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. 

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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.

At the shore, you could see whitetip reef sharks roaming around the clouded water. They apparently are typically harmless unless provoked, but seeing and feeling any kind of shark near your legs was a bit unnerving. After reading a bit, I walked the length of the beach in the soft sand and saw a few reef sharks within a few feet of me from time to time. At the entrance of the beach was a gated area of giant tortoises eating fresh fruit from the island. We spent the rest of the day at the beach until sunset before returning to the lodge. A shower was needed to get all of the sand out of every crevice. There was limited Wi-fi available on the island, only accessible through pre-paid minutes on iSurf, similar to pre-paid phone call minutes.

October 14, 2017 – Visiting the Market in Victoria

It was time to get a little more active, so we took the bus around the island to the capital city of Seychelles, Victoria. The 5-rupee per trip fare delivered us to the main bus terminal in Victoria. Our main point of interest was the Sir Selwyn-Clarke Market, a popular island destination to buy fresh fish, spices, vegetables, prepared food and clothing. It was Saturday, so it was a busy place to be.

Seychelles is known for vanilla, coconut, coconut oil, cinnamon, lemongrass, creole spices and fish, and there was plenty of that to go around at the market. I purchased some vanilla tea and essence from the market for about $5. We continued walking around the market and saw a band playing local music and a few token drunks dancing for the crowd’s enjoyment. The architecture and music of the area reminded me of New Orleans.

We took the bus back to the lodge and snacked on some Ohmypop honey butter popcorn. The bus drivers were confident and precise in Seychelles. The two-way roads are narrow enough for standard cars. One side of the coastal road is often a cliff and the other is a growing tree line. On top of that, many of the roads weave up and down the mountainside.

The rest of the afternoon we spent at the beach and watched the sunset again with a Savanna cider and Seybrew beer in hand. Back at the lodge, we had our laundry done for 20 Euros because we were getting short on clean clothes. Shoutout to the poor staff that had to deal with the dirty and soiled safari clothes!

October 15, 2017 – An Island and a Plane Smaller

As part of our time in Seychelles, we decided to island hop a little bit. We headed back to the airport in Victoria via bus. It was Sunday, so a lot of people were dressed up in bright colors on their way to church. The security checkpoint at the airport was probably the smallest I had ever seen. We were unsure what kind of plane we would be on for a short trip to another island. Pretty soon we were on our way to Praslin [pronounced PRA-LAY] island in a small propeller plane that sat a total of 14 people. The two pilots were within arm’s reach, and we watched them press the handles forward as we lifted off the ground toward Praslin, which was about 20 minutes away.

Praslin is northeast of Mahé and is the second-most populated island with about 8,000 people. We landed and walked about half a mile with our suitcases to Seashell Beach Villa. The villa was owned by a local family and hosted a few guests. It was also right next to the beach, with the front “yard” being essentially the ocean. We needed to grab some food, so we went to the local store, however, it was closed on Sundays. We found a villa with a restaurant and then went back to our villa to spend the rest of the day oceanside at Grand Anse. It again was so incredibly hot, and my skin tone surpassed the darkest tone it had ever been. Another chapter passed in my book and sunset came. Back in our room, we caught up on texts and news with the Wi-fi provided.

October 16, 2017 – Spending Monday Lazy

Not far from our place was a pseudo-Whole Foods. It had a the same logo, but the ‘o’ in ‘Whole’ was replaced with a coco-de-mer, the official symbol of the island. (The nut has quite the suggestive shape – Google it!). We grabbed some food and drinks at the market, enough to get us through our time on the island. On the way back to our place, we saw a great deal on Takamaka dark rum and snagged a bottle.

You guessed it, we spent the rest of the day at Grand Anse beach drinking rum and Cokes. The beach had a lot of seaweed that washed ashore. There was little-to-no foot traffic on the beach other than some couples walking holding hands at sunset. For dinner, Robyn and I made spaghetti with a side of fresh fruit. At the villa, we also became big fans of Nespresso instant coffee.

October 17, 2017 – Anse Lazio Dazzles

Okay, it was time to get a little more active. We had breakfast and planned a trip to Anse Lazio, one of the best beaches in Seychelles and in the world. We planned to take the bus, however, our villa host Cindy was super kind and had her brother pick us up and take us to Mont Plaisir, an overlook on the north part of the island. We walked up through a forested mountain and then down a dirt hill until reaching the beach. The beach is known for its massive granite boulders and pristine clear waters. The granite boulders were so unique from its formation as an island thousands of years ago.

