Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Finishing Touches

I've been back with the family in Holland now for a month. I can't say I've really accomplished anything exciting, but I'm thinking of this as my "holiday" period this year where I can be lazy. I have developed quite a plan for most of the rest of the year to keep myself busy.
My goal as soon as I got out of Africa was to start the application process for an Iranian visa. This is not an easy visa to get. 6 years ago when we applied, Canadians were blanket refused due to political problems at the time. Our political relationship with Iran has not improved a whole lot since then. I'd heard from a Canadian friend that went to Iran late last year as an independent tourist that it was possible, which got me in the mind to try again. For western countries right now, the UK and Canada have the hardest time getting independent tourist visas. The non-refundable fees are higher and all must be paid up front with the application. Americans can't travel independently as tourists at all but must book an organized tour to officially get in. Everyone has to get pre-approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran before even being allowed to apply for the visa at an embassy and this requires the services of an Iranian agent to help you get an invitation, not unlike applying for visas to Russia for example. It's all just a hassle and refusals and delays are not uncommon at all.
Paying the agent is annoying too as you can't just pay them because of all the sanctions on businesses in Iran and financial transactions. It is another "cash only" destination and payments to companies in Iran go through European or Turkish banks which is just whacked. I've seen this kind of thing in places like Sudan before though.
Another issue is that any evidence or even suspicion of a visit to Israel will get you refused immediately. Because of this I also had to wait until my passport was renewed, which I did late last year (it was full again).

Why bother with all the hassle and go then, especially with all the drama and controversy surrounding Iran these days? Are you kidding me? I've wanted to go to Iran forever. It's one of the great historical civilizations and everyone I've met that has ever gone to Iran has had nothing but praise for the people and place. I've been sitting here doing some research on my trip (I was successful in my application but only given 21 days on my visa) and not only were the staff in the embassy very friendly (which is more than I can say about many other embassies, including our own) but I've been trying to line up couchsurfing hosts there and been getting completely swamped with spontaneous offers to stay. The difference in hospitality is already huge...
Thus I'm only getting more and more excited to go.

The plan right now is to fly into Erbil, Iraq in 2 weeks. This flight is booked. Erbil is in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq and is quite stable and "touristy" despite the continued problems elsewhere in the country. I'll then hopefully go to Iran before revisiting Armenia, Georgia and Turkey over a 2 month trip. I'm still working on the rough outline, let alone the details....

In the meantime I'll continue helping with the family push to finish Savannah's book. It's very nearly done and hopefully soon we'll be able to make an announcement about how you can get a copy.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Belgian Party

The same day Marcus left us, we also left, driving down to Gedinne, Belgium. This was a trip planned outside of our family and I had no idea about so was just along for the ride, not knowing where we were going nor where we were once we got there.
The whole trip was the result of a party/getaway planned for Kees' sister's 12.5 year anniversary. A weird thing I know but they say it's more correct because it's half of 25... So a "house" in southeastern Belgium was rented for a week and 22 of us went down. I hadn't met most of the people before but through other family activities here, everyone else seemed to know each other at least a little.
The "house" turned out to be a 3 level, 17 room ex-hotel with a big kitchen, dining room, bar, games room and indoor pool with sauna below the main floor. We turned the games room into a 2-table ping-pong tournament zone. They were a really nice group and it turned out to a lot of fun playing group games with each other. Kees also brought his new quad along in a trailer to play with.

We were in Belgium for the Dutch Queen's Day holiday so everyone dressed up in traditional orange and we went to the Walibi amusement park for the day. For a time it was a Six Flag's park so it's only natural that we had to visit. It's been years since I've been to an amusement park and it was fun, though I think I've outgrown my roller coaster riding days. 2 days later 8 of us went out to do some indoor paintballing. It was my first time trying paintball. It was fun and didn't hurt as much as I thought it would.


Saturday, May 05, 2012

More friends revisited

Back in Munich again, I only stayed another day, just long enough to organize heading to my next destination. Saying goodbye to Ena I got another rideshare from Munich, this time to Duisburg. Duisburg is one of a group of cities all crammed together near the Dutch border and is only 15 minutes away from Dusseldorf and Essen. It was part of the old industrial and steel belt of western Germany though that mostly shut down now.
I stayed in Duisburg 2 nights to visit my friend Banu. I'd met her 5 years before as part of the Turkish couchsurfers I'd hung out with in Ankara. We'd not met each other since but in that 5 years she'd married a German guy and settled down in Duisburg. I know a lot of people complain about Facebook and Couchsurfing as websites and programs now, but if not for those I really wouldn't've been able to keep in contact with friends like Banu over the years. So I'll continue to use them for the foreseeable future.
We mostly just hung out at home chatting and catching up because the weather in Duisburg was not cooperating with us. All I saw of the city was whatever was along the way during our walks between the train stations and her home. It was a nice visit though and once again felt really good to catch up with old friends.

From Duisburg I caught another rideshare to Amsterdam where mom and Savannah picked me up. That definitely felt like a home coming though I can't say that Holland feels like home to me the way it does to them. I'd come back to Holland faster than I really needed to because 2 days later my friend Marcus flew in from Winnipeg. We'd lived in the same hostel in Brisbane for a few months 1 ½ years ago and he was just starting his European trip with a couple days in Holland.
He stayed with us for 2 nights and I found myself for the first time taking on the role of guide over here. The weather mostly cooperated with us and we were able to bike around Alkmaar (both of us rusty looking on our bikes). His presence was also finally the excuse I needed to get Mom and Savannah to drive us around to see the tulip fields, nearby coast and the famous windmill museum. I like the bright rainbow effect of the flowers in the fields.

Biking in Alkmaar.

At the windmill museum.

We are such tourists!

Tulips near Alkmaar.

The next day Marcus and I took the train down to Amsterdam to have a look. We did lots of walking around everywhere as I tried to show him whatever I know of the city. It was another good day. The morning after that he had to continue his trip and left for Brussels. Once again, very cool to see another friend after so long.