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Leaky Pipe Oasis

August 31st, 2009 peretz 1 comment

We don’t have much internet now, so this is just a little something to whet your appetite.

Leaky Pipe Oasis

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Geogrian Hospitality – Tbilisi

August 27th, 2009 peretz 1 comment

We drove into Tbilisi under the cover of night and pulled over for directions. The gentleman I asked immediately dropped what he was doing and made our priorities his priorities.

“Has the driver drank?”

“No.”

“Is the driver drunk?”

“No.”

He walked over to make sure. Somewhat surprised, he said, “Well then, this is what we will do. We will call the police. Please do not be worried. This is a little bit unusual for us as well, but given that it is the way it is, I really want to demonstrate it. You see, over the past four years, the Police have become — like dog shall we say — a true friend of man. They are not here to bother you, but to help you. They will take you to your lodgings.”

When the police arrived a few minutes later, he kissed me on the cheek, called us his “dears” and invited us for dinner. “The political situation in Georgia (with regards to Russia) may be complicated,” he said, “but the situation of guest in Georgia is always good.”

“You are my dears,” he said when the police arrived and kissed my three times on the cheeks good bye. “We shall meet again and I will have you over for dinner!”

The police gave us a prompt sirened escort to our lodgings, made sure it was the correct address, shook our hands and drove away. We were following the directions sent to us by our couchsurfing host, and fumbled around in dark crumbling stairwells to the third floor courtyard where I asked for Luka’s lodgings from an elderly woman. She pointed, and we knocked. A young man opened the door and I said, “nice to meet you Luka!”

He said, “Don’t you know?” It turned out that Luka was such a gracious host that he hosted people at his appartment even in his absense using couchsurfing as an agent!

Everyone in the building complex and coutyard seem to know this, and where the hiding place for his keys was. One time when Tristan tried to surreptitously fumble through the drawers within view of construction workers in a neighboring apparment, one of them ran over, pushed him aside and confidently took out the key, “here you go my friend.”

The apparment was charming. There were maggots feasting on a month old stew in the kitchen. The toilet did not work flush without buckets of water. But such is the lot of Abusrdistan. Strangely, this may have been what we came for.

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Farewell Hari! Fairwell dear friend!

August 26th, 2009 peretz 1 comment

I have long been intending to write a post chronicalling the many warm, wonderful and intersting people we have met along the way, and Hari was kind enough to occasionally remind me. As I sit here on the shore awaiting my ferry across the sea, I want to write this post first to mark Hari’s return to the US of A. He wandered with us across manifold terrain from Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, but having lapsed his aloted vacation time, he can go no further. He will not pass into the promised land, and I know that this troubles him a little. I am sad to see him, his logisitical capacities, his water filtration skills, his company in the tent, and his constant cheer. But go he must, and I understand this. We thank the NIH for loaning him to us for as much as they did and we made the best of it. There are microscopes to build Hari. I spurr you on! There is a worm’s development to map out! There are post-dcs to hire and a lab to start. A farewell gift is this set of pictures for your lab webpage. Make good use of them:

And then there were two …

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Georgia Border Crossing, 8/17/09

August 19th, 2009 peretz No comments

Our last day in Turkey started in an place which will soon be wiped off the map to be replaced by a swath of blue, submerged by the lake waters of large dam system in the valley of the Kashgar mountains – Yusufeli. The construction work was underway to replace the valley highway we were on with a larger highway snaking along the surrounding mountain tops. Huge tractors were carving up the mountain face dumping large boulders onto our path. There were signs warning us of falling rocks along our way, and soon there actually were falling rocks — intermittent avalanches — denting the already pot-hole rich surface upon impact and occasionally making it completely impassible. When this happened, the road was blocked to make way for tractors to push the mountain debris into the river itself, and we would stop and make conversation with others in the same situation.

One of the people turned out to be an geological engineer from Ankara coming to make inspections of an already existing damn upstream and he told us about the geological formations of the region and the progress of construction.

A truck driver with a load of cantelopes picked some choice specimens, sought out a bit of shade, started carving them up, and offering slices to other wayfarers. Tristan enjoyed the cantalopes and decided to buy a couple. The land is fertile in that valley, and there were trees bearing large figs, which I plucked following the example of the locals and ate too many.

Rope and wood suspension bridges connected the river banks and now that we had the time we decided to cross one. When we came near and saw how precarious it was, we decided against it.

Eventually the tractors cleared enough debris to pass, and we climbed the mountain pass through the town of Artvin, picking up our last Turkish hitchhiker, and eventually made our way the other side, seeing the Black Sea for the first time…

The terrain changed substantually became lush, subtropical, with terraced gardens, large fields of berries, and even the turkish people in that region were different, light skinned, blue eyed. Across the jagged valleys stretched steel cables which bore buckets used to transport tools to the fields and the harvest back home.

