Saturday, March 31, 2012

Tbilisi: Loose Construction Scarf

Freedom Square in Tbilisi ... construction continues. I liked how the "scarf" came loose and was blowing in the breeze.

Freedom Square, Tbilisi, Georgia

Friday, March 30, 2012

Travel Blasphemy #3: It's OK Not to Travel

It's OK not to travel.  

What is travel, really?

Is there a minimum physical distance one must transfer one's body from Point A to Point B before it counts as travel?

To qualify as travel, must there be a minimum number of variables that differ between Point B and Point A, such as scenery, climate, language, cuisine, culture, or customs? Do some variables carry more weight than others?

Is unfamiliarity the key criterion for an activity to qualify as travel?

Is international travel "better" than domestic travel? Or the reverse?

Then there's the un-killable "tourist" v. "traveler" debate.

Some argue that one should travel in order to:
  • Broaden one's horizons;
  • Become more tolerant;
  • Learn what really matters; and
  • Learn how we're all the same.

 ... and that people who don't travel are:
  • Xenophobes
  • Close-minded
  • Scaredy-cats
  • Boring, couch-potato slugs
  • Unable to understand why they should travel
  • Unwilling to cast off the bourgeois shackles imprisoning them in a soul-less cubical life

But, really, it's OK not to travel if we don't want to. And if we don't want to travel, no excuses and no embarrassment are necessary. We just don't care to.

We can live a big, rich life without ever leaving our home town.

I'm not talking about just reading books, watching TV, or surfing the web, either, though all of those activities can bring the world to us.

I'm talking about people who travel their home environs via keen observation and study skills. Or who have avocations that teach them about the multiple natural and human universes within a small radius of their home base. Mushroom-hunting, for example. Working with refugees. Writing poetry. Micro-travelers, if you will.

And even if we were to drop all reference to travel, there are legions of well-rounded, non-judgmental, complete people who derive joy in "just" raising a family, walking in the woods, tending a garden, participating in local theater, chopping wood, or whatever it is that gives them pleasure. They simply don't care to travel; they prefer other enriching activities.

Me, I love to visit places that pique my curiosity, whether domestic or international. I'm not a better person for it, and to claim I have some higher calling to explain my travel would be bullshit. I just like it.

While on the topic of bullshit and travel, the truism about travel making people more open-minded, tolerant, etc. is bullshit. My experience is that the ratio of traveling assholes : pleasant travelers is about the same as non-traveling assholes : pleasant non-travelers. Furthermore, said asshole-ness is an equal opportunity state of being regardless of where s/he is on the tourist food chain.

I am among a tiny fraction of the planet's occupants who have the wherewithal to travel more than 100 miles from their residence.

I am supremely grateful that I can afford the luxury of travel.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Kate on the Loose, Part 6: Dahab

 My good friend, Kate, is on a solo trip in Egypt. On March 25, she wrote:

I arrived in Dahab Friday at noon.  The vibe is a lot like Montezuma, Costa Rica, but with more stray cats. My hotel is the Bishbishe, definitely a no star place, but of course I love it.  The rooms are basic but I do have an ensuite.

Everyone gathers in the outdoor lounge area filled with pillows and low tables, Bedouin style.  The owner is Jimmy, a very gregarious fellow, who loves to play backgammon.  They play in restaurants and love to challenge the tourists.

Yesterday I went to St. Catherine's Monastery, one of the oldest monasteries in the world.  We drove two hours out into the desert.  High stone mountains, no vegetation, lots of sand, it was very still and calming, had its own beauty.  Tradition has it that the burning bush GOD appeared to Moses through is still living within the monastary, replanted several centuries ago.  I have a picture.

The monastery is Greek Orthodox and the basilica was small but lovely, there were at least twenty chandeliers hanging.  Had some quiet time in the basilica and lit a candle.

We had at least 20 vehicles in a convoy for the return trip.  This is the area the kidnappings have occurred in.  We didn't have a convoy to the monastery so I figure they sleep in and only kidnap in the afternoon.

