Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Woeful Travels of Flat Stanley

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Flat Stanley.  For those of you who don't have children (or possibly just ones that aren't old enough), don't teach, and/or don't travel, Stanley is the main character of a children's book that teaches children if they are run over by a steam-roller that they will be able to travel the world by mail.  I'm not even going to get into the possible implications of this story, because actually, I kind of like it, and I've always been jealous of people who got to take someone's kid's Flat Stanley around, snapping photos.  So when my childhood friend/rival, Penny, asked me to do this for her kid, I was ecstatic.  Why hasn't anyone asked me to do this before, I thought.  I was going to be the best Flat Stanley tour guide a kid could hope for!

Well, that's what I thought, anyway.  Turns out I suck at Flat Stanley.  I've had the thing since about November, and I never remember to take the damn kid out.  Hence the wrinkles.

I have had him with me pretty much since I left for Thailand in December, but I've only taken a few pictures of him.  He has gotten progressively more and more wrinkled.  But don't you dare feel sorry for him.  Just because he has been stuck in a.) the back of my travel journal, b.) the inside of my phone case, c.) between my Nook and it's cover, and finally d.) just shoved inside of my bag doesn't mean he hasn't been having a good time.  For example, there was that time that we made friends at the White Temple in Chiang Rai.  How lame is it that I remember his friend's name (Flat Annika) but not mine?  As you can tell, I hadn't even finished cutting Stanley out, let alone coloring him.  Annika's looking a little the worse for wear herself, but then, she'd been surfing and a lot of other fun things.

It's possible Stanley and I got off on the wrong foot.

I tried to make it up to him.  While waiting for my friend (different friend, FYI - pre-established friend) in Mandalay I found a stationery shop and bought scissors and colored pencils.  Stanley looked pretty spry in Mandalay.  He went to visit the monkey temple with me...but I left him in my book.  Which is a shame because I'm pretty sure he would have liked the monkeys.  Kids usually do.  But since monkeys have fewer manners and worse hygiene than most kids (most) they probably would have thought he was a snack and stolen him from me.  You were safer in my book, kiddo.  He did come out on my barefoot hike up Mandalay Hill to pose with Buddha, and I probably would have let him pose with the whole of Mandalay in the background, but my phone was out of juice.  Sucks to be you, Stan.

You're feeling sorry for him again, aren't you?  Don't you dare.  That little snot-nosed brat went to Angkor Wat.  Have you been to Angkor Wat?  I have, and I got called a bitch for this mere fact this very week.  It causes jealousy, people, but I worked hard to pay for my vacation.  Did Stan do anything to pay for this?  Nope.  JUST BECAUSE YOU'RE FLAT DOESN'T MEAN YOU GET A FREE RIDE THROUGH LIFE, STANLEY!  jerk.  No, I didn't share my cool refreshing beverage at the Harry Potter stall with him.  I earned my coke.  Peppermint didn't like him either - she thought he was pretentious, but then, when you're a cat, everyone seems pretentious.

It is about time for the freeloader to fly back to Excelsior Springs.  However, Mongolia's gotta represent, so I took a few more pictures last week, and maybe found some snacks to send with him, in case he gets hungry.  Here are the lessons that I've learned from my time with Stanley:

1. Children are a big responsibility.

Yup, that's about it.  If you are still thinking I would be a great person to send Stanley to, you're wrong.  If I could hardly remember to take photos of him while I was excited about it, I'm sure you can imagine what I'd be like now - they say that you're much less careful with your second kid, because you've already got a spare, and this would definitely be true.  He probably wouldn't even get colored.  I can think of a shortlist of niblings who might be able to talk me into it, if Flat Stanley is still a thing by the time they're old enough, but hey, those kids could get me to do just about anything.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Blue Sky Seeking

