Friday, October 28, 2016

Armenia: Monastaries and Stolen Mountains


The summer of 2016 is now in the rear-view mirror - so far behind the bend that we’re surrounded by amazing fall color here on Mercer, Island Washington. We’ll get you here, we promise.

Debbie and I have already written about our visits in Eastern Europe to Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. We also wrote about visits to Azerbaijan and Georgia so in this post will cover the week we spent in Armenia, the last of the three countries that lay between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea which are part of the Caucasus Region.

There were far more spectacular sights in Armenia than we imagined. We may come back!
We knew very little about this part of the world before we added it to our itinerary. We are really happy we included all three countries because there is so much ancient history in this part of the world, past and present. If you ever wondered where Noah’s Ark actually landed then stay tuned because….we saw it with our very own eyes. Well not the Ark, but the final resting place. 



We finished our blog post on Georgia with us standing in front of a worn-out passenger van in Tbilisi saying goodbye to our friend and guide Tariel. An hour later, our Armenian driver pulled-out of the equally decrepit bus station with all 12 seats filled including one with two very well behaved children stacked on top of each other. We were packed like sardines with luggage jammed all around us for the 5-hour journey over narrow and twisty mountain roads to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. This is where Debbie might interject some sharp comments about my travel planning - but since I am writing the blog this time, I can just say, it was the best I could do.

Eventually both bags managed to be stuffed in the back of the van. And then we were jammed inside.
Here's the map I sent to the family showing our journey from Tblisis to Yeravan.
We stopped to drop-off and pick-up passengers along the way, and dropped a few off (sometimes in the middle of nowhere), but we were always over capacity. At one point, there were 15 of us in the van as we crossed the border into Armenia and not a single soul in the van spoke a word of English. It was definitely a grim ride that couldn’t really be livened-up with conversation in any language, so the only sound track was a scratchy radio station that came in and out of the speakers. The entire journey felt like we were aboard “The Little Engine Who Could - butreally didn't want to."

Yerevan turned out to be a beautiful thriving city filled with welcoming citizens.
By late afternoon we were in Airbnb #117 in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Our location was great - just around the corner from the city’s massive, fascist-style Republic Square. The square is famous known for it’s nightly show of “Bellagio-style” dancing waters in the huge central fountain. It makes for a great gathering place in the evenings for happy families and young people. All in all, we were surprised by this city. It was clean, bustling, and appeared prosperous. Lots of good food shopping for Debbie and well-done museums and historic monuments for us both.

Victory Park was full of intriguing sculptures from world famous artists and a hill top view overlooking the city.
 However, the entry-ways to our apartments and quality overall in this part of the world were getting less and less appealing. Even though we have learned to focus on what’s inside the building not how run-down the stairs and elevator (when there is one) might be.

The entryway to the dark hallway leading to our Airbnb. Dream on.
This one started out with an entry way from the street that advertised the travel agency next door "Blue Sky Dream". Right. That led to a depressing hallway followed by a two flights of stairs to an elevator that may or may not take us up to the 6th floor. The creaking cage showed no evidence it had ever been inspected for safety. Ever. It had an interesting feature - the light inside the elevator was activated by the weight of the passenger. It appeared one person did not weigh enough to trigger the light switch so when you pushed the button to go to the 6th floor, the door closed leaving you in total darkness and going nowhere. Two adults = no problem, the light comes on, but you still have to find the 6th floor button in the dark because the elevator does it didn't move until after the door closes and you've pushed it a second time. After a week, this became normal. You can see how things like this never get fixed.

Solution? If riding alone, be sure and have the flashlight feature on your phone turned on so you can see after the elevator light goes out. This is also helpful returning home at night. Because you have to find the elevator in the dark hallway.

