Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Survival Instinct

WARNING: There are no pictures in this post, but check out the flickr page. I uploaded a few hundred in the past few days.

I've been in India for about 5 weeks now - the longest I've stayed in any one country by about 2 weeks. I feel like India is a worthy recipient of my extra time since it's just so big and diverse.

I can tell that staying here longer has done something to my personality, too. Actually, it's hard to say whether it's the five weeks in India or if it was the 6 months of travel leading up to India, but I feel sharper - more aware and much more aggressive here in India. You run into enough Pushkars and eventually, your body goes into the offensive to seek out and destroy (figuratively, of course) people who have no problem fleecing you down. 

I partially learned this new-found aggressiveness from others. In the book I'm reading now, Shantaram, the narrator talks about how you can't really apply moral norms to India. People here do what is necessary to survive. Whether that means cursing, kicking, punching and gouging your way to a 3rd class seat on the train or apologizing profusely for accidentally tapping someone else's shoe on that same train once everyone is seated. (Those are his examples, not mine.) He argues that Indians switch back and forth between raw physical assault and saintly diplomacy in order to survive with their 1.2 billion other compatriots. You can see similar behaviors in China, but India is a little more intense, I think.

Another lesson I learned was from a friend of Rohit's - Raksha - who told me that you can't get anything done here without yelling at somebody. India is so full of clamoring voices and opinions that it takes a combination of volume and creative swearing to make things happen to your liking. It's not my style at all - I prefer to let the meaning and logic of my words speak for themselves, but that is a lost cause in India, so I've learned how to yell.

As I've gotten over my fear of confronting strangers in yelling matches, I've discovered that Indians take these confrontations surprisingly impersonally. As an American, I've been trained to take others' feelings into account and acknowledge that their emotions are just as important. Indians are much more egocentric because, I think, they can't afford to take other people's emotions into consideration. Sure, they are much more considerate with close friends and family, but not with strangers. I respect how well they can roll with the punches. I've seen so many situations here that would have turned into full-on brawls in the US but were resolved with just a bit of yelling, instead.

The trick, I think, is to learn how to be angry. I was never taught how to be angry. Instead, I've usually just let irritations fester until my emotions got the better of me and I explode. Basically, that's what has happened in India, too, it's just that those irritations mature into full fledged anger MUCH more quickly here than anywhere else I've been. So you learn to be proactive about it. Instead of waiting for the emotional anger to kick in, you generate it yourself once you see a situation going against your wishes. I've found that I have a little reserve of angry energy set aside in my brain for immediate use when a guard hassles me, or when someone insists on driving me after they've had 5 beers, or when a beggar starts reaching for your pocket, or when a rickshaw driver tries to rip me off. Instead of following my American instinct and giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, I shut it down immediately with a nasty look, a pointed finger and some choice words.

It's not like India is the only place that is like this. I remember everyone in the Balkans told me that they were the best at cursing because that's how they dealt with people. It's like that in the Caucasus, Central Asia and I'm sure lots of other places around the world. But I wasn't confronted with the necessity of doing it myself until I got to India. I suspect that the 6 months of travelling I did before India contributed to this, but India is also the most confrontational place that I think I've ever been. You won't get anywhere here if you don't learn how to say "no" and convince others that you mean it. I'm sure if I lived in the Balkans or Caucasus or wherever long enough, I would have picked up the same attitude eventually, but India really accelerates it.

It'll be interesting to see how long I retain that little pocket of reserve anger after I leave. I hope that I can keep it. Fighting with someone creates a bond that politeness never will. You haven't really measured yourself against someone and figured them out until you've confronted someone with a disagreement and resolved it. In America, people are much too eager to avoid confrontation, but I say bring it on. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Adventures in Kashmir

Below is an actual conversation I had with a guy I met on the bus on the way to Kashmir. His name is Pushkar and, as he likes to tell EVERYBODY, he is from Punjab state of India. He is very proud to be from Punjab and touted his sharp intelligence as evidence that he is Punjabi. Imagine the voice of Abu, from The Simpsons, whenever you read his voice.

Pushkar: What are you reading?

Ben: A Train To Pakistan by Khushwant Singh - a novel I picked up in Pune. I think it's pretty well known here, right?

Pushkar: Never heard of it. I don't read novels. I read scientific texts and communication journals. Since I am a communications officer on board a ship, I must maintain knowledge of such important subjects.

Ben: That's good, but novels can teach you a lot about -

Pushkar: I am an expert in communications and I can solve any communication problem that could arise. Ask me a problem.

Ben: Ask you a communication problem...? I'm not sure what you mean.

Pushkar: Say you are stranded in the forest with no tools. How would you communicate with others.

Ben: I guess I'd build a fire and hope that somebody saw the smoke.

Pushkar: No, the forest is too thick. They cannot see your fire. Besides, how will you make the fire? You have no tools!

Ben: I suppose I'd rub sticks together, but ok, what's your solution.

Pushkar: Radio waves travel through the troposphere, so all one needs to do is construct a tower into the troposphere to send out a radio distress signal.

Ben: Wait. Build a tower? How are you going to do that? I thought you said you didn't have any tools?

Pushkar: Yes, I will use a sharp stone to cut down trees.

Ben: Ok - so how tall does this tower need to be to reach the troposphere?

Pushkar: 200 meters high.

(At this, he rests his case with a confident smile, leans back in his chair and looks at me like I'm a struggling freshman engineer student.)

Ben: So you're telling me that you're going to build a 200 meter tower - roughly equivalent to a 60 storey building - by yourself, using logs cut down by a sharp stone?

Pushkar: Yes.

Ben: You realize that it takes quite a bit of engineering and design raise a structure up 200 meters and that it would take quite a bit of steel or concrete to make it stay up, right?

(At this point, I was ignoring HOW he would transmit radio signals if he could get the tower up. I assumed he could fashion a microphone and wires out of pine cones and grass, or something.)

Pushkar: The human body can do amazing things when someone is in danger. I have read about women picking up automobiles to rescue their babies! Therefore, I could build a 200 meter tower if my life depended on it..

I dropped the conversation at this point. The two of us had MANY arguments very similar to this one. Pushkar embodied the danger in giving someone who was otherwise superstitious and acted on emotion access to something like the Discovery channel. He had picked up some scientific jargon from his studies and, mixed with a little Bear Grylles, he thought he was master of the world.

I met Pushkar and his father in a jeep from Jammu that went over the mountains to Srinagar - the largest city in the Kashmir valley. Our trip should've taken about 5 hours, but after 11 hours of traffic jam caused by landslides, our jeep stopped in Banihal for the night, about 3 hours short of Srinagar. I liked Pushkar's Dad. He was a teacher in a little village in the Kashmir valley and seemed to know his way around. I happily took his invitation to stay with them for the night. I have found that it is very important to make friends when travelling alone. Especially in a place like India, people prey on lone travellers and will scam you. I've found that it's better to move in packs here, and I'd rather choose my travelling partners on my own terms.

The above conversation occurred that night in the Himaliya Hotel in Banihal. Despite his father being a confident, silent, austere man, Pushkar, I came to learn, was an out of control brat who craved attention and wanted everyone in that little almost-Kashmiri truck stop of a town to know that he was from Punjab. Pushkar's sermons at the dinner table about how worthless Kashmiris were also unsettled me. He dismissed my protests to him to be quiet by saying that nobody there spoke English. He was probably right.

India is full of regional rivalries and, while the Punjabis and Kashmiris don't necessarily have it out for each other, given the situation in Kashmir, I thought it would be best to just lay low and keep quiet. Pushkar's father thought so, too, but he didn't seem to have any control over his chest-thumping, 20 year old piss-ant of a son.

The next morning I rode on with them to Srinigar where we parted ways. They went on to the father's village of Bandipore and I stayed in Srinigar to stay the week with my couchsurfing host. Despite Pushkar and his father's invitations to me to come visit, I really didn't plan on going to see them. Pushkar seemed way too volatile and way too much of a liability in a place like Kashmir. Even thought it's pretty quiet there now, I didn't want to take the risk.

But my host in Srinigar turned out to be a wash. He was a tour guide who was just using couchsurfing as a medium to attract business. After two days with him, I was disgusted by his constant attempts to get money out of me, so I started reconsidering the Pushkar option...

I called Pushkar's father and discussed the situation with him. He ensured me that it would be perfectly fine if I went up to spend a couple of days with them. Srinigar was just another city full of tourists and Kashmiri tour guides starving and ravenous after 20 years of bad business. I wanted to see the Kashmiri countryside, so I decided to give it a chance and go see Pushkar 2 hours away in Bandipore.

