Archive | January, 2018

Caving In

31 Jan

We headed to the Caves of Diros on a whim.  It’s in the Mani region of the Peloponnese peninsula, and we to take a detour to check it out despite the deterring cost factor.  

We bought our tickets, and, since we were the only ones there, had to wait a while before our tour started as the leader wanted to make sure no one else was coming. But again, it was January, and I’m 79% sure we were the only tourists on the whole peninsula. No one else joined and we got a private tour of the cave. 

They handed us life jackets because the water is 100 ft deep in some parts of the cave —unfathomable! Get it? Un (fathom) able…fathoms, as in units measure water? No? Ok. Anyway, the guide didn’t speak any english at all, which might’ve been a good thing for him since he wasn’t subject to my constant “Ooos”, “Ahhhs”, and never-ending puns.  He pushed our boat with a long stick, taking care not to bump into any of the precious cave walls. The silence was eerie: the echoing drip of water, the sound of the boat gliding through the water, the roar of a beast from somewhere beyond (just kidding). But seriously, it was eerie, humid and incredibly neat. Because the guide couldn’t teach us about the caves, we turned to our handy-dandy pamphlets to glean what little information we could, but lo and behold it was way too dark to read, and the caves were way too stunning for reading anyway.

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Not a ride at Disneyland #reallife


The whole experience took about an hour, exploring 1.2 kilometers of the lake cave by boat and then another .3 by foot at the end. The cave covers an area of 6.5 kilometers total, but most of it isn’t accessible to tourists.

 

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Hanging down and around with some stalactites,

 

The stalactites were beautiful, really colorful with greens, beiges, and burnt oranges. They grow at .3 mm (0.12 inches) per year, and I don’t know how old these are (the Greek language is all Greek to me), but I did read that humans were using them 6,000 years ago. No wonder the formations have grown so massive!

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I can say, without a doubt, that this is one of the coolest caves I’ve ever been in, and the images and the feeling of being underground are etched into my mind. Good thing, too, because the photos don’t do it justice. If you want a more lively representation of what the experience was like, check this out!  (Don’t get too excited, it’s only a YouTube video. Sound up, please.)

 

 

The next time I’m presented with the opportunity to head underground and check out something like this… I’m going to do myself a favor and cave in.
Wink,
‘mi

Peninsulas on Peninsulas

30 Jan

Listen folks, no matter where in the world you are, whether it be Mexico City or the Mani Peninsula in Greece, when you travel with a coffee drinker, you’ve got to splurge every now and again and get some coffee. And when you do… it will be a magical thing and you’ll have so much energy, won’t be able to sleep for days, and I have to switch to Caps Lock because caffeine is SO GOOD AND I LOVE COFFEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

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A heart in the coffee to represent my undying love for this caffeinated beverage that I so rarely get to indulge with because of it’s long lasting effects.

 

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So anyways, now that that’s literally out of my system (I’m not kidding; I ‘d love some more coffee right now) let me calmly tell you a little bit about my lovely trip to the Mani peninsula. The Mani peninsula is down down down on the Peloponnese peninsula. Since we were in Greece and therefore automatically legitimate philosophers, we spent the drive engaging in some Aristotelian discussion.  For example, we were on our way to a peninsula on a peninsula. Are peninsulas fractals? Do you remember the first time you learned about fractals?  What is a fractal? So as we contemplated the meaning peninsulas, we kept driving onwards towards a town called Kardamyli.

 

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A blue dot to mark our place on the peninsula’s peninsula.

 

We finally arrived on Mani peninsula, which is pretty remote and has a very rocky and mountainous terrain. A little interesting fact about this place (because you know I like 5-second history lessons in these blogs): It’s the only part of Greece that wasn’t taken over by the Ottoman Empire. And when you get here and look at the landscape, it’s easy to see why. It’s very rough, and I imagine it was incredibly easy to defend and hard to attack. That is… if anyone were trying to attack it — it was considered undesirable land, so the Ottomans were probably like “yeah, no thanks; keep it.”
But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any conflict. No, not at all. In fact, those things that look like castles in the picture down below are actually remnants of the watchtowers, watchtowers that were built any time there was a conflict. And there are so many of them. So the 60,000 people living on this land were fighting over useable land since farming was so hard to do in this area.

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Watchtowers on top of watchtowers on a peninsula on top of a peninsula…does your brain hurt yet?

 

Now that only 5,000 people inhabit this peninsula, there’s way less drama; however, a couple of days into our trip here, we saw a really bad car accident. Luckily, no one got hurt BUT the entire town did come to gather around the scene to see what happened (…there’s not much to do in January). It got us thinking: will this be cause for a new watchtower?  

Anyways, we continued on our adventures using a guidebook by Rick Steves; in this particular book, he says that Kardamyli is a stun gun to momentum, and he was totally right. As soon as we got into town, we looked for a place where we could sleep. The first place we went was too pricey even though it wasn’t even tourist season. What the heck?!  The next place only charged us 30 euros, came with an incredible view and a kickass balcony.  “Yes!”

 

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Stun gun to momentum, aka staring at this view for hours and not wanting to do anything else.

 

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Wandering the backstreets of Kardamyli and somehow ending up in Mama Mia!

 

Kardamyli is small, so we spent our time walking up/down the main street and backstreets. On our dozenth time doing this, we noticed that a new shop was open! Oh, interesting! Something new to explore!! They were selling olive oils and kitchenware made of trees so we popped inside.  The woman who owned the place was in the middle of a business meeting, and was surprised to see tourists.  She laughed and let us know that the store wasn’t actually open so walked back out onto the main street for the 13th time.

 

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Stun gun! More like sun gun….who wouldn’t stop to watch this?

 

After watching an amazing sunset, we turned in.  There was happily nothing to do after dark around here. The next morning, we walked into town and bought a breakfast of apples, bread, oranges (to squeeze into our own fresh orange juice!) and feta cheese. The breakfast was so good we bought it every single day after that, too. 

 

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Room with a view and a breakfast of champions.

 

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Same breakfast different day, still absolutely delicious.

 

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Swimmin’ in the cold on our “private” beach.

 

We found a “private” beach right outside of our hotel.  And by private I mean that it’s January so no other tourists were there, and it was cold so no one else was there in general.  It was luxurious to lay out on and soak up all of the beauty on this rocky beach. I could’ve stayed there forever.

One day we wanted to hike past the old town in Kardamyli but we planned it so that we could make it back for the sunset. Rick Steves had said that we would end up planning our days around the sunset, and while we didn’t believe him at first, he was totally right.  The hike was gorgeous, and we picked some fresh oranges off a tree — MUCH better than my prickly pear experience as we ate oranges on the hike back completly unscathed.

Then, in time for the sunset, we went to a neighboring town for dinner. We thought we’d try something different since we had already explored everything Kardamyli had to offer — well, okay, everything that was open. We had our first seafood of the trip, watched the gorgeous sunset, and Ben even offered to drive us home in the dark so I wouldn’t have to. Perfect night; dare I say “stun gun”?

 

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Sunset spreading out over the sea, does it get any better?!

 

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What!!! It can get better. Hello, Greek salad.

 

One day we decided to take a long drive all the way up and down the entire Mani coast.  

