Getting a Chinese Work Visa

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Waiting outside.

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The queue at 8:30.

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Nondescript surroundings.

As we are approaching the end of summer, we are trying to cram in visits with friends and family members we haven’t seen before we ship out to China. When they find out we’re headed for the Middle Kingdom, lots of people ask me (Shon) questions about the preparation process. The usual conversation sounds a little like this: “Wow, you’re going to China! How did you get that job? What do you have to do to work in China? A lot of paperwork? You need a visa? Wait, what’s a visa?” Actually, not many people ask what a visa is, but sometimes young people do–students, for example, who haven’t garnered much, if any, experience traveling the world.

In regards to a visa, it’s the documentation for your passport which legally authorizes you to visit a foreign country. There are different kinds of visas, with the most basic ones being simple stamps which indicate an entry date, and with multiple-entry business sorts taking the shape of complex documents affixed to entire pages in your passport. This Rex fellow’s blog post about visas is humorous and informative in the event that a visa is a new concept to you.

Anyway, China has a number of visas which travelers can apply for. The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. provides a handy list for reference. As I’m going to be working there, I needed to apply for a Z visa and provide all the necessary supporting documents. While the list of documents is easily accessible through the Embassy’s website, it amounted to this for me: three pieces of paper, each related to the other, issued from the Shenzhen government and my employer in Shenzhen, which amounted to an invitation to work. We also needed to provide copies of our passport’s info page, our marriage certificate, and the children’s birth certificates. That’s it.

Getting said invitation, however, took time and required jumping through all the hoops that I did for the UAE back in 2012. I know I’ve written about this step before, but for the sake of having things organized well, here’s what went into that: I needed a recent state police background check, a notarized (specifically as an unaltered copy of the original) copy of my highest degree, a notarized copy of my marriage certificate, and then the kids’ birth certificates. These things had to be authenticated (the steps for which are mapped out easily right here, thanks to Georgia’s efficient state government) at the state level and then the national level. It might be worth mentioning that since the children were born overseas, they have Consular Report of Birth Abroad certificates, which are a national level document, and therefore don’t require authentication on a local level. After the authentications were all in hand, I had to send original marriage and birth certificates to the Human Resources folks at my employer’s in Shenzhen, and email scans of the other documents. Ultimately, of course, I’ll take all of the originals and provide them upon arrival in China. I also had to send along copies of my teaching certificate and letters of reference (which had to be in a fairly specific format), my resume (again, typed in a very specific format), and scans of our passports. All of that sounds pretty simple, but ends up taking quite some time to gather, so if you are going to take a job overseas that requires this stuff, get it done sooner rather than later.

We chose to hand deliver our visa applications rather than using an agent this time around. Why? Well, D.C. is half way to Maine, and as you may know, we have family in Maine, so it gave us a legitimate reason to go spend some time up north. Stop in Washington, spend the night, run our errand to the Embassy, and then finish the trip to Maine. The money we would have had to pay an agent (ProEx charges $170 for their courier services, after all) covered our gasoline for the trip, and so we could justify a hotel stay. Also, by the way, we have been booking hotels in the States through www.hotels.com, and they give you a free night’s stay after booking 10 stays. That’s just an aside, however–what matters if you’re going to go to the Embassy and submit your application in person is this: make sure you have all the supporting documents necessary, get the pictures done in the correct format (just go upstairs to the visa service place, it’s quick), and be sure to type your application. This is important; if it is handwritten, it’ll be rejected immediately. Oh, and what about the location of this visa office? It’s not in the Embassy; it’s on Wisconsin Avenue in a nondescript office building. And it’s pretty busy, so be forewarned. On the way to Maine we showed up around 11:00 am and had to wait forever. On the way back from Maine, when we just needed to pick up our completed visas, we arrived at 8:30am, parked in the garage downstairs ($10), and then joined the queue waiting outside. When the doors opened at 9:30, we entered in an orderly fashion and the security guards gave us numbers in the order we’d been waiting in line. It took just over half an hour. The nice lady at the counter took our payment, then sent us one window over to pick up our passports. We were able to pay with our Visa card (they’ll only take MasterCard or Visa if you’re planning to use a credit card–we saw a woman who had American Express get turned away), and we were good to go. Speaking of which, the total for the four of us was $560. We inspected the visas to ensure that passport numbers and names were correct (they were), and I noted that I received a Z visa and my spouse and children have S1 visas.

The visas we have in our passports are now good for entry until October. Immediately after our arrival in Shenzhen, we’ll have to apply for a residence permit and visas that will be good for an entire year.

Well, this brings us up to date. That’s the extent of our experience thus far, and hopefully this helps provide an idea of what exactly goes into getting the visa. It’s not extraordinarily difficult, but it is time consuming and requires a great deal of care, as you might expect.

 

 

 

Alpine Russia

This post is a bit late. A few months late, in fact, as I’d intended to write it and post it almost as soon as returning from our trip. But life intervened, and it’s been hard to find the time.

Spring break for my school fell during the last week of March, and Jenia and our little family were finally able to travel–something we have very much missed doing throughout most of our time in Kazan, due to having a new baby, passport hassles, and the like. We didn’t schedule an international trip, however; we opted to go somewhere within the vast country of Russia–somewhere little known outside the realm of the former USSR, but which was once a thriving vacation destination during the USSR’s existence: Kislovodsk, a place situated in the Caucasus.

The only thing I remember hearing about the Caucasus before moving to Russia involved Chechnya and people dying. There might have been knives involved, but I don’t know for sure. Anyway, what with separatists and gunfire, things I’m sure I remember, the Caucasus seemed a good place to avoid, not unlike, say, Afghanistan, a place about which, as far as I can remember, I’ve never heard any good news.

