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Rollin In A Russian Lada, Areni, Armenia, August 8th, 2015

Getting out of Yerevan; easy enough.  

It took some walking, and a couple of very short lifts, but we finally got onto the way.

In Yerevan, I wouldn’t say it’s the case, but like, back in Akhalkalaki, here in the countryside, all the men are staring at Emine, like horny boys.  And not only staring at her, but at me as well, like I got shit on my face.

I absolutely loved my time in Yerevan, and could imagine hanging out there a while longer.  We eventually found a nice host, from Iran, who took us in.  His flat with very little space, he and his room-mate, they made some for us.  We drank like fish, and into the night and in the morning I ended up on someone’s front yard, passed out.  They thought I was dead.  And so, like any time you might think someone is dead, they called an ambulance.  When the ambulance came they realised I wasn’t dead, and at the same time I woke up.  They were mounting me into the ambulance, and about to shoot me with some kind of needle.

‘HEY! HEY! What the hell are you guys doing, huh?!’

'Relax sir, it’s ok.  Just lay back.’

'Fuck that! I ain’t layin back.  I’m relaxed, I’m fine.’  And as the word fine finished, I ripped the needle out of my arm and pushed the woman back to spring out of the back door, onto a residential road and then run like Jesse Owens,  or an escaped convict, all the way to our Iranian friend’s place.

'Freddi! Where have you been.  I’ve been so worried.  You’re ok?  Oh my.’  After all that, Emine slammed her fists on my chest,

'You disappeared!  I hate it when you disappear!’  She took a breath, relaxed a bit, 'at least you’re ok.’

The two of us found a nice, air conditioned dorm, a few stories up over-looking the city, before finding our Iranian host.  Kantar Hostel, though tucked away, and a bit tough to find, was about eight euro each (at the time).  The dorm was pretty much, empty.  We had a free, buffet breakfast, and a big. flat screen to watch movies in the air conditioning.  It was so pimp -and cheap.  A small balcony to watch the city move at night.  We couldn’t afford more than two nights, and fortunately this Iranian guy showed up and met us at the Opera House or else we’d have had to leave the city.  And man, I really loved my time in Yerevan, simply wanted it to last a little longer.  And boy were we both grateful for Mostafa (our Iranian mate) and Kantar for their big breakfast and air conditioning!

So like I said, after a couple short lifts, a short pause, at yet another angle of Ararat, to enjoy the distant -tragically- view of the mountain, we are on our way.   A man in board shorts, and polished, white, leather sandals picks us up. He’s driving a Lada, white, like everyone else.  The man doesn’t speak, he shouts; like he’s had ear phones in the past decade.

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His Russian is great and a very animated character as well.  We stop on the roadside for him to load up on tomatoes,

'Caucasus, you know Caucasus?’

'Well, yea, we’re here aren’t we?’

'Caucasus! Azerbaijan, Armenie! Georgia.  This Caucasus!’

'Yea, ok, and?’

'Market; here market, all Caucasus, this market; cheap market; but here, no cheap market.

Basically, the roadside markets were everywhere -especially in this region, actually- but, this one was the most expensive.  O.K.  Cheers.

So we stop. ?

He haggles, and the fruit man gives us a coffee each.  He haggles some more, then gets another bag of tomatoes.  Open and shut, his trunk goes up and down, up and down…

After ages of the fruit man trying to kidnap us, we’re out -and back on the road.

Fruit market.  Fruit market.  Then his car starts acting up.

This car, old Communist-era Lada, is seen everywhere in Armenia, pretty much the only place left where it’s still a popular car on the road I guess.  maybe in poor parts of Russia as well.  It’s commonly white, with four doors; and it’s a tight squeeze with a low roof.  The car is his 'dad’s’ he says.

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The car is easily twenty years old -and GREAT, he says.  Everything Russian is great with this guy.  Funny thing though, after some time his LPG igniter doesn’t work.  We can’t move, no gas.  And the road doesn’t exactly run flat, or uphill currently, so we glidin’.  This country, as I’ve come to see, is a maze of pavement, through nothing but massive, blond, baron mountains.

The shit is unreal! And intensely unique.

One minute five hundred metres down, next minute fifteen hundred up, then another thousand up, and back down another five hundred.  And this guy’s car keeps fucking up, the whole way.  He notices I’m on the nod, tired from a devouring day -heat stealing my strength (as I tried to find camping gas for hours before leaving Yerevan).

'HEY! Sing! Come on, SING!’

He keeps insisting and Emine keeps refusing, finally I try to remember, ’When the night feels my song’ by Bedouin Soundclash.

Finally, the guy lets the LPG rip, stepping on the gas pedal like he’s got a dozen needles in his knee.  Fully like a bird in a boxcar, with wings torn out of our front doors, the road is going all the way down, and fast!

As the car is gliding, my teeth are nearly grinding as I notice the speed-o-metre isn’t moving, but instead throbbing beyond it’s capacity.  Meanwhile this guy is pumping his LPG and going maniac, ultimate warrior, on the gas pedal, trying to get the thing going.  But really, it doesn’t matter, because we’re nearly at Mach speed heading down a cement river, straight into the deepest turnpike of these canyons.

We arrive in Areni (ancient monastery site) and an endless line of peach vendors.  The guy loads up his truck with bags of peaches, and the woman shares one -sliced up- with us, Emine getting soaked by the peach juice and then coaxed into buying a bottle of local wine -which isn’t too bad, despite being in a plastic, coke bottle.

Another peach vendor.  And another massive bag of peaches for old mate.  And a market area, with a couple shops where I can take a piss and get some water -we’ve still got a while to go, yet.

'Here, Freddi, Here!’

Emine looks over at me, 'I think you should fill the bottle with that water!’

A restaurant clerk -friend of the driver’s- offers us a coffee.  I figure  a little kebab would do some good, before carrying on another couple hours to Kapan.  Especially considering the clerk is so nice, offering us drinks.

The man seemed to be happy enough to take us along, to Kapan, and he was headed there, so why not get a lift to the bottom of Armenia, then work our way back up? Even if the dude can’t control his vocal chords.

All the sudden we are pulled over to a woman -and I know why.

'Can I help you with something?’  She is a tour guide for some bus of foreigners.

'Huh?’

'Do you have any questions?’

Every time someone who speaks English arrives, in similar situations, the local pulls me over to talk with them like we know each other.  Like it’s life depending that I talk with her.

On top of that, they generally treat me like I’m desperate, or dire for some help.

'No? What?’

I look around awkwardly; I look at her, at Emine, at the driver and the clerk who was meant to bring me a kebab.

'I thought I was getting a kebab -and Emine a coffee.  Now there seems to be some confusion, and you?’  What is there to confuse, I’m thinking.

She’s looking real pensive and like, willing to help, but I’m thinking, 'what the hell is the problem?’

'The man thinks you might need some help,’ she says to me.

'Well, not really, just that if he is going to Kapan, we’d be happy to tag along.  I kinda thought everything was figured out already.  Like, I’m pretty sure we already talked about all this and he nodded and all that jazz?’

The two of them speak.

'He wants six thousand dram (twelve euro) to take you guys,’ my vision blurries and nerves shake.  She continues, 'his car is old, he says, and with the extra weight it will take too much gas (never mind the ten kilo of each, peaches and tomatoes).

'Yea, ok, we’re gonna stay here.’  

Despite the place being super uncomfortable, everyone staring at us, unable to find some kind of calm and now this extortionist, and it being dark, very dark.  There is no way we’re paying twelve euro to carry on.

Of course, the two of them speak again, and it’s obvious what he wants.  He wants money from the point he picked us up.  But where other situations might have gotten even stickier, and more anxiety riddled, she’s getting tough, explaining the difference between hitch-hiking and a taxi (with my guidance, and impatience).  Like he doesn’t know anyhow.

The shadiest thing in life for me, is this sneaky boxing-in technique, that is nearly robbery.  You do something for someone, then after it is done, play the guilt card to get some money out.  Like his old car, and his hard life.

Here’s the story. This guy sees us buy a bottle of wine (two euro) which he insisted we do.  He sees me buy a kebab (from his friend who offered us coffee but we’ve not yet gotten) and then thinks,

'Ah ha! They got money for that; they got money for me!’

Twelve euro for two hours of driving, in this bloke’s car that keeps breaking down n shit.  How’s that fair?  And neither is expecting us to pay four euro each for the trip we’d already done.

Only a couple times did this happen in Georgia, and the cost wasn’t unrealistic either. But in Egypt this happened a lot.  After a few times, I tried to negotiate prices, but it was always smiles and shoulder pats, then the extortion.  Then fighting.  Just exhausting really.  And this wouldn’t be the last time in Armenia either.

A very poor level of communication (and you can blame it on language, but in Jordan peeps were very able to negotiate without the language being a barrier), and a representation of kindness then expectancy of cash for non-negotiation (because we’re rich tourists).  