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Breathtaking views from the top.

 

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Views on views on views.

It only took us an hour to drive the girth of this peninsula but longer to drive up and down its coast line. Especially because we stopped so much. We saw as much of Mani as we could as I didn’t want to miss anything. 

When we got to the southernmost tip of the peninsula, we went on a hike to explore the lighthouse.  

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Makes more sense for you to see the lighthouse from the sea than from the road because, well..duh

 

The guidebook told us it was a 30 minute hike one way, but it took us a little bit longer (Rick Steves is not a prophet).  It was such a great hike offering good exercise and dramatic views the entire way.  Once again, I wish we had more time to spend there!!!  Is Greece my new favorite country??

 

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In order to get the picture above, we had to walk through a prickly bush *cue flashbacks from my prickly pear incident in Nafplio*.  Luckily, this bush wasn’t nearly as bad as the prickles from that fruit so I didn’t have to spend two hours removing needles from body.

 

That evening, we ate a dinner similar to our breakfast — bread, cheese, sticky honey, and a piece of fruit (breakfast for dinner is fun). We sat next to a rusty boat by an old pirate cove and watched the sunset.

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Pirate cove! 

 

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In Kardamyli, I gave Ben his first private laughter yoga session. It was a blast!!!!!!  I made us wear baseball caps so we were forced to looked look deeply into each others’ eyes while pronouncing all of the laughter syllables with gusto. I ended up laughing so hard, I started crying. By this point in the session we had been lying on the ground, and my tears were literally falling onto his face. That, mixed with my onion breath from the Greek salad I had at lunch, probably kept Ben from having the time of his life. But I was a ball of joy.

I had such a spectacular time in this part of the world. In fact, this was the first place Ben and I said we’d come back to, you know, whenever we felt like life was just moving too fast and we needed a stun gun to slow us down.

Sunset vibes,
‘mi

It’s All Greek to Me

27 Jan

Right off the bat, it’s easy to name so many great things that came out of Greece: Greek mythology, philosophy, architecture, democracy, Hercules, Greek salads…you know, the important stuff.

It had been my plan for several months to go here and so, from Cyprus, I hopped on a plane and headed to this stunning country where Ben would meet me upon arrival.

 

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Blue and white flag against the blue and white sky… Okay so maybe a grey and grey sky, but you know what I mean.

 

We landed in the evening about 45 minutes apart and to welcome him, I held up the handmade photo sign I drew in Cyprus with Despina’s help. It’s a good thing we weren’t replying only on that sign to find each other.  When he arrived, we “laughed” about the uncanny resemblance between my hand drawn picture and his face as we went to pick up the rental car.

 

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RIP selfie stick Dec. 2017- Feb 2018. Gone too soon.

 

The guy at the car rental place was extremely friendly, and interested in our excursions so he spent an extra 10 minutes giving us the inside scoop on cool locations we should add to our road trip itinerary. He snuck history, olive oil, wine, and where to find good food into the conversation, and we couldn’t all help but laugh at the fact that in the short amount of time we had been in Greece he had fulfilled almost every Greek stereotype.

So with his recommendations resting snugly in our pockets, we drove to our Airbnb only to find out that the guy had tried to contact us to tell us there was no power. This meant that we couldn’t shower (fine by me) or charge our phone in the house (we had a car charger), and all of this was going to be fine. When life gives you olives (which are actually really disgusting when they come right off the tree), make olive oil!   And anyways, the guy provided us with a couple of candles and of course we had our phone flashlights — We were happy.

The next day, we woke up and the sun was shining!  We were thrilled.  For breakfast, we went to a restaurant across the street; I got a salad, and Ben had a coffee, a baked good, and ate a fresh olive off the tree.  Like I said earlier, fresh olives are a solid 0 on a scale of 10 to delicious. They don’t taste anything like they do when they are prepared properly (i.e., set in salt water for at least one month) and make your mouth really dry.  So after that lesson learned and an otherwise average breakfast, we headed south on a heavily tolled road towards Nafplio, including the scenic route to Epidaurus theater.

 

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Ben performing a monologue.

 

Epidaurus theater dates back to the 4th century BC and can seat 14,000 people. It’s renowned for its acoustics, and people still perform there today during the summers. Since we were visiting in January and missing the shows, Ben and I decided to hold our own little performances. We took turns walking up to the top of the stairs (which was quite a feat because the stairs are very uneven), and whoever decided to stay in the middle would recite soliloquies from Greek dramas to the other. In the picture above, Ben is in the middle of quite the Greek tragedy. It was cool how easily you could hear him even without a microphone.  We were more of a traveling theater company than pop stars on tour, but we did get the full experience when a group of senior Italians decided to test the acoustics by singing Italian songs and dancing. All of sudden, we heard a whistle blowing, and it wouldn’t stop. Was someone really into this performance and providing instrumental accompaniment? Nope, turns out the theater has fun police who came down to tell the Italian group to stop. There was no singing or dancing allowed to which Ben and I wanted to say in the most dramatic fashion, but this is the theater, darling, the show MUST go on!

 

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There are statues of old Greek statues.  Confused?  Yeah, same. These are replicas.

 

We also happened upon this little treasure trove with statues. They were the first Greek statues we saw during this trip! I must know more. I thought. So I went over to read the plaques only to find out that these were merely plaster replications of Greek statues–statues of statues…okay. I was a little disappointed, but took a photo to remember the occasion when I thought I saw my first Greek statue in Greece.

Anyway, we continued on to Nafplio, making another seaside stop when we spotted some beachgoing puppies (because, c’mon…puppies), and after some good pettin’ and playing, we headed the long way back to Nafplio. Especially after being in the Ukraine, I was really impressed with the roads here.

 

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Do you sea how beautiful this is… and do you sea what I did there?

 

Oh, Nafplio! I could write an ode to your beautiful seas and to your free and abundant parking– the best parking in all of Europe! Is this what love feels like? So, once we parked in one of the many available spaces Nafplio had to offer, Ben and I walked around, had some dolmas and our very first Greek Salad. While we were eating the bread appetizer,  Ben said he didn’t want any olive oil on his plate, and I was like “…um.  Okay.”  It didn’t take long for Ben to realize that Greece is olive oil. Olive oil is Greece, and he never made that ridiculous request again.  

 

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Olive you from my head tomatoes.

 

So once we ate some more salad with EXTRA extra virgin olive oil, we got some Italian gelato and went for a hike among that castles in Nafplio, which light up at night and create the most magical scene.

 

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View from my throne.

 

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View of another Nafplio castle. My wallet doesn’t know that I’m royalty, so we only visited the free castle.

 

That night, we slept at a CouchSurfer’s apartment. His name is Fotis, and he works on fixing huge wind turbines. I’m telling you… you meet so many cool people through CouchSurfers.

Anyways, after a restful night, we went to a Greek market, and I fell in love again, so since I didn’t write an ode to the parking situation, I felt it was necessary for the market:

 

An Ode to a Greek Market

Oh, Greek market on the streets of Nafplio
Your vendors do not harass me as I walk past the stands
And question whether to buy.
Your cherry tomatoes, so cheap, so fresh
Are as red as the blood that gives me life
And oh, blood that gives me life! You have been sweetened
By the cheap, delicious blood oranges that rest
Next to the cheap olives, of which
The three types reflect the three forms of love.
Per kilo, perhaps, but cheap you remain.
Oh Greek market! The pleasure remains to walk through
Your kiosks over and over again.

