An expat going home from India is a bit more complicated than flying on holiday to Florida for a week—it’s akin to planning an Everest summit and starts weeks before departure, setting in motion a series of events starting with a grueling trek and ending after family visits, gastro satisfaction, and enough shopping to collapse a Sherpa.
Where do we start?
Some pre-travel decisions are more critical than others. If leaving before the end of the month, drivers and maids need to be paid prior to departure. Many of these people live paycheck to paycheck, counting on cash to pay for groceries, or in some cases water. A few extra unpaid days means more than forgotten marshmallows and drippy s’mores.
Pre-paid electrical services are considered a priority. Adding some rupees to the pre-paid utility bill prior to departure can mean the difference between a refrigerator full of frozen food and a smelly mess of decomposing chicken, cheese and vegetables. Despite what one may think, the odor does not simply blend in with all of the other third world smells.
Mail collection is another consideration. In the U.S. one can request the U.S. Post Office to hold their mail, a luxury absent in many places. In fact, an attempt to deliver mail to an empty tent may be construed as, ‘we’ve abandoned our comfy abode for greener pastures.’ Notification from the bank indicating access to your account was blocked due to an inability to deliver a bank letter means online bill payment is also terminated. Although good story fodder, there is little joy in a post travel trip to the local branch with a ‘self-attestation’—a written letter attesting one’s continued residence at the address on file, signed in three places, and including a two-by-two photo—just to regain access to a bank account we’ve used for months, which takes a minimum of 24 hours after the meeting with bank manager Hari Krishna (real name, totally not made up).
What do you mean my credit card was denied?
A hike through the Himalayas makes for sore thighs, but forgetting travel notifications for credit and debit cards results in painfully embarrassing moments when they are rejected. The bank thinks we are in our expat country, we attempt to charge dinner out with friends back home, or make online purchases from a home country Internet Protocol (IP) address, triggering the bank’s algorithm to disable the card and issue a fraud alert. Next comes the thirty minute discussion with bewildered customer service agents who demand mother’s maiden names and online code words, followed by a short, slightly condescending lecture describing the benefits of the travel notification.
We don’t need a GPS to orient our way home, but electronics need to be prepared for the journey. Do we need adapters for layover countries, or for the home country if local electronics are brought home? Devices should also be backed up, books and movies downloaded for adults and children, and home country mobile phones, powered off for months, need operating system and application updates. Finally, everything needs a full charge. Due to new travel restrictions, some airport authorities may ask to power up electronics, failure of which could mean delays or worse.
You don’t take Visa? Can I pay with Paypal?
A secure campsite is a happy campsite. If we plan to use hotel, airport or other public Wi-Fi, we might want a working virtual private network (VPN) to pay bills or check charges. That sucker isn’t just for watching Netflix in under-served countries—at hotels, it could mean the difference between safe surfing and stolen passwords. Although lucky until now (sound of knuckles knocking on wood), many a victim finds their way to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) after login credentials are stolen and used to order products, transfer money, and drain bank accounts.
Flying home means trekking into the known. Strong cell signals, understandable mobile phone plans, and a familial support system. There is no need to add international service to our expat mobiles, or data top ups (What the heck are those, anyway?), or request additional credit for our post paid plans like when we travel to non-home countries, where powering up the phone results in thousands of dollars in data charges, followed by several text messages from the mobile service provider advising of the pending termination of service. Again, story fodder aside, there is little enjoyment when a loving spouse spends a post-holiday hour at said service provider’s business explaining the intricacies of a post-paid plan—specifically, how by definition service should continue so long as the bill is paid each month. It should not be terminated because the current month’s usage was higher than the expected.
We will want to bring things with us when we return from our home trip. An hour spent online prior to departure, ordering as much as possible, frees up home country time for socializing. Items shipped to friends and family are easily retrieved—although I have my doubts about the cigars and sea monkeys. Every second counts when traveling home. We don’t want to spend those seconds at Target buying bed sheets, face wipes, and antibacterial soap.
Where did I put my resident alien card?
Passport—check. Home country drivers license—check. Local and home currency—check. Electronics updated and charged—check. What else could there be? Some third world countries will not allow anyone without a printed itinerary into the airport. We could print the itinerary from the airline, but the absence of the name and date at the top of every page could mean delays.
There is no need to get fancy, a simple Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that prints the first few rows at the top of every page works well. A few days before we leave, we input our names, the airline, flight numbers, dates and times, print, and present to the local militia. The logo of the airline, strategically pasted into the top right corner of each page, helps to add authenticity.
We still need to navigate internal checkpoints, including security. We have passports, tickets and a printed itinerary ginned up at home, including a sweet logo in the upper right corner of every page. “Hello unhappy, grumpy, rude, under-paid, third world, government trail boss. Here is my passport.” Since we are not here on visitor’s visas, we need to show a copy of our local residence paperwork. The quality of the photocopy may be substandard—my wife’s photo on her’s looks a little like Morticia Addams after a boozer—but the presence of the paperwork is enough to get us through the pass.
We’re almost there! Just need to get through the security checkpoint. Each country may be different, but in some cases all electronics, as well as wallets and anything that even remotely might be flagged by the person behind the scanner needs to be removed from carry-on luggage. Everything—Kindle, laptop, Fitbit, 35mm DSLR camera, wallet, iPad, mobile phones, and anything else that requires power—gets stuffed into one or two one-gallon Ziploc baggies. They are easily removed from a backpack, placed in a tray and sent through the x-ray machine. Shoot, I forgot to put those four sharpened pencils in the Ziploc! Yep, once referred by security for secondary inspection, those drawing pencils are now included in the easy access Ziploc baggie list—it was that or abandon a lifelong dream of learning to sketch.
Oh no! Despite all our planning, we still won’t be allowed to go to our gate. Unfortunately, the absence of a paper luggage tag, the ones we get from the check-in counter, means we cannot pass go, we cannot collect our reward in an industrialized nation. As carry on bags pass through security, they may need to be stamped to prove they’ve been checked. The stamp may later be checked at the gate prior to boarding. No paper luggage tag = no stamp = no going home.
Can we board now?
We finally made it to the plane. We board, settle into a comfortable seat, hopefully in First Class—anyone who read my First Class missive knows what I mean. We were prepared, started weeks ago, remained diligent, took in the view from the sun gate, and exhaled a sigh of relief as we melt into our seats for 12, or 15, or perhaps even 24 hours on an airplane—our reward is a homecoming to familiar sights and smells, friendly faces, long conversations into the wee hours of the morning, and the ability to walk to a Starbucks, or Panera, or another local café for a nice hot cup of real coffee.
Observations contained herein are based on personal experience. There is no judgment on the part of the author. In addition to years of archaic, bureaucratic tradition, and a lack of creativity inherent to government employment in general, each country is dealing with its own issues, domestically and internationally. Don’t be a hater—enjoy the story.
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Also published on Medium.