So, in December I was working on a piece of writing for a contest for Nowhere zine.  Yesterday I woke up to find out that I was not one of their finalists.  This is an interesting experience for me.  Writing was never my #1 form of expression, until it quietly took over from art and music, and I find myself having more empathy for the struggles that my writer friends have gone through.  Even though it's a little different to not win a contest than it is to have your writing rejected, it still sucks, and between this and the Lonely Planet contest from this fall, I'm feeling a little pessimistic about writing (especially when a day before the finalists are announced said zine shares a story on Facebook about Mongolia written by some pretentious writer who's never been there).  This is all part of the reason why I haven't been blogging as much this year, but anyways.  So their judge didn't care for my writing?  I don't give a shit.  It didn't turn out quite the way I wanted it to, but I still think it's an interesting piece, so I'm publishing it here.  I hope all six of you readers enjoy this.
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I sat on the subway in Shanghai, rattling over the tracks while listening to Socrates prattle on about what he did on his travels, and despaired. “The nightlife was shit,” he moaned, “but I rather liked the space-age architecture. Reminded me of that know, that one?” He was my would-be love, there in that slick, shiny city where an American girl couldn’t get a date to save her life, one of the few foreign men who didn’t go nuts over Chinese girls, and that was what he went in for - nightlife and modern architecture? What a bummer. He obviously read this on my face. “Oh Becky, stop being so judgmental! You should get out more often.”

Maybe he was right. Maybe I was being judgmental. I walked away from the conversation - and eventually, him - thinking you could tell a lot about a person from their motivations to travel. In his case, he was shallow. In my case...well, it took a while before I got around to thinking about that.

I’ve never gotten over the way time moves as an expat, the slipstream of my years abroad. Caught between the whirlpool of short days in cold climes and the craggy cliffs of young niblings growing up too fast and too far away, I finally found my way back to that question four years later. Why the hell was I spending the holidays on the road in Southeast Asia when I could be home for Christmas? So what if Iowa would be cold and its chief attraction was my family. I’ve been traveling so long that the bragging rights of being someplace new really wasn’t enough anymore, was it?

In the midst of this existential crisis I managed to drag myself out of bed and down snow-dusted roads onto the bus to church one Sunday morning. Being a single thirty-something in the Mormon church in Mongolia can be summed up with one word: awkward. You never quite fit. Not with the foreign families, not with the Mongolian singles, in spite of the fact that everyone is absolutely wonderful (although to be perfectly honest, absolutely wonderful people can also be alienating when you’re the kind of person who takes “snide, sarcastic bitch,” as a compliment). My religion had, in its own way, separated me from my family as surely as the thousands of miles between us; ocean, hills, mountains, they were all more comprehensible than a slightly different take on life, the universe, and everything. Still, I kept plugging away at them both.

On this Sunday, as the chill of a bleak December morning permeated the chapel’s new windows and unfamiliar words rose up around me in familiar strains, I mused over my upcoming journey, and the ones that had brought me hence. I remembered climbing the hillsides through the ruins of Delphi, deserted as the rains misted down over the Oracle’s seat. I remembered an early morning, traveling to the outskirts of Kyoto to wander through the shrines of Fushimi-Inari-Taisha, the early autumn warmth not reaching my heart through the mist hanging on countless red gates, accompanied by the cackles of crows getting drunk on sake. I remembered standing on the Giza plateau under the burning noonday sun, listening to the buzz of a million mosques calling the faithful to prayer. And it came to me like a lightning bolt thrown by a possessive god - I travel to find that moment, that place, where you can feel the world part and see a little further.  

That spiritual streak - that yearning for things you can’t see but if you’re still might just be able to feel - has always been there. As a child I used to scurry up my treehouse after church and sing hymns, clinging to that feeling. As a teenager it led me to throw in my lot with the Mormons. That turned out to be lucky, since Mormons are just about everywhere, and knowing that my spiritual home would be wherever I found myself gave me the confidence to take that big first step overseas.  I loved and missed my family, but I wanted to go to the places other people worship; to smell the incense and sit beneath the eaves of their temples as the echoes of chants long silent mingle with those still hanging in the air.  Living abroad freed me to do that.
I’ve been in Ulaanbaatar more than two years now. It’s a wild place, and exactly what I needed after my contract in superficial Shanghai was over. Where the Shanghainese were polished the Mongolians are rough. Ulaanbaatar is skirted with ger districts, small houses and felt huts which burn coal for warmth in the bitter winters and have no running water. The roads, especially (and ironically) in the nice area in which I live, are full of potholes, some big enough to swallow a car whole. Many of the buildings in central UB are Soviet-era eyesores holding over from its years as a comrade of Mother Russia, and while the city has developed a lot even in the two years I’ve lived here, infrastructure is still lacking. But even though Mongolia hasn’t exactly taken its own great leap forward, there’s a sincerity and happiness in its people that I rarely saw in Shanghai.

