Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Senior Nomads LA Tour!

I am posting this blog from our very hip Airbnb  Bungelow in Silver Lake. Our current home in Los Angeles in a neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles (one of our best yet!)

Why? Because we arrived last night for a three-day Airbnb extravaganza called Open LA where we will speak to hosts from over 100 countries from around the world about our Senior Nomads experience. This is a major happening - go to this website Airbnb Open and you'll get a idea of the scope of the event.

We gave our first presentation today in the classic Palace Theater in front of 1,000 Airbnb staff - to thank them and make them laugh at our madcap adventures living full-time in Airbnbs.

On Friday we will speak at the grand Orpheum Theater on Broadway. Our topic is Leaps of Faith: Strategic Risk Taking. A heavy sounding topic - but we'll find a way to make it fun. The next day, we will take part in a panel discussion on the Future of Travel. Other speakers include Gwyneth Paltrow, Frank Gehry, Danny Meyer, Ashton Kutcher, Chip Conley and the Airbnb founders. Oh - and there's a private Maroon 5 concert on Saturday night. What a fine way to spend three days in the sun!

On the big stage with Chip Conley - note our suitcases as props!
The most rewarding part of our appearance here will be at a meet and greet session that will include a signing our book, Your Keys, Our Home. All 6,000 attendees will receive a copy of our book in their welcome packet. Hopefully just a small percentage will want to have it signed or we'll return to Seattle with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome! If you haven't had a chance to check out the book yet, visit - and if you have read it, we would really appreciate you taking time to review it on Amazon and/or Goodreads Thank you.

Thanks for following along!

Debbie and Micael Campbell
The Senior Nomads 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Mafia Had the Right Idea

Good-bye Far-flung, former Soviet Republics! Ciao Italy! Our flight to the island of Sicily left Yerevan, Armenia at 5:30 am with a six hour lay-over in Athens, Greece. It was going to be a long day - but who cared? We were headed in the right direction - away from former Soviet Union enclaves. Although we were now headed toward the birthplace of the Mafia ... maybe we should call these last few months the Senior Nomads Corruption Tour

We missed the mobs and enjoyed Sicily with few tourists and no gangsters
We chose to spend our precious summer in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus Region because that part of the world doesn’t show well in winter. The landscapes and buildings are dreary enough without low hanging grey skies and cold drizzle adding to the gloom. So we explored this fascinating part of the world at it’s best - and we wouldn’t trade a single day, but we were happy to be heading back to Western Europe and to Italy in particular, one of our favorite countries.

The island of Sicily is a part of Italy that we hadn’t visited before. However in our lifetime we've been top-to-bottom and side-to-side spending time in twenty-eight different cities. We’d heard  great things about this island off the boot - especially the food, that we were more than ready for a leisurely ten-day tour.

 But first, breakfast in Athens. We were able to find Vassili and Helena, our Airbnb hosts from our two-week stay there in 2013 and asked if they’d like to spend a few hours together during our layover. Yes! They scooped us up at the airport and took us to breakfast at a local seafood restaurant nearby. It was great to see them again and confirmed that we have made some great friends on this journey.

A fine way to spend a layover in Athens.
I could write at length about Michael and I getting separated for an hour after we returned to the Athens airport but here's the short version. It all started with a stop at the restroom. As in I thought he said he was going to make a stop.  I sat down on a bench to wait. And wait. Apparently he did not go to the men's room, and failed to notice I wasn't behind him as he headed to security. He looked around and couldn’t find me anywhere. (We couldn't call or text each other because we didn't have cell coverage because we were between countries.) He decided I’d gone to the gate without him What? Meanwhile, after waiting twenty minutes I cajoled two different men to go into the bathroom to see if he'd collapsed in a stall. Finally I checked myself and he was definitely not there. Just as I began to panic I heard an announcement over the public address system calling me to the gate. That turned out to be 15 minutes away once I got through security and to the end of beyond. Michael was in a far worse state then I was by then. It all ended in a tearful happy/angry/relieved reunion just before the last call for our flight.

The Sicilian flag is characterized by the presence of the triskelion (trinacria) in its middle, the (winged) head of Medusa (Gorgon) and three wheat ears. The three bent legs allegedly represent the three points of the triangular shape of the island of Sicily, or the historical three valli of the island.

After a predawn start and the airport fiasco we were a little frazzled when we  arrived at our Airbnb in Catania. But we were revived by a very enthusiastic greeting from our host Daniela. Our apartment had been in her husband's family for a very long time - and in fact her in-laws could be traced back several hundred years. Catania Airbnb The flat belonged to her father-in-law, a well known architect and his sketches covered the walls. We enjoyed a lovely seafood dinner with her and her husband Carmelo and learned even more about the city and their connection.

