June 23rd-July 2nd, 2016
Making ourselves at home
There are no breakfast times to observe today. In fact, we have to arrange our own breakfast. We quickly find the supermarket and the bakery that our Airbnb host pointed out to us. Our neighborhood is not very close to the center or any tourist attractions but we’re not primarily here for that. Besides, Athens has a metro system and otherwise there are affordable taxis everywhere. It takes a few days to get used to our new surroundings but we appreciate what we have: a living room, a bedroom, air conditioning, a big balcony, a washing machine and a very good internet connection. This place will be our home for a while, at least until we get the visa for Uzbekistan and Iran sorted out.
The news about the border crossing between China and Nepal is worrying. It has been closed since the earthquake in the spring of 2015 and was supposed to have opened months ago, but no Chinese tour operator can tell if or when this is going to happen. Some even say that they won’t plan a transit for us this year because they don’t believe it will be open until 2017. If a tour operator is that adamant about a tour they could otherwise have sold us for good money, we take them very seriously.
What is also worrying is that we have binned the Pakistan plan a few months ago. That means we haven’t applied for visa for a country we weren’t planning to visit anyway. (That makes sense, doesn’t it?) A phone call to the embassy of Pakistan in Bern, Switzerland, confirms what we’ve already read elsewhere: if we want the visa, someone will need to apply for us in Bern because Switzerland is our country of residence. On top of that, they say it could take one to two months because we would be traveling over land in areas such as Gilgit-Baltistan and this needs to be checked with their Ministry of Security and Other Important Things. We let this settle in and turn to more urgent tasks.
One thing we have learned about embassies is that they’re usually closed when you need them. They have very limited opening times, might not even be open on all weekdays and close for holidays the country they represent and in the country they reside. This means that applying for visa and picking them up almost always takes longer than you think. Uzbekistan is apparently a pleasant exception to this rule because we can apply and collect the visa on the same day, with a quick visit to the bank in between. It seems that the plan of letting StanTours arrange our Letters of Invitation (LOI) is paying off.
The embassy of Iran is different. It already starts with the serious fence that they have around their building. Nobody is going in or getting out of here quickly. Before going in, Petra wears a headscarf and long sleeves — this is formally Iranian soil after all and we don’t want be disrespectful to the person who is going to decide about our visa. We even have to switch off our phones. When we come inside through the unmanned but beeping metal detection gate, we see how most waiting people here are using their phone…
Although we’d already provided our data for the LOIs and have reference numbers for our case, we still each need to fill out a complete visa application form. When that is done, the embassy employee insist that we show him proof of a travel insurance package. We can’t seem to get him to believe that we have three separate insurances for travel, medical costs and repatriation. On top of that, he is not willing to accept our travel insurance policy in German. This is one of these annoying hoops that embassies want you to jump through if you want to visit their country. And there is more bad news: the employee assures us that we will only get 30 days to enter Iran from the date of application. So we’re actually too early on June 28th. We leave the embassy without making the applications and in a frustrated mood. This mood clears quickly after we manage to get an English translation of our insurance policy that also mentions medical costs. Hopefully this will be accepted.
The State of Greece
Meanwhile, we spend quite a few evenings with Giorgos and some of his friends and get to learn how Greece is doing. And it’s not doing great, actually. There are some things that we’ve noticed after a few days in Athens. Things like big heaps of garbage in and around containers that aren’t emptied often enough, or traffic lights that don’t work anymore or are hidden behind tree branches that are no longer cut. There are quite a few homeless people on the streets, including the guy that hangs around the Kato Patissia metro station in a dirty ballet dress and who we’ve named the Garbage Fairy.
And this is not all. When talking with the Greeks we learn that the medical system is not what we expect it to be. There is not enough personnel in public hospitals so family members feel obliged to take turns at the patient’s bedside all the time so they have a higher chance of getting the basic medication and equipment that are in short supply. If a patient needs diapers, these need to be brought by the family. If a patient does not want to wait weeks for an operation, money needs to change hands under the table. For a bit more money, the patient can be in a private clinic without the corruption.
The money that was transferred from other EU members to Greece is not reaching the people who need it most. This is not helping the general distrust that the Greeks seem to have for their government. In this environment it is not surprising that people are trying to avoid paying taxes. Distrust is apparently also increasing between the people themselves which is noticeable when trying to rent an apartment (no, not ours). Oh, and courts are backlogged on cases and lawyers are on strike, so good luck finding justice if you need it.
You know what? This is all very complicated. Why don’t we just fly to South-East Asia? This was done by overlanders before and is no longer considered cheating, by some ;-).