Saturday, July 28, 2018

Dealing with Airport Taxi Paparazzi and Strategies for Market Shopping

I arrived in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan yesterday morning. I hate overnight flights! I can no longer sleep on an airplane, no matter how much I pretend. This one was no different, except that it did not help that “dinner” was served at 2:00 am with all the accompanying chatter and lights. I should not complain, cheap seats are cheap seats and the goal was reached: Kyrgyzstan, a destination just a little outside my comfort zone.

I am beginning to feel like a seasoned traveler and I can pass along some airport advice: You finally arrive in a country that has consumed almost all your waking thoughts for the last six months—fearful thoughts, excited thoughts, how-am-I-going-to-react-to-these-people thoughts. But before you are legally in the country you must pass through the three trials: immigration, baggage claim, and customs. In Kyrgyzstan, these turned out to be perfunctory. But whatever the country, you are probably suffering from what I call “travel exhaustion.” Then, as soon as you exit customs into the “ARRIVAL HALL,” you face a gauntlet of taxi drivers with the manners of paparazzi. They all claim your dazed attention and all you are looking for is a toilet and maybe a cash machine. You are pulled along in a wake of other dazed travelers being lured away onto the pricey magic-carpet-rides into the city.

My first piece advice for exiting the “ARRIVAL HALL” unscathed: To every driver who gets in your face, say “NO…toilet!” and point vaguely down the hall. That will shake them off. If you are lucky, one may even point you in the right direction. Besides, you probably really do need a toilet and you don’t want to remember that after you are already in the taxi.

Next: Find a cash machine and get some local currency. When another driver approaches you, just say, “NO…cash machine!” If possible, try to find one as far from the hoard of drivers as possible, because now that you have money, they are VERY interested!

Next…and this is the most important:

Now your response is: “Coffee” as you mime drinking. Find an airport café, preferably far away from the “paparazzi,” although they will probably leave you alone while you are in the café. Get tea (just to be rebellious) and maybe something to eat. This solves two problems as you have also changed that 1000-SOM bill spit out by the ATM.

Sit down and take a deep breath. You have plenty of time to find your hostel. It is time to begin the process of savoring the fact that you are somewhere new. Pull out your journal and dump all your wrung-out stresses and fears there. Send out a Facebook post: “I am here!” Double-check your strategy for getting into the city. (Because, of course you researched that before you boarded your flight, right?) By the time the tea cup is empty, you are ready. Take an exit door somewhat away from the taxi mob and head for the bus stop.

You have just saved a great deal of money, because you figured out before you even boarded the plane how to take the local bus or tram into the city. (How in the world did I travel before internet??) If you didn’t, usually, there is a helpful tourist information counter near Arrivals, and they can help you out.

OR… it is okay to take a taxi, but it will be your choice now, not theirs. for my market story...

This kurut vendor loved my braids and
she got my business—measly though it was.

After mostly sleeping, and eating a little bit yesterday, I was refreshed this morning and ready to explore. Biskek’s Osh Bazaar is a mecca for market-lovers like me, and this morning I made a bee-line for it. I saw not one other obvious “foreigner” there and that surprised me. I am sure I stuck out like a sore thumb. But at a few stalls, I got smiles and, “where are you from?” in broken English. Some of the women were entranced by my braids. 

This vendor asked where I was from. When I showed
interest in his black raisins, he insisted that I try
each one. They really do have different flavors.
And that brings me to my market-shopping strategy. If I am thinking about buying ingredients for lunch or dinner, I have a list, or at least some items in mind, like bread, some protein, fruit/vegetable, dried fruit, etc., leaving lots of options open. If I have time (and I usually allow lots of time for my first visit), I wander through almost all the stalls seeing what is available. If someone attempts to talk to me in English, I respond readily and ask about some of the items they are selling. The friendly ones often offer sample tastes. The vendors who are interested in me, (“where are you from?” for example) are the ones likely to get my business. Smiles are another great way to get my attention, even if they cannot speak English. When I was living in Peru, the five market vendors that I returned to week after week, were the ones who engaged with me meaningfully on my first visit to their market. 

How can you resist that smile?
Or that gorgeous bread?
And this does not mean the vendor who only smiles and points to his wares begging me to buy. No, they must be genuinely friendly—you can tell the difference.

Today, once I had a bag of goods in my hand, more vendors showed interest in me. This is a phenomenon that I have noticed before. But that is okay. More smiles generate more conversations—you never know where that can lead.

I was looking for kurut, very strong, sour, salty dried goat cheese balls. A well-seasoned traveler at the hostel had told me about these hard white or brown balls that I would see at the market. And there they were…table after table of white balls. It was a delight to know what this "something new" was. From the first smiling vendor, I asked for a sample. Whew, sour and salty it was! And I asked for a sample bag of several different kinds. It set me back a whole 75 US cents. 

And that was just an example of how much this little field trip cost me. I spent a total of 260 SOM ($3.80 USD). And there is more to try on future visits.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Robert, the Dog Optometrist

On April 14, it was time I said a farewell to the Outer Hebrides. I decided to take an early morning ferry from Berneray Island to the Isle of Harris. Later, I figured out that it cost me a whopping £40 more to return to the Scottish mainland on this route than it would have if I had returned to Castlebay and taken a ferry to Oban from there.

