Welcome to Poland!

I know it feels like we’ve been in Iceland forever, but in realtime, it was only a week (ha!). My Icelandic adventure ended a bit anticlimactically… with a 16-hour stay in the airport. My brother’s flight home was in the morning, and since we only had one car, we went together to the airport around 8:30AM. I had chosen Poland as my next destination, and the cheapest flights there were overnight flights leaving at 12:30AM. And so, that’s how I found myself sitting on a bench in the airport, throwing back mini chocolate chip muffins like they were popcorn, pretending to get work done, and trying not to have to go to the bathroom (because then you have to get up, lose your seat, and haul all of your crap with you. I maintain that this is the worst part of travelling alone).

Pretty!

Is it weird that I really don’t mind spending a lot of time in airports? I did actually manage to have a productive day, and when it was time to go through security, I was surprised at how quickly the hours had passed. I even had the insane thought that I wouldn’t have minded a few more. That can’t be normal.

The flight from Iceland to Warsaw, Poland is about 4 hours, and I spent all four of them completely unconscious. My eyes were closed from the instant I sat down until we pulled into the gate in Poland. As you might imagine, I wasn’t exactly feeling fresh when I woke up. Unfortunately, it was only 6:30AM, so there were still a LOT of hours standing between me and bedtime.

I took my time leaving the airport. I like giving myself a moment to get oriented and washing my face and brushing my teeth before facing a new country. When I was feeling slightly more like myself (and slightly less like a zombie), I grabbed my bags and set off to find the bus into the city. It ended up being super easy to find and figure out… which leads me to my next list of first impressions!

Strolling through one of the parks in Warsaw…

Here are some of the first things that stuck out to me when I arrived in Warsaw:

This guy is buying his bus ticket! The buses have machines where you can buy a ticket when you get on (and you can change the language to English!). Or, if you already have a ticket, you can validate it using the yellow box to the left.

  1. Public Transportation – SO easy to figure out and SO inexpensive. The buses announced every stop which is something I have come to appreciate because there’s nothing worse than being on a bus with no concept of where you are or where you’re going.
  2. Polish Language – Speaking of the buses announcing every stop… this was my first exposure to the Polish language, and it was baffling. For each stop, I’d read the name in my head and guess how it was going to be pronounced… and then the automated voice would read it and I’d question if we were even looking at the same word. I spent about 1 minute considering trying to learn the Polish pronunciation rules until I looked them up and saw that there were WAY too many. As usual, there were plenty of locals who claimed that their language is one of the hardest to learn (it seems like this is a mandatory claim anytime someone is talking to me about their native language), and I accepted that as fact because it looks plenty hard to me. For example, “Excuse me/sorry, I don’t speak Polish” is “Przepraszam, nie mówię po polsku” (pshuh-PRASH-em, nyE MOO-vee-uh po POLS-koo). Simple, right? (To read about the struggles of learning Polish, check out this funny article!)
  3. Money – WHY SO MANY COINS??? My wallet weighed a ton because THERE ARE SO MANY COINS. Their “dollar” is “złoty”, pronounced kind of like “zwoh-tih” and if you needed more proof about the language, there you go. The “cents” are called “groszy”.

    This is the most different coins I managed to collect at once, but even with this many, I’m missing the 1gr and 5gr. Why. So. Many. Coins. And look at that 5zl! It’s massive!

  4. History-filled – If you like history, Poland is the place for you. Well, probably all of Europe and the Middle East are good spots for you, but I knew nothing about Polish history before I went there, making everything I learned even more interesting. Just wait for my Polish history post… it’s fascinating.
  5. WWII Impact – I don’t know if this is just because of the things I did or where I was or what, but it seemed like you could constantly feel and see the impact of WWII. So many places have a heaviness to them that I guess you learn to ignore when you’re there for long enough, but I felt it very clearly. Poland was hit incredibly hard by the Germans. The Jewish population was decimated, and the other Poles were heavily persecuted and imprisoned and executed in huge numbers. Warsaw was almost completely destroyed during the war, and it was painstakingly rebuilt by the Polish people, a fact that they are incredibly proud of. Which leads me to my next point…

    There are reminders like this all over the place, if you’re looking for them. This line on the ground follows the footprint of the wall surrounding the Warsaw Jewish ghetto during WWII.

  6. Polish Pride – People are so proud to be Polish. It almost rivals Armenian pride and has a similar “we’re going to take credit for anyone and anything even almost kind of tangentially related to us” thing going on. They may not be thrilled with everything about Poland, but they are incredibly Polish proud.
  7. Underrated – Spoiler alert: I loved Poland. LOVED it. I don’t know that it’s a huge vacation destination, but it SHOULD be because it’s beautiful and interesting and I loved it and everyone else should too.
  8. Food – One of the things I loved was the FOOD! I feel lucky to have experienced pierogies pre-Poland (shout out to my college roommate, Carissa, for bringing them into my life) because they are phenomenal. Dumplings are my #1 favorite food, and pierogies are basically the Polish version of dumplings. You can get practically any type… there are even fruit filled “dessert” ones, but whoever decided fruit is dessert is no friend to me. The classic version is filled with mashed potatoes. So it’s a carb-wrapped carb nugget, and I’m obsessed. I could eat them for every single meal, and while I was in Poland, I nearly did. There are other Polish foods, but for me, there are only pierogies. I guess you’ll just have to go to Poland if you want to learn about the others. (I know I should have taken a picture, but I was always too busy gobbling them down to even think of that before they were all gone.)
  9. Bike Lanes – Bike lanes exist, and people use them. And people who aren’t on bikes respect them. This is a completely foreign concept to me because bike lanes in the US turn into idling lanes, parking spots, good places to open a car door into, etc. Bikers are seen as a menace and an inconvenience. Not in Poland! We need to learn some lessons from Europe on sustainable transport!