Today I went to the beach at a family resort.  Lots of children running around sans clothing.,also men in speedos, very European.  The water was calm and shallow quite a distance out.  Lots of wind surfers.  The area also has good diving.  I reclined (again) and read a trashy novel.  More of the same tomorrow.

Tomorrow night I leave for Jerusalem and meet up with Pam.  As the saying goes, next year in Jerusalem, but its tomorrow - can't wait.  But I will be sad to leave beautiful Egypt!!


Note from Mzuri: A true-life adventure story about two Victorian women and what they found at St. Catherine's here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Nothing There Tour #1: Vakhtangisi

Using a clever ruse, we photographed this man, who may have actually been to Azerbaijan, in order to take a clandestine photo of Azerbaijan, over there on the right, said country apparently not liking to be photographed, or Georgians not liking that it be photographed. 

This is the inaugural post for the Nothing There Tour, where I check out a place that has seemingly nothing to see, and either confirm or deny said nothingness.

Last weekend, colleague Sandy and I contemplated our choices for a day trip. At first we planned to go to Mtatsminda, a location overlooking Tbilisi, for its views and .... yawn ... some other stuff, like a church and a famous cemetery .... and we were game, but we felt lukewarm about it.

Then I remembered my pledge to myself to visit Gardabani. I loved telling Georgians that I planned to go to Gardabani because they always responded exactly the same way: "Gardabani?! Whyyyy?! There's nothing therrrre?!"

Would Sandy be interested in going to Gardabani? Why yes, she would!

Gardabani has a large Azeri-Georgian population and it's very close to the Azerbaijan border. Some villages are right on the border. The police mentioned Jandari as one example; Nely cited Vakhtangisi.

Vakhtangisi, Georgia. Houses. 2012

Sandy and I caught a Vakhtangisi-bound marshrutka (#13) at Old Bazaar in Old Rustavi. (Tbilisi also has marshrutkas going to the Gardabani area, which depart from Tbilisi's Didube station.) The fare to Vakhtangisi is 1 lari, 50 tetri.

As we chugged out of Rustavi, we passed two prisons, one for men and the other for women; factories, both active and defunct; and some sort of energy plant with structures that looked like nuclear power plants. We passed through Gardabani, a pleasant-looking town. We knew we'd stop there on the way back from our Vakhtnagisi tour.

Vakhtangisi, Georgia. House. 2012

The border crossing

About 45 minutes later, we arrived in Vakhtangisi, the end of the road.

In town, we went by a surprising event: men drumming and playing some kind of flute; a young girl riding in a flower-festooned, horse-drawn cart, holding a plate of fruit, many people gathered inside a schoolyard. What strange ritual this?

Vakhtangisi, Georgia. Bayrami 2012.

But our minds were on the border. When the marshrutka stopped, the first thing we did when we debarked was head to Azerbaijan. To get to Azerbaijan from Georgia, you have to get a letter of invitation from someone in Azerbaijan, submit your passports to some authority in advance, and pay some bucks. We didn't have any of those things. Except our passports. We'd brought them with us, just in case. Just in case what, we didn't know. But just in case.

Vakhtangisi, Georgia. Houses. 2012

We approached the border police officers. We smiled brightly.


Two or three uniformed police looked back, bemused. Then a non-uniformed gentleman walked over; he must have been the supervisor.  

"We just want to put a foot in Azerbaijan. Can we do that"?


"Can we just touch our hand on the Azerbaijan side"?

"No. Who are you? Are you tourists"?

"We're English teachers from America and Canada. Could you step in Azerbaijan and reach out to us and we'll hold your hand so we will be in Azerbaijan through you"?


"Can we take a photo of Azerbaijan"?



"Can you pick up a rock from Azerbaijan and bring it over to the Georgian side and we could touch it"?


"Is there a toilet"?

