Feeding Wanderlust

They say it’s a buyer’s market right now.  I think mostly this refers to people looking for homes, but I’ve found the statement holds true for at least a few other things.  Travel is one of my bigger interests, and with weekly deals e-mailed to my inbox, I get fed a steady stream of temptations.  In the past few weeks, the desperate appeals from a couple of airlines have finally found the sympathies of this particular buyer.  So now I have tickets to Moscow in April and Athens in May.  Greece poses few travel challenges, but Russia, I’ve learned, is a completely different story.

For all the traveling I’ve done, the only place that ever required an entrance Visa in advance of my trip was Australia.  The airline informed me of this requirement, and as I recall it only involved a simple online application.  My visa was issued electronically, free of charge.  As I started looking for accommodations in Moscow, I noticed some advertising Visa support.  The thought of a visa requirement hadn’t even occurred to me.  I did some Googling and discovered that there’s a whole morass of visa requirements that evoke thoughts of a soviet Russia.  First of all, a basic tourist visa application costs an astonishing $131!  Granted this seems to be based off of reciprocity with the US, so we seem to be screwing them for the same amount of money.  Next, a visa application must be accompanied by an official “invitation” from a Russian government-recognized tour agency.  These must also be purchased, and starting at $30, these “invitations” don’t seem to exactly exude hospitality.  Suddenly my trip to Russia doesn’t seem quite as cheap as it did when I booked the tickets.  The application itself is a densely populated, two-page questionnaire.  Beyond all the basic information, you must provide medical insurance policies, your parents’ full names, a list of all dates and places visited outside of the US within the last 10 years, list of current and previous two employers with supervisor names and contact numbers, list of all educational institutions attended, list of all professional and charitable organizations you’ve ever been a member of, and a litany of other questions.  You must also supply two current passport photos, copies of your flight itinerary and hotel reservation confirmations accounting for every night of your stay.  I had to gather all of this and deliver it to the Russian consulate in New York along with a money order for the application fee.  I would leave them my passport and application with a prepaid FedEx air bill so they could return my passport with the visa.

The visa takes about 10 days to process, and my flight departs on April 14, so I got a jump on the process by visiting the consulate on Friday.  I drove into Manhattan, parking my car on one of the quiet side streets off Central Park about a block away from the consulate.  As I approached I saw a line of people standing outside the door waiting to be admitted.  Dressed in long winter coats and ushankas, it looked like these people were waiting to buy a loaf of bread.  This was only the first stop in what I had scheduled to be a pretty busy day, but suddenly I realized, duh, this is Russia!  These people are used to 4 hour church services, endless lines, incomprehensible red tape, and implacable bureaucracy.  Someone at the end of the line had some sort of sign-up paper, but when I spoke with her she told me that for visas I could go to the other side of the steps where fortunately there was no line.  The door was still closed and locked, but she told me to just ring the bell.  After a couple of rings, another lady at the front of the line told me that ringing was of no use.  He would just come whenever he feels like it.  So I leaned against the cold granite of the building while the people around me stood nearly silent.  Only a few spoke quietly to each other in Russian.  The world around me suddenly seemed a bit more chilly and grey.  I found myself staring at the door knob which seemed curiously out of place.  The door was dark and heavy, but the shiny brass door knob looked like typically cheap fare from Home Depot.  The odd thing was that it was mounted backwards so that the lock knob faced me and the key hole faced the interior.  I’m sure they use a dead bolt for the door, but I wondered if I could maybe lock them in?

Fortunately I only had to wait about 10 minutes before someone came to the door asking for visas.  I slipped inside and to the visa room on the left where steel walls painted dull beige and thick glass provided a floor to ceiling barrier between me and the person taking my paperwork.  I’d expect this sort of arrangement at say a Western Union in Harlem, but I wondered what sort of security issues they expected to deal with inside the visa wing of a consulate?  I passed my paperwork through a change trough to a young man who looked things over and told me to come back in 10 days to pick up my visa.  I pointed out that I had provided a prepaid FedEx return air bill so I wouldn’t have to make the trip back into the city.  This seemed to cause him some confusion and he left for a few minutes before returning with a receipt and reassurance that everything looked OK.

That wasn’t so bad, after all.

As I drove back north on Park Avenue, I suddenly remembered that I had given them a second printout of my application.  I had realized that I missed a blank on my original, so I corrected the error and made a new printout.  I’m pretty sure, however, that I forgot to sign and date the new printout.  By this point, unfortunately, I could not turn back.  I had to rush back to CT to pick up one of my roommates and bring him to the Newburgh airport.  I hope I didn’t just waste $131.  Guess I’ll find out in the next week or two.

In the past seven years, I’ve been to Europe 6 times and to Australia once.  Travel is always a bit of an adventure, but these places are not exactly exotic.  I’ve begun to thirst for something a bit more foreign.  Specifically, I’ve decided I need to visit a true third-world country.  Well, Russia isn’t exactly third-world, but it does seem to offer quite a bit more adventure.  I’m three weeks from embarking on my trip, and this is already proving to be true!

About a week ago, I connected with a missionary in Moscow, hoping to visit his church during the one Sunday I’ll be there.  He mentioned that getting a visa is “not a very fun process, but it is worth it.”  I believe him.

4 Responses to “Feeding Wanderlust”

  1. Jos Says:

    How great! About time you branched out! 🙂 From the one who does zero traveling. LOL.

    Have you ever looked into visiting Turkey? or Morocco? Two more places I’ve added to my “when I’m extraordinarly wealthy and can take my year-long world tour. Or it may be more like a long series of short vacations when I’m self-employed. 🙂 Wish we could travel together without it being weird! 😀 Sometimes I wish you were a girl! LOL LOL 🙂

    Happy travels!

  2. Ken Says:

    Yeah, Turkey’s on my list; haven’t looked much at Morocco though. I think next I’d like to visit S. America (probably Chile) and then a “true” Asian country like China and/or Thailand. Of course, Tibet is always lurking on the list…
    Well, sometimes I wish you were a guy! 😉 Seriously, it would be way better to have a traveling buddy.

  3. Jos Says:

    When do you leave?

  4. Caleb Says:

    Well I hope it all works out. Can I have your car if you never return?

    ha ha.

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