Anse Lazio was much more touristy and had lots of foot traffic. We found a spot to post up and lay out. Here, the sun was the hottest I had ever felt. Luckily there were clouds here and there to break up the intense heat. We’d go about 30 seconds with unfiltered sun before it got unbearable and then root for a cloud to filter the heat. I certainly added to my darker-than-usual skin tone this day!

As a refreshment, we grabbed a Coke before leaving and then walked up and down steep hills to Anse Boudin to catch the bus. A bus ride cost the equivalent of $0.75. Anse Boudin was quite small, but it had incredible views of other islands in the archipelago, most of which were uninhabited. We jumped on the bus and went clockwise around Praslin, so we did get to see the majority of the island, including the Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve, a well-preserved palm forest that included the iconic coco-de-mer. Much like Mahé island, the buses on Praslin hauled a** around the island’s narrow winding roads.

October 18, 2017 – Island Number Three

Why not island hop one more time?! We did some research the night before and planned a day trip to La Digue [pronounced LA-DEEG]. We took the bus to the jetty in Baie St. Anne and got tickets at the pier for $34 for a roundtrip excursion to La Digue island. The ferry ride was 20 minutes to the island. La Digue is the fourth-largest island in Seychelles, home to about 3,000 people.

La Digue only allowed vehicles for commercial purposes, so navigation around the island was either by bike or by foot. We decided to walk the island, with our main sights set on Anse Source d’Argent. The walk to the popular beach included shops, palm trees, schools and churches. To enter the area of the beach, you pay an entrance fee to the L’Union Estate Farm, home to giant tortoises, coconuts, vanilla orchid plants and other agriculture. The path led to Anse Source d’Argent, another beach with gigantic granite boulders that formed with time.

A coral reef protected the beach from waves, so we were able to swim out pretty far in shallow water. The water here was so incredibly clear, and we could see fish swimming in the clear ocean. After walking through a path of granite boulders, we found a shady spot and spent a few hours in this paradise. Eventually, we headed back toward the pier to catch our return ferry to Praslin. That evening, we finished off our dark Takamaka run and other foods, as our time on the elusive Seychelles islands was coming to a close.

October 19, 2017 – Back to Mainland

In order to get back to mainland Africa, we took a small propeller plane from Praslin to Mahé, and then caught a flight from there to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Before leaving the islands, I opened Google Maps on my phone just to relive how incredible it was to be exploring a place in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

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After several hours on the plane to Ethiopia, we arrived safely and waited around for a connecting flight back to Nairobi. One memory I have from the airport there was the Nepalese army crowding an area near the bathrooms. I had to use the restroom, so I stood next to the soldiers when doing my business. As you might assume, the Nepalese are quite short, and several of the guys looked at me and my height with awe, some even sneaking photos. Why the Nepalese army was in Ethiopia? No clue.

We boarded a late night flight to Kenya, and once arriving, took a cab to our hotel in the Westlands neighborhood of the city, a commercial area of the capital. Across the street from our hotel was Havana, a restaurant night club. We did arrive at our hotel quite late, and this place was still lively and loud. We tried to force ourselves to sleep with the subs shaking the hotel walls.

October 20-21, 2017 – Baadaye, Africa!

The next day we relaxed a bit in the capital city, grabbing coffee nearby and checking out some of the discounted, knock-off brand clothing on the commercial streets. Being back in third-world Kenya was a bit of a change after being in Seychelles. The Kenyan presidential election was still being contested at the time, and the Elections Commission was under fire for corruption. Kenya eventually scheduled another election date, which would be held after our trip.

We flew back to Europe and then to Chicago to end our three-week journey in Africa. My first time in Africa was in the books, and I will never forget the wonderful memories we made on the safari and on the islands. It was a perfect mix of activities (safari to city to beach), cultures and experiences. Witnessing wildlife in its natural habitat was really rewarding, and this made my “Lion King” dreams as a kid come true. The people of these countries were incredibly welcoming to tourists and wanted to be known for their hospitality rather than for the typical news that reports them as a “troubled” part of the world. If anything, give it a chance and you will be rewarded.

-Michael

The Food Chain In Action, from a Spectator’s View [Tanzania]

Travel

[This is the second post of a three-part trip recap. Previous post: Animals, Warriors Survive the Wild and Each Other [Kenya]]

October 7, 2017 – Lake Manyara First, Serengeti Last

Waking up early was the name of the game again. If only I could make this a habit back home! Today’s safari adventure led us first to Lake Manyara, a shallow lake in north central Tanzania. Luckily the park looked lush despite its weary, dry surroundings. The drive around Lake Manyara was intimate, allowing us to see wildlife up close and personal. Much to my delight, we saw many elephants eating alongside the small road that surrounded the lake. On the lake itself, we saw many types of birds keeping cool in the early morning sun.

