Category Archives: Vacations

A welcome visit

After 3-1/2 years, my grown son finally visited me in Georgia. We had really good visits before that, in Vietnam and back home in the U.S., but he had never come here. I looked forward to it all summer long, and when he got here, the 2 weeks flew by so quickly it was unbelievable. Mainly I was looking forward to sharing the culture I have become so immersed in, and the people I have become close to. I think I succeeded more on the latter than the former, just because of time constraints, but it was very satisfying.

Almost everywhere we went I had been before, and posted about on this blog, so I will resist the temptation to write a travelogue here. Instead, I will write about only one place, the place I’d never been, which is Svaneti. And I will remember some highlights and interesting things about the trip that will stay with me.

So, first, Svaneti. This was our last big trip – after that, we were in Tbilisi for a few days, and then off he went back home. We flew, reducing a minimum 10-hour drive to 55 minutes. Happily the weather was great, which is definitely not always the case. Flights are often cancelled at the last minute due to clouds or wind, but we had a carefree few days weather-wise. Unlike right now, with the rain pouring down outside, but that’s another topic. Tickets from Vanilla Sky were ridiculously difficult to get – their website is so dysfunctional as to be useless; I had to go to their offices, and even then, their Facebook map locates it at the complete other end of the avenue, resulting in a set of circular taxi rides, but at the end of the day, I got it done, and off we went.

Flying over green and gold mountains, striped with ice, I was surprised to see so many villages below – much more populated than I had imagined. We landed in Mestia, the main town in the region, and easily found a friendly cab driver to take us to our homestay, which had been highly recommended to me by a Georgian friend. Indeed, it was very nice, with friendly owners and good food. The first day we explored the town and had dinner with a Peace Corps friend, Ryan, who has extended for a fourth year – the only time that’s happened in the history of Peace Corps Georgia. We walked around a graveyard, explored an old church, had lunch at a small local cafe on a balcony overlooking a gorgeous gorge – I could have sat there all day. Here’s a few shots:

Our evening meal with Ryan was a great – we ate kubdari, which is the Svaneti-style khachapuri – meat pie with cheese. What more could you ask. A colleague of his was singing that evening, and we were regaled with Russian and Georgian traditional and pop songs – he had a very nice voice. When we were ready to go home, though, we ran into a bit of a problem – no taxis, at all. Ryan found out that we had to just ask people if they were willing to take us – our homestay said absolutely no more than 5 lari, but we ended up spending 8, because … that was the only guy who would take us. I was a little mad, but as I recently learned to say, ra azri akvs, which I cannot translate exactly, but am told roughly means – whatever, or, what is the point. Exactly.

The next day, the owner of the homestay took us on the long drive (only about 45 km, but oy, what a road – 2-1/2 hours to drive) to Ushguli, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the highest continuously inhabited village in all of Europe – if you count Georgia as Europe, a subject which excites a lot of argument but I’m not going to bother here. Ushguli is nearly 7,000 feet above sea level and consists of 4 separate villages spread out below a gigantic glacier, Shkhara, that looms above everything. We explored the lowest village, where sadly the museum was closed, but then up to a fantastic viewing point for the glacier, and then a beautiful old monastery, called Lamaria. Women are barred from entering the ancient church, but since it was locked and no one could get in anyway, I couldn’t get too worked up about it. Then, on to lunch, which was an extraordinary experience. I would say it was one of the best meals I have ever had, seriously. We ate at a family’s home, in the yard, at a picnic table. We had kubdari, we had chvistari (cornbread with cheese), matsoni (yogurt), khacho (farmer’s cheese), sulguni (a common type of cheese), fresh-picked tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce – by which I mean, picked in front of our eyes – and homemade amber wine. And a few other things. Everything was absolutely fresh, homemade and so delicious I almost cried. We sat there, overlooking the valley, enjoying each other’s company, the food and the view, and I felt very, very lucky.

Other things I will always remember about this trip, mostly things I found out about Eli and how he interacted with my adopted home, its food and customs:

  • He loved Georgian food, especially lobio – beans in a clay pot.
  • He kept up with the toasting admirably at my family supra in Gori, drinking down glass after glass of white homemade wine and delighting Beso no end.
  • He made a very touching toast at the next day’s picnic in Ateni, saying  that now he knows his mom is with people who love her and it brings him happiness. That was really sweet.
  • He was very patient with my physical, post-operative limitations.
  • We should never, ever share a room again, because he is a very light sleeper, and I apparently snore. It caused some friction.
  • Interestingly, he said his favorite spot was Tbilisi. That was unexpected.
  • He really knows how to use a camera and taught me a lot.
  • He learned quite a few Georgian words, and used them.
  • As with Vietnam, we found we had a lot of similar interests. I think had he been alone, he would have hiked and camped a lot more, though.
  • He likes naming and examining plants to a degree I’ve never seen before. He brought a special tool he hung around his neck to magnify plants, and examined them endlessly. He delivered lectures. He was really excited about the flora. He’s an alien to me in this regard.

So, to sum up, it was a really great visit. I was concerned about my back, but though it did impose some limitations, we were able to do pretty much everything. After 2 weeks of 24/7, we got on each other’s nerves a little bit at the very end, but overall we traveled well together and learned a lot about what would make it even better next time. I don’t actually know if there will be a next time, but I hope so! Here are a few more random photos to give a feel for the whole trip.

And last but not least, as always – flowers.

 

Kiev, or Kyiv?

Last weekend I took a short trip to Kiev … or Kyiv … however you spell it. I was attending a conference, so as is customary at such events, I spent most of my time at a hotel. This particular hotel was well outside city limits and as a result, I didn’t see too much of the city until the last day, when I took a tour. I did have a few interesting experiences, though!

