Yet Another Charming Great Lakes Metro [Toronto, Canada]

Travel, Work

When I worked in the United States, I didn’t travel too much for work; maybe the occasional trip to Silicon Valley or New York for annual events, but my job didn’t require me to go too far because I had local clients. Most of the internal teams I worked with sat locally in Chicago or New York, and so for our annual group gathering in 2018, we met halfway in Toronto, Canada! I had only been to Canada once previously to Montreal in late summer 2016. I had heard a lot about Toronto – the likes of, “It’s like Canada’s New York but feels more like Chicago.” Many compared Toronto to Chicago due to its similar size, cold winter climate, skyline appeal, presence near a Great Lake, and for business and diversity. Personally, I had played volleyball against many teams from Toronto, as we both frequented the Midwestern and Great Lakes tournaments. Many of those teams I created a bond with, and they lived up to their “Canadians are the nicest people” stereotype.

October 1, 2018

The short trip from Chicago to Toronto was easy as could be, possibly easier than going through any of the New York area airports, despite having to go through immigration. After arriving, I headed quickly to the hotel and met my colleague and friend Victoria for some breakfast at Cafe Landwer a few blocks away. The old diner style restaurant catered to our dietary needs and was a great start to the day.

Cafe Landwer

Not far from our hotel was the Google Toronto office, where we would spend the majority of our time as a group during these few days in Canada. The office was small compared to many of the offices in the U.S., but it had a warm local feel to it. The classic staples of Canada adorned the office decor – maple leaves, cabin accessories, flannel, timber, etc. It was wonderful to be in a different setting to meet many of my New York colleagues in person for the first time and also spend more quality time with my fellow Chicagoans outside of our normal habitat.

One of our activities in the afternoon was to visit Sidewalk Labs at East Bayfront, one of Google’s venture projects that looked at the future of urban innovation. At the time, the venture partnered with the City of Toronto on an urban development project at Quayside, a riverfront area in Toronto. The plan prioritized the use of technology to create a smart city to improve the quality of life, infrastructure sustainability and to solve for common urban problems. As a group, we were able to tour some of the ideas and proposals for the project, ranging from the use of timber for skyscraper construction, improved mobility paths for cars, bikes and pedestrians, housing affordability and heavily-reduced carbon emission plans. There was an area that visitors could submit ideas for the smart city. One that I vividly remember was “a water fountain that auto-adjusts to the height of the person,” which would help people of all heights but also people who may be in a wheelchair. I really enjoyed the session at Sidewalk Labs to see how these types of ventures are looking at the future of living, and it was empowering to dream of the possibilities. [Update – in May 2020, the project was cancelled, citing economic and financial reasons.]

Teammate Victoria & I reviewing Sidewalk Labs idea submissions

After the visit to Sidewalk Labs, I walked around the city with a few others to see some of the important landmarks. It happened to be a cloudy day, so it was hard to find a clear view of the massive CN Tower, a communications and observation tower in downtown Toronto. The tower held the world record as the tallest free-standing structure for 32 years until 2007, when Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyrocketed taller. At the time, it was also the largest free-standing structure in the Western Hemisphere – no wonder the clouds were blocking a bit of my view!

Right next door was the Rogers Centre, home to Canada’s only Major League Baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays. The retractable roof makes it convenient to host events during the coldest and wettest of weather.

Rogers Centre

That evening, we had a group reservation at Drake One Fifty, a stylish, trendy restaurant in the Financial District. The menu had a range of fish, beef, lamb, pizza, shareable plates and of course, delicious cocktails. After dinner, a lot of the longest-tenured crew kept the night going at Cactus Club Cafe for couple more hours before calling it a night.

Drake One Fifty

October 2, 2018

Our second day in Toronto we spent mostly at work in meetings and planning for the year 2019. I met up with a few Canadian colleagues at lunch, and then headed back to meetings. That evening, the leaders of our offsite planned a fun event at St. Lawrence Market, a major public market first established in the early 19th Century. Our activity was a cooking class, and with such a large group, we had several stations with different activities – sushi-making, pasta making, and more. Most of us really enjoyed the “wine station” – a free flow of vino that we carried from activity to activity!

Later that night, I met up with one of my Canadian volleyball rivals and friends, Tyler, another 6’5″+ middle blocker who often attended regional tournaments. He and his teammates were actually meeting after a weeknight volleyball match, so it was perfect timing to meet out for a drink at the gay district on Church Street. We shared many memories of playing against each other, and they courted me to move to Toronto and join their side of the net, so to speak. Of course it sounded like fun, but I would soon return to my squad in Chicago to prepare for another competition.

Volleyball friends

October 3, 2018

Our final day on the quick trip north of the border, I had a big presentation in front of the whole group. After 3.5 years working with the same client, I had many learnings to pass on to my fellow colleagues who worked in a similar capacity. Slide presentations tend to be the default, but I always looked to make it personal and fun. I spent a decent amount of time on the visuals of the presentation – fewer words, strong use of white space and unique visuals. The presentation was a success, and it was a nice finish to my time in Canada.

Soon enough, I was headed to the Billy Bishop airport on Centre Island, which has a perfect view of Toronto’s skyline. Even though Toronto reminded me a lot of Chicago, it was nice to have a change in scenery. Less than two weeks later, I was headed on vacation to Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, so I had squeezed in a lot of international time during October 2018. I’m sure I’ll be back to Toronto at some point, and I hope to spend some time at nearby Niagara Falls and the surrounding areas of wilderness.

-Michael

The Port of International Gathering [Montréal, Canada]

Travel

In the summer of 2016, I was working hard on the Rio Olympics campaign at work, prepping for how my client would be supporting American athletes at the Olympic Games in Brazil that summer. Anyone who has worked to support any live event knows the amount of pressure, time and effort that goes into making it successful. The days leading up to the event, I spent many hours ensuring a smooth launch for my client and then launched the campaign on August 4, the day of the opening ceremony. I knew I needed a short break and wanted to escape Chicago for a bit, so I thought of where to travel. Surprisingly, I had never been to Canada, despite only the Great Lakes separating the Midwest and our neighbors to the north. What better city to visit than the former Olympic host Montréal? This also was my first international solo trip since interning in London in 2011.

August 5, 2016 – First Steps in Canada

From Chicago through Toronto and on to Montreal I went. This was the first time I stayed in an Airbnb that was shared with hosts. The hosts were a lovely French couple who offered up a room in their place on Rue Saint-Timothée, north of Downtown Montréal. It was relatively late when I arrived, so I grabbed a quick fast food meal, came back to the Airbnb and slept well my first night.

August 6, 2016 – Montréal’s Nature

August in Montréal felt a bit like autumn back home, which meant the temperatures were quite perfect for exploring a new city. Montréal is in the province of Québec and is the second-largest city in Canada. Many people connect Montréal with “French Canada,” which was immediately evident in my tour across the city. The majority speak French as their first language, however, many generally know English, too. I didn’t know French at all, so I was handicapped to at least try. I looked to find a breakfast spot that Saturday, and a place called “Café Ma Fée” caught my eye because I thought it was my name! I had some coffee with a light breakfast.

Café Ma Fée

That morning I walked by the Place des Artes, where a Canadian First Nations (indigenous peoples) exhibit was set up outdoors. This part of Canada has a rich indigenous history, and you can find the influence in local artwork, culture and markers around the city. Near the plaza was Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes Chapel and St. James United Church, two striking exteriors.

I then headed toward one of the most popular attractions in Montréal, Mount Royal, for which the city is named. On my walk there, I saw really cool street art and some colorful neighborhoods. Next to Mount Royal was Jeanne Mance Park, named after the co-founder of Montreal, a nurse who set up Montréal’s first hospital.

The walk up to Mount Royal‘s peak wasn’t too bad, but it was a bit confusing for me to find the most direct route, so I probably ended up doubling my steps. At first, I made it to the Mount Royal cross, a steel crucifix at the top of the hill. I kept walking some more and then found the overlook where all the tourists were gathered.

After some rest at the top of Mount Royal, I walked back down and north to La Fontaine Park, a large park with two ponds and a fountain. Many families and locals were out in the park, relaxing and enjoying the weather and shade underneath the plentiful maple trees. For a while, I joined them and enjoyed the fresh air and people about the park.

Over to Rue Sainte-Catherine I walked, in the heart of Gay Village. The street is famous for its Instagram-worthy bubble garlands that string over the street. This part of the street is often closed off to vehicle traffic during the summer months to make it more friendly for nightlife. I grabbed some quick food and went back to the Airbnb before thinking about going out to a nightclub. I had never really gone to a club alone, or at least gone to a club without meeting people there. This time, I knew no one in a city where everyone is speaking a different language. I mustered up the courage and went out a club; I stood in the queue alone, a bit nervous to go in by myself, but I thought, “Who cares? I don’t know them and they don’t know me.” I went in, grabbed a drink and explored the multi-story club before taking some time to dance among the crowd to the latest in pop music.

Rue Sainte-Catherine

August 7, 2016 – Let the (Tourist) Games Begin

East of my Airbnb was the St. Lawrence River, a river that stretches all the way from Lake Ontario through Montréal, Quebec City, New Brunswick and into the Atlantic Ocean. I walked toward the Old Port of Montreal, a historical trading area for French fur traders and cargo. It was a cloudy day, but the sky made the hues of blues along the port even more beautiful (blue-tiful?). Speaking of blue and beautiful, Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, built in the late 1700’s, sits right along the port.

Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours

Next to the chapel was the Bonsecours Market, a two-story public market that led me to Rue Saint-Paul. The cobblestone street felt romantic, European, a walk back in time and a delight for tourists. Many shops and restaurants lined the street with Canadian and Montréal flags flapping in the wind above. A short walk south was the iconic Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal, one of the most-visited sites in North America. The Gothic-style basilica apparently looked much different at night with blue lighting, so I would later revisit in the evening.

Right next to Notre-Dame is the Place d’Armes, one of the oldest sites in Montréal, and it was bustling with life and tourists. In the middle of the square was Maisonneuve Monument, commemorating the founder of the city.

I walked past City Hall and looked for a light, healthy lunch and ate at Café des Artes before heading out on one of the longest walks.

