Accounts of my travels and travel related issues

Brazil by the wayside

Riding busses through the countryside of Brazil between Rio, Brasilia, and Sao Paolo, I had the opportunity to observe some of the rural lifestyle of Brazilians. While busses pass by mostly just the outskirts of cities and not the wealthier city centers, life alongside the road seems poor for the most part. Here, as a photo story, are some of my impressions along the route.

Sugar cane field near Sao Paolo burning in the night
Farm workers in a sugar cane field near Sao Paolo. Crops are harvested 7 days a week to keep up with demand
Machinery used for the harvesting of sugar cane alongside the highway between Brasilia and Sao Paolo
Favela boy standing in a street along the highway between Brasilia and Sao Paolo
Highway between Brasilia and Sao Paolo covered in smoke from burning sugar cane. Sugar cane, used to produce cachaca rum and ethanol fuel, Brazil is the world wide leading producer of ethanol fuel, is a dominant crop on the fields of Sao Paolo state. Given that many poor residents still go hungry, criticism has arisen that fields are used to produce crops for things other than feeding the Brazilian population.
Love in a harsh place - favela kid playing on the street along the highway between Brasilia and Sao Paolo
A cross by the wayside of a highway between Brasilia and Sao Paolo marking the spot where a pedestrian was killed by a passing car
Alternate transportation in rural Brazil. Many can be seen walking or biking along the highways in rural Brazil even at night, exposing them to risk of being struck by passing drivers who can't see them walking in the dark along unlit roads
Corn field along the highway between Brasilia and Sao Paolo. Brazil's fertile soil makes it prime agrarian country
Favela in rural Brazil along the highway from Brasilia to Sao Paolo. While city favelas are best known to outside observers, these unstructured communities built up by home- and landless Brazilians without any state furnished infrastructure pop up all over the country wherever there is an opportunity for gainful employment
Rural worker riding his bike on the way home from the store. Public transportation throughout Brazil is under developed, especially in rural areas, forcing those who cannot afford cars to find alternate modes of transportation
Rural workers waiting for the bus outside Brasilia
One man's junk is another man's treasure. Car graveyard in rural Brazil, serving as spare parts source for old vehicles still on the road
Rural Brazil is farm country, with some farmers owning enormous swats of land, but not using it to its full potential, leading to landless people occupying underused farms with the tacit approval of the government

The Hitchhiker’s Survival Guide to US Immigration Proceedings

Well, it’s been a while since my last post. Hard to follow the act of a round-the-world tour. However, I’ve recently completed another journey, that of permanently immigrating to the United States. And, by now a veteran of dealing with US immigration procedures in a post-9/11 world, I thought I’d share some of my insights.

Let me begin by saying that I don’t mind that a country wants to know who I am when I come visit, or even want to stay there for longer. I’m ok with filling out application forms that ask me if I’ve ever planned on murdering their president and answering questions about the shoe-size of my grandmother. Still, I do expect some form of rhyme-or-reason to the proceedings, and that, at times, I’ve found blatantly missing. So, to help you preserve your own sanity if you ever plan to travel or move my way, here’s my Top Ten Rules of Dealing with US Immigration:

10. Understand the process! Getting a visa to the US requires two steps: 1) File the visa application with the USCIS, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. Once your visa has been approved you now have permission to be inside the United States pursuant to the conditions attached to your visa (more info on visa types and requirements here). 2) Once the visa has been approved you need to apply for an appointment to your nearest US Embassy to get the visa stamp placed into your passport. That visa stamp is your permission to travel to the United States. The approved visa from USCIS alone will not suffice to board a plane to the US! Also, you can’t get the visa stamp from the Embassy without the approval notice from USCIS. Most visas have a time limit. Make sure to leave the country or file for renewal before the visa has expired. In today’s digital age, USCIS will know if you’ve overstayed your visa. Getting caught can get you banned from the country for 10 years.

9. Don’t overthink! Just follow the instructions on the application form to the letter, and I mean TO.THE.LETTER. Don’t ask why or try make sense of the questions you’re asked. You’ll only mess things up by thinking too hard, and you’ll get an unnecessary headache.