I think the best part was a dinner where I sat with a handsome French guy who lived and worked in Riga, having fallen in love with a Latvian girl, an Italian guy in a wheelchair with a giant white beard, and a young, rather exuberant Ukrainian guy wearing large, neon yellow glasses. Our conversation mainly focused on modern literature. French guy: Celine is my favorite author, although he was a misogynist and rabid anti-Semite, but he writes so lyrically. Italian guy: Mishima was a neo-facist nut, but I love his writing, it’s so strange. Me: Murakami’s “Kafka On The Shore” changed my life, you guys are nuts. We all agreed, however, that Elena Ferrante (whoever she really is) was brilliant and “The Neapolitan Tales” should be read by everyone alive. We also talked about politics, travel, food, and a number of other intriguing topics.

On a slightly more serious note – it was, in fact, a great conversation. These guys were smart, well-read, highly-educated, and had opinions they did not hesitate to express. I think for them, it was a pretty normal discussion, but for me, it was a natural high. It’s been a long, long time since I had an erudite conversation with someone, to be honest. I’ve had some meaningful, personal conversations, and some really funny conversations, and even some educational conversations, but I cannot remember the last time I talked about modern fiction or art of any kind, with anyone. So – I enjoyed myself more than I probably should have, and will treasure the memory of that evening’s conversation as something I really should find a way to have more of, because it’s important to me. I’m grateful for being reminded of that.

On the last day, I took a tour of Kiev … Kyiv … whatever. The tour guide was excellent, though she may have cast a bit of a pall over the crowd in starting the tour by pointing out Babi Yar as we passed the turn-off. For those of you who don’t know, Babi Yar is a ravine in Kiev … Kyiv … and a site of massacres carried out by German forces and local collaborators during their campaign against the Soviet Union. The most notorious and the best documented of these massacres took place from 29–30 September 1941, wherein 33,771 Jews were killed. Nearly 34,000 people, in 2 days. According to a Wikipedia article, “The massacre was the largest mass killing for which the Nazi regime and its collaborators were responsible during its campaign against the Soviet Union[2] and is considered to be “the largest single massacre in the history of the Holocaust” to that particular date, surpassed only by Aktion Erntefest of November 1943 in occupied Poland with 42,000–43,000 victims and the 1941 Odessa massacre of more than 50,000 Jews in October 1941, committed by Romanian troops.”

This information, which was shared by the tour guide, did not put me in a happy mood. Nonetheless I was impressed that she acknowledged the place, and the deed, when she could have so easily let it pass by.

We continued on to Kiev … Kyiv … where we went to several churches and old fortresses, looking at 11th century wall ruins and the like. At one church, the Kiev … Kyiv … Eastern Orthodox Patriarch was in the church for the service, which really excited our tour guide. I watched the service, which seemed to consist mainly of dressing the Patriarch in beautiful blue and gold robes and a crown. A choir was singing in the balcony. It was a bit surreal, but perhaps a little less so to me, being accustomed to Eastern Orthodox pageantry. It didn’t really feel right to be snapping away inside the church, so I haven’t got much to show, but here are a few images I captured:

We went to a number of squares, including Maidan. A reminder of what Maidan Square is, again from Wikipedia: “The Ukrainian revolution of 2014 (also known as the Euromaidan Revolution or Revolution of Dignity; Ukrainian: Революція гідності, Revoliutsiya hidnosti) took place in Ukraine in February 2014, when a series of violent events involving protesters, riot police, and unknown shooters in the capital, Kiev, culminated in the ousting of Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych (who had won the 2010 Ukrainian presidential election. This was immediately followed by a series of changes in Ukraine’s sociopolitical system, including the formation of a new interim government, the restoration of the previous constitution, and a call to hold impromptu presidential elections within months.” There are a lot of conflicting reports, but it appears around 75 people, including police, were killed. There are also a lot of conflicting reports on the identity and source of the snipers who shot so many demonstrators, ranging from the CIA to the Russians. According to our tour guide, “we all know who did it but no one will say it.” Apparently she didn’t want to say it, either. This picture of me is not at Maidan Square, but another one, called Khmelnytsky – it was a very misty, cold day.

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Me at Khmelnytsky Monument

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On a much nicer day, with a much nicer camera!

 

 

 

 

 

The architecture in Kiev … Kyiv … was very nice. Many boulevards had walkways down the median, with benches and landscaping, and overall the city was very green. However, the mist became so heavy that my photos are just terrible, so here are a few pulled off the web, just to give you a feel for it:

I’ve been to a lot of cities that just called my name. Kyoto was one: I ended up living there. Budapest was another; I didn’t live there, but I could have, and who knows, maybe I will one day. Kiev … Kyiv … didn’t even whisper. Maybe it was the grey clouds hanging over everything, maybe it was the sad and tragic history, maybe I was just in a bad mood. But all I can say now is, I visited, it was mildly interesting, and I don’t think I will yearn to go back for more. Though, if the right opportunity arose … you never know!

 

A Different Home

For the first time since April 2014, I went home for a visit. It was a really great trip, with lots of eating, talking and spending time with family and friends. I’ll put some photos up below, but in keeping with my general aversion to travelogue-style entries, I’ll spare you the details. Instead, I want to write in a more general vein, about the idea of going home when home isn’t exactly home anymore.

The minute I stepped out of the airport into the barely controlled chaos of LAX, I felt that everything was completely familiar. Like I went to San Diego or somewhere close by for the weekend, and was just heading back to my little house in the hills to sleep in my own bed again. Except I sold that little house over 2 years ago, and the bed is sitting in a storage unit in Montebello. The feeling, though, was in my bones and in spite of certain realities could not be shaken off. I drove my rental car without even thinking about directions – just went where I needed to go. And boy, did I enjoy driving again!

There were some dissonant moments, though. For instance, I was staying in the house of a very generous friend who happens to live 2 houses down from my sister’s house. So every time I drove there, I felt like I was going to visit Mimi, my sister. But Mimi sold that house a year ago and now lives on a farm in southern Washington. Another example – I was in Burbank, and automatically drove to where I had gotten on the 134 freeway literally hundreds of times before, all those times I came home from working in San Francisco or Sacramento via Burbank Airport, and … it wasn’t there any more! Instead, there was a huge wall, and I had to drive a few miles more (back to where I came from) to get on the freeway.

