Friday, October 6, 2017

First Field Visit - Marneuli and the Thousand Staring Eyes

Over the last two days, I ventured out to one of my field work sites for the first time - the town of Marneuli!

Marneuli is interesting because it is the capital of the Marneuli District, about an hour south of Tbilisi in the Kvemo Kartli region, and it is about 80% ethnic Azerbaijani.

Signs are alternately in Georgian, Russian and Azeri. I theorize (without evidence) that when a sign is in Georgian and Russian, it's a Georgian-owned business attempting to bride to Azeris, and when a sign is in Georgian and Azeri, it's an Azeri-owned business. There are also sometimes signs only in Azeri, so I guess those business either aren't making an effort to attract Georgian clientele, or figure that their business is obviously pharmacy/vegetable stand/flower shop and multilingual signage isn't really needed. 

Azeris are generally Muslims, but on my hour and half stroll of the town center, I only saw about 10 women wearing the hijab (I actually didn't see that many women...maybe 20% of the people on the street were women). There were many older women wearing kerchiefs and sort of standard Caucasian Muslim clothing, but, interestingly, there were also a handful of younger women, maybe high school age, wearing more Arab or Turkish style Islamic clothing (basically abayas). 

As I walked around, I was stared at like an alien. I haven't been solo traveling in a small town in Georgia in a long time and had forgotten the mix of apprehension, confusion, and celebrity you feel when everyone gawks at you. Even little kids somehow noticed my foreignness and leapt back when I passed them on the sidewalk, and grabbed their friends' arms and pointed, open mouthed. I have no clue what they were whispering, though, because it was in Azeri.

On the first day, I ended up with a massive headache because I forgot my contacts/glasses and because I didn't have time to grab coffee as I had planned. On the second day, I left my house an hour before I had to be at the meeting point (without traffic, it takes 8 mins by car/24 mins by bus, and there wasn't much traffic at this point) so I could stop by Dunkin Donuts to grab a latte. This plan was quite successful, but pretty much as soon as I got in the driver's fancy new Prius with a no-smoking sign, I spilled the coffee all over my seat. The thing is, no one seemed to notice...so I frantically tried to use the 2.5 tissues I had in my backpack to hide the evidence of the spill, as the scalding hot coffee seeped into the seat and into my pants...and my butt, let's be real. I had coffee everywhere. As the pain from the burning subsided, I continued to sit in a pool of hazelnut scented embarrassment. No matter how I shifted, I couldn't escape it. Thank goodness I was wearing black pants! But the seat did not escape a stain, and the whole car smelled like the coffee. I was sweating bullets throughout the hour long ride, waiting for someone to say "WOW that coffee smells SO intense! Did you spill it or something?" but no one said anything...I am terrified to get back into the car because the driver will definitely have discovered it by then. I can't decide if it would be more embarrassing for him to have cleaned it up, or not...I know this smell is going to follow me around the rest of the day. I hope people just think I'm wearing hazelnut perfume. On my butt.

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Since I was in Marneuli as part of a different project that I was observing, I didn't have that much time in the town, but I did manage to take a few pictures. This is a short post - I don't have much to say yet about Marneuli, I just wanted to share these photos, Hopefully more to come from Kvemo Kartli in the near future!

huge lemons? young grapefruit? bumpy apples?


Town mosque


Monument to Persian/Azeri poet
It wasn't raining but water was overflowing from the
cistern on this roof and falling on the street


Pomegranates

Sign in Russian

Typical Caucasian Muslim head covering



Marneuli Judo Academy


Signs say something like 'keep the grass green - stay off'

One of many shops selling elaborate party/wedding gowns
(Azeri brides typically wear white and red)

Kids putting up posters of the ruling party
candidate for mayor in this months' elections

A row of ruling party election posters torn down


"Men's Paradise"

A big poster of an opposition candidate for mayor
(whom I met - the first Azeri woman to ever run for mayor of Marneuli!),
above rows of smaller ruling party posters

Something in Arabic script on a residential side street
(if anyone can translate, let me know!)

