My trip to Turkey may have gotten off to a slow start (thanks for nothing, rain), but even so, by the end, I felt like I had accomplished a lot. I didn’t know what to expect going in and ended up absolutely loving it there. I left feeling certain that I need to go back someday. When I do, I want to see more of the country beyond just Istanbul. The food, the culture, the apple tea… it all felt “right” to me, like I finally found that sense of home that I failed to feel in Armenia. That was a bit of a weird and emotionally conflicting feeling, but I’ll work through it.
I had a whole plan for what my post-Istanbul travel time was going to look like. I mean, it was still a very loose plan, but a plan DID exist. I say this because when you look at my travel route over the next few weeks, you’re going to shake your head and wonder if I bothered looking at a map beforehand. The plan was to go north from Turkey, working my way up through the Balkan countries to Central/Western Europe and then home. That’s not quiteee what actually happened, and like a good sister, I’m going to blame that entirely on my brother Mike.
When I was in Tbilisi, my mom told me that Mike was planning a trip to Iceland to visit some friends who were living there for a month. My response to that, of course, was, “Um, why didn’t he invite me?” And like a good sister, I invited myself. I’m kidding a little; I did ask him if I could tag along. He said yes, and so my next challenges were figuring out how to get myself from Istanbul to Iceland without going broke and deciding where to spend the one-week gap between the two.
The easiest and least expensive route was through London, so off to England I went! Since I spent some time in London after I left Ghana, I didn’t want to stay there for the entire week. The solution? I asked a couple of Brits who were staying at my Tbilisi hostel where they recommended I go, and I blindly followed their advice. How bad could it be? They did live in England, after all, which meant they had to know SOMETHING about what to do in their own country. They told me to go to Bristol, a city in the southwest of England, and to take day trips from there to Bath and Cardiff, a city in Wales. And so, Bristol became my next destination.
On my way through immigration into Britain, the agent asked where I was going and kind of made a face when I said Bristol. My response to his question of, “Why are you going there??” made him laugh and shake his head a little. He apparently didn’t agree with my random hostel friends. Slightly worried, I asked if he had been to Bristol, and he said no. Okay, his opinion was void. Either way though, my bus to Bristol and my hostel were booked. There was no turning back.
After my flight from Istanbul to London, I had a bit of a trek to ahead. I flew into London Stansted airport which meant I had to take about a one-hour bus ride to the city center followed by a three-hour bus ride to Bristol. Talk about a long day.
You know how I always talk about how you meet the most interesting people when you’re travelling? And often, it happens at the most unexpected of times. I would definitely qualify the bus ride from London to Bristol as an “unexpected time” (though maybe that means I should have expected it).
Anyway, some random guy sat down next to me, he asked what I was doing in England and where I had come from, and from the moment I mentioned Istanbul, we had more than enough to talk about. He was from Northern Ireland and randomly moved to Istanbul when he was in his 20s. He found work at an Irish pub there (because he was Irish, so he was automatically qualified), and somehow, word got out that there was an Irish dance instructor working at this pub… which led to him being recruited to choreograph a show at the Turkish State Theatre. After that, he stayed on and kept working with them for the rest of 5 years that he spent there! You might be wondering why they could possibly need an Irish dance choreographer, and trust me, I asked the same thing. He said that the show they were doing was set in Ireland (don’t ask me what show, I had never heard of it and promptly forgot the name), so they wanted authentic dancing in it. And what did they need from him for the rest of the 5 years? Who knows. But he said that they were some of his favorite years. I can imagine.
That, of course, led me to the question of if he could speak Turkish… which led us to a conversation about languages because yes, he could speak Turkish, and he could speak 16 other languages as well. He was a linguist, a professor at a university. How cool. Don’t worry though, he’s only fluent in 9 of those languages, so you don’t have to feel TOO bad. Ha. Haha.
The rest of the ride went by in a flash. We talked about Istanbul, about language, about the world. He was absolutely fascinating. He also said that he thought I would enjoy Bristol and that I should visit Bath and Cardiff as well, and in my mind, his opinion held much more weight than that of the immigration agent. At the end of the ride, he thanked me for the good conversation (it’s nice to know that he enjoyed it as much as I did), and we parted ways.
