Thoughts from the Road

It is the end of another work day here in the Caucasus.  This time night is falling on the town of Yerevan, Armenia.  My ten night trip is drawing to an end and I have a few observations as the most alien of aliens in this far away land.

I hope foreign travel will always be a part of my life.  There’s no substitute for the way it invigorates one’s mind.  With the time spent in each town and the travel between, you really start to notice life as it goes on in front of your eyes.  As a traveler for business, I react to a coming trip much differently than I do when traveling with my family.

As I begin the first day of far-flung trips like this one, I always start with trepidation.  As someone who is responsible for a family and a livelihood, I always dwell a bit on the “what could go wrong” scenarios.  Before a trip I obsess over visas, daily itineraries and meeting times.  However, as soon as the wheels of the plane leave the ground, I surrender to the unknown that lies before me.  I guess it’s a coping mechanism.  I do my best to plan in advance and then when I finally get off the ground, I let the chips fall as they may.  Heck, there’s nothing much you can do about it when you’re thousands of miles away from your comfort zone.  Why bother worrying?

After everything falls into place and the meetings are done I’m always glad to return home.  The wanderlust of my youth is replaced with a deep desire to spend as much time as possible with my wife and kids.  I’m not conflicted about it.  Rather, the time away makes me appreciate what I know I’m thankful for every day.  Travel puts it all into perspective.  It’s quite a gift.

One Day in Tbilisi

Tbilisi01

Have you ever taken an extended trip by yourself?  I do on a fairly regular basis for work.  I find myself to be an utterly terrible traveling partner.  Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, though.  I’m different when I’m with people.  I like having a good time with people.  It’s just that it’s not so easy to do that by yourself.  Especially in another country.  A far, far away country.

I woke up in Tbilisi today, already having planned out my day.  I was going to complete the following:

1) Walk a good part of Tbilisi.
2) Have a big damn meal of Georgian food.
3) Buy a postcard for my girls.
4) Ride the gondola up to the top of the hill and take pictures.
5) Buy and consume plenty of Georgian wine.

Scanning the ring of grassy peaks around the town, churches catch the eye as well as the shining monuments left by the Saakashvili administration.  The both loved and reviled wine bottles lying on the side of a hill.  Actually, they are a concert hall and convention center under construction.  With a new Prime Minister in power, some are calling for them to be torn down.  I call them perfectly Georgian.

I paid my three Lari ($2) for a round trip ticket for the gondola that begins just next to the wine bottles and ends at a silver statue of a maiden clutching a bowl in one hand and a sword in the other.  Her features are distinctly Georgian, in my view.  The bowl is raised high while the sword rests just under her waist.  Welcoming but intriguingly dangerous.

Back down at the bottom of the hill I walk through the old town of Tbilisi.  Wooden houses perched next to the river.  The thin wooden columns and picket-type fences that adorn the front seem strangely out of place in this rocky, sulfur aired capital city.  As is, they represent the warm, soft underbelly of a city that has seen countless invasions, sackings and fights regularly to keep its borders intact with varying degrees of success.  Out of place and at home in the same instant.

After looking in vain for the Saturday market that I was told way by the “dry bridge,” I decamp to a restaurant around 3:30 in the afternoon for some classic Georgian Food.  Cozy and hungry in the brick interior, I order veal ribs that sound incredible on the menu.  I neglected to ask the waiter if they were spicy.  Would he even have understood?

I have a 6 hour ride to Yerevan tomorrow morning.  The ribs arrive in a clay pot surrounded by the aroma of the sweetness of the meat and slightly suspended above a bubbling broth.  “I should have asked if they were spicy,” I think as the twinge of spice from the aroma reaches my nasal passages.  I dig in.  One bite and I knew that this dish would not be dinner.  As the meat pulled effortlessly away from the bone, the spice reached my tongue and my mental warning lights flashed.  A 6 hour car ride, across a border, with a belly full of Texas-worthy, spicy ribs?  Not this time.  Maybe next.

I made a strategic retreat to a crispy, flaky plate of traditional khachapuri.  Imagine cheesy bread mixed with saganaki and you have an appropriate approximation.  Three pieces went down with some sort of local Georgian beer and I was off to the wine store to taste the fruits of the land.  It wasn’t the food orgy I had hope for but caution seemed the order of the day considering the schedule for the next.

Wine aged in clay.  That is a typical Georgian method for wine-making.  I haven’t read up on it but I can only imagine that it is a process as old as the Caucuses themselves.  The flavor is completely different than any wine I have tasted.  They also have wines aged by “European methods” but I bought one of the classic wines for my cellar at home.  I’ve never tasted anything like it and likely never will again.

I walked home with a nice buzz adding a cottony warmth to the cool December air.  In front of the old Parliament building, workers were busy stacking the pieces of the Christmas trees that would soon adorn this meeting point of the city.  The denizens of Tbilisi passed buy in a blur of black.  Black shoes, black coats, black hair.  I had taken note of this before setting out and was dressed in the same fashion.  Granted, the graying of my brown hair may have been a tell-tale sign but the headphones in my ears kept all but the most tenacious of street hustlers from noticing me – and me them.

Now, back upstairs in the generic comfort of my hotel, I wish I could travel again out into the city.  Out into the dark streets that I only casually strolled during the daytime.  Into the bars and cafes that looked like they were furbished to match the beauty and mystery of this city.  Just past Freedom Square.  Where the lights glow a pale yellow and the stones of the sidewalks jut up at perilous angles.