Already all the digression, abrasive noise of people, of him, and the mega heat, plus dark, intense, pervy or hateful grins and looks; now this shady bullshit.  Over the limit.  About to snap in fact.

It’s starting to feel real bad, like diarrhoea creeping up on a long, Indian train ride.

Lucky the girl is there to play our linebacker, and block the fucker, and even luckier we’re introduced to a peach farmer that is willing to bring us back to his property to set up our camp the night -and even bring us water in the morning!

We finally get the coffees too, with this man’s help.  And my plain, dry, and overpriced kebab.


A couple fishermens deep, dark secrets Yerevan, Armenia July 30th, 2015

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Coming into Yerevan, is like heading into Warsaw circa 1949.  There are so many buildings that seem destroyed; blown out windows, chunks missing, blackened framework.

There are big factories all the way in, I guess like Berlin, and like Berlin after the wall fell down, none of the factories seemed to be functional.  One of them, with a set of four enormous, grey cylinders is straight out of the Simpsons.  Only, unlike Springfield, there’s torn up land everywhere, man-made ‘canyons’ of multicoloured earth.

More than the rubble left behind by communism, and the changes yet to be made in this, post-Soviet rule, my greatest surprises have come from the landscape.  Blond mountains, bare of grass -or shrubs, even (as we found all over the Turkish Mediterranean).   Chunky mountains as well, like blocks of crumbled stone.  

This is desert to me.  

But unlike a desert, every now and then a rich, green plantation of some kind -then a factory, worn, rusted, and abandoned.  The factories for the most part, have one, high chimney, like the one you would find, standing high in the middle of Sudbury, ON, Canada (only these are not quite as tall).

And similar to Sudbury, I imagine, abandoned shop houses as well, and abandoned villages, like everywhere else in the world where a mine has gone dry.

Eventually, a huge marshmallow appears in the sky, in the distance, along the naked dirt and scattered rocks.

'What the fuck is that? Is that, ahhhhh…’ I pause to focus my terribly blind eyes, 'that’s a freaking MOUNTAIN! Jeebus.’

Emine, in a half-sleeping voice, glossy eyed and very hot, 'yea, just noticed that , too.’

The air from outside is sticky, and very much Kimberley-like (desert canyon region in Northern Australia reaching 55 degrees on an average day in September).

'It’s SO big!’

I tap the man up front, in the passenger seat a little, from the back, to ask him about this singular, massive, frosty topped mountain.

'What is this mountain, over there?’

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The driver’s a bit shocked by my words, as I’d been reading a while -and Emine sleeping.  He loses the wheel a moment, then straightens her out,

'It’s Ararat.’  Ararat is a fairly popular name in Turkey.  A brand name even, and now I knew why. Turns out, some Turks even claim that pieces of Noah’s Arc have been found up on the top of her.  The sea dried out, see, and then as the water drained, the arc was left wobbling on Ararat’s mountain peak. In all of the land, all over the world, the sea finally sank and on this singular, mountain peak, and their boat teetered back and forth as they unloaded, and then down the five thousand metre mountain slope.  

Yea, that was likely.  

But more incredible than that hocus horse shit, to me, is that this is the first time I’m told of this huge, monumental mountain in the middle of flatlands.  I felt somehow disappointed in myself.  And because of the relationship between Armenia and Turkey, and Ararat being inside of Turkey -though shouldn’t be- this meant our view here, from the car, is about as close as I’d get to the fucking beauty.  The last chance saloon, one might say.  So I stare, and stare, and stare some more until my eyes bled for a blink.

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These guys that picked us up, waited as we crossed the border.  They had to wait a while, as we filed paperwork, and walked a few hundred metres, from visa office, to money exchange for DRAM, to pay the fee (seven USD each for 21 days). And before that, we also walked between borders, instead of them driving us, about three kilometres.

They’d picked us up ten kilometres shy of the border in Georgia, where they’d been fishing.  Thing about that was, they’d been hunting around villages, and near to creeks, to find something named 'Zar’.  The driver kept pulling over to ask, down remote roads, to locals.

For some reason, after all the strangeness we’d experienced already with them.  Random talking and the division between us, the indifference, I started getting a bit paranoid.  As I do, these days.  And well, in this new country, of Armenia with a pretty rubbish reputation so far and us, on unmarked roads, off the highway to Yerevan.  Well, it was all feeling a bit shifty.
Eventually I finally get up the gumption to ask why we had stopped at this little shop -with Ararat behind it.  Leading towards the answer of why we kept asking everyone about 'zar’.

'Fish.’  

That’s what the man says to me. 'Fish.’  We were getting fish.

But hang on a minute, fish? Wait.   These guys, who were fishing in Georgia, are now buying fish?  Oh, yea, that makes me feel a whole lot better.  Makes complete sense. Thanks for filling me in.

So, how’s this story go then?  Maybe they spent a couple days fishing, caught nothing and I figure they wanted to appear otherwise to their potentially, laughing, ridiculing wives.

'Or maybe!’ Emine chirps up, 'they went to Batumi for some gambling, drinking and girls and now they want to look as if they’d been fishing.’

She was good.  Hella scandalous, but good.


Just outside of Yerevan, there’s a small lake and around it buildings, amongst all the decrepit land I’ve already explained in detail.

'Wow.  That is, surprisingly, very nice,’ I notice the reflections from the buildings, clear against the water in the late sun.

The buildings themselves are like others -even in the reflection, they still look run down.  But pretty, none the less.  Some kind of bitter, broken homed, malnourished beauty.

There’s a small interstate, like Anchorage, Alaska I’d say, and once into the centre the whole world changes.  It’s new, shining bright with colour, and characterised with people everywhere in the streets.  

They drop us at the Opera House. Behind it, there’s a big square -one of many big squares- with a skate-park of ramps squared off, a stage with large speakers and break beats spinning, loudly.

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We needed to find this squat house we’d heard about, or read about on-line.

I approach one guy, who is doing some liquid manoeuvres -and had lines of facial hair on his cheeks, like mine ten years before.  Seconds after we start talking, three boys in matching red and white track suits get up, and on the stage and start breaking shit DOWN!

What a spot!

Emine is a psy-tance, kind of girl. She wasn’t as enthusiastic about the elements of hip-hop beaming in our faces.  And with little help from our new friends, to find this squat, I’m left with little to do, but walk off and carry on with our search.  But with a forty in my hand I had visions of my boys back in Vancity, myself, and whoever else, chilling on the edge of the stage talking smack and throwing round verses.  The memories are not as vivid as they once were.  But they are there, just above the cellar, fighting to stay in the light.

And not much further away, as we continue our mission to find this squat, asking every derelict, musician or indie lookin bystander, we arrive at the next, huge square, with ploughing, high water, blasting out of a large fountain, synchronised, and lit up in the night with a glowing, neon tinge, while Edith Piaf is singing along with the whole scene.  All of it, right in the middle of the Republic Square.

It’s a brilliant place, and the square is so clean and new and western European.  Like Vienna, or Paris, or London.

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A huge, confusing roundabout square, inside of massive, stadium-like federal monuments, carved out like bridges, for cars to pass through them.

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Though, the instant beauty of Yerevan catches me, and I’m drawn to it more and more, we must carry on walking.  We are both tired, and can’t find a single lead on the whereabouts of this damn squat -or the Rainbow gathering we were headed to Armenia for, in the first place (out in the distant regions of the city, on mountainside between remote villages).

And finally, there we are, strutting along the big foyers of the centre, all lit up like Champs-d'Elysee, and we come up to three cats sitting on a bench.   Looking pretty rough, rugged and derelict themselves, we kinda spring together.  And sure enough they were from the Rainbow Gathering, that had recently finished.  

Oh yea!  Finished.

And then some more of them.  But no squat.  We had to create our own.  And the parks of Yerevan, unfortunately, are not ideal for propping up a tent.

Eventually, absolutely exhausted, we find a little area between buildings, covered in bushes and trees and sneak inside.  Not even a tent, we put our mats down, for even the late evening is stifling.  As warm as mid-day in Sicily this time of year.  My shirt, disgustingly, saturated in thick liquid was living proof, as we finally plop our packs down to the dirt floor for a rest.

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A Cave city and Tamar the Great, Vardzia, Georgia July 29th, 2015

Something special which I couldn’t have gotten, without kicking over many kilometres of bitumen, something that long-term travel has given me.  

A sense of, a how-to, when entering a new region.  And what is the best way to enter a new area, one of uncorrupted nature? And ancient history?  Well, by foot, of course.

But how?

Oh, what a break it was!

From the hell-spawn of Ahkalkalaki, walking the ten kilometre, gravel strip to an ancient village, Kumurdo, then catch a lift with a couple young Armenian lads, half drunk, listening to some down south gangster rap.  And into Kumurdo, and its very narrow, wobbling ‘streets’, between thick, stone fences, made centuries before, by hardened masons.

