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.

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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.

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.

Spring Break Travels: Musings on Thailand

It’s back to the real world in a few days: back to work, back to the mundane, back to the routine.  Now we’re back to our apartment, life as usual.  But since that’s not too interesting, I’m going to share about the trip the little family and I made to Southeast Asia for the better part of two weeks.  We visited two countries, Thailand and Laos, but for now I’m focusing on Thailand.  We explored three distinct areas of Thailand.  Bangkok, Udon Thani, and Krabi (Ao Nang, more specifically).

Map borrowed from this website: http://samui-attractions.blogspot.ae/2012/04/map-of-thailand-koh-samui-hoh-phangan.html

You’ll see Udon Thani nearly at the Laos border in the northeast; Bangkok is center on the gulf; Krabi and Ao Nang are near Phuket.  Map is borrowed from another website, but it seems to have come from EmbassyWorld.com.

Let’s talk about scenery first.   Without a doubt, the Krabi area was the most scenic, with stunning cliffs and towering islands, verdant greenery, and multi-colored waters.  In contrast, Udon Thani isn’t picturesque at all.  It’s a city that’s grown rapidly in recent years, but it mostly lacks anything that lends itself to a photograph.  There’s a bustling night market, a nice mall, and street vendors selling whatever they can, and in the parks people play a sport that seems like a mixture of soccer and volleyball.  But it isn’t beautiful.  Bangkok was a surprise.  We’d both expected the city to be something other than it is.  What, exactly, I’m not sure.  But we didn’t find it pretty for the most part.  Until we reached Krabi on the tail end of our trip, in fact, we shared the opinion that Thailand generally wasn’t pretty, except for the temples and palaces, which seemed the only things well-maintained.  Bangkok has skyscrapers almost right next door to homes of a floor or two, paint peeling off the sides, yards ramshackle. It’s grimy and the sidewalks are uneven and difficult to walk.  

Longtail boats deposit tourists into the amazing island waters off the coast of Aonang.

Longtail boats deposit tourists into the amazing island waters off the coast of Aonang.

The Thai people seemed very warm and friendly, always smiling and courteous.  Even people trying to sell us trinkets and such weren’t usually pushy.  They’d try to get our attention, of course, but they’d accept “no thanks” as an answer without any of the irritating badgering that we put up with on a visit to the Old Souk in Dubai or to pretty much anywhere in downtown Kandy, Sri Lanka.  Wherever we went, the little blond baby boy we were carrying was an attraction.  Turtle himself thought the attention was quite alright, and enjoyed waving “bye” to people and pointing his finger up, which caused no end of giggles and imitations, bringing a smile to the little guy’s face every time.

In Udon Thani, a couple we’ve been friends with for years showed us around.  They’ve been there for a while, and were able to take us to the neatest places and help us sample the tastiest foods, as well as advise what to avoid and teach us a couple of Thai phrases.  It was awesome to catch up with them, and so good to have their inside view of and understanding of the area.

So what are some insights we gained from our trip?  Would we want to live in Thailand?  Is the Pad Thai (or Thai food in general) better than it is anywhere else?  Here are three things that made an impression on me.  Jenia has more insights, very interesting ones relating to culture, and she’ll write them up someday soon.  For now, here are my thoughts.

Insight one (if this is really an insight, perhaps I should call it an “observation”): there’s a palpable sense of freedom when compared to living where we do right now.  Yes, this takes the face of cross-dressing and prostitution in some places, but in others it’s the simple wearing of whatever clothes you feel like putting on, knowing nobody’s going to be offended.  There’s a sense of freedom in the (unregulated and kind of sketchy) selling of food on the sidewalks, off the side of a scooter with a sidecar contraption that contains rice and noodles.  This also means people run red lights or drive the wrong way on some roads (particularly the “motorcycles,” or scooters, in our understanding).  It’s got a touch of the Wild West about it, with all the associated connotations.  Regarding those who enforce traffic regulations, evidently extremely inconsistently, “The police here do stop you sometimes,” said our friends, “because they want a bribe.  But they usually only stop trucks and motorcycles, because they’re the ones that break the laws all the time.”  The bribes are usually small, too, which makes the harassment more bearable, they said.  Speaking of bribes, those are apparently also expected when doing some bureaucratic business, something us tourists don’t usually encounter much, and which I have no personal experience with.  “You just pay it,” we were told, “So things get done.  Otherwise you could wait forever.”  This freedom most certainly does not extend to making remarks about the King, and one guidebook we read advised tourists even to be careful about putting a banknote in your back pocket, as it could be deemed disrespectful to sit on a portrait of the King, whose face adorns all the currency.   If you’re interested in news about Thailand, check out the Bangkok Post.  The linked article is actually pretty interesting, being about the ivory trade, and it should supplement what I’ve written nicely.