I came to find out that Pushkar and his father lived on a Border Security Force base in Bandipore and that his father was a teacher on base. Staying with them, then, meant that I also got to stay on base - a bonus as far as I was concerned, as not many travelers to India get such an inside peek.

The first 24 hours on base went well. I met a lot of the officers, ate mess with the enlisted guys and got lots of tours around base. But then, on the second day, when Pushkar and I tried to leave to go hiking in the mountains nearby, the guard stopped us and started asking questions about me. Later that day, when I was refused access back on base, I found out that during that morning interaction, Pushkar had called the guard a "sister-f***er" and many other bad names that don't translate as well from Hindi. Pushkar assures me that his name-calling was not the cause of my banishment from the base, but I am pretty confident that it is. The next day, even Pushkar had trouble getting back onto base and had to call his father to come let him in.

Luckily, Pushkar had a friend who was local and lived near by. After learning that I couldn't come back on base, Pushkar sent me to stay with this friend. The friend's family was a traditional Kashmiri one that lived in a traditional Kashmiri home. That means no furniture. I was directed into the front room and offered a pillow to sit on. It had been an exhausting day of hiking and dealing with a drunken Pushkar. My banishment from the base was only the last in a string of offences that eventually made me blow up at Pushkar for his arrogance. I was extremely tired and mentally frail when I sat down on the pillow in that Kashmiri house. All I wanted was some water and some sleep.

But seconds after I sat down, the whole family - 9 of them, I counted - filed in and sat around the wall on similar pillows. And stared at me.

I have grown accustomed to people staring at me. It happens to every foreigner on the streets of even big cities in India. We're just fascinating, I suppose. But this was a more extreme case. After my long day, I was not prepared for dealing with this. Hardly anyone spoke English, either, so all we could do, really, was smile and nod back and forth to each other. It felt ridiculous.

Luckily, or so I thought, the electricity went out and it was dark. I could deal with that much better than with 18 eyes staring at me. But then, the woman sitting closest to me turned on a flashlight and set in front of me so that my face was lit up and they could see me better. I could only laugh.

Later on, I thought that it would have been funny and it would have broken the ice much better if I had stood up and danced or something wildly silly but, as I said, I wasn't all there mentally. The best thing I could think of at the moment was to show them pictures on my camera. Indians are fascinated by romance, so I pulled up a picture of Bryn and passed it around telling them that she was my girlfriend. I think they were more fascinated by the digital camera than by the picture of Bryn and me in the Ukraine, but at least it stole the attention away from me and diverted it to the camera. It put a big, goofy grin on my face to think about Bryn and how silly the situation was and how funny and un-tense it would have been if she had been there. I relaxed and let go, and suddenly the staring didn't bother me anymore.

Eventually, they lost interest in me and filed off slowly to go make tea or finish some chores or put babies to bed and from that point on, I was able to deal with family members individually, or in groups of 2 or 3 instead of all nine at once. Despite the initial discomfort, my unexpected stay with that family was wonderful and they were all incredibly kind. They had a beautiful home and surrounding farm that I'll post pictures of later. I'm sure that my last 24 hours spent in Bandipore with them were much better than they would have been had I stayed with Pushkar.

But Pushkar embodies a lesson of travelling. You can't always be with people that you like or want to be around, but sometimes you need to deal with unsavory characters to access unique opportunities. He was just a stupid, insecure kid trying to be a man the Indian way which, unfortunately, is very similar to being a man the 15 year old way in the US. I think it's more important to know how to deal with these kinds of people rather than to dismiss them entirely. Part of the fun of travelling is being exposed to new people, and you can bet that you aren't going to like all of those people.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Brief Vacation from Travelling

I arrived in India one week ago today, flying from Seoul, South Korea to New Delhi. This, obviously, broke my vow to never fly yet again. Opposed to the past flights, when my only option for pushing further east was to fly, I had other options to get to India. I could have taken the ferry from South Korea to China, taken trains across China and then taken a jeep over the Himalayas to India. It was actually a leg of the journey that I was very excited about before I began, but 6 months of travelling had caught up with me and I was feeling very fatigued. Also, I wanted maximum time in India. Taking the land route there would have cut at least 2 weeks into my allotted time for India.

I was greeted in New Delhi with news that a bomb had killed 11 people outside the High Court in the capital. Great. About an hour after I arrived in New Delhi, I felt the building I was in shake violently for about 3 seconds. I was convinced that another high powered bomb had gone off in my vicinity, but I later found out that it was "only" an earthquake. 4.2 on the richter scale. That was actually the first earthquake I'd ever experienced, so it was a little exciting. It didn't cause any significant damage or injuries, which is the perfect kind of earthquake to experience. 
View from my balcony in New Delhi the morning after the quake

The next day I took the train 20 hours south to Pune, where my friends from Austin, Rohit and Caroline live. They moved here a few months ago after living and working in Austin for 4 years. Rohit has been the perfect host here. He's an indulgent person and he's been a welcome addition to my relatively austere lifestyle the past 6 months. Compared to past locales that I've visited, I've done precious little in Pune but man, it's been so great. I've read the newspaper everyday, getting back in tune with what's going on in the world and India. Did you know that Pune has the highest murder rate of old ladies in all of India? 
The Duronto Express, 20 hours from New Delhi to Pune

I have also made up for 6 months of practically zero shopping by going on a few shopping sprees here in Pune. I've bought myself clothes to replace the now monotonous wardrobe of 5 shirts and 3 pairs of pants that I've been carrying around. It's amazing how a new t-shirt or a new pair of underwear can lift your spirits. It's also made me realize that shopping can be educational, too. Going to the bazaars and haggling over $2 scarves and $5 t-shirts has exposed me to an integral side of India: commerce. 

I was shocked to find that India's neighbors to the north (specifically Kazakhstan) do not haggle. From my experience, they give you a price (usually exorbitantly high because you're a foreigner) and then don't come down. Even if you walk away, they just watch you go to the next stall until you inevitably find someone who will sell it for the right price. Not so in India. The sellers here have INVITED me to haggle with them. They really enjoy it and laugh and pat you on the back at the end. I've gone with locals on most of my shopping excursions to get a feel for it, and I don't think I've gotten ripped off yet. 

Napping rickshaw driver
The casual life of Pune will end tomorrow morning though when I board a flight to Jammu, up in the north. Then, on Friday, I'll get in a jeep and drive 5-6 hours north through the Himalayas to Srinagar, the main city of the Kashmir Valley. This will probably be my most adventurous journey yet, as Kashmir can be a bit dicey. But I've done my research and am staying with a trustworthy host so I feel comfortable with it. It'll be a good experience to see and experience life in an area as unstable as Kashmir.

I have a feeling that internet will be limited there, as it was in China, so I'll probably not be able to update again until the week after.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Video Blog from the Tien Shan mountains

I recorded this back on August 14th but haven't had the opportunity to post it yet. This summit was only about 3 hour bus ride and hike from my host's apartment in Urumqi. Probably the most amazing day hike I've ever had. It started hailing about 5 minutes after I recorded this.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Entering the home stretch

Well, here it is, September and I'm in South Korea. Technically, I've made it across Eurasia, which was my original goal. When I saw the Pacific Ocean (or Sea of Japan, close enough) I felt finished. My original plan was to go back to China from South Korea and head down south to Laos, Thailand, etc. on to Jakarta. But I've changed plans.

Instead, I'll be flying straight from South Korea to India. I know, this breaks my key rule of "no flying". If there's anything I've learned on this trip, it's that sticking to principles in the face of overwhelming logic to the contrary is dumb. Travelling through China by myself was exhausting. Achieving the smallest thing like finding the right bus was a monumental task. I want to resume my travels through China at some point, but not next week. I want to learn a little Chinese first and then do it.

Meanwhile, in India, I've got friends waiting and an entire sub-continent of craziness to explore. It will be so good to see some familiar faces after two months on my own (Bryn's was the last familiar face I saw back in June).

India will also be my last country before returning home, so that makes it the homestretch. Even though I'll be there for a while, so don't start baking welcome-cakes and grilling welcome-steaks quite yet.

This past week has been very busy. The Jeju swing camp was a success, even if the best night by FAR was not even a sanctioned event, but just a weekly dance held by the local Jeju club. I had some pretty late nights with those dancers, eating more dried squid, drinking rice wine and mocking my chop stick skills. Tuesday I arrived back on South Korea mainland in Busan and then took a train up to Daegu where I am right now. But later this afternoon I'm taking a train on to Gangneung up in the northeast. Hopefully I'll get to go see the border with North Korea some point this weekend.

