Galapagos Trip: Days 2 and 3 (Miami and Ecuador)
This is the second in the series of Sara’s trip to the Galapagos. Planning and Day 1 (Newark and Miami) Days 2 and 3 (Miami and Ecuador) More to come… Always the shutterbug, I simply took far too many pictures to upload them all. See a sampling below, or the whole shebang on facebook My second day, which was spent in Miami, was nice. I went out for a sort of brunch with Cathy to a Cuban bakery where we got a mini sandwich and two cheese empanadas. The empanadas, covered in sugar, were the epitome of delicious! I considered getting more but my body revolted, telling me like an ever-present parent “Hey! That’s dessert, not breakfast!” To ensure I complied, my parental body promptly gave me a sugar headache. It was so worth it though :). I moved onto the sandwich and more tastebud awesomeness. Cathy and I looked at each other and, as only true friends can do, telepathically agreed to a pact of mutual fatassery to get another two sandwiches. I went out to dinner with my aunt and uncle at a nice Peruvian restaurant, then met up with Cathy at a nearby mall. We went shopping with her little eight year old cousin for Hello Kitty stuff. I discovered two things from this expedition: The first thing was that mustaches are apparently in right now (seriously, they were on EVERYTHING, even vegetable earrings!). The second thing was that Hello Kitty was everywhere. Cathy and I had a sort of punch-buggy-Hello Kitty thing going (as in “omg, there’s another store that has Hello Kitty in the window!”). I know we had counted at least 10. (Seriously, try it sometime! It’s amusing) Cathy was borrowing her grandma’s car so we went to pick up her grandma to drive her home. Almost immediately, Cathy and her grandma started having a heatedly animated argument in Spanish. I was amused and curious to know what could create such quick, passionate discord between them. Cathy translated for me: Her grandma feared we would be enslaved by people who would spray a perfume at us or put powder on our faces to induce amnesia and make us forget who we were. Naturally, we’d still be able to enter our pin number at the bank and give them the sum total of our bank accounts. Allegedly, she knew three people to whom this had personally happened. However, that would only be the start of some crazy warnings we’d get.  The morning of the third day, Cathy and I had our flight to Ecuador.  Cathy’s aunt warned us that Mercury was in retrograde and that strange things were likely to occur for the next day or so. Yea, ok, whatever. Also in addition to her warnings about being drugged with perfume or face powder, Cathy’s grandma was also worried about me, saying that I looked too American because I was wearing shorts. Cathy and I joked that we’d say we were from different countries (I had decided on Sweden) and would give people pseudonyms. Not long after leaving the parking lot, we got caught in a speed trap. It was a main road but the speed limit was only 25 mph. Granted, it was a residential street…ish. We saw the SIDE or BACK of many GATED apartment complexes. Either way, the cops were standing on one the side of the street, having pulled over 5 cars so far. Cathy’s mom, who was driving us to the airport, was furious. Allegedly, it was illegal for police to pull over more than three cars at one time for speeding . To add insult to injury, there were three cops doing this together. Cathy’s aunt, who was also there, gave me a knowing smile. Huh, I guess she was right. Mercury must have been in retrograde…whatever that means. Once we got to the airport there were thankfully fewer than the thousands of people in line than we encountered in Newark. The fact that the line was gradually moving was also an immense improvement.  All felt right with the world until I got pulled to the side at security. I’m obviously not a terrorist. I barely break five feet tall and could easily be disarmed of anything (including my intellect) by something as simple as a cute puppy. The most harm I’d pose to anyone not about to hurt me would be accidentally stepping on their foot. Considering I can sometimes get away with shopping in the kids’ section of shoe stores, that isn’t saying much. Yet even though I have nothing to hide and pose no danger, for some reason, I always feel anxious in these situations. I worry that a Ziploc bag of illegal drugs or some form of explosive will somehow spontaneously appear in my bag. I stepped forward, wondering if my neck pillow was now suddenly contraband. The man at security started making small talk with me. Security dude: (probably noting how pale I was) So are you from around here? Me: No, I’m actually from Jersey SD: So, on vacation in Miami? Me: Well no, my friend that I’m traveling with is, so we stopped here to rest before the next part of our trip. SD: Where are you headed? Me: The Galapagos. Well, we’re stopping over in Ecuador first. SD: Oh? Me: It’s a transfer flight. SD: Oh. The longer the conversation went