Archive for April, 2009

Lisa Leads!

April 30, 2009

Melnik didn’t live up to its reputation! We ventured down to that tiny village of ~300 people, found a cozy hotel, sampled about seven wines — and were blown away by the lack of hospitality and poor quality of Melnik’s famed reds! Yesterday, we woke early to hike to the Rozhen Monastery and decided that one night there was sufficient. We caught a bus back to Sofia, settled in at our previous hostel, and then whimsically decided to catch a midnight bus to Skopje, Macedonia. This was an idea I was incubating, but Lisa became adamant about the idea and the shock to our body that results from a six-hour middle-of-the-night ride. We are motivated to make it to the Adriatic coasts of Albania and Montenegro!

Lisa earned her stripes on the road last night when we had an interesting run-in with this illustrious swine flu “possible pandemic” at the Macedonian border! After arriving at the border at 2:30, they made a brit, Spaniard, Lisa and myself get off the bus. They questioned us in earnest, and then allowed us to get back on the bus without our passports. Eventually, they called us back and told us we had to wait for a doctor, to be tested. We tried to contain our laughter as we waited for an our in their little office until the doctor arrived. He basically asked us if we were feeling sick, and then let us go. By doing so, he acknowledged the joke that is swine flu and sent us on our merry way. However, we weren’t very popular on the bus after delaying the trip by two hours — in fact we felt quite intimidated.

We have a three-hour stop in Macedonia, and then we are jumping on a bus to Tirana, Albania. It’s time for the Adriatic!

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The Most Diabolical Son in the World!

April 28, 2009

Lisa is an adventurous stud and the perfect travel companion! She is open-minded and didn’t necessitate any convincing about sleeping in a hostel DORMITORY last night! The ‘Hostel Mostel’ is an excellent backpacker’s hostel in Sofia, Bulgaria that had been highly recommended to me by a trusted source. I wanted Lisa to experience how incredible of an alternative these places can be, but Mostel’s suites were booked when we made our reservation, so we opted for the authentic dorm experience! As should be expected, Lisa was a bit insecure at first, but I think she grew to love the place! We are keeping things diverse, one night each at a: W, boutique hotel, on a train, and in a  hostel dormitory! Lisa’s Newport Beach friend’s probably think I am the cruelest son in the world — but I assure you that hostels can be an incredible and very European option granted you do research and find the cream-of-the-crop! We are heading to a tiny village of 240 people in south-western Bulgaria this morning. Melnik is 20 km north of Greece and produces much of Bulgaria’s most famous wine. I promise I won’t subject Lisa to dormitory style sleeping for at least a couple more nights — now we might try a homestay! I am evil — Lisa is tough!

Our fourteen-hour sleeper car journey from Istanbul was another perspective-broadening experience for the aforementioned dame. We rode in a dusty compartment on an old Russian hulk. We had to cross the tracks from our train to the Turkish passport control office at 3:00 a.m., queued in the chilled air for a couple minutes, got stamped out of Turkey, then shuffled back to our compartment. We dozed back to sleep and were awoken at the Bulgarian counterpart an hour later. We began the final leg of our trek in earnest at 5:30 a.m., and arrived in Bulgaria at noon. the experience wasn’t nearly as difficult as it sounds, and was a breeze by my standards, but I am very proud of how well my mom coped given her normally cushy lifestyle back home. They say you never forget how to ride a bike. I guess the same holds true for roughing it during sleepless nights in foreign lands!

