Americans in Iran 2011: Planning, applying and waiting…

It’s May 2011 and our next trip will be to Iran. Ignoring the propaganda and the fact that it could take months to get a visa we begin the visa application process and the trip research. It was now or never and we’re going for it. The trip will be at least 14 days which isn’t a whole lot but enough to get a feel for the country.  The itinerary will need shortening and compose a realistic travel budget and itinerary.   Some amazing things will unfortunately be put back on the wish list. This fairly quick trip will be more a best of Iran opposed to a full tour with no limits and a loose vicarious plan which is usually how we roll.  The classic central Iran itinerary that takes us from Shiraz to Tehran is perfect for 14 days by land.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
Morning in the center of Esfahan

Traveling with a U.S. passport to Iran requires a guided tour.  Americans have a history in the area so it’s understandable that the government wants to keep tabs on us and we have to do it.  Finding a knowledgable local guide who will not make us feel as if we were on a short leash and hopefully compatible in personality is first on the to do list.   Reading other travelers blog posts, checking out Thorntree posts and Google searches lead me to finding Pars Tourist Agency which is a small but well-known tour agency based in Shiraz.  Zehra is very organized, patient and good at getting back to me despite the time change and how the weekends start on Thursday and end on Saturday.   They ended up putting together a customized tour which included all the attractions we wanted to see and within our budget.

The Somewhat Short List of why we decided to go to Iran:

1. UNESCO sites Iran full of them and we’ll be able to see a good chunk of them in two weeks – plus the flight isn’t that long – just 13 hours.

2. Politics aside The middle east has always a political hotbed so stayed informed, avoid any political discussion and enjoy the scenery

3. Low hustler level It’s not like Egypt, Turkey or Morocco where many rely on baksheesh to supplement their low wages (which is actually a Persian word) .

4. The US Dollar Woes For Americans, the dollar is still going down and the required tour and it’s prices just always go up and never down

5. Angry Israel It has been pretty trigger-happy recently and who knows when they will put their threats to action and each day there is something new like today (Nov 2) on Al-Jazeera

Travelling to Iran was always in our thoughts especially when we went to other areas of Asia and the Middle East.  Ancient history, architecture and modern culture is usually the draw to the places my husband and I visit.  The most influential were visits to the Persian designed Taj Mahal, Xian, Jordan and Syria. They are all connected to the former Silk Road and Iran has links to them all. We wanted to see and experience a different side of the region and dig deeper into how the traders along the Silk Road influenced and  shaped the lands they once journeyed through. I wanted to see where were the great battles were fought, learn more about the area’s history and see in person what in terms of physical structures (caravanserai, forts, and ancient cities to name a few) and various forms of art still remain today.   Additionally, I like to find answers to questions like did the travelers and warriors of those periods still have a place in present Iranian society?  How did the past influence today’s society?

If Rick Steves did it then why can’t we? He said himself that he regretted not travelling to neighboring Iraq when he had the chance. I personally want to see what goes on  in Iran – politics aside? How do people live and how will the receive me even after they find out where I’m from.   There are many questions that I hope to find answers to and some will have to remain unanswered until I return in the future.

Let’s go Junk Boating in Vietnam

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Let’s go Junk Boating in Vietnam

Looking back at trip pictures of Halong Bay makes me want to skip the holidays and find a cheap ticket back.  Most Vietnam vacations include the not so traditional overnight stay on the famous Junk boats found in northern Vietnam.  Most trips can be arranged by a tour company in Hanoi and usually don’t require more than a few days notice.  The company who arranged this trip was the “real” Kangaroo Cafe in Hanoi.  The tour was just ok, but I signed up after being so taken with my tasty veggie burger and fries in Hanoi.  Pho is great but sometimes a good burger and fries is needed.  I recommend using the internet to find a tour company that gives back to the local villagers whose livelihood depends on only the bay.  There are plenty of them out there and a little goes a long way.

The Bay itself is beautiful and taking great pictures requires little effort no matter what time of year.  Overall,  it’s best to double-check on the weather before booking.  In May, when I was there, it’s usually on the chilly damp side.  There was little temptation to swim and/or kayak chilly, dark and gloomy water.  Many tour and fishing boats with diesel engines tread those waters on a daily basis and it’s a good time to become vegetarian unless you want to be like Andrew Zimmern and eat the toxic catch of the day and chase it down with some local moonshine.  Cheers!

