First things first, the internet in Cap-Haitien barely exists. Not that I’m complaining, but it’ll be hard to shoot an update out with pictures until I get into Santo Domingo probably tomorrow.
So far we took a 7 hour bus ride from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haitien (the capital in the south to the northern “second city” of Haiti), taught a few kids how to dougie and Gangnam style, hiked up 7.5km up a steep mountain to see Haiti’s “8th wonder of the world” La Citadelle la Ferriere and hiked back down to explore the alien-like Sans Souci Palace. Our adventure there should be up by tomorrow on the blog.
WiFi is absolutely nonexistent (like finding gold) and the only way I’m able to send this out is being able to find 1 of 3 legit internet cafes in the town. And it’s slow… it kinda reminds me of my days backpacking through Southeast Asia.
The Department of State has issued this Travel Warning to inform U.S. citizens traveling to or living in Haiti about the current security situation. This replaces the Travel Warning dated June 18, 2012, updating information regarding the level of crime, the presence of cholera, lack of adequate infrastructure – particularly in medical facilities – seasonal severe inclement weather, and limited police protection. The United Nations’ Stabilization Force for Haiti (MINUSTAH) remains in Haiti.
The Department of State urges U.S. citizens to exercise caution when visiting Haiti. Thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Haiti each year, but the poor state of Haiti’s emergency response network should be carefully considered when planning travel. Travelers to Haiti are encouraged to use organizations that have solid infrastructure, evacuation, and medical support options in place. (Please see the Country Specific Information page for Haiti.)
U.S. citizens have been victims of violent crime, including murder and kidnapping, predominantly in the Port-au-Prince area. No one is safe from kidnapping, regardless of occupation, nationality, race, gender, or age. In recent months, travelers arriving in Port-au-Prince on flights from the United States were attacked and robbed shortly after departing the airport. At least two U.S. citizens were shot and killed in robbery and kidnapping incidents in 2012. Haitian authorities have limited capacity to deter or investigate such violent acts, or prosecute perpetrators.
The ability of local authorities to respond to emergencies is limited and in some areas nonexistent. Should you find yourself in an emergency, local health, police, judicial, and physical infrastructure limitations mean there are few local resources available to help resolve the problem. For this reason, the Embassy limits its staff’s travel in areas outside of Port-au-Prince. This in turn constrains our ability to provide emergency services to U.S. Citizens outside of Port-au-Prince.
U.S. Embassy personnel are under an Embassy-imposed curfew of 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. and must remain at home or at another safe facility during curfew hours. Additionally, there are restrictions on travel by Embassy staff in other areas or times. This, too, may constrain the Embassy’s ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens outside Port-au-Prince. For additional details on restrictions on staff travel within Haiti, please see our Country Specific Information for Haiti.
Haiti’s infrastructure remains in poor condition and unable to fully support even normal activity, much less crisis situations. U.S. government-facilitated evacuations, such as the evacuation that took place after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, occur only when no safe commercial alternatives exist. Medical facilities, including ambulance services, are particularly weak. Some U.S. citizens injured in accidents and others with serious health concerns have been unable to find necessary medical care in Haiti and have had to arrange and pay for medical evacuation to the United States. Given these conditions and the cost of private evacuations, we strongly encourage visitors to Haiti to obtain evacuation insurance, including for medical issues that may arise.
While incidents of cholera have declined significantly, cholera persists in many areas of Haiti. Prior to travel, U.S. citizens should obtain information about cholera and other health-related issues by visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at https://www.cdc.gov.
We urge U.S. citizens who choose to travel to Haiti to review our Country Specific Information page. U.S. private sector organizations with operations in Haiti can obtain additional information on the security situation in the country through the U.S. Department of State’s Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC). OSAC’s mission is to promote security cooperation between U.S. private sector interests worldwide and the U.S. Department of State. OSAC also maintains an active Country Council in Haiti to promote the exchange of security-related information. The Council is comprised of security professionals and is co-chaired by the Regional Security Officer at the U.S. Embassy Port-au-Prince and a private sector representative. U.S. private sector entities can obtain additional information on OSAC by visiting the OSAC website at www.osac.gov.
