My photo
Charleston, SC, United States
"Fear is a stranger to the ways of love. Identify with fear, and you will be a stranger to yourself." -ACIM

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

It’s a Ukraine Thing

I have to admit that this was one of the greatest vacations I’ve ever been on. Ukraine, its people, nature, food and sights are simply amazing. I recommend a trip there to anyone. While trying to separate itself from Russia and its Soviet past, Ukraine and Ukrainians are still very much a part of that history. While this is viewed negatively by a lot of former Soviet Republics, in Ukraine, it’s just part of life. I found that to be very refreshing and a complete 180 from Georgia.
I started my trip on the two year anniversary of the August War between Georgia and Russia (Aug. 8th) and flew out of Tbilisi on an early morning flight. It was nice to be in the air again especially knowing that I was on my way to a place that I’ve always wanted to visit; Kiev.
When I got there my friend Ben (another PC volunteer here in Georgia) was waiting on me at the airport. He had already been in Ukraine for a few days with another friend of his from the States. We took a cab from the airport that was way over priced, but quick and the taxi driver was friendly. I had arranged through my step-mom Elaine to have us stay at a really nice 5-star hotel in the center of Kiev. When traveling away from the village it’s nice to be in complete luxury. The Intercontinental in Kiev was amazing and Ben and I said a little thank you to Elaine everyday for allowing us to use some of her hotel points to stay there. We also had a lot of laughs at how spoiled rich people can be. This hotel was just over the top at times. The place had a spa, pool, workout room, free Internet, a tea hour, a cocktail hour, its own exclusive roof-top bar and a staff that would do anything to make your stay as comfortable as possible. There was a free stocked mini-fridge in the room, but what made Ben and I laugh the most was the pillow menu. Eight different pillows to choose from became a running joke throughout the vacation.

See video below for a look at our room.

We spent 5 days in Kiev exploring all the parks, churches and shops. It was really interesting to go into a shopping mall after being in Georgia for over a year. So that’s what choices look like? Wow. The churches however were the highlight of the trip. I love old churches and European architecture. Just being able to walk around in those old buildings and see all the art work and icons was a once in a lifetime experience. I even got to see the church I’ve been wanting to see my whole life; St. Andrew’s. It may not be the biggest, but it is amazing inside. Doesn’t hurt that it’s named after me either. Oh wait, that other way around. St. Andrew came first. Details. Ben and I must have walked about 10 miles every day in search of new places to explore, like the WWII memorial park, and there was no better way to end the day than to sit on a bench and people watch on Kiev’s main streets. I really need to get back there in a month other than August since from what I heard most people leave the city because of the heat. I was still impressed. Everyone there just seemed so much more relaxed, liberal and happy than do the people in Georgia. They were all so friendly and helpful and being able to speak Russian there just made the experience totally stress free. That is not to say that there were not some miscommunications or funny moments, but overall my interactions with people there were positive.
My average day there was: Get up in the morning, have coffee in my awesome robe, take my private elevator to the spa, go for a swim, hit the sauna, take a shower, go out for the day exploring and walk around, try to convince Ben not to eat at McDonald’s for lunch, sit in a park and relax during the heat of the day, explore some more, go back to the hotel and shower again, then go out for the night to either people watch or hit some bar/pub for dinner. It was a great five days.

But, I couldn’t spend my whole vacation in Kiev and 5-star luxury. So, Ben went to the airport on our last day there and picked up another friend of his from America so that we could all head off to Crimea. (Ben’s other friend by the way was also named Ben and Crimea in on the Southeastern corner of Ukraine, the most Russianized area and is very mountainous and is a peninsula surrounded by the Black Sea. Also, I kept wanting to find another traveling companion whose name started with A so we could make endless ABBA and iambic pentameter jokes. But alas.)
Still with me? Moving on. We took the night train from Kiev to a city in Crimea named Djankoi where a friend of Ben’s from his time at Moscow University is from and lives with his family. He met us early the next morning as we arrived and took us back to his place to rest before showing us his town. There isn’t much to Djankoi, but I can say it’s far more impressive than any of the Georgian towns of comparable size or population. His mom was very nice and loved having us as guests. She loved having some American to speak Russian to and was a great cook to boot. Two days at her place was far from roughing it.
The next day we all took a friend’s car down to the coast (about 3 hours) and visited a few sights along the way. We ended up going through Sevastopol and then hitting the beaches at Balaklava. Balaklava by the way used to be a major submarine port for the Soviet Navy. You could see how too on the boat ride out to the beaches. There were huge caves in the sides of the mountains that could have easily hidden a sub from any satellites passing overhead. We all had an interesting time with our boat captain on the ride out and back too. He was truly a beach character and kept telling dirty jokes in Russian despite the presence of kids and old ladies on the boat. He loved us and kept trying to give us beer and advice on where to find the most beautiful women in Ukraine. His advice: Just look around. He was right too.

