Saturday, October 30, 2010

Visa for India

The 3 flights home from Langkawi to Houston were uneventful and on schedule.  The trip took a total of 19.5 hours sitting in planes and additional 5.5 hours sitting in airports.  Bill slept a good bit but I couldn't sleep a wink.  Finished my book and watched many movies.  Glad the traveling part is over and now we can enjoy being in Texas for a month.

First thing the next morning found us at a doctor's office down south in Webster for our physicals for renewal of our USCG captains licenses.  The drug tests will be ready on Monday morning so we should be able to submit the renewal applications early next week.  Here is hoping these license renewals get processed so we can pick them up before our return flights to Malaysia on November 30.  We also must renew the TWIC but cannot do that until we submit the USCG renewal applications.  Lots of trouble just to have captains licenses so we can have discounts on our boat insurance.  Only other reason to have these licenses is for proof of competency when we visit Greece.  I don't think any other EU country yet enforces the EU requirement of proof of competency in order to operate a boat within EU waters.  But we have heard from several people that Greece does enforce this requirement.  Hence, we spend lots of time and money to be licensed captains -- at least for the next 5 years.  Don't know if we will bother to renew these licenses again when they next expire.

Friday morning found us at Travisa services on Westheimer to submit the application for tourist visas for India.  India no longer will process visa applications at their consulates in the USA; processing of visas is now outsourced to a company called Travisa.  India has a goal to outsource all visa processing worldwide.  Visas can also be obtained in Kuala Lumpur; again, NOT at the consulate but at the outsourced company.  One can also obtain an Indian visa in Penang, but that is using an agency that simply couriers your passport to Kuala Lumpur for processing.  And that usually takes 9 days.  We did not want to remain in Penang that long.  The only other option on the typical cruising route toward the Red Sea is to obtain the Indian visa from Emotion Travel in Phuket.  Emotion couriers your passport to Bangkok for visa processing.  I contacted Emotion Travel and was told it typically takes 4 weeks to obtain an Indian visa through their agency in December or January since that is their busiest time of the year.  Lucky for us we had scheduled this trip back to Texas.  And very lucky for us the Travisa office and the Indian consulate are both located in Houston, Texas.  This made the process very simple for us.

After visiting the Travisa office, we can certainly understand why the consulate does not want to deal with this anymore. 

We had gotten online while still in Malaysia and downloaded all the required forms.   One of the things required was a government issued birth certificate stating the birthplace and citizenship of your parents at the time of your birth.  Bill only had a hospital birth certificate and that would not be acceptable.  So his brother John had obtained a certified birth certificate from Austin for Bill.  That saved us lots of trouble.  With certified birth certificates, photos of drivers licenses, and many forms completed, we arrived at the Travisa office for our scheduled appointment early Friday morning.  Where we encountered many other visa applicants standing in the hallway waiting for the office to open.  When the office opened we were called into a line by scheduled appointment time, and we were assigned to be third and fourth in line.  Our application packets were checked and approved for processing.  We were about the only people in the place who had correctly completed their applications with all the required supporting documents.  Most everyone else was missing at least one item and their applications were denied.  Much yelling and complaining ensued.  We stepped up to the window and paid our $146 fees and were told to return at 17:30 to pick up the visas.

That was a shock!!  The website had warned that the Houston office was extremely busy and the normal processing time right now was 3 weeks.  The sign on the door stated it would take a minimum of 3 weeks to obtain a visa.  Yet the girl at the counter was telling us there would be same day service.

Bill was busy working on our new computer that afternoon, so I went to pick up both our visas.  When I returned to Travisa at 17:30 I was the only Caucasian in the place.  Every other applicant was of Indian or Pakistani heritage.   And they were just as verbally abusive to the staff as the other group had been earlier that morning.  They all seem to think that rules do not apply to them.  I decided this must be a cultural thing.  Rules apply to others, but if I want something then those rules do not apply to me.  They get quite loud about demanding what they want and why rules should not apply because they have a special circumstance.

