Never mind that we're pretty much into February already - I'm gay and fabulous and that means I show up late to EVERYTHING.
So here we are. Another year has come and gone into the ash heap of history. And this past year was certainly filled with its share of ups and downs. On the plus side I got married, which was an occasion much anticipated by all of our friends and family. After ten years together it seemed like just mayyyyyybe it was time for us to pull the trigger on making the legal commitment to spend our lives together. We laughed, we cried. It was better than CATS. Definitely the highlight of the year in terms of "ups".
Wedding day vibes on a crisp fall day in Chicago.
The rest of the year? Well ..... why don't we just throw the whole thing on the "down" pile. Between a ton of turmoil in my personal life, the garbage fire that is the American political landscape, and a bit of general malarky it's clear 2018 should be up for elimination. Even when it comes to travel the year didn't go as well as I had hoped. My first trip of the year was a four country jaunt that included a stop in Lebanon where I was held for an hour by immigration under what I suspect (but cannot confirm) was suspicion that I had previously entered Israel (I had). They eventually let me into the country but the next day I ended up developing a debilitating shoulder/neck pain that has plagued me on and off ever since. The next trip was a Caribbean adventure, but it ended up being cut short as I wrote about in my "Travel Fuck Up" posting about forgetting my yellow fever card. One mistake stopped me from boarding my flight to Suriname and it cost me a lot of money to fix the whole situation.
After that my luck seemed like it was on the upward swing for the rest of the year as I had successful trips to Russia, Mongolia, Montana, Palau, and Uzbekistan. And then December rolled around and I was denied a tourist visa to Algeria despite being promised by numerous parties that everything was just fine. I ended up booking a last minute alternative to Austria as a replace. Christmas time in Vienna was lovely but still a bit of a let down considering I had legitimately spent a year planning the trip to Algeria and it was hard to just let that all fall to pieces.
Taking pictures high above Khiva, Uzbekistan on my honeymoon.
So 2018 - it's been real but I'm in the market for a new vibe. Hopefully 2019 has a lot more adventure and a lot less bad juju in store for me. My goals for the year remain largely the same as they have been recently. For about two years now I've slowly been pursuing the goal of visiting every country in the world. If you ask my Mom she'll tell you this goal has pretty much been on my radar my entire life but I've never made a coordinated effort toward the goal until now. In 2018 I was able to visit 12 new countries bringing my total count to 64. The aim for 2019 is to continue making progress on visiting new nations with a specific focus on countries in Central America, South America, Central Asia, and Africa .... pretty much all the areas of the world where the current President of the United States has offended people. Hence the title of this post - an American Apology Tour. So here I am, just one insignificant citizen trying to leave a good impression. Hopefully in my case, to "paraphrase" the President, when America sends its peopld they're sending (one of) their best!
So. The actual plan. I have a few solid itinearies in place but the other half of my schedule is still up in the air. Perhaps you, dear reader, can help a guy out?
January - Belize (#65) & Guatemala (#66)
Considering the month's end is upon us, it's safe to say that the trip I planned for January has already happened. And you'd be right!
San Ignacio, Belize.
My travel plans for January were to visit my very first Central American country - Belize! I took advantage of the Martin Luther King federal holiday at work plus a little paid time off and did a long weekend in the only English-speaking nation in the region. Since I only had a few days in country I had to make a decision on what I wanted to do - go inland and explore the jungles and their Mayan ruins or head to the coast and explore the tropical island paradise in Belize's expansive set of cayes. Since I'm not much for scuba diving and that's a big activity in the cayes, I opted to head inland to San Ignacio where I could explore a few of the ancient Mayan ruins nearby. My main goal on this trip was to visit the site of Caracol, a Mayan ruin that's a bit of a trek from San Ignacio over notoriously terrible roads. Despite arranging transport well ahead of time, my trip to the ruins were canceled last minute. So what's a guy to do?
I ended up crossing the border into Guatemala (it's only a 20 minute drive) and visiting the Mayan ruins of Tikal with the promise that I'd get to see Caracol the next day.
Chubby boy realness in Tikal, Guatemala.
While it was just a short day trip, I did technically end up collecting my 66th country visited. Don't fret though, I like to spend at least a few days exploring a place so this won't be all I ever do in Guatemala. In fact I enjoyed my time in Belize and Guatemala so much I decided to add a little more Central American flair to my schedule later in the year. Sadly I never did get to Caracol, as they canceled my transport the next day as well. So I rolled with it and made an alternative plan - visit the popular Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave. I have to confess that when I agreed to do this trek I didn't know what I was getting myself into. I said yes because I didn't want to spend the day wandering around San Ignacio as I felt I'd already done enough of that. So this city kween ended up wading streams, diving into rivers, and climbing through bat-infested caves with nothing but a headlamp for a few hours. And I didn't die.