on, the more nervous I felt. Then again, how would any woman feel about a strange man looking through her bag for a really long time? Why can’t they just invent a conscience scanner and determine that I’m genuinely on vacation? The fact that I stopped in Miami before heading to Ecuador made me worry about being suspected of drug trafficking or something. Cathy started giving me a weird look, having already gone through security and wondering why I was taking so long. She headed over and he started casually asking her the same questions he’d asked me. Finally, the security guy gave me a look that said he’d found what he was looking for. As it turns out, I forgot that I had a bottle of water in my bag. Oops. He wished us a good trip and winked at me. After finally getting through security, we went to our gate and sat down. We encountered a Latin American looking girl who wore shorter shorts than I did. I apparently wasn’t the only one wearing shorts on this flight. I felt assured, thinking Cathy’s grandma was just overreacting. Despite LAN’s (a member of Oneworld meaning you can use your American and British Air points) website being extremely difficult to navigate and their customer service representation being very rude to me, my experience with their airport had no problems. The flight went very smoothly. The one weird thing while we were waiting for the flight to take off was the music they were playing. They played a tune that sounded like off-key windchimes. It was a bit unnerving. I was happy to be rid of the music once we were off the plane. We got to Quito and had originally planned on sleeping in the airport. Cathy spotted an information stall for a hotel that had its own taxi service to take us there. The the hotel room was $50 a night and the taxi was $10. As it turns out the taxi was a worthy investment. Our cab driver was very friendly and informative. Cathy translated that we should only get in cabs with numbers on the door (a sort of visible taxi certificate on the front right hand side door). Those without (the fake taxis) were known for occupying drivers that dabbled in human trafficking. Our driver corrected himself, saying that sometimes the fake cabs put a number on the side too. The only way to be sure you were in a legitimate cab was to have the airport or the hotel call one for you. We arrived at Hostal Jardin del Sol to find a perfectly nice, clean and simple room. As with the toilets we’d later encounter in he Galapagos, we discovered that we had to throw away the toilet paper instead of flushing it. Suddenly, we heard what sounded like gunfire outside. We were petrified, pulling the curtains shut and trying to stay away from the windows, convinced we’d get shot. The “gunfire” ceased and my curiosity took over. I slowly opened the door to the balcony to find a beautiful view waiting for me. The “gunfire” started up again. Turns out, they were only firecrackers. Read More ›

Galapagos Trip: Planning and Day 1 (Newark and Miami)
This is the first in the series of Sara’s trip to the Galapagos. Planning and Day 1 (Newark and Miami) Days 2 and 3 (Miami and Ecuador) More to come… I booked a flight with my old college roommate, Cathy, to the Galapagos Islands to visit a friend we knew in college. We used to compare the prices of flights. Since Cathy is a Miami native and because it seemed wise to break up the flight into smaller trips, we chose to fly from Newark airport down to Miami.  Our itinerary was that the flight to Miami would be with United while the flight to the Galapagos (first arriving in Quito, Ecuador) would be with LAN. LAN is an Ecuadorian airline and a OneWorld member that is affiliated with American Airlines (see Dave’s article on other OneWorld members). I arrived at 10:30 am on August 5th to Newark airport for my 12:45 pm flight. Despite that I was over two hours early, this meant nothing. TSA had shut down the security checkpoints of terminal C because of two security breaches that day. There were at least a thousand people congregated on the ground floor of terminal C alone! We waited patiently in line until TSA agents had us merge with other lines (some of which were comprised of people that had just walked in off of the street!). Needless to say, this put us even farther back in line. When we finally got upstairs, we were shocked to find yet another line awaiting us. Beyond the full barriers within the security ropes was a long line extending down a nearby hallway! We were annoyed, since we had already waited about two and a half hours at that point. However, we weren’t worried about our flight. Though it was now just past our 12:45 flight time, we had been told by the TSA agents that all of the flights had been delayed. Allegedly, flights that had been scheduled to leave at 9 AM were only just now leaving. We were assured that we would indeed make our flight. Eventually, we got through security. Cathy and I went to the flight screens to see what time our flight would be rescheduled to. We saw three different Miami flights, none of which matched our flight number. Cathy went to stand on the customer service line while I went to check at our gate for any possible information. I looked at the destination screen at our gate to find it blank. I asked the woman what time the flight would leave. Apparently having answered this question a lot today, she yelled at me, saying “There is no flight!  