Strangers on a Train

I worked today and took the MARC train to DC. When the train got to the BWI Airport stop a couple got on with lots of luggage. Seats were limited. I could tell that they were a little disoriented. I gave them my seats. They were very grateful.

What followed were a delightful 40 minutes of conversation. I soon learned that they were from Lebanon. Excited, I immediately fell into “Lebanese mode” sharing with them that I had been there eight years ago. They were SO happy. I showed them some photos from my trip. We talked about their country: history, religion, food, wine, sites. They had just flown in from Orlando having visited Walt Disney World (BTW, they LOVED Disney World) and were now spending two days in our “Governmental Disney World” – DC.

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When we arrived at Union Station, I guided them through the chaos to get an Uber. It was a great start to my day.

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Two days in Yerevan as

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I arrived in Yerevan by train around 7:00 am in the morning and caught a cab to an area where there were a few hostels. None of the first few I went to had double rooms, only dorms. I finally found one that did – The Swiss Hostel and scored a room with a shared bath for $10 a night. Great location. Close to Republic Square, museums and restaurants. My main goal after settling in was to locate a restaurant that Seth Kugel had profiled in his New York Times Frugal Traveler article a few years back. In this article he mentions how many Syrians of Armenian descent have returned to Armenia as a result of the civil war and ISIL assaults. And they brought with them their wonderful Syrian cuisine. I finally found the restaurant, unfortunately it had since closed.

Determined, I wandered around that area for a bit and came across a beautiful church. The priest was out in the courtyard meeting with congregants. I went inside to the chapel and afterwards started talking with two men. Both were Syrian refugees who moved back to Armenia. I asked for suggestions on places to eat that had a Syrian influence – they supplied me with the names of few places. One of which, Marilda’s, was not too far away and it was time for lunch. I ordered the Manty which is a warm yogurt/sour cream soup with tiny meat dumplings, drizzled with olive oil. Delicious.

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Manty

One of the other restaurants that the groundsmen mentioned was Jano Restaurant. This was a little further out from the center of the city and required taking a cab. I arrived around 8:00pm and the restaurant was quite crowded. Lots of families and groups of friends dining. I don’t mind dining out by myself when I am back home but eating out solo in Georgia and Armenia was slightly awkward. These are countries where meals are social, communal events – food is meant to be shared. I felt like I stuck out like a sour thumb. That did not deter me from enjoying my meals here.


Aleppo Kebabs and Pomegranate and Green Olive Salad

Sidon, Lebanon – A Bit Surreal

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Pigeon Rocks, Beirut, Lebanon

In early May of 2011 Shawn and I had planned a two week trip to Syria. Our itinerary was to drive from Beirut to Damascas, go to Palmera, visit the Dead Cities, explore Aleppo and its infamous Al-Madina Souq, and see the majestic Crusader castle, Krak des Chevaliers. Unfortunately, the “Arab Spring” which had spread across a good portion of North Africa had reached Syria. Pro-democracy protests erupted in March 2011 in the southern city of Deraa. The government responded with brute force.

We were forced to reevaluate our trip and make a decision to either go on as planned or reinvent our itinerary. Should we risk going into Syria? The protests and government response were in an area that we had not planned to visit. Damascus and Aleppo were safe. In the end, we decided to not go and instead spend a week in Lebanon and a week in Turkey. In hindsight, I wish we had kept with our initial plans. We would most likely have been fine and now the country has been devastated by a civil war and the barbarity of ISIL. Much of Palmera has been decimated. Aleppo and its Al-Madina Souq are in ruins. But, worst of all, it is now said that as many as 470,000 Syrians have lost their lives, directly or indirectly from the war.

On May 1, 2011 I flew from Washington, DC to Beirut via Istanbul. I arrived in the evening. Shawn had arrived earlier that day and was at the 35 Rooms Hotel  located in the Harma neighborhood in Beirut. We had a nice little suite with a kitchen area and bedroom. The next morning the hotel put out a breakfast buffet that was truly delicious.

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Buffet breakfast at the 35 Rooms Hotel

For our week in Lebanon we hired a guide and driver. The first morning in Beirut we were picked up at the hotel by our guide Bertho and our driver Michel. Upon arrival Bertho greeted us with the news, “Well, your country got him.” “What do you mean?” We asked. He replied, “Osama bin Laden was killed last night in Pakistan by your country.”

