29 May 2008

Nobody knows but the Turks

Today I thought I would walk the entire length (7 km) of Constantinople's old inland city walls, and possibly add on the rest, too (+40 km?). Those who know me will not be surprised. But. I also wanted to see the local museum of archaeology, which required more time than expected. This, and not the fact that the alcoves of the ruined wall are inhabited by drug-addicted derelicts and rabid dogs, is what prevented me from carrying out this mission. So, some other time. Instead, I left Selin's apartment in the late morning and wandered over to the remains of a Roman aqueduct. Aqueducts are awesome. From there, I meandered to the nearby Suleyman Mosque, most of which was closed for restoration (but free, so who cares). After the mosque, I ambled through the market to the aforementioned archaeology museum(s) and spent hours looking at marble busts and such. I love this. I was pretty tired after the museum(s) but still found enough energy to trudge up to the "basilica cistern", the mundane name and $8 admission fee of which had initially turned me off to it. Well, it was pretty magnificent inside. You go down under the city and into a vast, cavernously vast, subterranean water storage environment. It's all held up by rows of columns, lit by weird, colorful lights, and clichéd themes from baroque and classical music play ambiantly in the background. The highlight are two Medusa heads built into the bases of two of the columns. They are highlights because one of them is upside down and the other one is on its side. So mysterious! The tourists loved it... OK, I did, too. Those are the *interesting* things I did today. I also did other, less interesting things (like finally locating the Sublime Porte and buying bread and cheese for my next six meals). But I won't recount those in detail. Sadly, I didn't have any awkwardly humorous encounters with eccentric people. But tomorrow...


28 May 2008


I have to say something I am loathe to say lest I disappoint my readers and insult my new Turkish friends, should they possibly be reading this: I am somewhat disappointed with Istanbul. I was looking forward to visiting this city as almost nowhere else on my trip, but it has, I think, fallen off from its heyday as a pen of antiquity and den of iniquity. Potential EU membership must be the death knell responsible for the sanitization of the historic quarter, Sultanahmet, which seems to me as hideously fake and touristic--in that overpriced restaurant, no student discount, hordes of fatuglypoorlydressed Europeans way--as Florence, Cuzco, and Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco. The "new" part of the city, Taksim, looks like every other capitalism-molested downtown strip on Earth: rows of high-end designer boutiques, piles of cafes (but no good coffee), American chain establishments, and stupid theme bars. I wonder sometimes why I even visit them anyway because, like in Paul Kelly's song, every fucking city looks the same.

But despair not, readers! I *am* having a good time here, even if my critical gaze gets the better of me always. My friends Michael and Jessica happened to be here for their vacation, and I had the opportunity to meet up with them. The 26th was Michael's birthday, too, and they celebrated by paying for my dinner (thanks, guys!). We also spent three days tooling around the city, visiting the sites, wandering the neighborhoods, and absolutely failing to locate a cinema where we could watch the new Indiana Jones movie in English (it's dubbed everywhere, groan). The Blue Mosque, which turned out to be the first mosque either of them had ever visited, was sublime. Topkapı Palace was, I don't know, sort of boring I guess (note my noncommittal non-enthusiasm), but that harem was interesting (worth an extra $8 I can't say). Aya Sofia, which I'd been waiting my whole life to see, did not disappoint: a giant heap of Roman basilica whose origins and original Christian grandeur no amount of Ottoman Muslim repurposing could obscure--and you could go up to the mezzanine level! I love that! There were other things, but none as fun as our attempts to eat the pişmaniye I bought--after one bite, the little strands of candy floss fell everywhere, at least one half of every piece *I* tried to eat ended up in my beard.

On their last day before returning to America, yesterday, we took a day-long trip up the Bosporus by boat to a small town near the Black Sea. The coast is stunning all the way, with old villas and rich people's houses providing much of the scenery, the up-poking cypress trees adding that inimitable Mediterranean ambiance. On arrival at small town, we immediately sauntered (yes, sauntered) uphill to the broken Venetian fortress, from where we got a view all the way back to the city. Just below there, we collapsed into a restaurant with hammocks and beanbag chairs for several hours before making the return trip. I ate calamari.

25 May 2008

I conned ya, Konya!

I had a long day yesterday, my friends. Shall I tell you about it? OK.

I woke up AGAIN at 5 am and actually got to fly in the hot air balloon. I was thinking the whole time while they were filling it up and then heating it up, "How does this work? Why does this work? Does this work?" Although I had to share the occasion with more becamera'd bus people, everyone was quiet once we were aloft, so intent were they on their viewfinders. Next to me in the basket were an Indian couple. Remember them because they appear later in my story. The trip seemed to last more than an hour, but I wasn't keeping track because I wanted to enjoy the flight (during which I was wondering what it would be like to jump out at various elevations). We soared over the valley in which Goreme sprawls, up the canyon wall, and then over another valley with tall stone structures with little stone hats, which is why it is known locally as Phallus Valley (or Fairy Land, perhaps, but what's the difference?). When we landed, we got our traditional glass of cheap champagne and a certificate that said something like, "Congratulations. You have enough money to take vacations in Turkey and go hot air ballooning. You are a nob." Now I have to carry that around, too.

Next step: three hour bus to Konya, a city famous for being religiously conservative (just screams PARTY! doesn't it?). Konya was once a Turkish capital, maybe for the Seljuks, and there are still some old buildings from that period and more than one mosque (though I didn't feel the need to visit more than one). The only reason I went to Konya was to visit Çatal Höyük, a 9000 year old neolithic city that looks much more impressive in my Encyclopedia of Mysterious Places than it does in real life. In the picture, there are hundreds of plastered mud brick houses clustered against one another with ladders connecting the roofs at different levels. In real life, it's an excavation trench with a giant steel roof. Getting there was a bit of an ordeal. Once I arrived in Konya, I had to take a minibus to the other side of Konya and from there another regular bus to a city called Çumra, 14 km away from the ruins. According to my Lonely Planet, there is no onward transportation to the site, but it's possible to hire taxis for 14 euros return. Now I'm not exactly sure what the euro is worth today, but I know it's a hell of a lot more than the dollar, so 14 euros might as well be a hundred dollars, because there was no way I was going *anywhere* in a taxi for that much money. So off I went down the untrafficked road, in the hot sun, without sunblock, thumb out. After an hour, I started to question my wisdom, though the heat made me dizzy enough that I wasn't too self-critical. Finally, a car did stop and the nice, nice man took me the rest of the way. And then I wondered whether or not I should be disappointed. Well, at least it was free to get in, and there was a cool reconstruction of a Neolithic mud brick house next to the site museum. And the adventure there was something to write about? I even convinced the museum guard to make tea, and we sat drinking it for quite some time until three people arrived in a private car. Turning up my charm to MAXIMUM POTENTIAL, I smiled my way up to the driver and asked if I could have a ride back to Konya. The driver consulted with his passengers, and it was alright. Alright!

Back in Konya, I was dropped at the Mevlana Museum, the former lodge of the whirling dervishes. Inside, the founder of the order, the famous poet Rumi (everyone has a copy of his works, even me; nobody has read it, including me), is interred. I noticed quite a few people praying to his tomb, and I wanted to point out to them, having recently finished reading the Quran, that they aren't supposed to be doing that. They also have a small box containing the prophet Mohammed's beard. Believe it? I don't! But people were going so far as to kiss that one! Muslims! You aren't supposed to idol worship! Sigh. Allah is right: they will never learn. To hell with them all. In the evening, I walked way over to the Kultur Center to buy tickets for the whirling dervish show. Here is the conversation I had with the guards:

Me: I would like to buy tickets.

