Earl left home in 1999 with $1500 in his bank account and the idea of taking a three month backpacking trip through SE Asia. That same trip has yet to end and has involved endless adventures. Earl doesn’t collect stamps in his passport; instead he focuses on human interactions and life lessons to be learned while traveling, volunteering, and working abroad. Whether escaping from kidnappers on Bangladesh or living on the beach in Mexico, his goal is to get a first-hand education that only travel can provide. Please enjoy a week-in-the-life of Wandering Earl in the Middle East!
This post was originally published in 2011. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
2020 Update: Earl recently co-founded Remote Club; a resource for remote workers to find out where to live, work, and connected with like-minded people around the world.
Day One: Sunday
8AM: Check out of the pleasant Chrakan Hotel and along with Anil from FoxNomad.com, with whom I am traveling at the moment, catch a shared taxi to the town of Erbil, which is the regional capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. During the three hour journey, we pass through several heavily-guarded checkpoints where we hand over our passports for inspection. At one checkpoint, we are led into a shipping container which turns out to be the office of a US Marine in charge of the site. He warns us that despite the relative peace in the region, there is always the potential for trouble.
11AM: Check into the Shahan Hotel in Erbil and join Anil for his last lunch (chicken sandwiches) before he catches a taxi to the airport for his flight home.
12PM: Work for three hours in my hotel room and one hour at an internet cafe that has a surprisingly decent connection.
4PM: Walk up the path to the Erbil Citadel to watch the sunset from the top of the hill. With stomach growling, I wander over to the friendly chicken sandwich shop where I ate my first meal in Iraq a week before, but they are closed. Spend an hour trying to find an open restaurant. End up eating a terrible falafel sandwich from a street stall and three bananas.
8PM: Drink one last cup of tea from the tea stall next to my hotel while engaging in a conversation with another customer that unfortunately never makes it beyond “Salaam” (hello) due to my lack of Kurdish and his lack of English skills. Suddenly decide I’m not ready to return to my room and begin exploring random streets, all of which are eerily empty and quiet. I think I hear someone following me, turn around and find nobody there. Start walking again and think I hear more footsteps. Decide it’s time to return to my hotel.
Day Two: Monday
7AM: Wake up and go for one last stroll through the streets of Erbil. Hail a taxi to the “Dohuk Garaj” where I find a shared taxi to take me to the town of Dohuk. Wait thirty minutes inside the taxi office while the two men behind the counter argue over which town, Erbil or Dohuk, has the better discos for picking up women. Finally we have enough passengers to fill the taxi and we all pile into a 1980s BMW station wagon and shake hands with the friendly driver. The three hour journey begins.
11:30AM: Arrive in Dohuk and follow my taxi driver to what he informs me is the ‘best cheap hotel in Dohuk’, which surprisingly, turns out to be the best cheap hotel in Dohuk. Check in to my spacious room and promptly fall asleep for an hour.
1PM: Wander around the streets of Dohuk for three hours, turning every which way through the never-ending maze that is the main market. Across bridges, down alleyways and along rivers I go, spending the final hour completely lost while trying to find my hotel.
4PM: Buy three chicken sandwiches (there is no other food served in restaurants in Kurdistan), some pomegranate and cake in a cup from a nice young guy who was excited to practice his English. Return to my hotel room to eat my feast.
6PM: Venture outside again in search of an open barbershop and eventually find one with a barber who finds it absolutely hilarious that I don’t speak any Kurdish. All he can say in English is “No” and so after everything I say, he proudly yells out “No” and smiles. Enjoy a one hour shave that includes a facial massage and a variety of foul-smelling lotions and creams being smeared all over my cheeks and chin.
7:30PM: Return to my room and write a post about the barber, which I then delete immediately after finishing. The post is terrible. Spend four hours working on my websites before falling asleep for the night.
Day Three: Tuesday
9AM: Take a shared taxi to the village of Amediya, which involves me being wedged into the back of a vehicle with three chain-smoking Kurdish soldiers. Once the soldiers get off at their army base, I spend the final forty-five minutes of the drive through the beautiful Kurdish countryside listening to the taxi driver tell me interesting stories about Saddam Hussein’s connection to this part of Iraq.
11AM: Roam around the streets of Amediyah, play football with some local children and spend three hours in a small restaurant speaking with the British/Kurdish owner and his two brothers. Eat more chicken sandwiches, drink five cups of tea and try to converse with many locals who are quite curious about the foreigner sitting in front of the restaurant.
5PM: Arrive back in Dohuk and return to my hotel, where I discover that the Baghdad football (soccer) team has checked-in a day ahead of their game against Dohuk. Sit in the lobby for two hours chatting with some of the players and coaches, feeling relieved that they are eating chicken sandwiches too.
8PM: Walk up the stairs to my room and work for four hours on my laptop.
Day Four: Wednesday
7AM: Take a final walk through the streets of Dohuk, which lasts all of ten minutes due to the 0C (32F) temperature outside. Not wanting to deal with the cold any longer than necessary, I return to my room, fire up my laptop and immediately book a flight to Bangkok. After purchasing the ticket, realize that I’ve given myself only two days to make the ridiculously long journey from Dohuk to Damascus, Syria, from where my flight will depart. Take a few minutes to wonder why my life is so full of such crazy last-minute decisions and then take a shower, where I proceed to accidentally rip the shower head out of the wall.
