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


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