Pakistan – land of the pure and mixed up

I´ve always wondered what the -stan suffix means. It´s in the names of may central Asian countries, and I always assumed it means ´land´or ´area,´ but some argue it doesn´t refer to any geographical boundary. In Pakistan, someone told me it means ´race´ or ´nation,´ and ´Pak´ means ´pure,´ so I’m currently visiting the land of the pure race. The ironic thing is that this place is completely mixed up, not only the people, but their language, culture, religion and look are far from homogenous.

Karachi at sunset

Karachi at sunset

I arrived in Pakistan, a country wedged between Iran, Afghanistan, China and India, and felt, literally, like I was in the middle of the middle. Where east meets the west, the middle east meets the Orient, Islam meets Hinduism, and a minority of ex-pats and local Christians thrown in the mix. You can dress in jeans and a tshirt, a colourful sari, local Pakistani dress (pants with a matching long shirt and shoulder scarf) or a black burka covering everything but your eyes – and either way you´d fit in. Karachi is a sprawling town of 20 million, and feels a little like Dubai growing on top of Delhi. American fast food chains and European coffee shops squeeze in among the local food shops and bustling street food markets, and like everywhere else in central Asia, banks sit on every corner.

local friends and one big ex-pat

local friends and one big ex-pat at the Jinnah Masoleum

I met a lot of bankers in Karachi. I couchsurfed with one, and met a dozen others, and realized I had fallen into a circle of privileged friends. Similar to in India or Nepal, there´s a social stratification system which ensures good education for some, less for others, and none for the unlucky few. Health, religious freedom, and economic stability are of course affected by this, but strangely enough, arranged marriages were still a problem. I met  woman who´s in love with a man engaged to his cousin since birth, and another who took years to finally divorce her ex-husband (from an arranged marriage) and now lives without him or her 18 year old daughter.

Still, my Pakistani friends had their freedom – not conforming to the rules of Islam and indulging in the same things any corporate slave would do, we drove around in their new cars, rode horses on the beach, visited the few tourist sights, drank sun-downers at the yacht club, shared beers at the British Embassy bar, and smoked cigars and cigarettes from their rooft-top patios. We ate home-cooked meals, fast-food-street-food, and dined at Karachi´s best restaurants. My couchsurfing host´s mother fed me breakfast and milk-tea every morning, and told me she loved me as her own daughter.

buses in Karachi are a piece of art

buses in Karachi are a piece of art

Being pure doesn´t mean the nation has to be similar – for me it meant a land of genuine people, a place where people made me feel welcome and they all took personal pride in being able to share their home with me. They were as friendly to guests and foreigners as they are to their own families, and if they could, they would have wanted to show me all of Pakistan first-hand. There were some unfortunate events that happened in Pakistan recently – a hotel fire and a fatal plane crash – but I can still say I felt very safe in Pakistan. Accidents happen everywhere, (as well as terrorism – but don’t indulge in any of the stereotypes you think you´ve heard about Pakistan) so I hope this doesn’t hurt Pakistan´s chance of receiving more travelers and them enjoying the same kind of hospitality extended to me. I´ve already promised to go back, and made plans to see the north with a local friend and backpack thru the countryside with another couchsurfer. I plan on keeping that promise very soon.

Impressions of Afghanistan

Our first couchsurfing host was a 21 year old married man, living with his mother, wife, son, brother, 3 sisters, step-father, and some other cousins and extended family. One day we accompanied his older sister to school, where 650 of the 1000 enrolled students were female. Girls and boys only mix in the kindergarten classrooms, and the rest of the school day is split up – girls in the morning, boys in the afternoon. We met with the principal and the English teacher who acted as a translator. We learned that the school had been open (for girls) for the last 20 years, which includes a time under Taliban rule when they weren’t allowed to go to school. During those times, they taught the girls within an unmarked compound, and had a back door they’d let the girls run out of if any police came.

Band-i-amir in the north of Afghanistan

Band-i-amir in the north of Afghanistan

The English teacher talked a lot, and told us everything. He even asked me to help him find money or a wife, because currently he’s found a wife (his cousin) but his father says he can’t afford her at the moment. This happened more than once, also in Iran, that people looked at a visiting foreigner as a way out. The major difference is that in Iran, the government imposes most of the restrictions, and in Afghanistan, family is the most important rule-enforcement.

Here, wives are often chosen by the father, or given to a man by her father, in some cases as young as 13 or 14 years old. They’re not given away for free – a hefty price, in the thousands of dollars, is paid, and in Kabul, weddings are a big big business. Weddings are attended by thousands of guests, sometimes 4,000, and cost tens of thousands of dollars. In very small, traditional villages of Afghanistan, some girls are also given to the enemy’s family as a way of resolving (often bloody) disputes. It would be tough to be wedded to your brother’s murderer and imagine ever having a happy family life of your own.

