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Farewell Hari! Fairwell dear friend!

August 26th, 2009 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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Our Wheelz

August 6th, 2009 No comments

Astrid’s crankshaft turned over for the first time in 1994. Gleaming off the assembly line with a bright turquoise paint job and a slightly funky deco interior, it was immediately clear that she had a spunky, no-nonsense attitude and a passion for travel. After a series of dead-end relationships in Germany, she found herself broken-down and out in Dresden. She had fallen in with a bad crowd of used vehicles, some destined for better things and some destined for the proverbial junk yard. On a fateful day in July 2009 she met Amanda and Tristan through a mutual friend (Geri); there was chemistry from the first turn of the key. She got so excited her passenger-side mirror fell off (how embarrassing!). A week later, Amanda and Tristan and Astrid began moving forward with their new relationship. While it was clear she could hold her own on the road, the team came to realize she also carried a lot of baggage. After the relationship had some mileage, she confessed (through a bad valve-tick) that she had a synthetic (oil) drinking problem. Each day presents her with new challenges, new bumps in the road, but we push on (with 2 quarts of oil at all times), and the current team of Astrid, Peretz, Hari, Amanda and Tristan are looking forward to changing gears from the comforts of Europe to the intrigues of Asia.

Astrid’s Facts IMG_0888
Bust: 1598 cc
Waist: 5 speed
Age: 15
Education Level: 159,814 km
Color: Turquoise
Favorite Drink: 95 Octane on the Beach
Favorite TV Show: Top Gear
Life Goals: “To see the world. Maybe meet a nice sedan someday.”

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Borders, Belgrade, Barges, and Bulgaria

August 4th, 2009 No comments

En route to Plovdiv from Sofia, 9 pm, 8/4/9

No major health problems as yet (for either humans or the car), although we had to reattach the right-hand passenger mirror after I inadvertently knocked it off (it was loose to begin with, when the car was purchased), and we are all developing a slight heat rash because of the temperature, which regularly exceeds 90 F. I suspect it will only get warmer as we head further east.
The heat also is suppressing our appetite – we are down to ~1.5 meals a day, usually a light breakfast (coffee, the occasional bowl of cereal or pastry) and a heavier linner. We just don’t feel that hungry, in part because we are probably burning far fewer calories as we drive and walk around cities than we do in our normal activity-filled days back in the States. I’m fairly sure I’ll return home ~10 lbs lighter than when I left, although this is nothing new (when I go to India, diarrhea usually thins me out a bit).

I had mentioned last time that we had some issues at the borders. Turns out one needs a ‘green card’ – essentially a proof of insurance in multiple languages. Although the car is insured, and we have a yellow piece of German paper to prove it, we didn’t appear to have been given the corresponding green card when the car was purchased. This wasn’t a problem until we reached the Serbian border, when we were told that we needed it. Further complicating matters, although there was a workaround (one can buy ‘border insurance’ to get through), the particular border that one could purchase the insurance was ~80 km to the north. While we were deciding how best to get into Serbia, we dug around in the car and found a green card – but it was for a previous owner, and the license plate # didn’t match our current plates. We tried again at the same border, but were turned back, as the Serbian border police checked our plates. At this point, we were starting to get some funny looks from the Bosnian border people, as they had seen us attempt to leave (and re-enter) their border twice. We were also starting to think about how best to actually obtain the document – it seemed like not having it would incur more complications further along the trip. Ideas ranged from trying to call the German agency that issued us the insurance to attempting to forge our current license plate # on the green card we had (possible with a photocopier and some green paper).

In any case, we decided to try the northern border, and had mentally prepared ourselves to pay whatever amount the Serbian police asked for border insurance. By this point, it was getting quite dark, and for once, the night worked in our favor. The Serbian border guards were either too lazy or too tired to get out of their booth to check the match between our plates and what was listed on the older green card in our possession, and the darkness meant that they couldn’t easily see the plates from their booth. We were waved through, after they checked that we had a green card. Lesson #1: driving through borders after hours can help if you lack the required papers!