Guard: No tickets.

Me: Is it sold out?

Guard: No tickets.

Me: Where can I buy tickets?

Guard: No, no ticket.

Me: No ticket? Do I buy it later?

Guard: No. No ticket. No money.

Me: No money?

Guard: Mo money.

Me: Really?

Guard: Yes.

Me: It's free?

Guard: Yes.

Me: Really?

Guard: Yes.

Me: Really?

Guard: Yes.

Me: But this is Turkey. You have to pay to piss here. Really no money?

Guard: No money.

Me: Really?

Guard: Yes.

So I walked all the way back and ate a kebab. And then walked all the way back again for the show. Which was so boring! Lonely Planet, which I am getting ready to plan suicide attacks against, says it's the most amazing sight in Turkey or something and much better than the one in Egypt which I also so and can't remember. But this one was pretty boring, actually, and I almost fell asleep like my dad always does during performances, so I am becoming like him already. I thought they were going to spin really, really fast, but they just sort of turned around and around slowly. And then it ended too late for me to get a minibus back to the bus station, so, finally getting screwed, I had to take a taxi. But I managed to do everything else for just about no money, so I feel satisfied.

I had to get back to the bus station, because I had yet another night bus (an "express" service) to, finally, İstanbul (note the dotted capital I). What is with Turkish buses? They turn on the A/C at the beginning of the ride, turn it off halfway through--so everyone starts sweating like animals because there's no air circulation--and then turn it on again just before you arrive so the sweat has the chance to dry and make you feel clammy and disgusting. Must be to save fuel while still pretending to provide comfort.

Anyway, I arrived in İstanbul at around 7:30 am, took a service bus to the Asian ferry terminal, ferried over to Europe, and met up with Selin, the friend of Seda from Ankara, with whom I am staying here, because I can't afford hotels in Europe. Characteristically, for this trip anyway, I got very little else accomplished today. I went down to the tourist section of town (=the old town, and I wonder how I feel about all the old parts of old towns becoming tourist traps in the modern world--what's the point? Are we being exploited or educated?) to look for my friends Michael and Jessica, who happen to be here right now. I missed them, so instead I sat down to drink some Turkish coffee when who should walk by but that Indian couple from the hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia! I hadn't even spoken to them there, but they recognized me and sat down. Naturally, I was my usual charming self, and we had a nice chat, short because they had a bus to catch to the airport, and the husband even paid for my coffee behind my back! What am I doing right to be catching such good favor these days? It makes me paranoid.

23 May 2008


Where was I?

Right. Ankara. I ended up lazing around Ankara for half the day following my trip back in time to the Mighty Ancient Hittite Civilization Of Which You Should Have Heard (glad Kajori has, at least). Then I took a bus to Cappadocia, a region of Turkey famed for its fame. Arriving at the town of Goreme at 11:30 pm, I had to bang down the door of a hotel (good grief, I've been reduced to *paying* for accommodation) in order to get a cheap dorm bed. According to Lonely Planet, Goreme is "magical". F*ck you, Lonely Planet. Goreme is yet another international tourist town stuffed with over-priced, identical restaurants, annoying carpet salesmen, and busloads of middle-aged sightseers I want to ethnic-cleanse.

OK, I'm just trying to be funny. It's not all bad. The region is indeed gorgeous, and I guess you should Google Image search "Cappadocia" to see some photos (I even took a few) of the weird limestone/volcanic ash rock formations. These things, in all sorts of smooth, tapering shapes and a variety of stony colors, seem to sprout out of the ground everywhere. There are whole canyons of them, in fact, and some of them are large enough that the Byzantines carved churches into them a thousand years ago which today you can visit by paying too much money for tickets. Lots of buildings around here are carved into rock formations, including my hotel. It reminds me a bit of Coober Pedy, Australia (for the living underground), a bit of Meteora, Greece (for all the Byzantine churches in weird rock formations), and a bit of Petra, Jordan (for the colorful canyons and building facades).

On my first day in Cappadocia, I went up to the Goreme Open Air Museum and paid too much to see a bunch of churches that I ended up deciding I did not care a rat's ass about (that's an American expression that means I could't give a flying f*ck). Outside the museum, though, are squares upon square kilometers (Kajori, is that proper usage?) of wonderful canyons that you can explore for free (or, if you're an idiot, by paying for a guide). They are deserted, spectacular, and change colors as the light changes throughout the day. I had to hurry through the Rose Canyon, though, because I had booked a sunset tour to the Rose Canyon for that afternoon. Because I'm an idiot. You see, I just went wandering and had no idea I was in the Rose Canyon, but the awful truth of what I'd done dawned on me when the tour guide kept walking past rock formations I had fond memories of from only a few hours before. My hotel told me they were too far away to walk to. Whatever. Why do I keep listening to these people? Hmm. I guess I met some cool and interesting people that I wouldn't have otherwise, but, given the choice, I'd rather have my $9.75 back.

Day two involved barely waking up in time despite my alarm not going off at 5:00 am for a hot air balloon trip (my first) above the weird rock formationed canyons. When the light streaming into the room alerted me to my lateness, I jumped out of bed, jabbed my contacts into my eyes, quickly packed, chucked my bag into reception, boarded the minibus to the launch site, and then came right back after high winds cancelled our trip. So I'm trying again tomorrow morning (and thus will be wrapping this screed up soon). Afterward, I bus-bus-bus-bussed (that's four) it over to the Ihlara Valley, which is a valley. Most tourists come to look at the churches, hike a few kilometers, eat some fish, and then take off. I went (with the French woman I met in Ankara who I miraculously bumped into en route to the valley) down into the valley, looked at a few churches in order to confirm my not-giving-a-rat's-assedness, walked to the midpoint, ate some fish ("that's the cheapest restaurant over there," said a Turkish man, pointing for me), and continued walking, sans tourists, through the best part of the valley: a long stretch of greenery surrounded by steep, boulder-strewn inclines, olive trees on either side of the bubbling brook, satyrs lurking among them, no doubt. It was Arcadian! Except in Turkey! So, Turko-Arcadian.

At the end of the valley (which took us about 3-4 hours to hike leisurely, not the 7-8 which the obviously unresearched first-hand Lonely Planet estimates) are a bunch of conical rock formations which appeared in one of the Star Wars movies. This was, naturally, very exciting for me, and I'm going to watch all of them again when I go home, hopefully in front of people, so when the rock formations appear, I can jump up, exultantly, and shout egomaniacally, "I was there!" (on Tatooine?). More churches. Yawn. Then, at the very end of the valley and back on the main road, was another church, but this one was really big, so I was happy to climb to the top. Actually, it was a whole monastery complex, and I wanted to risk my life for a cool photo of myself by mounting one of the more dangerous-looking towers, but decided in the end that preserving the integrity of the monument was more important than a cool photo (and that's my story!).

Since we missed the last bus back to anywhere (at 3:30 pm!), we had to bribe a tour bus driver to take us back. And so he did. Then I practiced Japanese with the hotel workers, made myself peanut butter and rose jelly sandwiches, drank miso soup, took a shower, had my moustache trimmed, and then found an Internet cafe. End.

21 May 2008

Keyboard Corollary

I figured out how to change the keyboard layout to English, so I won't need to comically whinge about this anymore.

