Turbulence. (#Algiers #Algeria)

Finally. It was time to go.

I booked this flight about 6 months before departure. Accommodation sorted. At least 1 tour sorted. Basic foundation was already set.

But since this is me we’re talking about, nothing goes smoothly. So of course, bulls*** started just a few hours before my flight. Money, of course, because why not. But I wouldn’t let it deter me. It’d been almost 2 years since my last proper vacation (and I still have to finish those blog posts from that trip… so ashamed of myself.). Yes, there have been a few short jaunts in between, but nothing as long and far away as this. So no matter what, I was leaving. I needed a break from work, from life.

From New York City to Paris, France; a 5 hour layover there; then from Paris to Algiers, Algeria. I know that going through customs in a different country is annoying, but it’s to be expected everywhere and I deal with it. However, I wasn’t expecting to be interrogated by Algerian police.

You read correctly. I was interrogated by Algerian police.

I handed over all of my travel documents at the customs desk and thought that all was well, until I was told to “hold on for a moment”. I knew that some bulls*** was bound to happen because again, that’s just my luck.

Here we f***ing go…

Along with being exhausted, tired/sleepy from limited sleep, and in some pain, I was also angry and kinda scared. My French language skills are very limited, despite my attempts to practice before I left for this trip, and I don’t have any Arabic language skills. So while an officer was telling me that I’d be fine, my face clearly showed that I knew otherwise.

(As an aside, it “helped” a bit that another American woman – a government worker at that! – was also being interrogated. She said to me, “This is terrible, isn’t it?” I nodded with a scowl on my face.)

They opted to interrogate me outside of the officers’ quarters. A female officer who spoke English interpreted & translated for her fellow officers, and asked surprisingly specific questions about why I was in Algeria, what I do for a living, who I see and the age range of the population, etc. ad nauseam. Thank goodness, I didn’t have any reason to lie and was also smart enough to have access to certain things on my mobile phone to prove myself.

TIP: if your mobile phone allows, store your most important documents on something like Google Drive, and make those documents available offline while traveling. It may make a big difference for you in case of emergency.

After what seemed like forever, they let me go. One of the officers hailed a taxi for me and I went to my hotel. But alas, as is my luck, there was more turbulence ahead.

To be continued…

Advertisements

Happy holidays.

By the time you read this, I’ll be in transit to the United States. I usually book my ticket well in advance but this time, I couldn’t so I thought I wouldn’t get to visit. But for some reason, I wasn’t worried. I just felt that I’d be able to find a reasonably priced ticket, even though it’d be a few days before my desired departure date. Sure enough, I bought my ticket 5 days ago and the price exceeded my expectations.

With the transitions I’m dealing with now (if I feel so inclined, I’ll write a post about some of it in the not-so-far future), I needed this visit and I’m thankful that I found an affordable ticket on such short notice. I’ll be gone until mid-January, and hopefully this visit will ease the challenges these transitions give me, giving me refreshed eyes, mind, heart & spirit.

I may write a post at home, who knows. But if I don’t, surely you’ll understand. For those of you who blog, I hope that you’ll take a break too. You deserve it.

Happy holidays, whether you celebrate or not, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Santa Claus.

Keep calm and drink tea. Happy holidays.
Keep calm and drink tea. Happy holidays.

Bom dia: Lisbon, Portugal – day 3.

After a restful night’s sleep, we woke up to seize the day. My roommate, as usual, was already up & out of the room by the time I woke up. I got myself ready in enough time to meet the rest of the group for the day trip.

Rate this:

(If you haven’t already, check out day 1, day 2, & day 2 cont’d before reading further.)

04.08.2012

After a good night’s sleep, we woke up to seize the day. My roommate was already up & out of the room by the time I awake. I got myself ready in time to meet the rest of the group for the day trip.