I spent most of my time in Poland walking around and thinking, “I could totally live here.” There are livable-feeling cities, and there are the ones that you visit and then feel happy to leave behind. I visited Warsaw and Krakow, and in both of them (Warsaw especially), I felt like I could easily settle in and stay for a while. It’s always nice to feel that level of comfort when you’re on the road!

I thought this was awesome… in one of the parks in Warsaw, there’s a bouldering wall! There were a bunch of people rock climbing on it when I walked by.

Before I launch into a tour of all the things I saw and did in Poland, I think it’s important to get some historical context. So, next time we talk, prepare yourself for a gripping Lara-style retelling of Polish history! It’s going to be fun, I promise.

Welcome to Iceland!

My flight to Iceland left London Stansted at 6AM, so I decided that there was no point in paying for a hostel the night before because there was no chance I’d go to bed early enough to make it worth it. I took the tube to a bus to the airport, and that whole adventure took close to two hours. I was pretty darn tired by the time I got on the bus and fell asleep the instant I sat down. That was a solid 1:15 of sleep, plus the hour and a half maybe that I slept at the airport… So I was running on about 3 hours as I attempted to navigate my way to the gate which may not sound like a big deal, but I am a zombie mess without enough sleep.

Stansted does the same stupid thing as Heathrow where they don’t just announce your gate when you get to the airport. Instead, they wait until ~ 45 minutes before to release that information. My flight was at 6, the board said that the gate info would be up at 5:15, my ticket said that the gates close 30 minutes before the takeoff time, and the airport estimated that it would take at least 10 minutes to get to my gate. Does that not sound like maybe they should come up with a new system?

As usual, there was someone sitting in my seat on the plane. I thought that everyone consistently had this problem, but it seems to be just me. On at least 4/5 flights, someone is either in my seat or asks me to trade from my carefully-selected window seat to a middle seat. I like to sleep against the side of the plane, so unless my neighbors are cool with me drooling on them, it’s best if I’m left to the window.

Getting off the plane in Iceland, I was super excited about the fact that someone was waiting for me! I met my brother Mike there, and it was a nice change to see a familiar face in an unfamiliar place.

Reunited! And both practically falling asleep but not Mike because he was driving…

We picked up our rental car and headed out into the weird alien landscape that is Iceland. Here are some of my first impressions/random observations:

      1. Groundscape – I think I spent 90% of my time in Iceland staring at the ground. No, it’s not because I have terrible self-esteem. It’s because the ground is so freaking cool-looking, and in every place we went, it looked completely different. The colors, the plants, the rock formations… they’re like nothing I’d ever seen before.

        Try to tell me this isn’t awesome

      2. Prices – This is something that everyone who’s ever been to Iceland will mention. The prices are incredibly high. I’m used to going to countries where the US dollar is stronger than the local currency, but that’s totally not the case in Iceland. $1 is about 100 krónur which sounds nice, but when the cheapest meal you’ll find is 1600 krónur ($16), it’s a little less so. And that was the price for essentially ramen noodles with some chicken. An actual restaurant meal would be at least 5000 krónur ($50). I bought a 1000 krónur ($10) magnet for my cousin’s magnet collection.

        Front of Icelandic money

        Backside


      3. Language – Icelandic is VERY low on my list of languages to ever try learning. Partly because it’s almost completely worthless if you’re not in Iceland (about 90% of speakers live in Iceland), but also because it’s one of those languages where the names of things are so long that you need to stop halfway through to take a breath. Most of the letters are the same as the ones we use in English, but there are enough accented letters and extras like ð, þ, and æ to make it look very foreign. Mike and I never got sick of laughing at each other’s attempts to read the street signs.

        Here’s a good example of the kinds of place names we were dealing with. I would get as far as like “Kirkjubae…” and then shake my head and say gibberish because trying to sound out the entire thing is hopeless.

      4. Trees – Namely that there aren’t very many, and the ones that do exist are planted in VERY natural-looking rows. The island used to be about 25% forest, and after it was settled in the 9th century, the trees were gone within 300 years. They’re working on re-planting trees, but it’s an incredibly slow process because they have to stabilize the soil with smaller plants first. At the rate they’re going now, estimates are that it will take 150 years to reforest to just 5%.

