Is It Safe to Travel in Other Countries?

Should anyone even think about traveling to Egypt? Isn’t it the Middle East? Isn’t it dangerous? Those were usually the first questions I got when I decided to travel to Egypt.

I was talking to one woman about going to Egypt with us. She is experienced in international travel. Her daughter lives in Germany. But when she read what the State Department said about traveling to Egypt, she was a bit concerned. The State Department gave Egypt a level 3 warning: reconsider travel. Why? Because of Covid (at the time) and terrorism. Then, I looked at Germany. I realized that it was on the same level due to terrorism and Covid. I was rather shocked by that because almost everybody would consider Germany a safe place to visit. You can find all sorts of dire warnings about most countries.

So, is Egypt safe to visit? Continue reading “Is It Safe to Travel in Other Countries?”

Live Everyday Like You Were in Madrid

Principle # 9 for keeping sane and productive in an insane world: Live everyday like you were in Madrid.

When you fly across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and beyond, you will leave in the evening and arrive in the morning. You will try to sleep in a tiny seat unless you get bumped to first class like I did one time on my way to Egypt. It won’t work out that great. You will arrive tired.

My daughter Anna and I traveled to Spain in April 2022. It was partly to visit missionaries our church supported near Barcelona. It was also partly to tour Spain. The ticket to fly into Spain and out of Barcelona was nearly the same as flying in and out of Barcelona, so I thought, why not see these two great cities and take the train to Barcelona? That’s what we did.

When we arrived in Madrid, we were tired. We checked into our hotel and both laid down to sleep. I woke up about a half an hour later and said to myself? “What am I doing sleeping? I’m in Madrid!” So, I got up, left a note for my daughter, and went out to walk around.

I did need coffee, though. I went right down the street and found that icon of Madrid: Tim Horton’s. No, the place where I walked was not one of the great tourist spots of Madrid, but it was Madrid. I loved it. I savored it. I looked at every shop, listened to every person, and observed the architecture of every building. I was in Madrid!

A year later, I went back to Madrid. I had arranged a mission trip for my church with the missionaries from Spain. We were going to go work at a camp north of Sevilla in the south of Spain. I had no idea if anyone would go, but I bought my plane ticket for the trip. It was an unheard of $375 round trip from my local regional airport in Knoxville to Madrid. I not only bought the ticket for the week of the mission trip. I would actually go one week earlier and spend a week in Madrid. If no one went on the trip and it got cancelled, what was the worst that could happen? I would spend two weeks in Spain. That did not seem like a bad downside.

The mission trip did happen, and I did spend a week in Madrid. I walked all over the city. I took tours. I visited museums. I talked to people. I tried restaurants. I loved every moment of it. I was in Madrid!

Thinking back on all this when I arrived home, I thought, what if I could live here in Tennessee like I was in Madrid? What if I saw my own city with the excitement of being in a foreign country?

It is really not that unreasonable. There are people here who have stories. There is natural beauty to see. There are animals to observe. There are restaurants to visit. There are visitors from other places. There are fascinating stories in this place. There are sites and attractions and parks and businesses and houses and architecture and events to see. So why not live here like I was in Madrid?

For me, it’s even easier. I live near Pigeon Forge, TN. Everyone wants to come here. Everyone loves it. Everyone wants to move here. I own a home for which I pay less per month than what some people pay per day for a large cabin! Can I enjoy that? Can I have that excitement like I was in Madrid?

It’s hard sometimes. We get used to things, and we get bored with them. We categorize them in our mind and stop really seeing them. But we have only scratched the surface of the places where we live. I am reminded of that when I visit foreign countries. I study the country and learn about it. I go there and am generally able to tell people things that they don’t even know about their own country. I have had the reverse experience here. People visit here, and I keep learning about my own city from them. There’s more to see and know than we think. There’s more excitement than we think.

We can live each day like we were visiting a foreign country. We can capture the wonder of visiting a new destination each day. We can live each day like we had just landed in Madrid.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. It is a series of posts where I share principles or ways of seeing things that have helped keep me sane and productive in the midst of raising seven kids, pastoring churches for 19 years, getting higher degrees, and traveling the world. I hope that you find them helpful and that I’ll see you here again. Subscribe below to keep updated on the posts.

The Unique Obstacles of Traveling in the Time of Coronavirus

Summary: if you are traveling internationally, get ready for obstacles and challenges. Covid amplified all of these. Understanding them can help prepare you for whatever international travel may throw at you.

Going to Scotland Egypt in the Time of Coronavirus
In January 2021, my daughter Anna and I were four months away from going to Scotland, and one thing was becoming very clear. We were not going to go to Scotland. Scotland was not going to welcome Americans in May 2021. That’s not quite correct. Scotland would welcome Americans, BUT they had to quarantine for 14 days before entering the country. Once they got out of quarantine, everything would be closed. No bagpipes. No castles. No tours. No restaurants. No shops. Scotland was in strict lockdown, and the government was going to consider getting out of lockdown in late April 2022. Scotland was out.