Debbie had a discussion about all this with our host since the elevator quirks were not shared with us, and certainly not written down since there was no “house manual”. His response was basically that a rich guy on the top floor put in the elevator and we are lucky to have one at all. This was said with a “shrug”. Here is the link to our Armenian airbnb: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/1371528

Our host Ruben was a very nice person, and he was helpful in getting us settled. The place was clean and in a great location but there was something missing...ah. Somehow we had managed to choose this apartment without noticing that there was no table - either in the dining area or kitchen.  No where to sit - and nothing to sit on (not even bar stools at the tiny counter). Any of you who have read our blog posts or the book will remember that having a “large table” is one of the keys to a great stay for us but somehow we were asleep at the switch when we booked this place. But then again - how could there be no table? Ruben said not to worry! He realized the situation and in fact, had good news for us. He had just purchased a table and he would deliver it in the next few days. Few days? Okay - our fault. We made do with the coffee table and worked perched on the edge of the couch or headed to the cafe around the corner.

Ruben dropped off a table - see below. It turned out the chairs didn’t match, so he sent them back and those would be coming soon. The end of the story is the table was the size of a large serving platter and was was barely big enough for one laptop. Michael made a seat for himself by using the nightstand with a pillow on top. Two small chairs arrived the day after we left. Live and learn.

Table for one? Right this way.

On the first Sunday we found a beautiful Armenian Apostolic Church right around the corner. The service (or mass) appeared to be a blend of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox plus lots of incense. We were made to feel welcome and enjoyed seeing, yet again, another way to celebrate the Eucharist. One of the most interesting parts of the service involved having the clergy circle the room waving incense while the alter boys held out small bags on wooden poles for congregants to drop in a few small white stones they had brought with them to church. A very kind young lady next to us shared a few of her stones so we'd have something to place in the bag. Still not sure what the ritual represented, but it was moving.

We always appreciate the chance to attend church services wherever we can.
On Monday, we signed-up for our traditional free walking tour to help us get to know the city and this one turned-out to be one of the best. Our guide, whose name was Vaku, spoke perfect English. He was a charming, 50 year old s"tarving-artist" and curious world traveler. He started the walking tour two years ago to augment his income and he puts his heart and soul into sharing his love of Yerevan and Armenia. It was an epic 3-hour tour that started at 5 pm in Republic Square and ended overlooking the city and a stunning sunset on top of Victory Park. The park itself is chock-full of sculptures by world-renowned artists. By the time we finished we were two tired Senior Nomads but we came to appreciate the city and it’s history more that we anticipated.

Posing for the camera with Vaku - our walking tour guide and translator for the newspaper story.
Ruben came back into the picture a couple of days later because his sister, Liana, is a journalist for the largest Russian speaking newspaper in Armenia and as it turns out, she wanted to meet us and do a story. Unfortunately, her English was limited so we invited Vaku to join us and translate for Liana (and he got some free publicity).

Vaku was a great one for political discourse. My favorite.
This was the 6th interview we’ve done with a translator so we were prepared for the uncertainty.  You are never sure the translator is actually translating what we said to the reporter. Regardless, they are always fun and this one was especially enjoyable because we had gotten to know Vaku and he was familiar with our story.
 Once again, we had a great time telling our story - and once again, we can only hope it turned out well since we can't read it. Here's the link: http://www.ra.am/archives/11272 And a look at the front page:


On our last day in Yerevan, we visited the nearby Hellenistic temple at Garni and the ancient monastery at Geghard via bus from a local tour company called Huyr Tours. Now this was a bus we could appreciated - big, air-conditioned, reclining seats, a WC and a cooler filled with cold waters.

 It was educational, enjoyable and a good day out into the countryside. Armenia is filled with natural beauty and dozens of preserved temples and monasteries and Yerevan is close to picuresque Lake Sevan. The young tour guide provided live play-by-play commentary of the journey in three languages…..one after the other: Armenian, Russian and then English, not only on the bus, but at each stop, dividing the group into three and then taking us in turn to see the sights. By the end of the day, I am sure all she wanted to do was go home, go straight to bed and not open her mouth again until the next day.

