Category Archives: bargain hunting

Metro Cool

This is my own photo, for once! PS Never, ever Google "Rio Transit images" unless you like being terrified of intra-city travel.

Maybe it’s just me, but I really feel that, in order to really know a place, you need to know its public transit system. I think this is really the key to travel: not only does it enable you to get from place to place, but it means you are going through the same daily actions as locals. It’s another way to get closer to the “underground” (haha) culture of the city. It’s rarely beautiful, often frustrating, crowded without being touristy, and most of all, functional. Knowing a transit system means you know the layout of the city. It means you can sympathize when someone complains about the cost, the terrible musician in such-and-such a station, and the inconvenient construction at your end of the line. The subway literally maps out the most important destinations in any city, and stops are usually named after neighbourhoods, so it’s nearly impossible to get lost. The bus can be a little trickier, but it’s the cheapest way to get an above-ground tour of the lay of the land. For a traveller, the cost of transit beats cabs almost every time, with the exception of late nights or excessive luggage. Personally, once I’ve conquered a city’s transit, I feel a great sense of accomplishment and connection to that place.

Some of the places whose transit I’ve “conquered” include (among others): Toronto, Ottawa, New York City, London (UK), Paris, Rome, Naples, Rio and São Paulo. These are obviously some pretty major world cities, and their transit networks are both vast and intricate. I didn’t pull this off easily; in fact I frequently got lost, had to retrace my steps, ask for directions, or pay to re-enter the system. However, I have always been proud of my ability to read a map and locate myself geographically, and this has served me well. I’ve also had to get over any shyness about asking for help and admitting to being a foreigner/non-local. It’s definitely not cool to be the clueless person on the subway, but the longer you go without asking, the longer you’ll look like a fool.

This brings me to another point: it can actually be dangerous to appear as that clueless passenger. It marks you as an outsider, a tourist, and a great opportunity for pickpocketing. I always try to blend in with the locals on transit, not just because it makes me happy to be adapting to their culture so accurately, but because I don’t want to get accosted or robbed. That being said, nothing makes me happier than when I get mistaken for a local when people ask me for directions. It happened to me in Toronto over Christmas, even though I’d just gotten off the airplane and was hauling a massive suitcase through Spadina station (I proudly pointed the way to the Northbound train). Even more delightfully, it happened to me in Rio as I was waiting at a bus stop with some friends. I explained, in Portuguese, that I wasn’t Brazilian, but I gave as much accurate information as I could. I turned back to my friends with a grin – they don’t speak any Portuguese, so I felt pretty cool.

Rio and São Paulo were my most recent conquests during my January trip. First of all, it must be said that these cities have done a lot to upgrade their metros recently in anticipation of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, so they were sparkling with new bilingual signs, brand new lines, and high-tech safety features (the new Sampa lines have glass doors that prevent passengers from falling onto the track). There was really no excuse for me not to find my way around in these cities, all things considered. Even better, though, was taking the bus in Rio. The Cidade Maravilhosa runs along a curvaceous coastline of beaches on one side and buildings on the other, interrupted by the famous towering hills. It really is as breathtaking as you’d imagine, and fortunately it can be experienced in all its gritty glory for the low cost of R$2.75 (or sometimes R$3.00). Fortunately, the hostel where I stayed in Lapa was good about giving out bus information, and the hostel residents were quick to share their knowledge, so after about two days I knew the names of the buses that would take me anywhere I wanted to go and back again. Additionally, I was getting braver with my Portuguese, and began verifying my destination with the bus drivers before I got on the bus. All were friendly, and some were even helpful enough to get out and ask another driver if they weren’t sure themselves. I felt like the city was mine on the day I told my friends to go ahead without me while I continued shopping; I knew I could get back on my own.

Some of you may have noticed that I did not include Manaus in the “conquered” list above. There is a reason for this, although I’m afraid it isn’t really a good one. To be honest, up ’til now I have been a huge baby about learning transit in my own city. Part of this was out of fear: what if I got lost somewhere in the city and couldn’t get back home? What if I was late? Another part of it was the minimal amount of time I actually spent in Manaus last semester – two days a week, but a good part of one of those was spent teaching – but really that’s an excuse. Another excuse was that, since my host family never uses public transit, nobody was able to teach me. The real reason I didn’t learn the bus system is because I was too afraid to speak Portuguese. Really, it’s a stupid reason. I could tell taxi drivers where I wanted to go, and I had to learn specific language for that, so why not for the bus?

