Carol & David's Excellent Adventures
Oh... Phuket

By David A. Braun
Copyright May 1999

During my last sweep through Asia (Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea, with few hours in Singapore, twice) back in February, I made a POINT of getting some official to stamp my passport on the last blank page because I had this stupid goal of getting at least ONE stamp on each page. He was a bit reticent and said, "Some people don't want a stamp on a blank page because they're saving them for visas. Little did I know that Murphy was watching.

Our passports are nearly nine years old, expiring mid-May 2000. We had planned to get new ones before mid-July because the French administration put a new carte de sejour (which includes the right to work for one year) in Carol's when she was hired. That document expires on July 15. A new carte de sejour would expire AFTER her passport. Therefore, in the interest of not having two passports, it is better for her to get her passport renewed before the carte de sejour.

In true Murphy fashion, a few days after she received her carte de sejour which had required all sorts of loop jumping and form filing requiring literally three months, culminating in a drive to Lyon for a chest x-ray with some barely post-war antique radiation-emitter, they changed the law. NOW, if one spouse has a valid work permit, the other gets one automatically. Because of this bit of administrivia, I am valid December to December and she July to July. Like they said in the beer commercial during the Superbowl, "Good job there, Pierre."

Meanwhile, some countries (to which I travel on business) deny entry even if you have a visa if your passport is not valid for at least six months after the date of entry. So we were figuring on going down to Marseilles, the location of the US Consulate responsible for our department (Isere) for new passports in June, after we get back from a long weekend in Venice. If you get your application in before 10AM, the consulate told me on the phone; you can pick up your new passport around 2PM the same day. As our employer supports the passport renewal process, we get a day in Marseilles on the company.

Another reason to wait until June is that I have an upcoming trip to Asia, which will include the People's Republic of China. The People's administration of China is even heavier than that of France, which is saying a LOT. Everyone must have a visa to visit China. The visa is a one-time-only visa and has specific limited duration. (In contrast to say, South Korea, who grant a 60-month, multiple- entry visa.) You even have to state where you're going in China. You also are required to supply a letter of invitation (for a business visa). You give them a photo, and, oh yes, an application fee.

Normally, the process is that you tell whoever is sending your invitation letter to exaggerate the length of your stay to allow for some flexibility in travel plans. If you were invited to Shanghai and go to Beijing instead, no one cares. As long as you have a visa in your passport, you're good.

I requested and received my invitation letter. The company office in Shanghai faxed a copy to me for submittal along with my application and faxed a second copy directly to the Chinese embassy in Paris. Experience has shown that this step expedites things. I gave my application, photo, letter, and passport to the travel desk on a Monday (after color copying every page) to get my China visa. Enter Murphy. Tuesday the travel desk called and told me I needed to give them a SECOND photo, which I happened to have on hand, being a *traveling* fool. The travel desk said it was because I'm a 'murikin. But the stuff on the US State Department web page says ONE photo for China. Next, on Wednesday, while I was off burning a day of use-it-or-lose-it vacation before June 1st (lose-it day), I got an urgent voicemail with an unintelligible phone number (even for folks who speak French fluidly, I found out later)ā something about my passport pages. I have NO blank pages left and China wants a completely BLANK page for their anal-retentive visa. Nevermind that one of the pages only has one sorry stamp that is so light you can't possibly make out what it says and two other page have one stamp each on them. (Thank you, France, for taking three FULL pages with visa and cartes de sejour. Let alone all the out/in stamps from Lyon-Satolas airport.) And thank ME, Mr. Murphy for wanting my pages all stamped before I even thought I might be going somewhere new on an old soon-to-be replaced passport.

Thursday, after calling the US embassy in Paris and the consulate in Marseilles, I determined that ANYONE could take my passport to the embassy in Paris and get extra visa pages added. However, they have to have a letter (fax is just fine) from me to whom it may concern asking for visa pages to be added and saying that it is just fine to hand my passport over to WHOEVER is doing this for me. WHOEVER has to have some ID to make the bureaucraps happy.

The flaw in this unguent is that my passport was sent by the Carlson Wagonlit in-house travel desk to some visa agency in Paris, who run around from embassy to embassy doing this scut work. And the travel desk has nary a clue who WHOEVER is to whom I need to send the fax. Their solution (both CW and the visa circus they use in Paris) is for ME to get the pages added. My passport arrived back in Grenoble Friday. It was a GOOD THING that the trip got pushed out some... like a week or so.