 

 

Near the end of our time at Lake Manyara, groups of monkeys lined the path of the road. Behind them, we could see large dirt mounds that looked like giant sandcastles with small windows. Come to find out, they were termite mounds, and we’d continue to see them throughout the rest of our time in mainland Africa. Right before we exited the park, we saw an elephant family walking in a line, led by the largest elephants. We were confused, as the leading elephant was carrying a limp baby elephant on its trunk. Unfortunately, the family was carrying a stillborn baby to a private spot to bury it. It certainly was a sad thing to witness, however, it was beautiful to see an elephant family pay respect to the situation.

 

 

LAKE MANYARA WILDLIFE

  • Termite
  • Elephant
  • Grant gazelle
  • Zebra
  • Wildebeest
  • Flamingo
  • Pelican
  • Marabou stork
  • Egyptian goose
  • Monkey
  • Baboon
  • Warthog
  • African buffalo
  • Impala
  • Giraffe
  • Mongoose
  • Dik-dik
  • Guinea fowl

After leaving the park, we headed through the highlands toward Ngorongoro Crater. The views were so much different than what we had seen previously. We were able to see the crater periodically, but we would be returning in a few days, as we were actually going to the Serengeti first. The road to Serengeti National Park was so so so so incredibly dry. Every once in a while, we’d see Masai tribal members walking the grey lands while cars zoomed by and layered them with dust. There was no green living plant or vegetation for tens of miles. The ride was also quite terrible and long. The gravel dirt roads were unbearably rough, and I felt numb all over my body.

 

 

We finally made it to the park and began seeing vegetation and animals. The Serengeti lands varied in terrain – grasslands, prairie, forest, river banks, mountains and plains. Much to the delight of the earth, it started to rain a little in the park. One of the most commonly known phenomenons of African wildlife is the Great Migration, a migration of over a million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras and gazelles from the Masai Mara in Kenya to the Serengeti in Tanzania. In a way, Robyn and I were doing the same migration on our safari, going north to south. In the middle of the Serengeti, we sat in our truck and watched for a while as a massive, never ending line of wildebeest migrated through the park.

 

 

It was a long drive through the Serengeti to our lodge at the top of a mount in the park. The lodge had a main reception area with individual cabins throughout the area. Security guards in uniforms were required to lead us to places in the dark. The guards held a spear to protect visitors from wildlife in the area. We of course already had the ultimate scare with the red spitting cobra in Kenya – not sure if much could top that! The lodge that housed the restaurant overlooked the Serengeti. I remember looking out while eating my meal and thinking that the Serengeti looked like a blurry oil painting of light green and beige strokes.

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October 8, 2017 – Safari Pros by Now

We were finally blessed with a little bit of time to sleep in under our secured mosquito net. Accompanying us at breakfast were groups of Germans and Israelis, full family squads. I thought to myself, “Can you imagine being a 5-year-old and getting to go on a safari in the Serengeti?!” That would have been my dream at that age, especially since The Lion King was so popular at that time.

The whole day we spent game driving across the Serengeti in the super hot midday heat. The Serengeti is really big and animals are spread out, contrary to the Masai Mara. We saw the usual animals, but then saw a group of three lions who we watched for a while. Next, a group of around 30 elephants hung out near a grassy, forested area. We really didn’t have too many issues with bugs or flies during our safari, but this day was different (or maybe it was just the area we were in). The tsetse flies were SO bad. There were so many of them, and they had no shame biting every time they landed on us. They even would bite through our clothes! Usually, when you shoo a fly away, they usually buzz off or don’t come back that often. Not these guys! I shook my arms to get them off, and they hung on my arms and legs. I probably killed about 15 of the tsetse flies within 30 minutes; luckily we drove off to an area that was less infested.

 

 

In the middle of the park, we ate at a small shed. Our daily lunches typically included chicken, fresh fruit, bread and water. A few monkeys smartly loitered near the shed, waiting to snatch any food or leftovers from us.

We spent a few more hours game driving and quickly saw a massive lion laying down near some bushes. Then we saw two more under shade right next to it. We sat quietly in the truck with Isaac watching their movements and soon spotted several cubs with their mother under a bush! In total, we counted 10 lions within about 30 feet! Typically the guide is the one that finds wildlife and points it out to us, however, this time it was our find. After all, we had several days of practice.

 

 

During our drive back, we ran into another migration of wildebeest and zebra in central Serengeti. Back at the lodge, we relaxed for a bit before a lovely dinner of soup, rice, chicken, salad, coffee and soda. In the Serengeti, there was no wifi or service, so we were really disconnected from everything. Don’t we all need that?

