Friday, December 10, 2010

Tel Aviv, Israel to Kiev Boryspil Airport, Ukraine to Bangkok, Thailand


Greetings from Bangkok, where I have, over the course of the past 16 hours since I arrived, consumed about half my weight in delicious Thai food. Even the airport food I ate while waiting for the first airport shuttles to start working was SO GOOD. I need to stop choosing to go to places with such awesome food, or else I'm going to need to expand to my budget to include larger pants... I can always go back to Ukraine, I guess, where the only vegetarian airport food is a soggy tomato sandwich (I have flown through Kiev 3 out of my 4 my flight series this year, so I came prepared with food bought in the Tel Aviv airport).

I wanted to share a few pictures to sum up my last few days in Israel. I think they speak for themselves...

In case you can't tell- I kind of used my hair as a paintbrush, and apparently acrylic paint does not wash out of hair once dry, so I've been rocking a yellow-tipped look for several days now. Israeli airport security was not too into my freaky hair combined with my Uzbek visa stamps- they gave me the second most dangerous security classification out of six possible classifications. This included testing for various chemicals/bomb-making materials, accompanying me in person to my terminal, and unpacking my bags three separate times. And... I'm Jewish. Cool.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israel to Ramallah, Palestine to Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, Israel


Last night, or rather, far too early this morning, the humidity up on the roof woke me after just a few hours of sleep. Looking through the mist, I heard a familiar sound- rain drops on walls and windows. I smiled. So cozy and warm in my little nest of blankets… wait. In my little nest of blankets on the roof. I poked my head out from under the blankets, and all of a sudden, the sky was collapsing and all of the rain that had not fallen for nearly two months came pouring out of the clouds. It took me about thirty seconds to gather everything essential (aka not waterproof) up into a sheet, a minute to climb down the ladder and lower myself down the wall to the apartment’s terrace, so that by the time I was inside, I was completely soaked. Luckily I had moved most of my stuff into the apartment the day before, to avoid awkward questions from the visiting landlord and angry exchanges with a new tenant who has partial ownership of the upper roof, but being woken up and soaked at the crack of dawn? Not so fun… plus the challenge of finding a warm place to sleep in the apartment (Tal, I may or may not have taken advantage of your empty mattress- but I did put a water glass under a leak, saving your room from flooding, so we can call it even?) in the wee hours of the morning. I think this is Israel’s way of telling me it’s time to move on…

While I have been in Tel Aviv, though, a few significant holidays from the land of Hummer’s, Starbucks, and Walmart took place: Halloween, Martina’s birthday, and Thanksgiving. Read on…

Halloween, it appears, is a holiday only popular in America. I found only one Halloween-related event happening in Tel Aviv on October 31st, so I knew I had to pull something together on my own. The fact that I had met not a single American, with the exception of Patty- and Texas is arguably another planet, not just another country- since I left Poland nearly two months earlier, was not particularly heartening. However, Halloween rolled around and in walked a student from Kentucky, traveling through Israel after studying Arabic in Cairo. Speaking of which- if you know of a really good, Arabic-intensive language course (MSA and Egyptian Arabic as well) in Cairo, or maybe Damascus, I would LOVE to hear about it. Email me- Anyways, I had my American partner in crime, and we decided that in true Tel Aviv-United States fusion, we would “carve” a jack-o-lantern sandcastle out on the beach. After a bit of strategizing and a lot of digging we had something that resembled a pumpkin rather well. I was satisfied.

The next “holiday” was Martina’s birthday. Martina, from Sweden, seemed to think that birthdays are not a big deal. I have since taught her otherwise. After sleeping over half the day (even for Martina, who sleeps more and in more random places than nearly anybody I have ever met, except perhaps Sarah Pincus, this was a lot of sleeping), we gave Martina small presents (despite her insistence that she did not want presents, I felt it was necessary to inject at least a little of America’s hyper-consumerist culture into the day) and journeyed around to various Tel Aviv favorite spots, including the beach restaurant next to one of our sleeping spots, Max Brenner Chocolate Restaurant where we enjoyed some very excellent chocolate foods, Bjorn’s increasingly crowded apartment (at various points there were as many as six people sleeping in the small two-bedroom apartment- and there were only enough mattresses for three, technically), our favorite bar, and some particularly inviting alleyways. Even Martina had to admit it was a nice birthday. I felt very proud.

Next: Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving at home is always a little tricky, because the primary food item is of the animal nature, and thus, as a vegetarian, I do not partake. However, stuffing is essential. But I had no idea how to cook any of this… and then Bjorn decided to schwenk on Thanksgiving Day! What is schwenking, you ask? I suggest you educate yourself on this important cultural activity of Saarland ( but if you are short on time, from my limited experience and observations, I can tell you this: the schwenker is a special swinging grill indigent to the Saarland region of Germany (debatably its own autonomous zone, but that argument is for another time), held over a fire by a tripod. “Schwenker” can also refer to the pork most commonly cooked on the fire, though in Tel Aviv fashion, we schwenked kebab, pita with hummus, and pita with eggs primarily. (For other international schwenker events, past and future, check out: There is also the schwenkmeister, in this case Bjorn, though we all got to practice swinging the grill and even my four-year-old friend Laila got the hang of it by the end of the evening.

Later on Thanksgiving evening, I headed back to Sarah Robins apartment, and came across a gathering of extremely stuffed American teenagers and a table full of leftovers. Though the pie was finished, everything else was delicious: wild rice, green beans, two (!) types of stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and a couple of non-vegetarian things. Hummus has contributed to the healthy development of my food baby, but I think I made some real progress toward its growth after my multiple-meal Thanksgiving evening.

The day after the original international schwenkmeister (Bjorn) departed for Saarland, Martina and I headed out of Tel Aviv and toward the Jordan River… that is, Jerusalem and Ramallah. Martina had heard about a workshop in Ramallah that we might be interesting, and we decided to check it out. We spent the night before the workshop in Jerusalem to avoid having to wake up super early, and of course, we slept on a roof there… Jerusalem is significantly colder than Tel Aviv (perhaps not actually much colder, but when you sleep on exposed rooftops, you notice even the slightest alterations in temperature and humidity). This roof belonged to a hostel, though, which was a nice change of pace from the Florentine rooftop bubble, and we did our best to convince everybody we met to go to Tel Aviv and stay in Florentine. Jerusalem reminds me of Washington, DC, in the sense of the low-rise, all-white-stone buildings. Though DC is divided up by wide-sidewalked avenues and parks filled with monuments and mid-Atlantic-specific foliage and Jerusalem seems to have developed from a desire to tone its inhabitants’ calves, between the local sport of dodging other passersby on tiny alleyways and the stair-filled passageways, walking around each of these cities gives me a similar feeling.

Upon sitting down in a conference room with the other workshop participants in Ramallah, we had to go around and say our names, where we were from, and why we decided to join the workshop. After two English/Kiwi guys stated their desire to make a difference on the ground, get their hands dirty, help the suffering Palestinian people, I felt a bit intimidated- I just came to be exposed to another perspective on this conflict, and had no idea upon joining of the history or activities of the hosting organization, which I think is called International Solidarity Movement. About half the workshop sessions were illuminating for my purposes, and the rest of the time we discussed how to avoid being blown up by poorly directed sound bombs, “rubber-covered steel bullets” (it’s true that the rubber bullets were actually steel bullets covered with rubber), and tear gas bombs, as well as how to physically avoid arrest by, for example, lying on top of one another and going limp, and finally, what to do in case of arrest. Though the specific knowledge I gained from those parts of the workshop are probably not going to be useful in my life, seeing footage of the demonstrations and non-violent work of the organization was fascinating and it really gave me a sense of the on-the-ground reality of the current situation. We learned that people here have been programmed to react violently or through endless negotiation processes, and efforts at non-violent resistance are often met with confusion or sometimes just violence. Though the organization claimed that they did not determine the definition of legitimate resistance, the general opinion on Palestinians throwing stones at Israeli soldiers was that it was symbolic, and therefore non-violent. This seemed a bit off to me, so I pushed further, asking if the Palestinians intended to hit and injure Israeli soldiers if possible, and the workshop leaders said that yes, they did, but compared to Israeli weapons, stones were pathetic. While I agree that the deck is loaded in favor of Israel in terms of weapons, somehow I can’t see how hurling stones at human beings with the intention to cause them pain is not violent. My overall conclusion coming out of the workshop was that conflicts don’t make me empathize with each side, believing each to be valid and “right,” but rather, conflicts make me feel that each side is “wrong” and should handle the situation better. Kind of harsh, yes, but whoever decided to fight fire with fire in the first place must have been insane- don’t they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

We also learned a bit of Arabic (ana nabatiyah means “I’m vegetarian), some Palestinian customs about drinking coffee and tea, not pointing the soles of the feet at a person, and male-female relations. After the sessions finished for the first day, Martina and I wandered around suburban Ramallah. We both agreed that if it weren’t for the inordinate number of empty lots filled with trash, Ramallah would be a really beautiful place. I also spotted an Arabic billboard for Ben & Jerry’s, so my life is now complete.

I’m choosing which books to have my familia bring me when we meet up in a couple weeks in Vietnam, so if you have any book recommendations, please let me know, and I will send them out to find them. English books in Israel are not cheap unless you stumble across them secondhand, and I’m guessing I won’t have a good selection in Southeast Asia. So… anything good you’ve read lately, anything you think is relevant to my experiences this year, or anything you read at my age that you think I would benefit from or enjoy- email me!

A belated public happy birthday to my brothers, Alex and Ben, and my soul sister ISABEL O WALSH, and a pre-emptive strike: happy birthday Mr. Esteemed Guatemalan Honorary Consul to New (ton/ England?) (questionable). How old are you now, sixty-five?


And a last note… I am sitting in my favorite café, Casba, and I just watched a waitress apologize, out loud, to the dog she bumped into. Dogs in Florentine are like cows in India… but still—that was definitely one of the more “Florentine” interactions I have witnessed.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea, Israel to Jericho, Palestine to Ein Bokek to Tel Aviv to Haifa to Tel Aviv, Israel

Shabbat Shalom!

Very long time, no blog post… as my friend Marc says, I have been “immersing myself” in my new (temporary) Israeli life. I have quite a few stories from the past weeks that I will be telling my grandchildren, and quite a few that I will most definitely NOT be telling my grandchildren… here are some of the former. First, though, the basics:

Patty came and went in a brief but joyous five days, spent taxiing back and forth between the Herzliya Medical Center and Tel Aviv proper, where we consumed obscene amounts of hummus, swam in the Mediterranean, went to a Tel Aviv art museum and replaced some of my more destroyed clothing (Kazakh ambulances are a bit wearing). It was very surreal seeing her show up at the airport, suitcase laden with American junk food and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory candied apples (note that I do not qualify these as junk food- apples are healthy). Though she refused to stay at a hostel, I managed to convince her that when our family meets up in Vietnam for Christmas, we will all spend at least one night in a hostel together. I think she’s already having nightmares about this.