I'm sorry for not posting more pictures - I really do have lots of good ones. Computer access is much more convenient in South Korea, but I've just been busy since I got here and haven't had time to sit down and load/label all my pictures. They'll come though, just be patient.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Dried Squid for Breakfast? Yes, Please!

The dried squid was my own fault. I was grocery shopping in Incheon, South Korea, in preparation for my overnight ferry to Jeju, South Korea, and got a little carried away with the weird foods. Having eaten all the "normal foods" of dried fish and noodle bowls for dinner as we left Incheon, I was left with a packet of dried squid staring at me for breakfast. I opted out. I'll keep it in my bag in case of an emergency.

Of course South Korea has weird food - I knew that coming into it. I have eaten some weird stuff on this trip: lamb heart in Urumchi, cow pancreas in Diyarbakir, shark in Iceland, etc., but South Korea, in the first 24 hours, put them all to shame. Food here is downright unidentifiable. In China, I was able to get away with just pointing at stuff and I always left satisfied. My first attempt at this in Incheon got me what I could only imagine to be pig ear soup with some other, totally mesmerizing intestinal wraps. I only wish that I had taken pictures. I ate about half of the soup and then was more than eager to turn my attention to the infamous (but at least known) kim-chi.

Weird food has had it's place on this trip, but I feel like that is all territory that has been covered before in other blogs, books and reality TV shows. I think what's more striking and, maybe less obvious, is how I somehow returned to western Europe by sailing east from China.

This may not have come out fully in my last blog, but China is chaos. Traffic is going in every direction, things are being sold, organisms eaten and lights flashing everywhere you look. People are also everywhere. A typical arrival to any train, bus or ferry station will require picking your way through crowds of hundreds of passengers sleeping on their luggage waiting in line for either a ticket, their train or who knows what. All this chaos and action certainly makes China a very energetic place, but it can be exhausting. I think it would take some time for a westerner to get accustomed to experiencing humanity as it is in China.

But just a few hundred miles across the Yellow Sea, humanity has taken a chill pill. All of a sudden, vehicles and people regard traffic signals. Food is cooked in actual kitchens in restaurants instead of in discarded wheels on the street. You sit in the ferry terminal and you notice that it's strangely quiet. There is adequate seating for the people there and the bathrooms are REAL bathrooms with doors and working plumbing and all. South Korea feels much more similar to Germany than China. As I was walking down the street for the first time in Incheon, i was overcome with relief when I realized that cars stayed in their lanes and respected pedestrians. I feel more at ease here - despite the fact that English is not as pervasive here and I speak zero Korean. (I had made an attempt to learn a few Chinese basics, which helped out a lot.)

But today, walking around Jeju, I noticed that I missed the Chinese chaos a little. Waiting at a crosswalk for the light to turn green felt absolutely ridiculous - there were no cars coming and it was clear that we could cross without getting killed or slowing down anyone else. Nobody else budged though, and I was not feeling inspired enough to upset Korea's more temperate mood by giving them a dose of the wild Chinese street.

I'm here in Jeju, South Korea for a swing dance weekend that starts tomorrow. It will be my fifth international swing dance experience. I had hoped to have had more by now, but I missed the dance in Beijing and Central Asians apparently prefer the salsa of their fellow Latin American socialists to the free-market swing of the USA.

Speaking of Koreans being more temperate and quiet, the girl next to me at the internet cafe is playing some kind of cheesy cartoon game that involves lots of loud cymbal crashes and techno music. She has the volume turned up all the way. I may need to reassess...

Saturday, August 20, 2011


I have been in China for about 11 days now and have had COUNTLESS adventures that have deserved to go up on this blog. Unfortunately, the Chinese authorities don't find it prudent to allow computers in this fine country to be able to connect to blogspot. Ahem.
New Xining with its crane skyline

Friday, I woke up in Xining, China - a city fairly in the center of China and like every other city in this country, gigantic with people everywhere you look. And a lot of those people, I discovered, were trying to move further east just like me. There were no train or planes out of Xining until August 23. I need to be in South Korea for a swing dance event by August 26, so waiting around was not an option. My host had found a way out though.

My host in Xining over dinner

I woke up at about 6:30am after a bad night's sleep. I was anxious about the day to come. My plan that day included a 10 hour bus ride east to Xian, where I would catch a plane two hours after my intended arrival to Beijing. If there were any delays at all in my bus ride, the flight would be compromised and I'd be stuck. 

The first 7 hours of the bus ride as smooth as they could. We were cruising down the four lane, divided highway at 70 miles an hour with hardly any other traffic on the road. Even though transit schedules in China are merely suggestions, I was feeling good about my gamble to get to Xian in time.

Then disaster hit in the form of a detour. For some reason that was not clear to me, the highway was closed and we had to spend about 40 minutes driving very aggresively through city traffic before we could get back on the highway. Later, a long line at a toll station prompted our driver to take a voluntary detour along the old road that hugged cliff faces lining the river in a valley below. Our driver wagered that the time lost in bypassing tunnels and slow going along the windy road was less than the time lost waiting in a toll station line.  Obviously, there was not time for a scientific enquiry into the benefits of the driver's decision.

The result though, after these two detours, was that we were 180 miles outside of Xian 4 hours before my flight was scheduled to depart the airport. My nerves tightened. My head started working all kinds of calculations about how much longer it would take and how many people I'd have to push aside in the security check line.

Every time our driver hit the breaks for a tight turn or for a slow moving truck in front of us, I cursed the obstacle and, for once, cheered when our driver recklessly swerved in and out of lanes, ruthlessly hurrying our arrival. When our driver stopped for a pee break about 60 miles out of Xian, about an hour before my departure time, I was livid. I actually got off the bus to look for a taxi to take me the final stretch. But thankfully, someone pulled me back onto the bus. The brief increase in attention the stunt gave me provided an opportunity to explain my situation. In the best chinese I could muster and by passing around my ticket, I was able to communicate how dire my situation was. One woman spoke a little english and told me after some deliberation amongst themselves, that I should follow the guy sitting next to me. Ok.

It was 9pm, 30 minutes before departure and we were just on the outskirts of Xian. My brain had changed gears, from calculating my arrival time to trying to figure out where to spend the night and how to get a flight out of Xian as soon as possible in order to salvage my weekend of swing dance in South Korea. All of a sudden, the bus pulled over on the side of the highway and my neighbor started pushing me out of the bus. The bus had stopped just short of a highway exit and my neighbor started walking up the ramp, encouraging me to follow. The bus had left. My brain switched gears yet again to figuring out how to avoid getting robbed blind and left in the ditch. But my neighbor was honest. He led me to a road and flagged down a taxi. It was 9:10 and I was on my way to the airport, 10 miles away. I recognized the futility of my mission, but figured I had nothing to lose.

We drove, and drove, and drove. Several times I was convinced that I saw the lights of a runway, but was let down. Cities in China are just too big. You'd be amazed.

But finally, I started seeing signs for the airport and suddenly we were there at Terminal 2. I fled the cab at 930, not having seen any planes take off during our approach the airport: A tiny ember of hope emerged from the ashes.

As I ran to the ticket counter, I glanced at the departure board and saw that my flight had been delayed to 9:50 and that they were boarding! My heart skipped several beats. I handed the ticket and passport to the woman at the ticket counter, expecting her to hand it back to me and apologize for not letting me board so late, but instead, she looked up at me and told me, "I'm sorry, but this flight has been delayed. You'll have to wait an hour or so in the terminal."

This was the best "bad news" I think I've ever heard. I passed through the security check elated and sauntered up to Gate number 8, full of agitated passengers and flustered airline agents. I had made it. The airline even gave me a free meal to compensate for the delay. HA!

I ended up in Beijing at 3 am, which was not ideal, but at least I made it. It was intense day and luck was definitely on my side. But I still have a train trip and two ferry rides before I get to Jeju, South Korea, so it's not over yet.


Monday, August 8, 2011

Taking the Train in Kazakhstan

It's raining in Almaty, Kazakhstan today, which has given me a nice opportunity to update the blog. I've had really good luck with weather so far on this trip - the is the first rain day I've had in over a month.