When I got to the lobby, I noticed that we were missing a couple of people. I asked my roommate if she knew where they were. One of them was still getting ready – he owns a fancy camera that took time to assemble – but she didn’t know what happened with the other person. What a coincidence… Uzi was the other person’s roommate. She walked over to where we were and heard us talking and wouldn’t you know it…

The other person who stayed at the bar last night was so hung over that she couldn’t be bothered with getting out of bed. She decided to stay in the hotel & refused to go anywhere. She also made a mess in the room – a hot vomiting ass mess. (She cleaned up the nastiness while we were gone for the day.) A couple of the others who stayed out drinking didn’t look too hot either, but I assume that since we were leaving Lisbon the next day, they forced themselves out of bed for the trip.

So much for tanning & drinking.

We walked to Lisbon’s underground and caught the train to another train that’d take us to our destination, Sintra.

All aboard.
All aboard.

Sintra is a quick train ride (less than an hour) away from metropolitan-area Lisbon; upon arrival, there are shuttle buses that take sightseers up the hills & mountains to see Portugal’s colorful history & architecture embodied in castles. Sintra’s history dates back hundreds of years and, at one point, was a major Moorish stronghold, as was all the Iberian Peninsula. Take a look at the photos below to see what I mean.

The castle's current archaeological digs.
The castle’s current archaeological digs.
One of many of the castle's granaries.
One of many of the castle’s granaries.
Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle).
Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle).
Moorish flag.
Moorish flag.

Castelo dos Mouros is on the top of the Sintra Mountains – 1378 ft. (420 m.) in the air. My roommate, Uzi & I visited Castelo dos Mouros first, exploring on our own without the rest of the group (they visited another castle first; photos coming after Castelo dos Mouros). Along with walking & climbing around the castle, we got to the top (1378 ft./420 m. is a hell of a lot of walking & climbing) and the overall view was indescribable.

Traitor's door.
Traitor’s door.
Traitor's door. (Read the sign for more details.)
Traitor’s door. (Read the sign for more details.)

And here’s the top.

These people agree with me.
These people agree with me.

After conquering this castle, we headed over to Palacio Nacional da Pena (Wikipedia link), which is a separate castle but in the same area. Initially the site of a monastery in 1493, it was later rebuilt as a summer home for the Portuguese royal family.

Taking photos in the castle isn’t allowed, but I can say that the inside of the castle is quite lavish, gaudy, and almost untouched since the last time any royals lived in it. I got a shot of a sundial away from the inside, though.

Sundial (which, by the way, is still correct down to the second).
Sundial (which, by the way, is still accurate down to the second).

And another indescribable view:

We ate at the palace too.

After a nice, long, productive, unintended-exercise day, we headed back to the hotel. I don’t remember who returned first – us or the rest of the group – because I laid down on my bed and don’t remember much else. 😐 After that nap, though, we (me, roommate, Uzi) ate late dinner in the hotel restaurant.

We’re outta here tomorrow. Too bad… I don’t really wanna leave.

(Finally… the last day.)

Bom dia: Lisbon, Portugal – day 2.

I woke up in the morning and my roommate was already gone. I’m glad that we switched roommates because she was quiet as a mouse, while I found out later that the woman who was supposed to be my roommate… wasn’t.

Rate this:

https://twitter.com/#!/spinstercompass/statuses/197055812559052800

(If you haven’t already, check out Lisbon day 1 before reading further.)

04.07.2012

I woke up in the morning and my roommate was already gone. I’m glad that we switched roommates because she was quiet as a mouse, while I found out later that the woman who would’ve been my roommate… wasn’t. The group leader told everyone last night that the group founder’s friend, a Lisbon native, would be at the hotel at 10:00 a.m. to take us around for city tour. It was optional of course, but I wanted to go. Roommate went early for breakfast; I woke up with enough time to wash up & get dressed.

Along with waking up with a headache, I was still kinda down because of the money issue but my aunt was wiring me the money in a few hours so deep down, I knew that everything would be alright. Group leader said not to worry about money, just come with the group. I went into the bathroom and began getting ready. I did a quick wash up and brushed my teeth. I took a step and

somehow or another, slipped and busted my ass.

Thank goodness I didn’t hit my head or spine, but it wasn’t a pleasant fall. Marble bathroom floor + a bit of accidentally splashed water = disaster. I felt pain in the muscles between my left shoulder and neck.

