It’s not all tour guides and beach walks. Sometimes you just have a crappy day. In order to tell you about our bad day yesterday I have to give you some background. Settle in, this one will take awhile.
One of the challenges of country hopping is staying in touch. We need communication for Dan’s work but also for maps, hunting down places to eat and just general information. The girls also have phones because they are old enough to be left home alone, be apart from us in stores or out on a walk on their own. In Panama and Mexico we got SIM cards and pre-paid plans which were cheap and easy, but a pain to re-charge when they would run out of data. When we were in the USA last June we discovered a great T-Mobile plan that allowed us to be in different countries with the same SIM and cell plan and T-Mobile would just connect to a local network. This plan worked great for us as we hopped around Mexico, Guatemala, USA and Spain. Until it didn’t work. T-Mobile figured out our gig and contacted us in December and said that since the majority of our usage was on roaming, we were not the kind of customers they wanted and they kicked us off the plan. So we got Spanish SIM cards for the last 6 weeks of our stay here in Spain. To be continued… this info becomes relevant later in this blog post.
When we arrived in Spain we were hoping to find an apartment that was urban enough that we would not need a full-time rental car. But the fabulous apartment we found was not urban. The landlord arranged for a rental though his own connections with the tourist industry. So we’ve been driving around a “milk-truck” shaped Volkswagen for the last 2 months. That was fine, but Spain has all kinds of arbitrary rules about car rentals. We are not allowed to rent the same car for over 6 weeks so at the 6-week mark we went in and turned in the car for a different one. That’s when we found out that there is a 2000 km limit on your rental and for every kilometer you exceed limit, you owe 2 euro. We learned that lesson when 500 euro was charged to our card. Yikes!! Better read the fine print next time. Who reads fine print, especially in Spanish?
When we planned to go visit friends in Portugal after Christmas we knew we had to go get a new rental car to start fresh with the mileage. A few days before Christmas we went to get a new car and learned that 1) they had no new car to give us, and; 2) we could not drive their rental cars into Portugal. To be continued… this info becomes relevant later in this blog post.
We are leaving for our next country (South Africa) in mid January. We booked our tickets on Ethiopian Airlines and we have a 2-hour layover in Ethiopia. I stumbled across a vaccination requirement for South Africa, whereby anyone coming from or transiting through a yellow fever country has to have the yellow fever vaccine before arriving in South Africa. Spain is not a yellow fever country but Ethiopia is, so technically we are required to have the vaccine. To top it off, I heard of another family who had to get the shot at the South African airport after hours of protesting, simply because of a short layover in a yellow fever country.
So I resigned myself to getting the shots for all of us. Better to be safe than sorry and transition days to new countries are always hard anyway, we didn’t need any potential shot drama to add to it.
I started with the clinic near our house, going in and asking the doctor for a yellow fever vaccine for the family. We arranged to come in the following week and I thought we were all set. That day I went in and he said he couldn’t give me the shot and I had to go to a different clinic to get it. He gave me the name of the clinic and the next day we hunted it down. By “hunted it down” I mean “got lost but eventually found it”. That clinic said they could not help us since we did not have Spanish social medicine coverage. So we were back to square one.
Meanwhile Dan contacted our landlord and asked if he could help us get a car to drive in Portugal. Dan also asked if he knew where we could go to get a yellow fever shot. The landlord responded with
“I will solve all your problems”
It was like angels singing, someone who will solve all of our problems! Yes!
After a lot of back and forth, Manual, our very amazing landlord, said he could get us the shots down at the border town of Spain where everyone arrives from Morocco. He had to use his considerable connections to 1) allow us to cut in line ahead of other people who had appointments, since the next available appointment wasn’t until after we left for South Africa, and; 2) get us the Spanish resident price, which was about 10% of the tourist price. The tourist price was hundreds of euros (per shot!!) so this was a significant benefit. All we had to do is essentially pay the doctor 150 euro plus the Spanish citizen cost of each shot. Sounds like a deal compared to what it COULD have been. Manual also arranged for a rental car for us in Seville (this one does allow you to take it into Portugal).
So this all comes together yesterday. The plan was this:
- Get up at 6:30 a.m. for an 8:00 a.m. departure (this is already starting off poorly with an early wake time for the Shermans!)
- Drive for an hour, following our landlord
- Get the yellow fever shots accompanied by our landlord
- Bid goodbye to landlord, drive for 2 hours to Seville
- Swap out the rental car for a Portugal-approved rental car
- Drive to Portugal
- Get a new SIM card (at the border) for our phones so we can be in communication and navigate while in Portugal
- Drive for 3 more hours to arrive at our friend’s house in time for a nice, hot, homemade dinner.
