Alpine Russia

This post is a bit late. A few months late, in fact, as I’d intended to write it and post it almost as soon as returning from our trip. But life intervened, and it’s been hard to find the time.

Spring break for my school fell during the last week of March, and Jenia and our little family were finally able to travel–something we have very much missed doing throughout most of our time in Kazan, due to having a new baby, passport hassles, and the like. We didn’t schedule an international trip, however; we opted to go somewhere within the vast country of Russia–somewhere little known outside the realm of the former USSR, but which was once a thriving vacation destination during the USSR’s existence: Kislovodsk, a place situated in the Caucasus.

The only thing I remember hearing about the Caucasus before moving to Russia involved Chechnya and people dying. There might have been knives involved, but I don’t know for sure. Anyway, what with separatists and gunfire, things I’m sure I remember, the Caucasus seemed a good place to avoid, not unlike, say, Afghanistan, a place about which, as far as I can remember, I’ve never heard any good news.

Russians, however, take a different view. The Caucasus ridge runs through the southernmost extremity of Russia, with Sochi and the Black Sea basically on the western end of the ridge, and the Caspian Sea on the eastern end. Just over the dramatic mountains lie Georgia and Azerbaijan. This region has long been a true destination for Russians seeking a retreat. In fact, there are four towns (pitifully small ones, with populations hardly over 100,000 people) clustered quite closely together which are known for their resorts–with Kislovodsk being first and foremost, and it even bears the slogan “Resort City” plastered on signs at the entrance to town. Kislovodsk is noted for its mineral springs, the waters of which offer a number of medicinal properties, if you believe it.

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A map from ABC News’s website.

We spent our time in Kislovodsk in an Air BnB-sourced apartment (which was great, even though a cat fell through the ceiling one day). We explored the town, finding it quite run down except for the city center, but with all its hills and the expansive Kurortny Park lined by some beautiful sanitariums (not like insane asylums, by the way–maybe I’ll write about them later), still pretty. It was also delightfully inexpensive. We took a train to nearby Piatigorsk one day, a town which figures prominently in Russian literature. Piatigorsk is a bit less run down and more populous, and with its own springs and parks, a nice place to visit.

However, it took a vehicle tour with Caucasus Voyage Club for me to realize the true extent of the area’s diversity–according to our tour guide and driver for our day trip, a wonderful guy named Rasheed, there are no less than 35 totally different languages spoken in the Caucasus.

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Another map from newroute.ru. Kislovodsk is near Piatigorsk.

I learned a lot of 20th century Russian history from Rasheed, as well, as he detailed the spread of communism, “The red virus,” throughout Russia and the toll it took on the once-wealthy region. While Jenia was aware of the brutal treatment of the area’s ethnic groups under the hand of the communists, it was new to me. Rasheed told of the disenfranchisement of the locals to communists from the north, the theft of their properties, and their resistance against their unjust rulers. The might of the Red Army was against them, though, and the locals could not win. Interestingly, when Hitler’s forces swept through the area with orders not to harm anyone unless they were met with resistance, things improved for the locals. The wartime occupiers were actually better masters than those whose country they belonged to. Of course, after the German army withdrew, Stalin made sure to exact revenge for the locals’ cooperation with the invaders. People were rounded up and herded onto trains bound for Kazakhstan, where, if they didn’t die on the way or after arrival, they spent 17 years. After the tremendous tragedy of Stalin’s death, they returned to their country, and things have been more or less normal since then.

Rasheed, wearing a long beard, looks every bit the typical Muslim man, and so he is. He’s nice, open, and friendly. As we learned from him, 60 percent of the population of Kislovodsk is ethnically Russian, which corresponds with the Orthodox church, and the other 40 percent are Muslim, as corresponds with their ethnicities. “How are Muslims treated?” Jenia asked at one point. “I know it was not easy to be involved in a mosque for a while here,” referring to a time of heavy suspicion in Russia toward Muslim people about 10 years ago. Rasheed mentioned under-cover intelligence men in the area, but was not angry about their presence. He said that the climate has changed now, and it’s not bad.

Our tour took us over the Caucasus ridge, where the towering twin peaks of Elbrus were concealed in the dramatic clouds, and where water runs from one side downward to the Black Sea, and from the other to the Caspian Sea; we continued past the Sintina Temple, the earliest Christian monastery in the area, established in the tenth century, along a sparkling shallow river, to the tiny ski-resort town of Dombay and its cable car up the towering mountain I thought was also called Dombay, but which it turns out is actually known as Mount Mussa Achitara. Sunlight had vanquished the gray clouds by the time we arrived, and there was a perfect, deep blue sky. There wasn’t much to Dombay other than the ski slopes–but wow. That mountain, and those slopes. What a place. We only ascended about two thirds of the mountain’s height (2,277 meters), as we didn’t feel like taking the toddler and baby on a chairlift, which was the mode of transportation from there to the top (3,200 meters), but nonetheless, the views were like something from the Swiss Alps. There was a peculiar little hotel that looks as though it just arrived from outer space. There were men with with yaks (wanna photo with ’em? Only a hundred rubles). There was pine cone jelly and sunglasses and hats for sale. The walkways were slippery and covered with snow and ice. It was a giant lawsuit waiting to happen, but it was fantastic. We ate some delicious, fresh bread in a restaurant, then went outside and frolicked as best we could with a baby in a carrier and a toddler in tow. We managed to get sunburned, too, although the temperature was right at freezing.

On our ride home, Rasheed put the pedal down a little bit, not needing to explain so much about the countryside. Speaking of which, we had marvelous views from the ridge when we crested it again–this time Elbrus revealed just how much taller it stood than the surrounding mountains–and at 18, 510 feet/5,642 meters, it is an imposing sight indeed. A little trivia for you–Europe’s tallest peak is the tenth highest in the world, and a dormant volcano, too.

