Passport Renewal Saga – Embarrassed to be British

If you’re a UK citizen enjoying a similarly nomadic lifestyle to ourselves we recommend that you put some thought into where you’re going to be when you run out of passport pages. Here’s our salutary tale of trying to renew British passports whilst abroad:

Our story begins in Thailand, in December 2013. Aware that we were running low on pages we decided to take advantage of the fact we were in one place for a few months (training to be Divemasters) and renew our passports. A short burst of googling later we discovered we couldn’t just go to the nearest embassy as we’d hoped but would need to post our applications to Hong Kong. Over the next few days we duly printed out and filled in all the forms, had photos taken, and then logged back on to double check the Hong Kong address, only to discover that the process had been changed the previous day (with no warning whatsoever). The new forms required different information, including proof of our address in Thailand, and the applications now had to be sent to the UK. Unsure what proof of address we could provide for a beach-side chalet on an island off the east coast of Thailand we phoned the passport office “help”line, and spoke to Nicola whose sage advice amounted to telling us that we “should have left home with jumbo size passports instead of standard ones…d’you know what I mean?”

Tongues were bitten, eyes were rolled and a Plan B was quickly devised and put into action, whereby we used the remaining pages in our passports to cycle through Laos and Thailand with our friends Sue & Justin and then to Malaysia where, the passport office website informed us, we could apply for passports without having to submit proof of address. We would however have to submit our old passports, something we were not happy about as we needed them to register at hotels, access medical care and, in the worst case scenario, travel home if there was a family emergency. According to several sources we should also have our passports on us at all times to present to the Malay police upon demand.

In March 2014, as we got closer to Malaysia, we started looking more closely at what information we’d need to provide. Although we wouldn’t need to submit proof of address, we would need to provide our ‘residential address’. It wasn’t clear whether this meant our UK address or the Malaysian address of some friends who’d agreed to receive our passports for us whilst we were pedalling around. We emailed the helpline, explaining that we are nomadic and asked which address we should put for our ‘residence’. They replied saying: “I can confirm that you will need to put the address when you are applying and this is the address that the new passport will be delivered to.”

We took that to mean that they wanted us to use our friends’ Malaysian address as our ‘residential’ address, even though we wouldn’t be there when the new passports were delivered.

We remained unhappy about having to submit our passports, so since the website said to contact the (ahem) “help”line for specific advice we reluctantly phoned them again…only to be told that they couldn’t give us specific advice. Somehow we weren’t surprised. They did however suggest that we submit a colour photocopy of every page of our current passports along with an explanation of why we were not submitting the originals. We followed this advice and settled down to wait the ‘minimum of 4 weeks’ that it would take to process our applications. It was now early May 2014.

Every couple of days we checked our emails and the online status of our applications in case the assessors needed any further information from us. After almost six weeks of silence, and with our deadline to exit Malaysia looming, we contacted the helpline again. They told us they’d look into things and the next day we received an email telling us that we hadn’t submitted our original passports and we would need to give an explanation about why we had not done this….which of course we’d already done, upon their advice, at the time of application.

Around this time we also caught up with the news that the Home Secretary had had to put emergency measures in place to deal with an enormous backlog in passport applications due to the passport office’s woeful lack of planning. Worried, we contacted the helpline again (frustratingly we could only speak to the (un)helpline and not to the people actually assessing our applications) and the written reply resulting from this call tersely informed us we could either submit our current passports or cancel the applications (losing the money we’ve already paid) and return to the UK to apply from there. This missive, whilst unhelpful in so many ways, did at least give us an email address for the person assessing our applications, so we sent them a long and impassioned plea. We re-stated why we did not want to be without our current passports (now including the fact that we needed them to exit Malaysia at the imminent end of our allotted 90 days) and asked them to explain why they needed them, given that if applying from many other countries, like Thailand, we wouldn’t need to submit our passports. We even offered to travel to Kuala Lumpur to have our old passports cancelled by the embassy there in return for new ones. The reply was prompt but as terse and intransigent as before: we would have to send in our current passports before they would consider giving us new ones. They declined to answer any of our questions, but did confirm that they would hold our applications open until after we’d done a visa run to Singapore and returned to Malaysia with a further 90 day stay granted, after which we would, reluctantly, send them our passports. They also intimated that our new passports would be ready to be sent out as soon as they received our old passports, which we supposed was slightly reassuring.

Our visa run to Singapore in early July went without a hitch, and the nice people at the immigration desks kindly stamped in the small blank spaces we’d located in our over-used passports. We returned to Tioman Island resigned to having to relinquish our passports for a while but cheering ourselves with the thought we were on the home straight.

