Category Archives: New Experience

Inviting a visitor to the US: Part 2

After our trip to visit Kim in Ecuador,  I wrote about how difficult it is to invite her new friends to visit us here in the US.  Over the past few weeks I’ve become even more  familiar with that process.    Kim’s  friend from her host family is a 20 year old college student at the university where she is placed through  the Fulbright Commission.   He is working toward his goal of becoming an English teacher in Ecuador.   He’s a good student and  lives a fairly typical, active college student type of life.  Like many young people, especially a future English teacher,  her friend would like to visit the USA.

Kim would like to be able to show him around her country, her home, and introduce him to her friends and activities.  She would like to invite him to a family wedding, to the beach, to meet her friends, shop at Target and go to Starbucks.  He could visit the school where Jim works,  play some basketball, and visit universities to see how they operate here.  He could visit Jenny in Charleston and observe how American college students frequently all live with each other rather than with their parents and grandparents, and probably wonder why anyone could possibly think that’s a good idea.  

So Kim’s friend is taking the big step of  (cue trumpets and flashing lights) *applying for a tourist visa*.   And after doing more research on what might help this process along, we are gathering documents to sponsor him.    Apparently having a sponsor is a positive, but nowhere close to a guarantee that his visa will be approved.  The bulk of the responsibility still lies with him to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to the US Consulate that no matter how tempted he is once he gets here to start picking tomatoes in searing heat for an unlivable wage, he will be a good visitor, see the sites , buy the t-shirt, then return home to his family and school.

This is where it gets even more complex.   Sponsoring a foreign visitor consists of quite a bit more than saying, “I’m a law-abiding, tax-paying, employed, US Citizen who would like to invite my friend from Ecuador to visit me for a couple of weeks during his semester break.   I’ll let him stay here and feed him and make sure someone licensed does all the driving.   I’ll pick him up when he arrives then make sure he is safely on his way home when its time to leave.”    Instead, this is what’s involved.

First, this being the  government, you have to obtain and fill out a form.   Specifically Form I-134, an “Affadavit of Support”, issued by the Department of Homeland Security.   Among other things, this form lets you know that you, the US Citizen,  may be sued and held personally responsible if your sponsoree applies for Welfare and/or Food Stamps.  It then goes on to ask for information about everything short of the results of your last colonoscopy, which of course you must have notarized. Bank account balances, stock accounts, home value, salaries, life insurance and personal property values are all covered.

There is then a list of documents to send along with the form.  This list of what they want is longer and  more intrusive than our mortgage application. First we are to write an official “letter of invitation”  to the sponsoree, and a separate letter to the US Consul telling them we’re inviting him to visit us. Since you’re already doing the form and all the documents I would think it would be obvious we’re inviting him, but this is the US government so common sense is not a strength.    The other documents they suggest include: an official letter from our employer certifying the position held and salary, the last few pay stubs, our past few years tax returns, including the accompanying W-2 forms, and our bank statements with an accompanying letter from the bank.   And a partridge in a pear tree.

We have most of this information together and have agreed to send it directly to Kim, who will assure its safe arrival at the US Embassy in Quito when her friend has his required in-person interview.  However, I am blacking out all social security and account numbers on the aforementioned documents.   I trust Kim and her friend, but not so much anyone else whose desk this may cross to keep that information secure.

We also took one more step as well to help with this process:  we called our friendly US Senator’s office.  The one who sent Kim a letter congratulating her on the Fulbright and saying, “If I may ever be of assistance, please do not hesitate to call on me.”  We decided this would be a good time to take him up on that offer.  It turns out that our request is not so uncommon, and their office has a staffer assigned to help with just this issue.   They indicated that they will write a “letter of interest” to their colleagues at the Embassy, and email a PDF copy to us so the friend can carry it in to his interview.   But they were also sure to emphasize that this is “Not a guarantee”, that they have no real influence over the outcome, and that the interviewers in Quito will still have the ultimate responsibility in deciding whether Kim’s friend can come visit us.

 

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Well, that’s embarassing

I have lots of new learning and new experiences built up from our wonderful trip to Ecuador, so I’ll try to write about some of it over the next few weeks & months while still trying to keep up with the “one new thing a day”  effort.  Lately, other than the trip, its been more like “one new thing a week” unless you count work-related stuff.

One of the main things I learned from our travel experience is how awful our own US policies are for foreign visitors.  On our end, when we wanted to visit our daughter in Ecuador, we just made sure our passports were up to date, bought a round trip ticket for our week-long visit and showed up.  We got our passport stamped in Quito, our bags scanned, and were sent merrily on our way.