"Yes." And one of the men pointed to a small, stand-alone building. Just the size of an outhouse.

We walked over. There was a ditch filled with water which flowed behind the outhouse. I opened the door. It was nice! Heated! Western toilet! Very clean! In fact, here is a photo of the bathroom that is on the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Toilet in Vakhtangisi, Georgia, on Azerbaijan border. 2012

I used the toilet. Then Sandy used the toilet.

There was a woman standing outside when we'd both finished. Friendly smile from her. I pointed to the ditch and asked which way the water flowed. Toward Azerbaijan? Yes.

Very well, then. Mission accomplished, no visa required.

As we walked away from the border toilet, some men approached us. Don't know about what. Taxi, maybe. We took their picture.

Then we took a photo of Azerbaijan.

Vakhtangisi, Georgia. Georgia-Azerbaijan border. 2012.


Now it was time to go check out those strange goings-on at the school. We walked down the street. There is only the one in the village.

Vakhtangisi, Georgia. Houses. 2012

Every once in awhile, a lone car screamed down the street at warp speed, all the better to prove the driver's manhood, we supposed. Stoopids. We wondered how many pedestrians have been injured by such recklessness. 

Sandy and I walked into the school yard. Joyful! We heard music and saw young girls dancing. The horse and buggy, covered in fabric and flowers, was over on one side, fathers taking photos of their young daughters in the buggy.

Vakhtangisi, Georgia. Bayrami 2012.

Over on the right was a colorful picnic table filled with fruits, nuts, and breads. Men sat there, drinking tea from small, shapely glasses.

Vakhtangisi, Georgia. Bayrami 2012.

Vakhtangisi, Georgia. Bayrami 2012.

We looked on the school porch where there were girls directing each other in traditional dances, performed to tunes provided by a local DJ.

Sandy and I got up on the stage and danced, too.

What was all this about? It was bayrami (or more accurately, Novrus Bayram), an Azerbaijan (and others, too) holiday that welcomes spring. It was so ... splendid ... to be in this village on this day.  

We met the school's English teacher, Nata, along with some of the other teachers, who all live in Rustavi. Unfortunately, the school in Vakhtangisi doesn't have a TLG teacher.

We left smiling, with colored eggs, different kinds of nuts, and oranges stuffed into our bags.

We began to walk - for however long we felt like it - to Gardabani. We were 18 km from Rustavi.

Vakhtangisi, Georgia. 2012.

 We passed Vakhtangisi's internet cafe.

Vakhtangisi, Georgia. Internet cafe.

Outside the village, we passed sheep.

Vakhtangisi, Georgia. 2012

We followed a couple of bulls and their tender. Suddenly, they veered to the left when they spied some cows. Then tender chased after them. 

Vakhtangisi, Georgia.2012

We walked for a long while. When we reached the town of Kesalo, a car pulled up alongside. It was filled with the school teachers who live in Rustavi - we squished in and they dropped us off in Gardabani.

We loved our trip to Vakhtangisi.

Verdict: There is something there! 


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Kate on the Loose, Part 5: Sharm El Sheikh and Dahab

 My good friend, Kate, is on a solo trip in Egypt. On March 23, she wrote:
On Wed.  Flew from Aswan to Abu Simbel to see the magnificent temple of Ramses and his Queen Nefretari. These two temples were moved when the High Dam was built in the 70s.  They would have been flooded by the manmade Lake Nassar.  I went to the temples late in the afternoon so I could stay and see the Sound and Light Show.  Very impressive.  At the end of touring Ramses temple everyone else had gone and I was the only one in the temple.  A guy visiting with me while I had a soda said two years ago there would be 7000 visitors a day, now 500.  This is so hard for the Egyptians - come to Egypt it is so beautiful!!

My lodging in Abu Simbel was Escaleh built in the Nubian style, mud bricks plastered over; the ceilings were domed and the floors were rough stones.  Of course there was a patio with reclining couches overlooking Lake Nassar.  The food again was very good - especially a dish called tagen - chicken in an herbed sauce baked in an earthen pot.  The produce was grown in their garden and the chickens were also free range.