Russians, however, take a different view. The Caucasus ridge runs through the southernmost extremity of Russia, with Sochi and the Black Sea basically on the western end of the ridge, and the Caspian Sea on the eastern end. Just over the dramatic mountains lie Georgia and Azerbaijan. This region has long been a true destination for Russians seeking a retreat. In fact, there are four towns (pitifully small ones, with populations hardly over 100,000 people) clustered quite closely together which are known for their resorts–with Kislovodsk being first and foremost, and it even bears the slogan “Resort City” plastered on signs at the entrance to town. Kislovodsk is noted for its mineral springs, the waters of which offer a number of medicinal properties, if you believe it.

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A map from ABC News’s website.

We spent our time in Kislovodsk in an Air BnB-sourced apartment (which was great, even though a cat fell through the ceiling one day). We explored the town, finding it quite run down except for the city center, but with all its hills and the expansive Kurortny Park lined by some beautiful sanitariums (not like insane asylums, by the way–maybe I’ll write about them later), still pretty. It was also delightfully inexpensive. We took a train to nearby Piatigorsk one day, a town which figures prominently in Russian literature. Piatigorsk is a bit less run down and more populous, and with its own springs and parks, a nice place to visit.

However, it took a vehicle tour with Caucasus Voyage Club for me to realize the true extent of the area’s diversity–according to our tour guide and driver for our day trip, a wonderful guy named Rasheed, there are no less than 35 totally different languages spoken in the Caucasus.

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Another map from newroute.ru. Kislovodsk is near Piatigorsk.

I learned a lot of 20th century Russian history from Rasheed, as well, as he detailed the spread of communism, “The red virus,” throughout Russia and the toll it took on the once-wealthy region. While Jenia was aware of the brutal treatment of the area’s ethnic groups under the hand of the communists, it was new to me. Rasheed told of the disenfranchisement of the locals to communists from the north, the theft of their properties, and their resistance against their unjust rulers. The might of the Red Army was against them, though, and the locals could not win. Interestingly, when Hitler’s forces swept through the area with orders not to harm anyone unless they were met with resistance, things improved for the locals. The wartime occupiers were actually better masters than those whose country they belonged to. Of course, after the German army withdrew, Stalin made sure to exact revenge for the locals’ cooperation with the invaders. People were rounded up and herded onto trains bound for Kazakhstan, where, if they didn’t die on the way or after arrival, they spent 17 years. After the tremendous tragedy of Stalin’s death, they returned to their country, and things have been more or less normal since then.

Rasheed, wearing a long beard, looks every bit the typical Muslim man, and so he is. He’s nice, open, and friendly. As we learned from him, 60 percent of the population of Kislovodsk is ethnically Russian, which corresponds with the Orthodox church, and the other 40 percent are Muslim, as corresponds with their ethnicities. “How are Muslims treated?” Jenia asked at one point. “I know it was not easy to be involved in a mosque for a while here,” referring to a time of heavy suspicion in Russia toward Muslim people about 10 years ago. Rasheed mentioned under-cover intelligence men in the area, but was not angry about their presence. He said that the climate has changed now, and it’s not bad.

Our tour took us over the Caucasus ridge, where the towering twin peaks of Elbrus were concealed in the dramatic clouds, and where water runs from one side downward to the Black Sea, and from the other to the Caspian Sea; we continued past the Sintina Temple, the earliest Christian monastery in the area, established in the tenth century, along a sparkling shallow river, to the tiny ski-resort town of Dombay and its cable car up the towering mountain I thought was also called Dombay, but which it turns out is actually known as Mount Mussa Achitara. Sunlight had vanquished the gray clouds by the time we arrived, and there was a perfect, deep blue sky. There wasn’t much to Dombay other than the ski slopes–but wow. That mountain, and those slopes. What a place. We only ascended about two thirds of the mountain’s height (2,277 meters), as we didn’t feel like taking the toddler and baby on a chairlift, which was the mode of transportation from there to the top (3,200 meters), but nonetheless, the views were like something from the Swiss Alps. There was a peculiar little hotel that looks as though it just arrived from outer space. There were men with with yaks (wanna photo with ’em? Only a hundred rubles). There was pine cone jelly and sunglasses and hats for sale. The walkways were slippery and covered with snow and ice. It was a giant lawsuit waiting to happen, but it was fantastic. We ate some delicious, fresh bread in a restaurant, then went outside and frolicked as best we could with a baby in a carrier and a toddler in tow. We managed to get sunburned, too, although the temperature was right at freezing.

On our ride home, Rasheed put the pedal down a little bit, not needing to explain so much about the countryside. Speaking of which, we had marvelous views from the ridge when we crested it again–this time Elbrus revealed just how much taller it stood than the surrounding mountains–and at 18, 510 feet/5,642 meters, it is an imposing sight indeed. A little trivia for you–Europe’s tallest peak is the tenth highest in the world, and a dormant volcano, too.

Once again, I’ve discovered that the reality of a place can be drastically different from what we hear about on the news. While it’s true that Rasheed did have a knife (it’s a tradition! And we got to hold it!), there was no blood spilled, nobody shot, and nary a separatist in sight; the Caucasus turned out to be wonderful. While I’m not ready to go to Afghanistan to see if things are really crummy there or not, I’d venture to say that any trip to the resort town of Kislovodsk would be well worth it, and I’d happily go back.