8. If you’re applying for a work visa or a green card, get a lawyer. Not a cheap hobby I agree, but you will be taken more seriously when things go awry, applications go missing, people don’t understand the meaning of “Diplomingenieur” or other questions arise. Especially if your career hasn’t followed the most straight forward path, or the employer sponsoring you for a work-visa isn’t a widely known (i.e. American) global brand, your lawyer will be able to help you figure out a way to present your case in a way that may actually prove successful, and be a good guide to what’s possible and what’s not. Interview your lawyers before hiring a firm, make sure they have successfully handled a case comparable to yours, and particularly, make sure they have successfully filed applications for the specific visa type you’re looking to get. Also, it’s always good to have a shoulder to cry on … 🙂

7. Never assume. Just because you know what you’re talking about when explaining your life’s history through a visa application, don’t expect the immigration to have any prior knowledge of your country’s educational system, work environment or even to know any company you might have worked for, unless the company is on the Forbes 500 list, and sometimes not even then. So, over-explain everything like you would to a five year old. The more information you provide, the fewer questions the agent will dare to ask.

6. If you can afford it in any way, file for premium processing. This way, your lawyer will get a receipt with a case number and have a number to call when the answer doesn’t come back in the expected time frame. If you file regular processing, you cannot inquire about your case, you just have to sit and wait. My first work visa application was lost three (!) times before it was ruled upon. If I hadn’t had a premium processing case number, I’d probably still be waiting on an answer 8 years later …

5. The early bird catches the worm! Don’t handle visa applications or embassy appointments at the last minute. If you’re allowed to file an application 6 months before your travel date, file on the first day of that six months period. Since US immigration offices are the living proof of any law Murphy ever wrote, expect to need every single day of that six months period to straighten out your paperwork. If things clear ahead of schedule, count yourself lucky. If you procrastinate you WILL get in trouble. Also, some visa classes underly annual limits, and for some (especially the H-1B) demand is far greater than supply. New visa contingents start on October 1st, the first day of the US Government’s fiscal year. So, make sure you know the latest rules on when you can file your earliest application for the visa you want AND MAKE SURE YOU FILE YOUR APPLICATION THAT VERY DAY.

4. If anything can go wrong, it will! Misfiled or lost applications, missing attachments, mislabeled fee payments, rulings or follow-up letters mailed to the wrong address, wrong appointment dates or times, incomplete list of documents needed for embassy appointments? Been there, done that. Keep copies of everything you file and be ready to resubmit multiple times, if needed. If there is a way for things to get messed up, be prepared that they probably will.

3. Plan well for the embassy visit! First you’ll need to make an appointment. You can’t just show up. Different embassies have different procedures so check the website of the embassy you’re planning to visit for their specific instructions. Some locations, such as Stockholm Sweden, allow for booking the appointment online, others, such as Berne Switzerland, make you call a 1-900 number, which you can only call from within that country, and you’ll have to pay $2.50 / minute while you wait your turn … When making the appointment make sure to get a complete list of documents you’ll need to bring to that appointment (some forms need to be filled out, submitted, and printed on a computer BEFORE you get to the embassy). Also, processes do change. So just because you were told to things a certain way the last time you applied for a visa, doesn’t mean the process will be the same this time. Again, the early bird catches the worm. You can no longer obtain a visa stamp inside the United States. You HAVE to visit an embassy abroad. So, if you’re planning to integrate your embassy visit within a travel route, book the embassy appointment before confirming your flight. Also, once you have the date, the earlier in the day your appointment is, the shorter your wait will usually be. And don’t be surprised to be given an appointment time one hour before the embassy even opens. Nobody will be there to see you at that time, but at least you’ll be ahead in the queue …

