Travel Diary: Random Selection and US Border Control

13 hours later with Kiev in our airline rear-view mirror…

we arrive at JFK, and begin the slow-mo shuffle down to passport control. For some reason, people in New York thought it was too cold outside (It was 45 degrees…) so the heat was on in the airport. Heat on. Five planes arrived at the same time and emptied hundreds of people into the same border control. One by one, the passport control booths empty of the control agents, until it’s just one person at each end of the border control.

When it’s finally our turn, Mark and I give each other a look and had decided earlier that we would be “randomly selected.” Mark hasn’t trimmed his beard in about 3 months – it’s a week away from having its own zip code and town hall.

The border agent is a portly, pale balding man in his 50s and we’re giving him the run down of the places we’ve been when the agent scans Mark’s passport. He turns to Mark and tells him that he’s been selected for interrogation.

We called it. I look at the agent and say, “OK, it will tell you the same thing for me, then.”

But it didn’t, Isn’t that interesting? Portly man stamps my passport. You’re good to go! Welcome home! he says.

Our passports have the exact same stamps, dates overseas, and “questionable” countries visited, yet I wasn’t selected for interrogation.

Portly man steps out of his border control booth and walks us to the interrogation room, where a dozen other people could not be more excited about their interrogations, too.

/There really isn’t anything quite like sitting in an aluminum tube for 13 hours and taking your first steps in America after 5 months abroad to an interrogation room./

I could tell you a bunch of other waiting games and things in that interrogation room, but the thing is I wasn’t allowed to speak to the agent. Only Mark was. And about 2 hours later we were free to move about our home. And wow, nothing could have prepared us for how we felt coming back to America.

Travel Diary: Thanksgiving in Kosovo

It is a big deal in America for families to get together for Thanksgiving. If people don’t have or don’t like their families, they do a “friendsgiving.” Since our hosts in Kosovo had never experienced this, we decided to cook a full Thanksgiving dinner in friendsgiving fashion and tell our holiday story. Typically the dinner is centered around a turkey, but neither Mark nor I like turkey so we decided to go with ham.

We searched the markets and stores in Prishtina for a ham, and found a lonely ham at the bottom of a cooler in a grocery store. We brought it back home, to our hostel, all proud until someone saw it and politely said “I don’t eat ham.” Unfortunately, we had completely forgotten that we were in Muslim-majority country, and many people don’t eat pork products.

Nonetheless, our hosts were very fun about it. They chalked it up to a cultural exchange and said there’s no better way to understand a people than to devour their food. I couldn’t agree more. So in good faith, Mark woke up early in the day and began dinner preparations.

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Mark made a rosemary ham with cinnamon. The spices available were considerably more limited than either of us had experienced until this point, so it was a very simple recipe, but we got lucky with rosemary and that is really what made this ham absolutely fantastic. (Mark’s made it three times since we’ve been home!)

We had originally planned for 7 people as that was about as much as we thought the ham could feed. But because the aroma of the cooking had filled the entire hostel, other people wanted to hang out and eat food with us instead of going out. And I can’t blame them, the food was irresistible.

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 I felt like Jesus feeding the 5,000.  Miraculously, we had food for everyone! Hand-mashed potatoes, vegetables, ham, and handmade cinnamon apples. Mark organized it all and it is definitely one of the more memorable Thanksgiving dinners I have had.

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Left to right: Ardi, Mark, me, Arben (owner), Asdren (owner) and his girlfriend, Yll, and Vernon

Everyone pretty much laughed at the story how our forefathers ate “peacefully” with the Native Americans, but the 80c 2L of beer in the center of the table really washed everything down swimmingly.

A big shout out to our friends at Hostel Han in Pristina for keeping us entertained for over a month! And if you ever need a home base in Kosovo, we recommend this hostel as the only place to stay in the city center. You will come as a traveler and leave as a friend.

Mark and Melody

8 Things That are Distinctly American

Most people, before they depart on a trip, understand that cultural differences are inevitable. What usually comes to mind is the big things – different language, different transit schedule or method of transit, different currency – all very in your face and memorable. When you’ve been on the road for 3+ months, it’s the little details that take shape in your mind and become much more laughable.

1. Unlimited drink refills. A 10/10 on Americanism. We went to Subway in Toulouse, France and ordered the combo. In America, this comes with unlimited sweet tea or coke or whatever you fancy. When Mark got up to refill his Subway cup, he was promptly told that refills aren’t free. Color me surprised.