It left already!” I was at a loss for words. I had apparently missed my flight because TSA had made it impossible to reach the security checkpoint.  What was even worse was that TSA had not communicated the situation to our flight! We kept encountering people of authority in the airport having no knowledge of what had transpired! After about a half hour on the phone with United customer service, Cathy lucked out by getting a representative that genuinely wanted to help. He couldn’t find a single opening on a United flight to Miami out of Newark, La Guardia nor JFK for the next two days! Thankfully he got us tickets on an American Airlines flight leaving in three hours. According to the answers that other passengers’ got from other representatives, the airline was technically not responsible for getting us a new flight. Though I was grateful for the effort that our rep had put into helping us, I was admittedly very, very angry.  Then I began wondering, why I should be grateful that they helped us.  We paid for our tickets, they owe us at least this much. Despite showing up with more time than necessary, we had been held up by TSA. Based on how many people had been stranded downstairs for hours, Cathy and I guesstimated that our plane could not possibly have left with more than 10 passengers. I temporarily swallowed my anger though. Aggravated as I was, I didn’t want to piss off any people at the airline, Lest it might jeopardize my spot on this new flight. I resolved to handle it once I got back home.  We took a bus over to terminal A and got through security.  We managed to get to our second flight with relative ease. Our new flight was at 5 pm. We began taxiing around on the tarmac before the pilot announced that there was a storm coming soon to Florida. He predicted that this would result in a one hour delay. The man next to me sighed loudly in response. I told him of our ordeal and that I was at least grateful to get to sit down. He got very quiet after that. About 15 minutes later, the pilot announced that he saw a small window of time during which we could avoid the storm and that he’d go for it. The flight went smoothly after that. I spent my time alternating between reading a book and trying to carry on a conversation with a nice old Brazilian man next to me, despite that I spoke no Portuguese.  We made decent time, arriving around 8:30. Unfortunately, Cathy’s mom, who was going to pick us up from the airport, assumed that we would take longer. We got a hold of her while she was grocery shopping. She finally arrived around 9:30 pm. By the time we got to the house, got our bags inside and answered everyone’s questions, it was about 11 pm. Needless to say, when the opportunity presented itself, I passed out. Overall mood for day 1: Argh Read More ›

Use your Smarts (Phone)
I went to Dick’s Sporting Goods Store a couple of weeks ago. Apparently there was a 50% off sale on, among other things, wetsuits. I was a bit dubious thinking, “But half off of what price?”. Turns out they were $70-80 originally (about average, maybe a bit above). Awesome! Then I got worried that they wouldn’t have my size. I tend to fit into a size 4 or 6 in clothing and I was appalled to find that their smallest was an 8. The joke was on me: in wetsuits, I’m apparently a size 10… So I went to the counter, proud to be purchasing a $40 wetsuit. While waiting for the register, I decided to look online on my phone to see if there was a coupon for the store. Sure enough, I found a $10 off coupon. So I got my wet suit for $30! Point of the story: If you have a smart phone, always try to look online for a discount. This applies to online purchases as well because you can look for them on your computer before you finalize your order. Read More ›

I’m leaving on a jet plane–to the Galapagos
I wanted to write this MUCH earlier but work has been hectic.  My college roommate and I decided to go on a trip to the Galapagos, both to take in the sights and to visit an old friend from college.  So here is my projected list of things to bring on this trip.  Any last minute suggestions would be awesome from readers if you have anything to add 🙂 Stock Photo of some Waved Albatross from Wikimedia Commons sunscreen poncho/waterproof jacket travel pillow bug spray disinfectant spray/wipes backpack underwater camera first aid kit (meds, band aids, neosporin, etc.) moisturizer lip balm hat (maybe) & sunglasses flashlight scarf water shoes sweater/fleece quick drying pants snorkel & goggles swimsuit wetsuit flip flops sneakers ID passport (regular) camera   The reason that I’ll be bringing so many cool weather items is because apparently the Galapagos gets a little chilly in August due to changes in the currents around this time of year.  Hopefully, this list helps others plan their trip and/or inspires people to comment with helpful feedback! Read More ›

