Sunday, August 30, 2009

Backpack or roller bag? Vote!

Had breakfast this morning with a friend who had spent two years teaching in Venezuela many years ago. I got a wonderful suggestion for my trip to Arabia. I have been trying to figure out how to maximize what I can take onboard the airplane as a carry-on and she said, "What about a backpack?"

Eureka. Why didn't I think of that? It will fit perfectly in the overhead compartment and still allow me to have my hefty laptop -- practically a suitcase in itself.

In the meantime, I ran across a perfectly sized mini-roller bag over at the Goodwill store when I was dropping off donations. I might have been able to live with the hot pink color, but it was emblazoned with a bright "Little Kitty" logo too. Fortunately, as I was driving home I found a parking lot rummage sale where I was able to score a conservative black mini-rollerbag.

Now I have to decide which one will hold more and /or be more useful. Remember, for carry on, weight doesn't matter here. I could fill it with bowling balls if I could yank it onboard. What matters is that the bag be 45 linear inches or less.*

Here are the candidates:

a) The black rollerbag measures about 38.75 linear inches, has a convenient pull-up handle, wheels and a front pouch. The front fabric allows for some bulging for last-minute items. Some of the interior space is used up by the hardware "ribs."

b) The green backpack measures between 35 and 36 linear inches, depending on how you count the front pouch. It has typical backpack straps, two main compartments and the front pouch has two handy compartments. The design allows considerable bulging for squeezing in last-minute items. It would be good for city trekking and going back and forth to school.

I'm taking opinions. Vote for the bag of your choice.

*You figure linear inches by simply adding up the 3 dimensions: thus 20H +20W + 20L = 60"

Car plan revised

Minor setback with my car storage plan.

I had misunderstood my mechanic, thinking that the friend storing my car in the third-car spot in her garage would only have to start it up once a month, for about 10 minutes...and maybe run it up and down the driveway to keep the tires from always being in one spot.

Turns out it has to be started up once a week...for 20-30 minutes! This has the added complication that the car will need a gas fill up at least three times in the year. And I've not only cancelled the insurance but arranged to have the car de-registered with the state. I really can't ask my friend to add these extra duties, having promised her how easy it would be.

Fortunately, another friend, whom I just happened to be talking about on other matters, stepped up and agreed to everything. We owe each other favors so I'll be helping her with some marketing and writing stuff.

In the meantime, I'm tackling the business of packing now. I tested one of the 20x20x20 boxes with a load of t-shirts comes in at 40 lbs. If I had used a suitcase instead of a packing box that extra 10 lbs would have been taken up by the weight of the suitcase itself.

I also met with my renter for the coming year and we signed the agreement.

As I clear out my attic to make room for all the stuff I'm going to have to store, I'm running across all kinds of old photos, fliers, concert tickets (Bruce Springsteen, Santana, Tori Amos, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, James Brown, Better Than Ezra, ZZ Top), baseball games, basketball games hockey games, plays, scraps of phrases and a stub for a musical ("Rent") that I'm pretty sure I never even went to.

The stubs are all there, getting nice and aged.

Time to get some new ones, eh.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Da Shippin' News - 2

All righty then...think I'm getting a handle on this packing and shipping thing.

By way of preface though, I'm still just scratching my head at the dearth of information and good advice about how to do all this. I'd have thought that with numerous people arriving in Riyadh every day to live, the expats would have a system for how to get their stuff over there.

Here's the deal in case you're wondering how you're going to do it yourself.

There seem to be two options:

1) Use a freight forwarder or other shipper to send your stuff
2) Take your two free bags, two carry-ons and then simply add a third box as "excess baggage."

I chose #2. Yes, you pay dearly for the excess, but it's wayyyyy cheaper than the freight forwarder...unless you're taking a whole household of stuff, or have more than, say, 7 boxes.

I checked with a local freight forwarder (who lackadaisically took 10 days to respond, by the bye) and his quote was $1,500.

Since I'm traveling via two different airlines, I had to deal with both. What you'll find is you need to pack and budget for the more restrictive airline.