I didn’t really plan to stay here past my first two years, but I fell in love. I was warned that I would on my first trip to the countryside. It seems strange that endless rolling grassy hillls could be so beautiful, but they are. Each moment’s changing light reveals new depths in the colors of the steppe, which is strewn with more kinds of purple flowers than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio. To those in the know, Mongolia is known as “The Land of the Eternal Blue Sky,” and for good reason. In the winter, in the city, it’s hard to believe that blue skies exist. The smoke from those coal-burning stoves hides even the sun and seeps into everything with which it comes into contact. But drive an hour away and you’ll be blinded by skies so blue they hurt to look at. I feel like if I could open my eyes wide and stare deeply long enough into them that I could take their purity into myself and become the person I’m always trying to be - stronger, fiercer, better.

Mongolians have long worshipped this sky, among other things. The melting pot that makes up Mongol spirituality includes elements of Animism, the belief that everything physically created has a spiritual essence. It took me a while to understand that the colorful silk scarves tied to bridges and cairns of stones weren’t just the Mongolian equivalent of Tibetan prayer flags. Mongolians also use them to show honor, both to people as well as to the spirits in things. In the hills above the school where I live and work is a tree covered in them. Nobody has been able to explain what it is that makes that tree special, but that didn’t stop me from taking a hike up to visit it in my first year here. My friend’s directions had been a little vague, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find it, as I crunched over fields of snow and dried grass. I climbed the hill and the world was made up of the blue sky, the golden needles of the larches, and the white of the snow, and when the tree came into view its brilliant colors - red, yellow, blue, green, white, and even black - made it all too easy to spot. They were roped around its trunk, and knotted to its branches. I pulled out my scarf – red for fire, warmth being something I was definitely wishing for that frigid first year – from my bag, and tied it around a knot coming out of its branch. I was becoming a part of Mongolia, and it a part of me.

During its years as a communist country the powers that be tried to beat this out of the people. One site, Mother Rock or Eej Khad as she’s called in Mongolian, was forbidden, and they even attempted to demolish it, but it remained and the people just kept coming, offering her milk and vodka as they whispered wishes in her ears. The monasteries and temples of Buddhism didn't fare as well. During the Stalinist purges religious teaching was banned. In the Political Persecution Museum you can see the bullet-holed skulls of some of the 18,000 monks who were killed. Across the country, monasteries and temples were destroyed, and in fact the only functioning monastery throughout Mongolia's communist years was Gandantegchinlen Khiid, in Ulaanbaatar. It was strictly for show, of course, kept running so they could present traditional Mongolia when visiting foreign dignitaries came to town, but it kept the fires going til freedom found its way back to the steppes, borne thence on the wings of Beatles tunes.

I visited Gandan during my second Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian new year celebration. The cold was – as usual for Mongolia in January – brutal, and I was swaddled in layers as I bused into town and walked up the hill. I probably would have been better off staying warm in my apartment, but just like Christmas Tsagaan Sar brings religion out in people, and I came out to witness it. I walked through the main hall, spinning prayer wheels and hoping to see some sand painting, since a student had told me they'd seen it there once. The statue of Avalokiteshvara looked down on us from the gloom, smiling benevolently on our hopes for the new year. The Mongolians were dressed in beautiful new deel, brilliantly colored silk coats lined with horse hair or sheep's fleece. I followed them into some of the smaller prayer halls, where the monks chanted in saffron robes, bestowing blessings on the supplicants.
Since coming to Mongolia I've kind of been chasing Buddhism. Although it's not for me and I've never been under any illusion that it was, there are things I can learn from it.  The fact that Buddha is okay with sharing like that is one of the things that appeals to me. Thus we went out to the Naadam stadium one evening in mid-May to celebrate Visak Puja, the day when his birth, enlightenment, and death are remembered. The sun was still fairly high above the horizon when we set our packs on the dry grass. The smooth surface of the field for the national games was punctuated by candles on poles. As night slowly fell, we were joined by monks, and the meditation began, accompanied by their chants, the blaring of their horns, and the crashing of their cymbals. We knelt on the grass, bowing, letting the calm wash over us. Finally, it was dark, and volunteers brought around fire to light the torches. After more speaking, or preaching (it's hard to tell when you don't speak the language), a large white paper lantern was given to each group. We unfolded it and stuck the wishes we'd written onto its surface, then held it over the torch to light the block of wax underneath. Like a tiny hot-air balloon, it filled with air, and at the word we released it. They rose shimmering into the night, carrying our dreams.

