you attach several passport sized photos, and mail that out to a Visa processing company along with an HIV-negative blood test, your letter of invitation, and your passport. Oh, and a check for a few hundred dollars. You can skip relying on the postal service if you want to travel to the nearest Russian consulate (New York City), wait in line all morning, and hand it to the Consulate yourself. Either way, you have to wait several weeks to get your visa, stamped in your passport, unless you pay the consulate some extra money for quicker processing (cutting in line, basically).

However, one little mistake can derail the whole process for weeks. My American name on my passport is Alex J McGrath, but on my letter of invitation my name came back as Алекс Джуниор Макграт. Basically, someone in Russia decided that my middle initial stood for "Junior" (which it doesn't) and even if it did, it still needs to read on my letter of invitation as "Джай." In a perfect universe it wouldn't matter that someone else messed up my name in a relatively harmless way, considering all of my other identification was correct and accurate, including my American name. However, the Russian consulate found this to be unacceptable and forced me to request a new LOI
And don't you forget it!

So it would happen quickly, because it was their mistake, right? They only need to fix one middle name, right? Wrong. I need a completely new invitation. So they resubmitted my LOI application on August 4th and said it would be ready on August 20th. Well August 24th has come and gone and no new letter of invitation has been finished.

It seems reasonable that countries have Visa requirements so that they can control who comes in and out of their country. But there seems a point where insurmountable levels of red tape seem to exist without any sort of practical purpose. This is by no means a problem unique to Russia - I'm sure an equally confounding and frustrating story exists for countless law abiding and well-standing individuals attempting to gain entry to the United States. However, when I think that I could simply buy a plane ticket and show up on the streets of Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia, and stay in a hostel there for 90 days without asking any government's permission, it makes me think this whole Visa thing may be a little over the top. But then again, some countries, like Russia and the United States, have more serious security concerns than others.

In any case, like TSA groping and NSA snooping, for better or for worse visa applications are another price we as global citizens pay for security. Here's to figuring it out firsthand. And to hoping I actually get my Visa by September 10th.

Maybe I'll spend some time packing while I wait.

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