'Maybe they’re going to park the car and invite us to their backyard,’ says Emine as they are taking us to the rear of a single floor home.

I’m in front of her, 'What, the, Holy Shitballs!’  That’s my expression.

'What is it, Freddi?’

'It’s fucking incredible! How the hell….’

'How the hell what, Freddi?’

There’s no backyard.  The ground drops right off and into a canyon.  A massive canyon, spreading into two gorges.  Very green, very wet, very gorgeous valleys!

'Take this path,’ the young lad probably says in Armenian, 'it’s two kilometre down, to the village.’

We can even see the village, Turogvi, split into two and covered in garden.

And high above Turogvi, at the gate of one gorge, a fortress and a church!

Take the long, path down, skip through mud and fight for space with free-lancing cows.  It’s a long roll downhill, but eventually, more stone walls, then a camping area and a main road to Vardzia.  It’s about six kilometres, full-stop.

But Vardzia, it is not a town.  No, it’s an ancient community of caves built in the mountainside as a fortress, that once housed 50, 000 people.   And also served to protect them from all the surrounding imperialists.

'I thought there was only a monastery,’ I say to Emine, as the caves reveal themselves.  Thankfully wrong too.  An unbelievable set of caves, some with churches within them, and we’ve not even reached the city!

The ride to the area might be a toute, offering you a room for about 8 euro each, then, knowing that at the Guest-house it will be less, you’ll be talked into double the price without knowing, but it will include breakfast.  You’ll talk him down, but it’s a long ass walk and little shade, to the very end of the road.  So yea, once you’ve reached around 5 bucks each, take it.

The Guest-house is beautiful, with a bee keeping area, crops of sunflowers, trees of many fruit, including some terribly sour, little apples.

The toute is an ass; but expectedly I suppose.  And the 'young’ man, in charge is also a bit of an ass. But his parents are great.  They certainly make up for it.  And the amazing bed, and huge shower as well.  Especially after all the broken bed springs and couches and valley floors.

So when he says 'breakfast’, he means dinner; fresh dumplings, stuffed with meatballs, and comes with cheese, salad, fresh bread and omelette.  Yea pretty great.

Oh, what’s that?

Breakfast also means, BREAKFAST!

So, just so we’re straight here, eight euro gets a private room with a cozy bed, a huge bathroom, dinner and breakfast.  Ok, that’s alright…  I guess!  And only a small stroll to the cave city!

This is how the rich roll at Cote Azure.  Only here, you don’t have to be rich to enjoy some of the comforts.  

'Yea, Emine, I’ve been thinking.  Maybe we should stay one extra night?’

And you won’t be alone either.  Plenty of bugs around.

Varnia Guesthouse.  That’s the one to look up, find, or track down should you get so lucky to reach this incredible valley.  When I am seeking out a place to hike into, firstly, is it full of tourists? No.

Is there a river?  Yea, a huge one.

Is there some kind of history there?  

Um.  Yea.   A fortress that stood for Tamar the Great’s throne, the Queen of the 12th century, and built before her father’s death.  That fell twenty years after she’d die, to the Mongols running a rampage across Asia.  But held off 10, 000 Turkic soldiers with only 2.000 of their own.  

It would fall again, to Persians in the 16th, and Ottoman in the late 16th.  There are two monasteries -one for the men and another for women- that managed to survive every one of those campaigns.   The monasteries faced hard times during all the reigns of oppression, and especially when Russians came to take power and put a complete stop to any religious practice.  But in the 80’s it was brought back into action, and is now used, again, by Orthodox Christians.

As for the cave city.   Tamar the Great (Georgian Queen) played as a child, in its tunnels, tunnels made so complicated that she could escape when the time came. 

Tamar stood up and supported Christians, and their monasteries -where others didn’t at the time.  And while she supported the idea of integrating religions, she also stood as a great leader. 

The greatest that Georgia saw and at least once, was used as an example of strength, knowledge and determination by Ivan the Terrible,

'The most wise Queen of Iberia, endowed with the intelligence and courage of a man.’  In fact, she was not the queen, actually, but in Georgian was claimed, and made heir as the King.

Though there is a big collection of tour buses, and equally, of course, many tourists with their big, fuck-off cameras, it wasn’t stiffening.  It wasn’t suffocating.  And there was plenty of space for us to roam around and eventually mount the remaining pieces of the castle.  A hard, little climb, it wasn’t exactly hiking, but one of the things I loved about Emine, was her persistence when it came to climbing.  She didn’t carry the same fear that others might.  And though it was completely unsafe I recommend the view to everyone!

Especially the marijuana plants on the other side, when you finally decide to descend and make your way back to Varnia Guesthouse.  

If you’re lucky, it’ll be harvest season and you’ll find a couple of female plants throwin their scent around.

Keep going towards Armenia and you’ll also come to Khaveti fortress.  Not quite the stunning encapsulation of time, as Vardzia, it is still a remarkable structure.  And a great way to end our time in Georgia, before getting a lift to the border of Armenia.


Akhalkalaki and the Armenian settler, Akhalkalaki, Georgia July 25th, 2015

In spite of the dope ass pilgrim statue, in the centre of town this place was easily the worst I’d experienced since arriving TO Turkey.  We thought that Turkish men were intense.  As soon as I disappeared to change money, men were on Emine like vultures.  Picking and prodding at her shoulders, and cracking on, asking for sex!

What the fuck? Really?  This is Georgia?

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A young woman, walking her kid, in a stroller, as we drank to wane off the stress, invites us back to her place -out of pity (and compassion).   The young woman had no promise for anything better in Armenia, either.  

This town of Akhalkalaki, was after all, another Armenian quarter.  While Emine was already troubled a bit having problems of her own, with family, and money, I’d never seen her so shook up, and it made me very angry, furious, with red eyes and saliva dripping from my fangs; I wanted to rip their heads off of their necks for making my girl cry.  As well, her closed-minded, upside down, conservative brother.  But I ain’t got the gift to be rippin heads off so I bought us a few beers instead.

And while I am being shouted at for pissing in some bushes -again, is this Georgia?-  this young lady comes up to our bench with her stroller.  Emine, then heads off for a toilet and I start chatting with this local.  This young woman who invites us back to her place, and well, her place is absolutely gorgeous.

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Stunning hard wood floors, huge, wood doorways; big bookshelves, and a huge balcony.  The place is unbelievable and in another country -in the west, at least- this place would be ridiculously expensive.

Despite the beauty, and calm, and security in the big, old house, my marital status with Emine starts to become a huge problem when I allow her to sleep alone, after I head out, into the horrid town, to fetch us something to drink.  She was right enough, pissed off with her brother, who was making her feel like complete shit, calling home for a bit of money to carry on, into Armenia and then back home.  And the men, making her feel like a prostitute and a piece of shit -because of her clothing.  On top of it all, her man, who she had faith was good, and did care, storms off for some drinks. This is the top shelf of explosion.  I’m too busy trying to thank my hosts -the young woman and her friend- to consider the whole thing at the moment.

The woman saw Emine’s unhappiness, clearly, and invited us in, to help.  I was just trying to follow through on our end.

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We’d spent a great day arriving to the town, hiking from Tabatskuri, hoping to arrive to Vardzia.  It was a mix of hitching and walking, and the countryside was uncorrupted as usual and simply breath-taking.  

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With the heat pretty high and us walking through open pasture, it made it pretty tough with our gear on our backs.  But, the countryside folk and their old school instruments, made the whole thing an incredible stroll through another century.

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We wanted to arrive to Vardzia, where a cave city could be found, and had a great reputation for being very unique.  However, Emine ran out of money and had to call home, leaving us to find the little internet shop in this shit-hole of a town.  And even within the area of the internet shop, as Emine waited for me to come back with some cash, the cars stopped, full of boisterous, disrespectful, goof, zeeked out, jack-offs.  And I couldn’t do much, but take the girl into the park, buy a couple of big beers and try to cool the situation out.  After questioning the integrity of the dudes running the internet shop.  I had to blame somebody.  The harmony before arriving in this cesspool was fading quickly.

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A couple days laughing on lakeside, eating fish with a big family who were in the midst of a family reunion with relatives who’d driven over, from Russia.  Tea with nomads, where Emine could speak freely in her first language.  In the countryside, walking past hay bails, tractors and cow herders. Through all of it, looking back in reflection, from this turn of events in Ahalkalaki, there was, in fact, a feeling that attitudes were changing, beginning with the human aspect at Tabatskuri.  Reminded suddenly, of the elderly couple, in their house and the strange, awkwardness we’d felt.

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But to this degree, none could expect such a thing.  And to top it all off, these settlers from Armenia, their roots were the same roots as Emine, whose father was Armenian himself, leaving her to feel somehow displaced, again.  Perhaps, at one level she hoped to find herself in the people.  That she could somehow relate, or identify herself in Armenian culture, where she could not in Turkey.

Her father was one of the many, whose parents had to flee the country during the Ottoman’s final claim to power, oppression and control.

