Friday, November 25, 2016

Renewing Your Passport in Faraway Places

My passport is still good for about 5 more months, and Dave's is good for almost 18 months. However, Indonesia (and many other countries) require that you have at least 6 months validity on your passport before they will issue you a visa. Since we will want to get a Social Visa (2 months extendable to 6 months) for our next visit to Indonesia, I need to get my passport renewed.

We had renewed Dave's passport in Colombia in 2008, and it was a fairly painless process. See our blog post on this here:

US Passport Renewal in Colombia

We looked at doing it in Palau, but they wouldn't promise better than a 4-6 week turnaround time on it. And my trip to India in October came exactly in the middle of our time in Palau--not quite enough time to get it done before the trip to India, and not quite enough time after. I didn't want us stuck in Palau with a typhoon bearing down on us, waiting for my passport to come back. Unlike the renewal in Colombia, apparently they now want you to surrender your existing passport when you apply for renewal.

After researching doing it in the Philippines, it seemed it would be easier there. Especially since we planned to spend at least 3 months "in country".

The only kicker is that there is no US Consulate in Davao. I think there was one some time ago, but with the rebel activity in Mindanao, and kidnappings and bombings (going on since the 1990's), the US shut down all government services in Davao. But the US Embassy in Manila has a very clear writeup on doing your renewal by mail.

It seemed simple... get your picture taken, get a money order, send it off, they send it back. Ha! It turned out not to be that simple.

The first problem is transportation to get from our fairly remote marina into the big city of Davao. It's even harder than you might expect from the marina--it's about an hour trip each way (marina shuttle bus then ferry then taxi or jeepney). It's not expensive...If you take a taxi, the entire cost is only about $2-3 USD. If you take a jeepney, it's only about 15-30 CENTS. So it's not the expense, but the time it takes that's the hassle. The first marina shuttle you can take will get you into town about 9:30, and the last marina shuttle returns at 3:30, meaning you need to leave town about 2:45pm.

Jeepneys in Davao

We got our pictures taken at the "passport photo" place around the corner from Immigration in Davao. It cost $2 while-you-wait for 4 photos each for 2 of us. (After re-reading the writeup about our experience in Colombia, I just hope this photo is "good enough"!)

The next step--not in the US Embassy writeup, but necessary in our case--was to make sure we were good on our Philippine visas before we shipped off our passports. We only get 30 days on entry, with an easy, but costly (at $75 per passport) renewal for another 29 days. We had done that before on our last visit to the PI, so it was no big deal for me to do it. It did take a little explaining as to why we were trying to renew passports with 5 months and 18 months left on them, but they "got it" pretty quickly. We are now good on Philippine visas through 12 January 2017.

The third step was to arrange for payment of the $110 fee for each passport. It's just CRAZY that the US GOVERNMENT of all people, can't figure out how to take a credit card online, in payment for a passport renewal. The only two ways for us to do is to (a) have someone pay in person at the US Embassy in cash or (b) send a "US Dollar Demand Draft" for the $110 cost of the passport renewal. This is essentially just a "cashier's check" or "bank check" as we call them in the US, in US Dollars. Seems simple, especially since the Embassy named the banks that would cooperate. However, this proved MUCH harder than it sounds.

The Embassy names 3 banks that it will accept "Demand Drafts" from. One, BPI, I was very familiar with, because it's the only bank with an ATM I could do ATM withdrawals from for over $200. I had BPI ATM's and bank locations bookmarked all over my Davao map. So I went into the nearest BPI branch, and asked to get a "US Dollar Demand Draft". The head service person told me "we don't have any of them" and to go to another branch. I asked her politely to call around and confirm where I might go to make sure that branch had one. It took 15 minutes, lots of internal discussion, and several phone calls to find a nearby branch that had demand drafts. I confirmed I knew where it was (map on cell phone) and thanked the bank officer. I hopped on a jeepney going the correct way, down to the next BPI branch. I went into the branch and asked for a US Dollar Demand Draft. They immediately asked me if I had an account at BPI, to which I replied "no". And they said "We can only do Demand Drafts for our customers." WHY didn't someone tell me at the last branch??