Visiting India will be a different experience for us.  Seeing the behavior exhibited in this visa office was an eye-opener.  This should be interesting.  The only location we will visit in India is Cochin (Kochi) and will probably stay there only a week or so.  Looking forward to it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A few Langkawi notes

Langkawi is the end of the line.  
........ or so we have been told by several people.  Not for us.....oh, very definitely not for us.....but it does turn out to be the end of the line for many cruisers.  From here they must either head off toward South Africa or the Red Sea, which is too daunting a challenge for some cruisers.  So they stop in Langkawi.  From here it is easy to visit Phuket.  But Thailand has more restrictive laws regarding both immigration and foreign flagged yachts, so it is best to spend more time in Malaysia.  Also from Langkawi it is easy enough to back track to Borneo.  It is also possible to sail up to the Philippine Islands and back.  We have met a number of cruisers who just go back and forth between Phuket and Borneo.  Works for them -- but that would drive us absolutely crazy!!!  Guess these folks don't realize that there are much better places to spend long periods of time.  To be completely honest, many of these "stuck" cruisers are Australian and a few from New Zealand; and they haven't seen the better islands much farther eastward in the South Pacific and they don't know how wonderful the Caribbean is for cruising.  So they think this cloudy, brownish water filled with jellyfish and horrendous currents is great.  Some of these "stuck" cruisers have been in this general area for as long as 7 years.  Oh my dear God, I would be going crazy!  But they enjoy it; so to each his own.  They think we are just as crazy because we are moving on westward soon.

Because Langkawi is the end of the line, it is also a good place to buy a cruising boat.  There are quite a few for sale here in Rebak Marina.  These are all fully-equipped for cruising and I should think the sellers would be willing to negotiate a good sales price simply to be rid of a boat that is in a location where they are reluctant to return and sail the boat home.  After all, delivery captains are pretty darn expensive.  So if they don't sell it here and are not willing to sail it home themselves, then they will need to be willing to negotiate on sales price. 

For sailing friends following in our wake:  DO NOT BUY COURTESY FLAGS FOR FUTURE COUNTRIES UNTIL YOU GET TO LANGKAWI.  There is a shop in Kuah town that sells copies of paper charts, and they also sell courtesy flags for almost every country.   The courtesy flags are a good size and are well-made.  We were not aware of this shop until we arrived here, and had ordered flags online from South Africa that were shipped to us months ago.  We bought flags for all countries we might visit all the way to Morocco -- India, Oman, Yemen, Djibouti, Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Croatia, Italy, Spain, Malta, Tunisia and Morocco (uh-oh, just realized I forgot Gibraltar and Cypress).   Then we arrived here and found much better quality flags for lower prices.  Definitely recommend buying your courtesy flags in Langkawi.

There are some type of sea otters in this area.  We saw them at the marina in Penang, swimming beneath the QE2 bar/restaurant.  Shortly after we arrived here at Rebak Marina I saw 3 of the little creatures swimming near our dock late one afternoon.  They were adorable because they stayed in close formation and would stick up their heads and turn directions in unison.  Looked like a cartoon.  Another cruiser said these are seals, but they are definitely not seals.  When they dove and took off I could see their tails.  These are sea otters.  Funny thing is that no one has seen them again since that one afternoon shortly after we arrived here.  Wonder why they haven't returned.

Bill of S/V Estrellita; Howard & Linda of Dallas; us
There was a couple visiting the resort who chatted with several of us yachties, so 8 of us went to dinner one night at the little restaurant at the ferry dock on Langkawi.  The visitor works as a contractor in Afghanistan building runways for planes, and his British wife lives in their home in a suburb of Dallas.  She has lived with him in other middle-eastern countries, but spouses are not allowed in Afghanistan since it is a war zone.  It was interesting to hear first-hand accounts of what is really going on in Afghanistan versus what is published in news reports.

We have had the propane tank filled and the dive tanks filled.  Prepping as much as possible so we can get out of here as soon as possible after our return from the trip home.  Bill has completely disassembled and serviced most of our winches; there are 4 small winches remaining but those are almost never used.  Maybe he will get to those while we are in Phuket waiting for the monsoon to fill in so we can sail to India.   A friend has agreed to put our anchor chain back into the chain locker when it is returned from being re-galvanized.  We had hoped that the chain would be finished before we left to fly home, but it won't arrive back at our boat until 4 days after we leave.  Thanks very much in advance to Bill on S/V Estrellita for re-stowing our anchor chain. 

S/V BeBe on the right

There are 3 sister-ship Amels berthed in a row at this marina.  That is unusual for this part of the world.  We haven't seen very many Amels this far west -- none since leaving New Zealand, except for the one older Sharki model that visited Puteri Harbour Marina for a few weeks last spring.  Then we get to this marina and find ourselves berthed next to 2 other Amels that are the exact model as ours. (Two are stern-to and the center one is bow-to the dock.)   And there is another one dry-docked in the boat yard here.  And all 4 are Super Maramu 2000s.   The boat next to us is from Hamburg, Germany.  The one next to it is from Gibraltar.  And the one in the boat yard is from La Rochelle, France -- birthplace of all Amels.  The German couple on the boat next to us have been gone since we arrived, and they returned this morning.  We very much like the canvas awnings they have and learned that these were made here locally.  Had we known about this earlier we would have had duplicates made for our boat.  Now it is too late because we leave Tuesday morning for our trip home and there is not time to have the awnings manufactured.  Oh well, guess we didn't need these after all.  Wasn't meant to be.