And the even more peculiar component was that, for me, I imagined differently for Armenia; a Christian country.  A very old one as well.  The oldest, actually.

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I expected something like in Europe. People developing in the modern world, opening up consciously and letting go of supposed expectations that were garnered through religion (and their supposed know-it-alls who conjured up rules, and eventually law, which in fact had little to do with God, or Allah, or whatever else you wanna call the deity.  

I came to expect this sort of behaviour in Muslim countries where men are taught that women cannot express themselves physically -in public- and as well, and more importantly, men are suppressed from developing their sexuality, or taught about it, openly, experimentally, and more importantly how they view women in this regard.  This sudden shift, and so clearly obvious what the change was, how it was directly connected to the fact that state of origin had changed.  This was something I’ve never noticed so vividly, abruptly.  It really caught me off-guard.  Puzzled, is the best I can come up with.  Disappointed as well.  Disappointed in these fuckheads that got a bone running horizontally through their craniums, still.  And also feeling sorry for the women that have to grow up in all this.  Likely more advanced, and able to think more freely in some sense of the word.

The more time I spend in these undeveloped countries, around Europe and on the cusp of Asia, the more I see that it is not simply the infrastructure of commerce or transport that’s been held back, but it has everything to do with education and the undeveloped person as well, who missed the woman’s rights movements on the TV.  And well, they didn’t likely have one, or if they did the dictator probably came round, collected it and lit it on fire in the town square.

And I am starting to see that, while in some cases the control is systematically held through the misleading use of religion.  There is also the country, as a traditional element, that holds on to it’s old ways.  I suppose it is a fine line between religion and tradition, as they’ve been integrated, but its not solely a situation where we should blame religion, alone, for such things as sexism.  But the people have to go through their own movements, on their own time.  To continue shaping the country and it’s means for existence.  It was Russia that first allowed women the right to vote after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, and you would think that through Soviet rule, in Armenia, this aspect might have had some more personal effect.  But I suppose not.   I suppose they’ve been frozen in time, clinging to the depression of a genocide that no one deserves.  Clinging to it, and even more than that, expecting an apology from Erdogan.  The backward, neo-dictatorial, extremist, hypocrite, himself.

If we looked at this young lady, Malala, from Pakistan or Myanmar’s darling, Suu Kyi -though in hot water at the moment- we could see two women who chose to leave anger behind, to forgive those that persecuted (and nearly killed) them. Both faced different situations, but alike they were ostracised, and nearly killed for having democratic beliefs, that held in the hope for a better country, in which they were from.  They hoped to move their home land’s direction from a narrow path, and onto the open prairie, to fresh, growing, rich pasture, towards a colourful, prospering, and most importantly, free future.  Or at least, relatively free.  Where girls could study or where drinking water could be managed.

As long as this little country struggles to move forward -especially its government, which no doubt have their ulterior motives, aside from it’s people- and take steps into advancement, I suppose the more likely it will be to have young, travelling women, come to the countryside -outside of Yerevan- and have all eyes on them, being judged and mistreated.

Fortunately, for us, we had a nice host to tuck us away while we had this first taste of what was to come, in Armenia.  And we could escape this one with ease.  Jolted, scuffled, but far from beaten.

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While in Vardzia, something all together different.  Something else, we had no yet encountered much, but for one little restaurant/house surrounded by lakes.  Tourism!

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Cheese, Mountain Tops, Azerji Nomads and Armenian Fishermen Lake Tabatskuri, Georgia July 21st, 2015

So, yet again, asking for water has led to being kidnapped -and led- to a table of fatty cheese, heavy cream, bread, and of course the huge canister of wine.

‘You must drink five before finishing,’ he says to Emine in Turkish.  Again, we are in some deep waters.

The guy worked part-time doing labour jobs for fuck all cash in Turkey -naturally he wanted to go to Canada (he ain’t stupid).

'At night,’ he says, 'the rule is ten.’

So after he’s left to mind his crops, his chickens, and his cows, after the five cups of rouge, Emine and I sneak in a nap to shake off the five rounds.

The man that invited us in to stay, willing to host us the night in this secluded area of little else than a few farm houses and more than ten kilometres away from the nearest town, is the local cheese Guru.  His methods are simple -but his pots are thick and massive.

One of the wonderful epiphanies I came to know around Georgia, in regions where hiking is limitless -normally prone to weight-loss- you can hike four or five hours, end up in a tiny, remote village and walk away fatter than you’d arrived.

At the base of the valley, just shy of Bakuriani, a village sits, of shattered dreams and rusty pipes, and burnt out exhaust columns from out of winter torn windows.  The poverty is set in pretty rich, it seems, but a woman not much older than me, out of her flat, passes us a fresh hachipori without a single word edgewise.  Simple offerings from one weather torn community to another.

From Bakuriani the views start to really open up; life starts to get very sexy and mountainous.  But the road is far from developed, and yet, even though there were very few cars to catch a lift -leaving us to walk up eight hundred metres- there’s a car full of Asians with cameras ready; with one man looking very disappointed,

'We can fit one?“  His sadness apparent and as well, the impossible choice of Emine and I separating.  

It was a road worthy of a pilgrim, for one wouldn’t call it a road, but instead, a dirt trail.  A shiny, four by four rolls up and offers us a lift, after an hour or so of walking uphill, sure that we’d walk forever.  And with the help of a car driving in the opposite direction, realise they’ve been driving the wrong way a while.

'You can leave us at that old house.’

He returns the request, 'yea, looks like a good house.’

An abandoned structure, no doubt, sitting on the edge of a very long cliff, clear of anything and looking over a distant mountain of what I’d assumed part of Borjomi National Park.

As the road curves a steep hill, nearing the top, where the humps are bare of trees and only short, vibrant grass -possibly an area for skiing in the winter- a small fountain pushes out, shooting fresh, spring water, out for us,  with water colder than a polar bears nutsack.

As we are filling up our bottles a car rolls towards us and three lads come out of it, to get some water themselves.  They offer us a lift up to the top, where the road splits and we’d have to go separate ways, but before getting into the car we had to slam three rounds of white wine.  

One of the lads opens the trunk so casually, like selling hubcaps, only it’s a ten litre bottle of wine, some tomatoes and cucumbers.

'The rule is three,’ he says.

Apparently, as we’d come to learn, there were three rules.  They were either you slam three, five or ten, depending on the hour of the day, I guess.

Booming around bends, winding like flies in a narrow hallway, the little beater of a car is flying round like a snake on amphetamines.  We finally reach Tskhratskaro Pass, overlooking Tabatskuri Natural Reserve, at 2450 metres, only to be greeted by a military committee.  And out come our passports as quickly as possible, as the shiny guns tap the little cars windows.

This place is absolutely, stunningly, jaw dropping gorgeous.   In fact, reminded me a lot of the pass I had to take up, towards Pangong Lake in India, where the visual surroundings are much larger and longer than this spot, but no less impressive I’d say.

The militants are not so happy about me taking pictures. Got one off, though.

Emine scores a huge, camo jacket from the military crew’s stock, who are sporting authoritative machine guns, between the palms of their hands, slung around their necks, ready to pop a couple off should it be necessary.  We’re tucked behind a cargo canister, blocking the heavy wind, blowing cold, hard air on top of the southern Caucasus, until someone could take us down the winding road to the lake.

But why?  Why couldn’t we walk down.  

'Sheep dogs’, they say.  I thought it was pretty funny, and unusual.

After meeting the nomadic community of Azerijs and their massive sheep dogs down by the lake, yea it made a lot more sense.  Vicious fuckers ready to protect the herd from any wolf, coyote or human.  

But why the military?

Well, as I come to see it eventually, after the pass, and down the hill, most of the inhabitants are Armenian.  Basically, the whole territory is either Armenian or Nomad.  Both separate.  Neither inclined to integrate to Georgia. This is in a very small region as well.  Countries which hate each other, Armenia and Azerbaijan, living in a third party country, side by side.  One making a living on fish, and the other in the mountains camped up in yurts, running hundreds of sheep. 

So yea, I guess having some military nearby is no bad idea in case old rivalries kick into fifth gear.

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At the lakeside we find first, a shop with little to no food -that wasn’t a candy bar or carbonated drink. A couple of cute, little kittens that Emine goes hysterical over and then an older couple willing to invite us in for a bit of lunch, after their daughter shows up.  She could speak English, they say. But, yea, no she definitely could not.  We’re not too sure if the man is asking for some cash, to let us spend the night, so we kind of make our way out of the place.  They are poor, and I’m sure they could use the cash.  But so could we.  We give em’ a couple bucks for the food.  And the energy is a bit strange.  He hands it back to me, insistent we keep it.  The family seems melancholic to me for some reason.  To both of us.  There’s something not right.  But in the distance, there is this old ski lodge sitting on the edge of the lake.  

