How I realised, by a sunny afternoon in Tbilisi, that I may be a travel snob

It was a tough and rewarding day travelling, and I was over the moon. So proud of myself – this was exactly what travel is to me:

  • A journey out of the beaten track
  • Where experience is as important than the destination itself
  • Travelling by my own means
  • And suffering a little bit on the way, real travel shouldn’t be too easy

After breakfast that morning, I had only a vague idea of what the day would bring to me: my goal was to wander around, into the non touristic Northern neighbourhoods of the Georgian capital, to potentially check out a few landmarks I found about in Google, and see what else I would find on the way.

I love these days spent walking, with a broad objective in mind, and letting encounters distract me and my plans. I spend the whole day observing, experiencing, analysing; getting to new insights about the place and its people. It really makes me high.

Serendipity and using my flair brought me to this cemetery, Didube Pantheon, and I am so glad I got to make this picture.

That day, I walked during 8 hours, including a 45-minute detour just to check a building that looked interesting at the other side of the river.

This bizarre building was the Ministry of Highways in Soviet times. Later abandoned, it’s been recently renovated and is now the HQ of the Bank of Georgia. It was worth the detour, wasn’t it?

That day, I also took a bushrutka – OK that’s a word I made up, because it was a vehicle of a size between a proper bus and a marshrutka (a van in Russia). And guess what: the journey was horrific.

The bushrutka was 45 minutes late. It was so incredibly crowded that it felt it was going to explode. It was too heavy to go uphill, and incredibly slow. It was incredibly hot inside. I was feeling privileged but cheating because I had a seat.

When we reached a bus stop and I saw a man stand with 2 children, I didn’t believe my eyes: they did actually try and get in. I sensed the trap, and immediately grabbed someone’s bag to put it on my lap; good choice, as just a second later my neighbour had a child on his. Tap on my own shoulder: oh yes I’m an experienced traveller.

There’s no tourist landmark in the Northern suburbs of Tbilisi, but if you’re a travel snob like me 😉 you are likely to find it interesting to explore them anyway!

At the top of the hill, I gave the man by the door a heads up that I was planning to get off at the next stop, so he would let me pass. His severe face expression confused me and I jabbered and didn’t express me really well. He said no and looked away.

That day, I learned the difference between hospitable and friendly. Georgians are incredibly friendly with tourists because they are incredibly hospitable – they love having you there in their country and want you to experience all what’s great about it. But that doesn’t mean they are particularly friendly outside the beaten track, especially if they don’t know you’re a tourist.

I had to fight a little, but I did eventually manage to extract myself from the overcrowded van.

I was starving, as it was Easter Monday and Georgians are serious about Christian holidays: all shops and restaurants were closed and I didn’t find a single thing to eat or drink the whole day.

I was happy and proud: it was a real day travelling, outside the beaten track, experiencing the real life and its daily struggles, just for the sake of it. A bit of a painful process at times, hence even more rewarding.

And the next day, I came across this article posted by a fellow traveller in a Facebook community I belong to: 22 Reasons You Are A Travel Snob.

Reason 1, tick. Reason 2, tick. Reason 11 obviously, and 13, and 17 perhaps, 20 possibly, and certainly, oh yes, reason 5:

You equate pain, suffering, long and arduous journeys and doing without as more authentic than traveling without pain, suffering, long and arduous journeys and doing with.

My heart skipped a bit: I may actually really be a travel snob!

How I climbed on top of an Iranian minaret to dance the boogie woogie

If you have been in Iran like me, you know that the country, seen from the inside, has not much to do with the axis of evil Western propaganda tells us about.

The friendly and hospitable people of Iran have to comply with the rules, but it doesn’t take long to spot a nice touch of rebellion in a portion of them.

The duo – uncle and niece – who took us to the ancient village of Kharanagh were masters of joyful irreverence. How they were having fun and were flirting with the norms gave me a delightful flavour of this part of Iran.