I was thoroughly annoyed and, as a result, decided to meet the group for lunch instead. (Maybe I’ll laugh at the fall one day, who knows.) I sent the group leader a few texts and told him I’d see everyone later. I was already dressed, so I only had to put on my sneakers and leave when they were ready to eat. I turned on the TV, glad for a couple of extra hours to myself, and laid back down on the bed.

I fell asleep and didn’t wake up until close to 14:00 (2 p.m.). 😐

I checked my phone and saw that the group leader sent me a text at around noon to let me know about lunch. Quite annoying & embarrassing again. I sent him a text apologizing because I didn’t expect to fall asleep. He returned to the hotel in a cab & met me in front of the hotel, then we went to the city center to meet the rest of the group. Some of them were sitting outside of the city’s cathedral, Lisbon Cathedral, while others were taking photos nearby. I did a quick walk through the cathedral, taking some photos.

Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa.
Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa.
English: Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mary Major.
English: Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mary Major.

We then walked to a castle. Before we walked in to wait on line, we happened upon a street musician named Bubacar.

This is Bubacar, playing the xylophone.
This is Bubacar, playing the xylophone.

As we walked away from him, the woman who would’ve been my roommate said

You should have gotten his number. He’s a nice looking man. Wouldn’t it be great to make a love connection on this trip? *wink*

Yeah… No. While I didn’t disagree with her about him being a nice looking man, I think that she just wanted to play matchmaker because Bubacar has dreads like me and because he initially thought that I was Rasta. Sorry lady… 2 dread-heads don’t = instant love connection. I politely declined her bootleg matchmaking offer.

Only a few of us from the group wanted to see & go inside the castle, so we left the pansies who only traveled to get drunk & a tan the others outside waiting for us while we explored the grounds.

1 section of Castelo de São Jorge.
1 section of Castelo de São Jorge.
King Afonso Henriques.
King Afonso Henriques.
Cannon.  One of many around the castle for protection.
Cannon. One of many around the castle for protection.
Tagus River & 25 de Abril Bridge (Ponte 25 de Abril), one of many views from the castle.
Tagus River & 25 de Abril Bridge (Ponte 25 de Abril), one of many views from the castle.

The rest of the group (except for 1 other member) finished a few minutes ahead of me while I took photo after photo. As I made my way out to meet the rest of them, I happened upon

Peacock.
Peacock.

and

Peahens.
Peahens.

I found out that there’s an extensive garden further back on the castle grounds, where peacocks & peahens & other feathered friends – ducks & geese – wander around freely. I wish that I knew about it before leaving the castle, but at least I got a few priceless photos & video for memories’ sake.

We headed back to Lisbon city centre, where I asked around for the nearest Western Union to get my cash. I found one… but of course the computer was down because it’s just my luck for some reason, so the representative directed me across the city plaza to the next one, which was bigger and had working computers & multilingual representatives. I made the quick walk over & waited on line, happy to finally get some money. I spoke in Spanish, showed the representative my driver’s license and she said in Spanish

Sorry, but we don’t accept this. I’ll need your passport.

I didn’t have my passport. Why, you ask? It was in the hotel room safe; a few people told us that we didn’t need to carry our passports around.

Come on, say it with me now… FUUUUUUCK. 😐

To be continued…

Bom dia: Lisbon, Portugal – day 1.

This was the day. I’d been excited about it for a while. I don’t know about any of you, but when a trip is coming up, I don’t get excited about it until the last minute.

Rate this:

https://twitter.com/#!/spinstercompass/status/192316251643707392

04.06.2012

This was the day. I’d been excited about it for a while. I don’t know about any of you, but when a trip is coming up, I don’t get excited about it until the last minute. I might have fleeting moments of excitement in the days or weeks beforehand, but the excitement always grows at the last minute. It’s surreal – I know that I’m going somewhere but it doesn’t feel real until I land in my destination.

I made sure to get enough sleep to manage the trip on public transportation the next morning. I didn’t feel like paying for a cab this time around, at least for the trip to the airport. It went well overall; it took 90 minutes to get there, which isn’t too bad for a major world airport like Heathrow and on a holiday weekend. The only thing that annoyed the hell out of me was the price for the Heathrow Express – £19.00 one way.