Every person we met in Afghanistan told us not to trust anyone. This was hard to do, especially since we were couchsurfing, and meeting and staying with a stranger, meeting all his strange friends, and had little options of making last-minute changes or not trusting the people around them. Our host in Kabul had his driver and cousins take us around, his butler feed us and lit our nightly shishas, and even took us to work one day (he works within a government ministry) and had one of their drivers take us home. We had recently learned that ministers are a huge target for kidnapping, and ministries for attacks, and that very morning there was a suicide bomb attack outside the Ministry of Defense, killing six and injuring dozens. On our way to the Ministry of Commerce, listening to the news of that mornings bombing, literally nothing changed, and people were only slightly inconvenienced from the increase in traffic due to a few road blocks around the explosion. I cant say people weren’t affected, but I saw this as a sign of their resilience. In your average European city, any suicide bomb would have caused a state of emergency, and no one would consider stepping outside or going to work.

street scene from Kabul

street scene from Kabul

During the evenings at his home, we were surrounded by other ministers and important people in business and government, and one frozen yogurt franchiser. The first night we arrived to a yard of 14 men smoking shisha and playing badminton – at this moment I was very glad to be traveling with a fake husband. They all spoke perfect English, and had lived or studied abroad, and had many family members abroad. Still, some of them had left as refugees, and I cant believe their lives in Germany or elsewhere were any happier than in Kabul, especially since many of them had returned. Sometimes security is not as important as work and family, so they may be safer abroad but certainly not better off. They all agreed that the current safety crisis in Afghanistan is actually the reason why government officials and business men make multi-million dollar transactions; a state of peace would surely bring an economic crash. Can you imagine trading peace for money? Or job security?

Our host in Kabul explained it was dangerous to be in politics, work for (any) government, and all the international ex-pats or NGO’s or armies just make it more unstable. But without them, billions of dollars wouldn’t rush into the country every year. For him, the safest way to be was low profile. The same roads we had once driven in a bullet proof Land Cruiser with an armed guard, we would walk late at night, because of this reason. He felt safer walking in a hoodie in the dark than getting into a car where he was supposedly protected. During our night walks, it was always smoggy with a combination of fog, exhaust pollution, and the smoke of burning garbage. Seeing stars in Kabul was impossible, though the one I did see was a shooting star.

Bamyan from the top of Shahr-e Gholghola, or 'City of Screams'

Bamyan from the top of Shahr-e Gholghola, or ‘City of Screams’

Four foreigners were kidnapped the week before we go to Afghanistan. An ex-pat friend of mine living in Kabul told us not to worry too much about that – foreigners are usually stalked and specifically targeted after weeks of planning, so we were low-risk kidnap suspects. However, some instincts are hard to suppress, and once in Herat we walked into a tour agency office to ask for an ATM, and they told us sit down, they’ll make a call. We politely said no thanks, we’ll ask someone else, and got the hell out of there.

Wedding halls, malls, hotels and hospitals are some of the biggest businesses in Afghanistan. The biggest, brightest buildings were wedding halls, the grand casinos of Kabul, so to speak. The malls and hotels were hidden behind security checkpoint containers, walls and barbed wire, since they’re suicide bomb attack hotspots, and hospitals seem to run without making any difference except for the rich few. We visited one private hospital in Herat, and the 5 storey building had more doctors, technicians and administration than patients. The first hour of our visit there wasn’t a single patient to be seen, and the surgery room looked like it had never been used since the hospital was opened two and a half years ago. We met the hospitals CEO in his office, where an unplugged, unwrapped, printer sat on his desk. He told us Afghanistan is the only country in the world where polio is still present, few people can afford private care, and just the other day a woman’s child died after being delivered from a major tumor that could have been seen only weeks into pregnancy – if she’d gotten an ultrasound.

The Big Buddha's cave

The Big Buddha’s cave

We also traveled north to Bamiyan, a city only 2 or 3 hours away by road, but since its regularly checked by the Taliban, it was safer to fly. It costs $110 to fly 30 mins one way, but who can put a price on safety? Though we found out its probably more dangerous for the Hazare people, an indigenous group from the north of Afghanistan, to travel or be there. They’re characteristically more Asian featured, and having narrow eyes is seen as unlucky throughout Afghanistan. People believe if you paint black lines around a child’s eyes, it will make them open wider as they grow. I wonder if that’s been proven to work.

