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.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A flower emergency in Yerevan!

In Yerevan (Armenia’s capital) there are 24-hour pharmacies, supermarkets, fast food restaurants. There are also 24-hour flower shops.
Open 24 hours
I can understand a situation in which you might need a painkiller at 3:00 a.m. or have a late night greasy spoon craving, but I’m having a harder time imagining a 3:00 a.m. flower emergency. Who exactly, I wondered, is giving these shops enough business that they continue to stay open through the night?

After three days in the city, I think I’ve figured it out.
Walking in Yerevan. Typical dress for me
My first hint came quickly, when I looked at the pedestrians around me, when I, in my flip flops and under the weight of two backpacks, walked breezily past most of the women on the street. The women here are some of the best dressed I’ve ever seen—hair perfectly coifed, attire carefully chosen, makeup applied skillfully, recently manicured and pedicured—and when standing still, they look like beautiful works of art. They tower over me in 3- or 4- or 5-inch stiletto heels. But when they walk, many of them jerk and spasm and shuffle, unsure on their feet, like a parade of new-born horses.
Fine example. Shoes like this on every street
My friend Jo, who lives in Yerevan now after a few years of continuous travel, likes to rate the places she visits on a stiletto scale. The posher places tend to rank high in number of stilettos, while the places she prefers to frequent, like the Music Factory, have a low stiletto rating.

What did I conclude from hordes of perfectly made up, beautiful women? That perhaps a woman who never leaves the house without makeup and her 5-inch heels on, even when going to the corner market, is a woman who expects (demands?) flowers to pacify her when she is upset. If the occasion is really special, maybe only jewelry will suffice.

My second hint came at a weekly outdoor film viewing at an acquaintance’s house in Yerevan. The event, called the Screenery, shows an eclectic range of documentaries and art house films and on the night Flounder and I attended they were showing a documentary about female football (that’s soccer for the American readers) players in Armenia. The film, according to the Screenery’s organizer, is a controversial one touching on gender issues in Armenia and wielding some hefty criticism toward Armenian men.
Film at the Screenery
I was excited to watch it, as I am an unabashed feminist in the sense that I believe men and women have equal value and deserve equal opportunities. I also think that women should be able to decide the trajectory of their lives. Shocking stuff, right? In many places in the world, however, these views make me a radical.

Apparently Armenia is one of those places. The female football players in the documentary lamented how difficult it was to upset gender expectations in the country. There are some activities and behaviors, they said, that are for men only. Playing football, for example, or smoking on the street. According to men interviewed in the film, women, if they want to smoke at all, should have the self-control to only do so in their homes.

‘Do men need to control themselves?’ the football players asked. The unspoken answer seemed to be no.
We walk the streets of Yerevan at night
Gender roles are tough nuts to crack, though. One of the players spoke of getting married as a given, another of having children as the pinnacle of a woman’s existence, and a third thanked her husband for allowing her to play football even while she took care of her family.

The documentary shed light on feminism and gender issues in Armenia and gave me further insight into this 24-hour flower shop business.
A typical street stall
Perhaps, I posited further, in a culture when women are expected to be obedient to their fathers and then their husbands, in a culture where women are expected to stick to their rigidly prescribed gender roles while men are not expected to control themselves, perhaps here flower emergencies can exist. When there are indiscretions, infidelities, forgotten birthdays and anniversaries, and an expectation of women being coddled and pampered then there will be flower emergencies.

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered where Yerevan’s 24-hour jewelry shops are.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Hitched. Success (finally) in Serbia and Romania

We tried to hitchhike in Switzerland and in Slovakia in cold, rainy weather. Both times, we were passed over by hundreds of people in their warm, dry cars. Flounder, never a fan of hitchhiking to begin with (and a vocal opponent of me ever hitching alone again), had gone from feeling unenthusiastic about the thing to dejected.

I was determined to make it happen though, to show him why I loved to hitch. So on a bright, sunny day in Novi Sad, Serbia, we said goodbye to friends there and headed to Romania. We stood on a spot beloved by both hitchhikers and trans prostitutes. (In fact, the day before we had seen one such lady standing there waiting for customers.)
To Romania! But first, to Zrenjanin.
We were headed to the city of Cluj-Napoca in Romania, also known as Kolozsvar to its Hungarian citizens, but we hoped to stop somewhere else in the Transylvania region on our way there. Which was an optimistic way of saying that we couldn’t hitch there in one day—the road was too long and too winding and too meandering.

How to look for a good spot:

1.       Find a bit of shade, if you can. Stand in the shade while you wait for cars, but when they pass make sure you’re in the sun so the drivers can see you.
2.       You want to be on a straight bit of road so that cars can see you for a few hundred feet before they pass.
3.       If there is an intersection or merging road nearby, always stand after it so you have a bigger pool of cars to hitch from.
4.       If the road is at all busy, make sure you are standing near a place where cars can easily pull over without causing a traffic pileup. Bus stops and merging lanes are both good for this.
5.       Cities are the worst. In order to hitch out of a city, you really need to be on the outskirts, preferably already on the main road/highway going toward your destination.