I got to the airport before the rest of the group. Oh, I forgot to mention the group…

I joined Meetup about 3 months ago as a way to get out a bit more, as a challenge to myself for 2012 and beyond. (I may write a post or two about how that’s going in the future.) Among other things, I looked for traveler groups and sure enough, I found one that caught my eye: Solo Travelers. As someone who likes traveling solo, this group and its description sounded perfect. This group already planned its 2012 trips, and while I’d love to go on each one of their trips, I’m not rich. But there were a few that appealed to me, and Lisbon caught my eye first – affordable, 2 hour plane ride, long weekend (I hate very short trips). A few days after joining the group, I paid a deposit and secured my spot. While I prefer traveling solo, traveling with other solo travelers made sense to me for a couple of reasons:

1. While we arrived & departed together from each airport, staying together was optional. If we didn’t vibe together, or wanted to do our own things, we could always split up.

2. This was another way to challenge myself to more & make new potential connections.

So there you have it – I traveled with other solo travelers. How did that go, you ask? Stay tuned.

The group went to the wrong gate because of a mix-up, so the group leader sent a text message on my way to the airport and I met the group at the correct gate instead. They arrived 10 minutes later, and the group leader introduced himself & the other group members. We checked in, got our boarding passes & went through security together, but split up until we got on the plane. While we were split up, I tried getting some cash out of my account, but the ATM declined my card . No sweat, though… I’d try when we arrived, and at least I had enough elsewhere.

I should have sat next to a group member, with whom my intuition sensed good vibes, but she was gracious enough to allow a couple to sit together. That was very nice of her… but not for me because the woman in the couple was so annoying that I wanted to punch her in her jackass face & throat. 😐 Lucky for me that I usually fall asleep on flights because I slept for at least half of the flight… which meant that she annoyed me only half as much as she would have if I was awake for the full flight.

When we landed, it was a nice surprise to disembark to nice weather since the weather authority predicted rain in Lisbon for most of the weekend.

Not too bad.
Not too bad.

Before we took our taxis to the hotel, I told the group leader about my ATM issue and he said “No problem, I’ll cover you until you get access to your account. These things happen.” Quite embarrassed – it’s my issue and I take ownership of it – but relieved that it wouldn’t be a huge issue. Our hotel was a short distance from the airport, and the taxi fare was pretty cheap for European standards – well less than €10.00 for each taxi.

We arrived at the hotel, and I was quite impressed. I should have shared a room with an older British woman, but she must have made a good connection with another group member because upon hotel check-in, she said that I was sharing with someone else instead. (That turned out to be a good thing. Stay tuned.) New roommate & I went to our hotel room; were we impressed again. I forgot to take a photo of the outside & our room, but check out the view from our window:

Taken as soon as we got into the room.
Taken as soon as we got into the room.

We settled in, chose our beds, got some help with our TV & internet settings from hotel staff, and relaxed (except for contacting my U.S. bank) until it was time for dinner. For the first night, we all dined together. We weren’t sure where to eat, but at least there were options within walking distance of the hotel. We walked a bit and I spotted an ATM – perfect time to give the group leader his money back. I inserted my card, figuring that there was something wrong with the ATM at Heathrow since the bank didn’t see anything wrong with my card during our phone call.

Of course it was my card. Cash machines in Portugal are pretty damn good because unlike at Heathrow, the ATM flashed the following words on the screen:

Your ATM card has expired.

FUUUUUUCK. 😐

Sure enough, I checked the card and it’d expired 6 days before the trip. I was even more embarrassed. I told the group leader and he was fine with it. He asked if I was alright for dinner and I assured him that I was. Unlike a few years ago, I didn’t throw a temper tantrum or cry or hide away in my room for the night. I just kept calm and thought about what to do next.

We decided on a restaurant across the street from the hotel; unlike a few of the other restaurants in the vicinity, this one was more affordable and there were locals eating there, which signaled to us that the food was probably decent.

Sete Mares.
Sete Mares.

Since my money was funny, I ate within my budget.

