Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Top 5 - Sweatiest Moments

1. Indian-Pakistani border just outside Amritsar - the temperature was nearing 40 and the relative humidity must've been in the neighbourhood of 100%. Such is the monsoon season in Northern India a day after rain. We were stuck in the stands watching the border celebration; the evening sun (which I always think is the worst) bearing down on us. Within seconds a waterfall erupted from my face. It was all I could do to keep the sweat out of my eyes so I could see what was going on. Just thinking about it makes me cringe.

2. Inside a Metro Car in Cairo - the temperature was about 43 degrees. I was stuck inside an old, above-ground metro car when the fans broke down. That is perhaps the worst feeling: knowing that moving air is a luxury you only wish you had. Immediately I could feel the sweat dripping down my back. I tried not to move so as to avoid producing any more heat. It almost felt worse stepping out of the metro because the breeze instantly cooled all the sweat.

3. In the car from Delhi to Chandigarh - I don't care where you're from. Getting blasted by 47 degree heat in a polluted city is never fun. As we were leaving Delhi, stuck in traffic, I was in the back of a small a car sweating profusely. All I had was a towel to keep myself dry. Gross.

4. Anytime the fan went off in India - we'd be lying in bed, sound asleep under the whirring fan. All of a sudden, the power would shut off. The fan grinds to a halt and you wake up with an instant layer of sweat on your skin. There is nowhere to go but outside into the heat of the night and pace. Anything to keep the air moving.

5. Sitting in the bathroom in Egypt - i don't know why, but bathrooms have absolutely no air circulation. One minute after stepping out of the shower, you'd start sweating. One minute on the toilet and your clothes would be soaked. You would try to spend as little time as possible in there, but, thanks to some less-than-cleanly street food, that was often impossible.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

3 Years

This blog is officially 3 years old today. I'm incredulous.

735 posts so far. That's roughly two posts every three days. I can only imagine how many words that is.

Thanks to everyone for the continued support.

Friday, June 20, 2008

New Blogment

For the last three and a half years, my life has been that of a good-for-nothing transient. I've called five countries home during that time and visited nine others. It has been a good run so far.

One question I get asked a lot is, "Which country did you like the best?" The simple answer is that I have no idea. It's impossible to answer. I didn't see enough of the countries I only visited and I saw too much of the countries I lived in.

Was India incredibly tough to live in? Sure. Was India also the country most likely to change your entire outlook on life? Absolutely. But does that make it the best? Egypt was good and bad in completely different ways. So was Mongolia. There is just no way to compare.

Other questions like, "What was your favourite city?" or "Which monument did you dislike the most?" do come up, so I started to think. What is my favourite city? Which monument did I like the least?

This is the rationale for my newest blogment (others have included Cairo's Champions, Razor Ramblings, Random Facts About Canada): Top 5/Low 5. It's a simple concept. I will take something like "Cities" and then list the Top 5 I've been to and the Low 5.

Call it a shameless attempt at reminiscing (well, I know Ryan would), but this should provide some interesting hindsight into the places I've been and thing things I've seen.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Golf

Exactly one month after I returned, this is the last post on my trip to Estonia.

One thing that you may not know about Azerbaijan is that the country does not have a full-sized, 18 hole golf course. I've heard rumours of a 9-hole course, but have not verified them to be true.

Estonia, on the other hand, is flush with courses. So why not take advantage? My friend were somewhat avid beginner golfers, so they suggested that we go play. I couldn't turn them down. So the morning after the sauna on the sea side, we headed to the Estonia Golf Club (a European Professional Golfers' Association sanctioned course).

There really isn't much to say other than that I played with borrowed ladies clubs and managed to birdie one of the par 4s.

A good walk spoiled, indeed (it's in the public domain, Nisrin. You can't nudge me for this.).

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sauna

Estonians love saunas. There are no two ways about it. Everyone who lives outside the city, or owns a summer house, has a sauna in the backyard. It is as much a necessity to the people as hockey is to Canadians. Even apartment blocks in the city have them. I've even heard about business meetings taking place in the office sauna. How much more interesting would the Friday meeting be if it were held in a 80 degree room?

The one, and perhaps the most important, difference between the Estonian sauna culture and that in Canada is clothing, or lack thereof. Nakedness is expected and even encouraged. Quite a change from life in Canada where people of my age are afraid to bare all. Azerbaijan boasts a similar culture. You always changed with the towel on.

In case you were wondering, although you probably weren't, I did manage to "go Estonian" in the sauna on the Baltic Sea coast. We even went swimming.  

Sunday, June 15, 2008

New Tallinn

City of Glass


From the Old City


Downtown

Old Tallinn

Old City Walls

Gathering Storm

Main Old City Square

Cathedral

Thursday, June 12, 2008

There's a Queen of Holland?

I had the honour of arriving in Tallinn at the same time as the Queen of Holland. Unfortunately, while she was given the red carpet treatment and lavish dinners, I was resigned to traversing the city on foot and eating in moderately-priced restaurants (and actually paying for it).

Alas, our paths did converge. It was while I was in one of those moderately-priced restaurants that my attention was directed to the street outside. Along came a convoy bearing the Dutch flag. It was very clear that the Queen was in one of the vehicles (most likely the giant black limousine).

Minutes later, not one, but three police cars were on the scene. Apparently some guy flipped off the Queen (I had no idea she was such a controversial figure), so the cops decided that he should have his face pressed up against the window of the car and handcuffs slapped on him. Welcome to the free world.

