31 August 2015

Prague or Bust

MJ and I flew back to Istanbul from Boston mid-August. We departed Logan airport late at night, spent most of the flight arguing loudly and annoying the flight crew and other passengers. Changed planes early the next morning at LHR and arrived at IST late the same morning.

A short taxi ride brought us back to the Hyatt Regency Ataköy, where we spent most of the rest of the day sleeping. I of course went to check out El Guapo and found him to be in sound, but dirty, condition.

Next day of course the priority was to sort out the tyre problem El Guapo had suffered weeks earlier in Zara, and to get the other mechanical issues looked at. The Land Rover dealer was close to our hotel and I found it easily enough the following morning. The place was modern and professional looking, but unfortunately the service staff there informed me that the Land Rover Defender was not available for civilian use in Turkey and hence they could not service it. But they directed me to a workshop they said could assist.

I got there with the help of GPS – as usual, Istanbul's network of highways and motorways did not make this quick or straightforward. Next door to the recommended workshop was a Michelin dealer, so I decided to try to get the tyre problem sorted there. They didn't have my size (750 R16), but directed me to call the Michelin importer for Turkey. Tried to call but my phone was out of money, so had to walk 800 meters to a nearby commercial district to find a Turkcell refill point. Called several times before I managed to speak to anyone, but he was helpful and promised to revert to me ASAP.

In the meantime, the guys at the workshop told me they couldn't help, but they knew someone who could. I should explain that all these workshops were located in an industrial district with street after street of mechanical, tyre, electrical, muffler and other automotive workshops. We drove together to a workshop a few streets away that I immediately knew was the right place. At least four Land Rover Defenders sat out front in varying degrees of mobility. The owner, wearing a baseball cap and grey ponytail reeked of mechanical oneness with the Land Rovers that surrounded him.

He looked at my tyres. He donned a stethoscope and listened for the odd whining sound I had been hearing in various engine components. We went for a short ride. He told me he could fix the whine – which was originating from the brake vacuum pump – for 1100 Turkish pounds, but it really wasn't a problem. He could also get me four new BF Goodrich off-road tyres for around 1200 Turkish pounds, but I would have to return the following day. I agreed to do so.

I returned early the next morning and followed him to a nearby tyre workshop, which efficiently replaced all four tyres. I went to a nearby ATM and got the cash to pay him. Before I left, he had noticed that my parking brake light annoyingly stayed illuminated even when it was released, so he open up the brake handle boot and bent the switch contacts into place.

Getting ready for the next 30 000 kilometers

I returned to the Hyatt – after another confusing diversion in the same neighbourhood I had been in weeks earlier to find a petrol station and refill my tank which – dejá vu! – was empty again. MJ was waiting by the pool in her bikini, drink in hand.

The Hyatt we were staying at (the Hyatt Regency) was the newest of the three Istanbul Hyatts, and amongst the small number of kinks they still hadn't fully worked out was the air con. After two days of being promised that something would be done, we decided to change hotels; and it would be better to be in the centre in any event. I was going to bookd the Grand Hyatt, but the front desk staffer who was assisting us had transferred from the Park Hyatt, and he urged me to go there instead. It of course wasn't cheap, but at his urging I decided to go for it.

We checked out, loaded up El Guapo and headed back east into central Istanbul. Google maps got us to the Park Hyatt without any problems, and we were thrilled to find our room included its own private Turkish bath, with steam room, wash tub and bath. With all the vehicle issues finally out of the way, we were free to spend a couple of days sightseeing, which MJ wanted to start with a visit to the UFO museum.

Up early the next morning, excellent breakfast in the hotel lobby. Back to the room to freshen up a bit before heading out for the days' sightseeing. MJ said she wanted to lie down for a minute. Ten minutes later she was in almost unbearable pain. I called the front desk, they sent a nurse. The nurse summoned a doctor, and the doctor advised us to go to the nearby American hospital. A five minute taxi ride got us there, and after a bit of paperwork and a rather modest payment, MJ was hooked up to a morphine IV. A couple hours later and she was back to her usual bubbly self.

We finally made it to the location marked for the UFO museum the next day, only to learn from a neighbour that it had moved to an unknown location (the Vega system?) a year or so previously. So we wandered around some back streets before emerging fortuitously onto Tarlabaşi Boulevard, one of Istanbul's main retail shopping streets. We spent a couple hours shopping for bargains there before eventually finding ourselves at Taksim Square, where MJ scored a couple final retail finds before we took the metro back to our hotel.

Next day, it was finally time to hit the road and start the final leg of this journey. It didn't start terribly smoothly. Nearly all of my experiences with Istanbul traffic had not been good – four and five lane highways slowing to walking speed was a frequent experience. After more than an hour of driving west, we hadn't made much progress, crawling along in stop and start traffic. Hundreds of enterprising Turks lined the route – most of them children. They ran alongside El Guapo, or jumped on the sidesteps, banging on the window trying to persuade us to buy water, snacks, and other items. The kids in particular took troubling risks in traffic in an effort to try to sell us things – I would be surprised if there was not at least one fatality every day as a result of their desperate efforts to make a living. No doubt many of them were refugees or others without legal status.

Slowly, the traffic thinned out and we started to move a little faster, and we finally reached the Bulgarian border around 19:00. Immigration and customs formalities were quite efficient, and the Bulgarians friendly and welcoming. Everything was done except one thing – I needed to obtain mandatory third-party liability insurance. The customs agent took our passports and directed us to the typical border insurance shack, explaining we could have our passports as soon as we showed proof of insurance. I parked to one side as we watched border guards dump dozens of cartons of contraband cigarettes discovered in the boot of another vehicle on the ground.

MJ waited in the vehicle while I walked over to the insurance office, staffed by a single young woman. She took all my vehicle info and entered it into her computer. After 20 minutes or so, her task was complete and she tried to finalise issuing me the policy. Problem. System wouldn't respond. She looked at her watch. "Ah, it's 19:30 on Saturday evening. That's when they take the system down for maintenance and updates every week." She told me to expect it to be off-line until 21:00. I returned to the vehicle. MJ and I talked. We did our fortunes with tarot cards. We whitened our teeth with whitening strips. I went back at 21:00. System still not up. I smoked a cigarette with the insurance girl and her colleague, who had come to replace her. I went back to the vehicle. It started raining. MJ and I talked about UFOs and aliens. I went back to the insurance office again. Back to the vehicle again. Lather, rinse, repeat. A Bulgurian guy walked by, carrying groceries in a "Billa" bag. The handle broke, and the litre bottle of vodka he had inside smashed on the ground. I found him a new plastic bag from the vehicle. Finally, near midnight, I returned to the insurance office for the fourth or fifth time and the system was back up. I got my insurance document, retrieved our passports, and we finally headed down the road towards Sofia.

We knew there was no way we would reach Sofia – on the other side of the country – that evening. We decided to make for Plovdiv instead. We got there well after midnight, famished. The McDonalds had a drive-through open, but we had no Bulgarian Lev, and had no clue how to order in Bulgarian. With the help of the internet, I found us a hotel, arriving past 3:00. A wedding party was in full swing, but the hotel was full. The helpful front desk clerk directed us to another hotel. We found it on Google maps, but drove back and forth past the location shown several times before I pulled over and searched on foot. It was right where it was supposed to be, but the sign was difficult to see. We dragged our luggage into the smoky lobby, staffed by surly looking, tattooed young men and checked in. Our room was on the 4th floor. No lift. MJ made a point of demonstrating her independence by lugging all of our heavy bags up four flights of stairs while I found a parking spot.

It was an inauspicious start to our stay in Plovdiv, but the town turned out to be a highlight of our trip. Across the street was the Plovdiv mall, a smallish shopping mall featuring all the usual mall tenants and a surprisingly good restaurant where we had a late breakfast the next morning. The weather was absolutely flawless – sunny, maybe 23 degrees. We took a taxi into the old town and wandered its picturesque cobbled streets. We visited an Orthodox church before finding ourselves at the intimiate Roman amphitheatre that had been discovered and excavated a couple decades previously.

From there, we wandered further uphill towards the historic citadel, stopping at another Orthodox church, where a service was underway, at the town museum, and a number of gift shops and galleries. After stopping for some obligatory photos in the ruins of the citadel, we wandered a few meters back down hill to a casual outdoor restaurant overlooking the river for beer and food.

That evening, we sat in the hotel bar and decided to try to figure out where to go after Prague. We had thought about settling in a number of countries, but had basically narrowed it down to Ecuador, Guatemala and Oaxaca. I decided to try using some of the million+ air miles I've accumulated over the years. We tried for Mexico first, but connections and availability were bad. Same with Guatemala. Finally, Ecuador. Immediately found a business class fare, with one change in Amsterdam for a reduced mileage award. Booked a flight for both of us to Guayaquil out of Prague for the 31st.

