Welcome to Iran

Here’s a letter I wish someone from the Iranian tourism authority had sent me before flying one-way into Iran alone. 

One of the many beautiful gardens, this one in Fin, Kashan

One of the many beautiful gardens, this one in Fin, Kashan

Dear Tourist,

Welcome to Iran. We are a land famous for beautiful mosaics, Persian carpets, and ancient empires, and a people known the world over for our hospitality and endless supply of tea. However, please be aware of the following things before traveling in Iran.

We have a rich cultural history surrounding our bath houses and hammams, but presently social bathing is illegal and all our historic bathhouses have been turned into museums. There are banks on every corner, but none will accept your debit card and withdrawing money from abroad anywhere in this country is impossible. Bring a lot of cash because visa and mastercard (or any other international credit cards) are not accepted, and get used to a lot of zeros because even small things, like a taxi fare, are counted in the hundreds of thousands. Our money is printed as and called rials, but people refer to tomans, which is ten times less, so don’t get ripped off by paying ten times too much or insult someone by trying to pay ten times too little. However, for anything touristic, such as entrance to a museum, you will have to pay for an entrance ticket three to ten times more than a local. Also a taxi ride or a hotel room will be (legally) charged at a higher rate, since the government enforces different costs for foreigners. The same cup of coffee will not cost the same for you and a local, even if you order together.

You are not allowed to wear shorts, skirts or sleeveless shirts or anything else that would show your knees or shoulders. Please learn how to read Arabic numbers, since house numbers, streets, costs and bus numbers will usually only be written with them. Drivers are a little crazy and crossing the road inside or outside of a car are equally dangerous. Make sure you ride the metro or public bus in the right compartment – men in the front, women in the back!

If you are a woman, please also note: You must wear a hijab or wrap your head in some sort of scarf in all public places and inside cars. You cannot wear a skirt, but you must have a long enough jacket or shirt or skirt over your pants to cover your hips, so make sure you layer your pants under more clothing, preferably black. You cannot sing or dance in public or infront of men. You are not allowed to drive a motorcycle, or get on a motorcycle behind a man driving, since touching another man who is not your spouse or family member is a crime. Walking down the street with someone of the opposite gender who’s not related to you is also not allowed. Depending on the city you’re in, it’s also illegal to ride a bicycle, smoke cigarettes, or play pool. You must sit in the women’s only section of public transport, and of course mosques have a smaller women-only section which you can enter after wrapping yourself (and every part of your hair) in a chador (a big sheet, usually supplied to you).

Facebook, Twitter, and wordpress are some of the websites blocked in Iran, so make sure you get a virtual hotspot app if you want to access any of these sites. Airbnb and Coucshurfing are technically illegal too, and some couchsurfers are simply using the site to find an outside connection for help out of here, either with a visa, a foreign wife, or better-paying job offer. If you are a single woman, some men may consider trying to marry you, so pretend you’re married and wear a fake wedding ring. Or better yet, travel Iran with a man; it will save you a lot of hassle from taxi drivers wanting your phone number, men in bazaars following you, or random creepy men that assume western women are all super horny and none of them are virgins.

Since you are a tourist, many of these rules slide, but if an ethics police officer harasses you more than 3 times for any of the above, the punishment is prison or lashes, and adultery or rape will get you executed.

Welcome to Iran. We hope you enjoy your stay!

Women only

Women only

Overlanding between Djibouti, Somaliland and Ethiopia

When I was researching a trip around the horn of Africa, information was hard to find, and all outdated. Google, Lonely Planet and most other travel guides didn’t offer much help, since I needed to find out if and how it was possible to get visas and cross land borders. After a few weeks of traveling these routes, here’s what I found out, but keep in mind this might only stay relevant for a few months.