 

 

October 9, 2017 – Lions Steal the Show, Again

It was my half-birthday, and what a better way to celebrate than waking up in the middle of the Serengeti. We spent the morning roaming central Serengeti, where a lot of trucks were out jockeying for views of wildlife. For quite some time, we watched three lions resting in a low area who were ready to hunt. We watched for about 30 minutes as they crept up on some zebras. The zebras were quite still, but I sensed that they knew something was coming for them. The lions got within 10 feet of the zebra before the zebras moved, requiring more creeping by the lions.

 

 

A few of the other lions were walking right next to our truck. They were so close that we could reach out and touch them! We then raced off to see a leopard, a rare find in the world of game drives. We used our binoculars to zoom in on the leopard in the tree as other trucks zoomed by to get in on the action. We had a nice picnic lunch in the middle of the Serengeti and saw a few more animals before leaving, including a hyena on the way out of the park.

 

 

SERENGETI WILDLIFE

  • Red iguana
  • Lizard
  • Giraffe
  • Zebra
  • Ostrich
  • Marabou stork
  • Grant gazelle
  • Thomson gazelle
  • Hawk
  • Termite
  • Cheetah
  • Warthog
  • Egyptian goose
  • Waterbuck
  • Baboon
  • Guinea fowl
  • Wildebeest
  • African buffalo
  • Dik-dik
  • Impala
  • Centipede
  • Secretarybird
  • Elephant
  • Vervet monkey
  • Topi
  • Crane
  • Flies
  • Lion
  • Vulture
  • Crown crane
  • Superb starling
  • Hartebeest
  • Hyena
  • Leopard

To the surprise of us and the earth, the sky started to get dark, and rain started pelting the ground, causing dust to puff off the dry soil.

 

 

The long, rough ride back to Ngorongoro Crater was no cakewalk, but we knew what to expect. There were some Masai tribal members that had bush homes near the crater, not too far from our hotel stay. We lucked out and got switched to a hotel with a crater view. We took time to clean up and look nice for dinner (for once). The hotel was very nice and had live music during dinner. Our free 30 min wifi minutes zoomed by fast, enough to respond to some texts and check the news. Back in the room, the clean clothes in our suitcases were dwindling fast.

 

 

October 10, 2017 – Inside the Crater

Once again we were early risers to see Ngorongoro Crater at dawn. The crater formed when a volcano imploded on itself two to three million years ago. To get down into the crater, Isaac drove down switchbacks, a common experience in nearly all of my travels. The crater has a unique mix of animals, and first, we watched about 20 hippos hang out in their muddy pool in the center of the crater.

 

 

Ngorongoro is known for being home to some rhinos, a rare find on a typical safari. We heard that a U.S. Senator was in the park and instructed his driver to drive off-road up to a rhino. This was obviously illegal, but Isaac said that it’s a $500 fine, which I’m sure is no big deal for someone of such status. We saw the rhino from afar, but we were not expecting to get as close to a rhino as we did near Lake Nakuru.

 

 

NGORONGORO WILDLIFE

  • Giraffe
  • Thomson gazelle
  • Wildebeest
  • Ostrich
  • Donkey
  • Zebra
  • Hawk
  • Guinea fowl
  • African buffalo
  • Secretarybird
  • Warthog
  • Jackal
  • Egyptian goose
  • Hyena
  • Hippo
  • Crown crane
  • Marabou stork
  • Pelican
  • Egret
  • Augur buzzard
  • Rhino
  • Lion
  • Grant gazelle
  • Elephant
  • Baboon

Safari fatigue started to settle in. Most people go on a 3-5 day safari, however, ours was nearly two weeks. We were taking in the views of the crater and its surroundings before leaving the conservation area. We asked Isaac if we could stop at a craft store, where we both did a little bit of shopping for our co-workers, family and friends. After that, we headed to a garden villa hotel not too far from the crater.

A friendly Marabou stork hung around the hotel, where the local staff fed it some leftover food. Dinner that evening was beautiful, lit by candlelight and share plates catered by welcoming hosts. Back at our individual lodge, we were again spooked before going to bed. We heard noises and saw flashlights outside of our cabin at a late hour in the evening. I got up and peeked out the window, confused what was going on. I then laughed to myself as I saw a hose watering plants in front of our cabin. A little late to water plants I’d say, but we weren’t making the rules.

October 11, 2017 – Tanzania and Safari Closes

Our safari was coming to an end, which was hard to believe. We did a little more shopping in the morning before heading back toward the Tanzania-Kenya border. For lunch, we stopped in Arusha, a large, bustling city in northeastern Tanzania. The streets were filled with vendors, people and vehicles. Isaac instructed us to close our windows and keep our belongings secure. The lunch spot was actually behind guarded walls as an extra layer of security.