Insight two: the place is still third world, despite fairly rapid development in the 20th century.  In terms of creature comforts, convenience, and the like, it’s a notch or two above places like Sri Lanka, though.  The electricity is generally reliable in Udon Thani, for example, however everyone’s prepared for a brief outage.  Also regarding electricity, it’s disconcerting to see the proliferation of wires that hang from telephone poles, sometimes easily within reach of anyone who might casually reach up and touch them.  We suspected the low-hanging ones were merely phone lines, but weren’t sure.  In Ao Nang, the highest wires were actually buzzing constantly, snapping, and popping occasionally.  At night you could see electricity arcing around the insulators atop polls sometimes.  Walking on the sidewalks under this wasn’t particularly nice, but we got used to it quickly, and it became normal after a day or two.

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A cloudy day on Phi Phi Island off from Ao Nang.

A cloudy day on Phi Phi Island off from Ao Nang.

Insight three: the food is by turns surprising, delicious, and tastebud scorching.  We found a couple of favorite dishes: papaya salad, a sweet and spicy dish, and mango sticky rice, which is exactly what it sounds like–slices of fresh, melt-in-your-mouth mango with glutinous rice.  We liked the fruit smoothies that were ubiquitous.  It was shocking to see bugs roasted up and for sale as snacks.  Want a crispy grasshopper?  Check.  Maybe  silkworm larvae?  Got it.  Other insect?  Probably available.  Neither of us ventured to try these, although my friend offered us this tidbit: “I’ve tried the ones under an inch long.  They don’t really have any taste.  They’re kinda crispy.  Just wings and things, you know.” And as for the Pad Thai: Ruen Thai, a restaurant half a world away in little Cornelia, Georgia, makes stuff that’s as good or better than we encountered in the actual country.  If you’re ever in Cornelia, you should go there, and you can have a wonderful Thai dining experience at a fraction of the cost of flying to Thailand and with none of the risk of food poisoning you run at a street vendor.

A maze of roads, rails, and walkways outside the MBK and Siam Center in Bangkok.

A maze of roads, rails, and walkways outside the MBK and Siam Center in Bangkok.

A tasty snack to some, these silkworm larvae were for sale next to more sizable grasshoppers and the like.

A tasty snack to some, these silkworm larvae were for sale next to more sizable grasshoppers and the like.

Insight four: the place is hot.  Really hot.  In UT it was 100F one day, and this was just barely April.  It’s also extremely humid.  This is no surprise, as Thailand is a tropical country, but still, 100F and high humidity is formidable.

Would we move to Thailand?  No.  “It’s too third world,” says my wife.  I agree.  It’s a neat place to visit, and we’d definitely go back.  The next time, however, we’d fly to Phuket and get the ferry from there to Ao Nang, skipping the bland northeast, grungy Bangkok, and go directly to the scenic coast, with its otherworldly pillars of rock and vegetation rising from the sea.  That’s all for now.  Stay tuned for Jenia’s upcoming post, one I think you’ll find far more interesting and insightful than what I’ve offered here.

Christmas Break, Part II: Exploring South Africa

As you know, we’ve been enjoying a special Christmas break–one spent with friends in South Africa.  I sometimes shake my head in wonder–how did I get to South Africa?

As a child, I remember hearing about apartheid and seeing news about Nelson Mandela on TV. Then, as a college student, I remember that the place was the murder capital of the world, and carjackings were happening constantly. The news even featured a segment on a flamethrower that could be mounted underneath your car to prevent carjackers from stealing your ride.

As a result, heading there was the farthest thing from my mind.