I generally prefer walking to get places. It allows you to become familiar with new areas and enjoy the sounds, sights and smells of a city. Little did I realize that my next destination was an hour and a half walk away, but what better way to get to see the city?

North I headed through the Hochelaga neighborhood to Montréal Olympic Park, the site of the 1976 Summer Olympics, the first in Canada’s history. It was the perfect time to visit the site, especially with the 2016 Summer Olympic Games going on simultaneously in Rio de Janeiro. There were a few signs and celebratory banners around the city marking 40 years since the Montréal Olympics. The 1976 Olympics was still a prominent topic of debate with locals. Of course, for most, the Olympics were exciting to host, but Montréal became infamous for the having the most expensive cost overrun of any Olympics in history at 720% (for reference, the average overrun is 175%). The Olympics were blamed as the reason for the financial disaster it put the city in for the next few decades and for the lack of architectural planning with the Olympic stadium.

The Olympic Stadium, nicknamed the “Big O” for its shape but also the “Big Owe” for its cost, has the largest seating capacity of any stadium in Canada. At the time of its planning, leadership wanted a covered stadium due to the winter weather that strikes the city for several months in the year, and a dome would allow a baseball franchise to be awarded to the city. However, due to construction disputes and slow work, the stadium was actually not complete at the opening of the Games in 1976. The tall, striking tower and roof were not completed until 11 years later in 1987! After the Olympics, the stadium became host to the Montreal Alouettes, a Canadian gridiron football team, and then later became the home of Major League Baseball’s Montréal Expos before their relocation in the early 2000’s.

Around the stadium there were tennis courts and areas for recreation. Looking closer at the stadium, it appeared still under renovation (to no surprise). Saputo Stadium was just a walk away and is home to the Montréal Impact of Major League Soccer; the Biodome was also within walking distance and hosts an indoor nature museum experience.

On the other side of Sherbrooke Street were the Montréal Botanical Gardens, a vast public space of flowers, plants, greenery, insects and fountains. I sat on a bench in the park for a while to read my book and enjoyed the weather, fresh air and view that surrounded me. After some time and as sunset came closer, I walked back toward the city. There were a couple times when I got lost or ran into a dead end, but I managed to find my way back to La Fontaine Park, where I stopped to continue reading another chapter. This was probably my favorite day in Montréal, a mix of history, sports and greenspace.

August 8, 2016 – Back to Work, in Canada

Monday rolled around, and it was time to go to work… yes, this time in Montréal! Google’s office in Montréal was quite small at the time in both numbers and size. It was an easy walk along Rue Saint-Catherine to the office, which was right in the heart of downtown. Upon arriving to the building, I got to reception, and then all of a sudden, the alarms started going off. I was confused what was going on, and everyone was speaking in French, so I just followed them out of the building to a nearby plaza. I asked someone, and they said there must have been something in the building that set off the alarm. What a first entrance to work here!

I was able to find a small area next to people who perform a similar job function. I continued to work supporting my client on their Olympics campaign, ensuring that projects launched on time. The office itself had a rock climbing wall straddling two floors and an interesting water choice in the micro-kitchen – maple water. Can’t get more Canadian than that! That evening, I went to none other than La Fontaine Park – my home away from home.

August 9, 2016 – Persistent Park Picnics

The next night, I thought, why don’t I grab some cheese, wine and crackers and add that to my time in the park. I brought a blanket to enjoy some (more) solo time on the grass beneath the maple trees. The maple tree of course is iconic to Canada (so much that it’s even on the flag), but to me the tree has a connection to my hometown in Hiawatha, Kansas. My hometown is known as the “City of Beautiful Maples,” as the trees cover the city due to decades of planting and care for the maples that provide shade and beauty, especially during autumn.

August 10, 2016 – Along the Piers

Another day at work, and afterward I explored the downtown area a bit more, walking around past Saint Patrick’s Basilica and then over to the Old Port again. This time, I went out on the pier to Clock Tower, which had a nice view of Jacques Cartier Bridge, a bridge that connects the city of Montréal to St. Helen’s Island. Near Clock Tower was Plage de l’Horloge, a man-made beach – I can only imagine how limited time folks have to enjoy this “beach.”

I continued walking down south along the river. At one point, I could see the unique Habitat 67 housing across the way on St. Helen’s island. Habitat 67 is an housing complex with one-of-a-kind configurations of stacked housing, walkways and terraces.

As darkness settled in, I walked back to Rue Saint-Paul to enjoy nightlife around the Place d’Armes, where I bought a useful souvenir for myself – maple syrup sugar. It came in a spice shaker; something I would later use in my morning coffees.

August 11, 2016 – Closing Chapter

My final full day in Montréal. I of course went to work and spent time walking the colorful Rue Sainte-Catherine before heading back to the maple-covered La Fontaine Park to finish my book and end on a lovely note at my favorite place. That evening, I went out for dinner at an Asian-fusion restaurant. By this time, I was comfortable being alone, doing things by myself and being comfortable with the thoughts in my head.

August 12, 2016 – Au Revoir, Montréal!

It was finally time to leave Montréal after a week north of the border. My first time in Canada was incredible, serene and a nice reset for me at the time, especially after so much effort put toward work. Montréal was such a unique city for me, a European-like feel just a couple hours away by plane. The thought of being alone for a week and not knowing the local tongue at first made me nervous, but I was glad I pushed myself to do this. As I look back, this trip probably sparked my confidence in doing things by myself without depending on others. Lastly, the Olympic legacy continued in Montréal, in Rio, in my work and forever in my memories of this late summer trip.

Michael

The Lifeblood of Mexican Civilization Since the Beginning [Mexico City, Mexico]

Travel

Mexico is often a closer flight for those living in certain parts of the United States than to go to other parts of the country. I had a volleyball tournament in New Orleans that January, so I thought of going a bit further south to Mexico during the depths of Chicago winter. My trip to New Orleans had unfortunately been one of the coldest winters that the city had seen, so I was hoping by going further south it would bring me more luck. This wasn’t my first time in Mexico, as I had first visited in 2015 to the states of Jalisco and Guanajuato. I had heard such wonderful things about Mexico’s capital, Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world with a population of more than 20 million people. It’s also known for cultural arts, cuisine and its pre-Columbian historical significance.

January 15, 2018

I had booked a shared Airbnb in the Juárez neighborhood near the city center. The unit was on the top story with a balcony and artsy feel. The owner, and my to-be roommate for two weeks, was a French man who decided to go on vacation while I was staying there, so I ultimately had the place to myself. I met a longtime friend Salvador for a quick dinner before resting the remainder of the evening.

Airbnb in Juárez

January 16, 2018

My plan for this trip was to work from the Google Mexico City office, which was located in Lomas de Chapultapec, the western part of the city. My Spanish skills were a bit rusty, but I certainly needed them this trip. When taking an Uber to the office, the drivers would only speak in Spanish. Depending on the driver, I would spark up a little conversation, but for the most part, it was easier just to keep to myself. If any of you have been to Mexico City, you will know the insanity of traffic congestion. There would be times when we would go one block in a 20 minute period. After a while, I got used to setting expectations when getting in a cab, but I spent a lot of time in transit. In the future, I will do more research to find alternative ways for getting around to save a bit of time and sanity.

The Mexico City Google office was much smaller than the Chicago one – maybe around 300 people at the time. Again, everyone defaults to Spanish but was able to help in English if needed. The first day, I found an open area to work, and I had plenty to catch up on with my core job. The cafeteria in the office served Mexican cuisine, which happened to be my favorite cuisine in the world. I had a typical day of to-and-from work, however, I walked over to the Ángel de la Independencia, a large column in a roundabout with a golden statue of victory on top to mark the victory in Mexico’s War of Independence.

After a long first day, I sought a local Mexican meal for dinner. I walked nearby to Calle Rio Lerma and found a place that had a typical menu and exactly what I was looking for: pozole. Pozole is a hearty stew made of hominy, meat, lettuce, onion and seasoning, with various toppings. It takes a long time to make and is a common dish that fills the tummies of many locals.

Pozole with toppings

January 17, 2018

The next day after work I went to the neighborhood of Polanco, a trendy, affluent neighborhood near the Google office. It was a refreshing walk considering I wasn’t stuck in a cab in traffic during rush hour. Not too far is Museo Soumaya (Soumaya Museum), a striking exterior from afar in the shape of an anvil with 16,000 hexagonal mirror-like tiles covering the outside.

Right next door is Museo Jumex, a private collection of modern art and innovation. This museum was more interactive and experiential but certainly smaller in size than Soumaya. It was really affordable for both museums, so if you have extra time in Mexico City, it’s worth checking them out.

That evening, Salvador and I met up for some tacos at Taqueria Arandas near the city center, where I had a classic selection of tacos. Not too far away was the main city square of Mexico City, known as Zócalo or Plaza de la Constitución, which is a common gathering place for Mexican events, military and festivals. Surrounding the plaza is the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral and National Palace. I was there at night, so it wasn’t as busy, but I could envision where this would be the heart of the city for centuries. Salvador and I stopped by the cocktail bar Pata Negra for drinks to cap off the night.

On the way home that evening, I walked through the Monumento a la Revolución, built in the early 1900’s to commemorate the Mexican Revolution. It’s considered the tallest triumphal arch in the world.

Monumento a la Revolución

January 18, 2018

Work at Google Mexico treated me well, and I was brushing up on my Spanish (however, still a long way to go!) I went to Starbucks during lunch at work, and the barista asked for what kind of milk with my coffee. I wanted almond milk but had not used the word “almond” before, so I said, “No leche normal, no soya, no arroz…,” (Not normal milk, not soy, not rice…), and the barista said, “almendras!” Easy enough – a cognate.

One of my Mexican coworkers recommended the restaurant Maximo Bistrot in the Roma neighborhood, a fusion of Mexican, French and European cuisine. I typically wouldn’t go to such a fancy venue that would normally cost a pretty penny, but the multi-course meal was really affordable (considering what it would have cost in the U.S.!)