After lunch, we proceeded back to the border, where we said goodbye to Isaac. Isaac was quiet, young and very polite. It took us a while to get him to loosen up, but toward the end, we felt like close friends cracking jokes with each other. A nice black Toyota SUV picked us up at the border and took us back to Nairobi. That evening, we stayed in a fancy city hotel. The dinner buffet was delicious, with fresh fruits, salads and desserts.

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This was the official end of the safari, our time in Tanzania, and the use of earth-toned clothes. After this, I’m not sure I could ever go to a zoo again! This was the real deal, and I got to experience it with a great friend, great guides and the wonderful people (and animals) of Kenya and Tanzania.

-Michael

Animals, Warriors Survive the Wild and Each Other [Kenya]

Travel

Another year, another continent – this time, Africa! In early 2017, I won an award at work that afforded a trip anywhere in the world, and with Africa on my wish list, I couldn’t think of anywhere more exciting to visit at the time. Ironically, my friend and travel companion Robyn won a similar award at her company a few years prior. One of my dreams as a child, as many of us have, was to go on a safari and see animals in their natural habitats. One day in the summer of 2017, Robyn and I did some research for a safari company and a trip that would fulfill our adventurous dreams over three weeks. Follow us as we explore Kenya, Tanzania and the Seychelles.

September 30, 2017 – Wake Me Up When September Ends

If you’ve read or followed our previous travels, it probably won’t surprise you that Robyn and I find a good deal on flights. We had a short flight from Chicago to Detroit, and then flew KLM to Amsterdam. I luckily did not have anyone next to me on the flight, which at first sounds lovely, but I also find it awkward on how to utilize the extra space. I’m too tall to lay down, and I didn’t have a lot of extra bags to move. Robyn, on the other hand, was getting chatted up by a guy three-to-four glasses of wine deep. Guess where glass five went? Knocked over and spilt all over his lap.

October 1, 2017 – Europe to Africa

We arrived in Amsterdam around 10 a.m. and walked around the airport to find breakfast. Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport basically looks like one big Apple store and makes the American security lines look like a third-world country. After breakfast, we boarded our 12:30 p.m. flight to Nairobi, Kenya, with a crowd mixed of tourists and native Kenyans. Sitting in the last row of the plane, access to the bathrooms was perfect, however, the area next to us essentially turned into a yoga studio with everyone coming by to stretch out their limbs.

Outside of our airplane windows shone sporadic night lights in the African countryside. After landing, we went through immigration in a warm building with slow-moving lines. We exchanged currency for some Kenyan shillings and exited the building where about 60 people stood with signs yelling names. I found my name in the crowd and met Emmanuel, who walked us in the dark to a van. It was difficult to see Nairobi at night on the way to our hotel – Sarova Panafric. Security in Kenya at this point was already evident, as you had to place luggage through a scanner before you even entered the hotel. A tall Kenyan named Collins led us to our room, which was decent and exposed to the outdoors.

During our time in Kenya, the country was going through national election turmoil, as the official election in August was deemed invalid due to voter fraud. The re-election was slated for late October, and we were wary of protests and uprising against the Kenyan government and election commission.

A moment of “pinch yourself” swept through my body right before I closed my eyes that night – I was spending the night in Kenya, in Africa, for the first time.

October 2, 2017 – Google Kenya to Kenya Safari

Part of winning the award for this trip included the ask of visiting a Google office around the world. Google has an office in Nairobi of about 30 employees. We took a taxi to the office where we saw Nairobi in daylight for the first time. There was lots of traffic on both the roads and sidewalks. It was evident that the city infrastructure was quite poor. On the way to Google, we passed by a lot of high-fenced areas with security guards. To get into Google, we had to get through the main gate security which included guards using mirrors to check under the taxi for car bombs. I had set up a meeting with a colleague named Regina who works in a similar capacity. She gave me a quick tour of the small office, which was undergoing some construction and painting. Her work covers both Kenya and Tanzania, with her main clients being Safaricom, Unilever and Coca-Cola. She also showed us M-Pesa, a mobile phone-based money transfer, financing and microfinancing service where you can pay friends in both phone minutes or cash. One of the key differences between Google in the U.S. and Google in Kenya is the level of education and understanding of what Google can do for you. She said that Kenyans are not inclined to search on Google because they ask their family or friends for recommendations or advice, so there is a lot of education that Google is doing.

