Category Archives: Travelling

Ghana or Bust! (Unfortunately, I got “Bust”)

Finally, it’s Spring Break!! I bought tickets from Amman, Jordan to Accra, Ghana in early January for this week (in late April). I was supposed to go visit one of my best friends, Brain Garvon, who has been living there for almost a year now. Our plans included surfing, hiking, beach going and night life, a much needed break from the monotony of school life (we have been going straight without a real break for 17 straight weeks now). And I was supposed to hang out with Brain for a week, which is always a blast. Needless to say, I had been excited about the trip for a very long time.

I was talking to a friend a few days before the trip in the science office and he casually asked “So, do you need a visa for Ghana or do you just get it when you get there?” I responded, “Oh no, you just get it when you get off the plane… I think?” I added the “I think” because it turns out I never bothered to check. I can try to blame it on my busy schedule at school, or American hubris (because most countries that people travel to, including Jordan, take zero pre-trip visa preparation for Americans), but in the end, it boils down to the fact that I just simply did not do any research for this trip. You think that of anyone, I would be someone who would know something like this (and it kills me because I usually do, as my mom put it, have all my t’s crossed and i’s dotted). Here’s my travel resume:

  • I’ve lived abroad for almost 2 years now, and have spent a total of about a month and a half in the past 24 in the United States
  • I’ve been to about 20 different countries on random trips in the past 5 years
  • I ran a service-travel organization in college for around 700 people and advised countless site leaders on how to make travel plans for groups of 10-15 people (including leading two of my own international service trips)

Bottom line is, I should have known to do the research. I think that the more you travel, the lazier you get – I have noticed that my travel plans have gotten less and less detailed, to the point where last summer I just went to Syria without real lodging plans or a definite return date.

So, as you can probably guess by the tone of my writing, yes, you do need to acquire a visa before traveling to Ghana. And no, there’s no way to get an expedited visa when you find out on Thursday and are supposed to leave on a Saturday. First, there’s no Ghanaian embassy, and second, it takes more than two days to FedEx your passport anywhere that does have a Ghanaian embassy  (like, for example, the US!), and third, even if I could it would have taken many days for the embassy to process anything. Fourth, I have class next period and don’t have time to deal with craziness like this.

Theeeen, my mind started racing and I began to formulate a Plan B. Options included sneaking on the plane and then bribing the Ghanaian border control (not very plausible), flying to next door Togo and trying the land border (perhaps possible) or planning a whole new trip to Togo next door and just hanging out with Brain there (definitely possible but perhaps expensive). Step 1: I had to get my flight canceled. I called the reputable “Cheapoair.com” dreading hearing that my $800 flight was nonrefundable as is written ALL OVER the ticket that they sent me. When I finally got a representative on the phone they immediately told me “There has been a major schedule change in  your ticket and you will now be leaving 14 hours later and have a 12 hour overnight layover in Cairo. The airline will arrange hotel accommodation.” Jackpot. “Uhh, can I have a refund instead?” [pause] “Yeah, sure.” So in a stroke of luck (and about four dropped Skype calls to their 800 number later), I got $802.40 of my $822.40 plane ticket reimbursed. If there is anything good that has come out of this it is that amazing stroke of luck that caused my visa mistake to cause mental and experiential trauma instead of financial trauma too. Maybe I avoided health issues too because in my lack of pre-trip research, I also didn’t realize that you had to take malaria medicine.

When I finally got confirmation of my refund, the plane tickets to Togo had gone up about $400 and I’m not sure they would have even let me book the day before the flight online (since I’m leaving from a foreign destination). Also, I didn’t know what would happen once I got to Togo (what’s in Togo, honest question: had you heard of that country before I mentioned it?), and didn’t feel all that comfortable roaming about a random country with all my stuff on my back and not much a plan. I made the tough call just to cancel the trip. I am extremely bummed about it, especially that I won’t get to spend some quality time with Brain, but such is life.

Plan C: I hopped onto the school’s trip for the students can’t travel anywhere over the break, so we are staying at a beautiful apartment on the beach in Southern Jordan. It’s me, a very nice family of 5 from the school and then 6 students – three from Gaza, one from the States, one from Australia and one from Jordan (and another young faculty member will be joining us shortly). Though it’s not what I wanted to be doing for Spring Break, the people here are wonderful, the apartment and beach are beautiful, the trip was free and everything will be incredibly relaxing. To give you an idea of what I plan to do, I brought six books with me, in addition to my Kindle.

Lesson learned: don’t implicitly assume that because you’re American you can walk into any country you want without obtaining a visa first.