United (UA) allows two free pieces of checked luggage:
a) 50 lbs or less
b) 62" in total dimensions.
If your free pieces (or any piece) exceeds the 50 lb limit you pay $150 for overage from 50-70 lbs. (I didn't check beyond that.)

Each additional box or luggage item is $250, same restrictions.

Saudia (SV)
allows two free pieces of checked luggage:
a) 70 lbs or less
b) 62" in total dimensions or less (you add the three dimensions and it can't exceed 62")
Each additional box or piece is $138, with same restrictions above.

With this information, I knew that I had to go with the UA 50 lb limit, even though SV allows 70 lbs.

Doing the math, it appears that I need to keep my two free pieces strictly within the 50 lb/62" limit to avoid severe penalty.

I doubt I can get everything into two boxes, so I'm fixin' to add a third excess box, within the correct specifications and pay the $250. UA assures me that this takes me straight through to Riyadh.

Apparently, part of the cost for the freight forwarders is that your package has to be received or handled by one of their agents there to pass customs...or maybe just to be downloaded. Also, the package does not arrive when you could be before or later.

The trick, it would appear, is to get boxes as close as possible to the 62" space limit. I'm going to purchase three 20x20x20 boxes from the UPS store, though I could get them from U-Haul cheaper. But I think the UPS boxes might be a bit sturdier.

Tip: Although 20x20x20 only adds up to 60", the box specification refers to the inside volume. Thus, such a box really comes in more like 61" and some change. I'm not sure how fussy the airlines are going to be, but why chance it?

I considered using a very large suitcase, maybe buying one from Goodwill, but suitcases add about 5 lbs to the total weight, what with wheels, handles, zippers, dividers and so on. And I reckon that if you multiply that by 3 boxes, it could add up to 15 extra pounds of junk I can haul over.

My friend has a bag weighing device so I'm hoping to get that measurement pretty fine-tuned.

As a final option, if I get to either my two-box or three-box capacity and find that I have just a bit of overflow -- not enough to fill a full box, I can send a U.S. mail package which will arrive who-knows-when (probably 3 weeks) for what I'm surmising would be about $50.

Needless to say, I'll be packin' and storin' like crazy this weekend.

Other notes
1) These size/weight restrictions apply to these respective airlines' domestic and international flights. United may have different (more generous) limits for international flights.
2) If you're flying business class or better, you may be able to up your size/weight limits. Of course, your packing chores still have to conform to the most restrictive limit.
3) In case you're wondering, today's title comes from the 1993 novel by Annie Proulx, The Shipping News, set in Newfoundland. One of the characters, a Newfie, likes to pronounce the term as "da shippin' news." See? You get all sorts of fun information on this blog!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Rent (the non-musical)

Woohoo...I've got my place rented, thanks to my buddy Craig.

I had originally posted on Craigslist about 3 weeks ago. I reposted the ad Sunday about 2pm after my niece (below, middle), who's couch-surfing with her fiance from San Jose, Calif. to Erie, Pa., left for her next destination. Within 10 minutes I actually had two calls and an e-mail.

Craigslist only lets you post at designated intervals, days apart, to avoid abusers who will simply repost every 10 minutes in order to get to the top of the list.

This time, I chose to include my phone number since I no longer have to be coy about what my plans are.

This is a great weight off my shoulders, though I still have to figure out my luggage/transport system for getting belongings to Riyadh. And in the meantime, I have to get to Erie myself for my other niece's wedding (left) over Labor Day, and then back to Phoenix to close out the house.

This will be the first time I've seen all three together for a few years. Aren't they cuties?

Saturday, one of my friends treated me to a little video and book shopping spree at Bookmans (a big used book store chain). Tonight, one of my pro bono clients is taking me out to dinner. This is essentially my final week at home before I head out to the Kingdom.

Photo of me with Craig Newmark (right) taken at Arizona State University, College of Design "Design Excellence Dinner," Apr. 17, 2009. Needless to say, he had nothing to do with renting my house. I don't think................................

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Two weeks to go

I'm trying out a new look for the blog. How ya like it? The header background pic is a shot of the front roofline of my house with an actual rainbow. I may not keep it but I wanted to experiment with the blog layout to see what I could do. I got some very helpful advice from Susie of Arabia -- an award-winning blog about life in Saudi Arabia for an American woman.