We said goodbye to Regina and headed back to the hotel, where we met our Kenyan safari guide Moses, a.k.a. Abbaa. Before we left the city, a group of election protestors supporting the opposition took up the entire street. We maneuvered around and headed out of town. Small villages along the way proved that the third-world is indeed real. There were a lot of abandoned buildings and people selling goods on the side of the road. We stopped for lunch along the highway and continued on to the Masai Mara National Reserve. The road was only paved for part of the way and then turned into a very rough road that Abbaa called a “constant massage.” It made the dirt roads back home in Kansas seem like the Autobahn. Abbaa picked up one of his friends in a nearby village and continued toward the park. Kids along the road stopped and waved, as if they had never seen cars nor foreigners before.

Upon arriving at Masai Mara, Abbaa went to get our entrance tickets. In the meantime, Masai tribal women surrounded our safari van pushing jewelry, trinkets, and crafts in our faces. They were an aggressive sell! Right before sunset, we went on an evening game drive – absolutely incredible to be out there riding right by zebras, giraffes, cheetahs and wildebeests in their natural home.

Our lodging was next to a Masai tribal village, where we stayed in tents with a small bathroom in the back. For dinner, I had potatoes, soup and some fresh fruit. Electricity is rare in such a remote place in southwest Kenya, so we only had lights and power from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Lights out!

October 3, 2017 – Masai Mara & The Masai

Our first safari day was here! What to wear? Of course we had the stereotypical floppy safari hat and nature-colored clothes. (Let me tell you, it is hard to be stylish on a safari!) The temperature continued to climb throughout the day, hitting high 80’s as we drove furiously through the Masai Mara Reserve. To keep our 12-day safari trek interesting, Robyn and I made each day into a scavenger hunt (gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “game drive”). At each park, we noted every animal that we saw, always looking for something new or rare. The Masai Mara is a great park to see the “Big 5” animals (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and African buffalo), the most sought after African wildlife.

MASAI MARA WILDLIFE

  • Hawk
  • Vervet monkeys
  • Deer
  • Ostrich (and eggs)
  • Giraffe
  • African buffalo
  • Zebra
  • Impala
  • Warthog
  • Wildebeest
  • Mongoose
  • Jackal
  • Cheetah
  • Hippo
  • Lion
  • Turkey
  • Marabou stork
  • Lilac-breasted roller
  • Hyena
  • Elephant
  • Thomson gazelle
  • Grant gazelle
  • Eland antelope
  • Vulture
  • Waterbuck
  • Crocodile
  • Egyptian goose
  • Baboon
  • Leopard
  • Secretarybird
  • Termite
  • Topi

It really was amazing to see the lions sleep for most of the day and then go stalking prey for their next meal. The hardest find was the leopard, as they are rare and relax up in trees. We luckily found one that had just drug its kill up into the tree. Having binoculars was so clutch to see the detail of the animals’ bodies, especially the delicate and beautiful coat of the leopard.

After dinner, we stopped at the Masai tribal village next to our stay. The Masai are a traditional, nomadic group who live in the wild amongst Africa’s wildlife and nature. They are most commonly known for their bright “shuka” sheets that wrap around their thin bodies. We watched as some of the young men performed a dance and sang tribal songs. The leader of the village allowed us to enter their community “grounds” and invited us into his mud-made hut. There is obviously no electricity, so walking into his small one-room hut was quite dark, however, he told us to watch as our eyes adjusted to the little bit of light that peeked through the cracks of the walls. Inside was a fire pit for cooking, a bed, utensils and blankets. We had a nice conversation with him. Here are some fun facts from our chat:

  • The Masai village allow polygamy
  • His favorite food (and common favorite for everyone) is cow’s blood mixed with milk
  • They do not have contact with the government and are disconnected from news and the world
  • They make their own medicine
  • In order for boys to become warriors, at the age of 15, they go out and live in the bush for three years (yes, among lions, elephants and giraffes!)
  • Masai are allowed to vote (and at the time of the contested 2017 election, were heavily favoring the opposition)
  • They make their own homes of mud, which last about nine years
  • He had heard of President Obama and loved him since Obama has heritage from Kenya
  • They use a lot of plants for dyes, allergy medicines, cooling agents, stomach aches and bug repellant
  • They have goats, dogs, cows, sheep and chicken. They spend most of their days herding their animals and allowing them to graze
  • The bright red sheets that they wear across their bodies is for protection if a wild animal attacks (supposed to throw the sheet at the animal and they will retract)
  • Masai are the only tribe allowed with weapons, mallets and knives

After the chat, a couple of boys showed us how they make fire with a wood stick, a knife and some brush. Success! We walked around the simple, dusty camp, watching kids enjoy the simple things in life, a soccer ball made of tied rags. The Masai’s eyes were yellow and bodies worn from the dry summer and manual labor. Just think – no pharmacy medicines, vaccines, soap, showers, mattresses, technology, running water or electricity.

