I've recently made my triumphant return to the tiny island. It was snowing when I left Germany and approximately 217 degrees below zero. Two days later (after an unnecessarily long return trip through Egypt briefly and then Dubai again) I landed at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport to 80 degree weather and my lovely roommate's smiling face. I'm back on the beach. I know you are all thrilled for me.
I had quite an adventure. Let me give you the run-down. And this is going to be a long one.
I spent several currencies during my travels. They include (but are not limited to): Mauritian Rupees, UAE Dirhams, Bahraini Dinars, Euros, Albanian Leke, Macedonian Denars, Turkish Lira, and Egyptian pounds. As such, I dubbed the period of my grand adventure the 'Rainbow Wallet Era' for pretty obvious reasons. I visited (not including layovers) 8 countries. I had layovers in Bahrain, Cairo, and Dubai. I was with Tulane friends in Greece and Turkey; I was with (various parts of) my family in Dubai, Germany, and France, and I wandered aimlessly alone through Albania and Macedonia.
Let me say that when I packed for Mauritius, I didn't really think to include a lot of cold weather gear. I mean, how many mittens would one really need on the Tropic of Capricorn? And then I planned a multi-country cold-weather compound-complex vacation from the tropical island. Needless to say, I asked Chantal where I could buy sweaters that were made in Mauritius. I bought lots of them. Still, though, I only have one pair of real shoes, and they are Sperry Topsiders. And boy, have they done some walking. They've walked in snow, deserts, and on the shores of mountain lakes and monasteries. Etc.
Leg one of my grand adventure was the United Arab Emirates, specifically Dubai. My flight left Mauritius in the late evening and landed in Dubai in the early morning. People tend to be grumpy at 5am, even passport control at the airport. Dubai is interesting. In my expert (riiiight) opinion, Dubai shouldn't exist. There is no reason that a shining metropolis should exist in the middle of the desert, even if it is on the coast and there is a 'creek.' The best news from Dubai was that Jean Anne, my big (read: she's totally short now that I'm tall) sister got off of her boat and we serendipitously met at a hotel that dad picked out and paid for. Thanks Dad.
If you ever go to Dubai with a female, they will make you shop. I can't complain, as it was actually rather fun. "Miles, what do you think of this classic-style Arabic shawl?" "Well, Jean Anne, it looks like something a drunken drag queen might wear to a jazz funeral." "Perfect. How much?" Annie bought lots of things. Shawls, tablecloths, starving children, Thai food, Cuban cigars, etc. She also spent an inordinate amount of time browsing jewelry for her upcoming nuptials to Mike. Both my sister and her fiance are super heros. Their family will be a more pious version of the Incredibles. They are also two exceptionally good reasons that I have faith in American soldiers. Annie is a lieutenant in the navy, and Mike graduated from West Point and periodically blows things up. Jean Anne also bought me a coat, which terribly expensive, but that I really like a lot. She spoils me. It came in quite handy in my travels in colder places. Thank you, Jean Anne.
Jean Anne also treated me to an excursion into the desert, which was by far the most fun you can have in a Toyota Land Cruiser. Deserts have always made me a little bit uncomfortable. Something about the possibility of thirsting to death and awkwardly large day/night temperature changes. But seriously, this was fun. It was a roller coaster on rubber. There was also an evening in a Bedouin camp (read: tourist trap). Jean Anne rode a camel. She looked rather silly. There was also after-dinner entertainment. First there was a male dancer with a floppy Bedouin skirt. He called Jean Anne up onto the central stage to dance around with him. She was particularly graceful. After the male dancer finished, a female belly dance took the stage and proceeded to jiggle furiously. She called me up to dance with her. I was decidedly un-graceful, though I think I can definitely say that I also jiggled rather furiously. Not my proudest moment.
All in all, Dubai was great. I got to see my sister and wander around souks (Arab markets). I even had a Muslim woman with a British accent compare her abaya (read: black full body covering for Muslim woman) to a three-in-one robe, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Interesting experience.
I flew out of Dubai and connected through Bahrain on my way to meet Alison Lubin in Athens, Greece. I landed in Greece and immediately made friends with a Cypriot girl who showed me how to use the Metro. I also met a Rhodesian woman. White Africans are everywhere. Anyway, I met up with Alison after much wandering at Syntagma Square at the epicenter of the Greek capital.