From there it was just a short 30 minute ride up the coast to town of Sarpie and the border crossing into Georgia. About a mile of cargo trucks was waiting at the border, which as a passenger car we passed and so began our most complex border crossing so far.

It had the most intermediate steps, each mildly confusing in its purpose, like a microbureaucracy. One of the immediate peculiarities of this border was the number of plain clothes “helpers” on both the Turkish and Georgian sides, eager to get their hands on your passport and offering to navigate the process with you. A couple times we seemed to progress to the next step only to be turned back, to “check out customs” or some station with a similar moniker. When we were already on the Georgian side, the uniforned official looked us over and told us to go back to a Turkish station and imdicated to one of these helpers to accompany us. Three of them came, quietly arguing among themselves who it was that was sent and all three took turns reaching out for our passports. “I’ll hold on to them, thanks.” Who were these people? I decided to withhold revealing my knowlege of Russian, even when asked, and it took some concentration not to respond one way or the other when they asked me in Russian if I spoke it. Better play the dumb American, amd have the wild card in my back pocket.

When the Turks, who were watching YouTube in their booth (Youtube is, for the moment, banned in Turkey), stamped our passport yet another time and told us, “You are now free.” The helpers got uncomfortably close. When we got into the car, they basically reached in through the window, asking quite explicitly for us to give them some money so there would not be any problems. I said, “no problems” locked the doors, rolled up the windows, while their hands were still inside the car in a fleeting hungry form of protest. We drove on, clearned the first Georgian station and got in line for the next. It felt important not to stall, yet none of the officials urged us along to the next way point. It was a guessing game. We zig-zagged into what seemed to be the next bottle neck, and as we were about to pull in, an armed man with an M16 and his comrade came to the window and told us we needed Georgian Insurance. “We have international insurance, see.” I pointed at our car’s Green Card (a document indicating such).

“No, you need Georgian Insurance.”

“Yes, we have international insurance, and Georgia is a nation.”

“No” said the armed man.

“Yes”

“No”

“Yes”

We had made it a practice to video tape our progress through borders (a border reel is under compilation) and at some point the unarmed comrade spotted our camera and started making a fuss of it.

“No”

“Yes”

He indicated something to the armed man and that guy suddenly walked away.

“No”

“Yes”

This time he gave up and walked away himself leaving us a clear path to the next station. We immediately pulled in.

Inside the station, the environment was a bit calmer, the female border officials seemed to be ignoring both the plain clothes and the armed accessories and dealt with us professionally. They entered data into their computers and asked pertinent questions, where, how long, etc.

Hari and I were forced to exit the car and proceed at the pedestrian border crossing, and Tristan was left with the car, to navigate the remaining redundencies. All of us were first photographed. Hari and I came out the other end and witness the unpleasantries that the now red-shirted official looking border guards were inflicting on the drivers in the next hurdle, searching the cars, guiding people into a parking lot from which there was no obvious eflux. I wanted to make sure Tristan didn’t fall into what seemed like their trap and ignored them and drove onward. Surprisingly, we were spared this step — could have been due to the brand of our passports? Most of the detainies were Russian, Turkish, Armenian, or Georgian. We drove on to yet another check point, which was a final review of all the papers.

Clear. Whew. We paid nothing. We got a 5 day transit visa. We didn’t have to get any extraneous insurance and we didn’t pay any bribes, but our nerves were on steely alert. We learned the lesson that you don’t have to obey just because someone with an M16 tells you it is so, and our edgy practice of video taping our official interactions was strangely vindicated. We shall see how this practice applies to the 8 border crossings to come.

One of the first signs we saw past the border said in bold letters. “Georgia is a Zero-Corruption country. Offering money to the police is a punishible offence.”

–Peretz

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Batumi – Georgia’s Black Sea Resort – 8/17-18/09

August 18th, 2009 peretz No comments

The driving in Turkey required substantial adaptation. The driving in Georgia required substantial rewiring of the brain. Cows, pigs, geece, donkeys constantly wandered onto the road. If in Turkey you occasionally needed to swerve onto oncoming traffic to pass a slow car, driving on the opposite side of the road indefinitely and inexplicably is common practice in Georgia.

All of the street signs in Georgia, when they exist, are written in a cryptic Georgian script and Google Maps are absent for the entire country. Our navigation system switched to one of word of mouth, and I would frequently lean out or hop out of the car to ask the locals for directions. Even more so than the Balkans my Russian came in handy, and the people I asked were among the friendliest I have met. They responded eagerly, even so much as walking several blocks out of their way to point out the corner alley of the hotel where we would be staying. Moreover, their conversation was delightfully laced with humor.

Draft beer for sale in various containers, from recycled soda bottles to plastic bags, whatever is more convenient for you to carry, and lots of delicious looking smoked or dried fish.

The streets of Batumi were overgrowing with vines, which sprouted from the cracks in the pavement, climb up walls to provided shade and fruit to balconies several stories high, would follow an electrical wire across the street and return to the pavement again.