Wow! Here we were, Americans in the Middle East, in a relatively safe county and Osama bin Laden had just been killed. It was kind of hard to wrap our heads around this news.

We departed the hotel with the plan to drive south and spend the day visiting the towns of Tyre and Sidon.

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Tyre, Lebanon looking south towards Israel only ten miles away.

In the morning, we visited the town of Tyre and walked about the Roman ruins most notably the Triumphal Arch and the Roman Hippodrome. This was, for me, one of the first times seeing this many Roman ruins.

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The Triumphal Arch, Tyre, Lebanon

We then drove north to Sidon, Lebanon’s third largest city, and did a walking tour of the city and its markets. We also visited the fascinating Musee du Savon or the Soap Museum. Lebanon makes some high quality olive oil soap.

Soon it was time for lunch. Bertho brought us to a restaurant with outdoor covered seating. It was May and fairly warm but comfortable. We ordered a lot of food including fish that we picked out from the counter.

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Fish before lunch

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Chosen fish prepared and ready for eating

Sidon is a little further north of Tyre but each city is in a region where Hezbollah has a strong presence. What this means is that both cities and this region are a little more conservative than the much more tolerant Beirut.

We sat outdoors and ordered our lunch. Lots of fish, French fries and hummus. Bertho asked us if we wanted to have beer with lunch. We both said yes. He said, “Very well, but you’re going to have to drink the beer out of tea cups. People here would frown upon you openly drinking alcohol.” So, we drank our beer out of Lipton Tea cups. It was such good “tea.”

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Drinking “tea” with lunch in Sidon, Lebanon

There were many other people having lunch at this restaurant and the outside seating area had at least three TVs hanging around its perimeter. The news was on and the only thing being shown was coverage of the killing of Osama bin Laden. We could only wonder, “Do people know we’re Americans?” “What are they thinking?” “Are we going to be okay?” It was fascinating to observe the Lebanese people here because none of them seemed to care the least about the killing of bin Laden. Everyone was very nonchalant about it.

Then the news coverage veered towards the United States and started showing crowds back home celebrating en masse; outside the White House, in New York City, and in other locations. I found this to be very disturbing and distasteful and found myself embarrassed to be an American at that moment.

Needless to say, our first full day in Lebanon was surreal and a day that I will never forget.

Welcome to the Middle East!

Lost in Tbilisi

 

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Much of my second full day in Tbilisi was spent walking around and getting lost in the Sololaki neighborhood. Beautiful old architecture reminding me of parts of Beirut, Porto, and Istanbul and probably Havana. Fun exploring these buildings from another era and imagining who their previous inhabitants might have been.

Adventures with International Barbers

I always get my haircut when I travel to another country even if I can’t communicate with the barber (and even if I don’t need a haircut). It’s all part of experiencing the place. Guimaraes, Portugal and Istanbul, Turkey were the best.

While we were in Portugal we took the train from Porto to Guimaraes for the afternoon. Guimaraes is one of the oldest cities in Portugal. It is often considered the “cradle of the Portuguese nationality.” The city itself precedes the foundation of Portugal.

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Guimaraes, Portugal

Guimaraes was filled primarily with older men playing checkers. We joked that this was the place that everyone goes to retire in Portugal. I happened upon a barbershop and entered to get my hair cut. There were no other customers. The barber only spoke Portuguese. I did my best to communicate how I wanted my hair cut. No problem. As he was cutting my hair a friend of his came in with a mandolin and stated playing. It was like I had my very own musical accompaniment.

In Istanbul I found a barber near Taksim Square. This barber was younger and did a great job with the haircut, beard trim, and a shave with a straight edged razor. The unique thing about this haircut, and something I’ve never experienced since, is that at the end of the haircut he took out a lighter and flicked it around my ears to burn off stray hairs.

Barbershop in Istanbul

I decided to not go forward in Ethiopia. There was not enough time in this town on the Simien Mountain Trek. I would save myself for my barber back home in Baltimore.

Barbershop along the Simien Mountain trek.

I went to a uni-sex salon in Tbilisi, Georgia and had my hair cut for $2.00 but was not very happy with the results. It was a female stylist named Angelina. When I got to Yerevan I happened upon a hipsterish barber shop called Dude’s. The barber there whose name was Pash did a great job of “correcting” the Tbilisi mistake.