Having said that, Bulgaria is beautiful. We passed through endless lush fields and medieval villages on our way to Sofia. This city is quaint compared to Istanbul, with only 1.1 million people, but exceeded both of our expectations. It is very walkable and is filled with an awakened air. The cafes and shopping districts were humming. However, we did meet one interesting reminder of Soviet stereotypes. We sat down at a very nice Italian-style cafe near Sofia University in between a couple interesting groups of people. There was a clan of leather-wearing, mob-vibe-oozing, bald forty-somethings, another clan of flamboyantly dressed mob-vibe-oozing bald forty-somethings, and a final table with a massive, monolithic, UFC-champ-of-a-man. The latter was named Charlie and he initiated a conversation with us. He was very nice, and continuously massive, as he shared with us information about Bulgaria and his children. It turns out he earned fourth place at the arm-wrestling world championships, twice! He had a massive slash along his bicep which he attributed to an “accident,” and he showed us photos of his smashed up BMW that was crushed in another “accident.” Brave and curious Lisa asked him what his profession was and he said: “I work for the guys at that other table.” A couple minutes later, in the middle of a sentence, when the flamboyantly dressed guys got up from their business meeting with the leather gang, he abruptly stood up and said he needed to leave. The men walked to the car and he was their driver and body guard. Black markets still thrive in the post-Soviet world!

Finally, we ate in incredible lunch yesterday with delicious dollar house-wine and massive platters of fresh vegetables, cheeses, bread and soup. The food and wine will undoubtably continue to flow in Melnik and as we make our way into Albania. I am cruel and Lisa is a stud.

April 26, 2009

Cruising Istanbul con mi madre! We are jumping on a night train this evening to Sofia, Bulgaria. I am expecting to have more time in the coming days to catch you up! Istanbul is beautiful, but much more expensive than I am accustomed to! Gone are the glorious dollar-a-day meals! Sorry for the bland nature of this post! I am protective of my mother — I cannot go as big as I have in the past!

Maguires In Istanbul!

April 24, 2009

I am sitting next to a beautiful woman in an Istanbul internet cafe. That lady is my mother! Lisa arrived and we are going to spend the next two and a half weeks making our way through Eastern Europe to Zurich, from where she will fly back to California. New cuisines will be sampled, architecture will inspire and wine *might* fuel the process!

With regards to the latest leg of my bus adventure, Turkey has an incredibly extensive route network, that is traversed by modern and expensive Mercedes buses — but they simply did not take the essentials into consideration! These buses do not have bathrooms, nor functionally reclining seats! Stopping for thirty minutes every two hours is not efficient and is not conducive to a proper nights sleep! Blasted fools!

With regards to sleeping in the meadow, I will now elaborate, but in a terse manner due to my respect for the sanctity of time. I arrived at the Antakya station at 4:15 and sought out a room in the hotel atop the station — the one I stayed at in my previous Antakya experience. The man only had significantly more expensive, or a much worse, yet similarly priced room available. He would not give me a discount for only staying a few hours, even though his hotel was empty, no one was going to come seeking a room between 4:15-noon, and that the room was much worse. He refused to negotiate and would only accept US dollars — a sacred currency to a backpacker. I was sick of his monopolistic refusal to bargain and decided to spend the early morning in a meadow I discovered on a run! I slept in a patch of olive trees dotting a meadow on the outskirts of Antakya! The only person I encountered was a sheep herder, who was keenly interested and respectful. He gestured that he would keep an eye out for me while I slept. I then proceeded to sneak into the hotel shower, and walked four miles for lunch out of protest against this man´s rough business tactics! I assure you, he was more of an asshole than myself. At least from my perspective. I also assure you that people the world over think I am insane — and I agree with them! 

Despite having a new companion, I promise I will not neglect my old friends (you!)

April 23, 2009

I made it back to Turkey and had a very interesting night on the bus. I am in the Antakya station and do not have time to elaborate, except to say that I slept in a meadownear the bus station — this was my own choice! Off to Istanbul to rendezvous with my mother!

Syrian Souq-rat

April 21, 2009

I have become a market rat. Some of my favorite experiences, and where I undoubtedly learn the most, have come when I camp out in a local street market for a few hours. I love watching shop-owners hound passers-by, and trying to anticipate how different strategies will work. When things are slow, I usually strike up a conversation with the shop-owners. I have a whole slew of questions I throw at them:  their take on the psychology of bargaining, how they choose their first words, stories about their greatest rip-offs, whether they ever lie about the quality of their merchandise, which nationalities are the most difficult to deal with, what their business ambitions are, how much schooling they have, etc.