This is a city worthy of a family visit.  A long weekend to show my wife and kids that there are no strollers on the street.  Here, mothers carry their children in their arms until they are old enough to walk.  When they can walk they do so.  A different currency and no spaghetti on the menu.  A city under siege.  A city pushing back with all of its might.  And at the same time completely beckoning and welcoming.  Completely different, completely foreign.  Completely Tbilisi.

Wanderlust

“Don’t you ever wanna just roll down that highway wherever it goes?”

“In my experience, wanderlust is vastly overrated.  Every time I’ve ever taken to the road it’s carried to someplace worse than I was before.”

The above quote is from Steve Earle’s novel, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive which I finished on my recent trip to New Delhi.  While my experience with wanderlust has been much more fortunate, I can completely understand the sentiment.  In the case of my trip to India, I think it applies.

Don’t get me wrong.  India was fascinating.  The food was good; the people were warm and really pleasant.  But India itself is a land of contradiction.  Gut-wrenchingly so.   The sheer fact that it is the largest democracy in the world with such staggering poverty is something I can’t reconcile in my head.

Of course, I would be wrong to judge the whole of India based on a week-long conference even with several trips outside of the hotel with folks who know the city.  And I must say, even in the traffic-choked, smog shrouded capital, the city hints of the treasures held in the rest of country.  The brilliance of color in the local dress and the intensely delicious flavors of Indian cuisine were enough to make this traveler curious about what lies outside of the dusty streets of the capital.

That said, I get the feeling I may never get the chance to experience the rest of this country.  Maybe I’m too old.  Maybe all the truffles and foie gras have made me timid, weak and flabby.  Or maybe, sometimes, wanderlust is indeed overrated.

Texas Time

“Are you bored yet?”

That’s the question I get from, well, pretty much everyone who isn’t around me here in Houston.  The answer is, “No, not yet.”

Not at all.

Between the doctor’s appointments, sojourns to the grocery store, post office and whatnot, I’ve actually been keeping up with what’s going on in the office.  I’ve been fortunate enough to see friends from all over.  Sometimes in the same day.  Did I mention the grocery stores?

Oh, and then there are the wineries, museums, the zoo, brewery and ice cream factory that we’ve managed to visit.  Life’s good here in Texas.

Now, if we could just get this baby thing underway…

Marooned in Prague!

As strands of “I’ll be Home for Christmas” still linger in the wires of my freshly unplugged stereo, I check my flight online and am forced to break the bad news to Mrs. NH.

Pregnant Mrs. NH, mind you.

At first, she doesn’t believe me. Then, she asks me to pull up the page to prove it. Then, she swears like a sailor. I love Mrs. NH.

It blinks in red.  CANCELED.

This is about to be a bigger PITA than that darned volcano that kept me in Ukraine this year. But at least, for now, I’m stranded at home. The real pain begins when I can’t get online.  Even to blog.  Waiting for a non-existent connection in Frankfurt. With bags the size of a trailer.  And the travel wrath of Little NH in full force.

A last, big, slobbery kiss goodbye, 2010.

I hope to keep you posted. Otherwise, um, happy new year?

Home in Prague

We’ve logged over 2500 miles on the car odometer (not counting distances traveled on ferries) and now we’re back home.  We made a pit stop in Munich yesterday to enjoy a really sunny afternoon/evening in the English Garden.  It is always a nice way to wrap up a trip.

Now we’re home and unloaded but not totally unpacked.  I whipped up a batch of guacamole and we all had a nice chip and guac lunch.  Tacos are for dinner.

Little NH is enjoying a nap in her bed and I think Mrs. NH is enjoying one on the couch.

For the first time in a week or two, I’m wearing clean clothes.  What a concept.

Why I Travel

Having traveled over 1500 miles in the car and a few hundred more on a ferry, we’re about to begin the northern swing of our trip and head out of Sardegna.  I’m sporting 2-week beard and have told and heard just about every story known to man to and from my traveling companions.  Still, I’m not sick of them and I don’t think they’re completely sick of me.  I’m not tired of traveling, I’m not tired of hotels and I’m not tired of the beach.

The fact is, these are the two people and times that I wish for every time I am away on some trip to some far-flung, God-forsaken post-communist country.  Heck, it’s not even the travel with my girls that I miss, it’s just them.  (But yeah, the travel is cool.)  So, it’s good to know that when we are all together for an extended period, we don’t totally drive each other nuts.

Things are completely fluid in my job right now so we decided to take this trip and really make it count.  It has.  When we were in the midst of planning, I only had to remind myself that it might one of the last trips we get to take to this part of the world.  That help to put things into perspective and has made it easy to check work e-mail on a non-compulsive basis.  That’s the only way to live.  Besides, it’s really hard to hold a phone in the right hand, scrolling and reading e-mails, while sipping from a Negroni in the left.

Priorities, peeps.  Priorities.

Two Weeks

Man. Two weeks since I posted. I guess that’s some sort of record. Just here to commemorate. I’m about to head out of town again. In just a few days. To the boot. With the family. To see more family. And eat. Lots. Nothing more to see here. Move along.

From a Cafe in Tbilisi

Jobs that entail international travel usually consist of a couple of hours of meetings and many hours of traveling and killing time between them. That’s what I am doing now – sitting in a cafe in the Georgian capitol waiting to go to another meeting. My travel partner is in the booth across from me catching up with an old friend in Georgian. Thankfully, I can’t understand a word. So, I’m taking advantage of free wi-fi, surfing the web and catching up on e-mail. Too bad it’s too early for a martini. It sure would make things more interesting!