A Series of Unfortunate Events: Or How I Ended Up Bumming $10 from a Fellow Traveler for a Tajikistani Visa

I generally don’t carry a lot of cash. This extended trip is no exception. Where did the screw up start?

ONE
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# I love Bishkek

Between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. I have been changing money between borders, e.g. I successfully changed Azerbaijani Manat into Georgian Lari at a Tbilisi metro station money exchange, successfully changed Georgian Lari into Armenian Drams at a money exchange between the two borders. I also changed my Kazakhstani Tenge into Kyrgyzstani Som at an Almaty moneychanger.

At the Bishkek airport, I had 2000 Kyrgzystani Som (almost ~30 USD), but didn’t find a money exchange at the airport. I didn’t think too much about it, figuring that I probably can change that into Uzbekistani Som at the Tashkent International Airport. That assumption, however, was the first domino to fall.

I had set aside 50 USD to pay for the 40 USD Tajikistani visa on arrival (it’s 50 USD for an electronic visa – I also read elsewhere erroneously that I needed to apply 5 working days in advance, so I was outside the window). The Tashkent International Airport money exchange only exchanges the following currencies: USD, Euros, Chinese Yuan, and Russian Rubles. Of the list, I only had USD hard currency on me. I figured, no biggie – I’ll just change 10 USD so I will have the bus fare into town, and then grab some cash in an Uzbekistani ATM.

TWO
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# Tashkent Loves You

That was the second domino to fall: Uzbekistan has weird ATMs. Cirrus, Plus (and more recently), UnionPay are some common ATM processors. For some odd reason or other, ATMs in Tashkent only have (more commonly) Visa and Mastercard. Que??? Apparently, you are supposed to do a cash advance of sorts on the ATMs to get cash, assuming the ATMs aren’t empty.

Well, what’s the problem? Several years ago, I was the victim of a very bad spate of bank fraud. Both my USA and Singapore bank accounts got cleaned out by some asshole(s), because they used my debit cards to run up purchases. It took months before various banks returned my money to me. For a while, I lived off $12 for weeks. Since then, I no longer have a debit card. I have an ATM card on the Plus system. I also carry a lot of credit cards, as it’s a lot easier to dispute charges than debit cards. Also, it’s not tied to my bank account.

If I have so many credit cards, why can’t I get cash from ATMs? Well, although I have several credit cards, I don’t have a single credit card that uses chip and pin. None of my credit cards actually have a pin, making ATM withdrawals impossible. Uh oh.

THREE
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Registan Ensemble in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Living off $10 for 3 days in Uzbekistan is actually not hard. I usually travel by buses, and eat cheaply. Unfortunately for me, my flight from Tashkent to Dushanbe was at 7.35 am. Buses in Tashkent don’t start at 5.30 am. This would have cut things a bit too close. Given that there are only that many direct flights a week between Tashkent and Dushanbe, I had to make that flight. So now, I had to take a cab to the airport, which according to research, will cost ~$3-$4. My (credit card) alternative was to book a hotel car for $60.

FOUR
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All the cash that can’t be used

The day before my trip to Tajikistan, I decided to see what I could do to solve this problem. I looked more in-depth into the Tajikistani electronic visa. More research threw up a range of answers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the visa ranges from immediate, to a couple of hours, to a few working days. There were many data points suggesting that it can get approved in under 24 hrs, so I decided I shall take a shot on the electronic visa. I figured I had about 16 hrs to get it approved, and I can check it at the Bishkek airport using my phone.

If the above fails, hopefully, there will be a working ATM in Tajikistan that’s hopefully different from Uzbekistan’s ATMs … or perhaps a moneychanger that will take Kyrgyzstan Som, or maybe Japanese Yen (digging deep here – I found spare cash in my wallet).

FIVE
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Google’s ProjectFi is not available in Tajikistan

In the wee hours of the morning, my incessant checking of my e-mail in the Tashkent airport yielded nada. Let’s hope that it gets approved while I’m in the air.

The Bishkek International Airport is a special kind of hell. There is nothing between disembarking from the plane, and getting to immigration. Also, while my ProjectFi data roaming has worked into most countries I’ve visited thus far, well, Tajikistan is not in its coverage zone. Talk about bad timing.

