Rolling hills and charming landscapes greet me as I enter Armenia. It’s sunny and beautiful with a cool breeze offering some relief to our crowded minibus, though I am lucky to be one of only three in the back row. Had there been another passenger, there would certainly be four of us wedged uncomfortably together. When we pull into Yerevan, where I am supposed to get internet on my phone but don’t, I just tell the driver to let me off at a corner and I have to find a new way to my hostel. Nothing on my map is loading except my position and the position of my hostel in a blank grid so I simply navigate my way through empty space until my dot is atop the blue flag of my destination. I look up and see several young people smoking outside what is obviously my hostel. I have arrived.
This country’s accommodation is a standard backpacker joint, wherein all the male visitors have “rugged” yet somehow neat beards. I haven’t shaved in awhile, so I reluctantly count myself among them, though my facial fuzz is closer to man-who-sleeps-in-dumpster than Spaniard-on-his-third-consecutive-Gap-Year. In the night I am excited to visit a restaurant with pizza and not be neglecting the local culture. At Zatar’s Pizza I order a small olive “lahmacun” for hardly a dollar and gobble it up in two bites, then get some snacks at the local market before returning to the hostel. I sleep the night in a makeshift cot as the hostel is overbooked, but still sleep well.
In the morning I decide it is time to see the city memorial of the Armenian Genocide. I did a project on this tragedy in the seventh grade, and ever since have wanted to see this larger-than-life complex dedicated to those lost. On this day, as I have neither internet to hail a ride nor trust that a cabbie won’t rip me off, I decide to walk the few miles to the memorial and take in this fine fall day in this new city. Words cannot describe the power of visiting this site, and I urge everyone to visit when in Yerevan. Come, learn, and shed a tear. When I visit, the eternal flame flickers in the wind and no one visits except for an old woman, pulling old wilted flowers and sweeping up dust. Over a century separates today from the events of the Armenian Genocide, and I can’t help but think if the world is forgetting. When visitors arrive, they are all clearly not Armenians. No one mourns loved ones, for there is no one left alive on earth who remembers the lost. Still I stay, pay my respects, and zip through the museum. But the museum is not why I am here. I visit not to learn, but to feel.
Evening takes me to the nightly Yerevan dancing fountain show at Republic Square, and I am mesmerized. If the fountain performance back in Dubai is “Pomp and Circumstance,” that of Yerevan is “Sounds of Silence.” French singer and genius Jacques Brel mourns the loss of a thousand loves as the crowd sits in rapt silence for nearly an hour. There is no cheering. This is the least tacky light-and-fountain show on earth; it feels like, somehow, there is a man at the control booth pumping his own tears into the pumps as fools try to sell light up toys to kids around the perimeter. For the second time today, I tear up. To hell with Disney, and to hell with fireworks. Yerevan brings the waterworks and does it incredibly well.
In the morning, I’m sad to leave Armenia, as the Russian-speaking part of me (who is conveniently also named “Victor”) will have to go to sleep for awhile, and who knows when I will see him again. I have no plans to return to any of these former Soviet republics, which means my one-on-one Russian practice, and my consumption of potatoes, are soon to decline rapidly. As I chat with the cab driver, who never learned English as a product of Soviet schools, tells me I am always welcome in Armenia, and must come back and see the countryside. I tell him I’ll be back to Yerevan as soon as I can. До свидания друзья!
It is amazing that, by this hundredth country, I have not been formally charged by any foreign government for the likes of breaking and entering, or some such crime integral to my road-life. Georgia finds me on the stoop of an alleged hostel with rain pouring down and nothing in my belly but roadside lime-flavored Coke Zero and cherry juice. I’ve had amazing luck with rain thus far, especially considering I do not bring a rain jacket with me on my adventures. I hump only a sweatshirt, and Murphy’s Law should make rain a daily occurrence. But alas, this is one of the first times I could really use an umbrella or a jacket. My rationale is this: if I have a raincoat, I would either use it or lose it. Either possibility means failure in my eyes. If I bring too many things, I lose resourcefulness along with space in my bag. If my bag gets too full, I may, heaven forbid, be forced to check it on an airline. That, in my opinion, is real failure. I highlight in Bahrain my stubbornness and need to be able to handle my own shit. I won’t explain further here.
From under an awning I hail a taxi and use my Russian (which takes up no space in my bag, by the way) to navigate through the torrential downpour to the hostel in which I am to stay the night and probably the night after that. Georgia is cheap, by the looks of it, and I will happily stay an extra night in this hostel which is both the cheapest I have ever booked (2.70 USD/ night) and possibly the highest-rated I have ever booked (9.4/10). My morning beverage and cab ride run me more than a night’s stay, though, and it’s got me thinking that this is a place where labor and housing are cheap, but tangible goods, like gasoline, are not. Something to explore more later.
Once we arrive, the hostel is not clearly marked as such, but the address is clearly denoted in large spray-painted numbers and white arrows. I set my things down on the couch outside, knock on the door and try to reach the manager via WhatsApp. When no one responds, I enter the door slowly without thinking the necessary questions of “do I remember seeing any police nearby?” or “what are gun laws like in Georgia?” When I enter, though the place looks like the photos, the lights are all turned off, and I can hear snoring coming from a nearby room. I sit alone in the dark until the manager on duty awakes.
Fortunately, I am not shot and killed. I am given a WiFi password and a bed, which is certainly the best possible result of stumbling into someone’s home after a tiresome night on an international bus. I cannot sleep, though, because after an hour the kitchen is abuzz with visitors cooking breakfast, using the shower, and interrogating me as to how I know Russian. I meet an Uzbekistani man and tell him about how much I enjoyed his country while the hostel manager tries to make me laugh by asking me if I think a certain guest is male or female. I tell him if he’s so curious to flip through the registry where he puts photocopies of passports. A satisfying answer surely lies there. I feel like a Boy Scout again, hanging out at the mess in Camp Sequassen as friendly man-children like myself bustle about in a masculine benevolence.
My hostel is in a cheaper neighborhood about fifteen minutes’ walk from Tbilisi’s sulfur baths, which TripAdvisor raves about. It’s my hundredth country; would it be so wrong to relax a little? I don’t know much about these saunas, other than that they smell horrendously of rotten eggs, but I figure it wouldn’t hurt to shell out a few Lari in celebration of my achievement.