Next morning we continued west to Rila National Park. The park is most popular in the winter as a ski resort, but it is popular with hikers in the summer time as well. We checked into a massive, communist-era hotel. I can't remember what we paid, but it wasn't much. The hotel featured an indoor swimming pool, fitness centre, sauna, spa, game room, bowling alley, shops, cafés and restaurants. MJ went to the spa and got what she described as one of the best massages she ever experienced for about $15.

After finding a secure parking space for El Guapo near a power supply where I could charge the batteries, we had a wander around town and found a friendly place for dinner. Next morning, we drove to the entrance to the park itself, first across a flat, open plain, but then ascending an increasingly windy road before arriving at the park gate. The car park was jammed full, but we managed to find a space at the very end.

Our goal was the "Seven Lakes" hike, which took in views of seven pristine apline lakes. We bought tickets and took the gondola to the start of the hike.

Hiker's reward

The landscape was open and the views spectacular. Eventually we made our way to the shores of one of the lakes, which MJ discovered was populated by a species of fish that had a taste for cashew nuts. We stopped there for a snack and a bit of rest ourselves before heading back to the gondola.

Resting up for the return hike

On returning to the car park, I found that El Guapo's right front tyre was completely flat. I had first noticed it leaking around the valve-stem back in Plovdiv, and had "repaired" it by wedging a piece of folded-up paper between the valve-stem and the rim. Fortunately, I carried an air compressor and re-inflated it, but on our way to the resort I kept an eye out for tyre shops. MJ spotted one, and after a short wait I was able to get the rubber washer at the base of the valve-stem replaced for all of €10.

Next morning, we carried on towards the Serbian border. My easiest crossing on the entire trip. The insurance I bought entering Bulgaria is valid throughout the remaining countries on our drive, so no need to stop at the insurance booth. The only minor hitch was that I had neglected to purchase a road-tax vignette on entering Bulgaria, which the Bulgarian customs agents pointed out but did nothing but sternly remind me to buy one next time I visited. Immigration was quick and perfunctory. We had a bit of lunch on the Serbian side before continuing on towards Belgrade.

Most of the rest of the drive was event-free, although the rear tyre continued to leak slowly, so we stopped after a couple hundred kilometres to re-inflate. Before too long, we were approaching the outskirts of Belgrade when suddenly traffic came to dead stop. We inched forward in three lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic for well over an hour before we were even able to discern the cause – it was just the routine back-up at the toll plaza; apparently, Serbia has yet to implement an electronic toll system. Slowly, we approached the front of the queue. We exchanged helloes and brief stories with other overland vehicles, with registrations from the UK, Germany and elsewhere. Finally, we were through and a short drive took us to the Radisson Blu hotel, which I booked earlier in the day. Google maps, as usual, got us reliably to the hotel entrance, but then found that the final 100 metres of that route led through the hotel underground car park, which was too low for El Guapo. A friendly hotel employee told us how to drive around, which involved driving a couple hundred metres down the tram tracks. We managed to arrive at the hotel entrance and check in.

After unloading the luggage, I found a place in the above-ground car park where I could run a power cord inside to charge up the batteries. The next day was my birthday, so we began celebrating with a couple of cocktails and some excellent food on the terrace outside the hotel.

This hotel (The Raddison Blu Old Mill Hotel), which as it name suggests is housed inside a re-purposed 19th century textile mill, is one of the best I've ever experienced. Architecturally, they did an excellent job of maintaining the integrity of the orignal building, and enhancing it with sleek, minimalist decor. Our room was huge, and the bathroom almost as large. Large, strategically placed mirrors near the bed and the shower led MJ to remark that it had been designed by a guy with a heathily dirty mind. Service was even better. Not only was the staff friendly, helpful and without exception possessing a strong people and service-oriented attitude, service was at times almost inconveniently fast. In the morning, I ordered coffee from room service but was still in my underwear when they knocked on the door to deliver it less than 5 minutes later.

We both would have loved to have lingered in this beautiful river-side city, but we were on a bit of deadline to be in Prague in time to catch our flight to Ecuador. So we did the now-familiar pack up, load up, check out, book next hotel (Budapest) and punch the address into Google maps. Our next border crossing (into Hungary) would be the last to require us even to stop. I expected it to go smoothly, but fittingly, there was a small hiccup. I kept all the car papers in an accordian folder which in turn was put into a secure lock-box in the rear of the vehicle. The dozens of keys I needed for the vehicle were on a ring secured to a lanyard on my belt, and the lock-box key was about the largest on the ring. At some point the previous day, on getting back in the vehicle I remembered trying to slam my door shut but encountering some resistence. It closed on the second attempt and I didn't give it another thought until I was asked by the Serbian border officials to produce my car papers, and I found the lock-box key badly bent. It must have been dangling down onto the door seal when I attempted to slam it shut. As I feared and expected, when I tried to bend the key back into shape, the end just snapped off. The spare was back in Doha (I left a full set of spares with a friend just in case something happened along the way – note to future self – you need three sets: one for use, one in a safe place with a friend, and a third hidden in the vehicle, preferably not in your lock-box).

"Don't worry" the customs agents said,"we will get your box open." I was a little worried. But he just dropped the broken end of the key into the lock, inserted the stub, and the lock turned and opened. We were soon on our way into Hungary. After driving across the Hungarian plain, again stopping to re-inflate my leaking right rear tyre, Google maps got us into central Budapest and within a couple hundred metres of our hotel without difficulty. However, the near-final turn indicated was down a narrow street blocked by a retractable bollard. Traffic was heavy, so circling around the area trying to find an alternative route took the better part of an hour. On the second trip around I asked someone and was told that only residents of that area possessed electronic keys that caused the bollards blocking the entrance to retract into the ground. I took their advice, waited at one of the entrances, and tailgated behind another vehicle to get inside.

Our hotel was another favourite of our trip – but completely different than the one in Belgrade. This was a small, cozy family-run hotel, beautifully restored with vintage furnishings and fixtures to look like a typical Central European hotel from early in the last century. After the usual check-in and unload routine, we took a seat outdoors at the hotel's charming bistro, which also featured the same 'fin de siècle' atmosphere as the hotel itself. The charming hotel owner introduced himself, and on learning it was my birthday, brought us drinks on the house. The food, unfortunately, was a little disappointing, but we had a very nice evening nonetheless, and after dinner, went for a stroll and more birthday drinks at a bar on Deák Ferenc.

Birthday in Budapest

Next morning, of course, the challenge was now getting back out past the bollards blocking the entrance to this restricted area. Actually, that was the second challenge – the first was that (not unexpectedly) El Guapo's right rear tyre was now entirely deflated. I re-inflated, re-incorporated my folded-up piece of paper repair, loaded the vehicle, and checked out. The hotel receptionist informed me that I was lucky not to have been ticketed, as parking enforcement was quite strict in the area. The restrictions did thankfully mean that I had no problem finding a place to park within view of the hotel – there were relatively few other vehicles.

Soon we were crossing the Danube into Buda and on our way to our final destination – actually not Prague, but a friend of mine, J's, cottage in a Bohemian village called Velké Heřmanice. My friend had arranged for a local 4x4 garage to store and care for El Guapo for a while. After a few hours (and another re-inflation stop – WHY didn't I have that garage in Bulgaria check all four tyres?) we reached a point where the road signs said go straight (the route through Austria) and Google maps said take the exit (the route through Slovakia). I went with Google maps. Only a very brief stop at this border, to buy a road vignette, which was good that we did because the Slovak traffic police were waiting 100 metres down the road ticketing people without them. The border still featured a shuttered border post; we slowed but didn't stop. In fact, we didn't stop at all during the couple hours we were in Slovakia, passing near Bratislava but continuing on towards Brno and Bohemia. I couldn't find the hamlet of Velké Heřmanice on Google maps, but I did locate the next larger town, Heřmaničky, and after exiting the motorway and driving the last hour through postcard-perfect Bohemian countryside on a beautiful summer afternoon, we arrived there without difficulty. I asked a passing couple the way to Velké Heřmanice; the guy just gave me a blank look (it's about 4 km away, for fuck's sake), but his girl just repeated "Velké Heřmanice, Velké Heřmanice" back to me and indicated I should continue in the direction I was heading.

I found J's house with no further difficulties about 10 minutes later, but he was nowhere to be found. As I didn't have a local SIM card, I had been in contact with him by text message when we had the opportunities to connect to WiFi on our re-fueling and re-inflation stops. His last message had said something about heading to the "fun fair," which I guessed to be back in Heřmaničky, where in any event I hoped to find a WiFi connection I could use to contact him.