The Black Sea was beautiful and despite a little rain that day, we all had a great time.
After another day of relaxing in Djankoi, we all decided to take a night bus to Odessa the major port city in the Southwest. This was (thankfully) the worst part of my trip. I couldn’t sleep at all on the bus and by 7 a.m. I was ready to get off the bus and shoot somebody. Needless to say, coffee was called for. I struggled through the day till about 3 p.m. and then took a quick nap at the hotel. After that I went exploring while Ben and Ben caught an opera at Odessa’s famous opera house. I’ve seen opera and I can appreciate it, but after a hellish bus ride, I wasn’t feeling it that night. So, while they listened, I walked around and saw some more sights. After they got out, we all got a snack and engaged in some people watching and beer drinking at an outdoor café on the central thoroughfare.
The next day I got up early and wondered around some more while Ben and Ben went to the train station to try and get tickets to either Lvov or Kiev. I already had my ticket back to Kiev so that the next day I could go back to Georgia. We ended up meeting for lunch and had some awesome pizza then went to see a few more sights before our night train back to Kiev. Unfortunately, I was in coupe (2nd class) and the Bens were in plats-card (3rd class) so we couldn’t make the trip in the same wagon. But, I slept most of the way anyway so I don’t know that it would have made much difference. I do love trains. They are like a cheap motel that moves you from place to place. The people are generally pleasant and you can see the country go by if you don’t want to sleep. I generally watch the countryside for a while, read then sleep as much as possible.
When we got to Kiev the next morning, we all dropped our bags at the train station then went off for some lunch and souvenir shopping. The Bens were headed for Lvov that night and I was flying out in the evening. So, we just goofed around, bought some stuff and then had a really good lunch before parting ways. I made it back to the airport in plenty of time and had no problems clearing documents and customs. Back in Tbilisi I had to pay for a cab to get me to the Peace Corps hostel that we use, but I was expecting that. So, no major issues in transit.
The next day however I was not happy to be back in Georgia. All the small things that get on my nerves here and that I’ve learned to ignore were brought back to my attention the very next morning. In Ukraine, people stop for you in cross walks, generally form lines, don’t yell for no apparent reason and… ok, I’ll stop there. And they don’t think that bread and cheese is the be all end all of food combinations! Ok, now I’ll stop.
Anyway, Ukraine is awesome! I had an awesome time there and I hope to go back soon. I posted up some pictures on Facebook for people to look at because posting them here takes forever.
Hope all of you are having a great end to your summer. Only 2 weeks till school starts back in Muganlo.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Baku Blog Post

Yeah so I know I got back from Baku on July 15th and it’s now into August and I’m just now getting around to typing a blog about me going to Baku. Oh well. It was a cool trip and I had a lot of fun; kinda different than the vacations I’m used to though. Too much family fun time and not enough out all night doing crazy stuff. But, it was a cheap trip and it was nice to get out of Georgia for a while. The only major downside (aside from being with the family) was that the food was exactly the same as I eat here! Yuck! The next vacation I go on I swear I will not to eat any boiled lamb!

