Friday, November 20, 2009

Picture of the week

Kebabs from our goodbye party:

From Goodbye Party

Yep, I said goodbye party.  Joey and I are leaving Kabul tomorrow evening.  We don't know if it's forever, but it's at least for a year.  I've been working on a post about the why, where, and what's next for awhile.  Some posts are just no fun to write.  But we're excited to spend Thanksgiving in Washington with my family.  It's just very hard to say goodbye to this city we love so much.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Travelogue: Flexibility and Tbilisi Georgia

I can't believe this trip was 6 months ago and I'm still writing about it.  Just two more stops and the travelogue will be complete and ready for new adventures.

The best travel advice I can give is BE FLEXIBLE.  You don't know when your minibus is going to break down.  Maybe that super reliable airline you booked on goes under the morning of your trip.  Or maybe you fall in love with some little village in Argentina and decide to stay for an extra week.  There are tons and tons of things that can either go wrong or right that necessitate sudden change in itinerary.  Our time in Georgia was a lesson in flexibility.

We had planned our departure from Sheki around the published bus schedule.  Of course the bus decided not to go to Tbilisi that day.  So we adjusted.  We took a taxi to the main bus station with hopes of taking another bus to a town closer to the Azeri/Georgian border.  But the minibus to Qax only had two people in it and according to the bus schedule, we had to be there by 10:30AM.  Our next best option was a taxi.  We've had bad taxi experiences in the past.  So we worked out a deal with the driver to take us to the otovagzal in Qax before we got in the car.  We even had him write it down so we'd have something more solid when we arrived and paid him (again, no English).  Great plan, we were covered.  You can imagine our fury when he pulled over 15 clicks outside of Qax and demanded more money to take us all the way into town.  I pulled out the sheet of paper we had written the total amount on.  He said that was to the city limit not the actual city.  Sometimes a raised voice is a good thing. . . we ended up in town and paid him about $2 more than the amount on the sheet opposed to the $15 more he was demanding.  But the bus to Tbilisi was cancelled here too.  I'm pretty sure we were there on bus strike day.  Next best option, another taxi.  Lesson learned from the first experience, we meticulously agreed to a price and destination.  This guy did us one better and took us all the way to the border without demanding an extra cent and restored our hope in humanity.

The Azerbaijan/Georgia border was a breeze.  I'm pretty sure they looked at our passports, but I can't quite remember.  It was nice to not need a visa.  And with that we traded the Inshallah of Azerbaijan for the Icons of Georgia.  We repeated the taxi negotiation process.  For fear of sounded repetitious I'll just go ahead and say my next piece of travel advice "Taxis are a rip off all over the world."  Sure they may be cheaper in most of the world than in the US, but there is always a more economical option.  And I'll add to that a personal comment, I love metered taxis.  Yes they're expensive, but at least you know what's coming.  The one good thing about taxis is they're fast.  We arrived in Tbilisi in about half the time it would have taken by bus.

If I had to pick a single word to describe Tbilisi, it would be lovely.  Everything about the city is quite wonderful.  It's easy to walk, there's lots to see, it feels safe, it has great cafes, it has all these little bakeries selling fresh bread, and it has a really fascinating wine culture (Georgia was the birthplace of wine).  We had planned to stay in Tbilisi for two nights before heading down to Yerevan Armenia.  Back to the flexibility theme, we were unexpectedly grounded due to some unforeseen circumstances and we loved having an extra 5 days to explore the city.  It was one of those times when flexibility paid off.  We'll catch Yerevan next time around.  For now, we bask in the loveliness of Tbilisi.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Picture of the week

Joey and I went to a wedding a few weeks ago.  Here's the wedding hall:

From I Heart Fall

And here we are all dolled up:

From I Heart Fall

Monday, November 9, 2009

Name That Show: Season 2

Thanks to everyone who guessed on Name That Show: Season 1.  Unfortunately, you were all wrong.  We recently bought Season 3 of the same show.  While there is no preserving of one's own rice bowl, the description is still good for a laugh.

Relive the second season of the Primetime Emmy Awardwinning comedy 30 Rock, the show that the guy who writes stuff on DVD boxes calls "my current assignment."

According the box, 30 Rock stars Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Tony Danza, Matt Dillon, Eddie J. Fernadez, and a whole host of bollywood stars.  You can find more information on this boxed set of 30 Rock at and it's a registered trademark of Barbie, Fairytopia.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Travelogue: Hospitality Hostages, Part 2

Find Part 1 HERE

Part 2: So, here we stand, The Hawk and I, thumbs in the air, large backpacks at our side, and a group of Azeri men and women staring at us from across the road.  Another mashtruka with a sign for Sheki pulls up.  It's packed full, but three or four men manage to pile into it.  It takes two men shoving the door from the outside to close it.  I breathe a little sigh of relief.  I have little no experience with hitchhiking, but I assumed it would take awhile.  At 12:04, the second car that passed us screeched to a halt.  The Hawk ran up with his list of town names.  After a brief back and forth we found out they were heading to Ishmalia, a town two towns before Sheki.  Equipped with our one word of Azeri "Otovagzal" (bus station), we decided to go for it.  We also convinced the lady who had been sitting next to us in the van to get in the car with us . . . I still wonder if she regrets that moment.