Once again, I’ve discovered that the reality of a place can be drastically different from what we hear about on the news. While it’s true that Rasheed did have a knife (it’s a tradition! And we got to hold it!), there was no blood spilled, nobody shot, and nary a separatist in sight; the Caucasus turned out to be wonderful. While I’m not ready to go to Afghanistan to see if things are really crummy there or not, I’d venture to say that any trip to the resort town of Kislovodsk would be well worth it, and I’d happily go back.

Aya-Falla-What?

Ejofallajokull, which sounds like aya-falla-yo-kull. Or something like that. You’ll remember it. It’s the name of the big volcano that halted air traffic over Iceland for what seemed like forever in 2010. That’s when Iceland got a lot of press. Yeah, well, anyway, we’ve been there now. We’ve seen Eja-falla-whatsit and gotten a whirlwind tour of a fair portion of southern Iceland. It’s a pretty cool place.

You know us. You know we like to maximize our travels and explore new places as much as possible. So naturally, on the way home from the UAE for the summer, we booked ourselves a layover in someplace we hadn’t been before.

National Park

If you haven’t been to Iceland, which is attracting a growing number of tourists, you might like to check it out. Courtesy of Icelandair’s attempts to promote the country with stopovers on the way to other destinations, there are some interesting deals available allowing you to have a look around Reykjavik fairly cheaply and easily.

The country is showing up on the silver screen and the ones in your living room with increasing frequency.  Its intriguing landscape served as alien planets in the films Prometheus and Interstellar, and if you watched the Ben Stiller version of Walter Mitty, you saw it take a starring role, as well.

We found Iceland to be sort of Europe light, regardless of whether the country considers itself part of Europe or not (it does). Everyone we encountered was fluent in English (yes, yes, we mostly met people in the hospitality and tourism industry, but not exclusively), while that might not be the case in, say, Italy, or France. It’s also easy to get around without needing to worry about changing money. Credit cards are accepted everywhere, quite literally, to the extent that we didn’t even make an ATM withdrawal once. Right. We were there four full days, buying food from supermarkets, picking up the odd souvenir, and so forth, and we never had Icelandic cash in our hands.

The island is an absolutely fascinating place to visit. The landscape is otherworldly. It’s often beautiful, and surprisingly delicate. The Suderlandsvegur, highway 1, departs Reykjavik and goes south. Before long, there is a hillside rising up on the right hand side of the road. It has a phrase carved into it. The words were, it turns out, put there by a boy scout troop having fun some 50 years ago, and the vegetation they destroyed hasn’t recovered yet. This might give you an idea of the difficulty that Icelanders face when it comes to farming the unfriendly soil. If not, consider that the waterfall called Skogarfoss is named for a forest (“skogar” means forest, “foss” means waterfall). Even though there is no forest there, because the original Norse settlers chopped the trees down to make room for their animals to graze, some 1100 years ago. The trees have never really returned.

For most of its years as a nation, Iceland has been extraordinarily poor. Only after WWII did the island start to develop into a reasonable economy. Now, standards of living are high. Costs of living are, too, with food being very expensive (much of it being imported, of course), as well as most everything else. Heating and electricity, at least, are affordable. It costs one guy, a tour guide we had, about the price of a large pizza to heat his home for a month. It’s so cheap because water is heated naturally geothermally (Is that a word? Autocorrect doesn’t think so) and stored in huge tanks for the city. This is completely renewable and sustainable. Electricity is also generated through entirely sustainable means.

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There are places we’ve visited that we agree we’d love to live. Iceland isn’t one of them. The weather is too oppressive. It’s not severely cold–surprisingly, temperatures hover in the middle-50’s F much of the year, and don’t go very far below freezing most of the winter–but the thick, grey clouds hang claustrophobically low, and visibility is often minimal. “The tallest mountain in Iceland is right over there, across the water,” said a buddy who was showing us around one afternoon. “But you can’t see it now.” Indeed, I’d have never suspected. When the clouds finally parted on the last day of our trip, what a sight we were treated to. The view across the bay was nice. The scenery was extraordinary, in fact. We’d love to go back and spend more time in Iceland, getting farther beyond Reykjavik than we did, but we’d never live there.

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Ejafallajo…right, the volcano, anyway, probably helped Iceland to emerge into the consciousness of the average person in the States. Hollywood continues to explore the place, and I’d recommend that you do, too. Despite not being a place I’d like to spend years, it’s fascinating, and I’d love to have more time there.

Highlights

How about a pictorial post featuring some highlights from our various travels the last few years? It seems like a good idea to me. As you probably know if you read the blog thoroughly, we do talk about our travels a bit, but we’re not really travel bloggers in the sense of step-by-step, day-by-day chronicling of our journeys. That has its own appeal, but lots of people do it and probably better than we could. Instead, I offer a handful of what I think are our best instagrams capturing some curious, challenging, or memorable moments from our adventures, and a micro-snippet of a story for each one.

How you get to the train station from #Corniglia, #CinqueTerre.

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You’ve gotta be kidding me. Another staircase! AAAAAH! Italy, 2014.

#Escalators in #SiamCenter #mall, #Bangkok, #Thailand

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Maybe the coolest looking mall in the world? Even the bathrooms were awesome. You should go there, because it’s technologically amazing. Thailand, 2014.

Me hanging with some of my students in Sweihan. #UAE #desertlife

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I attended the Sweihan Camel Festival with a small busload of my students. It was phenomenally boring. We drank coffee together and sat around at one point. UAE, 2014.

#horseback #riding in #Franschhoek #southafrica #mountains

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South Africa, 2013: no better way to see the hills, or a mongoose. Thank goodness for our friend who watched the little one while we spent an hour doing this!

#Rain caused minor #floods on roadways in #AlAin #AbuDhabi, #UAE today.

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When you gotta drive following some rain. UAE, 2013.

Hangin' on the beach with the cattle in Sri Lanka.

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There were cows moving about freely, and there was trash strewn everywhere, too.

#russia #ryazan #kremlin

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Who cares about the frigid weather and icy walkways? Russia, 2012.

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You never know what you’ll encounter in Downtown Dubai. 2012.