Hahaha, how naively optimistic we were. The saga continued when we tried to post our passports and discovered that the post office on Tioman doesn’t even sell stamps, let alone provide a registered delivery service, so we needed to get our passports back to a post office on the mainland. One of the owners of the dive school was going to Singapore so he volunteered to post our passports en-route in Johor Bharu, but the post office there was closed…on a Friday. Our passports returned to Tioman and a couple of days later were passed to one of the ferry captains along with some dive school business correspondence to post from the post-office in Mersing (the nearest largish town on the mainland). Still no joy though: it turned out that Malaysia Post was in no way prepared to take responsibility for our passports.

I’m not sure if were onto plan C or plan D by this point. It was beyond farcical. Every few days we’d email the passport office telling them of our latest attempt to get our passports to them. Luckily, the other dive school owner, who lives in Kuala Lumpur, was visiting the island and offered to take our passports to KL and DHL them for us, thus saving us a trip to the mainland and several hours on a bus to Kluang (the nearest DHL to Tioman). By this time though it was Hari Raya, the end of Ramadan celebrations, and DHL would take our passports but could not despatch them for a further 4 days….taking us into early August. Gaaaah! It had taken us an entire month to get our passports from the little island of Tioman back to the UK.

The difficulty we were having getting our passports from Malaysia to the UK made us worry about how we’d be reunited with our new passports when and if they were sent to our friends house in Penang. We asked the passport office if it would be possible to change the delivery address and have them sent to the dive school business address in Mersing. Oh, silly us!

Their reply was, as usual, less than encouraging.
“If you wish your passport to be delivered to an address which you do not reside at, please complete the declaration below, paying special attention to the reason for this request. We will not normally return your passport to an address that is different from your current residential address and so cannot guarantee that your request will be granted. Please note that you are also agreeing to accept liability for non-receipt if the passport is received and signed for at this address.”

Bearing in mind that several months previously we’d begun the application process with a conversation about residential addresses, and told them on several occasions that we were travelling by bicycle and not actually resident in Malaysia, this was just another example of the passport office apparently not reading a single thing we’ve sent to them. We decided to stick with our original plan and worry about how to actually get our hands on our passports later.

To our great relief our old passports finally reached the UK, our new passports were dispatched and we had confirmation from our friends on 9 August that they received them. It took another week for my old passport to be returned and we finally heard on 22 August that Keith’s old passport had arrived too (we need our old passports as well as the new, as they contain our entry-stamp into Malaysia). To facilitate reuniting us with our passports the amazing Myers family decided to come to Tioman for a holiday so today we were finally united with our passports (old and new) and had a far too short lunch with Brett, Noey and the four kids. It was sooo nice to see them all again.

Now it’s behind us we’re trying to forget how frustrating the process was when we were in the throes of it. And we fully appreciate that it would have been even more awful if we hadn’t had so much help from so many people here. When we tell our tale to international friends they laugh their socks off at the British process: in most other European countries it seems they just go to their embassy and in a matter of days have new passports. Come on UK….your bureaucratic obtuseness is an embarrassment, not to mention a very stressful experience for the travelling cyclist trying to renew their passport.

At long last!!

At long last!!

Pulau Tioman 26 May – 8 August 2014

Sorry it’s been so long between posts. It’s due to a combination of spending quite a lot of our time underwater, not having particularly reliable internet access (aka livin’ the island dream), not having been to many different places recently, and just generally being a bit lazy. Anyhow, here’s a taste of what we’ve been up to for almost three months on Pulao Tioman.

When we quit our jobs, left our home and set off on the Pino, we were full of trepidation, excitement and half-formed plans, but had no real idea about where we’d end up or what our journey would be like. We hoped we’d stick at it for at least six months, but I don’t think either of us seriously expected to still be on the road after more than three years. And perhaps we’re not any more. The constant moving; the daily chores of finding water, food, somewhere to sleep; the heat; the traffic; the hills: it’s been an enormously rewarding and mostly enjoyable experience, but right now we’re relishing the change of pace. Of course, we’ve had breaks from pedalling before – renovating Keith’s parent’s house back in 2011, returning home for various family celebrations at the end of 2012, and then training as divemasters on Koh Tao in 2013 – but during each of these previous breaks our onward journey has always been at the forefront of our minds and the breaks, whilst welcome, have most definitely been time-limited. This time, though, it’s different (for me at any rate – Keith’s thoughts on the future can be a bit harder to pin down).