Dish at Maximo Bistrot

January 19, 2018

It was finally Friday, and I went back to Museo Soumaya to go inside this time. I really enjoyed my time in the museum, which had more than 60,000 pieces of work over 30 different centuries. Later that evening, I went to see a movie at Cinemex.

January 20, 2018

During the weekend, Salvador and I met and went to Parque Mexico in the Hipódromo neighborhood. Before I came to Mexico, I knew I wanted to attend a Mexican soccer match for the first time, so I looked up tickets and was able to get some to the Cruz Azul vs. Léon game at Estadio Azul. It was the beginning of the Clausura season for Liga MX, the national soccer league. Also, Cruz Azul was playing in its final season at Estadio Azul, a stadium that opened in 1946.

Before entering the stadium, there were lots of crowds shouting in excitement for the first home game of the season. There was a heightened police presence controlling the passion between the two sides. Next door is the Monumental Plaza de Toros Mexico, a beautiful structure that hosts bullfighting and boxing matches. Upon entering the stadium, it was breathtaking to see the blue seats and blue sky and to be among so many passionate fans. In the upper deck you could see a section of Away fans which got heckled from time to time. Unfortunately the game ended in a 0-0 draw, but there was plenty of action along the way.

During that Saturday evening, we went to Coyoacán, an area south of the city, specifically along Felipe Carrillo Puerto road. The nightlife here was incredible, with many street vendors selling sweets, snacks, toys and flowers. In the background you could hear the sounds of Mexican music in Jardin Centenario. I highly recommend spending some time here to see the local tradition of nightlife, food and entertainment.

January 21, 2018

One of the most iconic places to visit near Mexico City is Teotihuacan (“The City of Gods”), an ancient Mesoamerican city that was born in the century B.C. and added its iconic pyramids during the first and second centuries A.D. It was once one of the largest cities in the world with around 150,000 inhabitants.

On the drive out of the city center of Mexico City, you can see the vast slums where many people come to live in the country’s capital for a better life. During the work week, you’d see an influx of people come to the city center to work and take advantage of public facilities, only to return to the outskirts of the city every evening and weekend.

When arriving to the Teotihuacan complex, we came across many vendors, and I bought myself a hat which saved me from the midday January sun. The archaeological complex was most known for The Pyramid of the Sun, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. There was a huge line to walk up the pyramid at that time, so we took time to check out the rest of the complex, which includes the Pyramid of the Moon and ruined Palace of Quetzalpapálotl.

When walking down the Avenue of the Dead, it was a true walk back in time. You think to yourself, “I’m walking right where ancient indigenous peoples worshiped, gathered and spent their daily lives.” The city is thought to have thrived from ~100 B.C. to around 650 A.D., when it was likely sacked and burned – some say that it was an internal uprising; others suggest invasion. There was also a drought during that time period, so some scientists point to malnutrition in many young adults as the start of the demise. Many believe that the city served as an early model of urban society in the Americas.

After checking out the Pyramid of the Moon and smaller rooms with well-preserved murals, we began to make the walk up the Pyramid of the Sun. It was a long walk because of the queue, and some of the stairs were steep and small which made it hard for some. At the top, you had breathtaking views of the complex and countryside. You can envision an ancient civilization roaming the premises and then blink to see modern-day tourists taking in the experience behind smartphones.

After returning down to earth, we ate more tacos at a restaurant nearby before returning back to Mexico City.

January 23, 2018

Monday was back to work, so I took it easy and a day off from sightseeing. I returned to tourist life on Tuesday and visited the Bosque de Chapultepec, one of the largest parks in the Western Hemisphere. It was a nice breath of fresh air in a city that often struggled with pollution at elevation.

The Castillo de Chapultepec sat atop of the hill (at over 7,500 ft. elevation) in the park and has had historical significance over centuries, dating back to the Aztecs. Today, the castle is open as architectural masterpiece containing art, stained glass windows and incredible views of the city. The castle was closing soon after I arrived, so I quickly had a look around before the guards signaled for everyone to leave.

I then made my way to another museum, this time to the National Museum of Anthropology. I had always had a fond admiration of the indigenous history of the Americas in the pre-Columbian era, especially the Aztec empire. I appreciated the chronological flow of this museum, helping me understand the change in societies over time. The most iconic piece of work in the museum was the Stone of the Sun, a massive Aztec calendar created in the 1500’s. This was my favorite museum in Mexico City, and I recommend it if you are interested in the ancient civilizations of the region.

January 25, 2018

During the week on Thursday, I went to Pizza del Perro Negro in the beautiful La Condesa neighborhood – great vibe and music.

I recall vividly how chilly it would get during night. It apparently had been one of the coldest weeks in Mexico that winter, which isn’t obviously as bad as Chicago, but it was still chilly. I covered my Airbnb bed with several heavy blankets to stay warm at night especially with no heat. Each morning, I couldn’t wait to wake up and take a hot shower.

January 26, 2018

One of the final things on my list to do was to see the Frida Kahlo Museum also known as the Blue House due to its Instagram-worthy cobalt blue paints. A friend Alejandro accompanied me there, and we waited shortly in line before checking out the gardens inside. The museum was actually the birthplace and home that she grew up in and now housed a collection of her work and life.

Garden inside Frida Kahlo Museum

Do you know the feeling when your body all of a sudden just flips a switch and you know you are sick? Well, about halfway through the museum tour I felt super lightheaded, chilled and dizzy, so we left quickly and went to a restaurant to see if I just needed some food and water. I sat there for a while wondering what had come over me and then got sick at the restaurant. Alejandro graciously drove me home during rush hour traffic on a Friday and made sure I was okay – I certainly owe him next time I’m in Mexico City!

January 27, 2018

The next day, it was then time to go back to Chicago after two weeks in Mexico City. I had woken up a little better but was certainly still under the weather. I quickly packed up my things midday and headed to the airport, when I realized I forgot one of my coats at the Airbnb. Thinking of what I could do, I called the Airbnb host to see if the housekeeper could put my jacket in an Uber (that I ordered) and bring it to the airport. (I definitely needed that winter coat to survive back in Chicago!) Thanks to today’s technology, I retrieved the coat and made my way to the airport gate.

While my trip didn’t end in the easiest way, I had an incredible time being immersed in the culture of Mexico City – from food, arts, museums, music, language and history. Given its size (both area and population) it can be an overwhelming city at first, but once you get the hang of it, you know where to find the charm.

Hasta la vista.

Michael

Shades and Notes of Autumn and Wine [Georgia]

Travel

October 21, 2018 – The Heart of Tbilisi

The third leg of this trip, after time in Azerbaijan and Armenia, ended in Georgia. We had originally flown through Georgia from Azerbaijan to get to Armenia but returned to actually spend time and explore the former Soviet republic. To no one’s surprise, many assumed I was headed to the U.S. State of Georgia to spend a weekend in Atlanta, however, I was halfway across the globe A bit of fun history, the country of Georgia is rumored to be named after St. George, whereas the American State of Georgia is named after King George II.

We had an early morning flight from Yerevan, Armenia, to Tbilisi, Georgia. We had a pleasant experience at Yerevan’s airport, however, after lifting off on the flight, the door to the cockpit flung open and kept flapping back and forth – not too many people seemed concerned. The 30 minute flight had us in Tbilisi in no time, a taxi took us to our Airbnb near the city center and Liberty Square, and my travel partner Robyn and I spent time researching Tbilisi before setting out. Liberty Square is a roundabout with a fountain and a monument with a gold bust of St. George slaying a dragon.

Liberty Square & Monument

Out we went to explore the city of Tbilisi. We passed by Old Parliament, where there was a demonstration outside with posters depicting the EU and US flags – not sure what was going on? Anyway, we kept going to 9th of April park. Eerily enough, my exact birth date is a nationally-known day of importance and sadness in Tbilisi. On April 9, 1989, an anti-Soviet demonstration was gruesomely dispersed by the Soviet Army, and 21 Georgians lost their lives. The day was seen as fuel of opposition to Soviet power, which led to Georgia’s declaration of independence two years later on April 9, 1991. It’s now a public holiday called The Day of National Unity. The memorial park itself is serene, with several bust statues and greenspace.

After spending some peaceful moments in the park, we came across the Dry Bridge Market, a collection of vendors selling antiques, artwork, knickknacks and old Soviet paraphernalia. Across the city, you’ll see steeples poking out through the skyline, a real indication of Georgia’s 80%+ Orthodox Christian following. Walking alongside the Mtkvari River, we reached Rike Park, a public park that includes elements of a modern city, including modern art and a performing arts center. Just across The Bridge of Peace is a stark contrast, the Old City of Tbilisi. There are local sentiments regarding the modern bridge and park, but I see it as a nice balance between the history and future of the country. On this busy Sunday in the park, we crossed the bridge to a walk back in time.

Hanging on long strings in nearly every local food shop is one of Georgia’s most unique and mysterious icons, churchkhela. The main ingredients are grape mash, nuts and flour, and locals make these by dipping a string of walnuts into thickened grape juice and then drying it in the sun. At the end, they look like sausages on a string, a strange sight for tourists who don’t know what they actually are! Robyn and I tried a bit of one, and were concerned about the need for a dentist, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Near our Airbnb was the Galleria Mall, where we bought some winter clothes for really cheap, which would come in handy in Chicago. I bought a winter coat, three sweaters and a winter hat for under $100 USD! Most items are really cheap in Georgia, even compared to Armenia and Azerbaijan. Also in the mall was a grocery store, where Robyn and I bought a medley of vegetables and some local wine, all for $14. At our Airbnb, we made a lovely dinner of fresh roasted vegetables and toasted to the first night in Tbilisi.

October 22, 2018 – The Height of Autumn

After sleeping in well beyond normal, Robyn and I headed back toward the Bridge of Peace to the cable station, where we would take a cable car ride ($2 lari) to the top of Narikala Fortress. The views from the top of the city were incredible, where you’re able to see both the modern and old parts of the city, the Mtkvari River and beyond. I highly recommend spending time to do this in Tbilisi.

Also at the top of the city is the Mother of Georgia statue – she holds a bowl of wine to welcome but also holds a sword to fend off enemies. On the opposite side of the fortress is the botanical gardens, an incredible view of the October autumn colors that had a variety of conifer, deciduous, flowers, streams and waterfalls. The views and crisp weather reminded me of a beautiful autumn day in the Midwest.