We threw our bags in the trunk and got into the backseat of the car (a really nice Acura Sedan, we were fully prepared for a beater).  In the front sat two men that didn't speak a WORD of English, they didn't even know the word "Hello."  But as Joey and I have traveled the world, we've realized that communication is not limited by common language.  The driver (Rahim) was from Afghanistan, but he hasn't been back in years.  He didn't speak any Dari and the word of the day became “Khube” or “Good.”  His passenger (Khalid) was Iranian, but he only spoke Azeri.  And Khatera, our friend in the back, lived in Sheki and was in Baku on business (we later figured out that she was trying to get her passport so she could visit her children who live in Moscow).  The two guys seemed to be having a great time speeding along the highway, smoking pack after pack of cigarettes, and listening to loud Turkish and Iranian music that they sung with incredible passion.  They pulled out a CD that said "English" on it.  There were two songs on the CD, "This Is Why I'm Hot" by Mims and "Go Girl" by Pitbull.  After the rest of the trip on repeat, we know these songs very, very well.  Side note: We've been continually surprised at how popular Pitbull and Lil Jon are all over the world.  Maybe it's because all Lil Jon says in his songs is "Yeah" and "Ok." Also, Joey would argue that we're not surprised, of course they are popular around the world, because they're awesome.
After about one hour of driving we pulled over at a small chaikhana (tea house).  Khalid and Rahim motioned us over to a cage at the side of the road that had a live bear in it.  We later watched some kids through a liter of Mirinda in the cage that the bear drank.  After our tea stop, we pulled over again a natural spring.  This is when we realized that we weren't just being driven from Point A to Point B; we were hospitality hostages.

When we arrived in Ishmalyia, we met up with a large Azeri guy driving a Lexus SUV.  We ate a three-hour lunch at an incredible garden restaurant.  The Azeri, Tafiq, asked Joey a question that needs no translation, "Vodka?"  In the back of my head, I vaguely remember my 20th Century Russia professor saying some sort of warning about drinking Vodka with Russians.  I think I can safely say that the warning applies to all Russians and former Soviet countries.  Khalid and Rahim weren't drinking because they're Muslim, I don’t do Vodka (bad memories), Khatera seemed pretty against it too.  So, The Hawk and Tafiq proceeded to toss back shot after shot of toasts as Tafiq motioned out different toasts and we guessed their meaning, "Women?"  "WOMEN!!!" "Azerbaijan?" "AZERBAIJAN!!!" "Family?" "FAMILY!!!" . . . you get the point.  Luckily Khalid stepped in before they ran out of things to toast and used the last half of the bottle to wash his hands.  We also figured out sometime that this was a real estate deal.  This was confirmed when our next stop was viewing the land in question.
And then they dropped us off at the bus station and we proceeding on to Sheki, right?  Nope.  Our next stop was Tafiq's house where we met his wife and kids, drank more tea, and looked at some amazing pictures full of non-smiling wedding parties and Russian officials.  We listened to Tafiq's daughter count to 10 in English and watched his son do karate.
As we sped a long the road from Tafiq’s, we realized that we were not heading back to Ishmalyia.  At this point we were resigned to our fate as hostages, maybe a little bit of Stockholm Syndrome had set in.  We smiled and nodded as they continued to make stops.  We just sat back and sang along to the two songs playing over and over and over.  And two hours later we rolled into Sheki.  Khatera motioned for them to pull over, gave us hugs and kisses, and was gone (and relieved).  When we tell this story, people always ask about her about midway through and are shocked to find out that she stayed along the entire way.     

But our story doesn't end here.  After Khatera was dropped off, Khalid and Rahim drove us around to the sites of Sheki, all of which were closed as it was now 8:00 PM.  They banged on the door at an old palace and convinced the guard to let us have a quick look.  When they finally took us to our hotel, we had our first conversation with an English translator.  They wanted to view our room to make sure it was suitable.  They refused any form of payment.  They wouldn't let us buy them dinner.  They said that they were going to head back to Baku.  And they said that they might come back to visit in 3 or 4 hours (or 1:00 AM).  We said our goodbyes and that was it.  After they left, all we could do was stare at each other with mouths agape asking each other over and over, "Did that really just happen?"  
And this is what travel is all about.  Unplanned detours, head aching borders, perfect cafes in towns most people have never heard of (I had the BEST cappuccino of my life in Sheki), and friendly hostage situations.  Sure, we didn’t get to explore Sheki.  Sure, the trip took twice as long as it should have.  But the experience of spending time in the company of real Azeri’s, not tour guides, not taxi drivers, but real Azeri’s who were proud and honored to show us the places and people they love definitely goes down in my top life experiences.  I think next time we take a mini bus, we’ll do a once over to make sure there’s a chance it might kick the bucket 30 miles outside of town.   

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Picture of the Week

There's something unusual about this picture.  Can you spot it?  

Part 2 of Hospitality Hostages coming your way tomorrow!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Festival of Hope Plug

For those of you in the Northwest, I want to encourage you to go to the Festival of Hope at Chapel Hill in Gig Harbor.  It's a great place to get your fair trade Christmas shopping done.  And this year they will be featuring Afghan products from Zardozi, my favorite shop here in Kabul.  Go shop your hearts out November 6, 10AM-8PM and November 7&8, 10 AM-3PM.