844 days, 20,256 hours, 1,215,360 minutes, or 72,921,600 seconds. That is the approximate duration of my world tour. I never wanted it to end and now, in a manner of speaking, I suppose it never has to. If you wish to go by country do so by clicking on one above. They are numbered in the order I visited them, more or less. If you enjoy reading about it even a tenth as much as I enjoyed living it then you will not have wasted your time. Grab a refreshing beverage, settle in a comfortable chair, and make a journey across the world, experiencing it as I did. Then get off your ass and check it out for yourself. You're not getting any younger.

Foothills of the Caucasus - Part I (Near Zaqatala, Azerbaijan)

May 19th, 2010 - My friend Amy (Peace Corps Muskateer) had an idea to head to a mountain village not far from Zaqatala and do a little camping. The only public transport is an Amphibious Assault Vehicle (minus the assault, I like the way it sounds) over a riverbed that departs every other day….or not. Once there her plan became a bit nebulous as she was not entirely sure where we would camp, what route we would take, or how we would even get back. My kind of plan.

What she did know was that an A.A.V (minus the assault) did leave from the bazaar at 3 pm on Sunday. Getting in was taken care of. Getting out? Weeellll… The trip in was unique and involved a bone jolting ride over a rocky riverbed with a river crossing here and there for good measure. I really had to hold onto the bread for dear life.

The bread? The guy sitting next to me had bags of homemade bread he was transporting to his village. At one point he switched seats and left me in charge of bread stabilization (it was situated on top of a metal barrel and therefore under constant threat of cascading to the floor). Bread is not just a dietary staple in Azerbaijan, it skirts the realm of the sacred. Letting the sacred bakery product touch the floor would be a little like using it to clean my rim. An exaggeration? Perhaps, but only a slight one.

This trip was a refreshing change from the usual 'what the hell is happening where am I going what am I doing why is everyone staring at me like I'm a two headed unicorn' semi-euphoric state I normally find myself when traveling in a land where nary a word of English is spoken. Amy speaks Azeri and was able to communicate with our travel companions. One of the more colorful characters was an WWII veteran who had come into Zaqatala to celebrate Azerbaijan's Victory Over Fascist Assholes Day (I may have taken liberties with the translation). This guy fought with the Soviets against Hitler's invading army. Imagine the stories he has locked within his vault.

Is it me or does the guy on the far left look as if he's losing an argument with the voices in his head?

Amy decided to submit our 'plan' to committee (i.e. other passengers) and see what advice we could garner from the local denizens. Keep in mind that the idea of camping outside the context of some necessary task (animal herding, overland travel, refugee migration, etc.) simply for shits and giggles is utterly foreign to these folks. I could tell by the exchange that a thoughtful debate was taking place. The initial 'advice' we received was as follows: You'll die. You're crazy. Stay at my house. You cannot do it. You can do it. There is not a trail. There is a trail. There is too much snow. You'll die. There are wolves. Bears. Lions. Tigers. You'll die. Stay at his house. No, stay at my house. You can do it but you should stay at my house. You'll die. Stay at her house. You need a horse. You can do it but why would you want to. You'll die. Stay at my house. Get a horse.

And then came our run in with the authroities. At one of the village stops Colonel Azeri entered the A.A.V and began interviewing us. El Jefe started with me but quickly veered towards Amy when presented with my vapid 'I'm with her' smile. He looked at our passports and then began telling Amy that we needed to have permission to be in the area in the form of some sort of registration. Amy, politely and with diplomatic deftness, gave him the 'What the fuck are you talking about?' routine. Registration? For what? The lottery? It had the smell of a fictitious regulation that would soon be followed with a request for a 'fee'. Amy did score points with our inquisitor when she correctly answered that a recent holiday celebration was held in honor of Heydar Aliyev, the deceased former president. Even without the translation I picked up what was going on and could see the W'ell played my dear lass' facial expression our interrogator bore.

So in an apparent display of self-importance he exited the vehicle with our passports and began making calls. In his absence Amy informed me that we were in fact married (she mentioned the possibility of our nuptials earlier as a way of avoiding questions about our culturally perplexing status) and began sharing relevant personal information married couples might possess just in case our union was put to the test. After about a half hour Army Man returned, handed back our passports, and informed us to leave the area after our two day camping extravaganza. After further instructing us to inform them of our departure he then looked at me and exclaimed 'Welcome to Azerbaijan!' in Azeri. Damn glad to be here. My name's Alice. Welcome to Wonderland.

If what a sheep herder later told us is accurate this is the last military checkpoint before reaching the Russian border. Apparently, the Azeri's are too 'lazy' (his words not mine) to set up an outpost right on the border along with their Russian counterparts. 

When we arrived at the village more high level talks ensued. Everyone continued to insist that we stay with them at their house but Amy held fast explaining that she really wanted to sleep outside in the forest and that it is something she enjoyed doing very much back home. It is not that either of us was against a homestay, it's just that we had our hearts set on a camping trip. We were finally led to the trail leading to the hills but not before stopping for tea and homemade jam at a local home. The WWII vet joined us. It was an excellent way to begin our journey. The family even provided us with some homemade yogurt cheese for our trip. Can't get that in the Adirondacks.....or can you?

No, no I understand but we actually want to sleep in the forest inside a nylon house that I have magically contained in my mystical bag. Yes, I am retarded. Yep, he is too. That's why we got married. I know we're probably going to die but at least we'll be together....

We did eventually set up camp in the forest on a trail leading to animal pastures on a nearby hilltop. Our plan was to reach the top but the dying light stopped us short. It was just as well as the tree cover provided additional protection from the night time rains that befell the region.

The next morning we joined a couple of Azeri buckaroos (as in cow herders) that had passed us on the trail on horseback while we were packing up. In the tradition of Azeri hospitality we were invited for a morning picnic and spent a good hour soaking up the scenery from the treeless pasture atop the hill. I was again thankful for Amy's language skills as the ability to communicate with our new friends made the experience all the more enjoyable. They, like everyone, were curious to know what the hell we were doing and why. Amy tried to explain but I still think the idea of camping for the sake of camping is just beyond their ability to comprehend. Pretty sure there are not many 'married' couples tramping through the Caucasus region.

Is this not a fine example of the quintessential 'shit-eating' grin? 

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