U.S. citizens are also urged to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) in order to receive the most up-to-date security information. While the Embassy’s ability to provide emergency consular services is extremely limited, by enrolling in STEP travelers can receive security messages via email. Current information on safety and security can also be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll free in the United States; callers outside the United States and Canada can receive the information by calling a regular toll-line at 1-202-501-4444. These numbers are available from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, except U.S. federal holidays. The Embassy of the United States of America is located in Port-au-Prince at Boulevard du 15 Octobre, Tabarre 41, Tabarre, Haiti, telephone: (509) (2) 229-8000, facsimile: (509) (2) 229-8027, email: email@example.com American Citizens Services (ACS) Unit office hours are 7:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. The Consular Section is closed on U.S. and local holidays. After hours, on weekends and on holidays, please call (509) (2) 229-8000. The Marine guard will connect you with the Embassy Duty Officer.
U.S. citizens can also stay informed about conditions in Haiti by following the Embassy and ACS on Twitter and Facebook. Travelers can have the latest travel information at their fingertips by downloading our free Smart Traveler app, available through iTunes and the Android market.
Uhm…I guess I should be thanking my lucky stars; I’ve been here 3 days and so far no issues except inhaling a bit of smog and some aggressive haggling (on my part).
- At time of posting in Cap-Haitien, it was 21 °C -
Humidity: 85% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
Our first full group photo; some of us didn't know whether to smile or keep a straight face...
The Pripyat Ferris Wheel just got served
Close your eyes. It is April 25, 1986.
Imagine if you had to leave everything you knew behind: A split second decision no time to pack. Imagine not being allowed to return home because your neighborhood Soviet nuclear power plant has just exploded. Imagine that less than a mile away, the world’s worst nuclear disaster has taken place.
This is the true story of Chernobyl.
Enough has been documented about what went wrong at the plant: An unnecessary (and ironic) safety procedure was being carried out one morning and in a smorgasboard of a perfect storm, everything went to hell and the plant exploded.
First responders who came to help put out the fires and clean up the debris died within hours of acute radiation poisoning. Pilots who flew sandbags back and forth to the area to smother the flames and radiation died within days. Miners who dug tunnels to patch up the leaking molten radioactive lava died never lived past 40. Entire generations in the Eastern European bloc would suffer from radiation sickness worth 400 atomic bombs.
Memorial to those first responders who died putting out the initial fires of Chernobyl
The entire population of the nearby town of Pripyat were forced to evacuate their homes within 3 hours of notice, packing only a passport and nothing larger than a suitcase. Although they were reassured they would be allowed to come back in a few days, they never did.
Passing by one of a few abandoned villages on our way to Chernobyl
Today the plant continues to be contained by worldwide efforts with production of a new steel sarcophagus to support the already existing but crumbling concrete slabs that’s keeping in the radiation. Pripyat and its iconic amusement park, remains a true ghost town in every sense of the word.
The question on most people’s minds would be: is it safe to visit? The short and only answer everyone needs to hear is: Yes, it is. A Geiger counter we had with us measured radiation levels to be less than what it was in the capital of Kiev. And it was even far less than the radiation anyone would get when flying on an airplane. Although there are certain hotspot areas that are restricted, the places where you are allowed to visit are certainly kosher.
We even ate lunch at the site:
It was actually pretty decent
Walking out after lunch
Chernobyl has been a destination for curious, alternative, “off the beaten path” travelers for many years now, and there have been no reports of radiation poisoning given that the appropriate responsibilities are ensured. And since the new steel sarcophagus is due to be completed by the end of this year, this would be our last chance to see the Chernobyl plant in its freeze-frame snapshot as how it looked like exactly as it did on April 25, 1986.
Driving towards the iconic Chernobyl plant
The new steel sarcophagus
Chernobyl just got served
The tour lasts about 4.5 hours and is about a 2 hour drive north from Kiev.
Pripyat is one of those oppotunities of seeing what happens if time all of a sudden stopped. Pots still on the stove, newspapers half read still on the dining table, children’s toys strewn about on the floor…like North Korea, this is the closest we’re ever going to get to time travel, short of actually having a time machine.