Poster in Azeri on a lamp post. I think it said something
about a credit bank or an agricultural collective...


Monday, October 2, 2017

Adjusting to Tbilisi: What I Miss, What I Don't

Last week, this week. Nothing but rain, rain, rain. 
I guess the nonstop deluge makes up for a bone dry September of temperatures in the low 30s (high 80s/low 90s). Finally fall is here, but we skipped through that crispy, crunchy, light jacket weather and went straight to a wet, grey fog that I pray is not indicative of the next 4 months of my life in Tbilisi.

So how is my life in Tbilisi, anyway?

Everything is going well: 10 hours of language classes a week (6 Geo, 4 Rus) is exhausting, especially given the additional 1.5-2 hours it takes each day to get to and from the location of my classes on the other side of town. My research is kind of sluggishly progressing. There are lots of moving pieces right now and I'm still establishing contacts and laying some ground work. 

I am adjusting pretty well, I think, and since this is my 5th time in Georgia and 3rd time for an extended period, I'm not that surprised. However, there are still many things that frustrate me, confuse me, and make me uncomfortable. I could complain about them for hours, but for now, here is a short listicle of my most salient adjustments coming from a summer of suburban leisure to big(ish) city sort-of-leisure-sort-of-supposed-to-be-working life...


courtesy: Lonely Planet


There is no HGTV in Georgia, which I binged regularly in Yorktown. I don't miss having so much free time, but I do miss the opportunity to watch mindless TV sometimes - and learn about interior design and construction! Although the interior design knowledge has come in handy decorating my new apartment!

Hello, old friends

I miss listening to Morning Edition and 1A in the morning, instead of while cooking dinner.
my NPR app is what keeps me going

I miss flavored creamer. Now I just put cinnamon in my coffee grounds. I also miss having a coffee maker that I didn't accidentally crack by putting cold water in the burning hot glass carafe...
 
In Georgia, there are no deals at bars/restaurants like happy hour or half priced wine Wednesdays, and no coupons. Some grocery stores do have sort of loyalty cards but the benefits are unclear.
 
In Georgia there are fewer chains - restaurants and stores. At non-chain places I've never been, there is no predictability in quality and it's hard to know where to go to get stuff - where is the go-to place to buy towels? Poster board? Pillowcases? Okay, maybe I just miss Target.

It is SO hard to find good to-go coffee here! Most to-go places are just little newspaper/cigarette stands that will dump a tube of instant coffee in hot water. Some actually have espresso machines and for a premium, they will add a splash of milk. There ARE a couple "fancy" coffee places, but they are few and far between, and expensive. No Starbucks (RIP pumpkin spice latte this fall), although there is a place in the small industrial city of Zestaponi called Legends of Starbucks which tries pretty hard. 






I miss good ethnic food (Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Lebanese). There are some okay Chinese places, but not American style Chinese, and the quality of other places is questionable, although with more immigrants in the city, more Indian and Persian restaurants are popping up, so I have hope! There is straight up no Mexican food in Tbilisi - just one horrible attempt in Sighnaghi, a couple hours to the east. The closest thing we have here are the copious shawarma places around Saakadze Square.

There are some things you just can't get in Georgia - frozen yogurt, good milkshakes,  custard, cheap take out sushi, cupcakes, pumpkin spice lattes (yeah, coming back around to this again, it's really painful), fall scented candles, index cards, 3-prong folders, English trash magazines, Milky Way Midnight, Texas Pete - the list goes on.

I can't find out as much with a quick Google - partly because a lot of stuff isn't online (opening hours for a family owned restaurant, prices for small appliances at the store on the corner) and if it is online, it might not be in English.