Alison Lubin, who is by all counts one of the most fantastic people in the world, showed me around Athens. We saw tons of ancient rocks and I met lots of American college students. Thank you, College Year in Athens students, for pretty much being awesome. We went to the Parthenon museum and saw lots of olympic stadiums. I ate gyros. Athens is a beautiful and old place. At one point Alison and I were standing (in the rain) next to some ancient priceless relic. Alison, who is one of those hold outs who doesn't believe that Mauritius is real, needed some convincing. So I spotted a couple who were speaking French and struck up a conversation. I asked them if they had ever heard of Mauritius. Of course, being cultured and European, they knew all about Mauritius and provided a description to Alison that matched the one I had given her. Hah! It IS a real place.
My time in Athens was all-too short, though, as the next week Alison was back in class. So at the eleventh hour, I decided to go to Albania and Macedonia for no apparent reason, and I set about planning the trip. That was on Saturday.
On Sunday, I took off from the airport in Athens and landed at Rinas airport in Tirana, the capital and largest city of Albania.
I only spent one night in Tirana the first go-around, as I had to leave very early the next morning to take a train to Pogradec near the Macedonian border, from where I would take a taxi to the border, and then walk to Sveti Naum on the other side.
The train sounds easier than it was. First, let me give you some background. Albania was, until the fall of its long time dictator Enver Hoxha, by far the most isolated country in Europe and possibly the world. After WWII, it was briefly aligned with the Soviet bloc, and then again briefly aligned with the Communist Chinese after the fall of Stalin. After a falling out with the Chinese in the 1980's, the country was really aligned with no one. Hoxha was rather paranoid as evidenced by the pillboxes (teensy little concrete gun emplacements) that are all over the country. There are literally thousands of them. He also forbade people from entering or leaving, essentially keeping the country in its own bubble for decades. As a result, many Albanians are a bit xenophobic, and very few of them speak a language other than Albanian. Seriously, though, Albania is fascinating.
Anyway, back to the train story. So it was evening by the time I took a taxi from the airport to my hotel and asked the woman behind the desk at my hotel about train travel. She said that she had never taken a train, and that she didn't really know if they were still running. Great. But she did take out a tourist map of Tirana and showed me where the train station was on it. She said that I could either walk or take a taxi. Having nothing better to do, I struck out on foot. That was probably a mistake. I wandered for several hours and on more than one occasion found myself completely by accident in residential neighborhoods (read: clusters of creepy communist-era apartment buildings) surrounded by local children playing soccer and looking incredulously at me. Though I will say, many Albanians did just assume I was Albanian-- indeed, many Macedonians along the border also made this mistake. Apparently not a lot of Americans wander around Tirana.
Albanians also look Mediterranean, as opposed to Macedonians, who are resoundingly Slavic. I guess my dark hair and relatively dark complexion (when compared to Macedonians and when taking into account my tropical tan) made me look more Shqip than Maqedon. Oh, Albanians don't call their country Albania. They call it Shqiperia-- and the demonym for both the people and the language is Shqip (pronounced Shkeep). This I learned from Guri on the train. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
So after much wandering, I arrived at the train station, which appeared to me to be abandoned. I saw one light on in one booth, and wandered over hoping that the man being the counter spoke English. He didn't. But, I did manage to find out (using complex hand signals and various grunting noises) that the train I needed departed the following morning at 5:55 AM. I wandered back to my hotel, and requested a wake-up call for 4 AM. The girl behind the desk did not regard this as a suitable time for waking up.
The next morning I was at the train station at the appointed hour. It was still quite dark. An older man approached me and said things in Shqip. I obviously didn't understand a word, but could tell that he was being friendly. I motioned in the direction of the train station cafe, which was for some reason open at this early hour, and said 'coffee' in as many languages as I could think of. The elderly gentleman and I then proceeded to get coffee, er, some semblance of coffee as we waited for the train. There were two other men in the cafe with us. Between the teensy bit of English and/or French spoken by the three men and the much teensier bit of Shqip that I had acquired in my 13 hours in the country, I managed to tell the men that I was an American and that I liked sugar. Hey, I was doing my best.
Anyway, we finally went and sat on the train. But apparently, something had been done incorrectly with my ticket, so the evil ticket-examiner lady was yelling at me in Shqip. The aforementioned elderly gentleman, whose name, I would come to know, was Guri, took my ticket, spoke briefly to the evil ticket-examiner and then took off at a sprint that surprised me for his age. He returned two minutes later, quite winded, and with my ticket issue summarily resolved.
