Persona Non Grata

Image result for passport

I have tried to teach my daughters that when you travel internationally, you have to be patient and ready for almost anything.  In other words, screaming, pouting, and stomping your foot will do no good.  You are at the mercy of circumstances, so go with the flow of the adventure.

I had to remind myself of this lesson this past March when I helped organize a group of biology students and scientists to go to New Zealand on a trip to learn about birds, conservation, and culture. Flights to New Zealand often go through Los Angeles.  This trip was no different.  The majority of the group was booked on a late night flight from L.A. to Auckland.  Most everyone went on the flight before me because I wanted to make sure everyone was accounted for.  As I went up and had my passport scanned, I was pulled aside.  There was a problem on the New Zealand end with me entering the country.  Granted, I had had a work visa there in 2002 and had last gone their when I was living in Hong Kong, but that was seven years prior.  While the plane continued to load, several agents tried to get the right New Zealand number to get my entry cleared—which had happened in the past.  They just needed the code for clearance.  I kept saying, “This is my group I’m leading on this plane.  I need to be on it with them.”  I admit, I did not say this calmly.  I might have been described as screaming, pouting, and stomping my foot.  I was allowed one call to someone on the plane in our group.

Two hours later, with the plane on its way to New Zealand and me still at the gate while up to five agents with three cell phones tried to get the computer code to work, I suggested that I get a hotel and get to bed.  It was three a.m. according to my clock.

The next day was ground hog day—same gate, same time, same agents.  I was cleared and arrived in New Zealand a day late.  How was I to find my group that was off on an island looking at endangered species?  My friend who was the tour guide on the ground gave me some directions via email:  Go outside the door of the airport near the McDonalds.  Look for a van from this particular hotel.  Go to the hotel and sleep and relax.  At 4 p.m. get a tax and ask the tax to take you to the Gull gas station in the little town of Kumeu, which will be about thirty minutes away.  Wait at the gas station and we will pass by.  By this point I was really sorry that I had not activated my phone for use in New Zealand, but I could look at a map via internet at the hotel to see where Kumeu and the gas station was.

I followed the directions.  The taxi cab driver was very skeptical and didn’t want to abandon me at a gas station.  He kept asking people to make sure it was the right gas station and went next door and got a chair for me to sit on while I waited.  I suggestion he come back the next day to make sure I wasn’t still there.  I sat on my chair with my big zebra striped suitcase as people came and went, looking at me with some curiosity, including the local police.  It was a beautiful sunny day.  An hour later the bus pulled in and I was welcomed back into the flock.


The rest of the trip was pure pleasure.  No pouting, screaming, or stomping of my feet.  I was just happy to be back in New Zealand with its Norfolk pines, the Cabbage trees, the Kaka parrots, the seafoam candy, the Stitch bird, and the Silver Fern.  It felt like being home.



Kurdish Iraq: Universals or Cultural Diffusion

I can’t say that I ever told anyone that I wanted to visit the Kurdish region of Iraq.  But then, I never said that I didn’t want to visit the Kurdish region of Iraq.  And thus began an adventure to Sulaymaniyah, near the Iranian border.

The first step was to read the Department of State website on going to Iraq which I will paraphrase:  Don’t go.  If you insist on doing so, update your will and make sure your daughters know all your passwords.  This did not seem to deter me and I didn’t even need to get a visa beforehand to go to Sulaymaniyah.

The next step was to figure out the logistics of travel.  How do you get there?  My hosts arranged for a direct flight from Boston to Qatar and from Qatar it was just a flight of several hours up the Persian Gulf and then over the Mesopotamian region of Iraq into the mountains of Kurdistan.  What a great adventure indeed to be able to see this region en route from above!



As we approached the city we flew over snow-capped mountains and I saw greenhouses in the green valleys of the rural areas.

Kurdistan rural area


I had a wonderful and interesting time during my day and a half in Sulaymaniyah.  I was treated well.  I had wonderful Turkish coffee.  Security was present but no more onerous that going through metal detectors when you enter the Smithsonian Institute, or approaching an airport after 911.


I left with one impressions and one question.  First, my strong impression was that the fathers and grandfathers loved and cared for their children and grandchildren.  I saw this everywhere.  But the question that remains for me is about how the “Michigan Left” ended up being used in Sulaymaniyah or how a Sulaymaniyah left came to be used in Michigan.  If you are unfamiliar with this traffic pattern, Wikipedia describes it as:  A Michigan left is an at-grade intersection design that replaces each left turn at an intersection between a divided roadway and a secondary roadway with the combination of a right turn followed by a U-turn, or a U-turn followed by a right turn, depending on the situation.

I remain awake at night pondering this puzzle and the different possibilities.  Is this an instance off cultural diffusion and if so, in which direction?  Did a Kurdish traffic engineer come to Michigan and introduce this or did a Michigan traffic engineer contribute to planning in Sulaymaniyah?  Or did traffic engineers in both places come up with this solution to a problem independent of each other but with the same outcome?  Is it a universal truth that traffic engineers everywhere come up with crazy solutions to simple problems?