Also, I failed to mention that I failed to get permission to visit either South Ossetia or Abkhazia, the Georgian breakaway regions. The borders are closed or they're fighting a war or something. Idiots. Some other time I'll have to visit the land of the Golden Fleece, though I think Jason and the Argonauts at least founded the city of Ljubliana, Slovenia, which I *am* going to pass through.

Off to Cappadocia now.

20 May 2008

Here there be Hittites!

Yesterday, I fulfılled a lıfelong dream by vısıtıng Hattuşa, the ancıent capıtal of the Bronze Age Hıttıte kıngdom. You do know who the Hıttıes are, don't you? DON'T YOU? OK, I wıll spare you a tedıous descrıptıon: the Hıttıtes were an Indo-European people that flourıshed ın central Antatolıa ın the mıddle of the second mıllenıum B.C. They conquered an enormous area and even challenged the Egyptıans (you know them), ultımately sıgnıng wıth them the Treaty of Kadesh, the fırst ınternatıonal treaty for whıch there ıs evıdence, copıes of whıch ın both languages stıll exıst. They are also consıdered the fırst cıvılızatıon to have used ıron to a great extent and not just for nose pıercıngs.

Gettıng to Hattuşa was a bıt trıcky, and I planned ıt as a day trıp. From Ankara, I had to take a bus for 3 hours to a town called Sungurlu. From there, I had to waıt around for about an hour untıl a mınıbus up to the town of Boğazkale (the ğ ıs sılent) fılled up enough to depart. At Boğazkale, I was predıctably told by a taxı drıver that ıt would be ımpossıble for me to vısıt the ruıns on foot because the loop road that traverses the sıte ıs 6 km (!) long. Don't these people yet know wıth whom they are dealıng? Sıgh. I certaınly dıd go on foot, and I'm glad I dıd because the sıte (got ın free wıth student ID!) was vırtually empty and sıtuated ın a lovely bıt of countrysıde. Naturally, the cıty occupıed a hıgh place, so hıkıng around ıt and enjoyıng the vıews were real treats. Not much ın the way of ruıns remaıns, however, but that ıs typıcal for Bronze Age sıtes. It ısn't the Roman Forum. But I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The scenery was excıtıng--lots of rocky precıpıces, green valleys, red-roofed Turkısh vıllages ın the dıstance. At one poınt, I saw some preserved Luwıan hıeroglyphıcs. I thınk that was my fırst brush wıth Luwıan outsıde of lınguıstıcs books. I'm stıll not exactly sure what the hell ıt ıs (or what ıt was doıng there--wouldn't Hıttıtes have spoken Hıttıte?). I even got a chance to characterıstıcally rısk my lıfe by short-cuttıng from the maın cıty up to some further-afıeld cave temples wıth more ınscrıptıons (whıch sucked). Thıs ınvolved clımbıng down a steep rock wall and almost dyıng. I dıd far more dangerous thıngs ın Greece ın 2003, though, so don't be too concerned for my apparent lack of sense of self-preservatıon. I returned to town wıth tıme enough for a leısurely meal (eat ıt, taxı man!) before repeatıng my mornıng journey ın reverse. A typıcal day on the road for me ın every way. I'm not sure how many other people consıder somethıng 3 1/2 hours away a day trıp destınatıon. But I do. Haıl Suppiluliuma, Kıng of the Hıttıtes! Ravısher of Foes! Lord of all Creatıon!

The Other Land of the Rising Sun

I gıve up on the dotless ı sıtuatıon. Please deal wıth ıt as I must.

Anatolıa: the land of the rısıng sun, to the Greeks. They never heard of Japan. And I place I have long longed to vısıt. But fırst thıngs fırst: my escape from Georgıa. Fınally motıvatıng myself to get the hell out of FormerSSRLand, I spent a total of 24 hours on transportatıon ın order to make a bold stab ınto Turkey. Thıs consısted of 6 hours on a mashrutka to the Black Sea resort town of Batumı (my fırst sıght of the Black Sea was emotıonal); walkıng across the border on foot (chang-chıng $20 stıcker stamp stamp); takıng another mınıbus to a town called Hopa near the border; and fınally jumpıng onto a 15 hour nıght bus (seats not so reclınable) to Ankara. Really, I wasn't sure where I was goıng to end up that day, but a bus to Ankara was avaılable, so to Ankara I went. Progess ıs progress, after all. En route to Ankara, I suddenly realızed I mıght actually have to pay for accomodatıon sınce my couchsurfıng sıtuatıon fell through. So at a larger bus statıon, I debarked and quıckly took advantage of an Internet cafe to procure an emergency host: Xavıer from France, lıvıng wıth hıs co-couchsurfer gırlfrıend, Seda. I dashed off emaıls to hım (and a few other people!), and when I checked ın agaın at the gıant Ankara otogar, Xavıer had replıed and was able to take me ın. My last mınute fıendısh plan had worked! Truly, I fear none but the travel gods. Thıs tıme they gaveth.

I was sharıng Xavıer/Seda's lıvıng room wıth another traveler, a French woman from Couchsurfıng's rıval sıte, Hospıtalıty Club. She and he and I spent the day at the wonderful Museum of Anatolıan Cıvılızatıons, whıch I've serıously been wantıng to see for a long tıme, and the Ataturk mausoleum/monument/museum. The Turks love thıs guy, and I had unwıttıngly arrıved ın theır capıtal cıty on May 19, an ımportant, Ataturk-related natıonal holıday. Gıant portraıts of the father of the modern Turkısh natıon were hung from all the largest buıldıngs, and Turkısh crescent moon and star flags were (stıll are) everywhere. Whıle we were ınsıde the mauseoleum buıldıng, a gıant crowd of Turks bearıng an enormous flag came ın and sang the natıonal anthem. And you Amerıcans thınk YOU are patrıotıc?? George Washıngton's entombed ın hıs garden at Mt. Vernon! I thınk I threw quarters at hıs grave when I was a chıld (for good luck? because Washıngton was deıfıed upon hıs death?). The Ataturk museum was not so ınterestıng for me because I'm not a Turk and came mostly for the pre-Turkısh ruıns.

It seems the only thıng to eat ın Turkey ıs kebab.

Keyboard Hell

A new post is coming, but dealing with Turkish keyboards is really tedious because of the ı's, ö's, ç's, ğ's, ü's, ş's, etc. Nothing ıs where ıts supposed to be! Even that lıttle sequence took me 20 mınutes to ınput! So be patıentççç I need to clear a block of tıme for thıs so my posts dont end up lookıng lıke ıllıterate Monty Pythön ımıtatıons. The dotless ı ıs annoyıng me the most. iiiiiiiiiııııııı

15 May 2008

Gaijin Times

Like a depressed man who has finally decided to commit suicide, I am today quite happy and relieved that I have committed to leave Tbilisi tomorrow. Staying in one place for too long, however much I am enjoying it, makes me nervous. It is time to move on. To make up for my recent lack of succulent and satisfying posts, I will offer on this occasion a brief recount of my year in Japan. Naturally, it is going to be impossible for me to go into much detail, but I will do my best, through tortured and elliptical language, to give you some sense of that strange place and the strange life I led there. As always, I apologize in advance--in particular to my beloved Japanese readers--for being the horribly tactless and offensive person that I am. Be assured, yuujin-san, your country will always have a special place in my heart, but, for the sake of cheap laughs, I cannot forbear to gibe, jeer, and jest.