His son walked us back to our stay. We were finally starting to adapt to a simpler lifestyle. This was one of the most incredible days of my life. As I write this, I can vividly bring back the smells, breeze, temperature, visuals and emotions of this day. I remember laying down to sleep that night still in awe of the third-world lifestyle and how lucky I was to have the experience to appreciate it.

October 4, 2017 – Lake Naivasha & Nakuru

Another early morning got us out of our tent and onto the road. We returned back to the rough ride of a road, but at least we knew what to expect on the way back to the highway. We stopped at a handicraft market, which had a lot of animal and tribal statues. Robyn ended up getting a lovely wooden bowl with a giraffe painted on it, and I got an ebony giraffe that I would later give to my grandma Mary Ann who loves the tall creatures. We were prepared to negotiate price with the clerk, and he said everything was 58k Kenyan shillings. We first thought it was $58, which was fair, but then realized he was asking for $580! We gasped and then said we could only do $80; he kept coming down and down on price when we would motion that we were leaving. We ended up getting all the things for $120, or 20% of his original quote – much better!

Our driver Abbaa was quite the character. He was the type of guy who was most popular in school and knew everyone. Everywhere we pulled up, he knew someone who would hook us up. Abbaa was also probably class clown. Eventually he started calling Robyn “Michelle Obama” and me “Michael Barack Obama” since we were from Chicago.

Our next destination was Lake Nakuru, and on the way we stopped in Narok to get gas. The infrastructure was so poor with many unfinished buildings and many people sitting on the sides of the roads or doing blue-collar jobs such as cutting grass with a knife. People stared at us in the van as if they had never seen a light-skinned person. Another stop on the way was Lake Naivasha, where we ate lunch at a garden next to the lake and then went out on the lake in a small boat. The highlight of the lake was groups of hippos splashing and playing around our boat.

After watching baby hippos and their families playing in the lake, we arrived at an island in the center of the lake, home to many common African wildlife species, all which are non-predators and can thrive in the environment without being targeted. Our wildlife guide was fascinating. He used to be a Masai warrior and then studied ornithology to be a bird expert.

LAKE NAIVASHA WILDLIFE

  • Pink-backed pelican
  • Long tail comorant
  • White-necked comorant
  • Hippo
  • Fish eagle
  • Carpenter bee
  • African buffalo
  • Zebra
  • Impala
  • Waterbuck
  • Wildebeest
  • Yellow-billed stork
  • Egret
  • Superb starling
  • Termite

We left Lake Naivasha and headed to Lake Nakuru, which was a few hours away. The decently paved highway was enough comfort to warrant a nap. Lake Nakuru was highly anticipated on our list, as it is one of the few places you might have luck in seeing a rhino. The lands surrounding the lake were lush, full of tree groves, grasses and blooming plants. At sunset, we were so lucky to see a rhino about 20 feet from our van (I was a bit nervous), but it was so large and beautiful as it crossed the road in front of us. Abbaa was delighted as well, as it wasn’t common for him to see a rhino so close either! Throughout the rest of the trip, Abbaa asked for my phone to see the video of the rhino to brag and show other safari leads :). We drove through the green lands, seeing monkeys and other unique creatures along the dirt road as we made our way to the shores of Lake Nakuru. Flamingos flew off into the sunset to end the day’s game drive. Our evening’s stay was in the center of the city of Nakuru, a loud, bustling town with many bikes, motorcycles, tuk-tuks and people out late at night. It was the first and last stay we’d have in a city during the safari.

LAKE NAKURU WILDLIFE

  • Vervet monkey
  • Rhino
  • Impala
  • Zebra
  • Warthog
  • African buffalo
  • Baboon
  • Waterbuck
  • Guinea fowl
  • Rock hyrax
  • Dik-dik
  • Pelican
  • Flamingo
  • Marabou stork
  • Duck
  • Superb starling
  • Termite

October 5, 2017 – Amboseli & Mt. Kilimanjaro

It was indeed nice to have a full hotel buffet before heading out for the day. As with any of our international trips, the fresh fruit is always the star. We left and headed toward Amboseli National Park, a long drive in the OffRoader. Robyn and I talked most of the way, sometimes the best way to pass time. Abbaa played his typical reggae playlist, where “Favourite Boy” became my favorite repeated song. Not only did he play his music loud, but there was a video player installed in his dash that added some flair. We stopped at an overlook of the Nile River rift valley where several mountains created a picturesque landscape. The change of terrain from Nakuru to this area of Kenya reminded me of Peru, and even the look and aesthetic of locals changed quite a bit as well. People living in this area wore more layers and made blankets for the cold evenings.