2. What to bring to the embassy:
a) You will be made to wait outside the embassy until it is your turn to pass through security. During that wait you will not be provided any shelter from the elements what-so-ever. Whether you’ll be sweltering out in 100 degree heat or freezing in zero degree windchill, be ready to withstand the elements for up to two hours and dress accordingly. Don’t forget sunscreen and a water-bottle and a hat (NO umbrellas). If it’s hot out, bring a sweater. Once you’re inside you’ll be freezing from the airconditioner.
b) Bring a fat (PAPER) book to entertain you while you wait (your ipad or kindle WILL be confiscated). It’ll be a long day.
c) Bring some small US$ bills, $1 bills are best. Most likely you will find yourself awaiting your turn for several hours, and you can’t bring a back-pack or handbag inside to the waiting area. The embassies usually have a vending machine dispensing snacks and drinks in the waiting room, but more than once I’ve found these contraptions not to accept local currency.
d) make sure you bring EVERYTHING you’ve been asked to bring. If anything is missing, you won’t be let into the embassy. You’ll have to go elsewhere to print out any missing forms or retrieve any other documents. Particularly, check whether you need to bring a pre-addressed, stamped envelope to get your passport back and make sure you address it to someone who actually has an ID they can present at the post office to retrieve your envelope (i.e. if the passport you’re about to hand over to the embassy employee is your only state id, don’t address the return envelope to yourself, as it will be sent with registered mail.)
e) Bring your sense of humor but don’t expect any in return! Especially your security guards but also most embassy employees you will encounter are under a lot of pressure and most likely will not get your jokes. So, just take a deep breath and hang in there.

1. What not to bring to the embassy: No gadgets (especially no electronic items such as cell phones or ipads), no bags, no nothing other than a book, a bottle of water and your documents! I was once sent away to dispose even of a clear and transparent plastic bag in which I had kept my documents protected from the rain (I was told the bag posed a security risk … And my question as to what threat profile might possibly emanate from a demonstrably empty plastic bag was not a welcome one …). Electronic gadgets will be confiscated at the door and kept there, but stuff has gone missing, so don’t bring anything you’re not ready to lose. If you bring a bag you WILL be sent away to have that locked up somewhere.

SMILE 🙂 You’ll have some good stories to tell, once you’ve been through this process a few times.


It Might Be A Little Hilly ….

Went to the Bay of Islands, all the way up north on New Zealand’s Northern Island. Captain Cook landed here in 1769 and claimed the Islands for England. That was before he got eaten, of course. Apparently, in this spot on the island the maori tribes also signed the treaty with the English that allowed for the founding of the state of New Zealand. So, justifiably, kiwis are mighty proud of this area. It’s plenty beautiful, too.

I rode up here on an intercity bus that cast some interesting figures: The bus driver had a penchant for old “Schlagermusik” (not only ballads, but downright schmaltz) that he played on the bus’ PA system and sang along with it … loudly, unfortunately, and out of key. Right behind me a maori mother with her three year old son. No matter what the mother said, the kid just did whatever it wanted, including walking up to the driver and trying to crawl onto his lap … and these New Zealand ‘highways’ aren’t all that straight or wide .. and then there’s the compulsory couple of German backpacker girls that can be overheard discussing in a whining, nasal tone everything they think is wrong with this country … Thank God for my ipod …  Still, on the roadside in the middle of nowhere we passed a little piece of architectural marvel: The Austrian builder and artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser left his traces by building a toilet in one of the little places along the way up north.

Once in Paihia, the little town in the Bay of Islands, I landed in a backpacker place where the room came with a free bike. I gladly used the wheels to ride around town and towards the waterfall. Before I left, my backpacker hostess told me that the road to the water falls “might be a little hilly” …. I should have known. “A little hilly” turned into a never ending sequence of steep inclines, a big part of the way on a slippery gravel road and this on a bike with only one gear and a lousy break … Well, I’m stubborn and I made it both to the falls and eventually back; exhausted, thirsty and after dark. The water falls weren’t worth the trouble, but I did get a good workout in …

Tried to see dolphins the morning after I spent a night freezing my buns in the backpacker place. Lovely people, but I do wish they had heat in their place. From the photos you’ll see what a tremendous difference the presence of sun can make in the colors you’ll see. The sea can be a color of deep and vibrant jade, or some rather uninspiring grey.