 

…And yeah, did I mention that everything was cheap? *swoon*

 

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Fruit so beautiful you could write a poem about it!

 

Honestly, I could probably write an ode to every aspect of Nafpoli including our gorgeous cliff walk. Everything in this country is so picture perfect; we couldn’t stop commenting on how happy we were, and how nice the weather was, and how inviting the water looked and “why doesn’t everyone come to Greece in January?!”

 

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50 shades of blue is JUST as enticing.

 

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On our walk, we spotted some cactuses off the hillside that were growing prickly pears. Ok, so I love wild fruit like Winnie the Pooh loves honey, so just like he would risk some bumblebee stings, I was willing to risk some cactus stings if it meant getting a taste of those prickly pears. Turns out, it wasn’t the cactus that stung me but the prickly pears which have actual prickles all over them — prickles that found their way into my hands.  Sad face.  I spent the following two hours trying to get them out and also trying not to complain.   It was my fault this happened and Ben didn’t need to hear about it.  And I mean, yeah, if you’re asking, I did eat the fruit (it was delicious), but was it really worth it when this place had incredible food to begin with??  Hindsight is 20/20 my peeps, so I think I’ll stick with buying my prickly pears — hold the prickles — at the market.

 

So after the prickly pear debacle, and after Ben finally agreed to hold my hand once I removed all of the thorns, we had had one more really nice meal in Nafplio before we headed off down the coast where we enjoyed more spectacular views. It was getting dark by the time we found a place to stay for the night and it ended up being closed. January is a great time to come here because there aren’t very many tourists, but January is also a more challenging time to come here because there aren’t very many tourists. No tourists means not as many things are open. So we kept driving around in the dark, which was neither Ben’s nor my first choice. But we ended up finding a spot farther away from the beach for 40 euros a night. The room came with a kitchen, so we decided to head to the local grocery store where we bought some tortellini, sauce, and incredible cheese and went back to cook one delicious meal — we even incorporated those lovely cherry tomatoes from the Greek market.  

 

But no, no. Our meal wasn’t delicious. For some reason the tortellini was disgusting (couldn’t tell you why…maybe it needed to soak in some salt for a month like the olives). But we were hungry, and everything else was closed. So we decided to eat our barely edible dinner and curled up to watch an episode of Black Mirror (is it just me or is season 4 just as bad as this tortellini?). We turned in early because, as always, tomorrow held the promise of an early adventure.

Olive you,
‘mi

 

A Tale of Two Cypriots

25 Jan

So this blog post is going to be just a tiny bit different. Because I wasn’t able to learn much about Armenia’s history while I was there, I was extra determined to overcompensate for my lack of Armenian education and soak up every tidbit of information I could about the history and current affairs of my new destination–the sunny birthplace of Aphrodite–Cyprus.

The first thing I learned about Cyprus? There’s more to this country than meets the eye.

My first impressions:  Once I landed in Larnaca I noticed its sunny, beautiful blue skies; I realized that they drive on the left side of the road and that smoking is allowed essentially everywhere in this country (even on that aforementioned bus).  I became a beach-lover after my bones had frozen during that trip to Armenia and noticed that Cyprus is on the euro, making everything way more expensive than I’d anticipated. I appreciated the food diversity — Indian food! Ribs! Wow.  I was confused until I came to understand that “neigh” means “yes” in Cyprus.  

But, as soon as I talked to my first local, I began to see a deeper picture.

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The sea was music to my freezing ears.

 

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Water was too cold to actually swim, and I wasn’t too eager to be cold again so I happily stayed on the sand.

 

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The first local I met was this bus driver, Chris, on my first day in Cyprus. He was very respectful of the other people in the bus, and he always drove slowly because, as he put it, he knows he has “souls” riding around with him. We got to talking, and he told me that I was the first American he had ever spoken to; likewise, he was the first Cypriot I had the pleasure of getting to know–ahem, I mean Greek Cypriot. I asked him what he meant by “Greek Cypriot,” and so began my first history lesson!

He told me about how Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots want to be distinguished from one another because there is animosity between the two groups. Greek Cypriots in south Cyprus are angry about the occupied territory in the north–the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Chris has never been to the occupied part nor would he ever go until it is free from Turkish influence.  At a base level, it’s sort of a Greek Orthodox vs Muslim Turks showdown.

Intrigued by this information, I decide to channel the Australian at my last hostel and watch a couple of documentaries on the subject. I’m going to take a wild guess and say that you don’t want a full-on synopsis of the documentaries, so I’ll just bullet point some quick, interesting facts:

  • At around the same time Greece fought for its independence (and won) against the Ottoman Empire, Cyprus also rebelled against the Ottoman Empire and lost. The Ottoman Empire was in need of money and got a loan from England in exchange for its rule over Cyprus.
  • More recently–like, way more recently that the Ottoman Empire– Cyprus became part of the EU in 2004.
  • Cyprus is literally divided in half by a “green line” that extends across the island. The south is what is actually known as Cyprus, while the north is called The Turkish Republic of Cyprus (or as south Cypriots like to call it: occupied).
  • The two sides have two different presidents, but the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is not recognized as its own country by any entity other than Turkey…. (Sidenote: am I becoming the Australian from my last hostel? Visiting self-proclaimed countries…watching documentaries…I’m starting to see the appeal).

 

See! Four bullet points of interesting history. Now, that wasn’t so bad was it?

 

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A park on the northern side, looking through the fence out onto the Greek side.

 

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A literal fence diving the two parts of the county. Almost like the Berlin wall without the graffiti…or the wall.

 

So since there are two sides to Cyprus, and two sides to every story, I decided to become Investigative Sam and head to the north to learn even more. Told you…overcompensating. And, as I headed that way, I learned that although south Cypriots don’t travel to the north mostly out of protest, Turkish people are not even allowed to cross the border. I was once again reminded of just how lucky I am to be able to travel freely between this divide because of my US passport.

Before going into the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, I decided to visit the southern part of Nicosia first, the capital of Cyprus. And the only capital in Europe divide by a boarder.  Once I arrived in south Cyprus, I headed to the tourist office to see what kinds of (respectful) shenanigans I could get into around town. I told the clerk that I also wanted to walk across and see the Turkish part, and he had no information for me. Literally zero. I thought he was being petty, but then I realized that the sides don’t communicate with each other or even conduct business; they aren’t connected by bus or any other means of transportation–they don’t even have a map of the other side. The clerk told me the south Cypriots are really leery of people who want to visit the occupied north; he added that I should bring my own food and snacks so that I don’t buy anything over there and inadvertently support the Turkish.

So I arrive in the northern part, and hey–that flag looks an awful lot like the Turkish flag…

 

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Anyways, I made it over to the other side and asked for their tourist map, since the other side didn’t have one. This is what they gave me:

 

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Now, we may not be geography experts, but it’s clear that the map of the north cuts out the southern part of the city completely; doesn’t even recognize its existence. I literally felt like the mutual friend between two fighting exes.  