But generally, I fell back into all of the easy relationships I have always had with the city, and with my network of friends who live there. L.A. seemed very much the same, though I’ve been told that Hollywood has exploded with new development, which doesn’t surprise me in the least, considering Mayor Garcetti’s cozy relationship with developers when he represented the district. I didn’t see it though – no reason to go there, though I drove through a few times. It looked pretty much the same to me, as did the rest of the city. So it felt to me like coming home, except that I have no home there anymore.

So, this begs the question – is Georgia home now? I think I have to say … no. It’s still a foreign country, not my own. There are many things (and people) that I love here, and I feel very comfortable here, but it doesn’t feel like home, really. L.A. feels like home, but it isn’t really, and probably never will be again. So this leaves me strangely stranded in the middle somewhere. It’s not necessarily a bad feeling, but it’s very different from being a visitor – or the opposite, a native, or at least grounded in a particular culture and place.

Interesting. We’ll see where it all leads, if anywhere. In the meantime, here are some of the people I saw and spent time with and really felt loved by back in L.A. – home, or whatever it is.

Vietnam in 19 stories – Part 2

OK, straight to the chase. Next story:

Day #10 – 12/23/16

On this day we went to the Hue Market in the morning, and took a bus to Hoi Ann. I’ve already talked a lot about markets, so I’ll pass that one by (other than to say it was a really great market – a few photos below) and tell the story of the bus to Hoi Ann.

The hotel where we stayed arranged the bus. It was $8.00 for about a 4-hour drive, and I wasn’t expecting anything special. A van came and picked us up – I could have sworn I was back in Georgia in a marshutka. 16 travelers crammed into a van designed to seat 10, all sorts of luggage, smelly people … ah, how familiar. Then we arrived at the bus station and were ushered on to a bus the likes of which I have never seen in my entire life.

First – air conditioned. OK, I’ve seen that, but it was really nice. Second – the seats were like berths. Arranged in three rows like on an airplane, this double-decker system was so luxurious I was just floored. I gleefully crawled into my “berth” and immediately made a Facebook post documenting the awesomeness of it all. The backs of the seats were adjustable so you could sit up straight with your legs stretched in front of you, or recline it so you could read, snooze, or whatever. I mean … it was so cool. And it wasn’t at all just for tourists (though there were plenty). There were loads of Vietnamese customers riding too.

I enjoyed it, can you tell? The only thing that just drove me nuts was this American guy on the aisle next to me. He played some game on his phone, it involved a lot of explosions, for the entire 4 hours. He never once even glanced out the window. I mean, I enjoy my phone/data plan as much as the next person, but what is the point of traveling that way, I wonder.

As you can see, there was plenty worth looking at out the window. His loss.

Day #11 – 12/24/15

So, this was our first full day in Hoi An, which worked out to be one of our favorite places in Vietnam. About an hour south of Da Nang, it is definitely a huge tourist draw, but that in itself is interesting – you hear every language imaginable around you, and see every type of person. We met a load of people at our homestay, many of whom gave us great recommendations for places to go and things to see. We rented bicycles every day and rode everywhere. We especially enjoyed the Old Quarter and the river. Eli also took advantage of the renowned tailor establishments in town to have some snazzy clothes made – a jacket and pants, and 3 shirts.

That first day was mainly spent exploring and visiting the tailor. The best part was in the evening. We went to a restaurant called “Morning Glory” that is the equal of any fine dining establishment I’ve ever visited in the U.S. – for a third of the price. We drank wine, lingered over the food, and had a glorious time. We also signed up for cooking classes – more on that later.

Here’s a taste of Hoi An:

Day #12 – 12/24/15

No doubt about today’s story – cooking class! This class was a highlight of the trip. It started pretty early in the morning at a large open complex called Miss Vy’s Market. We rode our bikes over to Hoi An Island where it’s located, and began our culinary adventure. Here’s the website: http://msvy-tastevietnam.com/. There are tasting stations, a restaurant, lots of food for sale, and big rooms for all the cooking classes upstairs. It’s all very sophisticated and clearly tailored for tourists, but it’s well-done and we had a blast.

We started with a boat ride back to where we came from, which Eli and I found kind of funny, to visit the market. By now we’d been to a lot of markets, but the difference was that we were accompanied by a cheerful guide by the name of Lu, who explained how all of the fruits and vegetables and fish and meat were used in Vietnamese cooking, and lots of tips, like how to tell if a fish is really fresh. We learned arcane facts like how to tell female from male crabs, how to eat silkworm larva, how to make rice noodles and how sea cucumber is used. Here’s a few photos:

After this, back to the food complex, where we went around to several different tasting stations. We tasted grilled meat, pancakes, noodles, ginger candy, spices, soup … everything. We stopped at a station that explained what Vietnamese people ate when food was rationed during war and afterwards, when times were hard. We saw “strange food” dishes. By the time we headed upstairs for the actual cooking class, we were already full – not that we let that stop us.

So, now we begin the actual cooking class. I think it was the most fun, and possibly the most successful cooking experience I’ve ever had. We made 4 dishes – cabbage leaf parcels with shrimp mousse in broth, BBQ chicken and lime leaves, mango and prawn salad, and banh xeo (pancakes crepes wrapped around pork and shrimp with greens). Every recipe called for nuoc mam (fish sauce), or as our teacher called it, “our best friend.” I will let the photos speak for themselves:

Afterwards we all got a cooking tool (a slicer for mango) and recipes for all the dishes we made. You can be SURE I will be doing some more Vietnamese cooking when I get home – I’m hooked. Fresh, delicious, fragrant and so fun to make. But no larva or pig heads, sorry. 🙂

Day #13 – 12/25/15

Hmmmm, it’s hard to pick a story for this day, because a lot happened! We went to the beach. We went to dinner at a somewhat famous Anthony-Bourdain-endorsed Binh Mi local restaurant. Eli had his final fitting and looked very spiffy … well, I’ll cover it in photos below, but I think I have to go with the beach.