After Rio, I realized that I was certainly able to do it on my own. My language skills were up to par, and (as I mentioned before) I have enough spatial awareness to know when I’m in the right or wrong part of town. The difference is that in Rio I was forced to use my resources to take the bus, with effective results. Here in Manaus, I have friends and family who often drive me around. Last semester I usually took cabs when going out at night (sensible) or when coming back from the bus station (realistic). I definitely did not need to cab to the mall or home from class, but I did because it was easier and less scary than the bus. This semester, I came back with a new resolve to try. It also turns out I have a need as well, as my classes are in the Centro school, and at times when my host mom won’t be able to drive me. I have zero excuses – all the buses actually lead to Centro at some point during their route. And I’m pleased to say that, as of Monday, I have officially taken the Manaus bus by myself! Today is Day Three of going to and from work on my own, and it’s started to turn into routine. Maybe by next week I’ll stop sitting on the edge of my seat during the last 15 minutes of my journey and take my eyes off the road long enough to read a book! Despite the dangers and discomforts (yeah, 40 degrees Celsius and raining) of bus travel, I’m looking forward to saving myself some cash and getting into the local rhythm, and adding one more city to my “conquered” list.

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Filed under bargain hunting, fear, Learning Portuguese, Manaus, overcoming fear, something new, Transit

Two-Week To Do List

I have a lot to tell you about, but it’s all been jumbled up in my head the last few days, so I think I’ll write a bunch of articles that I will post slowly over the next few days. I should apologize in advance, however, because it’s pretty much all to do with my travel preparations. I figure I might as well record it, because all this nonsense is part of the journey too – and also because if anyone else stumbles on this blog and thinks they might like to do something similar, they can learn from my mistakes.

First of all, I’m leaving in 14 days! People keep asking me if I’m getting excited yet. Actually, it hasn’t really had time to sink in properly because I’ve been so fixated on getting all these necessary details sorted out. In a way it helps the time go by faster…but I have a feeling I’m suddenly going to be on a plane looking down at endless rainforest and it’ll suddenly click in that it’s all happening.

As you could probably guess from my previous posts, I’m pretty big on lists. Here’s my To-Do list for the days I have left. (I started it last week, so some things have been crossed off.)

  1. Obtain Visa
  2. Obtain travel medical
    insurance
  3. Talk to family doctor
  4. Get an International Driver’s License from CAA
  5. Buy a plug adapter/converter (waiting for new shipment at CAA)
  6. Put BlackBerry media software on HP Mini (my travel computer…not sure if this is possible, as it doesn’t have a disc drive)
  7. Study Portuguese (I’m trying, but I haven’t done it every day)
  8. Get confirmations to IICA and host school
  9. Clean up room/put things in storage
  10. Talk to Rogers about transferring SIM and contract to a new phone (I’m bringing mine with me)
  11. Hand in 2nd letter of resignation (I forgot that my teaching job technically has two employers, thus needs two letters)
  12. Figure out how to bank from Brazil – create PayPal accounts?
  13. Notify bank and credit card I’ll be out of the country
  14. Submit OHIP paperwork (for health insurance extension…you have to do this if you’ll be gone for >182 days)
  15. Ask MP about address change on passport (the portion you write in by hand, since we moved recently) and any “Canadian” swag
  16. Take out money and traveller’s cheques
  17. Get Canadian/Ontario brochures and maps from Tourism Ontario

Obviously the list is still pretty long (though definitely not exhaustive)…good thing I still have two weeks, and I’m not working! Also since my mom is off work on vacation, there’s usually a car around to do some errands. Thankfully, I can cross “obtain visa” off my list once and for all, as it showed up in my mailbox Monday morning! I knew there was a good reason for going back to Toronto!

I have to admit, my biggest worry after getting the visa and my plane ticket has always been the travel insurance. I’ve seriously been looking into it since last December, because I had no idea how expensive it would be to insure myself for a year out of country. I thought that I’d found a reasonable solution that would cost around $500 a few months ago, but when I plugged in the numbers last week it came to around $900! I’m already pretty daunted by the number of things eating into my modest travel savings, so another $400 did not make me happy.