Besides the clear distinction on the map, Nicosia is the only city in Europe that is divided by an actual green line, and each side is completely different from its language down to its currency.

Some more bullet-point history:

  • Cyprus was declared a country in 1960; the president was chosen by the Greek Cypriots, and the vice president was chosen by Turkish Cypriots. This led to a lot of turmoil, and there was a ton of violence in 1964 to which the UN responded with a peacekeeping initiative.
  • In 1974, there was an attempted coup to overthrow the president in favor of someone who would be more “pro Greece.” In response to the coup, Turkey invaded the north and divided the nation in two. People were taken from their homes and forced to move to whichever side of the island recognized their religion.

And the rest is history. Literally.  

So apparently, the day before I had arrived in Turkey Republic of North Cyprus, a northern newspaper had printed a story regarding Turkey’s role in the war against Syria. The country had placed troops on the Syrian border, and the newspaper’s headline read: “Turkey invades Syria, just like Cyprus.”  Ouch. The north was in an uproar. There were protesters in front of the newspaper offices, and they were shouting (in Turkish) things like “Greek lovers!”  Less than appreciative of the comparison that had been made, the Turkish president told everyone to go out and protest.

 

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North side, not so happy…south side says they reported “the truth.” Investigative Sam here reporting the hard facts.

 

During this whole ordeal, I met a pharmacist, a woman from Cyprus. She was a north Cypriot so had EU citizenship. Her opinions were very interesting. She doesn’t like Turkey and thinks that the country is overstepping its boundaries; it’s making northern Cyprus rely too much on them without providing enough help.

I wanted more opinions, so, as Investigative Sam, I of course started talking to a Turkish reporter on the scene who befriended me. He spoke great English, so we were able to chat for a few hours, and he answered a lot of my questions. My reporter friend told me that he likes the northern president; he believes the president is a good guy, but he hates the protesters because he doesn’t think they would have the courage to fight like that by themselves. Again, this was all coming from a guy living in the north but from Turkey, which I thought was pretty interesting.

By the time I was ready to head back to the south, my head was spinning with so much information. What I struggle to understand is Turkey’s best-case scenario in this whole ordeal, but I know that Turkish Cypriots are worried that if Turkey pulls away, the Greeks will take over.  South Cypriots mostly want to make their island whole again, and many of them want to become part of Greece (I mean, who wouldn’t? It’s gorgeous).

 

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My reporter friend.

 

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A walk to see the wild flamingos…When in Cyprus!

 

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The pink flamingo feathers in Larnaca.

 

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Trying to move the clouds with telekinesis…sun, come back!

 

After my trip to the north, I decided I wanted to stay in the south, so I traveled to Limassol, where I spent a couple of nights and got in touch with Couchsurfers. And I had learned a lot about the current affairs and history, so that was enough politics for me.

The rest of this post is dedicated to another tale of two really awesome Cypriots!

 

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They have pork kebabs in the south because they are not muslim. It’s the Tzatziki yogurt sauce that really makes it exceptional at this restaurant.

 

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I met an angel of a girl from south Cyprus named Despina. She and I hung out, shared some drinks, and got to know each other. You thought I was kidding when I said she was an angel, but no. The next day, she let me do laundry at her house, and since I literally only had one pair of pants with me (which were in the wash), she lent me a pair of hers so that I was able to leave the house. Cleanliness is next to godliness (angel, I’m telling you)! Later, we went out to an incredible breakfast and had some good ol’ eggs florentine (oh how I had missed eggs prepared this way)!

 

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Almost too beautiful to eat….Almost.

 

So once we were stuffed and satisfied from our delicious breakfast, I decided to head out. When I left her apartment, she sent me off with some clean clothes, oranges, pants, and a drawing (Despina is an art teacher and gave me a lesson; I drew a portrait…it was horrible…but what is art anyway? It’s all subjective, right?).  

 

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Finally I can wear a hat to shield my eyes from actual SUN.

 

The next night, I went to a restaurant called Pi to eat…salad..(?) with another Couchsurfer, Emily. She was clearly my kindred spirit; almost everything that was brought up in conversation by one of us was answered with a wide-eyed “SAME!” by the other. We really related to each other and where we are in our lives. She’s great. It was so much fun laughing with her and eating salad (would’ve been more fun to be eating pie, but it’s cool).  

 

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Later that night, we met up with Eugina, a dancer from Ukraine. I had already made plans to meet up with her, and since Emily and I were getting along so well and not ready to leave each other’s company, I invited Emily to tag along! Two is company, three is a crowd #AmIRight?

 

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Eugina is from the Ukraine and very shy and very sweet, but when she took us dancing–wow! Emily and I couldn’t believe the way she moved! Teach me, Eugina! Teach me your ways!

These women are incredible, and I am so happy I got the chance to know them. Couchsurfing always reminds me of how many amazing friends there are out in the world that I have yet to meet, and now I have two more who I will absolutely see again and I can not wait.  Such good people.  

So there you have it, folks. Cyprus may be small– so small that its residents joke about all being related–BUT it has a big, complicated history and people with even bigger hearts.  (at least if you’re not Turkish or Greek, depending on which side of the island you’re living on).  No wonder it’s where the goddess of love was born.

Surrounded by the Mediterranean,
‘mi

Armenia

22 Jan

From my last blog post, you probably gathered that Azerbaijan is an interesting place with a lot of interesting rules (don’t smile…don’t make eye contactyou get my point). Another interesting travel rule is that if you stay in the country longer than 10 days, you have to register yourself with immigration even though you already have a visa. So to avoid accidentally becoming an Azerbaijani citizen, I decided to head back to Armenia, but long was the trek ahead.

To get to Armenia from Azerbaijan, I had to go through Georgia… you know, because war. So I took a bus to Tbilisi, Georgia and then from there took a train to Yerevan, Armenia. I noticed that customs was way easier to get through as I entered Armenia from Georgia than it was to get into Azerbaijan from Georgia; this put my non-Russian/non-Armenian-speaking self at ease.

 

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Armenian church on a typical-looking day in January.

 

Even though I wasn’t struggling to explain my presence in Armenia, I did find myself wishing that I could speak Armenian or at least Russian. It was really hard to communicate with people in that part of the world without speaking their language, and English wasn’t common among the masses. Beyond that, the language barrier kept me from learning a lot of the things I wanted to know more about, namely Armenia’s modern historythe genocide, its initiative to take in Syrian refugees, its volatile feud with Turkey. So, since I wasn’t about to become fluent in Russian or Armenian in the short time I was there, I learned what I could about the culture despite the language barrier.

I especially learned, as I sat in the 6-person hostel dorm that I had all to myself, that January was not the most popular time to visit Armenia. Moreover, if you do visit Armenia in January (or at least stay in this particular hostel), you are bound to run into some very interesting characters.

There was the Armenian student who worked at the hostel every single day; it was the same girl every time. But that was okay because she was incredibly sweet. There was a certifiably crazy Thai guy who would not stop talking if anyone was around (sometimes I wonder if he kept talking even after everyone had left the room), and an Australian who could’ve walked out of some angsty young adult fiction novel. He was a serious loner and was mainly visiting parts of the world that weren’t recognized as countries but whose self-identities classified them as independent nations (like Transnistria, Nagorno-Karbakh Republic, and Crimea). He had just come back from spending 3 weeks in eastern Armenia and spent his days watching documentaries…Was this a version of the Truman Show? Am I really a character in a novel? Only time will tell.