Being in Bamyan for a couple of days made the entire trip to Afghanistan worth it. We couchsurfed a construction site, with a man in his half-built home, and shared our meals with the construction workers, his son, and his daughter. We slept in a room heated by a coal stove, and there wasn’t any running water in the bathroom but we managed with our babywipes and one tap in the garden. Bamyan was a village in a valley, surrounded by caves dug out in cliffs from an ancient Buddhist civilization that once thrived there. In 2001 the Taliban tore down the 53 and 35 m budda statutes that had stood there for 1700 years, in an anti-islam purification effort, but their giant impressions still remain, hollowed out into the mountain, overlooking the peaceful village of Bamyan.

Planning a trip to Afghanistan

Traveling to Afghanistan has a lot of barriers, both mental and physical. Before going, you ask the inevitable question: is it safe? And everyone has a different answer or a different experience. Once you make a plan to go, you have to decide how to go – by road in almost any direction is risky. By air, you have to go thru multiple security checks just to enter the airport, and again before you enter the plane – to get in and out of Afghanistan. It’s hard to know what will happen even after you know how you’ll go.  Explaining to the Afghan consul in Tehran why I wanted to go as a tourist was as difficult for me to explain as it was for him to understand. So even after I finally had a plan and my visa, I still didn’t know if it would work out or be okay.

I made a plan to enter overland from Iran. I was going to couchsurf, but all I had was the names and numbers of people I had no idea where they lived, how they lived, or with who. So even though I kind of know where I was going, I didn’t have any idea how to get to the exact place. The border was fairly straightforward, but they never gave me a tourist registration card (which I found out later I needed to leave Afghanistan). I got to Afghanistan, and my host in Herat told me he doesn’t like living here because every time he leaves his home he’s not sure if he will come back home. Very reassuring…

the Citadel in Herat is a major tourist attraction with no tourists

the Citadel in Herat is a major tourist attraction with no tourists

We did get home, all three days, and spent a lot of time with him at work in a cell phone shop, since walking around was always a little stressful. I noticed an immediate change in the people, they were more intimidating, but though the people were taller and dirtier, they were somehow more handsome. There were no visible signs of danger – only a few armed guards – but the strange looks on peoples’ faces who saw us never allowed us to relax.

I was traveling with a fake husband, Michael from Germany, mostly because its unusual for females to move without other members of their family or a husband. He wore traditional Afghan clothes, and I was covered in black, but the way we walked probably gave us away. But every day, after we returned within the safe walls of his family’s home, we were surrounded by 12 or 13 family members (almost all female), and taken care of with a kind of hospitality even my own family wouldn’t give me. But every kind person we met still advised us not to trust anyone, even the next kind person we met, so we hesitated to ever fully enjoy all our positive experiences.

Kabul from afar - a little more inviting than on the streets beside the walls and barbed wire

Kabul from afar – a little more inviting than on the streets beside the walls and barbed wire

Leaving Herat by plane, but only to Kabul, caused the KamAir flight attendant who greeted us on board to flash us a worried look, so after boarding was completed he decided to upgrade us to first class and we sat in the first row with a hot meal – but no champagne. We relaxed a little, but still couldn’t understand why Google maps said Kabul Airport was permanently closed even though we were sitting on a plane bound for it.

If you’re planning a trip to Afghanistan, do trust people, and enjoy Afghan hospitality. Get your visa, if you can, and enjoy being one of the only tourists there. Travel by plane if you can afford it, and Kabul International Airport is open and has many direct flights daily. Don’t try to check in less than 1 hour before departure because they will leave you behind. And take into consideration there are about 5 security checks or searches before you even enter the terminal. If you want to overland into Afghanistan, the road is apparently only safe between Mashhad and Herat, and also one or two roads to Tajikistan might be passable.

Getting a visa is tricky for some (a German backpacker was denied a few days after me in Tehran) and I had to take a blood test against HIV, Hep B and Hep C. I tested negative for all of the above, thankfully, so I got my visa. Other countries need a letter of support, and other countries (mostly in the west) simply don’t give tourist visas anymore. Read more about the visa application process at the Afghan Embassy in Tehran at the Caravanistan website.

Customs in Iran

Iran was what I expected it to be, in many ways, but I learned about some very strange customs. I always thought Iran was a safe, conservative society full of fairly well-off, educated people – atleast compared to the rest of central Asia. I learned about siga, a form of legal prostitution supported by the government. It’s a system where men can pay a woman to marry her, for 1 hour, 1 week, or even 1 year, and during this rental time, the man can have sex with her without her being called a prostitute or insulting the no-sex-before-marriage custom. For women that do this, or just any ordinary girl who may have lost her virginity to a boyfriend, she can buy her virginity back, through a surgical procedure that takes less than an hour, but has a woman bed-ridden for a week or more, and may take a month or more to recover from. This is probably more expensive than the rental wife, but I don’t know the figures.