We parked and found the "fun fair" – a collection of decrepit-looking rides – near the centre of town where the pubs are. I went into one I knew that J frequented. He wasn't there, and neither was the pub owner who apparently was the only one who knew the WiFi password. We went to the pub next door, and were in the process of getting more flustered responses to my inquiry about WiFi when J, appearing reasonably intoxicated, returned to the common room from a trip to the toilet. We all squeezed in to El Guapo and drove a few kilometres to a neighbouring town for some beer and Czech food.

On arriving at the restaurant, we discovered that El Guapo's left front tyre also had a problem, as it was nearly entirely flat. Nothing you can't postpone dealing with until after some food and some good Bohemian lager. Despite the slow service and problems with our order, the food was excellent and afterwards we just dug out the air compressor again and headed back to the cottage.

Next day, it was finally time to say good-bye to El Guapo, at least for a while. I unloaded the vehicle and put most of the contents in J's attic. Packed up our remaining things and followed J to the 4x4 mechanic's house in a nearby village – he wasn't at the shop as it was Sunday. He wasn't at his house either, but his wife met us there and with J's help, I gave her a list of things that needed seeing to – besides two leaky valve stems, I had another leaking hub seal (left side, this time), funky ignition switch, undiagnosed problem with the transfer case, and a battery that wouldn't hold a charge.

J dropped MJ and I off at the rail station in Heřmaničky, where we bought tickets into Prague. We arrived that afternoon and got a taxi to our hotel. After 9480 kilometres of driving, and a 1 1/2 hour train ride, I had arrived at my destination.

Prague at last


31 August 2015


16 August 2015

A Journey Completed

I had few expectations about Batumi, but the city nonetheless managed to exceed all of them. The city had an excellent climate, and was oriented towards the pebbly beach that separated the gracious town from the Black Sea.

Unfortunately, I had little time to linger, so after breakfast I headed towards the Turkish border, stopping only to top off the tank. Border formalities were refreshingly efficient, such that despite the 20 minute wait to buy insurance I was in Turkey little more than an hour after arriving. Motorists heading in the other direction, however, had a good wait, as it took me 10 minutes at 30 kph to pass the end of the queue of vehicles waiting to enter Georgia.

A very good dual carriageway road brought me to Trabzon a few hours later, where Google maps took me straight to my hotel. Checked in, checked out the view from my terrace over the harbour, got my dirty clothing to a laundry, bought a Turkish SIM card, found some dinner and a beer, and went to sleep.

Trabzon harbour

Departed reasonably early next day after breakfast. Istanbul was too distant to attempt driving in one day, so I decided a visit to Cappodoccia would be a good way to break my journey. I booked myself two nights in a hotel there, and set Google maps to navigate me there.

As usual, three alternative routes were offered, and also as usual, I took the one with the shortest drive time. The route I chose headed directly inland, straight up into the Anatolian plateau; others continued west along the Black Sea coast before turning south. The road started as a four-lane dual carriageway, but soon narrowed to a single lane as it climbed into the mountains in a series of switchbacks. After more than hour of steadily gaining elevation, it levelled out into a long straight stretch. This road continued east towards Erzurum, but Google maps directed me south onto a secondary road.

Over the next couple of hours, the road steadily deteriorated, getting narrower and rougher until I was driving over an unfinished track through pine-covered mountains. For El Guapo, it was no real challenge, but I would feel bad for anyone in an ordinary vehicle that had been directed to this route by Google maps. Eventually, of course, I rejoined the pavement, and as I continued towards Cappadoccia the roads grew steadily wider and smoother. At Zara, I took the opportunity to fill El Guapo's diesel tank, before continuing on. Leaving town, I was distracted by a text from MJ and drifted into curb dividing the roadway, travelling at around 100 kph. I hit hard, and bounced back onto the road. The time pressure monitor loudly informed me I had just punctured the tyre.

Pine-forested Anatolia

I managed to pull over directly in front of a complex of workshops, mostly in the business of tyre repair. A mechanic soon appeared, and we jacked up the front axle, removed the wheel and took it to his workshop. Despite the abundance of tyre shops, no new ones were available. The mechanic took the tyre off the rim and together we inspected the damage. There was a gash 6 cm long in the side wall. He patched it up and it held air, but I didn't have a lot of confidence in the repair. We moved that tyre to the spare wheel carrier, put the spare on the rear, and moved the rear to the front. I paid him €100 and set off down the road.

No further mis-haps marred the rest of the journey, which took me over increasingly good quality roads to Göreme, the centre of Cappadoccia, by what I thought was around 22:00, but later that evening I learned that I had crossed a time-zone boundary at some point that day and it was an hour earlier.

I wandered into the touristy centre of town and had some drinks and dinner before going to bed around midnight. My plan was to take a break from driving and have a look around Cappadoccia the next day. Although I was in bed, I was still restless and slept lightly. Around 3:30 I got a text from my brother: my Dad had just passed away.

I sat awake texting him and then MJ for a bit before getting a little bit of sleep. I was out of bed by eight and on the road by 10:00. The friendly Kiwi owner of the hotel allowed me to cancel the second night I had booked without a penalty.

Istanbul was still a good ways away. I headed towards Ankara first and was headed north from there by early afternoon. On the way, with MJ's help, I booked a ticket to Detroit, a hotel at the airport in Istanbul, and a hotel in Ann Arbor. Approaching the city, the traffic grew steadily denser and slower. At one point I had anticipated reaching my hotel before 21:00, but the last kilometers in Asia I just crept along. I had earlier passed up some opportunities to re-fuel, and now my low-fuel warning came on. Around 22:00, I finally crossed the Bosporus into Europe.

I continued through heavy traffic on the highway towards the airport, my fuel gauge making me increasingly doubtful that I would make it. I considered an exit where there might potentially be a fuel station, hesistated, passed it, and then saw that I could have easily accessed three large petrol stations if I had exited as I considered. I had more diesel on the roof rack, so I wasn't worried about running out of fuel per se, but rather that if it ran dry I would have to bleed the air out of the fuel system. Prudence finally got the better of me and I decided to pull off and find a fuel station or to pour the contents of one of jerry cans into the tank. Naturally, unlike the exit I passed by, the exit I took 1) had no fuel stations and 2) did not lead easily back on to the main highway. I found a spot to pull over, climbed up on the roof and brought down a full jerry can, dug the spout out of the back and poured the contents into the tank. Replaced the jerry can on the roof and pulled back out into traffic.

With the help of Google maps, I navigated the spaghetti junction that led onto the avenue along the Sea of Marmora where the Hyatt was located. I pulled into the car park a few minutes later.

Checking in I was given good news and bad news. The bad news first: it was nearly midnight, I was exhausted and smelling like diesel, and my room wasn't ready. The good news: the only thing they had left was the Diplomatic Suite, which turned out to be an enormous six-room suite with two bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, a conference room, living room, kitchen and master suite with an immense bathtub in the middle of a bathroom larger than most people's sitting rooms. Over the years, I've had dozens of colleagues tell stories of such good fortune, but it had always eluded me. However, now that I had finally reached this elusive goal, I was only going to be able to enjoy it for about four hours, as my flight was at 6:00 the next morning.

I told the bellman I was going to the bar and to bring me the key when the room was ready. He did so in the middle of my second drink, so I headed down one floor to my fancy suite. I plugged all of my Apple devices in to charge, each in its own private room (why not, right?), set two wake up calls and an alarm and went to sleep in the enormous bed.

On waking, I turned on all six jets in the gigantic marble shower and blasted my body with warm water. Dressed, packed up all my Apple devices and headed downstairs, where they had a take-away breakfast waiting for me. I left the keys to El Guapo with the bellman and headed for the airport. Check in, security, etc. all normal. Found my economy-class seat at the very back of the plane, surrounded by a dozen or so unhappy toddlers. All were loud, but the one directly across the aisle was possessed by particularly noisy demons. In between screaming fits, he would kick the back of the seat in front of him, take the items his parents had offered in vain attempts to calm him and throw them into the aisle, and – his favourite – lower the tray table and pummel it with his fists as hard and fast as he could. Fortunately, he soon tired of all this, and – no, actually that was just our collective wishful thinking. He never got tired of keeping up his tantrum at full intensity during the entire 5-hour flight to Frankfort.

Frankfort was a short layover, and before long I was crammed into another economy class seat in the back of another jet. Fortunately, the configuration on this one was one I had never before encountered, and it had a lot fewer kids. Can't remember what the model of the aircraft was, but the toilets were all on a lower level, down a flight of stairs. The bulkhead around the stairs was just starboard of my seat, so although I had a "middle" seat, I had no one to my right, and only one seat to my left.