I had a particularly interesting experience this afternoon and learned a great deal from men named Sumir and Abrahim. My interactions with these fellows began yesterday. I was walking through one of the main bazaar streets in Old Damascus, very close to the landmark Umayyad mosque. I had just finished lunch and was in a pleasant mood, but I NEVER purchase things on impulse. All over the world, I am constantly barked at by shop-owners looking for a score — they have nothing to lose by trying to catch the attention of someone who was otherwise going to pass by. By the very definition of this process, most of these initial attention grabbers lack originality and don’t even garner more than a hand raise. Yesterday, as I passed-by, Abrahim asked me: “what are you looking for?” I responded: “nothing.” I don’t  normally respond to an opener such as that, but Abrahim’s perfect English and huge smile prompted me to not disrespect him without acknowledgement. He instantly responded: “So you are a simple man of nothing? Where are you from?” I liked his first sentence, so I stopped. He followed up his question by asking me out of genuine curiosity: “where are your travels taking you?” I told him: “I am a man of nothing who is everywhere!” After a big laugh, he told me to return to him if I had any questions about Damascus or Syria.

I was in the area this afternoon and my appetite was picking-up, so I returned to his store and asked him for a lunch recommendation. I told him I wanted something cheap, authentic and nutritious. It is astonishing how difficult it normally is to communicate that. However, Abrahim understood and recommended a perfect place and dish. I had another “foul” variant: chickpeas and roasted chestnuts in olive oil and tahini sauce with fresh herbs, tomatoes and olives on top, pickled vegetables on the side, and two large pieces of flat bread that were a hybrid of pita and the spongy variant you get with Ethiopian food. I went back to Abrahim’s place to thank him for the recommendation and he invited me to sit down with him and a couple other shop-owners. I eagerly accepted and didn’t feel any pressure to even browse his store. I was hooked when he offered me tea, and served me a glass when he got a round for his coterie.

After a few minutes, I got up and started to browse his store. It had admittedly excellent textiles, and I am always on the market for scarves. He didn’t abuse me and let me browse. I found a scarf I liked and asked him the price. It was a cotton scarf very similar to one I bought at Uniqlo in Beijing for $10. His initial offer was $4. I had something to compare his price to and knew he was being reasonable. I ended up spending an hour in the store, really digging into details and I learned an immense amount about the textiles industry, and obviously the Syrian one in particular. At this point, I felt obliged to make a purchase, legitimately believed I was getting a good deal, and appreciated the merchandise. I ended up paying $20 for three scarves (one is extremely nice and made of silk an cotton, or so I am told!)

I sat back down with Abrahim’s crew and felt like I had gained the right to ask tough questions and to receive honest answers — I had purchased enough scarves for one day! As an aside, all of these guys are self taught and speak many languages. They are very intelligent and entrepenreurial men who are surrounded by tourists all day, giving themselves the perfect opportunity to hone their skills and language abilities.

I don’t want to give away all of my secrets, and this internet cafe is about to close, so I will summarize my observations of making a sale in a street market into a couple VERY SIMPLE and OBVIOUS rules:

1. The first component is getting the consumer’s attention. You have to do something original and rely on your instincts. Different people merit different openers. You cannot appear desperate or threatening. Ideally, it should be something tangential to your goals. If you see a tourist taking a photo, ask if you can take one of them. Ask a caucasian passer-by if they speak Arabic. If they look lost or confused, ask if you can help them.

2. You must make the consumer feel like they got a great deal and negotiated beyond their normal means. There is a lot of feel to this, and your opening price is critical. You learn much from experience. According to a few of the Syrian shop-owners, the Spanish are unrealistic and always cut the price to a tenth — but they will eventually purchase. The Dutch are stiff and won’t end up purchasing. Flatter the French. Students don’t know how to bargain but don’t have much money. You must use your experiences and instincts to set your opening price. However, once that is done successfully, lavish the customer with praise, but not in an overbearing or obvious way. As you get closer to striking a deal, change your facial expression to one of defeat.

3. The third rule is not as obvious and should not be underestimated. You must give the customer an enjoyable shopping experience. Depending how much time each of you have, give them interesting information about the product — a story they can take home with them. People want to appear interesting when a stranger praises their accessory and they are able to rattle off the story of how they acquired it. Even though the stranger almost never cares, and this very rarely happens — the possibility is there and your ego has been stroked. With scarves, show them a few different ways to tie them — ideally, ways they didn’t previously know. If they are deliberating, change the subject and take their mind off the purchase. Guilt trip them through your friendliness into making a purchase.

Internet cafe is closing. I might update this in the future.

Overcoming Preconceived Notions and Propaganda

April 19, 2009

Admittedly, I am far from an expert, having spent less than twelve hours in Syria — but my first impression of this country is remarkable. The generosity I have already been shown is staggering. Here are a few things that have happened:

1. The head immigration officer personally called Damascus to expedite the processing of my Visa because my prepaid bus arrived at the border.

2. A fellow on my bus gave me his bracelet, a granola bar, a bottle of water and drove me into the city center with his wife. He didn’t speak any English and needed a translator to tell me his intentions.

3. I looked interested in the grapefruits at a night market, and the pauper of a salesperson offered me a deliciously ripe one “free for my friends.” The same thing happened at the apricot and dates stands. As an aside, the fruit here is incredible. I bought ten fuji apples for $1.

4. I bargained for an hour and a half with the concierge at my hotel. He is now my amigo, gave me a crazy deal and a free map. He offered to show me around town tomorrow, his day off.

5. I sat down at a stand for the incredible invention of ‘foul’ and a kid who was eating next to me started chatting me up in English. He is studying economics and loves practicing his English. We talked for about ten minutes, and then he gave me a tour until I basically shoved him off to return to my hotel and to all of you. We are going to meet in the morning so that he can give me a tour and practice his English. Foul (pronounced ‘fool’) are chestnuts that have been boiled in a massive steaming vat filled with lemon juice, water and salt. You are served the foul at a standing stall with an array of exotic spices in front of you and a glass of the aforementioned steaming concoction. This is right up my alley.

6. The amusing number of people who have shouted at me in passing: “Bush bad, American people good!” I guess this is a regular expression here.

The streets this evening were teeming with normal and pleasant people — I have yet to see a terror attack. The north of Syria was verdant and beautiful — this country is not a completely arid desert. No camels. No terror training facilities. No enmity. Only a bunch of ordinary individuals who love to decimate preconceived notions.

Argentinian Volvo Buses > their Turkish Mercedes counterparts

April 18, 2009

I woke up yesterday morning in Batumi at 7:10. I ate a couple cakes and downed a glass of tea that my homestay mother had prepared. I was trying to get a good start on my descent into Turkey, and was  walking to the Marshrutka station by 7:50. I knew I was going to have a long couple days in transit, so I was excited for the four kilometer walk to the station.

I am cruel. I built up that last paragraph as if another Bolivian style adventure were about to unfurl, but that is not the case — transit in Turkey is straightforward. However, this Turkish language keyboard sure is frustrating for a gringo. Despite my uneventful travel, my journey the last two days has been long. I was in motion for about 32 hours. There was a bus departing for Konya when I arrived in Hopi, so I jumped on and sacrificed time for scenary and comfort. The ride was stunning. We hugged the Black Sea all the way from Hopi to Samsun. We then cut south through the heart of Turkey and passed through the lunar landscape dotting the valley of the fairy chimneys, the mountainous south and then the Mediterranean coast.