On Thursday I flew 12 hours - 3 flights to get to Sharm el Sheikh.  Got in at 11 pm and had an arranged ride.  When I met with the man from Memphis Tours in Aswan he kindly arranged my flights, cab pickups, and hotel in Sharm. After two nights in local Nubian guesthouses, the all-inclusive resort he booked for me was a shock.  All marble, crystal chandeliers, and western music.  My room had seating for 7, a shower for 2, and a bed for 5.  The suite was as big as my house.  Not my style.

So on to Dahab by local bus, as it's safer.  The guidebook said there was a bus at 10 am but no, only at 9 am and 3 pm.  So into a taxi I go -this scenario did cross my mind - she was last seen getting into a rickety cab with a guy in a white gown and a red and white checkered head scarf.  But the alternative of waiting in the bus station was worse than possible kidnapping.

We drive about 3 miles on the highway and then turn off on this little dirt road. I inquire Dahab?  He replies something that sounds like "no police", I settle back thinking oh, well.  Evidently we were taking a shortcut because we shortly got back on the highway.  We go another several miles and the rickety cab dies - I'm serious.  I've got to get in the front seat so he can lift up the back seat and tinker around, he does the same under the hood.  Meanwhile I'm waving off the hundreds of flies that have come into the cab to get out of the sun.  I'm fanning with my 15-year old raffia hat which has decided to molt, so I'm in flurry of raffia and flies. Meanwhile the car is not starting and a truck full of policemen stops - they talk for awhile and deciding I'm in good hands, drive off.  After about 20 minutes a van comes, I get in and the rest of the trip is uneventful.  Ah, the joys of independent travel!

Dahab is heavenly, laid back and right on the Red Sea.  I'm in the Bishbishi Hotel - $20 a night with an ensuite.  There is a covered outdoor area furnished with rugs and pillows to recline on.

I'm reclining there with a Stella, great Egyptian beer, and writing to you.  I had the best lunch, a falafel sandwich with a kiwi smoothie - $3.50.  I hope to eat there many times.


Monday, March 26, 2012

Kate on the Loose, Part 4: Nile Cruise

My good friend, Kate, is on a solo trip in Egypt. On March 21, she wrote:

Boarded the Sonestra Moon Goodess at noon on March 17th.  There were eight people in a dining room for 80.  I sat with a couple, Cheryl and George, from Mississippi. He teaches archeology, specializing in the Mayan civilization.  The first tour was to Luxor and Karnak. Words cannot describe the wonder.  By the end of the first day, the nine, yes only nine passengers for the first three days, we were all friends and shared all meals at a large round table.

The other USA couple were Susan and Ryan.  She teaches 5th grade in Tulsa, OK, and Ryan is an architect working on a new airport in Qatar.

There were two couples from the UK.  Tricia and David, retired, in their early 60s.  They travel all the time as does the other UK couple.  Neil and Julie, great fun.  Neil is on the national board that promotes football (rugby) in the UK.  He will be helping with table tennis at the Olympics.  We had a great time together and exchanged emails.  Tricia and David invited me for tea at the Cataract Hotel.  It's the grand old colonial hotel.  Quite lovely.

Each day on the cruise we toured - also the Valley of the Kings and Queens.  Some of the tombs had the original painted decoration. I didn't realize the outside and inside of temples were painted.  Of course most has worn off.  They clean the paintings but don't restore them.  In Aswan we saw the Phillae temple, a granite quarry, and the two Nile dams.

To get back to lodging: I, on the other hand, had booked a Nubian guesthouse room.  I took the local ferry (me and 30 Muslim men and women) and then walked up a dusty road to reach the guesthouse.  As I was walking along a young man trotted by on a camel.  I do love being with the locals - no posh hotel for me. The room and ensuite was large and clean.  The jewel of the house was a roof top terrace overlooking the Nile and the few Nubian homes.