In #Baktapur. #Nepal #BTspringBreak #Travel #Temple

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We strolled through Bhaktapur’s beautiful squares, toddler in tow. Nepal, 2015.

The little one enjoying the #WadiRum #desert a couple days ago. #Jordan #middleeast

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Turtle LOVED off-roading and exploring. Jordan, 2014.

#wadirum #jordan #travel

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LOVED, not least because there were no seat belts in the Land Cruiser!

Looking down over #Liechtenstein. Just one amazing #view. #latergram #Eurotrip #scenery #Europe

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Curvy, narrow roads, steep drop-offs, staying just ahead of bad weather. Liechtenstein, 2014.

Seeing the Himalayas–from 32,000 feet. 2015.

Close encounters of the monkey kind, descending from Swamabhunath Temple on a hilltop–Nepal, 2015.

#boylovesairports #Prague edition. #airport #Praha #blackandwhite

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The child loved snow, too, but not mittens. Czech Republic, 2014.

My view this morning #wadirum #jordan #travel #middleeast

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Getting around Wadi Rum the old-fashioned way; the baby aboard in the Boba carrier. He got used to it and didn’t mind after a little while. Jordan, 2014.

The way out of the temperature-constant caverns. France, 2014.

#romance #love #old #couple at #jardinluxembourg #paris #france #europe #travel

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Sometimes sitting on a park bench lets you witness a story. Could it be true love? France, 2014.

Leaving plastic on the seats and steering wheel of your #porsche is life #emiratistyle #uae #wtf

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Peculiar local customs. UAE, 2012.

Taking laziness to a whole new level… #uae #alain #shisha

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More peculiarity–drive-in shisha cafe. UAE, 2012.

Somebody passed out at a most unexpected time today. #lifewithatoddler #Kathmandu #nepal #travel #Thamel

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Sometimes napping just can’t wait, like here in Nepal, 2015.

What we didn't eat today #food #crazyfood #thailand #asia #udonthani #travel #instatravel

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Fancy a freshly fried snack? We didn’t. This was at the night market in northeastern Thailand with friends. 2014.

Nepal.

16 days ago my feet were on the ground in Kathmandu, Nepal. My little family and our close friends were on vacation there. We found it wonderful in its difference from home. Thamel, the neighborhood where we were staying, is one of the central tourist districts. Buildings of all shapes and sizes crowded the narrow streets. The streets themselves were crammed full of people, rickshaws, cars, motorcycles, people, dogs. Small temples were scattered everywhere, and big ones arched upward here and there. The roads, although paved, were covered in heavy gray dust and many locals wore masks to filter the air they breathed. Shopkeepers stood in the open doorways of their stores, occasionally scattering water to help keep the dust down.

Jenia and Turtle heading back to Thamel from Durbar Square.

Jenia and Turtle heading back to Thamel from Durbar Square.

In all, Kathmandu was a bustling, vivacious, surprisingly vibrant place. There’s a blend of Hindu and Buddhist culture and the mashup is fascinating.

Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple, on a hill in the middle of Kathmandu.

Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple, on a hill in the middle of Kathmandu.

We mostly hung around the city, but did take a daytrip that included the 1,500 year old city of Bhaktapur, past its many brickyards and kilns with towering chimneys stretching up from the fields, and into the nearby hills to Nagarkot.

What a drive, what a place. The hillsides were terraced so that they could be farmed. We saw many crops being grown: grains, vegetables, etc. Houses were half built, people living in one level while building another.

The view from the observation tower atop Nagarkot.

The view from the observation tower atop Nagarkot.

The poverty of the place would have been surprising if we hadn’t expected it, and if we hadn’t been to places like Sri Lanka before.

But poverty doesn’t necessarily equate with unhappiness. The people we met were generally friendly, happy to see us, and even eager to pose for pictures with the fair-skinned strangers in their land. I chatted with a couple of traveling salesmen who were visiting the same temple as we were, and they educated me a bit on their religious traditions. We took pictures together, they snapping on their smart phones, and me with mine.

Women clean a railing of wax drippings near Durbar Square.

Women clean a railing of wax drippings at a temple near Durbar Square.

There were a few unpleasantries–the threat of food poisoning was always very real, for example. Monkeys are a mixed blessing, for they’re great fun to see, but not usually so great to interact with. Beggars were also often present at touristy areas–and why wouldn’t they be, considering that most Westerners are downright rich by comparison to the avearge Nepali? It was also necessary to be mindful of your surroundings, especially in Thamel, lest you get nudged by an automobile (this happened) or trip and fall on the treacherous shoulder. But we didn’t mind those things.

When we flew out of the airport, a place that seems to be stuck in the 1960s, mostly red brick and filthier than I care to remember, we had views of the Himalayas that left us marveling. Imagine cruising at 33,000 feet and the snow-capped peaks of the mountain range protruding from the clouds almost at the same level as the plane.

And yesterday, I came across a story on the New York Times website–an earthquake struck Nepal! The magnitude was 7.5-7.8, it said. So far at least 100 dead.

Now the story is running first and foremost on CNN.com and on the front page on most other news sites I’ve opened this morning. The death toll has crossed 1,900 as of this writing. The pictures that are now starting to flood into the news outlets are eerily familiar. Some of them are the very places we visited, albeit nearly unrecognizable. Kathmandu’s Durbar Square has crumbled temples where the glorious ones we climbed and gazed from two weeks ago stood. There’s a heart-rending video of a collapse in Bhaktapur.

A temple on Hanumandhoka Durbar Square lies in ruins after an earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, on April 25.

A temple on Hanumandhoka Durbar Square lies in ruins after an earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, on April 25 in this photo from http://www.cnn.com

That the temblor caused such destruction is no surprise. The place is shoddily built, to be sure. Many of the structures we saw under construction were being assembled in a way which made me wonder if the builders were aware of squares and levels. Nonetheless, the news reports say that most newer buildings survived–the concrete construction is stronger than the old brick. It is the brick structures that suffered the most, and that amounts to some of the most historic ones.