But things change. And whats more, bad news is mostly what makes it onto TV. Quick: name a good event that’s happened in a foreign country lately. What comes to mind? What about a bad event? Anything scary? Something horrendous? I can think of a couple of those much more easily than I can something cheerful. That goes for places on the traveler’s radar, too, like European Union countries. What did I really know about South Africa at all? Not a lot. I’ve seen a couple of movies about Nelson Mandela, but what did Clint Eastwood’s Invictus (which chronicled Nelson Mandela’s attempt at using the world of sports to help unite his countrymen) really teach me about the place? Again, not a great deal.

My lack of knowledge about SA started to change as Jenia and I made friends with a pair of South African couples. They’re charming, funny, and engaging. And I can certainly say they’re more than generous, too, especially considering all the effort they put into helping us have a great holiday over the last couple of weeks. But I risk getting off-track–what did I start to learn about South Africa? I learned our friends had a strong devotion to their country, and a fierce desire to return to it. They talked about the beautiful scenery and the wonderful wildlife. One teared up when talking about the ailing former President, Nelson Mandela, asking that we pray for the country. And it made me wonder, is it still dangerous? Our friends seemed to kind of skirt that question: “We live in a security complex, so you’ll be fine,” they said. “There’s no reason to ever see that side of South Africa,” they told us. “Just don’t stop on the side of the road,” said one. “I’ve got good insurance on the car, so if anything happens, don’t worry.” The other friend added, “Ya, don’t stop unless parts are falling off.” Pause: “And then don’t stop.”

Kirstenbosch, "Africa's most beautiful gardens," if you believe the hype.  I think I do.

Kirstenbosch, “Africa’s most beautiful gardens,” if you believe the hype. I think I do.

In essence there’s the short answer: SA can still be dangerous, it’s true.  The long answer is this: learn what areas to avoid going through at night, find out when and where it’s a bad idea to stop beside the road or at a filling station, and in general avoid presenting an easy target for thieves, and you’ll be fine.  This makes it like any other city in the world.  Also, the relatively small city of Cape Town is safer than Johannesburg.  Since Cape Town and the Western Cape province is where we spent our time, that’s all I can really write about.  I never felt threatened at all, and I’d highly recommend visiting the area if you ever get the chance–it’s truly a beautiful place, with stunning vistas at every turn.

Our friends were instrumental in getting us to visit the country.  To begin with, they gave us a reason to go visit. Then the helped us figure out what kinds of things we should do with our time there.  They even recommended what airline to fly (for us, taking the South African Airlines flights that are operated by Emirates is the best option).

So this is how we got to South Africa.  Other than being pretty, you say, what’s the place like?

When we arrived on December 16, the entire country was mourning the loss of former President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who passed away on the 5th.  His funeral had already taken place, but there was a second memorial service being broadcast as we were finding our way out of the airport.  During the first week of our trip, were touched to see “Memorial Stations” set up throughout the city in various locations, including the airport, where people could come–and they queued right up to do this–to pour out their sympathies, grief, and condolences, perhaps leaving cards or flowers.  It was very clear Mandela was adored by all.  “He just had that power,” said my friend’s dad.  “He made you feel important.”  Mandela dominated many of the conversations I had with older people, and even people my own age, for a significant portion of our trip.

Jenia's buddy from Boulders Beach.

Jenia’s buddy from Boulders Beach.

Mentioning the former president inevitably brings up discussion of the current state of politics.  The place has a very forward-thinking constitution, which they sometimes find difficult to implement.  The dominant ANC party has become corrupted, and even the president himself corrupt.  Most notably, he misused a ton of public funds on his own luxurious compound.  “The law allows him to make security improvements and have them paid for,” my friend said.  “But he called his swimming pool a ‘fire pool,’ like it was a reservoir they could use to put out fires.”  Yet folks are hopeful that the government will change and get back on the track it was on when Mandela and his immediate successor were in office.  But I’m not a politician or a political blogger, so I’ll leave my observations on the topic at this: the place is a country that is developing, and it has got a few hurdles to overcome, mostly, it seems, in the political arena, so that development can really take place.  I seriously hope that this happens sooner rather than later, because it’s a place that deserves to shine.