The immigration control also didn’t have these things: 1) Free wifi; 2) Money Changer; 3) ATM. Boy, are we in a pickle! I have $30 in cash, and some Japanese Yen, but that’s not going to help me. It is starting to become apparent that I would probably have to purchase a Tajikistani visa on arrival as well, but I was short of $10.

True Heroes Don’t Wear Capes
At the Visa on Arrival counter, an Israeli guy actually had to purchase a VOA, because his country is not eligible for electronic visa. I decided to ask him how much the VOA is, because there’s also conflicting information online (the rules flux quite a bit, so information is time sensitive). He confirmed it is $40 – I was hoping against hope it’s less, or they take other currencies.

Eventually, I explained my situation to the Israeli gentleman. Without much ado, he simply handed over $10, and offered to wait with me while I sort out my visa issues.

This is probably one of the most humbling experiences in my life, as I had to bum $10 off a total stranger for the first time in my life. The truth is, heroes aren’t dressed in capes. Heroes are people who basically put faith in other human beings.

Well, as it turns out, my electronic visa did get approved before the plane even landed (I saw the time stamp on my e-mail later). It was actually in their system, but the Tajikistani visa office at the airport just decided to hold some of us who didn’t print it out to shake us down (probably for extra cash).

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I was actually approved 20min before my flight touched down

After one hour of holding us there, and as it became increasingly apparent that we weren’t going to pay up, they simply stamped us in. For future reference, do print out a copy of your electronic visa to avoid problems.

I did eventually find Eldad (the Israeli gentleman who generously spotted me $10) in Dushanbe to return his money. You’re a true hero. And yes, I know my problem was self-inflicted.

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Morocco: Casablanca – Marrakech, 28 December 2015

Marrakech

In the morning, I took the train from Casablanca to Marrekech. I got to Casablanca Voyager train station by the Casablanca tramline (7 DH). The trip was about 19 min. The schedule posted on Seat61 is slightly outdated (states that trains leave 20 past the hour), but worked out in my favor (they left 50 past the hour), because I was a little bit late to the train station. I tried to get a first class ticket, but they weren’t selling them, so some money saved (90 DH). They seem to be using the newer trains, which are faster – the journey took a little over 3 hours. While waiting for the train to arrive, I popped into a cafeteria by the platform, and got myself a 20 DH sandwich. Sitting on my roller carry-on, munching on my chicken sandwich, while waiting for my train, all was right with the world.

Boarding second class was quite a mad house, but after walking through a few private cabins, I managed to find one with some empty seats, with the other seats filled with some lovely ladies. It was a very pleasant 3+ hour ride from Casablanca to Marrakech, whereby these lovely ladies just stuffed me with chocolate wafers!

Pulling into the very modern Marrakech train station, it seemed like yet another tourist death trap, with taxi drivers approaching tourists to offer taxi rides. I decided to try walking to the Le Meridien N’Fis (it’s about 1.5 miles from the train station). Eventually, I did get picked up by a taxi driver, who was out hunting for tourist meat, but I negotiated my rate to 15 DH.

After a short rest at my hotel, I ventured to the Marrakech medina, which is about a 20 min walk from my hotel. The medina was quite the adventure that I did not emerge from. I did not pick up a map, nor did I have GPS on my phone. What transpired in the next 5 hours was me just getting very, epic-ly lost.

Marrakech

Things started off well enough. I located the Koutoubia Minaret. I moved towards the outer limits of the medina, and stopped off at a nice snack store, which sold a crepe-like pastry filled with potatoes and spices. It was 7 DH for one, with a cup of tea. I finally made my way into the medina, and that’s when the craziness began. At every corner of the medina, there’re generally young men standing around, offering to bring you around, or offering to practice English/French/whatever. Well, avoid them – if they accompany you, there’s a good chance they’ll be demanding money from you for their ‘services rendered’.