I am wrong.
If masculine benevolence is a trademark of my hostel in Tbilisi, emasculating malevolence characterizes my experience in that town’s sulfur baths. One should not be touched in such tender areas, and with such force, as I am touched by one stocky Georgian masseur at the “Queen’s Bath” in Tbilisi. I am scrubbed, scraped, and nearly bruised. In my life I have had the good fortune of only breaking two bones, but this “massage” hurt as much as two of those combined. That said, it was an experience, though not one I will be trying to replicate any time soon. Four stars.
The Play's the Thing
I spend the majority of the day on a walking tour of Tbilisi, taking in the old Orthodox churches and grilling our guide on contemporary Georgian culture. Roughly one-fifth of the country is occupied by Russia, so when I ask about feelings toward the Eastern Slavic overlords I am told to save such questions for after the tour.
In the night I am off to the theater. After the tour I find a small playhouse wedged between museums and ballets that promises an evening performance of a Dostoevsky adaption accompanied with English translation. I tell the cashier that I’ll be back later, but would like to reserve tickets as I’m learning Russian but speak English natively. She smiles and nods. The ticket only comes out to 3 USD and so I am excited to see how much Russian I understand. I grab a burger the next block over at the World’s Largest Wendy’s which, it goes without saying, should not be in Georgia but is for some reason.
As I leave Wendy’s a drizzle that I didn’t know was supposed to happen turns into a downpour; my summery light grey shorts turn into a Rorschach test. "No matter," I think, "the theater is two blocks away and I will easily slip into the darkness where I will not be seen." What I don’t know is is that this theater seems to be operated like a marshrutka, or minibus popular in the region, that only leaves once all the seats are full. In the damp, bright lobby I settle into a cheap stackable chair and make American eye contact with every edgy theater-type this side of Tbilisi. Thankfully, I am not the only one sitting silently in this one of many Russian plays about suicide, but it doesn’t suit the sopping wet boy in light blue summer dress. This crowd is into dark, brooding shades of grays and browns. I look like I just got off the boat from Nantucket.
After fifteen minutes everyone has finally arrived. The usher takes us downstairs, where we stand another five minutes as she goes behind a curtain to check and see if the players are ready. When they are, the curtain is drawn back to reveal the stage itself, through which we must pass to the chairs beyond. The players are in position. One lay prone on a row of chairs, and other two sit, heads hung low. One holds an accordion. When the audience is seated, the play finally begins.
I discover too late why we have to pass through the stage to sit down. This way, there is no way out except through the play itself. I witness the most amazing one-act disaster that I could have never anticipated, and enjoy every moment. First: Everything is in Georgian, not in Russian. As the local language has no prepositions or pronouns, and because the theater company has no one with a working knowledge of English, the clearly Google-Translated subtitles are complete gibberish. As I watch, I grimly wait for the actress, sorry the title character, to die via Chekhov’s gun which is loaded and played around with in the first few minutes. In a twist, however, she jumps out Dostoevsky’s window about thirty minutes in, and without me even noticing. At the end I ovate, standing of course, as I step onstage the moment after bows and then exit the theater. That being said: 3/5 stars. Review over.
The next day, I pack my things as the old hostel owner yells at the TV.
“Steven Seagal! Very Goot! Very Goot! Haha!”
He bids me adieu, and asks what I thought of Tbilisi, and of his hostel. I assure him, as I assured his wife and business partner the day before, that I will be leaving a great review for his home-style hostel. I also assure him I will be back to Georgia, where I have had nothing but friendly experiences from the only country that issues a free 1-year visa on arrival to Americans. After a subway ride in a sulfurous tunnel, I make it to the bus station and am told I only have to wait an hour or so for my marshrutka to Yerevan, Armenia. In that time I spend all of my Georgian Lari on potato chips and chocolate, the most liquid currencies I have come to use in my travels, and snack for the long drive to my last Former Soviet Republic.
Attractions Great and Small
A flight to Dubai, then another flight all the way back north over Iraq takes me to Azerbaijan. The forecast looks consistently cool for the next few days, and as I overland the Caucasus I plan to enjoy this actual autumn as much as I can. My hostel’s broken credit card machine forces me to find cash, so it is evening by the time I actually get to see the city. I walk to the Caspian Sea coast where Baku shows off some of its most charming wonders. There are centuries-old towers, monuments, and even a “tiny Venice” where gondoliers float around labyrinthine swimming pools, looking for tourists to take around. I watch men play life-size chess before it is time for bed. I make a note to return to the free Museum of Miniature books when it opens the next day.
My first mission in Azerbaijan, however, is to find out how to leave. Buses to Tbilisi, Georgia run nightly, and I plan on getting on one that evening to keep ahead of my strict Caucasian schedule. That is, my schedule through the Caucasus. You know what I mean. I find a bus that’ll drop me by the international bus station, and find instead a sketchy mall with poor lighting and mostly-vacant commercial real estate. I see no buses, and only a couple of ticket vendors, but none go to Georgia. There are routes all the way to Istanbul and deep into Iran, and I wonder what those must be like. I ask around and every shop owner sends me somewhere different. Eventually I make it to the top floor, and there are no more shop owners to ask. I see a wave of people with luggage enter through a door down the hall, and follow that trail to where dozens of buses are waiting. I ask around for Tbilisi tickets, and finally one person tells me “Tam,” Russian for “There,” and points to the roof. I climb another flight and indeed several ticket vendors are selling for routes around Azerbaijan and Georgia, and I am able to find a woman selling tickets to Tbilisi for 8 bucks. I happily buy one and tell the saleswoman I’ll be back later. She smiles politely, as if to say "I don't care if you come back at all, but I am paid to be nice so I'll give you a pleasant smile just because you didn't yell at me like every other customer today."
Doctor Doner (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Kebabs)
The rest of my day is free to sightsee, and the hostel owner gladly stows my back while I do so. The only two notable sights I visit are the miniature book museum, which has a whole section on the works of Marx and Lenin, and two long-forgotten window-sill monuments stacked atop one another. Looking out into the street sits a pair of cement lovers from a ledge. On a window ledge above sit three cats of similar substance doomed to also watch the street for eternity. The “Monuments to Lovers and Cats” are one of the highest-rated free attractions in Baku, and as they are in the heart of the Old Town it would have been silly to miss these art works that speak so deeply to me, as two people forever battle inside: one is looking for lovers, the other is looking for cats. I have no clue who designed these sculptures but he/she truly speaks to the human condition.