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Our lunch stop was at a shelter and restaurant that was a safe haven for women escaping genital mutilation and abuse. All proceeds from our lunch in the courtyard went to support victims of this troubling practice. At this point in the trip, we were getting to the southernmost point in Kenya at the border of Kenya and Tanzania. Right before the border, we turned left and headed east on the Kenyan side to Amboseli. The road to Amboseli was also not in good shape, and with the area in severe drought, everything was blanketed light dust and dirt. At this point in October, the area had not had rain in over a year!

We arrived at the entrance gate to Amboseli, where we again were attacked by Masai selling jewelry and crafts. They certainly do not take “no” for an answer! They kept calling Robyn my mom, which we got a good kick out of. After what seemed to be 20 minutes of saying “no” to handicrafts, we drove inside the desolate park where there was no vegetation in sight. To my surprise (and delight), tens of massive dust devil tornadoes tore through the park. (Apparently the word “Amboseli” has to do with the dust tornadoes.)

The further we entered the park, the more vegetation started to appear and the more animals came into sight. I told Abbaa that my favorite animal is the elephant, and he made sure we saw plenty of elephants in this park. My favorite part of the afternoon’s drive in the park was seeing a mom elephant and her baby hanging out near our road. We stopped to watch a little bit, and the mom elephant slowly walked on the road and stood there for probably 30 minutes! I was fine watching her and her baby (as well as their interactions with the hippos nearby). Eventually the mom turned and started coming toward our van and slapped its trunk on the hood! She eventually turned around and walked off the road. In the meantime, the baby elephant was trying to show the hippo who was boss, despite the fact that the hippo was fully grown and might have even weighed more.

AMBOSELI WILDLIFE

  • Giraffe
  • Jackal
  • Thomson gazelle
  • Wildebeest
  • Zebra
  • Duck
  • Egyptian goose
  • Egret
  • Hadada ibis
  • African jacana bird
  • Yellow baboon
  • Vulture
  • Marabou stork
  • Elephant
  • Hippo
  • African buffalo
  • Warthog
  • Ostrich
  • Crown crane
  • Hyena
  • Grant gazelle
  • Oryx
  • Impala
  • Kudu
  • Donkey
  • Mongoose
  • Red spitting cobra
  • Dik-dik
  • Waterbuck
  • Pelican
  • Termite
  • Topi

From the park, you can see Mount Kilimanjaro, a massive volcano near the border of Kenya and Tanzania. Our stay that evening was near the bottom of Kilimanjaro. The hotel had a central eating and reception area, however, all of the rooms were in separate huts. Dinner was delicious here, and they even had gluten-free options! After dinner, we walked to our hut and was approached by a security guard. He thought we were lost (even though we weren’t) and walked us back to our hut. On the walk there, Robyn heard something in the grass, and a snake slithered by! It was about 3-4 feet long and reddish-brown in color. In true “game drive” mode, I tried to take a picture (in hindsight, I honestly don’t know what I was thinking). We hurried to our hut all nervous and shaken. We found out that the snake was a red spitting cobra, a very poisonous snake that spits venom if startled and can paralyze or disfigure beings with its venom! In addition to the snake, we were a bit creeped out by the security guard, so we locked the hut up tight, and ridiculously built a stack of things in front of our door like crazy people. Neither Robyn nor I were able to sleep for a while, but after the eyes shut, we got some nice sleep.

October 6, 2017 – Switching Kenya for Tanzania

Much to our delight, we woke up without any snake bites or break-ins. Even though we were completely fine, we had a pep in our step when going to breakfast. The view of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the morning was so clear that we got some beautiful photos of the volcano. After breakfast, we headed back into Amboseli park, and of course had to tell Abbaa about our cobra encounter. The park wildlife officer confirmed it was a red spitting cobra, which is quite rare to see in the park. I’m okay seeing a rare rhino, but I think I’ll pass on seeing a rare cobra! Our drive back through the park was great, as we saw a family line of elephants crossing the road in front of us. We stopped at the highest point in Amboseli, a mound surrounded by Amboseli Lake.

We returned through on the same desolate dirt road toward the Namanga border. Upon reaching the Kenya-Tanzania border, we had to change drivers before entering Tanzania. It was so sad to say goodbye to Abbaa, who was an incredible part of our Kenyan experience. Isaac, a young Tanzanian, took over as our new driver. There was some confusion about where to go, but we eventually made it to immigration office. In the background, we heard the Muslim call to prayer, which was something we did not hear in Kenya. The immigration office experience was quite rough for us. After waiting in line behind a mission group, we finally got to the desk, only to have them say that we were missing a form. So we had to go back and fill out the yellow fever vaccination form before getting in line.