What can go wrong with this plan, right?
We got out of the house on time but not without sobbing from 50% of the family (hint: not the adults). Getting up early and the prospect of getting a shot stressed out the oldest child and a road trip and getting a shot stressed out the youngest. But by the time we arrived in Algeciras at the port office for health and vaccinations, everyone had exhausted their tears, used all their anxiety breathing and they were resigned to getting a shot and being awake and on a road trip. #firstworldproblems
Based on Manual’s description of how hard it was to get an appointment and thus the 150 euro we had to pay to cut in line, I was expecting a waiting room bursting with people. We walk in and… no one. Totally empty waiting room. We go in to meet with the doc and after a few minutes of discussing our situation he tells us that we don’t need the shot.
Say what now?
He says with only a 2-hour layover in Ethiopia, we will not need the shot and South Africa should follow the World Health Organization’s recommendations of not needing a shot if in a country for less than 12 hours.
Let me get this straight. Not only did we delay our trip to Portugal, get up early enough to see the SUNRISE, pay 150 euro for the privilege to cut in line but now you tell us we don’t need the shot? Aaaand, we could not have learned this before doing all the above activities?
But we still had to sit through a lecture about only drinking bottled water and not eating fruit that you didn’t peel while in South Africa. Insert eye rolling here. Not only is South Africa a very developed country but this is not our first rodeo. We know how this works. So we listened politely, nodded a few times, and went on our way. He did write us a prescription for a few more shots that they did not give there. So now we’ve paid 150 euro to listen to a lecture and receive prescriptions for a few more shots that we have to go and pay someone else to administer to us. Good times.
Next, they shuttle us to another office and lecture us about mosquitoes for 20 minutes. I tried to tell them we lived in Panama where 50% of our town had Dengue Fever – a mosquito borne illness – but they seemed very intent on lecturing us. So we listened, nodded and thanked them. At this point the girls are elated that we are not getting shots but Dan and I are irritated at what we went through to not get said shots.
Frankly, we don’t really know what to think. Did we just get played by both our landlord and the doc? Was it an honest mistake that no one thought to tell us we didn’t need the shots? Maybe somewhere in between those two extremes? We dunno, but Dan said he had to mentally wall off the experience and not think about it so he didn’t throttle someone’s neck. And our landlord has been sooo amazing, so it’s pretty hard to feel any animosity towards him. We quickly put it behind us and embarked upon our drive to Portugal.
The drive to Seville took us on a slight detour in order to get to the southern most tip of continental Europe a mere 14 km from Africa. So we stopped there and got some sand and took some silly pictures in the extreme wind that was blowing at the time. That was fun. The rest of the day was not.
We got to Seville airport and found the rental car place that our landlord had arranged for us. Somehow he manages to get a lot better deals than we find. Well, more issues. First they tell us that it’s vastly more expensive than our landlord was quoted. Then they add on extra insurance to take it to Portugal. Then the bank declines our card thinking it’s fraud. We have to call the bank and tell them that 1) we have set up numerous travel plans on our account and they should see that charges from Spain are OK, and; 2) we’ve been using that card in Spain for 2 months so why NOW do you flag it as fraud? But we get it worked out, pay a mint for the car and head to the garage to pick up our new car, which means we are simultaneously renting two cars for the week.
Do you guys know that Dan is 6’2″? And we don’t like to be cramped? And we have two kids who spread out in the back seat? Yeah, the small compact car that they gave us was just not going to work, especially after arriving in a milk truck van that was rather full with our suitcases, food bags, scooters and pillows and blankets for a chilly Portugal.
So we go back to the rental car office and manage to get a bigger car which turns out to be the exact same milk truck make and model that we are already driving. We transfer the luggage and now we are renting two milk trucks, one of which needs to be parked somewhere.
Need I remind you that it’s December 28th? And Spaniards are on vacation? Yeah, that means BOTH long term parking lots are full. Do you think some entrepreneurial Spaniard might want to set up a business of an off site airport parking lot? Nah. We got nuthin’. So we hunt around for a place to park the car for a week and finally found some residential street that doesn’t have a meter or a “no parking” sign. We park the car, lock it up and hope we’ll see it again in a week.
Now we set off for Portugal. Yay! On our way! Only 4 more hours! By now it’s 3:30 p.m. Arriving by dinner is looking like it might not happen.