And what are the people like?  Warm.  Welcoming, friendly.  Cheerful and upbeat.  Everyone speaks English, and it’s a nice, mellifluously accented sort.  They also speak Afrikaans, which is a very pleasant sounding blending of Dutch and English.  We picked up a handful of words and phrases like “Lakker,” “Lakker slap,” and “More more [pronounced more-uh],” meaning “sweet” or “nice,” “sleep well,” and “‘morning.”  They tend to drink a bit, perhaps owing to the fact that there are tons of vineyards in the area, and they absolutely love to barbecue out on the weekends, or, it seems, anytime there’s a good excuse.  This is called “braai,” and it’s usually a wood fire built in a brazier of one sort or another.  We even had fire bread one night (the last bit of baking done over the coals).  They know how to relax, but they’re also hard workers and they’re often health-oriented and outdoorsy.

Jenia feeding an elephant at the Kysna Elephant Park.

Jenia feeding an elephant at the Kysna Elephant Park.

Now about those vistas–there are too many lovely sights to recount.  Table Mountain towers over Cape Town, which more or less surrounds it.  Hiking trails await; I experienced only one, a steep one descending Table Mountain.  On the way down I had to pause and touch the rocks every now and then and say to myself, “I’m in Africa.  These are African rocks.  I’m amazed to be here.”  My calves were screaming at me for a couple days after that hike–and I thought myself in reasonably good shape before that!  Beaches and bays with near-white sand and icy cold water await sunbathers and hearty swimmers, too; rocks rise out of the water and mountains peer down into it.  Skies are perfect blue.  Beautiful.  

The flora is greatly varied and changes greatly as one drives north or west from the city.  In Cape Town, things start out pretty green.  Before long, you’re in Stellanbosch, the winelands, surrounded by vineyards on terraced hillsides with dramatic peaks soaring above.  I loved watching the clouds pouring over the tops of the mountains, the mists rolling slowly.  If you take N1 going northeast, you’ll experience the Garden Route, where the land flattens into softly undulating fields, and this time of year at least, the fields are golden and low-cut.  We went as far up the east coast as Knysna, where there are pine forests and thick, hilly bushland, and on the west coast as far as Veldriff, where the landscape is sandy and bushes grow low to the ground.  

Shon holding an Owl and sporting facepaint.

Shon holding an Owl and sporting facepaint.

As for memorable stories, we’ve got a few.  For example, we got hands-on time with a cheetah, some birds of prey, a porcupine, and elephants–although I will go ahead and admit that those animals were all quite tame.

Maybe in our next post, we’ll share some particular stories.  For now, though, I fear I’ve dragged this one on for too long, trying to squeeze 17 days into one entry.  Until next time.

Fishermen on the beach at Southern Cross.

Fishermen on the beach at Southern Cross.

The Traveling Turtle or 1 Baby, 2 Months, and 7 Countries

Disclaimer: everything you read below is only our experience and our opinion.

I feel I should begin by saying that even before our Little Turtle was born, we kind of promised each other that as long as he turned out healthy, we would not stop traveling (and living) only because we have a baby.

This dialogue from the “Paris, Je T’Aime” movie is very close to my heart:

Vincent: Claire, make Gaspard a balloon, not a ball and chain.
Claire: Was I a ball and chain?
Vincent: Mon Petit Claire, You were not the ball and chain. You were the zeppelin.

Well, we got us a sweet little zeppelin (in my best Southern accent.) I tend to think that some of it is luck, and some of it is our decision.

After 8 weeks and 9 flights I came to the conclusion that traveling with a baby is not different from doing everything else with a baby. We only needed 4 things: my milk, diapers, patience, and flexibility.

There were only 2 times, I believe, when Turtle thew a fit: once in Maine, when his 5 cousins aged 7 to 14 were overly excited to meet him and he didn’t know what to make of it, and in the car somewhere in Europe when he was just tired of being in the carseat. The rest of the time, he ate (at every sight worth seeing, in every museum), slept in his carrier (we have a Boba Air and love it!), observed his surroundings, and made friends.

A side-note on the carrier: there was only one time we wished we had a stroller.  In Sri Lanka, it would have been nigh impossible to roll it, in Europe, there are cobblestones everywhere. There was never the question of folding/storing/hauling something, which we loved.

Some practical stuff:

In Bonn, we ended up in a bigger hotel room, because they saw we had a baby. I suspect it would have happened at other places, too, if we went to check-in together.