The night is cold and it’s time for dinner. Baku undoubtedly offers some of the world’s cheapest kebabs, and since I have slowly been transitioning to an all-kebab diet since my arrival in the Middle East, I think it is time I sample some of the local offerings. First, I stop at a neighborhood spot that offers a kebab for only 2.5 Azerbaijani Manats (1.4 USD). I eat one and my craving for another takes me to chain “Shawarma No. 1” which certainly does not sell the No. 1 Shawarma in the city, but offers a nice midrange option for those who actually want to sit down and eat. On this chilly night, they even lend blankets to customers to take the shawarma experience to the next level.
It is cold.
I’m in heaven.
The length of my layover in Kuwait is laughable, but when I review the hotel room prices I grow serious. While I am disappointed that I only have one night in the country/ capital city, I am glad I only have to pay for one night as it looks like this oil-rich state would bankrupt me if I gave it a few weeks’ time. I arrive late and see no option but to take an airport taxi, which offers a flat rate and cannot be negotiated. When I arrive at the hotel, I realize that this cheapest property in the downtown area is still quite extravagant, with a kitchenette, toiletries and a king-sized bed. I do my best to enjoy these amenities but it is already 11 and I want to sleep.
In the morning I make sure I awake early to soak up whatever Kuwaiti culture I can find. Even finding a Kuwaiti is difficult because virtually all of those working in the capital are from somewhere else, as was the case for Dubai and Doha, too. For breakfast I eat a small box of samboosas, a version of samosas that are tiny, more triangular, and filled with creative fillings like different types of cheese and meat. They aren’t bad, and eight of them costs me about $3, so I can be proud of that economic decision. As I walk by mall after mall, I finally arrive, dripping with sweat, to Kuwait’s Grand Mosque, which is one of the largest in the world. This first legitimate cultural experience is near-empty on this day, and after misunderstanding a couple of separate guards I walk into the wrong entrances until someone tells me to go into a certain room and sit down. I am certain I’ve gotten myself into trouble, and three hours before my next flight is supposed to leave!
However, that room is nothing but a tea room, and three other white dudes sit at a table chatting. This isn’t a holding cell; this is a tour. I tell the guard repeatedly that I just want to take some pictures and go. He motions me down.
“Only a few minutes.”
What have I done?
I sit with the men. One teaches yoga at Washington University. The other two are oil boys from Kentucky. If there was a group of three other Americans to be trapped in Kuwait with, it is only fair that I say this would be the group. Imagine the laughs that a stuffy-yet-granola Professor, an overly adventurous college student, and two good ol’ boys from the oil fields could get into in Kuwait. Should I write a comedy film? A miniseries?
Anyway we all chat about our travels. It is no surprise that the Kentucky boys are new to the mosque scene, and are only here because they have a few days off after four straight days of working and don’t know what else to do. I can’t gather why the Professor is here, but he’s a country counter so I imagine he’s here more or less on purpose, like me. When our tour guide shows up, we file into the mosque and she does her well-practiced routine for about twenty minutes before I tell her I have to bail. She tells me to grab some pamphlets on the way out, which I struggle to find though admittedly I don’t try very hard.
The tour was interesting in that it was more geared toward teaching about Islam than teaching about the mosque. This makes me wish I could have stayed. Though these first twenty minutes where hardly new information, think the White American tour of the Grand Mosque would have given a lot of fuel for writing. I felt like I was at least being converted a little, given that the tour was free and that I refuse to believe there is such a thing as a free tour. I think that’s reason enough, but that’s just my Cynical Northeastern Attitude. Perhaps a hippie yoga professor could set my mind at ease. He doesn’t have the opportunity.
I catch a rideshare back to the hotel, and interview the driver to get my mind off potentially missing my flight. He says he hates driving for Uber because he feels discriminated against here, especially in circumstances where he is in conflict with Kuwaitis. I note that people drive recklessly here, and my driver says that if he gets in an accident, or gets cut off, the other driver will always ask where he is from and argue that he is wrong because he doesn’t belong here. Kuwait, like the entire region, would fall apart without immigrants because no Kuwaiti would do any of the service economy jobs that are necessary to keep a country running. There would be no cab drivers, no restaurants, and no hotels. Meanwhile, the economy benefits from immense oil reserves, considering the postage stamp size of a country, and Kuwaitis get to live this ruling class life without thinking about the lives of those working for them. I shouldn’t have to say how dangerous I think this is. Once anyone starts thinking they are better than anyone else because of means or citizenship, compassion dissolves. Empathy disappears. Things that no rational person would think is ok, like asking someone’s citizenship in an encounter on the road, becomes a normal way of defending oneself in a completely unrelated squabble.
Immigration goes smoothly, as Americans get a free 30-day visa here. It must be noted that by “here” I mean “Iraqi Kurdistan." Not Iraq. If you fly into Baghdad, you will need a visa. Iraqi Kurdistan maintains a certain autonomy, however, and gets to form their own visa policy which means generally being hospitable to Westerners. Culturally, Iraqi Kurdistan is less of a culture shock for Westerners compared to, say, Algeria or Saudi Arabia. Women often do not wear the hijaab here, and many Kurdish fighters in the Syrian Civil War are female. Gender politics aren’t the only thing that separates Kurdistan from Iraq, though. In late September the air is a breezy 77 degrees Fahrenheit, and actually gets cold in the night hours. It is a little chilly when I deplane, and that makes me smile. I had some dread about coming to Iraq, but the welcoming weather and friendly immigration authorities make me feel more than at home.
Due to anti-terrorism measures, cabs must get searched before coming within a two-kilometer radius of the airport, and so rides from the terminal are expensive. Thankfully, a free shuttle takes arrivals to a meet-and-greet area where a sole cab company takes people to downtown. Hardly any haggling gets them down 30 percent in price, and we are on our way to a kebab place I found online for lunch. The driver knows it, but is surprised that I know it. When we get there I know why. None of the staff speaks English and the only beverage on the menu is a sour-tasting yogurt milk. I have a glass, but say no to any more for fear it will make me lactose intolerant once again.
My hotel for the night is nearby, so I walk there and am greeted by Yousef, a young Syrian man from Damascus who is here on a six-month visa. He checks me in and invites me to have a cup of tea with him later. I agree and, after a shower, meet him downstairs to talk.
Yousef wants me to hear his story, but above all else he wants to just get out of the region to somewhere that will help him realize all of his dreams. He wants to know how to get to the United States, and I tell him that right now it is impossible for him as a Syrian. I tell him that Canada is accepting refugees, and many places in Europe but I admit that I don’t know any of the details. He refuses to believe there isn’t a way into the United States, and I assure him that there is no legal way to emigrate to my country until the travel ban is lifted. He has degrees in chemistry and English, and speaks almost fluently in English and French, in addition to being a native Arabic speaker. He has worked and studied, and gets angry when he talks about his country. Bashar al-Assad took the lives of many of his friends and tried to take his. The only reason he avoided the war was by a college deferment, but now the government is withholding his degrees until he does his military service. This traps him in Iraq for the time being. If he goes back, he goes to the military and fights for a dictator. When I’ve finished my tea, I urge him to go to the Canadian Embassy or call and try to seek asylum. I want to do everything I can for him. I want to have some close relative in the Department of State who can get him residency in the United States despite the travel ban. I want him to find a job and continue his studies somewhere he can contribute to the world. I want to save a life from a vicious tyrant.
But there’s nothing I can do.
Evening in Erbil
Erbil differs from America most in that the streets go dark at sundown with nothing to illuminate them. As I pass the ramshackle homes, cats and near-silent passersby sends me into a panic for the three blocks to the main bazaar. When I get there, though, lively music plays, fountains dance, and couples bustle around cheerily. Restaurateurs light the streets with hanging lamps and shisha smoke obscures trays of baklava while children play in the public fountain. My fear melts away and I snap pictures of the citadel while sipping a perfectly purple pomegranate slushie. I stop by a baklava place before bed and decide to get a few for dessert. There are three types, so I point to each type and hold up my finger to indicate I only want one of each. The cashier nods his head and takes out a tray.
One, two, three.
He looks at me and nods. I smile and give my approval by nodding and saying “shukran.”
Four, five, six.
He adds more and I say 'ok, that’s enough.' I might as well give Yousef some. He’s been working all day.
Seven, eight, nine, ten.
“No that’s too much. Laa. No.”
“Stop!” He makes eye contact with me, smiling.
He closes the box. It is now full. Tonight, I am to find out if one truly can have 'too much of a good thing.' I discover it after my third honey-smothered piece of baklava, which somehow feels like a meal in itself, as it takes a cup of juice just to wash it down. When I accept defeat, and give the rest to Yousef and one of his friends, I feel like a curse has been lifted. Fortunately all that baklava only costs me a couple of dollars, but Yousef acts like I bought him a week of groceries. I sleep well despite the honey coursing slowly through my veins.
Erbil and Out
It’s another morning before a flight, and I go into loiter-mode. There is no doubt in my mind that there is much more to see in Erbil, but the heat coupled with my, shall we say, traveler’s stomach has made it so walking outside too long in the Kurdish sun (so famous that it is stamped on their flag) gets me a little dizzy. I stumble into a mall where the guard searches my bag, apologizing the entire time. I get it, this is his job. And even if it isn’t, and I am being profiled for being non-Iraqi, there would be a truly fantastic irony to that and I would have no option as a writer but to approve. When he finishes searching I tell him “shukran." I’ve noticed my words carry a certain amount of weight here, and I desperately want everyone to like me in this country that my people invaded for no reason. The fact that I am liked here is surprising but fills me with hope. If Iraqis can treat an American with respect, then I can’t see why world peace isn’t more or less achievable.
At the mall, I have two more benevolent interactions with a Kurdish man who runs a cafe in the mall’s center. I am drawn to his shop because, despite drinking a quart of water this morning, my throat feels like coarse wet sand and he has a Erbilian selection of six different flavors of slushie. If there is only one reason to travel to Iraq (and I assure you there is more than one) it is to get a slush/slushie/slush puppy from any of the vendors around town. The flavors are somewhere between exotic and quotidian, like blueberry or cantaloupe, but here they really know how to make these cool semi-solid drinks. My favorite flavor is pomegranate, so I first order a blueberry and then come back later for the piece de resistance. When I ask about the flavors, though, the cashier doesn’t know how to say them in English so I give him my phone to translate. Not being understood turns his face red and sends him chuckling nervously. Eventually it all gets straightened out and I smile as he gives my my slushie. He asks where I am from and gives me a big smile and a welcome when I say “America.”
Fifteen minutes later, after snapping some pictures of a nearby mosque, I am feeling like a stiff sponge and I have to get another drink. Thankfully, there is another mall two blocks away where I can sit in air conditioning and replenish my hypotonic body without fear of fainting. At the the only restaurant with WiFi, the waitresses both come to take my order because I am the only one there and I guess they’re bored. When I demonstrate that I have no clue what they sell, one of them gives me a menu and run off before I realize it is entirely in Arabic and Kurdish. Thankfully, nearly everything on the menu is an English word transliterated into Arabic, so I just order a “Kuka Kula” and a “burgur." I get an admirable mall meal and WiFi access, and the opportunity to watch two Kurdish women work just like any restaurant staff in America, chatting with fellow mall workers and messing around on their phones as a fan-made Justin Bieber playlist plays for over an hour on screen. Iraqis: They're just like us.
Arabian Bad Boy Qatar is the next country where I am to visit on a layover, and I am eager to see if the country is just another tiny Gulf nation, or if this Saudi rival is in a league of its own. At sunset I catch an Uber to my hostel, which is just three buildings in the middle of a desert neighborhood with a bunch of dudes just hanging out wherever there’s a soft surface on which to sit. I finally find the manager among them, who shows me my dark, cool room. Qatar is hot, and this is heaven. I can’t wait to sleep, but since my flight is early in the morning I have to at least do a decent job of exploring capital city Doha before I take off tomorrow for Iraq. So, I call an Uber and have him take me to an exchange in the downtown area.
My driver is a Pakistani man who has been living in Qatar for a decade. We dish over things to see in Pakistan, and he tells me how he prefers living here to in his home country. Qatar is much calmer, and even when there is traffic, he explains that no one honks their horns. I notice that when I get out on one of the busiest streets, where traffic whispers along like the wind. The desert feels like walking outside while it’s snowing when every noise is muffled, and in the souqs merchants barely speak above a yawn. I turn down one alley and come to a dozen shops all selling birds in cages, and every bird and owner glances at me and goes back to minding his own business.
After seeing the Qatar skyline, Al-Fanar Mosque and strolling by the many motorboats used to transport commuters to the business district across the bay, I decide it is time to grab dinner and go to bed. I find a shawarma place because at this point I am addicted to the stuff and need help. It’s full of locals and migrant workers, and I can only buy one thing--chicken shawarma with hot peppers--so ordering is simple. I down iced tea after iced tea as I have been sweating a pint an hour for the whole evening in this city that somehow gets hotter later in the evening. From there, I catch an Uber to my air-conditioned desert cell and fall asleep until my alarm awakes me at an ungodly hour.
What makes Beirut like Paris? I am about to find out as I finish my second episode of Murphy Brown and descend into Rafic Hariri Airport. The airport is clean, well organized, and signs in Arabic, French, and English abound. But no easy way to downtown exists, and so Beirut might as well be a third-world city in my opinion, along with New York and most of South America. What’s worse, I have no internet so I cannot hire an Uber and must negotiate a fare with the inevitable assholes that lurk outside the airport. I negotiate from $45 to $35 and then get passed between cabs and drivers until I don’t know who knows what, and who's expecting how much. When the time comes to pay, I end up giving an assortment of American and Emirati money valued at $48. So far, Beirut sucks in ways that Paris certainly does not.
When we arrive at the night’s hostel, I see occasional hijaabs and regular miniskirts. Tourists and locals alike are living through their phones on every corner. There is Starbucks. There is even a McLaren dealership. Gas is sold by the tank, at reasonable prices and I still paid 48 bucks for a 15-minute ride from the airport. So far, they aren’t getting a ringing endorsement from me, but I’ll try not to let my taxi experience soil my opinions of this world city.
At my hostel there is AC, purportedly, in the dorm rooms, and lockboxes for my things. I have stayed in worse places, but it takes an hour for the owner to show up so I don’t know that for certain until he arrives. In the meantime, I wander the area for some pictures, only finding ones worth taking at Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque. As I stroll by, a man on a park bench with a disabled leg calls me over. I know in this moment that the man will either murder me, ruining my opinion of Lebanon forever, or he will provide some kind of wisdom that will save this trip. Ahmed sits in a white tank top, his heavy brow, twisted leg, and slight underbite making him look like a dog who’s been beaten by more than one careless caretaker. In broken English, he talks about politics, and the politicians who figuratively kicked him. We talk government, corruption, and Hezbollah, which he believes to be the most powerful force in his country.
The man thanks me for chatting with him, and accepts a few dollars. He believes corruption has made this a country of great disparity. He watched wealth pour into his city after the bombings in the 90s, but got nothing for himself. Much of the city still looks destroyed, including my hostel, but parts of the city display incredible development. They have a McLaren dealership, for God’s sake, but no public bus system. Walking around Beirut takes most of the afternoon, and I witness wealthy tourists schmoozing with the ruling class, and a poor middle class trying to make it, voiceless.
I find dinner in an American-plus-shawarma spot where I can try famous Lebanese hummus and eat chicken in lavash bread. Americans harass the waitstaff and I feel ill. I regret coming to Lebanon, or to Beirut, that is. I am sure much of this country is lovely, but I don’t get any sense of authenticity no matter where I go.
In the morning, I chat with my hostel owner. We have the same governments-are-crazy conversation, but here I don’t buy it. Someone has to do more than complain on park benches. One has to make signs or form organizations or Tweet. Write a travel blog that subtly uses a comparative approach to criticize malignant political machines in your own country. Ahem. Just do something! But the young seem happy and beautiful and they club and vacation in the Paris of Europe without a care in the world. The old folks are the "woke" ones here. They remember what fighting is like, and why it matters. The kids just eat their shawarma and burgers. Things are fine. Why rock the boat?
“Every week, seven or eight Syrian doctors stay here to interview at German embassy,” the hostel owner tells me.
“Do they succeed? Do they get visas to go to Germany?”
There’s at least one war going on under the noses of the Lebanese. There is pain and suffering, but it’s hard to see in the glistening capital. It’s only the older men and women, those who know what to look for, who tell you the real story.
I am hugged like a brother when I say goodbye to the hostel owner. The older folks are nice here. Nice to me, anyway. It’s as if I am not a child of Lebanon, so they can talk to me, tell me the truth. They tell me the things they’d be afraid to tell their own kids. The Serbian man I met in China was a child of an end-of-millennium war. His dad cried himself awake, got angry, hit him, and refused to open up.
Maybe they put on this lavish new mask because they fear that opening up will bring it all back. Why be the Middle East when you can be Paris?
Before this year, I don’t think I could have placed Bahrain on a map, but now I have 24 hours not only to figure out where Bahrain is but what it is like to live and visit the smallest country in the Persian Gulf. Manama, the country’s capital, is situated halfway between Abu Dhabi and Kuwait and the nation shares it’s only border with Saudi Arabia. My friend, Christina, who taught in a Saudi town near the Bahrain border would hitch a ride to the small island country to visit the bars on the occasional weekend, as this country, while Muslim, allows the sale of alcohol to non-Muslims. And at quite a premium, at that. I plan on having no alcohol until I reach the Caucasus, as a single beer can easily run upwards of 10 to 15 dollars. I enjoy the occasional drink, but it's not worth 15 bucks.
Boarding takes all of three minutes for the flight to Bahrain, but “final boarding” lasts around 20. Only 15 passengers join me on this trans-Arabian flight, probably because all of the airports here are major hubs and flights between them run constantly. My only regret is that there are only 55 minutes on this flight, not nearly enough time to catch up on writing or browse the in-flight entertainment options which appear to consist largely of miscellaneous episodes of the Murphy Brown reboot. I am glad I'll be flying this airline again when I leave tomorrow.