Anatomy of a counterfeit 100 yuan bill
There are likely many types of counterfeit 100 yuan notes. There are, however, a few things to look for that should give you an idea of what to look for on a legitimate bank note. First, let me start with pictures of the front and back of a legitimate 100 yuan bill. </dt> </dl> Front of a real bill The red half-circle in the left hand corner, when held up to the light, lines up with its blue counterpart on the back of the bill in the lower right-hand corner.   Back of a real bill </div> Note the placement of the blue half circle in the lower right hand corner.  When held up to the light, this will line up perfectly with its red counterpart in the lower left hand corner on the front of the bill.   Resulting circle on a legal bill When held up to the light, this makes a complete circle with a small square inside it.   Next, here are pictures of the front and back of a counterfeit bill.  On this counterfeit bill, that circle we encountered before doesn’t appear in the corner, but towards the middle of the bill towards the left… Front of a counterfeit bill Back of a counterfeit bill …and the right sides. And when held up to the light… Counterfeit circle doesn't line up the halves do not line up.   Serial number: Obviously, if you take out multiple bills and they have the same serial number on them, it should be a dead giveaway. But if you only get one counterfeit bill… Same serial number   Watermarks: Visible watermarks The denomination watermark on these counterfeit bills are visible without holding it up to the light. This 100 to the right of the green one would not be visible on legal currency. Visible watermark   The texture: The texture on the counterfeit bills are very coarse, having been more recently printed. A legitimate bill will have been worn smooth. Real (Smooth) Fake (textured)   The silver bar at the center of the bill: If you hold a legitimate bill up to the light, you will see a solid line running down the center. If you look closely, you’ll see RMB (standing for renminbi, the name of the currency). If you see these two things, you are in possession of legal currency. Silver bar running through the center Silver bar says RMB (sorry that it got blurry when I shrunk the pic) The counterfeit I have does not have a dark line down the center, nor the RMB printed in it. Only light bar down the center with no RMB printed inside it   Color change: The denomination should change color. On real currency, the 100 changes from green to blue. Real bill held upright (before) Real bill (after turning it) On the fake currency, the number stayed green. Fake bill (and you can of course see the watermark) Aaaaaand presto You can also see the watermark of Mao’s mug pretty easily from this angle 😛   As I said before, I am sure that there are a lot of different kinds of counterfeit bills.  However, I hope that any one of these details can help someone to spot a fake bill, should they ever encounter one. Read More ›

Update on Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC): It still sucks
I had given up on getting through to ICBC. When I was still living in Korea, I had tried handling the matter at an ICBC branch in Seoul. For newer readers, the matter I’m referring to is my having withdrawn 300 yuan, at the time about $45, from an ICBC ATM in Beijing. This money, as I’d find out the next day, turned out to be counterfeit. Given that the ICBC website wasn’t very informative, I decided to go up to Seoul one weekend to see if there was anything that could be done. While the bank branch itself was apparently closed on Saturdays (couldn’t find that online, d’oh), I got a very nice Korean man to help me call an off-hours information line that the bank had. I told him my story and he spoke to the representative on my behalf in Korean. I was then told that the Korean branch could not be held responsible for something that had happened in China and would not be able to assist me with fixing the problem. Once I came back to America, I found out there was an ICBC branch in New York. I kind of gave up on the idea of calling them before even trying, thinking I’d be told the same thing that I was back in Korea. Surely if South Korea couldn’t be bothered, and they’re WAY closer to China than America is, America would feel the same. Months went by and I was telling the infamous story of my trip to China to a relative. My dad, overhearing me, said if he were me, he’d try harder to get this resolved. So I made one last effort. I originally wanted to email the bank, so I went to the ICBC homepage and clicked on the English translation. Then I scrolled down and clicked “Contact Us” at the bottom of the page. What awaited me there were