Money Monday: 4 Years in

It’s been almost 4 years now that we’ve been living the expat life, experiencing life overseas and away from home. Regular readers know that we’ve found this to be a challenging, but generally wonderful period of our lives. We’ve had children, we’ve traveled to corners of the globe we once only day dreamed about, and we’ve mingled with lovely people from all sorts of places we’d have never been blessed to meet otherwise. That said, one of the major stressors in anybody’s life, except maybe the privileged few from the one percent, is finances. Living abroad carries its own stressors, of course, especially after moving to a new location, but we’ve sought and found employment that allows us to significantly allay our financial stresses, and that’s a big deal.

Going rent-free and enjoying the reduced expenses of life in the UAE allowed us to pay off my student loans in 2 years, a task that seemed Herculean, though not impossible, in the USA; the best aspect of working in the UAE was that I, Shon, generated the income (if you subtract taxes) that it took 2 of us to make in the States. The income was one of the redeeming elements of the job, along with the shorter work days.

So where do we stand at this juncture, approaching 4 years into our adventures in ordinary life abroad? How are we faring financially? We are doing alright, I’m glad to say. We’re not wealthy, by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re able to put back a healthy nest egg, a significant portion of which came in the from of the 3 years worth of bonus pay (not really bonus, given that it’s contractually obliged) from working for ADEC; and we’ve been building the savings account nicely.

Besides the savings account, in 2014 we opened a couple of Individual Retirement Accounts and started contributing to them–only to discover that, as we should have known from reading about them, but failed to notice, IRAs are meant to be contributed to from taxable income only, and we would be looking at a significant tax penalty every year we had no USA taxable income (and, of course, one of the main advantages to working in Abu Dhabi was that we weren’t being taxed). So, with the assistance of our Edward Jones financial advisor, we shifted the money into an American Funds mutual fund which Edward Jones manages. That meant no tax penalties, happily. That was about all I could say about it–the mutual fund, called Capital Income Builder, which goes by the ticker CAIBX, had generated a reasonable return for years, and it seemed like a solid enough choice, given that neither of us knew much about investing. Whatever fees we incurred through using a financial advisor was of no consequence, because the advisor was, after all, being paid to help us navigate waters we didn’t know anything about.

However, during the last six months or so, I’ve been learning a great deal about investing, and I’ve discovered that our Edward Jones mutual fund account is probably a financial mistake, since there are plenty of other Electronically Traded Funds (ETFs) which perform better, and cost a lot less to purchase. Not only that, but 2015 turned into a terrible year for CAIBX, and instead of the upper single-digit return it had been generating, it turned -8.5%, making our ongoing investment into that fund seem like a bad choice. Not only that, but taxes on an actively traded mutual fund are higher than a more static ETF, and the fees that it once seemed reasonable to pay Edward Jones (which, by the way, are among the highest of the investment firms, at least according to my research), now don’t seem like such a good idea. After all, the waters of investing are evermore familiar to me at this point. We haven’t yet closed our Edward Jones account, but we will; we’ve reduced what we put into it, however. We will close it, though, and transfer that money into other funds in the near future.

Besides having a savings account and a mutual fund, we’ve also opened up a Scottrade account to manage our own investments with. Scottrade has low brokerage fees and has an excellent program called FRIP, wherein dividend payments are reinvested for free into stocks of your choice. We’ve established a portfolio there with a small number of stocks, and will be expanding it over time, confident that we can do better than -8.5%.

What brought on the interest in investing, you might ask? My friend read The Wealthy English Teacher, penned by a blogger with numerous years spent teaching abroad, and he recommended it to me. I found the book very relatable, and then perused the author’s blog. I’ve also discovered, again, thanks to my friend, blogs like Go Curry CrackerDividend Mantra, and many others, all of which helped show me what’s possible to achieve without much more effort than we were putting into being frugal anyway, and prompted me to get serious about my own investing.

So there you have it. I’m happy to say that we’re doing rather well for ourselves at this point, especially considering where we came from with quite a bit of debt, and we’ve learned a lot about investing our hard-earned cash for ourselves. It’s nice to actually have a net worth these days, and we have every reason to believe that it will continue to expand.

Aya-Falla-What?

Ejofallajokull, which sounds like aya-falla-yo-kull. Or something like that. You’ll remember it. It’s the name of the big volcano that halted air traffic over Iceland for what seemed like forever in 2010. That’s when Iceland got a lot of press. Yeah, well, anyway, we’ve been there now. We’ve seen Eja-falla-whatsit and gotten a whirlwind tour of a fair portion of southern Iceland. It’s a pretty cool place.

You know us. You know we like to maximize our travels and explore new places as much as possible. So naturally, on the way home from the UAE for the summer, we booked ourselves a layover in someplace we hadn’t been before.

National Park

If you haven’t been to Iceland, which is attracting a growing number of tourists, you might like to check it out. Courtesy of Icelandair’s attempts to promote the country with stopovers on the way to other destinations, there are some interesting deals available allowing you to have a look around Reykjavik fairly cheaply and easily.

The country is showing up on the silver screen and the ones in your living room with increasing frequency.  Its intriguing landscape served as alien planets in the films Prometheus and Interstellar, and if you watched the Ben Stiller version of Walter Mitty, you saw it take a starring role, as well.

We found Iceland to be sort of Europe light, regardless of whether the country considers itself part of Europe or not (it does). Everyone we encountered was fluent in English (yes, yes, we mostly met people in the hospitality and tourism industry, but not exclusively), while that might not be the case in, say, Italy, or France. It’s also easy to get around without needing to worry about changing money. Credit cards are accepted everywhere, quite literally, to the extent that we didn’t even make an ATM withdrawal once. Right. We were there four full days, buying food from supermarkets, picking up the odd souvenir, and so forth, and we never had Icelandic cash in our hands.

