Saturday, February 09, 2013

Travel Misadventures and Lessons Learned

Tea at Pearson Airport
My recent trip to Mexico started out as routine as any trip can be. I am aware that flight changes, misdirected luggage and weather delays are not unusual occurrences for the average traveller. I know the procedures at security and immigration checkpoints and my travel documents are organized and readily available. I once lost my boarding pass at the security area of the Las Vegas airport and after getting another one printed at the airline desk, found it in the sleeve of my coat. The taking off and putting on of shoes, jackets, belts, scarves, laptops, loose change and cell phones at assembly line speeds is confusing enough even if you are not selected to go through the full body scanner.

Regional Mexican Airline
Last month my brother and I landed in Mexico City and went through immigration and customs. Before we entered the non-secured area of the airport to get our next plane, we had to go through a final security check. We were last in line and put our carry on luggage in the grey bins to be scanned. My brother was questioned by one of the four or five employees there about something in his bag and had to open it up for further inspection. I was watching him, my attention diverted as I waited for my things to come through the scanner. We were finally cleared and less than five minutes after leaving security, I noticed my passport was missing. I quickly got permission to re-enter the security area and re-traced my steps with a supervisor. I realized that I had my passport up to the time I was at the security scanner. The supervisor told me with finality, “Your passport has been stolen.” I felt sick but there was nothing more I could do. 

Fortunately I was able to get onto the regional flight using my drivers license as photo ID. I emailed the Canadian Consulate in Puerto Vallarta that night to report my missing passport and to ask direction about what to do next. 

Canadian Consulate Puerto Vallarta 
The staff at the Canadian Consulate were very, very helpful and friendly. It takes four weeks to get a new passport in Mexico but a one time use Emergency Travel Document can be issued in two days with the appropriate documentation which includes:
  • a police report
  • four passport photos
  • a completed passport application 
  • four references
  • $87.00 - the price of a new passport
  • photo-ID, in this case my drivers license which had to stay at the consulate

All these things had to be taken in person to the consular office and then I had to return the day of travel to pick up my papers. I was told that it is not unusual for travelers to lose documents at the Mexico City airport. In fact, all the security police there had been fired in August 2012 because of corruption and drug trafficking. I am not sure who was hired in their place! The consular staff recommended that I change my return flight and leave from Puerto Vallarta rather than going through Mexico City again. 

Driving back to Tepic with my nephew
I am very thankful for family who were ready and able to help me travel to Puerto Vallarta twice, a 6 hour return trip by car from their home. My nephew drove us in my dad’s car and was my translator when we had to get the police report and photos. He knew his way around Puerto Vallarta well and we made good time. My brother kindly changed his return ticket too which cost us both an extra fee. The entire process would have been very stressful if I had to use buses and taxis to get to the necessary appointments. I am also very thankful for the people who acted as references for me. I chose people who would be easy to reach by telephone but I did not expect that they would be asked to provide a physical description of me including my eye colour, age and height. 

 My brother and nephew. Why did I leave my purse on the car when I took this picture!?!!
My papers were ready the day we left and I was very happy to make it back to Canadian soil. But in every airport, Puerto Vallarta, Chicago and Toronto, I was removed from the regular immigration and security lineups to have my documentation verified which took extra time. I applied for a new passport right away when I came home and received one in five days. I was warned though that if I lose this one, I cannot get another until after April 2015 which is when my stolen passport would expire. 

I had one other problem arise. My credit card was cancelled because the issuer noted an out of country transaction and we hadn’t informed them of travel plans. I never contacted our credit card issuer about travel plans for our last five trips and had no problems. 

What did I learn, and what will I do differently?
  • I had my passport number (and all other important numbers) in Dropbox but I will make sure I have a scanned copy of all my documents in the future in cloud storage.
  • I will have the phone number/email of the nearest Canadian Consulate with me
  • I will hold my travel documents in my hand when I go through security. 
  • I will ensure that my wallet is in a zipped inner section of my handbag. My passport was in an outer pocket of my handbag and was easily accessible.
  • I will be alert for diversions that take my attention away from by belongings
  • I will have two pieces of photo ID besides my passport. I had no photo ID during my stay in Mexico as my drivers license had to be turned in at the consulate
  • Keep your clothing and luggage simple. Traveling with a tablet rather than a laptop computer is better in security as you can leave a tablet in your bag. 
  • Technology make things easier! Internet access is vital if you have a problem like this. My nephew tethered my iPad to his iPhone to get me internet access in Puerto Vallarta. If he had not been there, I should have purchased a SIM card for Mexico. My brother had international cell phone access but I did not. If I travelled alone I would make sure I had phone/internet access at all times. 
  • Install Skype on your mobile device. I was able to call a Canadian 800 number free of charge on Skype to get my credit card reactivated. Canadian and USA toll free numbers cannot be accessed by land line in other countries. 
  • If you ask friends to be references for a travel document, do them a favour and remind them of your eye colour, height, workplace and age. 
  • Inform your credit card carrier about your travel plans. This can be done online. 
View from the Consular Office in PV
Mexico gets plenty of bad press and is infamous for corruption. But theft can happen anywhere. I read a similar account of a passport theft in security at Heathrow Airport in London England. In the big scheme of things, my lost passport was a minor inconvenience. Dealing with an accident or illness, or losing all your ID and luggage would be far more difficult and stressful. It is best to be prepared for the worst scenario and to have a backup plan before you leave. 