        Reforestation. The trees are very well-organized

      5. Wind – I’m sure that the wind isn’t helping with the reforestation efforts. I’ve never been somewhere so consistently windy, and not only is it consistent, it’s STRONG. There were plenty of times that Mike and I had trouble even walking through it. The rental car doors had warnings on them telling you to hold on tightly when opening so that they don’t blow open too far and get damaged.
      6. Rain – Constantly. I’m sure this depends on the season, but we were there in April, and it was always raining. Usually it was a light rain, but still. Always. Raining.

        Smiling despite the wind and the rain

      7. Credit cards – You can use credit cards everywhere. Even the bathrooms that cost 100 kroner ($1) had credit card machines outside. I was especially thrown off by this because I was coming from 9 months of living in a completely cash-based culture, and we would have been almost completely fine without ANY cash in Iceland (we only needed cash at one campsite).
      8. Landscape – Even though the entire island looks like another planet, it doesn’t all necessarily look like the SAME another planet. In one place, you have black sand beaches. In another, there’s white sand. There are mountains and craters, black rocks and red rocks, glaciers and geysers. And waterfalls everywhere. I kind of thought that we were going to get tired of seeing the same thing over and over again because it’s just a little island and how much variety could there be? But no matter how many similarities things had, they were also COMPLETELY different.

        Alien. Landscape.

        Another planet.
        Can you spot Mike in this picture?

        Like… what is this place???

        Stairs at one of the random sights we stopped at along the road

      9. There are things to see everywhere – Literally. We had pretty loose plans, so a lot of the things we checked out were just what we happened to be driving past. It seemed like there was a sign announcing something to see every two seconds, so we had to start filtering some out because otherwise we’d never make it to the things we planned.
      10. Well-maintained – And despite the fact that there are things to see everywhere, it’s not like they’re falling into disrepair or there’s no tourist infrastructure there. I seriously don’t know how they keep up with maintenance. Everything we stopped at had a parking area, a path with those plastic ground-grate things to keep it from getting slippery, and a built viewing area if necessary. And nothing was falling apart or looked like it had seen better days, even at the tiny little sights that weren’t super popular.
      11. Everything has a name – Like EVERYTHING. This mountain range has a name, and so does every single mountain in it. This rock has a name. This little trickle of a waterfall. That crater… and the other one and the other one. They all have names. Probably, when they reforest, they give each tree a name too. And each blade of grass and ant and so on.
      12. Legends – Similarly, everything has a legend for how/why it exists. I loved the legends in Armenia, but honestly, I think Icelandic folklore is even a step above that. It’s filled with stories of elves and trolls, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
      13. People names – Obviously all of the people have names… that’s not what I was going to say. But people names are taken from lists of pre-approved boy and girl names, unless their parents go through the process to submit a new name that must meet all of the criteria, such as: names must be grammatically compatible with Icelandic, girls must be given girl names and boys boy names, names must not cause the bearer embarrassment. Also, for last names, people generally don’t use family names. Instead, last names depend on the person’s parents’ first names; for example Jónsson “Jon’s son” or Jónsdóttir “Jon’s daughter”. Sometimes, mothers’ names are used. In the phone book, people are listed by first name, and first names are used almost exclusively for addressing others. Even when speaking to someone like the president, you would use his first name.

I could probably write 20 pages about my first impressions and things that I thought were absolutely fascinating, but I’ll leave you with these for now. Next time, I’ll get into a little history before taking you along with us on a sightseeing tour of the island!

Welcome to Istanbul!

Welcome to Istanbul!! I know, you were probably wondering if we were ever going to manage to leave Georgia, but we did it!

View over Istanbul

My flight landed in Istanbul after a solid 3 hours in the air… during which I was completely comatose, but it apparently didn’t make a difference because I was still exhausted when we landed. I hate feeling groggy while going through immigration and customs, but sometimes there’s only so much you can control. Before leaving the airport and attempting to navigate the long journey to my hostel, I tried to smack myself awake and pull it together the best I could (never underestimate the power of a quick face washing/tooth brushing in the airport bathroom).

From the airport, I had to take three modes of transportation. This trek was completely the result of my trying to spend as little money as possible. There are two airports in Istanbul, one on the Asia side of the city and one on the Europe side. I was staying on the Europe side, but I flew into Asia because it was way cheaper. Then, I could have gotten a pick up or a taxi from the airport, but I’m not made of money! And the less I spend, the longer I can take coming home… hehe just kidding (Mom, I’m just kidding. I promise!). Anyway, all of this led to three modes of transport: shuttle bus, funicular, and tram.

The shuttle was the longest leg of the journey, about 45 minutes, and I slept from the moment I sat down. That’s great, except then when we got to the end stop, I was completely disoriented and had no idea which way I needed to go. And it was raining, of course. I marched off confidently in some random direction until I could get oriented… at which point I turned around and marched off in the exact opposite direction. My approach to walking around strange cities: Always look like you know exactly where you’re going and what you’re doing, even if you haven’t a clue.

Long story short, I figured out where I needed to go, how to buy a transit card, etc. with my eyes at least 50% closed, and when I got to the hostel, they showed me where to drop my bags (since I was there about 6 hours before check-in) and told me to help myself to breakfast. Ah, those words were like music to my ears after spending the night eating crackers, gummies, and a variety of other travel snacks that I love but that will also lead to my slow death-by-vitamin-deficiency.

Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the details of my breakfast (but bread and chocolate spread were obviously involved because gotta get those essential vitamins!). Instead, here are my first impressions of Istanbul (admittedly collected in more than just the hour and a half journey from the airport):

  1. Mosques – There are SO many, and they’re everywhere. And they’re seemingly always under construction, but I’ll talk about that later. I’ve been to other countries with a lot of mosques, but the ones in Istanbul are generally very welcoming to visitors which was a huge difference from places like Dubai, for example.

    The Blue Mosque, one of many, many mosques in the city

  2. Public transportation – It’s so good! And there are more modes of public transit than anywhere I’ve been. There are trams and funiculars and ferries and metros and trains and buses and probably spaceships too if you know where to look. And they’re all nice and clean and on-schedule and easy to navigate.
  3. Food – This has to be one of my favorite places, food-wise. I think I said that about Lebanon too, though, so it’s definitely a Middle-Eastern-food thing. This is the most similar to the type of food I grew up with which made me feel at home. Kind of funny because I used to hate practically all of those foods, but hey, times change. I could eat kebab and lahmajoon for every meal for the rest of my life.

    Lahmajoon

    Kebab platter

    Soft serve. Yummmm

  4. Dessert – Yes, this gets its own number, separate from food. If you don’t understand already, it’s not worth my trying to explain it. Three words. Baklava. Icecream. Turkishdelights. (Okay, I should have said five words.) I usually don’t like baklava but there were a few fantastic baklava moments that happened. It’s very hard to disappoint me with ice cream, so the fact that it even exists puts it on the list. Turkish delights aren’t my personal favorite to eat, but they’re high on the list of my favorite desserts to look at.
  5. Nuts – This deserves its own number too. So much love for nuts. They’re everywhere and in EVERYTHING. Chocolate, Turkish delights, every other dessert whose names I don’t know. It’s almost impressive how many different ways they manage to use the same ingredient.
  6. Flags – There. Are. Turkish. Flags. EVERYWHERE. Honestly, it’s a little weird. Someone tried to tell me that there are a lot of flags around in the States, but this is like the U.S. on Independence Day x 100000.

    Flags. Everywhere.

  7. Flowers – I’m sure this is partly just a spring thing, but also landscaping. I have never seen SO many flowers and so many impeccably landscaped parks. I was completely obsessed because what’s better than flowers and parks? But it definitely takes a huge amount of work and maintenance for them to look like that. It’s amazing!

    Check out this park…

    They’re winning the landscape game

    This just looks so magical

    Whatttt

    Apple tea, my new true love. There’s even a cinnamon stick in the bottom of this one!

  8. Tea – In general, I hate tea. I think it tastes like something that could maybe be good if it wasn’t so watered-down. Also, most typical flavors are kind of eh. In Istanbul, tea is a big thing, and I LOVED it. This is a significant statement coming from me. Apple tea is like ❤ ❤ <3. There are no words. It’s like drinking warm apple juice but better. And there’s definitely a pile of sugar in it, so that doesn’t hurt. I had some delicious pomegranate tea too, and I don’t even like pomegranates! Summary: they know what they’re doing when it comes to tea.
  9. Water – There’s nothing better than a city with a nice river… except for a city with an estuary and a strait AND a sea. You can take ferries like buses!

    On the water! On a boat!

    The estuary is coming in from the right, the Bosphorus Strait is on the left, and the Sea of Marmara is out in the distance

  10. History – Istanbul is an old and complicated place, and you can see it. There are old churches that were turned into mosques, palaces, the ruins of Roman aqueducts and city walls… the city oozes history.

I also quickly noticed that my chameleon suit worked very well there (that’s how I’ve started to think of my somewhat ethnically ambiguous appearance… often, it’s like I’m a chameleon that can kind of blend in, or at the very least can keep from standing out). I got a lot of, “You’re Turkish, right?” Thank you, chameleon suit. Which brings us to #11…

I got some Turkish ice cream which is very similar to Arabic ice cream (which I had when I was in Lebanon). It uses mastic (a resin) which helps to keep it from melting.
Also note my fake engagement ring. Hehe.

  1. Men – Aside from Ghana, this is probably the place where men have been the most forward on the street. In Armenia, other people had issues with this, but I walked around ignoring everyone, so I was generally left alone. I tried to apply my ignore strategy in Istanbul, and that just led to follow up questions about why I was ignoring them and promises that they were of good character (claims which, I would argue, were negated by the fact that they were disregarding my clear disinterest in talking to them). UGH. After about two days of it, I got so annoyed that I went and bought a fake engagement ring to wear when walking around alone. I don’t know if it made a difference, but at least it gave me a very easy “out” if someone tried talking to me, “Oh sorry, I have to go. I’m on my way to meet my husband.” I HATE having to use the “other man” shield because it’s a lie and saying “leave me alone” should be enough, but for sanity’s sake, there are some battles not worth fighting.

Okay, that’s enough for now. Get yourself excited for some history because next time, we’re going to learn alllll about just how much history Istanbul has.