We did all these things on the road out of Novi Sad and after about 25 minutes of waiting, we were rewarded. Our first ride was with a Serbian astrophysicist who spoke English because he collaborated with colleagues in Australia. He was planning on getting his Ph.D. soon and was just waiting to hear back from his school of choice in Melbourne. In the meantime, since jobs in Serbia were scarce, he was teaching physics in an elementary school a few times a week in a small town 50 kilometers outside of Novi Sad. It was poignant to see such a brilliant scientist unappreciated in his own country.

After walking 3 or 4 kilometers to the outskirts of Zrenjanin (see point #5 above), we stuck our thumbs out again. After about 20 minutes, a long truck hauling logs stopped for us. The driver was going to a different city than we had planned, but it was still close to the Romanian border, so we decided to hop in anyways.
Our second ride.
This was a very different experience than our first ride. The driver didn’t speak English, and neither Flounder nor I knew Serbian, at least not any significant amount. So we communicated the way I always do in such situations, with sign language, body language, and bits of shard words thrown in. The driver knew a bit of German, and one or two English words like okay and beautiful. After establishing the basics (where we are from (Indianapolis for us, Kosovo for him), age, marital status, children (number, age, gender), and whether we liked Serbia (the answer to this question is always yes)), he, like so many trucks drivers before him, revealed his true passion: women.

Aren’t the women in Serbia beautiful? he asked Flounder. (I was not included in this men-only discussion.) Flounder agreed, very beautiful, and everyone is so tall, he added, changing the subject slightly. To no avail.

Ah, Russian women are beautiful too, the driver said. But they’re dumb, he explained by pointing to his head and then holding his forefinger and thumb close together in the universal symbol for small. ‘Beautiful,’ he repeated, but again made the small brain gesture. Flounder nodded politely, then added, pointing to me, that American women were also beautiful. Our driver was silent on this point.

Later when talking about the countries we had traveled in and their climates, I mentioned the weather in Thailand was hot. This was easy enough to communicate, as country names are often similar in all languages and fanning myself with my hand and mopping my (pretend) sweaty brow was a clear gesture of heat. Sensing a potential shift back to his favorite subject, our driver looked at Flounder and smiled. ‘Thai women beautiful!’ he exclaimed.

He dropped us at a town only 12 kilometers from the Romania border. We walked through to the outskirts and positioned ourselves on the road out of town.
Hitching out of Serbia.
A few cars passed, many of them local traffic and they signified as much by pointing to their left or right to indicate that they were soon turning, or by pointing downwards to indicate they were staying in the town. A couple of drivers shrugged their shoulders and put their hands, palm up, into the air as if to say what can I do? Other drivers simply waved at us as they drove past.

None of the cars stopped, but here’s the thing: As a hitchhiker the worst feeling is not when cars pass by without stopping, it’s when drivers look straight ahead and pretend they don’t see you. So I appreciate when a driver acknowledges my existence in any way and I always respond with a wave and a smile.

We were waving and smiling, but after about an hour not one car had stopped for us. Borders can often be tricky to hitch to, through, and away from and it was getting late in the day, so we started to make contingency plans. There weren’t many good ones available to us as the last bus and train into Romania had already left, so we considered finding a place to pitch our tent. Just as Flounder was wandering off a bit, a car with a Romanian license plate stopped.

‘Timisoara?’ I said the name of a big Transylvanian town about 80 kilometers away. The car’s occupants, a young man and woman, responded in English. ‘We are going to Timisoara.’

Awesome. We loaded out bags into the car and hopped in. The two were siblings from Portugal who had rented the car in Timisoara and after more than a week of Balkan traveling, were headed back to return it.

We treated our Portuguese drivers to dinner in a little restaurant along the way. The menu was expansive, but the only food they actually seemed to have was pork and potatoes.
On the way to Timisoara we shared anecdotes and stories about life in Portugal and in the United States. We learned about fish, wine, and plentiful beaches and we told about the vast space and beautiful national parks in the US. We also mentioned a favorite horrifying tidbit about gun usage: My First Rifle, a gun made for and marketed toward children. It even comes in an opaque Barbie pink.
Austro-Hungarian style architecture in Timisoara.
When the brother and sister mentioned that they were only stopping Timisoara, but planned on driving all the way through to Bucharest, we decided to stay with them to Sibiu, a town four hours further and in the heart of Transylvania. The road there was dark, full of trucks, and winding. I felt simultaneously exhausted and car sick. As the hours dragged on, we considered camping by the side of the road, but it was already midnight and too dark to see a good spot to pitch our tent. So we continued on to Sibiu.
Old town in Sibiu.
We arrived at 2:30 a.m. and wished a bon voyage to our lovely Portuguese siblings. We were delirious and disoriented but grateful for a long, warm, safe ride and looking forward to a soft bed and a space of our own.

Mainly, though, I was grateful for a successful day of hitchhiking. We had met some interesting people, had a range of (all positive) experiences and no one had assaulted or taken advantage of us. Perhaps this day would be a catalyst to excite Flounder’s love of hitching. A girl can dream.

Happy HHers.