Guri was going home to Lin, the stop on the train directly before mine, so we had about seven hours to get properly acquainted. He had been in Tirana at a symphony concert. He had been a metal worker until he retired. He had two sons who looked like me but were twice my age. I got out the cork notebook that my Grandmom gave me for this trip and we started teaching each other our languages. Good water= Uje mir. Thank you= faliminderet. Four=Koter. All in all, a wonderful train trip. I shared my chocolate with him.
I also may have failed to mention that Albania, especially the parts of it in the mountains, are breathtakingly beautiful. Also, approximately half of the cars on the roads are Mercedes-Benzes of various but advanced ages, which pleased me immensely. Apparently it was some fluke of dictatorial policy under Hoxha that Benzes were allowed to be imported. Many of them reminded me of Diane, my first car.
Anyway, I said goodbye to Guri in Lin and then I debarked at the train terminal (read: abandoned-looking building 5km from the town that I needed to get to). There are buses that take passengers from the train terminal to the towns along the road, but they are very difficult to navigate if one doesn't speak Shqip. Fortunately, the ever-benevolent Guri knew some women on the train and told them who I was and where I was going. They took me by the hand and led me to the bus, then stopped the bus at the appropriate time and kissed me goodbye. I love Albanians.
Pogradec is the largest Albanian town on Lake Ohrid, which is itself a very old and sizable lake on the border between Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM. Sidebar: FYROM is the country's official designation due to a dispute with Greece over the use of the name Macedonia).
I spent the morning in Pogradec before going to a travel agency and asking them how to get to Macedonia. They told me to take a taxi, but that it wouldn't be able to cross the border, and so I would have to walk across the neutral zone and clear customs that way. Wonderful. I took the taxi as far as it would go along a road that was not built to ever be traveled (Hoxha REALLY didn't like the outside world), and walked across the border into Macedonia. The customs officials on the Macedonian side were a bit befuddled by me, but they let me pass nonetheless. My hotel was right on the border, or so I thought. It was probably about a kilometer down the beautiful lakeside mountain road, and I never would've found it had it not been for the helpful directions of a cadre of Macedonian soldiers who seemed to me to be very over-armed.
Ah, my hotel. Sveti Naum (St. Naum) is a thousand-year old monastery that has been converted into a hotel and resort complex. I was the only person staying there. The staff outnumbered me 20 to 1. It was the off-season and it had been a slow year, but it was still a strange experience. The place is absolutely stunning, and the restaurant is delicious. There was a waitress named Maja who was married to Boris, the man at reception. She took care of me. They recommended the most delicious things ever. All in all, a thoroughly relaxing experience. Ever had Macedonian monastic pie? Well you should try it.
One day I took a (very expensive) taxi ride from the monastery into the city of Ohrid about 40 km away. That city is the largest on Lake Ohrid. It's a very popular tourist destination and with good reason: it's stunningly beautiful. The town boasts 365 old churches, monasteries, and basilicas. I wandered around the town all day, and I climbed to its highest point- an ancient fortress. I toured several Eastern Orthodox churches and I ate more Macedonian food.
After a few days at the monastery/hotel, I decided to head back to Albania. I walked back across the border and did the trip in reverse, except this time the train wasn't running so I had to take a mini-bus across the country. It costs $6 US to take a minibus across Albania. Who knew? Anyway, I made it back to Tirana and spent the next few days exploring the capital in earnest.
I went to the National History Museum in Tirana, which is incredibly interesting because it was built by communists essentially to celebrate communism. It has a very very nationalist and revisionist slant, but some stunning stuff nonetheless, including a room full of Eastern Orthodox relics seized by the government over the decades. There was also a couple giant sculptures made entirely of guns.