But I did not give up on taking my daughter on an amazing senior trip. What we had to do was find a place that would let Americans in without quarantining. Turns out that there were a lot of places. Just not the first ones on our list. England? Out. Italy? Out. France? Out. Germany? Out. Latin America? Wide open. You didn’t even need Covid tests to enter Mexico and several other countries. However, none of these places in Latin America captured my imagination like Scotland. They didn’t have the mystery, the wonder, and the history that Scotland had. Later, I learned that I was wrong about Latin America, but that’s another story for another time.

At that time, only one country on the list did have the wonder, the mystery, the glory, and the history of Scotland and maybe more: Egypt. I started looking into it. I contacted Memphis Tours and started talking to Maged Al-Gohari about it. A close second on the list was Turkey. Memphis Tours could combine a tour of both. Unfortunately, I just could not make it work with the flights and the dates I had for the trip. I remember having a conversation with my wife about this. “I just think it would be so epic, if we could go to Egypt and Turkey.”

She responded, “Egypt sounds pretty epic to me.” So, we “settled” on Egypt, the land of the Pharaohs and the pyramids. Covid opened the door to a place that we might not have considered but is now at the top of the list of my recommendations. I will talk more about why in later posts.

Covid Just Kept Going
Covid had a way of altering plans and making travel more challenging. On my last trip to Mexico, we breezed through customs without any delays. It was a stark comparison to the complications of the pandemic world.

After the Egypt trip, my wife and I planned a trip to Cancun. Because of all the complications of government shutdowns, passports were delayed considerably.

We were scheduled to leave on September 29, 2021. My wife had applied for her passport in May with what seemed like a lot of time to get it. By 10 days before the trip, the passport had not arrived. At that point in the process, one is permitted to call and ask for an emergency appointment leading to a printing of the passport. The only appointment available before the departure was in New Orleans, 10 hours away. The closest city with an appointment was Atlanta. Unfortunately, the only appointment available was a day after our departure. We made the appointment. We bought an additional ticket for her to come a day later to Cancun. It was the best we could do. We just hoped it would work.

Well, it did work. The passport arrived five days later. She didn’t have to go to New Orleans or wait in Atlanta.

But something else happened, or more accurately, Covid happened. Most of our kids got Covid the week of our departure, though Melinda and I did not. We did not have to have a Covid test to get into Mexico. However, we still could not enter the plane because we had been in contact with those who had tested positive for Covid. Even if we did go to Mexico, it seemed that we could get Covid while we were there, and we did need a Covid test to get back into the United States. We could end up in quarantine there. Finally, we could not leave our sick kids with my parents who were going to watch the kids. So, we canceled postponed our trip to November. It all turned out fine, but it was a challenging time of waiting and wondering.

Something similar happened on our second trip to Egypt. The omicron variant of Covid arrived, and people started dropping out of the trip. We were down from what had been 14 to 6. Then, I got Covid a few days before our departure. Thanks be to God, we were able to reschedule our trip from February to September. But working with an Egyptian company where we had already paid, we just weren’t sure how it would all work out. Memphis Tours did a great job and accommodated us well.

By August 2022, we thought we were putting Covid behind us. When we went to the counter to check in to our flight from Bogota, Colombia, they asked for our vaccination cards. We had not brought them. Fortunately, they accepted digital copies. We were able to secure them and get on the plane. Covid was still with us.

And even that was not the end. A big disappointment for me was that my good friend who was going to accompany me to Mexico in November 2022 was not able to go on the trip. He got Covid a few days before we were to leave. Though he perhaps could have travelled legally, he had not really recovered and was not sure how sick he would be. He cancelled the trip.

Covid Tests
It was not just Covid that made it difficult to travel in the time of the coronavirus. It was the hoops you had to jump through in order to do it.

For example, all we needed to do to enter Egypt was take a Covid test before going. Simple, right? Except for two problems. One, you had to have it 96 hours before your last flight. This was a problem because you never knew for sure when you would get the results back. I could find no place that would guarantee the return of the results within that time period. All the places that did the tests sent them off to labs, and they had no control over when the results would come back. In spite of all this, I was relatively confident that the results would come back in time. Relatively confident but by no means 100% confident.

The other problem was harder to figure out. The Egyptian government required a test that was a stamped and signed original paper document from the laboratory conducting the test. Apparently, this was relatively common in Egypt but extremely uncommon in America. Most places sent their tests off to various labs. I researched the various labs. I tried to figure out if I could go directly to them. There was nothing like that. It seemed that perhaps in New York City (many, many hours from my home), there might be something like that, but even that wasn’t clear.

What became clear was this: I would not be able to get a signed and stamped test on an original paper document. So, I started to research whether or not this was really that important. I did find some anecdotal evidence that this might be OK. People had gone to Egypt. No one said anything about being turned back because of a lack of a stamped and signed test. My tour company didn’t even know that much about it. It did not seem like a big deal, but I wanted certainty. I did not get it. So, I worried about it, but, in the end, I was pretty confident the simple test from CVS would work.