I started in Djibouti and traveled overland first across the Loyada border into Somaliland, then from Hargeisa to Ethiopia via the Wajaale border. In Djibouti, there is a Somilland embassy (between the Sheraton Hotel and Ethiopian Embassy) that issues single entry visas in 24 hours for $31USD (payable in local Djibouti francs), but the Somaliland land border with Djbouti also offers the visa on arrival for the same price and it only takes a few minutes. The actual crossing may take a lot longer since even Somalis and Djiboutis need the Somaliland visa, and they like to refuse to pay and be detained by an armed guard for hours until someone gives in (either they pay or they get let off in each situation).

the Loyada border between Djibouti and Somaliland

the Loyada border between Djibouti and Somaliland

There’s an Ethiopian Embassy in Djibouti that gives single or multiple entry visas within 24 hours, and you must have it before traveling overland to Ethiopia. In Hargeisa, there is neither a Djibouti or Ethiopian embassy, so if you enter Somaliland without getting your visas first in Djibouti or Addis, you wont be able to leave unless you fly out of Hargeisa.

As for the actual travel, Djibouti to the Somaliland border is less than an hours drive, but its possible to buy a ticket (from some khat dealers and money changers on 26th street close to the police station) from Djiboutiville to Hargeisa. You show up between 2:30 and 3:30, and a beat up old truck leaves around 4 with 6 passengers and some cargo, drops you at the border, and a Somaliland Land Cruiser takes over the load. Then you wait hours for the border process (I was accidentally grouped in with my fellow detained non-visa holding passengers before I realized I could leave the guy with a gun and sit more peacefully by the shops selling cold drinks and some home-made food from make shift tents) to finish, and continue overnight along a bumpy 400km+ sand track (its hardly a road) which takes more than 12 hours. We had to rescue 3 other land cruisers who had gotten stuck in the sand, and near the end of the trip, when a proper gravel road appeared, we had to dodge alot of road kill – a dead donkey, dead camels, and an entire family of dead cows.

our overnight landcruiser to Hargeisa

our overnight landcruiser to Hargeisa

Then you’ve reached Hargeisa, Somalilands capital, whose city center roads are still nothing less than bumpy dirt tracks. Dust gets blown on you and everybody and everything all the time, but there is a decent paved road going north (to Berbera 150km) and south to Wajaale, the Ethopian border. Its a $5USD bus trip, 100km in under 2 hours, and the border was a bit easier to pass, although the immigration offices were well hidden among the other shops and shacks along the road. From Wajaale, you can travel to Jigjiga and onto Harar within the same day, budget another 3 hours and $3 for each bus (less than 100 birr).

Doing the trip the other way, Somaliland – Djibouti – Ethiopia, remember you must first have a Djiboutian visa or fly into Djibouti from Somaliland. Then there is a direct bus between Djiboutiville and Dire Dawa in Ethiopia (very close to Harar) which travels either early morning or late afternoon and takes all day or all night. I saw the ticket office somewhere on the south end of town on a main street, but don’t know the street name (they’re usually not marked in Djiboutiville, but asking around led me quickly to the place).

If you’re flying in or out of these countries, Ethiopia offers a visa on arrival in Addis Ababa airport, but only a 1 month single entry visa (around $50USD). Getting a multiple entry visa is only possibly in an embassy outside of Ethiopia prior to your arrival, or extending your visa once you’ve arrived. Djibouti, like on the land borders, also offers a visa on arrival for international flights. It costs $6o for a 3 day transit visa, and $90 for a week or more tourist visa. I’m still unsure about the Hargeisa International airport in Somaliland, but it seems flights (i.e. Jubba airways) are usually delayed or cancelled going in or out, there isn’t a mandatory exchange of $50 USD upon arrival or a departure tax, but it also seems the visa on arrival may not be available but in theory it should be.

If you’re interested in traveling to any other nearby countries, keep in mind the land borders between Ethiopia and Eritrea and Djibouti and Eritrea are currently impassable. There is no Eritrean embassy in Djibouti (its been closed for years despite information online saying there is one), Ethiopia or Somaliland, and the only way I’ve heard of people traveling overland is through the Sudan-Eritrea land border. Only Italians and Sudanese can travel visa free to Eritrea, but getting a visa would be hard anywhere in Africa (Europe is a better bet). Traveling south from Somaliland to Puntland or Somalia doesn’t seem easy either, especially since you need a Somalian visa to get out of Somaliland but there’s not Somalian embassy in Hargeisa. Although you used to be able to buy a Somalian passport in Somaliland for $60-75USD!

