Archive | 2006
December 12, 2006

There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it

nicholas_and_alexandra.jpg

I got “tagged” with this book post by Cincy back in October and am finally getting around to filling this out. I love to read, but rarely find the time to do so these days unless I am stuck on an airplane for a few hours (and even then, I’m usually catching up on my Vanity Fair or Surfer magazine subscriptions). Anyways, here we go…

1. One book that changed your life:

nicholas and alexandra There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie. I was enrolled in a world history class in summer of 2001, and after sitting through an incredibly fascinating four hour lecture on the Russian royal family, I ran to Barnes & Noble to find a book on the subject. I ended up purchasing Massie’s extremely well-written account of Russia’s last Tsar, and finished it within days. Thanks to this book (and many others that would soon follow), I re-oriented my studies at GW to focus on Russian politics and history, spent two summers in Russia, and earned a Master’s degree in Russian Studies from LSE. Of course, my current position has nothing to do with Russia, but hopefully in the future I’ll get to use this knowledge…like maybe when Putin brings back the USSR and needs a bunch of economists to staff GOSPLAN…yeah, I could totally run a planned economy.

2. One book that you’ve read more than once:

winds of war There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about itwar and remembrance There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it

This is a hard one, because there are a lot of books I like to re-read. A book that I could read over and over again? That would have to be Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. These two volumes are quite possibly the best account of World War II I have ever read. They’re historical fiction, but Wouk doesn’t skimp on the facts. If you have any interest in WWII, read them.

3. One book you’d want on a desert island:

army survival manual There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it

The U.S. Army Survival Manual. I have a copy of this back in California (no idea why, it’s just sitting on my book shelf), and trust me, I would need this if I’m ever stuck on an island a la “Lost.” Seriously, I need a book to show me how to light a campfire…

4. One book that made you laugh:
I’m cheating and picking two…

esl There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it

English as a Second Language by Megan Crane. This is a fun, light, total “chick-lit” book – a genre that you will rarely find me reading, as most of my books tend to focus on Russia, Russia, and, oh yeah, Russia. I borrowed this from my friend Moira and read it on my London-Luxor flight. It was one of the few books that actually made me laugh out loud (semi-embarrassing when you are stuck in a middle seat on a crowded plane). The basic premise of this book is that an American moves to the UK to attend graduate school. Yeah, now you know why I enjoyed it so much. The book was hilarious because I could actually identify with the author’s grad school experience: the English weather, the pubs, the horrible food, the odd grading system…basically, everything. I was disappointed, however, to read some of the reviews of this book on

Amazon:
“I think that anybody who reads this book and thinks it strikes a chord should probably get themselves to an AA meeting.” Uhhh…yikes.

generation x There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it

And the second book, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Copeland. I’m not a member of Gen X (Gen Y represent!) but I could still identify with this tale of three twenty-somethings living in my hometown of Palm Springs, California (OK, I’m from Rancho Mirage/Palm Desert, but whatever, 10 miles away). Copeland perfectly captures the absurdity of living in a “desert resort.” This is required reading for all my friends from the desert. I’ll lend you the book if you want, just let me know.

5. One book that made you cry:

lovely bones There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I picked this up from a second-hand bookstore in, of all places, Luxor, Egypt. I had already finished English as a Second Language, and Lovely Bones was the only book that wasn’t some trashy romance novel or John Grisham bore-fest. I’ll admit that I didn’t actually cry while reading this, but I’ve never felt so depressed while reading a book. Odd, considering that half of my reading material in college was on Stalin’s reign of terror.

6. One book you wish had been written:
My great American novel which I will eventually write. It will rocket to the top of the NYTimes bestseller list and sell millions of copies in 30 different languages. I will then sail around the world in my ridiculously large yacht. Yeah, I’ll get right on that.

7. One book you wish had never been written:
Uh, I dunno…anything by Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh. I actually own one of Limbaugh’s books. It was given to me a long, long time ago by a hardcore Republican relative. Inside the book they cheekily inscribed “To Lindsay: Know your enemy” or something like that. Maybe when I’m stuck on a deserted island I can use it to start a fire, because its literary values is practically worthless.

8. One book you’re currently reading:

the prize There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it

The Prize : The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power by Daniel Yergin. I’m slowly slogging through this 900 page monster. Not exactly a page turner, but it’s the classic textbook on the history of the oil & gas industry.

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read:
I’ve got a ridiculously huge stack of unread books back in California…The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace…you know, the usual collection of dead Russian authors. So, one of those.

10. Six people to tag:
Damn, which of my friends still maintain their blogs? Let’s see, Emily, Ryan, Capitan, Joyce, Will, and Cindy. Anyone else who is up for it, just do it. I need some reading suggestions. The title of this entry, BTW, is a quote by Bertrand Russell.

pin it button There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it
December 11, 2006

The South Caucasus: Making the most of the true British climate

Vodka toast

Our flight out of Yerevan left a little after 10am. Prior to leaving, we had to pay a “departure fee”, which is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard of. You guys made me buy two visas and yet I still have to PAY to LEAVE your country? Whatev.