We started to descend down from the mount, and reached the Tbilisi Central Mosque (Juma), a rare mosque in which Shia and Sunni Muslims pray side by side. A beautiful bright blue mosaic facade with intricate patterns was a key reason to visit this site.

Just a few hundred feet away from the mosque was the Orbeliani Baths, a series of communal baths that pulls its waters from natural sulfur springs – smells like rotten eggs but many people swear by its natural healing abilities. We did not attend and instead treated ourselves to a fruity frappe at a nearby ice cream shop.

It soon started to rain quite steadily, so we made our way through some side streets back to the grocery store to grab more vegetables, cheese and wine to enjoy a nice rainy evening inside with music. Throughout the day, I remember telling myself how nice, welcoming and helpful the Georgian people were. It felt wonderful to be in a place where we knew no one but felt all the familiar autumn feels.

October 23, 2018 – Leave the Road, Take the Trails

What was next? Well, Georgia is a decently-sized country, so we wanted to explore the breadth of what it had to offer. Early in the morning we transferred to the airport to pick up our rental car, a silver Toyota Corolla with a few evident scrapes and dings (which I don’t mind because the bar has not been set high!). After switching the GPS from French to English, I took the wheel and exited the airport to the main road. It’s always a crapshoot how driving customs and norms will be when Robyn and I get behind the wheel in a foreign country. I soon found out that passing is so nonchalant, as drivers will turn a two-way highway into a three lane situation. Like most foreign countries, we passed through several roundabouts and were overtaken by many speed demons. We headed east to the far east border of Georgia, alongside the northwesternmost part of Azerbaijan. The roads were nicely maintained, and we passed through the towns of Sartichala, Bakurtsikhe, Anaga, Sakobo and then to our destination, Lagodekhi. We arrived around noon and stopped in the town to get snacks (almonds, chips, water, fruit). The local clerks were really confused to see foreigners.

Robyn and I are not avid hikers, climbers or athletes, however, we do enjoy walking and exploring. This day, we went to the Lagodekhi Nature Reserve to do some nature walking. First, we went to the info center, where the guides were really helpful in choosing a trail. We decided to take the “Black Grouse Waterfall Trail Hike,” which had yellow marks to guide us along the way and assumed to be a 4.5 hour excursion.

The first part of the walk was quite flat, extremely quiet and peaceful except for the crunch of autumn leaves as we passed. The trail changed from dirt to rocks from time to time, testing our ankles and balance. Nearby was the Shromiskhevi River – as we reached an area without any more yellow marks, we contemplated, “Do we keep going on the hill, or are we supposed to ford THAT river?” Well, we found out it was the latter. Parts of the river were dry enough to easily climb over the boulders, however, there as an area of fast-flowing river with only a few peeking stones to make it across. With lots of communication and courage, we both managed to make it to the other side (luckily there was virtually no one at the park to see this!).

From there, the trail became harder and harder. (Revert back to when I said Robyn and I are not avid hikers). As I alluded to, we only saw around 10 people at the nature reserve the entire day. After making it across the river, the demands of the trail were often unrealistic for us: steep hikes, full of timber, branches, vines. There were many moments when the trail only allowed for the width of one foot, with a steep fall in our peripherals. What kept me going was the fact that there was a “prize” at the end – the waterfall. The trails going up steep inclines continued, and often I had to hold on to roots and vines to allow me to overcome a step. Two friendly dogs randomly met us and lifted our spirits. Robyn, who is not a fan of heights, stopped and waited near the peak of the difficulties, and I asked a random hiker passing by how long until the waterfall. She answered, “Only 10-15 more minutes.” In my head, I adjusted that to allow for about 30 minutes given my mental state. I continued, as Robyn waited back with the company of the dogs. The last 10 minutes were the most difficult, but I started to hear the crashing of water, the adrenaline kicked in, and I made it to the waterfall with jubilation. The beautiful fall colors and refreshing mist made it all worth it. There was one guy sitting at the waterfall, so I asked him to take photos of me to document this achievement, and I returned the favor to him.

I quickly made it back to Robyn, and we both were ready to retrace the trail, which was much easier this time. We made it back at 5:12 p.m., which means we did the trail in 3 hours, 57 minutes, faster than the estimated 4.5 hours! Maybe we are eligible to be avid hikers after all?! Honestly, I was really proud of Robyn for doing such a challenging trek, which is not easy for someone uneasy of heights.

Only five minutes away was our Airbnb, one of the most unique Airbnbs I’ve ever stayed in. It’s situated right near the nature reserve in a rural area. As we approached, chickens and dogs roamed free in the garden, where the host grew fruits and vegetables. The host, Ketevan, made us some tea, and we chatted with her lovely neighbors. The Airbnb had small rooms with rough showers, but after a long hike, it was enough.

Airbnb at Lagodekhi

October 24, 2018 – To Western Georgia

Roosters and dogs. Not the ideal alarm clock for me, but it was effective. The springy beds popped us right up for a fresh breakfast made by the host, including an omelet, fruits, vegetables and tea. We packed up our things in the Corolla, and I took the wheel again back the same route, which was easier this time with a bit of familiarity. Georgian roads have cameras everywhere, so I was always conscious of speeding, even though everyone else was clearly raging the roads. Similar to our hike, we retraced the trail back through Tbilisi and headed west this time through the towns of Norio, Mtskheta, Samtavisi, Agarebi, Zestafoni, then to our destination, Kutaisi. The highways were nearly perfect, so smooth, and we were able to drive a higher speed on them. Robyn and I swapped spots near Gori, which was in-between Samtavisi and Agarebi.

There’s something about being behind the wheel on an open highway with incredible views. Robyn and I didn’t have cars in our home country, so this was a rare occurrence for us to experience the feeling. From time to time, we’d see vendors alongside the road, who strangely all coordinated by category. We’d see a bunch of bread vendors, then a few miles later we would see ceramic vendors, and then basket vendors, and so forth.

Upon arriving in Kutaisi, it was noticeably smaller than Tbilsi, which only a fraction of the population (150k). It had started to rain, and we were looking for our Airbnb, which took some time to find. We finally found it, parked and then brought our things inside. Well, I know I just wrote that the Airbnb in Lagodekhi was the most unique one yet, but this one in Kutaisi may take the cake. It was a spacious Airbnb with several connected rooms (great), however, it may be one of the creepiest places I’ve been. In each room there were old hospital beds that had been converted into cribs with creepy old dolls. The lighting and wallpaper were dim enough to make it seem like the set of an 80’s horror film. The doors creaked when you moved them, but they also slightly creaked with the movement of air.

Eager to get out, Robyn and I researched places to eat in the town and found a lovely restaurant, Sapere. It made dim lighting well more romantic than our Airbnb and specialized in local Georgian wine. We tried the Imereti wine; Imereti is a region in western Georgia. For the meal, I enthusiastically tried a local cornbread called “mchadi” with cheese – perfect for my gluten free diet. Also in my selection were pumpkin soup and potatoes tossed in dill, one of the most delicious meals I’ve had.

Everything was a bit dim from then on. We walked back to the Airbnb in the dark of the poorly-lit city. Trying to open the gate in the dark with the key trembling in my hand would have made for a great rising action segment of a film. No interesting part to this movie, however, but we made it inside and locked and closed all the doors and curtains. It’s funny how darkness itself can cause the mind to stress, even though we were in one of the safest countries in the world.

October 25, 2018 – A Bazaar, Gloomy Day

Well, we survived night 1. Daylight was welcomed, and we started to get ready, but unfortunately the water heater was not working, so we waited a while until the repair man came. We set out to see the town of Kutaisi under an overcast, rainy sky. The city center had lots of renovation projects, but the Rioni River was a beautiful sight to see in autumn. The biggest energy of the town is the Green Bazaar, where vendors of all types sell local goods, foods and products. We stopped by Tea House Foe-Foe for a morning meal and tea before exploring the small Kutaisi Park and Fountain. The Opera House was also nearby, but we did not go in. We went back to the Green Bazaar to check out some more shops, and we were near the end of our tour when we heard commotion in a small side street that the vendors used. To our shock, we saw a man on the ground not moving and people surrounded him. It was hard for us to tell what was going on because women were shrieking in desperation and men yelled in Georgian. In the surroundings were fruit carts along the cobblestone street with vegetables all over the ground – it looked like medieval times. People put cardboard underneath the man to support his body until the ambulance came. Watching reenactments from the locals, we derived that the man slipped on the wet street and hit the back of his head on the stone. What a scene.

Inspired by our cablecar trip in Tbilisi, we decided to take the 1960’s cablecar to the top of the hill in Kutaisi, Besik Gabashvili Park. After arriving, you enter Besik Park, a park full of amusement rides that had no visitors that day. It again had an eerie feeling – dark, wet, run down rides with no people in sight. From there, we walked about 15 minutes through local neighborhoods to Bagrati Cathedral, an 11th-century cathedral at the top of Ukimerioni Hill. The view from there was incredible, overlooking the town and beyond.

Nearby, we stopped at a bar/restaurant and had some afternoon wine. They were out of most things, and we kept the pour going until they ran out! You could see the young servers going to find a new pitcher of wine from somewhere to keep business going. Rain started to come down heavily, so we spent more hours there until the rain dropped off (and so did we!). We traced our steps back to the cable car park to take a ride back, but there were no workers and it was closed, so we had to find an alternative route, to walk down to the city.

For dinner, we ate at Papavero, where I had some more mchadi and a pork chop. Nightfall began to set in and we walked back home in light rain. About three blocks until our Airbnb, the heavens opened and buckets of rain fell on the town. We started to awkwardly run through the drainless streets, and because it was so dim, it was hard to see the potholes in the road before submerging our feet in them. This time, my hand shook again when trying to open the gate with the key, rushing to get inside as quickly as possible. We sighed heavily as we got inside, completely soaked to the core.