The week of our departure, I had to carry out the Covid test. As soon as I could schedule the test, I did so. I set it for two o’ clock on Thursday afternoon, which would work well for our Sunday departure, timed perfectly with a little bit of margin and maximum opportunity for the test to return before we left.

Then, two things happened. First, I checked United’s Travel Ready Center for the 10th time. It turned out that we would need another Covid test. Earlier in my research, nations were allowing people to pass through their airports to other destinations without any conditions. So, I didn’t think much about it. However, Germany had changed their policy. They were now going to require a negative test within 48 hours of departure to Germany.

The problem with Germany’s requirement was that our Egypt test would not work. It was too early. We also could not wait and do our Egypt Covid test later because we needed to make sure we had the results from the lab in time. So, there was no way around it. We would have to do two tests. Fortunately, Germany allowed the rapid test. Egypt demanded a lab test. We paid approximately $600 for four tests.

The second thing that happened was that a dear friend and member of our church passed away the week before we were to depart for Egypt. As their pastor, I wanted to care for this family and do what I needed to do to accommodate them in any way I could. So, I talked to the wife and asked her when she was thinking about having the funeral. She replied, “Thursday at 2:00.” I thought, Uh oh. That is the time of the Covid test. Fortunately, we worked it all out. I ended up going to the viewing, then going to get the test, and then going back to do the funeral. On Saturday, we got the test to go to Germany. I also had received the results of our lab tests on Friday. All negative! So, I had four Covid test results in my hand (including two for my daughter), and I was confident, but not certain, that this would get us into Egypt.

On my next trip, the era of Covid testing was far from over. In November, my wife and I went to Mexico. One great thing about Mexico was that you did not need a Covid test to enter the country. However, to get back into the U.S., you needed a Covid test. Fortunately, the U.S. government never demanded the use of the lab test. The rapid test was always sufficient. So, you could get it the same day you left. The all inclusive hotel we stayed at in Cancun made them available right there. That’s where my wife got hers before she left. I went on to Guadalajara. In Bugambilias, where I was staying a week later, it was a little more complicated. I had to go to a pharmacy that had a doctor. The doctor I found only spoke Spanish. I could have conversations in Spanish without any problem, but I still committed many errors, especially mixing masculine and feminine. The doctor asked me, “What is your name?”

I said, “John.”

“Como se escribe (how do you write it?)?” She asked.

I began, “Joto. No! Jota!” Jota means “j.” Let’s just say that joto does not.

Nevertheless, I got my Covid test and reentered the U.S. without any problem.

By the time of our next trip, which was to Spain, I had things figured out. You could enter Spain with the proof of vaccination, which I had. However, the United States, never allowed proof of vaccination in place of a Covid test for entering the U.S. during the entire pandemic. Nevertheless, availability of Covid tests had certainly increased. You could get an at home test where it was verified by someone watching online. They would send the results to your phone, and that was sufficient. So, the evening before we left, we were able to do the tests in our hotel room.

I bought those same tests for the return from Egypt. However, by September 2022, Egypt and the United States had both removed their Covid requirements. We traveled internationally for the first time without any Covid restrictions whatsoever.

There are almost always uncertainties in international travel, but learning to travel in the time of coronavirus was a baptism by fire when it came to the variables and uncertainties of international travel. I consider it a real accomplishment that I did not let this hinder me from traveling. I made it to Egypt and Mexico and Spain and Colombia and back in the time of coronavirus! I had become a world traveler in the unlikeliest of times. However, we still had one big problem that existed completely outside of Covid . . . plane trouble. That’s what I’ll talk about in my next article.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope it encourages you to move forward in the face of the challenges of international travel so that you can experience it’s amazing benefits. I hope to see you here again.

The Joy of Taking People with You on Trips

Summary: It is a great joy to travel, and is also a great joy to take other people with you when you travel.

When I went to Egypt, I took a cruise on the Nile from Aswan to Luxor on the M.S.S. Salacia. On that cruise, I met a man from Austria named Elmar. He traveled by himself. He had a German speaking guide who led him around the sites. He seemed to enjoy just traveling by himself. But most people don’t. They want to go with someone. But who do you take? For me, that is a particularly difficult question. I have seven children, a daughter-in-law, a son-in-law, and a wife. Who should I take? My second trip to Egypt with my two daughters and wife cost around $14,000. Only with the special Covid money and their money from work were we able to afford it (see my explanation of this *here). There was no way I could take all 11. Continue reading “The Joy of Taking People with You on Trips”

How to Pay for International Trips

Summary: Really make your goal to travel, and you will find the money. I offer some specific tips as well.

Two Principles for Paying for International Trips
After we got home from our first trip, my daughter said to me, “When I get more money, I want to travel.”

I told her, “No. That’s the wrong way to think about it. Decide to travel, and you will find the money.” You either tell money where to go, or it will tell you where to go, as the old saying goes. Continue reading “How to Pay for International Trips”