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Last week, I turned 44 and it's time for my annual birthday trip. The decision on where to travel came quite easily - back to the Caucasus!

This region is like a wonderful partner - there was an immediate connection when we met, and it goes beyond the mere physical elements. Of course, the stunning contours of the landscapes, and excitement of something "new" to explore are what initially led me here. But it's more than that. I love the Caucasus because they are both calm and wild at the same time. Perhaps it's difficult to comprehend, but there is a sense of belonging here. The countries are small, completely different from the massive geographic swells of my home country, or even Russia. This is part of the appeal - that you can conquer an entire nation in a very short period of time, and simultaneously ignite a spark in the soul and mind with all of the stunning mountain landscapes, ancient sites and warm, friendly people. It's an intoxicating blend of Earth, mountain, sky and human curiosities...with the negative aspect of increased heartbeats due to the wild driving culture you must endure to reach these remote places. In such environments, boredom never arises. There is a real sense of feeling alive beyond the mere habit of breathing each day, or going through the routine motions of adulthood that trap us. Boredom - it is the most brutal enemy for me personally. I'm always fighting it off, and can't stand to be captured or held hostage to it for even short periods of time. Yes, I need adventure, stimulation - maybe similar to a young child. :))

I will depart for Tbilisi next week, spend a few days there, and then drive to Armenia. If you know interesting places in Armenia, colorful people, or any other facts you wish to share, please write in comments. If you missed my prior stories about Georgia, you can read them here, and there are still many which remain unwritten.

Sorry for the very long absence from the blog. I am alive and well...and hope the same is true for my dear readers!

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I've started to paint a nice picture of Georgia in my first few posts, but this doesn't mean everything is so rosy there. The country is no different from others, with both good and bad sides. The difference is that as a foreigner I notice many problematic things which Georgians may consider "normal", when in fact they're confusing, and even incomprehensible, for a foreign tourist.

You can look at this cover photo and perhaps it stirs some type of nostalgia for those who grew up in Soviet times. :) These old LADAs are everywhere on the roads in Georgia, and I'm always amazed at how many people are stuffed inside them. Often the small cars are weighed down with heavy loads attached to the roof, barely moving down the road. I wondered several times if some of these people ever made it to their destination point. Many of the old cars are in bad shape, and probably shouldn't even be on the road. However, as far as I can tell, there is no type of inspection requirement for machines, no emissions testing - nothing to control the quality or safety of the cars on the roads in Georgia. And this leads to #1 on the list for "bad Georgia"....Read more... )
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This is one of my favorite photos from the road trip in Georgia, taken in motion from a car window while passing. However, it's very symbolic of life throughout the country. Outside of Tbilisi, Batumi and a few other larger cities, Georgia is one big rural village, immediately transporting you to a different time and place. For all its beauty, the country is very poor, employment opportunities are limited, and people are tied to a simple existence without a lot of luxuries to which most of us are accustomed. This is part of the country's beauty and fascination, at least for me - an American coming from a middle class, stable environment. A woman who has had plenty of opportunities to achieve almost anything she wanted in life. Nothing has been handed to me, for everything I worked quite hard -  getting various degrees and a high education, fighting for positions at work, numerous other things...

I tried to find some statistics about average wages, but they are inconsistent. Figures released in 2015 show that women in Georgia earned an average salary of 697.3 GEL ($270), while a male earns 1,126.8 ($440). So, we can see that men earn substantially more there, regardless of business sector. The average pension is about $75. There is free health care, but nothing is really "free", and more favorable care can be arranged by getting private insurance costing from $10 - $50/month. With such poor wages, this seems almost impossible for most citizens. Georgians pay a flat tax on salaries and fees - 20%. If annual income exceeds 40,000 GEL ($15,600), the State will require additional taxes which are determined by the value of real estate owned by the family. At least, this is according to current information available here. Due to the fertile nature of Georgian soil, food is quite cheap - fresh fruits, vegetables and grains are all produced locally. With meat is another issue - sometimes expensive, and not the best quality, unless you like fatty dishes.

