Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Thought this suited well to my blog.  Updates coming soon.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Rant - Who are you to judge me?

Many of us, previously myself included, have never thought twice about the restrictions of traveling to other countries. As U.S. citizens we have a freedom to travel throughout the world with simply a passport and never need to question whether a country would let us in or not. (Although this is beginning to change as countries we have restricted are now returning the favor.) It is a luxury that we take for granted and that we often times don't realize doesn't exist for people in other parts of the world. If you wanted to invite a friend from another country to come visit as a tourist in the U.S., you would probably just assume they would buy the plane ticket and come right on over. Unless your friend is from Western Europe, Canada, or Australia, this is definitely not the case. 

The United States requires Visa's in order to be allowed to enter the country.  Even just to stop in a U.S. airport for a few hours in route to another country, you have to have a Visa.  There are many different types of Visa's depending on what the reason for your travel is; for example, Business Visa, Tourist Visa, Temporary Work Visa, or more long term Visas.  A tourist Visa to come visit the United States on a trip would seem to be the easiest to get, but I don't necessarily think this is true.  I will take you through a little bit of the process you have to go through just to be considered for a tourist visa.  (Tourist Visa's allow you to enter the country to visit friends, travel, etc... on a temporary basis.  The Visa is usually for 5 - 10 years and allows you to enter once a year for up to 90 days at a time.)

Please note this information is relevent for Peru; I know other countries have similar procedures, but I cannot say that each process is exactly like this.

The first step in obtaining a Tourist Visa to enter the U.S. is to submit an application.  The application can ONLY by filled out and submitted using the U.S. immigrations online website.  The website is pretty confusing and probably very difficult for most people to figure out on their own.  The online form itself is extensive, and will probably take you over an hour of your time to complete.  If this form is not submitted exactly correct, you will not be able to move on to the next step of the process.  At the end of the form you get a verifcation page where you need to submit a current picture of yourself.  After doing this, you then print a one page receipt with application number, a brief overview of the application you submitted, and your picture. 

The next step is to take your application stub and head on over to the bank and pay your $140 fee for application.  This is a fee you have to pay in order to get an interview.  The money is non-refundable, which means whether or not you actually get a visa - they keep the money anyway.

After the payment has been processed under your application number, you can then log in online to a site at the local embassay to register for your interview.  Typically, the earliest you can get in for an interview is 2-3 weeks from the time that you register for a time slot.  After selecting a date and time for your interview, you get a confirmation to again print and bring with you. 

Now we have reached the time for the interview.  The average interview is between 2-5 minutes in length, and during this time you state why you want a Visa to go to the U.S..  The agent interviewing you will then ask you a few specific questions and make a decision on whether or not you are going to be allowed in.  The interview process is very hard to read, and there are no set guidelines.  It appears that the decision is up to the discretion of the agent interviewing you and the small amount of information obtained in the interview.  They simply need to decide whether they think you are going to the U.S. legitimately just to visit, or if they suspect you might be trying to stay illegal once you enter.  It is written all over that the main criteria for this decision is if you have something substantial keeping you in Peru.  This could be classified as a good job, close family, large investments,  commitments, etc...  The agent must decide in 2-5 minutes if they feel your individual case presents enough evidence to state that you have a good reason to return to Peru.

I would like to describe Julio's interview directly:

(probably a 3 minute conversation) He stated that he wanted to travel to the U.S. in July to visit friends in Minnesota for 2 weeks.  He was asked if he was still a student and when he was graduating - answer is Yes, and in July.  He was then asked about his work, answer - yes he currently has an internship that he will be hired onto after graduation.  The agent told him that based on his criteria he does not get approved.  He asked for further explanation and had another discussion on exactly why he was visiting the States again, since he had already been there as a student worker.  He explained that he was dating me and would like to visit my family.  Also that I am living in Peru, and we intend to stay in Peru.  Once again he was told that he does not meet the correct criteria.  And he was told that he has already had the chance to go to the United States before he shouldn't need to go again.  The agent told him to wait one year to re-apply - and only if his current information changes.

As you can imagine, we were both completely surprised by this result!  We thought that there was no reason that Julio should be denied.  He is educated, has a job, has traveled to other countries before and always returned, has someone willing to vouge for him coming to the U.S. to visit....... unfortunately none of this matters.