On Losing One’s Shit (And Finding It)
I can’t be the only one fascinated by the psychology of forgetting stuff places. We all do it, now and again, but some are better than others at keeping their shit together. I pride myself in my ability to do so. Purging my life of shit to lose is a source of great catharsis in my life. So when I do things like purchase a phone-wallet hybrid, or cancel a scarcely-used credit card, or discover that the coupon I have been holding onto for free garlic knots is now expired and can finally be thrown in the trash, I feel like I have been given a newer, cleaner skin to inhabit. The first time I suspected I was losing my shit for good was back in Dubai. The fact that I almost left my two bottles of wine on the flight from China was a sign that something is not right in my brain. But what could it be?
My suspicion is that being alone, which I admittedly have always hailed as the one and only travel option for the truly hardcore travelers of the world, has one drawback: if I leave something behind, there is no one walking behind me who will see what I left. For this reason I miss my dad. He is the best person I know, and likely the best person in the world, to travel with due to his ability to scan our surrounding for potential dangers, impending gear-losses, and moderate-to-severe discomforts. Sancho Panza’s greatest strength, like his partner, is his greatest downfall. I subscribe to the ideology that all that can be easily planned should be, but that a certain room for uncertainty, flexibility, and often gratuitous levels of wanderlust adds a little spice to an already mild-to-medium adventure. I can’t be the only one who thinks that Sancho Panza was occasionally preventing Don Quixote from doing great things. Even if those great things were only in his mind.
This is all a very roundabout way of saying that I forget my recently-purchased international charger on the plane, to forever remain in the skies above Arabia, watching Murphy Brown long after it goes off the air again. I notice the moment the airline bus pulls away, and kick myself both physically and emotionally for the next thirty minutes. This is a deeply troubling loss, as international chargers can be pricey and like lovers truly great ones can be hard to find. That is not to say that the lost charger was a good one. No, it was a piece of overpriced junk for which I wish I haggled more when I bought it in a sketchy basement-mall in China. But that doesn’t mean it was worthless. I tell myself to stop regretting that which I cannot change, and I pass through immigration and customs with the bitter taste of regret in the back of my mouth.
To catch the bus from Bahrain Airport to the city’s downtown is easy and cheap, but one must have small bills in order to pay the bus driver. I join an African English woman on the walk to the currency exchange, where I have some pocket change converted for the fare, and we walk back to the bus. By the first stop I realize something is missing. My wallet is gone, and the only explanation is that I exchanged my money, distracted by my friendly fellow bus-rider, and left my wallet at the desk. I rush off the bus, then catch another bus going in the other direction kicking myself 5 times harder than before. “Maybe my parents were right in not letting me travel alone all those years,” I think. “My dad would have caught this.” Thankfully my wallet is behind the exchange desk, and is returned to me promptly and with little fanfare. “Shukran barak allahu fi
k,” I say. “Thanks. God’s blessings be upon you.” I always knew that learning this would be useful, and when the cash-cashier smiles at me I realize it was. My anger subsides. Travel is about learning. Relax.
The cheapest hotel in Bahrain, near the bus station, is supposed to be my hotel for the night. When I arrive, I realize how much the city of Manama could benefit from more bargain accommodation. I pay $45 for a truly exquisite room, or at least exquisite for my tastes, in the center of downtown. Four nightclubs can be found on the property, along with a swimming pool, and I actually start to lament not spending more time in this tiny country, though I cannot really regret anything. This place is expensive.
My first order of business is to find a new charger. I venture out to an electronics store nearby after quickly showering and washing my clothes. The shop, owned by an Indian man, doesn’t sell anything suitable for my needs, but the owner makes sure he finds a place that can sell me an international charger. He even calls his son, who recently bought one for his trip to Australia, and writes down where to go on a slip of paper. So far, I have visited a mall in every Gulf Country (that is, just in the UAE), so it is fitting that I visit another one. Mall culture is, after all, one of the most distinguishing parts of this region like thobes and fast food chicken, and so it wouldn’t hurt to check out another air conditioned shopping haven while the sun is still high in the Bahraini sky. I take a bus straight there, find what I want, and catch a bus back, past the station, to my first real cultural experience in Bahrain.
The museums of Bahrain tend to be rather expensive, and I sure as hell am not going to spend ten bucks for yet another national museum, so I try to find some of the best free Bahraini museums. The only one that magic Google can find is Bayt al Quran: a donations-based museum featuring an extensive collection of Qurans dating back to the beginning of Islam. “Books” tend to be a positive trigger-word for me, along with “collection,” “rare” and of course “free,” so I have to go. I toss some pocket change in the collection container, and spend nearly an hour admiring the calligraphy, the binding, and the stories behind these amazing books.
At night I go to Haji’s cafe, where there is no menu and you are either expected to know Bahraini food enough to anticipate what they have, or have visited here enough that you know the typical breakfast, lunch, and dinner fare. The waiter smiles at me in the same genuine Gulf smile I’ve been seeing all day so I know it isn’t some faux pas to ask what they have. Tonight, as in every other night, they have kebabs so I order the usual.
From my booth on the street I watch the waitstaff go in and out of doors on both sides of the alley, and realize that across from me through tinted windows is the families-only section of the restaurant. For those who believe that Islam always means the oppression of women, note this: As a single man, I get to eat in the hot alley while the women and children sit in air conditioning. In this instance, I feel like rhetoric in support of “family values” is actually genuine. People care about family here. As I pay my bill, a child on his father’s shoulders taps my back. When I turn around, Dad reacts in the least-expected way. He doesn’t apologize, but smiles at me as if he was just about to give me a pat on the back as well. When I give them each a salaam, their broken English hellos in response drip with affection as if I am some close uncle or cousin.
In the airport the following morning, I have a fast food breakfast and the reemergence of supersizing in my life is enough for me to praise the Middle East. Not that I approve of eating a pound of french fries, but my procurement of a giant Diet Coke scratches an itch that I’ve had for months. Some people love coffee, but I prefer the occasional gallon of Diet Soda to provide me with necessary caffeine, hydration, and tooth discoloration. It’s calorie free, so let’s just say it *probably* won’t kill me. In fact, after a day of running around the desert a bubbly Big Gulp rejuvenates me.
Instead of a direct flight to Dubai from Beijing, which no doubt exists, I go the cheap route on Sichuan Airlines via Chengdu. Little do I know that there is another layover in Yinchuan on the next leg, and that the Chengdu layover only gives me a few hours there in the middle of the night. 'At least I won’t have any really long flights,' I tell myself, but this is almost certainly going to be a long, restless night and day as I dive into the next leg of my journey.
