As soon as we realized that French Polynesia was not going to happen for us last year we started to plan for this year. We decided to apply for a “long stay visa” because the Americans and certain other foreign nationals are only granted a 90 day visa on entry and It’s not renewable once you’re there. There are 118 islands over a distance of 1200 miles, including the legendary Marquesas, Tahiti, Mo’orea and Bora Bora and it would be nice not to feel like we’re racing through paradise.
We started over the summer researching the process. It turns out you apply at the French embassy or consulate nearest your home. Well, that’s a problem. Where’s our home? We live on the boat. We have driver’s licenses in Florida. Our mail goes to New Jersey. At the time we were in Costa Rica. To further complicate matters, you apply in person, wait while your paperwork gets sent to France or Papeete or wherever, then weeks or even months later you go back in person with your passport to collect the visa. We are transient. Planning to be somewhere for long enough to complete the process is going to be a challenge. Oh, and here’s another wrinkle: every consulate has slightly different regulations. So Miami wants a document that New York does not. Los Angeles requires the documents be in a certain order or they won’t accept them. One consulate requires French translations of everything while others don’t. It’s a dizzying mess.
Once we decided on our extended trip to the US I figured the decision was easy. We’d apply in Miami as soon as we arrived, then go north for the holidays and when we returned to Miami we could pick up the visas and be on our way. That’s when we learned you must apply within 90 days of your arrival in French territory. Rats! We aren’t planning to be in Polynesia until April. So we can’t apply in Miami in November.
This topic is much discussed on the cruising forums and blogs and I read that many people successfully acquire their long stay visas in Panama before or after they transit the canal. Aha! I thought. We’re planning on El Salvador, so maybe that’s a possibility? Thus began a long and friendly email correspondence with a woman named Marina at the French Embassy in San Salvador. Can we as American non-residents apply there? Yes! What documents do we need? What needs to be translated? How long does it take? Marina answered all of my questions promptly and patiently and we left for the US armed with the definitive list of required documents we’d put together before we returned to the boat in January.
First we each need to fill out a two-page visa application. In French. (Thank you Google translate.) Second, we need letters stating the reasons for wanting to extend our stay in the territory longer than 90 days. Ok, that’s easy but it has to be in French and Google translate isn’t quite up to the task. Luckily our friend George or his wife or his sister or someone along the line would help us out on that one. Ditto on letters promising not to engage in commercial activities for the duration. Check.
Proof of health insurance. Oy, that’s not so easy. Jack is on Medicare but it doesn’t do anything outside the country. Same with my ACA coverage. We jumped that hurdle by combining those policies with a travel policy that will ship us back to the states in case of an accident or serious illness. Mostly we just pay out of pocket for any local medical care we need, because the doctors are good, the quality of the service is the same as stateside and it’s affordable. But French Polynesia doesn’t want to foot the bill for anything catastrophic we might need and we understand that.
Next we need bank statements for proof of solvency. Check. Copies of our passports, including the pages showing our Salvadoran visas. Check. A lease or letter from a landlord proving where we will live while in their country. For this we copied our USCG boat document because we will of course live on Escape Velocity. Check
Finally, we need police clearance letters assuring the French that we are not criminals. From our home district. Hmmm. Would that be Pittsburgh, where we lived before? From the town where our mail goes in New Jersey? From Miami, the address on our driver’s licenses? Since we spent a couple of weeks in New Jersey during our US trip we requested the letters from the local police department there. They had never had such a request and it made them nervous. So nervous that, while they did write the letters, they made it very clear in bold type that this only covered their town and didn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things. We wish they had left well enough alone and just said we didn’t have criminal records in their town, but we thanked them and moved on. As time passed, though, I worried the letters wouldn’t fly and looked around for other options. It turns out you can request a police clearance letter from the Miami-Dade Police Department by mail for a fee of $5. I sent off the requests while we were in Pittsburgh, asking that the letters be mailed to us in Miami. Done.
When we arrived back in Miami after the holidays we got an envelope from the police that included our original requests, receipts for our $5 checks but only one clearance letter, for Jack. Nothing for me. Shit. We drove an hour to the Miami-Dade records office in Doral, and took a number.
Another hour later we were called up to the window and showed our stuff. The clerk walked it back to the person who processed it and came back to report that the processor only looked at the last name, assumed the second request was a duplicate and sent it off without doing the second letter.
“I’ll do it for you right now,” our clerk said, clearly annoyed that the back office goofed. Five minutes later and a trip to the copy shop and we finally had our paperwork assembled.
Our embassy contact told us she could see us Tuesday morning, the day after our arrival in San Salvador. It didn’t make sense to go all the way to EV then come all the way back again so we booked a room in a cute hotel not too far from the embassy. It wasn’t much fun wrestling our 200+ pounds of luggage all over the place but we managed and had a pretty good night’s sleep and a nice breakfast in the morning.
We were so tired from our trip and preoccupied by the task ahead that when we were admitted to the embassy grounds and shown to the waiting room the “Je sui Charlie” signs and condolence book were an abrupt wakeup to reality.
I took a few minutes to write a short note and thought how far we are from danger at this moment, but how 25 years ago death squads roamed this country and terrorized the population for 12 years. War and conflict and fear never seem to go away; they just move from one place to another. I wanted to sing “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance” but after writing my condolences I didn’t feel too hopeful for world peace any time soon.
Marina stepped into the waiting room with a smile and shook our hands and we followed her across a tranquil landscaped courtyard to her office. “It’s a beautiful place to work,” I said. We settled in and Marina started going through our stack of forms and papers. Apparently they were just kidding about the triplicate thing as she returned one copy of each document to us.
She spent a long time paging through our passports and when she saw that we noticed she blushed a little and said, “I’ve never seen an American passport before.”
Our letters promising not to engage in commercial activity caused a scowl and she picked up the phone and had a quick chat with someone. When she hung up she offered to write the correct wording and would we just copy and sign it? Mais oui!
Once the paperwork was sorted and our photos taken (even though two passport photos were part of our required submission) we were fingerprinted on a little digital print machine. Or rather, Jack was. When it came to my turn, poor Marina kept getting an error message that the prints were not acceptable quality. She called in the Consul who offered advice on how to get my prints. They wiped the glass surface, rebooted the machine, asked me to go into the restroom and wash my hands. I came out with my hands up like a surgeon which cracked them up but didn’t make a bit of difference to the machine. In fact we got a new error: not enough fingers. What?! We moved on to my thumbs, which luckily worked, but without acceptable prints of my fingers Marina and the Consul were stumped. The Consul went back to his office to call the Mexican embassy for advice, and we chatted with Marina while we waited.
Finally he returned, shrugged in that typically Gallic way and said what I think was the French version of “Fuck it. Send it anyway.”
And with that we were done. Marina walked us back across the courtyard and promised to email when she had an update.
We still had to get home to Escape Velocity so we returned to the hotel, rounded up our suitcases and bags full of parts and treasures and called a taxi van.
One air conditioned hour later we were lugging our stuff through the Hotel Bahia del Sol resort to meet our mooring owner and EV’s caretaker Bill who came with his panga to transport us to the boat.
We got the watermaker going right away and made enough water to get us through the night, then fell into a deep sleep in our own very comfy beds.
It’s good to be home.