If you know me at all you'll that this was actually a big moment of personal growth. I don't swim in water that isn't chlorinated and surrounded by lounge chairs. I don't do anything remotely involving wildlife. I don't do outdoorsy things other than hike and enjoy pretty vistas. But I did this. And I had a fucking blast doing it. The only down side? R.I.P to the blue shoes in the above picture. I had to wear them for about three hours completely submered in the rivers and cave. Consequently they passed away peaceably at the end of my trek and are now living in a trash can in San Ignacio.
February - Jamaica (#67)
The Caribbean is probably the most visited area of the globe for Americans, but for me it ties the South Pacific as the region where I've visited the least number of countries (to date only the Bahamas and Trinidad & Tobago). It's so close and easy to access from the US though, so I'm not really 100% sure why it's been off my radar all this time. I've been sleeping on this area and I think I need to do a bit more to explore the region. I had originally planned to visit Haiti last year but had to remove the island nation from my travel plans due to some political unrest around the time of my planned visit.
Tobago beach vibes.
I'll be heading to Montego Bay in Jamaica in mid-February. While I'm sure Jamaica has a lot to offer, on this trip I'm really considering finally taking a vacation. Not running around exploring every interesting nook and cranny that I can find but actually sitting still and resting. I've researched the area around Montego Bay and found quite a few cool things to do and see but the logistics of getting to those places and the cost associated with them for the time period I'm going all seem very prohibitive. It's been awhile since I went anywhere and just relaxed so maybe it's meant to be? I didn't even do that on my honeymoon in October! So Jamaica might be a new country for me but one where I get a tan and read a few books. Knowing me though, I'll probably get restless and end up doing a bit more than I think I will.
March - San Francisco
Certainly not as sexy as some of my international trips but I will be taking time in March to head over to the Bay area. My husband works for a company based just outside of San Francisco and is working there temporarily for a few months. He's actually been gone all of January already and I won't see him in person till this trip in March. Even if he weren't out there working I'd likely have visited. I have a few good friends that live in the area and it's becoming a bit of a tradition to head out there annually. Plus the weather is never too hot or too cold and it's chock full of Asian food to eat. A joy to be sure!
April - Iraq (#68), Dubai, & Sudan (#69)
Yup, you read that correctly. As of now I will be heading to Iraq in the middle of April. Iraqi Kurdistan to be exact. Before you get verklempt about the prospect of your favorite gay traveler heading to a danger zone, I'd suggest spending a little time researching the current state of affairs in Iraqi Kurdistan. It's relatively safe, there's plenty to see, and they're eager for visitors. Americans don't even need to secure a visa prior to visiting, they're given 30 days on the ground upon arrival at the airport. Don't believe any of this? Check out this article on tourism to the area in the New York Times.
Now traveling in the southern portion of Iraq to areas such as Baghdad and Basra are a bit of a different story. While it is possible to engage in tourism there the security situation is much less stable and the cost of securing a guide and guards make the area a general no-go zone for me. I'm adventurous, but not THAT adventurous. Generally speaking if I need to hire guards to sightsee I'm of the mind that I probably shouldn't be there.
After my time in Iraq I will do a long layover in Dubai. I haven't been to this emirate in over five years so I'm interested in seeing whether things have changed at all. My experiences in the UAE weren't very positive in the past though. I'm hoping I like it a bit more this time around but I'm not expecting a miracle transformation.
From Dubai I'll head to my last destination in April - the city of Khartoum in Africa's third largest nation, Sudan. I've wanted to visit Sudan for quite awhile but have waited for flight costs to be quite low since the cost of a visa and getting to some of the nation's most interesting destinations can be quite high. Flying from Dubai to Sudan proved to be quite inexpensive, so I locked it in my choice and finally bought tickets. And then wouldn't you know it? For the past few weeks protests have rocked the nation as people come out in droves to express their discontent with President Omar al-Bashir. The security situation on the ground seems confusing and potentially dangerous, but I'm not canceling my plans just yet. I have a few months to figure out what I'm going to do, so I'll be keeping an eye on new reports as the weeks tick away. If I need to rearrange my travel plans in the name of more freedom in Sudan though, so be it!
July - Hawaii
My trip to this little slice of paradise in the Pacific has been a long time in the making. My family used to live just outside of Honolulu for a few years when I was young. My grandmother passed away a few years ago and in Japanese tradition she was cremated. My mother was unsure what to do with her ashes but after a bit of deliberating she decided to head back to Hawaii and spread her ashes there. It was where she was happiest my Mom says. So my entire immediate family as well as my husband's mother, my uncle and his husband, my sister-in-law, and my sister-in-law's parents are jetting off to give my Oba-chan a fond farewell and then enjoy the islands she loved so much.