I can't really say how living in Georgia is different than life in Russia. In some ways, the systems are the same and village life in each nation mirrors the other based on my experience of traveling in remote parts of both nations. Cultures certainly differ in their openness, friendliness and tolerance for diversity. Georgians by nature are quite animated, friendly and talkative; Russians more cold in appearance, and less animated as a whole. But people are just people....:)

What do you think? Could you live in such a village? This is something I continually ask myself... and the answer remains inconclusive.





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At various points in life I was chasing something, and there is one common thread to all the pursuits. Adventure, curiosity or wonder have always been tied to the chase - whether it was an intriguing man I was trying to figure out, some exotic location I was trying to make my way to, or some natural landscape I wanted to experience in person rather than simply admire from my computer screen.

In Georgia, I was able to chase clouds - yes, I love them! At many points during the journey they were hanging so low it felt like I could reach out and touch them with my fingers. One such place was along the Georgian Military Highway, which connects Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia. It is also the site of the only official border crossing into Russia, at least this is my understanding. The border used to be restricted to CIS citizens only, but is now open to all. If you're looking for a day trip from Tbilisi, this is my recommendation, and let's see why.Read more... )
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I often view natural landscapes as lovers of sorts. In such places, nostalgia sometimes arises, and it's easy to equate tides, vistas, and any terrain of nature to a past lover if you only open your mind and imagination. From the curves of the wheat blowing in the open fields, the delicate petals of flowers, to the strong and towering stature of forest trees and vast moutain ranges.

I suppose some people just past by such scenes and think, or feel, absolutely nothing. However, each time I'm in a natural landscape, my mind begins to wander, romantic visions arise and I'm carried off to some magical mental state, if only for a brief period of time. It is here that I momentarily believe in the notion of fairy tales. Of all the landscapes, I dislike the ocean and sea most. Violent, unsteady and often aggressive. The great unknown, the depths and darkness of which remain a mystery to most humans, incapable of ever being wholly experienced or felt. The behaviors of the tide, waves and rhythm often resemble a cocky, aggressive, alpha male. For the sea rushes to kiss the shore day after day, no matter how many times it's pushed away. An overall machismo type of behavior that I despise in men, and I guess natural landscapes also. For those who somehow find peace, comfort and happiness in the open waters, these photos are for you, taken during a trip to San Diego, California last summer.Read more... )
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We can say that cultures and cuisines vary around the world, but there's a common thread - most humans eat and sleep on a daily basis. If you're lucky enough, on some days you also get the chance to sing, dance, or engage in something uplifting for the soul. In Georgia, there is a huge culture of food, filled with many tasty, aromatic and flavorful dishes. The best part of all of this - it is so cheap! :)

Throughout the journey, I spent most evenings on the road at homestays, which are sometimes the only option in mountain regions. The cost for all of the rooms was a standard $50/per night, and this included hearty breakfasts and dinners. This cover photo is from the start of the road expedition, and this house was my favorite from the journey. Wonderful table filled with all kinds of homemade Georgian foods to fill the belly at the end of a very long and strenuous day of driving. I grew to crave this delicious yogurt soup, and ordered it frequently during the trip because the more traditional soup - "kharcho" - was too spicy! In general, Georgians like to stuff everything with decadent fillings - peppers, eggplant, potatoes filled with nuts, curry paste, spices - lots of other things buried in the pockets.

Today Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, where we gather around the table for huge feasts and fellowship, so it seems like a good time to begin the reports from Georgia and speak a bit about the food and lodging options. Let's go...Read more... )
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I often seek refuge under trees in times of deep confusion or when in a reflective mood. I can't articulate why I find them so powerful and spiritual, but it is so. Deep roots here, with fortress walls behind it. Mighty, mighty place in the mountainous country of Georgia.

Where there is a tree, there is hope. Something stirring in the soul, as leaves dance with the breeze, sometimes drifting onward to a new place at the mercy of the winds. Sometimes being stubborn, clinging to the branch on which they have always existed. Nature's rattle, immediately calming. Under trees some of my dreams have been born, romances ignited and poems imagined. Yes, where there is a tree, there is hope...at least for me.
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Imagine a place where the mundane patterns of normal life disappear, and you're transported into a fairy tale of sorts. This is my Georgia, the way I'll remember this magical little corner of the globe. A fairy tale for a brief moment in time, yet I don't believe such lands of enchantment exist in reality. Life is a constant ebb and flow. We are always swimming along, and against, various streams and tides in life. For me personally, it's sometimes confusing to know which route to take.