The flight to Heathrow absolutely sucked. It was full of wild diaspora kids (on their way back to LA, I’m guessing) who were running up and down the aisles screaming their heads off and knocking down the flight attendants who were serving everyone their drinks. I had to try very hard to restrain myself from sticking my arm out and clotheslining one of the brats. Hey parents, wanna control your kids? Oh, right, you’re too busy fidgeting with your iPod to notice that little Aram and Stepan are terrorizing your fellow passengers and convincing Lindsay that she will never EVER EVER want kids…EVER!

I had purposely spaced out my Yerevan – London and London – Washington flights (8 hour layover) so I could head into the wonderful city of London and have a few pints at a pub I used to frequent. We went to Churchill Arms in Notting Hill, which has the most amazing Thai food for six quid (yeah, the dishes went up a few pence since I lived there, but I’m not complaining). When I was at LSE, we’d eat or drink at Churchill Arms at last once a week, so I have some very fond memories of that pub. Saalim, a friend of mine from LSE, met up with us. Just like the old times, innit? (Thanks for the Strongbow and Pimm’s, dude, looking forward to seeing you in January.)

I rode the Heathrow Express back to the airport in a semi-inebriated, near catatonic state. I couldn’t believe I had to go back to Washington-effin’-DC, that goddamn hellhole swamp. I missed London’s pubs, outdoor markets, black cabs, red double decker buses, efficient train system, and generally polite population.

Maybe…MAYBE I could just stay here…no, that would be pretty goddamn irresponsible, eh? Anyways, my visa’s long since expired.

Upon arrival at Heathrow, I purchased two bottles of Pimm’s from duty-free, because I needed some gin-based liqueur to blunt the trauma of my imminent departure from London. The flight was two hours late leaving Heathrow, due to the fact that it’s, well, Heathrow, and massive screwups seem to be par for the course at that airport.

Nothing memorable happened on the flight to Dulles, which arrived a bit past midnight. Customs was surprisingly easy. There weren’t any ridiculous questions that the agents at LAX like to ask: “How did you get to all these countries?”

“Uh, by airplane.”

Or, “Armenia? Were you participating in jihad against the United States of America?”

“Uh, Armenia is a Christian nation, but no.”

Got home at 1:30am, 21 hours after leaving Armenia. Four former Soviet republics down, eleven to go!
THE END…of the most drawn-out vacation description EVER. Took this trip in July and finished writing about it in December…way to go, Lindsay!

Anyways, this post wouldn’t be complete without a big thanks to Liz and Taline for putting us up (and more importantly, putting up with us). Thanks to Brian and Andrew for their brilliant toastmaster skills at our welcome dinner…and for ensuring that the Russki Standart vodka was constantly flowing.

Cheers, guys.

Vodka toast

I’m trying to figure out where to go for my next trip. I was thinking of hitting up London over President’s Day weekend, but might switch that to Berlin because flights are cheap and I’ve never been to Germany. A summer surf trip to Costa Rica might be in the works. Let me know if you want to come along.

Also, I’ll post to this “blog” (I still hate that word) a bit more often, so you guys can stop complaining about how I never update it.

pin it button The South Caucasus: Making the most of the true British climate
December 7, 2006

A barrel of your finest crude, please

oil_spa_bath.jpg

So my tour guide in Azerbaijan wasn’t kidding when he said that crude oil was “good for your skin.” According to the NYTimes article “Bathing in Black Gold for Health and Profit in Azerbaijan“, there is a full on PETROLEUM SPA in Naftalan, Azerbaijan:

Oil spas have returned to Naftalan, a Soviet-era vacation spot.

Inside, Ramil Mutukhov, a lanky 25-year-old, prepares to be pampered and preened, scrubbed and peeled — in a bath of pure crude oil.

He undresses, hangs his trousers and sweatshirt on a peg, pulls off socks and underwear and folds a wad of brown paper towels. He will need them later. Then he steps into a mess of what looks, smells and flows like used engine oil. “It’s wonderful,” he says, up to his neck in oil in a sort of human lube job.

Bathing in Azeri crude? Jesus, it’s like a dream come true.

The petroleum spas of Naftalan in central Azerbaijan, one of the little-known but once popular vacation spots of the Soviet Union, are making an unlikely return in a country so awash in oil these days that people are swimming in it.

Here in Naftalan, visitors can bathe once a day in the local crude. They and doctors here say it relieves joint pain, cures psoriasis, calms nerves and beautifies skin — never mind that Western experts say it may cause cancer.