In the Dubai airport, we didn’t have to stand in a single line. In Amsterdam and somewhere in the US we were allowed to board first. KLM was fantastic: the staff was very friendly and thoughtful. They actually provided us with an infant life vest, an infant seatbelt, and a little bag of goodies (even though Turtle was a bit too young for it.) Delta was much less impressive, I’m sad to report.

We were given a bassinet on 2 flights, and an extra seat on 2 flights. We found the extra seat to be more convenient.

At one of the restaurants, the waiter picked up Ari and carried him around during our whole meal, so that we could relax and enjoy our food, which we did!

Not once did I catch anyone giving me the evil eye for nursing in public (I don’t go all-bare, but I don’t use one of those nursing tents either.)

Everywhere we went, people on public transportation were quick to give up their seats so that one of us could sit down. So very sweet.

So there are definite benefits 🙂 The drawbacks are few and far between, the main one being the slower pace: we had to stop to feed him, or he’d get tired of being in the carrier, or our arms/back would get tired. But it’s such a minor thing! We just travel differently now, that’s all.

Thursday List: Lessons Learned

In no particular order, allow us to present lessons we learned while we traveled this summer.  Humorous?  Maybe (or maybe not, you be the judge).  True?  We think so.

1) The Toyota Yaris is one of the worst cars ever built.  We rented one for a day in Georgia (that would be the state, not the country).  The steering had less feel and was more vague than a careless comment that could be either a compliment or an insult.  The blind spots were larger than a Ford Expedition.  The centered gauge cluster is less sensible than a drunken, raving Mel Gibson. The acres of plastic swathing the interior epitomize the notion of “cheap,” along with every other aspect of the automobile.  Also it has no power.

2) The author of the CNN article “The New London, Paris and Rome” is totally wrong about Ostend.  Ostend is boring and the beach unappealing–not “oddly restorative.”  Besides, we got locked in a Japanese garden while there.

ostend

Ostend. Bland, forgettable, and certainly not worth visiting.  Sorry Belgium.  We love some of your other cities.

3) Couchsurfing is infinitely more fun than staying in a hotel.  And couchsurfers are, as it turns out, not all hippies–they’re a varied group of interesting folks.  We stayed with a guy who works in the Belgian steel industry, two air traffic controllers, and more.  We met fellow surfers who had careers as mind-blowing as molecular modeling researcher and astrophysicist.  Not kidding.  The astrophysicist, a guy named Lorraine from France, is also a beekeeper.  He shared a story about how he was asked to deliver a beehive to the Prime Minister (all true, mind you). He said yes, of course.  “But I told them that because it is summer, if I put the beehive in the car to deliver it, it could be a problem.  Because of the heat, the bees could die.”  The person he was speaking to said, “No problem.”  “Yes,” he said, “It would be a problem.  The bees could die.”  The other person reassured him–“No, no problem.  You will not have to stop.”  He ended up having a police escort through the center of Paris so that he didn’t have to stop and wait in traffic, and he delivered the beehive and set it up at the Prime Minister’s place.

4) Traveling with a baby is not only possible, but for the most part, quite easy (and there’s a post about that in the making).  As a side note, carrying a baby in a carrier starts to hurt one’s back after a couple days (but it is notably easier than pushing a stroller all over creation).

5) We now understand our friends who told us a year ago that they were looking forward to being back in the UAE. Then, we thought they were, well, nuts. Now, we are those people, too.

6) It can be rather hard to explain to those back in the US – or the people we met during our travels – what life here is really like. It seems that there is a backstory to every story. Also, for some reason, it’s easier to tell about the negative experiences.

7) Speaking of backstories, here’s one now: just kidding.  Lesson learned when telling stories to family back home–trim the backstories to the bare minimum, or your loved ones will tune out before you get to the good stuff.

8) Strangely, following the most obvious road signs from one place to another doesn’t always yield the fastest route.  Take our trip to Reims from Luxembourg, for example: this should have been a short two hours, judging by Google Maps, but it took us no less than six hours of meandering secondary roads.

The French countryside somewhere along a rural road between Rheims and Luxembourg.

The French countryside somewhere along a rural road between Rheims and Luxembourg.

We found some great mountain roads between Luxembourg and Germany.  This was just over the German border.

