Saturday, August 10, 2013

The girl at the waterpark

As we handed over 20 lira each at the ticket booth for the waterpark in eastern Turkey, the thought struck me: Will I be the only woman here? Will I be the only woman here in a two-piece? How about in a skimpy string bikini?

And then I thought, ‘Screw it. We’re here. It’s hot (108 degrees Fahrenheit, like walking in the blast of a supersize hair dryer), and I don’t have another swim suit.’

As we walked into the waterpark near Mardin in far eastern Turkey, the Kurdish heart of the country, I could sense the precise moment when Flounder realized what I had just suspected. There were boys, teenagers, young men everywhere. I glimpsed one woman supervising her toddler son as he splashed in the shallow kiddie area, but she was fully, and modestly, clothed.

I could write that I felt self-conscious as I emerged from the dressing room with just my blue plaid wrap and tie dyed bikini, but that would be disingenuous. The emotion is better identified as defiance. I defied anyone to harass me, I defied anyone to interfere with my fun. It was hot (in Mardin our newly washed laundry dried in less than 30 minutes), I had just paid 20 lira, and I was staring at no less than four water slides. We had been staying on the top story of an apartment building with no air conditioning (fair enough) and no fan either (wtf?!). I had been sweating for days and taking a shower every 20 minutes in a mostly vain attempt to not murder Flounder in a fit of heat rage. [Spoiler alert: As of January 2014, I still haven’t murdered him.]
View from Mardin over the Mesopotamian Plains

What I’m getting at is that I was going to enjoy the hell out of this waterpark and I triple dog dared anyone to try to interfere.

As a female traveler used to wandering alone, I’ve developed something of a blind spot for staring. Flounder notices when I show my knees (my sexy, sexy knees) or elbows (equally sexy) and how many passersby gawk at me. I don’t see that anymore.

But in this waterpark, full of about 100 hormonal young men, it was impossible to ignore. I was followed with dozens of pairs of eyes. When I emerged from the water to retrieve a tube to slide back down on, a couple young male hands reached out and offered me their best inflated tubes. When I walked, gifted inner tube in hand, up the concrete stairs five or six boys followed me, chattering about me in Turkish.

‘Does abla speak Turkish?’ I heard them ask each other.

‘You are very beautiful!’ they murmured behind me.

I caught snippets of other, cheekier, sentences. But my entourage was overall a polite one. They kept their distance, assisted by the buffer that Flounder enforced behind me. And they kept offering me inner tubes, despite an acknowledged shortage. They were sweet and funny and respectful, as long as your version of respectful allows for lots of staring, chattering, and makes allowances for cultural differences.

It wasn’t until we moved into the shade near the waterpark’s lone swimming pool that the feared-for interference started. I lounged by the pool, writing in my journal, occasionally dipping into the pool when the heat overcame me. And when I removed my wrap and jumped into the water, men in uniformed swim trunks approached Flounder and tried to engage him in conversation. I thought they were making small talk, but he seemed convinced that they had been speaking about me and my attire. As soon as I covered again with my wrap, they said one of the few English words they knew, okay, and backed off.

‘Can you listen next time?’ Flounder asked. ‘I couldn’t understand what they were saying.’

‘If they want to talk to me, they can talk to me,’ I said, refusing to budge on the issue.

When I took off my wrap to jump in the pool, again the uniformed swim trunk men came over to Flounder. I came back in the middle of their conversation and had I wanted to listen and understand, I could have. But I didn’t. Have a problem with my behavior? Speak to me about it.

As soon as I put my wrap half on, they seemed a bit placated and indicated that everything was okay.

‘They don’t want you to go into the pool or take your wrap off,’ said Flounder.

‘They can kiss my ass,’ I said diplomatically. ‘I’m going to swim if I want to and if they don’t like what I’m wearing then they’ll have to kick me out.’

I took off my wrap and walked around the waterpark, accepting inner tubes from my entourage, splashing down water slides. And the part of me, the writer trapped inside, wanted the uniformed swim trunks to kick me out. What a story that would make! You see, to me, getting an interesting or funny story sometimes trumps having a good, but mundane, experience.