Eh, when have those Western experts ever been right about anything? Oh, right…

Each bath uses about a barrel of crude, which is recycled into a communal tank for future bathers, given the cost of oil these days. Mr. Mirzeyev also uses paper towels to wipe bathers clean, a long, hard process that involves several showers.

[...]

Unlike the oil from Azerbaijan’s offshore deposits, sold internationally under the brand Azeri Light crude, Naftalan’s oil is too heavy to have much commercial value. Luckily, because most of the bath attendants and patients seemed to smoke, it is not particularly flammable, either.

The resort has 80 rooms and 10 tubs, 5 for women, 5 for men. The tubs are not scoured between baths and, as might be expected, have perhaps the world’s worst bathtub rings — greasy and greenish brown.

Dude, WTF? I don’t want to bathe in communal, low-grade oil. No, sir! I demand a barrel of your country’s finest export. Fill my tub with my own personal barrel of Azeri light crude, straight from the Caspian!

oil spa bath A barrel of your finest crude, pleaseLooks like chocolate

So how about it? Anyone willing to take a dip in crude oil on our next trip to Azerbaijan? If not, there’s always the beer spa in the Czech Republic. Mmmmm…beer spa.

pin it button A barrel of your finest crude, please
December 6, 2006

ATTENTION: I AM GOING BACK TO CALIFORNIA FOR CHRISTMAS

Just bought my plane ticket. Will be there December 23 – January 1.

I expect a mariachi band and platter of double-doubles upon my arrival at Palm Springs International Airport.

pin it button ATTENTION: I AM GOING BACK TO CALIFORNIA FOR CHRISTMAS
December 4, 2006

The South Caucasus: Museums / Lake Sevan / Taxicab Confessions: Armenia

Yerevan genocide museum

Damn, dudes I’m on a roll. This entry includes two – count ‘em, two! – days worth of stuff. This has nothing to do, of course, with the fact that we didn’t do much those past two days in Yerevan!
With only two days left in Yerevan, we were trying to hit as many as the “must see” sites as possible.

Luckily, Yerevan is a rather small city, so the list wasn’t very long. We grabbed a taxi and asked the driver to take us to the Armenian Genocide Museum and Monument. Naturally, he was curious as to where we were from. When I answered California, he replied that had family members in (where else?) Los Angeles…Hollywood, of course. From my short time in Yerevan, I am now convinced that 90 percent of LA’s population is Armenian. He then asked me where my family is from.

“America.”

“Your mother, father, and grandparents?!”

“Uh, America.”

“NO!,” he replied angrily “America is NOT a nation!”

Uh, sorry dude, but some of my ancestors were in the United States before the Revolutionary War. I consider myself to be pretty goddamned American, thankyouverymuch. I didn’t want to use any brain power trying to explain this in Russian, so I just started listing countries that I knew some of my ancestors were from: Ireland, Germany, England, Sweden…typical Euro mutt heritage.

Our driver agreed to wait for us while we looked around the Genocide Museum and Monument. What to say about this museum? Depressing, to say the least, but very educational. I must admit that before visiting Armenia I did not know much about the country’s history, of which the genocide played a large role. You couldn’t help but be moved by reading the multitude of documents on display, or viewing the photos of grinning Turkish troops, proudly displaying their pistols, with the decapitated heads of Armenian men on a platter before them. And the Turks? Well, according to them it wasn’t a genocide. War is a messy business, they say. The Armenians were separatists, backed by the Russians. Sure, some 300,000 Armenians (the number the Turks use – more accurate estimates place the death toll at one million plus) died during the relocation process, but that’s hardly a genocide, right? Denial is official government policy. Those who stray from this policy are ostracized by the media and harassed by Turkish nationalist groups. When a foreign government recognizes the Armenian genocide, the Turkish government behaves like a petulant child and warns of “negative consequences.”

The U.S. government, by the way, does not dare mention the word “genocide.” When the former American ambassador to Armenia mentioned the “g-word” in a speech, he was subsequently recalled to Washington and removed from his position. We wouldn’t want to alienate Turkey, our dear ally, now would we?

Yerevan genocide museum
The pillar and “Temple of Commemoration”

Mount Ararat
A view of Mount Ararat, the national symbol of Armenia, sadly located in present day Turkey.

Yerevan genocide museum
Eternal flame

After the genocide museum, we went to the Matenadaran, a manuscript museum. I know what you’re thinking, “Lindsay, a manuscript museum? How totally boring!” It was actually really cool. If you’re ever in Yerevan, make sure you stop by…and pay the few extra dram for the English-speaking guide. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Mashtots statue
Statue of Mashtots (inventor of the Armenian alphabet) in front of the Matenadaran manuscripts library

The rest of the day was spent attempting to log into my GMail account from an internet café with a ridiculously shitty internet connection, and lounging around an outdoor café eating the Armenian version of a hamburger (not bad, but it ain’t In-N-Out). We had decent Chinese food for dinner, and afterwards piled into everyone’s SUVs to make a run for some morozhenoye

ice cream sundae in Yerevan
Andrew ordered the craziest ice cream concoction the world has ever seen. Seriously, WTF is this?