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Train Travel in Georgia and Armenia

I traveled by train three times on this trip: overnight from Tbilisi to Zugdidi, overnight from Tbilisi to Yerevan, and late afternoon train (arriving at midnight) from Yerevan to Tbilisi. The first was by 2nd class in a full berth. This had its blessings. The berth was full. Me, a Danish couple, and a young Georgian guy named Irakli who was heading home for a friend’s wedding. It was very warm on the train and I know none of us slept well.

But I met Jacob and Cecelie from Denmark with whom I spent the next four days on the trek from Mestia to Ushfuli.

2nd train trip was from Tbilisi to Yerevan. All 1st class berths were sold out. I bought a 2nd class ticket. The one way trip which was approximately eight hours and cost the equivalent of $35. ended up just being me and Sergei in the car and NOT as warm. Slept better.

3rd train trip from Yerevan to Tbilisi was an afternoon trip. I made sure to get 1st class ($35) this time. So far in 1st class it’s me (my own private car), some Armenians, and two Germans. The rest of the entire car is empty. Leaving Yerevan and heading north it was beautiful – glimpses of Mt. Ararat, plains, and arid hills.

Ethiopian Uniqueness

Washington, DC is home to the largest Ethiopian community outside of Ethiopia. I am lucky to work just a few blocks from its epicenter. Roughly a quarter of my customers at the library are of Ethiopian or Eritrean heritage. When I first moved to DC in 1988 I was blown away by the “exotic” food from this country that I really only knew of from news about its famine and the “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” video.

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Over the years, I have become obsessed with this African nation that is unlike any other on the continent. Its topography is striking to say the least – it has one of the lowest and hottest points on the planet (Danakil Depression) and soars to one of highest mountains in Africa (Ras Dashen).

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St. George Church (Bete Giyorgis), Lalibela

It is the only African country to have never been colonized by another country and the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church is one of the oldest Christian communities with some rituals that have more in common with Judaism than other Christian strains. And the food, well the food is, love it or hate it, most unique among the world’s great cuisines. Does it need to be modernized? Meh. But I am looking forward to checking out the recently reopened Etete on 9th Street.

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Tej (Ethiopian honey wine)

The Harrowing Hike to Mt. Wenhi, Ethiopia

While hiking in the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia we met a bloke from the United Kingdom named Ian. Ian consistently wore pressed pants and a tweed jacket while hiking. Who does that? Ian does. He also had a fascination with four particular mountains in Ethiopia and was on a mission to visit all of them, one which is mentioned in a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

We all had a day off after completing the Simien Mountain trek and Ian invited us to join him to hike to one of the mountains: Mt. Wenhi. Mt. Wenhi was where the Emperor Fasilides of Ethiopia (1603-1667) imprisoned his male heirs, usually for life. Interesting, indeed. We were on board.

Ian had hired a driver, a 4×4, and two guides to bring us there. It was a long and bumpy uphill ride to get to the start of the trail. From the trail head it was a seven mile hike. The weather was perfect and the hike amazing.

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As we hiked across this spectacular landscape we were joined by some shepherds and herdsmen. They were quite boisterous and, it seemed, very curious about us. At one point I asked our guide what they were talking about and he didn’t answer me. I could tell that he was nervous and, by his body language, fearful. This obviously did not sit well with me.

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I suggested to Shawn and Ian that we not continue to Mt. Wenhi which, at this point, was in full view but rather turn back. They agreed. Shortly thereafter, the shepherds and herdsmen left us and we were then accompanied by a priest and an elder from the village. I was still uncomfortable with the situation. We were a good distance from our vehicle and in a very remote area.

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What happened next was quite frightening. On the return we were ambushed by some of the shepherds and herdsmen who attacked us with rocks from a bluff above the trail.

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Thankfully, none of us were hit or injured in any way. I don’t think I’ve ever run as fast as I did that day. We’ll never really know why this happened: Hooliganism? Turf protection? Related to the protests in the country?

We made it back safely to the 4X4 and returned to Gondar in one piece. Ian, obsessed as he was with Mt. Wenhi, went back a couple of weeks later, but this time with three armed scouts (including the chairman of the village council) and a priest. They had to retreat again because, this time, some of the local priests decided that Ian was trying to steal the mountain!

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