After my trip in July, my schedule is completely open in terms of dates. In fact I could even theoretically squeeze in a trip somewhere in May. Despite not having solid plans I have narrowed down my remaining unvisited countries to a list of potential targets for 2019.
Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua - I had such a good time exploring Belize this month that I've decided I wanted to see a bit more of Central America. My one day hop across the border to Guatemala technically counts as a visit but I definitely would like to spend a bit more time there. I've been eyeing a trip with Intrepid Travel that starts in the historic town of Antigua in Guatemala and makes its way through Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. The political situation in Nicaragua is obviously a bit unstable right now but after ceasing trips to the nation through the 2nd half of 2018 Intrepid feels it's safe enough to go back in 2019. I generally don't do any organized group tours when I travel but I've used Intrepid once before over a decade ago in India and have been thinking about giving them another try.
Suriname - I referenced my failed attempt to visit Suriname in 2018 above and I'm not one to give up on a goal very easily. Suriname is still very much in my sights and I'd love to finally make my way there. I'd likely combine it with a visit to another South American or Caribbean nation. COPA Airlines will be launching nonstop flights between Panama City and Paramaribo, Suriname's capital, in July of this year so that might make a nice pair for a trip as I've also never been to Panama.
Pakistan - Details are still murky but Pakistan recently announced their intention to begin issuing visas on arrival for some nations and e-visas for quite a few others. At this point it seems like US citizens will be eligible for visas on arrival when the new system goes into effect. South Asia is one of my favorite regions in the world with India competing against Japan as my favorite destination on the planet. Pakistan is one of the last nations in South Asia I've yet to visit and if you do a little research you'll see that it's chock full of historical sights and natural wonders. If the visa system is indeed relaxed as promised, I anticipate heading to Pakistan at some point in 2019.
Sunset at the Gateway of India in Mumbai during my last visit to South Asia in 2013.
Moldova & Krygyzstan via Russia - My fascination with former Soviet republics continues in 2019. I was approved to visit the "mother ship" of the former communist bloc, Russia, in 2018 and consequently I now have a 3 year visa. Considering how expensive and time consuming it can be for Americans to secure a Russian visa I'd like to make the most of it. I spent most of my time in Russia last year exploring Moscow and making my way across the country on the Trans-Mongolian railway, but was unable to visit another jewel in the Russian crown - St. Petersburg. Of course I'd also like to visit a few new countries and using Russia as a launching point to visit nearby nations is pretty inexpensive as flights are often dirt cheap. I've had my eyes on the quirky little Moldova and the mountaineous beauty of Krygyzstan for a few years now. Could 2019 be the year I finally visit?
Saudi Arabia - Pakistan isn't the only country loosening its visa policy recently. The reclusive Saudi Arabia introduced a new visa scheme toward the end of last year where they give tourist visas to visitors seeking to enter the Kingdom to attend approved events. The first trial was a Formula E event held near Riyadh in December 2018. It was a success and it appears the Saudis are interested in continuing the scheme or perhaps even further liberalizing the visa policy. Saudi Arabia has notoriously been one of the most difficult countries to visit (it hasn't issued tourist visas in years) so this has sparked my interest quite a bit. Whether the ethics of visiting Saudi Arabia right now fits my personal travel philosophy is a question for another post I'm working on all together though.
Bolivia - While the ease of getting to South America is attractive for an American I've still only been to three countries in the area over the years (Guyana, Argentina, and Uruguay). I've been speaking with a friend for the past two months about potentially doing a joint trip down to Bolivia. This landlocked nation still requires a bit of work for an American to secure a visa (and charges $160 for the sticker) but offers quite a potent punch for visitors. From the colonial beauties of Santa Cruz and La Paz to the surreal moonscape of the Uyuni salt flats, I've had my eye on this destination for awhile.
My last trip to West Africa was in February 2017 in Senegal.
Cote d'Ivorie, Ghana, Togo, Benin - I returned to Africa once last year when I landed in Tunisia but it's been over two years since I've set foot in sub-Saharan Africa. I think it's time I fixed that in 2019. With so many sites to see along the Gulf of Guinea this little road trip across four countries seems like a good old fashioned travel adventure. I loved my time in Senegal and I'm eager to return to West Africa. I've heard good things from people who've recently spent time in the four countries above so they're definitely in the running to make it onto my travel itinerary for the year.
So that's a wrap on my 2019 travel plans. Obviously half of the year is pretty much set in stone but I'm curious to know what you think about the options for the 2nd half. I've got a lot of ideas but only a few can actually make it onto my schedule. Any places you've been that you'd highly recommend on this list? Places you've always wanted to visit but haven't? Places I'm not even considering but should? Or care to share your own 2019 travel plans? For all of the above .... let me know!
Until then, I hope your 2019 has starting off fantastically and send love and light to you and those you love!