2. Free, unlimited water at bars and restaurants. I think Kosovo is the first place where we have asked for water and it’s been given to us at no charge. For the other 18 countries in Europe, table water ranged from 2 to 6 euro per decanter.

3. Employees that bag up your groceries and the free plastic bags at grocery stores. Wholly American. In Europe, not only do you pay per plastic bag, but you also bag your own stuff! The first couple of months of grocery shopping were hilarious as both of us had to Tetris our purchases on our arms like a Jenga tower and walk slowly out of the store. Now, well, we just buy less.

4. Complimentary bread at dinner. Are you noticing a trend? Nothing is free in this world. We noticed this in Italy, where bread was offered at each meal and we took from it, thinking nothing of it. When the bill came, we were charged for all of it, even if we didn’t eat all of it. We figured it’s maybe a douchy restaurant thing, but when it happened again we realized, nope, just an Italy thing.

5. Clothing dryers! We’ve only had access to them twice: in Ireland and in Southwest France. I learned the delicate art of hanging clothes out to dry in a way that dries them the quickest. I also learned how much of the day revolves around clothes. A sampling of my clothes washing woes:

Scenario 1: I wash my clothes in the washer in the morning. Irish mist rolls in the afternoon. Guess who doesn’t get dry clothes? This girl.

Scenario 2: Ran out of clothespins while hanging up socks. Folded socks in half over the line. Gust of wind comes. Here I sit in the kitchen sipping on my hot tea when I notice socks rolling like tumbleweed in the yard.

Scenario 3: Clothes are dried. Had too much Rakia (homemade brandy resembling jet fuel) and forgot about the clothes before the sun went down. Went to collect clothes. No longer dry, but damp.

6. 27 minute wash cycles on the clothes washer. Actually, any wash cycle that’s less than 2 hours. In Finland, Bulgaria, France, Scotland, Ireland – anywhere that we washed clothes, it was a minimum wash cycle of 90 minutes. The longest was 4 hours. YES. Imagine waiting for your clothes for FOUR HOURS. Then you have to hang them out to dry. Do you see why it’s a full-time job just making sure the laundry is clean and dry?

7. An Inability to Separate Trash and RecycleAmerica is definitely considered an industrialized nation, but I fail to understand why so many people here take such an issue with separating the plastics, glass and paper products into three containers. Europeans have mastered this and it is an art-form. We can’t master paper or plastic, and there are people that have 7 bins to separate their trash?

8. The saddest public transit system of any industrialized country. This has got to change. We have 40,000 miles of highway in America and yet there are only six cities that have halfway decent public transit options? Why does a train cost as much, or more, as a flight? Why do we have a stigma that public transit is for society’s degenerates instead of people that want to be productive and travel at the same time?

There’s going to be a part 2 to this list, I can feel it. But 8 things at once is enough.

October 28, 2015

 

Travel Diary: Getting from Skopje to Pristina

It’s 90 minutes by car, but up to three hours by bus. The Balkans’ definition of bus and our definition were clearly misaligned during this trip. When I think bus, I think of a temperature-controlled bus with WiFi, toilets, and comfortable seats.

This bus did not fit any of this criteria. It was a mini-bus that seats 16, with limited luggage storage, no WiFi, and definitely not any toilets (not that I would use them, anyway).

We shlepped our bags on board and made our way to the back rows, hoping no one would expect us to put our bags in the luggage hold. We found ourselves across the row from an American expat working for the World Bank (called Mark Deux), and a UK train employee named Mike. Too many M’s. Mark, Mike and Mark Deux set the world right talking about finance, startups and international affairs. I attempted to drift in and out of sleep but the roads in the Balkans are not known for their newness or smoothness so sleep became impossible.

A clipboard made its way around the bus where each person has to write down their name and passport/ ID card number. This, in theory, is supposed to make the border crossing much quicker. What actually happens at the border is a Macedonian border official collects the clipboard and takes it back to his little post. Then he comes back and has to collect each passenger’s passport/ ID card and return those to his post. After about ten minutes of hem-hawing, the passports are returned to us. Sometimes we get a stamp; sometimes we are disappointed. The odds are 50/50. Then the exact same process is repeated at the Kosovo border.

The border control is unremarkable, and the bus driver behaves normally by stopping at places that are most assuredly NOT typical bus stops to pick up random people. His homies, I’m guessing. These people pay when they get on, an indiscriminate amount, sometimes 1 euro and sometimes 3 euro. There’s definitely not a system.