Travelers can never go wrong doing some online researching to sites like Trip Advisors LP Thorntree and other online forums which offer up to date tour information like ones to Halong Bay. Ownership chances or just getting into a hard copy guidebook like the LP guide can change places for the better or worse.   In Halong Bay, particularly look out for things like the condition of the boat, kayaks and quality of the food and staff.  I also may add that being a vegetarian or just a picky eater is always tricky on these group tours, so don’t go hungry and bring plenty of snacks and whatever else provides a more comfortable experience.

5 Travel Tips for New York City

I’ve lived in this amazing city for the past decade and have managed to hold my own when I’m out and about.  I like most people living and working on this island do a lot of walking.  Not only is it the best way to get around but it’s sometimes the fastest (weather permitting of course).  This list gives some advice on how to get around this wonderful city as it’s a little intimidating.

Pay Attention

I’ll say it again, “Pay Attention”.  This is one of the most important thing to keep in mind when running around Manhattan’s busy streets and sidewalks.  The locals are just as guilty but pay attention to everything around you.  Not only will you avoid any run-in’s with a vehicle, skateboarder, rollerblader, dog, bicyclist (not uncommon to see them going the wrong way on a one way street or sidewalk), or other people busy texting.  Accidents that involve pedestrians and moving vehicles happen often throughout the day in the city and some end in fatality.   Here are the most common things that I come across just about everyday.

  • a cyclist is going the wrong way and off-roading
  • taxis, commuters in their own cars, police cars, fire trucks, cyclists trying to beat the red light
  • cars exiting out of a parking garage and traveling too fast and not remembering that they are crossing over a sidewalk

These points may sound frivolous but just beware that the are all common and if you aren’t paying attention then there’s the risk of  having an accident.  The reward for paying attention (if you care about these things) is the not so common spotting of a “famous” person or two.  There are  many well-known personalities who are just like us.  They walk around town like anyone else but they count on the fact that most don’t pay attention and are busy looking at flashing signs and tall buildings.

Pick a lane

One common faux pas city visitors make is they don’t know how to walk on a sidewalk.   In most cities the sidewalk rules are like driving rules.  If you were driving would you travel down the wrong side into on coming traffic?  Hopefully not.  Most drivers travel in a line when traveling with a group of vehicles not side by side.  There are some sidewalks in the city that can fit 3-4 people across but not many.    Be considerate and share the road.

Mind your manners

New Yorker’s disreputably are rude, loud and arrogant but not everyone is and there are plenty back home just like them.   Some bloggers in the city are quick to point this out to get people to click on and read and continue to back the myth up and write posts like this 13 things not to do in New York City written by P. Ling.  Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.  Let’s be fair.  Many New Yorker’s are just busy trying to get to work.  They sometimes have to get up at ungodly hours to get the commuter rail in, go to work, take that 2 hour train ride back home and do it all again the next day.  A slight change in weather, traffic or personal issue can all make a hellish commute even worse.   Be sensitive and considerate to them and try to get out-of-the-way.  This is a crowded and stressful city.  Don’t take it personally if someone isn’t eager to help if you need directions especially at rush hour.  Just move on and find another person to ask.  Storekeepers and police officers are good people to try first.  I would try MTA workers last.  They aren’t usually the most helpful unfortunately.

Study the layout of the city

This holds true with anywhere you visit.  Would you arrive in Paris or Tokyo without any idea of where things are.  New York was reconfigured over a couple of hundred years ago (Commissioners’ Plan of 1811) and it’s streets above Houston where reset into a grid fashion.  The numbered avenues go east to west and streets go north to south.  If you just remember a couple of things like if the streets are higher in number you are going north and if the avenues are getting higher you are going west.  There are some names thrown in there but by memorizing a few avenue names you are all set(streets downtown below Houston and some way up town)  There are always maps inside the subway stations, so they are a good back up if you forgot yours.  A local map and a city-wide map are usually found before the entrance gates down in the station.  They are hopefully in good enough condition to read. Not always guaranteed.