Having realized the soul is what's been leading me by the nose around the world, it seems so obvious. After all, I spent my first summer off from Mongolia learning the names of the different boddhisatvas and their poses and the stories about them from sassy lady guides in Tibet and Bhutan. Before I wandered around with Buddha, it was Allah; I lived two years in the Middle East and still have a soft spot for minarets and muezzin. So I was happy to come across this old friend while visiting Bayan-Olgii province.

My friends and I went there, to Mongolia's own Wild West to see the Eagle Festival. We'd been dreaming of weathered-faced men on their horses, eagles nobly perched on their arms, and we were not disappointed. But as a bonus, we got a blast from our pasts: the call to prayer drifting out on the evening air from the town's mosques as we wandered the streets looking for a good restaurant. Western Mongolia is less than thirty miles from the eastern border of Kazakhstan, and home to a sizeable population of Kazakhs. In many ways, Bayan-Olgii is more Kazakh than Kazakhstan; the same communist rule that was so hard on Buddhists was satisfied to leave this minority to their own devices. Kazakh culture in its own country was not as lucky as part of the USSR.

Having seen the hunters in action, we hired a driver and cook to take us to visit Altai Tavan Bogd, the highest peak in Mongolia. As we drove out over rough and tumble roads, it became clear that the muezzin wasn't the only sign that we weren't in Kansas anymore. Topping out over a pass, we saw no stones piled in an ovoo to greet us and celebrate the fact that we'd come that far safely. Instead, strewn occasionally along the way between the rugged mountains we came across cemeteries. Marked graves are few and far between in Central Mongolia; the traditional way of sending your loved ones to their next life was to leave the body on a mountain side. You'd know if they were eaten by a creature of the sky that they would be reincarnated in a higher state; those eaten by dogs and other earth-bound animals would find themselves in a lower plane of existence. Since Kazakh Mongolians are largely Muslim, this would be sacrilege.  We asked our driver to stop, and we wandered in the gate of the cemetery. Walls of stones surrounded piles of stones atop the graves, and one wall held a long pole topped with a crescent. We took in the solitude with reverence, then moved on.

As a nomadic people, moving on is something Mongolia understands. Someday I'll take one last flight out. I contemplated this as I waited to board my flight out for the holidays, finally at peace with my decision to spend my time traveling. Someday the steppes will roll out behind me, instead of before me, but the marks they have left on my soul will remain. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Straight Up Trippin'

I have dreamed - and continue to dream - of being a travel writer.  I don't mean the kind who travels full-time, because I know myself well enough to realize that 3 weeks of flying solo is about as much as I can handle before I need at least one familiar face.  But occasionally when I'm writing about my travels I'm kind of clever (when I'm not being obscene) and maybe one day maybe someone will figure that out, so I keep plugging away at my blog.  I have also dreamed at least twice of being a tour guide.  I would either make a fantastic guide, or a terrible one.  Fantastic, because I'm pretty damn good at making plans and finding my way around.  Terrible because my style of travel tends to involve feeling places out and reading about them later, if I'm so inclined.  I actually loathe guides for this reason, and I only allowed Evil to hire one when we were traveling in India is because she promised hers was willing to shut up and take our pictures, if that was what we wanted.  But whether I make a great one or a horrible one, I'm giving it a shot anyways.  As I've mentioned, I organized a school trip for my darlings to Turkey.  I've been there before, in 2008, and have wanted to return ever since, and although I'm not going back for what I wanted to go back for (namely, visiting Pamukkale and Cappadocia), I can't wait to go back.

Well, on my way back from Greece I had a 20-hour layover, so I took the opportunity to get out and double check on a few points of our itinerary.  I've been meaning to write about making this trip happen, and I guess the time has finally come.  We leave four weeks from today, so I suppose it's about bloody time.

I was aided and abetted by the fact that I'd been at the school for almost two years when I first mentioned the trip to the Powers that Be, so I'd had some time to prove that I wasn't
a.) some idiot who couldn't handle the logistics of a simple field trip, or
b.) some freak who was going to sell kids off in another country.  The real planning finally started last May, when I realized that flying our kids to Turkey would only cost a little more than flying them to Hong Kong (my original plan), and they were a lot less likely to have been there.  There have been concerns since I started planning - my principal had heard about protests last spring and in the fall everyone was panicking about ISIS being on the border - but we re-evaluated in January and everyone agreed to go ahead and proceed with the trip.