The village of Karanagh (85 km of Yazd) is now abandoned but there were women picking the fresh pistacchios at the time we visited. You can see the minaret standing in the village.

They told me I should climb to the top of the village’s minaret mosque, which was very old and very narrow.

“Stand with one feet on each side”, they told me. I found this a funny order, but I complied.

“And now, dance the boogie woogie”. What? “Yes, shake from one leg to another”. Really?

The minaret is 15 meter tall; the stairs inside to get to the top are not broader than 50-60 cm; in th efinal two meters, there is no stairs, so it’s proper climbing . I was standing there, shaking it!

I must have looked very puzzled, because they laughed a lot, but I did what they told me, and the minaret started shaking, making the whole mosque tremble and gently roar.

It’s only after a few seconds that I realized what they made me do: I was dancing the boogie woogie on top of a minaret! I also like to flirt with the norms and the rules, but this went much beyond what I had hoped for myself in Iran.

Not only did this seem rather dangerous – how many more times until the poor mosque will actually collapse? – but it made my travel companion, standing at the bottom of the minaret with no clue of my endeavours, freak out and believe he was trapped in an antique mosque during an earthquake.

View from the top of the minaret!

But I was so exhilarated! I am not one who expresses political opinions or signs up for ideological debates; but I did manifest my outlook on life: I danced the boogie woogie on a top of an Iranian minaret!

This post is a response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: Climbing

Teaching Iranians how to cook vegetables in Masuleh

Iran is the land of kebab; particularly if people are going to bother and go out to a restaurant, then it’s a festive meal and kebab is on the menu. Not the most exciting perspective for a non meat eater like me.

During my trip in Iran, tired to eat rice and bread after a while, I decided to try and make them grill vegetables. I bought a few onions, aubergines and courgettes on a food market and brought them to a street food restaurant.

The men were puzzled at first. It had never occurred to any of them that they actually could grill vegetables, it seems. But they gave it a go; and I enjoyed a fantastic dinner of grilled veggies with lime, garlic yoghurt, and Iran’s fantastic flatbread.

Seeing aubergines on a food market prompted me: why should I stay on a rice and bread diet, when there are so lovely veggies around?

This week, Ailsa‘s photo challenge theme was Cook.

What do you expect is easier: entering or leaving Israel?

We all know Israel is a country under pressure: it cannot be easy to maintain a claim for Jewish land in the middle of more or less hostile Muslim nations.

And yet, entering Israel was one of the easiest things I’ve ever done; it’s leaving the country that was a real pain.

When you live in a country supposedly attractive that has to control immigration, you are used to harsh rules to entry and it’s not uncommon to see people having to answer endless questions or even detained for several hours before they are allowed in. But then they don’t even bother to check your passport as you’re leaving.

But funnily, it’s the opposite that happens in Israel, and I am still trying to understand why.

EXPERIMENT 1: ARRIVAL BY AIR

I entered Israel for the first time after a flight from Paris that took me to Tel Aviv airport.

Step 1: showing my passport.

Step 2: answering a question.

My travel companion, who was ahead of me, had explained we were friends. They cross checked the information by asking me how I knew her: “we studied together”. This simple answer was my gateaway to Israel.

I was very ready to ask firmly to not get a stamp in my passport – I didn’t want to sabotage any future travel plans to Muslim countries. But there was no need; I was delivered something that looked like a voucher that I scanned to open gates and there I was, freely moving around on the promised land.

EXPERIMENT 2: ARRIVAL BY LAND

From my base in Jerusalem, I ventured a couple of times into Palestine and the occupied territories. And was extremely surprised by how easy it was to re-enter Israel, how young the Israeli military agents were, and how little case they seemed to do about a border crossing.

For example, on the way back from Ramallah, our bus was stopped at the border and we didn’t even have to get off, it’s an Israeli teenager soldier who got on.

Step 1: showing my passport.

Step 2: cute young Israeli notices I’m French, smiles and says in French: “Bonjour! Ca va?”

And here I am, in Israel, coming straight from Palestine, without anyone even checking my bag.

Jerusalem

EXPERIMENT 3: LEAVING FROM TEL AVIV AIRPORT

I had been told to be at the airport at least 2 hours in advance of my flight, as control can take a long time. Good advice.

Step 1: interrogation. You get approached by agents as soon as you join the check-in queue, who bombard you with questions. They are not really interested in your answers, but apply psychological techniques to figure out how genuine you are – whether you are telling the truth or making up stories.

This consists in asking a lot of questions about previous travels, really fast, sometimes several times. They asked about all the travels that were documented in my passport – luckily I was holding a rather fresh one so it didn’t take too long.

They asked about all these travels, but really insisted on one in particular. Not my 3-month Russian journey; not even the trips in Muslim but non Arab countries like Uzbekistan, or even Iran. No, what they were particularly interested in was a trip I did to the UAE; oh they asked me a lot about that.

Following the questioning, the interrogator determines your ranking on a scale that goes from 1 to 6 and, it seems, indicates your likelihood to be dangerous for the country. They don’t tell you the ranking, and you may not even notice it. It is the first number on a barcode that they stick on your passport.

I had a 5.

I since have read somewhere that only a rabbi could get a 1, an Israeli a 2, a tourist on an organised tour a 3; having been in the UAE made me miss the 4 and I got a 5.

Step 2: the procedure then varies depending on your ranking. Being a 5, I had to go through a very thorough check of literally everything I was carrying on me and in my luggage. Everything was checked in great detail, both manually and using technological equipment. It took a while to check all my person and all items in my bag one by one, that’s when I really understood why I should be really 2 hours in advance at the airport.

Step 3: personal escort to the gate. It probably varies for passengers with a different ranking, personally I was escorted to the gate by yet another cute male 18-year old Israel military agent.

RESULTS OF THE EXPERIMENT

I’m sure the authorities of Israel know what they’re doing, but I am yet to understand why it is so difficult to leave the country; especially when entering it, including from Palestine, is so anecdotal.

But glad I didn’t get a 6 like someone I know who ended up the search in his underwear!

What it’s like to live in the most isolated town of remote Russia

48 hours stranded in a hole, somewhere in the middle of a Soviet nowhere – this happened to me last summer when bad weather conditions caused my flight out of the remoteness to be severely delayed.

I was in Ust-Nera, in the Russian permafrost, ending a visit of the most remote, isolated and abandoned areas of Soviet Russia.

Try googling Ust-Nera. You will probably have to zoom out a few times before you can relate to anything familiar on the map.

There is very little to do in Ust-Nera; the place is totally desolated, it was raining, and you had to wait until 2 pm to buy booze – an old Gorbachev-time law that has long disappeared in Russia, but the decree of cancellation may not have reached this part of the world.

So until I could intoxicate myself to make the reality shinier, I used my mornings to walk around and figure out: what can it be like to live in such a hole of the Russian permafrost?

Imagine that you live in Ust-Nera, a previous base for the gulag labour camps, 9.000 km East of Moscow, with 6.000 other inhabitants.

There are 8 to 10 months of winter, when it typically gets as low as minus 50.

When the summer is finally there, mosquitoes proliferate and bite you mercilessly.

Summers are also humid, and because it’s permafrost, the rain stays on the surface instead of being absorbed by the earth. Hence the whole place is a swamp, and a paradise for mosquitoes.

A street in Ust-Nera

Interestingly, the frozen earth means that all houses are on pillars; houses are all Brejnev-time apartment buildings here, as most of the town was created at a time when the Soviets did not build anything else.

Typical housing building in Ust-Nera

No matter how remote, the propaganda has always made its way to you. OK, your local Lenin statue might be of a cheaper material, but there is one – and you did receive Putin’s posters for the latest anniversary of the Great Patriotic War.

Stained Lenin statue in Artyk

The next town is an 8-hour drive and it’s the exact same town. For a change of scenery, you should take a 2-hour flight in an old Antonov or Tupolev aircraft.