I spent the majority of one day at the National Gallery of Art. Anyone who's been traveling with me knows that I have a certain affinity for modern and contemporary art museums, and this one had me drooling. I wasn't impressed because of the big-named artists or anything of international renown, it was the political nature of the art that struck me. Next to some of the paintings there would be plaques, and inscribed upon them was the political history behind the painting. "This work of art was censored for seemingly portraying a pessimistic attitude towards the future and was banned for 34 years. The artist was executed. The work was found in a back-office of the archives and redisplayed after the fall of Communism." Creepy stuff. There were entire sections devoted exclusively to Socialist Idealism in visual art. A good amount of the works were legitimately beautiful and impressive, while others were just testaments to how scary politics can be. One of the works showed a huge metal foundry in Elbasan (one of the cities in Albania). It showed it gleaming and proud and with happy workers, but I had seen that exact foundry merely days before. It was nearly destroyed, underperforming, and surrounded by despondence. Guri said that it had always been that way. Scary stuff.
The following Sunday I boarded an Albanian Airways flight to Istanbul. I'm not sure how many non-Albanians fly Albanian Airways, but I think it's safe to say that the total sum is not very many. The passport control officer at the Tirana airport studied my passport for a good long time, apparently off-put by the stamps from Macedonia. In any event, I made it through and boarded the plane to Istanbul.
Istanbul is one of the places in the world that I would recommend to anyone. Mauritius and Albania I would recommend to those people who are fine with spartan accommodations and "charming" societal quirks. Greece I would recommend to anyone who enjoys typically touristy things. But Istanbul I would recommend to anyone.
I landed at the airport, cleared customs, and took the shuttle to the Tulip Guesthouse where I would be staying with Ross Kelley, a Tulane architecture student and dear friend of mine. He had arrived the previous day and had already familiarized himself with the neighborhood. Upon greeting each other and catching up for a while, we went out in search of food. We were beckoned into a restaurant by a man whose name, we would come to know, was Fico. He was quite a character and exactly the kind of person who should have the job of getting strangers on the street to eat at a restaurant. He was Kurdish and incredibly entertaining. He also introduced Ross and I to some Swedish ladies, one of which was one of Fico's many "girlfriends." The Swedes had been working at a resort in Turkey and were headed back to Norse country. After dinner, we accompanied the Swedes to a bar. Well, they called it a bar. It was actually more like the basement from 'That Seventies Show' except that it was filled with world travelers and Dagistan, who ran the bar and also lived in it. Dagistan became one of our greatest acquaintances in Istanbul. He was funny and wonderful, as was Fico. The next day we met some Mormons from Utah who were traveling the Middle East. Sara, Stephanie, and Noah (though to be fair, Noah wasn't a Mormon he was just dating Stephanie who was Sara's sister. They kept making awkward jokes about being 'sister wives.'). We ran around Istanbul with them and visited all the fun markets and such. We drank vast quantities of tea.
Ross and I saw the Blue Mosque and the Haggia Sophia. We also went to Asia-- Ross was excited because he had never actually been to Asia. Ross and I also went to a Turkish bath, which I would describe as a spa with a lot more history. Imagine sitting in a sauna surrounded by Turks in a steam room that had been in operation for more than 500 years. We smoked hookah at relaxed cafes and met people from all over the world. All in all, Istanbul was an absolute pleasure.
The next stop on my grand journey was Frankfurt, where I was meeting my Aunt Julie and Uncle Aleck who would then take me to their house in Heidelberg for the holidays. The landing of my flight was delayed by heavy snowfall. Looking out the window of the Lufthansa flight, I was getting nervous already. Once on the ground, I met up with my charming family. My uncle drove us back to their house on the autobahn. That was certainly exciting. Heidelberg is very cute. Aunt Julie was the ideal tour guide- taking me to Christmas markets to sample Glu Wein (hot wine), etc. On Christmas, my Uncle Mike joined the party, as did my Uncle Aleck's son, Chris. Christmas was festive, and there was Turkey, and my Aunt stuffed a stalking for me.
One of the greatest things about the German leg of my trip, though, was the miniature America that I also got to visit. American military bases are in some cases proper American cities that seem to have gotten lost or sprung up in strange places. The base I visited in Germany was a perfect example. For the first time in months, I had a chicken biscuit from Popeye's. I used an ATM and it spit out American dollars. Julie and Aleck even took me to see a movie (Avatar) in English at the cinema on the base. Me, the big boy on the tiny island, got to watch an American movie in its original language in a theatre full of Americans. To say the least, I was ecstatic. The library on the base had DVD's of seasons of American television. I got to watch the West Wing. It was the perfect hybrid- I got to experience America while still being able to experience Germany.