There is probably a lot I should have done over the summer, but the sum total of work I did towards this end was buying the Lonely Planet guide to Istanbul.  Getting back and getting into my classroom again helped kind of light the fire under me, and I put together a brochure with information for students and their parents, as well as a slideshow with the info, which I shared in an assembly and during two parent info nights.  This meant some persuasive writing about why this was good for our students with links to curriculum ("Because travel is cool" doesn't quite cut it), putting together a workable itinerary with room for the students to give input if there was something that they wanted to check out (but only in the evenings), researching hotels and bus companies because we needed to get in from the airport and wanted to take a side trip to visit Gallipoli and Troy, checking out costs for different sites (some of which may be incorrect - I visited the Basilica Cistern on my way back from Greece and I'd had the wrong admission price for it) and putting together a trip budget, which was based on 20 students and two chaperones...since we are now down to 12 students, a lot of the money they've fundraised has to go to that difference.

And speaking of fundraising, I've spent just about every Monday morning since October helping my kids run a coffee shop, which offered Starbucks brew, cookies Engrish was kind enough to bake, as many different varieties of cupcakes as I could come up with (Dreamsicle is this week's invention), tea, hot chocolate, and smoothies, which the kids have to bring fruit for.  We've raised about $1000 with only about 40 minutes a week, and the kids have had a lot of fun with it.
Right now I'm bogged down with the last minute logistics - getting payments in, last minute checks, getting medical info and notaries, because apparently you can't leave the country with minors unless their parents have given you temporary guardianship.  Champ has helped a lot in this area - since she's in charge of our sports teams she's already dealt with it marvelously and has let me tweak some of her documentation and answered all sorts of questions at all hours of the day.  Our Go-To Girl has also helped a lot - Turkish Airlines, for example, is a lot easier to deal with in Mongolian over the phone than it is via email, and she's helped us order our hoodies.  I wanted something that would help me spot our kids in a crowd so this is where the rest of the fundraising money is going.  They'll also be part of the school uniform for next year, so the kids were pretty excited that they were getting them before everyone else, and I hope the parents will appreciate one thing they don't have to spend money on.

Currently at the top of my to-do list is finishing a travel journal for them with some information on the sites we're visiting and space for writing and drawing (with exercises to help them get started).  This will also include safety and cultural information that I'll go over with them in a meeting before we go.  Originally I thought we'd have this meeting in a local Turkish restaurant, but I'm thinking it may just be better to do it after school some evening.  After that, I'll just be getting final information in and triple-checking everything.  It's been a lot of work and a lot of stress, but if any kids have ever deserved it, these kids do.  I can't wait to share traveling with them, and I hope they'll enjoy it.

Friday, March 6, 2015

This Camel's Straw

If I had a tugrug for every time I curse the person who came up with, "Getting there is half the fun," I'd be able to pay for my students' trip to Istanbul...

My trip to Greece over Tsagaan Sar ended up being even more of a mad dash than it was originally supposed to be.  The timing of it couldn't be helped - when Western and Eastern calendars magically line up, you have to seize the day and hope that everything goes according to plan.  It just so happened that in this case it didn't, exactly.

I arrived at the airport on February 19th to be greeted by one word, "CANCELLED."  Apparently it was snowing in Istanbul and for some reason this was a problem.  I've never had a flight outright cancelled, and lacking better coping mechanisms I sat down and cried a little before calling Enkhaa to ask if he could come back and get me.  While I was waiting, an airport worker came and told me I should go upstairs to the Turkish Airlines office, where I was told the next flight was on Saturday.  I told them I couldn't wait that long, and when they said they'd have to put me through Beijing or Seoul, I begged them to put me on the flight to Seoul that night.  They sent me away, promising to call and that they would try.  Four hours later I was booked on the next afternoon's flight through Beijing and would arrive 1.5 days later than I was supposed to, not to mention the fact that it meant I would be traveling with the Chinese, who are not my favorite seatmates, to say the least.  I was pissed but there was nothing I could do and 1.5 days late is better than 2, so I resigned myself to another day in UB.  Which had lovely weather for a change but even with the best weather is still not Greece.