In Chengdu, the airport closes and I sleep on the tile floor in the transfer lounge after all of the couches are taken. There, I also sneak into the first class lounge, past the guard, only to get caught just before I pop open a free Coke. In Yinchuan, I have an hour which I spend talking to a woman from Zambia who taught English in Chengdu and is now returning home. Talking to her I completely forget that I was going to buy some Duty Free gifts for my hosts in the UAE. When the plane starts boarding, I run to the Duty Free shop and buy two bottles of wine despite old Chinese ladies shamelessly cutting in front of me. The woman from Zambia and a flight attendant stop by to tell me that we are boarding just as the cashier starts ringing me up. Against all odds, the wine gets bought and we’re on our way.
Upon landing, I forget the Duty Free bag on the plane and have to run back from immigration to get it. Since having nothing other than my carry-on has become an integral part of who I am as a person, I do not even notice I am missing something. Thankfully, immigration is quick and I am on the metro to my friend’s apartment before I know it.
I am texting the two friends whom I am supposed to meet, of whom I first made the acquaintance on my tour of the 5 Stans. When we meet in the hot Arabian afternoon and hug sweatily before seeking refuge in the air conditioning. Both friends are teachers here in the UAE, and not only am I here to travel, and to travel-write, but to do my own research as well. I am planning on teaching abroad, English of course, in the coming year and so I am eager to catch a glimpse of what life is like for expat English teachers here in the Middle East.
When we come to my friend’s apartment, I find that the lifestyle of experienced English teachers here in Dubai can only be described as “extravagant.” Christina, who taught for six years in Saudi Arabia and has come to Dubai for a “change of scenery” has a two-bed, two-bath apartments in a high rise a block from the beach included in her pay. She is in one of the wealthier parts of the city, only a few blocks from “The Palm,” a man-made peninsula shaped like a palm tree that juts out into the Arabian Sea. If Jay Gatsby were Emirati, he would live somewhere around here. But alas I have to ask myself “is this who I am?”
Am I a person who wants to live a gaudy life in the bubble of expat Arabia? No. But do I want to live in relative poverty, teaching gradeschool English in Anglophone America? Also no. As I wander around the Middle East in the coming weeks, I make a mental note to find a place that pays well and allows expats to integrate more into the culture. Perhaps Dubai isn’t to my liking, but another nearby country, or a place in more suburban UAE would be more suitable.
Regardless, in the night the three of us explore the extravagant world of downtown Dubai. We see the water fountain show at the Burj Khalifa, eat an overpriced Asian meal at a dark, classy restaurant, and walk through the Dubai Mall. There, a completely different assortment of delights await, from watching visitors and locals skate around the indoor ice rink, to watching a group of Saudis bang drums and dance in celebration of their national day, to seeing sharks swim in the mall’s public aquarium. Over the top doesn’t begin to describe the night, and if I were someone who was attracted by the shinier things in life I surely would move here in a heartbeat.
But I have a lot of questions, too. English teachers here have a lot of perks, but they certainly don’t get paid much more money than they would in the United States and living here is far from cheap. Christina explains how vital it is to live on the many promotions that restaurants and stores offer in the area to corner the expat/ worker market. Discount and promotion compilers like Groupon thrive in this market where restaurants have to offer buy-one-get-one-free deals to even get a steady stream of customers. Drinking, for instance, is especially pricy in this country due to high taxes on alcohol. This is a Muslim country, after all. Visitors and locals should expect to pay Manhattan prices for everything, which makes life challenging since nightlife is such a key part of the expat culture. That said, the Emiratis typically don't take part in drinking, as doing so would be haram.
That night, we sip wine at my friend’s apartment before I collapse from travel exhaustion into her air mattress. I haven’t slept since Beijing, four airports ago, and I am out for 12 hours straight before I have to get on another plane and see another country. Thankfully, though, my schedule permits my return to the UAE for a longer period of time after much of my Middle Eastern romp. During this time I am to spend a week in the UAE and Oman, crashing on my friend’s air mattress a bit more and delving into the expat life more extensively to try and discern whether I really could start a new life here in the Gulf.
But first: Bahrain!
Sunday morning and the streets with the world’s worst traffic have become vacant. Only the occasional cop car cruises by, and you could here a pin drop. “The apocalypse has come,” I think, “unless of course there is some festival we didn’t know about.” We hope for that. But there are no vendors, or carnival games, or even bounce castles, which we have been seeing pretty regularly in the many city parks on our trip to Mongolia. We ask around but no one knows why the streets have been closed in midtown. It is only when we board the train that we get an answer from one of our fellow passengers. Ulaanbaatar, in an effort to minimize pollution, has shut down the streets of the city today, excluding the main highways and exurbs. And the results are incredible. It is like a completely different city, but with all the charm and Soviet architecture that I fell in love with several days ago and a solemn peace.
But now, it is time to leave. The Circle K next to the train station is open and prospering, as it is located not only by the station but by the highway. All of the capital’s hot dog addicts are here, along with the young hoodlums and intra-city commuters. We join them for a breakfast of beef dogs, with everything on them including fried onions, lettuce, lightly pickled cucumber and even ketchup.
“No No NO!” my dad yells, as he did when the waitress in Beijing tried to give us another duck. “No ketchup please!”
She stops in her tracks, and his dog remains untainted by ketchup, which my father believes should never lace the top of a hot dog if the consumer’s age is greater than nine years old. I am an anarchist. I believe that once you start putting pickles or tomato on a hot dog, you no longer have the right to say what should or should not be deemed culinarily acceptable in this circumstance. Some people put cream cheese on hot dogs. Some wrap them in corn meal. And then there’s whatever the hell Chicago is doing. But the man knows what he likes. Who am I to judge the purists of the world?
The train to Zamiin Uud passes smoothly. Our one bunkmate speaks no English, so we just smile at each other for the first hour or so before we start to prepare for bed. My dad finds out the hard way that the bathroom door to our car does not work, and he scars a young Mongolian woman for life as I watch, grinning, from afar, filling my face with crab-flavored chips. I laugh, but to avoid a similar scarring I make sure to brush my teeth in the hall, spitting out the window rather than into the sink.