a few Chinese phone numbers/extensions that I could call or had the option of texting. Underneath this was a link that said “Customer Complaint: Please click here”. So I did. It brought me back to the homepage in Mandarin. Grrrr… Then I decided to look up the phone number for the New York office. Success, I found it! So I called. After a short holding time, I got a representative. Relieved, I told her a shortened version of my story in case she just turned out to be an operator about to redirect me to another department. She asked me if I had a corporate account. I replied in the negative, saying this was more of a personal banking matter. She told me that their ICBC branch only dealt with corporate accounts but that she could give me a number for personal banking. “Ok, cool,” I thought, “at least she knows where to send me to resolve this.” I called the 877 number that she’d given me and got a Chinese woman whose English was not great. So I spoke slowly and tried to tell my story as simply as I could. The resulting conversation went something like this. Representative: You counterfeit money in Canada? Me: (a bit louder thinking she misheard me) No, China. Beijing ATM. Forbidden City. Rep: Yes yes. You go Beijing. Counterfeit money in Canada? Me: No. I got the counterfeit money in China. Rep: Canada? Me: China! I never went to Canada! Rep: Oh. Why you call here? Cannot help with China. This Canada! So the New York branch had transferred me to a Canadian branch, which was apparently saying the same thing as the Korean one: We can’t help you. The Canadian representative, however, did transfer my call to the branch in Beijing and told me which buttons to press through the phone menu that would come up. I thanked her immensely, thinking it would only be a short while before I could get some closure to my story. I selected the correct numbers and was redirected to a rep who could speak English. I told my story a third time. The man on the other end, whose accented English was quite good compared to the Canadian rep’s, solemnly told me that since I was no longer in China, the matter could not be handled since no one could prove that the money was counterfeit. I offered to take it to an ICBC branch to confirm that it was indeed counterfeit. I offered photos. At one point, I even offered to MAIL it to China. He held true to his position: This matter could not be fixed since I was not presently in China. Frustrated, I said “So let me get this straight. I would have to buy a plane ticket and pay another $180 for a visa just to come to China to resolve this?” Apparently, my sarcasm got lost in translation; he thought I was serious. He told me that, even if I did come to China, there was no proof that the money had come from their bank. I told them about the record on my BOA statement that it was their bank, the only transaction I had done that day. The next day, that money was the only money in my wallet. I only ever went to two banks during my stay in China: China Construction Bank (a member of the Global ATM Alliance with BOA and charged minimal 1% fees for ATM withdrawals) and ICBC (the one time I could not find a China Construction Bank). I told him that I still had the counterfeit money as proof. I had my bank statement for a record of the time and place that this occurred. I had witnesses. It did not matter. He said I could be faking. I told him that if I was faking, I’d be trying to get more out of it than $45. He said that ICBC had never had an incident like this before. Trying a different approach, I said that I was sure that ICBC was a well respected bank, that it was nothing personal, but all I had to go on was my one transaction with them, which resulted in giving me counterfeit money. He repeated himself, saying that ICBC had never given counterfeit money before. Exasperated, I asked him how he knew that for sure when cases like mine were swept under the rug and ignored. He repeated himself and I told him that while I had no issue with him personally, his bank had no honor. He repeated himself yet again. When I did not respond, he asked if there was anything else he could do for me today. I held back a laugh, said no and hung up. Moral of the story: While ICBC undoubtedly has legitimate transactions (otherwise how could it stay open?), I can again only comment on my one dealing with them, which gave me counterfeit money from an ATM. Additionally, they did not own up to this, nor handle this in a manner of trying to help me. Instead, I was treated like a criminal out to make a quick buck by conning a wonderful and honest bank. I cannot guarantee that other tourists will have the same problem with them. However, I would give the same advice with regards to any dealings with this bank as one would receive at the entrance of Dante’s version of hell: “All hope abandon ye who enter here.” Read More ›

Top Tips on a Trip to China: Tip #3- Do not trust local invitations to a tea house