The story has an amusing ending: although we later spent a few frustrating hours communicating with the German insurance company, and they refused to issue and send us a new green card to replace the one we thought they didn’t give us, it later turned out that we had the current green card after all! It was stuffed inside Tristan’s IDP (international driving permit, another document necessary to drive a car through Eurasia), and we just (ten minutes ago) found it, as we were pulled over by the Bulgarian police for speeding. Lesson #2: make sure you get and then *remember* where you put the green card.

Having snuck into the Serbian border, we proceeded to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. It was harder to sense the Muslim influence here – Belgrade is more Christian and further north, a bit out of our way to Turkey but still east of Sarajevo. On the other hand, the grit that I had felt in Bosnia was still evident in Belgrade: although the buildings weren’t as dilapidated and I didn’t see any that were shelled, graffiti was still prevalent everywhere, and cigarette butts lined the streets and parks. Belgrade is a fun city – lots of young people. We encountered several friendlies at the hostel we were staying at – the ‘Hotel Chilton’, a hole in the wall place a bit south of city center.

We’ve been in hostels now for the last few days, and there are similarities between them all: a youthful, fresh-faced friendly crowd, proprietors that aren’t anal about when checkout is, a ‘welcoming shot’ at each place we’ve stayed at, free internet and wi-fi, some kind of kitchen area, and generally grubby living conditions. While not outright filthy, there is definitely more dirt here than in the campgrounds or hotels we stayed at earlier. Most of the other travelers are in their early 20s, enjoying their drinks, rolling into bed after 2 am, and almost all smokers. I do like the enthusiasm and friendliness of these places, although I think I’ll enjoy leaving the crowds and doing some camping in Turkey and the Caucuses.

I’ll recount just one Belgrade experience – the dance clubs on the barges. Belgrade is surrounded on the west side by two rivers, the Danube and the Sava. At the western side of both rivers, there are many barges that are moored, and that house pubs, restaurants, and dance clubs. We took a cab on Sunday evening to the west bank, and strolled about looking for a way to burn calories. Neither barge we went onto required a cover charge, but the feel of each was quite different. The first had a crowd that resembled that you might find at an east bay or san francisco party – young people that had interesting clothes (in fact, there was some kind of vintage clothing shop on board) and danced to 80s music tunes (english!) that we could understand, but most of which we had not heard before. Most of the Serbs onboard seemed to know all the lyrics, and mouthed them as they danced to them. There was also some sort of low-budget filming going on, with a camera-man constantly pointing and recording one particular couple that danced on the floor. The second barge had hordes of young Serbs that danced, grooved, and beat to the thump-thump of ‘drum and bass’. This was interesting to see, but much less my style – too much frenetic moving around. Both were quite interesting, and reminded me of the club/barges I had seen before many years ago on the London Thames. Anyway, it was nice to see people many miles from home getting down and having as good time as my friends in the US.

Leaving Belgrade behind, we drove into Bulgaria, and spent a day in Sofia. We didn’t have any issues with border crossings, perhaps partially because Bulgaria is now in the EU (unlike Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia). The ‘EU-ification’ of Bulgaria seemed to have other effects also – although Bulgaria retains its own currency for now (the Lev), Sofia seems much more western european than the balkan countries between Croatia and Bulgaria. McDonalds, Dunkin’ Donuts, etc have all found there way here, although Sofia does retain its own undeniable charm. The streets near city center are colorfully (gaudily?) painted gold, a shade that has dirtied somewhat throughout the years, but nevertheless evoked a fanciful yellow-brick road feeling in me. There is much more of a Greek Orthodox flavor at work, with the churches heavy on iconography, and the portaits of Christ and the apostles artistically different than the churches in Vienna.