Entrance into Pripyat
The long road into Pripyat
"Don't go up the stairs," they said. So I did.
Somebody left behind their shoes
Heading onwards further deeper into town, we came across the abandoned town theater, which we decided to spelunk.
Anyone who’s played Call of Duty Modern Warfare (I know I know) will recognize this iconic Ferris Wheel. This is it!
After seeing the Ferris Wheel, the sun began to set. For anyone who endured the horror movie “The Chernobyl Diaries” will know why it’s a bad idea to stay after dark.
Nobody wants vengeful mutants chasing after them on their winter vacation.
Afterwards they do the responsible thing and check if our radiation levels remains in the safe range before letting us go back home.
Say what you will about visiting Chernobyl, but it’s a completely different thing to see pictures instead of actually being there. It’s a different feeling to be able to smell the air and feel the snow crunching beneath your feet, as pictures you once saw in history textbooks and on Google Images come alive before your eyes.
I had said in a previous entry how “normal” everything seemed when I was in Iran last week, but about a week since I’ve returned I’ve noted some exceptions. Of course, some of these are via word of mouth through our interpreter, but this is the closest I’m ever going to get short of actually living in country or getting arrested myself.
Here’s a partial list of what we’ve learned:
#1) Alcohol: Officially banned in the country. So we went ahead (thanks to some mutual friends and connections some people in our group made) and tried to see how far we could go:
So we got taken in “for our own safety” and was escorted back to our hotel.
#3) Sexuality: I wasn’t sure if this was overblown by our Western media but it’s true: Homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death in the country. According to our interpreter, it depends whether you’re caught in the act “on top or on the bottom.” If “on the bottom,” there is no punishment. But if you’re “on top” and it’s your first offense, you will get fined and lashes. However, a repeat offense will result in the death penalty.
Therefore, our Iranian interpreter who had been painstakingly trying to portray Iran in a more liberal and positive light the entire trip, still acknowledges that homosexuality is still considered a serious offense in Iran. When I asked about gay couples in general, our interpreter responded: “They don’t exist.” This reminded me of the famous quote by President Ahmadinejad when I saw him speak at my alma mater (Columbia!) in 2007:
“In Iran, we dont have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you we have it.” – 09/24/2007
And lesbians also “don’t exist” according to our interpreter. So no mythbusting there. I can’t make this stuff up.
#4) Adultery: In cases of adultery 4 witnesses are required to observe the sexual act in order to have enough to prosecute someone, which has proven to be nearly impossible. The death penalty is only reserved for cases when the husband is murdered.
If the wife is implicated for adultery, everyone is punished including the sad, dejected husband. The wife gets 100 lashes and the husband is forced to pay a hefty fine for “not satisfying his wife enough to keep her from being adulterous.” The paramour also gets fined, supposedly. When I asked what happens if the husband was the adulterer, the reply was “same thing. Lashes and a fine.”
There is also something called “temporary marriages” that a husband can legally have with multiple women before he actually decides to settle down with one person.
#5) Interracial Dating/Marriage (of course I would ask about this): No big deal; both males and females are allowed to do it. But if they are to live in Iran, both have to be Muslim or at least convert to Islam. If the newlyweds decide to live outside of Iran, it’s not enforced.
#6) Public Displays of Affection: They told us on day 1 that nobody does it or should do it, especially in the more rural, conservative pockets of the country. However, I’ve seen a fair share of romantic hand holding in Tehran, Shiraz and Esfahan. And I found myself surprised when I got to kiss/hug some of the new friends we made during our last night in Tehran.
#7) The Hijab: Wearing the hijab as a female is enforced in public places, but not as much in wealthier neighborhoods or in establishments where young people hang out. If your hijab falls and you show your hair, you are gently reminded to put it back on. Some of our friends had their hijab fall down and nobody around us said anything except some disgruntled taxi drivers.
#8) Stoning: It does exist: The accused is buried waist deep in the ground and then stoned by passer-bys. The execution is public.
However, if the accused is able to remove him/herself from the ground (I guess by sheer brute strength), the stoning must stop and the accused must be forgiven. When I heard this part, I got a little confused. I asked about it but got an even more confusing reply that I can’t reproduce here. Not much more on that.