Our last day in the South Caucasus was rather relaxing, as we opted to spend the day at Lake Sevan. As usual, our driver was stopped by police on the way there and forced to pay a bribe. It wouldn’t be a proper post-communist vacation if you weren’t witness to a bit of corruption every day.

Lake Sevan
Lake Sevan

Lake Sevan
No surf here, either

We were offered fish, lavash, and beer by some hospitable Sevan locals:

Lake Sevan locals

When leaving, a group of Armenians playing volleyball in ridiculous looking speedos asked us where we were from. When I replied that I was from California, they mentioned that they were from “the OC.” Goddammit, people, don’t call Orange County “the OC”!!!!!!

We arrived back in Yerevan and caught a taxi to the U.S. Embassy, where we had earlier planned to meet up with Liz for happy hour at the Marine house. I told him we wanted to go to the American embassy. He responded by pulling out a map and pointing at the offices of the Peace Corps.

“Uh, no, we want to go to the embassy…at 1 American Avenue. This is the Peace Corps office.”

“I know.”

Then WTF are you showing me this map for?

The usual small talk ensued, Where are you from? I have relatives in LA, blah blah blah. And then….AND THEN…he says “Many Armenians love America, but I do not. I hate America.” At first, I thought that perhaps I just wasn’t translating the Russian correctly. Did this guy really just tell me, an American, that he absolutely hated my country? Yes, he did, as he then proceeded to lecture me on his hatred of our foreign policy.

“You bomb Yugoslavia! You bomb Iraq! Why? WHY?!?!”

I just sat there silently, held hostage to this crazy taxi driver’s rants against my own country. Christ, who do you think I am, Donald Rumsfeld? I vote, my dudes never win, I pay my taxes, and the government does with the money as it pleases. Oh, and by the way, great job your former Soviet masters did invading Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan! But I’m not gonna blame ya, dear taxi driver, for the munitions dropped back then or the protesters crushed by T-72 tanks, because I know how to distinguish the policy of a government from the citizens of that country. My eyes glazed over while he continued his rant, and my silence must have bothered him, because he kept shouting at me, “You do not understand! You do not understand!” I just grinned and shrugged, “Whatever, dude” and we stopped conversing. For those of you familiar with Russian, he kept addressing me as “ty” (informal), which irked me for some reason. Dude, I don’t know you, you better be addressing me as “vy” (formal).

At last, the embassy was in sight. I have never been so happy to see the stars and stripes. He asked me if I worked at the embassy.

“Uhhh…no…my friend does. I, uh, work in America.” I do not live in Washington, D.C., the capital of the country you so hate, and where all the bombing decisions are made.

We stumbled into the embassy, where the security guards proceeded to strip us of everything: passports, cameras, memory cards, batteries, flashlights, Advil. Compared to these guys, the TSA is full of a bunch of amateurs.

The embassy itself is an impressive, albeit architecturally bland structure. Think of a typical D.C. federal building with impeccable landscaping. The complex exudes raw, American power. The entire complex was immaculately clean, with its perfectly aligned concrete sidewalks and freshly cut grass. Even the damn parking lot was perfectly laid out with proper “suburban” asphalt and white lines to separate the gleaming SUVs parked side by side. It was almost hard to believe you were in Armenia at that moment.

We headed over to the Marine House, which, as you might suspect, is a home away from home for the U.S. Marines attached to the embassy. You can drink Corona, eat pizza, listen to American music, and play pool and air hockey with the Marines and diplomats. As much as I enjoy immersing myself in the local culture, it’s nice to take the occasional break and enjoy the familiarity of home. We hung out there for awhile before meeting up with some people at a restaurant called “Beirut.” (“Hey, isn’t Beirut getting bombed right now…ha ha!” Yeah, that not-so-politically correct joke got old quick). Anyways, the food there made me sick, which was convenient, considering we were leaving the next day. After nine days in the South Caucuses, we were finally headed home.

(Next up: We leave Yerevan and venture into London for Strongbow during our layover. And then I am forced to leave London and go back to the United States…well, not really forced, per se, but that whole concept of responsibility rears its ugly head.)

pin it button The South Caucasus: Museums / Lake Sevan / Taxicab Confessions: Armenia
November 22, 2006

The South Caucasus: Ignoring U.S. State Department travel warnings on the long road back to Yerevan

Ateshgah Fire Temple

And finally, continuing part whatever of our trip to the South Caucasus…which took place in July…
It was our last day in Baku, but our plane wasn’t leaving until the afternoon so we had some time to kill. The day before, we found a travel agency that offered a tour of sights outside the city, so we signed up for a morning tour of the Abşeron peninsula. What better way to spend your last day in Baku than by gallivanting around an industrial wasteland? Yeah, I couldn’t think of anything better, either.