Time to go to another temple.


Sunday, March 25, 2012


My TLG contract ends June 20.

TLG will pay my airfare back to the U.S. as long as my flight leaves from Tbilisi on or before July 15.

I've tossed around several options about where to go in this neck of the global woods for the period between June 20 and July 15.

Three weeks in Istanbul is sounding good. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Georgia: Places to Visit Before I Leave

June 20 - the end of my TLG contract in Georgia.

These are the places I still need to visit before I go:

Svaneti  (visited 5 May 2012)   

Davit Gareja    (visited 14 April 2012)

Ureki - on the Black Sea, famous for its black magnetic sand (visited 7 April 2012)

Batumi  (visited 8 April 2012)

Kazbegi (now Stepantsminda) (visited 27 May 2012)

Caves in Kutaisi  (visited 2 June 2012)

Borjomi - home of Borjomi mineral water (visited 21 April 2012)

Bakuriani - ski resort (visited 22 April 2012)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Kate on the Loose: Cairo, Part 3

 My good friend, Kate, is on a solo trip in Egypt. On March 16, she wrote:

On the plane a woman was talking about a Sufi (whirling dervishes) dance that was not to be missed.  So after the Giza tour, I left by taxi to go - taxi driver was unsure of place but got me there. 

A man approached and told me where it was but not for another hour.  He offered to show me the mosque nearby.  He took me all the way up to the roof - wonderful view.  As we were leaving I offered to make a donation to the mosque; with a smile, he said no, to give it to him.  Ah, the baksheesh (tipping everyone). 

He then took me to his friend's restaurant, who made pizza that made you eat your fingers (maybe he meant lick your fingers; maybe not).

Along the way I was introduced to one of the drummers from the Sufi performance.  He would give me a CD of the performance after.  During dinner the friend told me about life in Egypt and how hard it's been since the revolution.  He would meet me after the performance and show me some handicrafts and a jewelry factory.  Better to buy Egyptian than Chinese - that made sense, but I didn't plan to buy anything.  So I followed these two men all through the dark alleyways of the souk and bought jewelry, papyrus paintings, and inlaid boxes.   How's that for not buying anything.  

At one point I ran out of money and they were gracious enough to find an ATM.  But it was fun and I have pictures of the craftsman making the items.  At the end of the evening I offered a tip to them, of course.  The saying is "whatever your heart says - but couldn't it say a bit more," this in regard to the tip.  

The Sufi performance was entrancing, beautiful, and unlike anything I've ever seen.  The drumming was unbelievable.  One Sufi whirled for 15 minutes.  It's a religious experience that's supposed to put them in a trance.  Got back home about 10:30-what an experience.

More to come.  Did I mention I'm now in Luxor, sitting at the hotel rooftop deck, overlooking the beautiful blue Nile? 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

500th Blog Post

I recently published my 500th post since this blog began on September 28, 2010.

In the 18 months since then, I:

I am a lucky woman.

Another beautiful event occurred in these last 18 months: My daughter and son-in-law adopted their foster son, making legal what had already been a loving parent-child relationship for four years.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Kate on the Loose: Cairo, Part 2

My good friend, Kate, is on a solo trip in Egypt. On March 16, she wrote:

Got a late start today as I was tired from touring pyramids and shopping.  So today (Thurs.) I went to the Egyptian Museum. What a magnificent collection of statuary, furniture and jewelry.  Boy, the pharaohs loved jewelry.  This is the best museum in my opinion.  I wandered around leisurely and saw everything.  

A young woman (21yo) came up and asked if she could converse with me in English.  Her teacher recommended this approach.  We spoke for awhile and she invited me to come to her home.  I explained I was leaving in the morning, we talked a bit more and she said come to my home this afternoon.  She called her mama who said yes and then I agreed.  I had no other plans and what an experience to visit an Egyptian home.  Haanan was a pretty, enthusiastic young woman.  She had her younger brother and sister with her.