So... on Monday, one week after my initial application submittal, I busted a move to Marseilles on my bike. (Yippee! I LOVE getting PAID to ride my bike.) The distance was estimated at 300km each way. My PLAN was to get up at 5 and be on the road by 6, get to Marseilles by 9 and the consulate by 9:30 (allowing time to get lost once). Five minutes later, I thought, I'd have my new pages all stapled in and be headed back to Grenoble, hopefully to get to work early enough to give my passport back to the travel desk to send back to Paris to get the visa application in AND have lunch before a full afternoon of "important" meetings. (There is some saying about "the best planned lays of mice and menā" which would likely be appropriate here.)

In the USA, you get paid mileage when you use your own vehicle on company travel. On a motorcycle you can clearly realize a short- term profit as the rate is FLAT for all vehicles. 22 cents or 24 cents (or whatever) a mile. But in France, they want you to take a "pool car" or else a Hertz car. I don't wanna drive NO steenking car. So I asked about the possibility of getting reimbursed for taking the bike. They have this concept of "fiscal horsepower" here, where you pay an annual tax on your car based on the power it makes. Bikes are exempt from the annual tax, paying only once, when you buy it and register it in your name. My gray card (pink slip) says my bike's puissance is 7. When I punch that number in, along with the 600 kmā the result is 1500 francs. So, in theory, I could get paid darned near $250 to ride my bike to Marseilles and back, which lots more than the cost of the $5/gal gas here and outrageous tolls. But that approach would be wrong to my employer, who would normally only pay about 300f for a Hertz car for a day, plus 1f/km over 300 (300f), plus the actual cost of fuel, plus the tolls. If I back-figure it to make sure my employer breaks better than even on the cost of a rental, I get to ride my bike. Additionally, I can make a short-term profit at the same time my employer shows a savings due to the 50% savings in tolls and better fuel economy of the motorcycle. It looks like a couple hundred francs in my pocket for wear and tear on the bike plus actual fuel and toll costs. Seems fair to me.

In theory, it takes five working days for the French Chinese embassy to process this application. HOWEVER, there is a little box on the equally French and Mandarin application which I have to check "OUI" that axs (I can read the French) "Have you ever had a visa application refused?" I figure that has got to be good for another couple of days of delay. (This is especially true since I had to get a second letter of invitation with different entry/exit dates from the first one.) If I get the application to the travel desk on May 3 and the flight to Penang leaves Paris on May 16, with ten WORKING days in between 3 and 16 (unless there is an "Ancestral Tomb Sweeping Day" holiday in there or some such nonsense), I should be visiting the People's Republic of China. I AM going to Penang & Kuala Lampur, Malaysia and Kumi & Seoul, Korea (and maybe even Bangkok, Thailand). But, as always, even this is subject to the winds of change from an assortment of quarters right up until my fuzzy butt is holding down a seat on a plane which has gathered enough speed to have passed the point of no return on the runway.

OK... so there was the Plan.

Saturday was a warm, beautiful, sunlit day. I managed a ride over a couple of passes and around a mud avalanche before getting stopped by snow in another pass and having to backtrack home. Sunday was a beautiful blue-sky sunlit day. No ride Sunday. Monday... I awoke too early to see if the sky had color. But the fact that there were no stars visible did not exactly thrill me. By 5:30 I was headed south on the Route Napoleon. (This was the way the short guy with the itch got to and from exile so many times that they figured since he wore a path across the countryside, they might as well name it after him.)

Having studied the map the day before, I knew that I had options. I could leave Grenoble on the freeway and head northwest before curving around south and down to Marseille. Or I could just go south where I would quickly run out of AutoRoute and take two-lane for nearly 200 km down to Sisteron, where the AutoRoute begins (or ends, depending on your perspective). In Sisteron, the choice remains whether to take the old route or the fast, expensive, route to Aix-en-Provence and Marseille.

During my previous trip to Asia, my traveling companion, Herve, asked me if I had taken my moto down the N75 to the Cote d'Azur. I found this question curious because he has zero interest in motorcycles. Further inquiry on my part revealed that every time he ever took that route, more than half of the traffic was on two wheels. "This," I thought to myself, "qualifies as a TIP for a road worthy of investigation." I performed a preliminary investigation one Sunday in March doing about the top 50 km before running out of time for Southerly travel and working my way north and east though a rather comedic series of detours back to Grenoble. (Every and I do mean EVERY road in my plan A, plan B and even plan C was closed either for blockage, repair or due to some bicycle race through the area. I made it home nearly on time, though.)

In exchange for setting out on the road before dawn, you are awarded the opportunity to see the sun rise above the horizon. This is always an inspiring site, particularly welcome on a motorcycle because generally by that time you're cold enough to really welcome a little extra thermal energy. I was winding my way through a pass in the twisties when ole Sol finally nipped above the snowcaps. I paused to take what I expect to be a lousy picture of a great dawn. (Some things just don't translate to film.)

