Monday, October 31, 2011

Visa Travel - 2010 - Part 1

Life is full of challenges, but it seems that this is especially true when living in other cultures.  One of the things that makes life interesting is when you have to leave the country to get a visa.  This can be just a required exit and re-entry or it can be to apply for a visa for the a future period of time.  Most of the time, these experiences are quite routine, but sometimes they are not so routine.  Whether you have done it one time or many times, you are always glad when you are back to your foreign home and the process is complete.

Since we are in Moldova to get new visas, I was going to write a blog post about that, but thought it would be fun to share our experiences of last year first.

When we came to Ukraine in June 2010, rather than getting our one-year visa prior to coming (and possibly delaying our departure date), we decided to go ahead and come without a visa (for up to 90 days) and then leave the country when it was time.  We decided to go to Moldova because that was closer and we had missionary friends there.

To receive a religious visa, you need a letter of invitation that has been correctly authorized. The local church we attend was willing to do this for us, so they wrote the required letter and went to the government office in a city two-hours from us to get the letter authorized correctly.

Train travel is the most common here, so I went to the train station to buy tickets to travel to Chisinau (pronounced Kee-shin-ow), Moldova (the capital city).  When I got there, I had trouble getting the lady working there to understand where I wanted to go (the Russian pronunciation is different), so I had to call someone on the phone to help me.  My poor Russian was good enough for a straightforward situation, but not this experience.  Through the translator, I learned that there was no direct train route.  (The reason is that there is an area of Moldova that has been taken over by rebels and most tourists avoid going through this region.)  We would have to take the train to Odessa, Ukraine and then ride a bus to Chisinau, Moldova.

August Trip

On the late afternoon of Friday August 27th, we took a taxi to the train station to start our adventure to Moldova.  This would be our first (of many) experiences on the train.  We got settled into our coupe (a small room on the train with 4 beds—2 up and 2 down), and at 5:40 PM the train left for Odessa.  We spent time in the evening standing by one of the open windows in the hall to cool off.  After about 13 hours on the train, we arrived in Odessa just after 6:30 AM Saturday.  It was hot in the train and we slept with the door open, hoping for some fresh air from the open windows in the hall (because the window in our coupe would not open).  Between the heat and the many stops, sleep was intermittent, but we still enjoyed riding the train and seeing the countryside.

This was the Odessa train station at 6:30 AM

The next step was to find the bus station.  (In my research, it did not sound like this would be a problem, but it became a problem for us).  Taxi drivers wanted to take us somewhere, but we did not know where to have them take us.  We asked around and were told it was close and we could walk there.  As we asked different people for verification of how to get there, we ended up walking around in a several block circle, dragging our luggage behind us.  I am sure we looked like quite the sight!

Finally one lady (who knew a little English) told us the name of a bus station, what marshrutka to get on, and where to find it.  The marshrutka driver did not like us with all of our luggage, but I did not care as long as we got where we needed to go.  (We later learned that the other bus station was very close to the train station - and I was within one block of it at one point of our walking around.)  We purchased tickets for the next available bus to Chisinau (leaving at 9:40 AM).  While waiting, we bought something to drink and ate some of the food we had packed for breakfast.  It was strange buying juice inside the bus station from a woman who was smoking while she was selling food.  (It is times like that that I miss the clean air laws in America!)

Other than being hot, our ride in the regular passenger bus was uneventful, but the border crossing was interesting.  We stopped at the Ukrainian border to get our passports stamped.  The customs person took each passport one or two at a time, making sure they matched the person.  When they are all stamped, the passports come back in a pile that started in the front of the bus and gets passed to the back.  Then the process was repeated at the Moldovan border.

We finally got to have a pit stop about 2 PM.  I could not find an ATM anywhere and, unfortunately, because you have to pay to use the restroom (true in most places in this part of the world), without any Moldovan lei we could not use the restroom (2 lei - or about 17 cents - per person) or buy a snack (the ice cream other people were having looked really good on the hot day).  We arrived in Chisinau about 3:30 PM—hot and tired.  The first thing I did was find an ATM to get some lei.  (The second was to spend 2 lei on something that was now rather urgent!)

We tried to call our Missionary friends (Wesley and Donna Buck), who were hosting us, and all we got was 3 beeps.  So we called a friend in Ukraine to get the phone number for a couple of other misisonary friends in Moldova.  We talked with a man who worked at a mobile phone store at the bus station (who spoke English very well).  He helped us connect with our friends, got an address, and called a taxi for us (because the ones at the bus station charge more).  The taxi driver needed to check the map for where our friends lived.  When we arrived there, he asked us if this was the place. We had no idea (having never been there before), but told him it must be.  Moments after we got out of the car, Donna came out the door of the apartment building.  What a relief!

On Monday, I went to the Ukrainian embassy to learn that it was closed for processing visas.  Because Tuesday was Language Day in Moldova, it would not be open until Wendesday.  Right away Wednesday morning, I headed to the embassy.  After waiting outside the gate for a bit, I was able to go in and wait at the appropriate window, which was completely unoccupied for a long period of time.  When the lady finally returned, she took a look at our visa applications and documentation, then looked into one of her "procedure manuals" (at least that is what it looked like).  She needed another lady to tell me, in English, that because our documentation was not authorized in Kiev, she would not process our visa applications.  Because the process for additional documentation would take more than just a couple of days, we decided it was best to just enjoy a few more days with our friends and then head back home.

Saturday morning we headed to the bus station to start our journey home.  The weather was beautiful, so it would not be as hot for our return trip.  Our regular bus was not very full, so our border crossings were a bit faster than they just a week earlier.  We actually completed the journey in five hours this time.  When we arrived in Odessa, we were dropped off at the bus station very close to the train station.  I purchased train tickets for the night train (we could not be in the same coupe this time) that which did not leave until 10:40 PM.  That meant we had almost eight hours to wait at the trian station.  We walked to McDonald’s (with all of our luggage) and ate a late lunch/early supper because we were very hungry.  We were surprised that they were all out of chicken sandwiches (that most of us wanted).  We then headed to the train station where we waited (and waited).  It took a bit of looking, but we finally found the common waiting area on the second floor.  There were no elevators, so that meant carrying our luggage up the stairs (and back down again later).

We sat there until early evening and then headed outside to wait in the fresh air.  When it was finally time to board the train, Hope was very tired.  Denise and Hope settled in the top berths of their coupe and Hope was sleeping before they even distributed the sheets.  Laura and I settled in the top berths of our coupe (both coupes were in the same wagon, fortunately).  One young man (Sasha), who shared our coupe, was from Krivoy Rog and spoke excellent English.  We had a very enjoyable visit and I still have some contact with him.  We got back to Krivoy Rog about 11:30 AM Sunday. We were tired, hungry, and ready for a shower!

Even though our trip did not see us get the visas we came for, God's hand was evident.  I believe that the lady who told us how to get to the central bus station as well as the man who spoke English at the mobile phone store were God-sends to us.  Our friends, Wesley and Donna, had just arrived back in Moldova a few days earlier.  We were able to help them get settled and make sure supper was ready for them when they got done with their busy days.

How about you?  In spite of the challenges, do you see God's hand guiding and directing you?  Do you see the opportunites for you to minister to others during the challenging times?

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