Get Organized before you hit the streets

First, put together a make a list of the places you want to visit while in the city.  Then check out a good city map and chart out each listings address and if some or all are in the same area.  It’s good to see what is where so you can make the most of your time.  It’s also good to figure out when the best hours will be to visit each place.  Like most cities, New York City Museums are much busier on the weekends so it’s best to go during the week.  There are some free hours and many suggest ticket prices so do your homework and save money.

When it’s time to head out for the day, figure out exactly how to get there before leaving your hotel or starting point.  I find that walking the route if is the best way to see the area since you never know what you are going to pass by along the way.  It could be an interesting place to eat, store or museum that’s not on your list or popular enough to put in a guidebook.  I would also figure out when the local hours of commuting are at their peak.  It might be nicer sitting and relaxing for a few more minutes than dealing with morning commuters.

There are so many interesting and fun things to see and do in New York City.  Plan well and don’t worry if you don’t get to all of them.  There’s always next time.

To pack or not to pack?

So it’s about a week or so until the flight is taking off to the other side of the earth and it’s time to start packing.  What is in your bag will be the same amount for a trip that’s a month or a year in general terms.  This is of course considering that you will be finding a laundry to freshen up the travel garments along the way.  Don’t count on it.  Save your money since most places will be doing what you would do and that’s washing by hand and in a tub of water with a little soap.  As Rick Steves says, “Pack light and pack smart.”

The basic clothing

Best course of action is to lay out what you have to take with you.  This will all depend on the climate or types of climates you will be trudging through.  The basics first will be undergarments (underwear and socks)  and then bottoms, tops, jacket (preferably one multi-functioning, light in weight, and water proof or resistant), shoes (also ideally one pair that is also multi-functioning)  and small cosmetics bag (most in the 2 ounce size if possible).  Now, put everything out and  see if they will fit your minimum standard for comfort.  The choices of tops and bottoms  (I have had luck with Patagonia gear) ideally will be ones that are also made of fast drying materials and are easily washable.  Personally, my laundry has many times been done in the sink or wash basin supplied by my hostel.  Don’t expect most things made of cotton to dry overnight unless you are in the middle of the Sahara in the summer.

The bag and it’s peripherals

It’s now time to start packing.  I’m assuming you have taken the time to find the best pack.   I like the ones that have good zipper with a proper place to attach a small lock on(TSA approved of course), are light in weight, and have a good hip belt for support.  Forget the ones with the wheels and the cool colors.  They end up being bulky, heavy and who wants to wheel around a suitcase through a dirty street and then pick it up after being covered in filth.  Besides, the backpack allows you to have your hands free.

Look for something that’s feels comfortable and the correct size.  This is an investment so do your research by reading reviews and find out which type and brand of pack is worth the money.  I suggest a company that just specialized in travel gear like my favorite:  Eagle Creek.  It suits me but like everything, find what works for you. A 30 liter size is an ideal size to start looking at.  It will likely be small enough to carry on a plane and be universally acceptable when using public buses and vans.  Less like to make the locals annoyed or agree when they will be using the same space to put their own goods into.  Also, good to consider one with a built-in cover for when it rains or you need to put it on top of a van or bus.  For further help,  consult the folks at stores like REI and Patagonia are also experienced travelers.

Next is consider using compression stuff sacks made of sturdy nylon.  I usually take two medium-sized ones using one for clean and one for dirty laundry.  The clothes and other basics can now be placed in the bag.  Let’s see how much room you have left, and is it time to put more or less in?  This is a good time to try the pack on and see how comfortable you are with the weight.  If you are comfortable with the weight then add more to the pack.  Keep in mind that you may want to leave room for stuff you want to pick up along the way and consider if you can live without out it.  There is no need for it weighing you down if you end up using the items a couple of times if not at all.

All the rest

The items in your bag and what you decide to take on your journey is up to you.  Many travelers debate on what is and what is not acceptable. Each traveler is different and each trip is different.   It is just important to take the time and consider what works for you.  Things to keep in mind are the following:

Do you need it?

Can I get this along the way and if so, will it be extremely expensive or hard to find or the opposite?

Do I want to carry this much stuff and if not what can I get rid of?

Are my clothing choices practical?