This happened on the same day as the counterfeit currency fiasco I indicated before. I had been wandering around Beijing in the winter. My local Beijing friend, exhausted from our harrowing trip to Xi’an the day before, had gone home for a nap, leaving me on my own. We agreed to meet some three hours later. She was, however, so drained that she overslept and was late… by about four hours beyond that. During this time I, who had no working cell phone in China, kept asking people (well pantomiming really) if I could use their cell phones. I was elated to discover one young couple that spoke English quite well compared to most people one might find in Beijing. Before I continue, let me offer a disclaimer. While I am not from New York (30 minutes away in New Jersey), I was raised by two New Yorkers who taught me never to heed people trying to talk to me on the street because they were likely trying to sell me something.  I’m pretty good at ignoring  people on the street in general. Thus when I saw a sign taped to the hostel’s bathroom mirror warning people to not engage in conversation with people who come up to them on the street, all I could think was “Duh…” I had spent the day avoiding people who would address me with some variants of “You speak English?? I STUDY English!! We talk!” I smugly thought I’d gotten the hang of not getting conned. Oh dear, was I wrong… So back to the young couple. I assumed given my lack of gloves and hat, as well as my shaking from the cold, the girl asked if I wanted to go to a tea house with them. Since I was freezing cold, I saw no issue with this. Upon entering the tea house, we were ushered into a room and given menus. I was starving, having not eaten since around breakfast and it being about 6 PM. Looking over the menu, I was very surprised. Food is typically cheap in China. One of my favorite dishes, baozi, typically cost 4 yuan (about 80 cents at the time). I was shocked to discover that food at this place ran to 80 yuan and up! Being hungry and cold, I tried to overlook this and ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, some chicken at 80 yuan. The couple ordered a pot of tea. This turned out to be the most delicious tea I had ever had! Just as I was beginning to feel that life wasn’t so bad, the check came. The bill said 600 yuan (almost $100) for six cups of tea and my plate of chicken! I was outraged! I’d consider myself a fairly composed person when in public, but with something that insane, I made a bit of a scene. A hostess came over and, in response to my yelling, offered to “take off the 100 yuan room fee”. “Room fee, ROOM FEE???” I was fuming. “What is the matter with you? You BROUGHT us in here, we didn’t request it!” Because of my outburst, the “discount” was taken from my portion, making what I’d pay 200 yuan (about $30). Even though the hostess took both of our cards, I’m pretty much convinced that their card didn’t actually get charged. After we paid the bill, the couple was in a rush to leave, instead of letting me finish my chicken or tea. They said that we should hurry to meet up with my friend. Because I just wanted to leave, I obliged. As soon as we were out the door, however, they vaguely said something about having a prior engagement and instructed me to walk “that way for five minutes” (pointing to the right, down a fairly dark street) “and turn right to go to the subway”. With that, they left. I am not a person to wear watches. Out of habit, I tend to rely on a cell phone to keep track of time. However, I did not have a working cell phone in China. Had you been on that street in Beijing, you would have seen a very distraught looking foreigner trying to maintain composure and count to 300 (a meager attempt to measure five minutes). Of course, counting to 300 is harder to do when you’re fighting negative thoughts. “They have my friend’s number in their cell phone,” I realized. “What if they’re calling her right now, demanding a ransom payment after having sent me to the middle of nowhere? I wouldn’t put it past them, after conning me at that tea house…” Fighting tears, I tried to see the positive in my situation. I stopped above a small pretty brook and went to take a picture. My camera battery died. Why me? I walked a little more, until I realized I couldn’t go any farther. Faced by a wall of traffic, I realized where I was. I was facing Tiananmen Square! I turned right and sure enough, a short walk down the street was the subway entrance. I managed to borrow one more person’s phone to contact Emily to tell her where I was. I thanked them profusely for letting me use their phone and went on my way. While waiting for Emily, I strolled along the street, half in curiosity, half in order to keep warm. I saw what I would later discover was Tiananmen Gate, a brick-red wall with a large portrait of Mao Zedong in the center.  It was bathed in white ground lights, with what appeared to be a temple behind it lined with its own strings of lights. I was so angry at my camera battery for being dead. I took some cell phone pictures with my otherwise useless Korean phone which did these gorgeous sights absolutely no justice. Soon after, Emily showed up on the back of her boyfriend’s scooter. She looked thoughtfully from me to the scooter and back again, trying to gauge the success of putting three people on it. Deciding in the negative, we instead hailed a motorcycle cab bound for adventure…and dumplings! Read More ›