#9) Hanging: Yes, hanging still exists as a form of death penalty here. Some of them are still public.
#10) Public Executions: See above. This was also admitted by our interpreter as something that occurs in his country; he’s seen a few while growing up.
#11) Anti-Americanism: Except for some Revolutionary Guard posters, Anti-American sentiment is almost nonexistent among the common populace. The Iranians we met very much respect Americans, especially those who are willing and open-minded enough to visit Iran.
The Iranian youth also are intensely interested in identifying with our pop culture and they subscribe to the way we dress (denim is everywhere!). Many Iranian youngin’s either want to go to America to party, or already have been to America and have come back with positive impressions.
Photo Credit: Gai Olivares
They only issue they have is with our government, but ever since the Iranian riots of 2009, there also has been a growing disillusionment among younger generations with their own government. Time will tell how long this sentiment will last.
Although anti-American sentiment is very low, anti-American propaganda has been a profitable tacky tourist attraction:
45 rial stamps memorializing Iran Air Flight 655 that was shot down by American USS Vincennes in 1988 when it was mistaken for an Iran F-14 fighter jet
Anti CIA stamps
Pro-Malcom X stamps
Wonder what the U.S. Customs would’ve thought if they saw these.
- At time of posting in New York City, Central Park, it was 10 °C -
Humidity: 96% | Wind Speed: 9km/hr | Cloud Cover: overcast
We approach the mauseoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini with caution. If there’s anything I learned when I visited the mauseoleum of Kim Il-Sung in North Korea, it’s that you do not screw around when it comes to visiting the grave of the present country’s revered cult of personality. And if you’re of the nationality that this particular cult of personality railed against throughout most of his lifetime, you should take extra precaution in how you behave. Failure to do so may lead to an international incident.
When I walked up to the armed security guards that were about to pat me down, and replied that I was an American when they asked where I came from, they took another look at me. And then they let me pass without a fuss: No patting me down, no checking in my iPhone, no asking what was in my pockets like they did with even the locals ahead of me.
I may have looked confused because they immediately smiled at me and reassured me: “Please know that we respect Americans. You may go ahead.”
I think that exchange enough speaks for itself.
The Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini
Hours later, I’m in in the “Martyr’s Cemetery”. Miles and miles of graves crowd into the horizon; all of them belong to children, young adults, rarely anyone over the age of 25. All of them belong to those who fought in the Iraq-Iran war, a brutal conflict that recalled World War I trench-warfare and indiscriminate use of chemical weapons. The memories of the massacre still brings out mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins and friends, paying their respects by offering sweets and then offering us these sweets when their mourning is over. But then tomorrow comes and the mourning is never over.
The Iranian reverence for sacrifice and martyrdom is apparent here.
Then a quick visit to the national monument of Tehran, the Azadi Tower or translated as the “Freedom Arch.” It was once a memorial to the reigning Shah before the 1979 Revolution, but the name was understandably changed afterwards.
If it’s not already playing, press play. And then start reading.
Hello from an American blogging from Tehran, Iran. Let it be known that at least the IKA Airport in Tehran has free wireless.
There are a few moments in life where I try to imagine in dreams, realizing they might come true one day (making them all the more worthwhile to look forward to). One of them is anticipating what graduating from high school, college, or med school would feel like. Another is anticipating this moment when we all look at each other in the eyes, mouths open, shocked, and slowly coming to terms that we just landed in Tehran and are about to legally enter (at least what has been portrayed by our media) one of the world’s most threatening countries to visit as an American.
Of course, this is exploiting the fear-mongering Western media has trumped up for our entire lives; a healthy number of my American friends have already had a chance to travel to Iran, getting in and out with no big fuss. However, all of them were either Iranian Americans visiting family or they were coming in for research/business, so at least allow me to relish the notion how we all took a leap of faith here: We voluntarily sought to get into Iran legally during one of the worst political climates in the history of Iranian-American relations.
And we were successful.
“Attention all passengers, we have entered Iran airspace and are beginning our descent into Tehran.”