So, I did what any frugal traveller should do and started shopping around again. I think I already mentioned that I looked into some organizations which I already belonged to, to see if there were group discounts. I probably talked to about five different companies, and used about 3-4 online quote generators, and things were not looking up. The norm seemed to be around $1000, which I was not going for. The only place that seemed to offer reasonable prices was ScotiaLife, but I did not like the sales agent at all (everyone else had been really nice).

The main problem seemed to be the length of time I’m going to be away. First, the longer your trip the bigger the price-tag. Second, most companies won’t insure you for more than half a year, usually because OHIP doesn’t extend longer than that (unless you get an extension, which I am doing). This was the sticky point for me: it seems that most travel insurance that’s offered is not meant to be long-term. So where do people go for this kind of insurance? There are tons of people out there who are gone for longer than six months!

I was fortunate to get a great piece of advice from a TD insurance agent: she suggested I call the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association’s Ombudservice. I was pretty excited to find out this even existed; after all, who doesn’t want to talk to a neutral body when choosing their insurance provider? So I called, explained my situation to the man who answered, and after a few seconds of perusing some unseen list in front of him, told me, “TIC.” It turns out, TIC is Travel Insurance Coordinators, a division of The Cooperators – and they really did have the best rates around, not to mention would cover me for things like doctor’s visits and hang-gliding (so key, as this is one of my goals!). So TIC it is, and my budget thanks my persistent research skills.

Despite reviewing and adding to my list last night, today was pretty unproductive. I’m going to have to get at least one thing done every day before I leave if I want to finish it all. Happily, the major things are all done, so there are only a handful of things that are crucial (such as contacting the bank and printing and copying my essential documents). What do you think, should I try to relax? Or is there something I’m forgetting?

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Filed under bargain hunting, Brazil, Canada, crazy like a fox, mail, travel documents, Travel Insurance

I Booked My Flight!

Woo!!

After A LOT of hassle with my credit card, I finally managed to confirm this morning that my flight booking with STA went through! I’ll be leaving from Detroit Metropolitan at 3:20pm on Wednesday, August 10, arriving in Miami International at 6:25pm. I will then sit on my luggage for approximately ten hours overnight, and then check into my international flight direct to Manaus,

Like Tom Hanks in The Terminal, I'll probably take a shower in an airport sink.

departing at 7:40am and arriving at 12:45pm on August 11. I ended up booking these flights separately because the Miami-Manaus return flight has moveable dates with minimal fees, and I’ll have to move the return date eventually. The Detroit-Miami flight is one-way, and has some steep penalties for changes (i.e. it wouldn’t be worth it), so I really hope I don’t have trouble with the Consulate later this week, or I’m screwed!

I’m also kind of glad that I only have one connection instead of two, like I would have with the original cheap flight. I will be carrying all my worldly possessions with me (okay, the ones I need to survive in hot weather and be able to teach, so not really all), and I am decidedly uncomfortable with the possibility of lost or delayed baggage. Even the travel agent girl who was helping me book seemed to think that American Airlines would be a more reliable choice than US Airways. Any thoughts on this?

Anyway, thinking about lost baggage got me to thinking about travel/medical insurance, and now that’s next on my list of things to conquer. I did some research last night (of course! Do you think I would take a break after accomplishing one goal?), and came up with a few providers that might work for me. STA travel actually provides travel medical at a reasonable rate, but when I asked an agent about it this morning he seemed to think it would be too expensive for me for a year, arbitrarily quoting around $700. Realistically, this isn’t that bad for a year, so I don’t know why he didn’t bother to get me a true quote. But I’m determined to shop around; I don’t want my flight savings to get eaten up by insurance!

I decided to check out providers who are linked with companies and associations I’m already a part of, for instance: my alma mater association, my teaching association, and my banks. I dug out the welcome package from my travel credit card (I have a TD Platinum Travel Visa) and read through the schedule of benefits. Boy, am I glad I did – and doubly glad I didn’t give up on charging the flight booking to my card when I could have used debit! Apparently, as long as I book my travel using the Visa, I have all kinds of travel insurance when on a “Common Carrier,” i.e. plane, train, boat, or rental car. This includes accidental death or dismemberment (ew) up to half a mil, up to $1000 for lost or delayed baggage for >6 hours, emergency flights home, cancellation, and I will never have to pay for car rental insurance again. This is all super exciting, and well worth the $99 annual fee I pay for my card.