We’re about an hour away from Pristina when we pull into a petrol station. I assume it’s to pick up fuel, but then Mark Deux investigates and the Batman driver and his Robin are taking a smoke break! We’re an hour away; honestly, you couldn’t wait? Mark and I run into the “convenience store” and pick up a crisps and chocolate breakfast. Someone runs in and asks us, in very broken English, if we’re with the bus. We say yes and run out to see everyone moving their luggage from our little bus to a large, cushy coach.

What is going on? We grab our bags and head to the coach. Turns out, our bus BROKE DOWN, and this coach has come to rescue us. Stellar. We are waiting in the stairwell of the coach to get onto it and I get frustrated. I snap at the person in front of me to move.

That’s when it becomes abundantly clear that the bus is full. There are no seats. So the 15 or so of us that were on our rinky dink bus are now standing in the aisle of the coach, hovering awkwardly over sitting passengers.  I move my way straight to the front and dig in to my breakfast: a Milke Oreo chocolate bar and tomato pesto crisps.

It’s probably only ten minutes later when people begin disembarking, but it being so awkward for me it felt like 20 hours. Someone moves and I gesture for the person behind me to take a seat, which she refuses. I don’t offer twice so I take the empty seat. One by one, people slowly begin filing out of the coach and the standing room passengers begin finding seats.

The coach enters Pristina and nearly the entire bus empties into the middle of a random intersection. That’s when it occurs to us that there’s a decent chance this coach’s final destination is not Pristina Bus Station. It could be going to Serbia. The coach driver could have had Rakija with his breakfast and forgotten his destination. When we turn away from Pristina city center and toward Mitrovice, my anxiety swells.

Just when I think we’re headed into a different country, the coach veers sharply to the left and off, on the side of the road, is the underwhelming Pristina Bus Station.

Whew. Mark Deux and Train Mike file off of the coach. There’s a running joke that whenever we board the bus to somewhere, it is always raining in our final destination. Pristina is no different. It was raining. A cold, piercing, hair-frizzing rain.

We part ways with Mark Deux and UK Mike, drag our sopping selves and our damp packs into a completely unmarked cab and arrive back to the hostel twenty minutes later for less than $4.

 

Visa Requirements of The Americas and Islands

We have been researching visa requirements for countries around the world and have been unable to find a readily available list. So naturally we decided to make one for ourselves, and now share it with you!

The following information was obtained on the U.S. Department of State website at http://travel.state.gov/ – as such, it is only applicable to U.S. Citizens / Passport holders. If I have missed anything, or you would like to see something that is not there, please leave a comment.

Cheers!

Country Visa Required for Tourism Duration Allowed Visa Cost (If Available) Restrictions
Anguilla No Onward Travel. Sufficient Funds
Antigua and Barbuda No $27 Departure Tax, Onward Travel, Sufficient funds. Lodging information
Argentina No 90 Days $160 Reciprocity Fee (Valid 10 years) Reciprocity fee must be paid online BEFORE visiting.
Bahamas No Short stays only Onward Travel.
Barbados No 6 months Onward Travel.
Belize No 30 Days $25/month after 30 days up to 6 months $50/month after and additional documentation Onward Travel. Proof of Funds ($60/day minimum). $39.25 Exit Fee by air, $15 by land if less than 24 hours, $18.75 more than 24 hours.
Bolivia Visa on Arrival Valid 5 Years (3 times a year, no more than 90 days) $160 at Consulate, $135 at air or land crossing. Onward Travel, Vaccination Certificate for yellow fever, proof of economic solvency. Exit tax assessed. 4cm x 4cm passport photo, hotel reservation or letter of invitation in Spanish.
Brazil Yes Visa must be obtained in advance from consulate
British Virgin Islands No 30 Days Onward Travel, accommodation, economic solvency.
Canada No 180 Days N/A N/A
Colombia No 90 Days Visa on Arrival. If visa valid longer than 3 months, you must register it online or at Migration office within 15 days. Onward Travel.
Cuba
Dominica No 6 Months Onward Travel, $22 departure tax.
Dominican Republic No 60 Days $10 Tourist Card
Ecuador No 90 Days per Calendar Year Onward Travel,
El Salvador No 90 Days $10 Tourist Card Visa may be obtained in advance for no charge. Onward Travel, Economic Solvency and/or Proof of US Employment
French Guiana No 90 Days Yellow Fever Vaccination
Grenada No 3 Months
Guadeloupe No 90 Days 6 month Passport Validity
Guatemala No 90 Days $30 departure tax by air.
Guyana
Haiti
Honduras No 90 Days N/A Onward Travel. 40 USD if departing by air.
Jamaica No Onward Travel, Economic Solvency, departure tax (usually included in airfare).
Martinique No 90 Days 6 month Passport Validity
Mexico Stays less than 72 hours within 20-30km border zone, no. Outside of zone, FMM required. N/A
Montserrat No Onward Travel, economic solvency. Departure tax at airport or ferry dock.
Nicaragua No 90 Days