Anyways, we were a really eclectic group, and while we did spend some time together, I wouldn’t go so far as to say we were best friends…or even friends. So because I wasn’t too keen on watching documentaries all day (not that I was invited) or listening to my Thai hostel-mate’s rants, I decided to join a gym. And lo and behold, I found my people!

On the first day at the gym, the elliptical I was on (with no on off button) actually broke. And even though I’m in shape, that somehow seemed to fulfill literally every person’s worst gym nightmare. The trainer, Eduard, came running over to make sure I wasn’t hurt, and other than my bruised pride, I was completely fine. He reassured me that it was just shoddy Soviet architecture. Once I was safely secure on another elliptical, Eduard came over to talk about the book he was writing. Here’s a quick summary:

The best way to solve the world’s problems is not with guns, but with a boxing match. Boxing match? You might ask. Yes, throw all the world’s leaders into a boxing ring, and let them duke it out. So, the book (fiction, fingers crossed) is about Putin, Trump, Armenia’s president, and other world leaders meeting in the ring. But as they begin to fight, they can’t find the chancellor of Germany anywhere. Where’s Angela? They ask. Then suddenly, they look over and yes, Angela Merkel, ladies and gentlemen, is wearing a small bikini and walking around the ring with a sign—she’s the ring girl.

I was too out of breath from the elliptical to comment on the slightly sexist overtones, but he hasn’t finished the book yet, so maybe the plot twist is that in the middle of the fight, Merkel throws the sign like a boomerang and knocks the rest of the leaders out cold. Here’s hoping.

After spending all of my time at the gym, Diuel and Eduard became my gym buddies—Dieul, a girl who always kept me laughing while the trainer busted our asses, and Eduard, the trainer who busted our asses. Not only was I super excited that these two spoke English, but also I found them to be incredibly fun company to keep. Eduard pushed us really hard (I think my abs still might be sore…), but he was really sweet, and everyone at the gym came to him for advice. It was like physical therapy (*comedy drum noise*).

I was feeling great! I had found a sense of community, was working out hard each day, and was buying fresh fruits, veggies, and eggs from the market near the hostel. Eduard even came up with a diet plan for me, which didn’t allow me to eat bananas.

 

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Healthy cooking the the gorgeous hostel kitchen (not pictured: the gorgeous hostel kitchen)

 

 

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Before I knew it, I found myself amidst new friends and the NFL’s postseason. Since the Steelers were in the playoffs, my friend Davit and I navigated the metros to find a sports bar that was showing the game. We failed on both fronts—first getting off at the wrong metro stop and then never finding a bar that showed American football. Luckily, Davit was able to find the game on his phone, and we watched it from there. As I was explaining the rules of the game to him, in sort of an American cultural exchange, I realized that I probably (no, most definitely) didn’t know as much about American football as I thought. But I knew enough to know the Steelers lost.  

 

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That television behind him where we tried to find the game says No data, CBS doesn’t play in Armenia.

 

Another adventure featuring Davit took place at a restaurant where we had dinner and dessert (but not in that order; shout out to the pre-dinner raw vegan chocolate cake).  

 

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Great photo of a great memory.

 

The restaurant was very cool, and we used every single one of its amenities: ordered food, ordered wine, Davit had a long day (he works as an Economic Officer in the embassy of the Czech Republic in Armenia), so he made use of the couch, we looked at the bookstand and took photos in different parts of the room for different lighting. Seriously…every amenity. Here’s the best picture we took.  The lighting is superb, am I right?

 

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We had a great time filled with food and laughter…. In Armenia, you say ‘yes’ by saying ‘ha,’ so when Davit was on the phone, he would say: “Ha. Ha. Ha.” Ok, so he wasn’t technically laughing, but I sure was.

 

After a week, Davit arranged for me to take a night bus at 8pm to Kutasi, Georgia where I had to catch a flight. The minibus ride was 11 hours long, and it was impossible to sleep because it was so cramped, and the road was extremely bumpy. But I made a new (Facebook) friend on the way. The guy sitting next to me didn’t speak a word of English, but he really wanted to become Facebook friends. I accepted his request, and I kid you not he spent the next several hours Facebook-stalking me while I sat right next to him. I got notifications that he was liking almost every single one of my photos—some dating back to a healthy 10 years ago.

I don’t know if you’ve ever watched someone Facebook stalk you, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a fun pastime.

Five hundred Facebook notifications later, I finally arrived at Kutasi airport and sought out a nice comfy place to sleep on the floor. I set my alarm for 9:30am, my check-in time. After 90 minutes of what clearly wasn’t enough sleep, I went to check in but was denied. They told me I had to wait until 11am. By the time I got back to my cozy floor bed, my spot had been taken.  

It was a hard day of traveling, but I pushed through. I had found pockets of warmth (friends, community, experience) in a not-so-warm climate, and I was looking forward to finding both warm people and warm weather in my new destination.  I did not like being uprooted again from a routine I found comfortable but, it wouldn’t be called traveling if I spent too long in one place.

Off off and away,
‘mi

Azerbaijan — What’s That…?

16 Jan

That’s basically how I felt about Azerbaijan. Not that I felt any type of way about it; I just didn’t know anything about it, and I never thought I’d end up here. Before planning the Mystery Trip, I couldn’t have told you with 100% certainty that Azerbaijan was even a country, much less where it was located. And now here I am.  I spent about a week in this previously unknown part of the world.

 

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Views as you leave the train station.

 

The capital, Baku, is all the way on the eastern side of the country and about an 11-hour train ride from Tbilisi, Georgia. The train leaves every odd day (the 7th, the 9th, etc.) and returns every even day (the 8th, the10th, etc.). So after buying said overnight  train ticket from Georgia, I realized—haha, silly me— I didn’t have a visa. So dumb. #Rookiemistake. Lucky for me, they have this new system (seriously, thank goodness) where you can apply online for an Azerbaijani visa.

 

Quick riddle:

Sammi has a ticket to leave in 24 hours and needs an Azerbaijani visa. Her options are: 1) pay $20 USD and receive the visa in 3 days or 2) pay $50 USD and receive the visa in 3 hours. Which option does Sammi choose?

 

Option 2.  A hit to my budget but ultimately, buying an alternative train ticket would have been more expensive and delayed my travel.  Also, i’ve been wayyyy under budget for this entire trip.  But seriously, being able to apply for an Azerbaijani visa online has really changed how accessible the country is to foreigners.  They’ve seen a huge jump in tourism. During the whole visa process, I thought about how, although I paid slightly more, IT WAS SO EASY.  I’m extra lucky (like, SO LUCKY) to have been born with a strong passport (thank you, ancestors, who emigrated to the USA) that allows me to apply for visas online and occasionally get them granted overnight.  That could not have happened with my Iranian counterparts.  #neverforget  #Didiusethatcorrectly?

 

So back to the story…

On the train, I got lucky again. There were four bunk beds (two on top and two on the bottom), but there was only one other woman in the car—a very gentle, older woman who didn’t speak much English. We passed the time by showing each other photos, and I eventually learned that she’s a therapist.  