I've had some pretty memorable experiences on trains in Kazakhstan in the past two weeks I've been here. As you'll remember, I was thwarted from taking a train across the steppe from Aktau to Shymkent so I was very excited as I stood on the platform in Shymkent, valid ticket in hand, ready to board the train for Taraz.

Passenger trains are few and far between in Kazakhstan. The train station in Shymkent (Kazakhstan's third largest city) only had two platforms and saw about 12 passenger trains come through per day. So, when two trains pulled up at the same time, I was a little perturbed that they had to make this seemingly simple task of getting on the train to Taraz more complicated. I started asking people around me which was the train to Taraz and, fairly confident that the two people I talked to were right, presented my ticket to the train steward on the second platform to confirm I had made the right choice. He waved me on, I found my seat and settled in with my book for the four hour ride to Taraz.

But, about 20 minutes after we left, a group of three ticket checkers came through the cabin and, upon inspecting my ticket, excitedly expressed that something was not right. It turned out that I was on the train to Tashkent, Uzbekistan - not Taraz.

Dusty road in Taraz similar, but not identical, to my walk of shame after getting kicked off the train to Tashkent. 

I was very frustrated. How could three people all have pointed me to the wrong train? Why was the ticket steward who let me on the train and was part of the group informing me that I was bound for Tashkent not fessing up and apologizing? Of course, he left me out to dry as the dumb American. I can't imagine the consequences of me showing up at the Uzbekistan border without a visa and unable to explain myself.

I got out at the next train stop after spending fivec minutes as the center of attention in the carriage. I hopped off the train and followed a dusty road across the Steppe to a main highway about half a mile from the train station. Luckily, I was able to flag down a bus going to Shymkent within a few minutes. In Shymkent, I found a bus that got me to Taraz faster and cheaper than the train, but the driver played was playing bad, loud dance music at full blast the whole ride. It made me miss my train to Uzbekistan.

A few days later, now set and determined to have a proper train ride across the Kazakh steppe, I boarded the train in Taraz bound for Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty. I checked FOUR times to make sure that this train (at the time, the only train in the station) was in fact going to Almaty. The "Almaty" sign in the window, the confirmations of several stewards and the people I shared my cabin with all confirmed that I was, in fact, on the right train.

But that didn't stop me from having further adventures on the Kazakhstan rail network.

I shared my cabin with an Uzbek man headed ultimately for St. Petersburg, Russia and an older couple who were going to a spa for a week long vacation. The woman took interest in me and, as she spoke a little English, served as my spokesperson for the trip. At one point, she pulled out her cell phone and made a call. She spoke in Kazakh for a few minutes before handing me the phone. Her daughter was on the line and had all sorts of questions for me about the US and what I was doing in Kazakhstan. Moments after I took the phone, her parents exited the cabin, leaving me alone with the Uzbek (now drunk and passed out on the bed above me) and their young, very much SINGLE daughter.

Interesting brick work on a house in Taraz. I can't tell if this is supposed to be artistic or laziness. Artistic expression is rare here, from what I can tell.
After ten minutes of talking to this girl, her parents came back, giving me an excuse to hand back the phone. Her mom went on and on telling me how beautiful she was, that she was 22 and needed to find and husband and -oh! wasn't her English just so good?

I made many attempts to make it clear that I had a girlfriend back home and that I wasn't interested in her daughter. Kazakhs don't really seem to have an understanding of "girlfriends" though. It seems that inter-gender relations here are either familial or matrimonial - not much space in between for friends or girlfriends or the like.

Avoiding the marriage sack, I stepped out of my cabin into the corridor to watch the endless Kazakh steppe slip by us. After a few minutes of soaking in the fact that I was finally on a train across Kazakhstan, the door behind me opened and a Kazakh man looked up and asked, "Amerikanski?" I nodded yes and he waved me excitedly into his cabin saying "Also Amerikanski!" It seemed I was not the sole American on this train after all.
Turns out I was. The Kazakh, in his excitement, seems to have confused the Ugandan in his cabin for an American. Kazakhs don't have much experience with black people so I can imagine how he might have mistaken the Ugandan for an American. The Ugandan turned out to be Andrew Mwesigwa, a soccer player for the team in Shymkent on his way to meet his family in Almaty. He explained that he wouldn't want his family to suffer through a train ride as the lone black people, unable to communicate at all. I saw firsthand the unwanted attention he gets in Kazakhstan - not as a soccer player, but just as a black person - when a group of kids came up trying to take his picture. Few people in Kazakhstan have ever seen a black person live and up close before.

A few hours later, sharing a cab ride into Almaty from the train station, I learned that Andrew was also the captain of the Ugandan national soccer team! What?! He made me promise to watch him in the African Cup next year. I told him that the last person I had expected to meet in Almaty was the captain of the Ugandan soccer team. He was a really nice guy.

There were more shenanigans on the train, like they guy who offered to fight the drunk Kazakh for me, or the guy who offered to buy my iPhone off of me for $100. When I refused, he asked if I could send him back two once I got to the US. One of the train stewards shared a melon with me while speaking to me in Kazakh, persistent that if he only spoke loud enough, I would eventually understand him. He lost interest in me after a few minutes of non-comprehension so he sent me back to my cabin.
Tonight, I get on the train to Urumqi, China - my longest train trip yet at 31 hours. I'm going to have to stock up on food before I go. This trip will be sure to yield plenty of more stories, too, which I'll be happy to post later.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The OTHER side of the Caspian

The ferry to Kazakhstan turned out to be a failure. On Friday, I got fed up and just bought a place ticket to Aktau, Kazakhstan for only $30 more than the ferry. I'm ok with it for two reasons: first, I didn't really miss much - it was just water and I've been on a boat before; Second, I just didn't feel comfortable giving such a shady company so much of my money. And I just thought of a third reason - now I know what a third world airport is like. I suppose Baku's isn't exactly a third world airport, but you could see the differences. For one, there were two security checkpoints before I even got to the ticket counter but none of the guards really seemed to care.

So now I'm in Aktau -  Kazakhstan's main/only Caspian port. It's a strange city, in a cute, quirky kind of way. It didn't really exist until the 1970s when the Soviets decided to build a port here. Since then, it's basically survived off of Caspian drilling projects and oil. For this reason, there are a lot of ex-pats here. My host works in the oil business and is Kazakh, but from the middle of the country - over 1000 miles away. (Since Aktau is so young, there really aren't any "locals" here). He carries the title of the biggest Liverpool Football Club supporter in Kazakhstan and has a love affair with London. Besides not looking like an ex-pat, he sure shares a lot of similarities with them!

As I waited outside the Aktau aiport terminal late Saturday night, constantly harrased by taxi drivers (one actually changed the time on his cell phone in an attempt to convince me that I'd missed my ride and so should pay him to take me to a hotel) I was extremely grateful when he yelled my name across the parking lot. He's been a great guide the whole time through and I'd definitely be in a fix here in western Kazakhstan without him.

For example, my next plan of action was to hop on a train and ride it 48 hours across the steppes to Shymkent, on the border with Uzbekistan. Well, that's not going to happen. After talking to a few travel agencies, he determined that there are no available train tickets out of Aktau until August 10th. That's two weeks from now. My choices were either to hang out in Aktau for two weeks, or break my oath again and fly. Aktau really isn't a bad place -it's actually got a really nice beach just outside of town - but I think I'd be missing more by staying here so long than flying the 1200 miles of Kazakh steppe to Shymkent and having more time to explore the rest of Kazakhstan. It's a tough decision and I don't like it, but I already bought the plane ticket. I fly out first thing Thursday morning.

This is one of those scenarios that I honesty did not anticipate. I faced a similar dilemma in Istanbul, where train tickets east were sold out for the next two weeks, but there I had the alternative of taking a bus. Aktau is much more isolated from the rest of the world than Istanbul. There are no roads that connect Aktau with the rest of Kazakhstan, which also make it the most expensive city in the country. MAYBE if I had a 4x4 jeep and 100 gallons of fuel I could make it across the steppe, but I'm afraid I'm just not ready for that level of adventure. Perhaps I could rent a camel instead?

P.S. Sorry I haven't loaded any pictures recently. I am taking them, I promise, but I just haven't found a computer recently that has the ability to do so.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Caspian Sea

Yesterday afternoon I made it to Baku, Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea, the last major body of water before the Pacific Ocean. I plan to catch a ferry across the Caspian to Aqtau, Kazakhstan, but after spending 4 hours today looking for the ferry office, I'm interested to see how that turns out.

