Thursday, September 1, 2011

Progress Update

Preparations continue for October departure. I'm doing a lot of reading and talking with people who are familiar with Mali, Peace Corps, and West Africa in general. It's highly enjoyable, and I'm meeting lots of great individuals who have worked in development. Interestingly, the consensus so far is that as much as I want to learn about microfinance, the Bambara language, etc. before departure, I shouldn't worry too much about it since that is what my three months of in-country training are for.

It's not as though Peace Corps isn't keeping me busy. A little while back I turned in my visa and no-fee passport applications, which were time-consuming. This gets into a good question I've been asked a lot. Why do I need to apply for a new passport when my previous passport is still valid? It's also one I've been trying to answer myself. The no-fee passport is clearly not a normal passport, but I can't seem to nail down its specific purpose aside from saving me money. According to the Volunteer Handbook,
"The no-fee passport is issued to enable Peace Corps trainees and Volunteers to fulfill their overseas responsibilities, but it does not confer trainees and Volunteers with diplomatic status."
So why get a no-fee passport, besides saving some money? It is generally reserved for individuals who are traveling in a capacity associated with the US government. This being the case, I'm guessing that having a passport showing my government affiliation will smooth things over at customs and, as proof that I am traveling in an official capacity and am not just a lone tourist, it may serve as an extra level of deterrence for people who would like to hassle me. This would be invaluable, and a prized perk of being a PCV. You get used to getting cross-examined at airports to some degree, but I don't know anybody who wouldn't avoid it if they could.

My best story that I probably might not have to tell If I had a no-fee passport happened in New Delhi. I was traveling from Kathmandu to San Francisco, and I was still recovery from a nasty bacterial infection that had induced copious and regular vomiting, diarrhea, and at the time was inflicting a splitting headache. While transferring to my flight out of Delhi to Newark, I was called to the desk by security. A nice but insistent woman asked me to recount my travel history. What, I asked, from Kathmandu to here? No, she wanted me to tell her about my trip since I left the United States. With transfers. It had been a long trip. So I explained my one-way flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt, then my one-way from Paris (ORLY) to Dakar through Casablanca. On the way back to Europe three months later my one-way from Dakar to Frankfurt through Casablanca again, and a few weeks later a one-way from Paris (CDG) to Kathmandu with an overnight layover in Bahrain. Then there was my itinerary back to the United States, which included Kathmandu-New Delhi and then a separate itinerary of New Delhi-Newark-Houston-San Francisco. It was not a fun game to play. (Another advantage of Peace Corps is that they don't make you fly crazy itineraries like that just to save money.)

For passport, visa, and most of the travel related paperwork we coordinate with SATO Travel, which appears to be a semi-independent travel company, part of the larger company CWT SATO Travel. According to their website, which categorizes Peace Corps as a "civilian government agency,"
"CWTSatoTravel is the travel division of Carlson Wagonlit Travel responsible for soliciting and managing travel for U.S. military and government clients. With more than 50 years of experience, CWTSatoTravel is the nation's leading provider of travel management and fulfillment services to the government, fulfilling more than $2.3 billion in annual air sales."
- CWT SATO Travel
Quite a contract, I must say. SATO Travel is an agreeable company to work with, but no matter how helpful they are there's no getting around the fact that there are bucketloads of paperwork for Peace Corps. I still have yet to take care of property insurance, book my flight to staging (probably in Philadelphia) and a few other things.

Hope you are having an excellent Thursday.

Grammar joke of the week (I would so do this):
Aboard a United flight from Las Vegas to San Francisco, Stephen Hochhesier considered it fair warning when the flight attendant informed her passengers: "It is against FAA regulations for passangers to conjugate in the galley area." Am, are, is. So there.
- Leah Garchik, via the San Francisco Chronicle
Bambara word of the day:
Nyegen = a pit latrine (what the Health volunteers are rumored to spend most of their time digging)