Archive for the ‘Country Notes’ Category

The visa list continues

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

As Canadians, getting visas is often not difficult; however, we usually need to pay more for visas than others. This is because Canada charges more for visas than many other countries. Here is a summary of the visas we have acquired and a bit about our experiencing acquiring them.

The following countries did not require visas: United States (the first time), Spain, Italy, and Greece.

The only visa we have left to purchases is Laos, unless we decide to travel through Vietnam, in which we’ll need that visa too. To reduce hassles at the border, we’ll try and get the Laos visa when we are in Bankok.

Turkey COST: 45 Euro each

We acquired our Turkish visa at the border upon entering the country. The process was trivial, and we paid for the visa with Euros.

Syria COST: $141 CAD each

Since the timing worked out, we applied for our Syrian Visas in Canada – although it was certainly possible to get a visa at the border. Having the multi-entry visa made the border crossing much easier, and gave us more options when we took the bus from Amman to Damascus. The visa itself said it was a 15-day multiple entry visa; however, we successfully used it twice with more than 15-days between uses, and we were in Syria for 11 days the first time and 9 days the second. We had applied for a 60-day visa, so we suspect what we actually had was a 60-day visa, but were required to check in with Visa officials after 15-days, which is a standard requirement for most non-Arab foreigners.

Note that Syria also charges an exit fee. We paid 500 Syrian Pounds the first time we exited in 2008 and 550 SP the second exit in 2009. We suspect the second was just an annual cost adjustment.

Syrian duty free only accepted payment in USA Dollars, which was unfortunate, as we had hoped to use up our Syrian Pounds there.

Jordan COST: $10 Jordanian Dollars each

Upon arriving at the land border crossing in Jordan, we needed to purchase the tourist visa. The fee had to be paid in Jordanian dollars. Fortunately, they have official exchange counters available to exchange currency for anyone who requires it. Once we handed over our money, the visa was issued immediately, and the customs official welcomed us to Jordan.

Note that Jordan also charges an exit fee, which must be paid in Jordanian Dollars.

Singapore and Malaysia COST: Free

Upon entry into both Singapore and Malaysia, we were issued a visa for free. For Singapore we were given 30 days and for Malaysia we were given 90 days.

Thailand COST: $50 Singapore Dollar each

Since we had heard from other cyclists that the Thailand land crossings were only issuing 15-day visas, we applied for a 60-day visa while in Singapore. The process was pretty simple – go to embassy in the morning, fill in form, submit with $50, return the next day after 2 pm to retrieve the visa. No problem. We have since heard from Kat and Mike (http://katandmikebike.com) that they received free 90-day double-entry Thailand visas in Kota Bahru Malaysia.

China COST: 130 Malaysian Ringgit plus 150 RG express fee each

We noticed that the application form for the Chinese visa in Singapore required much more detailed information than the application form in Malaysia. So, we recommend getting the visa in Kuala Lumpur rather than Singapore if you have the option. We only applied for a 30-day single entry visa because that is all we will require for this trip, but the form had boxes for longer duration visas. The process was very simple, fill in form, submit, pay, pick up visa. We paid for the same day processing, as we needed our passports for the USA embassy the following day. Normal processing time is 4-5 days. They also have quick but not express 1-2 day service. We were surprised at how easy this turned out to be.

USA COST: 485 Malaysian Ringget plus 32 RG administration free each

The USA Visa was by far our most expensive visa, and most annoyingly the one we did not really need. NSB, the company that operates the freighter ran into a problem a few years ago with a Canadian citizen being denied entry to the US due to lack of a visa. The Department of Homeland Security required that the person be removed from the country and caused a delay in the ship’s cargo operations, which is very expensive. Even though our travel agent has a letter from Homeland Security and we had a letter from the USA Embassy in Singapore stating that we did not need a Visa, the company would not allow us passage on the freighter without a USA Visa. So, we applied for a Visa while we were in Kuala Lumpur.

The visa process involves filling out a form online, paying the visa fee at a specific bank (the Alliance bank), booking an appointment, and then going to the embassy for fingerprinting and an interview. Scott spent several hours agonizing over the forms and the various pieces of paperwork that we might require. After paying the fee, we had to wait overnight to book the appointment. There were several appointment options, the soonest being the next day (that is 2 days after paying the fee).

