What’s The Most Interesting Place You’ve Been?

Back in November 2017, I saw this job opening at the New York Times. They wanted to hire one person to travel to all 52 places on their “52 places to visit in 2018” list. The qualifications included stuff like “has prior experience at a magazine, publishing company, newspaper, digital publication, film, or other media organization”. Well, Facebook is kind of like a media organization, right?

Naturally, I applied.

One of the questions in the application was “Describe the most interesting place you’ve been to in 500 words”. Here’s what I wrote…

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25-year old Sameer

It was the middle of June in 2012. My plane from Amsterdam landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania. A few months ago, a friend had reached out and asked me to join for a climb up the tallest mountain in Africa. After initial skepticism, I had agreed. As we drove from the airport to our lodgings, we saw it in front of us, towering almost 20,000 feet above anything else in sight. It was awe-inspiring and intimidating.

Shortly after dinner that evening, we met our guide. His name was John, a middle-aged, extremely fit Tanzanian man. This would be his 67th ascent up the mountain. After a general briefing, he said: “If anyone gets altitude sickness up there, we WILL ask you to turn around. Even if you can see the summit from where you are, you MUST turn around. Failure is hard, but at least you will live to fight another day”. Everyone was quiet as that sank in.

Next morning, we started our ascent with a group of porters. All of them were Tanzanian, and most of them did not have proper hiking gear. One of them was wearing flip-flops. I asked him how he was able to hike without proper shoes. He responded with a smile, in broken English, “My body is used to this. A good pair of shoes is beyond my budget and feeding my family takes higher priority”. I later tipped him all the money I had.

After four days, we arrived at Camp Barafu, 15,200 feet above sea level. The plan was to hike up to the summit overnight and arrive by sunrise. High altitude was taking its toll on all of us and I had a throbbing headache that was reminding me that I could have trained harder. We started our slow crawl up the mountain face in the darkness, one step at a time, pausing every five steps to breathe. Ahead of me was a long line of headlamps snaking up the mountain like a gigantic worm. Snow started appearing on the otherwise barren landscape, shining brightly under the light of the moon. The clouds were far below us, and the sky was full of stars. So many stars that I didn’t even think was possible to see from Earth. It felt like a dream, except the pain in my legs was very real.

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One of our guides

Eventually, the sky turned pastel pink and the summit appeared in front of us just as the sun rose above the clouds. We saw a sign declaring that we had made it to Uhuru Peak, and that all paths there-on led downwards. A girl from the group asked me if I had the energy to do a salsa dance move right in front of the sign. I obliged, and we produced eight counts of the worst salsa performance in history.

It didn’t matter. We were at the top of Africa. All of its nature, beauty, and people lay below us, bathed in the light of the rising sun. In that moment, I felt alive.

Kili 4

Uhuru Peak – 19,341 ft above sea level

Is This Visa Worth The Pain?

Originally posted from London in November 2014.

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Our government is so efficient, said no one ever. And for good reason, as I learned that day. Let me explain how immigration rules, international bureaucracy, consulate red tapes, and outdated technology joined forces to produce one hell of a cluster-fuck that probably left me with a few permanently grey hair.

The goal of this whole exercise: To go on a vacation from England to mainland Europe for one week. Simple enough except for one little thing – a visa. England isn’t part of the Schengen Agreement and therefore has it’s own separate visa. So to get from here to the rest of Europe, people who don’t have western/first-world passports (like yours truly) need a Schengen visa.

I had done this many times before, so I wasn’t too worried initially. I gathered up my documents and showed up at the German consulate at 9AM. Here’s how it unfolded:

  1. The airline ticket reservation: This is a remnant from the days when travel agents were the only source of cheap airline tickets. Today there are excellent websites that let you get tickets with relatively less pain. The catch is that there is no such thing as a ‘reservation’ for most of these websites. You buy a ticket or you don’t. Immigration departments, of course haven’t caught up to modern technologies such as the internet and ask for a ‘reservation that doesn’t have to be an actual ticket’. In practice, it ends up being an actual ticket and you waste all that money if your visa gets rejected for any reason. Being a semi-professional visa-getter, I was willing to take risk and had already purchased a ticket. So far, so good?
  2. The letter of employment: Ah yes. “Prove to us that someone is willing to pay you to work for them. We want to be sure that you will leave their lovely country when you’re done taking Insta-worthy photos in front of famous monuments.
    I was expecting this, so I had taken my previous six pay-slips to prove that I did indeed have a job. Turned out that having a job in *the US* doesn’t make the cut.
    We want proof that you are employed in the UK. The fact that you’re telling me that you’re working in the London office of your company will not work unless you get a letter issued by your London office.
    This led to a frantic email by me to the HR department, who thankfully put together said letter in an hour. I love my company. They understand what I go through.
  3. Proof of financial well-being: I produced my last three bank statements and put them in front of the consulate officer.
    Oh we can’t accept any bank statements that are not from a bank in the UK.
    Fuck.
    But I came here two weeks ago, I don’t have three months of banking history here.
    Well, the only other acceptable proof would then be travel checks for 50 GBP per day of your vacation.
    “Please being all these documents and come back before 3PM.”

    Fuck. My. Life.

    For those of you who are curious, here is what a traveler’s check looks like:Travelers Check
    Indeed, it is as ancient as the figure on it.Anyway, I opened Google search and typed: “Where can I get traveler’s checks?”.
    A few UK banks showed up in the results.
    I ran to bank number 1.
    We stopped doing traveler’s checks a long time ago. Most people these days use credit cards.
    No shit, Sherlock.I ran to bank number 2.
    Why yes, we do support outdated monetary instruments. Would you like to place an order and collect your checks in a couple of days?
    Nope.

    I ran to Mark & Spencer because some random person on the street suggested that they may have traveler’s checks.
    Old lady at the counter at M&S, probably older than my mother: “We stopped issuing these last year. Who uses that in this day and age?
    Uh. Germany?

    I ran to a post office.
    YES! We do issue these and can give them to you right away, just swipe your debit card here. But wait, your card doesn’t have a chip?
    No, because America hasn’t moved on from magnetic stripes.” (Remember, this was in 2014).
    Too bad. Maybe go to an ATM?

    I ran to an ATM. At this point, I was sweating and furious.
    I withdrew 200 GBP, which was the maximum allowed in one transaction. I was still about 200 GBP short, so I put the card back in for another transaction.
    And BAM. My bank in the US suddenly blocked the card.
    I dialed the bank emergency line. Someone picked up and suggested I call again when it isn’t 3AM in their timezone.

    I ran to my office, and ended up borrowing loose cash from a friend who happened to have 200 GBP on him. This must be my lucky day!
    I then ran back to the post office, GBP notes flying everywhere, and finally get the aforementioned obsolete monetary instruments.

    I ran back to my office, created copies of everything to hand over to the German consulate and hopped on a train back to the German consulate.

    Back at the interview counter: “Do you have a UK phone number?
    Surely you jest madam, I just got here 2 weeks ago and I still use my number from the US.
    We can’t proceed then, how will we inform you when your passport is ready to be collected?
    There is a new technology called email.
    Yes, but we need to inform you via phone number. It’s our policy.
    Fuck your policy. That’s what I wanted to say. Instead, I gave them reception number for Facebook London.
    Your application is accepted. You will get your visa tomorrow.”

FUCKING. FINALLY.

Moral of the story – If you have a passport that lets you travel without going through a hair loss before every vacation abroad, then take a moment and thank your lucky stars.

As for me, I was finally allowed into mainland Europe where I spent my well earned traveler’s checks.

The Perfect Angle

I was in Paris earlier this year for a friend’s wedding. My schedule was packed, but I kept one full weekend free for touristing around one of my favorite European cities. Naturally, I wanted to use this opportunity to get an amazing picture of the Eiffel Tower. Here was the dilemma though — How do I capture one of the world’s most photographed monuments in a way that’s different from what everyone else is doing?

Well, here’s a stock photo of the tower taken from the Champs de Mars. If I had a penny for every time I’ve seen a photo taken from here, I’d be happily retired by now.

Clearly, this wasn’t an option. Alright, how about the other side then? The Statue Equestre du Maréchal Foch sits right across the River Seine and has a great view of the tower at sunrise. Turns out, I had already attempted this on my last trip to Paris in 2011. Behold, 24-year old Sameer:

Eiffel Tower - Statue Equestre du Maréchal Foch

Sadly, this vista point is too popular and I wasn’t the only one taking photos of the tower from here. I could do better than this. I spent a couple of hours sipping coffee at a little cafe by my Airbnb pondering on a good solution to my conundrum. Suddenly, I had a moment of inspiration. I recalled having seen some photo of the tower taken from a little side street. The details were a bit fuzzy in my head but I could remember that the street had some cars parked on it. Naturally, I opened Google and typed in “Eiffel Tower side street view”. I landed on this image on TripAdvisor.

Ok, there was some potential here, but how do I find this street? Judging by the height of the tower here, it looked like this could not be more than 2-3 blocks away from it. I hopped over to Google Maps on my phone and studied the location of the tower.

Eiffel Tower map

Interestingly, there aren’t that many streets close to the tower that would allow cars to be parked. I saw only two possibilities – one towards the South West of the tower, and one towards the North East. It was time to check this out in person. Camera in hand, I hopped on to a train and made my over. I walked around the tower, and towards the South West, on to Rue de Buenos Ayres. There was nobody else on this tiny, cobbled street besides a few cute, small cars. The tower was right in front of me, rising up into the sunshine. This was it – I could feel it. I took out my camera and walked up-and-down the street trying different angles and perspectives. Finally, I had the perfect shot, except that I wanted to be in it myself.

Luckily a couple walked by so I pulled them over and asked if they would be kind enough to indulge my demands for the perfect shot. They were tourists themselves, and naturally understood my desire to photograph this iconic monument. The gentleman took my camera and sat down on the corner of the street as instructed. He held the camera an inch off the ground, pointing up and diagonally across the street. And here it is. The result of all this work.