Georgia - it was full of wonder and discovery on many levels - from stunning mountains to the ancient, narrow pathways of Old Tbilisi, fortresses glowing atop hills in the night sky, and of course Georgians themselves. I think all those readers who wrote about these "wild" people have never stepped foot in this country. I love so many things about this place, and of course some things made me uneasy and caused culture shock.

I can't find the proper words to describe my time there, but I'm now back in the USA and have returned to monotonous and boring office life. Mostly I want to thank all the native Georgians who took such good care of me during my visit, and all the friendly and helpful strangers I encountered along the way. When the words come to me, I will write them here and tell more about my journey. We covered North, South, East and West, having some real exotic and off-road adventures along the way. I didn't carry my big camera, and all photos were taken with the new iPhone 7. Somehow I just wanted to focus on the experience, and not worry about getting the best shots. Simply existing in, and absorbing, each moment.

It has been my longest absence from the blog since I began writing on LJ. I hope some of you are still here, and that you're doing well - staying warm with the arrival of winter. Cheers from the USA! :)

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It's very amusing to hear impressions and stereotypes about Georgia from my Russian readers. Unfortunately, I don't think I have many native Georgians reading this blog. I will be there in two weeks, and will spend several days in Tbilisi at the beginning and end of the journey. Please send me a message if you are there, and have time to meet for coffee or a quick chat.

In the meantime, I can't fully grasp current relations between Georgia and Russia, despite having read a lot of articles on this topic recently.  The most common stereotypes about Georgians repeated to me by Russian readers:

(1) Georgians are very, very lazy - especially Georgian men;
(2) most mafia in Soviet times were Georgians - yes, constant warnings about the Georgian mafia! :));
(3) they are hot-blooded Southerners, loud, animated; and
(4) continual comments about the wild men of the Caucasus'!


In fact, I think there is quite a long history of Russian females being attracted and drawn to men from the Caucasus, though I don't know the precise reasons why. The most amusing comment in my recent post about celibacy came when a reader wrote - "Думаешь горячие кавказские парни ее разморозят?" Well, I am not a piece of meat that needs to be dethawed! :))  Anyone who immediately attempts to do so will likely fail, and it does not matter if he is from the Caucasus or right here in Washington, DC.

The route is already planned, and I'll journey through the country with a native Georgian, spending most of my time in village areas. I think outside of a few larger cities, the whole country is a big village! :) If you have suggestions on places to visit, things to see, please write in comments. Thanks and pleasant week to all!
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My big expedition to Georgia is only a few weeks away, but I was craving a mountain adventure last month and hopped on a plane back to Montana, then onward via car to Alberta, Canada. This is one of the most beautiful places I've seen in all my travels, and the majority of my time was spent in Banff National Park. In this region, you are surrounded by majestic landscapes, pristine turquoise waters and cool forest breezes. I'll write about the natural landscapes in a separate post, but today I want to speak about portion sizes in Canadian restaurants and lodging in Banff.

America is known as the land of gluttony on many levels, and this includes our food. Yes, our portions are huge but I think in Banff they were even larger! I could not believe it actually, the huge piles of food thrown on plates at all restaurants. I traveled with my young cousin who is a hockey player and consumes excessive calories at each setting. Here is his breakfast one morning - something known as "cowboy grits." Grits are a type of crushed cornmeal, not sure if they are popular in Russia, but I do not like the texture or taste. This breakfast costs around 9 Canadian dollars.Read more... )
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In the Ivanovo region sits a cozy little town called Ples. Full of bright colors, empty streets and lots of birch trees scattered through the forest areas, where walking paths are constructed at the top of the hill. I spent a few hours here at the end of winter last year, when there was still plenty of snow on the ground and the village was almost completely deserted. Only weak, old pensioners walked the icy streets, trying to maneuver through the slippery sidewalks without falling. Let's briefly explore this town through a few snapshots I took.Read more... )
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Going through old photos from Russia, I began to feel nostalgic. I can't say why really, but there is something about the Kostroma region that I really loved. I think this is one of the poorest regions in the country, yet there is a sense of rustic charm that's soulful, and in cities like Soligalich, houses are well-maintained and colorful for the most part. I think this is very important for the psyche, to not live in trash, or be surrounded by decaying or collapsing buildings. To have some bright visual stimulation to contrast against the constant grey winter skies.