But, the power was out. Yes, the power was out in our creepy Airbnb while we were completely soaked. I stripped down to my underwear (also wet) and sat with Robyn hoping that the lights (not even sure I would designate them as “lights”) would return. We called the Airbnb owner, and she said the rest of the city had power. Well, not us. We waited a while until people came to check the situation. And in my horror movie fantasy, the knock on the door in complete darkness was perfect for the movie set. Our phones were nearly empty of battery, and luckily the power came on just in time for bed.

October 26, 2018 – Free-Spirited in the Final Day

I’m still here writing this, so the horror movie wasn’t successful. We were excited to leave the creepy place, so we got ready and jumped in the rental car as soon as possible. Several of our clothes were still soaked, so we laid them out in the rental car as if it was a clothes line. The ride back east to Tbilisi was refreshing, town by town passing, each alongside the valley of a river. We stopped in Zestafoni (interesting name that sounds more Italian than Georgian) to grab a coffee alongside the road. The drive back to Tbilisi was easy, but once we got into the capital, that all changed.

We unfortunately arrived on a Friday at rush hour. People were always merging lanes, honking and throwing their arms out the window to signal displeasure or self-direct traffic. I could feel the stress from Robyn as we tried to navigate the traffic together to get back to the airport. We got back to the airport to return the car, which was no problem. Remember those speed cameras all over the place? Well, we were caught one time, which was a 50 lari fine ($19 USD) – not bad, so we’ll take the ticket as a souvenir and memory.

Our final Airbnb host picked us up at the airport and took us to the place near the Presidential Palace in Tbilisi, the other side of the city compared to where we stayed at initially. We walked back to the Old City for some souvenirs and got some wild blackberry and saperavi jam. For dinner, we ate at g.Vino, a lovely wine bar near the Bridge of Peace. I of course had the mchadi again and fkhali, a mashup of beetroot, nuts and other leafy vegetables – very delicious! For the main course, I had veal in curry walnut sauce with polenta. To no surprise, we maxed out on another bottle of affordable Georgian wine.

Inspired by our drinking, Robyn wanted to get some wine to take back to the U.S., so we stopped at a wine shop and sampled a few that the drunk owner suggested. He asked where we were from, and he raved about Chicago. After Robyn purchased her wine, the owner said something about hooking us up with some “chacha,” so the clerk got out a few shot glasses and filled them with a clear spirit. Apparently “chacha” is a 70-proof pomace brandy made during the winemaking process. I could smell the alcohol from afar and both of us were hesitant to partake, but we said, “Oh well, it’s our last night in Georgia, let’s do it.” It burned like vodka on the way down, like breathing fire. The owner then said, “Oh wait, you’re not finished. We always take two shots.”

Needless to say, we felt quite warm when leaving that place. Robyn turned to me, “What the hell just happened?!” Laughing in unison during the walk back to the Airbnb, we enjoyed our final moments in autumn Georgia.

October 27, 2018 – Nachvamdis!

We left really early for the airport the next morning. Because it was sunny, I realized I left my nice sunglasses in the rental car we had returned yesterday. I hurried to the rental car place and called the guy (who was not working) to see if he could call to see if my sunglasses were still in the car. In true Georgian fashion, he drove from the city to the airport to help me find them at the rental car cleaning facility. It was so nice of him to do this – all to help me get a pair of sunglasses. (True Georgian spirit!) Robyn and I waited a while and jumped on the Turkish Airlines flight back through to Chicago.

Georgia, what an incredible breadth of nature and history and a bright future ahead. I was so impressed with the hospitality of the locals and how I was able to experience autumn in a familiar, but certainly different way. Georgian food – surprisingly fitting for my diet and palette, and Georgian affordability, also fitting for my palette! Georgia has gone through many turbulent times in its history and still faces separatist movements within its borders, and I will never forget that my birth date means much more to the Georgian people in its move for independence. Overall, an incredible region was the Caucasus, and I recommend being curious enough to explore its gifts.

Full of wine and full of happiness.

-Michael

Etched in Religion and in the Heights Above [Armenia]

Travel

October 16, 2018 – Possibly the Most-Eventful Drive, Ever?

The sun had set on our time in Azerbaijan, or should I say, the “fire had been put out?” The Caucasus region required Robyn and I to research our travel routes in detail, avoiding all obstacles where possible. In my Azerbaijan blog, I referenced the bit of dispute between the region, particularly between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Because of this, we needed to fly through Georgia in order to enter Armenia, as there were no flights between Azerbaijan and Armenia due to dispute. The flight to Tbilisi was quite quick (one hour), and our driver Artak was waiting for us to make the drive to Yerevan. We decided it was economical and convenient to hire a local driver to make the trek from Tbilisi to Yerevan.

After all, it was autumn. Hours in the car on paper sounded potentially gut-wrenching, but quiet time with the windows cracked while we toured the countryside of rural Georgia was quite the opposite. We passed buildings that looked like they’d been vacant, run down from years of harsh weather. It wouldn’t be a normal trip for Midwesterners without a bit of road construction, which littered our trip through the towns of Marneuli and Sadakhlo. From time to time, we’d see cars and trucks alongside the road selling the latest autumn fruits and vegetables. Artak purchased a large box of persimmons and gave Robyn and I some to try. I wasn’t very familiar with persimmons – they weren’t something we had growing up. They were so delicious, almost a mix between a pear and peach. Eventually we reached the border with Armenia, which required us to get out of the car, walk to a building for passport clearance and then jump back into the car on the Armenian side.

Within the first mile of entering Armenia, we encountered a semi-truck flipped on its side – a bit eye-opening for a welcome! The road Artak took on our way to Yerevan contoured the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia. If you zoom in on a map, you can see the numerous enclaves and exclaves near the border. The tension was certainly felt on this route. We passed many military trucks and personnel, defending the territories and keeping the peace.

Peace was something nature always had. The beautiful mountains turned with fall colors made the trip easy to pass time. I gazed out of the window only to see Artak slow down quickly, and then I noticed an old Soviet car completely flipped upside-down in the middle of the road. A semi-truck, and now a car?! Luckily the driver was okay, and it was right next to a gas station. We pulled over into the gas station to get gas (Artak was also making transactions for bulk toilet paper and paper towels for some reason). While Artak did his business, Robyn and I got out for a quick casual cigarette and watched a group of old men hover over the flipped car. It reminded me of old men from the coffee shop with nothing better to do, having a debate about what actually happened in the accident.

Soon enough, we were on the road again, driving through towns of Berdavan, Koghb, Voskevan, Voskepar and Kirants (look these up on a map and you’ll see the border situation). Not even a mile from the town of Azatamut near the border, we became stalled in traffic. A traffic jam in rural Armenia? We assumed it was just a quick wait, but then noticed a group of Armenian soldiers talking and walking back-and-forth between cars. Artak, our driver, did not speak great English, so he tried to use his phone to translate for us. We were not able to see what was going on ahead because there was a hill. After about 30 minutes, I asked further what was going on. It was a little bit tense knowing that no one was getting out of their cars and with military involved. After a while, Artak got out and asked what was happening – apparently there was a protest going on a mile or so ahead demanding the resignation of the mayor a nearby town. You wouldn’t believe that we sat there for 1.5-2 hours until we were able to move. We also didn’t have any food besides a can of Pringles, a Coke and a couple persimmons.

Once we got moving, sunset was approaching, and I started to doze off after a full day of riding in a car. We passed Lake Sevan on our way to Yerevan, which is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. We arrived at dark in Armenia’s capital to a great Airbnb and a fabulous bathroom with *water pressure*. Depleted from little food and drink, we searched where to grab a bite to eat and landed on Cafe Central, where we enjoyed some chicken and vegetables, pumpkin soup and local Armenian wine. Night in Yerevan reminded me of the Balkans – dimly lit, the swirl of cigarette smoke and shadows of old buildings and centuries of history.

October 17, 2018 – Yerevan’s Core

We slept so well that night to say the least. We didn’t have too much of an itinerary for Yerevan, so we planned our day after some quick research. That’s one thing that I love about trips with Robyn. We both go-with-the-flow but also know what each other likes and doesn’t like. This day in Yerevan was spent enjoying the city’s iconic monuments:

The Opera Theatre – opened in 1933 and hosts opera and ballet performances. In front is a statue of Aram Khachaturian, a Soviet American composer and conductor.

Yerevan Cascade – under sunny skies, we walked to Yerevan’s most iconic landmark, the Cascade. The Cascade is a giant staircase of five levels made of limestone and contains multiple circular- and semi-circular-shaped fountains. We walked all the way to the top, with breaks of course. A large museum complex is planned at the top but is still unfinished.

Victory Park – Once you get to the top of the Cascade, you can cross a skybridge to the other side on the hill, which led us to Victory Park. Victory Park didn’t quite have the vibe to ladder up to its name, however, it has quite an interesting story. The park was developed and named for the victory of the Soviets over Nazi Germany in World War II. At the opening of the park, a huge statue of Joseph Stalin was implemented. 12 years later in 1962, the statue was dismantled and a statue of Mother Armenia was installed, where it still stands today overlooking Yerevan.

Matenadaran – we went back down the Cascade and over to the Matenadaran, which is a museum and repository of ancient manuscripts.

Can you believe it was just time for lunch? I had a refreshing salad with a “sea buckthorn” lemonade, yet another plant I had not encountered. They are tart berries that grow on a shrub and known as a superfood.

Republic Square – after lunch, we walked south to Republic Square, a beautiful central town square surrounded by pink stone buildings and intersected by a huge fountain. There were quite a bit of people out on Sunday, enjoying the weather and views of the fountain while also grabbing some Armenian flag-colored ice cream. The cornerstone of the town square is the history museum, which we did not browse, but I heard it was really spectacular if you have time. A local mentioned that they just discovered the world’s oldest shoe in one of Armenia’s many caves!

Sharhumyan Park & Children’s Park – a short walk from the city square. It was a nice place for locals to relax and take kids. Many old men with newspapers, just as you see in the movies.

Vernissage market – this is a recommended market in Yerevan for local art, including paintings, carvings and carpets. Right next to it is Garegin Park, where you can enjoy some quiet time with friends or family over a coffee or treat. After a while of people watching, we noticed that men greet other male friends with a peck on one side of the cheek. Lots of old men also hung out together and men in general walked in pairs. We also noticed throughout our day bandages on women’s noses – apparently Armenia is well-known for rhinoplasties (aka “nose jobs”).