To my writer’s regret and my boyfriend’s relief, no one kicked us out. That is, no one kicked us out until the waterpark closed and everyone was asked to leave. Then we headed to our temporary home through the stifling Mesopotamian air, grateful for our temporary respite from the heat.

Monday, August 5, 2013

I’d like a job with the Armenian Tourism Board, please

‘Everyone is trying to rip us off,’ Flounder told me after returning from a trip to Lake Sevan in central Armenia.

I understood why he felt that way about our brief stay so far in Armenia. We had been overcharged by two, likely three, taxi drivers; overcharged at two restaurants (one of which had attempted to charge a 20% service fee instead of the standard 10%); and we had been trailed by a rogue car-cum-taxi with tinted windows and two dudes who gave us the willies. We were staying in a hotel that had seen its prime in the Soviet era and hadn’t really bothered to update since then. When we arrived, ready for a therapeutic rest, we discovered that none of the hotel’s amenities were gratis. The swimming pool? Empty. The hot tub? Pay by the hour. The weight room? Pay by the hour. The indoor swimming pool? Possibly empty, definitely pay by the hour.
Our weird soviet ski resort
Hitchhiking saved the trip.

Flounder waits for a ride
From our first ride (with two bank managers, one of whom had picked wildflowers for his wife and asked us to please not crush them, both of whom gave us their cards and implored us to call them if we needed any help in Armenia) to our last ride (with two teenage boys in a BMW SUV who barely spoke a word, instead blasted dance music with the windows rolled down and handed us cold drinks as they drove to the Georgian border) we experienced hospitality, curiosity, warmth, and gratitude during our two weeks in Armenia.
Flounder walks along a highway in Armenia. We're looking for our next ride
Yes, we regularly experienced gratitude from the people who were giving us free rides. They were thankful we were traveling in Armenia and happy to hear us genuinely gush about their country.

There’s a commonly accepted truism among hitchhikers that the nice cars rarely stop, that the people with the most to give are the least generous. Armenia turned this truism on its head. Nice, new, expensive cars regularly stopped for us. People with good jobs and disposable incomes went out of their way to help us, to invite us into their homes, and to pay for our meals. (One couple who picked us up even became a bit offended when we tried to pay for our own fruit and, later, for our own campsite.)
This car was held together with tape and a lot of MacGyver-style ingenuity
During one of our rides in Armenia, when we passed a caravanserai along the Silk Road, perched on a steep and lush green mountain pass, Flounder turned to me. ‘Why isn’t Armenia more popular with tourists? I can’t believe it isn’t better known.’

I agree. The country, besides having an abundance of warm and proud people, has a variety of landscapes, more thousand-year-old monasteries that a person can hope to visit, a distinct culture and language, along with stunning natural beauty and delicious food.
Lake Sevan
It suffers from what I am just now coining the not-in-Europe syndrome.

So although we saw lush green mountains, arid desert punctuated by the dramatically situated glowing gold-red Noravank monastery, groves of apricots (latin name: prunus armeniaca), camped on the banks of a 2,000-meter-high lake, watched beautiful women strut down the streets of Yerevan, camped at the long foot of the Biblical Mount Ararat, and gathered with peaceful Rainbow Warriors after an hour-long hike steeply into the mountains, we also saw very few tourists at any of these places.
We celebrate a rainbow at the Peace in the Middle East Rainbow Gathering
Why is this? Simple. Armenia is not in Europe. (And in case you were wondering, neither are Georgia and Turkey, though both are as deserving of tourism as Barcelona, Venice, Paris.)
Noravank Monastery
One of the constants among our many drivers in Armenia, from the retired couple in a cream leather, roomy SUV who invited us to stay with them to the three men on their way from work in a car that was barely hanging together with duct tape and wires, was this question: ‘How do you like Armenia?’

There is only one correct answer to this question and luckily it is the one, unbidden, that we wanted to give: ‘Armenia is so beautiful! We love it!’

