Now that I’m no longer living in Mexico, I’m beginning to realize that, in terms of being a backpacker, I’m a little bit rusty. I haven’t been ‘on the road’ for quite a while and as a result, I just haven’t had to think about such things as long-distance transportation, finding nightly accommodation and of course, obtaining tourist visas.
Basically, I seem to have misplaced my travel skills and I’m having some trouble getting them back! My surprising inability to think like a traveler has caused me to make a few interesting mistakes this past week in regards to my upcoming trip to the Middle East. And while all of the mistakes are more of the slightly unfortunate / somewhat comical variety as opposed to the devastating sort, they’ve still led to quite a few hiccups that I wasn’t expecting to face.
At least these mistakes provided a wake up call before my actual trip begins, giving me a little bit of time to make the necessary mental adjustments. Once I arrive in Turkey at the end of the month, I should be back to normal once again.
HOW NOT TO OBTAIN A TOURIST VISA
When I officially decided that I would visit Syria on my upcoming trip, I did a very quick Google search in order to learn about their visa requirements for US citizens. After reading one website, the process seemed straightforward enough. All I needed to do was present myself at the Syrian Embassy or one of their Consulates in the US, hand over two application forms and the visa fee and then the tourist visa would be ready within two days. It doesn’t get any easier than that!
And so, based on that knowledge, I booked a flight to NYC (from Florida) where I planned to visit family and friends and apply for my visa at the Syrian Consulate. Unfortunately, the day before my flight, I discovered one minor problem with this plan. There is no Syrian Consulate in NYC! There are consulates in Houston, Detroit and Newport Beach, California, but not a one to be found in the Big Apple. I simply had assumed that if Syria had a few consulates in the US, then surely one of those would be located in the largest city in the country. Oh, how wrong was I!
As a result of this sudden discovery, I spent 4 hours running around Friday morning trying to make up for my mistake. I had no choice but to send my passport to the Embassy in Washington and the longer I waited, the longer my trip would be delayed. (It takes 7-14 days to apply for the visa by mail.)
I sat down and did some proper research, filled out the two visa application forms, obtained a money order, had some passport-sized photos taken and even spoke at length with a representative at the Syrian Embassy. I wanted to clarify exactly how they wanted some of the questions on the application to be answered as my last-minute research revealed the Embassy’s tendency to reject applications if everything is not in absolutely perfect order.
Finally, at 4pm Friday afternoon I walked into the Post Office and sent my package to Washington just in time. And not only did I have to pay the expensive visa fee ($131 for US citizens) but I also forked over a significant amount of money to send the package overnight, not to mention the self-addressed stamped envelope (also overnight service) I needed to purchase in order to have my passport returned to me.
As a result, the total cost of this tourist visa approached the nauseatingly high amount of $200 USD.
So it goes. I guess that’s the price I pay for being rusty.
THE ADDITIONAL COST
Actually, that’s not the total price I’ll pay in the end, as I must now wait until I have my passport back in my possession before booking my flight to the Middle East (this isn’t a must, but it’s definitely the safest decision). And since I plan to leave by the end of the month, I may not be able to use my Frequent Flyer miles for such a last-minute booking and the flight prices will most likely be much more expensive when I try to book a ticket only a few days in advance.
So, what I’m trying to say is…RESEARCH! Whether you’re planning to travel to Brazil, China, Romania or even go on holidays to Majorca, two additional minutes of research can eliminate any potential last minute hassles and save you from spending a decent amount of extra money that you could have spent during the actual trip itself. In my case, my 14 months in Mexico apparently made me forget the importance of such pre-trip preparation.
TIME TO DO SOME MORE RESEARCH
With only a couple of weeks left until my hopeful departure, I now also understand the need to do some research about the Middle East itself before I arrive. After all, I don’t want to blindly show up in Turkey only to discover that Istanbul has been recently relocated to Mongolia.
So to start my research, I’d like to ask anyone who has been to Turkey, Syria, Lebanon or any of the other surrounding countries, for any tips or advice you think might prove useful to me. Any special areas you’ve visited, places to stay, food stalls to eat at? Any advice about border crossings, transportation or where to go if I suddenly have the urge to purchase a camel would be particularly helpful!
Have you been to the Middle East? If you haven’t, is it on your list of regions you’d like to visit?