$10.00

Tourist Card purchase on Arrival. Onward Travel. Evidence of funds.
Panama No 180 Days N/A Onward Travel. Proof of funds ($500 minimum)
Peru Visa on Arrial 90 Days Free Yellow Fever Vaccination recommended. Onward travel.
Saint Barthelemy No 90 Days 6 month Passport Validity
Saint Lucia No, as long as you prove onward travel Onward Travel. Six month Validity
Saint Vincent and The Grenadines No Passport Valid at time of entry. One page for entry stamp.
Suriname Yes 90 Days $25 Tourist Card Return Ticket required. Visa required prior to arrival. Yellow fever vaccination if arriving from Guyana, French Guiana and Brazil
Trinidad and Tobago No 90 Days N/A
Turks and Caicos Islands No 90 Days Immigration form must be filled out if staying longer than 24 hours,
Uruguay No 3 Months Departure or Airport Tax on departure.
Venezuela Yes 90 Days per Calendar Year

$30.00

Proof of Accommodation, economic solvency, onward travel, exit tax by air, Yellow Fever vaccination if arriving via some countries.

24 Hours In: Istanbul!

Our whirlwind of Europe is finally coming to an end – final destination Istanbul, Turkey!

After 22 hours of busses, trains and planes we arrived to Istanbul welcomed by a steep hill and many cobblestones. Note to self: don’t fly into Sabiha Gokcen International Airport in the future.

Connection from Gokcen Airport was achieved through an hour plus ride on a coach (14 Turkish Lira, TL) and two train / tram rides (4TL)…or we could have taken a private transport for ~90TL.

We arrived somewhere near the touristy Taksim Square on a steep hill next to the deepest construction pit I have ever seen. There are buildings under construction everywhere.
Navigating the cobblestones and taxi packed sidewalks, we slowly made our way to Taksim station – tantalizing aromas of sweet, spicy and fragrant combined for an unforgettable combination. This is my first impression of the city, and one I will likely not forget. Melody wanted to sample the wares from every restaurant we passsed. Everywhere we walked we have received a cascade of shouts offering taksi rides or a sampling of foods and drinks. For the easily overwhelmed, this is not the place to visit.

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The metro system in Istanbul is, by and large, efficient and effective. There are your standard metro ‘subway’ type cars, street trams, and even ferries…all of which you can take a ride on for 4 TL. For this purchase price, you receive a little plastic coin about the size of a nickel. There is an option to purchase a metro card, but our pleasure for walking meant we did not go this route.

With our little coins we took a short connector ride underground and then a slightly longer ride on an overground street-car, reaching our hostel in good spirits.

Even at 11pm, there were many shops open and crowds of others milling about. In the short walk we were hailed no fewer than 20 times for dining – did I mention you get shouted at?

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December 7, 2015

 

 

Travel Diary: Prettiest Airplane Ride from Kosovo to Slovenia

We don’t mean the airplane and we’re definitely not talking about the flight crew. What was most breathtaking is everything we saw outside of that tiny prison window as we flew from Pristina, Kosovo to Ljubljana, Slovenia.

We’re flying on this tiny Adria plane, which might as well have been a prop plane considering the size of it – two seats on each side, and all of the luggage had to go into the hold. No charge, naturally, and no issues with the plane, boarding or passport control.

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It’s an hour flight, and that’s reassuring despite the winter turbulence. We closed the window blinds after takeoff because the sun was coming in full force into our tired faces. What I saw below when I finally opened the window covering took me totally by surprise. Delicious snow-capped scenery, exactly like the candies. And I became like a kid in a candy store. Little did I know the Slovenian mountains rival the Alps in beauty, majesty and pure wow factor.

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Adore that black and white contrast. Wow. The snow-caps were just too much beauty, and I felt tears in my eyes from sheer joy. Combined with the 3:30pm sunset, the colors of the sky and the rugged mountain peaks were a fantastic treat that only winter affords.

I wanted to turn around to the rest of the plane and say, Look out your window!  You don’t know what you’re missing!

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We got about 10 minutes of this before we finally made our descent, and a decision to return to Slovenia before we ever touched down in Ljubljana.

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November 30, 2015