Off to a 28 hour flight back home tomorrow. Enjoy the pictures for now.

Bay of Islands

Welcome to Middle Earth

Walking through Auckland I found myself in a very otherwordly scene. Bizarre-looking trees, unusual light with the sunlight decidedly coming from the wrong direction, and an intriguing mix between old and new, provincial and metropolitan made for a place that not only was, but also seemed to be a very, very long way away from home.

People were extraordinarily friendly, stopping in the street whenever they saw me fumble with a map, asking how they could help me find what I was looking for. I’ve visited many places, but such proactive helpfulness I have rarely encountered. In fact it reached a level after a while where I found myself wondering whether I might have ended up in an alternative take of the Stepford Wives. But the local Aucklanders all were entirely genuine in their helpfulness. I suppose living in New York untrains you from friendly people ….

Took a walk through their “Domain”, Auckland’s equivalent to Prospect Park crossed with a walk on the wild side. Five steps into the park I found myself in midst of thick greenery one would usually expect to encounter deep in the bush. After working my way through the thickness of green I suddenly found myself thrust into a park landscape filled with strangely shaped trees one might associate with Middle Earth. The movie double for Middle Earth of course were parts of New Zealand …

After my excursion through the bush I ended up on top of Sky Tower, apparently the tallest building in the Southern hemisphere … higher than Sydney Tower, I was told, noticing a distinct tone of pride in the narrator’s voice. Be that as it may, the view was spectacular. Some nutters were bungy jumping from the tower … apparently you CAN have too little to do for your own good ….

Here are the pictures:


The Day The Music Died

Today I walked by an HMV store in Sydney, and obviously couldn’t resist walking in. It’s a store in the process of being shut down, with their entire stock piled randomly onto large tables with people digging through. A very depressing view. I had spent a better part of my youth in HMV stores in the UK listening to music and learning about the latest trends and artists, and now all that was reduced to piles of CD cases nobody seemed to want anymore. Is that how things will look like the day the music dies?

Tokyo was a more uplifting experience. They still have a Tower Records store just outside the Shinjuku metro station that seems very well frequented and still has the deep catalogue the chain had been known for in the past. I found the only ever official solo release by Neil Innes from the Bonzos, Ruttles and Monty Python, an early live CD by I Am Kloot, the first CD by Jamie Cullum and yes, my guiltiest of pleasures, a remastered version of ELO’s 1981 album Time. I know …

Obviously, the decline in music sales is a global phenomenon, so it’s no surprise that record stores are affected everywhere. But as someone who’s spent part of their youth getting thrown out of record stores for listening to too many records before buying one, it’s sad to see such an integral part of my formative years slowly die away …

Thin Lizzy

Australians are very eager to discuss their history as an independent country as I could realize every time I spoke to a local, but they’re still part and parcel good subjects of Queen Elizabeth II. It’s in the little things in which you notice this, such as the road signs that look exactly as in good ol’ England, the habit of serving afternoon tea in cafes (including the compulsory cucumber sandwiches) or Lizzy’s counterfeit on their $5 note (what? She didn’t rate the $100 bill???)

Still, food here is far more exciting than in the old motherland. The Aussies have mixed good things from many of their immigrant communities into their traditional food and made it into something unique and very edible. Chicken Cesar salad here comes with Satay, Pizzas have curry sauce and their kangooroo steak ala mode is quite delicious. Also, it’s nice to have English language menus again.

Ordering food in Japan was more of an adventure: Either you had to find a restaurant that had menus with pictures or plasticized copies of their dishes in a window, so you could drag the waiter outside and point to the dish of your choice, or then you had to use the “point and shoot” method in the pricier places that didn’t come with the visual aids for non-Japanese: You point onto a random item on the menu and then shoot yourself if something turns up you don’t like … I had to sometimes revert to that second method and was confronted with an interesting variety of dishes I would have never ordered had I been able to read their language: Eel rice, quails eggs and something brown I really don’t know what it was, but it tasted quite ok after that trepidatious first bite … But hey, everyday you should try to do something that scares you, an old business saying goes. Well, I certainly took care of that …

Eh, where’s the moon gone?