While there, we met Kim’s 2 host families.  These are people she met through her University who have welcomed her into their families and social lives. They have cared for her, taught her, fed her,  traveled with her, included her in their daily lives, and love her.   Both families are typical Ecuadorian middle-class – adults are business owners, professors, high school teachers, and government workers;  college/grad students are doing things like med. school,   teacher training, and studying psychology plus holding part-time jobs and doing what 20-somethings do in their spare time (socialize, dance, party, go out), while  the teens and younger kids all go to school just like kids here.  They participate on soccer and basketball and dance teams and are frequently busy with school or work-related events.  They have dogs and drive Toyota’s.   Sound familiar?  Sure there are language and cultural differences, but for the most part, its very similar to our lives here. While we were there, both families hosted us for dinner and entertained us and made us feel welcome.

So, what’s the polite thing to do in this situation?   It is (at least in my mind) to invite THEM to come visit YOU sometime!  Not only do they know Kim and now us, but  they have family members who live in the US.   So maybe they’d like to visit and do wild and subversive things like go to Disney World,  eat BBQ and go to Wal-mart.    Dress like dorky tourists and buy new fanny packs.  Oh wait, that’s us.

Guy in the background is thinking: they let this guy come here, but they think I'm too big a risk to go to HIS country?

Megamaxi - the Ecuadorian Wal-mart

So the apparent solution is to make it close to impossible for anyone from a country that isn’t on an “approved list”  to visit, no matter what the reason.   There is no just getting a passport and buying a ticket.  If they really want to go to Disney World, or visit Abuelita in New Jersey, they have to successfully jump through hoops of fire to make this happen.

A potential visitor from Ecuador has to first travel to a major city such as Quito or Guayquil (possibly hours away) and interview with the US Embassy for a visitor’s visa.   The Embassy is very clear (yes, they state this….its not a subjective opinion), that unless the person can STRONGLY prove otherwise, they assume that the person is trying to sneak in and become an illegal immigrant and will not approve the application.   They are particularly suspicious of anyone under the age of 30.  Gee, what age group in any culture generally likes to travel and see the world – wouldn’t that be the young people?

The applicant has to bring lots of documents to the interview and be prepared to defend them.  The  “proof” that the Visa applicant  has strong enough ties in Ecuador that he or she wouldn’t leave  (even though we KNOW they all really, really want to) may or may not be reasonable or even culturally appropriate.   For instance, the applicant should have a few thousand dollars in an Ecuadorian bank account.  Now what 21 year old do you know who has a few thousand dollars in a bank account?  Certainly not mine, unless its the Bank of Mom and Dad.  If the applicant is a young adult, in addition to a job and school registration, they want that person to have rent and utility receipts showing that he has his own apartment and is independent.  He must have important things to come back to, like a landlord.  The problem is that in Ecuadorian culture young adults for the most part continue living with their parents until  they get married and start their own families.   Its the norm, and doesn’t mean the kid is a slacker or secretly desires to give up Medical School and clean toilets in a seedy Miami hotel.     In fact, Ecuadorians seem to be slightly appalled in a politely curious way that Kim not only prefers to live alone, but that we support this.

The difficulty in getting a Visa to the US is apparently legendary.   If any family member, ever, at anytime, has “overstayed their welcome”,  you might as well forget even applying.  If anyone in your family has committed any crimes, you’d better hope your US cousin has Skype, because you’re not going to her wedding.

Potential visitors better make sure they don't have any of these types in their family tree. Most of us would be in trouble if we were held to the same standards

Interviewing is nerve-wracking.  Remember, these aren’t just people showing up at the Mexican/US border saying, “Hey, yeah….I just want to go over buy some of those cheap US prescriptions, then I’m coming back. Really.”    They have typically prepared for this for months if not years,  made an appointment well in advance and bought new interview clothes.  And even if everything is perfect, its still a seemingly random crap shoot.  This  process has resulted in a proliferation of tips and guides for potential applicants such as this:   “Prepare a list of anticipated questions and practice answering them again and again.”    “Prepare perfect documents, especially your family photographs, property documents, bank statements, and income tax records.  Make sure the documents are perfect and nothing is missing.”   and  “You should know by heart the order the documents are arranged in your folder so that if you need to present a particular document it can be presented in 2 to 5 seconds.  The interview officers are highly impatient, and any delay/fumbling in pulling out a document and presenting it to the officer can trigger an emotional reaction that might lead to visa rejection.”

I don’t know if this is true, but while reading up on this topic I came across one website that said Brazil, in retaliation for the USA’s draconian measures has instituted the same policies for US citizens wanting to visit there.   Can’t say I blame them.

So speaking as a US citizen it really is embarrassing not to be able to say to our friends, “Please come visit!”.  Instead it comes out as something akin to “Gee, if my government ever deems you worthy of stepping foot in our country and after they have fingerprinted and photographed and implanted a GPS-tracking device, if you’re not already totally fed up, I hope you’ll stop by.”