Today, we drove from Sofia to Plovdiv, a smaller town in Bulgaria that I had never heard of before, in order to get some rest tonight. Tomorrow we travel to Corlu, a town in Turkey near the border, and from there, Istanbul! Eastern promises await…


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Eastern Europe: Grittier, Edgier, Cheaper

August 2nd, 2009 No comments


11:50 am, Belgrade

I’m writing this from the nice hostel we checked into late (~3 am) last night, while I’m waiting for T$ and PP to rouse themselves. The last few nights our driving has fallen into a pattern – get up around 10 am, explore a city until ~4pm, then drive into the evening and night to get to our next destination. While ok, this has been a bit fatiguing, so we’re taking a ‘down day’ in Belgrade to recharge our mental and physical batteries before continuing east. We need to do a better job of planning our route- the atlas we have is good, but it would be even better to google-map our ongoing route to help us with directions. It’s time consuming to drive into a city and try and find a place to crash when we arrive in the dark, rather than making a reservation beforehand and taking advantage of the daylight. In Slovenia and Switzerland, we could get away with camping near town, but in the large cities of the Eastern bloc, this is less viable. The good news is that these cities seem not to sleep, so we have been always able to find some place to crash. Signs have switched to Cyrillic, so PP has proved invaluable in helping us navigate. We’ve also had some interesting experiences at the borders, more about this later…

Resuming the narrative from last time: Dubrovnik is certainly a popular destination for Europeans. While packed to the gills with tourists, it’s also a pleasant destination, a charming old city overlooking the sea. Temperature was hot – 90s, so it was a struggle to stay hydrated as we navigated the city walls. One of the highlights of this town is that one can circumnavigate the entire old city by walking along the ramparts – takes about 45 minutes, and you are afforded great views of the shimmering, clear Adriatic. In the morning, I took a brief swim in the sea, cold but refreshing.

From Dubrovnik, we headed east towards Sarajevo, into Bosnia-Herzegovina. And it was on this portion of the road that the character of the land changed. First, as we were driving, cars became noticeably older (see a lot more of the Russian made Lada Niva – a 4×4 offroad vehicle). The land east of Croatia is pretty dry this time of year, but we still came across a lot of individual farms, rows of vegetables and corn, and the occasional greenhouse. Population density is a lot lower than before, and we saw far fewer cars than in Western Europe. A few times we encountered scenes that seemed to have been lifted from decades earlier – small refineries, groups of sheep, an isolated goat or two atop a rock near a small dwelling.

En route to Sarajevo, we passed through the beautiful old town of Mostar. This centrepiece of the town was the picturesque ‘Most’ or bridge, bombed during the Balkan wars of 1992-1994, but largely rebuilt and restored, and in the middle of a gentle valley. Walking along the cobbled lanes that led to the bridge, the Turkish/Ottoman influence was obvious – we came across a few mosques, the sounds of Arabic chanting lilting in the air, and were served ‘Bosnian’ (Turkish) coffee at a nearby cafe. I saw an old man with a long white beard – reminded me of caliphs or imams that I imagine I’ll see more of as I journey into Turkey. The physical characteristics of the people here are also a testament to the melting pot that is the Balkans – skin color is more olive than white, hair tends to be blacker, dress is more Muslim as I see more women are covered up. As romantic the bazaars were, venturing outside of the main drag one could notice that buildings had holes taken out of them, from shells. Its sobering to think that many people were killed here ~15 years ago, and one wonders how the shelling and shooting have affected the cultural psyche of the natives.

The shelling was more evident in the streets of Sarajevo – most of the buildings exhibited signs of light to moderate damage, and it was easy to pick out those buildings that were less than 15 years old. We drove down a byway that was nicknamed ‘Sniper Alley’, for obvious reasons. The scene here is gritty – streets are less clean, graffiti more prevalent, people exhibiting a little more machismo than in the more ‘refined’ cities I had seen further to the west. In one corner of town, a group of old men were playing and watching chess on a life-sized board, concentrating fiercely as they sought to predict the next moves. I wandered into an abandoned apartment building near the edge of the Old Town, again struck by the damage the building had sustained. I try (mostly unsuccessfully) to imagine what it was like during the height of the craziness, when ~11000 Sarajevans perished, and you couldn’t predict where the next shell would fall or whether it would be safe to walk outside the questionable haven of your room. Despite the war, life seems to have picked up again. There is a bustling tourist scene in the old town, with many a bazaar or restaurant offering up grilled meats, spinach pies, coffee, or other eastern treats. There is a sense of the western European chic as I venture into New Sarajevo, with girls heavily done up and in fashionable attire. Here, as in western Europe, there are the designer stores, but amidst a general sense of dilapidation, unlike the grand, well preserved buildings of Vienna. More on Belgrade and borders later – my friends are awake and we need to plan our day.