It’s sad that such a beautiful place was struck so hard. All I can do at this point is offer prayers and consider contributing to the aid efforts that are already taking shape to help the beautiful people of Nepal to recover from this tragedy.

Should you want to donate, the Red Cross and Oxfam, as well as Unicef, are good places to begin.

Jordan.

If you’re about my age, somewhere in your mid-30’s, I’ll bet you watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  What a great movie!  Wasn’t the ending, set in that amazing building carved out of a red-hued canyon wall, just about the coolest thing you’d ever seen? And wasn’t it even cooler to discover that such a place, or, in fact that very place actually exists? Ever since the time I learned that the Last Crusade was filmed in Petra, I’ve longed to go there, longed to see the facades a thousand years old that ornament tombs and sacred places, longed to ride a horse though the Siq and into the sunset like Harrison Ford and Sean Connery (and the other two guys).

Finally, it happened.  Most of it, anyway.  I didn’t ride a horse though the Siq, I’m sorry to say, but I did put my wife on a donkey and send her up to the Monastery that way.  So that’s sort of similar.

What is Jordan like? Coming from the UAE it’s a bit of a surprise.  It’s poor.  There’s lots of trash on empty lots. White plastic bags and other litter degrade the landscape as you drive along.  Buildings aren’t tall and splendid–they’re short or stunted, some missing an upper story, perhaps to be added at a later date when money has been set aside for that purpose.  Cars are old and beat up.  A layer of dust covers most everything.  But the people are nice.  They’re humble and friendly, and they work hard for what they own.

At a cafe in Madaba, men relax and watch the cars roll slowly by.

At a cafe in Madaba, men relax and watch the cars roll slowly by.

Much of the waterways which once supplied Jordan with water have been diverted by other countries.  The Dead Sea’s levels are declining rapidly as various tributaries which feed into it have been dammed and co-opted for things like irrigation.

I work with several guys from Jordan.  Excited that we were planning a visit, they offered suggestions on where to go and what to do. Among the many places they listed, we managed to hit Karak (site of a dilapidated crusader castle), Madaba (home of a large Christian community and location of the oldest image of Palestine), Petra, Wadi Rum (where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed and where Lawrence himself once roamed), and the Dead Sea.

Any fan of history, including Biblical history, medieval history, Roman, etc., would find Jordan a stellar place to stroll around.  Walk where Moses died atop Mount Nebo, for example, or look over the valley below Karak from a castle window, or compare the architecture of the various facades in Petra to each other and spot the Nabatean style vs. the Roman style, and on and on and on. If ancient history isn’t your thing, perhaps modern history is: consider the guard towers along the shores of the Dead Sea as you hand your passport to the armed checkpoint guards along the road.  Talk to someone and find out that Jordan is one of the only countries in the region to officially recognize Israel as a state.

Those are salt crystals on the buoys.

Those are salt crystals on the buoys.

And if you say to yourself, “Screw history, I’m all about the present,” then enjoy a mediocre takeaway pizza you bought near the exit from Petra on your way back to the Bedouin camp you’re spending the next few nights in, wash it down with some hyper-sweet tea made over the open fire, and chat with the friendly fellow with bad teeth that owns the place.  Be surprised that he travels extensively, and that he’ll be in London next month. Climb the rocks and watch the sun slowly set, turning some blonde chicks hair to sparkling gold as they sit in front of you. Rub your hands along canyon walls as you walk the Siq and sing with your wife, glad you’re there at 7:15am, not 4:30pm when it’s packed, and you couldn’t hear your voices reverberate over the cacophony of the many. Enjoy the winding road from Petra to the Dead Sea, carefully drive along the detour where the road had fallen away into the sheer nothingness below, and let your ears pop as you descend 1,000 meters in no time.

So about Petra–about Indiana Jones, the Siq, and that donkey.  We spent an entire day there, from sunup until approaching sundown. We carried the little one most of the way.  Fortunately he decided to nap in that amazing Boba Air carrier that we’ve taken all over the world with us, so he didn’t feel the need to be down and running around the entire day, or we’d have never gotten anywhere. It was, indeed, something special to see the Treasury (that’s the Indiana Jones place, you know) present itself as we made our way through the Siq approaching it.  The sun colored the rocks orange as it rose higher.  We climbed to the High Place of Sacrifice, and descended to the Great Temple, an area that Brown University has been excavating since 1993. Midday by then, we were feeling tired, so I hired a donkey to take Jenia up to the Monastery, and by the time I stopped to rest in shade kindly offered by an aged merchant lady, drink some water, and let the toddler get out of the carrier, I was wishing I’d gotten a donkey ride myself.  But, being the manly man I am, I sucked it up and took the baby in hand (actually, I put him on my shoulders) and climbed the remaining 4,000,000 steps (exaggeration, yup, but it felt like a lot).

Being totally worn out does have a way of stealing some of the majesty of any experience, but seeing the Monastery was still pretty awesome.  It’s big, y’all.  There’s a great place to eat in the shade, on a bench, right there with a view of the Monastery (so named because it was repurposed as a church for a while) and we ate our lunch there.  Jenia made the descent on her ass, and I on foot. The way down was easier.

Treasury

The Treasury, shown when being approached through the Siq (which means “shaft”). The man in front of it gives some idea of scale.

In Petra

A musician playing in Petra.

What tarnishes Petra?  Could be the myriad stalls set up haphazardly selling trinkets. Could be the tons of guys hawking horseback rides, donkeys for steeds (“This one his name Michael Jackson”), or kids trying to get you to buy postcards with images probably better than the ones you’ll take. Could be nothing tarnishes it, if you’re expecting the clatter of generators powering snack shops in the canyons.