Marrakech

Being in the medina is like a corn maze. My initial game plan was to try and use the minaret as my guide, but in the medina, you can’t see anything. Also, a lot of the stores looked rather similar, so that wasn’t helpful. After a while, it seemed like I was just going round and round and round. My hotel provided a complimentary entry (otherwise, 40DH) to the Maison de Photographie, which offers great views from its rooftop. Eventually, I located it with the ‘help’ of a ‘student’. The rooftop is excellent for a bird’s eye view of Marrakech, and if you love taking photographs, it’s an amazing spot for sunset photography of Marrakech.

Marrakech

After leaving the Maison de Photographie, I wanted to check out the Djemaa El-Fna, and have my dinner there. I was trying to follow the signs, but at some point, I lost it, and wound up just walking round and round the medina, and ended up in some residential neighborhoods. Eventually, after some two hours of walking around, I finally managed to find an opening, where I spotted the Koutoubia Minaret, and made my way to Djemaa El-Fna, which is beside the Koutoubia Minaret.

Marrakech

The Djeemaa El-Fna is packed! There are dancers, acrobat acts, food vendors, and arcade-like games. I just went to the first stall with grilled meats, and settled down to a dinner of beef skewers (30DH, but they charged me 35DH). I was overcharged for some mysterious reason, but was too tired to argue with that. After an excellent dinner, I walked back to my hotel. The medina is actually a fun experience, but do take a map, or it could turn into quite an exhausting walk! It is also generally more manageable, if you don’t react as strongly to tourist scams as I do – I just hate getting ripped off.

Marrakech Marrakech

Costs

Transportation: 112 DH (7 + 90 + 15)

Food: 42 DH (35 + 7)

Accommodation: 4000 Starpoints

Total: 150 DH + 4000 Starpoints (15 USD)

Marrakech

Morocco: What’s a trip without a misadventure? Rabat to Casablanca, 27 December 2015

Rabat

Rabat

I was up by 5 am, so after breakfast at the hotel, I decided to take a stroll to check out Rabat’s medina in the daylight. I started out from my hotel around 8am, and stopped by Hassan Tower, and the mausoleum of Mohammad V, as it was along the way. The mausoleum of Mohammad V has very intricate carving, and you can also check out the costumes of the guards, both on horses, and those who guard the four gates of his mausoleum. I do feel rather bad that his final resting place is now swamped by tourists who have no qualms about photographing his coffin.

Rabat

From there, it is a short walk to the waterfront. There seems to be some nice restaurants there, so I imagine that’s a nice spot in the evening, if you are looking for some romantic dining. In the early morning, fishing boats were docking, and nets of seafood were being put on trucks, presumably for distribution to the different restaurants in the city. I simply followed the waterfront before winding up at the Kasbah.

The Kasbah still has some pretty dwellings (think blue windows/doors on white walls), and when you get to the end of it, you will have an amazing view of the Atlantic Ocean. As a touristy place, there are generally a number of men hanging around, offering to show you around. Just keep moving. I saw a gallery/café along the walk, and after taking in enough of the Atlantic Ocean breeze, I simply ended up at the café for some mint tea, and to get in some writing for the day.

Rabat

At around 10, I made my way back to my hotel to pick up my stuff, as I planned on taking the noon train to Casablanca. I checked out, and rolled my luggage to the tram. The major train stations offer a ticket vending machine, which has an English option, and sells tickets for immediate departure. They don’t always work, or if they do, they might have other issues, like only accepting exact change. Good luck! Or as they say in French, bonne chance! I did get one to sell me a first-class ticket to Casablanca (55 DH).

Rabat

Casablanca

And, that’s where my day’s adventures began. Casablanca has three train stations. My ticket brought me to Casablanca Port, which is the train station at the waterfront, and closer to the airport. Not liking the look of all the over-eager (scammy) taxi drivers, I saw a sign that read “bus ancienne ville”, and hopped onto bus 900, without questioning my decision (7 DH), all the time thinking that the bus will take me into town. Well, it took me into town. It took me into a town two towns away from Casablanca. So, 40 mins later, I wound up in the town of Mohammadia. By the time my spidey senses told me that I messed up big time, I had to think of a quick fix-it that would not bankrupt me. Thankfully, the bus went by the Mohammadia train station, so I simply hopped off the bus, and hopped onto the next train to Casablanca Port, again! Thankfully, this mistake just costs me 22 DH, and 1 hr of my time, and another doofus story for the ages (now, the story unfolds about why I travel alone).

