Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sweltering South of Spain

While temperatures are said to reach the 100ºs in the south of Spain, practically a desert land, in between Joseba's medical appointment and visa interview, we decided to venture down there for some much-needed relax time.

Joseba's brother graciously offered us his camping van for the week so that we could cruise down to the southeast of the country to a National Park called Cabo de Gata which boasts gorgeous beaches everywhere you look.  We were completely on board and just went - not much research or anything - ready to enjoy the sun and turquoise water for days on end.

The 6-hour drive from Madrid to Cabo de Gata was lengthy and our first stop was to the touristy town called San José.  While it once was a fishing village, it has since become a tourist haven with restaurants, shops and a beach that seemed to be packed even when we arrived at 8pm.  With only 900-something year-round residents, the place was full of tourists who come to spend the entire summer in the Mediterranean waters.  We had a quick dinner at one of the restaurants and then headed a bit out of town to a place called Cala de la Higuera, where we set up the van for sleeping and camping heaven.

In the morning we emerged from the van with high hopes of a small private little beach and were quite disappointed when we saw yes a small beach but a huge group of people who had set up their sleeping bags all over the beach, essentially taking over it.  We closed the van's top and hoped in looking for greener pastures...or bluer sea, I guess you could say.

On the advice of the tourist booth we passed while entering, we headed to another beach called El Embarcadero.  When we arrived we got a good feeling as we saw many camper vans and motor homes.  We parked and jumped out, ready to get our feet in the sand.  As we headed down, we saw medium-sized sandyish/pebbleish beach and then a small little walkway that lead to some huge rocks and decided to go that route, hoping for a small private beach!  We were in luck and set down our towels, took off our swimsuits and lathered on the sun block.  Throughout the entire trip, we tanned naked - as nudism at the beach in the south is quite common.  A great way to avoid any tan line, we had done it before in Tenerife in the Canary Islands and decided to go with the flow and get a full  body tan.  This pic was originally taken in my birthday suit, but for the blog we have painted a swimsuit on me :)

This little beach was basically our home base for the entire trip.  We had done a big shop when we got into town and with the fridge, stove and sink in the van, happily lived the life of sun and sea.  Being quite hot, we agreed that snorkeling was in order and on the second day whipped out the flippers and goggles and started to appreciate our little beach for not only the view from land but all the richness that was happening under the small waves.  From bright orange starfish and hundreds of little fish scurrying around, we were most excited to spot a stingray floating around!

The Park, Cabo de Gata, is the largest land-sea park on the Western Mediterranean, covering some 460km.  With various habitats, our snorkeling allowed us to explore the maritime seagrass beds that were full of sealife.  From the beach, we could see the steppe habitat in the duney mountains.  With the lowest rainfall in the Iberian Pennisula (about 4in to 7in annually according to Wikipedia), the hills were dry as bones and the low-lying bushes that covered in this extremely arid zone.

After a few days enjoying the scenery from sun up to sun down, we meandered up the coast looking for something different and settled at El Playazo, a massive sandy beach dotted with colorful beer-branded umbrellas.  With turquoise water covering the white sand, the beach has to look like a Mediterranean heaven from above.

After a night of loud neighbors, we set off the next morning to fill up the gas tank, water tank and search for another hot spot.  While the shoreline was dotted with deluxe camping vans, tons of tan people and great view points, the interior was a bit more shocking.  In an area where houses were just receiving electricity in the home about 7 years ago, it was not so surprising that when we were filling the van's water tank to find ourself with people filling water jugs for thier weekly water.  There was one African man that had a huge container that he tried to carry while riding his bike.  Just getting on the bike and pushing off was almost an impossible task and Joseba helped him by holding the bike steady while he mounted the bike and then headed off, one hand on the handlebars and the other holding a 20 gallon jug.  

Once a mining paradise, the Cabo de Gata area has been scoured for anything and everything - gold, jasper, silver, amythests, agates and more.  While now abandoned, the mines still remain, crumbling in the desert heat.  Cities that were built up around them for those who came from far and wide to dig their luck also sit uninhabited and give a shabby look to small hillside villages covered in stark white paint.