 

And now it’s time for a 1-second skit (feel free to grab a partner and act out the scene):

 

SAMMI: Oh! You’re a therapist?! I have a therapist and I love her!  Her name is Julia.

ALMA: Julia. (points to Sammi) Alma. (points to herself)

 

The whole situation was clearly lost in translation, and I couldn’t explain it given that my Russian is a little rusty (as in, I don’t speak Russian). So, it was easier that I just do a quick name change and go by Julia.  I hope I remember to tell my therapist that I assumed her name on a train to Azerbaijan, by accident, when I was trying to praise her.   Alma and her new friend Julia (aka me) weren’t allowed to go to sleep until we had passed through Azerbaijani customs, which was at about 11pm. We were individually called into a separate room (which is good because then she would’ve found out my name was, in fact, not Julia…and that might have been awkward), and our passports were examined. Because I had arrived in Armenia a week or so earlier, my passport was scrutinized extra thoroughly.

 

Just so you’re in the know, Azerbaijan and Armenia are in the midst of a war. Although there is currently a ceasefire, the borders between the two countries are entirely closed. Occasionally, there is a small flare up, but then Russia flexes its muscles (read: threatens Azerbaijan).  (Azerbaijan’s ally is Turkey; they’ve had a very fraternal relationship throughout history.)

 

Nagorno-Karabakh is the specific region where this fighting takes place. In 1992, there was a massacre here. Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory, but has been totally taken over by Armenia. You are only able to access it through Armenia. This is a very sensitive topic for most Azerbaijani people, as you can well imagine. Including mmy train cabin-mate.  Her husband and brother had died in the war.  That being said, even though Azerbaijan and Armenia are direct neighbors, you can’t travel from Armenia to Azerbaijan and vice versa.

Now given all that info, you can imagine how much absolute FUN it was to try and explain the origin of my Armenian passport stamp (concept of mystery trip, traveling with friends, my past itinerary) while speaking 0 Azerbaijani (the language) and not a word of Russian (their begrudging, second language). I left a lot of details out, for simplicity’s sake and, after some time, I was allowed to go back into my cabin where I—ahem, sorry— where Julia and Alma slept. Alma snored loudly while I read my book, frantically learning all I could about the region, until eventually falling asleep myself.

When we woke up, we were in Azerbaijan. I got off the train and found myself in the nicest train station I’ve been to in a long time. Free, fast wifi, outlets, a bathroom (that you had to pay for but still). I ate the rest of my train snacks and used the free, fast WIFI for over anhour.  Including to book a hostel where I would stay that night.   

 

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Not a meal on the train, as they don’t serve food at all (or have any for purchase… not even bottled water). (My Mystery Trippers remember this well, I’m sure)  This was a #BYOfood and #BYOwater kind of party.   Pictured here, though, is a typical meal in Azerbaijan.

 

I stayed at the Cheeky Carabao hostel – it had fantastic reviews. It’s run by a young couple, half Azerbaijani, half Canadian. They had just opened 5 months ago and were doing very well. It reminded me to update my status on CouchSurfing and make my couch available when I get back home to Pittsburgh (heads up, Helen!). It also made me wonder: Do I want to turn my house into a hostel and host hundreds of travelers while they’re visiting Pittsburgh? (heads up, Helen!)

 

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Beautiful backstreets in Baku’s Old City.

 

Quick Tip. Do not smile in Azerbaijan.

As I was walking to my hostel (at 9am in broad daylight), I was beaming with joy because I had finally made it! All of a sudden, a boy in a car stopped and asked if I wanted to get in. Hmm..No thanks! I could give you a full list of reasons why not, but these two would suffice:

  1. We were literally going in opposite directions.
  2. I was 400 meters from where I need to be.

 

He asked if he could find somewhere to pull over so he could talk to me. I said, “Uh, sure!” And I waited for him to park. Now, I was just coming from the train station in Georgia where I couldn’t communicate with anyone for hours; the train where Alma thought I was Julia; and the Azerbaijan train station where I also couldn’t speak to anyone (I had tried a taxi driver, a police officer, a ticketing agent, and the man who exchanges money). I was pretty thrilled that this guy spoke English! I was ecstatic, actually, to talk to an Azerbaijani. We made small talk as he walked me towards my hostel. You know, the Small Talk Favorites:

  • What’s your name?
  • Where did you learn English? / When did you arrive in Azerbaijan?
  • How old are you? (He was 26.)
  • Are you married? (I am not, and neither was he).
  • Do you have a boyfriend?  Yes.
  • Do you have sex with him?

 

Yeah, you know… just your average, typical, good ol’ small talk.

 

Grab your acting partner! Here’s another 1-second skit you can act out!

Scene: 9am on a Tuesday, Sammi, badass traveler and inappropriate guy #1, skinny young kid, meet.

 

SAMMI: (gives side eye) No!

INAPPROPRIATE  GUY #1: Why?

SAMMI: Uhh. We’ve only been dating a couple months, and I’m really pure…

INAPPROPRIATE GUY #1: What about your boyfriends before this? Did you have sex with them?

SAMMI: No!

INAPPROPRIATE GUY #1: (being extra inappropriate) Oh. Well, do you want to have sex?

SAMMI: (with gusto) No thanks!

INAPPROPRIATE GUY #1: Okay, well, I gotta go. Bye!
I was worried he would show up at my hostel and badger me, so I told management when I arrived and they apologized profusely on behalf of their country.  They told me not to worry if he showed up, they would send him away.  And that’s when I got that hot tip:  Don’t smile at anyone. Okay, good to know.

 

Quick Tip #2. Absolutely do not make eye contact with anyone in Azerbaijan.

This time, I was on a bus.

Don’t smile, don’t smile, don’t smile, I kept repeating to myself as I caught people’s eyes as they got on and off the city bus.  I had, been on this bus for over 30 minutes, repeating my mantra, when we reached my stop.  I noticed one other guy got off the bus when I did. So, I sat down on a bench, gathered my stuff, and waited for him to go off in one direction so I could swiftly go in the completely opposite direction. He doesn’t go in any direction, but he also isn’t looking at me. So finally I leave, and he starts to follow.  

I walk really fast; he’s still behind me. I go into shops; he goes in them too. I walk for 45 minutes, and HE’S STILL BEHIND ME!!!!

My friends, I give you INAPPROPRIATE GUY # 2.

I go into this castle (you have to pay to go in); he comes in too. I slow down so he will at least approach me. He does not.  He is looking at palace ruins; I see him and stare him down. He does not come to me, and he does not move. He just continues to look at the palace relics.

So, am I crazy? Does he also just walk really fast, and did his errands also include going to every single shop I went into? And was he also like, “hey, I probably live here but I’m going to go check out some palaces today and be a tourist in my own city”?

I cannot enjoy myself. At this point, I am very unsettled. He has totally unnerved me plus, it’s getting dark.  So, after an hour and a half of this guy following me, I finally just march right up to him.  

 

10-second skit. You know what to do.

SAMMI: Salem (hello). English? No. Russian?