Our first stop was the Ateşgah Fire Temple, located in the village of Surakhany.

Ateshgah Fire Temple
Entrance to the temple

Ateshgah Fire Temple

This temple was built in the 17th century by Indian fire-worshippers who were attracted to this particular site due to the multitude of natural gas seeps in the area. Pilgrims would travel for thousands of miles to worship at the altar of the gas fed flames, and, if the bizarre wax figures on display were any indication, engage in incredibly painful self-mutilation.

Ateshgah Fire Temple cells
Cells where pilgrims slept and mutilated themselves

By the late 19th century, however, the gas vents were exhausted (oops!) so the flames you currently see at Ateşgah are actually fed by Baku’s local gas lines.

Ateshgah Fire Temple gas pipes
Great job covering up those pipes, guys

Ateshgah Fire Temple
Oh natural gas, you are so good to meeeeee, you are the reason I was able to come to Baku!

Our next stop was a beautiful Shi’a mosque in Ramana. I had never visited a mosque before, so the tour was extremely interesting. At the same time, however, I was unsure of the proper etiquette. Are we really supposed to be in here? Well, our guide talked to the caretaker and he welcomed us inside…even told us we could take photos, but on that point we demurred, as I just didn’t feel comfortable photographing inside the mosque. Odd, considering I ran around St. Peter’s in Rome taking as many photos as possible of the dead Popes.

Baku mosque

After visiting the mosque, we made a quick stop at a small castle built in the 14th-century.

Ramana castle

The castle was closed for “renovations”, but there were some great views of the oil fields below.

Ramana castle

Baku oil fields

Baku oil fields

Baku oil fields

It’s no wonder the Abşeron Peninsula is considered to be one of the most polluted areas in the world. Years of drilling with little regard for the surrounding environment have left the area resembling an apocalyptic wasteland. We drove through these famed old fields of Baku – the same fields upon which the Nobel family earned their fortune and Royal Dutch Shell rose to prominence. Now, these fields are dotted with homes (mere shacks, really) and the rusting equipment acts as makeshift goals for the local kids playing soccer on the thick, oily sand, surrounded by pools of crude oil and broken pipelines.

We eventually made our way to our final stop, Yanar Dağ, or “Fire Mountain.” According to local legend, the mountain is “on fire” because a young shepherd accidentally lit a natural gas seep when he carelessly tossed his cigarette (or something like that) and the steady flow of natural gas has kept the mountain burning ever since. It was a pretty cool sight…not something you see everyday, for sure, but all I could think of was, wow, look at all that natural gas just going to waste.

Yanar Dag fire mountain
Perfect for smores?

Aliyev billboard

Across from “Fire Mountain” was this billboard of Heydar and Ilham Aliyev. As you can see, a Soviet-esque cult of personality is alive and well in this country. Billboards and posters of the Aliyevs adorn buildings throughout Baku and line the streets of even the smallest villages. More than once our driver would point out the window and remark that the particular sight was “named after our former president.” Of course, because name one thing in this city that isn’t?!

We climbed to the top of a small hill in order to take in the surrounding area. Off in the distance you could see the glimmering Caspian. It looked clean from afar. Our guide asked us if we went swimming in the Caspian. “Er…well, no.” He seemed taken aback. “Well, next time you must. You know, the oil is good for your skin.” Right, if I remember correctly, the latest craze to hit the skincare world was the inclusion of Azeri light crude in Estée Lauder’s “Intense Hydration” moisturizer. “Now, with 25% more crude oil!” Or not.
Our tour of Abşeron complete, we headed back to the airport. After experiencing the clusterfucks that were Tbilisi International Airport and Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport, I was amazed at the efficiency and cleanliness of Baku’s Heydar Aliyev Airport (told ya they named everything after him!). After the ticket agent handed us our boarding passes, he placed two pens on the counter. Laura and I stood there like idiots. “Uh, are we supposed to sign something?” No, he replied, they were a gift. Sweet, I got a Heydar Aliyev International Airport pen. Glad to see those petrodollars being put to good use.

As to be expected, our plane was an hour and a half late taking off, so we had a lot of time to sit around and do nothing. A lady sitting across from us asked if we were in the Peace Corps. Much like the Peace Corps volunteers we ran into earlier in our trip, she did not believe that someone would visit Baku for fun. If you were a foreigner in Baku, you were either working for the Peace Corps or an oil company. It turned out that she was a contractor working on the BTC Pipeline, so we talked for awhile. Having written by master’s dissertation on that very pipeline, you could say I was a bit familiar with her employer.