This was one of the final stops on the last big road journey in Russia, and I arrived here in an unusual manner. After the wonderful experience in the village of Astashova, I awoke in a frozen state from my sleepless night alone in the forest house, and got in the car to learn we were taking a rather exotic route to the next stopping point. Yep, an off-road winter adventure through the remote Russian wilderness. :)Read more... )
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In politics, life and history, people have always made valiant efforts to convert the masses to their ideologies, with religion as one of the core objectives. I already told you about The River Walk in San Antonio, but visitors to the region will also be encouraged to see the San Antonio Missions. The outposts were established by various religious orders, mostly Catholics, to spread Christianity among the local Natives. They also formed part of the colonization system that stretched across the Spanish Southwest in the 17th - 19th centuries. I've seen so many churches in Russia and all of my travels that they are of little interest to me now, but I took the time to visit one of the Missions during my business trip, and met some interesting locals in the process. These human encounters make any expedition worthwhile.Read more... )
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The pride of San Antonio, Texas is the "River Walk," a charming area filled with a lot of restaurants, cafes and shops. When I first arrived in the city, I kept searching for the "river," and was really confused. Being native to the Washington, DC area, I'm accustomed to huge rivers like the Potomac, which cover larger areas and can be seen from multiple vantage points.

The River Walk is more of a canal, Venetian style, or at least how I imagine Venice to be. I've never been there, or anywhere in Italy. You can float on a boat down the strip of waterway and look at a lot of interesting architecture, quaint bridges, and many diverse people walking along the corridors. People watching - it's a fun way to spend the afternoon in most places, so let's take a look.Read more... )
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I don't know much about the Tatars, but I began to go through old photos I took in Kazan last year and noticed I have a lot of shots of locals walking the streets. I guess their appearance is highly unusual to me, even exotic to some extent. Here's just one example. About this girl (woman?), I know nothing, but find her intriguing. :)

What do I need to know about the Tatars, and this Republic of Russia? My host in this city spoke very little English, so it was difficult to learn a lot about the region from the native showing me around. Please share any interesting facts or insights. I struggle to understand why cities like Kazan are so much nicer than other parts of Russia? Is it because the region is rich in oil, and has more resources? Kazan is now my second favorite city, only Peter is more aesthetically pleasing. Both have very friendly locals, and Kazan has more English speakers than any other city I've visited. I guess because there are so many young students there, but it makes navigation in the city much easier for a foreign tourist like me...


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Before we get to Russia, let's talk about Georgia. My big expedition for the year will be to this country, which is described in almost all articles as a "tiny, but proud nation." I always try to read a bit about local customs before stepping foot on foreign soil, learn a few basic phrases in the local language, and understand a bit about the current political climate of the nation. To this end, I even purchased a book called "Georgia - Culture Smart", which explains how to behave in the country to avoid trouble. A huge part of the book is focused on traditional gender relations, warning Western women about the wild and untamed men of the Caucasus. :))

I place almost no weight on these types of books because they are always overly cautious with their interpretations and warnings, and I really don't fear offending locals when I'm a guest in their country. If you're running around trying to be so prim and proper all the time, there's no room for true adventure, or learning about local nuances from the mistakes you make when dealing with natives. I think it's always best to just be yourself, and simply live and learn along the way.