The next day I came to the airport, checked in, and was faithfully waiting to board my flight, when it was announced to be delayed, and then five minutes later, cancelled.  SON OF A BITCH!  I joined the queue of people waiting to talk to Air China, and then figured, "Screw this, I'll call the guy from Turkish Airlines," who it turned out was on his way to the airport to deal with those of us who had been added to this flight.  The unfortunate people who were just going to Istanbul were switched to the next day's flight, which was predicted to leave 5 hours late and treated to a taxi ride back to a complimentary hotel.  I once again begged to be put on a flight to Korea - for once, Korean hadn't cancelled a flight when China had, and I can handle pretty much anything if I know there's a bath house in my immediate future - and this time succeeded.  In the end I would get to Athens two days late, but as long as I got to spend time with Bronte, got to stuff my face with Greek food, and got to go to Bourani, I could cope.

After my breakfast at Butterfinger Pancakes got #rekt by Seol Nal (they open late during Lunar.  Who knew?) I went back to Incheon to wait and wait and wait.  Boarding time came and went, while we waited on some sort of delay.  I was starting to get nervous, because I only had an hour in Istanbul to make my connection, but after 15 minutes, we started to board the plane.  And THEN we sat on the tarmac for at least another half hour, waiting to take off, which I figured basically destroyed my chances of making it to Athens that night.  As we flew over central Asia, I watched the clock and counted the minutes we made up.  I had the vaguest hope that maybe, just maybe, I might make it on my flight.  Probably not my luggage, which I was kicking myself for checking at that point, but again - Bronte, Greek food, Bourani, so life goes on.

It was 45 minutes to take off when the plane touched down and started to taxi out to the back 40, because apparently that's how Turkish Airlines rolls.  When we were finally deboarding I managed to get on the first shuttle, the classy one, and got into security 30 minutes before take-off, while the screens flashed, "FINAL CALL" on my flight.  I crammed my stuff into the bins, and of COURSE set off the buzzer when I went through the metal detector.  I explained to the frisk-ee lady that it was my shoes, so she made me take them off and go put them through the x-ray.  When I was finally cleared I started shoving things in my pockets, grabbed my boots, and ran off while someone was still trying to give me back a handful of paek-won coins that fell out on their way to my pocket.  Honestly lady, I don't give a crap about 50 cents.

I ran.  I ran through the main part of the airport, and ran down the moving walkway, until the treads hurt my socked feet enough to make me stop and slip on my boots - precious wasted time.  I ran and ran and ran until I got to the gate, number 303, where the staff replied to my breathless, agitated state with, "It's okay, one more shuttle is coming."  When the shuttle got there, I got on.  And then a member of the flight crew got on.  And then we went to the plane.  As we pulled away from the gate, I saw the entrance to security, a mere fifty feet away from the door I'd just walked through.  I made a mad dash across the airport, and the damn gate was RIGHT THERE.  And I was the last passenger to board, but that was okay, because Bronte and Greek food and Bourani.  So there.

As we were sitting and waiting to take off, the announcement came on that we were waiting for some luggage to be loaded.  Say whaaaaa?!?  Was there a possibility that one single thing would go right on this trip?????  I got to the baggage claim in Athens, and the answer was, "NO."  My luggage was not there.  I went to the luggage counter and made my claim, and after telling them I wouldn't be in Athens the next day was promised that they could put it on a bus to Larisa.  Finally, FINALLY I walked through the doors to see Bronte's sunshiney, smiling face.  And then we went to Gazi where we stayed out all night eating and drinking and talking before catching the first train to Larisa, and if I had no luggage it didn't matter, because I was in Greece, at long last, and we were in a compartment by ourselves so we could stretch out and sleep and after setting my phone to go off a half-hour before we should have arrived, we were gooooood.

Or she was, anyways.  I was jetlagged, which goes along with traveling and is just as well, because a half-hour before the alarm was set to go off, I poked my head up to see which station we were coming to, and it turned out to be Larisa.  I nudged Bronte awake, asking if this was our Larisa, and we shoved our boots on as we grabbed our backpacks and hopped off the train.

Let me just stop here for a minute to say that in spite of being very good friends with Bronte and having worked together for almost three years in South Korea, we have only traveled together once, on a very tightly controlled Adventure Korea trip to Geumgangsan in North Korea.  After the luck I had during this trip, she may never want to try it again.  I have had the occasional bout of bad travel karma, particularly when it comes to delayed flights (even without throwing Mongolia into it), but it has never, EVER been this bad.  It's possible that my jealous God didn't really want me going to Dionysos' revels, but what can I say?  I've gotten good at kicking against the pricks lately.  And since that last sentence sounds a lot less religious in this context than it was meant to, I guess it's time to move on.