Cheaper for women is to spend money on nose jobs, and I don’t know the statistics on that but a lot of women do it. A cheap surgery can be under $1000USD, and wearing the white bandage on your nose out in public during the healing process is like an honour badge, a proud mark of being able to buy a more beautiful nose.

The eyebrows are arguably the second most important facial feature. The natural uni-brow is embraced as a traditional kind of beauty, grown only by the lucky few in the history of Persia’s great empire. Women with detached eyebrows often paint them darker and thicker, sometimes in unnatural shapes or lengths that don’t really make sense to me. Also their lipstick often spills out of the natural boundaries, and then you’re left with a lot of women who have a brightly coloured mouth under their cosmetic noses and piercing eyebrows, all carefully framed by a scarf or hijab.

Food in Iran was amazing, but I was unlucky enough to have my two worst meals within the first 24 hours of being in Iran, and this was because they weren’t typical Iranian foods. My first lunch was a $3 Turkish doner, 95% comprised of an oversized loaf of bread, and %5 shaved meat, and since I’m avoiding gluten, I ate the few scraps of meat and decided to stay away from doners unless Im back in Europe. My first breakfast was a green tea latte (quite good) and a bagel with cream cheese – the bagel was dry, fluffy bread in the shape of a circle and the cream cheese was like those pie-shaped spreadable cheese you get at hotel breakfast buffets. After that I decided to stay away from any international foods and everything was fine, except for being unable to avoid the inevitable bread that follows all meals.

I saw a lot of beautiful mosques and shrines, from behind my hijab and mandatory chador

I saw a lot of beautiful mosques and shrines, from behind my hijab and mandatory chador

All the Iranian meals I ate had that home-cooked feeling, even in a restaurant, and the sauces, pickles, spices, herbs and tea that followed them were equally delicious. Bread is always served with breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the bread type varied from home to home and city to city. You are meant to eat with your hands, usually with a piece of bread in it, or else you’re only offered a spoon and/or a fork. Knives were not part of the dining experience, even if you had a lamb shoulder or steak kebab.

Most meals were followed by an offer of fruit for desert, and now was the time for mandarins, pomegranates and apples. Strangely enough the fruits were always served on a plate with a knife, and I’ve rarely eaten fruit so often or formally.

Iranians have a word in Farsi called ‘ta-arof,’ and it refers to the kind of hospitality they offer that you cannot refuse – they insist until you either admit you’d appreciate it, or just take whatever it is to avoid the argument. When offered fruit, you’re directed ‘Eat pomegranate.’ Noone asks or cares if you want it, just eat it. If you refuse taarof, its an insult. If it is a question, like “what table would you like?” or “would you like to sit?”, then your answer is barely heard, since your host quickly refutes “no, this table is better” or “please sit here its more comfortable for you.”

Another unbreakable custom was some men’s insistence on not smiling in photos. “Real men don’t smile” I was told, and everyone kept their stone face in my selfies. I also couldn’t understand their strict rules on public behavior – unmarried or unrelated males and females cannot walk in the street together, even if they’re a meter apart on the sidewalk, but on my overnight train to Mashad I shared a 4 person sleeper cabin with 1 woman and 2 men. I could not sit on the back of my friends motorcycle and move thru traffic, but I could get into his car and drive away to anywhere we pleased. I rode one overnight bus as well, and it was the most luxurious bus I’ve ever seen. They call them VIP buses, and a single, reclining leather couch seat was on the left, and basically a loveseat sofa on the right, complete with armrests and a steward that served us snacks and tea.

Traveling times and daily routines were always a little surprising. Overnight trains and buses began in the afternoon, before sunset, and would usually arrive at their destination in the wee hours of the morning before sunrise, just in time for the first prayers of the day. The work week is Saturday to Wednesday, and staying awake til 2 am on a work day was normal, and waking up at 4 am on the weekend was also not unheard of. It’s the year 1395, and none of the months or days of the week are familiar.

I couchsurfed my whole time in Iran, so I often followed my hosts schedule or sleeping patterns. Sometimes I could nap or sleep earlier, but I enjoyed being awake from sunrise to sunset. There isn’t much to do in the evenings, since nightclubs are illegal, although Iranians are crazy about going to parks at night. The conversations I had with my couchsurf hosts were often the same, about my country, my family, my work, and my impressions of Iran. They talked to me about the same, but usually focused more on how they could get to my country, or a wife from outside, or a job in Europe, and shared their less-than-glamorous opinions of Iran. Everyone seemed to want a way out, to get any chance of escaping to the outside world, and had little hesitations about leaving Iran and never coming back. If they didn’t have the vocabulary to explain these feelings, they were still happy to use me as a means of practicing English, and then came more questions about me, my age, and my future plans for marriage and children – since every woman must have those plans.