We watched in awe as the guy was pushed into the back of the meat wagon. Was flipping of the Queen of Holland really that bad? I've seen people get away with much worse.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Tallinn

Tallinn is a fantastic city. You can tell just by looking that it has come the furthest since the Soviet Union epically discombobulated. I call it the result of Finnish tourism, while others might attribute it to sound fiscal policies and the fostering of innovation. Whatever the case may be, Tallinn has the modern feel that its Baltic counterparts, Riga and Vilnius, do not.

The Estonian capital also wins the Old City competition. Come to Tallinn and you'll find the old city perch on a hill overlooking the sea. Stay in Riga or Vilnius and you'll notice that the old cities are situated very ordinarily.

Unfortunately, and this I know is a result of Finnish tourism, Tallinn boasts the highest prices in the Baltic. I was shocked. Nine bucks for a little fridge magnet? Egregious. Exorbitant. The city had one hand in my wallet, err...bank account, the whole time I was there.

Food-wise, it's hard to give the nod to any of the Baltic capitals. I found the best local food in Vilnius, but Tallinn offered much better foreign food. Most of the local restaurants in all three cities are a disappointment because they get the price-quality thing all wrong.

In terms of a "Soviet footprint," it's hard to say who wins. Tallinn doesn't have any evidence of Stalin and company within a few miles of downtown. Get out to where all the big box stores are, though, and you see apartment block after apartment block. In that sense it reminds me of Lodz, Poland.

Overall, I'd say Tallinn is the best of the three Baltic cities, especially in terms of livability. If it wasn't for the damp dark winters, I might move there in a flash.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Three Years Ago Today...

...I left for India.

An excerpt from an email I wrote at the time:


I step out of the airport and get blasted with 32 degree heat...at 2 in the morning. I had saw in the vancouver airport that delhi was 46 during the day...islamabad in pakistan was 50. So the taxi I'm in decides to take me to some random place. The drive was insane. Luckily I had experienced chinese and mongolian driving, so this wasn't that harrowing. Eventually we get to this one hotel so the driver can ask directions. The guy says "go to the tourist office down the street...they'll help you."

At this tourist place, the guy is making some calls and telling me "there is a festival in delhi, so all the cheap rooms are booked. The least you can expect to pay for a room is 120 bucks US." He also calls the "train reservation office" and the "bus reservation office" to see if I can get a ticket to Chandigarh...nothing until the 20th, apparently.

So it's now about 3 AM and I'm not in the best of spirits. This tour guy is trying to offer me a minivan ride to chandigarh at a cost of 190 euros. This seemed absolutely ludicrous. Then I see these 3 japanese people walk in the door (they were on my flight). For some reason, the guy wouldn't let me talk to them. He said it was against "rules and regulations." No doubt you can see a pattern developing here.

 

How far I've come since those days...

Why Do It Now When You Could Do It Later?

Lesson #1 - Don't expect to be able to do anything at the Baku airport at 5am.

It has become obvious to me over the last three years that I have too much faith in the concept of "I'll do it/buy it/find it when I get there." I'd say 78% of the time it works out. Then there are times when I feel like an idiot. A good example was the train from Vilnius to Warsaw. Forgive me for thinking that there'd be food available on board, or at the very least we'd stop at a place that offered food. "Isn't that normal?" I thought. Alas, I was stuck without food for the better part of the day.

I had yet another run-in with this concept before going to Estonia. Due to the Azerbaijani Manat's inconvertibility around the world, I needed to get some US Dollars. "Of course there will be an exchange place at the airport...even at 5am. So many flights leave at that time that they'd be missing out on a huge piece of commission," I reasoned. It was all the justification I needed to be lazy and not go to the exchange place down the street.

Naturally, I arrived at the airport only to find both exchange places closed. It was even difficult to find change to pay for checking in my bag. The guy I found seemed like he did this for a living. He was stationed in the cafe and looked at me like I was running drugs. I've never seen anyone take so long to: 1. examine a 100 Manat note, 2. take out a roll of bills, 3. open said roll, 4. count out 100 manats in 10's, and 5. hand over the cash. I swear it took 2 minutes.

Ironically, we checked in forty minutes early (in stark contrast to 90 minutes late last time) and left on time.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Hop, Skip, and a Jump to Iran

The Infamous Fence

You put the left hand in...

You put both hands in...

North of the Border

The cement walkway to the Border


I love the hotel at the border (it's just to the left). One day I will stay there. One day...

All the food on display for people going to and from Iran.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

A Tale of Two Fences

The road curved upwards. Who knew where we were or where we were going? Green hills surrounded us on either side. A woman carrying bread scuttled away after sticking her tongue out me. Life was certainly different out here. The air was fresh, the forests lush, and the water flowing. It was a proverbial Shangri La in comparison to the money-infested streets of Baku.

Within minutes we came to a pair of parallel fences. "Iran!" our taxi driver exclaimed.

Could we really be that close to the Iranian border?

It didn't take a genius to figure out which country took border control more seriously. The Azerbaijani fence was low and dilapidated to the point that you could roll underneath it. In stark contrast, the Iranian version was tall, barbed, ostensibly electric, and very, very well kept. There was to be no fence-hopping on this day.

On the way back from our destination, we saw on Iranian border guard patrolling a bridge. Poor guy.

Further on, we witnessed a lamb being slaughtered.

It was a little early too early blood all over the place.

We were headed to Lerik - a mountain village near the border. Our driver's 2007 Lada clung to the asphalt as we climbed steadily upwards. Trucks were forced into the lowest possible gears to negotiate some of the steeper grades.

Where was the bicycle when I needed it?

Lerik itself was a sleepy town. Most of the streets were closed as a result of infrastructure improvements. We saw a small market, a few cafes, a government building, and a monument before realizing there was nothing else to do.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Pork Has Arrived

...and it is succulently brilliant.