Wadi Rum was another highlight–and someone asked me “Why?” the other day.  Er, it’s just one of those places that’s worth visiting to experience for yourself, that’s why.  We thought it was cool to spend the day on camels and in a 4×4 with a local Bedouin guide whose family is among those who have exclusive rights to the national park there.  We found the scenery amazing.  And if you should spend the night there, either in a tent or a cave, as many people choose to, you would be amazed by the total lack of light pollution late at night.  The stars present themselves in a way that it’s easy to forget is possible when you spend most of your time in the urban sprawl that encompasses much of our modern world.

Seen from the so-called Lawrence's House area (because he may or may not have actually been posted there), a bit of the Wadi Rum desert.

Seen from the so-called Lawrence’s House area (because he may or may not have actually been posted there), a bit of the Wadi Rum desert.

The way to the Dead Sea twists and turns like crazy.

The way to the Dead Sea twists and turns like crazy.

Karak

Jenia and el nino at Karak Castle. He wanted to walk around a lot, but the area was a bit unsafe for him with precipices galore.

The Dead Sea is the last thing I’ll write about. Yeah, it’s pretty dang cool to find yourself standing in shoulder-deep water, and when, the instant a gentle wave hits you, suddenly you’re floating, your feet sticking into the air, suddenly bobbing about because gravity doesn’t seem to function like it does in every other body of water you’ve ever been in. But it’s not cool to scare your toddler by putting that famous black mud on your face.  Although the skin does feel might refreshed when you go rinse the mud off a few minutes later.

So, in a nutshell, Jordan. Indiana Jones didn’t lead me wrong–it’s a great place to visit. Go there.  Your view of the Middle East will be altered still further than it was by your visit to the UAE.

Wrapping up Summer: A Money Monday Post

ADEC gives us money for flights home once a year, and if we are careful and spend lots of time combing Expedia, Sky Scanner, and similar sites, we can find airfare that is cheap enough that we can afford to make a pit stop along the way. This is possible because the allowance is (supposedly) based on economy airfare for direct flights to teachers’ home ports. Those flights are more convenient in a number of ways, and as a result a little more expensive than those with multiple legs. Anyhow, if you recall, last year we spent two weeks exploring from Amsterdam, because we booked a trip with layovers rather than going home directly. This year we did something similar. We booked a flight with a stop in Milan. From there, we made a big circle, driving almost everyday for a couple hours or more, seeing six countries during 14 days. Then we hopped an airliner for Abu Dhabi and got ourselves back to Al Ain via rental car.

As I’ve said, we couldn’t afford to do this if we weren’t careful about finding affordable airfare. Or rather, we couldn’t justify spending the coin. After all, one of the overarching reasons for returning to Abu Dhabi for a third year is to beef up our savings account and IRAs. A third year’s bonus will be very useful in that, but we aren’t relying on the bonuses alone to set us up financially. That would be stupid, because wherever we go next, be it back to the grand USA or another country, we will need startup funds. So money must go into the bank all along the way or we will be no better off than before.

Now, bearing in mind my Money Monday introduction, I want to share about our trip through northern Italy and the surrounding regions. We saw beautiful scenery, met wonderful people, and learned new lessons about exploring as married parents of a toddler.  How can we do it and not waste everything we have squirreled away into savings and/or plan to put to responsible use to make our futures brighter?  I’ll try to answer that as I write.

Our first stop was Milan. Milan is remarkable in its humdrumness, if that’s a word. It’s amazingly ordinary. I maybe ignorant of other more interesting sights in the area, but in a couple days, we saw everything most people say is worthwhile: the Duomo and nearby Sforza Castle, as well as the canal area. We found the place pleasantly affordable, excluding the shops near the cathedral. It was possible for us to eat dinner for under 20 euros. We spent only one night, and that with a blog buddy of Jenia’s, so we didn’t have to pay anything for lodging. Hooray!

One way we try to save a few bucks is by using ATMs (Bancomats in eurospeak) to make cash withdrawals. If you’ve ever converted cash, you know that the conversion process isn’t simply an even, exact swap of $100 for the equivalent currency. Every exchange place and even banks charge a fee for changing money, and it’s annoying to search for a place which offers the best rates. In fact, some advise you not to worry about looking for the best rates if you are trying to convert money–just do it at the airport where it’s convenient and you’ll save some time and effort, they say, making it worth whatever small difference you pay. But less expensive, if you make large withdrawals at once, is using an ATM, because there’s no conversion fee. This is only less expensive if you withdraw a fairly good amount of money at once, though, since you’ll still pay an ATM fee, potentially from both the ATM and your home bank. Normally we don’t worry much about cash, and try to use our credit card. However, many places in Italy (as well as other places we visited) don’t accept credit.

This brings me to my next point: be sure you authorize your ATM card for overseas usage.  I did that, but I did it two years ago, for a duration of two years (my expected ADEC time). So I couldn’t use my ATM card at all, and I couldn’t make Skype work in order to call the bank. Luckily, the wife’s bank card does still work, and we could use it. But in the meantime, before we’d sorted that situation out, we were limited to places that would accept credit.  We stopped in a gelateria, delighted that the sign on the door said “Mastercard/Visa,” looking forward to our first taste of authentic Italian gelato in many years. Two very friendly brothers ran the shop, and as one of them rang up the total for our two cones, the other had just scooped the first cone for Jenia and was working on mine. Seeing the Visa in my hand, the guy said their machine wasn’t working.

“Oh, crap,” said Jenia, “Stop,” she told the guy who was just about to plop a scoop of frozen deliciousness onto my cone. “I’m so sorry, but we don’t have any cash.  We saw the sign on the door about Visa, and that’s why we came in.”

The brothers exchanged a glance. The one finished my cone, and the other said, “For free!”

Our turn to exchange looks. How nice is that?

“Have a good night,” they said as we turned for the door.

“It’s a good one now,” I told them. We made sure to return the next day and pay for a couple more scoops.

So those guys were pretty cool, and in general, we found the people of Milan to be warm and friendly.  In retrospect, there wasn’t the air of tourist fatigue that some of Italy’s touristy hotspots have (understandably enough).