Latest preparations

Car storage: I've solidified my plan. A friend with a 3-car garage will let me park it there for a year, unused, except for occasional trips up and down the driveway to keep the engine fluids happy. This has the great advantage of allowing me to cancel my car insurance -- except for the minimal $61 "comprehensive coverage" in case a rabid bat flies in and tears up the place or there's a flood or something. In addition, I can de-register my vehicle for the year with the state Dept of Motor Vehicles.

Telecoms -- cell phone, land line, Internet, satellite TV: I've got these all bundled together with Qwest as a package and the good news is that I can essentially eliminate all...saving about $150-200 per month. I'm able to keep the Internet service on its own for $50. Of course, I'll have to pay for some kind of cell phone/TV service in Riyadh so this is not a total savings.

Property Manager -- I've arranged for my next-door neighbor, who happens to be a realtor, to serve this function. The nice part is that he already knows the ins and outs of my house and can keep an eye out on the property without having to drive over all the time.

Still to be done:
1) the main thing is still finding a renter to cover my mortgage
2) also need to settle on a method for transporting belongings

3) need to re-instate my home warranty coverage with Old Republic. This just covers any major repairs or replacements for stuff like the washer/dryer, dishwasher, refrigerator, A/C, etc.

In the meantime, I read the expat forums and e-mails regularly and try to keep up with a few blogs.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What the visa looks like

August 19, 2009

Here's what arrived in my self-addressed U.S. Postal Service envelope while I was serving my county on jury duty yesterday:

I've blurred out some of the identifying remarks, but that's essentially what the visa looks like, with the passport turned on its side. The actual visa part is on the left side and the stamp just says it's been paid.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bon Voyage and coconut shells

August 18, 2009

Anticipating passport/visa material in the mail today.

I'm getting a bon voyage party in a couple weeks. I've sent out a wish list of books and videos to my friends, partly to forestall receiving a well-meaning slew of gag gifts that would simply be confiscated at customs in Riyadh.

In return, I've decided to make an open offer for friends to come and loot my house (still to be rented) of any item that is not nailed down or otherwise needed by whoever rents the joint. The deal is they can have use of the item for a year at which point I either return to reclaim it or, if I'm holed up in a hostage camp, they get to keep it.

Some of the items include:
  • golf clubs
  • bikes
  • stuffed gorilla
  • 35mm camera
  • tripod
  • coconut shell bra
The coconut shell item was spoken for quickly, as one can well imagine.

Da shippin' news

August 17, 2009

I'm going through my punch list (as the realtors say) and knocking down items.

Renting the house is still top on the list, but there's only so much I can do on that front.

Figuring out how to ship my clothes and misc. belongings for a year's stay overseas is still a bit of a puzzlement. Hundreds of people do this every day so there must be some standard way or ways to accomplish the task.

I now have several very good options for keeping my car out of trouble for a year. In adddition to saving about $1,300 in gas, I can save $800 in insurance. I may also be able to get something back for deregistering the car with the state.

And now I've got to call into the Superior Court to see about jury duty. I'm thinking I'll get a pass on that.

Aug. 18, 2009:

Friday, August 14, 2009


August 14, 2009

The clock is really ticking now. My checklist of things to do includes:
  • Getting a new USB drive and wireless mouse for my laptop (done)
  • Cancelling the newspaper (done)
  • Changing the electric company service (APS) to autopay and equalized monthly billing (done)
  • Having a long involved and probably painful discussion with my all-in-one telecoms provider (Qwest) to see what phone, Internet and satellite TV services I can get rid of
  • Car insurance options (done)
  • Car storage options -- currently I'm debating either (a) just parking it in a guest space at the townhouse complex here and removing insurance for a year, (b) taking advantage of a friend's offer to park it in other unused side of her 2-car garage, but leaving the insurance coverage so she can borrow it when needed. (in progress)
  • Obtain shipping information for my belongings to KSA
  • Re-instating my home warranty policy from Old Republic
  • Developing a wish list of books and DVDs that friends may (or may not) want to send me off with (done)
  • Deciding whether to go and have immunizations. This is not strictly necessary but I'm sure it's a good idea. It's another sizeable expense though.

and the biggie:

  • arranging for my house rental

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Da plane, da plane!