I blasted off from planet Earth on July 29, 2006, bound for a strange, new world, where people look different, behave in the most peculiar way, eat food which is often bizarre and disgusting, and whose heavily-accented English is hard to understand: Minnesota. Eager to escape this non-descript nowhere the natives call "the midwest" (does this word describe anything?), I and my group of fellow future English teachers (sorry, "teachers") hurriedly boarded a connecting shuttle to an even more remote, more exotic place: Nihon, or Nippon, or, to you and I, Ja-pan. At the arrival facility in Ja-pan, we were, in quite every way exhausting the sense of the word, ushered from our flight craft, through immigration ("Nihon de, dono gurai tomaru tsumori desu ka?" "What?"), through customs, through baggage claim (the airline lost mine), through long, tidy and quiet corridors lined with smiling, identically T-shirted white people showing us the way (like something out of the Albert Brooks movie, "Defending Your Life"), and onto one of a long line of waiting mega-personnel transport vehicles. And off to a five-star hoteru we went.

At the hoteru, which is located steps away from the heart of downtown Tokyo's gay district, we were receptioned, feted, and congratulated for being the chosen few thousand to have been accepted (bam! perfect passive participle in the house!) into the prestigious (!) JET Programme. "JET" stands for "Just Entertain us, Thanks." The keynote address is a good example of every speech I heard from a Japanese official the whole time I was there, and went something like this:

"Hello. I don't speak English well (ha ha). You are all great. Ja-pan is great, too. Let's all be great together. Don't forget that your country and Ja-pan are very different, but we don't care what you do, so don't worry about fucking up. Now, please drink something."

The smart JETs evacuated the hoteru as soon as possible, going off to explore the city. Dumbly, and although my friend Ryoko (see Cambodia post) awesomely met me the first night, I stuck around the rest of the time to attend the mandatory (HO HO!) orientation sessions run by current JETs who had not yet become (bam! pluperfect tense!) cynical and listless. The quality of these sessions ran the gamut from pointless and absurd through to suicide-inducing waste of time, though I did find "Dating in Ja-pan" to be provocative and fascinating (also highly attended, as you can imagine). Don't take my supercilious condescension too seriously, though. I had just come out of an M.A. program in English literature, where, if it taught me anything about the enduring virtues of the Western humanist tradition, I at least learned to adopt an unattractive but quite self-satisfying sense of overweening superiority toward everyone and everything around me. By the way, if you want to strike fear into the heart of any Japanese student of English, ask them to spell the words "supercilious" and "condescension."

You must excuse the detail into which I am going (never end a clause or sentence with a preposition!) about the first few days of my annus incredibilus in Ja-pan. You see, though these events remain vivid in my memory, most of the rest of the time is a blur of: an endless parade of boring days at school with nothing to do; occasional "business trips" to compare shock-notes with fellow JETs (your teacher did what?? your student ate what?? your Japanese girlfriend/boyfriend put her/his fingers where??); nights out drinking in the local izakaya, in Tokyo, with colleagues, wherever; & cetera.

No, there was really so much more to it than that. I kid, I kid. Really. In my first week, the JETs in my prefecture, Ibaraki (north of Tokyo, jokingly referred to, along with Chiba prefecture, as "Chibaraki" by the cool, countryside-disdaining Tokyoites), were invited to participate in a bank-sponsored parade through the humidity-drenched streets of downtown Mito, Ibaraki's tiny little capital (aside: I love Mito). This was the Mito Komoun festival, a celebration of the city's founder and popular TV drama character. We were taught the dance procedure very quickly, and so none of us mastered it (except the Japanese bank employees, who all appeared to be professionals at this sort of thing). It didn't matter, though, because a booze-car followed us the whole way down Mito's long central boulevard and we fueled up during each interlude. When I found out this dancing routine was actually a competition, my American spirit fired up, and I demanded that my fellow drunken JETs help me to construct a human pyramid in order to wow the judges. Naturally, they agreed to this ridiculous request, and up they piled. For the top, I asked (by gesturing) a petite Japanese girl (that's redundant, I suppose) if she'd like to volunteer for the job. Once she figured out what I was talking about (I tried not to use the word "mount"), I never saw such an enthusiastically positive response. I did this twice. I never saw any judges or found out if we "won," but I ended up making some Japanese friends and did my part to demonstrate to the Japanese what morons foreigners are, so I counted it as a personal victory, at least.

That was August. The rest of the month, I had no work to do, because school was out for summer. Most days, I came in for an hour or two, bowed to everyone, and went home to sweat. Japan is really hot in the summer. I never thought it could be hotter than any of the other hot places I've been, but it really is the most uncomfortably hot place I've ever been. The Japanese never tire of pointing this out.

In September, I finally got the chance to teach. For the entire month, this consisted in a "self-introduction" lesson in which I told each of about 15 classes (over and over I had to do this) about my boring life. I tried spicing things up with a Powerpoint presentation featuring the famous manga character Doraemon and Darth Vader. Later, I realized that they probably understood only about 5% of what I said. I smiled as much as possible. In September, the school also took me to Tokyo Disneyland. I have to admit, my friends, I was ALL OVER THAT.

In October, the realities of my new job began to, as they say, dawn on me. The school I was teaching at, Hitachiota Daiichi Senior High School, was fairly high level, which means the students spend most of their time preparing for university entrance exams, which means their primary English instruction (which I cannot provide) is in grammar (taught in Japanese, by the way), which means my teachers had often to cancel my "conversation" classes, which means I often, sometimes for weeks or months at a time, had nothing to do except wander the dusty halls causing havoc wherever I could. I tried not to be too critical about Japanese culture while I was there (smarmy sarcasm notwithstanding), but I do have a special disdain for the way English, at least, is taught. In many ways, I respect the Japanese style of education. For Japanese arts like calligraphy, pottery, archery, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, martial arts, etc. (the list goes on indefinitely), I find the slow, detail-oriented, perfectionism-over-time, respect the teacher approach appropriate. But in the case of foreign language study, I think it doesn't work. Teaching English as a series of patterns to memorize and repeat is ineffective and stultifying.

This was not the teachers' fault. They were just doing their job and usually regretted not being able to "team-teach" with me or teach in more productive and innovative ways (though I am hardly an expert in such things). In fact, I loved my colleagues. They were all easy-going, approachable, and kind. My then-supervisor, Takahashi-sensei, bent over backwards to accomodate my every request (and I tried to make as few as possible, though living in a country where you are functionally illiterate when you are used to being sophisticatedly over-literate is a difficult transition to make). He even invited me over for dinner. Kozawa-sensei, who is probably reading this, also invited me over for dinner with his family, and I got to experience one of those funny moments when you suddenly meet someone's twin brother when you didn't know he had one. Kusachi-sensei taught me the ins and outs of the Japanese game "Go", which I love, though he kicked my ass every time. Go is more complicated than Chess--there are more possible arrangements of pieces on a 13x13 Go board, apparently, than there are stars in the universe (I think Chess only goes as far as the galaxy or something). That's complicated! Seki-sensei took me hiking. Morita-sensei took me out drinking and helped me (unintentionally) perfect my karaoke-avoidance techniques. Ouchi-sensei and I together coached a student for an English speech contest, and I am proud to say she hasn't given up participating--a brave attitude for the typically shy Japanese! Outside of the English department, Kikuchi-sensei provided a refuge for me in the sick bay, where she served me tea and sweets and helped me learn Japanese. She also introduced me to Tomoko-sensei, my tea ceremony instructor (more on that later). Miyamoto-sensei, though she didn't speak English, eventually acquiesced to my persevering desire to learn shodo, Japanese calligraphy. I just kept showing up, each time able to converse in Japanese a little bit more. Now, she's like a second (or third, or fourth at this point) mother to me. Namekawa-sensei, the art teacher, had unlimited patience for me, though she too spoke little English, and we ended up having some of the most interesting and beautiful conversations about art and life. I often tell people about how difficult it is to break down personal barriers in Japan and really engage people there. I like to think I took some steps in this direction, though, and that I might have been somewhat more successful than most. Don't give up, prospective Japanophiles! Ja-pan is probably not what you think, but it's not worth giving up on, either. You just have to learn to be as patient as them. Not so easy for a Westerner, perhaps, much less an American, much less a New Jerseyan.

I have gotten ahead of myself, describing events and relationships that occurred over time or took time to develop. So back to the chronology: in November, I did nothing at school but started attending Urasenke tea ceremony classes regularly for about five hours every Saturday afternoon. This may sound boring to most of you, but I found it to be a fascinating, if subtle, way to gain insight into the "mysterious Japanese mind" (in quotes, because I try not to be a reverse-racist). I won't go into too much detail, because this post is already getting long enough, but I learned to appreciate the close attention you pay to your immediate situation and circumstances during a tea ceremony and also the art's core values: purity, harmony, tranquility, respect. Couldn't we all use a little more of that in our lives? See, I can be as saccharine as I can be sarcastic. I attended this class loyally, three times a month until I left Ja-pan the following July. Tomoko-sensei, who spoke English (another mother-figure in the end), was a wonderful teacher and even invited me along to several (expensive!) tea events, where I got to see the real thing and hundreds of kimono-clad women. Although I could not afford to pay for it at the time, I am now technically certified in tea ceremony by the Urasenke Foundation. Sugoine?

In December, I started attending a free Japanese class in Mito on Saturday mornings before tea, though I was already staving off countryside-induced boredom by attending another free class in my own town, Hitachiota, on Thursday evenings. Wonderful teachers and new friends found in both!

At the end of December, my school closed for a New Year's break (like Christmas in the West), and I took off for South Korea with my friend Neil. From Tokyo, we ripped across Honshu by bullet train to Fukuoka and, the next day, took a ferry to Pusan--this was the sort of interesting adventure I like. On board the ferry, I saw a really cool Korean film about an emperor and a circus clown performer guy he falls in love with or something. Touching. Later, I visited the traditional folk village theme park where it was film, much to my delight. Getting out of Japan at this point was like escaping a bubble, to be honest. As sentimental as I can be about my adopted country number four, sometimes it drove me insane. Korea seemed more, ah, normal. Maybe more Western? I don't know. But I loved the hell out of it. First, it was MUCH cheaper than Japan, where I basically denied myself all pleasures so I could be sitting here in Tbilisi, Georgia today writing this. The food was fantastic, I liked the people, the World Heritage temples and fortresses in wooded areas were just as I expected and enjoy, and Seoul turned out to be a marvelous place, too, though some may disparage it as just another giant Asian megacity. Whatever, the vegetarian Buddhist temple food is outstanding, the handicrafts are affordable, and I had a great time attending their raucous New Year's Eve celebration (by contrast, in Tokyo, I heard the affair is usually quite underwhelming--though I maintain a healthy regard for Japanese reserve, I prefer to be whelmed, at least on that day, thank you very much). I drank green tea latte after green tea latte, too. Oh, yum. Neil and I also did a temple stay in the center of the country, which was sort of OK, but would no doubt have been more interesting if we'd stayed longer (or somewhere else, to be honest--just very quiet at that time). We also found a number of hot baths, naturally. Those who love me know I love those. Most interestingly, we visited, on a USO-sponsored tour, the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. At a village called Panmunjeom (I actually remembered how to spell that without looking it up!), the two sides have built "welcome centers" just across the border from one another (a few hundred feet) that constantly eye one another unwelcomingly. A few low buildings, where negotiations often fail to get anywhere, are built across the line itself, and our group was allowed inside. Technically, I have been in North Korea, because I crossed the line inside the building. Not sure if that really counts for much. Near Panmunjeom are both a North and South Korean village. The South Korean village, not technically part of South Korea, I guess, is a real village that receives massive subsidies from the South Korean government. I think most of its inhabitants live on this largesse in Seoul, only spending the requisite 10 days a year actually in their village homes. The North Korean village, on the other hand, is a total fake. The side facing South Korea is done up to make the North look prosperous and happy. But it's really a ghost town with nothing more than a few forced laborers forced to look unforced and a loudspeaker that used to loudly broadcast propaganda across the border. The South had one of these, too, so they amicably decided (surprisingly) just to turn them both off. The flag-pole competition is not over, however, both sides continually upping the ante; North Korea is currently winning, with the largest flagpole in the world topped by the largest flag--so big and heavy, there's hardly ever enough wind to stir it (luckily, there was when I visited). All of this you view from a kind of amphitheatre at the US Army base. It's very weird and maybe the last place of its weird kind in the world. The soldiers who gave the tour were very funny, too, making numerous witty remarks about the "glorious society" on the other side. Ha ha!

In January, I don't remember doing much. Maybe I taught. I did eventually produce dozens of so-cool (so-called) lesson plans, but I only got to deploy them sporadically. I think I started my Tuesday night pottery lessons at this time, though, adding yet another hobby to my growing and groaning list. Well, I sucked at it, but the teacher was happy to have me there, and I eventually dragged my English neighbor, Catriona, along, too. Best part: he didn't charge us! I love the special treatment foreigners get in Ja-pan. Most of the time. Thanks, Maki, for bringing me there, and thanks Nakagawa-sensei for putting up with us! You know, he never did understand this bizarre concept known as "vegetarianism." I believe Catriona is still trying to explain.

February was still cold. Did I mention that Ja-pan is as cold in the winter as it is hot in the summer? And they don't heat their buildings. Or they use kerosene, like in the 19th century, or it's expensive. To save money, I bought a cheap electric blanket and wrapped myself in it from November to May. Emma, if you're reading this, don't worry: I washed it before I left, though it may still be full of residue of emotional essence wrought by months of pining and frustration, from various causes, that you will no doubt understand. Also started helping out random other Japanese people I met with their English. Anything to pass the time of day, and it gave me an excuse to visit my favorite "English" tea room in Mito, where I was a beloved regular customer.