Be aware that the first trip of this sort will be a learning experience and you will have to learn as you go.  Be able to just let it go.  Do the best you can and hope that you don’t forget anything.  Even if you do, you will probably find it along the way and there’s always fed-ex and DHL.  This is the beginning of the simple life and hopefully you will discover how little we really need to survive.



Now that you decided to travel….

So now you have decided to take that week, month, year or unlimited time off to travel, now it’s time to figure out where to go from here.  Planning and preparing for any trip can take a while to do thoroughly so start a few months ahead and pace yourself.  The list can seem endless. Basically, organization is the key to a great trip.  Don’t get too bogged down with the details.  This part can easily be left to a travel expert if you are not up for the job.

If you do decide to go it alone and use little to no travel services for your trip here are some things to consider while planning. The following are some general questions and short explanations that need to be considered while planning for the trip.  The best way to answer them is not exactly in the order listed.  It’s more than likely that you will go back and revisit and edit the answers though the process.   “Where to travel to?”.  Next,  “When will the trip take place?”.  Thirdly, “How much time is available?”.  Lastly, “What’s my budget?”.  There are many more things that a traveler needs to consider but these are very basic things to keep in mind.  These questions may take a while to answer and don’t be surprised if you end up going back and revising one after moving on to the next.   Please  don’t get too frustrated while planning your trip.  The more kinks which worked out before the trip the less surprises or unexpected roadblocks will surface will traveling.

Where?

This is the most obvious thing a person needs to decide on for the trip. If the destination isn’t obvious then do something like put a wish list of destinations together and break it down from there.  Next, take that list in put them in order of importance to you and your partner(s) if you decide to go with others.  From there, figure out when the ideal time of year to travel.  For example, you probably don’t want to go to the Philippines during monsoon season unless you don’t mind the rain and it’s just when you can go.   At least you don’t have to deal with as much crowds and can save a few pesos.  Is there a very important to know when public holidays are going on in the region you plan to visit.  For example, if you plan on taking the train in India while visiting you may not want to go during Dawali.  Dawali is a wonderful holiday  and is great one to witness in person.  This is a  peak time where travel costs will be premium,  so if you really want to go just figure it into your budget.  The best place to find out is the official tourism website of the region or country.  Most countries these days have them and if not, try a google search.

When will the trip take place?

The time to travel usually determined by your work policies, when your travel partner(s) can go or when the best time to go to your destination is.  Figuring out when to travel is difficult for some to figure out.  Best thing is to go back to that list of destinations and see when is the ideal time to visit according to your preference (the weather, holidays, and festivals are some things to consider)

How much time is available?

The amount of time can also be the main determining point on where and when to travel.  Time could have already be the underlying determinate in deciding on where and when to go.  You only have one week to travel so this limits your choices to where and when you can go.  If you have access to a private jet then it wouldn’t be so hard but most budget travelers are at the mercy of commercial planes, trains and bus travel.  You also need to take account travel time to destination and how much you want to actually be experiencing the destination.  Most travelers want the most experience for the least amount of time in getting in and out of the place from home.  A traveler going to far out places will  likely need to make many transfers, long bus rides from the airport and the time suck of the unknown (usually transport delays, cancellations and the like)  Basically, if you only have a week then usually going on safari in Uganda is not the best choice.  The best thing to do is decide on a place that will give you the most time for your money.  South Africa is a great place to see wild animals since some great sites are only a few hours away from major cities.

What is the trip budget?

This could be the first or last thing considered when planning.  The budget no matter how little or big it is needs to be made before traveling.  A traveler should decide the costs of traveling to a specific destination for many reasons. No one likes to get ripped off while traveling.  Know how much a hotel in Cairo will cost on average before you get there.  Determine your travel options and find out if it’s cheaper to travel overland opposed to taking a plane.  Do as much research on the costs of transport, food and lounging before heading out.  This way you are not caught off guard when you guessed wrong.   Wasting money is of course stressful and can ruin an otherwise great experience at the destination.

As seen, planning a trip is work.  The more work put into planning a trip the chances of unpleasant surprises.  The planning process does become easier.  The trip may have some unexpected incidents but these will make you a better traveler and open your mind up to new adventures.