In many ways, Iranian culture wasn’t so different from western cultures, and my first host in Tehran told me that women basically could act and do the same things we do at home. But after a few weeks of traveling alone in Iran, I realized the few things that do differentiate us are based on really strict, important customs, so it was better not to ask any questions and just conform.

Welcome to Iran

Here’s a letter I wish someone from the Iranian tourism authority had sent me before flying one-way into Iran alone. 

One of the many beautiful gardens, this one in Fin, Kashan

One of the many beautiful gardens, this one in Fin, Kashan

Dear Tourist,

Welcome to Iran. We are a land famous for beautiful mosaics, Persian carpets, and ancient empires, and a people known the world over for our hospitality and endless supply of tea. However, please be aware of the following things before traveling in Iran.

We have a rich cultural history surrounding our bath houses and hammams, but presently social bathing is illegal and all our historic bathhouses have been turned into museums. There are banks on every corner, but none will accept your debit card and withdrawing money from abroad anywhere in this country is impossible. Bring a lot of cash because visa and mastercard (or any other international credit cards) are not accepted, and get used to a lot of zeros because even small things, like a taxi fare, are counted in the hundreds of thousands. Our money is printed as and called rials, but people refer to tomans, which is ten times less, so don’t get ripped off by paying ten times too much or insult someone by trying to pay ten times too little. However, for anything touristic, such as entrance to a museum, you will have to pay for an entrance ticket three to ten times more than a local. Also a taxi ride or a hotel room will be (legally) charged at a higher rate, since the government enforces different costs for foreigners. The same cup of coffee will not cost the same for you and a local, even if you order together.

You are not allowed to wear shorts, skirts or sleeveless shirts or anything else that would show your knees or shoulders. Please learn how to read Arabic numbers, since house numbers, streets, costs and bus numbers will usually only be written with them. Drivers are a little crazy and crossing the road inside or outside of a car are equally dangerous. Make sure you ride the metro or public bus in the right compartment – men in the front, women in the back!

If you are a woman, please also note: You must wear a hijab or wrap your head in some sort of scarf in all public places and inside cars. You cannot wear a skirt, but you must have a long enough jacket or shirt or skirt over your pants to cover your hips, so make sure you layer your pants under more clothing, preferably black. You cannot sing or dance in public or infront of men. You are not allowed to drive a motorcycle, or get on a motorcycle behind a man driving, since touching another man who is not your spouse or family member is a crime. Walking down the street with someone of the opposite gender who’s not related to you is also not allowed. Depending on the city you’re in, it’s also illegal to ride a bicycle, smoke cigarettes, or play pool. You must sit in the women’s only section of public transport, and of course mosques have a smaller women-only section which you can enter after wrapping yourself (and every part of your hair) in a chador (a big sheet, usually supplied to you).

Facebook, Twitter, and wordpress are some of the websites blocked in Iran, so make sure you get a virtual hotspot app if you want to access any of these sites. Airbnb and Coucshurfing are technically illegal too, and some couchsurfers are simply using the site to find an outside connection for help out of here, either with a visa, a foreign wife, or better-paying job offer. If you are a single woman, some men may consider trying to marry you, so pretend you’re married and wear a fake wedding ring. Or better yet, travel Iran with a man; it will save you a lot of hassle from taxi drivers wanting your phone number, men in bazaars following you, or random creepy men that assume western women are all super horny and none of them are virgins.

Since you are a tourist, many of these rules slide, but if an ethics police officer harasses you more than 3 times for any of the above, the punishment is prison or lashes, and adultery or rape will get you executed.

Welcome to Iran. We hope you enjoy your stay!

Women only

Women only

Couchsurfing and Hitchhiking in Armenia

Couchsurfing and couchsurfers shaped my time in Armenia, and I couchsurfed the nicest place I’ve couchsurfed yet – a penthouse apartment with a 13th floor view of Yerevan and all the way out to Mount Ararat, all to myself. My couchsurf host picked me up at the airport and took me to his apartment, gave me the keys and some fruits, and then left to stay with his parents.

me, the tango DJ and the Russian couchsurfers at Sevan Lake

me, the tango DJ and the Russian couchsurfers at Sevan Lake

Through him I met other Armenian local hosts, and I convinced one to accompany me to the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra and watch Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto. Another was showing around a Russian couple who later hitchhiked with me to Georgia and around Tbilisi. We all met for a couchsurf bbq on the balcony of my apartment, and ate kilos of chicken and bread, in true Armenian style.

sunset BBQ

sunset BBQ

I hitchhiked one taxi on my way from Khor Virap monastery, which I never considered trying before, but he took me to the nearest bus stop, without charging me, and then waited 45 minutes with me in the sun til the bus arrived. On another day I took local buses to nearby Garni pagan temple and Gerhard stone church, and I met a different Russian couple who told me to follow them to Etchmiadzin. They spoke Russian and could find the right buses and change or get off at the right places, so I followed them to the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church and managed to get back without them.

