The Kingdom of Swaziland

Swaziland is a little land-locked country, surrounded on all sides by South Africa and Mozambique. Besides being the only absolute monarchy left in Africa, I didn’t know much about Swaziland, other than it has (at least had) the highest rate of HIV positive people per capita in the world. Someone in Johannesburg told me I should visit in winter, so I could go skiing, but after arriving and asking when the ski season is and being laughed at, I learned there’s never any snow in Swaziland. Someone must have confused it with Lesotho.

To my surprise, Swaziland was a much safer, more peaceful part of southern Africa. As soon as I crossed the border from South Africa, everyone felt more at ease, and no left-over apartheid feelings of racial separation seemed to exist. I could walk the streets alone at night, and even hitchiked my way around Ezulwini Valley. I felt really at home at a hotspring called the ‘Cuddle Puddle’ which was actually a big, beautiful, warm pool where you could BYOB and order take away pizza.

safari on foot at Mlilwane

Ezulwini valley was a sort of tourism center in Swaziland, and there was more tourism than I expected. There was a handful of backpackers and most hostels were associated with an adventure company or game park. At Mlilwane Game Reserve, there are no predators, so you can actually go on a walking safari, and get up close and personal with lots of zebras and little horned antelopes and ‘beests.’ They had other game parks, one personally belonging to the king, where you could see lions, elephants and rhinos a lot easier than Kruger National Park, which is 1,500 square kilometers larger than the entire country of Swaziland.

Mantenga Falls

I went on some other hikes, one to a cultural village and waterfall, and another to a granite cave. You wouldn’t think those activites were thrilling anywhere else, but because I hadn’t expected any adventures, I laughed my whole way through the 200m of cave tunnels we had to squeeze, bend, crawl and climb thru. We went to a soccer game to watch the beloved Swallows, one of the better teams on all of Africa, play surrounded by an enthusiastic local crowd. We were the only foreigners in the stadium.

at the football stadium in Ezulwani valley

I met an American film producer who used to work for National Geographic and had been making a new tourism commercial for Swaziland, and got sold on visiting Swaziland yet again. I ended up staying a few days longer than I expected, but still left some things undone, and was glad I didn’t visit for only a weekend as I had originally planned. I was lucky to leave at all, since I learned at the border exit that I had been illegally visa-free in Swaziland the entire time. So for any other Icelanders being sold on visiting Swaziland anytime soon, make sure you get your visa on arrival, even if they let you in and stamp your passport without one.

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Planning a trip to Afghanistan

Traveling to Afghanistan has a lot of barriers, both mental and physical. Before going, you ask the inevitable question: is it safe? And everyone has a different answer or a different experience. Once you make a plan to go, you have to decide how to go – by road in almost any direction is risky. By air, you have to go thru multiple security checks just to enter the airport, and again before you enter the plane – to get in and out of Afghanistan. It’s hard to know what will happen even after you know how you’ll go.  Explaining to the Afghan consul in Tehran why I wanted to go as a tourist was as difficult for me to explain as it was for him to understand. So even after I finally had a plan and my visa, I still didn’t know if it would work out or be okay.

I made a plan to enter overland from Iran. I was going to couchsurf, but all I had was the names and numbers of people I had no idea where they lived, how they lived, or with who. So even though I kind of know where I was going, I didn’t have any idea how to get to the exact place. The border was fairly straightforward, but they never gave me a tourist registration card (which I found out later I needed to leave Afghanistan). I got to Afghanistan, and my host in Herat told me he doesn’t like living here because every time he leaves his home he’s not sure if he will come back home. Very reassuring…

the Citadel in Herat is a major tourist attraction with no tourists

the Citadel in Herat is a major tourist attraction with no tourists

We did get home, all three days, and spent a lot of time with him at work in a cell phone shop, since walking around was always a little stressful. I noticed an immediate change in the people, they were more intimidating, but though the people were taller and dirtier, they were somehow more handsome. There were no visible signs of danger – only a few armed guards – but the strange looks on peoples’ faces who saw us never allowed us to relax.

I was traveling with a fake husband, Michael from Germany, mostly because its unusual for females to move without other members of their family or a husband. He wore traditional Afghan clothes, and I was covered in black, but the way we walked probably gave us away. But every day, after we returned within the safe walls of his family’s home, we were surrounded by 12 or 13 family members (almost all female), and taken care of with a kind of hospitality even my own family wouldn’t give me. But every kind person we met still advised us not to trust anyone, even the next kind person we met, so we hesitated to ever fully enjoy all our positive experiences.

