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