After sitting down for a few minutes in the cafe at the station, we decided to go to the Hotel Achillion, which I'd booked and then cancelled in a panic because I thought I was going to get stuck in Mongolia.  Here, at last, was a ray of sunshine - the old papous who ran the hotel noticed that I had booked it, cancelled, and then showed up anyway, and the 30 or so euro that were forfeit because of my late cancellation he applied to our bill when we left.  It was not a luxury hotel, because that's not how we roll, but it was clean and convenient and they served a good breakfast which Bronte assured me was Clean Monday appropriate and were helpful.  Even if they hadn't put the cancellation toward the bill, I would have been happy with the Achillion.

And hallelujah! - the wifi worked!  When we got to the room I called on my skype credit to the baggage company (Bronte's phone had stopped working some time the night before...possibly my bad luck striking again).  Yes, my luggage had arrived!  Yes, they could deliver it Larisa!....but not until Tuesday, thanks to the holiday. took me a minute to process this...

Well, I guessed I'd just have to pick it up that day on my way back to Mongolia and I'd be spending pretty much five days straight in the same clothes and stinky because Bronte didn't have deodorant because she didn't USE deodorant because of her awesome Korean genes but that's okay because BRONTE AND GREEK FOOD AND BOURANI!!!!!!!!

And it was.  We had a great time and talked pretty much non-stop for three days and ate some good food - buyurdi is my new Greek love - and after one last dinner in the shadow of the Parthenon on Tuesday evening, we went back to the airport so I could claim my luggage.  I followed the instructions - went to Info, went through a door, picked up a phone, went through another door, was sent to get my suitcase and tried to go back the same way.  And I finally, FINALLY lost my shit when the lady told me I couldn't.  No.  I had to go ALL THE FUCKING WAY DOWN TO CUSTOMS AND COME ALL THE FUCKING WAY BACK TO MEET BRONTE.  I don't think she understood the severity of the situation - that this was the worst travel experience of my life to date, and why the hell did I need to go through customs when I was just going to take the damn thing upstairs to re-check it???  I, however, did - I was in a secure area of the airport and if I went nuclear at that point like I really wanted to, I was pretty likely to find myself enjoying the hospitality of Greece on an extended basis, and although I'm sure the food in Greek prisons is probably better than anywhere else in the world, I didn't really want to find out.  So I stomped off, swearing under my breath, and after putting on deodorant and putting on fresh new clothes for the first time since leaving Mongolia, I made Bronte go with me to get my hair chopped off at the airport salon, which was surprisingly good (in fact, she decided to go ahead and get her Emeli Sande haircut there this month on her way to the States) and actually calmed me down a lot.  Which is good, because I still had three hops including a long layover to get me back to Mongolia.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Dirty Monday

If you've been reading for a while, you may know that I love checking out places of phallic/sex worship.  I find it fascinating, but realize there are a lot of people who probably find it distasteful (there are plenty of people like that in Greece, but that hasn't stopped the event I'm writing about today).  If you're one of those people, this is probably where you should stop reading.

When we learned when Tsagaan Sar would fall this year, Bronte was the first person on my list of people to talk to.  I'd been hoping and praying that our holiday would coincide approximately with the end of Carnival, and - miracle of miracles - it did!  I told her that I wanted to come to Greece for Dirty Monday in Tyrnavos, and would she be interested in joining me?  OF COURSE she would, but she corrected me that it was Clean Monday.  Then she found out how they celebrate in Tyrnavos and conceded the point.

There aren't many traces left of the old gods in Greece.  Sorry, that sounds idiotic.  There are TONS of traces of the Greek gods - you can't dig a subway line in Athens without unearthing somebody's temple - but they sit empty, museums paying homage to a distant past.  Most of the Greeks have moved on, and maybe their gods have, too.  However, in the little town of Tyrnavos on Clean Monday you can still participate in a Dionysion celebration - the making of the Bourani.