For both of us, learning to dive changed everything. We first tried it simply because the opportunity presented itself, but we immediately realised it was something we wanted to do more of. We became divemasters because we couldn’t afford to dive any other way: it has to pay for itself. But the more we dive, the more we love it and the more we want it to be part of our lives. Working as divemasters can be stressful (always dealing with new people, trying to make the right judgement call if things don’t quite go as expected, spending hours on noisy boats) but being suspended in the water, bathed in sunlight, free to move in any direction, giggling as a furiously territorial damselfish charges impotently towards us (about as scary as being attacked by a handkerchief), watching a turtle’s sedate progress across a reef, and stopping, transfixed, as he regards us in turn; it’s just mind-blowing…and sharing this with other divers is the icing on the cake. It’s changing the way we feel about travelling. For the first time I am realising that this trip might not be a discrete element in our lives at the end of which we return to the UK to resume if not our old lives then at least some semblance of a ‘normal life’; instead, we might have stumbled upon a whole new way of life right here. We’re by no means ready to give up on our tandem travels, but I no longer want to be on the bike every day; I want to be in the water…and I have to admit it is rather nice knowing we have a roof over our heads (albeit a rickety one) and a stocked fridge (recent purchase) to come home to. So, we need to decide…do we continue with our plan to pedal through Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand (and perhaps then on to the Americas) or do we settle down, become dive instructors and put the pedalling on hold for a while. Will our cycle journey feel as rewarding if we break it into smaller chunks interspersed with longer periods (months/years?) living and working as divers? Will it cease to count as a single trip and just become a series of separate cycling holidays? Does that matter? It’s not a decision we need to make immediately, but it’s one that we definitely need to address at some point fairly soon….let’s just hope we both arrive at the same conclusion!

One of Tioman's giant squirrelt...they can be over a metre long (inc tail)

One of Tioman’s giant black squirrels…they can be over a metre long (including the tail).

So what’s our life like these days now we’re not constantly on the move? Well, we’re staying in a little village called Air Batang but more commonly known as ABC. It’s basically a strip of guesthouses, restaurants, private residences, dive schools and small shops running for approximately a kilometre and a half alongside a pebbly shore. Densely forested hills rise steeply just behind the houses. There’s a small jetty around the midpoint of the village, accessed from the single concrete road running the length of the village that’s just wide enough for a motorbike and sidecar. Two such vehicles trying to pass each other have to drop their sidecar wheel off the concrete onto the sandy verge.

The view from outside our bungalow, looking towards the jetty.

The view from outside our bungalow, looking towards the jetty.

Our bungalow is a ramshackle affair, with a roof that’s seen better days, floorboards that bend and creak alarmingly, gaps between the walls and a resident population of mosquitoes, ants, moths, spiders, geckos and a green and orange stripy toad. In the absence of a wardrobe we’ve strung a rope across one wall, and a mozzie net keeps most of the bugs out of the bed. We have a little verandah and our neighbourhood cats (Ginger, Noisy, Cataract and Adolf) are friendly and generally well-behaved. Some days the cold shower makes us gasp, but for the most part it’s a welcome respite from the relentless heat. All in all, it’s a lovely little home.

Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home

Our 'pet' toad.  We can reliably inform you that toad turds are larger and softer than gecko ones.

Our ‘pet’ toad. We can reliably inform you that toad turds are larger and softer than gecko ones.

Our alarm wakes us at 7am and after a leisurely breakfast we hop on the Pino for the 800m commute to work, arriving for 8am. There are various tasks to amuse us for the first half hour (cleaning and filling the rinse tanks, preparing spare bags, regulators and drinking-water for the boats, sweeping and cleaning, setting out the coffee & tea area) and at 08:30 we help oversee the movement of customers as they put their bags in the correct location for the boat they will be on, and also sort out paperwork and gear for new divers. If we’re diving in the morning then around 08:45 we escort our divers down to the jetty, get them settled on the boat, oversee them putting their gear together, chat with them on the way to the dive site, brief them on the dive and then jump in the water for 50 minutes of bliss. In between dives we serve lunch, make sure everyone’s swapped tanks and brief for dive two. After dive two we oversee the dismantling of gear and return to shore at some time between 1:00 and 2:30pm depending on which boat and dive sites.

B&J Dive Centre

B&J Dive Centre

The afternoon dive at 3pm is a repeat of the morning but without the meal (it’s just a single dive). There is sometimes a night dive too. If we’re not on the boat then we might be leading a shore dive, or, a particular favourite, conducting a scuba refresher, where we take certified divers who haven’t dived in a while and remind them of how to use the equipment and run them through a few skills before taking them for a dive. If we’ve got nothing on then we just hang around the bar area (me reading, Keith practicing his ukulele) or we might grab a couple of bin bags and do a beach clean-up. We also use quiet days to ride over to Tekek (the ‘Big Smoke’ which has an ATM, a bakery and a couple of shops selling fresh fruit and veg) and pick up some provisions. Another good source of fresh fruit is the mango tree outside the school, where a thump followed by the cry of ‘Mango!’ is the cue for Keith to sprint to claim the bounty before anyone else can. There’s also a durian tree, rambutan tree and an avocado tree.