Haghartsin Monastery

Haghartsin Monastery

I also couchsurfed in the little Switzerland of Armenia, a small city called Dilijan, with a Russian host. Its amazing how useful and necessary Russian language is here, and useless English is, so its been a tactic of mine to make friends with Russians on the road. I also made some friends through tango dancing, after attending a milonga in Yerevan. The DJ there, who knows a friend of a friend, offered to take me and the Russian couchsurfers on a roadtrip to see some beautiful places in the Armenian countryside. We made a couple of hikes, one to a beautiful river/waterfall canyon whose name I can’t remember, and then Gosh Lake, where I lost the other three for 3 hours in a failed mission to go apple picking.

inside Gerhard stone church, a place of very special acoustics and echoes

inside Gerhard stone church, a place of very special acoustics and echoes

We visited Sevan Lake and ate delicious fresh fish, and visited a lot of stone churches and old monasteries. I thought I saw a lot of hitchhikers on the road, but they signaled to cars by holding both their arms up and spread to the side. I later learned those are fishermen trying to sell a catch, and the space between their hands signifies the size of the fish.

Mount Ararat in the background from the top of the sculpture parks at Yerevan's Cascades

Mount Ararat in the background from the top of the sculpture parks at Yerevan’s Cascades

Hitchhiking from Dilijan to Georgia was a breeze, especially with the help of my Russian translators, but our first driver spoke terrible Russian and no English, and somehow we ended up an hour out of the way trying to visit yet another stone church in the middle of a forest. Things got weird when he tried to buy a 6 pack of beer at noon to take with to the church, so we decided to try our luck with another car. After 5 cars and never waiting for more than 3 minutes, we made it to Tbilisi, where I’ve decided to take a break from couchsurfing and hitchhiking.

Backpacking Belarus

Belarus’ visa policy isn’t very welcoming to tourists other than Russians (who can enter without crossing any form of border control), but Belarusians were very welcoming to an unfamiliar face once I got in. Not being able to speak Russian is a huge handicap, but people are a lot more willing to take the time to try and understand your charades, read your body language, or speak a few words in English. I wouldn’t say they’re the smiliest people, but certainly a lot more comfortable to be around, especially considering how safe everything and everywhere was. All the couchsurfers I met were helpful and hospitable, though sometimes a bit too friendly – one man and his wife were open to threesomes with female travelers and stated this openly on their couchsurfing profile!

Minsk

Minsk

There wasn’t much striking about Minsk, a city nearly completely rebuilt in Soviet times with oversized, colourless, communist buildings filling most of the city. The entrance doors to most residential buildings reminded me of a maximum security prison cell door, but like in many other things, functionalism and safety are more important than aesthetics. Visiting in summer helps brighten things up, though all the parks and green spaces are left to fend for themselves, unless it’s a park around some sort of historical monument or war memorial. Children’s play grounds more often than not had swing sets without swings, but the endless forests outside of the cities made a much larger, more beautiful playground for those who wanted to enjoy it.

selfie with this monumental war memorial

selfie with this monumental war memorial

I enjoyed a lot of cultural things in Minsk, though not all of them very stereo-typically Belarusian. I attended a Salsa festival, a symphony, the Swan Lake ballet, and an art/music street festival whose theme I couldn’t figure out. Around Minsk, the rebuilt traditional village of Dudutki had some old buildings, a wooden church, windmills, a petting zoo, bee hives, a horse training stable and a moonshine distillery. There were two castles, Mir and Nezvizh, surrounded by beautiful forests and walking trails, and a lot of Orthodox churches in between. In Vitebsk city center, there was a small zoo tucked away into a forested park, and I would have walked right past it if I hadn’t heard the lion roar.

Orthodox church in Vitebsk

Orthodox church in Vitebsk

I attended one forest barbeque, with a handful of Belarusians who knew exactly how to grill a piece of meat, and went to two ‘summer’ houses – an old home or cottage in a small village that people keep as a vacation spot. The forests are usually just a stones throw away from any village, and the little dirt roads that connect them seem like they should still be traveled by horse and carriage.