Here, in this little, brick house, the energy’s a bit stiff.  At the lodge, we figure it’s probably abandoned and we can throw up our tent and simply chill on our own and have a fire.  The shop said in the morning, at least, they would have some more bread.

Just near this misplaced ski lodge, probably built by Russians twenty or so years before, there is an area where it’s pure bush.  High trees and little camping grounds.  I sneak a peak and not much further along, I find a group, looking somewhat like gypsies around a set of cars, burning a fire and cooking fish.  Drinking and laughing until they  notice me.  I’m a bit hesitant, but figure why not.  They are open arms, celebrating with me.  What to do?

Run back and grab Emine and our packs!

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The next day, from one of the gentlemen’s houses and after a long ass walk to the bottom of one mountain face, after avoiding fanged up sheep dogs we push for the top, looking over the valley at 3000 or so metres.  The view is a beaut, although we didn’t quite make it to the tippy-top. 

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She was a long day, but when we get back late, after being dined and showered with community love from the Azerjis -who speak Turkish as a first language- though it’s late and sprinkling rain, we’re kinda stuck on the porch of our hosts the night before, waiting for them to arrive from a day trip.  Back against the wall, hating the idea, and don’t really want to invite ourselves in, but man are we tired and desperate for a sleep.

What a country it truly is.


Boris and Bakuriani Somewhere, Georgia July 19, 2015

So this cat we met, back at Borjomi National Park, Boris had a way to make his road longer, to have the cash last.  The same kind of determination that I tried to apply on this voyage of mine, to discover the globe and some of its intricacies, as far as possible.  He also seemed to be a little mad to others, making his trail without a map, like yours truly.  Though, at times I definitely consult the Ol’ Google Maps.  He also assured me that his daily budget, something that is fairly important when trying to stretch the journey, was a mind blowing amount of Lari (Georgian currency).  He was spending 4.5 Lari a day.  That is an equivalent of 1.75 Euro.  

We camped together at the park.  He snuck in to save the 5 Lari (2 Euro).  We should have as well, and saved ourselves 4 Euro, but figured it wasn’t an unreasonable amount for the park workers gotta get paid too.   He was eating instant noodles, we had tuna, veggies, canned corn, sausage and cheese and bread (totalling about 6 Euro between Emine and I).

I don’t want to eat instant noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  And the beauty of Georgia is that you can taste the local food, and manage the pursuit for a reasonably low daily.  I want a 2 Euro a day budget, but I just can’t.  I can’t resist a night out, from time to time, and a decent piece of sausage every now and again.  But most would probably say I’m pretty well disciplined.

Boris is twenty-nine and questions himself the same way I did, at the same time, only he’s brought himself to many corners and lives more disciplined.  In this regard I might be able to say that his, is not a question of ability.  His doesn’t doubt so much.  He CAN head back into society and raise a family as his had done before, but his question is, should he?

The other thing he asks himself, which I am asking more and more now -not as disciplined see, more ambiguous- is how much longer he can keep up a lifestyle of ours.

He seems very humble, but a try-hard to be derelict, and I’m sure it comes from lots of cultural stereotypes, from being Israeli.  Though born in Ukraine, his family is Jewish and he as well and the other Israelis who travel -unlike him- many roam in packs, afraid of outsiders -or angry towards them.

He fights to avoid this last point, but in this loses humble beginnings and becomes ego driven and somehow arrogant.  An inevitability of our style of traveller.  Doing things our way, the only way we know how and uninterested in ‘other ways’.  And so is born the arrogance; pride in being an outsider, for living so long, detached from our own societies etc.  We become angst in a way, hardened and narrow-minded.

In searching for open awareness and diversity somehow our travel choices, and paradigm evolve our character -or mine anyhow- to a narrow tunnel of vision that few are capable or willing to follow us into.  

And with Emine, she seems to accept me, through lots of fights and arguments, has managed to push herself in, to be noticed and understood as well.  To become a partner in the tunnel.  But only I can start widening myself again. While I say all of this, and I love this woman, I am not ready to compromise with the idea of returning to Turkey.  This one, I cannot do.  And well, we have a while yet before we gotta split hairs and cut.  And I write this to say how much I appreciated her willingness and strength it has already taken, to travel my way.  It wasn’t easy for her and will continue to be a bit tough I suppose.  But there is gratification in the end as well!  A sense of accomplishment.

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The affordability of Georgia, the three hundred and sixty day visa, the amount of hiking opportunities and quiet corners.  If things in this part of the world weren’t so complicated through religion, and political instability; in Russia, Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Turkey, Syria and Azerbaijan; the place would be a wealth of over-landing experience.

Travel in Turkey can be relatively expensive.  Ten euro a day means living in a tent, the occasional drink, restaurant and entrance fee for the ancient history.  Here in Georgia, you can easily make it camping, hitching, eating and drinking for around seven bucks.

Syria and Jordan, as a travellers lifestyle which I’ve come to explain, are both pretty cheap as well.  And from what I hear about Iran, it is no different -and neither would Iraq.  Russia, Lebanon, Israel, Azerbaijan and Greece are a bit different.

But again, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine are all low cost, open territories to explore while the hinge there is Russia.  Russia, for us North American citizens is a ball breaker and for what reason?

If the world handed out three hundred and sixty day visas for travel, like Georgia, it would be an unimaginably good time, I am sure of that.  Risk would still apply, personal responsibilities and budget issues as well, but with these open borders people could really explore again.  I feel this way anyhow.

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They all say they want to go to Canada around here,  There is no shortage ofj food in Georgia, no war, no racial killings, no military coups, no genocide. Why go to Canada then?

For Money!

Well in the eyes of capitalism one might say, 'you gotta spend money to earn money’. Everyone wants to go to Canada, Australia, England and Germany, but if it’s simply for money, then why should they let you in if you don’t even speak the language -that is to work I mean.

There are no jobs in Georgia, they say.  I met loads of folks making money -not lots mind you- but plenty are earning some, while living on self-sufficient land.  That’s what I’ve seen.

So, the village doesn’t have a school? Build one.  There’s jobs for teachers and carpenters.  But no one will invest? Sanction the government.  Then they’ll tax us!  Well, seems like the solutions lay within a self-sufficient community, to find three hundred and sixty degrees of self-sufficiency.

In any event, the grass is not greener in Canada; forests are rich as here and the pine just as thick.  Without the factories, the air is manageable and the water, drinkable.

This country reminds me so much of Albania and its life being lived fifty years behind 'modernity’ -and escaped from a recent dictatorship.  But, ask me about modernity and I see little benefit.  Both Georgia and Albania have drinkable water coming out of their taps.

What does modernity bring then? An over-populated scroll bar of travel bloggers searching for the opposite.  Americanisation is all the same.  Overpriced hockey players that can shoot gimmicks.  It’s all about marketing sponsors and paid advertising.  It’s at a paradoxical climax.  I give shit from time to time, towards Turkish society, for being paradoxical in it’s view of 'freedom’ and 'sovereignty’ and 'equality’.  But my life is no better.  Living on the outskirts of society while putting all my print online to try and get some notice, from one of the few travel agents printing, so that I can make paper, to exploit simple living and criticise them for wanting paper from the west.

Conundrum.

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But, at least, for the moment we can bask in our environment that pays us out so well through natural effects.  The lakes are found after hours of walking uphill, and the sheep are grazing, the pigs are strutting and the chickens are flapping.  There’s one place to get some food, but you gotta watch out for the price.  They make it all seem real nice, but then the price comes forth and damn, if it isn’t exploitation, already.  And maybe they are right to.  Gotta get the food up there and what not.  Plus, they gotta make it and all that.  Just should have a price set up and loud and noticeable.  But once we saw the Turks on their horses galloping around with a guide, we had our answer right there.  Tourists have a really bad way of simply throwing money around.  Not thinking about the consequences of offering out bigger costs without quarrel.  It’s a ball ache for us. And it’s a spoiler too.

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Our lake is empty but for three young, Georgian students, up from Tblisi for a couple days.  And like usual Emine keeps to herself, and her fire.  A fire that lights up our private little area of lovely greener than green grass on the edge of our empty, rippling lake.  Getting to the other side of the region was slightly harder, longer than getting up to the site.  Especially after Emine realised she’d forgotten the sunnies I bought her back in Batumi.

'Oh no, Freddi! What are we gonna doooooo.  I gotta go back!’

And off she went, shaking her little, blue short shorts side to side, as she headed back about a kilometre or two, across the few farms and back to our old camping area to find her shades.

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A hell of a decent hike too.  And to Bakuriani, a little far to be simply walking, we had nothing for cars passing by, so ended up walking all the same. From there, it was a side road, winding up mountainside, to over two thousand metres, so we could reach our isolated beauty of a lake hidden in a secluded, and very rich, uncorrupted valley.

This is real travelling I tell ya!