For the Colorado-front-range-traveled, this road had pieces like Poudre Canyon and bits like Big Thompson. There were some pieces that reminded me of Trail Ridge. I had no wonder that this was the bikers' highway to where the bikinis are (or aren't, as the case may be) in summer. There are occasionally times when I get paid to do things that I would gladly pay to do. This counted.

In Sisteron, after filling the tank, I realized that it was 7:30 and I should probably take the AutoRoute. The fact that it was starting to rain as I was putting my helmet back on clinched the decision. It was a good thing I did.

I guess I hit Aix-en-Provence at rush hour. All I know is that traffic on the AutoRoute was a dead crawl. In France, no one gets upset when you split lanes on a bike. In fact, they pull wide to let you by. I moved at a steady 30-50km through more than 10km of traffic. When I got to Marseille, it got worse, and I took to the breakdown lane, behind some gendarmes on bikes.

My directions to the American Consulate were simpleā follow the signs to Centreville and then get off the AutoRoute and follow the signs to the Prefecture (city hall). The consulate is across the street.

When it comes to driving, Marseille combines the worst qualities of all of the French cities I have visited. It was after nine when I found the prefecture. Riding up the sidewalk, I asked the policeman posted out front where the American Consulate was. He pointed down the street to where a car was parked in front of a building (which did NOT have ole Glory out front) and told me not to park near the car, but near the statue. I rode back down the sidewalk, against the flow of traffic had I been in the street (see why a bike is great, particularly in France). I crossed in the crosswalk, pulled up to the statue and started to dismount. A shrill whistle gathered my attention and a man looking like a fed indicated that I could not park here. We worked out that another trip back over the crosswalk was enough distance to make him happy.

Luckily, there were several hitching posts in the area. I had been warned that Marseille has a very high vehicle theft rate and wanted to lock my bike TO something to encourage all but the most determined thieves search for easier prey. Like they say, you don't have to outrun the bear, you only have to outrun your hiking companion. After securing one wheel of the bike to a pole with one lock and the other wheel of the bike to the bike with the other, I trod, tankbag in hand, across the crosswalk. Third time was charmed.

The man with the asked my business from inside his bulletproof enclosure. He then allowed me ingress and started waving his magic wand all around which, of course, was whistling and beeping and carrying on every which way. I explained that I had about seventy-two zippers on my Aerostich riding suit and besides that I had pocket change, bolts, tools, things in foil wrappers, a tire patch kit and all sorts of sordid assorted metal-detector unfriendly items on my person. And besides all that, I was wearing my heated electric vest, with wiring all through it. Nope. This would not fly. I removed my rain gear and electric vest and emptied most everything out of my pockets into the tankbag. He gave me a check number and passed me and my tankbag on through the portal to the next guard.

The next guy was behind some serious bulletproof glass surrounded by monitors and what all. I guess he was manning the security command post in front of the airport-style metal detector with remote electric-locking doors going in or out. I flunked my first pass through the detector. I kept saying it was the zippers. I walked as slowly as possible (to give a lower inductance-dip signal in hopes of passing). Finally, a third guy came out and waved his wand around and then had me remove my belt. The tiny metal buckle made the difference. I was permitted (sans tankbag or helmet) into the sanctum sanctorum, the American Consulate. (Big whoop.)

Window number one was for American citizens only. That's me! I filled out the form, which the lady gave me (which I had printed from a pdf file at home but was told they did not need) and following instructions did not sign. The consul staff person came over and watched me sign, as required by law. She then told me that they would mail it by the end of the week. The color in my face probably matched my blood pressure. She then said that if the person on the phone said it could be done while I waited, it could. I did. It was. My passport was handed back after a while with brand new non-matching pages A-X taped into the middle sporting an official-looking stamp and scrawl on page A.

Egress was much simpler. I rearrange my kit and caboodle, putting things back into the appropriate pockets and such and then unhitched my trusty horse that had been waiting patiently. Getting OUT of Marseille proved more difficult than getting in because there are three ways to leave and only one Centreville. All the freeway signs claimed "Toutes Directions" for quite a while. I had an idea where I wanted to go, but in the end opted just to follow the signs for Lyon. The worst part was when I came to a Y with a dozen signs and realized that A7-LYON went left and A7-LYON went right and in my haste to glean a better clue from the signage, didn't pay attention to the actual ROAD. I took the A7-LYON that was NOT on the flyover. Realizing that I had banished myself to the slow route, I backtracked at the first opportunity, planning to re- double-back and correct that error. There was no place to make this last maneuver and didn't look like there would be until I was back at the prefecture. At a red light I looked aroundā a quick U-turn across the median and I was on my way. (I can drive as French as anyone here.)