Welcome to Dubai!

Welcome to Dubai! Leaving Lebanon was sad, but that was buffered a bit by the fact that I still had an adventure ahead. I intentionally scheduled a long layover in Dubai so that I could leave the airport and check out the city. I was trying to get a normal length layover until I realized that the long one was cheaper, AND it gave me a chance to see something new. Score!

Before I get into what I did while I was there, let me tell you about some of my first impressions…

  1. Vertical city – Dubai claims to be a “vertical city”, and I guess to a certain extent, that’s true. There are a lot of VERY tall buildings. At the same time though, it’s also very horizontal. There will be a little patch of super tall buildings over here, then there’s an area of completely flat land, and then there’s another patch of tall buildings. It’s like if you took the center city areas of a bunch of cities and then put them near each other. Instead of seeming like one city, it’s more like a few weird, disconnected but nearby cities.

    Cluster of tall buildings. Flatness. Cluster of tall buildings.

  2. Not a city made for people – That sounds stupid, I know, but I mean that it’s really not pedestrian friendly. I always consider one of the great things about cities to be the fact that you don’t need a car. If you’re in the downtown area, you should be able to walk to all of the major things. In Dubai, there are places where it’s so hard to find a place to cross the street that you feel like you can’t even navigate the city on foot. It is also completely NOT bike friendly which is enough to make me immediately turn up my nose (I’m a bike snob, I know).

    This night shot is cool because you can so clearly see the roads. All of the orange light lines are street lights… doesn’t it seem wrong that so many of them are floating in a sea of darkness with no buildings near them?

  3. Public transit – As bad as the pedestrian situation is, the public transit really is good. I rode the metro, bus, and trolley while I was there, and all of them were impressive. They were clean and prompt and everything had a separate section for women only. The first time I went on the metro, I was going to just ride in the normal part… until I looked around the platform and realized that NO other women were standing near me. I moved to the women’s car, and I’m happy that I did because it was PACKED, and at least that way I didn’t have to be smushed up next to a bunch of smelly guys.
    The price of the public transit also wasn’t bad… a little over a dollar for a ride. I think that if you have a more permanent card, it’s even cheaper too.
    There are A LOT of rules on the metro. The number of things that you can get fined for is actually kind of impressive. There are penalties for eating, drinking, chewing gum, falsely pressing the emergency button, being a man in the women’s cabin… probably more that I’m forgetting. I don’t know how seriously they enforce the rules, but they exist.

    They make it very clear where the women’s car on the metro is.

  4. Shiny and new – Everything just seems… shiny. And surreal. And inauthentic. It’s like the whole city is trying too hard. For example, there’s this one part of the city that’s supposedly “historically preserved”. In Dubai that apparently means “rebuilt but in the old style”. The buildings are too tall. Everything is too new. It’s just too fill in the blank.

    This is supposed to be “old” Dubai… It is very clearly “new old” Dubai. How could I tell? Well, besides the fact that everything looked pristine, there were fire alarms and lights installed with no wiring exposed. Unless the pearl divers of old Dubai were way ahead of the rest of us in harnessing electricity, I don’t think those are original.

  5. Foreigners – There are foreigners everywhere. Tons of tourists, tons of foreigners who live there. If you were trying to guess where in the world you were just based on the people, I don’t know that the United Arab Emirates would even be top 15 on your list of guesses.
  6. English – On that note, you can speak English everywhere. When I was getting ready for my day in Dubai, I stumbled on some forums where people were asking if you needed to speak Arabic to be able to navigate Dubai easily. The answer was a resounding no. After being there, my answer is an even more resounding no. You can easily speak zero Arabic and have zero issues.
  7. When everything is impressive, nothing is – If you’re a genius and you work at a company filled with geniuses, is anyone a genius? Or are you all just average? Next question: If you’re an impressive skyscraper surrounded by a bunch of other impressive skyscrapers, are any of you impressive? Or are you all just normal? Dubai is filled with statement buildings. They are weird and funky, and in any other city, they would help to define the skyline. Instead, they’re surrounded by other weird and funky buildings that make them look normal. It’s almost a shame that anyone even bothers putting effort into their designs because it’s only a matter of time until there are more tall buildings on all sides, and you can’t even see the first building anymore. If you want to build a statement building and have anyone care, don’t build it in Dubai.

    Hidden away in this picture are two skyscrapers that I knew about before I went to Dubai, Princess Tower and Infinity Tower (since renamed, but I’m going to pretend not). If I hadn’t KNOWN that they were there, I wouldn’t have even looked twice. Infinity Tower is the twisty one to the left of the big block building on the right side of the picture, and Princess Tower is behind it with the round spaceship-like top. It’s the second tallest building in Dubai after the Burj Khalifa, but you’d never know because it looks dwarfed from this angle by all of the surrounding buildings.