Before I knew it, my brother was picking me up at what had become a familiar spot at DTW. My Mom was never one to handle even the most lightly stressful situation with any sort of grace or dignity, so losing her husband of 57 years was sending her around the bend. We felt some trepidation because of this (my brother sharing with me some of her more outrageous actions over the days since I had left), but nonetheless felt it our obligation to stop in on my Mom. Afterwards, he dropped me at my hotel on the west side of town.

Next few days were spent getting things ready for my Dad's funeral, which was planned for Friday. With the help of my niece, we sorted through hundreds of old photos, selected a few dozen, found a guy who could scan them, had a dozen or so printed up, and put the rest on a playable DVD that could play on a repeating loop during the wake. We met with the priest and made final arrangements concerning the cermony, finalised the lunch menu and the readings and the music. We cleaned up the house in preparation for visitors, prepared print-outs of my Dad's favourite poems to distribute to guests, and took the American flag that had covered my sisters remains at her funeral 30+ years ago to the funeral home. One nice touch was my brother's idea – having his seven passports on display, the photos marking both his aging and the progression of hairstyles through the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond.

At the wake

The wake was well attended, by members of his family, my Mom's family, as well as friends, neighbours, and former colleagues, classmates and co-workers. The weather on the day of the funeral was flawless. I had taken my Dad's car back to my hotel the night before, and so I rose, put on a suit and headed over to my Mom's house first thing. The funeral was starting at 10:00 and my brother and I had planned to depart the house at 9:30 to be at the church no later than 9:45. I arrived at 9:15 to find that my niece and nephew weren't even out of bed yet, my brother was frantically pulling things together, and my Mom, of course, was jumping frantically from one self-manufactured crisis to the next.

Somehow, I managed to bundle them, the flag, and the poems into the car by 9:35 and arrive at the church almost on time. It was a spectacularly gorgeous Michigan summer day. A little knot of people had already gathered outside the front door, and we joined them in exchanging hugs and hellos with everyone as they arrived. Soon it was time for the funeral mass to start. My brother and I reached deep into the recesses of our memories and managed to mentally retrieve the process for properly folding an American flag, something we had both learned as boy scouts some 40 year ago and not had the occaision to practice since. We managed to do it perfectly, and then assisted the priest in spreading the pall over the coffin before processing up the aisle behind the priest, the casket, and my mother to the stirring chords of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

One of my Mom's many anxieties about the service, is that the priest she wanted, Father Bill, was on leave when my Dad passed, so we ended up in the hands of a Father Todd, a sincere young 27-year priest who turned out to be perfect for the task. One of the main reasons I thought so was the amazing homily he gave. He had only met us the day before, and never knew my father, but he asked questions and learned some things about my Dad through us, of course including his love of mountaineering. I can't recall everything he said, but a key thread running through the homily was a discussion of the meaning and symbolism of mountains and the mountain-top in Scripture – Moses at Mt. Nebo; Jesus giving the sermon on the mount, etc. and connecting my father's love of mountains to his spiritual journey through life.

After the funeral mass

After communion, my brother and I came to the lecturn, where I delivered a brief eulogy and my brother read one of his favourite – and most relevant poems, Abou Ben Adhem by Leigh Hunt. Afterwards, we had a lunch in the church hall. The church, St. Thomas, was the same church I was baptised in, and aside from attending a Sunday mass there with my cousin a few weeks ago, the only other time I had been there was for his mother's (who was also my godmother) funeral 2 1/2 years ago.

MJ flew in that evening with her son, whom I met for the first time the next morning. The three of us spent that weekend together before flying to Boston to move out of our flat there and to prepare to fly back to Istanbul, where MJ would join me for the final leg of my journey to Prague.


16 August 2015


01 August 2015

The Adventure Continues

I spent a good part of my time in Iran believing I would not make it back to the USA in time to say good-bye to my Dad, but after a 20-hour, 3-leg flight from Yerevan to Detroit, I arrived at my parents' house to find him still with us. Physically, he was weakened and emaciated, unable to stand without assistance, his pain kept under control by regular doses of morphine. Mentally, he initially also seemed weakened and confused, but over the days following my arrival, he experienced numerous interludes of lucidity and awareness.

Unfortunately, at times this awareness led him to express unhappiness – that he was in pain, that he just wanted to die. My Dad never taught me a lot through instruction or advice over the years, but I learned so much through his example, and this experience has taught me I need to take steps to ensure that I have the ability to end things on my terms if and when that time comes.

My mother, brother, niece and nephew all were sharing the house and the burden of caring for my Dad. The stress, at times, brought out the worst in all of us, but on the whole, I am very proud of all of my family, and they way they have managed this very difficult time. Eventually, we were all but forced to bring in an overnight care-giver, which later became full-time assistance, but we worked as a team under difficult circumstances to give my father the care he needed whilst trying our best to keep him comfortable and maintain his dignity.

My father with my brother and I -- his response to this photo was, "hey, who's the little guy in the middle?"

My original intent, of course, was to stay through to the end. But we never anticipated that he would last more than a few days. Everyone from my mother to MJ to the hospice nurse thought he was just hanging on until I could arrive, but on the day I left he had better blood pressure than I do. I couldn't suspend this trip indefinitely, and in fact, I only had permission to bring El Guapo into Armenia for 15 days, even though my own visa was valid for 90. So on the 27th, I said good-bye to my Dad and flew back to Yerevan with the intent of getting El Guapo to his permanent home in the Czech Republic and returning to the USA as soon as possible.

I arrived in Yerevan – exhausted – after more than 24 hours of travel with long layovers in both Frankfort and Vienna early in in the morning of the 28th. I was too tired to go through the process of removing the jerry cans from the roof and driving around trying to find the hotel I had booked on-line during my Vienna layover, so I just had a quick look in the car park to verify that El Guapo was safe and then took a taxi into town. Arriving at my hotel, the Hotel Meg, I was surprised to find my seat-mate from my flight from Vienna waiting there for me – he was the owner! It's a small hotel, and very difficult to find – only a small plaque on the door, completely not visible from the street, marks it as a hotel, so it was good I chose not to drive.

I slept most of the rest of the day, and then returned to the airport by taxi, first to retrieve my rescue tool from airport security and then to collect El Guapo from the car park. I was surprised but pleased to see that the oil had ceased leaking from the rear axle, but of course hoped this wasn't due to it having leaked completely dry. I brought some gear oil – and the half-inch socket wrench I would need to open the diff fill plug – with me from the USA. I had to use my foot to get sufficient leverage, but did manage to open the rear diff fill. It took about a half-litre, so it was down but not excessively so. Drove to the exit, paid 24000 AMD (about 25 EUR, not bad, eh?) for 12 days of parking and drove back into town. I thought I had marked a GPS waypoint for the hotel, but if I did, it disappeared somehow, so I spent more than an hour, twice passing within a few dozen meters of the place, before I finally managed to return to the hotel.

Before leaving for the airport, I arranged to have a mechanic meet me at the hotel the following morning. He arrived a bit late, but we got to work on the replacing the hub seal by 10:30, and were finished with the job by 12:00. In the process of making that repair, however, we discovered that the bolt and bushings from the left rear stabiliser bar had gone missing. We made a shopping trip to a friendly local lube supply and picked up 8 liters of 5W/30 engine oil. Then to the parts shop for new bolts and bushing, and then back to the hotel car park. Stabiliser bar sorted; drained the old engine oil, replaced the filter, refilled the engine. Replaced the fuel and air filters, drained and refilled the front diff. Should be good for another 5000 km. I thanked and paid the mechanic – at around 50 EUR for the day, he was less expensive than the 8 liters of Shell Helix engine oil (60 EUR).

El Guapo gets a new hub seal

I've started beginning to wonder if I had made a gender identity mistake in giving El Guapo a masculine name -- after giving him (her?) the vehicular equivalent of a cleanse, manicure, pedicure and facial, El Guapo now wanted a foamy bath, which he hadn't had since leaving Doha in June. In fact, he was whining continuously – I noticed a high-pitched whine that had not been present before when I drove away after finishing the service. There are plenty of car washes (or "day spas", as El Guapo likes to call them) in Yerevan, so I got him checked in and ordered up the full treatment. El Guapo was positively glowing when we left, but still refused to stop whining.

Nothing like a hot bath!

I returned to the hotel, parked El Guapo, plugged in the battery charger and had a long hot shower. Had some food and a beer and tried to get some sleep, without a lot of success. Went to bed around 23:00; gave up on trying to sleep around 1:00. Went for a walk, returned at 2:00, think I finally managed to go to sleep around 2:30, and was woken by a text message around 5:00.