Doing more research now, it is evident that hundreds of people apply for U.S. Visas in Peru every day, and hundreds are told "NO".  The selection process seems to be entirely random and not based on any rational reasoning.  Also, where is all this money for Visa applications going?? It seems the U.S. government must be getting rich on making people apply, then re-apply, time and again while paying $140 each time.  (This is a lot of money for most Peruvians!)  Many people with parents, kids, friends, etc... located in the United States will never be allowed to go visit them.

I called the U.S. embassay here in Peru to talk with someone and was told I needed to submit an email.  I submitted a very nice email explaining the entire situation and trying to be very fair and reasonable.  5 days later I got what seemed to be an automated response with a link to a webpage that states general criteria for getting approved.  I replied being more firm, stating my disappointment and that I felt like no one even read my email!  I got an automated response stating the rules on re-application and that a Visa can not be reconsidered once a decision is made.  I sent one more email basically pleading and telling them exactly what I thought of their process.  I never got an email back, and when I called to ask about it - I was again told, submit another email we can not answer your questions at this time.

I wrote a letter to the Senator's office in Minnesota, as I read somewhere that getting a letter from a State Senator may help you get approved the next time you apply.  I still haven't gotten a response, and everything I read seems to tell me that the U.S. Embassay no longer considers these letters of invitation when making their decision.

It seems the only way to get Julio in, is for him to completely lie and hope he slips through the cracks and gets lucky enough to get a Visa.  Something seems entirely flawed in this system.  Yes I understand that the U.S. government has reason to regulate who can enter the country.  If we didn't, we would have far too many people staying - yes this is true.  But when so many people that I know here in Peru have tried to get simply a tourist visa and only want to visit have been denied - something seems wrong.  The process is no doubt unsuccessful.  I realize it will probably cost too much money, time, and someone actually doing something in order for this to ever change.  Apparently that is something that U.S. government is unable to do.  This is very sad, and I can not express enough my disappointment in this entire process.  Why are we denying foreigners who want to enter as tourists and spend their money in our country??  Is there not a better way to decide and screen applicants.  Shouldn't someone from the U.S. be allowed to submit a letter of invitation and take responsibilty for the visiting tourist??  With a struggling economy I think we would be supporting allowing more tourists to enter!!!!!!!!!!

I actually am feeling embarrassed to say that I am from the United States.  Who are we to tell someone that they are not good enough to enter our country?? 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Into the Amazon we go!

(Shortened version - sorry - I just lost all my text and am not happy about it.....)

My friend, Jaime, arrived to Peru on March 13th and stayed until the 28th.  I just have to say that it was really really nice to have someone I know here in Peru.  It was like I had a friend all my own for the first time since I have been here.  Someone to speak English with, to share stories of the past, someone from a similar background... I think you get the picture.  Finally, I felt like the Peru Expert - getting to show her the city and head out on some adventures together.  I am really hoping that a couple more of my friends, and maybe even my family will come visit this next year!  I am dedicated this blog to our jungle adventure.....

Jaime and I headed to the airport to board our flight from Lima to Puerto Maldonado.  We had packed light and were ready to head out to explore the unknown with just our backpacks.  Upon arrival in Puerto Maldonado, we were greeted by our guide from the Corto Maltes Lodge.  It always feels like a bit of a relief when you arrive somewhere and you have someone waiting for you!  We all piled into the tour van and headed on our way down to the river.  Here we loaded ourselves onto a long river boat and were ready to navigate down the Madre de Dios river.  It was hot and the air was heavy, but I was so excited that I really didn't even notice.  The views were amazing, and our guide taught us all about the history and wildlife in the region.  After one hour of navigating the river, we finally reached the lodge.  We unloaded our bags and got checked into our rooms.  The lodge itself has a big dinning hall, reception, bar, and gift shop - and each of the rooms is actually a private bungalow located on the property.  The rooms were really nice and fit into the jungle atmosphere perfectly.  We enjoyed a delicious lunch before heading out on our excursion.  I must say that the food was extremely good and presented as if we were at a 5* restaurant - very impressive for a jungle lodge!  Our first excursion of the day was a nature hike around the region.  We spent about 2 1/2 hours exploring the trails near the lodge and learning about different trees, plants, insects, and birds of the rainforest.  Our guide, Saay, was excellent and seemed to know everything there is to know about the plants and animals within the rainforest.  It was amazing to look up and have our heads covered by the jungle canopy as we hiked along the trail.   That evening, we headed out via river boat in the dark to hunt for caiman.  (species of crocodile)  We were lucky enough to spot a couple of the smaller caiman along the river banks.  More than anything, it was just so enjoyable to be out on the boat in the middle of the amazon rainforest.  I just kept thinking to myself, "How in the world did I ever get so lucky :)." 