Brest fortress

Brest fortress

I traveled mostly by train, and a 3 – 5 hour train ticket costs only 3 or 4 euros, and for that price you get an entire sofa-bed bench. For a few extra cents, you can rent sheets and drink tea, and I seriously considered moving back and forth across the country every night just to be able to live on the train. The metro and public buses are also easy to use and super duper cheap, but a lot of people still own cars. There is a huge sub-culture of car garages, little covered parking zones where people park their cars in individual, locked garages. The men also gather here from time to time, using this space as a second home. Here they can barbeque, play chess, drink beer, or just work on their cars and pretty them up. I also noticed that most people don’t sleep in beds, but sofa-couches, so being a couchsurfer there was like being a local.

couchsurfing barbeque

couchsurfing barbeque

I couchsurfed in Minsk, Brest and Vitebsk, staying with very different people but always walking away with a similar experience. Their friends were my friends, I was always fed, I had my own space in the house and almost always had an escort outside. The graffitied apartments I stayed at never looked very inviting, but once inside with the people I met, it became my cozy home too. I just fish that Belarusians would stop wallpapering their walls, ceilings and even floors with the tackiest patterns I’ve ever seen – it would do a lot for the feng-shui!

On the Road Again

It’s been a wonderful summer in Iceland, the best that I can remember in 8 years. I even had some time off between tours to be my own tourist in Iceland, roadtripping, fishing, hiking and camping in the highlands and west fjords. The horses and people from around the world that I spent my tours with were also wonderful, but as summer winds down and fall sets in, I’ve developed a serious travel itch.

off the beaten track

off the beaten track in a Belarusian forest

I couldn’t imagine a better day to leave Iceland than September 21. I finished 2 sheep round ups, saw the leaves start to fall from the auburn trees, and the first snow fell on Esja mountain in Reykjavik the night before. September 21 is also the autumn equinox, the last day of the year when the day is longer than the night. So in my perpetual need of warmth and light, I have to keep moving south to chase the longer days.

First stop is Belarus. I know it’s an unusual tourist destination, and getting a visa is a nightmare, but what more reasons does a traveler need to tease curiosity? I wanted to go to Minsk when I was traveling in Russia, since it was relatively close by and a similar kind of place, but I only worked out a visa by late August. A friend from New York who has a friend in Washington D.C who I met in Reykjavik knew a girl in Minsk who could help me. Lord knows why or how she did, but she sorted out all the paperwork and paid all the fees for a stranger she’d never met.

there's always entertainment on the road

there’s always entertainment on the road

Even more than that, she offered to host me before I arrived, and luckily enough I did arrive, and get in, legally, and planned to stay with her half my time in Belarus. The weather should have been warmer, but it was only in the teens and the trees have started to turn here too.

The rest of my autumn carries on to the south, first to the Caucuses, then Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. My 200th country might likely be Laos, or I’ll skip down to the Indian Ocean and visit some of those dreamy island destinations – the Seychelles, Maldives or Mauritius. Wherever I’ll be on my 30th birthday next year, every traveler, host or couchsurfer I’ve met throughout the years is heartily welcomed to come join in for the celebration 🙂

Man oh Man Oman

If anyone wants to talk about a hidden jewel of the middle east, let’s talk about Oman. I used to associate Oman and Yemen as more similar than anywhere in the gulf, but they couldn’t be further away from one another in everything but geography. And I never expected Oman to be so different from the other GCC countries, but it’s literally a world apart (and a lot more beautiful!).

On the road to Jabel Shams with Couchsurfer Ibrahim

On the road to Jabel Shams with Couchsurfer Ibrahim

To begin with, there aren’t any shiny highrises or world trade centers, megamalls or shiny apartment compounds. It’s a city of small, traditional buildings, nestled between mountain valleys, with lively souks and humble businesses. The Sultan or ruling government put a legal limit on the height of buildings, specifically to avoid becoming another Dubai, and the houses that are built can only be a pale shade of 6 or 7 colours – bluish grey, beige to yellow, pastel green, purply-pink, sandy browns or plain white.

Electricity even reached the highest village in Oman, just a few families around Jabel Shams

Electricity even reached the highest village in Oman, just a few families around Jabel Shams

It’s still a very western, developed place, but nothing can take away from the feeling of finally being somewhere Arabic and exotic. The flat, dust plains have been replaced by rocky hills, red mountains and canyons wider and deeper than I could scale with my naked eye. Oases of date palms and little villages are always paired, and they appear and disappear after traversing a few hillsides in every direction out of Muscat. The government brings water and electricity to even the most remote villages, and if it’s not feasible, they build them an entire new village for them in a better location. I heard that many accept this offer (its totally free!), but continue living in their mountain top villages, and turn their new gated homes into goat stables, weekend retreats or just rent them out.