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Dana Nature Reserve

[I’m headed back to the US for 2 weeks, so I am going to use that time to catchup on some old happenings]

Dana Nature Reserve in Southern Jordan is a pretty phenomenal place. Great hiking, cool places to stay, about a 3-hour drive from King’s – awesome way to have a relaxing weekend away from the stress of teaching. I’ve been there twice now, both with one of my new best friends here, Molly (who is currently taking a hiatus from Jordan in India). The place we stayed at the second time, in May, was this crazy, cave-like place with criss-crossing staircases and rooms improbably placed at all heights within the building (picture to the left). I just posted an album on the pictures page with lots of great pictures. One of my favorite things to do is to hike/climb to an improbable place while the other person stays far away to take a picture (like below), so there are a few of those. If these pictures aren’t enough, check out Molly’s Pictures, or my story from last time about the Bedouins we met – Hussein, who told dirty jokes, and Afaf, a 10 year old girl who became my new best friend.

Accidentally Slept Until 6 PM

After two weeks of trying to sleep in Um Bassam’s non-ACed, barely fan-cooled house on a bed too short for me with no covers, in a room with a large opening above the door leading out into the living room where Um Bassam liked to watch Syrian TV series very loudly at 8 am, which also contained a large shrine with a small light that needed to stay on 24-7… and after waiting at the Syrian-Jordanian border for over an hour in 110 degree heat… I accidentally slept for about 2/3 of a day. The only upside I saw was that fasting was particularly easy considering that when you wake up at 6 pm, you only have to wait about an hour to eat and drink.

Ambitiously setting my alarm for 12 pm tomorrow.

Will Um Bassam Eat Me Before I Leave?

I’m pretty sure Um Bassam is not a fan of Ramadan. She keeps telling me I shouldn’t fast because I’m too skinny. “It would be one thing if you were fat…” One of her favorite past times is to try to feed me as much as possible, which has certainly been limited while I fast during the day. She uses tricks and ploys to lure me into sitting next to her and eating whatever she desires, while we discuss mundane things, like the time when she told me she saw the renter downstairs completely naked, and then made fun of him because he’s Asian (turns out that grandmothers are racist everywhere).

This pastime has led me to believe she’s trying to fatten me up, perhaps to eat me. One time early on I was sitting on my bed reading when Um Bassam popped up in the doorway holding a large box of cookies of some sort. [in Arabic] “RAaaamiiii??!? Would you like a cookie?” Not knowing what I was getting myself into, I said yes, and she immediately retreated out to the main room, beckoning me to follow and to “Oud” (the command “sit,” her trademark phrase)… Ah, the catch. Something in my childhood fairytale education warned me not to follow the short, grinning old woman offering me sweets, but I did. Many, many cookies later (somewhere around 15, I lost count), and many, many crazy stories later, I was finally released from her sweet iron grip, fatter and perhaps more delicious?

My suspicions were aroused again when I came home to find her sitting completely in the dark, with no fan or TV or anything else turned on. “El-Kahruba’ maqtoo3a?” Is the electricity cut off? “La, oud” No, sit. Okaaay…I dutifully followed her instructions and she proceeded to cut a few apples up into slices, peel them one by one and then feed them to me, while I told her how much various world currencies were worth in Syrian Lira (in the dark). “Shukran, shukran, yaslamo” Thank you, thank you so much. And then (and now here’s the kicker) she took the same knife and started peeling off what I thought was dead skin from her fingers. Like, I’m talking using force to dig the knife into the top layer of her finger – actual finger, not the fingernail – and to peel off layers of happy goodness. And then (okay, maybe this is the kicker) she went back to the apple, and used the same knife to peel some pieces to gobble up herself. This was when I decided that even politeness has its limits and refused any further offers.

It took some fighting through the language barrier to figure out that she had been using glue earlier in the day and was trying to get the glue off of her fingers, not trying peel off her outer human skin to reveal the beast beneath. Or so she says. All I know for sure is that Um Bassam may or may not be a fairytale witch. I will see tomorrow whether the cab (which she arranged – !) takes me to the bus station or to her secret renter cooking lair.

Jokes aside, I will certainly miss my new 73 year-old friend, but I am happy to be leaving this 108-degree-Fahrenheit-no-air-conditioning-intermittent-electricity land for the comforts of my own home. Ma’a Es-Salaama yaa Syria! مع السلامة يل سورية

Snow White Probably Had Back Problems

My back has been hurting lately, and I could not for the life of me figure out why. I have never had back problems before. Um Bassam complains about her back all the time, perhaps back pain is contagious? Actually no, it dawned on me today that I’m living in a dwarf house, but instead of 7 little dwarves, I live with one 4 foot 5, 73 year woman. And in this dwarf house I bend over constantly to try to fit in.