So after taking pictures outside the museum, we were off to have an ice cream.  I bought her mama a kilo box of cookies as a gift.  We took the subway, a young woman immediately offered me her seat (it's the silver hair). We then took a tuk tuk (small crowded bus).  Trip took about 40 minutes.  The family lives in a 3 bedroom apartment, kitchen and bath, down a dusty side alley.

On the way I am introduced to the neighbors and shop keepers.  Haanan has 5 brothers and 1 sister.  Mama is 46 yo, Baba owns a kosher resturant.  The brother, Magdy (mid 20s) was home. He wants to come to America and work as a chef.  It was agreed I would look into writing a letter of invitation to help get his green card.  The mamma served me fresh squeezed orange juice and tea.  She also gave me prayer beads from Russia.  When I told her we are sisters of the heart she pointed to her eyes as if to say I have tears, me too. 

Then it was time to take pictures and they all walked me to a cab.  Cab driver assured he knew the way and only had to ask twice but I got home at 9:30 safe and sound.

 The Egyptian people are beautiful.  Another amazing experience.

Tomorrow I leave for the Nile cruise. 


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Kate on the Loose: Cairo, Part 1

My good friend, Kate, is on a solo trip in Egypt. On March 16, she wrote:

All is going well.  I caught a taxi when I arrived in Cairo at midnight.  The driver sped through traffic weaving in and out, tooting the horn to let other cars know he's coming through. I just say a prayer and look out the side window.  The roads have no defined lanes and if they do the driver straddles the lanes to keep his options open.  Also, there are no stop lights and the one I saw, the driver went right through.

People cross anywhere even with traffic coming.  The first time I crossed a street I stood on the corner for five minutes trying to figure it out.  The best strategy is to cross with a family - maybe they'll stop for small children.  That said I only saw two fender benders.

My hotel is down a side street in a commercial area.  The hotel is on the 4th floor with a three person lift.  My room has pine floors, a sink and little balcony ( no view but glad to have).  There are 10 ft. double doors to my room.  It has lots of old Egyptian charm.  The shared bathroom was fine, and there was plenty of hot water!

Tuesday my first day, I set out with vague directions to walk to the large market, Khane al-Khalili.  The sidewalks were full of vendors with their wares spread out on the ground and lots of people browsing, almost impossible to walk through.  You understand I am in the common folk area - and the vendors are calling out "welcome to Egypt".  Did I mention I'm the only European tourist around?  Tourism is down 65% since last year.  I walked for a couple hours; never got to the market, but got comfortable with the area.

On Wed hired a taxi and went to Giza and two other areas with pyramids.  Went down into a pyramid at Dashur.  There is a long, steep ramp down into it and then several rooms with nothing in them (everything has been removed to museums).  I was the only one down there and it still felt close.  I can't imagine being there with a lot of people.  Did I mention I had to crouch the whole way down? I had stiff legs the next day.

The drive out was through rural areas. Many donkeys pulling carts and forests of palm trees.
At Giza I toured the pyramids in a horse-drawn cart.  On the way there was a funeral, two coffins carried with men walking along.  Woman can attend the service in the mosque but not walk behind the coffin.

It's so weak to say the pyramids are magnificent but they are. The sphinx was carved from the rock it rests on, so it is one piece.  Napoleon shot off the sphinx's nose in the 18th century.  The guide said Napoleon thought the sphinx would come to life and fight him.  Another guide told me the foot of a famous statue is in the British museum and they want it back!

I'm sending this first installment as I'm going to order a falafel for lunch and don't want to lose my email.


Monday, March 19, 2012

Armenia: Scenes from the Road

Scenes to or from Armenia:

Mt. Ararat from Armenia

Armenia between Yerevan and Tbilisi

These views reminded me of White Sands, New Mexico. 

Armenia between Yerevan and Tbilisi

Last stop for Armenian bread!