While some houses were decaying before our eyes as we whizzed past, some have been remodeled and made into desert oasises.  Stucco and adobe style homes with a touch of Arabic design dotted the area.  Even with sparse water supply, some had decorated their yards with plants accustomed to the weather - namely the cabo de gata plant itself.  A tall flowering tree that seems to grow at an angle wherever we saw it, this namesake plant was curious to say the least.

As we made our way up the coast looking for an inlet to compare with the one we had found at El Embarcadero, we passed beaches that were framed by black volcanic rock, beaches with white sand and clear water and little whitewashed villages.  We  had our hearts set on the majestic Playa de los Muertos, which translates as the Beach of the Dead; although it doesn't sound catchy had a pristine stretching beach as far as the eye could see.  However, when we arrived we had to pay to even enter the beach and we knew that in this almost tourist unspoilt area, we  had found a tourist trap.  We elected to head back to our little spot and enjoy the rest of the blasting heat next to the beach.  So named, the Playa de los Muertos is said to be the spot where the current carries the dead Africans who try immigrating to Europe via boat and don't make it.  Supposedly it didn't used to be so uncommon to find dead bodies, clothes and personal belongings.

Back to our regular spot we were surprised to find some new unwanted beachgoers - jellyfish.  Besides in an aquarium, I had never seen one and was quite curious but terrified at the same time.  We convinced ourself to refrain from our snorkeling desires and the next day headed to a new, less jelly-fish infested spot - another gorgeous inlet that was deserted and only for us.  We splashed in the crystal-clear water, took water jumping photos and floated peacefully for quite some time, while unbeknowest to us, our false friends were lurking nearby.  While out in the water, Joseba spotted one and I tensed up so as to not moved an inch and in doing so, brushed my leg against one that was much closer that we hadn't seen.  What pain!  From never seeing one to getting stung by one is not progress I was happy to have made but I managed to get out of the water and examine the two-lagged slash that it had made of the back of my leg. 

Having both seen the show Friends, we immediatley thought of the episode where Monica gets stung by a jellyfish and Joey pees on it to cure it.  Having no clue if it worked or not, we decided to try it, but as Joseba peed all over my leg, I couldn't help laughing at the fact that it wasn't helping the pain subside at all.  If anything, it distracted me from the constant burning feeling I felt where it had slapped me.  After disproving that theory the pain eventually went away and we were able to relax on the rocky beach.  After that incident we barely entered the water for the rest of our trip.

Said to be the most untouched part of the Mediterranean Sea, our five days were amazing in the area and offered us complex relaxation (minus our jellyfish stings - Joseba got stung the day after me).  Having the sun shine through the van windows each morning, creating a long orange mirror on the water was a great way to start each day and made for a lovely vacation.


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Our Visa Journey - from Alien to American Resident

When we hear the word alien, we think of some green creature crawling around Mars or some crazy species who is planning on invading our Earth with their sliminess.  However, as I am sure you know, alien also can be defined as 'someone belonging to a foreign country' and this context of alien is one that Joseba and I have become oh-so-familiar with over the past few months.

Deciding to move to the USA was easy, as it was something we had been talking about for a long time, it was always just a matter of when.  However, when we started looking at the process, we realized it was quite a lengthy one and decided to get started as soon as possible and then see when to go.

Over the course of the entire process, I kept a little blog, so will share that with you all now so you can kind of get an idea of the immense amount of work behind bringing this cute boy home with me this September!  The first step of the long process is the filing of the I-130, which is an application sent to the USCIS (United States Customs and Immigration Services) to see if Joseba was eligible to apply for a visa based on his status as my spouse.  This form can be filled out for spouses, children and parents. 

In this packet, not only did I have to prove my Americaness, but more importantly, we had to prove that we are truly a married couple and that this wasn’t all a sham to get Joseba into the country.  Me being American was easy to prove – copy of the good ol’ birth certificate and a copy of my current passport and that was over.  The marriage thing though, is where we went a bit crazy.  We are in love, no doubt about that.  Anyone who knows us knows that our relationship is 100% bona fide, to use the government’s term.  But, it is true that people pretend to be in a relationship just to slide past immigration.  We didn’t want there to be a single doubt in the immigration people’s eyes, so we loaded the packet with stuff that went over and above proving that we are a true married couple.  Here is the list of what we sent off as ‘evidence’ that we are a real couple –  a copy of our marriage certificate, copy of our joint apartment lease, copy of the Spanish census data showing we live together, copy of the existence of our joint bank account, copy of bank transfers from our joint bank account paying for our joint apartment, 2 affidavits from close friends who have known us since the relationship started testifying to the validity of our relationship, a copy of the postcard I sent the family announcing our wedding, a copy of the article published in the newspaper in the States announcing our marriage, copy of plane and train tickets of trips we had taken together and, last but definitely not least, a copy of a lot of blogs I had written about with Joseba in them  (trips to Stockholm, Berlin, the wedding, etc).  If that is not enough to show we are a legit couple, I don’t know what is.  It was funny as we printed out something like 20 of my blogs – while this has been an amazing way to sort of document and share what I have done here, it was also incredibly helpful for this packet.  I mean, some of the blogs are 2 years old – it’s sort of like a living history!  

When we decided to send the package, we were scurrying around like crazy; we needed to have the translator, Erika, sign off on all the translations, take passport-style photos (which are nothing like identity photos in Spain) and get to the UPS place by 7:30.  As luck would have it, there was quite a lot of traffic, no parking and a jam in the photo printer machine.  In the end, we got all the stuff and raced to the UPS office.  We made it just in the nick of time and somewhat laughed because we thought we would have been finished for an hour or so by then.  Regardless, we were ecstatic to have made it and to get this devil of a package en route.  In the past 48 hours, we had just lived and breathed immigration.  We raided Iker and Ixaskun’s house and took their printer, probably using a good 200 pages of printing paper.  The problem was that if we found one mistake, maybe we had to make the change on that paper but then also on the cover letter and such.  We were printing like Gutenberg and what a mess we had all over the floor.  After final printing, then came time for hole punching and neon arrow sticking.  In the end, the package came together, something like 80 pages and 11 sections, but finished, thank God. 

So by time we got the UPS, this package was like our baby.  I had no shame in asking the friendly UPS lady to take a picture of us before we shipped it off.  She laughed and obliged.  Check out my grip on the package!  It was off and a quick 2 days later it was received and signed for at the USCIS office.  The games had begun.  

When the USCIS receive your package, they immediately send you a ‘notice of acceptance’ meaning they have gotten the package.  When they approve it, they also send a ‘notice of approval’.  Because we live abroad, we included a form stating that we elected to be notified via email, that way we wouldn’t be chewing our fingernails waiting for something in the mail.  The email of acceptance never came.  And then it still didn’t come and still.  I began biting my nails.  After 10 business days of no notice or anything, I decided to call the USCIS and ask if they had a status on the package.  I was a bit nervous to call because I didn’t want to annoy them and have our forms sent to the back of the line, but was really anxious so decided to call anyways. 

The lady at USCIS was very friendly and said that living abroad it’s possible that we would NEVER receive the hard copy notice because they only put 45cent stamps on the letters so it probably wouldn’t arrive.  She gave us the case number and told us to check the status online.  We went to the website and put our extremely long case number in and started to read what popped up.  It said blah blah blahh APPROVED blah blah blah.  I about died!  We hugged like there was no tomorrow and did a happy dance in the living room!  Here we were worried that they hadn’t even started working on the application and it was already approved!  What luck!  We were hoping to get the ‘expedited line’ and we did.  Turns out, most I-130s take about 5 months to reach approval stage and ours only took 11 days!  If you are a US Citizen and you are living abroad with your spouse, they do a courtesy of giving you a quick pass.  Boy did we appreciate it!

With the first step down we eagerly started preparing for the second step – when the package gets sent to the NVC (National Visa Center).  For this we really had to be on top of our game.  We became super fans of a website called VisaJourney, which is a huge forum community of people who have done, are doing or are planning to immigrate or help someone immigrate.  The amount of information is extraordinary.  It is set up as a helpful tool to anyone going through the tricky and long process.  

Waiting waiting waiting – that wass the name of the game.  Ever since we got our notice of approval hard copy, I had been calling the government agency that the application is being shipped to – the NVC (National Visa Center) to see if the case had arrived from USCIS.  Here is where they button up the case even more – show that Joseba will be financially supported, that he isn’t a criminal, that he doesn’t have any crazy diseases to spread to our citizens and so on.  What normally takes only a month really had us excited, but although turning stuff in is said to take a month, it seems that merely waiting for a case number was going to be the same amount of time. After about 10 straight days of calling (business days that is), we were finally told on May 25th that the actual case had been received on May 21st however they hadn’t input it into the system yet and to call back in another 10 business days. 

Calling and calling and calling – every day.  It was like my new addiction!  And finally, almost a month to the date after our notice of approval, we got a case number at the NVC!   After about 15 minutes of holding, the usual, they took my call.  It’s always the same thing – ‘good afternoon, your case or receipt number please’ to which I always friendlily respond with my receipt number and always get told ‘we have the file but it hasn’t been entered into the system yet.  Please allow 10-20 more business days for that.’  But today, Roberto answered my call and instead of giving me that schpeel after hearing my number he asked for my full name and DOB and the beneficiary’s (Joseba) full name and DOB.  I knew that this was it!  I gave all our info and then asked for the case number, happy as could be and then wished him a good day! He said to wait for an email from NVC and then we could get started on the next phase of our immigration journey.

We finally got some contact from the NVC a bit later!  They sent us each an email which basically states the case is now being handled by the NVC and is ready for progress to be made.  Joseba had to send in a ‘Choice of Agent’ Form, basically select an American who has a US bank account who can pay the fees and a stateside address to receive mail quicker.  While I have the bank account, we opted to be contacted by email which is faster by far!  We sent the form, super excited and finished up the big packages that we would soon have to send – sponsorship paperwork and the official immigration application!  AHHHH!  We had been waiting for so long and were so pumped to finally get some action with the NVC.  We even did a little happy dance in the kitchen!

We finally got the Sponsorship forms, or Affidavit of Support papers as the NVC calls them sent off on Thursday the 14 of June!  In this package we needed to prove that Joseba would have Stateside financial support so that he would not become a drain on the economy.  To do this, you have to prove, via your taxes and current job, that you have enough money to support the 'alien' above the poverty level.  Since I earn my money outside of the US and the income will not continue when we arrive, my income was useless so we had to ask my cousin and her husband, the Cathy and Paul you have read about in my blogs before, to be the joint sponsors.  Cathy and Paul, being an alien himself from New Zealand, were happy to help bring Joseba over and quickly filled out the paperwork and sent it over to us.  Cathy snapped this pic before sending us her part of our massive paperwork pile!

For this package to be sent it, the NVC states that you are supposed to write the case number on each page…which adds up to quite a lot of work seeing that the package was over 100 pages!  Our lving room transformed into an office with garbage papers on the ground, hole punched papers littering the table and a million pens.  Not only did we have to prove that there is enough money to support Joseba should he turn into an unemployed bum, but I also had to do a lot of proving myself – showing that although I haven’t lived in the States for quite some time, that I have always maintained my life there and it is my permanent domicile.  To give you an idea of all of the stuff I had to submit to prove that, here is the laundry list of what I mailed in:  a personal letter stating the above, my voter registration at my permanent address, my past checking and credit cards statements that arrive to my address, my active student loan bill, a copy of my valid driver’s license, a copy of our apartment lease here showing that it will finish on June 30th, a letter from Grammy stating we will live at her home upon our arrival and emails from current contact I have with employers looking for a  job!  