Our plane finally got off the ground, and we were on our way to Tbilisi. Goodbye Baku! I’ll be back when I’m running BP Azerbaijan! I highly recommend visiting Baku if you find yourself in the South Caucasus. My particular reason for visiting was to finally see the damn place after spending god knows how many hours in the LSE library attempting to write a coherent dissertation about the BTC Pipeline and Russian energy policy. For the average visitor who may not have a slight obsession with Caspian oil production, you will still find that there is much to do in Baku and the surrounding region. And if you run out of things to do, well, there’s always caviar and vodka, right?

After a short flight, we soon found ourselves fighting our way through the tremendously long lines at passport control in Tbilisi. In between pushing and shoving some testy Eastern Europeans trying to cut in line, I was silently praying that our ride to Armenia was waiting outside…because if he wasn’t, we would be totally screwed. Before leaving Baku, I contacted a Tbilisi-based travel agency and arranged, via e-mail, to have a taxi take us back to Yerevan. Taking a taxi from Tbilisi, Georgia to Yerevan, Armenia? Lindsay, you outta your mind? Well, the trains don’t run too regularly between the two cities, and several people advised me that a taxi was the way to go. Besides, Crystal and I had taken a taxi from Bosnia to Montenegro to Croatia and weren’t killed or seriously injured (and Christ, that trip involved landmines, so what’s a five hour drive between two friendly nations, right?).

Laura spotted a guy holding a sign with my name on it, so we said hello to him, threw our luggage into his tiny SUV, and started on our way to Yerevan. I once again spotted the billboard of Bush waving and grinning like a goddamn idiot, announcing that we were travelling into the city via “George W. Bush Street” (Sorry, I still can’t get over the absurdity of it all). Our driver was a quiet fellow, so I decided the best way to strike up a conversation was by asking him, in Russian, “So, this is George Bush street, eh?” It was one of the few times I saw our driver smile. “Yes, our President Saakashvili looooooooves George Bush.” The way he said it in Russian, though, was quite amusing. The “love”, in this case, was not the kind of “love” that English speakers interject so carelessly into their sentences. It wasn’t like “Oh man, I loooove Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups” but rather more like “I looove George Clooney and wouldn’t kick him outta my bed, ya know what I’m sayin’?” According to our driver, it was that kind of love between our respective leaders. Uh, thanks but I’d rather not have that mental picture.

Our driver drove like a bat out of hell, cigarette dangling from his mouth, swerving to avoid the corpses of dead livestock, speeding through villages laden with idle men in 1980s Adidas tracksuits, and past the vast fields of sunflowers. It was 8pm by the time we arrived at the border crossing, and hence not very busy. We were stuck in Georgia for a few minutes while our driver argued with a malnourished teenage soldier manning the gates. The soldier finally relented and opened the gate after a Mafioso type sitting in a plastic chair (most likely stolen from an outdoor café) ordered him to let us through. We drove between the no-man’s land separating Georgia and Armenia and sat in the car for 45 minutes while our driver spoke with the Armenian guards and attempted to find the driver who would take us the rest of the way to Yerevan (the company told me that we would have to switch drivers once we arrived in Armenia). This was definitely a lot easier when Liz and her diplomatic passport were accompanying us.

Georgia Armenia border
Goodbye, Georgia!

Georgia Armenia border
No man’s land between Georgia and Armenia. Photography strictly forbidden, what?

Georgia Armenia border
Waiting for Armenia to let us in

Our driver finally came back for us so that we could start the process of acquiring an Armenian visa.
Compared to the Georgians, the Armenians make it such a complete pain in the ass to get into their country. I hadn’t a clue why it was taking so damn long to get our visa, considering we were the only people there waiting in the visa line. While the gruff border officer attended to his oh-so-important business out there in the middle of nowhere, I entertained the two Armenian soldiers with my horrible Russian. One of them kept asking me if I had a kartochka (small photo for the visa), but I thought he said kartoshka so I was wondering why the hell he was asking me for a potato. These dudes that hungry out here? The officer finally gave us our applications, and while Laura was filling hers out one of the soldiers continually remarked that Laura had a “pretty” pen. I was like, Dude, what pen are you using that this guy thinks is so pretty? “Well, you know…the only pen I have.” Ah yes, she completed her application for an Armenian visa with her official Heydar Aliyev International Airport pen. Classic. These guys are never gonna let us in the country now.