We also discovered the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi would be visiting the city while we were there. That was enough to perk-up Michael’s ears - remember he loves politics and Senior Renzi is often in the news. As it turned out what seemed to be an endless stream of chanting citizens waving banners for dozens of different social issues, apparently not supported by the Prime Minister, passed right under our balcony.

Michael was pretty excited about our birds-eye view of the protests.
But why watch when you can join in!
We decided to get down to street-level so we could be a part of the action. Michael found many participants who spoke English and were more than happy to educate a couple of crazy Americans about the issues that the government was ignoring. Meanwhile Senior Renzi and hundreds of his supporters were sipping wine and “sharing the love” at an outdoor concert in a secured park as the finale to the three-day Democratic Party summer conference. Of course we went there too.

Delicious Sicilian street foods included Arancini - crumb coated, deep fried risotto and cheese balls!
During our short stay in Catania we took a day-trip north to the picturesque city of Taormina. The bus trip from sea level to 700 feet was a hair-raising on a narrow road filled with switchbacks. Watching bus drivers swerve past each other with barely a tap on the brakes, was worth the trip. The town itself was charming but filled with tourists but we managed to enjoy a quiet lunch at a trattoria tucked in a narrow alley away from the crowds. Soon after, it began to rain heavily so we wern't able to see the towns main attraction - the well-preserved Greek coliseum and it’s spectacular views of Mt. Etna, a still very active volcano. A side note, at dinner that evening we sat next to a spry couple from the Netherlands, both retired physicians, who may just be a little wackier than we are. They travel the world trekking to the very edges of volcanoes - the hotter the better. Etna would be their 7th such sojourn. As they were describing their travels, the woman closed her eyes for a moment and then sighed, “We just love the smell of lava!"  Hey - we like living in random peoples homes. Who are we to judge?
The view we didn't see in Taorimina - the coliseum and Mt. Etna in the distance.
The next day we jumped on another bus and headed south to the city of Syracuse for a three-day stay. Our Airbnb turned out to be one the nicest we’ve ever booked and the minute we walked in we wished we were staying for a month - here's the link: Syracuse Airbnb Now some of this euphoria could have been in response to our less than average accommodations in places like the Ukraine and Azerbaijan, but still, this was a special place. Take a look at the listing and the wonderful views from our balcony. Our host Kerry was a tall, tan, lanky American woman who, it turned out, was a successful fashion model in Milan and Paris in the 80’s. She was beautiful inside and out and made our stay exceptional.

A leisurely stroll through the charming streets of Ortigia with our host Kerry.
Syracuse itself isn’t particularly special, but the island of Ortigia sits just across a narrow channel of water and it is magical. Just saunter over the bridge and plunge into a twisting medieval maze. The highlights include a daily market where you could buy just about anything that came from the ground or the sea and you could slurp oysters and champagne at 8:00 am for just a few euros. One evening we visited the majestic Duomo with our host and caught a wedding underway.

Ortigia - an island filled with ancient treasures just off the city of Syracuse.
Before you knew it, we were on the road to our next Sicilian stop. We were told the only way to really experience the island requires renting a car, something we have done only 3 times in over three years. But we valued the advice of our good friend and veteran Italian tour guide, David Iverson who considers Sicily his favorite destination. He assured us we’d miss the magic if we didn’t drive the winding roads ourselves and stop at whatever roadside ruins or hidden beaches caught our fancy. If we had to do it - we decided to do it in style and rented a Audi A3 Convertible. Of course having our giant suitcases piled in the back seat sort of took some of the glamour away.

Getting a little work done at our B&B in Piazza Amerina.
Our first stop was a B&B for a night in Piazza Armerina near La Villa Romana del Casale. It was a family affair - with Papa on the welcoming committee and Nonna in the kitchen and an adorable seven year old granddaughter for me to entertain. We met a very pleasant American couple whom we had dinner with that evening in the old city. After breakfast, we grabbed a few fresh oranges and headed to one of the must-see sights of Sicily, Villa Romana del Casale. All I have will say is I have never seen anything like it. And the imagination and execution required to produce these masterpieces boggles my simple mind. It was not only one of my favorite places in Sicily, I put it in my top 10. Right up there with visiting  the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant and the Vatican Museum.