Our marshrutka rest stop in Armenia

Mount Ararat from Armenia

Armenia road near Lake Sevan

Armenia road near Lake Sevan

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Armenia: Yerevan and Thereabouts

Yerevan, Armenia

Kathy and I spent a day walking about Yerevan. It was chilly, but sunny for the most part.

Cascade detail, Yerevan, Armenia

 In comparing Yerevan with Tbilisi:

  • Tbilisi is prettier than Yerevan. 
  • Where Tbilisi can feel a little closed-in, Yerevan feels open and airy. 
  • Tbilisi is hilly. Yerevan is flat. 
  • Yerevan: Good customer service. Tbilisi: Very uneven. 
  • Tbilisi pavements: Treacherous. Yerevan pavements: Generally in good condition. 
  • Tbilisi dogs: Can be a problem, but mostly stay out of your way. Yerevan dogs: Packs seem more prevalent, and I saw some canine-to-human confrontations. 
  • Both cities have lots of statues. Tbilisi's tend toward the classical; Yerevan's sculptural art is more diverse.
  • Lovely parks and pedestrian walkways in Tbilisi. Yerevan's parks are a little scrubby. 
  • Vehicle traffic pays more respect to pedestrians in Yerevan than Tbilisi. 
  • More international variety in Yerevan's cafe scene than Tbilisi's. 

 Kathy and I had lunch at a Mexican restaurant. We liked the cool floor. 

We stopped in the Chocolateria near the Cascade:

Yerevan, Armenia. Chocolate.

Yerevan, Armenia. Chocolate. In the raw.

We worked our way up the Cascade, stopping every once in awhile to take in the changing perspectives as we climbed higher.

Yerevan, Armenia. The Cascade.

Yerevan, Armenia. The Cascade.

Yerevan, Armenia. The Cascade.

This was our room at the Center Hostel:

Center Hostel, Yerevan, Armenia

Center Hostel is in a good location, close to Republic Square. I'm not crazy about its being on the 4th floor, but Suzanne, the hostess, provides a heart to the hostel that makes guests feel they are at home. There's an eat-in kitchen, a cozy living room, free wifi, sunny rooms, and two good bathrooms with hot showers.

I liked what I saw of Envoy Hostel also, with its commodious community room that is on a separate floor from the sleeping rooms, the modern kitchen, friendly and professional staff, and good location. If I were to ding the Envoy at all, it'd be that the sleeping rooms are a little rabbit-warrenish. For example, in one area, there are three small, linked rooms that require inter-room traffic to get in and out. On the other hand, I loved that each bunk had its own tiny set of shelves. Each bunk room also had generous-sized lockers.

Envoy Hostel community room, Yerevan, Armenia

The Envoy Hostel has nailed customer service beautifully. It offers a daily, 2.5 hour walking tour of Yerevan - and anyone can come, regardless of where you're spending the night. Gevorg, one of the Envoy's staff members, was on our marshrutka from Tbilisi to Yerevan. He facilitated our way through customs and helped us get a taxi to the Center Hostel, letting us know what to pay and ensuring the taxi driver knew our destination.

The Envoy Hostel is opening a branch in Tbilisi. I imagine it will set a new standard for hostels in Georgia in regard to customer service and comfort. I also like that it will have a walking tour of Tbilisi, plus offer one-day tours within Georgia as it does in Armenia.    

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Letters From Matt #7: Borneo: Blowdarts and Biosphere

Letters From Matt are letters from my brother, Matt, from various of his domestic and international travels. The letters span decades, and I share them on Living Rootless at intervals, in no particular order.

January 18, 1991

Dear Family,

My trip to Borneo was fantastic. I took 200 pictures (all slides). Most of them turned out great.

I found the people to be very hospitable. I hiked into the jungle far away from any roads. An airplane had dropped me off 150 kilometers from the state highway (mostly dirt). A Penan family that lived a nomadic life of subsistence in the forest fed me wild pig that they shot with poison darts and a blowpipe. I spent two days with them speaking no English but learning a little of the Penan language. I tasted many different fruits from the jungle and learned of many different medicines that the Penan produce from plants and animals. The Penan love to dance and are very friendly.