Photo op with a family from Iran who were thrilled to meet Americans and share their hope for peace.
Remember I mentioned Noah and his Ark? It was on this tour that we stopped at a roadside outlook and were able to look across the Turkish border to Mt. Ararat in the far distance. This is where it is said that Noah’s Ark came to rest after the flood. For Christian Armenians this Biblical milestone brings heartache and grief because up until 1915 Mt. Ararat was in Armenia. Now the mountain looms in the distance across a valley just 20 miles away that once was Armenian and is now sits inside the border of Turkey. Somewhere near the peak the Ark came to rest - and apparently Noah and his contingent walked down the mountain into Yerevan.

Mount Ararat in the far distance.
Our earlier blog post on Azerbaijan talks about their bitter relationship with Armenia. Unfortunately, relations between Armenia and their neighbor to the west, Turkey, are also strained. In fact, the border between Armenia and Turkey has been closed since 1993.  Among the many challenges between these two countries is the issue of the 100 year-old Armenian Genocide (1915-23) the responsibility for which is so disputed that just by using the word “Genocide” I’ve already taken sides (as in Turkey was responsible). Only 28 countries are willing to use the term “Genocide” which has a very specific meaning in the world of international relations. Others, including the USA are willing to call it everything else except the “G” word.

A day at the Armenian Genocide Museum - not uplifting, but certainly informative.
If you want to know more about this difficult and complicated story here is a link to the Wikipedia entry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenian Genocide.

I bring this all up because on our last day in Yerevan, we visited the Armenian Genocide Museum. It is very well done, moving and worth visiting since it tells the story (one-sided, of course) of the first genocide of the 20th century. It is said that over a million and a  half people died at the hands of the Ottoman forces.

As the result of the disputes with Azerbaijan and Turkey, Armenia only has ground-access to the rest of the world through Georgia to the north and Iran to the south. From what we saw in our drive from Tbilisi to Yerevan, the northern route is at best a two-lane mountain road rather than a sophisticated 21st century autobahn connecting Armenia to European Union markets and the rest of the world. All this being a big challenge for the future of Armenia.

The political games continue in this part of the world - but for many, life goes on.
So that wraps it up for our extensive tour of Eastern Europe and the Caucuses. It was an enlightening trip through six very different countries that were all, at one time, under the Soviet umbrella. We now have visited ten of the fifteen former Soviet Republics. When we talk about this whole journey being a Gap Year for seniors,  this is the kind of experience we mean.

Having said that, both of us were ready to return to more familiar surroundings so we planned months ago that when we finished seeing this part of the world our reward would be three weeks in Italy. So look for a blog post that starts in Sicily and ends in Milan. Ciao!

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads
www.BeSeniorNomads.com

Thursday, October 13, 2016

You Should Write a Book!


Sure. I could also make my own clothes and learn to read Braille. Why not add writing a book to the list? Personally I felt I was doing quite well in the “stretch goal” department just being a 60 year-old full-time traveler criss-crossing Europe with a husband who’s idea of fun is a visit to Chernobyl.  

But when the suggestion to tell our story in book form came up more and more often  - especially in the last year, I began to consider the idea. Maybe I could put our story down on paper. Michael was certainly enthusiastic about the idea - and he was all set to be the Project Manager (and head cheerleader) in additional to his role of Chief Travel Planner. I hope he isn't expecting a raise.

As we scribbled several outlines of what a book might look like it became clear that the story we wanted to share was about living our daily lives in Airbnb rentals throughout Europe and beyond for over three years! We’ve had so many adventures that it was easy to fill the pages, and it was enjoyable to share with hosts the difference they’ve made by opening their doors to travelers like us.

The end result is Your Keys, Our home. While the book was written with Airbnb hosts in mind, we hope anyone who enjoys a good travel story and anecdotes about living like a local will find inspiration for their own travels through our story. 



From the foreword by Chip Conley, Head of Airbnb Global Hospitality and Strategy:

“…The Campbell’s have so much to share, we believed it was time for them to write a book especially for our attendees of the Airbnb Open in LA. Given their beautiful stories and helpful wisdom, this book is perfectly-suited to wanderlusting Airbnb guests, couples imagining how they can travel better together, and those in the second half of their life wondering what’s next.”