We found some great mountain roads between Luxembourg and Germany. This was just over the German border.

Somewhere in France...

Somewhere in France…

9) That brings us to this point: enjoy being on the verge of lost or completely off track.  Make it a point to simply have a great time exploring.  Make the best of sore feet (an excuse to stop at that little cafe!) or winding back roads (pull over and get a photo of the picturesque mountain pass).  The single best day of our trip was when we were driving, completely by accident and thanks to the road signs, the French countryside.  And enjoy the crummy places you end up, too (within reason, of course), like Ostend.  Where else would we have ever gotten locked in a Japanese garden?  It was a memorable experience at least.

10) It’s good to come home.  We already knew this.  But what we didn’t expect was to grow tired of traveling, since we both love it.  Still, we did.  After what started to seem too long on the road, we found ourselves especially grateful to have our own space and the chance to return to our routines.

Mini vacation

Fujairah is 2 1/2 hours from here. We went there. There isn’t a lot there, but there are pretty forts around. The beach in Fujairah itself isnt so great, but a short drive south into Kalba yields a nice park along the water and long expanses of sand. Drive a bit further south and you will find lovely mangrove growth, although its closed to visitors right now. Kalba is a fishing village, and we witnessed the fisherman hard at work, trolling, we think, for fish with an interesting if peculiar truck-truck-truck-boat setup. Anyway, here are some photos. I’ll try to add some more soon.

The first two pictures are of Fujairah Fort, which was, according to http://www.guide2dubai.com, established in 1670.  As it stands now, it has been reconstructed and is surrounded by ruins of old brick buildings from years ago.

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A pigeon makes his final descent to Fujairah Fort.

The tower which stands by itself is one of Al Hayl Castle’s buildings.  Getting to this fort is a bit more difficult than it seems like it should be.  At one point, we were driving through a residential neighborhood and it seemed like there was no way we’d gone the right direction. If it weren’t for a reviewer on TripAdvisor saying to keep on going straight when it seems like you’ve lost the road to the castle, we’d have probably given up and turned back, missing out on a picturesque, if small, place nestled in the rugged hills.  In fact, the journey to Al Hayl led one of our intrepid and faithful traveling companions, Melissa, to declare, “I love this!” from the backseat as we pounded along a rough stretch of gravel road in our Kia.

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Fujairah Fort stands in downtown Fujairah, near the water. There are plenty of signs pointing toward it, making it easy to find.

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The lookout tower at Al Hayl Castle.

Photobombing

Photobombing

The mosque by our hotel

The mosque by our hotel

Us looking all cute

Us looking all cute

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These trucks were operating together in a puzzling dance, towing ropes through the water. Evidently, a crew in a small boat dropped a trap or net and these trucks were towing them toward shore.

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One way to create a winch is to use little Toyota trucks, set an old wheel up so it spins freely on the front of one, and tow the rope using another truck. The people in charge told me they were catching fish. “Little ones, some big,” they said.

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These guys were working the ropes which, as near as I can tell, were towing traps or nets slowly toward shore.

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Fujairah’s beaches are strewn with shells.

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20130206-185556.jpg A fairly common sight in these parts–workers, most likely Pakistani, riding in the back of a 2-ton truck.

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The mangroves preservation was closed. Looking at this one can forget he is in the UAE.

The Blob is growing. So is Jenia.

The Blob is growing. So is Jenia.

The rugged hills themselves are interesting, and watching the sun set behind them was nice.  That aside, we received a free tour of the castle and its little compound, which our guide told us was 150 years old.  We even were allowed to climb up on the roof of the main building and the tower atop it, which was pretty cool.

On the way to and from Al Hayl fort we saw a bunch of donkeys wandering freely.  We suppose they’re all the property of a local farmer.  Naturally, we took some pictures, since free-roaming animals of this type are pretty rare around the southeastern USA.

Melissa and Jenia had to get out of the car and take pictures of them

Melissa and Jenia had to get out of the car and take pictures of them

Scenes from a Russian Winter

A Memoir

Strictly speaking, a memoir is quite different from an autobiography, although the idea is the same.  It’s a truthful retelling of past events.  However, a memoir may roll several events into one, or condense multiple characters into one, or things like that.  Great memoirs, like Elie Wiesel’s Night, can be more powerful and effective than a straight autobiography, which is concerned with getting all the details right.  Memoirs are about impressions and memories.  That’s what I’m doing with this post.  I’m condensing a couple days of time here in Ryazan into a few scenes.  It’s all true, but the organization has been shifted in the interest of creating a better narrative.  I do hope you like it.