I walked to my hostel feeling great about the next couple of days. Honestly, after that ride, the trip to Bristol already felt like it was worth it. The rest was just bonus!
I took it slow during my first day in Georgia because I wanted to give myself some time to process everything going on in my brain. I checked into my hostel, sat in a park and journaled, and went to bed early because the next day, I had an 8AM train to Batumi.
Batumi is the major beach town in Georgia. It’s on the Black Sea, and I knew basically nothing about it going in except for those two things. Last time I was in Georgia, we met some people who said it was a great place to visit, and apparently that’s all I needed to be convinced. I also knew that I wanted to get out of Tbilisi for a few days, and Batumi seemed like as good a place as any.
The train ride was five hours which is maybe a lot, but at this point, unless a leg of my journey is more than ten hours, I don’t even think twice about it. Five hours is easy, plus on a train you have a bathroom and space to walk around if you want. Luxury!
After the all-too-familiar packing struggle, I pulled myself together and left the hostel around 7:15 to get to the train station early in case I had any issues. It was a little confusing to figure out how to get into the station, but with my “keep cool and use your brain” mantra playing on repeat in my head, I followed some people carrying suitcases and was delivered straight to my train. Fabulous.
The train ride went smoothly until we were maybe 20 minutes from Batumi. We stopped at a station along the way and then didn’t start moving again. They made some announcement in Georgian and Russian, and people started freaking out. I asked some Russian-speaking girls sitting near me if they spoke English, and one knew enough to explain that there was something happening with the train and the tracks and the weather maybe? But the conclusion was that the train was not moving until whatever was resolved, and there was no timeline on when that would happen. Okay, cool. I settled in to wait it out because sometimes these things happen. Around me, it was chaos. People were yelling at the conductors in Georgian and Russian (as if that was going to change anything). Some were jumping ship and aggravatedly calling taxis to go the rest of the way. An English-speaking kid was whining about how the wifi wasn’t working, and his mom was going on and on about how she was worried that the train was going to leave us in the middle of nowhere as if she thought that was an actual possibility. And then she said, “and we’re running out of water,” as if we were stranded on a desert island and minutes away from death by dehydration.
About an hour later, we started moving again and made it to Batumi maybe an hour and a half behind schedule. Not a big deal. The next step was figuring out how to get from the train station to my hostel. The easy thing to do would be to take a taxi. When you’re trying to travel on a budget, you usually choose economic over easy, so I was taking the bus. I had scoped out the bus routes online, so I was fairly confident that I knew which numbers I could take. After a struggle figuring out where the bus stop was, I made it there and hopped on the first bus that came by.
When I’m figuring out a new public transport system, I usually watch to see how everyone else pays and then just follow along with that. This time, I was the only one to get on, so that wasn’t an option. I sat down and stared at the various payment locations like maybe they’d make sense if I focused hard enough. Finally, a woman got on and I watched to see what she’d do. She took a chip card out of her purse and tapped it on one of the card readers. Okay, not helpful. I only had cash which meant that I needed to figure out the cash payment method. The woman looked nice, so I made eye contact (probably with a slightly panicked look in my eyes), held up some change, and made my best “how do I pay with cash?” face.
This is the way that travelling works when you don’t speak the language. Observation, facial expressions, sign language, and charades are key. She pointed to a woman who was sitting in the back of the bus, and the woman quickly came over to me. I pulled out the amount I thought I owed, she looked perplexed, and I dumped a bunch of change in my hand and held it out to her. She took what she needed, gave me some change, went to one of the machines to punch my ticket, handed it to me, and showed me that I had paid for two rides instead of just one which was why my ticket cost more than I thought. When we got close to my stop, my friend was getting off too. She offered to help me with my bags, and the ticket woman helped me to untuck my scarf which was stuck in my backpack. Basically, everyone was taking care of me. On the street, my friend introduced herself as Mina and asked if I needed a place to stay (via charades). I had a hostel booked so I was good, but I was definitely appreciative of the fact that everyone was so nice and helpful.