Cheese omelet with chips (French fries) & salad.
Cheese omelet with chips (French fries) & salad.

It was very good – no need for condiments or seasonings, it tasted good as shown in the photo. The restaurant specializes in seafood, though.

Yes, they're live.
Yes, they're live.

Some of the group members liked their food, while others could have taken or left it. The main complaint for those who could have taken or left it – the food was too oily. Thank goodness that mine was good.

We stayed for 2-3 hours, and some of us were tired so we went back to the hotel afterwards to get some rest for the next day. I called my family to tell them about the money situation, and my aunt said that she’d wire money the next afternoon. That was fine with me, as I wouldn’t be spending much money anyway, even after getting her money. It was quite annoying to know that I had money that was inaccessible, but it wasn’t worth turning the trip into doom & gloom. Thank goodness for age, wisdom, growth, and back-up plans. New roommate & I chatted a bit, then watched some TV and settled in for the night.

Stay tuned, everyone.

Boa noite.
Boa noite.

Day 2 ahead…

Customer service.

One of the best inventions known to man is online grocery shopping. As someone who has a hectic job, no car (yet) or energy sometimes, this is a (lazy/tired/exhausted/working) woman’s dream come true. So once I got settled into my own flat, I took full advantage. I pick up items from the big-box versions of (online & non-online) stores when basic items run out or I need something quick, but most is online.

Most people in the United Kingdom get paid only once per month, so we’re careful with grocery shopping. While I don’t have a family to feed, I make sure that I have enough cash to buy food along with paying annoying bills. So I was quite annoyed a few months ago when I missed my grocery delivery from a certain store because of its terrible customer service.

I’d just been paid and, as usual, placed my grocery order. I thought that everything was fine until I received a text message from the grocery store (something to the effect of)

Please contact customer service as soon as possible at (phone number), otherwise today’s order is canceled.

Again, I don’t have a family to feed, but I have to eat just like everyone else. So even though I was on public transportation and hate talking on the phone in public, food is important so I called back. The customer service representation, a woman, said “We’re having trouble getting your payment for your order.” I said

Alright. I’m on my way to work, so I’ll go to the bank and see what’s going on because I know that the money is there. I’ll call back afterwards; maybe there’s an issue at the bank.

So instead of going to the office, I went to the bank first. After waiting in the queue for a few minutes (rare), the bank teller (known as “cashier” in the United Kingdom) was ready for me. I explained the situation, she checked my account and said

Everything’s fine. You have more than enough to cover the order.

I said

Would you mind if I called (grocery store) in front of you to see what happens? For some reason, my order isn’t going through.

There were very few people in the bank (rare) so she let me go ahead.

I called customer service & spoke with a different representative. I explained the situation, requesting that he attempt the order again. He tried it and the order didn’t go through. He said (something to the effect of)

It’s isn’t going through. You don’t have enough money, so you need to go to your bank and see what’s going on.

I said

Sir, I’m in the bank now standing in front of a cashier who already checked my account, and there’s more than enough to cover the order. Please try again.

He tried again and said

It’s not going through. You don’t have enough money. It’s not a problem on (grocery store’s) end.

I repeated myself again and added

It has to be on your end. I’m telling you, the cashier is showing me the computer screen with my account information as we speak and there is more than enough to cover it. You can even speak to her if you’d like.

(By this time, she was speaking loud enough for him to hear that the account is fine and that it has to be on [grocery store’s] end and not the bank’s end.)

He stated that it wasn’t necessary because it was the bank’s fault and “the bank needs to fix the problem, not (grocery store).” I asked to speak with a manager or supervisor, and he said that no one was available (liar).

By this time I was late for work, annoyed & hungry since I didn’t have breakfast, and pissed that I wouldn’t have groceries because my refrigerator was close to bare. I also had a strict exercise schedule after work so if I had to go to the store myself, it threw a wrench into my after-work plans. So I let him have it nice & loud. (That’s also the day that I realized the strength of my New York City accent and boy, did it come out that day.) I can’t remember every word, but it went something like this:

I’ve lived here for a year. I’ve ordered groceries from this store ever since I moved here. I’ve given you my business each month without fail, and this is how you wanna treat me? I told you for the hundredth time that I’m in the bank in front of a cashier and the money is there, I asked you to let me speak with a supervisor and you said no, and you refuse to bend. You refuse to consider that (grocery store) have the issue, not me. So you know what? Cancel my order and my account. I’ve had it. You’ve lost another customer.