So I went back to the mall where I had just been shopping (SM Lanang), and stopped in at the BDO Bank there. After a short wait trying to figure out which person to talk to, I got to the right desk, and woo-hoo!! they would do a demand draft for me, even though I wasn't a current customer. So I filled out the paperwork for two demand drafts, and the lady asked me for $220 in US Dollars. Whaaat? They wouldn't take the piles of pesos I had just gotten out of their ATM. Their desk had "Exchange Money" as one of their services... but no, they would only exchange money for travel, and only for customers. They told me to go into central Davao to the money changers there to get dollars. It was also 11:45, they we closing for lunch, and I was frustrated, hot, and tired. We had plenty of USD on the boat--it had never occurred to me that a BANK would not take pesos for the Demand Draft. Since it was a 2 hr round trip to get it, I headed for the 1:30pm marina shuttle, and said "Mañana."

So now on Day 3 of my Quest, I go to the BDO bank at 10:15 (mall doesn't open until 10am). I have my passports, the Embassy writeup, $220 USD, the bank forms I'd filled out the day before, and a smile. I knew exactly where to go and what to do (or so I thought). My first inkling that it might not be a slam-dunk was when the girl that had served me the day before ducked under the table when I entered, and passed me off to her co-worker to handle. Fortunately, it wasn't impossible, just time-consuming. Almost 2 hours later, I FINALLY had two US Dollar Demand Drafts made out to the US Embassy Manila for $110 USD each. It cost $5 USD (and HAD to be USD) plus 8.25 pesos for each one. The girl was very nice, but she was totally inexperienced, and doing these bank check is apparently a big deal, so every step had to be checked and double-checked with a superior.

The next step was to find the courier company that the Embassy says to use. The "FedEx" of the Philippines appears to be a company called LBC. There are LBC offices almost on every street corner, and in every mall. It would have been so simple to use LBC to courier our documents to the Embassy and back. However, the US Embassy is using a contracted courier that barely has a presence in Davao... Air21. The normal process is apparently to call the Manila Air21 office, and they send someone out to your house to pick up the documents. But we are in a marina an hour away from the city. So when I called the Air21 number, I suggested (insisted?) that I drop the documents off at a local branch office vs them trying to find us at the marina. I asked for a branch location in Davao "near G-Mall" (because that's one of the most prominent locations that I was familiar with in Davao, and I knew how to get there.) They gave me the name of Voyager Travel. OK, fine, I google them and see a location I can find downtown.

However, while I was waiting at the bank, I got on Air21's website and found a travel agent MUCH closer than going all the way to G-Mall. While I was wrapping up at the bank, at 11:45, I called them to (a) confirm they existed (b) confirm they were Air21 agents (c) confirm their location (d) confirm if they would be there when I finished at the bank. Unfortunately, they were closing for lunch, and wouldn't be back until "around 2pm". So I said, OK, I'll see you at 2pm.

So I cooled my heels at the mall for awhile, and had lunch at McDonalds, which happened to be right across the street from the travel agency. I showed up on their doorstep at 2:15pm. Door locked, lights out--no note on the door. I had a phone number from the website--the one I'd called earlier, but when I called it, I could hear it ringing inside with no answer. No cell phone number listed. There was an email address, which I emailed from my phone... "I am waiting at your office, when will you be back?" Surprisingly, I got an email back within about 5 minutes "I had an emergency meeting downtown, and my assistant is still at the bank." No answer, however, on when they would be back. If I wanted to make the 3:30 marina shuttle, I couldn't wait around much longer... So I emailed... "When might I expect someone to be in tomorrow?" I never did get answer to that email. Strike one Air21 agent off the list.

The next day was Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is not a holiday in the Philippines, but we had arranged to meet some other cruisers in a restaurant to have a "Thanksgiving Dinner" at lunch. Dave was going to town for parts and things, so I went in with him, sharing a taxi to downtown. We first stopped off at the rubber stamp place to approve and pay for our new "boat stamp". Then I set off on foot to find "Voyager Travel." (I could have taken an air conditioned taxi for a dollar, but I prefer walking, to get a little exercise and to just see the sights.)

Google Maps got me pretty close, but then I ran into the usual Philippine directions problem...after 3 trips up and down the street, and asking two people who didn't have a clue, I finally noticed an alleyway leading into a rabbit warren of shops, and found my travel agency. Whew! Progress! Well.... When I said I wanted to send an Air21 courier package, the clerk, with the TV still blaring, told me that they weren't doing Air21 anymore. Whaaaat?! Apparently the owner of the travel agency was having a dispute with Air21 about rates. Shit!