  8. Construction – Remember when I said that there’s a lot of construction in Beirut? HAHAHA. That’s like child’s play compared to the construction happening in Dubai. Everywhere, there’s some sort of construction happening. It seems like it’s endless, and I seriously just don’t understand it. Which leads me to my next point…
  9. Confusing – This is a long one. Dubai confuses me in many ways.
    There are a few developers who are doing most of the construction in the city. They seem to just keep building more and more and more, and I don’t understand how it’s sustainable. Are they seriously making enough money that it’s worth it to keep building? Maybe this has changed, but I always think of Dubai as a ghost city where there’s a ton of empty property. The numbers have probably improved since back when Dubai was just starting to emerge, but I can’t imagine that everything could be full.
    This is going to sound like a direct contradiction of #7, but that’s part of the reason why this is going under the category of “confusing”. Dubai is filled with icon buildings and icon things in general (for example, the palm islands or the world map islands)… and then those iconic things might be right next to the most boring, uniform pop-up of skyscrapers ever. There were some skyscraper clusters where it looked like the architect got bored or fired after designing the first building, and every building after that was just slightly modified from the first. Maybe this one has 10 fewer floors. Maybe that one has one column of windows shifted slightly. Why build an army of buildings that all look the same and that are all seemingly empty?

    Have you ever seen a more boring group of skyscrapers? Just wait until you see them from the back…

    Okay, NOW have you ever seen a more boring group of skyscrapers? Seriously, how lazy can you be? B.O.R.I.N.G.

  10. Over-the-top – Everything. Nothing can be done halfway. If something is done, it will be the _______est. The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world. The world map islands are the most ridiculous collection of man-made islands (that’s a title that I just made up now, but I am extremely confident that it would hold up in front of a judge). The I-can’t-remember-the-name flower garden is the most absurd flower garden in the world. It’s like everything is super-sized whether that be in actual size or just in concept.

There are a few of my first impressions of the city, but if I’m being totally honest, none of those were surprises to me. I think it was about what I expected. That doesn’t make it any less weird, though, when you’re surrounded by tall buildings and there’s not a person in sight. There were moments when I felt like I was in a post-apocalyptic movie or something, and I was the last human on earth. The city is built for SO many more people than live there. I wonder if it will ever grow into itself. Better question, if it DOES grow into itself, will there be enough capacity in the public transportation and roadways to accommodate those people?

Next, I’ll tell you a little bit about the history of Dubai and how it turned into the craziness that it is today. Maybe the history lesson will clear up some of your confusion regarding the mysterious existence of this wacky city… or maybe not.

Welcome to Lebanon!

Maybe it doesn’t make complete sense for me to welcome you to Lebanon because I’m back in Armenia now, but since we’re on a virtual journey together that is now headed to Lebanon, let’s just go with it.

Funky flowers

I, of course, thought that I was going to have plenty of time to start posting about my Lebanese adventures while I was still there. Ha! You’d think I’d know better by now. I took all of my Armenian language study materials and didn’t even glance at them. Took my Kindle and never turned it on. Took sneakers to work out… guess what happened with those. Nothing. I wrote some notes while I was there to keep track of what I did and my observations and impressions, but I was too busy having the absolute BEST time to do much more than that (and I’m not just saying that because my hosts also read my blog). Between the place and the people, it was an unforgettable trip.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to fill you in on all of the awesomeness that happened. I have A LOT to tell you. Meanwhile, it’s back to the usual in my Armenia life. It’s still a daily adventure, but we’ll have plenty of time to keep talking about that later.

Okay, ready for this? Here we go…

Welcome to Lebanon!! My flight landed in the morning, so I stumbled off the plane all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to conquer the day. Badveli met me at the airport and asked if I needed to rest since my night’s sleep consisted of 9 hours of plane sleep and 3 hours in an airport. I obviously said no because I don’t believe in jetlag. Jetlag is for the weak! And for the people who can’t sleep on planes. And for the people who aren’t completely nuts like me. Anyway, jetlag shmetlag!

My first moments in Lebanon, courtesy of Badveli.

After getting back to Badveli and Maria’s apartment and organizing my stuff, we hit the town to walk around a little and help me get my bearings. Here are some of my first impressions of Beirut:

  1. Lebanon is OLD. I know what you’re probably thinking: “DUH, LARA.” This must be the same feeling that people get when they go to places like Jerusalem and Egypt. I don’t know. I haven’t been to those places, so that’s all speculation. In the Bible, in the OLD Testament, it talks about some of the cities in Lebanon. Places like Sidon and Tyre. Heck, how many times are the cedars of Lebanon mentioned? It’s easy to think of those places like something out of a fairy tale when you’re reading about them from halfway around the world. But then, when you’re literally just a drive away, it’s like… whoa. Those places are real, and here they are!

    See? Old stuff.

  2. Traffic. I had kind of forgotten what it’s like to fear for your life when crossing the street. As horrible as many of the drivers are in Armenia, I’m generally confident that they’re going to stop for me. I did not have that same confidence in Beirut. Besides that, I forgot what it’s like to have motorcycles on the road. Did you know that road rules don’t apply to motorcycles? I may have just completely made that up, but if it’s not true, you’d never know by looking at how they drive. Lunatics! Did you know that the lines on the road are meant to be driven over by the cars and not between? I may have also just made that up, but who knows? Certainly none of the drivers in Lebanon. Line painting is a waste of money.
  3. Stellar sidewalks. Ah yes, I also forgot to mention all of the shops that put merchandise on the sidewalks and the people loitering outside will definitely not move for you.