Top Tips on a Trip to China Tip #2- Research Credit and ATM fees
Tip #2: Research your credit cards and banks for useful benefits, such as no (or reduced) foreign transaction or ATM fees. For example, ATM’s under the Global ATM Alliance will charge Bank America customers only 1% (instead of 1% + $5). Before I’d left for China, I checked the international information on my credit and bank cards. I was already aware that my Capital One credit card (like all Capital One Credit Cards, the Chase Sapphire Card, the AMEX Platinum Card, the Chase Ink Bold, the Chase Marriott Rewards Card and certain others) did not have international usage fees. My Bank of America ATM card, meanwhile, would serve me well. As a member of the Global ATM Alliance, Bank of America users are allowed to use their bank card at participating ATMs in certain foreign countries to withdraw local currency without having to pay an extra $5. After researching further, I was relieved to discover that China Construction Bank (a member of the Global ATM Alliance) was the second-most common bank in China. This alleviated my fears of not being able to find a branch when necessary. My friend Emily in Beijing, who I was going to visit, confirmed that this was an easily accessible bank. During my time in China, sure enough, China Construction Bank provided me with a cheap way to access funds. I’d made the decision, since the cost of a visa to China was $180, that I would not be returning. With that in mind, I did A LOT of shopping at small local stores. I’m positive I annoyed Emily given the frequency of my visits to the ATM, as well as the quantity of souvenirs I was purchasing. (Side note: Emily and I had a running joke. I happen to very much like dragons, tigers and horses, a common theme found in China. I had decided that I wanted to collect them while here. When I would see souvenirs with one of these animals present, I’d stop to investigate. I stopped so often that Emily would playfully mock me, saying in a high-pitched exaggerated tone, “LOOK! It’s a DRAGON! DRAAAAAAAAAA-GON!!”) On my 3rd day in China, I visited the Forbidden City. After shop-hopping together in the area outside, Emily dropped me off at the entrance, with the intent to meet up with me a few hours later. She mentioned casually that she had been there a few times before on school trips. As a Beijing resident, visiting this site was about as exciting to her as Times Square is to someone from New York or New Jersey. I guess along those lines, I was probably the international equivalent of someone who actually WEARS an “I ♥ NY” t-shirt. A few hours later, as I determined by looking at strangers’ watches since I had neither a phone, nor a watch, I realized I was already a half hour late in meeting with Emily. Guilt ridden, I raced out of the Forbidden City to our pre-determined meeting spot to find her…absent. What happened after this point serves as its own long story, which I will tell in another blog. The short story is that she did not show up for the next 4 hours. This did not bode well for me, it being New Year’s Eve and very cold. My jacket, while ever so stuffed with fluffy feathers, did not have a working zipper. I had also lost one of my two gloves and had no hat. After spending the little money I had in my wallet on a hat and gloves, I searched everywhere for a China Construction Bank ATM with no success. At the suggestion of a local couple (another story in and of itself for another time), I went to a nearby branch of a bank called Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. At first, I tried to convert some Korean currency I had with me for Chinese. No luck. For whatever reason, they didn’t accept Korean money. So, bracing myself for fees, I bit the bullet and used my bank card at their ATM. I took out 300 yuan (about $50). It wasn’t until the next morning, when on a tour of the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall that I found out from a vendor that my 300 yuan was counterfeit! I tried to handle this while still in China, but I couldn’t recall the name of the bank at the time. I checked my banking information for the transaction in question as soon as I was back at my hostel. Unfortunately, the bank listed the account transaction and location as a series of numbers…grr. My tourguide had misunderstood that I did not remember the name of the branch and appealed to CBC about the counterfeit currency. They were fully willing to reimburse me, thinking they were at fault. I corrected the tourguide but was not able to tell him the name of the bank. Since my flight out of China back