In day one in Yerevan, we covered a lot! We saw most of Yerevan’s key sites and capped it off with a dinner at Mamoor, a European-fusion spot with our favorite, local wine.

October 18, 2018 – Monastery “Game Drive”

Many of Yerevan’s treasures are scattered from end to end of the country, so we knew we needed to spend some time exploring the historical markers from the region. The day before we had booked a day tour with a private driver. Our driver Artur and accompanied guide Armena picked us up at 8 a.m., and we set off to explore Armenia’s southern charm.

Mount Ararat – about an hour south of Yerevan lies Mount Ararat, a large, dormant snow-capped volcano across the border into neighboring Turkey. You can actually see Mt. Ararat quite well from the city of Yerevan, however, we were able to see it much clearer as we were at the border of Armenia and Turkey. Mt. Ararat is seen as sacred to many Armenians, as it is considered the resting place of Noah’s Ark. The tale says that Noah’s ark carved the shape of the side of Mt. Ararat and Noah chose to settle there. Mt. Ararat interestingly sits near a quadripoint of Turkey, Armenia, Iran and the Azerbaijan exclave of Nakhchivan.

Khor Virap – our actual first destination of the tour was one of Armenia’s most iconic monasteries, Khor Virap. Its name literally means “deep dungeon,” as it was used as a prison for those who were spreading Christianity. The ruler of Armenia in the late 200 A.D. (this is old, people!) followed a pagan religion and didn’t want his advisor, Gregory the Illuminator, to subject him to his Christian beliefs, so he sent him to prison here. Gregory was placed in the dungeon without food or water for 14 years and did not die, as it was said a local Christian widow was feeding him. Everyone assumed he died, but when someone went to check, he answered and was taken to the king. The king declared Christianity the religion of Armenia that year in 301 A.D., making Armenia the first declared Christian nation in the world. Cool stuff! I walked down the ladder to the dungeon myself – it was quite dark, cold and eerie.

Mountains & Terrain – Most of Armenia is mountainous, and we certainly felt that throughout the remainder of the trip. The roads would curve in and out of mountainsides, up and down, back and forth. The roads were paved but in quite poor condition. Robyn and I had a flashback to our time in Africa from the “massage” of the road, and we also made jokes of calling this trip a “game drive” of monasteries. At this point, we were at 7.

Near Areni – Near the town of Areni we stopped alongside the road at a fruit vendor named Ana. She had fresh peaches, apples, pears, grapes and more, which were the most delicious I have tasted! We also noticed she had colored juices in recycled soda bottles. I asked what this was, and she said that they make their own wine and they reuse plastic bottles to sell it. We were lucky enough to try her freshly-made apricot and pomegranate wines, two new drinks I’ve never had before. Both were very yummy, especially the apricot wine. Armenia is well-known for its wines and for pomegranates for both food and drink but also in local culture and symbolism. Before we left, Ana gave us a sack full of peppers she had grown even though we insisted we didn’t need them – the people were so welcoming here.

Noravank – Our next stop turned right off the main road to a path surrounded by caves and steep mountains. The path led us up a hill to the Noravank monastery, a 13th-Century structure sitting within a gorge known for its brick red cliffs. Two churches (Surb Astvatsatsin and Surb Karapet) are on the site and look incredible with the backdrop of the cliffs. We spent some time exploring the two churches – there are lots of crosses engraved on the buildings, but none of them include the crucifix because it symbolizes death. At Karapet, I ran into a priest who was doing a prayer while spreading incense. Robyn and I agreed that these monasteries are really striking and a beautiful place to visit for anyone, religious or not.

Tatev – From Noravank, it was a long drive to Tatev Monastery which is on the southern end of Armenia. We passed through golden-colored mountains and occasionally encountered a herd of sheep taking over the main road. Tatev Monastery is near the town of Halidzor in the valley. The monastery sits on a mountain overlooking the valleys below, so it’s very challenging to get there by car. Instead, there is a cableway called the “Wings of Tatev” that takes you over the mountains to the vantage-point where Tatev sits. The site has three churches – St. Peter & Paul, St. Gregory and St. Mary. There are also several functional rooms and buildings such as the library hall, dining hall and mausoleum. Northeast of the complex is an olive press building, which has a nice demonstration of how to produce olive oil. Back on the site, there is an interesting pillar known as “Gavazan” which detects the direction of seismic activity but also was used to signal war. This monastery also holds significance for being host to Tatev University in the 14th- and 15th-century, which contributed a lot to science and philosophy.

The drive back to Yerevan was dark, especially on the rough mountain roads. We stopped near Areni for a quick dinner of lavash bread, vegetables, eggs and green beans. The final stop of our tour included wine tasting at the Areni Winery. We stopped to test several different local wines – cherry, quince, pomegranate, peach and regular grape wines. Peach was probably my favorite since it was so unique, but the regular red wines were just as good. Robyn grabbed a bottle to take back to the U.S., and off we went back to Yerevan. Because we were unable to get any radio stations in the rural parts of Armenia, the guides played the same CD the whole trip – Despacito, Michael Jackson, Dido and Eminem. Repeat.

October 19, 2018 – Armenian Staples: Carpet & Brandy

Back in Yerevan, the weather this time of year was warm in the sun but chilly in the shade, similar to fall in the U.S. This day, we walked back to Republic Square and to the outskirts of the city on the south side to Megerian Carpet Armenia, a carpet factory about an hour from the city center. The Megerian family carpet making has been around since 1917 and has produced carpets for many famous figures including George & Amal Clooney. We took a quick 30-minute tour and first learned how they dye the yarn (using pomegranate rinds, walnuts, oak bark and indigo). We then went into a big room with carpets hanging from the ceiling and local women working from the bottom up, double-knotting the yarn in place. Huge rugs can take up to 1.5 years to complete! The owner of the factory, who actually lives in New York, was coincidentally visiting Armenia, so we got to speak with him during the tour. The most important thing for productivity is matching up women with the same speed so they are consistent. After watching the ladies work to complete the carpets, we went to an area where completed carpets got a brushed and trimmed to get rid of extra hairs.

There’s a gallery of old Armenian carpets that have been discovered over the years. One story that stuck with me was a “parent trap”-like story from the times of the Armenian Genocide. A mother cut her blanket in half for her two babies to be able to find each other after everything they would go through during the hard time. Decades later, the two sisters found each other, both still having their half of the blanket. After the gallery, Robyn and I browsed through a room full of carpets – I was open to buying one but wanted to find the right design and story. I found one that I really liked with navy blue, gold, turquoise and red colors and ended up buying it to put at the foot of my bed back home. The design is called “Artsakh” which comes from the region with the same name. Artsakh is the Armenian-controlled part of western Azerbaijan, and is actually a “breakaway state,” claiming independence in 1991, but does not have any recognition from UN members.

The lovely owner was so surprised that we had walked to the factory and was impressed by our adventure to the country. He insisted he offer a ride back to the city, so we took a ride to our next stop, the Yerevan Ararat Brandy Factory (also known as Noy Brandy factory). The factory was founded in 1877(!) and produces brandy, which is distilled wine of heavy alcohol content (35-60%) and typically consumed after dinner. We signed up for a tour and made our way through the dark cellars where the brandy is aged in large barrels. We were lucky enough to taste a 1944 year brandy – a bottle which would cost $3k if purchased today! I don’t think I had brandy before, so this was a new experience for me. Fun fact, if you sit a brandy glass on its side, it should not spill if poured correctly. We heard more stories of how Noah was the first wine producer – here they tie themselves to Christianity and wine and keep the traditions alive to this day.

We were in need of food at this point, as my esophagus was still tingling from the high-proof spirit. Online we found a place called Derian, which is actually Syrian food. Robyn and I had never had Syrian food before, so we were interested to try. This was probably one of the best meals I’ve ever had! A table full of olives, shish tawook, lavash, cheap wine – so delicious and everything paired well together. Little did we know we would love Syrian food so much, and the hospitality was so wonderful from the Syrian staff.

October 20, 2018 – Garni & Geghard

Our final day in Armenia came, and what else then to see another monastery? A popular trip for those who visit Yerevan is to visit Geghard and Garni. We joined a tour bus from the Cascade and drove through the city. Fun fact – locals call Armenia “Hayastan,” after the ancient warrior Hayk, the founder of Armenian nation. 97% of Armenia considers themselves Armenian, so it’s a very mono-ethnic country.

Eghishe Charent’s Arch – our first stop was an arch commemorating Eghishe Clarent, an Amernian poet. The arch overlooks a forest park.

Garni Temple – we passed through several small towns before arriving at Garni. Garni is a Greco-Roman pagan temple, which symobilzes pre-Christian Armenia. It’s disputed, but many believe the temple to date back to 77 A.D. It collapsed from a huge earthquake in the 17th-century but was reconstructed from the stone that was found after the devastation. There are 24 columns on the temple to mark the hours of the day. The steps to walk up the temple are particularly steep, symbolising that you must work hard to get to the altar. There are a few buildings next to the temple, including ruins of a Christian church and a building that used steam to heat floors. Many tourists were out enjoying the sights, fresh air and beautiful fall colors surrounding the landmark. Before we left, we watched locals make lavash bread. The cook rolls the dough very thin, lays it over a pillow, and then slaps it against the walls of the tandoor oven pit. After it cooks, they use tongs to remove the bread, then serve it with herbs and cheese (like a burrito).

Geghard Monastery – Our last monastery on the “game drive.” The monastery complex was founded in the 4th-century (again, old!) by our friend Gregory, who escaped from prison at Khor Virap. It was partly carved out of the cave on the side of the mountain. The monastery was famous for housing several relics, one of which is “geghard” or the spear that wounded Christ on the Cross. The UNESCO World Heritage site has many beautiful carvings of the Armenian crosses on its buildings. We entered the main chapel where several were making prayers with candles. There is a choir room and there are small holes in the walls so that other connecting rooms can hear the sounds of worship. On the outside of the church, local officials would write city laws so people would know about them, as it was certain you would get their attention at church! The dome of the building includes features and symbols from other regions so that they would share more in common than different. It’s eerie to think that people walked the same ground just hundreds of years after the death of Christ.