Then I checked out the benefits with my newly-purchased ISIC card (shhh! They don’t have to know I’m no longer a student, especially since my college ID has no dates :D). The travel agent who gave the lazy quote also mentioned that the ISIC has basic travel – are you kidding me?This card cost $22 US! So for like $20 Canadian I’m getting some extra coverage on pretty much everything I mentioned with the travel Visa. Saweet!

I still have some following up to do on the alumni association insurance, but I have a phone number to call for another day. Additionally, I left a message with an agent from City Insurance, which is linked to ING (my other bank). And just a few minutes ago I got a tip from a friend who studied abroad recently – apparently her cheapest rate was with ScotiaLife, so I’ll have to look into them, too. That would really be ironic, as I used to sell Accidental Death for ScotiaLife as a telesales agent while I was still a student (hey, gotta make a living somehow). My last option would be to wait until I get to Brazil and buy insurance through the school when I get there, which might work out. My only problem with that would be that any contact with the insurers would be in Portuguese, which I don’t yet speak; but at least the contacts are in the same country as me if something goes wrong. Clearly I have some decision-making to do here.

As you can see, I am clearly anal retentive when it comes to planning trips – but I am crazy like a fox! (Hey, that should be a new blog category!) Between credit card points, thrifty but practical airfares, and shopping around, I bet I’ve already saved myself nearly a grand – which is a substantial portion of my savings, and almost enough to fly back home for Christmas with. I am quite pleased with this progress! On the other hand, I am still freaking out about my upcoming visit to the Brazilian Consulate. Now that I have my flights booked, I feel like everything is carved in stone. If I have visa (the legal document) troubles, I really don’t know what I’ll do, and all that savings will be for naught.

I didn’t get a call to pick up my Criminal Record Check today, so hopefully it’ll come in tomorrow and I can head to Toronto the same day. I’ll keep you posted as always, but in the meantime…wish me luck!

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Filed under bargain hunting, Brazil, Canada, crazy like a fox, Excited!, fear, Flights, immigration, red tape, Travel Insurance

Nothing Worthwhile is Ever Easy

Contrary to what you may think, this has nothing to do with Brazilian bikinis. And you're gross for thinking about it.

You’d think this (the title) was a lesson I’d learned during my undergrad…alas, it is one that I will likely need reminding of my entire life.  It was a pervasive theme throughout all the other mini lessons I learned today.

After last week’s craziness, I decided to put the stress out of my mind for the weekend and get back to it on Monday. So, today was round three of my pre-departure errand marathon. Rather than bore you with the specifics, I decided to make a list of lessons I’ve learned in the last day or two, and in the course of things explain how I learned them.

Lesson 1: Nepotism Works for Me

I found out once I’d received my documents package that I needed a criminal record check, which was a huge piss-off because I could have gotten one done while I was waiting. Luckily, my sister had to get one a few weeks ago, and when my mom went to pick it up for her she got to chatting with the Police secretary. It turns out that she knows my grandma from when she worked at the police office ~12 years ago! She encouraged us to notify her if we needed police services again…well, just three weeks later (last week), I went in with my own police record request. I popped in today to check on the status, as I hadn’t asked her how long it would take. She informed me that she’d put it in as soon as I’d brought it to her last week, and it would be ready likely tomorrow! This is great news, as it’s now the last piece of information I need other than the signature from my Humber professor. Which brings me to…

Lesson 2: Keep in Touch with your References

You never know when you’re going to have to call in a favour, and references are so crucial to getting the things you want. Jobs, internships, and graduate school are some of the most obvious things for which references are needed, and at this point in my career, my résumé isn’t strong enough yet to recommend me on its own. I had a supervisor for my fourth year thesis who would be a killer grad school reference, but I haven’t talked to him in two years. I guess I’d better get on that, before it’s a month before some deadline and I’m praying he answers an ancient email address. Luckily, my college career was only a year ago, and the professor who is referring me for the internship/visa is super nice. I’ll just have to email her with a time to meet up and she should be able to sign my forms. J

Lesson 3: Don’t Forget to Floss

Okay, this one isn’t strictly related, and it’s kind of a no-brainer. But I went to the dentist today for a check-up and cleaning, and got the usual tongue-lashing (no pun intended) from my dental hygienist about flossing. Actually, she phrased it in the nicest possible way. She said, “You’re too pretty to be ugly,” which apparently means I have great teeth but I’m risking having awful ones later if I don’t pick up a dental pick every once in a while. Lesson learned, Veronica, lesson learned.