INAPPROPRIATE GUY # 2: (smiles) red flag

SAMMI: (yelling) Stop following me!  It’s not welcomed or appreciated!! I don’t like you! I hate that you’re doing this! You are disgusting! This is terrible! You think I haven’t noticed that you’ve been following me?? I’ve noticed! And I don’t want you to! You are awful! Nobody would like this!  Why are you doing this?!  If you don’t stop I’m going to go get the police.

INAPPROPRIATE GUY # 2: Police?

SAMMI: (yelling) Yes, the freaking police! You are making me so uncomfortable! I haven’t been able to have a nice time because you won’t leave me alone!! (storms away)

 

A couple minutes later, I look around the compound. He’s gone. I breathe a sigh of relief, by now it’s already dark. As I leave and start to walk through the winding streets, I keep seeing shadows and thinking that it’s him, but it never is.

I get to the hostel for the night and share my stories with the other girls who are staying there (all of them live in Azerbaijan: A Peruvian, a girl from Kazakhstan, and a girl from Thailand).  They ALL have similar stories. Every single one of them. That’s just how the guys are here. But apparently, it’s pretty non-threatening…you know, besides being threatening.

 

How to not get followed by creepy men in Azerbaijan:

  1. Don’t smile (thought I had nailed this one).
  2. Don’t just *not smile*, don’t even make eye contact.
  3. Yell at Inappropriate Guy if he decides to follow you.
  4. Threaten to call the police if a man has mistaken your not smiling and your lack of eye contact for an invitation to follow you.

 

Apparently, according to the ex-pats living at the hostel, the Azerbaijani police always take the girl’s side. They are always watching out for women. If a girl complains to a policeman that a guy is giving her trouble, that guy gets in a lot of trouble with the police (or needs to cough up a large bribe to not be in trouble with the police).

 

Whew. It was a bunch of big laughs and chatting and lessons, and I was glad to have met some other women who could share in my experience. I can’t speak for them, but I think we all got a lot out of our solidarity and hearing each other’s stories. And for the rest of my time in Azerbaijan (at least in Baku, the capital), I kept my eyes down.  

 

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City views.

 

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Hanging out with the super intelligent, joyful Maryam on what looks like the set of the Bachelor.

 

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A memorial from when the Soviet Union murdered defenseless Azerbaijani citizens.  January, 1990.

 

A few days later, I decided to head to the mountains. I bought Dramamine and went for a 6-hour bus ride to Sheki, a town where I stayed in a wonderful 10-person hostel, which I had all to myself. The owners didn’t speak very much English but were very kind and generous. There was nothing to do when it got dark, and I spent most of my time getting caught up on these blogs and drinking tea. It was blissful.

 

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Rural Azerbaijan.

 

There was a hike that I wanted to take, and the weather was gorgeous. I was on the fence about it because I was going solo, and I was still a little shaken up about how men treated me in Baku. But I decided that I wasn’t going to live my life in fear, and I wasn’t going come all this way to the mountains and not get out to explore them.

 

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Hitchhiking!  Picked up by a friendly man who didn’t speak any English but also didn’t make me uncomfortable by following me!

 

I checked the weather.  It was a perfect day.  And so I did a combination of riding the bus and hitchhiking to get to the trailhead.

 

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Trying to get closer to those whitecaps!

 

It was a really nice hike. I felt safe and was safe the entire time. I didn’t see quite the views I had hoped for, but I also didn’t see any inappropriate guys sauntering around the mountainside, and I did get outside and explore, so overall, no complaints. I had brought teeny tiny oranges with me that I had purchased in town and rewarded myself at the end of my hike (okay, and also during) with their sweet and delicious juice!

I had a really nice time in Sheki, and I’m glad I went to Azerbaijan. I stayed under budget the entire time; it’s a very reasonably priced country! Then, since my dear friend, Dramamine, had worked so well for me during the bus ride to Sheki, I decided to keep his company once again and take some on the bus to Tbilisi (rather than go back to Baku and take the much more comfortable – but more expensive and much longer – overnight train to Georgia’s capital).

When the bus got to the border, we were let off and had to walk across, which is fairly typical for border crossings. This one was particularly long, though, and we walked for almost 2 kilometers.  

Once in Georgia, I took a taxi (which cost me more than my entire journey back to Tbilisi from Sheki) to the train station. I had timed my journey intentionally to arrive on an odd day (the day the train goes to Armenia). I bought a ticket and had many hours to kill until the train departed at 20:20. It was freezing outside, and I found a cozy-ish spot to read my book, interrupted by a couple of drunk Russians (so I moved and found another cozy-ish spot.  I was eager to sleep as much as possible on the night train and somewhat bummed that Azerbaijan and Armenia didn’t have better relations because, selfishly, I would have liked to take a bus directly from Sheki to Yerevan. #timesaver

 

But hey, when you’re a rolling stone, you learn that you can’t always get what you want…

…See what I did there?

‘mi

 

Adventures in Tbilisi, Georgia

11 Jan

I was feeling pretty down after my Mystery Trippers headed back to the states. Making matters worse, I lost my beloved notebook in Armenia, which had so many memories from my travels scribbled on its pages. And I was now in a country (Georgia, if you’ve lost track of me) where no one spoke English and I didn’t know any Georgian or Russian, so I was riding the mopey train pretty hard.

Oh, and did I mention it was STILL FREAKING CHRISTMAS in Georgia?! #eternalChristmas #wow #enoughalready

All I knew was what number bus I needed to catch to get to my hostel in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, and then Murphy’s Law smacked me in the face in the form of that exact bus passing me, not stopping, because it was already full of people. Woe is Sammi. It was a 16km walk to my hostel, so I started on my way, figuring something would happen.  It’s incredibly comforting and empowering to be in a country, not speaking the langauge, and knowing that somebody, (who probably also doesn’t speak your language), is most likely going to stop and offer to help you.  Lucky for me, I was picked up and brought to town by a nice man with a bank logo on the side of his car. I knew that meant he was legit.

I found it sweet that he was willing to help me out even though we couldn’t speak each other’s language. He offered me his pomegranate juice which was still sealed.  I took it because in Georgia, rejecting someone’s drink offer is very rude, and I was in this guys car.  I didn’t want to be rude.  I mean, yes, he did try to ask me if I was married most of the ride, at least I think that’s what he was doing by pointing to my empty ring finger, but he brought me where I needed to go without too much hassle, so I just played along, yammering away in Eeglish.

Normally I use Couchsurfing on my solo travels, but this trip I had been so focused on the Mystery Trippers that by the time they’d left I didn’t have any energy to do anything for myself.  I decided to stay in Tbilisi’s most popular hostel. As I was feeling alone, I was willing to pay a bit more in hopes I would be able to meet some amazing people. Unfortunately, everyone in the hostel was young and drinking heavily, so I ended up hitting up Couchsurfing anway, looking for a friend and found Giorgi from Georgia.  Hilarious.  (But also, turns out, a common name.)

Giorgi is an actual tour guide, so he showed me around town. There is a waterfall right in the center of town, and you can take a chairlift up a mountain for some great views. I learned about Georgia’s conflict near South Ossetia (north), what it meant for the country when the Soviet Union fell, their current struggles and how Russia is still trying to exert its power. Things are pretty crazy out here!