Themes of the Middle East

I´ve gotten used to a few things after traveling some months in the Middle East. Starting in Lebanon and moving south to the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula in Oman, I now find myself in Arabic Africa, and a lot of familiarities have remained the same.

  1. Islam and the calls to prayer: Without fail, there is always a mosque within sight, a towering minaret hovering over a little village, or a humble little minaret peering between highrises. If you don’t see a mosque, then you most certainly will hear one, during one of their 5 calls to prayer every day, starting before dawn and ending after sunset. The mosques never seem to be in sync either, so during each prayer time the calls echo from street to street or in each neighbourhood a few minutes apart.
  2. Lack of alcohol and pork: Depending on the conservatism of each country, alcohol is either completely illegal, only available with a personal purchasing license, or only sold through western hotels. Pork was just as rare, since its very haraam (forbidden) for Muslims. In Kuwait and Somaliland, you can get hefty fines or even jail time for having a drink. Only in Lebanon, Jordan and Bahrain was alcohol and pork available to anyone (or sometimes only non-Muslims), but still not easy to find.
  3. Cheap gas: the price of gas was a fraction of what it is in Europe, and even more than half the price of North America’s cheap prices. You could fill a sports car with premium gas for $15, or pay only 32 euro cents for a liter of regular gas.
  4. Car friendly, pedestrian hating mobility: Side walks are nearly non-existent, and walking anywhere is weird, since the cities have been built for car traffic or those moving without cars are assumed to be of lower class or less money. Even buses were rare, since public transport would also mean the same, and everyone who’s anyone should be able to afford a car and the cheap gas. This causes a lot of traffic, round-abouts, impassable highways and crazy drivers. And it doesn’t help that they like to drive oversized American SUV’s and Japanese Land Cruisers as if they were in an Aston Martin (this comment applies mainly to Saudi drivers).
  5. Security, Security: The middle east is just as paranoid of terrorism as any European or North American place (if not more), and random searches, road blocks and checkpoints are a regularity. Passing through airport security as a woman was a little less hassling, since we don’t have to strip down to our socks and undershirts, but a handheld metal detector may still scans us before entering a mosque or supermarket. In Somaliland, you need to hire an armed military guard to accompany you on any trips outside of the city capital, Hargeisa.
  6. Endless Construction: Oil money has poured into the Gulf countries, very recently, quickly, and heavily, and its like they don’t know what to do with it other than build and develop. In Kuwait they regularly build something just to rebuild or redesign it, and some can’t build without destroying something first so these places are in a constant dusty state of being torn down and built up. And I mean up, up, up into the sky, sky scrapers that compete to be the tallest in the world. And the places they tear down sometimes have to be cleared to prepare the lot, so rubble is driven out of the city and in Qatar, they’re literally building a mountain out of it.
  7. Over-Perfuming: People literally cover themselves in perfume, and its not just eau de toilette, but ‘oud’, a kind of oil de toilette, so it lingers longer and stronger. It can be suffocating, for the entire time theyre near to you, and even if they’re walking past, a scent will linger, floating behind them for a few metres.
  8. Socializing alone or at home: If it wasn’t for the shisha bars and Starbucks, people would probably just stay at home sending whatsapp messages, both texts and voice recordings, all day long. For those who don’t smoke or have had enough coffee for the day, alot of socialising happens in the privacy of peoples homes. You can order in food, stay comfortably dressed, and hang out with the gays or women that dont seem to show face in the public sphere alone. Since alcohol is a no go, board games are a sort of social elixir, the in thing to do with a bunch of nerds who prefer it to watching any more television (we watch a lot of flat screens and big screens around here).
  9. Fashion: The men wear perfectly pressed, angelic white robes (dishdasha or thawb), with matching head scarves (gutra) crowned with a black rope thingy (ogal). The names change from place to place, as well as the colours (the robes can be shades of beige or grey and the scarves red or black checkered), but its always impressive to see how they flip and fold the ends of their traingular head scarf as if it were an extension of themself, like a head of hair to a woman. Then the women, wear a similar robe but more like a cloak, and usually black, called an abaya. Then they wrap their heads in a hijab, some cover their face below the eyes (a burka), some wear a sort of Zorro mask around their eyes (a nikab), and then there’s those who just drape their whole face with a sheer black sheet so they look like black ghosts floating around from far away. Things started to get a little bit more colourful for the women in the Emirates, and especially Oman, but nothing beats the African Muslim wear of a trillion bright colours adoring their dark, henna-tattooed skin.