Since it’s still the off-season in Batumi and I was there during the week, I had the entire 6-person room in the hostel to myself! I was super happy to see how quiet and relaxed the city was because that’s exactly what I needed, a little escape from chaos and some time to think. I walked out to the harbor and followed the water to the beach where I had the BEST surprise. It was a stone beach! Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “Lara, you went to this place without even knowing that the beaches weren’t sand? Did you read literally nothing about it??” The answer to that would be yes, and that is totally not like me but I’m trying this new thing where I go with the flow and don’t over-plan my life.
Anyway, that complete lack of research led to me being pleasantly surprised and extremely excited by what I found, so I’d argue that it was even better that way. In case you don’t know this about me, I despise sand. I don’t think I’ve ever truly liked it, but I successfully ignored that truth until a pivotal experience. Long story short, my friend Sarah and I went camping on a beach once because that’s such a romanticized idea and how cool to sleep on a beach… and by the morning, we were so over it. Three words: Sand. Gets. Everywhere. It was in the tent, in our clothes, in our mouths, all over everything. There was no shade because we were on a beach, and the tent was like an oven in the morning (that’s not sand’s fault, but it didn’t help the situation). We took showers and still felt sandy. We were on an island, and when the morning’s first ferry to the mainland pulled up, we couldn’t get on it fast enough. And that was the dramatic end to my already rocky (hehe) relationship with sand.
So anyway, as I was saying, stone beach. I think this might be one of my new favorite things because besides the fact that there’s no sand, the stones were beautiful! They were a million different colors, smoothed out by the sea and with pieces of driftwood mixed in. I walked along the shore (note: walking on a stone beach is at least as awkward as walking on sand, especially as the stones get smaller. Also, infinitely louder. There’s no way to sneak up on someone on a stone beach) until I found a good spot devoid of weird beach couples, plopped down, and organized my rock collection.
I love rocks. Pretty much in every application. I love old buildings made of rocks and rock-filled ruins. I also LOVE smooth and colorful rocks, and that is exactly what I was surrounded by. Between the rocks and the sound of the waves, I was in heaven. AND the weather was perfect. I had a t-shirt on, there was a nice, warm breeze coming off the water, and I didn’t even notice the temperature which means it was exactly right.
After sitting there and sorting rocks for who even knows how long, I decided that I had to go and touch the water because it’s the Black Sea, and I’m trying to touch as many bodies of water as possible. Okay, always a difficult task when you’re trying to touch water that’s coming in waves and you don’t want the rest of you to get wet. As I got closer to the water, I realized that half of the sound of the waves was the rocks clinking over one another as the waves went back out to sea. Seriously one of the coolest sounds. So of course, I stood there for a bit just listening before I got back to my mission.
I spotted a good strategic location… there was a concrete pier sticking out into the water, and I thought that would be the perfect place to stick my hand down and keep the rest of me dry. The only problem was that there was some guy filming a video of himself that seemed to go on and on forever. After he finished, I hopped onto the pier, did my water touch, and was about to leave when he asked me to take a picture. He was British, and we got to talking and that was the end of any plans I had for the day.
Meeting people is arguably the best part of travelling. I know, you can meet people anywhere, but it’s not the same. This guy, Ben, is in the middle of a motorcycle trip around the world. The purpose of his trip is to raise money in memory of his friend who passed away from Crohn’s disease, and it grew into a round-the-world adventure (if you’re interested in donating, you can do that here). He’s been going for eight months now and he thinks it’s going to take about four more years. Yes. Four years. He was planning to go through Armenia next, so we started talking about that and ended up getting dinner and hanging out for the rest of the day. That was the first time that I realized I’m now one of those crazy travel people. I looked at him and thought, “Look at this guy who’s doing this crazy travel thing!” and while we were talking, I was like, “Whoa, I can actually keep up with him. Look at this girl who’s doing this crazy travel thing!”
Nearly every travel friend I’ve made has taught me something about myself. I’ve met some incredibly insightful people, and despite the fact that those relationships are generally short-lived, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, an 8-hour friendship can have a lifetime impact. It’s a good reminder that every interaction, no matter how brief, has the possibility to shift someone’s life.
(P.S. Sorry for the philosophical musings, but they’re probably going to be semi-frequent. I have a lot of things to sort out in my head right now, so enjoy your complimentary window into my swirling thoughts.)