Casablanca

Anyway, this is related to why I take buses – to avoid scam artists. Getting off the train, my day’s misadventures didn’t end there. The train stations in Morocco are essentially a death trap for tourists. I got picked up by an asswipe of a scam-artist taxi driver soon enough, who refused to use the meter. If I had more energy, I would have fought this more, but whatever. In the end, I wound up paying 35 DH (he demanded 40 DH) for a very short taxi ride, which should have cost closer to 15 DH. He was so lazy, he didn’t even want to turn into my hotel.

After resting a bit, I decided to head out for food. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with more crowds, so I avoided the medina and its souk. I simply went into the first place that had a menu with fixed prices, and ended up with a shwarma platter (45 DH).

Casablanca

In Casablanca, there is also a rather extensive tramline in Casablanca, so if you want to avoid such incidents, that is an option. Rides are 7 DH per trip – be sure to keep your ticket, because it works on a tap-in/tap-out system. But as the distance wasn’t too far, I just walked both ways. I ended the night by hanging out at the rooftop pool of my hotel, which offered nice views of the city of Casablanca.

Casablanca

Costs

Transportation: 112 DH (55 + 15 + 7 + 35)

Food: 60 DH (45 + 15)

Accommodation: 70 USD (I stayed at a 5-star hotel)

Total: 88 USD

Guatemala – Antigua to Guatemala City, 23 September 2010

Today, the main item on the agenda was to get from Antigua to Guatemala City for my flight out on 25 September.

Another instance of untrustworthy travel agencies, which left me standing in the central plaza, waiting for a minivan. I bought a ticket from one of the agencies at the central plaza (about 40-50Q, be sure to negotiate!) for a bus at a designated time. The minivan never showed up, and once again, no apologies were offered. In the end, I ended up on a minivan that was from a rival company. If you are ever getting tickets from any of the agencies south of the fountain, go for the one that is a little more to the east side. It was the one that was a little more to the west that was unreliable.

After arriving in Guatemala City in the late afternoon, I checked into Barcelo Hotel, which was in Zone Viva. After a bedbug scare in Playa Del Carmen, I decided to go with safe options that would definitely be clean, and avoid backpacker operations for this trip. Barcelo is pretty decent value for money. For about 60-80 USD, you can get a single room with a hearty breakfast thrown in. There are also plenty of facilities, including a pool, a well-equipped gym, and a futsal (!!!) court. They also offer free airport transfers both ways, and it is in the middle of the business district, and surrounding by 24-hr fastfoods, so starving or being out of money wouldn’t be one of your chief concerns. My room came with a balcony, a large array of bathroom amenities, and a pillow menu, too. I would highly recommend it for middle-of-the-road traveller.

Somewhat broke, I couldn’t afford the fare to the old district, so I simply walked around Zone Viva. It is pretty modern, with malls, and the requisite international chains like McD, and there are clubs around, but it didn’t appeal much to me. I tried some Mexican fastfood, and it was pretty offer. I think I have been spoilt by the real deal.

Large single room

Well-stocked toilet

Well-stocked room

Mall in Zone Viva, Guatemala City

Zone Viva

Guatemala – Antigua, 20 September 2010

The grand plan was to go from Flores to Guatemala City, and then on to Panajachel, so that I stay at a lakeside cabin and admire the beautiful Lake Atitlan. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out as planned. As I got to Antigua, the tour agent said that all buses to Lake Atitlan are not running, as the roads are blocked by strikes. I was told to go back and check at 11 am, but I was too lazy and tired, and decided to just stay in Antigua, which is quite a charming town.

I believe Antigua’s claim to fame is one of the earliest intact Spanish towns. Although I have never been to Spain, the architecture certainly reflects this – the town has very rich colours, alike Flores, and cobblestone streets. There are also many churches, quite a number of which lie in ruins due to the great earthquake.