I don’t remember last time I went to the beach, but the weather was lovely, we had bikes, and we wanted to explore. So off we went. I’d say it was about half an hour of cycling alongside rice paddies, canals and open fields until we came up over a small rise … and there it was, spread out in front of us, a beautiful, clean beach, with restaurants in front and comfortable beach loungers and umbrellas on the sand. We asked a few people what the deal was with the loungers – did we have to rent them, or what? It turned out that there were roving restaurant employees who said we could use the loungers but then had to eat at their restaurant, or 50,000 dong (about $2.50) rent.

We settled in, surrounded by hundreds of tourists. This was definitely not a Vietnamese gathering spot, though there were fishermen who cast off from the shore. There was shade, a breeze, clean sand and blue water. Who could want more? Well, I wanted a bathing suit, but I didn’t have one so I spent a few hours just observing the behavior of my fellow travelers. There was a group of skanky American girls who were loud and clearly desperate – I mean, like, frantic – to hook up with a guy. Any guy. And there was quite a selection of guys, especially glow-in-the-dark skinny white English guys. This depressed my appetite for the required restaurant meal, as did the French girl who stood within 5 feet of me popping pimples on her boyfriend’s back and showing him the results until I finally asked her to do that somewhere else. There was a young Dutch family that was unnaturally attractive, and a wide variety of other folks. I really didn’t need a book, I just people-watched and enjoyed the beach, while Eli toasted himself in the sun and swam in the ocean, at one point inexplicably wearing his sunglasses.

At some point we switched loungers, not realizing we were changing restaurant territory when we did so. When the time came to go, as our Vietnamese restaurant handler began to escort us up the stairs to her establishment, the handler from the nearby restaurant ran up, and an epic battle ensued. I mean, yelling, gesticulating, pushing (of each other, not me), demands for money (which were directed to me – 50,000 dong to one restaurant, eat at the other – double whammy) and just an altogether unpleasant exchange. I finally paid the money just to end it and went off to eat at the first place. When we ordered, the woman was mad because we didn’t order an entire meal! It left a bad taste in our mouth, so to speak, one of the very few times we had a negative experience in Vietnam; when Eli went back to the beach the next day, he rode his bike up a few miles and found a non-restaurant-infested area where he could sit in peace. No loungers though.

Reading through this story, it sounds like I didn’t have a good time at the beach. On the contrary, other than the last bit (and the French girl and her boyfriend’s back, that was gross), I did in fact have a lovely time. The weather couldn’t have been better, it was so relaxing, the water warm and the sand soft, the bike ride long enough to feel like I accomplished something, but short (and flat) enough that I didn’t do myself in. Viva la beach!

Here’s just a few other pics of the events of the day:

Day #14 – 12/26/15

This day was lazy and laid-back. Eli went to the beach; I wandered around town. We ate at a nice restaurant, stopped and had coffee. Eli sketched; I recorded music. We took a nap in the afternoon! I’m not even going to tell a story, it was that relaxed and unremarkable – but all the more remarkable for it, as days like that are very far and few between for me. Although I am a “volunteer” here in Georgia, I often work just as hard as I did in the U.S, and I have secondary projects, both PC-related and personal, that I work on as well. So a day with nothing to do but enjoy my surroundings and to be relaxed enough to actually not think about work or worry about the future – heaven.

Day #15 – 12/27/15

This was our last full day in Hoi An, and we spent most of it at an absolutely fascinating silk worm farm. I’ve always wondered how silk is made, and now I know, from beginning to end. The tour took us through the entire process, including traditional and modern weaving, so I got to see looms in action!

The photos below will tell the whole story, but I’m going to tell just one small part of it here. It’s short, and it’s disgusting. ELI ATE A SILKWORM LARVA! Yeach! He just popped it in his mouth and ate it! He said it tasted like a potato, to which I replied, well, why not just eat a potato then? LOL, it was even more revolting than the French girl and her spotty boyfriend.

OK, here’s what we saw, it was very very cool:

Day #15 – 12/28/15

On this day we left Hoi An, with some regret, and moved on to visit Da Nang. We arrived there in the early afternoon, checked into our hotel, and just spent time walking around the city. We found out about an upcoming international classic guitar concert the next night and bought tickets – we just saw a giant poster, went inside the building (which turned out to be the Ministry of Sports & Recreation), and were helped by a pretty young girl with pretty good English – she learned it in Australia, as I discovered when Eli inquired about her Australian accent, which I could not even remotely hear.

My story for this day is a little one, but it also concerns English and it was so sweet. We were walking around the city when 3 little boys excitedly approached us on the street. Well, excitedly doesn’t really describe it. They were so worked up that they looked like they were having tiny epileptic fits. They were dancing around us squealing “hello!!! hello!!!” like crazy boys. Of course we said hello back, and as they pointed at themselves and said their names, we did the same. Then they started pointing at our clothing and saying the colors, and they were so pleased with themselves I really thought they were about to faint. We were having a lot of fun with them, but then an older lady appeared in the doorway of the building they came out of, and she wasn’t too happy. I don’t know why, they really were cute and weren’t doing anything wrong, but she called them back in and we had to say goodbye. I will always remember their smiling faces. No pictures – we were just enjoying the moment. Here’s a few general shots of Da Nang, though – a very vibrant and welcoming city.

Day #16 – 12/29/15

This day in Da Nang was mainly spent at a fascinating museum that showcased the art of the Champa People. The Champa were the dominant culture in Vietnam starting from roughly the 2nd century through the 1800’s, though the height of their power was in the 9th century. Their descendants, the Cham, still live in Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asia. The majority of Cham in Vietnam are Hindu, though elsewhere they tend to be Muslim. At the museum, you can see a heavy Indian/Hindu influence in the sculpture. Though you’d never know it from the museum, a little research on the web reveals a lot of tension between the Vietnamese government and the Cham, with accusations of genocide and deliberate destruction of culture. So in retrospect, the highly respectful museum in Da Nang is a lot more ambiguous than I thought at the time. As usual, nothing is quite what it seems.

And, although this isn’t really a story, I like these photos so much I have to throw them up here – me and Eli at the Classical Guitar Concert we attended that evening. That was really fun.