August 13, 2009

Received a call from the Saudi embassy in Washington this morning: they are having my plane ticket -- undoubtedly an e-ticket -- issued and will be sending my passport back to me shortly.

Apparently the plane-change from United to Saudia at Dulles will be only an hour so they're advising that I'll have to hustle to make the flight.

In other news, my tennis friends are planning a going-away party for the end of August...or maybe it's a good-riddance party.

This group has been getting together for tennis every Monday night for at least 8 years and there have been only a couple nights per year that we failed to play. We've played in the 110-degree heat of summer and the 55-degree coolness of winter, wearing parkas and gloves. We've had ski trips, hiking adventures, wilderness campouts, holiday parties, Super Bowl parties, dances, bike hikes, BBQs, art walks, movie outings, outdoor concerts, TV-night dinners, water volleyball and group trips to Mexico.

Participants come and go; the group remains.

(pic above from 2003, I'm 3rd from left in white ball cap)

*The title of this piece, for non-American readers, is a famous catchphrase from the 1978-1984 TV show, "Fantasy Island." The character "Tatoo" opened the show each episode by ringing a bell and calling out "Da plane! Da plane!"

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Visa has been issued

August 11, 2009

Message from the Saudi protocol officer in Washington:

Your visa has been issued, and I am currently working on your tickets so I can send them all together.

I've been busy the past few days advising friends and family about my Saudi adventure. Many of these are people who should have been been brought into the picture a month ago, but the uncertainties associated with the visa process made it difficult. For one thing, informing the department at Arizona State University that I won't be able to do either class I typically teach means that I'm completely off the list if the Saudi adventure doesn't pan out.

I have to say that, to a person, everyone I've told about this has been very encouraging and for the most part actually thrilled. This could just mean they're glad to get rid of my pesky self.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Woo hoo!

August 6, 2009

I just got an e-mail from the SACM saying that my degree has been authenticated, the package is complete and is being forwarded to the Embassy to get the visa issued. At that point, the airplane ticket can be issued.

I'm counting this a (provisional) success.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Visa requirements -- all done? Maybe

August 3, 2009

Woohoo...I received the last vital piece of information I needed -- the "visa block number" --from the Ministry of Labor to the IPA that allows me to complete the visa application package.

What's aggravating about this piece of information is that it is not referenced, as such, in any of the documents outlining visa requirements. Apparently it's item #4 on the list: "A reference note showing the number and date of the residence visa issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs."

Now, how you get from that description to "visa block number" is a mystery so naturally I wouldn't have known to even ask for such a thing. In fact, it would have seemed to be a typical chicken-and-egg situation: How could one know the residence visa number until one had received the visa? And you can't get the visa until you have the number.

One thing that is no problem acquiring is various enumerations of requirements. Nearly every time I call and manage to get through to someone at the consulate or cultural mission in DC, they want to send me a list of requirements. And each time I patiently explain that it's not the list of requirements I's an explanation of the requirements.

So, having received the crucial visa block number, and having my visa application package all put together ahead of time, I hustled over to the local US Post Office and got everything certified-mailed to the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission (SACM) in Washington. This included an express-mail return envelope for my passport. I'm a bit nervous about not having my passport available, not because I might have to travel somewhere, but because I have no idea how long it will be in the hands of the SACM or whether they might lose it. As it happens, my university transcripts were sent twice, and, as you'll see, had to be sent a third time.

The good news about the U.S. Postal Service is that -- believe it or not -- the whole process only took me 11 minutes, and that includes having the agent look up the SACM zip code. Total cost: $22.45.

I called the SACM person the next day who advised she had received the package...however it appears the medical report was missing the doctor's official stamp with their medical license and the consulate had not verified my university degrees yet.