Scene One: Prelude.

It is cold.  Extremely cold.  I wear long thermal underwear, top and bottom, a sweater, gloves and scarf as well as a warm Russian ushanka hat.  Jenia’s sacrificed style, in the form of her snappy Guess jacket, for warmth, wearing a baby blue down jacket she bought ages ago.  When we step out the apartment complex’s entrance it’s still so cold that I cringe as the air bites my exposed face.  The sky is clear and blue, the day brilliant and bright.  We walk together, carefully, trying not to slip and fall on the icy and uneven driveway.  Our breaths puff in front of us. It is December 24, Christmas Eve for those in the Western world, and even though it’s after 10:00am and warmer than it was this morning when we rose (a numbing -27c, or -17f), it’s still roughly -21c, or 8 degrees below 0 Fahrenheit.

A few minutes later we’ve arrived at our bus stop.  We are accompanying my mother-in-law to the country house and the bus is the first leg of a multi-leg journey.  The bus has already gone.  It will be some time before the next one.  Instead of loitering there, we walk to an Orthodox Church a quarter mile away.  The walk is stressful, as we are forced to be mindful of every step, and we all slip and slide at least once, although nobody falls this time.  We pose for some pictures in front of the church.  At this point, my legs are starting to feel cold.  Maybe a second pair of long johns would’ve helped.  The cold is invasive.  It tries to work its way around the joints of my clothing.  My toes, despite woolen socks and heavy boots, start to feel cold by the time we figure we’ve spent enough time snapping photos.  Jenia doesn’t like it, but I have a little “soul patch” of facial hair below my lower lip.  By the time we’ve returned to the bus stop, it is covered with ice.

Chapel

If you look carefully, you’ll see Jenia’s furry collar has iced over where her breath strikes it.

Scene Two: Country House.

The village is tiny.  How many houses are gathered here, a mile from the train tracks?  Maybe 50.  It’s hard to tell when you don’t want to linger in the snow-covered road long enough to even guesstimate.  And I can’t wait to get indoors.  I’m not alone: the ladies have been in an even bigger hurry than me, as we’ve trudged along packed snow paths, through a patch of woods and an expansive meadow, snow squeaking beneath our feet.  We’ve come to the village now, and we walk past fences.  A German shepherd barks.  A man scolds it in Russian.  The dog and I have something in common: he doesn’t seem to understand Russian, for his barking goes on unabated.

Indoors, the little house seems warm.  My tyosha (mother-in-law; our Russian word for the day) cranks up the furnace.  It’s been on, but running very low.  Still, it feels wonderfully warm.  Only after being here for an hour or more do I realize that it was actually mighty chilly when we arrived–it was just a lot warmer than the negative temps outdoors.

Walking

Entering the village, packed snow just a-crunchin’.

Yard

The backyard of the country house is where the gardening goes on during warmer times.

Smoking

Ryazan’s factories belch smoke on the horizon.

Field

The road back to Ryazan–traveled by foot (obviously with some exceptions) to the railway.

Frost Flower

Furry

Jenia keeps her hands warm with some sort of furry mittens.

Scene Three: Catching the Train.

There’s a slight whistle blast from beyond the trees.  “Oh, no, what time is it?”  Says my tyosha.  She finds the time, and says to hurry.  We hurry.  “Run,” says my tyocha from behind me.  I’m in the lead.  So I begin to jog.  I’m carrying a backpack heavy with canned vegetables from the country house’s stores.  Jenia jogs behind me.  “No, run fast, or we’ll miss the train, and another one doesn’t come for two hours.”  So I run.  I can go a lot faster than my 5-months pregnant wife.  “Go ahead,” she says.  “If he sees you trying to make it, he might wait!”  I race out of the trees, and hurry up the treacherous steps, gripping the railing lest my feet slide out from under me.  A conductor is leaning out of the engine watching me.  It’s clear he’s going to wait for us.  The ladies catch up in a second and I offer them my hand as we board.  We plop down on benches and Jenia gasps as she recovers her breath.  An old man across from us watches her with interest–is she okay?  What’s the matter with her?  Asthma?  The car is mostly empty.   Men in heavy coats with fur hats sit here and there, most staring blankly out the windows.  All are old enough to appear grave and dignified.  After it’s clear that my wife is going to make a complete recovery from her rush, I content myself with joining the men in gazing out the dirty windows.  Birches rush past.  There are elevated pipes–gas lines?–that are here and there.  A Lada sits at a crossing waiting for our train to pass.

Train Lada

Engine

Having arrived back in Ryazan, I pause to snap a photograph of the train. The conductor is, again, watching for any passengers rushing to make it in time.

Boarding

This guy, rushing aboard, is blessed, like us, by the willingness of the conductor to keep an eye out.

Crossing

The small railway station where we disembark. To get to the other side, you cross the tracks.

Street

A Ryazan street. This place would be beautiful if the buildings had a coat of paint every now and again.

Stereotypes: Broken.

Shon promised that I would write this post weeks upon weeks ago. I could blame my slowness on the proverbial pregnancy brain, but you might as well know the truth: I’ve been dragging my feet, because it’s hard for me to put this experience into adequate words.

A short reminder: this happened on our trip to Muscat.

Saturday morning we went to breakfast at our hotel, the Safeer Suites.  We parked our stuff at the only table available, and went to the buffet. When I returned with my full plate, I found our table occupied by 3 random people, my purse still sitting on the floor next to them, and Shon sharing another table with an Arabic couple.

The first several minutes passed in silence: we were by then accustomed to the fact that UAE locals had very (if any) little interest in us, expats, and knew better than to jump into a jovial American small talk. Well, as it turned out, our table mates were Saudis and we were going to have the most interesting breakfast ever.

Now, I like to think that we had somewhat fewer stereotypes about Muslims in general and Arabs in particular than many Americans do. After all, we have traveled to Muslim countries before, as have our friends, and we’ve been reading books and blogs about people living in the area. Saudi Arabia, though… Well, who doesn’t have stereotypes of the worst kind about that country? We sure did.

Our new acquaintances, Bedad and Medina, were very open and talkative. Like many Arab women from the GCC, Medina wore an abaya and shayla, but had her face uncovered. She had a small delicate face with laughing eyes and wore glasses.  Unlike a good number of the men in the UAE, Bedad wore pants and a t-shirt.  We told each other how we met (they were both medical students sent to Makkah on Haj duty, and on returning home Bedad told his mother he wanted to marry this particular girl). Surprised, we found out that both of them had real jobs: Bedad is a pharmacist, and Medina is a nurse at the pediatric ICU. We were also surprised to learn that, unlike most Emirati, they didn’t seem to have live-in help.

They told us stories about their kids, “four boys–they are hard to control;” and offered an anecdote about how the littlest one likes to imitate his mother.  “Even the Always,” Bedad said.

I thought I must have misunderstood him. “Excuse me?”

“You know Always?”  The maxi pads.  Yes.

“He put on his leg,” Medina said.

We all exploded in laughter. Bedad leaned over to Shon and told him to pray really hard that we have a girl rather than a boy.

At some point, when Shon went to get more food, Bedad told me we should come visit.

“I thought Americans were not exactly popular in Saudi Arabia,” I said cautiously.

“It is getting better now, but we have many crazy people there.”

“Well, there are crazy people wherever you go, aren’t there?” I offered with a smile, trying to be politically correct.

Bedad, however, was serious. “No,” he shook his head, “we have more.”

We didn’t raise serious issues during this breakfast that ended up lasting longer that we originally planned. We talked about things people all over the world talk about: children, families, traveling, work. It may not have been deep, but it was real, and fun, and normal.  As we finally left the table to head to the beach, we looked at each other, and Shon said, “Stereotypes broken.”

“Shattered,” I added.

P.S. No, we did not reverse our stereotypes. We don’t now think that all Saudis are like this. We do, however, have a different perspective.

P.P.S. If you would like to learn about life in Saudi Arabia in the 1960-1990’s, I would recommend reading “Princess” by Jean Sasson. While not a literary masterpiece, it does provide a very interesting account of a woman’s life in that country.