Kabul from afar - a little more inviting than on the streets beside the walls and barbed wire

Kabul from afar – a little more inviting than on the streets beside the walls and barbed wire

Leaving Herat by plane, but only to Kabul, caused the KamAir flight attendant who greeted us on board to flash us a worried look, so after boarding was completed he decided to upgrade us to first class and we sat in the first row with a hot meal – but no champagne. We relaxed a little, but still couldn’t understand why Google maps said Kabul Airport was permanently closed even though we were sitting on a plane bound for it.

If you’re planning a trip to Afghanistan, do trust people, and enjoy Afghan hospitality. Get your visa, if you can, and enjoy being one of the only tourists there. Travel by plane if you can afford it, and Kabul International Airport is open and has many direct flights daily. Don’t try to check in less than 1 hour before departure because they will leave you behind. And take into consideration there are about 5 security checks or searches before you even enter the terminal. If you want to overland into Afghanistan, the road is apparently only safe between Mashhad and Herat, and also one or two roads to Tajikistan might be passable.

Getting a visa is tricky for some (a German backpacker was denied a few days after me in Tehran) and I had to take a blood test against HIV, Hep B and Hep C. I tested negative for all of the above, thankfully, so I got my visa. Other countries need a letter of support, and other countries (mostly in the west) simply don’t give tourist visas anymore. Read more about the visa application process at the Afghan Embassy in Tehran at the Caravanistan website.

Forbidden Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia was a place I thought I’d never go. It’s probably the only country in the world that doesn’t want any tourism (except Muslim pilgrims), and a tourist visa simply doesn’t exist. The only way to visit the country is to be from Saudi or one of the gulf countries who don’t need a visa, only transit thru the country in 72 hours, marry a Saudi, have family or relatives in the country to visit, get a job sponsor and enter on a work visa, or be a Muslim and go to hajj on a pilgrimage visa.

Al Balad, historic old Jeddah architecture

Al Balad, historic old Jeddah architecture

I considered the second and the last options, but thought a work or family visit visa might be more feasible. I visited a few Saudi embassies, made a few Saudi friends, and failed three times… but a miracle happened on my fourth attempt. I met the ambassador of Saudi to Ethiopia in Addis Ababa, and for some reason he wanted me to go there even more than I did, so I did exactly as he said and didn’t ask any questions. One passport photo and $50USD later, some woman named Elham approved my paperwork, pushed it through the online application system, and a visa was stamped in my passport a few hours later. I never even met her to thank her, but I didn’t want to stick around long enough for them to change their minds.

a fruit seller

a fruit seller

Actually visiting Saudi and writing about it is a bit like Israel – everything I say may be incriminating somehow. There are a handful of sensitive issues that I don’t want to offend anyone on, and I can’t really be honest about all the things I did and saw so long as my real name is attached to these blogs. Everyone there may have an opinion on female rights, the bombing of Yemen, Islam fundamentalists, and the long list of haram things: non-halal food, alcohol, drugs, uncovered women, female drivers, and even cinemas (they’re illegal!), and I certainly do too.

Nora demonstrating how to gracefully walk in an abaya (I always trip)

Nora demonstrating how to gracefully walk in an abaya (I always trip)

The long abaya cloak and hijab head scarf were a welcomed change. I didnt have to worry about what to wear or how I looked, because I could simply disappear and camouflage into a world where noone suspected I was a stranger. Apparently the strictness of covering varies around Saudi, and Jeddah is the most liberal place for women to comfortably reveal their hair or leave their heads uncovered in public. But we still couldnt go anywhere without or male driver or sit in the ‘singles’ or men only sections of any public spaces (including all cafes and restaurants).

One of our many beautiful lunch spreads

One of our many beautiful lunch spreads

I was visiting my Saudi friend Nora, and she welcomed me into her home full of maids and we were catered to like queens. Our driver was a 2 meter tall Sudanese truck of a man who took us everywhere in an airconditioned Escalade, and I don’t think I managed to pay for anything there except for one lens cap I needed to replace on my camera. We went to her family’s private beach home where we could laze in the sun without any burkinis, and every meal was served to us freshly cooked on different sets of plates each time. My bed was magically made every time I got out of it, and we enjoyed a very informative, private tour of Al Balad, the historic old Jeddah. I was glad to leave when I did, since this Saudi standard was a little too easy to get used to, and it couldn’t have come at a better time than after 5 weeks of overlanding in Africa.

Togo to Ghana (very sneakily)

I wasn’t sure if I’d make it to Ghana. All the Ghanaian embassies I had talked to so far (in Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Togo) had refused me since I wasn’t a resident of any of their countries, but no one seemed to consider the fact that there is no Ghanaian embassy in my resident country. They hadn’t even heard of Iceland, so I tried to convince them it was part of Togo, but that didn’t work. Then I told them that the closest embassies to Reykjavik, in London or Copenhagen, had refused me for the same reason, so somebody had to eventually issue the visa, or else the conclusion would be that no Icelanders could visit Ghana.