Our tour had ended, and we returned to Yerevan one last time. The city was setting up for its 2800th (yes, two thousand eight hundredth) birthday! What a time to be in Yerevan! Back in Republic Square, I treated myself to one of those Armenian-flag colored ice cream cones but was quite confused of the flavors… possibly banana and bubble gum? We didn’t buy anything during our first visit to Vernissage market, so we browsed again and Robyn bought an interesting set of old Soviet stamps to add to her collection back home. A lot of old Soviet knick-knacks and books were on sale at the market in addition to artwork. That evening, we had a fresh meal and enjoyed the vibrancy of people out celebrating Yerevan’s birthday.

Back to where we started in Yerevan, the Opera Theatre, we joined a crowd enjoying traditional Armenian music. Over our time in Yerevan, we knew that people liked to stay out late. We’d wake up for our early days of sightseeing to only notice barren sidewalks and closed businesses. I can relate, as I am not a morning person. We packed up and prepared for our flight to Tbilisi the next morning (no long road trip with protest delays this time!). Armenia surprised me with its natural beauty and dedication to the stories told from generations before. I just imagine laying on a beautifully-made carpet, sipping a glass of Armenian wine on the grass next to one of Armenia’s storied monasteries – that’s probably the Armenian pinnacle! And, Happy Birthday, Yerevan – 2800 never looked so young!

-Michael

Earth, Water, Wind and Most Importantly, Fire [Azerbaijan]

Travel

I commonly get asked the question, “How do you decide on xyz country to travel to?” A few times I have a pretty good answer, but often, including this trip, I shrug my shoulders and say, “Well, I look at a map and find parts of the world I don’t know much about and then decide to learn more by traveling there.” This time around, I zoomed in to the region that connects Europe and Asia to see what was going on. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan — a region referred to as the Caucasus along the Caucasus Mountain range between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. It’s an interesting spot in the world in terms of geographical semantics. Is it part of Europe? Is it part of Asia? Is it part of the Middle East? I’m not sure there’s a clear answer, but the majority of research I’ve done deems it part of Asia. 

It’s also a region still defining itself. The three countries historically were part of the Soviet Union and each have their own story of gaining independence and defining a national identity. Despite their proximity, the three countries are quite distinctly different in culture, appearance, cuisine, religion and political alignment. Also under definition are the region’s borders and land. There are a handful of autonomous regions, exclaves and separatist movements that prolong tensions that have lasted more than a century.

Interesting dynamics, right? With this background, Robyn and I were excited to explore a region that is foreign to most Westerners. Our first stop in the Caucasus region, Azerbaijan, also known as “The Land of Fire,” sits right west of the Caspian Sea and has an autonomous exclave Nakhchivan to the south of Armenia. Note that there are several disputed areas between Armenia and Azerbaijan that I’ll get into later. Out of the three countries in this region, Azerbaijan is mostly unique based on its Islamic religion, majority being Shia Muslim. Azerbaijan is one of the most climate-diverse countries in the world with a wide variety of landscapes ranging from snow-capped mountain ranges, lush green valleys and dry plains. The country covers nine of the known 11 climate zones! Fun fact: more than half of the world’s “mud volcanoes” exist in this region, formed from hot water and gases beneath the earth’s surface. It is also known as the Land of Fire because of its natural gas preserves and Yanar Dağ, a natural burning hillside by the Caspian Sea. You remember the classical elements from science class, right? Well, Azerbaijan embodies them all. We kicked off the trip with a few days in Azerbaijan with home base in its capital, Baku. Ironically, Baku is also nicknamed “The City of Winds” due to its harsh winds off the sea, a close similarity to our home, Chicago.

October 12, 2018 – Long Legs, Long Flight

Our late evening flight to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines would take us roughly 10 hours. I had heard many great reviews of Turkish Airlines, however, the plane we were blessed with was an old one, you know, the ones that still use headphones instead of earphones and ones without charging options. Regardless, I had pre-downloaded enough Netflix material to cover most of the flight. Sometimes I really enjoy long flights since they allow me to catch up on all the shows I’d meant to watch much sooner. 

October 13, 2018 – Baku Welcomes with Bright Lights

Flying east across the world means that you do in fact lose time, and in our case, the next day arrived while we were in the air. We landed in Istanbul in early afternoon in time for our transfer. The Istanbul airport at the time was in its final days of operation before a shiny, state-of-the-art airport hub opened nearby. Unfortunately we would later return to the U.S. a day or two before the grand opening; even more reason to go back!

The short layover of one hour gave us enough time to weave through the waves of crowded passengers to the tiny restrooms. The next flight, also on Turkish Airlines, was shorter (only a few hours) and led us to our first destination on the trip, Baku, Azerbaijan. Upon arriving in the country’s capital, we had a pleasant time going through immigration and had a timely connection with Nijat, our car transfer, also our Airbnb host. 

One of my most vivid memories from each trip is the moment I step outside the airport doors: the breeze of fresh air hitting my skin after hours of being cooped inside airplanes, the yells and solicitation of local taxi drivers offering rides and the surrounding landscape of a country I know little to nothing about. After loading up in Nijat’s car, I first noticed the brilliant architecture of Baku’s airport (Heydar Aliyev International Airport), which began a flurry of architectural wonders we would see in Baku.

On the way to the city center we saw more interesting buildings lit up in the night, including Baku Crystal Hall, Heydar Aliyev Center and the iconic Flame Towers that overlook the city. I cannot overestimate the amount of neon, bright colored lights installed in the city of Baku. For a city located in some of the oldest parts of civilization, I was shocked to see the modern overuse of lighting accessories typically found in digital-first cities like Seoul or New York City. While cheesy at times, I saw the lights a bit charming to balance the muted stone features the city managed to maintain over centuries of tension. 

Our Airbnb was located within the stone walls of the Old City in Baku, a nice location for us to visit most of the city’s attractions. Weaving through the cobblestone streets, we arrived toward the west end of the Old City and took our bags in a walkway between two stone buildings, to the left in the dark, and up some old wooden creaky stairs to a metal door. Robyn and I peeked inside and slowly surveyed the place before getting too comfortable. Well, let’s just focus on the positives! – location, basic necessities, electricity, and actually, a decent view of the Flame Towers through barred windows. Even though the place had springy beds, a bathroom that anyone over 6′ could really not fit into and a floor so slanted a ball would roll, we were glad to be safe (and sound?) on vacation.

October 14, 2018 – The Old City and the Caspian Shore

Robyn and I took some time to sleep in and get adjusted to the local time, which is 10 hours earlier than Central Time in the U.S. After managing a shower in the small quarters, we got ready and found a place to grab lunch in the Old City. The Baku Old City restaurant had some options that worked for our appetite, including an omelet, coffee and kebabs. 

Along the Old City’s stone streets were small shops, restaurants, handicrafts, pomegranate juicers, ice cream vendors and tandoor bread. The Old City was recently added as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it reminded me of the stoned city we explored in Kotor, Montenegro, back in 2015. We ventured outside of the Old City walls into proper Baku. Not far you could see the blue Caspian Sea. It was Sunday, so many locals were out enjoying the beautiful weather and spending time with friends and family. We walked over to Dənizkənarı Milli Park, a park that covers the shoreline of the Sea. No beaches here; instead, many couples sat on the concrete steps spending a moment together before the work week began the next day. Robyn and I were impressed by the locals and their attire; most everyone we ran into in Baku looked put-together, presentable and at times, trendy. 

To the southern end of the park is the Azerbaijani Carpet Museum, a building that looks like a rolled-up carpet as well as the Caspian Waterfront Mall in a shape of a blossoming flower. (Again, the architecture was really one-of-a-kind!). Walking with a coffee in the park, we noticed men typically walked in pairs – and we don’t know why! The locals mostly had strong, dark features and were relatively tall. 

We returned to the Old City to check out one of the city’s main attractions, the Maiden Tower. It’s an odd attraction for sure, with little known about its actual purpose, dating back to at least the 12th Century. From above, it’s in the shape of a paisley buta, and inside, today, is a museum showing its history. To get to the top, you maneuver through interior small stone steps on each level. It didn’t take too terribly long to get to the top, and once we got there, we enjoyed the overlooking views of the city of Baku, the Caspian Sea and the Flame Towers. 

Next to the Maiden Tower is the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a collection of existing and ruined buildings in the center of the Old City. Today, the site includes a main palace, the shah’s mosque with a minaret, burial vaults and a mausoleum. Nearby is a caravansary, a name we got to understand well in the region. A caravansary was an inn where travelers could rest and recover from a day’s journey. These were especially popular in this region, as the Silk Road passed through the Caucasus. 

Hunger started to set in, and we had dinner at a restaurant called “Dolma,” appropriately named for the popular dish consumed by locals. If you’re not familiar, dolma are stuffed dishes, typically meat or vegetable-stuffed grape leaves in Azerbaijan. I ordered lamb dolma, fresh olives and wine from the Qabala region of the country (northern Azerbaijan). The meal was delicious (cheap!) and a nice way to top off our first full day in the region.

After dinner, we walked the streets back to the Old City walls. The nightlife in Baku was bustling on a Sunday night, especially in restaurants, cafes and those enjoying the weather. There are two arched entry points for cars and pedestrians to enter the city walls. Anyone can enter by foot, but the entrances are gated off, allowing for only vehicles with permission. I noticed the automatic gate (similar to toll booth gates) open, and so I started walking inside the city walls and all of a sudden got whacked in the side of the head! At first, I had no idea what happened. I thought someone had hit me or something was thrown at me. Come to find out, the gate was coming down right as I walked in, and boy, did that hurt! Luckily I did not fall down and walked it off, but I could feel a small bump developing on the side of my head. Robyn and I kept walking and stopped at a cafe for some Turkish coffee and hookah (me hoping the hookah would ease a little bit of the head trauma!) Even though we really wanted coffee at the time, we learned from our waiter that Azerbaijanis mostly prefer tea, and they accompany their tea with jam. Before drinking the tea, one takes a scoop of fruit jam and places it in their mouth before drinking the hot tea. I love learning about all the interesting takes on coffee and teas in the countries we visit. Eventually we were off to bed, back on the springy beds and slanted floor.