Excerpt from the New York Times, February 2015:

“What does it take to be a Senior Nomad? Should you want to become one, a few requirements: Be willing to cast off your stuff and accumulate no more; have a flexible definition of what it means to be at home; master the Excel spreadsheet; accept, and even grudgingly appreciate, the ubiquity of Ikea.”

It's hard to imagine, but the book is now available on Amazon and iBooks! For more information about the Senior Nomads and to purchase the book visit our new website www.beseniornomads.com

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads




Saturday, October 8, 2016

Georgia on my Mind საქართველო ჩემს გონებაშია



Two of my favorite things about Georgia - Khachapuri and the alphabet!
During our recent travels whenever we mentioned we were going to Georgia (the country) people just about swooned. “Oh, you’ll love it. It’s so beautiful - and you won’t believe the food. And the wine - especially the wine.” Okay, good reasons to visit, but we also wanted to tick-off another former USSR Republic and this one had a particularly cantankerous relationship with Russia. That got Michael all excited about doing research and finding out what we could learn during our week in the capital city of Tbilisi. After all, Stalin was born here and until 1991 the country was still under Russia’s thumb.

When we started planning our sweep through Eastern Europe I knew the Airbnb selections were going to be less desirable than those we’ve enjoyed in more popular parts of Europe. And that proved to be true. Everything got a little dingier, a little darker, and the decor got ever stranger. The buildings became more off-putting as well. The good news was they were also becoming more affordable.

A hallway straight from a scary movie...just be brave. There is a nice Airbnb in there somewhere.
At the airport we were met by Teriel, our host Han’s right hand man - a small, wiry fellow of few words - but thankfully many of them English. It turned out that he met most of Han’s guests and also offered guided tours to archaeological sites, monuments and the countryside one of which we accepted, but I’ll tell you about that later.

Coming into the city we were expecting to see some of the beauty we’d heard so much about. But in fact there was very little that was charming. What we did see was an abundance of uninspired Fascist architecture and some neglected facades from the turn of the century. And, imposing statues of men on horses of course. However there were glimpses of new restaurants and shops along the way.

That brings me back to our Airbnb. For the dates we needed there weren't a lot of choices in Tbilisi - especially apartments that didn’t look like Soviet holdovers. But then we found this little gem Bright & Modern in Old Tbilisi.

It really was a nice place, but it certainly had its quirks. First the building. It was just one of many faded beauties waiting for love on a nondescript side street. Once you stepped inside the steel door you were in a dark hallway with a forbidding stairwell - one of the scariest we've encountered. The automatic interior lights had a life of their own so, we learned to have our cellphone flashlights at the ready, day or night. Once we huffed up to the third floor we carefully made our way down a long hallway divided by two sets of doors. It was also dimly lit and came with some serious tripping hazards - and once I surprised a women crossing the landing wrapped in a towel with wet hair. All we could do was stare at each other in surprise.

Getting ready to run the gauntlet.
From a hole in the wall of our building you could buy delicious bread hot out of the oven.
Finally we reached our apartment door. Lately this has become a moment of trepidation - would the place match the listing photos? Thankfully, the flat was cozy and comfortable and Hans has great taste in books! Terial got us all settled-in, although he couldn’t help us get on the Internet or get one of the two the air-conditioning units working. That was unfortunate because it was 100° outside and sun was pouring in from the south facing windows. The kitchens was in an enclosed porch so it was  like an oven - whether you needed one or not.

The kitchen was a fine place to be early in the morning before it got too hot.
It turned out the air-conditioning was seriously broken and would need a repair crew with a crane to fix it from the outside the building. That wouldn’t happen during our stay so we limped along with just the one. And the Internet connection problem had to do with the phone company - also requiring a service call. Fortunately, we were able to use my cell phone's “hot spot” to get on-line and for only $2.00 our Georgian SIM cards came with unlimited data. There were other small issues, but through them all, our host was helpful and attentive even though he was miles away in Austria trying to enjoy a holiday.