I've got enough material from my attempts to find the ferry office last night and this morning to write a novel. I don't want to get too deep into the particulars, but I've probably talked to about 50 different people, all of whom have given me different answers. My favorite was the guy who told me it was on the floor above his office. When I confronted him with the fact that he was in a one story building, he changed his mind an waved his hand in a seemingly random direction.

So far, nobody has admitted that they don't know where this elusive ferry office. I can't decide whether their unwillingness to admit this comes from a effort to be helpful or from their own pride. I'm pretty sure that the only reason that I'm getting any response at all is because I'm a goofy American looking for a boat to Kazakhstan. People here like novelty and I'm like the newest joke amongst a circle of friends: it's entertaining for about 5 minutes but then you drop it and resume drinking your 12th cup of tea for the day.

One especially helpful group of men grabbed a youth off the street and made him find an English speaker to help me. He led me into what looked like a school, past a gymnasium into a locker room full of sweaty, half-clothed, stinky boys. Awkward situation. But you have to have faith in these people. Sure enough, one of the boys spoke English and was even fully dressed so he walked out with me, listened to the old men for a minute, made a phone call and then pointed me towards the office that sold tickets to Turkmenbashi, Turkistan. Close, but not quite.

I'm exploiting the fact that I'm a novelty, but it hasn't gotten me very far. One police officer actually gave me a place name, but google translate says that it's the "Limanu Dry Cargo Plant". I am cargo, and mostly dry (although the Baku heat has drenched my back in sweat) but it still seems more logical to me that the ferry should leave from the "Ferry Terminal". But this building, the guard has told me twice now, is a office building and there are no ferries there.

I knew this was going to be challenging when I set out to find this ferry. The company has no web presence that I can find. The only mention of it is on travel blogs and message boards like lonely planet and most of those berate the ferry for being inconsistent, overpriced and, surprise, very difficult to arrange. But, I've got another 25 days on my Azerbaijani visa and my Kazakh visa isn't valid until July 22nd, so I'm not in any hurry yet. I think I'm going to switch up my strategy though. Instead of wandering around in the heat saying "Billet Ferry Aqtau Kazkhstan?", I'm going to recruit a local to figure this out for me and then report back. If I could just find a phone number, this search would be a whole lot easier.

Interesting fact about Baku: men here don't wear shorts. They let it slide with foreign men, but in my effort to fit in today, I wore pants. It was a terrible idea. Not only is it overly hot here, it's really dirty, too, so that the ankles of your pants are covered in dirt and junk. I suppose it's better that your pants are dirty instead of your ankles, but when you're working with three pairs of pants, I tend to want to presever them more than my ankle hygiene.

I'm sure that finding this ferry will provide plenty more entertaining stories. I'll keep you all posted. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Going to the country, gonna eat a lot of peaches

For those of you who would like a 2 minutes synopsis of how I spent last Tuesday, click here.

If, however, you want the full, ninja-free version of how I spent my Tuesday, read below.

On Monday, I left the big city of Tbilisi on a mini-bus headed for Gurjaani, in eastern Georgia's agricultural region. I was told that it was most famous for its wine, but I quickly learned that the orchards were the place to be.

In Gurjaani, I couchsurfed with Alex, a fellow Texan from Dallas who had taken a semester off from the University of Texas with his girlfriend to go teach English in rural Georgia. Alex and his girlfriend were staying with a host family in Gurjaani, a situation that at once proved its superiority to living alone.

I got there in the dead heat of the afternoon. The whole family had gone out to the orchards to pick peaches and nectarines - only Alex had stayed behind waiting for me to arrive. I got swindled out of 60 cents by the taxi driver who took me to his village and dropped me off at the wrong place. But I was able to find Alex simply by going up to people and saying "American" in a questioning tone. They ALL knew who Alex the American was.

Alex gave me the tour of Gurjaani (it didn't take long) and then we dug into a watermelon from the garden. Later that night, after everyone got home from the orchards, we grilled pork over a fire in the backyard and the ladies made grilled eggplant with walnut sauce. Delicious.

Within minutes of arriving in Gurjaani, I felt more at ease. The country life has such a good feel to it. Plenty of space to wander around, the people are nicer and, I believe, the country life exposes more of a nation's true character than the cosmopolitan cities. Plus, where there is agriculture, there is work to do. After four months of travelling, I needed some good, hard work to cleanse my soul. And that's exactly what I got.
Riding to the orchard early in the morning

Tuesday morning, the household woke up at 430 am to load banana boxes from Ecuador and Panama into the mini-bus and grab a hunk of bread for breakfast. The banana boxes were a cheap solution to packing peaches and nectarines. Alex and I fashioned benches out of the boxes loaded in the back and rode out with the family for about an hour to their orchard. As the sun came up over the valley, it was rush hour on the little half paved soviet-era road that led to the orchard. Lines of old ladas and military trucks rumbled down the road. Just about everyone stopped at a little spring to fill their water bottles.

We were out in the orchard picking peaches by 6am and worked pretty much non-stop until 11am. Alex and I, the newbies, spent most of our time lugging buckets of peaches from the orchard to the little shack that covered them in shade. Alex's host dad, Sandro, owned the orchard and was in charge of the operation. In addition to his father, mother, Alex and I working in the orchard, he hired five other orchard owners whose crop had been destroyed this year for whatever reason. They were mostly women and their experienced hands acted like locusts when they all descended on a tree for picking. I spent some time picking, but it was obvious that they were far more efficient than me, so I spent most of my time hauling buckets of fruit.

At 11am, everybody came in from the orchard and started packing the peaches into the banana boxes mentioned above: smallest and greenest peaches went on the bottom while the big, juicy, red peaches went front and center for marketing purposes. After packing about 20 boxes of peaches (about 1,500 pounds) we took a lunch break: sausage, bread, beer, more of that delicious eggplant concoction, and boiled tripe. I stayed away from the tripe and nobody seemed to mind that.

Packing the peaches - pretty ones on top!
As the heat of the day approached, we moved over to the nectarine orchard, where our jobs were pretty much identical. I picked even less though, as it was harder for me to pick out the ripe nectarines through the trees' denser branches. When I did pick, though, I found it easiest to perch in the middle of the tree and pick the nectarines from the inside. This situation also ensured maximum shade. The old women continued mobbing the trees with terrifying accuracy. By 5 pm, we had picked and packed 2,500 pounds of nectarines.

The Orchard Crew
While we were picking nectarines, Sandro (Alex's host dad and boss-man) drove the half-full minibus to the bazaar and sold the peaches off for about 30 cents a pound. Later that evening, after the nectarine picking, he sold off the nectarines for a similar price. By Alex and my calculations, Sandro and the family were making about $1,200 dollars a day. They started doing this in May and will continue working in the orchards (they own five, so they work a different one every day) until the end of August. It's a lot of work and I really have a lot of respect for those people who can get up day after day and put in 12 hours in the orchards the whole summer. Granted, they get the rest of the eight months a year off, but that still takes some endurance.

Sandro is a very wealthy man by Gurjaani standards. He's got an annual income approaching $150,000 and Alex says that costs for maintaing the orchards is about $40,000. That leaves about $100,000 profit every year - decent for a family of  5 by American standards but in Gurjaani, where a loaf of bread is something like 20 US cents, astounding. They don't put the money in the bank though. They have been conditioned to avoid that after their bank failed a few years ago and they lost tens of thousands. Instead, they either invest the money into their house (they had just finished a $50,000 up-stairs addition) or giving it to family members. Alex was amazed that Sandro was perfectly ok with the fact that he drove an old Soviet era Lada while his unemployed brother in law drives a Mercedes thanks to a gift from Sandro. Capital here seems to be stored in personal relationships, even ones that don't appear to have much promise of paying off, rather than in banks. The consequences of this situation means that it's just that much harder for others to get access to credit from private banks and have to rely on politically motivated government lending.

Wow. Ok, so as you can see, a day in the peach orchard has taught me a lot. Hard work is good for the soul and I went home exhausted after that day in the orchards. But it was also fascinating to get a glimpse into the Georgian agricultural economy.

Perhaps the Perfect Nectarine

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Southern Caucasus

After spending a few days in Kars, Turkey, I hopped back on the bus (two, actually) and crossed into Georgia, my debut in the Southern Caucasus.

Georgia carries the connotation of war since most people heard about Georgia for the first time when it was invaded by Russia back in 2008. It's difficult to see any evidence of this though. Georgia is a very developed country and is practically begging westerners to come visit it. The country's tourism board is pumping out glossy pamphlets by the millions and renovating buildings all over the old town in an effort to match European standards - at least in the capital, Tbilisi.