Day #17 – 12/30/15

This day’s story is not a particularly happy one. On this day we took a sleeper from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City. For the first time, the bathroom was kinda … yucky. But that would have been tolerable. What was really awful was the guy who shared our sleeper car. He was probably about my age, Vietnamese, spoke zero English and wasn’t particularly friendly, in contrast to the vast majority of people I met there. However, none of that was a problem, since most of the time we were sleeping (or trying to), anyway! The real problem was that he was sick. Really sick. Like hacking, spitting, and coughing, all completely without any effort to cover his mouth. Moreover, he kept getting up all night (which may help explain the state of the bathroom) and left the door open, letting in light and noise and waking us up. We tried asking/miming for him to cover his mouth and shut the door, but he completely ignored us. Man, we were loopy by the time we got to HCM City, I’ll tell you. Moreover, we both caught whatever he had. Luckily it didn’t manifest until we got home – incubation period – but it hit both of us hard, Eli in particular, who 3 weeks later is still suffering from severely backed-up fluid in his ears. I am still coughing – as usual. At least it happened at the end of our trip, and not in the middle.

What I’ll show photos of here, though, is not our cabin-mate hawking it up into the trash can in the room. Picture me making a disgusted face. Instead, here are a few shots of Eli at the Da Nang station sketching. The captions explain what happened – and this was his experience everywhere. It was really great to watch, and I was jealous! Between his smoking a Vietnamese pipe, and drawing, he had a lot of opportunities to communicate with people, especially children, who really loved the drawings, and men, who really loved to smoke!

Day #18 – 12/31/15

Last day of 2015, and the last full day of our trip. We spent a lot of this day at the botanical garden, and went to see “Star Wars” that evening – in English, albeit with Vietnamese subtitles, and splurged on an extremely good Japanese sushi dinner. On the way back to the hotel, multiple people on the street smiled and said “happy new year” to us. We smiled and said it back.

The visit to the garden provided a great opportunity to engage in one of my favorite activities, photographing flowers. Here’s a few samples:

Day #19 – 1/1/16

This day, our last day in Vietnam, could not have been better. We packed up, checked out, and took a taxi to a small shop that we had found on the internet. It was fairly near the airport and sold vinyl LP’s, which Eli is very interested in, so we thought it would be fun to stop there on the way out.

When we arrived at the “shop” it turned out to essentially be the front room of a guy’s apartment, set back in a labyrinth of windy alleyways. We rang the bell, waited a long time, and were just about to leave when a woman and her young daughter came to the door. She sent her daughter to get the owner (not sure if he was the father, an uncle or the landlord). He came and explained (he spoke English) that the store was closed for New Year’s Day, could we return tomorrow? We explained we were on our way to the airport, but thanks so much anyway. He then decided to open the store and let us in. On his day off.

It was so cool. The room was filled with old stereo equipment, lovingly restored:

There were boxes and cabinets of LP’s, which Eli immediately started going through. What a strange variety of music! There was classical Vietnamese music, gospel, rock, jazz, pop … everything, in no particular order. The owner came in with tea for us. He played the LP’s Eli picked out on one of the stereos. He explained that he was a physics teacher at a local high school and normally had someone working there during the week. He also produces music, and gave each of us a free CD of one of his records. He posed for a few pics and in every way went so far beyond what could reasonably be expected that it was just incredible.

After thanking him profusely (and buying a few LP’s, of course), we dodged an offer to smoke, and found a very local cafe off the main street to have our last pho. I don’t think a foreigner had ever eaten there – we attracted a few friendly but curious stares. The food was delicious, and we easily caught a cab to the airport. It was the perfect end to our visit.

Then we were off to the airport, tearful goodbyes, flight delays, long airplane rides and eventually, back to our respective homes. What memories we made during our time there. I only told 19 stories (ok, maybe a few more), but there’s lots I haven’t even included. It’s all in my head and my heart. I’m so very glad I went.

I’m making a video of all the music I heard there, and will put it up in a separate post, once I finish it. This one’s going up now, though. I know it’s long, but still, I hope it gives you a sense of how wonderful Vietnam was, in all the ways I tried to describe here, and so many more.

Vietnam in 19 stories -Part 1

I have been home from one of the best trips of my life for several days now, and only now am I beginning to really emerge from the haze of jet-lag and the terrible head cold (with resulting hacking cough, of course) I have been languishing with since Sunday. 6 days under the weather – that’s enough. Time to write the blog post I’ve been thinking about, off-and-on. Should I divide it up into themes? No – too complicated. Should I just do a standard travelogue? No – boring. Finally I have settled on this. One story, and some accompanying photograph for each day. For those who want to see ALL the photographs, here’s the link: https://goo.gl/photos/ejxBVcGKEPVvxeUR8. It’s all there. It was a spectacularly beautiful and fascinating country, and there are a lot of good shots that I won’t be including here, so peruse to your heart’s content if you are interested.

So, given the time span being covered, I will do this in two posts. You could read it in parts, all at once, or just what catches your attention. However, a few short observations to start off. One – Eli and I traveled pretty well together. In fact, we really enjoyed each other’s company on a daily basis. We were generally interested in the same things, and figured out ways to accommodate divergences in those interests. We laughed a fair amount. He calmed me down a few times, and I did the same for him. We had some good talks, and a few heated discussions, and that’s us – that’s our relationship now, and I’m happy with it.

Two – Vietnam (a) was extraordinarily beautiful, as I said above. Also, it was very diverse. Not only did the countryside vary as we traveled from far north to far south, but the cities really had different characters, too. I hope my descriptions and photos do it justice. (b) had truly delicious food, much more varied than served in American restaurants, where pho seems to be the primary dish. There was plenty of pho, to be sure, but also – banh mi (like a hoagie sandwich, but better, for breakfast), all sorts of salads, noodles, grilled meats, fruits and vegetables of all sorts … and the best of all, Vietnamese coffee. I could drink it every day.

