Travel in 2021
Another year comes to a close, and the pandemic rages on. Everything and nothing has changed in the past year. A year ago, my first pandemic era international trip went shockingly well. What I didn't realize then was how relatively easy travel still was, despite numerous border closures and entry restrictions. As long as you had a negative PCR test, it was usually straightforward to enter any country that was open. 2021 was the year where government bureaucracy caught up with the pandemic, and travel become much more difficult & frustrating. While most still required a PCR test, the requirements changed often, were inconsistent, confusing and frustrating. Emirates (the airline) went so far as to publish a list of approved test labs, and if you didn't get a PCR test from a lab on that list, you would be denied boarding. But it was worse than that, with some countries requiring both entrance and exit tests, some requiring very specific test result formats ("you must have a QR code"), and some requiring not just a negative test but an approved "travel permit" before you can even fly there. Travel has become harder, and were it not for the rewards once in the country, it wouldn't be worth all the hassle and aggravation.
The second and third major trips of the year were increasingly desperate last minute attempts to salvage failed plans. While the second trip was always supposed to be to west Africa, the countries that we actually visited were not the same as what we were supposed to visit. And the third trip of the year was literally put together about 5 weeks before departure when the planned country changed their COVID19 test requirements in a way that made the planned itinerary impossible.
Despite all of the chaos, I managed to visit 8 new countries in 2021 (a big improvement over 2020), Afghanistan, Egypt, Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin, Iraq and Qatar. It was literally a year of nothing but Africa & Asia, and I have no regrets on that front. I finished the year with my lifetime country count sitting at 59. I entered Asia for the 19th and 20th times. Africa is now tied with Europe at 7 entries.
I also needed to mail out my passport to get three visas (Afghanistan, Mali and Burkina Faso). Overall, they went smoothly.
While I couldn't have planned it this way if I had tried, I oddly managed to visit both of George W. Bushes war legacies, Afghanistan & Iraq in the past year. The sad part is that I was one of the last tourists to enter Afghanistan, as the country collapsed and was taken over by the Taliban 6 months later.
Airlines were a grab bag of randomness. I flew Lufthansa, Emirates, Air France, Air Burkina, Kam Air, ASKY, Iraq Air and Qatar Air. ASKY was easily the worst of the bunch, departing late on a 40 minute flight, then screwing up the landing and needing to go around and attempt it again. Qatar was the biggest pleasant surprise with a genuinely great experience overall (although their website is a horrible mess).
I have big plans for 2022, although its already causing me grief. I would love to revisit things a year from now and announce that travel has become easier. However, I suspect that the pandemic will continue to make things very difficult, and the coming year will be, in many respects, no better than 2021.