Well, the Armenians did eventually place a shiny new Armenian visa in our passport, so we were finally allowed to enter the country. We bid farewell to the soldiers, who were by then wholly neglecting their guard duties in favour of talking to us, much to the chagrin of their senior officer and the family in the Trabant waiting to be let through. We said a brief hello to our driver, but that was about it. My Russian had regressed to the point where I sounded like a three year old peasant girl with a limited vocabulary, (only, the peasant girl would have had a far better accent) and I just didn’t feel like attempting any discussion with my brain in a state of incoherent mush. I much preferred to sit back in the creaking 1980s era BMW and watch the sun set behind the mountains. The road we started out on was windy and treacherous, but our driver was great (something you don’t come across very often in this part of the world). Obviously, this was not the same road that we had taken to Tbilisi, as I didn’t recognize anything. And then I saw the sign for Noyemberyan. Ah yes, I suddenly remembered….this is the road the State Department told us we weren’t supposed to take due to random sniper fire:

Travelers should avoid the old highway between the towns of Ijevan and Noyemberyan in the Tavush region, as well as the main highway between the towns of Kirants and Baghanis/Voskevan. The U.S. Embassy has designated this portion of the road off-limits to all U.S. government personnel because of its proximity to the cease fire line between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, a line which has seen numerous cease fire violations over the years.

Yes, twelve years after the cease-fire was announced, the Azeris and Armenians are still taking the occasional shot at each other. We drove past a few military bases and the ruins of several homes…relics from the war, I guess…courtesy of Azeri artillery shells. Remember, it’s not a true Lindsay vacation if it doesn’t involve landmines or massive displays of firepower.

I dozed off for a bit and woke up just as we were coming out of the mountain tunnel that leads to Lake Sevan. Our driver turned to me, with a toothy grin and said, in his thick accent “Good morning!” I just started laughing, it was so surreal. He offered a cigarette (No thanks, I’m from California. Christ, why do these people smoke so goddamn much?), and we started talking in a mixture of Russian and English. His name was Stefan. Cool guy. He has two sisters in….where else? Los Angeles – North Hollywood to be exact. Like I said before, you’d be hard pressed to find an Armenian who doesn’t have a family member or two in LA. We finally got into Yerevan around 1:30am.

THREE COUNTRIES IN ONE DAY…AGAIN! And the hardest part of the trip? Trying to unlock the door to Liz’s apartment. Sorry we woke ya up, dude. Those Eastern Euro locks confuse the hell outta me.

(Wow, that was a long post and it took me entirely too long to write it. I blame it on my laziness. I would write three sentences, say “Whatever, I’ll finish it later” and then find something more entertaining to do. My next posts won’t be as long…I think I still have three days to cover, but they’ll be short…except for perhaps the post on London. It may turn into some long-winded diatribe about how great of a city London is and how much DC sucks. Also, some people have asked me how I can remember everything even though I took this trip in July. It’s simple…whenever I travel, I carry a small notebook along and write a short sketch at the end of each day so that when I get home I can write a somewhat semi-coherent account of the trip. Secondly, some friends have asked what’s up with the Californian wearing the Texas shirts. I like that burnt orange color, alright? And, I dunno, maybe a bit of irony?)

pin it button The South Caucasus: Ignoring U.S. State Department travel warnings on the long road back to Yerevan
November 13, 2006

So goodbye California, It’s been really nice

carmel_1.jpg

Got back from Carmel last night. Overall, it was a great trip. I haven’t been to that area of California since I was in high school, when my mom dragged me on a “You don’t really want to go to college on the East Coast when we have all these great schools in California” tour (obviously, I eventually ended up on the (l)east coast).

We stayed at a “ranch” which, in California, translates as a resort composed of a bunch of condominium type hotel rooms spread along a golf course. To get around said ranch, you would dial the operator, who would send a bellman to pick you up in a golf cart and deliver you to the destination of your choice. In the evening, a maid would deliver freshly baked chocolate chip cookies as part of the turndown service. Ideally, you would eat them while sitting beside your fireplace, or perhaps after taking a nice, warm bath, but I was usually stuffed from a 15 bazillion course meal and thus opted to save them for later. I was roughin’ it, indeed.

On Friday afternoon we went on a wine-tasting tour. Even though I hail from the best wine-producing state in the U.S., I’ve never toured a winery. Ya know, it’s probably because I’m more of a beer drinker.

Nevertheless, this beer aficionado enjoyed some excellent wines and I think I’ve even developed a fondness for port. That could be an expensive fondness, however, so I’ll stick to my Yuengling and Shiner Bock for now.

On Saturday, our meetings were over at noon (yes, this was a work trip, after all) so we had half a day to kill until our flights back to DC on Sunday morning. Where else to go for lunch, but the nearest In-N-Out, 20 miles away in Salinas? Sometimes I wonder if I hype In-N-Out too much, but once I step out of the car and the smell of those fries stirring in veggie oil hits me, I know that I’m about to eat the greatest fast-food burger known to man. God, I miss you In-N-Out. Those posers at Five Guys ain’t got nothin’ on ya.

After our appetites had been sufficiently sated thanks to number ones with onions and chocolate shakes, we headed down the coast to check out the scenery. The drive down Route One, through the Big Sur area, is perhaps one of the most beautiful road trips you will ever experience. I’m an idiot and forgot my camera, so visit this guy’s website for some amazing photos like these below:

big sur 1 So goodbye California, Its been really nicebig sur 2 So goodbye California, Its been really nicecarmel 1 So goodbye California, Its been really nice

That evening we went to downtown Carmel and walked down to the beach where I briefly tested the water temperature of the mighty Pacific. Cold? Oh yeah. No surfing here without a thick wetsuit.