After spending three days in Tbilisi I was ready to get out and see some countryside. So, this morning, I hopped in a minibus and drove three hours up to the border with Russia - the REAL Caucasus mountain range with peaks like Mt. Kazbegi reaching over 15,000 feet. Physically, the mountains are amazing, but sitting up on a monastery wall overlooking the green valleys below me and the lines of tourists making their way up the mountain, it was hard to believe that I was in the Caucasus Mountains. Less than 20 miles away was the the town of Vladikavkaz - where the remainder of the North Caucasus (think Chechens) resistance to Russia is hanging out. A few more miles to the west and nearly three years ago, Russian tanks were filing their way through the mountains "liberating" South Ossetia.

Mt. Kazbegi and Gerge Trinity Monastery just to the left
Sitting in those peaceful mountains, I was struck (as I have been so many times on this trip) by the difference that a few miles and few years make. It's amazing to think that one valley can be made up of Georgian nationals who drink wine and cross themselves three times every time they pass a church (my bus driver went hands free for a few terrifying seconds on a mountain road as he crossed himself and talked on the cell phone at the same time) but just a few miles to the north, the inhabitants are Muslim and are part of a nation (Chechnya) that has been vilified throughout the history of the Russian empire as bandits and savages.

Walking up through the villages at the foot of Mt. Kazbegi, watching pigs slop around in mud holes in the middle of the road and buses full of tourists pass me, I couldn't imagine that there could possibly be violence here. Yet I know that at some point in history, there was most certainly violence in this little valley, and that only a few years or a few miles separate it from past and current military struggles. It warps my mind to think about and I find it hard to get across here in words. My journal entry today was full of frustrated attempts to try to explain my inability to comprehend how parallel mountain valleys could be so dramatically different. I hope one day it makes better sense to me.

Maybe I'd be able to understand it a little better if I could go to South Ossetia or Abkhazia, the two Georgian districts that saw most of the Russian attention in 2008. It is extremely difficult to get in to those place though as they are still under de facto Russian control. I met another American teaching English here who finally got all his paperwork together and is going to Abkhazia next week just to check it out. He's been living here for 6 months though and has spent a great deal of time figuring out how to get the visa, enter and exit without getting arrested. I'm opting to just skip those two provinces for now.

Pig mentioned above
My visa to Azerbaijan proved hard enough to get. I found out that the country had changed its visa requirements and that I now needed a letter of invitation to get in so that required a trip to a tour agency and about $145 to take care of. Still, I won't get my Azerbaijan visa until Friday (July 15) because, apparently, the Azerbaijani embassy here in Tbilisi has run out of stickers for the visa. I've also been told by several people that even WITH the visa, I may find it necessary to slip a $20 in my passport to make sure it gets processed efficiently at the border. To be honest, I've never paid a real bribe, so I'm kind of excited by that prospect, but I'm also pissed enough that I'm paying $145 to go through tiny Azerbaijan. It's stunts like these that make me lose sympathy for countries when they end up getting invaded years down the line.

While I'm waiting for the stickers to be delivered to the Azerbaijani embassy, I'm heading out of town to visit some villages east of Tbilisi in my quest to see both the rural and urban side of life in each country. I'll actually be staying with American guys who are teaching English here but staying with host families. It'll be nice to get the Georgian experience while having a compatriot to guide me through it all.

Hope you all had a happy 4th - I spent the day sick in bed in Kars, Turkey. I didn't hear one firework. I had meant to at least hum Star Spangled Banner, but my bowels were doing plenty of their own "bursting in air".

Me and Gerge Trinity Monastery

Friday, July 1, 2011

120 Hours Later

My last blog post was from Sımferopol, Ukraıne. You may remember that I had mıssed my boat back to Turkey due to some ''mıscommunıcatıons'' wıth some Ukraınıan saılor-man. I am happy to report that I have sınce put three countrıes (Moldova, Romanıa, Bulgarıa and Turkey) between myself and that wretched country and am now safe and sound ın Diyarbakir, Turkey. I spent about 80 of the last 120 hours on a bus or train though, so I am takıng the day off from motorızed transportation.

Bulgarian Countryside from my train
The backtrackıng wasn't all that terrıble. I dıd get to cover some new ground by visiting Chısnau, Moldova whıch, even ın the raıny streets unprotected by storm draıns, was preferable to the Ukraıne. I got to chat wıth a Moldovan secret servıce agent guardıng the door at the UN offıces. The event inside featured the Moldovan president and the US ambassador. I contemplated makıng an offıcıal complaınt about the Ukraıne and encouragıng Moldova to just annex ıt and kıck out the Russians, but the secret servıce guy, affable as he was, didn't seem wıllıng to let me and my wet, stınky backpack ınto the building.

After about 8 hours ın Chısnau, I bıd farewell to Bryn agaın and got on the nıght traın to Bucharest. My Moldovan traın ımpressed me quıte a bıt, and I got a great show of transnatıonal mıstrust watchıng the Moldovan AND Romanian customs offıcıals lıterally take apart my cabın lookıng for counterfeıt goods. At one poınt, fıve burly guys wıth tool chests were stuffed ınsıde my 4 berth cabin (luckıly, I didn't have to share it with anyone) taking off the panels and seats lookıng for loot. It made me wonder why they don:t just skıp the pretensıons and leave all the panelıng off ın the fırst place. It'd save a lot of tıme for sure. It took us about 4 hours to cross the border.

I arrıved in Bucharest Tuesday morning with a 4 hour layover, so I didn't have much tıme to revisit Bucharest before my train left for Istanbul. But it was ın Bucharest that I was finally able to let my guard down. I remembered that Romanians weren't ass holes and actually did want to help me - a foreıgner ın their midst. This was a great relief as I felt like just about everyone ın Ukraine was lookiıng at me like I was a sucker. This sounds naive, but here's my example: ın the Ukraıne, ıf you asked someone on the street how to get somewhere, they would ıgnore you - unless they were a taxi drıver lookıng to charge you double price to go where you needed to go. In Bucharest, I found so many people on the street who were happy to point me ın the directıon of a money exchange offıce or wifi spot - even though they had nothing to gain from it.

The Engıne that pulled me back to Istanbul
I was further comforted on the train to Istanbul when the train steward invıted me ınto hıs cabin to have some chicken wings, soup and salad. I was shocked to see such friendliness untıl we talked and I found out he was from Turkey. It was then that I breathed a sıgh of relief because I knew that I was back ın the land of hospıtality.

And the Turks haven't let me down yet. I arrived ın Diyarbakir yesterday basically wıth no place to stay. My schedule had gotten so messed up from missing the ferry that my couchsurfers could no longer host me. But one of the hosts hooked me up with an army friend of hıs who I am now stayıng with for two nights. Amazing. Thıs guy talked to me for about 10 minutes over a tea before inviting me to hıs home. I was all ready to find a hotel, but thıs guy saved me. Man, I love Turkey.

My coach to Diyarbakir at a rest stop somewhere ın Anatolia
I actually haven't seen much of Dyarbakir yet as I've been workıng on logistics for the trip all morning. Diyarbakir ıs on the Tıgrıs rıver, which means that I'm basıcally ın Mesopotamia now. It feels very different from Istanbul, too. Many more of the women are ın headscarves and the landscape ıs much more like a desert compared to the more Medıterranean Istanbul clımate. Thıs ıs also the capıtal of the Kurdısh are, meanıng ıt's the bıggest Kurdısh cıty. So far I only know that Kurds are some of the nıcest people I've met ın Turkey, and that's sayıng a lot. But they are nice to me because I am a foreigner. They don't get along with the Turks as well.

There have been protests here over the Turkısh election results for the past few days and you can tell. I've seen a number of rıot control vehıcles drıvıng down the street and groups of polıce offıcers congregatıng at corners. Also, I hear F-16s flyıng overhead constantly. I think that's a normal part of lıfe here though. My army host says that they are just doıng trainıng from a nearby aırfıeld. 

I'm going to go explore the city more this afternoon and see the Tigrıs. Wıll post pictures later.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

You Crane?

Ahhh... The Ukraine. This country was not on my original trip itinerary, but Bryn discovered the "Crimean Dance Camp" was taking place during our trip to Turkey. We found a ferry across the Black Sea and things were set for 10 days of Swing dancing with Russians and Ukrainians. It was going to be our wild and wacky experience in the Former Soviet Union.