to Korea was the next day, I figured that maybe I could resolve this from out of the country. I was wrong. I went online to the ICBC website to complain. I tried clicking their link for contacting them. This merely refreshed the home page. They had a wealth of different phone numbers, but none that could help me. Given that I only had a prepaid phone that only worked in Korea, I could not call outside of Korea. I waited until work on Monday to ask a co-worker to call the Korean ICBC in Seoul on my behalf. They said they needed me to come in person, since they could do nothing over the phone. Given that I worked during the week, I went up to Seoul on the weekend to a Korean bank branch of ICBC. Apparently, I didn’t realize that Korean banks were closed on Saturdays…-grumble-. I bumped into a worker of a company that shared a building with the bank, who was more than happy to help. He called a number he knew of and listened patiently before informing me that sorry but the Korean Bank branch is not responsible for reimbursing me when this happened in China. I begged that they at least pass the memo along to the China branch. More patient listening from the man, followed by him shaking his head. While Bank of America did reimburse me for the fees incurred from the transaction, they could not reimburse me for the counterfeit currency. Emily later told me that this does happen occasionally with banks in China. I appealed to her over Skype for help, but what she basically said was that it wasn’t worth it, to stop complaining and just be glad it wasn’t more. Moral of the story: If at all possible, go to a globally recognized bank (like China Construction Bank). To be fair, I don’t know whether or not Industrial and Commercial Bank of China would have reimbursed me had I been able to settle this while in China, but I know that China Construction Bank would have. Also, considering my feverishly frequent trips to the China Construction Bank ATM, I did not receive a single counterfeit bill. Read More ›

Top Tips on a Trip to China: Tip #1- If possible, get your visa while in your home country.
For most people, this probably sounds obvious. However, if you are traveling through Asia and decide to go to China at the last minute, or are an expatriate (a person currently living outside of their home country), you will be in for a little bit of heartache. If you want to so much as leave any airport in mainland China, you need a visa. There is no getting around this fact, especially if you are American. You also need to get the visa through a travel agency that has been approved by the Chinese government. Since I was living and teaching in Korea at the time, I had to ask my mentor teacher to call a travel agency on my behalf so that I could apply for a visa. There are two types of visas, single entry and multiple entry. Each I believe was the same price (or if not, the price difference is so negligible that it still would’ve paid off to get the multiple entry visa). When my mentor teacher asked which one I wanted, I elected to put my $180 towards a multiple entry visa. I sent off my application with my passport. It was a nerve-wracking couple of weeks without my passport because, especially in a foreign country, your passport is worth about 500 times its weight in gold. It felt like Christmas the day that I got my visa’d passport back. I excitedly ripped open the envelope to see what the visa looked like in my passport. There was a picture of the majestic Great Wall in the background. It had my name and birthdate on it. Then my eye settled on a line titled “Entries” with a 1 next to it. Another line read “Enter Before: 13 Mar 2011” (it was December of 2010 at the time). That made me suspicious that they had mistakenly given me a single entry visa. I appealed to my mentor teacher to talk to the travel agency. She then told me that I was not allowed to receive a multiple entry visa because I was not living in the United States at the time. I was fuming. I’m sure I was sending smoke signals to neighboring towns. I had paid $180 for the visa for my week long trip to China. Should I have ever decided to go back, it would’ve cost me ANOTHER $180. Granted, I had no idea that I would be going to China while I was back home in America, so I don’t think this could have been prevented in my case. Hindsight is 20/20. Try your best to get your visas in your home country.   Read More ›

Dental Health = Mental Health (Dentistry in Korea)
I went online but all I found were phone number, listings and forum testimonials oscillating between "Oh man, this guy is really great I highly recommend him", and "People, I beg you, do not go to (the person that I had just seen being recommended), he's TERRIBLE." Some people said that a good deal of dentists in Seoul trained in the U.S. or Canada so they're pretty much just as good as back home. Others said Korean dentists tend not to be good and to go to Thailand.  I didn't know what to do or where to begin looking. Read More ›