    Sidewalks. The sidewalks are horrible. Well, before I say that, I have a question. Can something be horrible if it doesn’t really exist? Imagine this. You’re walking on a nice sidewalk. After a few steps, the width decreases by half. After a few more, there’s a car parked on it. Or maybe it’s not a car but rather those bollards that are meant to keep cars off the sidewalk… but they also have the effect of making it literally impossible to walk because they’re in the way. So, you walk in the street with the motorcycle lunatics and horn-happy drivers.

  4. Horn-activated traffic signals. Credit for this one goes to Badveli. Did you know that if you make enough noise, the traffic lights change faster? In Beirut, everyone knows about this trick, so they spend their entire time at a red light exercising their car horns to make sure it knows that they’re waiting. And you know what? The light ALWAYS changes! It’s amazing! Question – if a car horn stops working and is unfixable, the car is totaled, right? I mean, how on earth are you supposed to drive without a horn??
  5. Construction. Everywhere. It seems like the kind of place where your walk to work in the morning never looks the same twice. Today, there’s a building here. Tomorrow, that building’s gone. The next day, a new one stands in its place.

    If anyone needs a tower crane, I can tell you where to find a few.

  6. So fun!!!

    Plant balconies. This might be one of my favorite things. The city is VERY developed which means barely any green space. People must have a thing for potted plants, though, because there are some magnificent balcony gardens. They are the coolest. Maybe I’m especially impressed because every potted plant I’ve ever had has died (sorry, aloe plants 1 and 2 and inevitably 3 when I get back to the plant-owning life), but I have a feeling they’re objectively cool too.

  7. Army. The army is everywhere. Carrying big, scary looking guns. I’m sure that you have nothing to worry about if you’re not doing anything wrong, but I have this problem where I literally convince myself that I must be doing something wrong and then proceed to act suspicious because I think, “Okay, don’t act suspicious.” I’m only guilty of being incredibly awkward, I promise.
  8. Internet. The internet is slow. Very slow. And very expensive. For all of Armenia’s struggles, the internet access/speed/pricing here is impressively good. The internet in Beirut is 10 steps below Armenia and like 3 steps above Ghana. It exists, but only just. Patience is key.
  9. This is the best. Doesn’t it look like someone just picked that house up off of the ground and plopped it on top of a store?

    Power outages. Every day in Beirut, the power goes out for three hours between 6AM and 6PM. The time of the outage rotates from day to day. Say it’s from 3PM-6PM today. Tomorrow it will be from 12PM-3PM, then 9AM-12PM, then 6AM-9AM, then repeat. A lot of people either have generators or pay for generator service to their houses to fill in those gaps. I guess at least you know when your power is going to be out, but still. Annoying. It’s amazing how common power cuts are in so many countries, and meanwhile, it probably seems insane to someone who hasn’t had to think about it before. Even though I am pretty used to it by now, I STILL think scheduled cuts are wacky. I bet they could fix it but just don’t feel like it.

  10. Power lines. Speaking of electricity, there are power lines EVERYWHERE. And they’re hideous. And I’m guessing that half of them are probably inactive, but no one will ever know. There are the official power company lines, plus the shady generator lines, plus whatever cables everyone had sitting around the house because they thought it would look nice if there were a few more strung about. They’re like yearlong holiday lights but without the lights aka the whole point.

    My compliments to the designer!

    Gotta love those festive power lines.

  11. Public transportation. Also not good. I asked if there was a place to look up bus routes, and Badveli laughed at me. Even Armenia has a place to look up routes, and they’re usually quite accurate. Beirut doesn’t have as many routes, they’re not as regular, and they’re not as easy to figure out.
  12. Handshakes. Picture this. I, a woman, meet a man for the first time. He introduces himself, looks at me like I exist, and offers his hand. We shake. He initiates polite conversation. *GASP* What a concept. In Armenia, it usually goes more like: I, a woman, meet a man for the first time. He kind glances at me and looks for a man to talk to instead. I stick out my hand. He looks at it like I’m holding out a rattlesnake. He decides that my hand won’t go away unless he shakes it. We shake. He looks for a man to talk to instead. It took my being treated like a full human again to realize that I have gotten used to being semi-ignored. Every time I met someone (especially a man) who actually acknowledged my existence, I was thrown off. Good job, Lebanon. Thank you for reminding me how these things are supposed to work.

There you have it, a few initial impressions/observations of Beirut. As with anywhere else, there’s some good, some less good, some weird, and some funny. That’s what keeps life interesting! Okay, I’ve talked your ear off enough for now. Don’t worry, there’s plenty more to come. Get ready to do some exploring!

Welcome to India!