— Hari

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The Journey So Far: Vienna -> Croatia

July 30th, 2009 1 comment

7/30/09, 1:30 pm

I’m writing this in the car again – we are headed into Southern Croatia, eventually to Dubrovnik on the coast, the ‘pearl of the Adriatic’ according to Lord Byron. The countryside could be classified as Mediterranean – lots of scrub, the occasional evergreen, low-lyiing hills, and squat box-like buildings built into them. Now is a good time to write about the places I’ve been so far.

I flew into Vienna on 7/21, from DC by way of NYC and London. My friends picked me up a few hours late, a consequence of road construction and traffic on the long drive over from Prague (things taking longer than expected has become a common feature of life on the road – despite the way our car eats km up, poor signage is common and we don’t always have clear directions on our atlas). I was pretty tired when they picked me up, so we spent the next day in Vienna while I recovered from the jet lag. Vienna is a beautiful and interesting city – lots of parks, lots of cool architecture and gardens. Of particular note was the butterfly house, a greenhouse with many different species of these colorful insects. There were many occasions where I saw a butterfly extending its long and delicate proboscis into the head of a flower or a piece of fruit, feeding before lifting off and fluttering away. I also enjoyed working my way through several hedge mazes located in the Palace grounds.

On 7/23, aD, T$ and I headed west towards Switzerland. Though away from our eastern callings, we had a few days to kill before picking up PP again in Vienna. The detour was well worth it – Switzerland is as beautiful as they say. We experienced alpine lakes, soaring snow-covered peaks (the Jungfrau), woods, brooks, and tourists! It’s easy to easy why this area is a playground of old Europe. In Lucerne, one of the towns we stayed at, we saw plenty of ads for paragliding, jumping (from planes and bungee-), river rafting, and zorbing (imagine being strapped inside a clear plastic ball, that is cushioned and itself secured inside a larger ball, and hurtling down a hillside inside it). Along with adventure sports, almost every Swiss town we passed through had its fair share of fondue (which we sampled one night, yum!), watch, swiss army knife, and fancy clothing stores. The latter seeem to be present in every European city and medium-sized town we’ve passed through so far – Europeans like to dress well I guess. We’ve saved a lot money thus far by staying in large public camping grounds, and the ones in Switzerland were particularly nice: clean, with hot showers, and laundry facilities. They’re also well-inhabited by lots of Europeans, with large tents (they seem fully-equipped, even with electrical hookups, folding chairs, tables, etc.). Our tents were much smaller than the average size here – but perhaps this reflects our own innate backpacking tendencies rather than any particular difference between American and European camping persuasions (it’s been years since I’ve been in an American camping ground).

(Intermission: took a break from writing as we stopped by Split, large coastal town on Adriatic. Lunched on fresh fish, olives, rice and wandered about the ruins of old Roman palace).

On our way to Switzerland, we also had our first brush with the law – we were pulled over twice by the German police. The first time, we had stopped outside a gas station jus as we passed Salzburg, Austria (birthplace of Mozart). Two men out of uniform but with guns and police IDs asked us to step out of the car, took our passports, and proceeded to search the car. They were polite, but serious, and they definitely seemed to suspect us of drug-running. They profiled T$, searching his bags but not ours – T$ admittedly looked a bit suspicious with sparse whiskers on his chin and Robin hood style hat. Of course, they found nothing and let us go. The second time, we were pulled over by Germans in a police car – they also started to search, but broke it off once we told them we had previously been searched the day before.

Other highlights of Switzerland: kayaking on Lake Lucerne, navigating the often frustratingly poorly-signed highways on our way to small Swiss towns, enjoying the groceries bought at gas stations (one of which also had a sex shop opposite the convenience portion of the stores – the prevalence of explicit imagery like this is far more accepted and prevalent in Europe than in the US).