First thing to pop in my head was that I had forgotten to grease El Guapo's U-joints, a task I usually look forward to because it gives me an excuse to say "grease nipple." I did so straight-away, and had a check on the batteries – still charging. Had a shower, packed up, checked out, and got on the road by 12:00. The road north from Yerevan was only slightly less dramatic than the road I arrived on from the south. Lots of mountains, lots of lakes, lots of hairpin turns. I reached the border around 17:00, on the last day that El Guapo was legally in the country. Did the now familiar queue/paperwork/bank/paperwork routine, but this time it took less than an hour. I said good-bye to Armenia and then drove 100 meters to the Georgian border control. The agent there had a little difficulty processing me in, but he summoned a colleague and 15 minutes later, with no paperwork no fees, and no bullshit, I was given a Georgian entry stamp and waved forward to customs. There, the customs officers collectively were far more interested in checking out El Guapo (really -- I need to sort this out, this vehicle is obviously female, but somehow "La Guapa" doesn't have the same resonance. I'm facing a similar mental dilemna with the child I haven't even conceived yet – if it's a boy, I definitely want to name him "Joseph" after my father, but if it's a girl, "Josephine" doesn't really seem to cut it) than they were in properly checking things, and so after a 15 minute discussion on camping, off-roading, on-board water and electricity, etc., I was on my way. This is the experience I have been hoping for in the course of the last 5 or so crossings and I hope the remaining six or eight are similarly uncomplicated.

Another hour brought me to Tbilisi, which I quickly discovered was a far more interesting and beautiful city than I had anticipated. My first good impression arose from happening across the "Bridge of Peace", an absolutely exquisite piece of architecture I had never heard of. I passed this landmark over the Kura river just as dusk was falling on a perfect summer evening. The bridge is for pedestrians only and is beautifully lit. As its designers no doubt anticipated, it was thronged with people -- hanging out, making out, working out and chilling out. It's an absolute genius piece of urban architecture, and you will never see anything like in the USA because, well, it isn't automobile centric.

The "Freedom Bridge," much as I saw it driving by on a perfect summer evening

Near an immense statue of St. George with a sword in his hand and a determined "I am going to kill this dragon" look on his face, I found a Geocell shop that was supposed to still be open but nevertheless was not, but managed to find an unsecured wireless connection, logged on to TripAdvisor, and found the location of a small but highly rated hotel, the "Hotel British House." Drove there with the help of Google Maps and checked in. Simple, but very nice hotel, and fantastic breakfast included in the 65 EUR rate.

After checking in, I walked downhill from the hotel to the main drag, Rustaveli Avenue. What a trendy and lively scene – a beautiful avenue, on a beautiful summer evening, populated with beautiful, trendy people and...can it be? Yes! A Wendy's!

First time I've seen a Wendy's this side of the Atlantic since they closed their UK, Poland and Swiss outlets back in the '90s. Welcome back.

Beautiful Tbilisi at night. Just how did I achieve this dreamy, romantic look, you ask? Was it some photo programme, either Apple's or Instagram's or someone elses?

If you want to have this same look in your own photos, just follow these simple instructions:

1) Buy an iPhone

2) Stick it in your pocket, and mostly don't think about the "photo" function.

3) Sweat a lot (helps if its warm and you are a bit overweight and out of shape)

4) Take your iPhone out of your pocket, smear the sweat around a bit with your filthy t-shirt. Phone is now ready for use.

I found the "Georgian" restaurant the hotel receptionist had recommended, went in, sat down, and ordered a "local" beer (it was good, although I don't remember the brand). The appetiser was amazing – just a big plate of raw herbs and vegetables, including green onion, purple basil, parsley, tarragon, radishes, and others. No prep, no dressing, nothing fancy – but really nice and crisp and fresh – something I will have to replicate next time I have both an herb garden and guests.

Again following the suggestion of the waitress I ordered what she assured me was a "traditional Georgian dish" for the main course. It was good, but I would have difficulty differentiating it from "pizza" in a blind taste test.

This morning had a huge, tasty breakfast at my hotel. I was still a bit concerned about El Guapo's whining, so I had a look under the vehicle. There appeared to be a leak (nothing serious) from the transfer case, so on my way out of Tbilisi, I stopped into a high-tech looking garage and had both the transfer case and transmission oil replaced. They discovered bits of steel shavings stuck to the magnetic drain plug of the transfer case. Any number of potential causes, but I suspect my difficulties in shifting in and out of diff lock, which invariably involves a lot of grinding of gears. In any event, this didn't make the whining go away, but it did make me more assured.

After leaving Tbilisi, I soon found myself on the best highway I've seen since leaving Qatar.

Wow! Nice road! If it weren't for the hill I am driving up, I'd think I was back in Qatar!

This good road unfortunately didn't take me all the way to Batumi, but mostly made good time through green countryside, and eventually reached the Black Sea coast and a series of pebbly beaches and resort towns. The last few kilometers wound slowly through a lush green forest before paralelling the beach into Batumi itself. I hadn't made a hotel reservation, so I drove through town looking for a hotel, and ended up at a Sheraton. They told me they only had executive rooms left at 600 EUR/night, so I went to the bar, got a Wifi access code and logged on to Trip Advisor. Searched for hotels in Batumi, and the Sheraton came up at the top of the list for 200 USD. I booked it and returned to the reception desk. She retrieved my reservation, noted I had booked a standard room, and then upgraded me to an executive room for free.

Tomorrow I expect to achieve a significant psychological milestone in this journey, as I'll be entering Turkey, the last border crossing I will doing in Asia!


1 August 2015


31 July 2015

Reflections on Iran

A lot of people have of course been offering their views on the Iran nuclear deal, both before and after it was finalised. In the USA in particular, most of these opinions are un- or mis-informed, and are largely the manifestation of a deep-seated bias against Iran, which in turn arises from Iran's successful resistence against British and American imperialism. Americans, in particular, are deeply resentful of any country (e.g., Cuba, Venezuela and Vietnam) that successfully challenges their perceived entitlement to their self-appointed role as global hegemon.

With respect to the nuclear agreement, I personally support any and all efforts to limit or eliminate nuclear weapons, and so to the extent that this deal supports that broader objective I am supportive of it. But of course addressing the specific concerns arising from the Iranian nuclear programme whilst ignoring the far bigger threats posed by Israel and most of all, the USA, is obviously akin to a doctor being concerned with a foot blister on a cancer patient. Countries like the USA and Israel, who continue to harass, intimidate and imprison opponents of their respective nuclear programmes have no moral authority to judge Iran on its programme. I am particularly offended by the fact that whilst the American effort to limit Iran's capabilities is based on Iran's international committments as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the USA declines to publicly express concern for the fact that Israel is one of only four countries globally (the others being North Korea, India and Pakistan) that has refused to accede to this accord. Moreover, the Obama Administration has based its concerns in part on the "fact" that as Iran is sitting on immense fossil-fuel reserves, it has no "legitimate" need for nuclear power. Yet in the 1970s, when Iran was under the brutal but loyal rule of Reza Pahlavi Shah, the Nixon and Ford administrations actively supported General Electric and Westinghouse in their efforts to export American nuclear technology to Iran.

But the recent history and the nuclear deal aside, I am more baffled by the British and American choice of allies in the struggle for regional political and economic dominance between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. While the U.S. Congress continues to promote the generally unsupported view that Iran is an "exporter of terror," it is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that for decades has promoted its own violent and intolerant version of "Islam," "Wahabism." Saudi-funded "madrassas" promote intolerance and extremism in places once known for their moderate versions of Islam, such as Morocco, Bosnia, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al-Qaeda are all end-products of a decades-long, deliberate effort by the Saudis to radicalise Islam globally, with the explicit objective of making hatred and violence a core belief of this "faith." In Saudi Arabia, all faiths but Islam are banned; churches, synagogues, temples and other non-Islamic places of worship are illegal, and priests and others have been tortured by Saudi authorities for the "crime" of practicing their faith.

In Iran, in contrast, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and others worship freely, although Iran's history of persecution of the Bah'ai is shameful. Jews fled North Africa, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other Arab countries with ancient Jewish communities decades ago, and the Christians have been following in recent years. Iran, however, remains home to a thriving and secure Jewish community, a fact even the New York Times has acknowledged.

Like most Arab countries, Saudi Arabia is largely incapable of managing or producing anything without foreign assistance. No automobiles, white goods, or consumer electronics of any consequence are produced in the Arab world. Exports such a fossil fuels, petrochemicals and aluminum are produced by plants managed by Europeans and staffed by Asians. Other than the radical Wahabist rantings noted above, there are no cultural exports equivalent to American movies, Mexican soap operas, European cuisine, or Japanese graphic novels that originate from the Arab world. Iran, in contrast, produces both its own brand of automobiles, the Paykan, and also assembles other brands, such as Peugot, under licence from the manufacturer. It has many other thriving industries, and it is a prolific source of both intellectual property and physical goods, in plants and instutions managed and staffed by Iranians.