I miss driving! I miss running errands quickly - shout out to parking lots! I know this is largely a city thing, not a Georgia thing. The craziness of drivers here is also quite off-putting, along with limited parking, and bad roads. I miss rocking out to music in my car on the long drives from Charlottesville to Yorktown or DC, I miss state inspection laws ensuring cars have their bumpers and lights and catalytic converters (that part that filters out the most toxic of the fumes a car produces). 





I miss being able to easily talk on the phone. After many painful middle and high school years of serious phone-phobia, I finally realized how simple a quick phone call can be, and how much time it can save you - especially if some information isn't on the Internet, or isn't in English. Here, however, I have to go through the whole spiel - do you speak English? No? Russian? Not really? Does this 3-word broken Georgian sentence make sense to you? Making appointments is the worst.

I miss healthy(ish) flavored yogurt, and Greek yogurt. In Georgia all they really have is matsoni (unflavored tart, thin - delicious in its own way) and yogurt-based, artificial-ingredient-filled desserts that masquerade as yogurt in the dairy aisle. Yogurt is actually my favorite food so this one is particularly painful for me... 





Stuffed crust pizza. My last meal in Yorktown. I still remember the melt in your mouth taste...I will always cherish you, Pizza Hut.

I miss quick-prepare food - instant rice, easy mac, shake n bake, hamburger helper, biscuits in a can, etc. There is some of that here, but it's not easy to find. I was actually shocked and awed the other day to find microwaveable single serve pouches of traditional Georgian dishes. Such a great idea!! I wanted to buy out the whole supply just to support the business, but unfortunately I have no microwave...


I miss American phone etiquette: writing texts when possible rather than calling, ringer generally on silent/vibrate, not answering the phone when you're in a meeting, teaching a class, taking a class, on public transportation, in a movie theater, in a play, etc. Of course, in America it's also okay to not answer your phone. In Georgia, if someone doesn't answer their phone, you don't just assume they're busy and will call back when they can, you call them again, and again, and again until they answer. It is nice, however, how in Georgia people call just to say hi, just to check in, just for 2-3 minutes. 

I miss fashion being predictable and understandable...here I can't really tell if someone is dressed fashionably and I just don't like it (because Georgian fashion seems to mirror some of the worst trends of the past 3-4 decades), or if they aren't fashionable.




And then there are the things I certainly don't miss from the states...

The dominance of chain restaurants and stores

The artificial flavors and sugars in everything, how expensive local, natural (whatever that means), wholesome foods generally are

How it's impossible to walk anywhere in most places other than big cities
Yorktown, VA: no sidewalks, no public transportation - lots of parking lots


Gun violence. Gun violence. Gun violence. Gun violence.

I'm sure there are more to add to this list, I'll add as time goes on...

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Salar de Uyuni from La Paz in 34 Hours

(If you're not going to the Salar de Uyuni and just want to read about my experience, scroll 2/3rds of the way down the page!)

So, you're planning a trip to Bolivia. If you have an extra day and a half in La Paz, it IS possible to do Salar de Uyuni (the beautiful, perspective-bending salt flats south of La Paz) in what is essentially a day trip. By spending two night in a row in transit, you avoid paying for two nights of hotel accommodation, and save lots of time. There are two main ways to get to Uyuni from La Paz - bus or train. Only the buses run at night, and that's what I am going to discuss here.




General Schedule
 
Day 1
Be at bus terminal at 7:30 pm
Get on bus at 8:00 pm
Leave terminal between 8:30-9:00 pm

Day 2
Arrive in Uyuni around 7:30 am
Have breakfast/coffee
Look for a tour company
Leave for tour around 10:30 am
Salar!
Arrive back in Uyuni around 6:30 or 7 pm
Grab something to eat
Get bus back to La Paz at 8:00 or 8:30 pm


Buying Bus Tickets
I bought my tickets from www.ticketsbolivia.com, and I was satisfied with the service, price, and options offered. If you're really looking to save a buck, you can go in person to the bus terminal (on Uruguay Ave, northwest corner of the city) and pick out a company, buying tickets directly. Most companies don't have a web presence apart from aggregators like Tickets Bolivia.



There are two types of bus companies: 'publico' and 'turistico'. The public buses aren't municipal buses, but are aimed more for local people traveling between the cities, while the tourist buses are aimed at, well, tourists going to see the salt flats. Tourist buses are a bit more expensive but are generally newer, nicer, cleaner, have safety precautions so your bags don't get stolen from the hold, and maybe even offer water and a meal upon arrival in Uyuni. I tried two different companies out, here's what I thought:



Omar
Trans Omar Turistico:
I would recommend this bus service. It is not luxury, but is tourist oriented, and has full cama (lie flat beds). The buses are pretty new, they have nice seats, warm blankets, and a secure-feeling baggage check system. It also technically has wifi, although it wasn't working right on my bus. 

Omar


 




















Panasur (publico):
Panasur
I wanted to take this bus because it left Uyuni at 8:30 pm, so I figured I would have more time to catch it and get dinner before - I did. If I had left at 8, I probably would have only had time to get something to-go (para llevar) before getting on the bus, since our tour ran a bit longer (we left a little late, plus some of the girls REALLY wanted to get pictures at every single location). It also had a later arrival time to La Paz, and I had heard the area around the bus station was really sketchy so I felt better about 8:30 am than 6:00 am (still dark in the winter). In the end, though, the bus arrived around 6:30 and it was still dark and I was nervous...but no one tried to jump me. I just quickly got in a radio (official) taxi and went to my hostel.

Panasur

Panasur really sucks, though. The buses are dirty and look old inside. The seats are that old gross cracked black leather. But I guess it gets the job done - they also provide blankets which was my big fear!












Bonus: there is no "terminal tax" or document check out of Uyuni



What is Uyuni like?

Uyuni is a pale, dusty town full of low, white washed buildings and parades of salt-encrusted 4x4s. You can really feel its history as an edge-of-the-world salt mining town that once had aspirations to be a big city, but instead plateaued mid-century. There isn't much nightlife here, so don't expect to find a trendy bar to pass the time. The residents of Uyuni rely on the 60,000 tourists that pass through each year to support local businesses (including the dozens of Salar tour companies), but don't completely embrace the unending influx of outsiders to the otherwise quiet town. Bolivians in general are not overly friendly, and especially in a place so oriented towards tourists, there is quite a bit of tension. I don't recommend spending too much time here, but a few hours of thoughtful exploration, with a dose of local history and cultural sensitivity, would be well worth your time. 








Should I just spend the night in Uyuni?

Unless you have lots of money to spend, no. The quality of available lodgings is only a notch higher than sleeping on the bus, and Uyuni doesn't have much to offer beyond a couple of hours of walking around in the morning. If you are looking to splurge, there are a couple of salt hotels just outside of town that are worth your consideration! Start by checking out Luna Salada or Palacio del Sal.



How do I find a tour company?


Two options: book in advance online or in La Paz, choose a company in Uyuni. 
Booking online works well for a multi-day tour or if you have a big budget ($75-100 USD/person for a day tour), but the vast majority of companies don't really have an online presence. Booking in La Paz is a good option - you guarantee your spot on a tour (useful especially in the high season), and have a pretty good selection - also, most tourism companies in La Paz will be able to communicate with you in English. Booking in Uyuni is a good option if you want to really investigate all the options and be confident in what sort of product you are getting, but beware that most companies speak only Spanish and accept only cash. I have heard both that it's cheaper to buy in La Paz and cheaper in Uyuni...so I can't really say, but I ended up paying about $25 for my day tour, which included lunch. There are lots of options in Uyuni - you can either wait until someone (women at the bus stop, waitress at a cafe) asks if you have a tour booked and they will offer you some package, or you can go yourself door to door at the tour companies' offices and compare packages.

What should I look for in a 1-day tour?


  • Newer cars 
  • Small group size (maximum 6, not 7!) 
  • Lunch (ask what's on the menu) 
  • Guide: mostly, the driver is also the guide but sometimes you get both - ask if they speak English, if that matters to you (you will pay more) and if it's a driver/guide, make sure they are really knowledgeable - and feel free to ask lots of questions on the tour if your driver isn't talkative!   
  • All the key stops: train cemetery, Colchani town, the original salt hotel, Isla del Pescado or Isla Incahuasi


How was your trip to the Salar de Uyuni, Samantha?

leche con cafe
I had a really excellent time in Uyuni! Probably the best activity I did in Bolivia. I was, however, still suffering from altitude sickness and since Uyuni is a little bit higher than La Paz, I felt bad from the moment I arrived. Also, I felt dirty and gross the whole time after the night on the bus and nothing but a quick sink clean up in a cafe bathroom. I sat writing post cards in a small cafe for about 2.5 hours waiting for the tour to start at 10 am. I had a HUGE cup of milk, a small cup of coffee, and a sort of omelette. 



My tour group was, interestingly, all girls! Maria, the driver/answerer of questions (not a guide, per say), who loves both traditional pan flute music and Backstreet Boys, was very nice but quite introverted. In addition to me, the passengers were a Colombian girl taking a field trip from her business trip to Uyuni, two German friends on vacation, and two Puerto Rican friends on vacation.

The landscape is stunning and beautiful, but the sun was just killing me and I hadn't eaten much. My stomach was turning, I couldn't muster enough energy to lay in the salt and try to get a ton of dramatic photos. 
lots of people


At about the fourth stop of maybe ten, I started to feel dizzy and disoriented. I knew what was coming. While everyone got out of the car to take pictures of the "ojos del agua" (bubbles of water coming up through the ground) I went behind the car, put my hair up in a bun, and threw up all over the salar. Twice. It was mostly liquid since all I ate today was warm milk, half a piece of toast, and a few bites of a cheese omelet. I give you this detail to note that I didn't leave a significant mark on the already white and tan desert landscape. If anyone noticed it was our driver Maria, but she didn't say anything as I rushed back to the car to grab a roll of toilet paper between heaves.
ojos del agua
ojos del agua
I felt varying degrees of nauseous since I arrived in Bolivia, and really wasn't able to force myself to eat. I worried I felt sick because I wasn't eating, but the thought of every food made me sick - especially what I saw on offer in Bolivia. It was a lot of cuts of meat I'm not used to eating and fried bread. The night before I had my only full meal since my arrival - a street cheeseburger which absolutely hit the spot. Actually, I could only eat about 70% before it got cold (because I was eating so slow) and was no longer so appetizing...

Lunch
But after I puked on the world's largest salt flats, I actually felt a lot better! I managed to put down some vegetables (finally!) and quinoa at lunch, and the nausea mostly subsided for the rest of the day. There were lots of reasons for me to be sick - the (near?) sun poisoning I got in Playa del Carmen, the cold I got in Playa del Carmen, the stress-induced weakened immune system from traveling, the altitude, eating unusual food, not eating, using the water to brush my teeth once or twice, dehydration...so who knows what really got me.

After watching the sun set, we raced a public bus (going from pueblitos on the edge of the Salar) back to Uyuni. Behind us the clouds glowed with pink and red fire, to the right the mountains and sky blended in a blue brilliantly offset by the white salt. Ahead of us, town lights were faint enough for me to wonder how the drivers don't get lost. Maria assured me they can read the landscape, but many tourists get lost each year after attempting to navigate the flats alone, and it can be very dangerous.
sunset




Back in Uyuni I said farewell to my fellow passengers, and scarfed down a weird mushroom and cheese pizza before hopping on my bus back to La Paz!




Overall, I highly recommend Salar de Uyuni if you're in Bolivia! Stunning, unforgettable, and demonstrates the power of nature. It is definitely better with a partner - someone to take pictures of you and someone to talk to on the long open stretches of salt flats.