As routine as making sure our seat belts were securely fastened and our seat backs and tray tables were in their fully upright positions, that was the very moment every woman on our plane — as if in a synchronized orchestral form — took out their headscarves and wrap them around their heads. Even though I’ve been traveling around a lot, that simple, not-so-unusual thing to do was a uniquely surreal moment for me to see.
The best song to describe my feeling upon landing into Tehran is the song Hand Covers Bruise by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (link to play at the top of this entry). I used the same song to describe the feeling when I landed in North Korea, but for some reason, this time the danger feels more imminent; like a gnawing active kind of fear instead of the more passive-aggressive one I felt when I arrived in Pyongyang.
For those of you too lazy to press “play” at the top, it’s also the opening track to the film The Social Network: a simply, playful piano motif that suggests “it’s really no big deal” on the outside (to be honest, it really isn’t!) dances over an emerging ominous drone that suggests that a guarded subconscious fear is brooding from the back of our minds. But I am incredibly self-aware of where I can pinpoint this fear towards: countless years of exposure to a 24/7 media, with no qualms trying to inform us who’s right and wrong, is telling me to be afraid. That’s why we’re not really freaking out here; a fear that comes from within is really nobody’s business but our own. In fact, that’s part of the reason why we travel: to confront our internal fears head on so we can get to know ourselves a little better. So here we are. What better way than going head first into the deep end?
So we landed in Tehran without an issue. The only unique thing was the fact that we as American passport holders needed to be taken aside and fingerprinted after getting stamped. Despite a lot of waiting around for them to give us the approval to proceed beyond baggage claims, it’s been an uneventful last couple of hours. That and realizing that Flickr, Facebook, Yahoo, etc. etc. are all blocked here. So if you’re reading this, it’s already kind of a big deal.
Arrivals at IKA
Tehran at night
Otherwise, so far so good.
- At time of posting in Tehran-Mehrabad, it was 17 °C -
Humidity: 42% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: few clouds
Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage city rich with history (and foreign tourists), is known for many things. From its defining pastel facades to quaint cobblestone streets to the fact that it survived everything from wars to natural disasters, Antigua has come a long way to become Guatemala’s premier global hotspot.
Don’t have a lot of time here? Start with Parque Central to get a feel for the city life, and then head west towards Iglesia y Convento de la Recollecion, a massive church built sometime between 1701 and 1708 that was destroyed in an earthquake in 1778. Rather than rebuilding, the good people of Antigua reconverted it to its current day manifestation as a tourist attraction (30 quetzal entry fee, 20 if you have a student ID).
Antigua just got served.
Stone ruins scattered like forgotten jewels of time...
To the east of these ruins is the smaller set of ruins: the Colegio de San Jeromino , which feels like a smaller cousin.
Walk past these ruins and you’ll come upon Antigua’s signature picturesque cobblestone streets with its litany of gorgeous volcanoes in the background:
Try to keep walking around so you can find Antigua’s recognizable city symbol, the Arco de Santa Catalina:
While walking around, we happened upon a nice little student music festival taking place in front of the arch:
Unfortunately we only had a few hours here before having to hop on a shuttle bus to Guatemala City, where we were then dropped us off at our overnight bus to Tikal (around $20 USD). There, we parted ways with Cynthia who’s been an absolute trooper on her first backpacking experience; even through the crappier parts of the chicken bus rides, she still thought the entire experience was “addicting.” That deserves lots of respect, and I’m already looking forward to having her join us again on future trips. I’m holding you to that!
While waiting for our bus to depart, we took the liberty of wandering around the streets of Guatemala City at night, which we were told isn’t the safest thing to do. But it certainly isn’t boring to look at either:
After exploring around without incident, we then made our way to Tikal on an overnight bus. 9 hours later, we arrived at the enchanting little island of Flores:
Flores is so small you can walk the entirety of it within an hour, the little streets included. It’s hard to imagine that as many as 30,600 people live in such small a space without making it look crowded.
Ultimately, we found Flores to be so charming of a place that it’s worth a short detour before you make your way to Tikal, which is what we’re about to do now…
- At time of posting in Flores, it was 36 °C -
Humidity: 65% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny