Before

The value of a great travel agent

A conversation in Bloemfontein five days ago

Mom: “You must go chat with [travel agent] Tessa. She helped me with my trip to East Africa and she’s great!”

Me: “Nah, I’m sorted, Ma.”

Mom [concerned look but holding back]: “Oh okay. Ag, but why not? Maybe she’ll know things you don’t know.”

Me [rolling my eyes]: “I know everything! I’ve been reading!”

Mom [eternally patient]: “Are you sure you don’t need any visas? And what about insurance, pop?”

Me: “I definitely don’t need any visas before I leave. It says on WikiPedia that all the countries issue them on arrival. And I don’t know about insurance yet.”

Mom: “…”

Me: “Kaaaaaay, I’ll go.”

The thing is, I don’t really like asking for help. I’m suspicious of people (this is a good thing, right Mom?). They usually want money. So I purchased my ticket to South America independently, did visa research independently, and read a fuckload.

To placate the mother (and, I’ll admit, to attend to a tiny niggle in the back of my mind that, surely, it can’t be this easy to travel on a foreign continent for a year), I headed to Etnique Travel in Bloemfontein, feeling guilty about taking up a professional’s time without paying her anything.

Off the bat, Tessa really is great. I could tell before we even started talking about the actual trip. She thought I was a student in my early 20s. What’s not to love? But she had valuable information that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.

DID YOU KNOW? If you have a layover of more than four hours at Dubai International Airport, you are entitled to a meal voucher. We sure as hell did not know that when we had to spend eight hours there (twice) in October 2011 on our way to Malta and Italy (oh how I wish I had kept a better journal of that trip. Malta and Italy, thank you).

DID YOU KNOW? While most of Dubai International Airport’s floors are tiled, there are carpets at Departure Hall C. Glory!

DID YOU KNOW? South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs runs a programme for South Africans travelling abroad, where you register and indicate where in the world you are at any given time. Tjhis way they can render assistance to citizens in the event of an emergency or international incident (war, natural disaster). It’s called ROSA and you can check it out here. Bazinga!

My visit to Tessa was already worth my while.

Then she said, “And are your visas sorted?”

“Oh,” I said, “Ja. They all issue permits on arrival.”

She frowned and shook her head. “No, I’m sure there are some you need to get while you’re still in South Africa.”

“No,” I smiled. “I checked.”

“Mmmm… Just let me have a looksee.”

She rattled on her computer and I waited to for affirmation.

“I think it’s Peru … No … Ecuador … No …”

“Venezuela?” I ventured.

“No … It’s Bolivia.”

“No, I’m sure that one’s issued on arrival.”

“No, it says right here you need to apply through the consulate in Johannesburg.”

She gave me the consulate’s number and I took it, confused, irritated, but determined that she would be proven wrong.

You know how this story ends. Turns out you do need a visa for Bolivia. And Tessa is handling it for me as I type.

Adding to the long list of lessons I’ve already learnt before even leaving South Africa: Never ever ever assume you know everything. Humble pie is a nutritious meal; be sure to include it in your diet.

Tessa also hooked me up with medical and health insurance to the tune of ZAR25 million at about R440 per month, which is a helluva lot less than I pay the abortion that is Discovery Health. Spit.

And, even though most travel books say MasterCard is widely used in South America, Tessa recommended against this and suggested I try BidVest or AmEx cash cards – safer, cheaper, more reliable.

If it wasn’t for Tessa, I’d have been one sad puppy at the Chilean/Bolivian border (jury still out on where exactly that is) and I would’ve missed out on so many must-do items. Thank you Tessa. Thank you Mom.

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