 

Why It's Okay to Travel Alone

Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 memoir “Eat, Pray, Love” has sold over 9 million copies worldwide, according to Forbes, and this love letter to the soul has changed many people’s perspective on the virtues of traveling alone. What was once considered dangerous and not worth the risk is now being considered a rite of passage to getting to know yourself. I´m constantly setting out on my own mini voyages of discovery, because every backpacking experience I´ve had so far has helped shape me into who I am today.

For many people, the thought of saving, planning and embarking on an adventure alone is terrifying, an option that’s completely out of the question. But why let fear keep you from experiencing something incredible? You

End the Excuses

You don’t have the money? Start saving, putting aside a little money each week. You don’t have time to plan a trip? Read a novel that’s set in your dream destination and try to take notes about everything you want to see when you go. Are you worried about leaving your dog or or partner while you’re away? Find a pet sitter, and invite him/her next time or tell them to go on their own solo trip too. Are you afraid you’ll get lonely? Matador Network travel contributor, Katka Lapelosa, said it best in a recent article about solo travel, “You can feel just as insecure in your own backyard — if you’re going to feel sorry for yourself, do it somewhere cool.”

Most reasons not to go are simply excuses. If you want to have a life full of adventure you can’t let excuses cramp your style. There are some valuable life lessons to learn on the road to self-discovery.

Learn to Rely on Yourself

Solo travel can help you become more decisive and confident in your decisions. You learn to deal with the positive or negative consequences of every decision and have no choice but to accept full responsibility.

Sharpen Problem-Solving Skills

Nothing develops problem-solving skills like getting lost in a foreign country, especially when you barely speak the language. Whether you’re attempting to navigate the Paris Metro system or climb glaciers in Patagonia, you’ll keenly develop your problem-solving abilities out of necessity.

Turn Up the Volume of Your Inner Voice

Often that little voice inside you has trouble being heard over the din of daily life. Between rushing to work, attending meeting after meeting and tending to friends, family and your kids, it can be tough to hear yourself think. But when you eliminate all of the obligations and focus on doing things for your own enjoyment, suddenly that inner voice finds its volume.

Don’t Worry About Anyone Else’s Feelings

Have you ever taken a trip with a companion who did little but complain? Do you feel guilty indulging in your own interests instead of catering to the group? When traveling alone, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Enjoy not making apologies for sleeping in to cure jet lag. Eat whenever you want to eat, whatever you want to eat, and wherever you want to eat. You can finally feel warranted in being incredibly selfish and let your own wants and needs guide the way when you travel alone.

Guide to Iceland

Tourism in Iceland has been growing every year, and the last 3 years have really been booming now that the Icelandic kronur has fallen to an affordable exchange rate. Visitors from Europe and North America saw their dollars and pounds double in value, while Icelanders started cutting back on travel abroad and enjoying the ´stay-cation´ instead. The only thing missing as our tourism industry explodes is an informative site where tourists can go and figure out what to do, where to go, and who to talk to. Now, that problem has a solution: www.guidetoiceland.is