I realized this yesterday when I was studying Arabic on the table in my room, and I just couldn’t continue because I had to bend over so far to write on due to it being quite low to the ground that my back was killing me. Then I thought about it and realized that the whole place is built the same way. The toilet is about 6 inches to low, 75% the area that my backside would prefer and my knees are a few inches from propping the door open while I take care of business. And the shower head does a very nice job of cleaning my neck. My feet hang way over the end of my bed unless I try to go diagonal, but that doesn’t work well because the ceiling fan only reaches a slice of the bed. And I’ve hit my head numerous times on the door frame of the kitchen.

But probably the biggest piece of evidence of my dwarf abode is the mirror placement. I haven’t seen my face in a couple weeks, but I have a pretty good idea of how my torso looks. This is the longest I have gone without shaving because I just don’t think that I would be able to bend over for that long to try to see my own face.

I’m in the market for some of that delicious-looking body-shrinking junk that Alice finds in Wonderland (but only a little)… but I guess I couldn’t eat it anyway because of the fast. I’ll be back to normal sized land in about a week.

Using Facebook, PayPal, eBay from an “Axis of Evil”

I know that there are a lot of people, uneducated and educated, who have a fear of the Middle East, especially of the Arab world. I guess if the only thing you ever hear about are suicide bombers on the news it could be understandable. But, I don’t think that’s only what people hear, just what they focus on. I think it would only take one visit to the Middle East to really change all of that, especially in Jordan. I mean, I feel far more safe in Amman than I do in New York City. Shopkeepers sometimes just cover up their fruit with a blanket and leave it overnight by the side of the road, and nothing happens. The other day when I was trying to get to Syria, I asked a taxi driver “Where can I get a servees (a shared car basically) that goes to Syria?” He took me to some random corner, dropped me off with some guys who barely had a shop front, who put me in a car with a random dude and three other customers and off we went to Syria. Maybe a less trusting… more careful… person would have been a bit freaked out (I read a blog post about some travelers who did the same but followed the driver’s course on their GPS the entire way up to make sure he wasn’t taken them somewhere to, I dunno, suicide bomb them maybe), but I am very trusting of people here and feel very secure.

And the same is true of Syria. Reputation-wise, Jordan gives off a fairly neutral impression, which is very accurate. Syria on the other hand seems to strike fear in the hearts of the democratic and patriotic, an axis of evil ready to pound you in the face with state sponsored terrorism, BAM. The US has a pretty awful relationship, partly because of a little stretch of land on the Mediterranean sea called I-s-r-a-e-l. If you have any hint of an Israeli stamp on your passport, including the sticky former outline of an Israeli sticker, you are denied entry. My visa to come here cost $131, only lasts 15 days, and was a complete pain to obtain.

But you would never know any of this from the situation on the ground. The city reminds me of Istanbul, or some other major city where old and new coexist harmoniously. Americans are like any other foreigners here – which seem to be mostly ignored by Syrians (this I like a lot). The people here are friendly and helpful, and have this way of talking that makes it sound like they’re singing (other Arabs always make fun of this). My students in Jordan who are from Syria are incredibly warm, and hardly representatives of an axis of evil. And Um Bassam rocks my face off. There is a huge gap between the political situation and actions of the Syrian government with the nature of the Syrian people, and this is the gap that I don’t think people see when they think about the Middle East.

But I keep getting reminded of the fact that I am in a country that only just recently lost it’s status on the travel warning list alongside Haiti, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Somalia (among others of course). Facebook is categorically blocked by the government here… or at least it supposedly is. At internet cafes, you just configure your browser an HTTP proxy so that it thinks it is somewhere else in the world. I didn’t know this, but saw a 10 year old girl playing “Fashion World” or something on Facebook so I asked her awkwardly how I could get on. She pulled up the advanced internet settings on my browser and typed a 11-digit number into a few fields by heart. I then went to Google, and it took me to Google: Sri Lanka instead. Her little brother was playing a game where you click on various buttons and it makes George Bush dance. He got bored of that and started to play “Twilight Makeover” instead – the next time I looked at his screen there was a large picture of Edward from Twilight with orange spiky hair.

Then, I tried to finalize some purchases I had made on eBay and pay for them with PayPal. I went to my PayPal and tried to complete a purchase, but got this message instead:

Error 3028. You have accessed your account from a sanctioned country. Per international sanctions regulations, you are not authorized to access the PayPal system. For more information about your PayPal account status, contact complianceverifications@paypal.com.