Giorgi also taught me that everything in Georgia is connected to wine: It’s wine’s homeland, and they’ve been making it for 6,000 years. So I ditched the party at my hostel to drink wine with my new boozy tour guide. He brought me home for a nice dinner with his mother, who didn’t speak a lick of English but had the best laugh and made us a great meal. Of course, we also drank some homemade wine.

 

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We both don’t know where to look.

 

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Homemade dolma.

They have the most unique flavor combinations in Georgia, and there is a specific technique to eating certain things.  Of course Giorgi thinks its the best in the world.  For instance, you to have eat khinkali with your hands and bite and suck the juices out without spilling, which is way less fun than being messy, but you’d probably be more demure if you were on a date. They are traditionally made with a blend of pork and beef, but the mushroom was my favorite.

 

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Eggplant with walnut spread and pomegranate.

 

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Deceptively tricky little things to eat, but delicious!

 

I returned to the hostel after dinner and got to know my fellow travelers — we had quite the eclectic group. There were travelers from Japan, Lebanon, Kazakhstan, Russia, Dubai (UAE), Pakistan, and me from the good ol’ US of A. Not one German! (Nothing against Germans, they are just usually well-traveled.)

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Your typical international hostel gathering in Tbilisi.

 

Muhammad was a 19-year-old from Lebanon whom I found quite inspiring. He was solo traveling on break from University and doing volunteer work teaching children. It was his first time leaving his home country, unless you count the time he was forced to flee to Syria in 2006 because of Lebanon’s war with Israel. Repeat: He fled INTO Syria. Insane.

Anyway, here he is taking a photo of his breakfast, because it was his first time ever eating a pancake.  He said he’s only ever seen it in the movies before this!

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I call this “Lebanese Boy’s First Pancake.”

 

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People told us we looked liked siblings, we think it’s because of our half-smiles.

 

I hung out with Muhammad for a bit, then met two super sweet Iranians (Sajjad and Kazem) who helped me get my visa to Azerbaijan corrected and then invited me to an Iranian dinner.

Somehow, I had shifted from learning about Georgia to Lebanon and now Iran. For instance, did you know that if you speak in Farsi it means that you are Persian? They speak Farsi in Tajikistan and Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan.  Or that a rooster does not “cock-a-doodle-do” in Iran?

I decided to tour the city with Sajjad and Kazem the following day. At one point, we saw a building from above that I knew was a Turkish hamam (that’s a bath, yinz), but the boys were positive it was a mosque, so we made a bet! Hamam or mosque? That was the name of the game.  And you might be able to tell by the look on my face who was right…

 

 

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That’s right! ME! So proud. (hahahaha, I made them take this photo.)

 

I had a lot of really innocent fun with Sajjad and Kazem over the next couple days.

I was actually the first American they had ever met, and we asked each other a lot of silly questions.

They taught me the phrase “Tariff ba domesh gerdoo mish kane” (phonetically: taraf bah doemesh geeairdo meesh can-eh, for me), which roughly translates from Farsi to “my tail is wagging.” We then practiced tongue twisters while we ate ice cream straight from the box at a grocery store.

 

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Exploring in black and white.

We had a great day and night together, and since we felt so connected, I invited them to come along with me to a yoga class even though they had never been before (they’d never been to a yoga class!), and they actually came!!  We had to get up early and walk to the class, and it was a total bust. The teacher told us to lie down in Shavasana, also known as “Corpse Pose,” and played a prerecorded tape. Aaaaaand that was it. It was nap yoga, apparently, and we actually paid money for that. The boys will never do “yoga” again, they told me.  I can’t blame them!  If that was my first experience I would never do “yoga” again either.  After I finished apologizing we had a good laugh and moved on.

Naturally, it was their turn to pick an activity, so we toured Jvari monastery and the town of Mtskheta. They had arranged for a Farsi-speaking driver the day before, and when he arrived to pick us up, he looked like this…

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Picture not taken immediately upon meeting, for the record.

 

I pulled the boys aside, and asked, “Do you see that?”

Looks of confusion. Shrugs. They had no clue what I was talking about.

“He has a scorpion tattoo on his neck. The bad guy in every movie ever has a scorpion tattoo on his neck. Not good!”

That laughed at me and assured me it would be fine, and it was, but the guy was pretty weird!

For some reason, he loved Texas, and said, “I want to die in Texas.” DIE?! Why not LIVE, man?!

The boys laughed and Kazem said softly to me, “Sammi, everyone has a wish.”

Here are a few pictures from the day:

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Jvari Monestary.

 

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Where I learned that Iranian and American roosters must be very, very different.

 

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Mtskheta town, or “The Point At 3 Rivers.” Pittsburgh in Georgia?!

 

As you can see, my Iranian friends were the most positive people, always looking on the bright side (except maybe about yoga). We had a delicious Georgian dinner (minus the wine, so Giorgi would say it wasn’t authentic), and chatted the night away. Here are some random things I learned:

Side note: (They love John McCain in Georgia.)

Facebook is censored in Iran, but Instagram is allowed.

Iranians have a very weak passport, it takes 3 months to apply for a Visa to go to Europe. (Let’s not get into America…)

Sajjad is an engineer and Kazem is in his last year of school getting his PhD in Sociology

They both have girlfriends (3 and 6 years, respectively).

They are opposites: Whenever one says “yes” the other leans towards “no” Like, “Do you have this particular fruit in your country?”  One says “yes” they other “no”.

Their moms are great cooks.

Iranians snap when they dance (just like someone I know).

They were just such sweet guys. I talked more with Kazem about his girlfriend, and became rather infatuated with the head scarf. He told me Iran is more liberal than Saudi Arabia, which isn’t saying a lot. It’s illegal for women to take them off in the streets, but sometimes, if they are alone and there’s no one watching or no guard (GUARD?!), the women will remove them.

He dated his girlfriend for a year before he saw her without the scarf. Can you imagine that?! And the first time was through a picture. The first time in person was in a car, and when she took it off, he kissed her. So romantic!  I felt so honored and trusted that he shared this all with me.  Thank you Kazem!!

Unfortunately, I had to leave that night, and if an Iranian has a stamp on their passport from Armenia, they are not allowed to go to Azerbaijan, so we couldn’t continue on together although they said they would come if they could (they had previously been to Armenia)!   Otherwise, it’s embarrassingly difficult for them to get a visa in the USA.  We said goodbye and I told them to invite me out to Iran if they ever had a big life event.  I really hope they do!!  They are such wonderful people ❤

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Sunset before my train.

 

That night, I got on my train to Baku, Azerbaijan, and when we were set to depart, the Iranin boys surprised me at the station to say one final goodbye!!!!!!!!   They had been walking around showing people my picture, asking if they’d seen me, because they wanted to say goodbye.   Awwwwww!!!! Sweethearts!!!! 

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Friends for life.   So much love for these two smart, kind, thoughtful humans.

 

It felt so good to learn so much and spend genuine time with these two wonderful guys, especially right after my friends left. It’s times like these, when you’re feeling alone on the other side of the world, that I feel like you make the most meaningful connections.

If that’s not the Christmas spirit, then I don’t know what is.

So one last time, since it’s finally, finally over. Merry Christmas!

‘mi