The catalyst for this route was an urge to visit Syria that I was recently struck with. It looks like that will happen tomorrow. For the evening, I am staying in a surprisingly decent hotel atop the Antakya bus station. I arrived early enough in the afternoon that I could have easily migrated into the cıty center, but I was compelled by the station`s setting on the outskirts of town in a hilly agricultural area — the perfect topography for a long run! I went for my fırst run since Kazakhstan and was able to comfortably wear shorts for the first time since Yunnan! That is another reason I want to explore Syria — I have been stuck in unseasonably cold weather and have seen snow in each of my last three countries! Brıng on the heat Damascus! Back to that run, people everywhere I have gone, but especially those in Turkey and Kazakhstan did not know how to respond to a caucasian getting his exercise on. Reactions were intense and ranged from heckles to curious `salams´ and a couple cheers.

There are many ideas flowing through my mind, but this frustrating keyboard and bus station computer are too big of a deterrence for my ambitions to surmount. Sorry to those who were curious.

Off to Syria in the morning (Aleppo and Damascus!)

April 16, 2009

I arrived in Georgia’s Black Sea party town of Batumi this afternoon. Unfortunately, I chose a rainy, out-of-season, holiday! Thus, the city is absolutely dead. However, I was anticipating this and am mainly using it as a stopover on my way to Turkey. Getting through the caucusas and into Turkey is a pain in the arse as a result of all the border closures.

I axed my Armenia plans in favor of exploring Syria for a couple days. Stop holding your breath, you silly American readers. I have heard unbelievably good things about this country, from multiple trusted sources and I will be extremely cautious.

I hunkered down for the last couple hours and attempted to learn basic Turkish and Arabic and did a bit of planning.

This internet cafe is closing! Sianara Caucusas!

Outmaneuvered.

April 14, 2009

I wasn’t in top blog updating form after my winery shenanigans yesterday. Davit took me to his buddy’s place and they gave me the royal treatment. Everything was going smoothly after a couple liters of wine, until they tricked me into a massive shot of “chacha,” the Georgian spirit of choice. They had a massive diesel storage tank full of the stuff in one of their cellars and they asked me if I wanted to try a small bit. Obviously, I accepted, but insisted on a tiny shot. I downed it. A couple minutes later, my host, Beka, poured another tiny shot. After some pleading, I accepted on the terms that this was truly the last one. I downed it. They ERUPTED in laughter! In Georgia, you can only take shots in odd numbers. This is well documented and to their defense, I had been warned by multiple sources. That bastard Beka placed a massive, brim-binging glass in front of me. I knew this was going to be disastrous. I warned them of my imminent implosion, and they assured me that was their aim all afternoon. I took the shot, had an incredible time with these guys, and puked all the way home. I haven’t puked in years. However, I did learn a lot about Georgian wine and had a free catered afternoon on a three century old compound.

As a related aside, that same cellar has two hollow bull’s horns on one of the tables. Each of the horns holds two liters of liquid. They fill these with wine during feasts, and have a tradition where a driker is not allowed to put a horn down until it is empty. You can pour as much in as you want when it is your turn — one drop to two liters. They regularly have competitions. Beka’s (obviously) deceased grandfather is still a legend in the scene. He was able to down 10 liters in a sitting! He would decimate a two liter horn in two open-throat gulps. He also had legendary liver problems and died in his fifties. Beka is 21 and has worked his way up to five liters per sitting.

I arrived in Tbilisi this morning and went for an excellent walk around town. I also found the Saakashvili protesters and watched from a distance for a couple hours. I don’t know enough about the situation to feel comfortable taking part. I would estimate there were 5,000 people, and most of a surprisingly mature age. I would say that at least half of the protesters were over 45. It wasn’t just a group of bored university students looking for an adrenaline rush.

I am going to explore more tomorrow and hopefully find the sulfur baths! I will depart for Yerevan, Armenia on Friday.