Right, so update your bank about your travel plans so you avoid any potentially embarrassing run-ins like that, even though it worked out well and put a very good taste in our mouths (that’s a pun, get it?) about the people and place.

The next thing that we dealt with was obtaining transport at a reasonable cost. Everyone knows about Europe’s many trains and convenient network of railways. What is less common knowledge is that the price of train tickets is climbing yearly, making riding the rails less and less appealing for those traveling on a budget. For example, getting a Eurail pass for the two of us and the baby would have cost between 300 and 500 euros a piece, depending on the type of pass and number of days we wanted to spend on trains. That’s a pretty substantial number–if we wanted to travel a little each day, for example, for two weeks, then there wasn’t even a rail pass available that we could use. Another consideration was the toddler. Would Turtle stay put on a train, in his seat, minding his own business? Most likely he’d want to run around the whole time, a tiresome proposition. Last year we used Sixt, and opted to go another round with them. Our rental Fiat Panda 4×4 (!) ended up setting us back about 550 euros, including a carseat for the little one. The seat meant Turtle could nap when we drove, and it didn’t limit us in terms of where we could go or when we could go.

The #Fiat #Panda4x4 taking a break beside the road in #Liechtenstein. #mountains #holiday #roadtrip #vaduz

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There is a funny story about finding the Sixt location in Milan that I’ll skip, but suffice it to say that my little trip to get the car ended up taking about 3 hours instead of the 1 we’d figured it would, and I had to go to a different location to pick up the car than the one I’d reserved it from. Advice: be careful to map out your destination location carefully ahead of time, and be sure to note what time that place closes.

A nasty fact about traveling Italian highways–they are toll roads, and the tolls are steep.  We logged approximately 160 euros in tolls alone. Fuel is expensive, too, but the Panda diesel was economical (5.4 l/100 km, as opposed to the 13.1 l/100 km I’m used to driving the Chevy here in Al Ain) and we paid roughly another 175 euros for fuel during our stay.  Diesel prices ran about 1.75-1.90 per liter while we were vacationing, just to give you an idea of what to expect if you’re plotting a similar trip.  But still, even if costs surrounding it were high, the car afforded us more freedom and was cheaper than train travel, so we enjoyed it.

And we put it to good use.  Here’s what our travel map looked like, more or less:

From Milan, we made a big circle, with a panhandle added on so we could poke around the Cote d'Azur a bit.

From Milan, we made a big circle, more or less like what’s pictured here, with a panhandle added on so we could poke around the Cote d’Azur a bit. Thanks, Google Maps, for making it easy to plot such courses.

Another way we kept costs under control was to use our cell phones only as wi-fi devices.  There are some affordable options for SIM cards, but we didn’t bother. We took great advantage of wi-fi and used Google Maps for navigation almost exclusively.

Last year we couchsurfed fully half the nights of our trip, which cut hotel costs in half. This year beyond our first night in Milan, we had to pay, as there were no hosts available for us. Ah, well.  So we used Booking.com to look up lodging as we went, only having reserved a couple days in advance.

We stayed in Perledo at a cool Bed and Breakfast with views of Lake Como, along scary narrow roads.  A ferry took the Fiat and family across Lake Como to Menaggio, and we drove to Lugano, Switzerland, to meet another blog buddy of Jenia’s. The next day we were in Vaduz and more remote parts of mountainous Liechtenstein. Afterward we went to soggy Innsbruck, but the views were obscured by rain clouds, so we hit the road early and stayed along the highway in charmingly non-touristy Steinach, where pizza was affordable for a change. Next stop was Venice–an ever so romantic city, especially when you just wander the streets, rather than utilize the slow, crowded water taxis. A cool agriturismo called La Toretta in Siena was next, followed by a B&B in Casarza Ligure, not far from the beautiful (and wickedly crowded) Cinque Terre. Monaco and Nice rounded out the trip, and we returned to a hotel near the airport the night before our flight to Abu Dhabi, being sure to find one that offered a free shuttle to the airport so we could return the car the night before, thereby saving rental fees for an extra day just to go to the airport in the morning.

Our ferry to #Mennagio arriving. #Italy #LakeComo

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We had pleasant stays in all of the lodgings we selected, but the one place that most stands out was in Casarza Ligure, called Ca De Pria. If you want a nice base of operations from which to explore segments of the Italian riviera, that’s it. The owners treated us like old friends, and could not have been any more welcoming.

Of the many things we did, places we went, and little observations and lessons we gleaned, one was probably more important than the others: traveling with a toddler is different from being on the go with a baby. Our toddler has developed a certain schedule, and when that was too terribly altered, we all paid a price for it. So our evenings were generally kept fairly early, and we discovered that nap times were yet more important–if Turtle napped too long, sleeping too late into the afternoon, he’d be up too late that night. One night I was up with him until 1:30am, which was much too long. It ended up that he would be awake for 6 hours after his last nap, so we tried to make sure we adjusted things accordingly.

One more Money Monday note and I’ll dispense with the formalities and share some pictures. If you live in the UAE and you’re in Al Ain, finding a ride to and from the airport can be a factor when budgeting. Other than phoning friends to do us favors, we’ve found the cheapest, most handy way to get to either DXB or AUD is by renting a car from Hertz. Their least expensive Toyota Yaris or Mazda 2 offers enough room for us and our stuff (but not much to spare) and costs only 89 AED (or 110, including a child seat) for one day. Taxis set you back almost 300 AED, and most people who offer paid transport do it for around 200. Hertz is the best bet by a mile.

Now, for some more photos, one of the rewards we enjoy a great deal for spending money in the way we did. As usual, Jenia made excellent use of her Canon and has some amazing pictures to share, and I’ll get her to upload some soon. I have some that I like, too, and these are among them. Click on the images for full screen viewing.