Today, Aug 28 Sydney was graced with the spectacular view of a complete lunar eclipse. Only yesterday Mars was as close as it will ever be in the next thousand years or so. So, quite an auspicious time for star gazers these days.

Just as I got off the boat from the whale watching tour one of the boat crew told me about the eclipse. Ever fascinated by all things space, I wandered along the harbor over to where the opera house lay, as I remembered having a great view on the moon from there in days prior. As I came up towards the opera house, I saw a group of people heading some place rather determinedly. I tagged along, thinking that these locals probably knew of a great spot to see the eclipse. After all, we were only minutes away from its start. And a great place they did know. We ended up walking up to a boat waiting at the mole to take on passengers. Apparently, this was a privately chartered boat that someone had organized for himself and his friends to get away from the light of the city to get a better view. I asked the organizer whether I could follow on board, and he agreed to have me join.

So, I got a second boat ride that day, this time hunting the moon instead of whales. My photos obviously cannot convey the spectacular of a complete eclipse, with it’s red moon during the eclipse refusing to be properly portrayed through my lens. The rocking boat didn’t help either with the long exposure times ….

Sydney – Lunar Eclipse

I met some very nice Sydney siders in the process, even though I was probably the only one over 30 on the boat … The title of this post is a quote of one of the more chemically altered passengers, who came crawling out of the captain’s cabin about halfway through the complete eclipse and realized that an essential part of the night sky had gone missing …. Not sure he remembered what the official excuse for this party was.

I also got a chance to taste some authentic Aussie barbeque. I prefer the Texas version, but the cook was making some mean burgers …

So, all the more reasons to go out howling at the moon.

Whalin’ Away

I went whale watching today on a trip outside of Sydney harbor. An incredible experience as the pictures below will show. These creatures came all the way next to the boat, apparently curious who was floating around there and attracted by noise we made, circling our boat for the better part of an hour, playing with each other, waving their tails and blowing air once we found them. They’re gracious in their movements despite their enormous size and weight. True kings and queens of the ocean and worthy of our care and preservation.

Sydney – Whale Watching

I’m In A Land Called Down Under …

After a lengthy transfer with Thai Airways from Tokyo to Sydney via Bankok, I’ve firmly landed in Down Under. This having been a lifelong goal of mine, I was looking forward in particular to my time in deamland.

Sydney so far presents itself as very pleasant, albeit somewhat sleepy: Shops close at 6pm and unless you know where to go, there’s little night life in sight in the city center. However, look more closely, and you’ll find great things to do.

The Sydney Opera House is indeed impressive as the picture below will show. And even though it has a bum rap for its acoustics, they’re actually not so bad. Albeit, I wish their opera orchestra were a tad sharper, especially their horns. When I went to see a presentation of the highlights of opera (i.e. a best of collection of popular arias, the orchestra’s horn section put down a solid performance: from bum notes to late entrances and shredded intonations, they covered the entire repertoire of how not to play your instrument. The singing was lovely, though. So, unfortunately, in the case of the Sydney Opera, the content didn’t quite match the packaging. However, it must be said that Australia has developed a very systematic approach to developing young talents in classical music. And even though they still have ways to go in terms of their orchestra, such effort needs to be commended.

The next day I undertook an excursion into the Blue Mountains, a mountain ridge right behind Sydney, cutting off the East coast from the remainder of the country. Apparently, the blue haze that gives the mountain range its name comes from the reflection of sunlight in the air that’s drenched in dropplets of eucalyptus oil from all the trees covering the mountains. The sights, amongst them a rock formation called the Three Sisters where absolutely astounding.

On our way there we stopped by a wildlife park showcasing local fauna such as koalas and kangaroos. See for yourself, but I think they are wonderful creatures. But then, I could fall in love with a milliped ….

As I move on with my journey, I’m inspired by the everyday and the world.


P.S. on Tibet

BBC World this week is showing several reports on Tibet and the Chinese Government policies towards that region of their country. If you can view that channel you should try to catch these reports. Or go to their website:, or here.

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