In March, it was cherry blossom time, and I have to say, though I am a Western male who could normally give a shit about flowers, I was stunned by how beautiful they indeed turned out to be--and ubiquitous. Toward the end of March, during another school break, I finally took a long trip down to Kinki (hee hee) to see Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, and Himeji. En route, I stopped at Nagoya to visit my Aikido sensei, who was sick, but met and stayed with Joe, one of his resident American students. Joe is now my best friend, and even though I am filled with a spirit of peace after countless hours of martial training, tea ceremony, and Buddhist reflections, I'll kick any of your asses if you say a thing against him. In Kyoto, I stayed at a hotel called the "Kyoto Cheapest Hotel." As advertised, I only paid around $10 a night for a tatami-mat bunk bed (sleeping bag required) in an open room. Fine with me: how about $5 for a spot on the laundry room floor? I can't describe, in this already overlong post, the wonders of Kyoto, but it's easily the most beautiful city in Ja-pan, though it's easy to be a beautiful city in Ja-pan, because most of them aren't so beautiful (we sort of bombed them all, but not Kyoto, which maintains its traditional charms). Kyoto is a city of temples which all cost $5 to enter, and though I was grouchy about having to pay so much so often, I couldn't say that any one of them wasn't worth the price of admission: they are all lovely, lovely in ways that defy easy description, since I have no room to detail all their details. I liked best the moss gardens and some of the raked-stone Zen gardens. I also enjoyed the famous "Philosopher's Walk", waking up really early every day with a tatami-induced sore-back, encouraging me to get out into the quiet mist of a Kyoto morning, walking from downtown Kyoto to the top of Mount Hiei (famous for its famous monastery (Engakuji?) of famous monks) and back, etc. etc. etc. I just can't do it! I can't tell you about everything I did there without boring you with lists! OK, quickly, I visited Osaka for an evening, Himeji for a day to see the really-awesome, totally-worth it "White Egret" castle and nearby mountain monastery (Engyouji?) where part of Tom Cruise's "The Last Samurai" was filmed, the ancient capital of Nara with its largest-oldest-wooden-buildings-in-the-world temples, famous forest, a sake factory, and, uh, sacred deer (free guided tour by two university students), and Uji, the green tea city (all varieties, every kind of food product made from it, my idea of heaven). I stopped at Nagoya again on the way back, but still no Sensei. Got really drink with Joe. While I was in Kyoto, the cherry blossoms appeared, and I managed to follow the "front" back north to Hitachiota, stopping in several places along the way and enjoying them for about two weeks altogether (normally they last up to five days max in most places). And, in front of my school, there is a massive cherry blossom tree that was in full bloom when I got back. Now you understand, perhaps, why they are deliberately planted everywhere in the country. The Japanese love celebrating the ephemerality of all things in life represented by the beautiful but short-lived cherry blossoms. And drinking under them. Me, too.

Still there? In April, the new school year began. I don't think I did much. Other activities as usual.

In May, I turned 29, and I don't even remember what I did to celebrate, which means I probably paid a visit to the old woman in my town who adopts all foreigners living there and allows them to drop in whenever they want for food and drinking with half the neighborhood. If I didn't do this then, I certainly did it more than once during the year. Someday, I'm really going to nail Japanese, so when I go back, I'll actually be able to have a conversation with her that entails more than just grunting attempts at exchanging good will, enough at the time, I suppose.

In June, I probably taught more than average or went to watch the archery club after school a bunch. I certainly didn't travel any more. I was trying desperately to save money for this year's trip, and I'd even gotten rid of my car, since keeping it would have entailed paying a multiple thousand dollar inspection fee. Ja-pan is expensive!

In July, it finally got hot enough that I stopped going to my local onsen every Friday, which I had long since adopted as my weekly attempt to avoid remembering that where I was, there was nothing to do on Friday night. Probably, I did some other stuff, too.

July was the end of the school year and the end of my year in Ja-pan. I gave a speech, received bunches of flowers, had multiple going away parties, received more bunches of flowers, and felt both sad to be leaving and excited to be embarking on my next adventure. I can't say the job was terribly satisfying, as I'm sure my colleagues will understand, but I did have an enriching experience I will never regret in the land of the rising sun. I intend to return as soon as I am able, and I tend not to return to countries I've already visited. But I want to visit my friends, some of the best, most sincere friends I've ever made, and I want to see more of the country I couldn't afford to travel around much while I was there, and that 88 temple pilgrimage on Shikoku island has my name all over it. In more than one way, my heart will always remain, in part, in Ja-pan.

I hope I didn't leave out anything, or anyone, important. That should hold y'all for awhile, anyway.

Сталин my hero

Hold onto your miters, everyone, but I actually went somewhere today and did something. You're going to like this, really. I went to Josef Stalin's birthplace! You'd think they'd have long since plowed over such an ignominious place and sowed the ground with salt. But if you thought so, you'd be so wrong. In Georgia, where he was born, Stalin is a national hero! What?! I guess there aren't too many heroes coming out of the Caucasus, so they take what they can get--even Stalin.

I woke early and caught the minibus to Gori, the town in question, about an hour from Tbilisi through stunning green countryside, backdropped by white-capped mountains. Lovely. In the center of the town is a Stalin memorial park, on one side of which is Stalin Street. You need a very subtle sense of humor to find such things amusing. There was once a village here, but the Communists (in, ahem, the 1930s) bulldozed every building except the Chairman's modest, Lincoln-esque hovel (love the story--mother a seamstress, father a shoemaker, lived in one room). Next to that, they built a less modest museum to chronicle the life of the U.S.S.R.'s greatest leader. Before going inside, I had my photo taken with some local youths who love Stalin next to his bust. Then I found out it was going to cost me 10 lari ($6.66) to enter--and that's the student price. Even the ticket lady lamented about how expensive it is. The Verdi opera last night, and it was enchanting, only cost about $3.25 for the best seats. Well, I wasn't going to miss this. And I still bought a Stalin keychain, too. All the signage is in Georgian (a bunch of squiggly things) and Russian (backwards letters, numbers, etc.) so I was in luck when a group of French tourists (!) came along with a guide for an English language (!) tour. The museum guide was a lovely young Georgian college student who talked way too fast even for me, so we relied on this other Georgian guy to re-translate. At one point, the (museum) guide pointed to a photo of Stalin casting a ballot and remarked, "This is Stalin electing himself." My composure-reflexes not quick enough to block the signal, I burst out laughing. I thought she meant to say, "This is Stalin voting for himself," but didn't realize the irony. I tried to explain, but she got confused, so then I wasn't sure if she didn't mean what she said!

After the tour, which included a peek inside the birth house and Stalin's private railcar, me and the Israeli, Frenchman, and Michigan-based Zionist activist I ended up with wandered over to the main square. There, we were delighted by what must be the last remaining colossus of Stalin left in the world. More photos, of course. Then we took a taxi to a famous house-cave city I never heard of, but which was fairly impressive and, as usual, sited in spectacular Caucasian scenery. The Lonely Planet-equipped Israeli informed us that the site dates back to 1000 B.C. Wow. Then we went back to Tbilisi, where I bought greens and tomatos at a market because I'm sick of eating fried bread and cheese for every meal, dammit. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to have a salad.

14 May 2008

Georgia, the prison state

OK, Georgia is not a prison, but I can't get out. It's not border control problems or travel restrictions. Mostly, it's laziness, probably induced by Couchsurfing. It's hard to give up free accomodation in a comfortable environment. Plus, the weather here only just started to get good, so now I'm outside a bit more instead of running from viaduct to viaduct and drinking (even clubbing, god help me) at night. Last night, I vowed not to drink again. I failed. Tonight, I am going to try and see Verdi's Requiem, which is on at the opera house here. If it's sold out, I guess I'll just go to a bar.