It so happens that the doctor's office doesn't just have a stamp with their license on it, but the SACM protocol officer advised that any "stamp" with their name and address would do. Of course the doctor's office was closed for lunch at that time, but I have to give them kudos for stepping up when I got ahold of them at 1pm . By now most of the office staff were probably aware of my Saudi plans and they knew how expensive this was gettting for me. The office manager got their address stamp, stamped some stationery, scanned it and e-mailed it off to the SACM within an hour, with a "cc" to me. No charge.

Next stop, the consulate office that verifies and validates the university degree(s). Sure enough, they did not have the 2nd set of documents that Gannon University (my master's degree institution) had sent on July 10. The problem seems to have been that the consulate likes to get all their information at one time from one source. That is, they want me to get the transcripts and then re-mail to their office. At the time, I thought it would be simplest to just have the two universities (B.A, U. of Dayton, M.A., Gannon U.) send official documents directly. The consulate had agreed to that.

Big mistake.

Apparently they don't have a system for keeping track of documents. The Univ. of Dayton documents never did get found. The first Gannon Univ. documents were sent back to Gannon with a sticky note saying "This student is not a Saudi-sponsored student" even though there was a cover letter. The university was sharp enough to call me and let me know that, and that's when I had them send another official document, this time to the specific attention of the person who needed to verify the degree.

In the meantime, I had to persuade him that the university doesn't have a copy of the "diploma" per se, in their archives. They have official transcripts, etc. but I couldn't even tell you where my actual "diploma" is. I still have my high school diploma, but that's just because I happened to find it in an old trunk a few years ago. Anyway, the consulate agreed to waive the diploma and was willing to accept the official sealed transcript. At the same time, I needed to have the National Student Clearinghouse Association verify my degree ($6.50) and send that info to the consulate, along with a cover letter authorizing them to verify the information...and a copy of my passport. Of course my passport was already in the hands of their counterparts at the SACM, so they were willing to waive that requirement.

We agreed that I would ask Gannon Univ. to overnight another official transcript, to the specific attention of the person verifying. At first he wanted to have Gannon send me the transcript, which I would then turn around and mail to him, with the other information that I had on hand. But I pointed out that that could add another 5 days to the process, what with the weekend coming up. And (I reckoned) what's to stop them from losing something from me any more than something from the university. I also figured that with overnight delivery, everything would be fresh in his mind and he could be looking for it.

I made another long distance call to Gannon asking them to overnight the transcripts to the consulate. They were very cooperative and I almost had Theresa convinced to accept some tasty Lake Erie perch as payment (from my brother, who lives there) but we eventually settled on a $25 shipping and handling fee...considering they had sent out two for free.

August 4, 2009

I got an e-mail from the SACM advising me to fill out an airline ticket application form. Fortunately, I had made the plane reservation a couple months ago so I had that information handy. However, as typical with Saudi forms, there was an item that wasn't completely clear: they wanted a "confirmation number," whereas since I hadn't confirmed the flight yet, all I had was a "reservation number." I called the airline the next day (since they were closed at 2pm, Phoenix time), confirmed that the numbers are the same thing, and e-mailed the form.

The only thing now is that the SACM, which is the agency that actually obtains the ticket, pays for it and sends it to me, must complete the transaction by Monday, Aug. 10 at 5pm. And, of course, they can't do that until they have verified university credientials so that they can complete the visa approval.

August 6, 2009

I received a timely email today saying that the consulate received the transcripts. As arranged, I e-mailed the other documentation he needed (the Degree-Verify doc and a copy of my job offer). Shortly thereafter, he confirmed that he received those and had completed his verification process.

At this point, the SACM should have everything they need to issue the visa and get the airplane ticket.

This morning, I felt confident enough that the visa would come through in time that I informed the woman who rents a room that she may need to move in a month. Alternatively, if I find a 2nd renter willing to take the major part of the house, where I currently reside, she can stay. She can even help approve the newcomer.

With the housing market being in some disarray in Phoenix -- as everywhere -- it's hard to know how this will all work out. My townhouse is a wonderful place to live, with a two-car garage, pool and jacuzzi, patio, access to public transportation and two freeways...yet set back in a quiet cul de sac. Still, people are not flocking to the Valley of the Sun in droves and there are lots of housing options. So this all remains a concern.