It started auspicious enough. Pretty much as soon as our boat left Zonguldak, Turkey, I came down with a terrible fever that I'm pretty sure broke my thermometer. I spent the first 6 hours of the ferry shivering under three blankets while a full moon shone orange over the Black Sea below us. The second 6 hours i spent in and out of the bathroom, either on the toilet or in the shower trying to cool down my fever that peaked at 102. The final 6 hours, my fever finally broke and I was able to go up on deck and see the Black Sea. Early in the morning, the sea is so flat and glassy. It was still as a lake and you could hardly feel the boat moving at all.

My first day at the Crimean Dance Camp was a wash. I spent just about all of the time in bed recovering from my fever. After three days of diarrhea, I broke open my emergency ration of antibiotics that had cost me $130 back in Austin. Within a day, I was feeling much better though, so thank god for Azithromyicin.

My body on the mend and my head clearing, I was able to take in the anachronism that was the Crimean Dance Camp. We had a total Soviet-lite experience. We were issued food tickets at the beginning of the week which we could exchange for wheat or pork based gruel during one hour windows throughout the day. We stood in line for this gruel, served in abysmally small portions. I'm sure that our daily servings didn't add up to 2000 calories. Maybe more like 1000 - and most of that came from oil. I could go on about the food, but I'll just conclude by saying that we gave up on the meal tickets and adventured on our own in town. We ended up doing much better for ourselves - budget be damned.

Our Savior in Nikolaevka - Meat on Stick

Our "hotel" was more like a dormitory. Four toilets and four showers for about 60 people. Hot water was rare and there was no ventalation in the showers so they were cesspools of stink and soviet germs. No toilet paper, no towels, sheets that wouldn't even fit over the hard bed (we ended up using our sleeping bags). The place did have lots of roses though. Apparently, we were supposed to stay in another part of the hotel that hadn't been completed in time, adding a huge construction site to our situation.

Our bed and room

As for the dances, all 150 of us were supposed to meet each evening in a little activity room that fit maybe 50 people. We ended up rationing the dancing - as one person passed out from the stifling body heat and bad air, another would step in and take their place while they recovered outside. We were supposed to have danced in an open-air cafe in town, but the organizers of the camp screwed that up and we were kicked out after the first night.

It wasn't necessarily the conditions that piss me off, it's the fact that we were paying $70 each per day to stay at this place. I don't mind third world conditions - that's the whole point of this trip - but I hate paying first world prices for third world conditions. Like all other dance camps, we paid for our spots ahead of time, before we knew what we were getting into. It reminded me that package deals should be avoided.

Don't let the cuteness deceive you, this place was way ugly on the inside.

It was interesting to be the only Americans in the whole town. Bryn and I got a good glimpse of Russian style vacationing. The beaches were packed with blubbery, hairy backed, reddened men and women from sunrise to sunset. All the restaurants were identical - same food, same design (think barn with benches in it) and same bad, karaoke music. The saving graces were the fresh peaches and cherries in the market and street venders selling roasted meat.

It was nice that I was with Bryn for these ten days, but other than that, I'm not proud of how I spent the last ten days of my trip. On top of all that - the boat that I was supposed to take back to Turkey (God, how I've come to miss that beautiful country) left earlier than I was told, so now I'm stranded in Ukraine. My choices are either to stay here another 4 days or go on with Bryn to Moldova and return to Turkey from Romania - backtracking the trip I took about a month ago. Sigh. I need to get moving east again. Asia beckons.

The next few days will probably mostly be spent on buses or trains. Next stop should be Diyarbakir or Van, Turkey. I can't wait.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Taking the Ferry from Zonguldak

Bryn and I are in Zonguldak, Turkey - up on the Black Sea coast of Turkey - about to get on a ferry for the Ukraine. We've been trying to organize a ferry to the Ukraine for some time (she's been looking into it for the past few months) because a) it'd be cool to take a ferry across the Black Sea; and b) there is a ten day swing dance camp happening in Mikolavka, Ukraine, from the 16 - 35 of June. Swing dancing has proven to be a very successful way to meet people and get to know an area, so we're both really looking forward to the Crimean Dance Camp 2011.

Our ride coming into the Port of Zonguldak, Turkey
According to the website, everyone else attending the camp is either Russian or Ukrainian. A few of the instructors are western European, but there's a good chance that we'll pick up some Ukrainian/Russian after all of this. As of now, I've only really got Nazdravya and Dobra Den. It should be fun.

And maybe the best part of it is that we're taking a boat there. And we're taking a real BOAT. None of this cruise liner stuff like I took from Iceland, this is an honest cargo ships with trucks and truck drivers and hardhat areas. The boat got into Zonguldak yesterday afternoon full of trucks from Yvpretoria, Ukraine (the boat only services the Zonguldak-Yvpretoria route) and we boarded it at around 7pm without having paid because the office was closed. It was a classic hand-signals and limited vocabulary conversation between us two Americans, an employee of the ferry company, the customs guy and the ship captain. I don't know exactly how it happened, but within about 10 minutes we had a cabin on the top deck with a nice view of the orange life boat.

Our home for three nights (note approach of full moon in top left corner)
We sail tonight at 1am, assuming that we have enough cargo on board to justify departure. We might have to wait until tomorrow morning to leave. No tellng. But the trip will take about 36 hours so we should be in Yvpretoria Friday afternoon - Mikolavka within an hour later.

The deck of our ferry at sunset. Trucks hadn't started loading at this point.
It's not exactly a passenger ferry, which makes the trip even more cool. There's a good chance that Bryn will be the only female on the boat surrounded by a bunch of Turkish and Ukrainian truck drivers, which is a little intimidating, but everyone we've met so far has been friendly and non-leary. We met the cook this morning, who served us breakfast, and he was very friendly, despite our inability to communicate with each other. It's been really helpful to be able to stay on the boat in harbor as it saves us money on hotels AND they feed us three meals a day. So far, so good. Will report on the more specific details once we get to the Ukraine.

Like a Good Wine...

I've taken the opportunity to read a lot of books during my trip so far and will no doubt read many more before I'm through. At the risk of sounding snobby, I think picking books to read during trips is like picking out wine to pair with a good meal. I'm not a wine expert, so this analogy doesn't resonate too much inside of me, but it makes sense from what I've heard about good wine.

I want to make a list of the books I've read so far and quickly note what they're about and what I thought about them before they become indistinguishable from each other. Since leaving the US, I've made a point of finding English language book stores in major cities along the way and have stocked up there. I haven't had to suffer any breaks between books so far and, at the moment, I'm carrying five with me, so I should be alright for a while. I try to always read a book fitting to the area I'm in but, that doesn't always work out perfectly. I've donated all the books as I go, unable, of course, to bring them all back home with me.

Hisotry of Warfare (John Keegan):
I actually started this book before I left Austin, but I felt like it was a good introduction to the world through a realists eyes. I learned about the spread of military technology and how Central Asia is where our modern idea of "invading armies" began. It inspired me to read about Genghis Khan or Tamerlane later on.

History of the Natchez Trace:
Explains how the Natchez Trace formed a land bridge between the lower Mississippi River and the Cumberland River between Natchez, Mississippi and Nashville, Tennessee before the steam boat came along and made even upriver travel cheaper than land. This was highly appropriate for my bike ride along the Natchez Trace, but it was poorly written and often devolved into laundry lists of demographic and economic facts and figures.

The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen):
A great novel about contemporary American life. It's about a family of five from the midwest whose children have moved off to the corrupted east coast. Great novel for "getting a feel" for the US; my first country on the trip.

Absalom, Absalom (William Faulkner):
I found this at a used bookstore in Natchez that was suffering because of Kindle sales (I maybe should have bought one for the trip) for about a buck. Read it in Mississippi in honor of Faulkner and was almost finished with it before losing in New York City. It was a challenging read that kept repeating itself. I felt like the plot progressed two steps forward, one step back the whole way, with plenty of foreshadowing so that you knew the whole way that the outcome would be disastrous. I'd like to give Faulkner another try.

The Long Ships (Frans Bengtsson):
The novelized Saga of Orm, the youngest of a family of Vikings from Scania (modern day southern Sweden) who adventures around Europe looking for wealth and fame. I read this in Iceland in order to get a feel for the Nordic Viking life. I should have read the Icelandic sagas instead, but there were too many "begots" through the whole thing. I still liked The Long Ships though, and inspired me to take a trip from the southern most tip of Scandinavia to Nordkapp - only hitchhiking and camping and thereby barely spending any money at all.