On 7/27 we started the 860 km journey back from Switzerland to Vienna, where we were to pick up PP. This journey took us ~10 hours, longer as usual than planned, so we were ~3 hours late at the airport. PP, by this time, had enough – and had left to find his own accomodations in Vienna. We reconnected with him the next day, having communicated over email, and proceeded with him to Slovenia.

Slovenia is gorgeous – full of mountains, lakes, woods, and fields. It was also cool – a welcome change after the heat of Germany and Austria. The first night we stayed in the small town of Bled, in the ‘Julienne Alps’, a beautiful moutaintanous region in the Northern country. Bled is an interesting example of a small European town just starting to experience the evils of tourism. Although relatively unpopulated and pretty small, it has a beautiful lake in the middle of town, an island in the middle of the lake, and a castle overlooking the lake. However, the town also had a Casino, complete with tuxedoed waiters and cigar-smoking clientele, and the campground we first tried to visit was hardly a pleasant space in the woods. When we arrived, a staff member was blaring MC Hammer tunes and entertaining a large group children with a microphone.

Further south, we finished up our stay in Slovenia by visiting the awesome Skocjanske caves. These were much more impressive caves than the lava tubes in the Mt. St. Helens area (Washington state) that I had explored in my youth. The caverns were enormous – stretching 10s of meters high and hundreds of meters in width, sporting an underground river that snaked its way through the interconnected limestone, and complete with massive stalactites, stalagmites, bats, and guano. If you should ever find yourself in Slovenia, go!

– Hari

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Initial Meditations on the Trip, 07/28/09

July 28th, 2009 No comments

4:30 pm, local time

I’m currently writing this while in the car, finally full with all 4 of us and our possessions. We picked up Peretz Partensky (PP) in Vienna this morning, and are currently en route to Slovenia – had thought first about heading to Ljubljana (the capital), but now may divert to a national park instead. The car, a 1994 Opel Astra, is a blue station wagon, currently stuffed to the gills with tents, backpacks, carbs of various kinds, ice (and regular) tea, pillows, various electronics including PP’s mini laptop that I’m writing this on, the walkie-talkies that PP and Tristan Ursell (T$) are chattering on while in the car, many more items of various functions, and the 4 of us (PP, T$, me, and Amand Dunn, aD, who is driving). I’m sitting in the backseat, and am cramped but oddly satisfied. There’s something great about heading towards a country you’ve never visited before, could only vaguely pinpoint on a map, and *not* having a set plan. Why the trip? Where are we headed? Will the car break down? Will we be able to tolerate each other for the additional 5 weeks that I’m here?

Impossible to answer all these questions, at least right now, but I’ll take a stab at the first. This trip originated as a thought of T$s – he saw the Mongol Rally website (google it!) and we started discussing the idea, more as a joke than as a reality. At some point I looked seriously into the possibility of attending the ‘actual’ rally, and got an ‘official’ spot. Various friends seemed interested in attending the event at various points in the trip-planning, but several bailed when it came to committing to the event.Over the last year, the trip evolved into its current state – a trip as far east as we can make it (to Mongolia, or perhaps beyond) in our respective time-frames (6 weeks total for me, more for the others), but unofficially, not part of the Mongol Rally so the trip is cheaper and more flexible than allowed by the rules of that rally’m sure we all have different reasons for the trip, ranging from the mundane (a somewhat unconventional summer vacation in Eurasia) to the more complex (pushing personal boundaries and comfort zones, exploring those peoples, cultures, and countries that most of us couldn’t easily identify on a map). I’m still working out myself why I’m doing this – for now, it’s enough to say that I desperately need a break between my postdoctoral days and my new ‘adult’ life as a PI at the NIH. Despite my best intentions, I still find myself thinking about microscopy and research while on this trip, although the liberation and excitement of exploring the unknown (no fixed destination, minimal planning) are uplifting and invigorating.


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July 19th, 2009 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 to identify individuals curious to engage and share their realities with us.
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