One thing we feel strongly about when using Airbnb is that we are partly responsible if things don’t meet our expectations. After all, we decided how much to spend, scoured the pictures, read the reviews and had several back and forth e-mails with our host before booking the place. We also say that a good host can make up for a mediocre listing. And Hans was a great host.

The apartment was full of nice amenities and a great list of neighborhood restaurants and attractions. When the problem with the phone and the air-conditioning arose he offered to let us move to another place and not charge us for the time we’d been there or any cancellation charges. And, he was working feverishly from his end to get things fixed. If it had been any other way, we may have chosen to move.

Now we were ready to begin exploring the city. As always we found a free walking tour, and just like Minsk, it needed to be booked in advance. And also like Minsk, Michael struck up a dialogue with the tour director - a delightful young man named Levan and asked about potential local press coverage. Before we knew it a news reporter and a camera man from Georgia's most popular television station was tagging along as we saw the sights.

The man who called "action" as we walked Tbilisi Old Town.
Our walking tour guide and Georgian entrepreneur Lavan.
 Here’s the end result: Georgia Public Television 1


One of the best parts of the story is the anchor woman's deadpan introduction and the elaborate Georgian text that accompanies the story. This fanciful alphabet was formed in the 5th century for Georgian eyes only - it is nothing but beautiful gibberish in any other country.


What we did see of  the city confirmed what we saw on our drive in - this is a city in transition. Without the oil and gas resources of a country like Azerbaijan it will take more time and more money to restore Tbilisi to it's previous glory. However there is some progress being made in the old town and a few of the Soviet-style buildings have been converted into impressive luxury hotels or museums.

The luxury Biltmore hotel opened the week we were there. 
One of those museums is the Georgian National History Museum and we spend a few hours there learning more about the Soviet era and the freedom movement. There were also some great exhibits from the important findings in Dmanisi where some of the oldest human remains were found just a few years ago.

We met Skull 4 at the Georgian museum - not looking too bad for 1.8 million years old. 
The Dmanisi skull, also known as Skull 5 or D4500, is one of five Homo erectus skulls discovered in Dmanisi, Georgia. Described in a publication in October 2013, it is believed to be about 1.8 million years old and is the most complete skull of a Pleistocene Homo species,[1][2] and the first complete adult hominin skull of that degree of antiquity.

Fast forward to mankind in the 21st century and unsurprisingly Russia’s presence is felt everywhere. For most of the last 100 years Georgia has been under Russian (Soviet) control gaining their freedom like so many former Soviet Republics in 1991. Since then, there have been tensions between the two as Georgia moved too fast towards the West. In 2003 the country celebrated its new direction with the Rose Revolution. Five years later, Russian had enough and made its presence known by invading Abkasia and South Osietta. To this day, Georgia and Russia do not see eye to eye on these disputed territories. These are examples of the disruptive “frozen conflicts” that the Kremlin likes to create wherever possible. Last  summer we visited another one of these in Transnistria (a sliver of land squeezed between Moldova and Ukraine). 

Now that we’d seen the city, we were ready for a day in the countryside. Time to find the magic. Hmm. Probably should have headed to wine country and into the mountains (and probably should have done it two months ago before everywhere was brown and dry) but of course, we wanted to go to the birthplace of Stalin. And since Terial would be taking us, he suggested we venture a bit beyond the city of Gori to see an ancient cave city. It was a hot, dusty day on the road for us. I hope we can visit again.

The extensive cave city of Uplistsike - a great place to hone your rock climbing skills.
The Stalin museum was a great slice-of-life experience. Everyone that worked there had an appropriate scowl and our young tour guide was so excruciatingly in-hate with her job that the walls could have crumbled around her or one of us could have collapsed with a heart attack and she would have continued the tour in her fem-bot Russian-English without missing a beat. We sort of liked that. She whipped us through the whole museum in about 30 minutes with the last stop being a walk through Stalin’s private train carriage. The executive jet of it’s time (Stalin had a fear of flying and was generally paranoid).