I live on a roof. Not in a penthouse, not in a tent on a roof, not under a canopy… just- on a roof. I have several blankets and a borrowed sleeping bag that form my nest beneath the solar panels, an extension cord to charge my laptop, a melting candle-pile, a line of empty wine bottles, a makeshift cinderblock table and some hanging sheets for coziness. I am not, however, squatting: I ran into my old friend Sarah Robins, of the Charles E. Brown Middle School variety, one day on the street and she very generously rescued me from the hostel I had been staying at and allowed me access to her roof, her shower, her Thanksgiving dinner, her kitchen, and her roommate Shira’s season pass to Glee… I owe the girls of Nehalat Binyamin Apartment 13 a MASSIVE thank you. And a bit of an apology for continually allowing two drunk Europeans to sleep on the roof as well- though that is a different story.

I have been based in Florentine, a “poor musician” neighborhood in the south of Tel Aviv, for the past six weeks or so. Tel Aviv is awesome, and Florentine especially so. I literally cannot leave one building and walk to the next without running into somebody I know. Israel is debatably the least shy country in the world, and this was proven over and over as I met people pretty much everywhere I went. And you don’t just meet people and walk away- usually you get invited to go on a road trip somewhere, or go out in a different part of town, or come over for Shabbat dinner. Usually I like staying in hostels so that I can meet people easily, but here, it’s really not necessary, and maybe even better, because I’ve gotten to know a lot of local people. I got a month-long membership to a dance/yoga studio and met several cool people there, while trying to work off some of the hummus weight that inevitably piles on when chickpeas constitute about half of one’s diet. I have a favorite café and a favorite bar, and as it turns out, they are owned by the same person- I have been at the bar, decided I want the best sandwich in the world, and then wandered down the street, picked up a sandwich, and brought it back to the bar. I know all the waiters and bartenders by name, and they know that I like my coffee with ice, sugar, no milk, and chocolate powder.

There is a lot of street art in Tel Aviv, and especially Florentine. It’s easy to identify the artist from the style, and one street artist, Luca, has been staying at the hostel for months. You can see some of his work here: The hostel has an eclectic mix of vacationers, long-term backpackers, and people staying in Tel Aviv for an extended period. I originally intended to base myself out of Jerusalem, but Florentine is kind of magnetic, how Samarkand was, and how Santorini, Samode, and St. Leonard du Bois were for my family when we traveled around the world eleven years ago. However, I have managed to leave my ten block radius and explore some other parts of Israel.

My first departure from Tel Aviv was a day trip to Jerusalem back around the beginning of November with my friends Bjorn (from Saarland- which is definitely an independent nation, and by no means is it part of Germany), Martina (from Sweden, land of reindeer, Ikea, and smart, simple solutions), and Bjorn’s roommate Lee, an Israeli who, in typical Florentine style, Bjorn met randomly at an ice cream shop and moved in with in a matter of days. We walked around the old city, took a nap on the ground next to the Western Wall, and saw sunset over the Jerusalem rooftops.

The next excursion was a bit more of a production to organize. Or rather, we didn’t organize it, and this led to a lot of… problems. Bjorn, Martina and I wanted to go to the Dead Sea and sleep out on the beach. Because Martina had begun working at the hostel, we had to leave Friday afternoon, and in Israel, nearly everything closes down from Friday afternoon until Saturday evening, for Shabbat. The rental car place in downtown Tel Aviv was closed; only the airport rental car place was open. Okay; we could take the direct train to the airport. Not so fast. The last train stopping at the airport had already left (we learned this, of course, after we had already bought tickets). Fine then- there must be a sherut, a shared taxi, that goes there. Nope. A bus? The last one had already left. A taxi then… but because of Shabbat, the taxi cost significantly more. Whatever. We had to make this work. We arrive at the rental car center and walk from rental car shop to rental car shop, but most are either sold out or only have large, expensive cars to rent. Eventually we found a sales-guy sympathetic to our quest, and he found us a car within our budget (although as the day wore on, our budget had become more and more flexible- we were hungry, tired, and really just wanted to GET IN A CAR). However… in order to rent a car, you need a passport. Bjorn was the only one of us old enough to register as the driver, and in the rush to get out of Tel Aviv, he had forgotten his passport. After hours of waiting on a bench outside of the rental car place, where people returning their cars gave us a week’s supply of unopened water bottles and a lot of pitying looks. We tried to get a copy of Bjorn’s passport from the hostel, from his roommate, from his bank in Germany… from anybody we could think of. But eventually, our need for hummus and pita and falafel became too great, and we hitched a ride back to Tel Aviv. Except wait. The woman driving the car was, shall we say, a little bit crazy, and we ended up getting out of the car at Terminal 3, where we were resigned to take a taxi back to Florentine. Except- Terminal 3 is closed on Shabbat. We considered sleeping on the grass by the empty parking lot there, it already being nighttime, but we could not resist the draw of Israeli hummus. After creeping out a bunch of security guards, we ended up calling a cab that took us to the doorstep of a falafel/hummus place in Yaffo. Not wanting to return to the hostel defeated, we decided to pretend that the Mediterranean was the Dead Sea and sleep on the beach in downtown Tel Aviv. On the way there, we ran into the hostel owner, who was mad about us calling about the passport… it’s not fun having the person who controls your sleeping space be mad at you.

So, we waited out Shabbat and on Sunday headed to the rental car place just a few minutes walk from Florentine. After a few technical difficulties, Avis, whose tagline is, perfectly, “we try harder,” hooked us up with a bright green, brand new Ford, and we were on the road. We spent the first night on a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea, talking and eating dinner in the dark, and then taking advantage of the total silence and isolation by climbing on top of the car and screaming. Sometime in the middle of the night some guys walked up to us, and before Martina and I really knew what was going on, Bjorn was off searching for hot springs with them… this was a very Bjorn thing to do. We spent the rest of the night sleeping in the car- Bjorn has a lot of experience with making cars sleep-worthy after years of living out of a car himself.

The next day, after exploring the Dead Sea below the cliff, we decided we should go to Jericho for lunch. After nearly entering a military zone accidentally, then being stopped by a Palestinian soldier to whom we confusingly requested the best place to eat lunch in town, we eventually found our way to a second-story terrace in the town center and a massive meal of salads, pita, hummus, and kebab for Bjorn and Martina. We walked around the town a bit, picking up more water and groceries, then sat down a bench where I promptly took a nap. When I woke up, we were surrounded by about thirty young Palestinian guys, practicing their English and trying to take pictures with Martina and I as close as possible. It seems that Israeli friendliness extended to the Palestinian neighbors.

After failing at entering Jordan and making it a three country day (apparently Israeli rental cars are not allowed into Jordan- also, this time Martina did not have her passport), we picked up a hitchhiker and drove to Ein Bokek on the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is… the Dead Sea. Fun and cool but exactly what you expect- you can’t really swim because you’re so buoyant, and every tiny cut you have from sleeping on beaches and cliffs becomes extremely painful. We made use of the outdoor showers to take our first and only showers of the road trip, then found a suitable spot to sleep at by the main road and watched shooting stars while trying to share our few blankets to stay warm enough throughout the night. We also saw some local wildlife- ROCK RABBITS!!!

Early the next morning we drove back to Tel Aviv to return the car, but as it turned out, it was cheaper to keep it for another night than pay the extra kilometer charges, so we road tripped it back up to Haifa, but had to stop before sunset. We camped out on a beach full of kitesurfers coming in for the night, and had a little picnic on a sand dune. Despite the cold we swam in the sea then ran around on the beach until we were too exhausted to move… and fell asleep by 8pm. We slept on the sand dune, in the car, and out on the sand next to the car, and early the next morning we drove into and around Haifa, without really stopping. The main goal of the day: Swedish meatballs at Ikea!

We actually arrived at Ikea before it opened, but they give out free café au lait a half hour before opening, so it was all good. We spent hours in Ikea, trying out blankets and pillows and being those annoying people that pick everything up and put it down in the wrong place. At this point I knew I would be living on the roof, or at least in Sarah’s apartment, so I was very tempted to buy a lot of semi-useless stuff, but I abstained, and as it turned out this was a very good decision- Sarah’s entire apartment is furnished with Ikea stuff, from the couches to the paintings to the knives to the blankets. So beautiful!

In order to do justice to the rest of my Israel/Palestine experience, I’m going to leave off here. More to come in the next few days, since on Thursday morning I leave for Thailand and Vietnam and I’m sure I will have plenty of southeast Asian tales to tell.

Much love from my roof ☺


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Shabbat Shalom...

I've created a flickr account and uploaded some pictures from the past few countries- Poland, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and now Israel! Check them out here:

More later...


Saturday, October 30, 2010

Almaty to Khorgos to Zharkent to Almaty, Kazakhstan, to Tel Aviv, Israel


In Almaty, a package of books from home theoretically was waiting for me at the Hyatt Regency Hotel downtown. I had half a mind to hop directly on a bus to Urumqi, China, and avoid spending a single night in Almaty, which I had heard was overpriced and not too interesting, but I wanted to see about picking up this package. I figured that I could stay in Almaty for the day, pick up the package, then take a night bus. Upon arriving at the Hyatt in my torn pants, loaded up with bags and reeking of overnight bus, I learned that the package had never arrived. Assuming that the concierge just wanted to get rid of me, I persisted and asked them to check the lost and found, the mail room, and asked to speak to the manager. I called American Express, who was supposed to set up the mail drop, and found that they had never followed through (we had never followed through with them, either, so it was not really their fault). I then tried tracking the package online through my cellphone. It was taking so long that I took advantage of being in a nice hotel and washed up in their disabled restroom (which is big enough for me to unpack my backpack in—I do this in McDonald’s as well) and stole their free lobby wi-fi, even skyping a friend. Eventually I worked with a very kind young woman at the concierge desk, who had recently backpacked through China, who helped me track the package to the main mail sorting center of Kazakhstan, which was conveniently located in Almaty. After a long taxi ride with a driver who claimed to know exactly where we were going and then got lost several times (of course), I eventually found myself at the security gate of a massive mail complex. After handing over my passport information and package tracking number and explaining my request, I was led into the complex, down a cavernous, columned outdoor walkway and through an unmarked door, which opened into a mail sorting center. Oversized packages from Bahrain, Dubai, Russia and Canada waited to be sorted behind the desk I sat at as multiple people (none of whom spoke English) tried to find my package. Eventually they did, and I walked back to the taxi feeling very successful.
I checked into a hotel that had been recommended by a few people back in Samarkand (I never heard of a real hostel in Kazakhstan—which is, by the way, the 9th largest country in the world), and remembered to ask for the dorm, which is less than a quarter of the price of a single room and is actually just a double room that I shared with a woman from Astana who was in Almaty on business. The first person who really spoke English, I was at first happy to meet her, but she ended up keeping me up rather late asking me questions and looking through my new books. I went out to get my first meal of the day then, overpriced half-heated spaghetti and French fries, then walked around a bit, eventually going back to the bus station to buy a ticket to Urumqi for the next morning. The only way to get to Urumqi (unless you wait until Saturday or Monday for the trains) is on buses that leave at 7am, and I had been told it was safer to buy the ticket in advance. Getting to the bus station in rush hour traffic was not so fun, and communicating what I wanted to the ticket lady was not very fun either, so that by the time I got back to the area of town that my hotel was in, I was ready for dinner. I had heard of a vegetarian Indian food place, and I went there thinking I might get something other than carbs, but unfortunately what I got was very very sick. Here’s how it went down:

Several days earlier I had felt extremely nauseous one evening but avoided throwing up by drinking some coke and taking some awesome German medicine called Vomex. I had a low fever the next night, but took some awesome German/Thai medicine and that went away too. Since the first night I was nauseous I had always felt kind of weird after eating, but nothing too serious. After having the Indian food I felt nauseous but thought nothing of it, because it had become kind of normal over the past few days. I felt even more nauseous in the morning when I woke up at 5:30 to catch my bus, and at the first stop the bus made I hightailed it to the hole-in-the-floor toilet and threw up… and at the next one… and the next one. I had one of the worst tickets on the bus, in the back on what is essentially a king-size bunk bed, which I shared with three Kazakh guys. I slept between bus stops to avoid having to feel my own nausea, but after eight hours or so of vomiting and drinking very little (and keeping none of it down), at the border with China, I started feeling lightheaded. I leaned against a wall at passport control because I couldn’t really stand up, and then everything started going blurry and I stopped hearing anybody and realized I was probably blacking out. Somehow I ended up sitting in a chair with a guy slapping water on my face, an old lady trying to feed me milky coffee, which made my stomach turn, and a “doctor” taking my blood pressure. I was shuttled to a room at the border, and then into a van to what was supposed to be a clinic, but ended up just being a first aid room where a woman—who ended up being one of the nurses—was lying on a wooden bed with an IV dripping blood down her arm. I was in touch with my parents, who were, among other things, trying to get somebody who spoke Russian on the phone so that I could actually communicate to the nurses. They tried to give me an IV, and I refused—no way was I letting these people stick a needle in my arm. They did not have clean water for me to drink. Eventually I was put in a taxi, which took me to an ambulance from Soviet times (a gutted army-green van with a seat, not a bed, in the back), which took me to a real clinic in Zharkent, the nearest big town. Here they ran a lot of non-conclusive tests, taking a lot of blood and feeding me a lot of liquids as well. A woman was there to translate, and right before she left I learned that she did not work for the hospital, but had been called in from her job as a schoolteacher to translate for me. After she left they had a patient who spoke English come in a few times to translate. I remember being so tired I literally could not stay awake while on the phone with people. To all the people who were on the phone with me, with clinics, with doctors and with ambulances that night/day: A MASSIVE THANK YOU. Though I’m 100% sure I would have been fine and ended up in a hospital regardless of all the phone calls, I am so grateful for the help you all gave me. Eventually I got in an ambulance- a real one- around 3 in the morning, and slept the whole way back to Almaty, occasionally hearing Kazakh pop songs through the barrier with the front of the car and the rather loud conversations of the EMTs. But nothing could stop me from sleeping. At the very, very nice hospital in Kazakhstan (and I would know, having then visited 4 or 5 Central Asian facilities) I was escorted from test to test- ultrasounds, x-rays, blood tests, urine samples, more ultrasounds, more blood tests. I talked briefly with a doctor but most of my communication was with a wonderful nurse who spoke some English named Natasha. Unfortunately Natasha only worked certain hours/days, so sometimes I was left with nobody in the hospital with whom I could actually communicate. I spent four nights there, two of them without real internet (when you have nothing to do and can’t really move, this is a big problem), so I was really happy for the books my parents had shipped me! I read my friend Lizy Murray’s Breaking Night- if you can, READ THIS BOOK, Liz is awesome and her story is incredible. I was on a mission to finish it while at the hospital because it was hardcover and it really sucks carrying hardcover books around with you when you’re traveling, but after a while I was just addicted to it. I was only fed liquid foods- soupy oatmeal (sometimes salty- SO GROSS) and vegetable broth, mainly. I had my own room with a TV that played what I’m sure were very interesting and exciting programs- in Russian- and a balcony and the nicest shower I have seen since I left Massachusetts. Unfortunately for the first few days I could not shower because they left the IV in my hand all the time. My veins are very small so they could only put the IV in my right hand, which made it impossible to write- for everybody that received a very poorly typed email during that time, I apologize, blame it on my genes.

Nobody could really tell me what was wrong with me- at various points different nurses and doctors explained it as food poisoning, elevation sickness, traveler’s sickness, an inflamed gallbladder, an irritated pancreas, and pancreatitis. This was after I assured them it was not appendicitis or pregnancy. They prescribed a bunch of “pancreas vitamins” for me. I was supposed to take ten pills a day when I left there, but I faxed the Russian tests home to my parents after I got back and they had a doctor friend translate them (thank you!) and apparently they were the wrong pills, so I stopped taking them. After days and days without solid food I was extremely weak and literally could not lift my backpack, so when I eventually left the hospital I checked into an Almaty hotel and chilled out for several more nights, eating soup, bread, and eggs to regain my strength and walking up to two blocks away every day. I have now watched every episode of season 1 Glee probably four or five times each.

Though it probably should have been the hospitals, ambulances and sickness that got me to decide this, it was the realization that I could not lift my backpack anymore that forced me to re-evaluate my trip. If I couldn’t go through the day to day motions of traveling, there was no way I could weather the 24-hour bus rides necessary to travel in China. So after some brainstorming and flight-searching on kayak and skyscanner, I decided to go to Israel. I was planning on going in the spring, but it’s nice weather now, and there is a lot of vegetarian food, you can drink the water, doctors speak English, and there are no 24-hour bus rides. And then… the night before I flew out, I get an email… with my mother’s flight confirmation. Guess who’s arriving in Tel Aviv ten minutes before me? More on that in the next post…


Monday, October 18, 2010

Samarqand to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to Shymkent to Almaty, Kazakhstan

Hello from room 345 at the Private Clinic in Almaty, Kazakhstan,

As I recently posted on facebook, my new goal for this year is to avoid further hospitalization, at all costs. Since I left home on August 31, 2010, I have been seriously ill two times, treated at four different clinics, spent hours inside multiple ambulances, had about a dozen liters of fluids pumped into me, and taken more types of medication than I can remember. Here’s the story of the past week or so, and the conclusion I have come to about what I’m doing here/now. If anything blood-and-guts related makes you queasy, don’t read this.

A few days before I finally left Samarqand for good, I felt nauseous on and off, and had a fever for an afternoon/evening. After taking some of my friend’s medicine, resting, laying off complicated food and resting a lot for a couple of days, I felt significantly improved, and woke up the morning of the 10th to head to Kazakhstan. It was a running joke with my friends from the hostel that I would never actually make it to Kazakhstan, so rather than take a slow route and stop for a night in Tashkent, I decided to make the multi-part trip in one day. The transportation looked like this: walk to bus stop, bus to bus terminal, walk to shared taxi stand, shared taxi to other shared taxi, walk across the border with Kazakhstan, shared taxi, walk, shared taxi. Eleven hours of hot buses, cramped taxis, a deficit of English-speaking drivers, confusing customs policies and very little vegetarian food, and I was in Shymkent. But where to sleep?

When we were within the city limits, I turned around to the other passengers in the shared taxi, a few of whom were Uzbek-speakers, and asked in my limited Uzbek about a place to stay. They told me to ask the taxi driver, and he would help. After we had dropped off all the other passengers, the taxi driver turned to me and began trying to communicate. A note to Central Asia travelers: Lonely Planet’s Russian language section of the Central Asia guidebook is pathetic. The accommodations section for Shymkent lists the cheapest place to stay as about $25 US. If you rely on it, this is what happens…

After leaving the community I had found back in Samarqand, I had let my guard down and neglected to make the safest possible choices, which is usually my policy when it comes to things like arriving late at night. I remember back in June, I got into Montenegro at sunset with no guidebook and no idea where to stay, so I stayed at a “cheap hotel” which was actually outside of my budget, knowing I would not have to walk around the town at night. I tend not to regret travel-related decisions, but I really wish I had made some different ones that day/night going to Kazakhstan.

At first it seemed like the driver wanted me to sleep in the back of the taxi. Not happening. At this point I was feeling a little sick, definitely exhausted, and it was dark out. I wrongly believed I was safer inside the taxi than out on the street. I found the Russian word for hotel, gas-tee-nee-tsa, and kept repeating it. He kept telling me they were very expensive, and then repeating another word which was not in my book. It seemed to be some sort of guesthouse or cheap hotel. He pointed to himself, put his hand on my shoulder, and made the universal gesture for sleeping, two hands under the tilted head. He drew in my journal stick figures for a man and a woman parallel in a square that looked like a bed. I drew a line through the bed, pointed at myself and made the sleeping gesture, and pushed away the air in front of him and made a sleeping gesture, pointing at him. He frowned and made sad eyes, as if saying “why won’t you share a bed with me?” Writing this now I realize I should have expected what happened over the next hour or so, and I don’t really know why I didn’t do anything to prevent it.

Not able to communicate what I wanted, I got a little frustrated, and I think he could tell, because he got a little frustrated and began raising his voice. I sort of gave up on communicating at that point, figuring that once we got to this guesthouse place I could point to what I wanted. I have a good sense of direction during the day, but at night I have no sun as a point of reference, and not knowing where we were headed made me nervous. I wished I had negotiated all of this when the other passengers were in the car. I wished I had gotten out and asked for a cheap place to stay in a restaurant or an expensive hotel or a convenience store, or anywhere other than to the angry old guy in the driver’s seat. What I wish now is that I had realized I could still get out of the taxi and do any of those things- ask for directions, find a new taxi, whatever.

We got to a guesthouse, directed by a woman we picked up on the side of the road, and I got out with the driver even though he gestured for me to stay in the car. I tried to ask the woman at the desk for two rooms, but she didn’t understand me and listened to the driver, the guy who spoke her language. A lot of keys were exchanged, so I was hopeful. We got back in the car and drove around the corner, parking in a dark lot between two apartment buildings. I brought my handbags with me when we entered the building. We walked into a semi-furnished, fairly run-down, poorly-lit apartment on the ground floor, with a bathroom, a living room, and a bedroom with one double bed. I tried to ask where the other room was. There didn’t seem to be one. I was angry. The driver sat down on the couch and gestured for me to sit down next to him, patting the seat cushion. No. Not happening. I started walking toward the door. The driver got up and tried blocking the door, pulling at my arms and trying to take my handbags from me to bring me back into the room. I got out the door and walked back to the car. I need my bag, and I needed to get out of there. I tried opening the trunk, but it was locked. I tried opening the back seat, but it was locked. The driver came out with the woman renting the room. I was calm.

Open the trunk, I want my bag.
Come back inside.
I want my bag.
No, no, no. Leave your bag in the car, come back inside.

I realized this wasn’t working. To all the people that laughed at me for taking a self defense class before I left—wow, am I glad I did not listen to you. All of the de-escalation skills, the awareness/assessment skills, the instinctive knowledge of what to do next, came back without my needing to even think about it.

Make them believe they’re going to get what they want.

I nodded. Okay, I just need something from my bag, then I’ll come back inside with you. I positioned myself so that he would not be able to grab my backpack before I did when the trunk opened. A bag that normally takes both hands and a knee up to get onto my back found its way with a single hand and a lot of adrenaline. A friend I met in Samarqand once commented that with her backpack on, she felt much safer. Backpack on, I put my hands up—we call these stop sign hands. My voice got louder- not yelling, because that’s antagonistic and not what we’re going for, but bigger, more powerful. I was at least two arm spans away. I pulled out the $5 the ride was supposed to cost and held it out to him, saying “I just want to get by, can you move please?” and gesturing for him to step aside and take the money. He took the money but wouldn’t budge. I backed away, saying “okay, then I’ll walk around.” He met me on the other side of the car, but I could tell something was changing. The girl who he thought he could take advantage of was gone; he was dealing with somebody else. But he was a Central Asian taxi driver, and the woman from the guesthouse was observing us, and he was not letting me walk away.

What do you want?
Ten fingers went up.

I took the $5 from him and pulled out a $10 bill. Stop sign hands, take steps back. “It’s okay?” I was tearing up and he was starting to laugh, making some comment to the guesthouse woman. I assessed the situation: the tension was gone, the confrontation would be finished if I left, but now I was afraid. I walked away very quickly, out into the main road, across the street, and back to an intersection I had seen from the taxi. You’re supposed to tell somebody about a confrontation, but nobody in this place spoke English and I was primarily focused on getting to a safe place. After walking a few blocks I found a restaurant, but it looked more like a strip club than I was comfortable with, so I sat on a stone wall outside and opened my guidebook. Later that night I would realize I had cut my leg sitting down, but again, the adrenaline was pretty powerful at that point and I didn’t notice anything at the time. I found the cheapest hotel, and walked over to a crowd of taxi drivers. I didn’t smile, just asked how much it would cost to go to the hotel. They laughed and asked where I was from. After my last taxi driver, I was not in the mood. They charged me $3 for a two minute ride (if I had known how close I was I might have walked there), and the whole time I was nervous they would be like the first taxi driver.

By some miracle, the woman at the front desk spoke some English, and through her I got a room, found dinner (I quickly learned that my Russian food vocabulary “no meat,” was not sufficient to obtain anything other than French fries), a bottle of water, and went to sleep.

Originally I had planned on staying in Shymkent a few nights to fully recover from my sickness of the past few days, or maybe transfer to Turkistan, a small, slightly more interesting place a few hours away, to rest there, but after the previous night’s “adventure” I had no remaining interest in Kazakhstan. Buses to Almaty left around 6pm, and after checking out of my room I spent the remainder of the day finding food and catching up on emails. Tourism of the backpacker variety is not widespread in Kazakhstan, and I stuck out everywhere I went, but never more than on the public buses. Luckily, instead of getting annoyed at me for taking up multiple seats with my big backpack on, people would help me push my way out of the bus and find which stop I needed to get off at.

Kazakhstan is not a cheap country to travel in. Food is 3x the price it was in Uzbekistan, and long-haul bus trips are absurdly expensive when compared to any other non-Western place. This bus was fairly nice, with seats that reclined practically into beds and a decent amount of leg room. Central Asian bus drivers don’t understand the concept of turning off the music videos that are playing at the front of the bus, so sleeping was challenging. My seatmate, a young Kazakh man, had excessively long limbs which always ended up on my side of the armrest, and after the previous night’s experiences and earlier experiences with Central Asian guys who don’t know how to keep their hands to themselves (every male in this region needs to go back to kindergarten), I was not particularly thrilled about sleeping next to him, so I waited until he fell asleep and then closed my own eyes.

At bus stations in Central Asia, bathrooms can be anything from squat toilet stalls in fairly clean, tiled rooms with sinks, soap, and unlimited (though very rough and scratchy) toilet paper, to rows of holes in a grimy dirt/concrete floor with side dividers and no front doors, leaving you open to the rest of the bathroom’s occupants. Heading for the back of the room might afford you more privacy, but the trade-off is a serious lack of ventilation and a lot of questionable liquid on the floor. Needless to say, this species of bathroom is not overflowing with toilet paper, soap, or usually even a sink. I have Purell with me, but these bathrooms make me wonder how I’ve gotten away with being hospitalized only twice.

More later- probably tomorrow.
Love (finally out of the hospital!!!)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Samarqand to Bukhara to Samarqand, Uzbekistan

Hello from Samarqand (again!)

I just can't seem to stay away from this place. It has a kind of gravity/magnetism/instinctive pull on me. Somewhere between the delicious honey and the cool people staying at the hostel, I find myself saying I'll head to Kazakhstan "maybe tomorrow" pretty much every day. As you can see from the title of this post I did actually intend to leave a little over a week ago, heading to Bukhara for a couple of nights, but I gave up on Khiva and Karakalpakstan and headed back to Samarqand.

In Bukhara I stayed at the same hostel as several people from Bahodir B&B, where I am still staying, in Samarqand, and we explored the city together a lot. It was quite hot and there were rather a lot of mosquitos, but unlike Samarqand many of the monuments, mosques, medressahs and old buildings are in their somewhat original state, so it was cool to see a bit of kind of unedited Uzbekistan. I subsisted nearly entirely off of potatos and bread there, though, sampling Uzbek samsa, a similar food to Indian samosas, among other things. We picked up an English traveler and lugged him back with us to Samarqand, where he properly embraced the culture of doing very little except sit on the platform seats, drink a lot of tea and eat a lot of watermelon, and occasionally sneak into Timur monuments through the back entrance.

Among other things, since I got back to Samarqand I have befriended Uzbek ladies from the Ferghana Valley on a park bench and learned a bit of Uzbek from them, learned how to say some fairly creative and bar-fight appropriate things in German from the Germans staying here to learn Uzbek, realized that the vegetable vendors in the market know my name from my frequent patronage of their stalls, followed a late night groom's party, complete with burning heart-shaped torch, down an alleyway, NOT gotten sick, which seems to be a common theme here, stretched the limits of my vegetarianism as nearly everything, including vegetable soups and rice dishes, is cooked in lard or meat broth, learned how to play backgammon, visited a weekend market where people kept giving me things instead of bargaining with me for them, read parts of four books (The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Wild Things by Dave Eggers, The Art of Nonconformity by Chris Guillebeau, Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke), and been declared the mascot of Bahodir's. I plan on going to Kazakhstan sometime in the next few days, then passing through fairly quickly (stopping only in Shymkent, Turkistan, Almaty, and maybe a couple of other places) to China. I also managed to get a decent haircut here. I went with two Germans, and despite the fact that between us we spoke about six languages, we realized that the haircutters were Korean-Uzbek and spoke Tajik, so communication was challenging.

It has been cool "studying" the types of people that pass through here. There are mainly French, German, and Japanese travelers, although there are significant numbers of Chinese, Korean, Russian, English, Canadian, and other European travelers as well. Still no Americans to speak of. Many people are coming overland, usually from Europe through to China or Southeast Asia. Several clusters of bikers have passed through, including a French/English/Canadian couple with a three year old daughter who is super cute. And then there are the Germans learning Uzbek who have been here longer than me. It's always a little confusing when I explain that I'm going as far as China and then heading to West Africa, but usually people think it's cool after they get over the unusualness of it. I tend to leave off the bit about the middle east after that... I think that one region before (Eastern Europe), one present region (Central Asia), and one region after (West Africa), is plenty by way of explanation.

Going to take a walk now. Samarqand is very much a desert city, and there are rarely more than a couple of clouds in the sky, but today it actually rained! Sometimes I run through the sprinklers in the park to cool off. It's a great temperature right now, so I'm going to take advantage of it.

Much love from Uzbekistan,


Monday, September 27, 2010

Samarqand, Uzbekistan

Bonjour, Hallo, Hola, Ni Hao, Salam Aleikum…

I am (still) in Samarqand, and have been picking up bits of French, German, Spanish (refresher), Mandarin, Arabic, and other languages including Hebrew, Uzbek, and Russian, from all the travelers here. I have been staying at Bahodir’s for the past week or so, and am currently planning on leaving tomorrow (the 28th). At $6 a night including breakfast and unlimited tea, honey (it’s SO good) and watermelon, this is by far the best deal I will come across in Uzbekistan, so I figure it’s financially strategic to spend a disproportionate amount of time here. I’ve also loved meeting so many people (still no Americans, and all are relatively much older—but they’re cool) and getting to know them over the course of a few days. I’m following my friend Leslie’s advise to stay still when I find a place I love!

For the first few days I was still recovering from my bout of bronchitis, which I think I may have passed on to several Germans here… whoops… so I took it pretty easy, only doing one thing in the morning and then chilling at the hostel in the afternoon. Some hostels have a good vibe for hanging out, and some don’t exactly encourage fraternization. Bahodir’s definitely has a good vibe. Some of the things I’ve been “doing” are…

1) Getting an astrology lesson from a 50-year-old British free spirit. Apparently, as an Aquarius, I am humanitarian, creative, unique, individualist, independent, and a bit stoic/stubborn. The world is about to enter a phase of revolution similar to the events of 240 or so years ago (American and French revolutions).
2) Visiting a paper-making workshop outside the city. This is the only place other than Il Papiro, the papermakers in Italy, where I have witnessed the process of marbleizing paper, and here I actually got to try my hand at it. I went with a group from my hostel, and the tour itself lasted about ten minutes including discovering a few dozen types of livestock across the various buildings and open spaces, and then we sat around drinking tea, eating basil and a rock-hard sweet that everybody tried passing off to each other, and trying to communicate with our Uzbek hosts in very limited Russian/Uzbek. I learned the Uzbek word for friend- “doost”- here, which brought my grand total of Uzbek words to… five? Asal is honey (this is crucial to my existence here), rakhmad is thank you, sum is the currency here, kasa is still ticket (has been in Poland, Ukraine, and here), tea is chai.
3) Attempting to sneak into every major monument and old building here without paying. This is usually quite a successful activity. It’s almost as though the authorities here want you to be able to enter without paying. There are multiple back entrances to the mosques, the Registan, and the mausoleums, which are actually completely open in the back so long as you walk through an old cemetery to enter. We make fun of the tour buses that bring in massive groups of English and German tourists just to see isolated sites at full cost and stay in overpriced hotels.
4) Eating vegetable dishes from the bazaar nearly every day for lunch (lately I’ve been too lazy to walk the quarter mile to the bazaar for lunch, so I live off the watermelon, honey, and scraps from other people/the refrigerator). Though definitely not the most sanitary, I have yet to get sick, so it’s all good. I’ve also been sampling some really good Uzbek fruit, like soft yellow figs, pomegranates, apples, strangely shaped super-sweet grapes… this is almost as good as the fruit bowls in Thailand!
5) Walking around the old town and old Jewish quarter, of which seemingly nothing Jewish is left. It was interesting, however, to be walking down narrow dusty alleys filled with playing children, walking couples, and chatting off-duty, teal-uniformed policemen (there are more policemen here than nearly any other country I have visited), and suddenly come across an empty, relatively well-maintained park with a brand new monument, complete with grammatically-incorrect English plaque, to Karimov. The government clearly had to bulldoze an old neighborhood to make way for this useless display of power.
6) Going to an Uzbekistan club football match. I do not know football, but I know these teams suck. Samarqand’s team, Dinamo, was playing the team from Qarshi, near Afghanistan, called Nafaz, I think. I was one of maybe three women in the whole stadium of hundreds of people. A ticket cost a bit over $1 (open seating), a t-shirt $2, but no liquids (water, beer, coke, whatever) were permitted to be brought or bought in the stadium, so the two Germans, French guy and local couple (a host family for one of the Germans) I was with had to subsist off of ice cream and sunflower seeds. It’s a hard life.
7) Immediately after the football match, we joined up with the rest of the Germans and nearly everybody else staying at our hostel (including no less than 40 other Germans, 34 of whom were traveling together on some sort of “geography” business and insisted on playing the guitar every morning, right outside the dorm, at 6am-bad hostel karma) to go to a concert of Die Toten Hosen, a German rock band from the 80’s on tour in Asia that randomly decided to play in Samarqand. Two Germans and a Belarusian working in Tajikistan on a German development project had come up for the weekend specifically for this concert. Policemen yelled at people for cheering standing up at the football game, so we were a bit concerned about the police at this concert. However, the police did not seem to have the authority to control the Toten Hosen themselves, who ended up shirtless and singing from in the pond on which the pavilion’s platform hung out over.

I’m reading Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Nonconformity on my phone, The Wild Things by Dave Eggers (my own book), Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (a friend’s book), and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (a book donated to the hostel). I also read my new friend Emma’s PhD thesis proposal on the use of music to reinforce nationalism in former Soviet States—really interesting and relevant to past CA classes on colonial/post-colonial Africa, modern middle east, etc.
As I recently wrote a friend of mine: One month out, and I’m having a very good trip so far. A lot of good experiences and learning and living. I love the freedom, independence, choice, and the time I have given myself. My friend Ben, who is also taking a gap year involving several interesting jobs/internships, travel, and more, told me that one major reason he decided to defer college for a year was because quite often we get stuck on a treadmill in life, mindlessly moving forward from one thing to the next, and at every opportunity it is important to take the time to break away from that treadmill and do something different.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why travel is an important experience, because before I left my brother Alex asked me why I was going, and the best answer I could come up with was “because I want to.” A lot of it has to do with the people you meet in the hostels and on overnight buses and in airports. As Myung, a wonderful Korean woman I met here in Samarqand said, it is more than coincidence when you meet somebody here; it’s like a small miracle. You can literally walk up to anybody you see, not just in the hostels- on the street, at a restaurant or café, at the bus station—whether they appear to be a traveler or not, and because you are a traveler, it’s like you have permission to talk to anybody about virtually anything—astrology, politics, visas, bathrooms, malaria, the two words that best describe Massachusetts (I said “not Bush”), jobs, languages, whatever.

Another part of the benefits of traveling is the appreciation for daily necessities and experiences. Every time something goes well, or works—whether it be navigating your way to the proper bus as the bus station, or the fact that the toilet flushes—you appreciate it so much more. At home, you get used to things working, but every time something works out, you can appreciate it, feel the luck, celebrate the success, feel proud of the accomplishment, understand the tiny miracle that it is. It’s conscious living. My friend Dan had a teacher at City Term that has a blog called the Don’t Know you Don’t Know Zone, the idea being that there are things we know, things we know that we don’t know, and then the vast majority of things, which we have no idea that we don’t know anything about. This teacher wrote about how travel exposes you to the DKDK zone more than your typical daily life, and stretches you because of this.

Going to find some internet so I can post, now! Happy near-October!


Kiev, Ukraine to Tashkent, Uzbekistan


I left off in Kiev last week, feeling slightly improved after my day-long sleeping marathon and self-imposed embargo against physical movement. It turns out this upswing did not hold out, but first things first.

As usual, I decided to depart my hostel in Kiev with hours to spare before I needed to board my flight, feeling that I would rather arrive much too early than a few minutes too late. After asking direction from about a dozen different people in varying combinations of sign language, Ukrainian, Russian, English, and grunting, I made my way to the proper metro, then the proper connecting metro, then a mashrutka to the airport, to the correct terminal, and finally I found the check-in desk. However, check-in only opens for a select few flights at a time, so I waited over an hour in the airport terminal before figuring out where to go. Though it was not necessary to wait quite as long as I did, I ended up being second in line—or rather second in mob—for my particular flight, and caught my first glimpse of Central Asia as masses of largely male Chinese-Russian-Middle Eastern-Eastern European faces swarmed around me. The concept of a line was lost on this particular crowd. People were checking all sorts of strange boxes, from fruit juice squeezers to kitchen appliances to unidentifiable metal contraptions, seemingly taking advantage of either a good exchange rate or a surplus of cheap electronics in Ukraine. When I handed my second passport, which I had used to enter Ukraine, to the man behind the counter, I noted his visible confusion over the lack of a visa to Uzbekistan, and then heard him talking to his colleagues. At this point I decided to intervene, and handed him my OTHER passport, this one with the visa to Uzbekistan. I was concerned that presenting two passports would be more of a problem than a solution, but this is one instance in which having a language barrier between us helped. I think he thought that it was not worth the effort of figuring out why I had two passports, and decided to just go with it. After getting my boarding pass, I noticed that the flight, though advertised as Aerosvit, was operated by “Windrose Airways.” This was either “cosmic,” as my mother would say, as my middle name is Windrow, or something to be nervous about.

I proceeded up to passport control, where a few of my fellow passengers were milling about, confused. It seemed that nobody was on duty for Ukrainian passport control, so after a few minutes we figured that this must be intentional and proceeded through to our gate. Several flights to Tel Aviv were leaving around the same time as my flight, and a few Israeli men were playing guitar and drums as they sang beautifully. I sat and ate a sandwich, listening to them and watching all the Israeli kids run around the gate, but after a while I became concerned that my lack of exit stamp would be problematic at some point. I asked one of my fellow Tashkent-bound passengers with whom I had been conversing earlier about this problem, and he laughed, having encountered the same dilemma, and then took me over to an airport worker who directed me back to passport control, where somebody was now on duty. Once again I handed them both of my passports, having to show both my entry stamp to Ukraine and my visa to Uzbekistan, and a similar it’s-not-worth-the-trouble outlook took effect with the passport control agent. Soon I was boarding my flight, and found myself in the row before the emergency exit, which means I could not recline my seat. Out of Nyquil, I took some Dayquil, hoping it would help me sleep as I had been coughing a lot getting to the airport. Two meals were served in this four hour flight, and somehow, I ended up with a vegetarian meal! The fact that “Windrose Airways” can get my meal preference right, but most major airlines can’t, must mean something about the way this world works.

Unfortunately I did not sleep well on this flight, and the plethora of cough drops I consumed did not do great things for my digestive system, so despite the unusual airline, sunrise over what appeared to be the Aral Sea, and odd passenger make-up, and vegetarian food options, it was not one of my better flights. At Uzbek passport control I was concerned that my supposedly non-existent visa would cause issues. According to the Uzbek embassy websites in New York City and Washington DC, tourists may only obtain visas for 7- or 14- day periods. However, after several phone calls on the part of my father and myself to the embassy, we managed to wrangle a 30-day tourist visa, a class of visa which used to be available but in recent years has expired. (For anybody traveling to Uzbekistan/Central Asia using Lonely Planet’s 2007 edition of Central Asia—check current visa processes! The ones in the book are outdated.) I was also supposed to have indicated my itinerary for my entire stay in the country, but I managed to get out of that as well. My unusual visa did not cause any problems at the border, and I remembered to fill out how much American cash I had with me, as I knew this could present troubles for future border crossings (normally I under-estimate on customs forms, as saying you have a lot of money or even souvenirs sometimes raises questions which you don’t want to be raised).

Murad Mirzo from Turk Turizm’s National House Hotel met me at the airport and took me back to his house/hotel near the old part of Tashkent. I was feeling exhausted, sick, and generally run-down, and decided to spend the day in my room other than a brief adventure to exchange money at the bank. Mirzo’s guesthouse had only one other guest at the time, a non-English speaking Russian, and I saw from his guestbook that this level of occupancy was fairly standard. He had guests from several continents and regions—East Asia, the other stans including Afghanistan, Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East—but his English was not exactly ideal, so we continually called up his son, who was in university, to translate between us. The largest denomination of Uzbek money, called “sum,” is 1000, which is equivalent to about $0.60 US. I left the bank with a couple pounds of sum in a plastic bag, knowing it was likely I would burn through even more cash during my stay.

I spent the rest of that day eating Professor Mirzo’s cookies, bread, and watermelon, resting in my room and emailing people from my phone. I went to bed early only to find I could not sleep because of how much I was coughing. With few options where medicine was concerned, I took a couple of Benadryl to pass out.

I woke up in the morning feeling worse, and realized that nearly two weeks had passed since I had first felt sick, and that I had been getting progressively worse as time went by. If I had followed a similar course at home, I figured, I would have been resting at home and already diagnosed by a real doctor. And this was seriously impacting my experience traveling—I remember Ukraine through a haze of congestion, sore throats, and coughing. Time to call home!

We ended up deciding to move me to a much nicer hotel, “subsidized” by my parents, where, for example, staff spoke English, there was a bathroom in the room, not a walk across a courtyard away, and no guesthouse managers urging me to get out and see the sights. My miracle-worker parents arranged for a car from my new hotel to pick me up, something that was awkward to explain to Mr. Mirzo but which saved me from having to explain to him in English, translated by his son. I'm pretty sure he thought I hated his place and was finding an excuse to leave, but at a certain point (and this was that point), you have to put your own needs before other people’s feelings. They also looked up where I could see a good doctor who spoke English, and found the Tashkent International Medical Clinic—essentially the embassies’ clinic. Because it was the weekend I had to have an “emergency consultation.”

According to a very sweet Uzbek doctor, bacteria have been attacking my trachea and sinuses for the past twelve days, and would continue to attack them until I started taking four different types of medication, which she gave me. She did a full check-up on me, and then, unable to determine exactly what was wrong, she took my blood and ran some tests. Apparently, I have a few too many granulocytes, which indicates a high level of bacteria in the blood—or something. She said it was like bronchitis. With some antibiotics, sinus decongestant spray, cough syrup and a pill to make my nose stop running, I would be better in a few days.

For the next three days and nights I never left my hotel other than to pick up my bill at the clinic once, and walk around the building to get some fresh air. I accomplished very little other than achieving an increased understanding of the limits of my own boredom, which I now know quite well. From what I could tell of Tashkent—and I saw a fair bit of it out of taxi windows—this was the Uzbek city in which it was okay to be stuck inside all day. Unlike Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, there are no true Silk Road architectural gems, or anything mind-blowing at all, really. I used my time to research the rest of Uzbekistan, planning out my time here, and figure out how to download Kindle—for free!—on both my MacBook and my blackberry! It was a very exciting discovery, and I am now reading Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Nonconformity, a book which came out days after I started traveling.

On my fourth full day in Uzbekistan, I finally felt well enough to begin traveling again, and set out for Samarkand. My up-market hotel first thought I wanted a private taxi to take me there, which made me laugh. A private taxi would probably cost hundreds of dollars—my bus ticket ended up costing about $4. There is nothing quite like walking into a bus station and having everybody stop what they are doing to turn and stare at you, this strange young white girl with a massive backpack and unusual clothing. But rather than alienating me, I found that most people were quite helpful and nice, laughing about our miscommunications rather than being frustrated, rude, or disdainful. The four hour bus ride was uneventful, hot and cramped, because I had to bring my backpack on board the bus. Uzbek “highways” are unpaved roads with a fair number of semi-intentional speed bumps (potholes) that sent us rocking and shaking for minutes on end. Local women tried shoving pastries, sweets and drinks through the open bus windows—luckily, I had an aisle seat and left it to my seatmate to fend them off—and the driver blasted Uzbek pop through the bus periodically. Local Top 40 music is really interesting—often, lyrics are in English, and have very little meaning besides the typical American Top 40 cliches. You might think music would reflect on the culture a bit—maybe this weakens the correlation between American hit music (usually pretty horrible) and the quality/depth of American culture? I hope so.

Arriving at the bus station in Samarkand, or Samarqand, as Uzbeks now spell it, I knew I was a fair distance from the area that Bahodir’s B&B, where I hoped to stay (that is, if it still exists…) was located. Luckily, I stick out here, and a mashrutka driver waved me over. He cleared off the passenger seat of his mini-bus and forcibly took the backpack off my back and sat me down. A few stops down the road he finally turned to me to ask where I was going… uh oh. Luckily (my logistics seem to involve a lot of luck) this mashrutka was going nearby, and when I got off a young boy sort of followed me for a while, possibly to help me, possibly for a tip, possibly for companionship and possibly because we happened to be headed the same direction. I became a bit concerned, as he did not seem to know where I was going, so after a while I spotted a hotel on my map, figured out where I was and waved goodbye (a kind way of saying leave me alone) to my “friend,” and headed to Bahodir’s, where I am now! I’ve been here one night and I’ve met a lot of other travelers from all over the world (no Americans, of course) and spent today with several of them. More about Samarkand in my next post!

Love from the old Silk Road,


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Krakow, Poland to Lviv to Odessa to Simferopol to Bakhchysaray to Simferopol to Kiev, Ukraine

I apologize in advance for how long this post is! Skip around to different cities- I titled them in bold.


Sorry for the extreme gap between posts. Since I left off from my last post I have spent five out of eight nights NOT in beds, and am about to get on an overnight (though only about four hours in flight time) flight to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. As you can see from the title of this post, I’ve been quite busy getting to know the Ukrainian long-distance transportation circuit. We’ll get there eventually, but for now: Krakow.

When I arrived in Krakow I walked over to Greg & Tom’s hostel, which had been highly recommended by some friends who I’d met in Warsaw. Greg & Tom’s includes breakfast, dinner, and snacks, and often free vodka and activities, and in general had a great vibe. However, they were full for the night other than an above-the-budget private room, so the guy there helped me look up another hostel in the city. For anybody going to Krakow, I would highly recommend Greg & Tom’s—dinner smelled delicious and the guy was very helpful despite the fact that I was not paying him anything! I ended up staying at Mama’s Hostel, which turned out for the best as I met the coolest family there, the Crockfords. The two parents, Andi and Kevin, and their 19-year-old daughter Rachel, had all sold everything and left their lives outside Seattle, Washington behind and had been traveling through the middle east and Europe for the past six months and had travels throughout India and Southeast Asia planned still—and possibly elsewhere—for the next year or more! Their blog,, is cool, so you should all check that out. Kevin and Andi bought Rachel, me, several Aussie guys and a bunch of British guys who were in Krakow for a couple nights solely to party—all of whom were staying at our hostel—wine and pizza, and we all had a great night. I didn’t get much sleep at all, and only had part of the next day to see Krakow, but it was cool seeing some of the old city at night with new friends.

After packing up way too early the next morning, I said goodbye and headed over to the train/bus station to book my ticket to Lviv, Ukraine. My bus turned out not to leave until nearly 10pm, so I lugged my stuff back to the hostel, said hi again to my friends from the night before, then headed back out to check out some of the city and find some real food- I had subsisted off of bread only the day before. I ended up giving up on the food hunt fairly quickly, and headed to the Subway next to the hostel. Subway has a very distinct smell, which is funny to encounter when you’re halfway around the world. I headed up to Wawel Castle—the sun was behind clouds again, so, of course, I got lost—and then around to Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter that has become a sort of indie/artsy area with a lot of cool galleries, cafes and cars painted funkier than the Minga van! I was pretty wiped out, though, and as it was the Jewish high holidays at that point none of the Jewish buildings (including the country’s oldest standing Jewish synagogue) were open to explore, so I headed back to the hostel. The Crockfords and I spent the day hanging out in the common room as they too had a train to catch that evening, and we ended up making friends with a new group of English guys in Poland to party. Around 8pm we said goodbye to all of our friends at Mama’s and went out to dinner on the main square. It was cool talking to Rachel’s parents and hearing more about their adventures. Other than two guys from Florida who I also met briefly at Mama’s, these were the first Americans I had met (and I haven’t met any more since) on my trip, so it was also cool to talk to people from “home.” We sat at dinner a bit too long, and I ended up running to make my bus.

Like my first overnight bus trip to Albania, this bus crossed the border around 2am, and people were talking on it too much for me to sleep the rest of the time. The Poland-Ukraine border is notorious for giving difficulty to American travelers, but other than the two hour wait (I had heard it could take up to six) it went very smoothly and much too early in the morning I found myself on the outskirts of Lviv, the supposed “new Prague” of Ukraine. The outskirts, however, look more like a series of crumbling concrete Soviet prison cells, and at first I was a bit disheartened. It took hours to figure out the public transit system there, but a 20 minute mashrutka (shared mini-van with a set itinerary) ride cost under $.25 US, so it was all good. When I got to the city center, I asked directions from a guy coming off the mashrutka with me, and he ended up being an off-duty policeman (supposedly—I never gave him a bag to carry despite his offers because his “badge” looked more like a really poorly done computer printout. Then again, that’s probably what real police badges look like in Ukraine). He literally walked me to the doorway of the hostel, despite him speaking no English and me not speaking Ukrainian or Russian. I quickly realized that it would be a challenge to navigate here more so than any other place I’ve been alone, because the alphabet is Cyrillic, not Latin, and peoples’ second language is Russian, not English. I spent that morning wandering around Lviv, and though the sun was out I still had a hard time navigating because most of the street signs were in Cyrillic. Lonely Planet does not offer Cyrillic translations of their maps, which are pretty useless when you butcher the transliterated pronunciations anyways.

My first encounter with Ukrainian food was at a popular cafeteria-style eatery around the corner from my hostel. My meal cost… $3.50! It was very exciting. I also laid out my wet laundry when I arrived at the Kosmonaut Hostel, where I was staying, and thanks to my new mesh laundry bag (thank you Patty!) none of it was mildewed. After two nights of practically no sleep I gave up on doing anything productive and spent the afternoon writing my last blog post (which, as you can tell, required too much brain power for that day), catching up on some emails, reading up on Ukraine, downloading photos from my camera and skyping/fb chatting with my friends from home. A guy I met at a conference in Brazil a couple years ago, from Gambia, sent me a message, and I realized I had a connection there for later this year! Very cool.

I slept 14 hours that night, and was therefore late checking out, but it ended up not being an issue. Somewhere between the sticky wooden floors, funky smell and the fact that it was located in Ukraine, I didn’t get the feeling like the Kosmonaut was too popular a place. I bought my overnight train ticket to Odessa, and for a first class berth it only cost about $15! As you can probably tell, the prices in Ukraine were a major hit for me. I also walked up a hill and into a church, where you could light candles for prayers. I’m not a religious person, really, but coming from a family of semi-pyromaniacs, something about lighting candles always seems nice to me, and I lit a few as prayers for several people who have recently passed away in my life.

Walking around Lviv I realized that, just as Warsaw had been the city of black high heels, Lviv was the city of stiletto-heeled boots. How all those women made it across obstacles courses of crumbling roads, cobblestones and multi-story, elevator-less buildings day after day was beyond me.

Later that day I gathered my pack and things I had left at the hostel—I’ve found that hostels are really great about letting you use their facilities and leave your bags behind when you arrive early or leave late due to overnight transportation—and headed around the corner to catch the tram to the bus station. It was quite a packed tram, so I figured that, like the mashrutkas, you could wait until the crowd had thinned a bit to buy a ticket. I ended up getting pulled off the tram by two undercover cops after a couple of stops. It was one of those moments where you just act as stupid as you can manage and hope that you don’t end up in jail. I had to pay a fine of 20hry, which is about $2.50 USD, and they pointed me to the next tram going the same direction with a brand new ticket. It was hard not to laugh. The fine was probably more like 10hry for locals, so if this was Lviv’s attempt to crack down on crime, I could see why international mafia rings were still in business.

That night’s train ride was quite pleasant, though I had begun to feel the symptoms of some variant of a cold virus earlier that day. The train compartments held four bunks, and I was assigned a lower bunk so I stored my backpack in the bench underneath. It was actually quite a secure system, as somebody would have to lift both me and the bench to access the bag. There was only one other passenger in my compartment, a grandfather named Anatoly who tried to buy me a beer from the food cart and then showed me pictures of his baby granddaughter, Katya, and his two daughters, on his cellphone before snoring the night away. I kept reading Everything is Illuminated, then turned off my light, put my computer, phone, and passport behind my pillow, and did my best to sleep for as long as I could. Usually I am exceptionally good at sleeping on overnight buses and trains, and this bunk came with a mattress pad, blanket, pillow and sheets, so it was a lot more comfortable than I expected, but I always worry that I’m going to oversleep and wake up several cities beyond where I intend. I needn’t have worried, though, as the train car’s overseer knocks on your door about half an hour before you arrive. The bathroom, though entirely metal, was stocked with toilet paper and soap, and seemed fairly clean. At this point, I was quite looking forward to my next train ride in Ukraine!

When we arrived in Odessa my first course of action was to buy a train ticket to Crimea—for that very night. I had decided that I wanted to try to hit up as many of Ukraine’s hotspots as possible, either a very ambitious or very stupid goal, as it required spending the majority of my nights in Ukraine on trains or buses. But after my first experience with Ukrainian trains, I figured it wouldn’t be too bad, and besides, most of my contact with locals occurs while navigating various forms of transportation. My train ticket to Simferopol, which is the main transport hub of Crimea, cost less than $4, which was both exciting and suspicious—it was an equally long journey as the last, but it was suddenly a quarter of the price? Having no means of communicating with the ticket saleswoman, I just smiled and nodded.

Lonely Planet says there is a cheap train station hotel in the station’s main building, but either nobody working there knows of its existence, or it has shut down recently, because it was nowhere to be found. After leaving the train station I decided to walk to Lonely Planet’s top hostel pick, the Black Sea Odessa Hostel, about a mile away, to stow my bags for the day and maybe even use their shower. Odessa enjoys a warmer climate than the rest of the country due to its seaside location, so despite the early time of day the walk was a bit less comfortable than I would have desired. And then I got very confused. Lviv’s major streets had been transliterated into Latin letters, but Odessa’s didn’t bother. It being 9am on a Saturday, very few people were up and about, and most of the people who were awake seemed not to have gotten home the night before (Odessa is a bit of a party town). After walking into somebody’s apartment, thinking it was a hostel, I discovered that the Black Sea Odessa Hostel was either out of business or had moved locations—the woman drinking her coffee said, “Hostel—no!” Eventually I realized that I was literally going in circles and the heat didn’t help, so I snuck into an all-night sushi bar/karaoke club’s bathroom, which, as expected, had just been cleaned for the day. I proceeded to spend about thirty minutes brushing my teeth, washing up as best I could, changing clothes and repacking my bags, as well as clearing my head, and then snuck back out of the bar. I love doing this! (Sushi, by the way, was the thing to eat in Odessa—and most of the rest of Ukraine. Coffee shops have it, pizza places have it, and there are more sushi restaurants than Ukrainian restaurants in busy/tourist areas.) I walked down the block toward a park, thinking that at the very least I could find a shady bench to sit down at for a while, but at the corner I saw a sign for a hotel! Excellent! I walked in and asked if I could, by any chance, drop my bag off with the bellman for the day. The concierge told me rather rudely that I could arrange it with him for a tip, and so I did. I emailed my dad asking how much I should tip the guy, not wanting to offend anyone but also not wanting to overpay just to appease a snappish hotel staffer’s ego. When I walked out of the building, free of my pack’s physical burden, I opened my lonely planet pages to see if the Mozart Hotel, where I had left my bags, was listed. Turns out I had chosen the fanciest hotel in the city! No wonder they didn’t like the look of an un-showered backpacker ☺ It also said the Mozart was known for its irritable staff, so I felt better.

By this point it was nearly lunchtime, and I had only eaten a couple of hardboiled eggs for dinner/breakfast on the train, so I sat down at one of the few establishments that was open that early in the day (menus are only distributed once you have sat down, a fact my waitress pointed out in a similar tone to the Mozart’s concierge. I think the city was full of irritable people—or maybe it was just that they all had to get to work on a Saturday morning) and was directed to the vegetarian dish- literally a plate of vegetables. That, a cup of tea, bottle of water and a dessert pancake nearly finished my food budget for the day. Odessa, it seems, is both an irritable AND expensive city! I spent the rest of the day reading on the Potemkin Steps, walking across the “mother-in-law-bridge” to which couple’s attach padlocks to symbolize their relationships, trying to find cheap food and a place to exchange the rest of my Polish money, and avoiding a lot of sketchy people. By the time I left I was quite glad I had not stayed the night. Odessa was not my cup of tea—at least not during the day. I picked up my backpack from the bellman at the Mozart Hotel and walked back to the train station by way of a McDonald’s. Though I haven’t eaten at McDonald’s since I was little (there is nothing vegetarian besides—debatably—the French fries and dessert), they tend to have semi-clean bathrooms and are pretty much everywhere. A lot of Ukrainian toilets are squat-style, which is fine, but usually means the floor is too wet/gross to put down a backpack, so I strategically placed myself by the handicap stall knowing that would have to have a “real” toilet. Also before I boarded my second train of the day, I tried to purchase a bottle of water. Because it’s written in Cyrillic and fizzy water is at least as popular as still water here, I have taken to keeping my old empty bottle so I can match up the letters with those on the new bottle. That or I try to hand-gesture “no bubbles,” which works surprisingly well.

Waiting by the departure board for the platform number to come up, I befriended an old woman also headed to Simferopol. She spoke no English and had a name I can’t pronounce, let alone transliterate, but she helped me figure out which car I was in—the last one—and gave me a pretty clear non-verbal warning that I was in for a rough night. She was right. My sign-language for “first class” had apparently been interpreted as “first car” by the ticket saleswoman earlier that day, so I was stuck in the last train car—the worst of the lowest class. Despite flimsy walls/windows/doors, the car maintained a temperature about 15 degrees higher than the surrounding land. Luckily I arrived at the station early, so I managed to secure a bottom bunk (easier for luggage security plus the added benefit of not stepping on people trying to climb into your bed). This car had a similar layout to my first class train car, except compartments were not closed off and the “hallway” was lined with more bunks. And it smelled like it cost ¼ of a first class ticket. At first my four-bed section was home to myself, a nun (not lying), and a middle-aged woman who literally wiped down her bunk before getting in it (at this point I thought of a conversation I had years ago with Rebecca Kantar and Jackie Assar about wiping down public toilet seats before using them—they did and were very shocked that anybody didn’t). However, the nun inexplicably left after a few minutes, and soon after a herd of Polish backpackers squeezed down the hall with their out-of-date packs. This was okay. One of them spoke a bit of English and they were friendly enough, in an Eastern-European type of way. Then, a couple of seedy-looking, mid-thirties, fake-brand-name-jeans type of guys with no bags (?) sat down at the foot of my bench and proceeded to hit on me and the two Polish girls sleeping in the hallway bunks. This was not so cool. I feigned a complete lack of a sense of humor and became very interested in my blackberry, hoping they would move on, but the Polish girls seemed very interested, unfortunately, so I went to the bathroom (this one lacked a functional door, let alone soap or toilet paper, just to give you a sense of the difference between train car classes) and when I got back I switched into an upper bunk, which was an additional 10 degrees warmer due to the elevation gain. But when it comes to falling asleep inches away from a seedy guy or failing at sleeping a safe distance from him, you always choose the distance.

Getting into dirty, chaotic Simferopol after this overnight transportation marathon was not so fun. Though I really needed a bathroom, the only one at the train station lacked non-wet floors to put down my bag, so I gave up and headed over to the mashrutkas. I wanted to go to Bakhchysaray, a supposedly very cool little town with a well-preserved Tatar palace and some cheap sleeping options. I found a mashrutka but made the mistake of not confirming the price before getting in, and then I confirmed the price with a guy who ended up not being the driver, so I had to pay 40hry instead of the usual 15-20hry for a ride of a similar distance. Though this is only about $5 instead of $2 to $2.50, there are few feelings worse while traveling than knowing you got screwed for being a foreigner. After this incident, I had no interest in getting on another mashrutka, so I asked directions from some people waiting at the local bus station, and headed out. I ended up on a deserted—like, no cars, people, or even stray dogs deserted—country road, so I asked the first person I saw for directions. Turns out the word for “palace” is very similar in Ukrainian/Russian, so I had less trouble getting to the main street by the palace after that. This mashrutka cost 2hry, as most local ones do, but squeezing myself, plus my pack, plus my two small purses/bags into an already packed mini-bus was, well, challenging.

When I got to the center of Bakhchysaray, I realized I was truly in a village. Having needed a bathroom for hours and hours I headed into the palace complex and used theirs, then sat on a bench and looked up where I could stay for cheap in my guidebook. There were two options: one, a small hotel with private rooms for a little over $10, and one, a sort of hostel/campground thing that cost a little under $10. Neither of them seemed particularly easy to find, and as the Bakhchysaray pages in my lonely planet did not include a map (note to self: never find yourself map-less in a place that does not use Latin letters), I figured I would go for the cheaper one. This choice led me through the village, past the school, up a very long hill lined by crumbling houses and trash-filled fields, around a bend and finally, finally, up to the complex that was “Prival,” my choice of residence for the night. More similar to a deserted RV park/family camp than anything else, Prival employed, believe it or not, an English speaking staff-member who had just returned from working on Cape Cod! All of the questions I had been saving up over the past 48 hours ended up flying out of my mouth, so that by the end of our conversation I knew how to say “first class to Kiev,” that trains were busier than buses at this time of year, that you had to ask to enter the shower building, that breakfast was included, and that you could find traditional Tatar food at most of the restaurants in the village. Her name, too, was Katya. It also turned out that their were no dorm rooms, so I got my own private room, heinously decorated in a brown, floral motif with sparkling (yes, sparkling) wallpaper. I spent about twenty minutes lying down on the floor, that was how tired I was. I was also still feeling pretty sick from my earlier-contracted cold, and knew that I only had one shot at showering (you have to pay extra for more than one shower), so I made myself get up and walk back down to the village. It turned out that Tatar food, for vegetarians, means canned mushrooms and olives, sliced packaged cheese, and homemade bread. I had thought that at least the bread would be interesting, as it had been translated into “bread on fire” on the menu, but to no avail. The waiter was very confused that he had a customer, and asked what compelled me to walk up the 20 feet from the main road to his restaurant. Bakhchysaray is the subject of many Crimea bus tours, and not many tourists leave the main street, which I found rather sad. I headed over to the palace, a well-preserved (possibly artificial replica?) building. I knew that tours were in Russian only, so I just slipped in to look around, but I chanced upon a group of English school children and tagged along on their tour. After hearing the guide tell a kid curious about how a structure could be created without nails “trust me,” I realized I would probably be better off exploring on my own. The complex was not very large, but I was glad to have seen it, as Crimea was a stop on the Silk Road, where I will be headed as I explore Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and China this fall!

After the palace I ducked into the local supermarket/convenience store and bought a refrigerator-cooled cherry juice (juices in other countries are always more exciting, like real pomegranate juice in Israel), then decided to walk down the main road for a while in hopes of seeing a monastery built into a cliff. Lonely planet was awfully vague about directions in this area, as it didn’t say which way down the road I ought to head, but I figured that if nothing else it would be a pleasant walk. Bakhchysaray resembled Goreme, Cappadocia, Turkey, if not with quite as spectacular rock formations. I eventually arrived at a touristy-looking cluster of buildings, but as nobody spoke English I could not determine if I was near the monastery and decided to turn around.

Back at the hostel I brought my “shower ticket” up to the front desk. After the initial frustrated yelling on the part of the woman at the front desk, she cracked a smile and took pity on me, showing me to the shower building. Now, I have gone weeks without showering, bathed in rivers and lakes, in water brown with mud, and in public hammams in the Middle East, but this was a special experience. Four shower stalls lined up to face the door, with no curtains, gates, or coverage of any kind between you and whoever happened to peak through the doorway. This was not an all-women’s shower. Rust and dirt covered all of the water fixtures and decaying, splintering crate bottoms served as platforms in the shower. After the initial surprise (the rooms were quite acceptable and the grounds well-kept), I thought practically, and realized that nobody else was in there. I found a key that fit the padlock and locked myself in the building, praying that nobody else would need a shower while I was in there, then headed for the stall in the furthest corner, and therefore the most hidden from the door, in case anybody else with a key decided to come in. The shower ended up being quite pleasant, and I fended off a few people trying to come in by yelling in garbled English, which definitely put them off. Dried off, I tried to find dinner up by the hotel, but the only person around who spoke anything other than Ukrainian or Russian spoke only German and French. I got directions to a supposed restaurant up the hill further in a mix of French, German, Ukrainian and Russian- needless to say, I did not find this restaurant. Eventually I realized that the on-site bar probably served food, but it was pretty busy entertaining a tour group’s worth of very drunk Ukrainians, so I gave up and headed back to my room, where I ate a banana and some cereal I had with me, and watched the only thing I had on my computer- Glee. A lot of backpackers, even solo travelers, would jump at the chance to have a private room at this price, but I honestly prefer a dorm—even one with snoring, smelly, or awkward roommates—because you get to meet people.

The next morning I headed back to the bar for breakfast—it turns out you only get one egg included in the price of the room, but I wrangled two—where I met a woman from Crimea who, from what I could understand, had returned a week earlier from Silver Springs, Maryland, where she had lived for nineteen years, in order to get acupuncture from a Korean doctor working out of Bakhchysaray. Have I mentioned how strange Ukraine is? It was nice having English-speaking company, though.

I headed down the hill after breakfast to catch a mashrutka to the bus station on the “highway” (I’ve come to find that there are very, very few actual sections of highway in Ukraine), from which I caught another mashrutka to the outskirts of Simferopol, and then another one to train station. I did all of this navigating with hand gestures and a lot of confusing names- sometimes saying I was headed to Kiev did the trick, but other times it just made people think I was crazy, like I thought Kiev was down the road. These mashrutkas were packed to the brim, and as a passenger with a backpack, I was shunned to possibly the worst spot on the vehicle, on the stairs by the back door. The other passengers literally pushed me out the back of the mini-bus, which at first concerned me a great deal as I thought I was being told I could not ride the bus at all with a backpack. It was around then that I yelled for the entire bus to hear “does anybody speak English?” and there was a resounding groan that seemed to indicate, “Oh, great, we’ve got an American on board.” In addition to getting crushed by the door several times, I also had to disembark every time anybody from the back half wanted to get off.

At the train station in Simferopol, I was told by two separate “kasa” or ticket desks that there were no trains to Kiev. Luckily, I had discussed this with my Cape Cod friend Katya the day before, so I headed across the street to a very crowded bus station, only to be told in Ukrainian that there are buses to Kiev, but they only depart from the other bus terminal, across town. I deduce this from the ticket saleswoman’s tone of voice and words that sound like the Ukrainian words for bus station, central, Kiev, which I have become familiar with, and some hand gestures. Lovely.

I walk into a convenience store and wait until the cashier has a free moment, then asked how to get to the bus station, using a garbled version for the Ukrainian word for “bus station” and then repeatedly shaking my head when she pointed at the building behind her, saying “Kiev,” again and again until she understood and wrote down the numbers of the mashrutka I had to take and also the Ukrainian word for bus station, which she seemed to think I needed help getting across, despite my best efforts at speaking Ukrainian. This little slip of paper led me to the city’s other, much less crowded bus station, at which I purchased a ticket for a bus leaving that afternoon and arriving in Kiev the next morning. At this point I was not feeling too great, with a pretty bad sore throat and a lack of real food (vegetarians and Ukrainian train/bus station food don’t mix), so I tried to find snacks for the bus but ended up with old fruit and cookies, neither of which helped. The bus, at around $22 US, was my most expensive transportation in Ukraine, and not my best experience in the category so far. I tried to find a bathroom at one of the earlier breaks, and an elderly couple seemed to be looking too, but as it turned out the station did not have one. The elderly couple was taking care of business behind some bushes, but I did not want to be caught running behind the bus with my pants down, so I re-boarded the bus and waited for the next stop, in a couple hours, passing the time by emailing some friends on my blackberry, listening to the music my brothers gave me before I left (Sam Adams—thanks Ben!) and reading the archives of Texts From Last Night when I had enough service. I tried to sleep, and must have succeeded, because halfway through the night the young girl sitting next to me transformed into—not exaggerating—a guy that looked like a sumo wrestler. He was HUGE. I went back to sleep, and when I woke up he was seated a few rows back, next to somebody else—no idea why, but I was very grateful.

When I arrived in Kiev, I looked at a map and found that I was on the opposite end of the city, so I decided to try to find the metro, which would take me to a hostel I had looked up while on the bus. There was supposed to be a subway stop right by the bus station, and when I asked directions people seemed fairly secure with their pointing and hand gestures, but as I walked across a bridge into the clover of one of Ukraine’s few real highways, I knew that something was wrong. I doubled back and headed through an underpass I thought might lead to a metro station, but which ended up taking me into a parking lot/food market and a bunch of old people shopping for groceries. However, there seemed to be a bus stop, so I pointed on my map to the metro stop near my hostel, trying to pronounce it, and a couple of people pointed to the nearest metro stop, which this bus would stop at, right when the bus arrived. I was a little hazy on the directions but I had to go to the front of the bus to buy my ticket (no more near-arrests for me), and by the time I boarded it I had forgotten what my helpers looked like (I had been focusing on the map), so I sat down. After a couple of stops I asked a woman across the aisle, and she pointed out that we were at the metro stop, but the doors closed before I could get off! She said something along the lines of “yell at the bus driver and he’ll open the back doors again” but I didn’t see how that was feasible given my lack of Ukrainian, so I just waited until the next stop then doubled back. And it was, in fact, the metro station! Excellent. I bought a token and headed down the double-time escalators, then had a split second to choose between subways going in opposite directions. Turns out I chose the correct one, and in a few minutes I was back on the streets of Kiev, trying to figure out road signs in Cyrillic. Ukraine is a funny place; when I ask waiters for checks, or hostel owners for maps, or ticket salespeople for tickets, I get snapped at; when I ask convenience store workers for mashrutka directions, or fruit salespeople for the name of the street I’m on, they’re very sweet and helpful. I eventually found where I’m staying, the international youth hostel Yaroslav, a tiny, depressed type of place, but acceptable for my purposes: R&R. I arrived too early in the morning to get my bed, so I asked a guest hanging out in the common room which way to head for food, and he pointed me to a street with a lot of restaurants—the first of which was a franchise of the same chain I had frequented in Lviv! I headed in and got some really good pancakes among other things, then headed off in the direction (or the direction I thought was correct) of the Hyatt, where my second passport containing my visas to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and China was supposed to be shipped to. The direction was more or less accurate, but having left my map at the hostel I double-checked with a hotel on the street I was walking. They gave me a map and told me “the distance is not walkable,” which I laughed at internally, as I had found few distances that were not actually walkable. When I looked at the map outside, though, I realized that between me and the Hyatt was a forested hill, and the funicular that normally connects each side was in disrepair. There was one street, however, that seemed to connect the bottom to the top, so I headed for it, not realizing that this was one of the oldest streets in Kiev and quite famous. The Hyatt was in a notably nicer area of town than my hostel, though even in that area there was a surplus of litter and a general feeling of grittiness. Possibly the nicest hotel in Kiev, I was not surprised by the clusters of men in business suits or security guards, but what did strike me, after weeks of sleeping in train cars and on bunk beds in small rooms, was the vastness of the lobby. The concierge woman who helped me (in a sort of “we all know you aren’t supposed to be in here” way) required ID to obtain my package, which, as I had told her, was a passport. I was a bit confused by this proceeding, and struck by the irony of requiring ID to receive ID, but realized I had my driver’s license from home, so it was not an issue. Outside the hotel I opened the package and checked over my visas, which were all in order (WAHOO!), even the Uzbekistan one for thirty days, which was not supposed to be issued at all (according to websites, officials, and private visa service providers—I have a very persuasive semi-diplomat father who is particularly good at, you know, breaking rules).

I sat on a bench outside the Sofia Cathedral- Kiev has a LOT of ornately decorated churches- and then headed back to the hostel to “rest,” as my family and friends had ordered me. Six hours later, around 8pm, I woke up! I went back to the cafeteria and got some dinner before going back to bed for another eight hours, and then resting in bed this morning. I met one of my roommates, a guy from Nice waiting for his visa in order to meet up with his girlfriend in Moscow. It seems that Europeans have it easy when it comes to visa processing—they can get a lot of their visas processed while anywhere on the continent. I showered and headed back to the cafeteria for more pancakes, then packed up and have been sitting here for over two hours, writing this ridiculously long blog post. It has actually served me very well to have to catch up on all this writing, as otherwise I would have forced myself to explore Kiev and not “rest,” as I have been ordered. I am now on my third bottle of water and fourth cup of tea since I got here. I’ve also cleared out my trip’s supply of Nyquil and am nearly halfway through my Advil/Tylenol/Dayquil. But I do feel a bit better! As this hostel does not have Wi-Fi, I’m going to head down the street to a café to post this and grab some lunch, then rest my way through the afternoon until I head to the airport for my late night flight to Uzbekistan! Hope I haven’t bored you all too much- this post is 10.5 pages single-spaced of less-than-perfectly-edited English!

Until Uzbekistan…