Okay. Again, another strange discontinuity between how I feel living here and how American officials feel about me living here. I figured out how to pay with another internet paying method. But then after trying to log into eBay, I received this:

Hello bobodickie (bowman.g.dickson@gmail.com),

Your eBay account appears to have been used without your permission.

We’ve already taken steps to secure your account. Your credit card information is stored on a secure server and can’t be seen by anyone. We’ve also reset your password and secret question.

So the only reason someone would access their account from Syria is if they were an evil internet auction pirate, attempting to illegally bid on retro t-shirts, Harry Potter books and DVDs of Mythbusters (for class!). Perhaps they do that with all unrecognized places from which you access your account, but I highly doubt that a French IP address, or a Canadian one would prompt the same response.

It’s hard for me to rationalize the existence of such wonderful people and such a richly historical, peaceful city in such a hated country, but I guess I’m glad to be having the problem of associating [state sponsored terrorism, breaches of individual freedom, an oppressive government with a bad reputation] WITH the people here rather than the problem of separating [these things] FROM my tutor, my host, my students, the culture, Arabs…

I”m certainly not looking over my shoulder for suicide bombers when I walk around the city.

Camels! Part 3

I love camel faces! This is a picture from riding a camel in Wadi Rum during Brian’s visit. It was an absolute blast, but I ended up with strange bruises in strange places from the camel saddle… I guess I’m not surprised, the seat was awkward which is fitting for the most awkward animal this side of the Mississippi. I’m thinking about quitting teaching to become a camel dentist, but that might be too big of a task.

Back on the Tour Guide Circuit

Two weeks after my parents came to visit I’m getting my second visitors to my new (well, 8 month old) home in Jordan – Brain Garvon, one of my best friends from college, and a fellow Wahoo ’08, Valerie. They are on a 2 week bender around the Middle East, having spent the last week in Dubai and Istanbul, and they are spending the next five days here in Jordan. It should be a blast, even if I will be doing the same exact things that I did 2 weeks ago with my parents. If you are thinking about taking a trip sometime I would highly recommend coming here while I live here because I’m getting to be a good tour guide.

Brain asked me if I wanted anything from the states, and all I could think of at the time was a bagel (even though now I have a list of like 6 things I need), so he wrapped a bagel in saran wrap and toted it around the world for two weeks. He presented it to me today – it’s incredibly moldy, but as he said “It’s the thought that counts.” To make up for that, Brain and Valerie also brought thin mints (jealous?), definitely giving them a one up on my parents. A good start to what should be a wonderful four days…

Our itinerary:

  • hike up the waterfalls at Wadi Mujib
  • then spend the night camping in the desert in Wadi Rum
  • then spend the day at Petra
  • then spend the day at the Dead Sea
  • then have them go home so I can figure out how I am going to teach my buddies simple harmonic motion

Hosting My Parents in My Adoptive Home Country

For Spring Break, as I mentioned before, my parents came to visit me in Jordan, which was a really phenomenal experience. If you are currently living abroad, or you have someone close to you living abroad, make sure you take the chance to make a visit like this. [Ms. Charassuvichakanich have you been to Beijing yet??]. My parents got to see a country that I don’t think they ever would have otherwise with a tour guide and place to stay, and I got to have some fun in the process (at a price that was right for me). We spent the week seeing almost the whole country – Petra, camping in the desert in Wadi Rum, floating in the Dead Sea (see mud caked people on the left), exploring the Roman Ruins of Jerash and hanging out in Amman, not to mention having a blast just driving around. Highlights included:

  • Seeing the guards laugh every time I told them my Dad’s name, Doug… maybe they thought it sounded like “Dog”?
  • Giving my parents a view of real Jordan by driving through tiny towns and driving in the intensely crazy driving in Amman
  • My Mom riding a camel and picking up little Arabic words… I think she wanted to leave Texas and become a Bedouin
  • Getting a speeding ticket on the Desert Highway
  • Trying to get my Dad to continue to eat Arab food the whole time he was here
  • Finally showing someone all that I try to express in this blog and giving my parents the context to be able to talk with understand what’s going on now
  • Spending some good quality time with the ‘rents and regaining my status as favorite son. Maybe next year Donny and Mack…

I posted some pictures from our trip on the pictures page (in addition to a bunch from the Dead2Red race, though most are the same as the ones in the video) if you’re interested…

Proof that my parents are actually here

Here’s a video of my mom getting off of a camel! I’ll post some stories when they leave, but it’s been a phenomenal vacation so far.