Back to my smartphone... wasn't there another Air21 agent on San Pedro Street? (never mind that the terrible Air21 locator map had them located 20 miles away). I put the agency name into the Google map and indeed, they were just down the street. Located them with ease, and I was overjoyed to see "Air21" flyers on their desk as I walked in. However, after explaining what I wanted to do, and showing them the US Embassy writeup, they got on the phone to the Air21 office in Davao, to ask about it. Then they told me I had to go out to the fricken airport cargo terminal to the Air21 office there. Whaaat!!?? This is crazy!!! The Air21 office at the Cargo terminal is VERY CLOSE to where the Samal ferry comes in. It doesn't show up on the Air21 map at all. It isn't even listed on their list of branches, and in my call to the Manila office, they didn't even mention it. OK, trying to keep my cool and not strangle someone, I packed up my pile of paperwork and hopped in a taxi headed for the Cargo Terminal.

Unfortunately, I got a youngster as my taxi driver. He was enjoying being in the air conditioned taxi and listening to cool music, and didn't really care how long it took to get to the airport. Older, more experience taxi drivers know the traffic patterns, and know the back ways, and can cut a substiantial amount of time off the trip by avoiding the main streets and terrible traffic problems in Davao. It took me almost 45 minutes to get to the airport. It's 11:45 and our lunch date isn't until 12:30, and it's not far away... I can still make it. I had my taxi driver wait for me, because I wasn't sure where I'd find a taxi at the cargo terminal (this was a good move on my part).

First, I went for the front door of the prominently signposted Air21 office. Uh-oh... door locked, lights out. WTF!!??? A nearby guard told me to go around back "they're in the warehouse". So I pushed through the gate that said "Authorized Personnel Only" in 1-ft high letters, and poked around in the warehouse. Not a soul to be found. Just as I was about to explode, apparently they all came back from break. Whew! So, no problem right? I'm at the source--fill out a little paperwork, pay some money, and our passports will be in Manila tonight, right?? NOT!!

The Air21 girl told me, incredibly, that she couldn't do it for me. I had to pre-book with the central office in Manila. "You mean, call this number here?" I asked, pointing at the Embassy writeup. "Yes, that's it." "You mean, I can't just hand you my envelope and pay you some money to take it, right?" "Right." So I whip out my cell phone, and dial the number. It rings twice and then I hear music. Am I on hold? Hang up, try again. Same thing. Hang up, and look at the girl. The girl says "Maybe they are busy." Try again. It's ringing!! Finally someone answers. I explain the whole scenario (living on a boat in a marina an hour from town, wanting to simply drop my package off to save them trouble and save me the hassle of trying to explain to them where we live.) As soon as we got to the "please spell your name" part, the connection broke. Crap. Dialed again and got the error signal. Whaaat!!?? Oooh nooooo! My phone is out of "minutes". I have 3 top-up cards on the boat, but none in my backpack. Plus the battery is almost dead. NOW my helpful little assistant suggests I could use THEIR phone.

Great idea, but someone else is on a lengthy conversation on their phone. It's now noon. If I don't get going, I'm going to miss Thanksgiving lunch. I am frustrated, hot, and tired, and hungry--just barely able to keep from snapping all their silly little know-nothing Filipino heads off.

I needed a break. If what it took was a phone call, I could do it from my quiet boat, in the aircon. So I left. Manaña is another day, and I CAN do this.

My taxi driver got me to the mall on time. At the mall, I topped up the "minutes" on my phone, bought a nice bottle of red wine, met up with Dave and friends, and had a wonderful Thanksgiving meal. (no turkey but lots of other fantastic stuff in the upscale Vikings international smorgasbord restaurant, BYO wine was fine with them).

Rested, revitalized, at "home" in our air conditioned cabin, the next morning, I again called the Air21 office in Manila. When I explained about living an hour out of town on Samal Island, she said "You can just go to our airport office and drop your documents off." Hahahahahaha!

I recounted my previous day's experience, and she even asked for the name of the person I had dealt with (which I had neglected to get). She took my phone number, and promised to check on the situation, and call me right back. And she did... Apparently *someone* (who was not actually clear) needs to "pre-book" this shipment with the Embassy or the Embassy's Air21 liason. So now I am waiting for a call from the Davao office of Air21 to tell me they have the paperwork ready and to come drop my documents off. But, when I asked, "When?" It's not today, maybe tomorrow, maybe Monday. Sigh... (I found out later that there are massive protests scheduled for downtown Manila today, and the Embassy was closing early. Apparently a few people are upset that they sneaked deposed dictator Marcos's body into Manila and buried him in the "Plaza of Heros") That probably means that I won't hear from anybody til Monday. So ends Week 1.

Stand by for Part 2!!!

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