When we booked a room at a small smoked out pension, I told the hosts the story of our experiences at the border. They were surprised. We are a “zero corruption country” they said. Who were these “pederasts” at the border? If you took video, you should send it immediately to the border commissioner to send these people to prison.

Batumi is the primary Georgian resort town on the black sea. It’s heyday came in the early 20th century when it was a primary port for oil exports providing 1/2 of the world’s oil and was a recepient of investments and early oil production innovations from the likes of Alfred Nobel and the Rothchilds. The old city has an imperial charm, but it’s current state is one of dilapidation and looks like one big construction zone. Streets are dug up. There are feces floating in exposed manholes. There was an initially puzzling sign at the entrance of the city.IMG_2314

We later learned that this was a development project which had been underway for several years and slated to go on for another two.

Navigating these potholes and webs of one way streets was a startling number of fancy cars, mostly black Mercedes and black sleek Toyota Land Cruisers. A lot of these fancy cars were in poor shape, missing bumpers, broken headlights, loud or absent exhaust systems. Concrete was being cut with masonry dust tainting the air, exposed rebar, crumbling buildings, etc.

Dodging the cars and the envoronmental hazards were a mery mixture of Georgians, Russians and Armenians which showed no indication that anything was out of the ordinary. They went about their business buying 60 cent draft beers from the huge wooden casks, or Kvas, or seeds and Khachapuri from the stands staffed by old large mustached ladies that Tristan kept mistaking for Jabba the Hut.

The main activity of the town was on the beach side prominade which was a overflowing with merry makers of all ages consuming popcorn, cotton candy, khatchapuri and lining up to all sorts of nighcluby disco establishments with bad music, built into the shapes of ships or cordoned off VIP resorts, guarded by bouncers in black clothes and built like 300 pound hulking humpty dumpties. Traditionally I have heard this body shape described as “bears” but this would imply a little bit more articulation of the limbs.

Something unusual caught my eye and I first did not believe it. One of the perplexing border helpers was standing right there on the bordwalk, chowing down handfulls of popcorn in glazed eye stuppor. This time, I could use my Russian.

“Hello. You remember me?”

“Da.”

“What do you do for work?”

“Ahhrrr.”

“Why were you asking us for money at the border?”

“Ahhrrrr.”

“I appreciate your concern for us and your offers to reduce the number of problems at the border.”

“Ahhrrr…”

I snapped more pictures of him directly, and took a video of that interaction also. “Well, be well, can you recommend a restaurant for us to go to with cheap traditional food?” IMG_2323He pointed and we walked in the opposite direction. Later I snapped photos of him leering at some candy floss.

Over dinner we were recommended to check out the disco in the basement of the Intourist Hotel “if you want to meet some girls” and just for the hell of it we actually went to check it out. The parking lot of the hotel was a itself a construction site, an off road sand lot, and it had the most peculiar scene we had seen so far. About a dozen black Landcruisers with tinted windows were parked, with their doors open. Inside was a border humpty dumpty in each seat and an M16 resting across his lap. Milling about were mean looking men with scowling expressions, some of which wore camo pants. Tristan encouraged me to ask what was going on and the conversation went something like this:

“Hello, what are all of these armed men for?”

“What armed men?”

“Is there anything happening that brings you here?”

“No, there is nothing special.”

“If there is nothing special, is it always like this?”

“Sometimes it is like this, and sometimes it is not like this.”

“Thank you very much, I think I understand everything now.”

There was a 10 GEL cover for the disco so we decided that I should go inside alone to see if the price was worth paying. I cleared a metal detector, was patted down, and went through a dimly lit smokey basement into a neon lit room. There were not more than a dozen guests and about as many burly beasts. The guests were all women. I wouldn’t call them attractive, and as I walked by they glanced up from their coctails, twirled round in their bar stools, shifting their posture from cross legged to something slightly more revealing and rolling their facial expressions from one kind of bored to another. I understood what the restaurant proprietor meant about “meeting girls” and I left the disco quite soon, thanking the guards for the gratis admission and telling Hari and Tristan that we probably wouldn’t be coming back.

We wound down at a cozier cafes with glorious artifacts of silver and gold refering back to the imperial charm of this seaside town.

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Birthday

July 19th, 2009 peretz 1 comment

It’s my birthday.  It’s also the day I gave my “exit talk” which nominally crowned me with a p h d with a bit of champagne, but enough about that.  For the past two months, I have lived out of a backpack, practiced at being a nomad, wandered through three countries while preparing for this road trip through another ten.

I’ve identified some of the skills I will need to endure the road and came up with questions I would like to answer on my path.

  • How do I deal with travel fatigue, and how do my interactions with people I meet for the first time and for not more than a few days become something other than an protracted amorphous hello and goodbye?  I need to have my own center and goals, and channel that at productive conversation that I will be responsible for conducting from place to place, leaving and taking.
  • I’m curious how successful we will be at using CouchSurfing.com to identify individuals curious to engage and share their realities with us.
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