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Diamox

We are on our way to Ecuador.  Not the tropical, Galapagos, malaria-risk part of Ecuador, but the mountainous, volcanic part.   Columbia, South Carolina sits about 300 ft above sea level.  Quito, where we will fly into and spend a few days is about 9200 ft above, and  the elevation of Ambato, where Kim lives, is about 8400.   A period of altitude sickness & adjustment is typical when making this trip.  You might suspect altitude sickness if you experience fatigue, shortness of breath on exertion, headaches, swelling, or bowel problems.  It might be hard to climb a flight of stairs. Of course if you’re as out of shape as we are, you might already experience most of these symptoms AT sea level.

My previous bad experience with altitude occurred at Pike’s Peak several years ago.  While visiting family in Colorado, we made this a day trip. We packed the kids and a picnic and made the drive from Boulder.   Now this must be something people do all the time, because there were guidebooks, paved roads, and rangers, and once you got to the top, a souvenir t-shirt shop.   Except I didn’t get to experience much of that because no sooner did I walk into the shop than the world went fuzzy, then black.   The next thing I remember, I was in another room, on my back, with an oxygen tube in my nose and an earnest young man in an EMT uniform looking down at me.   My family claims that not only did I pass out cold, but I took down a rack or two of t-shirts and narrowly missed falling on a small child on my way down.   And being  kind, caring type of family members they immediately ran away in embarrassment, claiming they had NO idea who that crazy, obviously drunk woman was.  Then they afterward delightedly told all their friends back home about the incident, complete with dramatic recreations of the noises I made, my indelicately sprawled position on the floor, and about the poor EMT who had to drag me out of the way.   I would like to point out, however, that this is obviously such a common experience that they actually HAVE an EMT, complete with his very own Oxygen tanks who does nothing but hang out in the souvenir shop all day waiting for people  to pass out.

The nice people who had to reassemble the t-shirt racks

This time, however, I’m prepared.  After researching the issue extensively on the Internet and telling our rushed but up-for-almost-anything-as-long-as-it-gets-you-out-of-the-office-and-you-seem-somewhat-knowledgeable,  kind , intelligent, caring Family Doctor about our concerns, he prescribed Diamox.  And thus begins both the “new learning” and the “new experience” relevance.  Diamox, or Acetazolamide,  “is a carbonic anhydrase inhibitor that is used to treat glaucoma, epileptic seizures, benign intracranial hypertension (pseudotumor cerebri), altitude sickness, cystinuria, and dural ectasia. Acetazolamide is available as a generic drug and is also used as a diuretic.”

Yeah, that last word is diuretic.  As in, “makes you pee”.  Alot.  So now I’m not only a woman of a “certain age” who is already known for having to stop at every rest stop and sometimes in between too, but now I’m one taking a medication which makes you go even more.  Facing long, bumpity bus rides on mountain rodes, careening around corners on buses that I’m guessing won’t have any facilities beyond a hole or two in the floorboards.  But that’s not even where it ends.

I’m not generally the type of person to pay much attention to side effects, mainly because on the few occasions I’ve taken medications, I’ve never had many that amount to much.   I seem to tolerate almost anything.  And I didn’t feel too worried when I felt a bit light-headed a few hours after my first dose – it wasn’t horrible, and as long as I remained sitting, which is usually what I do anyway, it was fine.  But was weird were the “tingles”.  I couldn’t even really explain them to Jim (who hadn’t taken a dose yet).   It started with my lips tingling, and then my cheeks, and then that would go away and my hand would feel like it was falling asleep, then my feet.   Just random, variable buzzes & humming & numbness & tingling sensations.  Nothing that would even make me think of leaving work but enough to annoy me constantly.  Then when I tried to drink a Diet Coke, it tasted bad.  Kind of a tinny taste.  So I googled, and sure enough, these are both common side effects of this wonderful drug.

So given how unpleasant this Diamox is in general, I’m really counting on it to work.   As are the Ecuadorian EMT and t-shirt rack assemblers.

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WordPress for Iphone

This is today’s new learning & experience – trying to figure out how to use this gizmo. I am not a big phone person but I have had an iPod touch for a couple of years and so far it’s similar. I don’t see a way to upload pictures here though – maybe that’s one of the reasons it gets low ratings. So what are your favorite apps?

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My first IPad post

I don’t actually have an IPad but Jim does, so I borrowed it to see how I like it. Eventually my net book will need to be replaced and maybe I’ll get one of these. Or maybe not. So far it’s kind of awkward and I can’t figure out how to insert pictures. Does anyone blog with an iPad? anyway, I think this counts as a new experience.