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My first morning in Vietnam – my first Vietnamese coffee, and my first Banh Mi. I am very content.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(c) was clean. Amazingly, shockingly clean. The streets, the alleys, the highways, under the roads … not that we never saw trash, but it was rare, and well-contained. There were trash trucks in every town that played music and were staffed by guys wearing conical hats who collected from every house on a regular basis. Best of all, the bathrooms were all spotless. No matter where we went – at the beach, in the back of roadside restaurants, rest stops – even the trains were well within bearable tolerance levels. It was amazing. And, (d) had fantastically friendly people. Kids waved hello with real sincerity, old people (who surely experienced the war) smiled at us and seemed to mean it, which is kind of amazing when you think about where our respective nations were a mere 40 years ago, people said “Merry Xmas” and “Happy New Year” to us on the street, folks invariably tried to help us with directions or whatever help we needed … it was great. There were a few overly aggressive market stall owners, a pair of beach restaurant workers who had an argument over who deserved our business (based on where we sat – in front of her restaurant, or hers – it was partly our fault because we moved, but in our defense, the rules were really unclear), and one modern young woman who pushed Eli nearly to the breaking point by talking loudly on her cell phone during the Star Wars movie – not ok. She had to go to the lobby. 🙂

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At the Citadel, Hue

 

 

 

 

 

 

OK, now the first batch of my 19 stories, selected on a completely subjective basis, one for each day.

Day #1 – 12/14/15.

That first night, after a nice reunion with Eli followed promptly by a nap of 2 or 3 hours by both of us, we wandered the streets of the Old Quarter in Hanoi. We saw a tiny dog with a sweater that reminded me of the multitude of Chihuahuas wearing Dodger uniforms and god knows what-all I used to see all over Highland Park in L.A. We saw a lot of restaurants with balconies and vowed to eat in one of them. We had dinner at a noodle/pho place. A low-key, quiet intro to the decidedly unquiet craziness of Hanoi!

Day #2 – 12/15/15.

Chua Ba Da, translated as “stone lady pagoda,” is a small temple down a narrow alley that has stood in Hanoi for over 1,000 years. It was the first of many temples we visited, and one of the best. Stepping inside the courtyard, the noises of the street receded into the distance and the cool, dark interior of the temple beckoned. People working nearby motioned for us to go in, and after removing our shoes, we ventured inside to a rich red and gold set of altars and offerings of every type – fruit, soda cans, candy, cookies, flowers … it was all there, along with many statues of the Buddha. To the side (and I saw this in most temples) was another statue, and this differed from place to place. It could be  ship, a horse, or some other deity. I wish I knew more about this. Behind the main temple was a small open-sided veranda, lined with brightly-colored banners. It was a lovely respite.

Day #3  – 12/16/15

We leave Hanoi, a bit reluctantly, early in the morning to start our boat tour of Ha Long Bay. Boarding our boat in the busy harbor, we cruise Ha Long Bay and take in the sights. My story, though, is about the food. 🙂 Here we are, on a fairly rudimentary boat, with a kitchen in back of the cabin with two burners. The crew is about 4 guys and the taciturn captain. There are 10 of us tourists – an Australian family of 4 who speak German (the dad) and French (the kids), as well as English; a German couple who speak some English; a French couple who speak … French, and me and Eli. Eli surprises me by remembering way more French from high school than I ever would have expected. In the meantime, my Georgian is useless – of course. Our guide Van joins us, and we all sit down to a dinner that was so delicious it was almost shocking. There was soup, rice, green papaya salad, fried taro balls, a full-on roasted fish, and multiple other dishes. Sitting out in Ha Long Bay, snug inside the cabin, sharing good food with nice people speaking about 5 languages, usually at least 3 going simultaneously – yeah, it was fun.

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Day #4 – 12/17/15

I think I will tell the story of the kayaking and cave exploration we did. Sadly, that leaves out the fantastic bicycle trip to Đảo Trà Bản, making spring roles at the homestay that night, and the overnight sleeper to Lao Cai, but, I’m going to keep my word. One story. I’ll throw in a few extra photos below – it was a packed day.

So, for those of you who are still reeling with shock from the first sentence of the paragraph above – that’s right! I kayaked! And I have photos to prove it. While I have no doubt I provided a fair amount of amusement for the crew, who smiled tolerantly while watching me climb down a tiny ladder into a kayak waiting in water below, I was kind of proud of myself that I managed to do it at all. As for Eli’s feelings, I think they were an interesting mixture of embarrassment and glee at how silly I looked, but that’s ok – he hid it well, and I can’t really blame him. We kayaked to a nearby cave and explored it thoroughly, stalagmites and all, and learned about the local legends. Afterwards we all kayaked some more, but our paddling was cut a bit short by my discovery of a fair amount of blood smearing the bottom of my sandal. Apparently I had cut the bottom of my big toe pretty badly on a rock, so we headed back to the boat to clean it up. Good thing I brought all those band aids and antibiotic cream from the Peace Corps medical kit – this wouldn’t be the first time I would need them. Oh, no, it wouldn’t!

Day #5 – 12/18/15

This was mainly a travel day – from Đảo Trà Bản back to the mainland port, then a van back to Hanoi, then a short break, then a car to the railway station and an overnight train to Lao Cai for a visit to the far north, home of the Hmong people. Our first experience on a Vietnamese sleeper train.

My story for that day concerns that few hours we were in Hanoi in the evening. We wanted to find a street vendor to buy a second pair of jeans for Eli, as we left his only pair of pants with a local laundry to pick up when we returned on Monday, and shorts were NOT going to suffice – it was cold, and about to get a lot colder as we headed up into the mountains! We walked the streets, and I easily bought a sweater while he checked out one tiny storefront after another. At about the 4th or 5th one, we found an amiable owner who helped him search through piles of jeans for his size. He found it, and bought the pair for a reasonable price – without trying them on, since there was no fitting room. When we got back to the travel agency, he went in the bathroom to put them on and came out with a very chagrined expression on his face – they were way, way too small. He thought it was the cut, but a quick examination revealed that we had taken a pair that was about 4 sizes too small. Whoops.