Party at Sergei’s, Chobekhevi, Georgia July 17, 2015

The sun’s shining, the clouds are leaving, and with a new day comes a new chance to smile without cause; instead of pushing into the National Park any further we’ve decided to head towards a group of lakes and then one, even further, much larger near Bakuriani, and I suppose, very isolated between 2800 m peaks.  

This is the route we ’ve chosen, what lay in store is a set of numerous events I classify as some of the best I’d come to experience on this road of mine.

Kidnapped is what I’m calling this event that took place last night.  What happens when you ask for plums on the side of the road? You get a ten kilo sack of em. Already proved that one.  And what happens when you ask for water in the tiny, little village of Chobekhevi?  You get invited in for a harmless coffee by a mid-fifty year old couple -and then a simple shot of vodka by the husband.

After taking the shot to my lips, and my face exploded like a volcanic spasm, I knew it wasn’t just regular cha-cha we’d drunk on, back in Kadikoy, Istanbul a few times.  This here, this was like jet fuel.  I tried asking with my simple Georgian,

‘Write it down for him, Freddi.’ That’s Emine saying, well, your Georgian might be better than mine at this point, but man.  You are a long shot off from being able to speak your mind.

And that should have been pretty obvious, too, but my mind had been, corrupted!

I wrote, '60%’.

He grinned, the man who’d recently come in and sat with us at the table grinned, and then the man wrote on his hand, '80%’.  The wife of the house laughed charmingly at the expressions on the faces of myself and Emine.  

He poured another for us.

And of course another one was poured shortly after another couple cats strolled in from the surrounding houses.  At this point, I was sure either myself or Emine was surely going to puke.

The man’s name was Sergei.  His wife, Violetta, brought us bread and cheese after the first shot and then an omelette after the second.  The bread and cheese saved me from losing my lunch (that I’d ate thirty minutes before on the curb outside a market).

'Eat the bread Freddi, hurry up, eat it!’

Emine saw my struggle and through her own fear, horror and the comedy of this moonshine she was ripping off bread for me as fast as a starving Frenchman.  

At one point, Sergei lit some of the gasoline on fire, from one of the long, forgotten coffee saucers.  I lit a cigarette off the wobbling blue flames.  Before the fourth shot, fear had taken over Emine completely.  The third went down easier for me, however, like I had built up some confidence, tolerance as well.  But it wasn’t even close to finished after another man came in and another shot glass was passed to him.

Emine, like I said, was different,

'I’m gonna puke baby, I’m almost sure.’ Her eyes were severe.

I looked at her straight,

'Ball is in your court babe, but I don’t think we can say no at this point.’

In her normal, characteristic, Scooby Doo-like voice, 'what are we gonna doooooooo.’

'Get the bread ready.’

She got it down alright, and as our glasses hit the table, the bottle was emptied and a set of rowdy, young men came in, rushing to meet the outsiders.  One of them, tall, dark hair, standing straight up  says,

'Freddi!’

We’d met at the market earlier.

Short water glasses were brought out, from a cupboard under the T.V set.  The same cupboard as the Cha-Cha bottle and the same cupboard as the two litre juice jug, which suddenly sat on the table.  Only it was not juice.  Red like juice, fruity, but this was special juice made with local grapes.

And it wasn’t enough we simply drink the traditional wine.  I had to drink it out of the traditional horn.  Something I and Emine decided I would be the only one to submit to.

The dancing started after the second round of water glasses -and the viking horns.  The whole village seemed to be in the house at this point, and on the front deck where we’d arrived, only a short hour or so before.  Children were in the dining area, around the T.V, that was playing my music from a DVD player.  I danced in circles with the kids, and the adults.  We were maniacs.  Completely off of our heads, every one of us, except the lady of the household, Violetta.  She held her ground.  Though Emine tried profusely to change that.  We learned pretty quickly that the men were more than enthusiastic to get pissed drunk, but the women were a little more, 'traditional’, one might say.  And this, like in Albania, was the one part of this contemporary society, yet to modernise, that I did not like.  Maybe Violetta wouldn’t have joined us anyhow, but it didn’t seem like she had much of a choice, either way.

The man that we’d met at the market, he was also a guard at the border.  We weren’t sure if the border we’d wanted to arrive at was open.  He insured us it was.  He also said he’d help us get across.  Though I struggle to identify what the problem would be, like why would we need this guy’s help.  At any rate I took down his phone number.

In the morning, Sergei and the first of the men to arrive at the table the afternoon before, had been up for ages already, at the table.  The younger ones were on the balcony, laughing and looking pretty rough.  Violetta, the only woman present through the fiasco, aside from Emine and one man’s grand-daughter -whom I danced with to some Amadou et Miriam- had already taken the massive cows out and then come back and made us breakfast -once we’d finally come out of our comas.

We slept, well we were meant to share a room with two beds, beside another room semi-attached where there were three more beds.

'FREDDI! Why are you here!’

Emine comes in freaking on me because I’d passed out on the first bed I touched.  While she on the other hand slept in the attached room and I hadn’t noticed.  Hers was a very tiny spring bound bed, and she woke up alone, confused, scared, and of course angry with me.

'See the bed I slept in last night because of you,’ she says playfully.

'Ah, yea, cute little, baby bed.  Wait, what’s that?’ I point to the floor after turning my eyes to it, beside her opposing bed.

'Oh no, I think I puked.’

Her eyes wide as the huge cow’s outside in the yard, but guilty like they’d eaten one of the chickens -and terribly glossy.  I, naturally, grab a sponge, a towel, a bucket of water and a broom with dust pan from round the back, to clean it all up.

It isn’t long after that, enough water to drown the cow, and after our big, comfy breakfast -after escaping Sergei’s insistent invitations to more Cha-Cha- we hit the dirt trail out of the village and up a long hill, for the way towards these four isolated lakes.  

'Baby, I can’t drink any more of that poison!’

'I know, I know.  We gotta just say no. They can’t force us.’

'Are you sure?’

'Not really.’

We escape Sergei’s persistence and that of his old mate beside him, and the others on the porch.  But we couldn’t fully get out of reach yet. Sergei had to show us the way, demanding he carry Emine’s pack, up the hill, to the very narrow, little goat trail that would start our way up to the lakes.  

The guy is nearly sixty.  We’ve watched him have at least three 160 proof home-made vodka shots at ten in the morning.  He didn’t eat a single thing -with us anyhow- and he was completely wasted the night before.  Emine’s pack is about eight kilos, at least.

His boys and the others around him, share a laugh, before we launch up the hill.  An enormous challenge for the circumstances and in the kilometre or so of distance we stop at least three times. Sergei’s sweat must have stunk of petrol as he struggled and pushed on still.  I was sure he was gonna fall over with that pack on.  We stop twice at  friends places for a coffee. We couldn’t do anything about it all.  An ordeal to say the least. The day was neither getting any earlier.

The last house we have to stop at while he can catch his breath, through drinking a coffee, there is a man who actually speaks English.  

An utter classic.


Rain as Snow, Borjomi, Georgia July 15th, 2015

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The natural pools were a wash-out.  Completely full of kids, and yet again, sleeping late ruined my chances for some chillin, in an otherwise laid back environment -before the families arrived.  The park for Borjomi town, where the families go to play games and some free, wild camping can be found normally costs a couple euro to get into the amusement park, but one lad let us pass through to head for the camping area, aware we weren’t interested in the carnival rides.

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Natural springs, plenty of space, and in the evenings empty of local tourism I bet.  The places you arrive at, where there is tourism, is always local in Georgia. They head out to the chill spots and get drunk, eat like hurricanes and gather in large groups.  It’s no different than the other places I’ve been where foreign tourism is low, but local is quite high, like Philippines or Myanmar.  And they leave an equal amount -abundance- of garbage.

The pool would have been the perfect spot for some skinny dipping late in the wee hours of drunkness.  And if we’d stuck around it would have happened.  

The pool, in some sense, reminded me of the big, man-made beach in central Brisbane, on the canal.  They didn’t look the same, but at night they would both end up empty, and approachable to do some late night swimming.  Two times I arrived in Brisbane; two times I ended up skinny dipping in that pool.  On one of the occasions, abruptly cut short, before any of us could find a curious partner, by very large flood lights and an assertive voice.

Back at the Georgian natural spring everyone was bouncing around and jumping and splashing while the conservative veil of Islam that wraps casual expression and uniform-less comfort for both men and women is not too far away, yet seems to be far enough.  While, if not for Russia’s imperial thirst, this would have been Ottoman territory, like Ajara, no doubt, and things would be swinging in an all together different political motion.

First off, this relatively free pool -two euro to enter the whole park, theme park etc- wouldn’t be that.  But as capital tourism moves in, with Europeans and other Western tourists, it’ll change here as well, anyways.  Especially the lad that let the two of us, rugged, grimy and stanking with full packs, walk in.

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The rain is falling so lightly it appears as snow in my headlamp, as I stare to the tree tops like triangular stations waiting for nestling patients, patients looking for a place to rest, or nest, or pick ‘wood flowers’ even.