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Whale Sharks, Djibouti and Steak & Shake

We’re currently site-seeing in Atlanta, which in itself is a new experience. We’ve driven and flown through this city many times, but never stopped to do the tourist things.  In fact I usually go out of my way to avoid Atlanta. That could be because I’ve missed umpteen connecting flights and spent way too much time stressed in the airport which seems to pride itself on hiring the rudest people in the world. Or it could be because of that time we spent several hours sitting on the tarmac watching out the plane window while Bubba-Joe tried to duct-tape the wing back on the plane. Or maybe its the maze of interstates filled with Nascar-driving wannabe’s weaving in and out of 8 lanes of traffic.  Anyway, Atlanta has never been high on my radar when I’ve thought of “great vacation destinations”.   This time though we were looking for a long weekend type of place, not too cold, and within a 1/2 day’s drive, and it seemed a good choice.

When we got into town last night, we by-passed all the fancy downtown options and headed to our favorite restaurant where we all ate enough to experience what our daughter Jenny calls a “food baby.”

Pretending like I work at Steak & Shake. Which I don't because the one time I applied they didn't hire me, a fact which wounds me to this day.

We then found our way to a local mall, waddled in,  and had yet another new experience: a pleasant shopping experience with a 14 year old girl.  Anna found the perfect dress for an upcoming dance, the 2nd one she tried on.  Totally appropriate, cut neither too high nor too low, and for less than $30. After an obligatory bookstore trip, we returned to our hotel to prepare for the busy day of site-seeing ahead.

To start the day, I of course performed the ceremonial fanny-pack preparations. As much as everyone likes to make fun of my fanny pack, I can’t help but notice they sure like to use it to help hold all their stuff.

We made it to 3 downtown destinations today:  CNN, the Georgia Aquarium, and the Coca Cola Museum,  all tickets and tours covered by our handy-dandy City Pass ticket booklet, which I highly recommend.   Needless to say, between all 3 destinations  I learned enough new things to keep me educated for quite some time.

We can see the CNN Center from our hotel window. Unfortunately neither Anderson Cooper or Wolf Blitzer are based here.

Jim and I both decided the CNN tour was our favorite.  We just did the basic tour, but I now have a goal to return sometime for the more in-depth, VIP version.  One of the more interesting experiences was that the bulk of our tour group consisted of foreign military members from countries such as Lebanon, Serbia and Georgia.  As our tour guide was explaining the process of getting the news on air, one asked how they got news “approved for national security purposes”.  When our guide answered that they don’t, he was obviously puzzled and asked the question again a couple different ways as the guide explained that we have “free press” and they don’t get anything approved by the government before airing it, although they do of course have teams of lawyers and a “standards department” to review things in-house.   I don’t think the soldier ever really believed him.

Anna’s favorite part of the day was the Coke museum, where they have a huge room full of soda machines where you can have your fill of tasting coke products from all over the world.   While it probably wasn’t the favorite drink (tasted a little like toothpaste) she was thrilled to find a Coke product from her all-time favorite country, which is only her favorite country because it has the funniest name.

Djibouti Juice

Although the Aquarium was nice, it didn’t win anyone’s votes for “most favorite of all-time.”  In fact the 3-D movie was about the lamest rip-off of finding Nemo we could have imagined.  However, the Aquarium did have the overall coolest experience, thanks to the behind-the-scenes tour included with our CityPass.  They have several whale sharks on exhibit, and our tour took us from this vantage point, in the general public viewing area:

Whale shark through the aquarium glass

Up to this one, where we were at the top of the huge pool:

whale shark from the top

We also learned things like this 20+ foot long shark only has a tiny little throat.  So you could theoretically swim along with him and he wouldn’t eat you, because he only eats tiny little krill.    And he really doesn’t eat much of it either.  While you might expect it to cost a fortune to feed the whale sharks in this exhibit (there are 3 or 4), each eats only a small container full of krill twice a day……less than most of us.   If we ate krill, that is.  Apparently their metabolism is so low they just don’t need much food to survive.

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Stars

….the shiny things in the sky, that is, not the walk-the-red-carpet kind.

Earlier this week Jim and I arrived home from an event after dark and noticed the sky was full of stars.   We’ve spent the past 25 years or so living in cities where its rare to actually see stars because of light and general pollution, so when they are present, you really notice them.

Like any true romantic who finds himself alone under a starry sky with the love of his life, Jim pulled out his Droid (no, that’s not code for something else), and said, “I’ve got an app for that!”   He opened Google Sky Map,  pointed it toward the sky, and amazingly there was a map with a description of everything we were looking at.   I have always been one of those people who could never quite see what was being described when someone would point to the sky and wave their finger around drawing some type of air picture and say things like…..”see those stars over there, there, and there are the Big Dipper, and there’s Orion’s Belt and that over there must be Saturn or maybe its Jupiter.”  I’d look at those pictures with the drawings like some big connect-the-dot puzzle and think I must not be looking at the same sky.  I’m astronomically impaired. But this made it easy because you could just point it right at the part of the sky you’re looking at, and it puts the image on the phone and spells it out.

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