Il Duomo

Little One in L

Near Sucka

Artists Still in Venice

Statue

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Citroen

I Love Your Life

What a thing to hear, huh? About a week ago we were sitting under a rented umbrella on a rocky Nice beach, and a woman sitting nearby with her family asked where we were from. She has, by the sound of it, a good life herself, where she works from her midwestern home. Mrs. Kramer and her family were taking a shore day while on a Disney Mediterranean cruise, which seems kind of nifty to me. But when she found out that I teach in the UAE while Jenia does photography on the side, her eyes grew wide and she got a big smile on her face. A few more questions asked and answered, she exclaimed, “I love your life!”

That’s the kind of compliment that will make you grin every time. It’s also a little hard to respond well to. “Thanks,” I managed, while feeling a tad silly. I wanted to say, “Actually, my life is pretty mundane,” because it doesn’t seem too special. Yet, given more thought, I’ll admit my lifestyle is somewhat unusual. It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? I have set foot in 12 countries to date this year, including the one I live in, and yet life seems nothing if not, well, ordinary.

Jenia and the wee one enjoying time on the beach in Nice.

Jenia and the wee one enjoying time on the beach in Nice.

That is not to say I didn’t get a kick out of going for a speedboat trip in Thailand, or driving the confusing roads of Siena, Italy. I thrilled at touching Liechtenstein rocks as I hiked to the castle over Vaduz, and I laughed at being one of the many tourists cramming into a pizzeria’s doorway in Vernazza, one of the picturesque Cinque Terre towns, in the midst of a sudden downpour, trying to stay dry. I rejoiced in surprise when the kind brothers who operate a gelateria in Milan gave us free ice cream. Walking the avenues of Venice with my lovely wife was ever so romantic, even with toddler in tow. I’ll admit, this seems a life less ordinary as I consider it further.

But would anyone still smilingly say, “I love your life” if they knew what the normal, routine part of my life is like? The getting up at 6, going to scan my fingerprint to sign in at school, standing through my 13,340th morning assembly (hmm, I wonder how many I’ve really shifted my weight from one foot to the other through?) conducted entirely in Arabic, deal with difficult youth in a constantly changing and inconsistent environment, handle the workload in a responsible manner, try not to balk at conflicting expectations and realities, and then go home and do normal family guy stuff. This is boring at best, isn’t it?

Indeed, day trips to Abu Dhabi or Dubai are even blasé. “Which mall should we go to today, honey? Do you want to swim in the gulf again?” We find ourselves bored as we walk among folks clad in kandoras and abayas, as we notice at some point and then forget again that we are the only white people in the room. We yawn at the idea of going to the same old amazingly green park nearby again. Life in the desert has become normal. The special part is mainly what happens during holidays.

The saying goes along the lines of wherever you go, there you are, and that’s a tried and true if cliched sentiment for a reason. I’m no more happy now than I was when I had what you might call a regular job in a typical school in the States. There was a phase where I was really stressed out by moving, on the contrary, but I’ve adjusted long ago. I’m still me, and I’m the same in the USA, France, or the UAE.

That said, over time, assuming I am not resistive to it, traveling and working abroad does change me. I notice that I don’t bear the same political or social prejudices, and my cultural biases have altered. I think these changes are good ones, but who’s to say I wouldn’t change similarly if I worked at home in the USA? I’d grow and mature regardless of where I lived, wouldn’t I? But I certainly wouldn’t be able to explore the world as easily if I hadn’t packed a few bags and relocated overseas.

So here’s what I’m getting at. I live a life that is a bit unusual, yep, but much of it isn’t anything worth talking about. It’s a struggle, same as any life, anywhere. But Mrs. Kramer, thanks for making me ponder it a bit. Thanks for reminding me that I’m blessed. And I know you were thinking about the glamor of travel and life abroad in glitzy Abu Dhabi, but when it comes down to it, what really makes my life special is the people in it. Teaching a classroom full of kids is more rewarding when I learn some Arabic phrases from them, when I build some relationships there and remember that this is a job that’s different and memorable when compared to the one I had back home. So yeah, there are those people, students, but they’re not really the ones I’m talking about. Venice would have been ho-hum without my wife. Sitting on the sea-washed stones of Nice would have been less fun if I wasn’t able to watch my little son enjoy the waves in his mother’s arms. Going to exotic places is more fun when I can share the experience with my loved ones. Exploring is about expanding, and the most important thing to expand is the love in my heart. It’s easy to forget that in the clamor of day to day living, no matter where in the world I find myself.

Summer Vacation, Pt. II

The trip has been going well. It’s nice to catch up with friends and family, and the non-desert climate is ever so pleasant. Returning home requires a little adjustment, though, as one grows accustomed to the UAE after a while. We laughingly have listed things that we forgot about life in the USA.

Jenia’s list looks like this:

•Drinking unfiltered tap water
•Driving with your windows down
•Paying attention to gas prices
•Beer being sold next to soda, water, and juice
•How blue the sky is
•Credit/debit card readers (I keep handing mine to the cashier)
•Bugs
•People stopping at stop signs
•Flowers
•Having to keep an eye on your bags and child

Mine includes all those things, and adds:

•Good ol’ southern rednecks
•Walmart
•Drivers using turn signals
•People having the same accent
•New $100 bills (when did that happen?)
•The great selection of familiar foods in the supermarket

What a difference living abroad makes to how we view things. We are that much more appreciative of Breyer’s ice cream, for example, than ever before:)

Here are a few pictures from the last week, and I’m not sure you will revel in the non-desertness of the scenery in quite the same way as us, but still, revel in the greenery:

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The Thai Paradox

Our trip to Thailand was great. There were wonderful things (like mango sticky rice), weird but nice things (like hair washing – a 15-minute procedure at a local salon), weird and not nice things (like people eating bugs), and then there was what I called the Thai Paradox.

See, before flying to Bangkok, I emailed our friend in Udon Thani and asked if there was a dress-code (you ask this sort of question after living in the Middle East for 2 years). She was happy I asked and advised to stick with bottoms that are to the knee or lower & tops that cover my shoulders. I was a little bummed, but it wasn’t a big deal, since this is the kind of clothes I wear here every day.