When we arrived at the USA embassy, we:

  1. registered at information to receive a guest pass
  2. went through security screening (metal detector)
  3. checked our cell phone (you can’t bring any electronics in)
  4. entered the main building where we again went through a metal detector
  5. took a number and waited until we were called
  6. upon being called, our paperwork was validated and we were again sent back to the waiting room
  7. upon being called the second time, our finger prints were taken and we were again sent back to the waiting room
  8. upon being called the third time, we were briefly interviewed. The interviewer asked one question “Why are you here?”. Once we explained, she approved the visa. She mentioned that having the visa may cause us to need to answer additional questions at the border, which we also were concerned about, so she kindly added a note to our files to hopefully prevent future problems.

The interviewer let us know immediately that we would receive a visa, and provided us with the claim forms for our passports. The actual visa processing occurs overnight, so we pick up our passports the next afternoon. The interview at the embassy took about 2 ½ hours (including wait time to get through security).

We almost completely screwed up picking up our passports with USA visas. We saw the address and were looking for the WISMA building. To our surprise, there were many Wisma buildings. Becky was wondering just how rich this Wisma guy is anyways. We have since learned that Wisma is “building” or “plaza”, and the important part of the address was the three letters after the word Wisma, MCA – oops! Fortunately, we were going in the right direction and found the correct building to collect our passports.

Reflections on Jordan

Monday, January 26th, 2009

We spent 17 days in Jordan: 3 nights in Amman, 8 nights in Aqaba, 3 nights in Wadi Mousa, and 3 nights in Madaba. We left our bikes in Syria, so we cannot comment on riding in Jordan, but we can say that the hills on the Kings Highway are steep and there are significant distances between services, so be prepared.

The entire time we were in Jordan, Israel was bombing the Gaza strip. That definitely influenced our impressions of Jordan and the entire region. More than 50% of Jordanian citizens are Palestinian refugees. Every store that had a TV was showing the constant news reports showing blood soaked children. This led strong feelings of empathy for the people of Gaza, which could not help but wear off on us.

We met Egyptian hotel owners who were very friendly and provided great hospitality and yummy breakfasts.

We met an Egyptian trained doctor who was more than happy to give Becky more medication than she needed and possibly did more harm to her health than good.

We met Egyptian store owners, restaurant owners, and vendors who were more than happy to charge exorbitant prices and to see just how much money they could extract from tourists.

We met Jordanian Bedouins who were very friendly and welcoming. They were happy to share their culture and provided what felt like genuine hospitality.

We met Jordanian Christian hotel owners who provided hospitality that felt familiar to us.

We met Jordanians of Palestinian descent. One of them made some comments that we still find disturbing. His view seemed to be that no peace was possible while Israel existed, and he made several comments in favour of the Holocaust, including “Hitler did not kill all the Jews, so they would remember why he did what he did.” If this is a common sentiment, (and from what we understand, it is), there’s little hope of peace. Until Palestinians and Israelis can feel empathy for one another, and view each other as neighbours and fellow humans rather than faceless enemies, we don’t hold out much hope for the future.

We experienced a Jordanian state hospital whose staff gave the appearance of cleanliness but the bed sheets did not. We were later told that the private hospitals are much better.

We laughed at the story of a Jordanian tourist association who printed 50,000 copies of a brochure on desert tours in Arabic while only printing 20,000 copies in English. Do they really think that Arabs would come to Jordan to see the desert?

We enjoyed the stark and yet varying landscape of the Western Jordanian deserts. We spend many hours soaking in the sun and enjoying being alone in the desert.

We spent two days taking in the atmosphere and the awe inspiring vista of Petra. We rode camels and donkeys along the streets and pathways of Petra. Becky was given a gift of a necklace by a Bedouin girl that is one of her great treasures of this journey. Petra is a special place.

We saw the Dead Sea and enjoyed picnicking on one of its many cliffs. For 12 JD each (about $20 CAD) we enjoyed a brief float in the Dead Sea followed by a very cold shower!

We saw the rustic site of Jesus’ baptism and the construction of a tacky “baptism resort” on the Israel side of the River Jordan. We came within 5 or 10 meters of Israel, but never crossed over.

We drove through many police checkpoints with young men holding machine guns, smiling, and welcoming us to Jordan.

Overall, we very much enjoyed our time in Jordan although are wary of Jordanian health care, but were also very happy to return to Syria where you don’t feel ripped off every time you go to the market to buy vegetables. The influence of Egypt is strong (a country where poverty and tourism meet – such that tourists are constantly bombarded with scams and overinflated prices), but the friendliness and genuine hospitality of the native Jordanian’s provide a balance. It is definitely a country at the crossroads in the Middle East and is influenced by its various neighbours.