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We’ve only just started into the national park -one of many for this little country; two days of river streams and burning wood smells and heated embers and Emine brewing coffee.  Tonight is slightly different, for our camp had four other occupants already.  They were three Ukrainians and an Israeli.

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The Israeli was a loner, a traveller not too much different than I with a long beard, bucket hat and the peaceful steps of a true road-smith.  I remembered the hater, who drove us to Konya, speaking so fowl of Israelis -of Jews- as we spoke together around Emine’s brewing coffee.

'One day people will look back and regret not letting me kill all of them.’

This was his quote, he shared with us in his car, from Hitler.  That’s the powerful quote this Konyian  wanted to share with the perfect strangers to express his identity.  Never mind Eliot, Pound, Rumi, Gibran or Homer.  No, no, no, this backwards son of a bitch had the words of Hitler closest to him.  A man that would have happily killed every Muslim as well if he was given the chance.  So yea.  Nice one.  I don’t know if the exact quote exists, but I know he laughed when he said it.

Listening to this young man speak of his globe trotting, like dozens of others I’d met travelling in and out of Israel, it amazes me that anyone can think maliciously of any other group, race, country, no matter what 'The Cause’.

My point of view didn’t matter to hater, at the time or any other occasion that came up, and now, as the soft rain drifts down like pollen, I drop my head for the thought of any human that has this strong of a P.O.V.  This much anger, but the fact is, so many do, against others for their place in society -and I suppose the more people to populate this planet and the more religious propaganda that is spread, we are guaranteed far worse.

My new friend spoke about a border-less world, a world where he or a Ukrainian or a Canadian or a Peruvian was not out-casted from cultural diversification and the spreading of hereditary roots.  As trees, we are meant to spread through the earth and interlock, intersect with others.  Yet where we live and people preach non-racial societies, they prevent races, creeds or simply nation based people from entering country; crossing borders.  

This sounds very racist to me.

There is a real problem of body agony about me.  It’s been five weeks of road and four of them spent camping.  I enjoy the camping a great deal, I really love being outdoors, but my back is saying other things.

'Why push yourself so hard, it’s not worth it.’

That’s my buddy Ale being quoted from Facebook a couple weeks past.  It’s not only my back either, it’s my stomach and the insistent rash that keeps recurring on my thighs.  It comes and goes and when it comes I treat it with oil, but then it doesn’t leave for good and my appreciation for hiking beings to dwindle.

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I love Emine and everything she does or just about, but cramped in a one man tent, it’s not enough space; there are no nights that are slept without waking up four or five times.

And the rain continues as well; middle of summer and it’s fifteen or twenty degrees.  Beautiful landscapes when it’s clear, even when it’s thick with clouds, but the sun seems to be a rare experience.  She complains on a regular basis about different things and though she is mostly being playful about it, the whole thing gets to me.

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'Is it worth it?’ I am asking myself this now.  Am I enjoying this, or just living through the motions, for the sake of pushing forward?

Winter has a great appeal on the Canary Islands, if I can make it, but I won’t be teaching English there, something I’d been working hard towards for the past couple of years.  Back to the Resto business, and like that, my progress teaching, it almost seems like a waste to me.

'What are you doing?’

I ask myself this as well. Hearing the river stream is great, and I love waking up in a park, full of pine trees, and beside my favourite lady, but it’s getting harder to exist without back pains, coming and going.

I struggle to sit.  I struggle to lie down.  This seems to be a real problem.

Somehow a puddle accumulated against my sweater, laying too far against the tent and now I’m awake.  Slept three hours tops, maybe less and feeling very damp.

I spend little time writing, for I have little time to myself, and through these pains, discomforts also I become very side-tracked.  Can’t seem to focus or enjoy every day.  

'Is it worth it?’  At least the rain stopped.

When I was walking to Istanbul or Compostella, I was doing something for myself, but now it almost feels like moving through a perpetual state, just moving in fact; moving through gorgeous tuck-aways, but nothing I couldn’t as well experience back home.

My grand-pa offered me his house for the winter, to have time to re-group.  A college in town as well -Uni not far away.

My mind wanders through so many lives and possibilities, but I’m simply going through motions, dizzy, while idolising 'acte gratuit’ and I suppose doing nothing about it.
Future plans are already, not spontaneous acts, and as my stomach rumbles, unpleasantly at 4:30 am, this question Ale brought to me; this statement of his observations rings in my ear.

So many writing projects and envy for these travellers that have built a following, sponsors, and thus, opportunities to go further.  To fly in balloons, ride motorbikes cross continents and here I am a constant struggle, full of envy and building up a big can of bitterness.

I thought there was purpose, growth and depth, but right now I’m doubting any of it.  Maybe it’s a fear of death sinking in, fear of regret when I’m forty-five and have aggressive back aches and not a day of hard work to merit them.

'But you’re living the dream, man!’  Some would say.  But those people are likely warm, dry and sleeping in a nice, big, comfy bed tonight.

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve slept in a nice bed -for more than a couple nights.

And all this for ? To be grumpy in paradise?

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Cooked cheese, waterfalls and campfire songs Adigeni,  Georgia July 13, 2015

Despite being Ramadan, and themselves behaving as good Muslims, this little family invited us in and the lady of this house prepared a shockingly heavy and wonderful dinner after the drinkin session at the pop up bar, and its hideous outdoor toilet.  Literally the second ugliest toilet I had seen in my life -before experiencing all the other out-houses around Georgia, later. 

Breakfast in the morning, also very heavy and full of trimmings-including a big bottle of Fanta.  In fact, after staying a night they were happy to have us a couple more days if we liked.  So we took them up on the offer.  And through broken Turkish, Emine found out they had also hosted a couple Germans, on bicycles, for a couple of nights, the year before.

Though only a few days in Georgia yet, and still new to the game for sure, there had been more than a  few, big, ol’ topless men with small children in their stomachs.  These guys bobbed when they walked, but waddled with confidence.

And how’d they get so big?

Same way the women got huge, as well. Lots of butter, cheese and white flour.  No vegetables.  No salads. Sausage, bacon, and a lot of salt.  And with big 2L bottles of beer at two euro a shot.  Well, the whole situation is pretty clear.  

The dinner we had, our hosts would seem to have gone all out for us, but nope, it was simply your typical end of the day meal.

Here’s a common sauce in the Ajara region:


Milk fat in a pot, then add cheese, cook it down a while and finish by whisking in a whole egg.  Pour this over a hard cheese, or chicken or scrambled eggs.  It’s a hollandaise in effect, but even heavier.  Also, in Ajara they like to cook their cheese in fat and then add clarified butter (or unclarified as well) to finish it up.  This sauce finished with butter, it looks like a broken caramel sauce.  Unbelievably rich.

While being hosted in this isolated, lush, back country, we decided to take a small trip and hike around the region.  Outside of their house, after our massive breakfast, we ended up on a gravel road -the only road- and from a distance, across a valley we could manage to see a small spring of water shooting off of a cliff.    Actually, it was Emine that saw it first as my eyes are heinous.

‘Freddi, look at that!  Wow, I think it’s a watefall.’

'Well, if we’re gonna hike anywhere it might as well be there, no?’

'You think we can make it?’

'Probably not, but sure fuck it. Should be fun.’

What I hadn’t anticipated is how beautiful and authentic and fresh it all was.  The water was a bit cold for me, and definitely for Emine.

'There’s no way I’m getting in that water.  It’s soooooo cold.  I’m from the south!’  One of the incredible things, one of the many that I came to learn, about Emine was that she grew up on the seasides of Turkey, but couldn’t swim. Well, she could a bit, but became very afraid, like terribly scared. Panic strikes and she starts waving her arms around like a monkey in a crocodile pit and I’m right there to hold her hand, to take her back to land.  A couple metres away.  It’s adorable, and at the same time I can feel a bit useful.  Like I can protect her a bit, and bring her a bit of encouragement to try swimming longer, and further out.  Try to lay on her back and stare up at the sky.  Of course, as soon as my hand leaves her back, it’s straight to panic, again.  The waterfall wasn’t so deep and for her, it was bloody freezing so no worries on that front.  But man was it an experience!

This luscious, green, mountainslope countryside was out of sight.  And the amazing thing was that it was only just beginning to unravel in front of us.  There was so much more to see and smell and taste.  And the tippy top was I had a home cooked meal -which I didn’t have to prepare- waiting for me when we returned from our waterfall.  A big meal where being full is no joke. And the sleep was incredible.  Long and satisfying.

The road into Borjomi started with a bull-dozer a few kilometres and eventually, after some epic overheads of seasoned forest, it followed a river, like everywhere else I’d seen in this country so far. 

It was a tough day getting lifts in no man’s land and across a failry high pass.  It was clear there were ski lifts around -though the snow was long gone.  Everyone was selling roadside honey.  Bailing hay.  Trodding cows.  Or chickens.