He said “Okay.” and I hung up on him. Friggin’ jerk.

I thanked the teller, apologized for being loud in the bank (she understood), and went to work. I told my co-workers what happened and while they found it amusing, they also found it annoying. I didn’t know that customer service in this country was so… lacking.

Coming from the United States, I’m used to better customer service overall; some representatives even brown-nose when it’s unnecessary. I salute good customer service representatives because I know the nonsense they have to deal with – rude & downright disgusting customers, terrible pay, sometimes no health or vacation benefits & terrible bosses/employers. I’ve worked in customer service as a teller & in other capacities and know how bad it is. I’ve walked away from a few customers in the past – didn’t wanna catch a case. 😐

So, I “get” it. Customer service isn’t the best job to work in. Been there, done that, the customer is not always right. I also understand, having been to European countries, that Europe’s overall culture isn’t into customer service that brown-noses like the U.S. But no matter the country, representatives should offer a level of service such that the customer is helped as much as possible. That level of service is lacking here overall; even native Britons complain about it. (I’ve heard that France is worse.)

I doubt that it’ll ever change and that’s fine. I don’t have to like it but I’m used to it. I’ve written this rant for wanna-be expatriates and/or travelers: no country is perfect, including so-called First World countries. You’ll run into annoyances like this sometimes. You don’t have to totally assimilate into the adopted country’s culture, but understand that some things are standard & may never change. Figure out ways to deal or return to your home country.

Epilogue: I e-mailed a complaint to the store. A woman e-mailed me and her response was utter garbage – no apology for her colleague, no request to stay with the store, no offers to make me reconsider leaving the store – nothing. That evening, I skipped the gym and went food shopping at another store. I order online from the new store instead & haven’t had any issues since. I also found out that the former store is a Wal-Mart affiliate. Now it all makes sense. 😐

Does anyone have any annoying customer service stories? What’s customer service like in your adopted country? Do you prefer customer service in your home country, or is it better in your adopted country?

Home (sweet home).

Happy holidays.
Happy holidays.

It’s that time again…

I’m heading home for a little more than a fortnight and will be on a plane by the time you get this. I’ve got a couple of posts scheduled to keep you reading whilst I’m away, so please stay tuned.

This time will be a little different, though. This will be my 2nd Xmas at my 1st home while working in my 2nd home. Many of my insights are the same, but there are some that are definitely different. I don’t know how these new insights will affect my time back home, but I’m anticipating the outcomes once I return to my 2nd home. Here are a few of my new insights:

– My friendship group has gotten smaller. It comes with the territory of being an expatriate. Rather than mourning the losses, I’m gonna try appreciating the ones who are still around.

– My definition of friendship has changed. It’s hard to explain and, therefore, I’ll test things out while I’m home.

– My definition of family has changed. A wise friend told her husband that “there is a difference between family and relatives”. That’s one of the best insights I’ve had this year and goes with my edited version – “blood is not (always) thicker than water”. Contrary to popular belief, one can choose one’s family, and that’s powerful.

I almost stayed here for Xmas for financial reasons. But I decided to break away from the usual Spinster and take care of my Self first. I can’t control everything, so I’m allowing the universe to take its course for once. I wanted to go home, so I made choices to make it happen, and I think that that’s what the universe wanted. I’m looking forward to seeing my loved ones & getting some rest/recovering from jet-lag because things are hectic at work & I haven’t had a proper vacation since June. With so much vacation time in Europe, that’s a long time to go without self-care and time off. Perfect timing from the universe.

I wish all of you a Merry Christmas and happy holidays, no matter what you celebrate (or don’t). To those of you traveling, I wish you a safe journey to your destination(s) and a wonderful time when you get there. Be mindful/careful and have fun. Relax, take a chill pill… whatever you do, just enjoy.