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my guide in the butterly hills of Togo

After being rejected in Lomé, I went to the butterfly forests of Kpalimé, 150 km north. I was there to go chasing waterfalls and lots of colourful butterflies, but the dry season kind of killed the waterfall chase. I hired a guy to take me around the winding hills and forests one day, and I think he had more fun than I did.

After frolicking around Togo, I tried to casually cross at the local border of Ho, just 25 mins away from Kpalimé. It took me a couple motorcycle rides, along winding dirt roads that seemed to lead to nowhere, but eventually i reached the exit post of Togo. I convinced the officers there not to stamp me out of the country, since I wasnt sure if I´d get into Ghana, 2 km away past some no-mans land. I reached the smiley, english speaking Ghanaian border post, only to make 4 new friends that couldnt help me at all. They said they didnt issue visas and couldnt let me in, since I´d definitely not get back out of Ghana  without alot of hassle.

the Kpalimé falls, just trickling drops

the Kpalimé falls, just trickling drops

So I took the windy dirt road back to Kpalimé, and another hot stuffy bus 150km south to Lomé, and went straight to the border crossing there. I reached just 30 mins before it closed, and had to again convince the Togolese side not to stamp me out. I walked the few meters into Ghana, and the first officer I met immediately started flirting with me. It was a good start, atleast I thought so, so I stuck to him until he took me to his boss. Then that guy, holed up in an office with another powerful official, started letting on that they “could issue me a visa, but what incentive could I give?” They circled me with indirect questions, begging for a fat bribe, and finally said the visa would cost $150, or 120 Euros, and anything extra would help facilitate the process. I played stupid and sweet, thanking them for being so helpful, and that that exact price was just perfect. Half an hour later, they reluctantly gave me back my passport, still hinting at some sort of cash-value thank-you, but I already knew I had paid 5 times more the cost of a tourist visa, and I only got a hand-scribbled stamp valid for 1 week.

Crossing the Peace Arch Border

2 friendly and tame racoons beg for food from passerby's at Stanley Park

2 friendly and tame raccoons beg for food from passerby's at Stanley Park

I was in Vancouver for the weekend, compromising between American & Canadian Thanksgiving, my grandmothers’ 80th birthday, and Rememberance Day as reasons to take one trip for all of the reasons above. I dragged along my roommate Maya, and Misha, my brother from another (russian) mother. It was a short 3 day visit, but the time there felt like forever and far away, but now that I’m home, it literally passed in the blink of an eye – as does all travel it seems. I also happened to be sick for all (and only) the 3 days I was there, which was unfortunate for me and everyone around me (people are way to paranoid about H1N1). I was in the airport and a hospital at one point, and everyone that hears you sniffle or cough looks very suspicously over their shoulder at you, and finds the nearest antibacterial pump machine to lather their hands (has anyone else noticed they are absolutely everywhere now?). My response? I point at my nose and say, “dont worry, its just allergies,” since I’ve definitely heard the horror storries of being caught up at a border or airport in quarantine when someone accuses you of having swine flu symptoms.

Fortunately – and suprisingly – it didn’t rain the entire time we were up north, but grey skies and cold rain sent us on our way back to Seattle-Tacoma airport. We flew in and out of SeaTac, which is only 150 miles south of Vancouver, because flights are about one third the cost than flying from the Bay to BC, and I have to admit how much I love taking that I-5 drive and stopping into any of the Washington State rest areas that are fully equipped with free hot drinks and tasty treats for anyone interested. However, to my dismay, I got held up at the border for an hour when they threated to revoke my American Study Visa because I showed them my Canadian passport (which allows free travel between the American/Canadian border) instead of my Icelandic one (which holds the actual student visa). After they asked if I had an Islamic passport (ummm, hello, Islam is not a country, a religion cannot issue passports… are you really qualified to be a border patrol officer?!?), I (laughed) and said, no, I had an Icelandic one. Without asking to see it, they brought me inside, where a pms-ing woman on an authority trip (more of a power struggle, since I did nothing wrong) tried unconvincgly to make me feel guilty or apologetic of ‘misleading’ border officials of my identity and purpose in the states. After threatening to confiscate my visa and doing nothing at her desk but comparing my stamps of entry in each passport for an hour, she told me they never wanted to see my Icelandic passport after my student permit was up, and that I cannot use whichever passport I feel like or is more advantegous anymore.

Too bad I got in trouble for not showing the Icelandic passport in the first place, and, having two valid passports is completely legal so I will continue to exploit my rights as a dual citizen. Argh.