Muscat

Muscat

A lot of the places and people retain age old traditions, despite having the newest cars or iphones. In the souks they sell their goats and camels, keep them for farming, breeding or racing, and in the city they meet with foreign friends for a Lebanese meal or Starbucks coffee. Omani Coffee and dates are offered everywhere, from the souks and shops to hotels and restaurants. The beaches are vast and clean, scattered between cliffs that go straight into the sea, and fishermen take their boats out every evening to fish. They refuel their boats and trucks at cheap gas stations, where they can always answer a call to prayer since mosques are built at every one.

Al Sifah beach

Al Sifah beach

Even the fashion is different in Oman, the women more colourful and the men in sparkly kuma (hats). The men’s robes have little tassels hanging off-centered from their collar, said to be for oud (roll on perfume). Omanis were very superstitious with numbers, and are known to pay more for their license plates than for their cars. For example, a single digit number (1 or 5) or balanced double digits (12 or 44) are a sign of wealth, compared to the guy with the randomly assigned license plate number 27349.

The sinkhole with free pedicures

The sinkhole with free pedicures

Without giving away too many secrets of this place (I kind of like that its off the beaten track), make sure you visit some sink holes or Wadi’s around Muscat (ie. Wadi Shab and Wadi ibni Khalid), which are filled with pools of water to float down or cliff jump into. There’s a big stretch of nothing (affectionately called the Empty Quarter) nearby where you can drive your car thru sand for days. Barbeque some mishkaki (meat on a stick) with some locals, either at a picture perfect beach or at the top of a mountain overlooking the city nightscape. The latter I did for the eve of my birthday, where I was serenaded Happy Birthday by 12 couchsurfers, with a cake and candles and the whole 9 yards, while watching planes take off from the international airport. A few hours later I boarded my own plane for Africa, blissfully happy from my time in Oman but bitterly miserable for having to leave.

My CS birthday party

My CS birthday party

Another side of Abu Dhabi

It’s been a disappointing pain not being able to travel overland through Saudi Arabia, but when I finally got to the Emirates, it was possible to go overland to Oman. I visited Dubai a few years ago when an Australian friend of mine worked for Emirates Airline, but had never been to Abu Dhabi, and the flights were cheap enough that I decided to fly to Muscat instead, saving the time of driving thru no-mans-land to enjoying the open nothingness of Oman’s countryside.

Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi, the real capital of the UAE, was similar to Dubai, full of those tall and shiny buildings towering over the old and dusty classic buildings. The new and artificial feeling of a mega-city has stamped out the old and traditional, but tiny mosques still sit humbly between glass and concrete, even between highways and parking lots.

I couchsurfed with an American English teacher named Jackie, on the up-and-coming Al Reem Island, a man-made development project of highrises only 30% completed. Her 30 or 40 storey building had a pool that no one visited, but I thought the water was quite perfect. There are also public buses that no one I met had used, but eventually it only took one bus card and a little googling to figure out the system and avoid using taxi’s for everywhere.

Zayed mosque's chandelier and carpet

Zayed mosque’s chandelier and carpet

My to-do list for 4 days wasn’t huge, but the places were. The World Trade Center was a commercial building, a residential building, a mall, and a souk, and the Grand Mosque can fit 40,000 worshippers under their multi-ton chandeliers and single carpet weighing some forty tons.

At Marina Island there was another mall, and a ferris wheel and some dhow boat cruises. At Yas Island there was an even bigger mall, a water park, and Ferrari world, with the fastest roller coaster in the world. There were desert safari tours and sand dune buggy tours, camel rides and horse back tours, and shisha and tea to lure in any stop-over tourist, but none of the local expats (which are more than 50% of the population) seem to have explored too far.

Some would say I didn’t either, but I felt very far and away from the glitz and glamour of Abu Dhabi when I visited a bachelor Pakistani work village, a sort of high-rise slum, where the 26 storey building 5 blocks from the WTC had 8 apartments on each floor, each with 1 bathroom, 1 kitchen, and 7 rooms of 3 triple bunk beds. This meant that 9 men lived in the space of about 9 square meters, them and all their stuff, and had to share one squat toilet which was also the shower, and cook meals communally and share them on the 2 square meter floor space each evening. I was invited to stay there, sharing the space of one bunk bed (not even a bed but a sheet of wood) with the only white guy in the entire community of 1,680 men, a Canadian couchsurfer, and would have stayed expect for the fact that I was the only woman in the entire building and had lied by saying I was his sister just to enter. The cultural and/or religious insult of sleeping in the same room of a bunch of men, married or not, made me feel just a little more uncomfortable than the dog-sized rats crawling around, so I returned back to Jackie’s and slept alone on her couch.