Despite what it may look like on our Facebook feed, life on the road is not all selfies, food pics, and #bobwithtinycups. There is a lot of real life that happens between these moments and little of it is glamorous. We still have to keep up with the family finances, go shopping when we run out of groceries, and fix things when they break along the way. It is interesting to find how often these ordinary everyday tasks end up being not so ordinary when tackled in a foreign country. In the last few weeks, we have run into three such situations, each bordering on becoming a mini-crisis, taxing our patience and problem solving skills on their way to resolution.
Problem 1: What to with a mobile phone when it’s dead?
One morning I awoke to find my trusty Nexus 5x had transformed itself into a useless paperweight. Despite the collective wisdom of the internet Android forums and an online chat with the phone manufacturer, I was unable to get it to show any sign of life.
Back home solution:
If the phone is still under warranty, return it to the manufacturer or point of purchase. Otherwise, start shopping for a new phone at your service provider or retailer of choice. In either case you will be back in business with a new (or refurbished) phone within in a few days.
After recovering from a brief explicative ridden tantrum, I calmly examined my options. Option A is to send the phone to the manufacturer repair center in the United States, the customer service rep I chatted with said my problem may still be under warranty. This seems like a good way to go until you factor in international shipping, the time it will take, the likelihood it really is fixable, and that my phone is 2+ years old. Option B is to take the easy way out, consider the dead phone a total loss and buy a new phone. I considered this the choice of last resort for reasons I’ll get into later. That left me with Option C, try to get it repaired locally.
At the suggestion of a Croatian friend, I started looking for mobile phone repair shops in our current home base of Novi Sad, Serbia. We’ve found in many parts of the world, little is thrown away that has a possibility of being repaired or repurposed in some way. Mobile phones fall into this category as indicated by the number of repair shops within a short walk of our apartment. Most were unable to help me as they specialize only in replacing cracked screens or worn out batteries. Eventually I did find one service tech who hooked my phone to a multi-meter, ran it through some diagnostic tests, and determined that it might be salvageable. I left it with him to work whatever magic he could and returned the next morning to find that despite his best efforts, my phone still would not turn on. I thanked him and tried to pay him for his diagnosis time, but he wouldn’t accept my money. Back to Option B.
I am currently using Google Project Fi as my mobile provider, which allows me to use my data without roaming charges while we are travelling internationally. This comes with some restrictions, as it requires me to use one of the approved mobile phones, currently limited to certain Google Nexus and Pixel models and one Motorola phone. That isn’t to say it won’t work with any unlocked phone, but you lose access to Google customer service and risk having your service permanently cancelled if you violate this condition. Unfortunately Google Project Fi will not ship a phone from their online store to an international address. It is possible to find Google phones for sale internationally, but they are almost always the international version, which means not approved. The one exception I found was the Pixel2 which doesn’t have a separate international version, but here in Eastern Europe will run a $300+ premium to purchasing the phone in the US. This pushes the price of even the cheapest configuration to about $1000, a lot more than I was prepared to spend. In the end I decided to run the risk of using unapproved hardware and purchased a Xiaomi (“show-me”) Mi A1 for a bargain price of $250 to use until a better option comes along.
A quick note on temporarily living life offline. It’s a little troubling to realize how dependent on technology we’ve become in the last few years. It actually took a little bit of time to get reacquainted with using printed tourist maps or hand drawn directions to get around instead of relying on Google maps. Each morning I had to think about what situations I might find myself in and load up my pocket notebook with rudimentary English->Serbian translations that may help. I found it liberating to realize that the old ways still work, even if they are less convenient.
Problem 2: What do you mean that prescription isn’t going to refill itself?
Fara has one prescription she takes daily, nothing life threatening, but still important. Prior to leaving the US, she was able to stock up on a few months’ supply with the intent of figuring out how to refill it once we were in Europe.
Back home solution:
Contact the pharmacy either online or in person to get a refill. At worst it might require a trip or phone call to your doctor to get a new prescription if the old one has expired. Typically only a few hours to complete.
Depending on the medication this may be even easier than back home. Sometimes you can just walk into the pharmacy and ask for a particular medication or describe your symptoms to the pharmacist and they can prescribe something on the spot. No doctor need be involved. It helps if you have a copy of the original US prescription in case the local name of the drug is different. In other cases, the medication has more restrictions and Fara has to resort to other tactics to get what she needs. Again it varies greatly by country, but it is possible to play the “desperate American tourist who ran out of meds” card and rely on the sympathy of the pharmacist. In these cases they might sell her enough to get through the next month, but warn that she will have to get a local doctor to write a prescription for future refills.
Over the last nine months, this has worked well enough for Fara to get her next refill before the current supply runs out. This all changed on a recent restocking trip to a country where she had been able to purchase a refill just a few months earlier. Every pharmacy visited gave us the same answer, the US prescription was too old and they could not honor it, but would happily fill a local prescription if we could find a doctor to issue one. This sent us on an adventure across the city which took us from an emergency room which couldn’t help us to an after-hours clinic where we relied on the kindness of the strangers in the waiting room to help us figure out how to see the doctor without having an EU medical card. Eventually Fara was able to get what she needed, but it will only be another month before we will have to figure out how to do it all over again in a new place.
Problem 3: My Green what is going to expire?
Before embarking on a multi-country road trip, I noticed the rental car we were driving had a Green Card set to expire before we returned back to the country we’d rented it from.
Back home solution:
What the heck is a Green Card?
Ok, I admit this was an unfair problem to throw in the mix as it doesn’t affect people in the United States, even when traveling to Canada. In many parts of the world it is necessary to obtain proof of insurance in your home country to be able to take the vehicle into another country. In Europe this documentation is called your vehicle’s Green Card.
When extending the rental contract for a car we had hired in Croatia, the agent helping us neglected to check how long the car’s Green Card would be valid. I have to admit it was something that hadn’t even crossed my mind, but for some reason I decided to check it the morning we were leaving Croatia for a two month road trip through Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Good thing I did, because the document would expire while we planned to still be in Bulgaria.
Fara and I quickly debated whether this was something we needed to address now and instead attempt to plead ignorance at whatever border crossings noticed the expired documents. Repeated calls to the rental office weren’t answered so we couldn’t try and resolve it over the phone. At least we were traveling through Zagreb on our way out of the country and could stop by in person.
At the rental office it became obvious that this was not a normal issue they had to deal with. The agent helping me had to make several phone calls to figure out how to make it right. He confirmed that we would have a very hard time crossing any border with the expired documents and it was a good thing we caught it before leaving Croatia. There would be no way to get new documents for our current car before we left and the downtown office where we were at didn’t have any vehicles in stock that would be a suitable replacement for us to switch to. Eventually, he found a new vehicle at the Zagreb airport and sent us on our way. All told, it cost us a little over an hour of travel time dealing with this issue in Zagreb, but saved us countless headaches at the various border crossings during the trip.
Life between the photos
I hope you found this glimpse into our real life trials and tribulations insightful or maybe a bit humorous. Over the past nine months, there have been times we long for the simplicity and familiarity of how the same situation would be dealt with back home. What gets us through those rocky times is the sense of accomplishment from navigating life in a strange land.