Emma (Jane Austen):
This may seem like a strange novel to bring along with you on a ferry from Iceland to Denmark. Again, one of the viking sagas would have been better - maybe some Faroese literature? This was the first book I purchased abroad and I got it in Akureyri, Iceland. The bookstore there had a very limited English language selection and, foreseeing an uneventful ferry trip, I bought the thickest book I could find there. This happened to be Emma. I like Jane Austen, but after reading "The Corrections" and "The Long Ships", both rooted in the gory and often unsavory realism style, "Emma" seemed too uptight and proper. It only showed life in the parlor and didn't get into the juicy details of everyday 18 Century life. I supposed "uptight" and "proper" was good for me coming into Denmark and Germany, though. And, my ferry ride was the closest I got to England.

Balkan Ghosts (Robert Kaplan):
This book had been recommended to me on numerous occasions by several different people. In a flash of forethought, I ordered the book online and had it sent to Germany so that I wouldn't have to carry it there. No way was I going to find it in English there. It's a travel log of an American journalist going through the Balkans in 1990-1991 - right after the fall of the Soviet Union and just before Yugoslavia's messy break up. It was a good crash course in Balkan history - an area where I was sorely ignorant. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make it to a lot of the places he went, but it was good to at least have a frame of reference for the region. Several of my hosts in Bosnia, Montenegro and Serbia commented on how it was useless since it was written by an American. They're probably a little right.  Nevertheless, it made me want to read Rebecca West's book about her trip through the Balkans in early 20th century, "Black Lamb Grey Falcon".

The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde):

Bridge on the Drina (Ivo Andric):
This was the first, truly "foreign" book I bought and read. Lots of people in Belgrade had recommended it and I found it easily in several Belgrade bookstores. Andric won the Nobel prize for literature and so is nearly a Serbian national hero. The book covers nearly 500 years of the history of Visegrad - a little town in current day eastern Bosnia. I had already passed through this area once I got the book, so I didn't get to visit it, but the book is an amazing portrayal of the history of the Balkans through the eyes of a famous bridge. From Ottoman occupation to Serbian uprisings to Austro-Hungarian occupation and their departure during World War I, it covers it all.

Bridge of San Louis Rey (Thornton Wilder):
Bryn brought this book for me from Australia when we met up in Istanbul. It's about life in 18th century Peru, so completely removed from Istanbul, but still a good, short novel about a group of people who die in a bridge collapse. I liked to continuation of the bridge theme after reading "Bridge on the Drina" but I mostly liked the book for it's sketch of the characters' personalities, motivations and inner struggles. It's framed by a friar's attempt to explain why these specific people died by the bridge collapse. Bryn thought that the futility of this effort was the central theme but I disagreed. The frame was ultimately an excuse to write about fictional, obscure individuals in 18th century Peru. 

Portrait of a Turkish Family (Irfan Orga):
This was another local recommendation that I bought in Istanbul for way too much - about $30. But that's just how things are in Istanbul. Way too expensive.  The book was a huge success when it came out in 1950, but has since fallen out of print and, according to the bookstore owner, there is only one version out now, which explains the high price. It's good portrayal of Istanbul during the fall of the Ottoman Empire and beginning of the republic; a riches to rags autobiography that kind of reminds me of Dickens, except that the author inserts too much of his own self-pity and conceitedness. At times, it pissed me off. When he whined about how his family had to get rid of one servant and were down to only two during hard times, I lost a lot of respect for the guy. Also, reading the afterword by his son made me respect Orga less. It sounds like he failed to learn from his hardships in WWI Istanbul and kept making lots of financial mistakes throughout his life. Still, you have to respect the insight he provides on Istanbul during an important time during its history.

Snow (Orhan Pamuk):
I was strongly encouraged to read Orhan Pamuk by several Turks. He's a contemporary, Nobel Literature Prize winning author who writes all about the experience of living in Turkey. He was exactly what I was looking for in Turkey. One of my hosts recommended that I read "Snow" as it is about eastern Turkey whereas most of Pamuk's books are about Istanbul. As I had already covered Istanbul in Orga's book (see above), I went for it. Snow is a story about a fictional week in the eastern city of Kars where an actor joins forces with the local military to take over the city. A journalist is caught in the middle of it and is manipulated by all different sides (Islamists, Kurds, Leftists, the military, etc.) to push their own agendas during the crisis. I thought it was a great introduction to all the different forces spinning around in Turkey, but it wasn't a great introduction to Kars, which I visited towards the end of the book. Pamuk's main character (the journalist) is also a bit of a wet-blanket. He reminded me of Goethe's "Junge Werther" who nearly made my head explode with his indecisiveness and hand-wringing and self inflicted pain. Pamuk could have cut about 100 pages from his book if he his lead character only thought things over three times instead of five. I guess that's what gives the book its texture, though.

To Catch of Tartar (Chris Bird):
Bryn brought this book for me from Australia as I'd be heading to the Caucasus after Turkey. To Catch a Tartar is advertised as a travel journal through the Caucasus, but it's actually a British journalist's account of the first Chechen war in the mid 1990s, which was fine by me. But Bird is a terrible writer. At one point, he strung together four totally unrelated metaphors in four consecutive sentences. His style really reminded me of Robert Kaplan but at least Bird didn't over inflate his own importance in the matter and paid more attention to the people around him than how awesome he was for hanging around in Chechnya while the Russians were shelling him. He jumps back and forth between the current and numerous former Russian incursions into Chechnya which, when mixed up with all the various names throughout history, was very confusing. But overall, he gets across the idea that the Russians have been trying to nail down the Caucasus for centuries and have never quite got it down pat. Great on the ground account of all that went down, too.

The Travels of Marco Polo
This is one of the few books that I didn't finish on this trip. It's basically just a collection of his notes that may or may not be fabricated. Marco spent most of his time in the service of Kublai Khan, the grandson (or son?) of Genghis Khan who ended up ruling the Chinese district of the Mongol Empire. There are some interesting stories in there from old, obscure leaders in places that were long ago erased by war, famine or the desert. I feel like you have to be more of a Central Asian history scholar to be able to put any of this stuff into perspective, though.

Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World (Justin Marozzi)
I had a clear objective from the beginning of my trip to read a book about Atilla the Hun, Genghis Khan or Tamerlane while spending many, many hours on Kazakh trains. I was able to carry out this objective flawlessly thanks to finding this book in a bookstore in Ankara back in June. Marozzi does a good job of displaying Tamerlane as one of those pragmatic, Machiavellian leaders who would massacre whole cities and pile their skulls into pyramids as a way to achieve empire. It was a reminder that often the most successful war is total war. Tamerlane is probably one of the least politically correct figures of history (probably the absolute least before Hitler came around). But Marozzi also writes about how modern day Uzbekistan (the heart of Tamerlane's 15th century empire) is rehabilitating Tamerlane's image in order to manufacture some kind of national history and pride. While I wasn't able to make it to Uzbekistan, I saw Kazakhstan undertaking very similar efforts with even more obscure historical figures.

The Great Game: The struggle for empire in Central Asia (Peter Hopkirk)
This was a continuation on the Central Asian empire theme, only brought forward about 400 years. This time, the empires are Britain and Russia, competing sometimes passively, sometimes aggressively, over the fractured kingdoms, emirates and principalities of present day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Western China. It has such resounding relevance to what is happening today and, generally, what is always happening in Central Asia. It also reinforced the theme from Tamerlane that to rule in Central Asia, you have to be a ruthless, cut-throat, sneaky bastard. It also reinforced my desire to go to Uzbekistan. Hopkirk has three other books on the subject that I hope to read once I get back home.

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack And The Japanese Psyche (Haruki Murakami)
Ok, so I didn't go to Japan and I never really planned to go to Japan on this trip. I actually read this book while traveling through Korea. I found this book in Almaty, Kazakhstan, which was a really weird place to find it, but couldn't resist. I've known about the 1995 sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway, but never really studied it in much detail. This book, on the surface, will tell you everything you'd like to know about how the attack was carried out and what witnesses experienced, but it's also a great novel. The format is a little strange: the author has basically woven together testimonies from over a dozen people who were directly affected by the attacks to give the event the most personal texture possible. Then, at the end, he interviews another 6 or so members of the cult (Aum Shinrikyo) who carried it out. It's the kind of excruciatingly in-depth, detailed exploration of the attack that I'd love to be able to read about every major attack ever carried out.

No plans for the next book yet. I'm off to India and should have no problem finding a good Indian novel in English though. As always, suggestions are welcome.