And just to illustrate what a small world it is, just down the dock is a boat with hailing port of Port Aransas, Texas.  A query of the national vessel documentation shows that this boat is owned by  John Williams of Austin.  Either he is doing extensive travel or he is back home for a visit, because he has not been on the boat since we arrived at this marina.  Looks like we will miss saying hello to a fellow Texan half-way round the world.

While walking along the wall of the marina I noticed a small plaque dedicated to a cruiser who was killed at a nearby island in March 2009.  He and his wife were anchored overnight at a popular island.  They were boarded by several men who killed the husband during the ensuing fight with a hammer and then forced the wife to sail the boat to another location nearby.  They were soon captured.  Turned out these men were from Myanmar (Burma) and had been hired as crew aboard a Thai fishing boat.  But they were treated as slaves aboard the fishing boat and were starving.  They were trying to get free and jumped ship and swam to the anchored yacht, where the owner tried to fight them off and was killed.  It was easy for them to gain access to the yacht because all the hatches and the companionway were open because it was so hot.  I point out this story for all our family and friends who worry about our safety through the Gulf of Aden.  Bad things happen in good areas too.  The area we are currently visiting is visited by many thousands of tourists each year (mostly Europeans).  It is considered very "safe."  Yet this man was killed.  Another case of happenstance -- wrong place at the wrong time -- as can happen anywhere.  (Remember me being car-jacked at a "safe" location)  Next time someone starts worrying about us out here, stop and think about the annual murder rate in Houston.  I like our odds out here better.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Daily doings; closing in on time for our long trip back to Texas

Life is not exciting right now.  Sometimes that is a good thing.  Remember, one of the worst Chinese curses is: "May you live in interesting times." 

Several times we have shared rental cars with various friends.  This provides a day away from the marina at least once per week, and it is a nice break in routine.  The waterline on S/V BeBe is rising as we continue to add things that will not be available later.  The "wine cellar" is fully stocked -- this literally is like a cellar because it is a large storage bin located beneath a floor locker.  Bill has reviewed his spares list several times and I think we are as well-stocked as possible in that department.  This week the rent car had a malfunctioning air-conditioner and the windows could not be lowered.  It was sweltering!!  We will not be renting that car again.  Renting a car here is unbelievably inexpensive.  We call a guy and he delivers a car to the ferry dock to meet us.  Cars range from 40 ringitt to 80 ringitt per day.  So far, we have only rented 40 ringitt cars and always share with another couple.  The cars are delivered almost empty of fuel and we add 20 ringitt of gasoline.  That brings our total share of car rental for a day to roughly $9.60 USD.  What a deal!  Don't know anywhere else it would be that cheap.

A few days ago we sent our anchor chain off to be re-galvanized.  The owner of the marina chandlery takes the chain across the border to Thailand to have this done.  This is the second time we have re-galvanized this chain, so when the zinc wears off next time the chain will need to be replaced, as you can only re-galvanize high=tensile chain twice.  (BBB chain should never be re-galvanized)  The chain showed almost no signs of wear and no rust at all, but we wanted to take advantage of being here and did the re-galvanizing early.  Our chain is ISO standard and came from Europe, and we hope to replace it in Spain in 2 years or so.  It has held up very well, far better than the 25 meters of Acco chain we bought in Grenada in 2007.  After unloading the chain, we borrowed a pressure washer and thoroughly cleaned out the anchor chain locker.  Inside a forward cabinet locker Amel installs a removable watertight access panel to the chain locker.  We are far too large to fit inside there (shoulders won't even fit through the cabinet door, much less through the watertight access area), but we were able to use the pressure washer wand to clean the chain locker thoroughly.  Check another chore off the maintenance list.

The swimming pool continues to be the gathering place in late afternoon.  Not much else to do on this little island.  In this photo from left to right are Bill & Amy of S/V Estrellita, me & Bill, and Nancy & Burger of S/V Halekai.   We and Nancy & Burger are Commodores in SSCA (Seven Seas Cruising Association) and will be sponsoring Associate members Bill & Amy to be Commodores.  Bill & Amy obviously met the Commodore requirements long ago because they have sailed more than half-way round the world since leaving Florida, but this is the first time 2 other Commodores were together to sponsor them in their application.