I would like to go back and visit them some time in the future but I’m afraid they may not have a future, for the loggers are supposed to arrive in that area in the next two years. The meat, the fruit, the medicines and the dancing, smiling people who have lived there forever will disappear.

There is an effort afoot to make the area I visited into a United Nations Biosphere Reserve. A fancy version of a park that requires a treaty. Of course, the native people would still live there and tourists would be welcome. Only the loggers would be somewhat restricted.

One of the people I met gave me a blowpipe with darts as a gift. I also have acquired several baskets and samples of native medicine that I would like to show people when I get home.

Now I’m safely back in Japan and am looking forward to my next trip which will be in April. I’m thinking about Thailand or possibly Indonesia. 

Tell everyone I said hi.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Armenia: The Tour

Garni Temple, Armenia
Spoiler alert: Armenian churches are pretty much like Georgian churches. Which is to say that if you've seen one Georgian church, you've seen all Georgian (and Armenian) churches.

Kathy and I took the Envoy Hostel's Essential Tour, which has a focus on churches and monasteries. (Any tour in the Caucasus is going to include churches, monasteries, or perhaps in the case of Azerbaijan, mosques.)

In our little marshrutka-tour group were two Russians, a gregarious Irishman and his pre-school daughter, four women who work in Dubai but who are from the U.S., Canada, Malaysia, and Hong Kong; three Americans who are TLG teachers in Georgia, an American who works for the BBC in the Caucasus, the tour guide, the driver, and a tour guide trainee.

First stop: Lake Sevan and the Sevanavank Monastery. It was bitterly, brutally cold as we walked up the thousands of cold, gray, icy steps. Our cheeks burned from the freezing wind.

Sevanavank Monastery, Lake Sevan, Armenia

Under normal circumstances, I'd have waited patiently for my fellow tourists to be outside of the photo frame to capture the postcard beauty of the monastery, the lake, and the snowy surroundings, but one can only do so much for one's art. It was so cold ... what was that English idiom I meant to teach my police class? ... as cold as a witch's tit in a brass bra.

The two women in the pretty, white coats were in Armenia from Dubai (which, right now in this very moment, is enjoying the most perfect balmy weather), but they came to Armenia to see the snow and, I guess, to experience the novelty of shivering.

Lake Sevan, Armenia

Sevanavank Monastery, Lake Sevan, Armenia

Armenians (and Georgians) like to joke that the one thing Armenia has plenty of is stone.

2nd stop: Another church. Made of stone.

3rd stop: Noratus Cemetery in a large village (~ 9000 people). I'd have loved to have spent more time here, but the cold and snow made wandering around not so enticing. The cemetery is famous for the stories the tombstones tell about the lives or deaths of those buried here. The cemetery dates back to the 9th century.

Khachkars (stone crosses) at Noratus Cemetery, Armenia

Death story at Noratus Cemetery, Armenia

Khachkars (stone crosses) at Noratus Cemetery, Armenia

4th stop: Bathroom stop and lunch.

Garni Temple, Armenia

5th stop: Garni Temple. A sweet gem. Built on the edge of a scenic river gorge.

View of river gorge from Garni Temple, Armenia

A visual palate cleanser from the typical Caucasian spiritual architecture, Garni Temple is allegedly the only pagan temple allowed to remain standing from prior holy wars against ungodly structures.

Garni Temple, Armenia

Garni Temple, Armenia

Garni Temple, Armenia

From Garni Temple, we marshrutka'd to the last tour stop, Geghard Monastery, which has an Indiana Jones vibe in the interiors.

Geghard Monastery, Armenia

Geghard Monastery, Armenia

Geghard Monastery, Armenia

Two priests prayed:

Can you smell the frankincense?

Geghard Monastery, Armenia