11 May 2008

Georgia on my mind

Did you Americans know that, in addition to the state of Georgia, there is a country called Georgia? Does anyone know that? Crossing over from Yerevan several days ago, I passed to the difficult to spell and pronounce capital city of Tbilisi on one of the worst international "highways" I've ever seen. There were few people on the bus, and I found it very hard to change Armenian "dram" for Georgian "lari" once in the city, so I reckon there isn't much intercourse between the two countries, so to speak. But the Georgians noticeably loosened up once we were over the border, beckoning me over to their little group, offering me a mug of paint thinner they referred to as "vodka." Though I was still a tad hungover from the mandatory turning-30 birthday celebrations the previous night (Tom made me a cake! Teny sang for me in Armenian!), I could not turn down their hospitality, nor the opportunity to mug for the foreigners upon drinking their strong local distillant. Actually, there's a lot of drinking-for-leisure here in ex-U.S.S.R. (surprised?), so I feel like I've been hungover for a week... hence the dearth of posts, though the lack of Internet cafes contributes. I'm staying now with Dion, an English woman, and she has kindly brought me along to her office today so I could finally do some updating. There may not be any more, again, for a little while. Can I tell you readers anything interesting? There's been rain almost every day, it's cold, and I've mostly been drinking coffee and admiring the pretty, historic, European-esque buildings and drinking more coffee (by day...). I did visit a Turkish bath for the first time, where the full treatment "massage" consisted of me lying on a hard, marble slab while a bulky, cigarette-smoking Georgian man scoured, in two courses, all the dead (and some of the living) skin off my delicate body, pounded me a bit, and repeatedly dumped buckets of scalding water over my head without warning, all while a roomful of naked, uncircumcised men looked on. Don't you love, readers, my humerous use--to full effect in this post--of quotation marks?

07 May 2008

The Land of the Unrecognized

This post should be more interesting than usual.

You may or may not be aware, readers, but there are quite a few countries in the world that are not recognized as such by any other countries or any international bodies of governance. I have been fascinated by these mostly unknown enclaves ever since I stumbled across a Wikipedia article about them (and the even more fascinating "micronations"):


Here are some amusing, characteristic entries in the area of non-recognition:

North Korea is not recognized by South Korea.

South Korea is not recognized by North Korea.

The Czech Republic is not recognized by Liechtenstein due to a dispute over the applicability of the Beneš decrees.

Slovakia is not recognized by Liechtenstein due to a dispute over the applicability of the Beneš decrees.

Liechtenstein is not recognized by either the Czech Republic nor Slovakia due to its refusal to recognize them.

What a silly place, the world! But these are at least countries most people can jab their fingers at on a map (use your pinky nail for Liechtenstein). Have you ever heard of the unrecognized autonomous Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh? Didn't think so! But that's where I am right now, thus fulfilling a long-standing dream of mine to visit one of these bizarre little places. Am I in Armenia? I'm not sure. Have I entered Azerbaijan? I don't think so. But, tediously, I had to get yet another $30 visa just to visit, so I'm counting it as the 40th country outside the United States that I have had the pleasure and good fortune to visit (unless Monaco and Vatican City count). Allow me to explain: while the Soviet Union was collapsing like Boris Yeltsin at a cocktail party, a process was established for the SSRs to declare their independence. That process was followed successfully by the three universally recognized nations of the Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. A small chunk of Azerbaijan SSR, however, claiming historic and ethnic associations with Armenia, decided to declare independence in its own right. The result was war. Azerbaijan invaded, bombed, and whinged about the violation of its territorial integrity, but, amazingly, they lost. The NKR even expanded its territory, making it contiguous with Armenia (before it sort of just floated in the middle of Azerbaijan). One of Karabakh's chief ministers then went on to become the present President of Armenia, and now there's a nice, new road connecting that country to Stepanakert, the capital city here. Azerbaijan continues to pretend sovereignty over Karabakh, so it remains to be seen whether or not the country will achieve true independence and international recognition or remain in its weird grey zone up in the clouds.

I half-expected it to be a prolonged, arduous ordeal to get here, involving things like interminable delays, horrid road conditions, army maneuvers, corrupt border officials, and goats. As an indication of the actual, disappointingly prosperous conditions, let me just say that when I asked a Karabakh girl on my minibus the time, she responded by whipping out an iPhone, at which I goggled. When I inquired how someone from a dirt-poor, unrecognized, autonomous ex-Soviet mountain republic could afford such a toy ($500 at least), she blithely answered that such things are not considered expensive in Armenia. Excuse me! At least I managed to deploy my famous charm to connive her into arranging a cheap homestay for me. The old lady I'm staying with stuck me in a basement room with no heat, shower, or toilet, but hey, it's cheap. She doesn't speak a word of English, so we had a spot of difficulty discussing the price and my plans. At one point, she asked if I spoke Russian. Don't these people know anything about Americans? We don't speak anything, much less Commie-talk!

Stepanakert is a fairly dismal place and looks much more like a depressing, Soviet-era city than anything I've seen in Armenia proper. The fact it's been foggy and rainy since I arrived doesn't help. Yesterday morning, I woke quasi-early, hoping to get a minibus up to a monastery which claims to possess the head of John the Baptist, which ended up here after a circuitous journey of centuries between Europe, Turkey, and the Holy Land. Believe it? I don't! But I was disappointed to miss the one and only transportation option so I could at least say I went there, credible or not, and I'm too cheap/poor to hire a taxi to bring me to such places. So instead, I went to the nearby town of Shoushi, which proved far more interesting. It was bombed during the war (ending 1994), but, unlike Stepanakert, does not appear to have been rebuilt to much extent. And it was an Ottoman Turkish town at one point, so many of the bombed-out buildings are quite old, with Turkish script details on a few (I found a mosque and a caravanserai) and neat cobblestone roads meandering between them. The dense fog made it even more atmospheric, and I wandered in the quiet gloom for hours. By the time I started walking back, I didn't even notice that I was soaking wet from the moisture in the air. Since I was walking, I didn't feel cold, but it is certainly chillier here than in, say, Yemen. I'm certainly glad I didn't mail my sweater home. A passing minibus picked me up as I stupidly (and typically) tried to walk back to Stepanakert, and it was once I was on board that I discovered what a dripping wet fool I looked like. And I've been wondering why all the people around here keep laughing at me.

So that's it for the oddity that is Nagorno-Karabakh. But my adventures in unrecognized, autonomous mountain republics are far from over. Georgia, my next stop, contains two of them! And I fully intend to break through the red tape, if I can, of at least one.

Today, I am 30 years old.

06 May 2008

Yemen to Yerevan

Sorry for the delay in postings, folks, but Internet access remains unreliable, slow, and frustrating. Yesterday, for example, I wrote a nice, long post about Armenia--in Word even, so Blogger wouldn't eat it--and, should I be surprised?, Word crashed, and I lost it anyway. Windows, you are the scourge of mankind. I hate you. So here we go again.

When I stepped into the departure lounge for Yerevan at Sharjah International Airport, I saw a tired group of people. They were disheveled, their eyes were dark, and they looked a bit drunk. In support of this latter, they all carried plastic bags bulging with bottles of duty-free alcohol. The men looked beligerent and wore pointy, black shoes. The women were dressed in a style which I have since nicknamed "haphazard trashy" (something I haven't seen anywhere else except, well, New Jersey). Seeing this sight, I knew I was in the right place: these were Armenians.

I am exaggerating a little bit for comic effect, but the men really do wear pointy, black shoes, and the women really do dress quite trashily, with tight, revealing clothes and way too much cheap make-up/perfume. Not that I'm complaining! After months in religiously conservative nations where women mostly cover up their bodies, it is refreshing to see once again such liberal displays of cleavage and excessive reliance on push-up bras. Armenia, ho!

The flight to Yerevan became eventful when I rose from my three-seat-across slumber (score!) to see the majestic Mt. Ararat majestically looming before me in all its majesty. Snow-capped and over 5000 meters high, it's the Armenian holy mountain, though located nowadays in hated Turkey, and also the traditional final resting place of Noah's ark--so I guess it's appropriate that I'm coming to Armenia from the city of Shem, retracing the footsteps in reverse of the Semitic son.