I awake, well rested, on the top bunk of our cabin. An hour passes until we reach the border town of Zamiin Uud, where we plan on grabbing a quick bite near the train station before tracking down some enterprising Mongolian to shuttle us across the border when it opens in an hour. Though we time everything the best we can, we still wait in line for over an hour upon arrival at the crossing, in a Jeep that’s had virtually every non-essential ounce of metal and wire stripped from it. My door can only be opened from the outside, so I sit, type, and try not to think about how much I have to pee. Thankfully, we make it across fine and with plenty of time to buy our bus tickets, that is if we can find where to buy them.
In a take-the-money-and-run scheme, we pay our drivers at the entrance to the Chinese customs point and never see them again. That leaves us on the Chinese side with no inkling of what to do or where to go. We find a 1-Yuan bus, which we can afford only because I have two Yuan sitting in my wallet from before, and take it until the city starts looking familiar. When we disembark, we realize that the city only looks familiar, but isn’t necessarily so, and we ask around to locate the long-distance bus terminal. No luck.
We have two leads. My dad advocates for Lead 1, which is little more than a hunch he feels that we disembarked the bus on the other side of the station. I disagree. One cab driver, Google Maps, and Apple Maps all seem to think that there is a bus station two blocks north, and one block west. I advocate for Lead 2 on the grounds that my dad’s leads are weak. I’m about to break into Alec Baldwin’s GlenGarry GlenRoss monologue when the same man who rushed us off the bus in Erlian before tries to sell us on a bus back to Beijing. We smile and say “maybe” before ducking into the station and inquiring about tickets there. Sure enough, the company we took before is cheaper, and we agree to buy tickets for the 2 pm bus for 200 Yuan apiece. We agree to come back before the departure time, and sneak off to find lunch and explore Erlian a bit more.
The only restaurant we find open is operated by a Hui Muslim woman, and with a large menu wallpaper complete with pictures and prices. We pace up and down the wall, then point to what we want. Meals cost 15-20 Yuan (2-3 USD) and arrive hot and flavorful. Savory and rich, the food is similar but unlike that of Beijing. It's not quite like Mongolian, either. The only way I can describe it is by saying it tastes like home, as if it is a recipe not borne of ingredients or tradition but by something strong. Not love, it would be too tacky for me to say that, but something like it. Like Religion. That’s it. There’s Allah in these noodles, making it richer, stronger, heavier.
Back into snack mode, we wander a nearby mall and witness the massive coordinated nap of the many vendors who work there. Past the first seven or eight shops, every single cashier sits, reclined, on their own lawn chair, dead to the world. And no one is mad about it. I suppose if I want to buy something, I am supposed to wake them up, but I don’t dare. In the basement, a giant Chinese Costco sells everything that you never knew existed. It is for places like this that I say China is the most foreign place in the world? Where else are mall employees expected to nap on the job? And where else do shopping malls have basement warehouses selling bottles of wine with root vegetables pickled inside or grilled eel-flavored potato chips? Erlian is out. Far out.
The bus leaves early, and with no one else on it but a couple of Serbian dudes and a Chinese couple seated up front. In the back row, mattresses line the aisle making one large bed. My dad an I pray that this is to be our one and only stop, and that we will be blessed with an entire row to ourselves. We chat with the Serbians who are incredibly fun, and happily share their rice wine with us as we swap stories. Apparently, on their bus from Beijing to Erlian, several foreigners were made to take urine tests, thankfully self-proctored but performed in the bushes of the checkpoint house. There was no urine test for us, presumably because only foreigners who have stayed in China for awhile are expected to take them. I am shocked, to say the least, that a foreign government would force a drug test upon aliens’ leaving the country. What happens if they find something? Is the person questioned? Imprisoned? I reiterate: China is a wild place.
Just beyond the checkpoint we pull to the roadside, where another bus is waiting for us. Within seconds, the rest of the passengers descend on the bus and space is no longer ample. Still, we have fun. On the ride back to Beijing we laugh, drink, and talk until none of us can stay awake much longer. I finish the last of of a liquor bottle that I had bought at a rest stop for the four of us to share, and hardly sleep.
When we enter Beijing, we have no hotel, and nowhere to go. It is just after 2 am. We stop in a breakdown lane, along with several other buses, and while a few people disembark most stay put. This bus has no pickups until tomorrow afternoon, so we can sleep all night here and leave the next morning. I am grateful, but also a little disappointed that I won’t get a real bed tonight. But some hotel money is saved so for that I am grateful. Before long, I am asleep.
It is the last truly full day together, and my dad’s last day with me, so like a dying man I finally indulge him by letting him pick the day’s activities. He wants to see the Great Wall so that is what we do, even though I am convinced it is a tourist trap from which we might never break free. I tell him to plan how to get there the cheapest possible way and he performs this task admirably, researching every detail of how to get to the nearest wall section by public transport for under 100 Yuan (14 USD) round trip. I am so proud of my little man.
At the top, by the entrance, a megaphone blasts the recorded voice of a Chinese woman trying to sell “ice-tea-ice-drink-ice-cream-lemonade-coffee” while a woman--perhaps the woman from the recording herself--sits on a chair dozing. We walk several sections of the wall, photobombing countless Instagram photos and couple-selfies (Us-ies?). I get bored, but happily snap a few photos myself of this magnificent work of engineering. My dad amazingly behaves himself and doesn’t mention Donald Trump once the entire wall-trip. I grapple with the fact that I actually might miss him as we ride from shuttle to city bus to intra-city bus back to Beijing.
Dine and Dash
Rather than sleep in the hostel bed he paid for, my dad decides to head straight to the airport after dinner and sleep there before his early-morning Beijing-Hong Kong-San Francisco-New York trip. But we still have one last dinner together so we wander down our neighborhood’s restaurant row. We come across a food hall and order four or five courses from a few different stalls, then ice cream, then we return to the hostel where I give him my assorted souvenirs. He gives me his leftover snacks and toiletries. We share a tearful goodbye hug at the Metro Station, and all of a sudden I am alone again.
The following day I try to adjust to being back alone by walking endlessly for little more than to save on subway fare and get some exercise. I also get some noodles, my favorite Chinese dish in actual China. At night, I catch the train to the airport and begin the long journey to the Middle East.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.