Your apartment is the same as everyone’s apartment in Russia, as illustrated so well in Russia’s cult film The Irony of Fate. You may have the model with 1 or 2 bedroom, it’s not too bad actually, you can hear the neighbours but you have central heating, and it costs 45.000 rubles per square metre (730 euro), 3 times less than in Moscow.

Someone is trying to sell an apartment in Ust-Nera, but it doesn’t look like many people are interested.

There are 3 or 4 shops in town and they all sell the same basic stuff. Everything is brought by truck from Yakutsk where it is brought by flight from Moscow, so it’s not fresh and costs 3 times more.

Your supplies depend on the town’s supplies. I have heard people in the shops not ask “What have you got today?” but “What has arrived today?”.

Ust-Nera’s municipal park

In continental Russia, kids often play in parks on real tanks from the war. No tank actually made it all the way here, but Moscow has thought of everything and provided the local kids this wonder of a toy to play with in the municipal park.

Entertainment is scarce, but serious. The town has one restaurant and one cafe, and there is still some activity every now and then at the House of Metallurgists.

Ust Nera’s House of Metallurgists

There is probably a reason why you’re here. There is a mine nearby and you’re a skilled worker and got incentivised to move here a long time ago. Or your family’s history is that of former gulag convicts who never returned to mainland Russia. And now you’re stuck here. It would be too expensive to move elsewhere – and to go where anyway?

Ust-Nera is pretty remote, but has a really nice WWII memorial

Russians tend to be fatalist. In the small town of Artyk, I asked an old lady who has been living there all her life, how she liked it. Instead of answering the question, she shrugged and said “Artyk is just a transport hub you know, there’s not much going on”. Make up your mind what she actually meant.

In the permafrost regions, all pipes are kept above the ground. This has a huge impact on the street layout.

Tough mudder, the Smurfs and beard trimming: how Saudi Arabia’s culture is westernising for the sake of money

“In this country, there is nothing else to do than restaurants and shopping” said a young Saudi mum to me last week, during an in-home visit in Jeddah doing research for a client.

In such ultra conservative society, indeed there is not much fun to do in Saudi Arabia; but this is about to change, at least if you consider the Western entertainment industry as your version of “fun”.

There are big “2030 Vision” posters everywhere in Jeddah, and this is the chapter about entertainment in a local magazine. “GEA” = General Entertainment Authority.

In an attempt to overhaul its oil-dependent economy, Saudi Arabia has published an ambitious 2030 Vision that heralds changes in all spheres of life. For the General Entertainment Authority, the objective is simple: make Saudi citizens spend at home what they currently spend when travelling abroad.

Amongst others, Saudi is expecting this year the visit of shows like the Lion King, Monster Truck, Sesame Street, etc.

The first remark you may have, is why all this entertainment just for children? Don’t Saudi grown-ups also have the right for adult entertainment? (no, I don’t mean porn, but at least something more elevated than the Smurfs?)

But you are probably also thinking, isn’t this all contrasting very much with the austerity we imagine the ultra religious Saudi society to live in, which has closed borders to tourism and won’t let women drive a car but will let men marry several of them?

Well, the contrast is to me as sharp as it is difficult to eat fettucini (the latest trendy dish in Jeddah) with a niqab.

Saudi is a “either or” society; it’s either the modesty of a pilgrimage in Mecca or the populist entertainment coming from the West; but there is nothing in between. I wish there was at least the attempt of developing a monetisable Arabic, Middle-Eastern culture; but I guess it is faster to just adopt the well-known recipes of the Western crap.

A Western crap you despise profoundly, but which makes a lot of money, and money you like very much! So who cares if it all changes the face of Saudi Arabia?

Honestly, if your idea of bearded Saudi men is still that of Bin Laden, do me a favour and read this article from the Jeddah magazine. The hipster culture is welcome is Saudi too, as long as it makes people spend money to wash (yes, wash) their facial hair.