We had paid cash. No receipt. But I said, let’s just go back there. Let’s see. So we made our way back, found the right store, showed the jeans to the proprietor and explained the mistake. You know, that guy could have easily sent us on our way. He really wasn’t under any obligation, but instead he made a surprised/amused face, laughed, and immediately started digging for the right pants in the right size. This time Eli tried them on, semi-hiding behind a pile of clothes, and they fit. We exchanged them, no problem at all, thanked the guy profusely and were on our way.

Reading about Vietnam on-line, I was apprehensive. It seemed like there was  a lot of cheating going on, a lot to be careful about. But my experience – not just this one, but many others – just didn’t play out that way. There was the waiter who warned me I was putting down a 5,000,000 dong note instead of a 5,000 dong one. There was the travel agency (Ethnic Travel, if anyone wants to know) that delivered exactly what it promised at a good price, and more. There was the hotel who let us take a room for the day – not the night, just the day, so we had a place to shower, rest and repack before taking a night train – for $20. And it was a really nice room, too! There was the small music store in Da Nang where I left my cellphone, which they kept for me until I frantically arrived there the next morning looking for it. Later, I discovered a PM on Facebook, purportedly from Eli, that said “Oh, I’m saleswoman in DVD shop Bach khoa, your mother forget her cell phone in our shop, we keep it for you, you can comeback to take it. I don’t know how to contact with her, so I use her FB, I’m sorry, hope to see you soon.”

That was my experience, overall. There were a few experiences that didn’t play out quite that way (see my Hue story), but for the most part, I found people to be honest and helpful in pretty much every way possible.

Day #6 – 12/19/15

We arrive in Lao Cai, about as far as you can go without hitting the Chinese border, on the early morning train, and immediately drive a few hours east to the Bắc Hà district, 1200 meters above sea level. Our goal is to explore the countryside, the Sunday market in the town, stay at the home of a local Hmong family, and learn more about minority cultures in Vietnam. Eli and I went our separate ways for several hours – he to hike to villages surrounding the town with our guide, a sweet Hmong girl named Pan, and I to explore Bắc Hà town. I think the most interesting part of the day, actually, was the 2-3 mile hike out to the homestay after we finished our explorations. I was carrying my large pack, as well as my smaller bag, it was very cold, and it was a long walk. But – the mountains, fields and rice paddies surrounding us were sublime. The air was fresh and clear. I was somewhere doing something I had never done before. That’s all – it’s not really a story, I guess, but it’s the dominant memory of the day, along with a keen recollection of how very cold it was that night. Multiple blankets and some calming words from Eli were helpful.

 

Day #7 – 12/20/15

OK, without a doubt, the story on this day was the Sunday Market at Bắc Hà. Though there were lots of tourists there (on Sundays only – the day before, as I wandered, I was the only Westerner to be seen), it was quite clear that this market was not created for them – at least not exclusively! There was food of every kind, tools, tobacco (of which Eli partook), textiles and clothing of every type imaginable, especially made by the surrounding Hmong. The three main Hmong groups in this area are the Black, Blue and Flower. They can be easily distinguished through differences in dress, but also have slightly different customs and foods. However, according to Pan, they frequently intermarry and there is no hostility between groups.

So the market was absolutely thronged with people from all the different villages and towns in the area. We walked in from our homestay pretty early in the morning (happily sans heavy luggage, which came by car later in the day) and got there before the tourist buses started pulling in. We spent about 4 or 5 hours just wandering. There was so much to see and take in. During all this wandering I managed to book train tickets to Hue for the following evening (that 250,000 dong [about $11)] I spent on a data plan and SIM card – money well, well spent), buy several gifts, buy some silver jewelry, eat some mysterious but delicious snacks, play with Pan’s adorable toddler son, who had more fun with a toy gun and tiny race car than I would have thought possible, and eat a pho at the communal restaurant area that nearly transported me to heaven. Eli did all of these things too, plus he smoked a traditional pipe and then bought one, along with tobacco, which he smoked every day of the rest of the trip, sometimes joined by Vietnamese men who saw the large pipe protruding out of his pack and enthusiastically begged him to smoke with them.

Day #8 – 12/21/15

This is our last day in Hanoi, and one of my very few regrets is that we didn’t stay longer. It was a truly lovely city, filled with narrow, congested streets crammed with thin, high vertical buildings. At street level, thousands of stores selling just one thing, restaurants with balconies, street vendors selling every kind of food you can imagine, hotels/guesthouses, and millions of motorcyles and mopeds everywhere you go, along with trees, clean parks, lakes and rivers. The name Hanoi means “on a bend in the river,” and it has that feeling. We couldn’t do all we wished in such a short time, since we were on an overnight train to Hue, but we managed to see a water puppet show and go to the Women’s Museum. The museum was really awesome, but didn’t allow any photographs inside, so for anyone interested, here’s the link (click the British flag in the upper right-hand corner for English version):

http://www.womenmuseum.org.vn/

But I digress. Here’s my story. We went to the train station and after buying some street food to eat on the train, Eli went outside to smoke, leaving all his luggage and mine with me. I spent time playing peek-a-boo with a small baby of a young family sitting next to me. They were so friendly – smiling and angling the baby toward me and waving his hands. I amused myself by this crossing of cultural lines for a while – because after all, a cute baby is pretty much irresistible everywhere – until I started to wonder where Eli was. Sitting on the other side of me was a man of indeterminate age, a guy who clearly had worked at hard, physical labor all of his life. He looked a little gruff. When I got up and went to the station entrance to look for Eli, though, he came up behind me and smiled broadly, displaying a total of about 3 blackened teeth, and pointed him out – he was sitting way over on the stairs smoking with some guys. The man laughed and mimed tilting a bottle back to his mouth, and I laughed back, shaking my head and miming smoking. We went back and forth; no one prevailed. When Eli came back in, I mimed to the baby’s mom that the child was hers, and here was mine. I think she understood. And off we went.