After the second 150-page package, we were happy to start working on the DS-230 forms, which is the official immigration visa application from the Department of State. Basically, you give your personal information (name, address, age, where you have lived, etc) and promise that you don't plan to assassinate any American,  bring bombs, participate in sex trafficking – all these sort of things that no one says yes to.  Then on top of that, we had to submit our marriage certificate, Joseba’s birth certificate, Joseba’s civil status certificate and his police records…which was clean.  Yay! The Civil Status Certificate was kind of a joke though because from the Spanish government, it is the Certificade de Fe de Vida y Estado, so not only does it say if he is married or not, but it states that he in fact IS alive!  Apparently, someone has tried to apply for an American visa with a dead man's name before and now this is part of the process, no joke.  We had all of those things, except for the police records and we put in the request and waited patiently for them in the mail.  However, when the certificate arrived, it wasn’t to Joseba, it was to JoseFa!  Microsoft Word had autocorrected his name, since it is in Basque!  Luckily, Joseba’s assessor’s secretary was able to throw in some nasty words and got us the certificate in a jiffy so we could include it as soon as possible in our package.  This time it arrived to Joseba, thank god! 

We sent the package and since that was all we could do, we just started the waiting game.  Tick tock tick tock.  Finally, on June 29th, I called to get a status update and the guy, although I couldn’t understand his accent much said CASE COMPLETE which are the words anyone filing for a visa just can’t wait to hear!  We were worried that the paperwork would take longer than that, but having received everything, it seems they were quick to process the application and now we just had to wait for an interview date in Madrid!  Eeeek! 

After almost 2 weeks of waiting we finally were informed of Joseba’s interview – which was scheduled for August 16th.  It was defintiley  not as early as we wanted it, but we were happy to atleast write it on the calendar and have a date to look forward to.  

The journey to Madrid for the interview started with a medical exam that Joseba needed to do with one of two doctors in all of Spain.  Approved as a Visa Doctor, he had to pay a hefty sum to get a check-up which included a blood test (checking for HIV and syphilis), a chest x-ray, checking his vaccination record and the regular yearly check-up stuff.  The results were available the next day, which are neccessary to bring to the actual interview at the Embassy, but instead, we headed south to Cabo de Gata, in the south of Spain for a short beachside vacation while waiting for the August 16th interview which was the following week.  

On the day of the interview we swung past the doc's office and got the results, which they gave to us in a sealed bag which could NOT be opened by us, only by the Embassy officials. 

At the Embassy we arrived about 40 minutes early and had to wait in line outside to pass through security. We had done some shopping before and brought a weekend bag to carry around with us, which we planned to leave in the storage area in the Embassy since they do not allow these big bags inside the Embassy itself.  The security guard saw me and said, nope you can't go in with that, you have to wait outside, at which point my heart dropped.  But then, another security guard saw that I had an American passport and said 'are you an American citizen?'  and I answer 'yes', and she said that 'oh, well if you're a citizen come on in, we will hold your bag until the interview is over, no problem, but just for citizens'!  Lucky break!  Since I was not the one having the interview I technically didn't even need to go to the interview and was a bit stressed they wouldn't let me in for that, but here the big hubbub was about the bag!  They let me in and we were assigned a number and passed through to the waiting room for Consular Services.

While there was no clock, there were a lot of people but our process moved quite quicly. We were called to window 1 where a nice woman leafed through our paperwork and asked questions here and there - confirmed where we would live upon arrival, asked the relation of the joint sponsor to us, asked if this was the first marriage for both of us and then asked for the medical results. She took the results but gave us the x-ray to keep. She also gave us back all of our originals that we had sent to NVC (marriage certificate, birth certificate, etc) but said the Embassy needed to keep the original police certificate and instead gave us the extra copy we had sent. She took the passport and then took the fingerprints (digitally) and kindly told us that we would be called back to another window for the 'interview'.

We waited about 15 more minutes and were called to window 6 - a window that you had to go through a glass door to get to (privacy we guess). Anyways, in there, he confirmed that my spouse was the person applying for the visa and asked him take the fingerprints again and then to raise his right hand and swear that all of the information we had provided in the paperwork was correct and true. He swore that it was and ta-daaaa we were told that the visa would arrive in the mail in a week or so. That was it!

We were in such shock that we asked if the process was really over and we were finished! We had brought extra evidence in case they doubted our relationship but the interview was a breeze - no showing photos of our continued relationship, no showing updated living arrangements, nothing - so EASY!