Clean Monday is supposed to be the first day of Lent - Carnival ends the night before with a big parade that Bronte and I slept through.  We were in Larisa, but the big party actually takes place in Tyrnavos, and was probably what their friend had in mind when he told Bronte and her husband V that we needed to be careful.  We weren't exactly sure what to expect.  I'd read about this celebration in my ongoing quest to visit sites of phallic worship, but it didn't give me a really clear idea of what was going to take place, other than the fact that it was centered around the town coming together to cook a spinach soup, and that there would be lots of penises decorating the town (I particularly appreciated the ingenuity of the balloons).  This happened in the center of the town, and the good old boys in charge of the soup would grab unsuspecting passersby (such as Bronte) to help stir the soup (and tease them with big phalli, but I'm not sure she wants that picture on the interwebs).  At the same time music was playing, and after the excitement of helping make the soup, Bronte and I sat down in one of the cafes next to the square and she translated some of the lyrics for me.

All of them were sexual in nature.  This one, for example, talks about vaginas - it's one of the few words I know in Greek, thanks to the fact that Azhaar's idiot of an ex once pointed out that my belly dance name - Muneera - included this word (no, I'm not telling you exactly what it'll only get yourself into trouble).  Another song, which was pretty upbeat, centered on a delightful Greek phrase which essentially means, "F--- off," but is translated literally as, "You may f--- me up the ass, but I'll fart on your balls."  Which, come to think of it, could be a very useful phrase in Tyrnavos on Dirty Monday.  Besides that song, there was a certain heaviness to the music that felt ceremonial to me, and made me feel as if I was somewhere in the past.
As far as activities go, there weren't a lot.  There was dancing around the bourani, a Greek line dance that reminded me of dabke, and of course a lot of eating and drinking and posing with the various phallic objects around the square.  Most of the food was still in line with Clean Monday - seafood, halva (which we were served free samples of, and it was warm and wonderful), and vegetarian fare.  For first lunch we ate Greek salad and tzatziki (I ate SO much of them all three days - every meal!) and I had vegetarian dolmades while Bronte ate some octopus.  Neither of those were very satisfying, and we tried second lunch before leaving for Larissa (although it was only in Larissa at a place called Grandma's Cookhouse that we had the meal we were craving).  There were also these amazing fried balls of dough made with "carbonized" water.  They were fluffy and hot without burning my mouth, and covered in chocolate and - heheh - nuts.  We may have broken into a rendition of Chef's "Chocolate Salty Balls."
There was lots of phallic paraphernalia for sale, too.  I decided that most of the penises were for pouring tsiporos - the local beverage of choice - although people were predictably doing naughty things with them, more so the later it got in the day.  The lollicocks didn't come in quite as wide a variety of shapes and colors that they did in Japan, but they were there, and they even had big chocolate ones, the Dirty Monday version of an Easter Bunny, which I definitely picked up for Blondie, since she's the only one who hasn't yet run into Mongolia's big, black American basketball players.  When we first arrived most of the festival goers were old Greek papous and yiayias - grandmas and grandpas - and there were a lot of young children running around too. 
Also for sale were a variety of sizes of bread penises (I suppose there's a joke there to be made about yeast, but I'll leave it).  Bronte observed that they only had sesame seeds on their balls...I asked if she really needed the innocent Mormon girl to explain that one for her?  We sat down at a pub across the street from this bakery for cokes and beers and to watch the changing crowd - the older set was on its way out and the younger on their way in, as one partygoer went "fishing" with a lollicock that Bronte did not particularly enjoy having dangled in her face.  She bumped into two separate people during this time that she actually knew from Santorini, which seemed funny to me because Greece is not that small a country.

Well, people were getting drunker and younger and rowdier so we decided to head back to Larissa around 5.  I'm sure it was a great party that night, but we're a little too old for that shit, and V was already freaked out about sending his wife to a penis festival, so we left with the last of the sunset.  The skies were a cool grey - it had been raining off and on all day - and it took us about a half hour to get back to our hotel.  It was a good day - all three days with her were great, although the trip to get there, eah, not so much.  I'll tell you about them tomorrow.  Sadly, this was the end of the year of the cock.  Yes, I realize that it has actually been the year of the horse, but since last spring I was in Kawasaki for the Kanamara Matsuri and at Christmas I was at the Chao Mae Tuptim shrine, in my world it kind of was the year of the cock.  Sadly when I got back I had a notice on my Blogger overview that said that blogs with nudity/adult content would be made private, so I'm not sure if my blog will be able to stay up in its current state.  Since there's no actual nudity and it has educational value for travelers, this may or may not apply to me, so I guess we'll see.