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

January Birding

For the past few years I have enjoyed counting birds in the month of January with the goal of exceeding my previous totals. There are several interesting winter birding sites within an easy drive of our home in Ontario and last January I also counted birds in Mexico. This January was a busy month and there was not much time for intensive birding on my agenda. Nevertheless, I kept my eyes open for birds and added one life bird in Mexico.

Josh Vandermeulen is a young, enthusiastic local birder. In 2012 he did an Ontario Big Year and counted an impressive 374 bird species in our province. His blog Ontario Birds and Herps chronicles his adventures. On January 1st he wrote,

"Often when out birding, my technique can often be summed up like this. See fluttering movement. Move binoculars up to see bird. Bam! Identify it. Move on to the next bird, and repeat. It is easy for me to get into the trap of only viewing the bird for as long as necessary to ID it and then continue on. This can lead to the dangerous trap of over-confidence with identification, and it can also lead to a lack of appreciation of the bird's behaviour, habitat, and other things apart from identification. I will try to force myself to actually spend time sitting still and watching the birds and their behaviours."

This January I had time to watch bird behaviour while visiting my family in Mexico and here are a few discoveries.

I watched an adult Loggerhead Shrike feeding a fledgling just a few metres from the house. The young bird is on the white post and the adult is on the fence wire. There were two fledglings and their loud calls attracted my attention as they competed for parental attention. Offspring of any species keep their parents very busy and these birds were no exception!

A pair of Altimira Orioles caught my eye from the breakfast table while splashing in the bird bath. Looking more closely, I noticed one of their fledglings perched quietly on a nearby orange cluster. It blended in so well that I did not see it until it moved slightly.

At the side corner of the house, two or three Greyish Saltators could be seen foraging in the fruit trees each afternoon. These seed-eating songbirds are common through tropical areas of Central and South America and Mexico is part of their northern range. This was a life bird for me.

I noticed a large population of Blue-grey Gnatcatchers last year in Mexico and they were abundant again this year. In the evening, just before sunset, they would "gnat-catch" along the fence behind the house. I was able to observe them at close range but they are tiny and fast and hard to capture in evening light with a camera.

It was common to startle a flock of these Inca Doves while walking on the property. They blended in so well with the ground cover that I usually did not notice them until they flew upward. These ground feeders like to huddle close together in groups in the sunshine. 

The Egret in the first picture was perched on a branch in the village less than a kilometer from my parents' home. It was in the vicinity of a small stream which coursed near the town square or zocalo and was spotted by my brother as he was driving.

I did a rough tally of birds seen around home in Ontario and very locally in Mexico and came up with 27 birds in each location for a total of 54 birds. That is a fair total for very leisurely birding.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

A Different Perspective

Life is full of changes, some small, some larger. They add up and can eventually lead us in a different direction with an altered focus. In the past few months my job went from four days a week to full time including weekend rotations. In an effort to maximize rehabilitation outcomes, some of our patients now get therapy seven days a week and staff hours were increased accordingly. I love my job but also enjoy many other activities, so the prospect of a longer work week was not thrilling. I have decided not to be reactive and will wait a while before making further career decisions.

My parents have experienced declining health in recent months and I travelled to Mexico twice between October and January to be with them. They are only 22 years older than me and I see my own mortality in their current situation. Age differences are not as significant when years add up. In all of this, life is still good, busy and rewarding. I see the importance of facing only one day at a time and putting aside worries about a future we cannot fully control. On the other hand I cannot procrastinate in making good decisions regarding relationships, health, lifestyle, career and finances. The immortality of youth is a thing of the past.

It was just ten days ago that my brother drove our parents and myself to a high point of land above the town of San Luis de Lozada. The 360 degree panorama was beautiful and included mountains, the town, a cemetery, an old bull fighting ring, and acres of sugar cane fields. Turkey vultures circled at our level but their perspective was one of survival, not admiring the scenery as we were. My brother and I both took pictures and it was interesting to see how our perspectives varied even though we shared the same time and place. 

Perhaps my introspection is related in part to celebrating another birthday last week. I celebrated in Mexico and in Canada with family and am thankful for the healthy and happy years I have enjoyed throughout my life.