We were so excited that we even asked the security guard out front to take a picture of us - smiling huge smiles! He kindly obliged but made sure not to get the Embassy in the photo haha.  

At the interview they took Joseba's passport and will put the official Visa stamp in it and mail it to us this week at which point he has 6 months to enter the country.  We have already bought our tickets and plan to arrive to Seattle on September 13th - after a long process.  It was a lot more work than we had expected but hearing the words that he was approved and our little dance and hug fest made up for it and when we step out of the Customs Area in the SeaTac airport on September 13th, it will have been all worth it!


Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Basques Rewriting History

When we imagine the European explorers coming over to the New World on their ships and meeting face to face with the natives, we more or less think about the late 1500s or early 1600s.  However, new evidence has been unveiled which proves that there were Europeans on the continent over a hundred years earlier by, drumroll please, the Basques!  This history-book changing info has been brought to light by an archeological team in a town near Toronto who unearthed a piece of rod iron from a Native village.

This month, a documentary called The Curse of the Ax premiered on Canadaian TV detailing this amazing find.  The archeological team found an old Huron village called Mantle.  With digital reconstruction they were able to learn that the village contained more than 90 longhouses and 3 exterior protective walls called palisades, all of which would require somewhere in the  midst of 60,000 trees worth of lumber.  With many mouths to feed (about 2,000), they also planted corn so far that their farming grounds would cover the now metropolitan area of the city itself!

An exciting dig already with about 200,000 native artifacts, when they found a piece of iron it got a shift into mega-exciting.  Iron was not made in the Americas at that time, so it had to have been from Europe.  Seeing as the village was said to have been active before the first supposed European-Native contact, the archeologists were surprised but also very excited about the possiblity of having found the oldest artifact in Canada.  Calling in for support, the team contacted a forensic archeologist who along with the help of some high-powered X-ray machines was able to figure out that the iron was rod iron and that it even had a special marking in it.  Like a brand, the iron workers at the time would carve out their own mark on their pieces.

This clue took them all the way to the Basque Country to search out the confirmation of the marking.  Landing in Hondarribia, the coastal beautiful coastal town that was well-known for their whaling skills, the archeologist headed to a small mountain village called Zelain to look at historical pieces of iron work from the 16th century up close.  Sure enough, she found the same marking on an axe there that was on the piece of iron found at the interior Canadian site!

It has been thought for a long time that the Basques reached the New World before it was officially discovered by Columbus in 1492, but since the language was not written at that time, no records exist.  After clearning out their hunting grounds of whales they had to move on to different parts of the sea.  They are known to have ventured all the way to Canada's Newfoundland area where artifacts have been found of them setting up villages during the whaling season.  There have been 16 of these fishing camps found along the Canadian coast, the oldest being in Labrador.  It has also been said that the Basques and Natives fostered a line of communication between them and that according to some historical studies, the Basques would leave a few cabin boys with the Natives during the off-season to become fluent in the local tongue for when they came back for the next whaling round.

Whaling importance is seen on this wall in Hondarribia
It seems that some of the first Basque whalers left behind an axe on one occasion when they shipped out and the Natives, who came around after they had abandoned the temporary housing areas, found the axe and saved it.  This foreign metal was traded as a valuable piece and eventually reached the inland of Canada - the Mantle village.  The archeological team along with the Basques were able to even pinpoint a couple of ships that left Euskal Herria heading towards nowday Canada that the axe probably was on.

Since trading between Europeans and Natives didn't really start until the end of the 16th century, this new information is something that is going to have to be taken into account when writing history books.  Here, the Canadians have proof that Europeans set foot on an area of their country that supposedly hadn't seen someone from across the pond for another hundred years!  What an amazing discovery.

Seeing as I don't get Canadian TV over here, I downloaded the hour and a half documentary and loved it!  I  highly recommend it if you get the chance.  I have included a little video clip that gives you a quick summary of it, but the real thing is much better!  It was an entertaining process to watch but also incredible to watch history changing before my eyes!