Lesson 4: Never Assume One Party has Given You Complete Information about a Third Party

I’ve talked about this before, but I’ve had a lot of confusion with the internship people on exact details. Seriously, every time I email them with a question, one person (the assistant) will email me with one answer, and later another person (the professor) will email me telling me something completely different. Even the contact I’ve had with the school where I’ll be teaching (some of it in Spanish, with me using Google Translate) has added to the confusion, and now I don’t know if I’m teaching in Manaus or Rio Branco. But due to language barriers and me giving up, I’m just going to have to figure that part out when I get there. Anyway, I had some questions for the Brazilian consulate regarding my visa application, so I emailed them directly to find out what all I needed to have in order. It turns out I actually need my flight booked before I apply, so I can provide a travel itinerary. Wish I’d known that last week when I found that flight!

Lesson 5: Telephone Customer Service Agents can be your Best Friend

…if you are polite and firm. This also proves true for email and face-to-face interaction. I think I spent about three hours on the phone today talking to various people, and although I suffered through a lot of automated dialing and repetitive hold music, I got a lot accomplished. I jumped right on the flight booking (see my last post for details on the site I found for cheap flights). Fortunately, the cheap flights were still available – but when I punched in all my information to complete the booking, it turned out the website didn’t recognize my Canadian address. I called the 1-800 number and talked to a wonderful, friendly agent for a good 20 minutes. She explained that the ticket I was about to purchase, while cheap, wouldn’t be a good one to use if I need to change my booking because the fees would be high, and on top of that I’d need to pay the flight difference – which would likely be considerable. Instead, she found me a return ticket from Miami and a one-way from Detroit. Although the upfront cost is almost $500 more than the supercheap ticket, I’ll be able to change my ticket for only $50 at a later date. On top of everything, this is still considerably under the budget I’d set for myself, so I’ll have some money set aside for coming home at Christmas J.

*Sidenote: airlines only schedule flights about 320 days in advance. If you want to book a flight for later, you have to book an earlier one and then change it when you get closer to the date. I don’t know how this will affect my travel visa, but I’ll have to go with a June return date for now.

Things went a little sour when it came time to pay and my credit card wouldn’t go through. The travel agent I was speaking with said she’d call me back after I contacted the bank. We actually went back and forth about four times with me calling the bank, then the travel agency calling me, then me calling the bank again. Apparently Visa wasn’t too on the ball with lifting the hold from my account, but once again I had super friendly service and the people were very easy to talk to. I’ve never had a problem with Visa or with my bank, TD – part of the reason I can’t fully commit to an online banking conversion, much as I love ING Direct.

Anyway, I think everything has finally been straightened out. I’m now waiting for a flight itinerary and e-ticket to show up in my email inbox and I’ll be sure it’s all set!  Details to come…

Lesson 6: Make Sure All Relevant People Know You’re Going Away

I feel like I’ve been preparing to go away for a billion years (a.k.a. six months at least), and there are still things to be done! Some of these things will have to be done at the last minute, for example: informing my bank and credit card company that I’ll be out of the country. This was already a problem today when I tried to put a large purchase from an American company on my Canadian Visa. Other people I’ll have to inform will be OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Plan, for any non-Ontarians) and EI (Employment Insurance), which I applied for last week – hey, I’m technically laid off for the summer, might as well be collecting while I’m in the country! If I’ve missed anybody important, feel free to tell me in the comments. This is my first time leaving for such a substantial period of time, so I’ll need all the help I can get.

Lesson 7: Remember to Breathe

Talk about a no-brainer (I once heard a blonde joke about this), but it’s actually the number one rule of yoga. My mom is pretty good at reading my stress levels (I’m usually projecting it onto her anyways), and this afternoon as I left to do all my errands she said I sounded like I was pretty tightly wound. And, despite a weekend of lying on the beach, watching Harry Potter, and drinking various alcoholic beverages, the thought of one day of running around totally did stress me out. At dinner I reviewed everything I did today, and my mom asked me when, during the next year, I thought I’d start stressing about the year after my internship. Well, I sincerely hope that a year in Brazil will cure or at least treat my rampant control freakism, but that may be too much to ask. For now, I’ll just remember the mantra of my yoga studio: “If you can breathe and smile, you’re doing yoga.” At least I have newly-cleaned and sparkling teeth!

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Filed under bargain hunting, Canada, crazy like a fox, Flights, IICA internship, Life Lessons, red tape, travel documents