It is okay, though, because if I had not come to Harris, I would never have met Robert.

It was a VERY early, cold, and windy two-and-a-half mile hike to make the first ferry off Berneray. If I missed it, I would not be able to get to Skye today. I walked fast and waited until I was safely on the ferry before eating my breakfast. By then I was fairly “peckish.” Upon docking at Harris, I descended the stairs from the passenger cabin. There were only about four cars on this Sunday-morning boat and a man leaned out of a window of one of them to ask if I need a lift. Oh, those friendly Scots! I was about to accept heartily when a deckhand quipped, “Oh, he’s okay, but he may talk you to death.” We all laughed. Everyone knows everyone on these islands. Well, I was about to get an unexpected grand tour of Harris—complete with laughter and amazement! Is there any other way to see this island?

First off, I read the logo and company name on the side of the little van: “R. Dog Optometrist.” I did not understand the initial “R.” but was intrigued to think that there might be enough wealthy population on these sparse islands to provide adequate business for such a specialty. 

Once I was settled in the van, I asked Robert to explain his work. He proceeded to proudly tell me how he had built his practice from a small clinic in Stornaway on Harris to two clinics (one on Barra) and that he had a staff of nine! NINE! NINE? How many dogs could have eye issues on an archipelago inhabited by barely 15,000 people?? Not to mention the fact that most of those people were pretty traditional farmers. I could not imagine many of them utilizing the services of a dog optometrist, no matter how many dogs they had. I just kept asking Robert questions with my eyes wide open in amazement and saying “REALLY??” or “That’s amazing!”

About ten minutes from the ferry dock, we were talking about something else and Robert mentioned his practice again. And NOW I laughed so hard I could barely talk. Robert is a HUMAN optometrist. As I recovered, I had to ask, “Why in the world do you have ‘Dog Optometrist’ on the outside of your van?” He gave me an odd look and laughed out loud. Robert’s surname is “Doig,” and the sign says “R. Doig Optometrists!” He quipped that he had thought about putting a picture of a dog with an eye patch on the outside of the van. I was apparently not the first one to make this mistake. But I may have stayed under this mis-apprehension for longer than most—I can be a bit dull-witted at times.

Now that I was on Harris, I was regretting I did not have more time in the Outer Hebrides. Harris is magnificent—and when I say magnificent, I mean completely-out-of-this-world stunning. I could only look longingly at the landscapes and beaches we passed, wishing I could just get out and walk and walk and walk.

Robert, a natural born tour guide spoke eloquently about his world. He is extremely proud of Harris. When asked what time my ferry would leave, I had the right answer: 
Not for about three hours. Then he lamented that if he had known that he would have taken the longer “more scenic” route to Tarbert. More scenic? How could it be more scenic than these heart-leaping views of cliffs and beach? I was so spellbound, I forgot to pull out my camera.

He put on the brakes and made a hard right turn up a steep road. “I have something to show you,” he said. As he regaled me with story after story about what I was seeing around me. He pulled over at the beautifully-restored St. Clement’s chapel and took me up to the graveyard to show me the tombstone of a local man who lived, I think, in the 18
th Century. It mentioned that he was brave in battle and could wield a claymore with the best of them. But it did not end there…he married his third wife after the age of 70 and they proceeded to have 19…NINETEEN!...children. Quite a manly man he was! These Scotsmen…wow!

Back on the road, we headed back south and suddenly I noticed that we were back at the ferry dock we had come from. I looked suspiciously at Robert, “You aren’t thinkin’ that just because I thought you were a dog optometrist that I will believe that this is the Tarbert ferry dock are you?” Like I was some dumb tourist who thinks all ferry docks look the same. (Well…hmmm…I did believe he was really a dog optometrist for an awfully long time.)

“No,” he laughed, “To show you the church, we had to circle around. Sorry we will have go back up the west highway again.” Sorry? Sorry? Oh, what a shame, I would have to look at all those lovely cliffs and beaches yet AGAIN!

Robert is a very dapper Scotsman—proud to be wearing an exquisite Harris Tweet suit complete with waistcoat and a traditional flat cap. And now for his last job as my private tour guide: he let me out in the parking lot of the Harris Gin Distillery with a recommendation that I visit before boarding the ferry.

So, if you ever accept a ride from Robert, the dog optometrist, on the Isle of Harris, expect to laugh a lot, be entertained, educated, enchanted, and transported in more ways than one. But watch the time, unless you don’t care if you miss the ferry. 

Thank you, Robert, for a magical whirlwind tour of Harris. Ill be back!

Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Edge of the Planet is a Lovely Place to Be

This hike took place back on April 5th and this is a long overdue post. But the landscape was so beautiful that I decided to make it into a video and my computer balked at that for a bit.

The Outer Hebrides are located off the far northwest coast of Scotland. Old families (some of whom can trace their kinsmen back 900 years) and old traditions run deep here and Gaelic is the common language.

I had time to take one hike on the Isle of Barra in the southern Hebrides and it was another of one of those occasions when I could not believe the place in which I had found myself. 

I would take more hikes on islands as I moved north over the next 10 days, but this was, by far, the most beautiful.