Saudi Arabia is a strict totalitarian state, run by what amounts to an organised crime family, the House of Saud. Iran is governed by one of the most vibrant and well-functioning democracies in the world.

I am not of course arguing that Saudi Arabia has no redeeming qualities, or that Iran has no flaws. But it is baffling to compare these two competing political entities and understand why the USA, and the British before them, have consistently chosen to support the corrupt and dangerous Saudis over the responsible and capable Iranians.


31 July 2015


17 July 2015

Adventure Calls

I've spent the last few weeks travelling overland from Qatar to Armenia in my Land Rover Defender, "El Guapo," (from where I flew here to the USA); the next few blog posts are about my adventures and experiences on that trip. I am posting these all at once as most of this period I was in Iran, where access to blogger is blocked by authorities. The dates of the original drafts are as noted at the end of the blog entry, although all were posted more or less simultaneously.


17 July 2015

Ann Arbor

16 July 2015

Later, Mullah-Fuckas!

I of course mean the title of this entry in the most friendly, 'hip-hop' sense, so hope that none of the many kind and wonderful people I met in Iran (or anyone else) take any offence from it. If anyone does, well, get over it...bitches!

After our unsuccessful visit to the police station on Monday, Mehdi and I returned to the Hotel Sahand in Tabriz, had some lunch and discussed and digested the news about the nuclear deal, which had just been announced in Vienna. Iranians appeared to be thrilled, but I think the economic circumstances caused by the sanctions have created a lot of jobs, and many of those will disappear as domestic production is replaced by imports as the rial strengthens and trade barriers fall.

Monday evening I needed to rebook my flight to the USA, but every time I called Austrian Airlines, I just listened to recordings until my phone ran out of money. I did this three times, at 10 bucks a pop, before I decided I just needed to load up the account and stay on the line until I could get through. I changed my last of my 100 Euro notes for riyals and spent half of them on about 30 recharge vouchers. It took over an hour to tap in the 16 digits required for each one, and when I finished, I had over 400 thousand riyals on the account and my battery was almost dead. Recharged for 15 minutes and dialled Austrian again. Of course, they picked up almost right away, and inevitably, they charged me 900+ dollars to make the date change to Thursday. Finally went to bed after 11:00.

Next morning, of course the first stop was police headquarters, and this time we had the opportunity to pay homage to the Keeper of the Traffic Offences, who pronounced us violation-free, and issued a written Fatwa confirming that he was cool with us leaving Iran. We were out of there, less one set of temporary Iranian number plates and with our papers in order 10 minutes later.

Then the drive back to the border. I had the stamped carnet and the farewell wishes of the customs director 10 minutes later, but still had to get the OK from about six more guys before I could actually leave. First, customs, who entered all the details about myself and my vehicle in the computer. Then immigration – first to talk to one guy who asked all kinds of questions ("what is the capital of Michigan?"), scanned many pages of my passport, and entered a bunch of stuff in his computer. Then a second guy – more questions, more typing stuff in the computer before finally giving me an exit stamp. Back to customs. Vehicle paperwork issued. Heartfelt good-bye to Mehdi, then the barrier was lifted, and then I was free to go...to the next checkpoint, that is. Another paperwork check. More info entered into a ledger. Finally, the barrier was lifted and I drove onto the bridge over the Aras River (separating Iran from Armenia) and joined queue of vehicles waiting to enter Armenia about 10 meters over the border at about 13:30.

Yay! I'm out of Iran! – on the bridge over the Aras River, which forms the Iran-Armenia border. The Iranian part of the railing is painted red, white and green (the Iranian national colours); the Armenian portion is a utilitarian grey. The stripe on the roadway is the border

Snacked on some fruit and cheese while I waited and then had an initial check before being permitted to continue to immigration. This took a while, in part because the guy keep looking suspiciously at the extra pages that had been put in my passport, under the watchful eye of the portrait of Russian President Putin on the wall behind him. Then a "vehicle check" by another suspicious character before I was allowed to continue to the customs and immigration hall. Unfortunately, in conducting this check the inspector discovered that El Guapo's right rear wheel hub was missing its rubber cover and was leaking oil. They kept asking for my "card machine," meaning vehicle registration, and were reluctant to accept the form printed on an ordinary sheet of A4 paper that was the only ownership document Qatar had issued. They eventually accepted it and directed me to the bank to pay the fees and get my documents copied. The fee was 52 dollars, payable in dollars, euros, or Armenian drams. Unfortunately, I had only about 32 dollars and €5 remaining after the day before. Canadian dollars, Swiss francs, and sterling were all rejected. There was a cash machine, but it was out of service, so I had to pay extortionist rates to get a taxi into town to find a bank. On the way back, I stopped at the insurance shack just outside the customs facility to buy the mandatory vehicle cover. Returned to bank, paid my fees, made copies of everything, and returned to the customs broker.

It took well over an hour to finish everything, in part because in crossing from Iran to Armenia I left the part of the world where officials didn't know the country I was going to (Czech Republic), and entered the zone in which nobody knew where my vehicle was from (Qatar). The agent left her desk three times to consult with her superiors, only to return to her computer and stare at the same two short documents she had in front of her, my passport and my vehicle export certificate. Between them, there probably wasn't more than a dozen pieces of information there – my name, surname, passport number, date of birth, place of birth, chassis number, registration number, etc. But for unexplained reasons dozens of other customers arrived, got their paperwork processed and left while she continued to struggle with my documents. Finally I was given leave to return to my vehicle. Once there, the same suspicious customs officer I encountered earlier again searched the vehicle, then directed me (and it appeared, me alone) to an adjacent building to have the vehicle scanned by a giant x-ray machine. Then back inside the customs hall for more discussions between the customs official and the customs broker over my vehicle paperwork before everything was finally signed and stamped. A final check at the exit and El Guapo and I were legally inside Armenia.

Even with gaining a half hour from the time zone difference in crossing the border, it was still after 17:00 when I was finally under way to Yerevan, over 400 km of narrow, twisty mountain roads away with limited traffic and limited facilities in a vehicle with a faulty wheel hub. I passed a couple of mechanics in the nearby town of Meghri, and considered having one take a look, but fixing the problem I was sure would require replacing the wheel hub seals and the chances of finding those locally were close to zero. There was no noise and no abnormal heat in the hub, so I decided to risk it rather than almost certainly miss the opportunity to say goodbye to my father.

The road and the landscape I passed through over the next hour was as beautiful and dramatic as it was challenging to drive. The road rose to well over 3000 metres at several points, before bringing me to the town of Kadzharan at around 18:40, where I found an Orange Armenia boutique just before closing, where I was able to buy a local SIM card and some airtime before hitting the road again.

Some views of the dramatic and dangerous road linking Meghri with Yerevan

I had arranged to park the vehicle at a charity facility owned by a friend of an Armenian friend of mine in Yerevan, but hadn't received any response to the texts I had sent earlier in the day from Iran. I tried calling the two contact numbers I had, but one was switched off and the other had no response. I left a voicemail with my Armenian number and continued on my way.

I crossed over four more mountains over the next two hours, the desert of Iran gradually changing to dense green forest before arriving at Goris on the "main" highway. Just after the intersection was a mechanics workshop. I stopped and tried the numbers in Yerevan again without success, sent two more texts, had a look at the wheel hub again and considered asking the mechanic to have a look. More leaking oil was clearly visible, but still temperatures were normal. I decided to press on.

A screenshot from Google Maps showing a representative section of the road from Meghri to Yerevan

Now the road was straighter and flatter, but it was also now dark. For the first time in hours, I got El Guapo into 4th gear, even 5th a couple of times, as I careened through the darkness on the poorly paved road. I passed numerous heavy vehicles and then began descending towards Yerevan as the twists and switchbacks turns returned. Several treacherous turns combined 180 degree hairpins with washed-out roadways. Losing control and plunging into a chasm would not have been difficult, but finally around 23:00 I reached the main road and started the final 50 km dash into Yerevan, setting off at least three speed cameras along the way, and nearly continuously praying that my left rear axle wouldn't seize up.