*Between the chaos of travel and the ever-unreliable internet situation, I’ve fallen a bit behind on posts. I have most of them written, but I haven’t had the internet to support actually organizing the pictures and uploading them. I’m finally in a stable wifi environment, so I’ll be uploading the rest of the Peru ones and catching you up on my time in India so far over the next few days. I’ve back-dated the Peru posts and will date the India ones for around the days when I wrote them, so they’ll be in chronological order on my feed.*

Welcome to India!!! Whew! It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks. When I first landed here, my brain was not ready to register being in a new country yet. I’m still getting used to remembering where I am. How weird is that? This is definitely not a problem I would have expected to ever have. Who the heck loses track of what country they’re in? How much do you have to travel for that to happen? Well, I guess that three countries in four days is my limit.

I landed in Delhi around 9PM last night and zombie-walked my way through immigration and customs. Thankfully it all went without a hitch because I don’t think I had the capacity to deal with any issues after 24ish hours of travelling. I connected no problem with my ride, and we headed off to the hotel to crash for the night before a big day of sightseeing today!

After a day of being here, here’s a list of my first impressions (these are all based on observations in Delhi, so things may very well be different in other parts of the country):

Traffic-related things:

Traffic view. This definitely isn’t the worst case but I was on a bridge, so I had to just take what I could get at the moment.

People are always talking about the traffic here and how crazy it is, so I was expecting something insane. Yes, it’s definitely hectic, but I’ve had experiences in Peru and China that are pretty darn close. There are some distinguishing factors here though.

  1. Driving on the left – I think I knew this at some point, but I COMPELTELY forgot that they drive on the left here. When I got picked up from the airport, I had a momentary head spin when I got in the car and the driver was on the wrong side.
  2. Honking horns – Everyone uses their horn as if everyone else in the world is blind, and the only way that they’ll know you’re coming is if you’re honking. You honk if you’re passing someone, if someone is crossing the street and you’re going to hit them, if someone even looks like they might be thinking about crossing the street, if an animal looks like it might be in your way, if you’re in completely stopped traffic and you need to make yourself feel better about not going anywhere, etc. You name an opportunity, and someone is probably honking.
  3. Vehicle variety/quantity – The biggest thing that makes it more chaotic than other countries I’ve been to is that there are WAY more motorcycles and tuk-tuks (these are the same as motos in Peru – like a motorcycle rickshaw, or a motorcycle tricycle as I like to think of them) on the road. They weave in and out of the cars and drive kind of like nutcases. There are also bike rickshaws, normal bikes, other motorbike-related vehicles that I’ve never seen before, trucks, buses, and more. I’ve never seen such vehicle variety.

    Not a great picture, but you can see a woman riding sidesaddle on the front motorcycle.

  4. Motorcycle sidesaddle – This might be one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. Sometimes, women (especially when wearing a skirt) will ride on the back of motorcycles with both legs on one side, like riding a horse sidesaddle. To me, this is an incredible feat. How do they stay on? Is that not terrifying?
  5. Crossing the street – This is most similar to my experiences in China. When you cross the street, you need to be aggressive, but not TOO aggressive. It’s like a dance where if you step wrong, instead of getting some stubbed toes, you get hit by a car (or tuk-tuk or motorcycle or who knows what else). Sounds fun, right? The best strategy is to hide behind someone else while you’re crossing so that if anything goes wrong, they get hit instead of you.

General Environment

  1. Smog – This is another one that I knew about but forgot. If you haven’t been to a smoggy country before, just imagine that every day is a little foggy, but that fog is slowly killing you. The difference in your breathing and how the air feels between smoggy countries and ones with clean air are VERY easy to perceive. Thank goodness for emissions regulations in the US!
  2. Trash – Like Ghana, there’s a lot of trash everywhere. If you think US cities are dirty, come here. It’s gross.
  3. Water bottles – When you finish a water bottle, you’re supposed to crumple up the bottle before you throw it away (it even says so on the label). This is so that people can’t trash-pick the bottle, refill it with un-filtered water, “reseal” it, and sell it to an unsuspecting victim.
  4. Water – Speaking of water, as a foreigner, you pretty much have to drink bottled water (unless you want to spend a lot of time and effort purifying the tap water). Besides possibly containing bacteria that can give you anything from cholera to typhoid, some of the water has heavy metals including arsenic. You know, arsenic… aka poison. Everyone, please take a moment to take a deep breath, drink some tap water, and appreciate your clean water and air. Don’t take these things for granted!

    Dirt or tan lines? Hint: it’s dirt. All dirt.

  5. Dirt – Do we have less dirt in the US than in other countries? I don’t know, but I never feel so grimy at home. Here, plus in Ghana and somewhat Peru, I constantly feel like I’m covered with a layer of grime. It’s like there’s dirt seeping out of my pores. It’s impossible to keep anything clean.

Random

  1. Architecture – There is some REALLY cool stuff here. I’ll post more about what we saw today later, but just know that it’s pretty awesome. There are so many different styles happening here because of all of the different rulers and influences that have come in over India’s history, and it’s interesting to see them all interact. Tomb architecture is quickly becoming my favorite.
  2. Barefoot culture – If you like going barefoot, this might be the place for you. We went into a couple temples today, and when you go inside, you have to take your shoes off. It feels very weird taking off your shoes and walking around in public but at the same time, very liberating. I ❤ barefoot temples.

Okay, that’s all for now. So far, I’m enjoying being here. More details to come soon, I promise!