We also did our research on Bangkok and found out that we both needed to wear long bottoms & closed-toe shoes to visit the Grand Palace. Ok, no big deal again, we packed accordingly.

And then we arrived to Thailand & I felt like I was the only woman under 40 in the city of Bangkok who was not wearing a mini. Seriously.

I thought, “Well, this is the capital, it’s more touristy, people are more wild here. It will be different once we head up north-east.”

Wrong! In the very non-touristy Udon Thani girls still wore cute little dresses and shorts so tiny I’d never dare try them on.

When I asked our friends what’s up with the clothing thing, they explained that generally, Thai people dress modestly, but the younger girls and women want to look Western. “Well, I’m Western,” – I said, – “can I dress like a Westerner?” Their answer stunned me.

“You can wear whatever you want and they won’t care, but if you start talking to someone & they find out that you are a) a teacher’s wife and b) a mother, and you are dressed like that, you will basically lose all respect. Because you should know better.”

Now, we are not talking about daisy dukes & cropped t-shirts. We are talking about something above the knee & without sleeves. Quite a modest culture, huh?  NB: I am not talking about the touristy beaches of Thailand here.

Where’s the paradox, you may be asking.

Well, you see, one of the things Thailand is known for is sex tourism. Male & female prostitutes abound, and while prostitution is officially illegal, I hear it’s actually government-controlled. Here’s a Wiki article on the subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_in_Thailand It’s scary, really, how many foreigners come on a vacation & buy a local for the duration of their stay.

What’s even more strange to me, is that it’s not just the foreigners. Our friends told us that it’s considered absolutely normal for a man to have several mistresses + a wife. Sometimes the women aren’t too happy with the arrangement (we heard a story of 3 girlfriends who found out about each other & joined forces: they sold the guy’s pricey electronics & split the money :)), but in general it’s expected and not frowned upon. Even in their non-touristy city, both of our friends have been approached by the locals. They and their expat friends have been offered “special services” at a massage salon, the guys are consistently asked about their Thai wives (and why they don’t have any), the women are being told that the fact they already have husbands “is not a problem”.

Prostitution and extramarital sex? Yay! Bring it on! Let the whole world come and sleep with our people!

Women wearing anything above the knee? No way! That’s too risqué. We are a modest people.

I just don’t get it. I don’t. 

P.S. The whole issue of modesty/modest clothes is something that I get passionate about very quickly, and since I seem to hold a somewhat not-mainstream-Christian view on it, you may not want to bring up the subject with me.

P.P.S. More reading on human trafficking in Thailand: http://www.humantrafficking.org/countries/thailand

NGO’s that help sex workers:

Empower http://www.empowerfoundation.org/index_en.html

SWING https://www.facebook.com/SWINGfoundation/info

If you know of any others, feel free to leave a link in the comments!

Food Friday: Favorites from Thailand and Laos

It’s been a while since we wrote up a Food Friday entry, so here we are.  Just like the headline says, here are some favorites from Thailand and Laos.  They’re mostly things that took us by surprise, hooking our tastebuds and leaving us with big smiles on our faces as we realized we’d found new foods we loved.  In no particular order, with the possible exception of number one:

1.  Mango Sticky Rice.  Amazing.  Actually, fresh, ripe Thai mangoes are so good, so delicious, so mouthwateringly scrumptious, that I’d probably rank a mango itself right up there, even without the sticky rice.  But anyway, sticky rice being a pretty unique thing, if you ever visit, you gotta try it.

2. Papaya Salad.  It’s hard to get this without little dried shrimp in it, which is kind of weird, I’ll go ahead and say.  However, it’s dang good–the papaya is shredded almost like cabbage, and dressed in a sweet-spicy sauce and a few other things.  Never had anything else like it.

3. Coconut Juice.  Actually, I didn’t think it was awesome, but the little Turtle sure did.  He LOVED it, to be sure.  We stopped at a roadside stand and I forked over some baht.  They chopped the top off a green coconut, jabbed a straw in it, and handed it over.  I gave the kid a sip, and the rest was soon his.  The next day he got his very own coconut, and made equally short work of it.

Spring Rolls.

Spring Rolls.  Deliciously un-deep fried.

4. Fruit Smoothies.  These suckers are delicious.  Granted, they’re sweetened with a hearty dose of sugar syrup, so they’re basically guaranteed to taste nice.  Available in all kinds of variations, they’re usually good.  A watermelon smoothie was a delightful way to cool down when walking along Ao Nang Beach one hot afternoon.

These dishes were all readily available in Thailand.  In Vientiane, we found similar stuff, of course, but the region does have a somewhat different flavor, and to be sure we sampled it, we visited a renowned restaurant called The Laotian Kitchen.  There “we played it safe,” as our friend and guide said, and didn’t try anything that would scorch our tastebuds.  Being really satisfied with what we ate, I’d say we made the right choice in that regard.  So what did we have, anyway?

5.  Tofu Laab.  Think stir-fry, but different.  Delicious over some of that sticky rice I mentioned earlier.

6. Spring rolls.  Not fried, and ever-so-fresh, leaving the belly feeling happy, not overloaded with grease.  Highly recommended.

Tofu Laab

Tofu Laab, a Laotian specialty.  You can get it with chicken, but that’s not our bag, baby.

There you have it.  Five favorites.  We had many different dishes which we really enjoyed, and one or two may well merit mention here (how about the many curries?  Those usually were good) that I’m forgetting, but if and when you visit Thailand and Laos, give these a try.  I guarantee you won’t be let down.

One last thought as I’m closing–be sure to order your food mild.  Even mildly spicy to Thai people is really spicy to you and me.  Twice I forgot to order that way, and both times I found it hard to come close to finishing my food.  The first time, I tried what looked like a tasty multi-mushroom soup.  It was so hot, however, that I couldn’t actually taste anything other than my mouth burning.  And in a moment, after trying valiantly to prove that I could master the stuff, I was sweating and my head was spinning.  The second time I fared only slightly better, managing to avoid dizziness.

That’s that.  Until the next time.