I can't believe I am standing on tiles laid down over 2,000 years ago!
Heres a snip from Lonely Planet’s description: “Villa Romana del Casale is sumptuous, even by decadent Roman standards, and is thought to have been the country retreat of Marcus Aurelius Maximianus, Rome's co-emperor during the reign of Diocletian (AD 286–305). Certainly, the size of the complex – four interconnected groups of buildings spread over the hillside – and the 3535 sq m of astoundingly well-preserved multi-colored floor mosaics suggest a palace of imperial standing."

Just one of dozens of panels in a huge floor. This one depicts a boar hunt.
To prove there is nothing new - here's the first recorded bikini.
We continued heading West along the underside of Sicily to Agrigento where we spent the night at a beautiful agroturism resort nestled in a working olive grove called Mandranova Azienda Agricola. This was another of Dave’s recommendations and he was spot on. I was in the pool ten minutes after we arrived while Michael took a long nap. We had a lovely dinner under the stars at long tables with two dozen other guests. The menu was set - your only decision was meat, fish or vegetarian for your main course. After that, amazing food just kept coming, and the wine kept flowing, and conversations drifted between intimate and shared. Afterwards we crawled into our big feather bed made up with butter-soft linen sheets and thanked the Gods.

 It had been a long time since I'd had a dip in a pool - and this one was special.
We stretched like cats in the morning sun and headed to the main house for more delectables where  we were not disappointed. We started with bread straight from the oven served with saucers of fresh-pressed olive oil for dipping, quivering soft-boiled eggs and homemade sausage. Next on the buffet were jammy tarts, melt-in-your mouth scones, almond biscotti, toasted walnuts and homemade yogurt with stewed figs. And we had to leave room for farm grown fruit and fresh squeezed juices. And of course the finest espresso in the land.

The setting for dinner and breakfast the next morning.
Just before we headed out for our next adventure, we began a lively conversation with a young German couple, Thomas and Terane who live in Berlin. She is an innovative interior designer and he is a graphic designer who was a toddler when the wall came down. We were both smitten right off the bat and we had a great chat about German typography but the conversation soon turned political, as always, and we were off and running on topics that ran from Angela Merkel and immigration, to Brexit and the relevance of the EU. We finished with an analysis on our upcoming presidential election and our thoughts on Mr. Trump. Argh. It was about this time that we considered becoming Canadian for the rest of our trip.

Talking Trump with our new German friends Terane and Thomas.
We continued to delay checking-out since the cost of the room and dinner for one night was equivalent to 3 nights in our typical airbnbs so we took one last stroll through the olive grove.

Back in our super-sleek Audi  (despite the offending suitcases) we continued west and then north to our final stop in the city of Trapani where we would spend our final two nights. The reason for going to Trapani, besides visiting the charming old city and having gelato for breakfast, was to visit the ancient city of Erice.  Here's the Link

Breakfast Gelato!
The recommended way to reach this medieval gem is by the funicular in six person gondolas that whisk you from sea level to 2,400 feet in about 15 minutes and deposits you at the fortified gates to the city. Far better than yet another twisting one lane road. It was equal to the praise we read in every guide to Sicily. Although like most everywhere  else, you had to look past the souvenir shops and restaurants serving all you an eat pasta and sushi (that would be in the same restaurant).

The sky high town of Erice where you were dropped back in time.
Our Trapani Airbnb was basic but comfortable, and our hosts were gracious although they did not speak English. Here's the link: Trapani Airbnb Fortunately their 15 year-old daughter did so she zoomed over on the back of her boyfriend's Vespa to spare some precious teenage time and make sure we knew the basics.  One thing we continue to learn … "assume nothing." There was no hot water at the kitchen sink so we chased down the owners to ask how to turn it on. It wasn’t an option - no hot water. That would be a first.

Day 10 arrived, and like every other day in Sicily we woke to blue skies and sunshine. So, with the convertible top down and Italian pop tunes blasting on the radio we set-out for the Palermo airport where we dropped off our car and caught a flight for Rome. This time we kept each other in site.

We really enjoyed our time in Sicily and will definitely go back. If only to appease our friends who pointed out what we missed. Especially Palermo. Unless you were part of the contingent that couldn't care less about Palermo and were relieved we spent time in Catania. And so it goes in Italy.

On arrival in Rome we were met yet again by former Airbnb hosts who have become friends. Laura and Paolo hosted us at their Airbnb in Nicosia in 2015 where we really bonded. They invited us to stay with them whenever we were in Rome if they were at their home there. The stars aligned and we we able to see them again. These connections are a critical part of why we continue our Senior Nomad lifestyle - because without a home of our own, we always find a special place to call home.

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads

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:

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: 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… 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 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

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

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 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