The island is an absolutely fascinating place to visit. The landscape is otherworldly. It’s often beautiful, and surprisingly delicate. The Suderlandsvegur, highway 1, departs Reykjavik and goes south. Before long, there is a hillside rising up on the right hand side of the road. It has a phrase carved into it. The words were, it turns out, put there by a boy scout troop having fun some 50 years ago, and the vegetation they destroyed hasn’t recovered yet. This might give you an idea of the difficulty that Icelanders face when it comes to farming the unfriendly soil. If not, consider that the waterfall called Skogarfoss is named for a forest (“skogar” means forest, “foss” means waterfall). Even though there is no forest there, because the original Norse settlers chopped the trees down to make room for their animals to graze, some 1100 years ago. The trees have never really returned.

For most of its years as a nation, Iceland has been extraordinarily poor. Only after WWII did the island start to develop into a reasonable economy. Now, standards of living are high. Costs of living are, too, with food being very expensive (much of it being imported, of course), as well as most everything else. Heating and electricity, at least, are affordable. It costs one guy, a tour guide we had, about the price of a large pizza to heat his home for a month. It’s so cheap because water is heated naturally geothermally (Is that a word? Autocorrect doesn’t think so) and stored in huge tanks for the city. This is completely renewable and sustainable. Electricity is also generated through entirely sustainable means.

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There are places we’ve visited that we agree we’d love to live. Iceland isn’t one of them. The weather is too oppressive. It’s not severely cold–surprisingly, temperatures hover in the middle-50’s F much of the year, and don’t go very far below freezing most of the winter–but the thick, grey clouds hang claustrophobically low, and visibility is often minimal. “The tallest mountain in Iceland is right over there, across the water,” said a buddy who was showing us around one afternoon. “But you can’t see it now.” Indeed, I’d have never suspected. When the clouds finally parted on the last day of our trip, what a sight we were treated to. The view across the bay was nice. The scenery was extraordinary, in fact. We’d love to go back and spend more time in Iceland, getting farther beyond Reykjavik than we did, but we’d never live there.

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Ejafallajo…right, the volcano, anyway, probably helped Iceland to emerge into the consciousness of the average person in the States. Hollywood continues to explore the place, and I’d recommend that you do, too. Despite not being a place I’d like to spend years, it’s fascinating, and I’d love to have more time there.

Racism, the Rebel Flag, and the USA

Racism is front and center in the American consciousness right now, judging by the amount of media coverage that the subject has received in the last few months, as well as the current kerfuffle involving the rebel flag flying over the South Carolina state capitol.

My perspective on the rebel flag is one colored by spending the first part of my life in the American North (Maine), and more than half in the South (Georgia). Simply put, I never witnessed racism in Maine (mind you, it’s probably there), but I sure saw a lot of it in Georgia. I saw racism from, God help us, church people more than once. As time went on, I saw it reciprocated from people white and black, crossing any type of racial divide.

We all know about the history of the southern freedman after the Civil War–a burst of great freedom and triumph followed by startling, ugly repression and the emergence of Jim Crow, and of course the struggle for meaningful freedom that followed for years afterward. As for the flag–most people in rural Georgia explain that they fly the rebel flag not out of hatred toward black people, not out of a spirit of rebellion toward the Union, but as a means of remembering the conflict that spilled so much blood on the red clay. Some might say it’s simply a symbol of the South, as well, which certainly does have a different culture from other regions. I accept those sentiments to an extent, but if we’re going to acknowledge that the confederate battle flag isn’t always flown in a spirit of malice, we must also acknowledge that the flag exists because it was spawned by a treasonous segment of the USA, a segment in open rebellion, a segment which sought to preserve its power and wealth based on the exploitation of an entire race. Given this, it isn’t even remotely appropriate to fly the confederate flag over a state capitol. Fly it over graves of Confederate soldiers. Fly it at museums and memorials to the Civil War (and incidentally, isn’t the flag in South Carolina actually at a memorial, not over the State House?); these are places where it’s appropriate. Fly it on your own private property, for whatever reason you want–you might have honest-to-goodness noble reasons, and it’s your right, anyway. The Georgia state flag that flew from the 1950s until it was replaced in 2001.

Confederate flag controversy sure isn’t new in the South. When governor Roy Barnes got rid of the Georgia state flag that prominently featured the confederate banner in 2001, that was a change for the better. Why South Carolina still flies the flag on State House grounds, God only knows. Or, actually, history tells us quite clearly. I’ve been googling. It is because people hate change.

After all, we cling to the familiar, often unreasoningly, just like an immature little child. But we must develop. We must grow, getting wiser along the way, adapting, broadening, always getting better. And change we have. Look at the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage. Say it’s about time, or say it’s the end of the civilized world as we know it, say what you want about that, but change is upon us. It’s the only thing truly inevitable in life.

The world is evolving. Trade, travel, and communication are easier now than ever before, both on a local and worldwide scale. You can buy goods made in Malaysia, whip our your handy dandy iPhone that was assembled in China, and Skype family members or friends all over the globe, literally seeing what they’re up to, as long as you have an internet connection.

Speaking of the internet, the wealth of information at your fingertips also allows you to find out more about a place or culture than ever before, quick as a wink. I can chat with an Indian and find out religious views (“We compartmentalize our gods, but you have just one,” said a guy named Sharma). I can find out about the history of any nation or obscure military conflict I wish. As I read more and interact more, I discover a simple truth. There isn’t any reason for racism to continue. By now we should recognize how very much alike we all are. No matter where we’re from or what skin tone we’re endowed with, we have the same basic desires and the same basic needs; by the same means, we should understand that people and cultures are naturally different. Those differences are what make the world an interesting place. Everyone doesn’t need to be like us, and we don’t need to be like everyone else.

Earlier I said travel is easier now than ever before, and I’ve been doing my best to take advantage of that. Having touched the ground in 30 countries or so, I’ve discovered another truth. Racism isn’t an exclusively American problem. It’s worldwide, y’all.  I’ve observed Russian people look down on Indians. I’ve seen Chinese people turn up their noses at Malaysians. I’ve watched Arabs treat Pakistanis like they’re dirt. Obviously, it’s very human to view yourself as better than someone else. You might say that the fires of hatred are easily stoked. You’d be right.

Even so, racism isn’t pervasive. For every hateful, bigoted, racist person I’ve ever met, I’ve met six, eight, or twenty times as many who aren’t. I’ve encountered more kind, honest, good-natured, helpful people than I can count.

The USA doesn’t need to make first steps in solving the racial problem, since those were made long ago. It needs to acknowledge that there is a lingering problem, one which needs to be dealt with in a meaningful way. If removing a flag is all it takes to make a move in the right direction, then why shouldn’t that be done? If we can stop adding fuel to the fire, and instead be part of a solution to the larger issue, we’re remiss not to.

Nepal.

16 days ago my feet were on the ground in Kathmandu, Nepal. My little family and our close friends were on vacation there. We found it wonderful in its difference from home. Thamel, the neighborhood where we were staying, is one of the central tourist districts. Buildings of all shapes and sizes crowded the narrow streets. The streets themselves were crammed full of people, rickshaws, cars, motorcycles, people, dogs. Small temples were scattered everywhere, and big ones arched upward here and there. The roads, although paved, were covered in heavy gray dust and many locals wore masks to filter the air they breathed. Shopkeepers stood in the open doorways of their stores, occasionally scattering water to help keep the dust down.

Jenia and Turtle heading back to Thamel from Durbar Square.

Jenia and Turtle heading back to Thamel from Durbar Square.

In all, Kathmandu was a bustling, vivacious, surprisingly vibrant place. There’s a blend of Hindu and Buddhist culture and the mashup is fascinating.

Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple, on a hill in the middle of Kathmandu.

Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple, on a hill in the middle of Kathmandu.

We mostly hung around the city, but did take a daytrip that included the 1,500 year old city of Bhaktapur, past its many brickyards and kilns with towering chimneys stretching up from the fields, and into the nearby hills to Nagarkot.

What a drive, what a place. The hillsides were terraced so that they could be farmed. We saw many crops being grown: grains, vegetables, etc. Houses were half built, people living in one level while building another.

The view from the observation tower atop Nagarkot.

The view from the observation tower atop Nagarkot.

The poverty of the place would have been surprising if we hadn’t expected it, and if we hadn’t been to places like Sri Lanka before.

But poverty doesn’t necessarily equate with unhappiness. The people we met were generally friendly, happy to see us, and even eager to pose for pictures with the fair-skinned strangers in their land. I chatted with a couple of traveling salesmen who were visiting the same temple as we were, and they educated me a bit on their religious traditions. We took pictures together, they snapping on their smart phones, and me with mine.

Women clean a railing of wax drippings near Durbar Square.

Women clean a railing of wax drippings at a temple near Durbar Square.

There were a few unpleasantries–the threat of food poisoning was always very real, for example. Monkeys are a mixed blessing, for they’re great fun to see, but not usually so great to interact with. Beggars were also often present at touristy areas–and why wouldn’t they be, considering that most Westerners are downright rich by comparison to the avearge Nepali? It was also necessary to be mindful of your surroundings, especially in Thamel, lest you get nudged by an automobile (this happened) or trip and fall on the treacherous shoulder. But we didn’t mind those things.

When we flew out of the airport, a place that seems to be stuck in the 1960s, mostly red brick and filthier than I care to remember, we had views of the Himalayas that left us marveling. Imagine cruising at 33,000 feet and the snow-capped peaks of the mountain range protruding from the clouds almost at the same level as the plane.

And yesterday, I came across a story on the New York Times website–an earthquake struck Nepal! The magnitude was 7.5-7.8, it said. So far at least 100 dead.

Now the story is running first and foremost on CNN.com and on the front page on most other news sites I’ve opened this morning. The death toll has crossed 1,900 as of this writing. The pictures that are now starting to flood into the news outlets are eerily familiar. Some of them are the very places we visited, albeit nearly unrecognizable. Kathmandu’s Durbar Square has crumbled temples where the glorious ones we climbed and gazed from two weeks ago stood. There’s a heart-rending video of a collapse in Bhaktapur.

A temple on Hanumandhoka Durbar Square lies in ruins after an earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, on April 25.

A temple on Hanumandhoka Durbar Square lies in ruins after an earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, on April 25 in this photo from http://www.cnn.com

That the temblor caused such destruction is no surprise. The place is shoddily built, to be sure. Many of the structures we saw under construction were being assembled in a way which made me wonder if the builders were aware of squares and levels. Nonetheless, the news reports say that most newer buildings survived–the concrete construction is stronger than the old brick. It is the brick structures that suffered the most, and that amounts to some of the most historic ones.

It’s sad that such a beautiful place was struck so hard. All I can do at this point is offer prayers and consider contributing to the aid efforts that are already taking shape to help the beautiful people of Nepal to recover from this tragedy.

Should you want to donate, the Red Cross and Oxfam, as well as Unicef, are good places to begin.

Looking Through Expatriate Lenses

Take a look at a Salvador Dali painting. Step up close, and scrutinize the details. Words like “weird” come to mind. In some cases, though, if you take a step back, or maybe two, or ten, thereby altering your perspective, “weird” is no longer the best adjective. Distance offers clarity. You find yourself looking at the same thing in a much different way.

It’s no secret that as you get older your perspectives on things change. Now that word, “things,” is the kind of word that us English teachers despise. It’s nebulous, and could refer to just about anything. But it’s precisely the kind of word I need here. Because what is it that has changed? Which thing is it that I look at differently? Well, lots of things, you see. But I’ll focus on two for the sake of time and at least a modicum of precision.

Politics and religion. You know, the heavy and polarizing stuff. Stuff that makes enemies of friends and friends of enemies. Stuff which we often look at through extremely biased and partial lenses.

Points of view on these matters change naturally. This is the ebb and flow of life, of course, but it’s also more. It’s also the shifting of perspective that comes from not just age and experience, but the impact of life abroad in different cultures and different types of governance.

So what has changed about my political views, anyway? As an American, dear friend, I was a Republican with pronounced leanings toward Libertarian ideology. Now, I’m not. I don’t identify with any party these days. Paint me an independent. Why the shift? Because neither party has it right. The Republicans stand in the way of sensible legislation such as Net Neutrality, and they seem to be preventing the best aspects of Obama’s Affordable Care Act from helping the state of American taxpayers as it ought to. By the same means, it seems like Democrats object to everything that Republicans do. As a result of these political shenanigans, there are preposterous events like government shutdowns.

I’m not saying that another system in the world is better, and I’m not saying that the American one is doomed. I don’t pretend to be an expert on any system in particular. But I can see more clearly now that the American one needs improvement. Let me dwell on Obamacare for a minute. In the UAE, I’ve got great health insurance, thanks to my employer and the country’s laws. The best and most notable effect of it: living stress-free when it comes to health care. And let me tell you, it’s vastly superior to putting off trips to the doctor because you can’t figure out how the hell you’re going to pay for them. I’ve been there, and it’s not good. I’m on the opposite side now, able to go easily for medical care when the need arises and not think twice about it. There’s no reason why the excellent American healthcare system can’t be this accessible, too.

In essence, having some distance from ingrained ideas about political parties and about what the government should or shouldn’t do (such as stipulate insurance for individuals) has made a big difference in my viewpoint on the matter. Another area that my point of view has changed, thanks to travel, thanks to the expatriate experience, is religion. Now don’t misinterpret my remarks as anti-religious, or anti-anything. That’s the wrong way to take them. As a rule of thumb, I’ve always approached my religion from a fairly critical standpoint. If it defies reason, I have to question it. I could ramble on with a story or two, or perhaps offer a way that I’ve personally done this or that, but suffice it to say I think logic should be applied to everything in equal measure, and since religion shapes our perception of each other and the world, it’s especially important to consider in this way.

Salvador Dali’s “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean” becomes a picture of Abraham Lincoln when viewed from a distance. Try it–step back a few feet from your screen and have a look.

Besides mere logic, I can now see travel informing my beliefs. As I stood in front of the Buddhist shrine next to our hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, where the morning’s drink offerings stood, unconsumed by any sort of god except perhaps a touch of evaporation, I thought to myself, “This is absolutely ridiculous.” And then I wondered how ridiculous my church’s proceedings might look to uninformed Thai visitors. I’d say it’s pretty likely they’d shake their heads in bewilderment, just like I was doing, as I was pondering their religious customs. As I drove past throngs of Muslims descending upon the local mosque, all summoned by the loudspeaker-broadcast call, I thought that the crowds were like mindless worker bees swarming the hive. And, in all fairness, I wondered if my Christian brethren looked any different from this to the average non-Christian passerby as they gathered for services on a Sunday back home. On another occasion, I watched Muslims prostrate themselves in prayer and I contemplated the act. Muslim prayers are more about submission than anything else, as the word Islam suggests, whereas Christian ones can take on any number of forms–petitions, supplications, arguments, requests for forgiveness. In my life, some prayers seem to have been answered, but others vanished unheeded into the great abyss. What is the role of God in our day-to-day lives, I wondered, and what really draws us closer to Him?

This leads me to the conclusion, rather obvious, I know, that the larger things matter more than the small ones. What I do matters more than what I say, and what I say only matters if what I do supports it. Why do we quibble over so many little things, when the broader strokes make the most difference? I can apply this question to politics, and I can apply it to religion. Little things matter, it’s true, because they’re part of big things. But the big things should be the focus. Instead of dwelling on differences, we should seek similarities. We have much more in common than we have to fight over most of the time.

Drink offerings at a shrine in Bangkok.

Drink offerings at a shrine in Bangkok.

One of my buddies here in the UAE, Randy, talks about traveling to the greener pastures of life when one leaves the complacency of home behind, taking on the expat life. He hits on something important there, I think, because it takes distance to help us see some things clearly. Not unlike staring at one of Dali’s bizarre paintings up close, then stepping back to a distance and taking in the larger picture, experiencing other places and systems alters our perspective on things. It helps us see that there’s more to a thing than we first thought, and recognizing the greatness–the size and complexity–of things, as well as considering alternative ways of dealing with them, well, that’s worthwhile, isn’t it?

Drop Everything and Go.

Maybe you don’t know the names Ted Simon or Charley Boorman. That’s okay. I’ll tell you who the two men are. Simon rode his Triumph around the world on an incredible 4-year journey, and Boorman rode a BMW around the globe in 2004 in less than 4 months. They’re dyed in the wool motorcyclists and dedicated adventurers. They love to explore the world and both authors have made livings based on their travels.

I must admit my only exposure to Ted Simon was through the TV mini-series “The Long Way Round,” which chronicled Boorman’s trip from London to New York City with his friend Ewan McGregor. The show is, by the way, worth your time–it’s fun, funny, and will appeal to the adventurer in you, even if you don’t ride a motorcycle or understand why some of us do. Take a minute and look it up, then set some time aside to enjoy a fascinating look at the world from the point of view of a couple of motorcyclists. That said, Simon is, as it turns out, the very model of adventurousness.

But I get ahead of myself. See, I attended the Emirates Literature Festival today in Dubai, and went to a session called “Around the Globe with Charley and Ted,” during which the authors discussed some of their commonalities: how wanderlust struck, how they started their travels, managed to fund them, and so forth. Held in a ballroom at the Intercontinental hotel in Festival City, the event was pretty full. I found an open seat at the front, and enjoyed an hour of the men’s musings.

The Intercontinental at Festival City.

The Intercontinental at Festival City.

Simon’s big journey included run-ins with the law (arrested as a suspected spy, for example), romance, and the momentous discovery that people all over the world are generally nice, welcoming, and helpful. Boorman didn’t get arrested, but found much the same thing–people everywhere, and I mean everywhere, are kind and helpful.

Speaking of countries that are deemed dangerous, Boorman said, “When anything bad happens, the news makes a big deal out of it.” He mentioned 24 hour news networks and the need for them to fill up space and time. “You never see a news reporter saying, ‘I’m here, and there’s nothing happening.'” To illustrate the point, Boorman mentioned looking over rice paddies in northern Iran, in a scene that might have been Thailand, with people working and wonderful agriculture everywhere. This seems a far cry from the image that Fox and the other news networks paint of Iran, doesn’t it?

Many of us don’t realize how much what we see and hear on the news shapes our perceptions. Simon elaborated on the idea, to much the same effect. Don’t forget there are millions of people living absolutely normal lives in most of the countries that are deemed “dangerous” by those selling newspapers. In essence, the world is a safer place than it is made out to be.

Indeed, there were plenty of people who advised me against moving to the UAE–it could be unsafe, it would be hard on Jenia as a woman, and so forth–but most of these people, though meaning well, hadn’t lived here, or even been here. They were all wrong; it’s been a great place for us to live.

Simon said that many people approach him and tell him they’d love to go on a similar adventure, but they can’t, because they have a mortgage, a job, etc. His response was profound: “Drop it all and leave it because you’ll be a much more valuable person when you come back.”

In 2003, I was talking to a friend named Gwen, a woman who was practically a surrogate mom for a while there. “I’d love to go to England,” I told her. “Well, why don’t you go?” She said. I blinked my eyes a few times, processing that. It really was that simple. I could save up some money, quit my meager little job, and go see more of the world. A moment before I hadn’t considered it that clearly. It had seemed like I had shackles holding me back–commitments and stuff–but they didn’t make an ounce of difference. That was more or less the beginning of my serious international explorations.

You’ve seen my posts on here about how living and teaching abroad have changed Jenia and me for the better. At this point, I couldn’t agree more with Simon’s advice. I may not travel the world in as extreme a manner as Simon did, and I may not host a TV show or manage to ride my bike as much as Boorman does his, but in the same manner as these two men, I’ve found a way to fund my globe trotting, to indulge the travel bug and discover that the basic desires of every person on the planet are the same.

If you want to explore, you should. Don’t worry about your place in the pecking order, don’t fret over what you’ll leave behind, just go, because it will change you fundamentally. Fear of leaving the familiar behind and exchanging it for the unfamiliar, fear of dangerous countries, or fear of talking to new people may prevent us leaving our comfort zones. Don’t be afraid. Go.

Charley Boorman, happy to pose for a picture with me at today's book signing.

Charley Boorman, happy to pose for a picture with me at today’s book signing.

Jordan.

If you’re about my age, somewhere in your mid-30’s, I’ll bet you watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  What a great movie!  Wasn’t the ending, set in that amazing building carved out of a red-hued canyon wall, just about the coolest thing you’d ever seen? And wasn’t it even cooler to discover that such a place, or, in fact that very place actually exists? Ever since the time I learned that the Last Crusade was filmed in Petra, I’ve longed to go there, longed to see the facades a thousand years old that ornament tombs and sacred places, longed to ride a horse though the Siq and into the sunset like Harrison Ford and Sean Connery (and the other two guys).

Finally, it happened.  Most of it, anyway.  I didn’t ride a horse though the Siq, I’m sorry to say, but I did put my wife on a donkey and send her up to the Monastery that way.  So that’s sort of similar.

What is Jordan like? Coming from the UAE it’s a bit of a surprise.  It’s poor.  There’s lots of trash on empty lots. White plastic bags and other litter degrade the landscape as you drive along.  Buildings aren’t tall and splendid–they’re short or stunted, some missing an upper story, perhaps to be added at a later date when money has been set aside for that purpose.  Cars are old and beat up.  A layer of dust covers most everything.  But the people are nice.  They’re humble and friendly, and they work hard for what they own.

At a cafe in Madaba, men relax and watch the cars roll slowly by.

At a cafe in Madaba, men relax and watch the cars roll slowly by.

Much of the waterways which once supplied Jordan with water have been diverted by other countries.  The Dead Sea’s levels are declining rapidly as various tributaries which feed into it have been dammed and co-opted for things like irrigation.