The next morning we got up at 5:00am to begin our full day of events!  We started with an early hike to a parrot clay-lick which was about 30 minutes away from our lodge.  The clay lick is basically an eave along a small cliff edge that is made of clay - the parrots and macaws need to eat this for their digestive system.  We hid in the brush as we waited for the birds to come.  After about 30 minutes a group of about 2 dozen macaws slowly made their way down to the clay-lick.  They were a little hard to see, as they are green in color, but we definitely got some good photos of the birds!  It was then time to head back to the lodge for a big breakfast before heading out for the rest of the day.  We got our things together and once again loaded onto the river boat where we sailed down the river to Lake Sandoval.  The Lake is located on the Tambopata National Reserve and is known to be home to a lot of wildlife in the region.  Upon reaching the entrance point, we headed to the office to check-in.  Then we began our 1 hour hike to the lake access.  We trudged with our rubber boots through a lot of mud along the way, but it was well worth it once we reached the lake.  The access point was a sort of lagoon of low lying water that the rainforest was basically still growing in.  It was absolutely beautiful and felt like something straight out of a movie!  We then climbed into a smaller canoe and our guide navigated us through the trees until we reached the lake opening.  We flowed around the ledge of the lake looking at the wildlife and learning about the region.  Eventually we stopped and enjoyed a traditional packed lunch along the riverside.  Our guide then informed us that he could hear a large group of monkeys moving.  We all rushed up the river bank where we could see the monkeys passing by.  Monkeys sometimes travel in large groups when they are moving through the rainforest, and we were lucky enough to witness this.  We starred in amazement looking up as over a 100 monkeys crawled over our heads for about 20 minutes.  By the end of the day we got to see three species of monkeys - squirrel monkeys, capuchin monkeys, and a spider monkey.  It was so fun to watch the monkeys look at us and we starred up at them.  It was then time to continue on our tour of the Lake and we enjoyed the rest of the afternoon navigating our way back.  After hiking bike out, we boarded our river boat once again and went back to the lodge just as the sun was beginning to set.  A lovely dinner that evening, followed by a dip in the pool, was the end to a lovely day.

On the third day, Jaime and I got to have a private tour since the other 5 in our group were returning home that morning.  We headed out with our guide and began the tour at a local farm.  This farm was definitely not what you think of as a traditional farm.  To anyone, it would just look like a couple of shacks surrounded by the rainforest.  However, after meeting the family and walking through the property - we learned that everything on the land was something they could use.  The trees were all various forms of fruit trees, and the ground was crawling with lots of medicinal plants.  We pretty much got to sample everything we came across - and the fruit was so good!  After the farm tour, we headed back on our way to monkey island.  We hiked through the island for about an hour in search of another group of monkeys, but we weren't as lucky today.  We returned to the boat and continued on to the last top of the day, a small adventure lodge.  It was finally time to enjoy the much anticipated zip-lining through the rainforest.  I was definitely more excited than nervous, but I must say climbing up the rickety tree house to the platform did have my stomach on edge.  The zipline consisted of two seperate zip lines connected by a a tiny bridge made of 2x4s.  The bridge was without a doubt the scariest part - it was pretty much like walking the tight rope - 60 feet in the air!  The zip lines were really thrilling as we zipped through the trees and brush below, with our feet narrowly missing the trees we passed.  I can't imagine any other way to end a vacation! 

The experience at the lodge was definitely fun.  Not only was the staff great, but we got to meet some really cool people who were staying there as well.  One of the best parts of traveling is no doubt meeting other travelers and sharing stories with them.  Our guide, Saay, did an amazing job, and the entire staff made us feel extremely welcomed.  I was sad to leave that next morning, but after breakfast, we loaded back into the boat and headed back to Puerto Maldonado.  We took our flight back to Lima and enjoyed the views from our plane of the river weaving through the Amazon like a snake below.  I highly recommend an Amazon excursion to everyone who comes to Peru.  It is a place like no other, and I can not wait until I have the opportunity to return again one day!!