I was in a great mood. Trips back to California do that to me. I should have moved to San Francisco after LSE…I don’t know what I was thinking. I love Southern California, but the Central Coast and Bay Area are amazing. There’s something about the smell of salt water mixed with pine trees, and the warmth of a fire on a chilly evening. Sometimes I’ll start daydreaming about cruising around my vineyard in a John Deere Gator (even though I know nothing about wine, not to mention making it), or perhaps owning a large chunk of land overlooking Big Sur and dropping a few happy California cows on it so passing motorists can smile and think to themselves “How quaint that this multi-million dollar piece of property only has a handful of cows on it.” And then you come crashing back to reality when you’re sitting at the San Francisco airport wondering if you’re going to make it to DC tonight because the idiots at United overbooked by 11 passengers and you don’t have an assigned seat yet. But at least you had Mexican food for lunch and your carry-on bag is stuffed with Red Vines and See’s Candies (it’s a California thing) so you can bring back a little taste of home.
And Washington? 46 degrees and pouring when I finally arrived at Dulles. Why the hell is it always raining whenever I come back from a trip? No joke, I think the only time it wasn’t raining upon my return to DC was when I came back from Armenia IN JULY. (Uh, speaking of which, gotta finish writing about that trip). At least I could drive myself home this time.

I should be back in California for Christmas…not sure for how long, but hopefully enough to catch up with friends and family over some In-N-Out, Mexican food, and pints at the Yard House.

pin it button So goodbye California, Its been really nice
November 8, 2006

Schadenfreude

I’m feelin’ it. You feelin’ it?

Way to go, Dems. I’m ecstatic about the results. Goodbye Rick Santorum, George Allen, Conrad Burns, KittyKat Harris, and the multitude of GOP losers who were shown the door by the American public. Goodbye to their staff members, now unemployed, some (hopefully most) of whom will be leaving DC. I will miss you so much, you collar-popping, Bud Light swilling tools. Please remember to turn in your Blackberries – those are U.S. government property, after all.

And the icing on the cake? Adios, Donald “you have to go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want” Rumsfeld. He announced his resignation while I was enroute to LAX (on a business trip to Carmel until Sunday, more on that later). Once we landed, everyone promptly turned on their cellphones while the plane taxied to the gate, and a woman a few rows behind me announced that Rumsfeld resigned.

“What?!”

“Rumsfeld resigned. It says right here in my e-mail.”

The passengers in the back of the plane started clapping.

What’s wrong, Bush? You run outta political capital?

pin it button Schadenfreude
November 7, 2006

Throw the bums out

Today is election day, so I hope everyone will be heading to the polls. Although I reside in DC, there is nothing of substance to vote for here, so I continue to vote in California via absentee ballot. Most of the people I voted for were Dems, but there were a few Republicans and even a Libertarian. As usual, there were a ton of propositions, but the one I was most interested in was Proposition 87. Basically, if 87 is passed, a tax will be levied on oil produced within the state and the income from this tax (a projected $4 billion) will be used to fund alternative energy projects to “reduce California’s dependence” on petroleum. Why tax the producers, though? They are in the business to extract oil and refine it into gasoline, thereby meeting the needs of car-dependent Californians. Then the Prop 87 people come around shouting, “These oil companies aren’t investing enough money in alternative energies!” Jesus Christ, they’re OIL companies…drilling for oil is what they do best. Yes, these companies invest in alternative energy, but the bottom line is, they are OIL COMPANIES. And as much as you might demonize them, these are the companies that allow you to drive and fly wherever the hell you want.

There’s another tax proposition on the ballot – Proposition 86, which would levy an additional tax of $2.60 per cigarette pack to fund various health programs. The goal of this proposition is to reduce the consumption of nicotine and ultimately save lives. If the goal of Prop 87, then, is to REDUCE THE CONSUMPTION of oil (and gasoline), why not raise the state gasoline tax to promote conservation? Yeah, I’d love to see a politician suggest that. But, it’s much easier to just tax the big, bad oil companies, no?

On the subject of Congress, I’m hoping the Dems gain some major ground in both houses. It’s not that I’m really excited about the Democratic Party, I just like it when Congressional Republicans lose. I like to compare this election to the 2001 World Series. Who cares about the Diamondbacks winning, wasn’t it great to watch those damn Yankees lose!?

pin it button Throw the bums out
November 1, 2006

Pain is…

…waiting an hour and a half at the DC DMV
…and then watching a DMV clerk shred your California driver’s license into tiny little pieces
…and then seeing the photo on your brand new DC driver’s license

pin it button Pain is...