I was surprised by how nice the airport is--high-end designer retail and all--and this made me feel both reassured and uneasy. I was also surprised when I was hit with a $50 visa charge. C'mon, Armenia, your country's the size and shape of a spare rib. Why can't these former Soviet Socialist Republics just drop the damn visa fees, or charge like $1 per hundred million square kilometers they occupy?

Cleverly dodging the taxi vultures, and though unable to speak Armenian (people keep asking me if I speak Russian--"why the fuck would I speak Russian?" I glibly respond), I somehow find my way downtown to my meeting point with English Tom, my couchsurfing host in Yerevan. I mostly hang out with him and his Iranian-Armenian girlfriend Teny for the next few days, going off on my own only to explore the city a bit, see the Armenian Genocide Museum (continuing my self-designed educational tour of the world's greatest crimes against humanity), and visit a "heathen" temple and ancient monastery in the nearby countryside. Tom is on a multi-year bicycle trip around the world. He and I both left our respective countries at about the same time, and here is where we met, Armenia, the crossroads of the world. I'm lucky he got a bit bogged down and has an apartment to make available to me. Since leaving England last July, Tom reports that he's only spent about $3000. And he's 24! So much for experience.

Armenia prides itself on being the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion (in 301 A.D.!). Yerevan, the capital, prides itself on having been founded a full 29 years before Rome (in 782 B.C.!). So you can imagine what things are like today, after the intervening several thousand years during which there was nothing for them of which to be proud. Actually, and even though I had read that Yerevan is somewhat depressing in a post-Soviet way, I rather like all the red concrete stone architecture. And after months in dry, desolate, and over-urbanized places, the abundance of trees and greenery in Yerevan's relaxed neighborhoods has been almost as refreshing as the abundant cleavage. And the countryside around the city is wonderful! Hilly and sparsely forested, it climbs and rolls and dips, looking to me like Scotland or parts of New Zealand.

I like it here. Unfortunately, the road goes ever on, and I cannot remain long. Georgia, with its traditional hospitality (and Southern belles?) beckons. But before that, I have one more oddity of an adventure to undertake.

05 May 2008

Hounding Mahound

While I was enjoying a cup of shai outside the Sultan’s palace in Seiyun, Yemen, someone gave me a small book—actually, the book just appeared in front of me, so perhaps this was a case of divine intervention. The book in question was “The Religion of Truth” by Abdul Rahman Ben Hammad Al-Omar. I love Muslim names, by the way. They’re more like little family histories than names. If I ever convert, I’m going to pick a really cool one that goes on forever, like Mohammed Mahmoud Al-Sharif Al-Islam bin Hamid Aziz Ali Al-Omar bin Akbar bin Yosef bin Ismail Al-Sheik (“Shakes” for short). Anyway, “The Religion of Truth” is an Islam primer for unbelievers like myself (how did they know?) printed by the ultra-conservative Wahabis in Saudi Arabia. I read it on the plane from Sana’a to Sharjah, where, at an airport Costa Coffee, I abandoned it.

Those of you who frequent my society are no doubt familiar with my pitiless, uncharitable contempt for most forms of religion and spirituality. Given this profound and no doubt excessively intolerant prejudice, you might normally expect me to eviscerate the more sincerely idiotic passages from a book such as this, subjecting them to a biting, narcissistically cynical scorn that, while amusing to myself and a few others, is nonetheless unoriginal, offensive, and rather cowardly insofar as my victims are unable to respond to my vituperations. Friends, if these are truly your expectations, I should not like to fail meeting them, and so this is exactly what I am going to do.

Please note that I am not attacking Islam itself in this case, however much I may regard it, like (to be fair) every other, as a stupid religion with ridiculous premises, but only Mr. Al-Omar’s book, which is certainly one of the blatantly dumbest works of proselytizing literature I’ve ever encountered and would be more likely to send me rushing into the arms of the Mormons than to induce me to start wearing gowns and stoning my wives were I susceptible to proselytizing in the first place. That said, I’ll never forgive the Muslims for stealing Cat Stevens away from us.

“One of the most demonstrative and logical evidences which prove that the Quran is the revelation of Allah to His Messenger Muhammed is the fact that Allah had challenged the unbelievers of Qurayesh to produce a book like the Quran.”

And they couldn’t do it! But other than being asinine (the language of the King James Bible is quite beautiful, too, though it was only produced by human beings), isn’t this argument circular? The Quran is true because nobody in Qurayesh (and they were clever fellows) could write a Quran? I suppose that isn’t as circular as most of the Omar’s arguments, which are usually something like “The Quran is true because Mohammed said it was, and Mohammed spoke the truth because the Quran says he did” or, more laconically, “According to the Quran, the Quran is the truth.” But it’s still pretty stupid. And so is this notion that God only speaks Arabic. Abdul, if you’re going to win converts in the skeptical West, you’re going to have to come up with better “demonstrative and logical evidences” than these. I’d stick with IEDs if I were you.

That was just a warm-up.

“People, by their natural and innate character, believe that they came to existence by the creation and sustenance of a Creator. Allah is the Creator and Sustainer of all creatures. Whoever denies this innate nature is going astray and throwing himself into distress. Thus, the communist, who denies the existence of his Creator and Sustainer, leads a miserable life, and in the Hereafter his end will be in Hell-fire.”

OK, I’m going to have to skip right over the false deductive premises this bit opens with, because I want to know why he goes after the Communists! Granted, most of them probably do live miserable lives (not too many happy faces here in the former USSR), but is he suggesting that all atheists are, by definition, Communists? And that Communism is unnatural? Was this book funded by the US government? Perhaps there’s a deeper message here, that Hell itself is something like a Communist state. I suppose everyone there is equal (unlike the rigid hierarchies of grace found in the class-oriented Heaven) and, as in Communism on Earth, equally miserable, and I guess this pretense of infernal democracy is likewise lorded over by a dictatorial tyrant who ensures his subjects constant suffering. Hey, I think you’re on to something here, Ben! Well, I never considered myself a Communist before, but I guess I’ll be seeing you in hell, comrades.

“It is a fact that a healthy man can satisfy the sexual desires of four women.”

A fact! Just ask women! Seriously, Hammad, are you, like, a virgin or something? Have you, in fact, tried satisfying, for example, one woman? I like to think that I myself am a healthy man, but I find your rationale for polygamy just ever so slightly completely terrifying. I have just one more question, Mr. Ramen Noodles, why stop at four?

I suppose that’s enough shitting all over Islam for this week. Now that I’ve left the Middle East and arrived in Armenia (wait, is Armenia in the Middle East? I don’t know!), there are upcoming bigger and better things for me to shit all over. Literally and metaphorically, I wonder if I’ve done much else this entire trip. Food for thought (sorry) for those of you considering a similar voyage. Ciao! (sorry again)

03 May 2008

I am a Caucasian

This post is only to inform you, my readers, that I have safely transited from Yemen to Armenia, and I think it's safe to say that Air Arabia's Sana'a to Yerevan run, taking you, as it does, from a conservative Arab society to a Post-Soviet one, is the number one culture shock flight in the world. I can't write more because it's late, and I'm using the computer of my English couchsurfing host's Iranian-Armenian girlfriend, and she wants to go to sleep. So more interesting things, at my usual, greater length, anon.