We decide to stop at a town right before the Portugal border to get SIM cards that will work in Portugal. We get to this small town and as we are driving through we notice that everything is closed. What don’t we know? Is it a holiday? Was there a zombie apocalyptic event? Well we finally find a cell phone place and learn that it opens at 5 pm. Yeah, you guessed it. Siesta!! It is now 4:30pm so we do what Spaniards do: we go have tapas. This is nice and relaxing but tick tick tick, time is passing and we’ve got to get to Portugal, people!
So we go into the shop once they open, learn that they have no SIM cards to sell (this is common, we have a long standing joke that Spain is not interested in taking our money, rental car places and enterprising border doctors notwithstanding). But the guy calls his coworker in another town and he has SIM cards so he tells us to go there and get what we need. Off we go.
This is not a short detour off our route to Portugal but we are committed so we keep going. We think we’ve got a sure thing so we don’t want to give it up. We find the store by some miracle and Dan and Zoe go in to arrange for 4 SIMs. They come back 30 minutes later from another direction and have only managed to get 2 SIMs and this from a different store because the first store did not have any. Didn’t the guy in the first town call the guy in the second town? Yes. But did he have SIMs like he said he did? Nah. It defies logic but whatever. We’ve got 2 SIMs. We tested them. They work. Awesome. At least we now have navigation and communication and off we go. Next stop: Colleen and Carlos’ house! Yay!
By now it’s sunset and the girls remark that they’ve seen both sunRISE and sunSET from the car. This is a first.
So we drive and drive and drive and we cross into Portugal and I decide to send my friend Colleen a message telling her where we are and…
I tried every which way from Friday and neither of these 2 SIM cards are working. We have NO navigation in the car, no way of communicating and we just spent 20 euro on SIMs that now are not working at all. Nada.
So we keep driving for awhile and finally stop at a gas station for snacks and potty and we buy a new SIM for 5 euro which appears to be a SIM for phone calls only but we figured that’s fine. We’ll use that to call Colleen when we need to contact her. But do you think I have the phone number of our friends? Nope. We have never once talked on the phone. Who uses the phone anymore??? So we sit in the parking lot of a restaurant and hijack their wifi and get in touch with our friends. We get general directions of how to get there and we continue on our way.
We are so tired, we are hungry, we are ready to be done with this day.
But first, we must screw up at the toll booth.
Portugal seems to like their toll roads. Shortly after crossing the border we gave some machine our debit card and it unceremoniously hooked us up to the license plate toll system. That seemed fine but we kind of wondered if that was an auto pay system for speeding tickets too. Hmmm. But OK, we go through sensor after sensor and have no idea what our card might be charged. At one point we came to some booth that had no attendant and no gate. We had no idea what to do so we stop, look around, see no indication of what to do other than the sign that says “don’t get out of your car” in pictures. So we do nothing but keep going.
About 100 km later we come to a toll booth with an attendant. The screen says to pay 3.10 so we get out some change. The guy asks for our ticket. Remember, we are now in Portugal where most do not speak English, and we don’t even know how to say HELLO in Portuguese let alone communicate a conversation. The toll guy tells us that we were supposed to collect a green ticket from a machine, way back there.
We have no ticket.
No problem, he says. The lost ticket price is 40 euro.
Say what now?
40 euro for a lost ticket? Dan tries to argue, he tells the guy to call the police cause we aren’t paying (audible gasp from the church mice in the back seat) and argues with the guy for awhile. There is a line of cars behind us, cursing our existence, I’m sure. Dan finally throws (figuratively, not literally) 45 euro at the guy and off we go. No navigation, no communication, 40+ euro in tolls and 25 euro in non-working SIM cards.
We follow Colleen’s directions. And by “follow” I mean “got completely lost” but at least we were in the city they live in. We finally just pull over at a gas station and Dan puts in the new SIM we got that said it was for calls only. All of a sudden, his phone starts ringing with notification bells and whistles, like a disco. He has internet! It feels like we hit the lottery.
So we get in touch with Colleen, they say they are on their way and 10 minutes later we are reunited again, this time in our 3rd country seeing them, none of which is the home country for any of us. Good friends in ANY country is a good thing. It is now 10:00 p.m. but there’s still a hot, home-cooked dinner waiting for us. We just say that we have adjusted so well to Spain our dinner time has adjusted too.
Welcome to Worldschooling. Some days just suck. But then the sun rises the next day. Hopefully we won’t see it from the car.