I never managed to contact anyone from the charity, but I had the address and decided to go there to see if I could rouse the caretaker. I arrived in Yerevan around midnight and found a busy petrol station frequented by taxi drivers, and the help of some friendly young Armenians, managed to find one that would be willing to escort me to the address I had for the charity. I waited in the vehicle for a few minutes while he filled his tank, and while doing so, some drops of viscous liquid dripped onto my windscreen. I assumed it was from a tree or something and didn't think anything of it at the time. I followed the driver through Yerevan traffic. We stopped to ask directions of some more friendly young Armenians, who knew exactly the charity I was looking for and how to get there. I continued following the driver through the city; at one stop light, more liquid dripped onto windscreen, and I suddenly realised it must be diesel leaking from one of the jerry cans on my roof rack. I got out to have a look, but when the light turned green, the taxi sped away. I jumped back in and raced after him, but at a fork a couple hundred meters later, I lost sight of him and mistakenly followed the wrong taxi. As soon as I realised this, I pulled over and waited and thankfully he soon reappeared.
We found the charity without further difficulty, but it was so dark and quiet it almost appeared abandoned. I tried the bell, and we both tried pounding on the gate and shouting, all to no avail. Plan B was to park at the airport, So I asked the driver to lead me there. Fortunately, it wasn't far away, so I paid and thanked him just outside the entrance to the airport car park.

Naturally, this trip could not end without one final bit of drama. Like most, the car park entrance featured a notice indicating the headroom (2,4 metres) on a hanging board designed to impact any part of a vehicle above this height. Because it hung from chains, it was intended to do so without causing damage. The driving lamps at the front of the roof rack cleared easily, but the jerry cans looked very close. I inched forward. A driver stopped and waved me forward, indicating I was clear. I got out and stood on the bumper. It looked like I had about 4 cm to spare. I inched forward some more. The jerry cans cleared the height indicator. However, about a metre further into the garage was a second headroom indicator, like the first covered in red and white stripes. Unlike the first, however, this one did not swing freely from chains suspended from the ceiling, but instead was a solid steel I-beam. And it was about 10 cm lower than the first. As best I could tell, this was an ingenious system designed by the Armenians to foil any invading Turks, who would be lulled into a false sense of security by the first barrier and then have their vehicles disabled by the second.

I stopped short of the steel beam, climbed onto the roof and unlocked the jerry cans. I found the one that was leaking, poured what was left into the fuel tank and abandoned it by the entrance. The jerry cans were at the rear of the roof rack, but the leak had dripped diesel into one of the channels on the roof rack, through which it had flowed forward to drip onto the windscreen. I laid the remaining cans flat, drove in and parked, then replaced them on the roof. Cleaned out the fridge and the trash, gathered the things I was taking with me, and then backed El Guapo up against the concrete wall, making it nearly impossible to break in to the back.

Headed into the terminal – reeking of sweat and diesel – and checked in at 2:30, almost exactly two hours before my flight. I remembered almost everything, but at the checkpoint realised I still had my rescue tool, which includes a knife blade and seat-belt cutter, on my belt. I was surprised and pleased to learn that they could hold the item for me for up to six months, so I handed it over and filled out a form that would allow me to reclaim it on my return.

Briefly spoke to my brother to tell him I had made my flight and to expect me in Detroit. Bad news about my Dad -- both mind and body faltering. Twice he has fallen and hurt himself. I will likely be there before he passes, but he may not be someone I recognise, and he may not recognise me.

In the lounge, had my first beer for 3 weeks. Boarded my flight and arrived in Vienna later that morning. Stopped into Hugo Boss and bought a shirt for Dad's funeral, which I had neglected to pack, then boarded a connecting flight to Frankfort, and then a third flight to Detroit. Still wearing the same clothes I put on Wednesday morning in Tabriz. I'll be seeing my Dad soon.


16 July 2015

Lufthansa flight 442, en route from FRA to DTW

14 July 2015

Faith Doubted

I set two alarms for 5:00 this morning. Rose, showered, dressed, packed and loaded the vehicle by 6:00. After a stop for fuel we were on the road to Jolfa. Along the way, we passed a rare, almost perfectly preserved caravanserai amidst the dramatic mountain scenery. I’ve seen other preserved or restored caravanserai (just what is the plural form of that word?) in places like Nicosia and Aleppo, but this one appeared much as it would have to a 17th century traveller, with no modern car parks, signage, souvenir shops or other evidence of later centuries.

After Jolfa, we passed the crossed the railway tracks that once led to Moscow – before the line was interrupted by Armenia and Azerbaijan’s war over Nagoro-Karabakh in the 1990s — via the ”Iron Bridge” over the Aras River, which separates Iranian Jolfa from Azerbaijani Djulfa. From that point, the road followed the river for more than 50 twisting kilometres, with increasingly dramatic mountains on both sides. At some point, the opposite bank became Armenia rather than Azerbaijan, and we arrived at Norduz and the Meghri-Norduz border crossing soon afterwards.

Looking across the Aras River from Iran at the Azerbaijani village of Kotam

As usual, we were misdirected a few times before we found the office we needed to handle El Guapo’s exit paperwork. At around 10:30, we got some bad news — we could not exit until the police had removed El Guapo’s temporary Iranian number plates, and that had to be done at police headquarters back in Tabriz.

We wasted the better part of another hour trying to find a way around this requirement, but eventually headed back to Tabriz at 11:45, hoping to make it to the police station before it closed at 14:00. Mehdi spent much of the ride telling me how hopeless it was we would manage to do this today — why do I keep attracting this Marvin-the-manic-depressive-robot type personality into my life? We had a little difficulty in finding the place, but eventually pulled at the front gate at 13:58, and were reluctantly admitted. The usual running around various offices ensued before we were directed to another gate, being aggressively protected by a young officer who was allowing people to exit, but no one to enter. Mehdi spoke with them in Farsi, then told me it was ”not possible” today. He hadn’t even tried to sound even vaguely desperate, so I pushed him aside, addressed the officer and said, ”please, sir, please, please please. We have just driven 2 ½ hours from Norduz to come here. we had trouble finding it. Have you ever driven that road? It’s a terrible road, very dangerous. I drove very fast on this road so I could get here before two. Please. Please, please, let us in. Please.”

”OK,” he replied, and stepped aside to allow us to pass. If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.

The familiar routine ensued. First find the right office. Then speak to the junior guy tells you it can’t be done. Ask to speak to his superior, a Colonel. Talk to the Colonel. Have him call the junior guy in. Let them discuss it for a bit, then have the junior guy find the right form and have the Colonel sign it and stamp it. ”Bring the vehicle to the gate so we can remove the number plates,” he said. Things were looking good.

I drove El Guapo around to the gate, where a cluster of three functionaries waited. There were no tools in the facility. I brought several kilos of tools, but no drill. ”You should have brought a drill,” observed Mehdi. Thank you, Captain Hindsight. Using a big hammer and big screwdriver, I managed to bash out the rivets holding the number plates in place with minimal damage to El Guapo. In the meantime, Mehdi and the others had disappeared. They soon returned with bad news: there was one more step required — they need to confirm that I had no outstanding traffic violations, and they guy who did this had just left for the day. Come back tomorrow at at 8:00. No way around it.

Bashing my way out of Iran (photo: Mehdi Fatemi)

We returned to the always charming, fully-amenetied Hotel Sahand. Mehdi cancelled his flight back to Shiraz. I had to pay for the cancelled flights, another night hotel for both of us, and another day of Mehdi’s guide fees. Total cost - 482 USD. I was broke but manage to find some unused Omani Riyal left over from my trip there in March with MJ, which the agency agreed to accept as payment.

In the meantime, rejoicing in Iran and the scent of political opportunity amongst Republicans in Washington as a deal to end sanctions over Iran’s nuclear programme was announced in Vienna. I should have asked John Kerry to toss in exit clearance for myself as part of the deal.


14 July 2015


13 July 2015

Lucky 13th

I made the increasingly familiar trip to the foreigners police station again this morning, this time praying continuously to the collection of angels, saints, prophets, buddhas, bottisatvas, revered ancestors, etc. that have gotten me this far. The first good sign was that my passport didn’t appear to be in the ”waiting to be processed” pile any more. However, after a few minutes it appeared that it wasn’t in any of the other piles either — possibly at the foreign ministry. However, they found it eventually — perhaps it was in the ”people who keep coming back here and bugging us to do our jobs” pile. They asked us to wait — a good sign, and sure enough I was summoned to the window 10 minutes later where they delivered my passport complete with a 1 week visa extension.

We drove back to the hotel, where I hastily packed and loaded everything into El Guapo. The leisure battery had been completely discharged while it waited in Shiraz, but plugging in the battery charger overnight restored everything to working order. We departed the Hotel Khayyam at 10:00 sharp, and entered the mobile lunatic asylum that is Tehran traffic. Without GPS, we made a few minor navigation errors but before 11:00 we were out of the city and on the highway to Tabriz.

Over the next few hours, the traffic steadily grew thinner, and the landscape less urban and more dramatic. At several points, the road approached 2000 metres above sea level, but never quite reached that high. Eventually, we entered the city of Tabriz and spent a good hour circling around trying to locate our hotel, a tiny storefront entrance that I eventually spotted. Then spent another hour trying to figure out how to approach by vehicle, as the main entrance was located on a bus lane. Eventually we found the narrow alley — scarcely 40cm wider than El Guapo — that led to the hotel car park.

Navigating the narrow alley that leads to the Hotel Sahand car park

On a short pedestrian street nearby, I found more restaurant options than I did in all of Tehran, but had to wait until dusk to eat. Tomorrow, I hope to finally leave Iran.


13 July 2015


12 July 2015

Lazy Shiites

Today was supposed to be the big day, the Get-Out-of-Tehran Day. We got an early start and headed over to the foreigners police office with my passport receipt, expecting to collect my passport with its extended visa. After a little difficulty in locating the office we went inside, upstairs to the ”Visa Extension” window, where there was no queue, but unfortunately also nobody working. However, through the glass I could see that my passport was on the very top of the pile!

When someone did finally arrive to assist us, however, we soon learned that that was the ”passports waiting to be processed” pile my passport was at the top of, and not the ”passports ready to be picked up” pile. The guy explained that because I was American, my passport had to go to the Foreign Ministry to have the extension approved. OK, fair enough, but what exactly had they been doing with my passport in the six days since I dropped it off? It was just sitting there with my completed application form exactly as I had left it with them, apparently entirely untouched these past few days, except perhaps for an occasional dusting.

Mehdi went to plead my case with the Colonel in charge of the facility, but all he could do was to direct his staff to expedite having the passport sent to the Foreign Ministry. Back at the ”Visa Extensions” window, they promised to do so and told us to call at 14:00.

Back to the hotel. We talked to the front desk. The guy there knew someone at the Ministry. He spoke with him. He promised to expedite processing of my passport as soon as it arrived, but he could nothing until the police sent it over.

In the meantime, we did a get some good news — El Guapo arrived at the Khayyam Hotel in running order. I thanked the two young guys who drove him here, cleaned it up and re-organised a bit, and confirmed that nothing had gone missing. Connected the mains power in order to charge up the leisure battery and run the fridge.

I decided I couldn’t wait any longer to sample some of my caviar, so I went in search of supermarket in order to buy some bread and sour cream to eat it with. I went wandering the streets of Tehran in search of supermarket with no success. Asking for a ”supermarket” inevitably got me directed to some hole-in-the-wall shop selling basics. I decided to try Google, which reliably turned up a half-dozen ”supermarkets” in the area, although none was less than a few kilometres away. I took the metro two stops to the closest one and found it was just a little bigger than the tiny convenience stores I had already passed up, and I couldn’t find any sour cream. There was another a few blocks away, but it wasn’t much better. I decided to settle for some yoghurt with shallots, and something called ”breakfast cream.”. Stocked up on some other snacks in the continued belief I would be taking a long drive in the near future. On the way, I found a bakery cranking out fresh Iranian bread and bought a few sheets. Then took a taxi back to the hotel.

Mehdi was waiting and we called the police office around 13:40 (they had said to call at 14:00); however, no one answered and after a few tries we concluded they had left for the day.

Had some lunch and a nap; it’s a pity I have no chilled vodka to accompany it, but I think its time to dig into that caviar!


12 July 2015


11 July 2015

Faith Tested

Given what I’ve been through in the past couple weeks, I am naturally hesitant to declare that I finally have all my problems sorted, but things are indeed looking positive as I write this on Saturday evening in my Tehran hotel.

TNT delivered the new starter motor to the tour agency in Shiraz this morning, and they’ve given it to the driver to bring to me along with El Guapo tomorrow morning.

My Dad’s health appears to have rebounded slightly; MJ says he hanging on for me, and I am sure that is the case. So I am increasingly confident I will arrive in time to say good-bye to him, but also concerned about the suffering he is enduring as a result.

I’ve just received word through Mehdi that the driver is setting out with El Guapo from Shiraz and is expected here early tomorrow morning.

And I expect my extended visa to be ready for collection tomorrow.

So, whilst it’s difficult to utter the words ”if all goes according to plan” at this point without experiencing a deep sense of irony, my realistic expectation is that I will be on the road before noon tomorrow and in Tabriz tomorrow evening. I hope to arrive at the Armenian border before noon the next day, and although the last four borders I've crossed were successively more difficult to clear, I hoping that I have finally broken that particular curse and will have a routine and problem-free exit from Iran and entry into Armenia.

Today was therefore hopefully my last day of sightseeing in Teheran, and we spent it in a more successful attempt to visit S’ad Abad. Most enjoyable about the visit were the grounds themselves, which were beautifully landscaped, heavily shaded and watered by numerous streams, which made the area noticeably cooler and more comfortable.

Reza Pahlavi Shah's "White Palace"

The main sites were two Palaces, one imaginatively called the Green Palace, and the other the White Palace. The Green Palace was constructed by Reza Shah, and the White Palace by his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. To me, both palaces were most notable for their relative simplicity and lack of ostentation, especially in contrast to the Qajar-era equivalents. The Green Palace is probably less than 800 square meters in size, and the White Palace perhaps twice that, big enough for a tract mansion, but modest as a principal residence for a monarch officially referred to as the ”King of Kings”. In front of the White Palace were the two bronze legs, cut off at the knee, all that remained of a statue of the last Pahlavi pulled down during the revolution.

All that is left of the statue of the last Shah

There were many other museums on site, including the Museum of Fine Arts, but more than we could take in in one day. We had a look at the imperial collection of fine automobiles, again rather modest in both size (about 10 vehicles, including a snowmobile) and ostentation — mostly Mercedes and Rolls Royces, but nothing too showy. More interesting was the miniature painting museum, which included many artistic interpretations of the poems of Hafez, Omar Khayyám and other Persian poets. Several of these depicted drinking, sexual behaviour and other un-Islamic themes, and almost certainly would never be publicly displayed in Qatar or many other Arabic countries, an indicator that despite the reputation of its government, Islam here is still moderate, at least in comparison with the Wahabi-influenced Gulf states.

On the way back we had another wander through the bazaar at Tajrish, where I admired the freshness and breadth of selection on display at the fruit and produce vendors. One thing I had been looking for Iran — so far, unsuccessfully — was some Iranian caviar. In the bazaar we were approached by a random stranger who offered me a tin of something labelled ”Bluga” for 80 USD. I was hesitant, and Mehdi also was not entirely confident about the guy, so he told him to come to our hotel at 18:00 this evening. Mehdi figured if he actually showed, it was an indicator that he was probably legit.

The bazaar at Tajrish

After making the long slog back to Teheran, eating a late lunch and having a short nap, it was 18:30, the guy hadn’t showed, and the front desk clerk suggested another location to buy some. After walking for better part of an hour to a location near the German Embassy, we were told the shop we were after had moved to a new spot, just 5 minutes walk from our hotel. However, there was another shop nearby, so we decided to check it out. No Beluga, no Sevruga, only ”pressed”, the lowest grade of Iranian caviar was available for 1.7 million riyal, around 50 USD. However, it appeared of reliable provenance, with a production date on the label and a lead seal proving that the wire bail keeping the lid in place had not been tampered with. I decided to buy the tin and also check out the place we were originally looking for near our hotel.

We found it about 20 minutes later, and the shopkeeper produced an unsealed tin of what he said was Beluga. I’m not entirely expert in these things, but I do know that Beluga consists of large, distinct grey eggs, and visually it passed muster, so I forked over another 2.2 million riyal for 200 grams. Not quite cocaine prices, but getting close. On our way back to the hotel we met up with our friend from the Tajrish bazaar, who told us he had arrived at the hotel two minutes after we left (he was supposed to come between 17:00 and 18:00). I told him he was too late, indicating the shopping bags I was carrying. He apologised for being late, and offered me his tin of ”Bluga” for 750 000 Riyal, half of his original price. I declined.

I kept both my tins of caviar on ice and put them in the fridge in my room. El Guapo, of course, is equipped with on-board refrigeration, so getting it to Yerevan should not be difficult. Carrying to the USA with two changes of planes and 19 hours of travel will a little more challenging; hopefully I can charm a flight attendant into keeping it in the fridge for me, and also hopefully I will not forget to collect it at the end of each flight. Beluga has been almost impossible to lay hands on these days, and when you can — e.g., at Dean and Delucca in Doha — it was outrageously expensive, typically 300 USD for the smallest container. So if I manage this, I and my very closest friends will be enjoying some in Ann Arbor in the near future.

It’s evening now, just waiting for my dinner to be delivered before getting some sleep in preparation for what I hope is a successful departure from Teheran tomorrow, with vehicle, replacement starter motor, and passport with visa extension.


11 July 2015