I work with several guys from Jordan.  Excited that we were planning a visit, they offered suggestions on where to go and what to do. Among the many places they listed, we managed to hit Karak (site of a dilapidated crusader castle), Madaba (home of a large Christian community and location of the oldest image of Palestine), Petra, Wadi Rum (where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed and where Lawrence himself once roamed), and the Dead Sea.

Any fan of history, including Biblical history, medieval history, Roman, etc., would find Jordan a stellar place to stroll around.  Walk where Moses died atop Mount Nebo, for example, or look over the valley below Karak from a castle window, or compare the architecture of the various facades in Petra to each other and spot the Nabatean style vs. the Roman style, and on and on and on. If ancient history isn’t your thing, perhaps modern history is: consider the guard towers along the shores of the Dead Sea as you hand your passport to the armed checkpoint guards along the road.  Talk to someone and find out that Jordan is one of the only countries in the region to officially recognize Israel as a state.

Those are salt crystals on the buoys.

Those are salt crystals on the buoys.

And if you say to yourself, “Screw history, I’m all about the present,” then enjoy a mediocre takeaway pizza you bought near the exit from Petra on your way back to the Bedouin camp you’re spending the next few nights in, wash it down with some hyper-sweet tea made over the open fire, and chat with the friendly fellow with bad teeth that owns the place.  Be surprised that he travels extensively, and that he’ll be in London next month. Climb the rocks and watch the sun slowly set, turning some blonde chicks hair to sparkling gold as they sit in front of you. Rub your hands along canyon walls as you walk the Siq and sing with your wife, glad you’re there at 7:15am, not 4:30pm when it’s packed, and you couldn’t hear your voices reverberate over the cacophony of the many. Enjoy the winding road from Petra to the Dead Sea, carefully drive along the detour where the road had fallen away into the sheer nothingness below, and let your ears pop as you descend 1,000 meters in no time.

So about Petra–about Indiana Jones, the Siq, and that donkey.  We spent an entire day there, from sunup until approaching sundown. We carried the little one most of the way.  Fortunately he decided to nap in that amazing Boba Air carrier that we’ve taken all over the world with us, so he didn’t feel the need to be down and running around the entire day, or we’d have never gotten anywhere. It was, indeed, something special to see the Treasury (that’s the Indiana Jones place, you know) present itself as we made our way through the Siq approaching it.  The sun colored the rocks orange as it rose higher.  We climbed to the High Place of Sacrifice, and descended to the Great Temple, an area that Brown University has been excavating since 1993. Midday by then, we were feeling tired, so I hired a donkey to take Jenia up to the Monastery, and by the time I stopped to rest in shade kindly offered by an aged merchant lady, drink some water, and let the toddler get out of the carrier, I was wishing I’d gotten a donkey ride myself.  But, being the manly man I am, I sucked it up and took the baby in hand (actually, I put him on my shoulders) and climbed the remaining 4,000,000 steps (exaggeration, yup, but it felt like a lot).

Being totally worn out does have a way of stealing some of the majesty of any experience, but seeing the Monastery was still pretty awesome.  It’s big, y’all.  There’s a great place to eat in the shade, on a bench, right there with a view of the Monastery (so named because it was repurposed as a church for a while) and we ate our lunch there.  Jenia made the descent on her ass, and I on foot. The way down was easier.

Treasury

The Treasury, shown when being approached through the Siq (which means “shaft”). The man in front of it gives some idea of scale.

In Petra

A musician playing in Petra.

What tarnishes Petra?  Could be the myriad stalls set up haphazardly selling trinkets. Could be the tons of guys hawking horseback rides, donkeys for steeds (“This one his name Michael Jackson”), or kids trying to get you to buy postcards with images probably better than the ones you’ll take. Could be nothing tarnishes it, if you’re expecting the clatter of generators powering snack shops in the canyons.

Wadi Rum was another highlight–and someone asked me “Why?” the other day.  Er, it’s just one of those places that’s worth visiting to experience for yourself, that’s why.  We thought it was cool to spend the day on camels and in a 4×4 with a local Bedouin guide whose family is among those who have exclusive rights to the national park there.  We found the scenery amazing.  And if you should spend the night there, either in a tent or a cave, as many people choose to, you would be amazed by the total lack of light pollution late at night.  The stars present themselves in a way that it’s easy to forget is possible when you spend most of your time in the urban sprawl that encompasses much of our modern world.

Seen from the so-called Lawrence's House area (because he may or may not have actually been posted there), a bit of the Wadi Rum desert.

Seen from the so-called Lawrence’s House area (because he may or may not have actually been posted there), a bit of the Wadi Rum desert.

The way to the Dead Sea twists and turns like crazy.

The way to the Dead Sea twists and turns like crazy.

Karak

Jenia and el nino at Karak Castle. He wanted to walk around a lot, but the area was a bit unsafe for him with precipices galore.

The Dead Sea is the last thing I’ll write about. Yeah, it’s pretty dang cool to find yourself standing in shoulder-deep water, and when, the instant a gentle wave hits you, suddenly you’re floating, your feet sticking into the air, suddenly bobbing about because gravity doesn’t seem to function like it does in every other body of water you’ve ever been in. But it’s not cool to scare your toddler by putting that famous black mud on your face.  Although the skin does feel might refreshed when you go rinse the mud off a few minutes later.

So, in a nutshell, Jordan. Indiana Jones didn’t lead me wrong–it’s a great place to visit. Go there.  Your view of the Middle East will be altered still further than it was by your visit to the UAE.