Contact a Local at Guide to Iceland

Guide to Iceland is only 5 weeks old, still under phase 2 of development, but now that its gone public, people are talking. Its the first website to have a comprehensive site with everything you need to know before coming to Iceland, written and run by Icelanders themselves. The website doesn´t sell anything itself, not even advertisements, but creates a forum where all the different tours and tour operators can be listed, compared, and reviewed by tourists themselves. The home page is divided into 9 tour types, where tourists can filter between city, nature, spa treatment or fishing tours, to list a few examples. Each of the general tour types is then subcategorized down to every option imaginable: horse back riding, hiking, surfing, kayaking, whale watching, snorkelling, diving, or taking it easy on an organized bus tour. The tours will take you anywhere you´ve dreamed of going, from glaciers to volcanoes, underwater to waterfalls, from fjords to mountains, or even to some kick ass ice caves. There are short tours, day long tours, multi day tours, and they´re even specially working on Greenland tours. You can choose your mode of transport: ATV, snowmobile, super jeep, rental car, raft, canoe or mountain bike.  Then you can pick where to go: the West Fjords, Westman Islands, Akureyri, Skaftafell, the highlands, or Thingvallavatn. Finally, you can pick what to do: photograph northern lights, bathe in natural hotsprings, climb an ice wall, or swim through the continental rift. Then, after its all said and done, you can go back and share your experience with other soon-to-be Iceland-lovers by reviewing each tour you took.

We have an About Iceland section, with short, informative, picture-filled articles to give you the background info you need to know on everything Icelandic – the nightlife, the people, the music, the weather, food, history, and a forum where travellers can write their own article about Iceland, like what they recommend and how they liked Icelanders.

Let there be Northern Lights

Finally, the most interesting part of the site, and what sets it apart from all other travel guide sites, is the bloggers. On the page ´Contact a Local´, you have more than 20 local Icelandic people you can talk to directly. They all have their own speciality and marketing edge in some way, with travel or tourism experiences of their own in Iceland and abroad, and offer their help, services, or just a friendly email to anyone who needs advice with planning their trip to Iceland. There are people already working in the tourism industry as guides, there are bilingual writers helping speakers of Spanish or Chinese, professional athletes and musicians, and even a supermodel named Elli.

So, if you´re planning a trip to Iceland, want to know more about travel in Iceland, or just have an Iceland fetish and want to know more about this sub-arctic Volcanic island straddling the North American and European tectonic plates, check out www.guidetoiceland.is. Help spread the word, share your comments and reviews, and get to know some Icelandic people if you haven´t already!

Photo Credit (c) Iurie Belegurschi

 

10 Important things that travel has taught me

1.) Time Management: I´ve learned how to guess what time is by looking at the sun; I figured out flights don´t wait for you if you´re late, and they´re expensive to re-book; and seeing Rome in 3 days is impossible, so save sleep for some other time

2.) Math Skills: different numeric systems and currency values have made me good at calculating exchange rates off the top of my head, as well as translating Celsius to Fahrenheit, kilos to pounds, cm´s to inches, km´s to miles, and using a 24 hour clock instead of this am/pm business.

3.) Lower your hygiene standards – shower less, drink dirty water, eat street food, and poop in poopy holes in the ground. Your immunity just gets stronger, and you´ll realize you’re less susceptible to contagious diseases or an upset stomach.

4.) When your pee smells bad, you’re dehydrated. Drink more dirty water.

5.) Have incredible patience and tolerance for things that, in any other situation, would be crazy and cause for incredible alarm.

6.) Pack less stuff. The more luggage you have, the more your material world starts to weigh down on you, figuratively and literally. You start to realize you have too much, need much less, and that your back freaking hurts.

7.) Leave your guide book at home; you´ll just end up going, eating and staying at the exact same places as every other backpacker does. And, by the time its published, its outdated anyway.

8.) If you´re really brave, leave your map at home too. You´ll realize how strong and reliable your sense of direction has become. Besides, its more fun getting lost in strange places than in a place where you´re supposed to know where you are or where you´re going.

9.) Don´t get stuck behind your camera lens. Its much more impressive to stare at the Pyramids of Giza with your own two eyes than through a viewfinder or 2 inch LCD screen.

10.) You´ll always run out of time and money before you´re ready to go back home, so embrace homesickness as a good sign that you´ve managed to stay traveling long enough not to run out of either, and keep on going til you do!

Lotourism: a new philosophy of travel

My friend Tom who works with the London Zoo created a new word that recently got added into the English Oxford Dictionary. He’s a post-doc researcher that works closely with penguins and became a self-acclaimed “penguinologist.” If you google the term, he’s the second hit.

Likewise, I had the idea to invent a new word. I have a dialect of English my friends call Katrin-speak, but this is isn’t a word I’m pulling from my bad English vocabulary – its more like a philosophy of travel that I’ve adopted. “Lotourism.” Its a theory of tourism that isn’t captured by any other, one word. After completing my MA thesis on the discrepancies between defined and actualized ecotourism, I realized the term ecotourism is a vague, green-washed term, whose definition is undecided among academics, and sometimes unidentifiable in practice.

I liked to think I was an ecotourist, also called an alternative tourist, sustainable tourist, or an environmentally friendly tourist. But then these terms lead us to more definition inconsistencies, since “eco” and “environmental” and “sustainable” are all buzzwords overused and often misunderstood.

I like to think I travel sustainably, but not just natural resource sustainably – Im financially resourceful, with minimal luggage, staying with locals, and traveling slowly but steadily over short-haul distances.

Im not really a backpacker, since I avoid hostels and hate being defined by the stuff in a bag on my back. Im not always a tourist, since I try my best to camouflage into my surroundings and see things from a local perspective. I’m definitely a traveler, but so is the American guy sitting in business class flying to Dubai for a 2 hour business meeting before returning to London via Dakar for dinner in England’s most authentic Turkish restaurant. So I’ve realized there are different types of travelers, doing different types of travel, and when asked how I travel, my new answer is “I’m a lotourist.”

Lotourism is, in a nutshell, is kind of like ecotourism, redefined and on a budget. It is travel that is low-impact, low-cost, localized, and lonely.

1.) Low-impact: your footprint on the natural environment is minimal, which means your carbon footprint is low, your use of exhaustible or non-renewable resources is low, you create minimal or no waste, you dont contribute to the degradation of natural environments, your touristic activities and choice of transport/accomodation/or anything else travel related is based on an educated, informed decision to be as low impact as possible. Your footprint on the local culture or host is minimal, which means you learn and engage in cultural exchange so far as you do not negatively impact any local traditions or customs, you are a low-profile and low-maintenance guest, imparting little change or judgement except for what is beneficial or desired.

2.) Low-cost: you travel on a tight budget, which requires you to avoid tourist traps like all-inclusive vacations, hotels, and organized tours. You avoid shopping and buy almost nothing but necessities, spend your money on simple travel (preferably terrestrial, like trains or buses, going short distances rather than long-haul flights), and stay with locals that you know through friends, family, or travel communities like couchsurfing.

3.) Localized: you stick around in an area long enough to know it, see every corner (especially outside the city center or touristic attractions) and the surrounding suburbs or country side. You stay where you want to be, living a day in the life there. You spend your money in such a way that financial resources go directly into the pockets of locals (locally-owned businesses, local guides, surrounding farms instead of imported/mass produced foods) and you support the local economy (avoid international tour operators or foreign-owned companies in all your purchasing decisions).

4.) Lonely: last but not least, travel alone. Travel by yourself to be better immersed in your surroundings, alone with your thoughts and feelings to fully take in, process, and understand your new environment. Be vulnerable, meet local people, avoid speaking your own language, catering to the needs of a travel companion, or doing anything that you don’t feel like doing or going anywhere you don’t feel like going.Leave your Lonely Planet at home and just ask people for help as you go, talking to as many strangers as you can. Don’t stay in hostels where you’ll get swallowed up into a group of other tourists, don’t travel with a tour group or on a big bus with “rich tourists, coming your way” printed on the license plate. Travel more spontaneously, irresponsibly even, at the mercy of a local tip, with the adrenaline-rush of taking the wrong bus or the long bus, ending up on the wrong train, showing up in a place you have no clue about, learning from scratch and not a guide book. You can go for as long or short as you want, book one-way tickets, have undefined destinations, a flexible schedule, and a trip planned only one day ahead at a time.

So, for any other lotourists out there, get the word out on the new word. And, if you get it and you like it, spread the word so more lotourism can exist in this traveling world of ours.