Monday, July 12, 2010

We Did It - We Beat the Fee!

I started a new blog the other day but I had to stop. Duang was telling me about ghost monkeys returning to Tahsang Village and how, according to her daughter, I needed to wear my Buddhist amulets when I next visit the village. Apparently from what I gathered, the monkey ghosts are kind of like vampires but are afraid of Buddha but not of Christians. This has the makings, I believe, of a very good story but pulling it all together is complicated and too much is getting lost in the translation. I have sought the assistance of our good friend Prawnee in Bangkok to help me understand the story so I am optimistic about sorting it all out - eventually.

In the meantime, we managed to use up today, Monday 12 July, quite easily. Once again it was time to deal with the American Embassy. Late last week I found out that fees for certain transactions were increasing effective 13 July (Tuesday). For me the most significant impact was a new fee for adding blank pages to a US Passport.

Three years ago, I remind you it was post 9-11, adding blank pages to my passport was no big deal. Periodically the US Embassy in Bangkok conducts "Outreach" to Americans living in Thailand. They travel to some of the larger cities in the country to perform "American Citizen Services" for Americans in the area. This gives the local Americans an opportunity to avoid a long trip to Bangkok as well as most likely an overnight stay in Bangkok. Three years ago the Embassy had an outreach at a hotel in the city where I was living. I needed additional pages in my passport so I went to the hotel, filled out a form, waited for my name to be called, sat down submitted my form, and watched a US representative place a pre-printed and pre-adhesive package of 24 pages into my passport. I believe the entire process required 15 minutes total. There was no charge for the SERVICE.

That was three years ago, recently the "Outreach" program can no longer add pages to US Passports. However US Embassy representatives will accept US Passports for return to Bangkok for processing. Once the passports are delivered to the Embassy the augmented passports will be available for pick up at the American Citizen's Services Office in Bangkok the next business day. The US citizen can pick up the passport personally or have someone else pick it up with a letter of authorization from the citizen to the Embassy. Supposedly this is due to increased security measures. This sort of reminds me of small children's behavior as well as unfortunately too many adults who believe that all bad behaviors are forgiven and consequences of bad behavior are to be avoided simply by parroting the phrase "I'm sorry". In this case and many other issues in the USA in the past 10 years all abuses of power and infringements of personal liberty are justified and made acceptable by referring to them as "Increased Security Measures". However up until tomorrow this reduced level of SERVICE has no charge.

As of tomorrow, additional pages will incur a fee of $82 USD. The following is a copy of an official US Consular website:

Q: Why is the Government charging me such a high fee to add
passport pages, something previously provided for free?

A: The cost of service study found that adding visa pages to
an existing passport book requires nearly the same resources
as producing a new passport book. The study found that the
cost of producing the pages, placing them in the book in a
secure manner by trained personnel, and completing the
required security checks costs the U.S. Government $82.48.
The Department will charge $82 for this service. Please note
that frequent travelers can request a 52-page passport book at
no additional cost when they renew, potentially saving them
from the additional cost of visa pages.

I and many other US expats have a great deal of difficulty accepting this official statement as truthful. First of all, recent US Passports are able to be read by machines. The passport has an embedded chip which contains the vital information. I am certain that verifying the validity of a passport takes no more than 30 seconds. Secondly the additional pages are prepackaged prepared packets ready for insertion. Thirdly there is not a great deal of training required to scan a passport on a machine and once given the "OK" to place a pre-glued 24 page packet into the passport. Thank God or Buddha that Obama did not use the same group that determined that the cost of adding pages to a passport is $82.48 to also determine the cost of implementing his Healthcare legislation or even he would not have been able to get it passed by any means. Comparing this determined cost of "$82.48" for adding pages to an existing passport as opposed to the determined cost of $103.49 for a first time passport application requires the suspension of reality to believe.

After doing some research a la Internet, I determined that the US Consular Services in Vientiane would be able to add pages to a passport and do it in about 30 minutes. I have to pay $35 to obtain a Visa on arrival for the Lao People's Democratic Republic however Duang can enter for no fee. I asked her last night if she would be willing to go to Lao today and handle the task of getting new pages for me. She agreed and I reconfirmed twice that she was willing to do it. I downloaded the required form, filled it out, and signed it. I wrote a letter identifying Duang and authorizing Duang to submit as well as to return my passport to me.

Last night I knew that she had a restless sleep and that she had gotten out of bed three times. Only after returning home this afternoon did she admit to being worried about going to Laos alone to deal with the American Embassy.

We got up at 5:30 A.M. this morning and left for Laos at 6:15 A.M. I drove up to the border, and filled out the paperwork for Duang to leave Thailand as well as to enter Laos. The documentation for both countries must be filled out in ENGLISH. Duang speaks Thai, English, and Lao but she can only read as well as write in Thai. At the border we were approached by a man, basically a tout. He offered to help her to cross the border, take her to the US Embassy, and return her to the Thai border for a fixed price. The price was what I know to be the typical charge to take a taxi one way from the Thai border to Vientiane. Most guide books caution tourists about using touts. Duang and I typically trust our instincts and on a case by case basis use touts. Our experience has been that approximately 95% of the touts are just regular people trying to make a living and are a great deal of help. This man was no different. He got Duang to the US Consular Office for the 8:00 A.M. opening for business. He even went inside the office with Duang to reassure her. Duang was one of the first people to enter and everything went fine until the officials discovered that the computer was "down". She called me on the man's phone (her Thai phone would not allow her to call from Laos to Thailand and my phone could not call her in Laos) to inform me that she had to return to the Consular office at 1:00 P.M. to get the passport. She was very fortunate the people who arrived later were instructed to return tomorrow to pick up their passports. The man stayed with her the entire time and returned her to the border at 1:45 P.M. - for the agreed upon price. I told Duang to buy the man lunch and to give him a tip for his help as well as kindness.

While Duang was off in Laos I stayed in Nong Khai. I wandered around the Mekong River and ended up spending a great deal of time watching goods being exported from Thailand to Lao by river boats. We will return tomorrow to take photographs and for Duang to translate for me.

We entered our home at 3:00 P.M. Duang was hot and exhausted from her full day. I was happy that we had avoided the $82 fee - $82 that will pay for one day for our hotel and food during our upcoming next trip here in Thailand.

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