Overall I thought Baku was cool. In another 10 years it’ll be even cooler once they finish all the construction in the mid-town area. But, there is a lot of corruption in Baku and this kind of sticks out with the police and general government operation. Even the taxi drivers were worse than a lot of places I’ve been too and I’ve seen some creepy taxi drivers in my travels.
Here is a general overview of how my vacation went:

Day 1:
Drove 12 hours from Muganlo to Baku. These two places are about as far apart as Atlanta and Charleston, but it takes 12 hours due to the speed limits and corrupt police looking for anyone driving over it. For the 12 hours I figured out that we averaged 45mph. Yeah, it was a long trip. But the host-brother’s little 1-year-old boy was great for most of the trip and only had a few moments of screaming and crying. That was good. The border crossing was uneventful so that was cool too. The only trouble I had was the guy stamping me out of Georgia because he wanted to know why I hadn’t left Georgia in a year. My response: “Beats me man, you’re right I should hurry.”
Once we got into Baku, we stopped off at one of the famous mosques before getting to my host-family’s apartment. There waiting on us were a bunch of the host-aunts and cousins who had prepared a meal and drinks. We sat around all night and ate and drank and I got to see some of the relatives that had visited us here and meet some new ones as well.
Day 2:
Baku is hotter than the sun! So, me and the Aslan (host-brother) and one of our cousins went to the beach. The Caspian is cleaner than I’ve been told it was and the water was very clear. So, swimming was great and the beach was awesome. My host-cousin works for the life guards or Azeri coast guard, so we got to take a private boat tour of the harbor and even dove off in the middle of it to swim around in some of the really cold water. It was awesome! After we had a small lunch, we drove about 20 minutes over to another beach and went swimming there and spent the rest of the day lounging in the sand.
Day 3:
Spent the day with Aslan and one of his friends from University walking around the city center and taking in all the sites. Lots of fountains and shops. Other than that, not too much. That night the whole family went for a walk in the Bulvar Park. This is a park that runs the length of the city’s center right on the Caspian. Really cool, but a lot of walking.
Day 4:
I slept in late, went to the Internet café and then took a shower. We spent the day at Aslan’s wife’s mother’s house sitting under some fruit trees and eating. That night we went back to walk the other half of the Bulvar Park.
Day 5:
Not much happened. Hung out at the house because it was hotter than the sun outside. But, that night I met up with some Peace Corps volunteers from Azerbaijan and they showed me some of their favorite spots in Baku for nightlife. Really fun night and it was a nice break from the family.
Day 6:
After a taste of life in Baku without the family I decided to not go with them to visit more relatives and instead went and toured old-town by myself. It was a really cool day spent exploring and just walking around. Aeries are really polite for the most part and that was refreshing since if you speak Russian in Georgia most people get snooty. In Baku they are more than happy to help you. Hey Georgia, get over yourselves! Anyway, around 6pm I got kinda tired so I decided to sit on a bench in the center and relax and read a book. After about 15 minutes though the PC volunteers that I had spent the previous night with walked by and invited me to hang out with them again. So, I did. Another fun night ensued.
Day 7:
World Cup Final night. Aslan, the host-cousins and I did nothing but sit around and play backgammon all day waiting on the HOT SUN to go down. Once it did we started getting ready for the Final. We showed up to the bar we were going to watch it at 30 minutes late, but no big deal. We were late because one of the friends was across town placing bets on the game. He lost his money after the regular time finished 0-0. Congrats to Spain by the way. I was pulling for the Netherlands, but oh well.
Day 8:
Hangovers are best cured at the beach sitting at nice tables under umbrellas. So, that’s what we did. Too hot? Get in the water. Thirsty? Waiter! Another round please. Nice.
Day 9 and 10:
Spent visiting more relatives. Nothing to report other than I must have about a .615 winning percentage in backgammon. Not too bad.
And on the 11th day I boarded a bus and came back to Georgia. My host-brother was staying for another 2 weeks and I wasn’t going to burn up all my vacation time melting in the Baku sun and playing backgammon while drinking scalding hot tea. The bus ride back was actually a lot nicer than the private car because they don’t have to worry about cops. Only 7-hours for the trip back and no kids.
So that was Baku. I recommend it. I think you could cover all you wanted to see in about 3 or 4 days though. It was nice to get out of Georgia and it was cool to hang out with Aslan away from the family, but this next vacation will be a lot better. Starting on the 8th I’m going to The Ukraine with a friend of mine here and we plan on having a little more fun. Hopefully it won’t take me two weeks after that vacation to sit down and tell you about it. I probably could have done a better job on this one, but the vacation was a little too hot, a little too long and a little too boring… eh.
Go Braves!