The miasma loosened its grip as I headed (in the wrong direction) toward Nice. Even without sunshine, the Mediterranean was a sight to behold on the left with escarpments on my right. Finally, the road started seriously northward. Just after picking up my toll ticket, I stopped for another tank of gas, a Coke and a sandwich. At 11:30 I got back on the bike to ride back, just as the rain started.

The rain was only playing. It never really rained hard, just enough to keep the road wet and throw up spray from the cars. My raingear all worked and I stayed dry. With a dry weather speed limit of 130kph and wet of 110, most cars were running 130-150 or so (80- 95 mph). I was settling in to a nice 130 or so when a BMW car came flying by followed closely by an "arrest-me-red" 355 Ferrari. It is not every day that I have the opportunity to hear the song of a Ferrari dancing its ponies for any distance. This was not to be that day either. The bike tops out at 162 kph (drafting, in a downhill stretch). Within a few minutes, I was not part of the train. Within five minutes, I couldn't even see them anymore.

There was a big sign over the autoroute explaining "Two traces for safety. One trace is not enough." It didn't take me long to realize that it referred to the safe following distance. A veteran of traffic school, I learned of "the two second rule" for determining safe following distances. It works at any speed. "Two traces" was about a half-second at these speeds.. The French tend to drive a bit more "intimately" than Americans prefer.

Quarter of two I was back in the office having paid 170f (~$30) in tolls and about 270f (~$45) for gas for the 620 km round trip. After a couple of hours above 90mph, the woman at the travel desk appeared to me to be moving with all the haste of a glacier as she issued the five train tickets to the fellow in line ahead of me. After dropping off my new and improved Chinese visa application, I was only fifteen minutes late for my two o'clock meeting. But it really had been quite a good morning after all.

Friday, my passport returned with my 30-day visa for China stomped into page E. Meanwhile, the management folks who had been traveling in China to discuss business issues were winging their way back to France. I went home for the weekend feeling quasi-normal.

Why there are national holidays on Saturdays is beyond me. But there are. They stick them on a certain date, damn the day of the week. This works out fairly reasonably by the law of averages. But it plays hell with Saturdays from time to time, the only viable shopping day. May 1 and 8, 1999 were Saturday holidays in France. So are Xmas and New Years this time. Saturday was better than the previous one. On May Day EVERYTHING is closed and it is the only day of the year when the public transportation does not run.

However, this May 8th, 1999, it was reported that NATO (OTAN, in typically bass-awkward French) had accurately hit a target in Belgrade, 725 miles away from our home in Grenoble. Unfortunately, they were not as smart as the munitions sent. It was not one of Milosovic's headquarters but the Chinese Embassy. One of the first responses that pops into my mind when someone asks for an example of an oxymoron is "military intelligence." Q.E.D.

The Chinese were about as thrilled with NATO bombing their embassy (killing a few folks in the effort) as we would be with them bombing ours. They took paving stones to embassies of the various NATO players in response. And sometimes even individual people. Well, almost people. Journalists. (Having held a press card in my life entitles me to say that.)

Monday, when I got to work, I found the US State Department issued travel warning that Americans should not go to China. My traveling companion for this trip rolled his eyes when I showed it to him and said, "I am, in fact right now, composing an email message to my friend who works in the French embassy in Beijing." A short time later the response was backā his friend suggested that we not travel to China any time real soon. It's just as well. I am allergic to paving stones. They tend to raise big welts on my body.

The original plan included visiting Kuala Lumpur and Penang, Malaysia as well as Seoul and Kumi, Korea. China was just one day of the trip, plus a day of travel to get there and another day of travel to get to Korea. But there was a weekend involved consisting of two half-days in Beijing. There was another supplier we wanted to visit in Thailand, but didn't feel we had the time to do it.

So... the question the became, "Do we spend the weekend in Bangkok or Phuket?" As we were not exactly sure where the factory is located, this question remains unanswered.

And just to make things interesting, management is going to prioritize the suppliers we need to visit by late tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon. Wednesday, we need to make all the travel arrangements or else not go because Thursday is... a holiday. The in-house travel desk is closed on Thursday and Friday. If we are going to get tickets for a flight leaving on Saturday, it is going to have to be on Wednesday.

Plan A - Go Somewhere
Plan B - Go Nowhere
Plan C - Go Later

Holey underwear, Batman, stay tuned for the exciting conclusion to this exiting adventure... for Tales of Motorcycles and Life