I ended up staying in D’Leyenda Hotel based on recommendations on Tripadvisor. Most of the good hotels in Antigua did cost quite a bit, so I thought this was a pretty fair price (around USD 60-80). It was a small hotel with about five rooms, and excellent, personal service. My three night stay here was very enjoyable.

The rest of the day was spent randomly walking around town. It was pretty rainy, so it didn’t take much for me to decide to retire for the day. I also gave up my plans to head to Panajachel. It is a shame, but missing my flight back to the US will be no fun either.

Antigua

Cool restaurant with knick knacks of all sorts

Hotel D’Leyenda

A nice touch.

Mexico to Belize – Playa Del Carmen, Chetumal, San Pedro, Caye Caulker, 16 September 2010

Twas a long travel day, from Playa Del Carmen to Chemtumal to San Pedro, finally ending in Caye Caulker.

I started out on a bus from Playa Del Carmen, at the bus station near 5th Ave North, thinking I had the bus timetable down pat. But it turns out that I got it confused with the other bus station that was a little further up. It was a little too late for me to walk to the other bus station, so I just waited around, and took a second class bus from this bus station to Chetumal.

After a five hour bus journey, I arrived in Chetumal. I guess in the future, I really should do more research. I bought my boat tickets from Chetumal to Caye Caulker from the bus station, but when I got to the water taxi jetty, I realized I paid a few bucks too much for the San Pedro water taxi. It was quite a sight, as the shops looked more like make-shift shanties (think it was closer to 20 usd if you got one at the little shack itself). Oh well…

Little shack that sells tickets

With an hour before the water taxi departs, I decided to walk around Chetumal. There were remnants of the Grito celebrations in Chetumal. Somewhat hungry, and peso-poor, thankfully, I did manage to have a delicious oregano and cheese pizza at a Middle Eastern restaurant.

Chetumal Governor Palace

The boat ride was a little surprising. I was expecting it to be fancier, but thankfully, it was not too choppy, and I avoided a land border crossing.

Arriving at San Pedro, I had another classic visa encounter. When I was in Iran last year, the customs don’t deal with Singaporean passports very often, so they actually had to flip a booklet to try and figure out what to do with my passport. At the tiny counter at San Pedro Town, Belize that was “immigration”, the lady at the counter had to call some other authority to figure out if I was allowed into Belize (yes! Singapore passports don’t need visas!).

“Immigration” in Belize

More waiting in San Pedro Town for the next water taxi, there were some serendipitous encounters. Right outside the water taxi jetty, I saw many little kids throwing baseball with each other. And the TV was showing Sleepless in Seattle. This is the first time I am watching this, since I moved to Seattle. Someday I might watch the whole film.

Kids playing baseball in San Pedro Town, Belize

I arrived at Caye Caulker after dark. It really reminds me of Havelock Island, India, though it is much smaller. It has a laidback charm, and there are many seafood bbq joints along the road. There are also no proper roads on the island, just beach paths, and one of the more common modes of transportation are golf carts. The buildings on the island are also mainly made of wood, remind me of kampong houses, but are painted in beautiful pastel colours.

My chicken on the BBQ!

One downside? Accommodation was pretty pricey. I stayed at Blue Wave Guest House, in a private room for 60 USD. It had a nice little balcony that looked out to the sea.

View from Blue Wave Guesthouse

Mexico – Cancun, 11 September 2010

Today was a travelling day that started out early in the morning in Seattle, and ended in the evening in Cancun.

Two main observations from all the traveling, one of which has nothing to do with traveling:

1) I am seriously considering never checking in my luggage, unless necessary. Without check-in luggage, I made a world record in clearing customs. Although of course, my world record at clearing customs meant I spent more time than anyone else, waiting for the bus from Cancun International Airport to Cancun.

2) I am still as horrible as I can remember with reading maps. I went in the wrong direction about 3 times, and got so horribly lost, that a 15 minute walk ended up being a 2 hour hunt. Yes people, DON’T EVER HAND ME THE MAP! Well, on a brighter note, I managed to see the Municipal Palace in Cancun, which was all dolled up for Grito, and I also managed to eat a 15P hot dog. (about 1.30 USD)

Municipal Palace

Excellent (probably artery-clogging) Hotdog