Yesterday, I came across another article explaining ten things you should never do in Georgia. Almost all of them focus on supra etiquette, as these huge meals and gatherings are a main part of Georgian culture. Let's take at the things this simple American woman should never do during her visit to Georgia. Then, we can think of a similar list for Russia. :)Read more... )
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I've been on many journeys, but I can't say I've ever gone on an acid trip, or done LSD. In my early 20's, I was a rocker chick, ran with a crowd of musicians, and spent most free nights in clubs and concert halls listening to live music. I was always surrounded by drugs, but absolutely none of them intrigued me, with the exception of pot and ecstasy. The former I smoked for many years, and the latter I tried a few times. So, I can't say I know what it's like to have a mind-altering trip on LSD, but I imagine the visual distortions and altered states of consciousness closely resemble the decor of a Mexican restaurant I visited in San Antonio, Texas. Here, you can have deep conversations with statues of Jesus or the Virgin Mary, fly on the wings of doves, or simply become transfixed by all the twinkling Christmas lights, swirling garland, and butterflies with multi-colored wings...in general, it's very easy to mentally and visually transform into another realm. And absolutely no drugs are needed. :)Read more... )
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We often create illusions about others, mentally molding them into the person we wish them to be, rather than letting actual words and actions be the guide. In human relations, this can be a dangerous game. I was quite susceptible to it in youth, but now I simply take people at face value. I still get tricked on occasion, and snakes temporarily slither into my realm, if only for a brief moment in time. Soon these slimy creatures are sent back to the dark hole or forest from which they crawled, because people always reveal their true character in small ways, if you're perceptive enough to notice. Too many people prefer to hold on to the mirage, for it's far more beautiful than reality. This is the reason why we have all echoed the words "love is blind" to ourselves, or others. Right? :)

In travels, this game of illusions can be fun. You meet people, often for a fleeting moment. A short smile, a quick exchange of words, a passing glance...however, you know almost nothing about their lives. Sometimes only their name, or a brief fact about their existence. During all trips, I take the time to sit in a local cafe or market and simply watch people go by, snapping photos in the process. These are the results of the experiment in San Antonio, Texas, where I traveled last week for business.

All the photos were taken at the Mexican market, or a local cafe by the Majestic Theatre, where there was a stage production of Cinderella playing during my visit. This appeared to be the biggest event in the city, with princesses of all ages dressed in sparkly heels and fancy dresses, still clinging to the fairy tale dream of a prince and magic kingdom. There's no text with the photos that follow. I didn't speak to any of these people, except the man pictured here - Gilberto. He runs a small stall with hats and boots at the Mexican market. Charming, dashing and distinguished gentleman. :) Usually I'm the one telling you stories, but let's put your imagination to work. Certainly some of my readers must be creative enough to weave imaginary tales about the humans in these photos? So go on, tell me a story...Read more... )
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I once visited a refugee camp, and only once. Yet memories from the visit remain bright and vivid, with conflicting emotions that never seem to escape me in life. We can understand most human conflict is grounded in the following bases (1) divergent ideologies or viewpoints; (2) religion; and (3) the inability of people to see past stereotypes imposed by media, culture, or the environment in which they grew up. I was reminded of this visit yesterday, when an Israeli reader began to argue with me yet again about "scary" and "evil" Muslims. Given the current political climate in the U.S., and the escalating global situation with terror threats, now seems as good a time as any to share this story.Read more... )
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During the last winter journey through Russia, I was haunted by this cute little bear while driving through the Kostroma and Vologda regions. He suddenly appeared at the most unexpected spots - on an abandoned and decaying bus stop in the middle of a deserted village, on old billboards, and in some small shops along the way. I didn't recognize the symbolism of the Olympic rings on the bear's belt, but later learned "Мишка" was the mascot of the 1980's Olympic Games in Moscow.

I
too am an 80's child. Being born in 1973, I experienced the 80's in full force, at the height of my teenage years. However, it's difficult to find a common thread when comparing American cultural symbols from the 80's and prior decades with the treasured symbols from the same Soviet periods. This is not surprising given that our nations were seen as political and strategic enemies at that point in history, and sadly even now to a certain extent. The bear played an integral role in the last place I visited during the journey, the "Museum of the Socialist Way of Life", located in Kazan. Let's take a look inside...Read more... )

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