The day after Christmas, my parents and brother arrived in Germany. The reunion was as happy as was to be expected, and they brought me Christmas presents to boot. Aunt Julie, ever the perfect tour guide, had lined up several different excursions around the country to keep us all entertained. First we went to France. Strasbourg in Alsace-Lorraine is a prototypically European place, and I even got to impress my family with my French skills, or rather, I got to show them exactly how much progress I have (or haven't made). For instance, the family sat down to lunch at a restaurant, only to find that the waitress did not speak English. Being the Francophone of the group, it became my job to translate the menus, place the orders, etc. It was reminiscent of my family's trip to China, during which my sister was the constant interpreter. She had much more patience than I did. She was also much more effective, because of everything that my family wanted to order, everyone ended up with something different. In short, I failed miserably. But I did manage pretty well otherwise during the day. I was delighted to find a Reunionese restaurant in Strasbourg. Reunion Island is a French possession about 120 miles away from Mauritius. The islands are pretty similar in most ways, and I was certainly pleased that I recognized most of the foods on the menu. Unfortunately the restaurant was closed for the day, otherwise I would've shown my family what I eat on a daily basis.
Moving on, though, we left Strasbourg and returned to Germany. The next trip was to Stuttgart. There we saw the Mercedes-Benz Museum. I'm sort of a Benz fanatic, so it was important to stay well hydrated for this activity. I did, after all, lose a lot of liquids when I drooled over almost every single automobile present. After Stuttgart, the next trip was to Munich, where we went to a traditional German beer house and had tons of sausage and kraut. Delicious. We then went down (or up) into the German Alps, where we visited a number of small Bavarian towns, The "New Swan Castle" (the one that Disney modeled its castles after), and Zugspitz, the highest mountain in Germany. It was a lot of touring crammed into a little amount of time.
We also visited Dachau, one of the most notorious WWII-era concentration camps in Germany. Seeing evidence of the Holocaust and hearing the stories from history firsthand is a truly humbling experience. I always said that I was one of the luckiest kids that I know, and on days like that one, it certainly feels true.
We made another visit to a medieval town and then it was time for me to fly out. I left Heidelberg and connected through Egypt and Dubai back to the Republic of Mauritius.
All in all, it was truly a grand adventure: the Rainbow Wallet Era. And I still cannot find a bank that will trade me for my Albanian Leke, so I guess I'm stuck with those as a souvenir.
Back on the island I'm readjusting to live as (un)usual. My studies are getting back on track, and I'm having to navigate the nightmarish bureaucracy of the University of Mauritius once again. I'm back to eating curries and daube, and I'm back to cavorting with Canadians and South Africans. It's tropical Summer, though, and my house is not air-conditioned. Ambient temperature in my room is hot enough to thoroughly melt even the sturdiest of German chocolates that I brought back as a souvenir. I'm sure that there will be many, many more stories to tell.
Oh, and here's one:
This past weekend was the Hindu festival of Cavadee. The holy day involves a family member carrying an idol and sometimes pulling heavy carts while walking barefoot towards a river or creek. The act of sacrifice is in homage to Lord Murugan, one of the deities that protects and ensures the welfare of the household. Cavadee was wonderful. The entire island smelled like incense. Anyway, my friend Majhegy invited me to eat the meal associated with the festival with her entire family. I accepted the invitation with glee. Sept Cari was the food (translate: seven curries). In keeping with proper etiquette at the table, I ate with my hands, much to the amusement of my hosts. I can tell you, it is much, much harder than it looks. I am also convinced that I will never be able to eat with my hands and look dignified. The others certainly looked dignified. Majhegy and her family were incredibly hospitable and they even taught me some Kreol. One quirk: the family eats in shifts. The part of the family that is not eating serves the part of the family that is. After the first shift, those that had been eating become the servers. I was in the first group to eat. Having finished eating (with my hands), I went to wash them. Majhegy came after me a few minutes later. Apparently, her father wanted me to serve him. After a short crash course in proper Tamil serving etiquette, I served her family some of the curry that they had graciously prepared. To be honest, I'm just glad that I didn't spill anything.
Sorry for the long delay, but I am now officially back in the swing of things. Also, in light of current events stateside, GEAUX SAINTS! The game will be airing at 3:30 AM Mauritius Standard Time, but believe me, I will find a way to watch. Even if it means breaking into the American Embassy. I guess I'm just part of the 'Who Dat' diaspora.