And he looks like such a nice man...
Then we were off to one of Terial's favorite destinations, the sprawling cave city of Uplistsike. To reach the best caves required mountain goat climbing skills. And only Terial had them. Michael and I gamely crawled hand-over-hand over rocks and found footholds where we could but this place was not for everyone - I wanted to grab the women I saw on our way out blithely heading towards the first trail in their sandals to send them for a ticket refund - or a change of footwear! It was indeed fascinating but required a colorful imagination to get the whole picture. I’ll let Wikipedia give you a quick synopsis:

Built on a high rocky left bank of the Mtkvari River, it contains various structures dating from the Early Iron Age to the Late Middle Ages, and is notable for the unique combination of various styles of rock-cut cultures from Anatolia and Iran, as well as the co-existence of pagan and Christian architecture.

Our new friend and guide Terial could have climbed all day!
As for the food…personally I found two Georgian specialties that I loved - the first was Khachapuri, the nation's favorite meal. It's made of bread shaped like a life-raft and then filled to the point of capsizing with cheese topped by a soft cooked egg (see the picture at the top of the blog). The second great find was Churchkhela. These travel snacks have been made the same way for hundred of years. Take some toasted walnuts, hazelnuts or dried fruit, string a couple of dozen together on sturdy twine and then dip them like candles over and over again in a waxy mixture of grape juice, flour and other magic ingredients and dry them in the sun. What you have is a chewy treat that keeps in your camel-bag for months. As for the wine - we didn’t have any. Another story, another time.

I really enjoyed Churchkhela. But after reading the recipe it would be impossible to make at home.
While we didn’t really get to experience the Georgian “Wow” factor, we were glad to have seen what we did and make some new friends including Laven, our affable walking tour guide www.tblisifreewalkingtours.com his amazing friend Anna, community activist and Beatles fanatic as well as Terial our trusted “Man on the Ground”.

Saying good bye to Terial - I wanted to keep him!
Our next stop would be Yeravan, Armenia and I’d kept my expectations very low. But it turned out to be another of Mr. Campbell’s good decisions. Okay, once again our Airbnb was less than perfect, but the city was amazing. More on that next time.

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Baku and The Land of Fire




Just like Belarus, I asked Michael to remind me again exactly why where we going to Azerbaijan? and of course, he had an answer. It all went back to the time two years ago when we visited Madrid and he went to an Atlético Madrid football match and came home confused that the team’s jerseys sported “Azerbaijan - The Land of Fire.” He’d never heard of a country sponsoring a first-division football club - let alone one in another country. That seemed crazy!

Spain's Atlético Madrid team all fired up!

He did further research about the sponsorship (and the country) and before you knew it, Azerbaijan was on the list for our swing through Eastern Europe and our goal of visiting as many former republics of the USSR as we could. As for why it is called The Land of fire - that has to do with ancient history and I’ll explain more about that later.

I was struggling to keep up with the itinerary, and to be honest, I hadn’t done much research at my end on this exotic and potentially dangerous sounding destination. I did find this little nugget describing Baku, the capital city where we would spend a week “If Paris and Dubai had a love child, it would be Baku.” Sounded good to me.

However this Shite Muslim dominated country wedged between Iran and Russia was on brink of all out war with Armenia and was listed as a "place to avoid." Fortunately we kept our plans, and in fact it felt more like a ritzy trip to Monaco, and no armed terrorists in sight.

The skyline is dominated by the flame towers - but there were dozens of fantastic structures.
This would be our third Muslim country during our Senior Nomad travels, the others being Turkey and Morocco. You could definitely feel a middle eastern influence in the first two - while Baku hummed with a European vibe. So European in fact they hosted a Eurovision singing contest, the first European Games in 2015 and earlier this summer held the F-1 European Grand Prix Formula. And what else? Hundreds of taxis are black London cabs... and of course the sponsorship of one of Europe's most famous football teams.