Keith plus two customers returning from a 'refresher dive'.

Keith plus two customers returning from a ‘refresher dive’.

Happy faces post-dive.

Happy faces post-dive.

Throughout the day we can kill some time with general tidying jobs and try to waylay any passing potential divers, enthusing about the dive sites and hopefully signing them up for some dives. At 7pm we check the board for the next day’s dives and either head to the bar for a beer or meander home to cook dinner and chat with our neighbours (dive instructors Wendy and Steve) or pop to the next-door restaurant for an FCCBC (Fried Chicken Chilli Burger & Chips) if we are feeling extravagant, or a vege soup or fried rice paprit on a more mundane evening. Sometimes there’s live music at one of the bars, which Keith will quite often go to whilst I prefer the quiet solace of a good book.

Our neighbours, dive instructors Wendy and Steve, with Noisy, their cat.

Our neighbours, dive instructors Steve and Wendy, with Noisy, their cat.

Our other neighbours.

Our other neighbours.

For our first month or so we were more than happy to eat out every night, enjoying cheap, tasty food. Cooking dinner for ourselves was rather forced upon us a few days into Ramadan, when the declining number of open restaurants dwindled still further until, to our chagrin, Mawar (of FCCBC fame, and also our landlord) closed its doors. Rather than trawl the length of Air Batang looking for somewhere that might randomly be open we opted to cook for ourselves. We were luckier than most in that we have a camp stove. It’s been the same story in the mornings; we’ve always prepared our own breakfast in our room, but we know that other divers have had a frustrating time over the last month trying to find anywhere serving breakfast. For lunch Keith has retained his old Koh Tao habit of having a pot noodle, but I can’t stand them anymore and was delighted to discover a shop selling nasi lemak (rice with half a hardboiled egg, some anchovies, peanuts and a spicy sauce) wrapped in a banana leaf for the equivalent of about 30p – I’d buy one in the morning on the way to work to have for lunch, but for Ramadan that all stopped and I’d have to nip home and make a quick salad.

At the end of Ramadan we were rewarded with Hari Raya, which is basically open house feasting for a couple of days (sadly followed by a further period of most restaurants being closed – hopefully that is changing as Mawar was open last night). On the first day of Hari Raya everyone from ABC went to Tekek. The dive school was still open, albeit with later dive schedule, so as we couldn’t get to Tekek the dive shop owner put on a feast for the staff: beef rendang and a lovely chicken curry.

The next day it was the turn of restaurants and homes in ABC to play host. Some of the other diver staff enjoyed five or six lunches….Keith and I restricted ourselves to just one now that we’re not burning calories on the bike. I’ve never seen the village so busy. It was a good couple of days, mostly full of happiness and excessive hospitality, but sadly for some families this period of celebration was by shaken by three unrelated, sudden deaths, including the grandmother of one of the local guys working at the dive school. The dead are buried within 24 hours here and it was impossible to know whether the sidecars full of smartly-dressed locals were attending Hari Raya celebrations or going to a funeral.

During this period of near-daily diving and adjustment to island life we came to the end of our allocated 90 days in Malaysia and had to do a quick trip to Singapore. We stayed with a Dutch tec diver we’d met at the dive school and had a couple of enjoyable but busy days buying a few more diving-related bits and bobs. It was a relatively expensive few days as our trip off the island gave us the chance to go to a proper supermarket so we returned laden with three months’ worth of cornflakes, muesli and powdered milk, and we also, somewhat on the spur of the moment, bought a refrigerator and a cheap bicycle (so that we can make the journey from our home in ABC to Tekek without having to lug a large tandem single-handedly up and down several flights of steps or alternatively wait for a time when we’re both free to go shopping together). Keith denies it when questioned, but to me, these are not the purchases of people who only intend to spend the next 90 days here.

And so, to finish, here are a few more pics:

One of the fruit bat trees in Tekek.  They smell nasty (sort of waxy) and are cantankerous creatures, screeching and bitching all day long.  If there's a tree with 50 mangoes in it you can guarantee there'll be a bunch of fruit bats all squabbling over just one fruit.

A fruit bat tree in Tekek. The bats smell disgusting (sort of waxy) and are vocal, cantankerous creatures. If there’s a tree with fifty mangoes in it you can guarantee there’ll be a ten fruit bats all squabbling over a single fruit.

Yes?  You want something?

Yes? You want something?

One of the trekking trails linking the various villages.

One of the trails linking the various villages.

Mr Snakey.

Mr Snakey, reposing in his favourite tree.

Yogi, the dive school dog, and quite possibly the only dog on Tioman.

Yogi, the dive school dog, and quite possibly the only dog on Tioman.

Tamar's favourite 'View From The Loo' at the dive school.

Tamar’s favourite ‘View From The Loo’ at the dive school.