Note the Muslim woman in the swimming pool behind us in the photo above.  She is wearing Muslim swimming attire-- which looks exactly like a ninja outfit without the foot coverings.  Her "swimsuit" was dark brown and loose fitting.  It was tied around her neck, wrists, ankles and waist to prevent the fabric from billowing in the water.  It was exactly like the ninja suit that our youngest son worn as a Halloween costume in years past, except that it was dark brown instead of black.  This is the first Muslim swimsuit that we have seen.  None of the other Muslim women have gotten into the water; they usually just sit around in lounge chairs in their black coverings while their husbands frolic in the cool water.  At least this young woman was laughing and kidding around with her husband in the water and appeared to be having a great time on their vacation.  Supposedly these "swimsuits" are new and somewhat controversial.  Where there is a will, there is a way.

Last week I planned routes up through the Red Sea and referenced each anchorage to the corresponding page it was depicted in the Red Sea Pilot.  Bill then used  GPS Utility to convert the Maxsea routes .wpt files to .kmz files and imported these into Google Earth.  He then let Google Earth fly the routes and hover at 1,000 kilometers for 30 seconds to capture high resolution of each waypoint.  This supposedly goes into cache and we can use Google Earth from cache without being connected to the internet.  That will be really cool if it works.  We also will be printing the Google Earth images of each anchorage and each difficult route area and placing these into a binder to use as we enter some of these intricate reef anchorages.  It will be great to have aerial images zoomed in tightly on these poorly charted reefs.

Nothing else going on with us right now.  We are looking forward to our trip home to Texas -- not the journey itself, but seeing everyone and taking care of all the things that must be done.   We fly to Singapore in 9 days, then onward to Toyko the next morning, connecting to Houston -- with a huge difference in time zones.  The jet lag will be horrendous for us old folks.  Seeing family and friends will be worth it.

BTW, this morning I noticed that our boat living space looks more like an apartment these days.  We used to keep everything in its proper place.  That meant we could put to sea from a marina slip with only a few minutes notice, and almost instantaneously from an anchorage.  Not true today.  There are things laying around that would go flying should we need to flee this anchorage in a hurry.  Guess it is time to get motivated and stow things away properly again.  After all, that big tsunami on December 26, 2004, destroyed this very marina.  We should remain better prepared to put to sea at a moments notice.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Our Seven Seas

Where does the expression "The Seven Seas" come from?

The old Clipper Ship tea route from China to England was the longest trade route under sail; and included the Sulu Sea, Java Sea, Flores Sea, Banda Sea, Timor Sea, Celebes Sea, and the South China Sea.

After leaving New Zealand in early May 2009, we crossed only four of "the" Seven Seas, but we've now sailed our own seven: the Coral Sea, Arafura Sea, Timor Sea, Flores Sea, Java Sea, South China Sea and are now in the Adaman Sea.   

(Thanks to Nancy on S/V Halekai for pointing this out!)

We had sailed roughly 7300 nautical miles between May and October 2009.  Then we sat in Singapore area for 10 months before sailing up to the bottom of the Andaman Sea, which we will cross in January 2011.  We are eager to move northward in the Andaman Sea and see the beautiful Thai islands.

Unfortunately, bureaucracy prevents us from visiting the remote Andaman Islands.  The Andaman Islands and Nicobar Islands belong to India.  It is possible to obtain a visa to visit the Andamans, but visitors are barred from the Nicobars.  India is trying to preserve that tribal culture.  People on the Nicobars live as they did thousands of years ago and every effort possible is being made not to expose these folks to the 21st century!   It would, however, be logistically possible for us to visit the Andaman Islands, just a hundred miles or so out of our way on the route between Phuket and Sri Lanka.

However, India has a somewhat strange rule.  As US citizens we can obtain a long-term visa for visiting India (including Andaman Islands); but there is a rule that one must wait 2 months between entries into India.  There is no way for us to follow that 2 month exclusionary rule because we need to be well northward into the Red Sea in 6 weeks after departing Phuket.  Our route and time is dictated by seasonal weather.  Would have loved to visit this unique place, but it is not to be.

It is possible for cruisers to visit the Andaman Islands as long as they do not also stop in mainland India.  The other options are to stop in Sri Lanka and/or in The Maldives.  Due to increased Somali pirate activity extending so far off out, we will not be going to The Maldives.  That would place us too far south to avoid known piracy areas today.  And we do not want to stop in Sri Lanka because we have read too many negative reports from others who have stopped in swell-plagued Galle harbor and suffered boat damage.  Instead, we will be going to Cochin, India.  That decision prevents us from also visiting the Andaman Islands because of that silly rule of waiting 2 months between visits to India.  We will sail within a few miles south of Sri Lanka before heading northwards to Cochin on the western coast of India.  This will place us farther north and at a better departure point to head across the Arabian Sea to the Red Sea in the monsoonal northeast winds in January.