Project Fi Phooey

After many hours of research, I thought I had landed upon the very best phone system to keep Elise safe during our travels – Google’s Project Fi, which provides unlimited talk in the US and unblocked texting in 135 countries with one world SIM card. It only works with Google phones, however, so I bought a Google Pixel for myself at Saturn and a secondhand (though brand-new) Pixel XL for Elise. Total investment: 1030€. I then signed up for Project Fi. I knew we wouldn’t be able to make use of the talk portion of the service, but I was more than willing to eat that cost, given the enormous benefit of worldwide texting with a single SIM, but nowhere die Google indicate that Project Fi DOES NOT WORK with European model Google phones. Only after hours of chat and phone tech support did it become clear that our shiny new Google phones were no more useful than any old cell phone requiring new SIMs in every country we visited. This was a serious concern for me, because it is not always possible to immediately buy and install SIM cards. How would Elise reach me if we got separated after we’d arrived in a new country, but before we could buy SIMs? Google’s response: we’ll refund the $14 shipping for the Project Fi SIMs. Oh, and we will update our FAQs so others don’t encounter this situation. Needless to say, the discovery had caused a sickening feeling in my stomach. The workaround I came up with was to use our 1&1 German SIMs in the Google phones so that – even if it costs 5€ a minute – Elise could call me anytime and anywhere. However, that required 1&1 to convert the house phone (Festnetz) to a cell phone SIM, and me to burden my sub-tenant so that I could dig through boxes to find the old house phone SIM. But the fun didn’t end there. The SIM did not fit Elise’s new Google phone and my efforts to trim it didn’t work. 1&1 gave me the addresses of 1&1 stores in town where they could trim it, but they turned out to be fictitious shops. (It was starting to get Kafkaesque.) Fortunately, a man at a Telecom shop got the SIM to fit by carving away the excess plastic with a special knife. It was good to have a solution where Google failed us, but I could have done without the added stress before our Big Departure.

Rabies Vaccine Shortage in Berlin!

Given that some of the countries we’ll be visiting are affected by tropical diseases, we’re making sure our basic vaccines are up-to-date and are getting the full range of travel vaccines, including Yellow Fever, Japanese Encephalitis, Typhoid, Hep A/B, and Meningococcal Meningitis. Unfortunately, our vaccine schedule got thrown off by a week, because the Tropics Institute had no rabies vaccine for us thanks to a shortage in Germany, so we were on our own to find six does (3 for each of us) at local pharmacies. Luckily, the knowledgeable and efficient staff of Apotheke Reichsstraße 100 came through for us.

Even without having to hunt down our own shots, getting the recommended travel vaccinations is a big undertaking, requiring a consultation with a doctor, weekly trips to the Tropics Institute, the shots themselves (most are OK, but Hep A/B really hurts!) followed by two days of no exercise so that the body can produce anti-bodies, not to mention the increased aluminum exposure. (Fortunately, the rabies vaccine, which has the highest number of doses, contains no aluminum at all, nor does Yellow Fever.) The expense is also not insignificant: 1150€ total, and after insurance, 800€ out-of-pocket. That said, it’s totally worth it if it helps us avoid infection with symptoms ranging from headache, fever, and chills to diarrhea, constipation and vomiting to intestinal bleeding, swelling of the brain and coma – and worse.

But there are other diseases for which we cannot get vaccinations. Ebola and Avian Flu are still out there, as is Dengue. Outbreaks of the plague have been reported in Madagascar. (Just great.) Zika is still present throughout South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Then there are lesser known diseases with fun symptoms, such as Chagas disease, which can cause a purplish swelling of an eyelid (not both, just one) as the number of parasites swell in the blood.

Of the 40 diseases on the CDC’s Travelers’ Health site, 15 are caused by person-to-person contact (coughing/sneezing/blood/fluids), 11 by contaminated food or water, 10 by mosquitoes, 6 by insects (fleas/flies/ticks/bugs) and 3 by animals. We are vaccinated against only 15, so we’ll be very careful to prevent infection by practicing excellent sanitation, filtering all water including when we brush our teeth, avoiding raw or undercooked food, and avoiding contact with sick people and with animals (although we’ll have to make an exception when we volunteer at an elephant rescue in Thailand). To ward off mosquitoes and other insects, we’ll wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, sleep under mosquito nets, and use effective insect repellant.

Some friends and family may believe that all of this is too much work, but, in my view, we face risks no matter where we are in the world, and with careful planning and good habits, the rewards of world travel far outweigh the risks!