October 15, 2018 – The Highest Place in Azerbaijan

Robyn and I decided we wanted to experience Azerbaijan outside of Baku for a change, so we booked an excursion to Khinaliq, an ancient Caucasian village located high up in the mountains of the Quba region, which is in the northeastern part of Azerbaijan, close to the southern border of Russia. Before we left for the day, we grabbed a “smoothie” to carry us over until lunch. We laughed as we asked what was in the smoothie, and the barista said, “We use ice cream.” Nothing like being truly American and having ice cream for breakfast.

We met our tour guide Alex and our fellow tour attendees, and let me tell you, we learned it would be quite the crew. In the van was a local Azerbaijani driver, Alex, the tour guide who was part Azerbaijani and part Irish, one Israeli, one Colombian, one Pakistani, Robyn and myself. The Israeli started out asking political questions about Trump and making charged statements to the guide about Turkey, Israel, relationships, everything. The 4-4.5 hour each way was going to be a long day!

As I mentioned before, the country has a lot of different climates and terrains, and it was really great to see this along our drive. Azerbaijan is an oil- and gas-rich country, and it was evident those assets were being put to use for infrastructure. The highways were so smooth and updated, and many large trucks lined the road for cross-country transport.

Partway, we stopped at Besh Barmag Mountain, also known as the Five Finger Mountain. It is a popular pilgrimage spot for Azerbaijanis, known for its mythical legends and sacred nature. At the foot of the mountain is a mosque where many come and ask for blessings for their families. We then stopped for snacks at Bolmart, where I couldn’t stop laughing about the similarity in rhyming to Walmart. The inside of the supermarket was the cleanest I’ve ever seen, with seemingly nothing out of place and no item not fully stocked. 

The terrain changed quite a bit the further we got north and closer we got to the Caucasus Mountains. Most of the trip was a dry, grey landscape, which later turned into beautiful fall colors and tree canopies, usually consisting of birch trees. Each larger city that we passed had an entry marker built in a light stone with the city’s name engraved in large letters. In many instances, a large color picture of what I assumed was the Azerbaijani president accompanied the entrance. Each town’s entrance was so similar and seemed characterless. 

We arrived in Quba (pronounced like Cuba), the closest larger city to our destination Khinaliq. For the interest of our favorite Israeli tourist, we stopped at the Grand Synagogue, which lies in a Jewish neighborhood that hosts the largest community of Mountain Jews. There are bird markers on the corners of homes in the area to signify Jewish presence in the home, which was interesting to see. Overall, Quba had beautiful homes, bridges and colors in autumn.

On to Khinaliq we continued on a paved (but bumpy) road through the Caucasus Mountains. From time to time we would maneuver a hill of switchbacks, but for the most part, it was just a long road that gained elevation over time. We stopped partway to take some pictures of the red granite rock protruding from the mountains. Robyn and I dressed appropriately with sweaters and coats, however, our fellow tourists were shocked by the brisk weather at altitude. Or maybe our skin was prepared given Chicago winters?

It took us a while to get to the top of the region. We passed by a few villages and wondered, “Is this it? Is that it?” Eventually we reached the road’s end, with the village of Khinaliq overlooking the path below. It’s majestic, breathtaking. The mountains looked like an oil painting in the background, and you pinch yourself thinking, “Where the hell am I?” 

Khinaliq is the highest (~8,000 feet), most remote village in Azerbaijan that sits in the middle of the Greater Caucasus mountains that divide Russia and the Southern Caucasus. Despite just a spattering of small tin and stone buildings in the village, an estimated 2,000 people live there. The village only inter-marries, elongating traditions and culture for years to come. The villagers speak a slightly different language than Azerbaijani that has been around for centuries. The village practices Sunni Islam and has a mosque at the top of the village.

Before we could explore too much, our guide met up with our village host, and we entered a small, low ceiling home. Outside of the home was an outhouse, with a hole in the ground to go the restroom. There was a grill of sorts outside as well, where some of the lamb was being prepared. We were guided to a room in the back of the shanty where a dining table awaited us. Also in the room was a kid’s bed and a window overlooking the mountains. The man of the house chatted with all of us in Azerbaijani with our guide acting as translator. He turned out to be quite the jokester, poking fun at all of us and things associated to our home countries. The housewife served us a delicious meal of potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, rice pilaf and lamb. At the end of the meal, traditional black tea with jam was served, a tasty way to end a meal. 

We were then turned loose to explore the village. Most of the buildings are made of packed stone or manure blocks. In recent years, the government provided the village with tin and building supplies, which was met by some with welcoming arms and others with resistance. Chickens, dogs, cats and kids roamed the dirt and rock paths up the mountain, looking at us with wonder and awe. 

The mountains surrounding the village were a grey/green mixture of color with hints of yellow from the autumn season. I took some time to take in the views, snap a few pics and breathe heavily in and out, a hint of meditation in a peaceful, nearly untouched place in the world.

We took back to the road, and everyone eventually fell asleep in the van. I was awake the majority of the time and made good conversation with the Pakistani. He was on vacation by himself and had an interest in the region’s unexpected fascination with crypto-currency such as Bitcoin. 

Back in Baku, we were dropped off at the Old City, and to make things interesting on the walk home, we noticed our section of the Old City was dark. We thought maybe just a few businesses were closed but walked to our Airbnb and realized we did not have power. We decided to drop our things off and head back out because other places had electricity. We had dinner at Qazbaq, where live saxophone played in the corner. I had chicken, rice pilaf and olives, a similar meal to what we had earlier in the day in Khinaliq. After dinner, we grabbed some fresh pomegranate juice as we walked through the Palace of the Shirvanshahs. Pomegranates are popular in the region and are found in many handicrafts, wines and flavors. After a long trek to the north end of Azerbaijan and back to Baku, we were dead tired. 

img_5477

October 16, 2018 – Caucasus Step 1, Complete

Our stint in Azerbaijan had come to an end as we then headed to Georgia and Armenia. We had quite the experience leaving via the airport. After figuring out we were in a different terminal, we waited in a long line among many confused travelers and attendants. I had never seen so many airport staff with confused looks on their faces as they checked people’s bags and printed tickets. Robyn and I eventually had our checked bags done and then headed to the regular security line. A first for me, after checking IDs, we had to place each foot in a foot scanner. I assume it checks for anything in the shoes so that you don’t have to take them off – interesting. Robyn and I proceeded to the scanner, and got held up by staff for not having a “bag tag” on our backpacks. We had never heard of this, so we had to go all the way back to the first counter to get “bag tags” – literally just a paper tag given from the desk staff. We eventually made it through the strange airport experience and boarded a flight to Tbilisi, Georgia. 

I’m glad Robyn and I took the time to check out Azerbaijan on this trip. Out of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, it was the most unique of the three and opened our eyes to the dynamics of the region. The people were welcoming and excited we paid a visit to a country sometimes overlooked for shinier vacation spots in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. While I loved the black tea I purchased from the country, the small bump on my head from the traffic gate incident would not let me forget The Land of Fire.

Check out my next posts as Robyn and I travel to Azerbaijan’s neighbors, Georgia and Armenia.

-Michael

 

Specks of Paradise Lie Secluded in the Indian Ocean [Seychelles]

Travel

[This is the third post of a three-part trip recap. Previous post: The Food Chain In Action, from a Spectator’s View [Tanzania]]

October 12, 2017 – Trading for Tropics

The safari portion of our trip had come to a sunset, and it was time to trade in the khaki shorts and brimmed hats for tank tops and swimsuits. Early in the morning, we headed to Nairobi’s dated airport for a flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Nairobi airport had several layers of security beyond what we typically see in the West. Before you enter the building, you have to scan your suitcase and belongings. Then, you have the standard layer of security lines and scanners. Finally, before you enter the seating area at the gate, you go through another screen. Check-check-check and we were on our way to Ethiopia to catch a connection to Mahé, the largest island of Seychelles [pronounced SAY-SHELLS].

If you’re wondering where Seychelles is, the 115-island archipelago nation is in the Indian Ocean more than 900 miles east of mainland Africa. It is the smallest country in terms of both size and population on the continent of Africa and ranks 182 out of 196 countries in the world in terms of size.

The flight to Mahé was four hours from Addis Ababa, and the landing on the islands was beautiful. Mahé has a mountainous terrain with pristine beaches that line its perimeter. After landing on the narrow runway, we walked off the plane to the small terminal. We hailed a cab to our lodge, which was on the other end of the island. In Seychelles, drivers drive on the left side of the road, and the main road goes around the perimeter of the island due to its mountainous interior. We found our lodge on the southwest side of the island, surrounded by palm trees, tropical flowers and the hot sun. An Italian couple owned the lodge and showed us our room, which was only a three minute walk from the beach. The beach, known as Anse Takamaka, was quite private with large granite boulders at each end. After settling our things in our room, we spent the rest of the afternoon at the beach, finding a bunch of beach glass pieces and witnessing the sunset. We returned to the lodge and had a fresh veggie dinner before heading to bed on the islands in paradise.

October 13, 2017 – Day at the Beach

Before we left to explore the island, we had a great breakfast of coconut water, cereal, coffee and slices of coconut. We then took the bus, only 10 Seychellois rupees, to the nearest grocery store. Most of the island speaks Seychellois Creole and French with only a portion of the island knowing English. The language barrier wasn’t too much of an issue, as we shopped for some drinks and snacks for our day at the beach with no problem. One of our most interesting purchases was Takamaka rum, a locally distilled brand made from local sugarcane. It was really delicious when mixed with Coke!

After the supermarket, we headed back to our semi-private beach. It was incredibly hot – the islands are only a few degrees south of the equator. Robyn spent most of the afternoon looking around the beach to add to her collection of beach glass. She ended up with more than a bottle-full of the polished pieces to bring back to the States. I spent the afternoon soaking up the sun and reading a book.