Day #9 – 12/22/15

Hue.  The minute we got off the train I knew we were out of the north. It was cloudy, muggy, drizzly and hot. We decided to walk to our hostel. We spent the day bicycling around and visiting the Citadel, which was impressive and beautiful – I’ll put up some pictures below. But my story is from the morning. It was interesting. We were trekking on down a main road with our packs, when a much older man enthusiastically approached us and greeted us in good English. He was wearing a snappy suit. We chatted amiably for a while; he said he fought for the American side in the war, which was certainly plausible, as we were just north of Da Nang. Then he said he was now a volunteer for disabled children out in villages. As a matter of fact, he was on his way there right now. Could we give him some money to buy them chocolate?

Well, this was a bit of a dilemma. Should be trust this guy? Was he legit? Eli decided he was, and gave him 5,000 dong (about 25 cents, but enough to buy a little chocolate at Vietnamese prices). The man sort of laughed disbelievingly, and said that wasn’t enough to get chocolate for everyone. He wasn’t rude or anything – he just was asking for more. Eli started to give it to him – and I stopped him. I said to him, Eli, you haven’t got much money, please think about what you are doing. And so he decided not to give him more. And the man was ok, no high pressure tactics or anything.

Was I right to do that? Was this man hustling us? I think he probably was, but if so, it was the most genteel hustle I’ve ever encountered. Should I not have cared that he was hustling us, he was old and if he needed the money, we should just give it to him. After all, it can be assumed that we have more than him, since we can afford to travel. But – is that an accurate assumption? I don’t really know that, actually. Should I be offended by the fact that he was essentially pulling a con? If he had just asked for the money, would we have even stopped? This was the only experience like this we had in Vietnam, and I’m still not sure I perceived the situation correctly. Maybe Eli’s instinct to give more was the right one. Maybe not … I’ll never know, but it’s an interesting conundrum.

That’s it for this post. The final installment will come sometime next week, hope you enjoy this one! In the meantime, tomorrow is Monday and back to work at CHCA, here in Georgia, as Vietnam recedes into sweet memory.

Georgia Sojourner

My last two blog posts have been all about traveling elsewhere. Today I’m going to focus on traveling in Georgia, which I’ve been doing a lot of over the last few months. After I returned from Yerevan, I went to a conference that we call MST – mid-service training. It was at a really luxurious hotel in Borjomi. There were a lot of classes, a lot of meetings, a lot of lectures, and a lot of eating a drinking. I did have to take the mid-service LPI, um, language proficiency … something. Too many acronyms! Anyway, even though I had not spoken a word of Georgian in about 6 weeks, I achieved my goal, which was – just, please god, please, don’t let me regress. And I did not.  That is all I have to say about that!

We took a few fun photos at Borjomi, which I’ll share here:

 

The view from my hotel room balcony

The view from my hotel room balcony

The 3 Sara(h)'s - Sara Scholtz, Sara Feldman, and Sarah Vanderbok

The 3 Sara(h)’s – Sara Scholtz, Sara Feldman, and Sarah Vanderbok

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I left Borjomi a little early to trek into Tbilisi to meet my friends visiting from Dhaka, Bangladesh (Malcolm), Tokyo, Japan (Ric) and West Meon, UK (Helena). They all converged at an Airbnb apartment off the main drag in Tbilisi. That night we climbed an unbelievably steep hill and ate at the fancy Funicular Restaurant, where my non-regressed Georgian skills came in very handy. In fact, I spoke a lot of Georgian over the next week. Broken, incorrect, barely intelligible Georgian that was greeted with delight and amazement by nearly everyone I (tried) to communicate with. It was an interesting contrast to Gori, where the same efforts are often greeted with English as broken as my Georgian (or worse), Russian, a blank stare, or, less commonly, straightforward Georgian, with no extravagant praise whatsoever. I really like the last one, btw!

The next week was filled with excursions to Tbilisi (National Museum, Old Tbilisi walking tour, parks, restaurants and shops), Kazbegi, Mtskheta, Gori (Uplisitkhe, Stalin Museum, Gori Castle) Borjomi (again), Akhalsitkhe and Vardzia. Rather than write reams about all these places, I’m going to try and give a contained presentation of the highlights in captioned photos below.

The one place I will write a little about, because it was my favorite, was Vardzia. An interesting history of the site can be found here: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/vardzia. Suffice it to say that it is an extraordinary cave city built in the late 1100’s by Queen Tamar (see my earlier post on her bridge). There’s a church with beautiful wall paintings (no photos allowed), windy tunnels, hundreds of uneven stairs cut into the rock, all different size and configuration of caves, and unbelievable views. There’s a feeling there, especially in the church, a feeling of the people who once created and then lived in these caves. They are present, in some way. I’ve experienced this before, once in Japan in a Samurai castle; in India, at a Jain temple … not that I feel there are ghosts, or real spirits, nothing like that. It’s just that some essence of them lingers, somehow. You can imagine them there. These special places are more than historic monuments, as much as I like those. They’re more alive. We spent several highly enjoyable hours there; it was the highlight of the trip for me.

So, here are a few of the photos. Please feel free to click on them to see them full-sized – they are a lot better that way.

There was more, of course – much more – but in the interest of brevity and not overwhelming my myriad of readers, I’ll leave it at this for Mal’s visit.

But wait! There’s more, because just a few weeks ago, I took yet another little excursion, this time to Kakheti and the lovely city of Telavi. The purpose of the trip was to do a tour of the countryside surrounding Telavi, including visiting some wineries, monasteries, churches, fortresses – the usual. 🙂 A good time was had by all.

 

Well, that’s the end of my sojourning in Georgia – for now. I’m back home in Gori, back to work, back in the routine. Next month – Thanksgiving. We have two celebrations planned, one here in Gori, and for one I’ll be traveling west to visit the village of a fellow volunteer. In the meantime, plenty going on at work – redesigning the web page, working on an “evergreen” video, grants, projects and events. CHCA had its 20th Anniversary Celebration bash a few weeks ago, and I’ll leave this post with a few shots from the big night – it was a lot of fun, actually! ‘Till next time …