My favorite Formula 3 car driver!

The population was certainly far from stereotypical. The women were chic and fashionable - and the only Hajibs we saw were worn by Iranian and Saudi tourists (we were told this by our guides and others). Upscale bars and restaurants crowded the streets along with luxury cars, and glittering shopping malls supplanted the traditional souk.

Azerbaijan is saturated in oil and natural gas and has the wealth to prove it. More importantly, it wants the world, especially the West to know it - so it flashes it’s bling. That comes in the form of a stunning modern skyline dotted with futuristic glass towers juxtaposed against an ancient old city with the gaps filled in with newly built baroque style government buildings made of sun-colored limestone. Here's a quick look at the Flame towers in action (I climbed 300 stairs to get this shot!)

                                      

Add to that green promenades lining the waterfront (just pinch your nose against the noxious smell of pollution left over from the Soviet era’s disregard for the environment) and you’ve got one surprisingly lovely and livable city. Also one immaculately clean city. Not unlike Minsk, the fine for littering must be close to imprisonment, and there were swarms of street cleaners, park attendants and police officers out in force.

We spotted a few of these "trees" with cameras on top. Like I said - don't litter!
Speaking of parks - our Airbnb was located just across a busy intersection from one of the city’s largest waterfront parks. There was a mile long stretch of manicured gardens dotted with playgrounds, outdoor cafes and elaborate fountains so we thought we’d stroll the promendad on the way to the supermarket. It was about 11:00 in the morning and very warm when we started out. The first thing we noticed was the main road in front of our building was almost empty, where just the night before traffic had been fast and furious. Next the park was eerily void of people. We did find one other soul whom we stopped to asked for directions. He happened to be English and he laughed when we asked where were all the people?  His answer was only “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” (and tourists) venture out in the blistering mid-day heat. The sensible citizens of Baku do their business very early in the morning and very late in the day - not at 11:30 when the temperature was near 95 degrees and rising.

The Haydar Aliver Cultural Center was an amazing bit of architecture.
Our latest home also turned out to be interesting. The Airbnb listing assured us of a Glamorous Apartment with Sea View. Here's the listing: Baku Airbnb. Well, if grand meant several large, nearly empty rooms with high ceilings edged in elaborate cornices with elegant marble fireplaces then okay - we could see the grandeur of the past. We didn’t find the promised balconies - although from the dreary sun porch you could glimpse what might be water about 800 yards away across the park. And the small kitchen looked like it belonged on a 14’ runabout. The building, while maybe 90 years ago was a grande dame had become a haggard old crone over the years. However - the place has great potential and it was definitely in a “Home to the Stars” location. Our enthusiastic young host Farid has great plans for improvement and someday it will live up to the hype, so we made the best of it and used the lobby of the elegant Four Seasons next door as our living room. Four Seasons Baku

Farid met us on arrival and was incredibly gracious. Actually every one we met in Azerbaijan was warm and hospitable - but Farid took it personally. Within an hour he returned with a few basics I had asked to have in the kitchen and was ready and willing to provide whatever else he could - and appreciated our feedback.

The first course before lunch in the garden with our new friend.
Then, he not only helped Michael get a ticket to a Europa League football match between Baku’s most popular team Qarabag and Sweden’s IFK Goteborg, he and his cousin went along to the match to make sure he was safe and had a good experience (the most dangerous part was driving in Baku's notorious traffic). He also arranged for two press interviews for us with a major television station and a popular online news website.

Michael with Farid and his cousin before the match.
The TV interview was certainly a cultural experience. Two very nice young women, the anchor and the producer met us in the Old City with a camera crew. They had us walk around together and pretend to shop and see the sights in the midday heat. Thankfully we sat in a shady park for the interview. Regardless of what I said earlier about the lack of stereotypes - when it came to answering questions Michael was hooked up to a mic on his lapel and was asked most of the substantial topic questions while I looked adoringly on - able only to nod and smile. Then the mic was switched to me and I was asked to speak briefly on the beauty of the city and on the shopping. It was really weird - here's the link: CBC TV 1
 
Playing tourist for the camera.