Sunday, August 4, 2013

We know where you're sleeping... Camping in the shadow of Mount Ararat and Khor Virap

We saw the headlights in the darkness and heard the crunch of gravel under the wheels. A car was approaching our campsite. I ran down the list in my head of people who knew we were sleeping here, in the shadow of Khor Virap monastery at the Armenian border with Turkey, as Flounder and I ran back toward our tent. We zipped ourselves into the tent just as we heard a car door open and slam shut.
Khor Virap at night
Two of the site’s caretakers knew we were camping here. The thought was not comforting, as one of them was developmentally disabled and had wanted to hold my hand more than was socially acceptable while the other had pointed to his elbow pit and made a symbol that looked remarkably like inserting a needle there. They had insisted we come back with them and sleep there, likely a purely hospitable gesture, except that they had tried to charge us more money than seemed reasonable to camp on the monastery’s grounds in the first place.

Flounder unzipped the tent enough to peek out of it. He held his multi tool with its two-inch knife while I crouched behind him, unable to see what was happening. I felt a bit shaky and a bit sick. Would they rob us, rape me, or both?

‘What’s happening?’ I whispered to him.

‘I can’t really see,’ he said.
Stormy sky
The moon was nearly full, but the sky was stormy and cloudy. An occasional burst of lightning illuminated the ancient monastery (the site was over 1500 years old) and the few trees around us. The wind, stronger than I had yet felt it, whipped at our tent bending the flexible tent poles so much I thought they would break.

‘I think they’re just tourists,’ Floundered whispered, ‘taking pictures of Khor Virap.’
Khor Virap in the daytime
Whoever they were, they hadn’t come near our tent, but they hadn’t left either. Flounder was steady; I was not. I put my hand on his shoulder and his warm flesh and tight muscles under my hand calmed me.

Why was it that I had wanted to camp here despite Flounder’s misgivings about the site’s caretakers? Doing so went exactly against my two camping rules: (1) Camp in secret. Make sure no one knows where your site is OR (2) Camp in a proper campsite with other campers around, with management and infrastructure.

What exactly were my guidelines (based on experience and common sense) for, if I chose not to follow them? I wondered this, not in fully formed sentences, but in bursts of words and feelings and fear as I held Flounder’s shoulder and he peeked into the dark night around us.

After ten minutes or five or two, I heard the cars doors slam again and the engine start. With the crunch of gravel I relaxed.

The night was stormy. Lightning surrounded us; it lit the sky on all sides of us. Rain poured down and wind shook the tent, but I slept through it all, slept more soundly than I could have predicted.

In the darkness, I promised myself I would follow my guidelines from now on. Isn’t that what they are there for? But in the morning, I awoke at the long foot of Mount Ararat, in the shadow of Khor Virap and I forgot the night’s fear.
View from Khor Virap
Instead I looked at the Biblical mountain (site of Noah’s Ark), the symbolic mountain (on the coat of arms of Armenia), the revered mountain (said to be the site of the gods), and the night faded away like the storm’s remnants had evaporated into the arid air.
Mount Ararat
And my promises to be more careful faded away too. I would do it again. I’m camping at the foot of one of the holiest sites in Armenia; picnicking with an Armenian family who share their food with us so casually, so matter-of-factly; practicing my Armenian with the taxi driver who picks us up for free and takes us away from Khor Virap and Mount Ararat. I would do it again.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Talking Trash

There are many things I love about traveling and discovering a culture that is not like the US. I think other places get a lot of things right that we screw up pretty royally. Healthcare, subsidizing the right foods, being green are all things that many countries do well that we don’t. Not everywhere though. 

Both Georgia and Armenia are astoundingly beautiful places. Very underrated and should probably be mobbed with value conscious tourists, but they aren’t. Both places are slowly working up to having more outside travelers, Georgia is better, some places in Armenia are doing their best. The worst tourist info I’ve been inside was in Mestia, Georgia though, super duper unhelpful. “was that 9 kilometers away or right there” was my question as I pointed to a spot on the map (that we couldn’t take because they only had one). Her answer? “yes”. Well technically, yes it was one or the other, but still not helpful!

Svaneti Georgia

Either way, beautiful places, not too many tourists. I’m not certain they’ll manage to pick up that many unless they start to pick up some trash though. In both countries just throwing trash out your car window or over the nearest fence is the usual practice. I saw people taking trash out of their business to dump it in a beautiful stream.  Our hitchhiking rides would encourage us to throw our trash out the car window instead of putting it away for later disposal like we always did. I don’t really understand this mindset. Most of the people in both countries are fiercely nationalistic and think their landscape is beautiful, so why then do they just dump the trash out in it. Don’t tell me it isn’t because there isn’t infrastructure because even places with dumpsters and garbage trucks had piles of trash everywhere.  In one part of Georgia, the outhouses dump straight into pristine mountain spring fed streams. No intermediary hole to lessen the contamination or anything. I know that there are literally billions of people without any toilets at all, but these are in places where chocolate and wine are sold to local and foreign tourists, where they have wifi and satellite tv. I think the trash and toilet problems are just mindset not lack of resources.

Trash by a beautiful mountain river

The second major thing that baffled me about both places was seatbelts. Seems like an odd thing to be baffled by doesn’t it? I mean they are obviously required in both places because when we would approach a police check point or a major city, drivers would put them “on” and have front seat passengers do it as well. I put on in quotes because in man  If you ever dared put on a functioning seatbelt first, you’d get a strange look that said “what you don’t think I’m a good driver?” The problem is even worse when it comes to car seats. Kids just wander around the car, even if the adults are strapped in to keep the police at bay.
y instances, they were permanently disabled. Car owners would literally screw the seatbelt open and loose so when approaching the police they could stretch them across themselves with the appearance of wearing a seatbelt without the annoyance of having it actually protect you in a crash. If you’ve ever been on many of these mountainous roads, you’d want that protection as you are inches from death at every corner.

Extraordinarily kind people, I'd like for them to survive a crash
I think the solution to both these problems is just a dedicated ad campaign, maybe a long one, like the US had in the 1970s and 80s on both issues. People didn’t really buckle up when we were kids and trash went wherever, but I think the culture was changed through ads. If they can convince millions of people that taco bell is food, then they can work as PSAs. Here's how I could see it working in these places: "Mother Armenia is beautiful, don't throw your trash on her" or "Georgia has been a beautiful place and people for thousands of years, let's keep it that way." I don't claim to know enough about the cultures there to say what exactly would work, but I think something would.

I was going to talk about smoking as well, but that seems to be a much bigger issue worldwide…

But seatbelts, garbage dumps, and e-coli aside, both Armenia and Georgia are amazing, the people are also wonderful. Add them to your list of places you should see right away. By the time they’ve got trash and safety cleared up, they might be throngs of umbrella tours everywhere. 
Lovely Lake Sevan, even Stalin couldn't ruin this place.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Camping, not of the car type

It has been a while since I’ve posted a blog entry and part of the reason is the subject of this post: camping. Before we even started the trip we debated camping equipment, buying some, replacing some, and even whether to bring it at all. I grew up car camping, we took everything. We even took a TV at times! But now, Sarah and I had to carry everything in our bags, through cities, onto buses, into the trunks of cars…

Several weeks into the the trip when we got ready to fly from Bucharest to Tbilisi, we debated sending all our gear back, our bags were WAY too heavy and we hadn’t even taken the tent out of the bag or used our sleeping pads or bags once. We decided to keep them as we thought Armenia and Georgia would be camp-friendly.

So finally, on the 23rd of June, just shy of 7 weeks into our trip, we camped. We were hitchhiking along the shore of Lake Sevan, at an altitude of 2000 meters (6500+ feet). We had a great lunch with an Iranian family on the beach (a lunch that was 2.5 hours long) and they dropped us off to find a good place to sleep. The whole lake shore is a national park so camping shouldn’t be a problem. We walked into a village to get some food and became the center of attention. It was apparent they didn’t get many tourists. We got back to the lake and wandered off the road into the woods. Mosquitoes were out in force but we got our tent up and inside quickly. After some awful fish in a can (only I ate it, obviously). We tried to sleep. I was too nervous. I hadn’t ever wild camped just a few minutes’ walk from a road. I’d read too many news stories (not about Armenia) about tourists being attacked in villages in India or Brazil. Of course sleeping on a sleeping pad didn’t help matters. We survived the night without issue, of course. 

The Iranians picnic like we usually camp, with plenty of gear!

Sarah worried our tent that won't survive the trip.
The next night we were invited to stay with a family in Yerevan but a surprise party for our host (it was his birthday) changed plans so we went back to our original camping strategy. We were to camp at the base of an ancient monastery, possibly the most visited pilgrimage site in Armenia (thanks Wikipedia). Off in the distance was Mount Ararat, snow covered and cloud topped. This is supposedly the site where Noah’s Arc landed, unfortunately for Armenians, it is now in Turkey. We set up camp around dark in a orchard/picnic area, after a quick but friendly meal shared by an Armenian family (some of whom lived in California).  Some of the caretakers had taken a bit too much of an interest in us and this worried us a bit, we thought about leaving and trying to get to Yerevan, but the real caretaker came and settled our nerves completely, at least for a while. He assured us everyone would leave us alone for the night. As a storm started brewing, blowing dust and the tent about, a car pulled up into the lot. I sent Sarah inside while I tied the tent down then peeked out and watched the occupants. They seemed to be only interested in some photos of the site and then pulled off. A tense few minutes, but our nerves and the tent survived the storm and we slept well. 
Khor Virap and Mount Ararat

Our next camping adventure would be vastly different. We were going to a Rainbow Gathering. Specifically, Peace in the Middle East, a regional gathering with people from all over the world (Russia and Armenia had the biggest contingent). I’d been to a couple in Florida in college, but only for a few hours and once to an event that was globbed onto the gathering but had no resemblance to a regular Rainbow. 
Rainbow at the Rainbow

For those of you unfamiliar with Rainbow Gatherings, they are intentional communities that pop up for a month in a location. Built on principles like sharing, singing, and kinship, they are non-commercial, social, fun, and somewhat hippie-fied. I thought I wouldn’t enjoy it much, not sure why, but I think it is the impressions I got from the ones in the states where many bad elements go along with the good intentions. We planned to stay two nights. 

After the hike to the top (luckily our bags went up on a jeep), I didn’t want to hike back out. As we arrived, we were greeted by hugs and “welcome home”. Oh and a “Roll Tide” from Armenian Robert, who’d lived in Birmingham for a year as an exchange student! After a couple of days, we didn’t want to leave. Much of the work is done communally. Anyone can call for a food mission, or wood mission, or just go along with these. At the food circle, anyone can get the whole group to listen while they talk about items that affect the camp. Speaking of food, everyone pitches in what they can (money, love, help) to the magic hat which is used to buy food for the group which is then cooked as a group and eaten as a group. Everyone gathers around the fire, sings and then eats. It is quite wonderful. I think I could write a whole post just on the food circle. There is so much love and caring going around the circle. There is no leader, just various “focalizers” that handle organizing tasks on a voluntary basis.

We showered in a waterfall, swam in the lake, carried water or firewood for the camp, mostly just talked, sang, and relaxed. It was the most relaxed I’d been in a long time. The weather was a bit hot, but bearable since we were several thousand feet up in the mountains. The field was covered in flowers, villagers would wander in and out on their own “wood missions” or to feed their livestock. 
Singing around the campfire, millions of stars!

Sadly, we had to leave, but had heard about another gathering in Greece that was starting soon, so we plan to try and make it there as well. The Armenian one had about 40-80 people when we were there, 150 at its peak. The Greek (European Gathering) could have upwards of 2000, we’d like to experience the difference.
When we camped again, it was in the backyard of a guest house in the Caucuses. We felt comfortable there, but the rain got into the tent and a pole broke. We know the tent is on its last leg. I don’t think it’ll be flying home with me but this is a good final journey for one that I’ve had since the 90s.

In Georgia, my old trusty tent has been to the state and now the country

Our final camping experience so far was similar to the first, we just got dropped off on the side of the road, hit a market and wandered into a field near the village, this time in Turkey. Again we were too nervous to sleep well, so decided we will be sticking to established camp grounds from now on. Unfortunately, the reeds in the field further compromised the tent by perforating the bottom. I hope it survives until we are through with it.

Having the camping gear definitely gives us options we wouldn’t otherwise have. The Rainbow experience made carrying it worthwhile even if we never used it again, but it is still a lot of weight for very few uses. Two sleeping pads (mine self-inflating, Sarah’s just foam), two sleeping bags, and a two person tent weigh a lot and take up a lot of valuable backpack space. I would not suggest it for people who just think they’ll use it as a last resort. Maybe a sleeping bag and a tarp would suffice.Your backs will thank you.