8AM: Stand in the cold for an hour at the “Zakho Garaj” while waiting for more passengers to fill up the shared taxi that will take me to the town of Zakho, close to the Iraq/Turkey border.
10:45AM: Discover I’ve been dropped off at the wrong end of Zakho and must now take another taxi to the other side. Finally arrive at the border where I receive my exit stamp from the Iraqi immigration officer and book a seat in another shared taxi that will take me across the border to the Turkish town of Silopi.
12PM: Pass through a second Iraqi immigration inspection as well as a customs inspection, which involves removing every suitcase, bag and box from the taxi and leaving them on the pavement until each passenger hands over a bribe of one carton of cigarettes to the inspecting officer. For some reason, probably due to a lack of communication abilities, I do not have to pay the bribe.
12:30PM: Our taxi driver skips the line of 75 vehicles waiting to pass through the Turkish immigration inspection and drives straight to the front, resulting in a strong reprimand from a police officer and a violent fist fight between other taxi drivers and their passengers who start arguing with each other. We quietly pass through immigration while the others are fighting.
1PM: Just as we approach the customs inspection, the Turkish Immigration’s computer system malfunctions and we wait for one and a half hours until it is restored. Our taxi driver sends me and another passenger into the duty-free shop to buy some cigarettes to use as a bribe but when we come back outside, our taxi driver has disappeared. Turns out he decided to update his border registration card and thirty minutes later he appears again and then drives us into Silopi.
4:45PM: Finally arrive at the Turkey/Syria border town of Nusaybin after a combination of shared taxis, microbuses and a shared van that covered the 180 kilometer trip in just under four hours.
4:55PM: After some confusion about my Syrian visa, I cross into Syria five minutes before the border closes. Walk into the Syrian town of Qamishli and take a taxi to the bus station.
5:30PM: Book a night bus ticket to Damascus and with five hours to kill, take a taxi back into town (which the driver refuses to let me pay for because he is so happy to have an American in his vehicle). Rent a hotel room for a few hours, take a much-needed nap, eat some roast chicken at the night market and spend two hours working on my laptop.
11PM: Board the night bus to Damascus and am thrilled to find that the seat next to me is the only empty seat on the bus. Not thrilled to find that the bus smells like a smoking room at an airport.
Day Five: Thursday
6:30AM: Arrive in Damascus and check into the friendly Al-Haramain Hotel, where I had previously stayed and despite having the toilet crammed into a tiny closet under the staircase, is quite a good value. Immediately fall asleep.
12PM: Wake up and work for three hours on my laptop.
3PM: Wander outside and re-visit all of my favorite places – banana milkshake stall, falafel stand, bakery – from my previous visit. Walk to the Old City and enter the stunning Umayyad Mosque, where I sit on the marble floor and relax for a few hours. As the sun begins to set and the crowds begin to clear, I enjoy the mesmerizing sight before me. I’m the last person to leave the mosque after convincing the security guard to let me soak up the atmosphere for a few extra minutes. Upon exiting the mosque, I meet a young local fellow who wants to practice his English and we walk around the city together for thirty minutes while discussing life in Syria.
7:30PM: Stop by the famous Bakdash ice cream parlour in the middle of the Old City for one last cup of vanilla ice cream topped with pistachios and cashews.
8PM: Eat one last falafel sandwich from my favorite falafel vendor and return to my hotel. Chat with some other travelers over a cup of tea.
10PM: Write another post and work for three hours before laying down for my final night’s sleep on this Middle East adventure.
Day Six: Friday
9AM: Leave the hotel and hail a taxi to the Damascus International Airport where I check in for my Gulf Air flight to Bangkok. While waiting to board the plane I sit down on a metal bench that immediately breaks and I fall to the floor. In the process of laughing at myself, I spill my bottle of water all over my pants.
2PM: First leg of the journey complete as I land in Bahrain. Spend five hours making good use of the free Wi-Fi in the Bahrain airport while meeting a handful of interesting people in the departure lounge. Try to charge my laptop by using an outlet located in the corner of a busy gate, but too many people trip over my cord and after receiving several angry looks (and watching one person possibly sprain his ankle), I give up.
8PM: Board my flight to Bangkok. Watch the first half of “Toy Story 3” and sleep the rest of the way.
Day Seven: Saturday
6AM: Flight lands at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok and I pass through immigration and customs in less than ten minutes. Check in for my Air Asia flight to Chiang Mai. Exercise by walking up and down the departure terminal for an hour. Write a post on my laptop.
10:30AM: Arrive in Chiang Mai. Grab a taxi and ten minutes later, check into a guesthouse. Check emails and find an invitation from the GotPassport crew for lunch at a Burmese restaurant. Travel across town, get lost for an hour trying to find the restaurant and eventually sit down for a wonderful Burmese meal with even better company. The Thailand stage of my adventure begins…
After his thrilling visit to Northern Iraq and the Middle East and a brief visit to Thailand, Earl is in Australia spending time with friends and working on a few new projects. He plans to return to Southeast Asia for a couple of months and is considering returning to India or visiting Mongolia in the summer. All plans are subject to change as always and he wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up in Colombia or Moldova instead.
No matter where he ends up, Earl is proving that living a life of extended travel is not an impossible dream, but a legitimate lifestyle that most of us are able to achieve.
And for anyone interested in traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan, Wandering Earl will begin offering occasional small group excursions through the region within the next couple of months…details coming soon at Wandering Earl.