The place is just so intoxicating.  Alive.  Animated in a way that western Europe cannot be.  It’s too safe in the west to be like this..  Too much infastructure.

A couple short rides.  One mini-van, like the last, only a young guy driving with his head turned to the back a little more often than not.  A wild ass ride actually.  Again I was sure we’d slip off a cliffside. Really annoying too, this time, of course, a fee at the end which i had to argue with the lad and his two pals about. But we certianly did get a bit of hiking in between lifts.  Quite a bit.  In fact I was almost sure we’d end up walking all the way to Akhaltsikhe -the nearest town and road to Borjomi. .  This is when Emine was most thankful for a smaller pack than intended.

The huge lumps reach around two thousand metres and all of them crammed with pine and fir.  There is the odd, jagged stone work that had pushed it’s way out of the order.  And the odd paddock of cows, there are cows in the streets, like they were sacred and the odd hump splitting a river with an old, battered stack of rocks that were once pillars for a fortress.

The fire crackled a few metres from my one ear and the river picked up by the other.  The river sounded like it was raging, but it was pretty calm in fact.  Moving along as usual.  Fireflies everywhere batting about and sparkling the darkness, one of them moving in, towards the fire, and Emine is there stoking the flame along with her stick.

'Hey! Go away, you’re too close! You’ll burn yourself or worse….  Die!’

Her affection towards insects is no different than a lion or a crow, or a fish.  Her affection towards kittens, which I’ve already mentioned, is more severe; given the chance she’ll squeeze the thing excitedly, and scratch it’s belly and then shove her face into it’s belly thereafter.  Some may speak to animals for a fear of speaking to oneself, but she speaks to them no less equally than any human.

'And why wouldn’t I?’ She would say.

Most of the time she’d be reactive in her behaviour, through emotions, simply making decisions; either rashly or calmly.  Rarely, would I notice procedure, or system in any decisions or actions.  

However, when it comes to making fire it’s a very rooted system, of calculated placing and shifting, feeding and re-arranging.  It’s respect, not art.  Purely understanding the fire’s needs -like the animals (a kitten needs love, no?)

She doesn’t bother to paint pictures of art, of fireflies in the night; nor reconstruct landscape through illustration.  There isn’t a manipulation of a puppy’s face or a beetle’s leg.  Nature and earth and soil are there to be enjoyed and succumb by in their raw beauty and open harness.  There is no need to draw this.  That would tarnish and corrupt the land.  Make it somehow tacky.  And she’s not wrong at all either. Through photos and so forth we really do miss out on the moment while trying to capture it.

The rain that hqd been following us since Trabzone and Batumi was moving in.  After chasing down some water to drink, about half an hour round-trip, laying on my back, I noticed lightning -but said nothing.

'Because of you! I can’t enjoy this fire.  Freddi, look how beautiful it is!  And it’s going to die, because of you! -as she looked up to the sky (and rain).

I glanced over at Emine, from my laying position, drawn to the sky and flash lightning and hours of hard work, on wet wood, had finally paid off with a braising pyramid of flames flying straight up.

'You could cook a human on this thing, Freddi.  It’s so beautiful.’  She doesn’t mention an animal, of course, because they get more respect than us, no doubt.

A few days ago, hung over, I poked at an ant moving in on my food, at a picnic table.  I’d chopped up some lunch and little bits remained; the ant was moving in for some action.   I wasn’t even present, I’d say, simply on the nod.  There was a fork in my hand, from salad finished and I started poking at the ant.

'Freddi, it’s not your toy!’

'Huh?’ At first I was lost to what she was on about, I thought she was into something else then I realised, looked at her, smirked sharply and killed the ant.

'Baby! Why! Why did you kill that ant. It’s mom is gonna be soooo worried!’


The Lower Caucasus, Khulo, Georgia July 9th, 2015

After a day’s camping off the seaside around Kobuleti, a really nice spot to waste a few days if you want, with the nearby nomads of Turkey, Iran, Ukraine and Armenia.  After enjoying a decent amount of pork and after enjoying a big rain, which washed us out of our secondary, cheap-ass tent, we quickly ditched the dark clouds for the mountains of Khulo towards Borjomi, Vardzia and the road to Armenia.

It was a drawn out process to leave Kobuleti and its ancient, antique ‘Luna Park’, and Batumi, but once we’d made the junction for Khulo a man picked us up in his mini-bus. And about an hour or two later (I slept), we were in rich, high valley mountains with a river below, which our mini-bus followed along, like a sixties Volkswagen bus on its last leg.  On the way uphill, I was sure we wouldn’t make it, wobbling on the edge of big collapse.  Long, ugly, explosive demise for a bus like ours.  A scenario with no survivors.

The man didn’t charge us -which we weren’t too sure about- and I was thankful for that because my mission was to hitch hike all the way from Istanbul to Portugal so there’s no paying for buses, know what I mean!

He was happy to take us along as we were there, with thumbs out, and he had empty seats.  There were watermelons inside, onions, bags of maybe rice, or flour perhaps. There were many stops to exchange goods, once to exchange a sink. Yea, a sink! And the watermelon at another.

As Emine was picking plums off of a tree by the handful, and eating them nearly within the same motion, a man invited us into his yard and then shortly after climbed a tree of his own.  Ten minutes later this guy comes down and has enough plums to stew a five gallon jug of jam.

At Khulo we were officially high enough to be up with the clouds and rain one of the eventual guarantees.  

Only question was: how long?

The road stopped being road and carried on after that town as stones and dirt and narrow enough for a lane and a half.  If I thought before was tough.  Well this was the next level for real, and if it started raining we’d really be in for it.  

A roughed up jeep pulls over to offer us a lift a few kilometres down wind and the guy was rough to say the least, himself, as well.  But hella cool like all the others so far.

The whole region was developments; sporadic houses, spread across endless forest, on endless mountainside; electrical wire running through the whole landscape like it was Kathmandu, but more than that, road construction.  A big farckin freeway with tunnels and bridges, the whole enchilada.  Word was, a Turkish company had been given the gig and everyone in the region had a job. Not only were they building a National Highway, there was an artificial lake as well. 

Lots of work.  And this newly independent country was racing to be a hub for tourism and trade, by building better trade lines.  Competing, striving for and even as far as marking license plates to become Euro-zone.

And jobs would be good but for these guys, they’re working twenty eight days a month, earning 500 euro a month and putting in about ten hours a day.  That’s a big, bad two euro an hour to build a classy, international trading route, giving billions to the right pocket liners.  But, at least there was work!

The older guys were chiselled by Soviet Law.  Very tough faces and little emotion.  The younger generations however, seemed to me, shy, sensitive and I might go as far as apprehensive.  While these qualities I don’t know and strictly speculate, what I did notice was that people seemed to like, and even wanna bite into some decent hip-hop.  And not only the Pop Chart booooshit, but some grimy sounding beats.  Some of it was definitely French and even fifty year old men were getting down to it on their way from point A to point B.

Top marks from ME!!!!!!

So I can eat bacon again, and buy cheap beer, and cigarettes are 50 cents a pack for Emine.  Petrol is 70 cents a litre and LPG is only 35.   

What the hell is going on?

Well!!  No taxing.  No property tax. And missing the sudo-Islamic government to restrict 'good times’. Even saw a poster for Snoop Dog in a couple weeks.. The best thing of all, i could see it in Emine’s eyes and body, that she was feeling very happy and free and alive.  This made me equally happy and alive.  

The jeep dropped us off in front of this wooden box, he suggested asking the lads inside if any of them were headed to the next village.  Instead of getting a lift to the village we hoped, we ended up surrounded by muslims drinking and teaching us the basics of their relatively complicated, and friggin old, Indo-European language. 

Muslims were apparently ninety percent of the Ajara district.  A region in Georgia, the only one, that was once Ottoman.  But once the Russian Federation took over there was no way you could carry around the Qu'ran let alone practice.

The Russians were Orthodox after all, and the Georgians weren’t the only ones having their stuff kicked over. It also happened after occupying Mongolians with every Buddhist temple.  No need for anyone to rebel in the name of religion this way.  Bring everyone to one language and one belief system, then you’ve got full control.  I mean, participation.

That’s where the Ottoman went wrong after all, they didn’t steal away everyone’s own identities.

Khulo, and further along, it’s a gorgeous region, reminding me a lot of Canada, or what I remember of it anyhow, but even in mid-July it’s chilly and the rain doesn’t seem to be moving one bit.

The road was certainly gonna get harder, rougher, more rural, more rugged for sure, before the Armenian border.  It was a very secondary road, but the shortest line to Armenia avoiding Tblisi, and saving us from city exposure heading straight through the lower Caucasus of the south. 

After getting pissed up with some road workers in this make shift bar, of wood frame and flooring, likely to be moved along two hundred kilometres as the road progressed, a young guy, who spoke perfect Turkish -with Emine- lined us up with a  place to stay the night down the road a couple kilometres-with his cousin.  Breakfast was…..

Outta sight!