Later that evening we meant two more young women (one a reporter the other a translator) from a popular news website. We had a great time together and as you can see from the picture below, it was entertaining - especially for Michael. The story ran the next day and a woman on a bus kept looking at us and then flashed us her phone showing us on the screen. She enthusiastically said “Welcome Nomads to our country!”  and showed the phone around to fellow passengers. Here's the link: qafqazinfo That was fun.

 I'd just said something to tickle Mr. Campbell's funny bone - but I don't remember what!

Two days later the young woman who translated spent a day with us and we took in more of the city. We especially enjoyed the fascinating Azerbaijan Carpet Museum housed in an elegant building shaped like a rolled-up carpet. We also had a leisurely lunch at her favorite restaurant in the garden courtyard where we ate very well and learned more about daily life in Azerbaijan.

We almost gave the carpet museum a miss - but it turned out to be a highlight.
It was mesmerizing to watch master carpet makers at work.
Of course we also took a free walking tour of the old city and that’s where we learned more of the history behind The Land of Fire slogan so I’ll include this summary. But basically, because of the natural gas deposits all through the region, flames would spontaneously flare from the ground and thus a fire-worshipping culture was born.

The magical Old City sits tucked behind walls dating back to the 12th century.
“Azerbaijan is a geographical name. On the one hand this name is linked with the population, which lived in this region for thousands of years before our era, and who were mostly fire-worshippers. Local population considered that fire was their God and so they worshipped the fire. "Azer" means fire. The Turkic name "Azer" was used for this territory for a long time. The word "Azer" consists of two parts - "az" and "er". In Turkic languages, "az" means a good intention and a fate of success. Thus, the word "Azer" means "a brave man", "a brave boy", "the fire keeper". The word "Azerbaijan" originates from the name of an ancient Turkish tribe, who resided in those territories.”

In more recent history, after the collapse of the USSR Azerbaijan was ruled by yet another autocrat, President Heyday Aiyev - he was a popular leader who was actually instrumental in bringing the country to its new prosperity. His son, Ilham Aiyev, aged 54, took over after his father passed away in 2003. The Washington Post reported in October 2013, that their last elections were neither free nor fair, and that “election officials released vote results a full day before voting had even started.” He's now working to lower the age a person can become president to assure his now 12 year old son can step in at age 18. Fairly elected, of course.

 The happy first (and potentially forever) family of Azerbaijan.
Sometimes we have ended up in parts of the world where neighboring countries aren’t the best of friends which can make things a little tricky- as in not knowing what to bring-up, or not, in conversation. That was the case in Azerbaijan with the Nagorno-Karabakh situation. Azerbaijan and Armenia are at war over this disputed territory so when we were in Baku we didn't mention our upcoming stop Yaravan, the capital of Armenia. We just skipped over it and talked about Georgia.

The roots of the bitter conflict go back all the way to World War I. While we were in Azerbaijan, we got “their” version of the situation and we knew that when we got to Armenia we would hear “their” version as well. Again, one of the most fascinating aspects of our travels is talking politics with our cab drivers, tour guides, hosts and anyone else Michael can engage on the topic.

A map of the region - you can see why I was concerned about conflict.
Since I had no real expectations of Baku other than a slight apprehension, I was more than pleasantly surprised by this beautiful city. You can easily get to many interesting archeological sites as well as beautiful Caspian Sea coastline from there. You can certainly shop, eat, and party well - and the people we met were the kindest, friendliest yet.

I would definitely return to this beautiful city with it's ancient roots and modern dreams.
We journeyed on to Tblilsi, Georgia on Qtar Airlines. I have always wanted to fly the #1 Ranked airline in the world - too bad it was only for an hour and a half. I did have high expectations for Georgia. Unfortunately, they weren't met. More on that next time.

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads