Solo female travel advice = happiness.

I usually travel alone. There are hundreds of reasons to do so, many of which I mention in these posts. But what it comes down to is: Either learn to get along in strange places without your friends, or stay home!

Saturday, November 10, 2018

How to learn, practice, and improve your Spanish - all levels

This post is updated often! Last update: 11/2018

As someone who learned Spanish in high school and actually still speaks and understands it, I wanted to compile a list of resources for friends who want to learn or practice their Spanish. I've divided this list by level, but definitely jump around to find what works for you. I've included my own opinions on each resource, which you are free to ignore.


Note: you can access a similar entry for French here.


Beginner:
You need to start at the beginning.
  •  I'm really picky about YouTube videos that explain grammar. Most of them just have an image of someone's talking face try to explain complex grammar rules. I think that animated videos are much more engaging and clear. My own animated video lessons to introduce basic grammatical elements in Spanish - watch these until you have them memorized.

  • Memorize the conjugations of basic verbs, days of the week, basic phrases. You can do this any way you want (flash cards, etc). I suggest listening to these songs to make the basics harder to forget: iTunesSpotifyAmazon

  • Duolingo app (for smartphones, also has desktop interface) definitely fragmented. Very similar to Rosetta Stone, except it’s free. I recommend this because a) the price is right and b) it’s very portable and feasible for using when you’re waiting in line or on the bus. I don’t recommend this until you have seen at least the first 3 lingolearner videos, just like I don’t recommend RS until you’ve had at least a few weeks of basic instruction.

  • Coffee break Spanish: these are created by Radio Lingua. There are free podcasts but lots of pushes to buy their programs, so be aware of that. I recommend getting the podcasts straight through iTunes because the site is very clickbait heavy.

  • Label your house with Spanish words. Being sure to include the gender of each noun (la ventana), put sticky notes reinforced with tape on the objects they label. Avoid putting English words on your labels. If you absolutely need more guidance, draw the object next to the Spanish word. Here's a list that has lots of vocab words you'll need. 


Beginner/Intermediate: 
You had some Spanish classes and/or have been to Spanish speaking countries and remember a few words/phrases/grammar points, but you don’t remember how to conjugate verbs or articulate your thoughts.
  • Review these grammar video lessons. One viewing should be enough, if you find that you require more than one viewing to really “get” it, have a look at the “beginner” list until you feel more comfortable.
  • More lessons: This BBC site is no longer updated but has tons of well-produced lessons and videos for free.
  • This is a good stage in which to see which areas are going well and which areas need more work. I’m pretty Type A so I recommend literally making a list of these things to help guide your future focus. Try going through the grammar elements (on the left side, where it says "free lessons") of this site to categorize your needs.
  • Coffee break Spanish: these are created by Radio Lingua. There are free podcasts but lots of pushes to buy their programs, so be aware of that. I recommend getting the podcasts straight through iTunes because the site is very clickbait heavy.
  • SpanishPod101: Like Coffee Break, this is manufactured by a company that has a strong agenda when offering their free content: they want you to buy the premium subscription. Personally I get annoyed with stuff like that, BUT if you're the type who is willing to spend a bit more time maneuvering around the ads as long as things are free, you're good to go!

  • Try reading a book. No, really! This one I wrote features a simple storyline, stays in the present tense, and gradually adds more complex grammatical elements as you read. There are reminders and lessons in the margins and in between the lines so you don't have to keep a dictionary nearby. It's best read on an ipad so you can easily zoom in for the verb charts, but is also available for Kindle and in paperback.

Intermediate:
You can converse in basic Spanish, but sometimes get way out of your depth when people answer your questions.  You can read some sentences in major publications in Spanish. You have trouble with complex grammatical constructions, including subjunctive and compound past/future tenses.

  • Watch this series. It's from the late 1980's so it can seem dated, but it has the bonus of being comprehensive, tried and true. In fact, I remember watching this when I was first learning Spanish in high school!

  • Look over Spanish news sites:  EuroNews is pretty neutral and has lots of interesting stories. I like the "adventures" section since I have more than enough news about politics. You can listen and watch videos AND read the transcripts below them. Be ready for the Castilian (castellano) style and accents though.
  • One way to keep Spanish visible and engaging is to shift your learning from the classroom into your everyday life. One way to do that: binge some memes in Spanish by following accounts on your favorite social media apps. Here's a good start: the latest most widely circulated Spanish-language memes. You can also follow some instagram accounts for more; I like So.Mexican even though (like all meme pages) they eventually recycle their content, and some posts are in English or Spanglish. PG-13 alert: some posts are also ridiculous and/or smutty (basically, your typical instagram account). I still recommend it though, especially if you're ready to learn some slang. Another one is QueBoleta from Colombia; this one is my favorite so far. It has lots of text posts and features relatively basic grammar. When you're ready to branch out, here's one that has a fitness focus and is good for a new lens on vocabulary.
  • Coffee break Spanish: these are created by Radio Lingua. There are free podcasts but lots of pushes to buy their programs, so be aware of that. I recommend getting the podcasts straight through iTunes because the site is very clickbait heavy.

  • Hola Viajeros: Slowly spoken Spanish with no translations. Each link has about 2 paragraphs of free content before you are begged to buy an audiobook. You know the drill: use it for what you can, and if it clicks perfectly for you, it might be worth a purchase.


Intermediate/Advanced:
You can hold entire conversations in Spanish, but you have plenty of new vocabulary to learn and need reinforcement of aural and oral skills. You still come across plenty of expressions that you don’t understand, but you can read entire sentences in major publications in Spanish.

  • Brush up on your idioms. Just like the previous phrase doesn’t require an actual brush, these expressions use words that are loosely or not at all connected to their meanings. There’s a decent list of Spanish idioms here (scroll down past the ads).
  • Coffee break Spanish: these are created by Radio Lingua. There are free podcasts but lots of pushes to buy their programs, so be aware of that. I recommend getting the podcasts straight through iTunes because the site is very clickbait heavy.
  • Hola Viajeros: Slowly spoken Spanish with no translations. Each link has about 2 paragraphs of free content before you are begged to buy an audiobook. You know the drill: use it for what you can, and if it clicks perfectly for you, it might be worth a purchase.
  • Watch some funny YouTube videos. These are NOT lessons, just silly videos that are really popular. Can be PG-13 but mostly harmless. Check 'em out: Daniela Bos (Mexico), Werevertumorro (Mexico), EnchufeTv (Ecuador). I would also check out recommended videos once you watch those to discover more channels!




Advanced:
You can speak/read/understand Spanish completely over 90% of the time. You want more practice and to keep your Spanish at a high level.
  • Watch a soap opera: I go to Hulu Latino, chuck on the Spanish subtitles (basically captions), and binge guilt-free by telling myself I'm practicing my Spanish. Most telenovelas feature deliberate speech that's easy to follow (and the captions don't hurt)... but they are also painfully predictable. I'm currently watching Santa Diabla and I counted 3 times so far in one episode that the characters flashback to a memory that happened in the same episode. If this happened in an English-language show none of us would watch, but hey, we need the repetition in Spanish, right?
     
  • There are also good quality Spanish shows. These won't be as easy to follow because they are written for people who actually expect something unique and entertaining (unlike the telenovela audience, ha!). Try Casa de Papel on Netflix (English name to search: Money Heist).



  • I've heard good things about La Casa de Flores, or the House of Flowers, on Netflix. This will be my next show after Santa Diabla (or whenever I get tired of the relentless flashbacks, ha!), so I'll update you with my thoughts.

Image result for casa de flores
  • Watch El Pulso de la República. Similar to The Colbert Report and Bill Maher in the United States in that they do transmit news, but mock it all the while. Politicians are particularly targeted. Double entendres, references to regional Latino politics, mocking accents, and quick repartees abound – not for the faint of Spanish-learning heart!


  • Watch "El tiempo entre costuras." It's a very well done period piece that is sadly no longer available on any of the regular streaming sites (the link I gave you is to a somewhat shady Vimeo channel that may be shut down soon). Castellano (Spain) Spanish, so no Latin American speech styles.


    All levels:

    Listen to some Spanish music!

  • There are so many awesome Spanish-language songs I'm not even sure how to group them! I'll pile a list here and let you find which ones you like best. Despacito not included ;)
    • Shakira
    • Carlos Vives
    • Maluma
    • Enanitos Verdes
    • Fonsi 
    • J Balvin
    • Nicky Jam
    • Marc Antony
    • Enrique Iglesias
    • Ozuna
    • Juanes
    • Jennifer Lopez
    • Celia Cruz
    • Julieta Venegas


      Got any more resources or ideas for Spanish learners? Send them to me!

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Chicks before Dictatorships: Visiting Turkmenistan as a solo female traveler

Once I left Georgia, it was time for the most intimidating destination of the trip: Turkmenistan.

I will confess that my desire to see Turkmenistan was based almost entirely on my ignorance of it. Like... who goes to Turkmenistan? I saw this rhetorical question as a major reason to go there, but most others I talked to about it (especially in nearby Azerbaijan) would utter it in an incredulous tone that did not leave room for positive, adventurous interpretation.

Many people seem to share this reluctance: Turkmenistan (can we call it T-stan from now on?) is the 7th least visited country in the world with about 7,000 annual visitors. For context, North Korea does not even make the list of the 25 least visited places. The least visited place on earth is Nauru in Micronesia, a country with an area of 21km (who wants to go?!). France is the most visited with... can you guess?
85 million tourists every year!
[Sources for travel stats here]

So obviously you want to go to T-stan now, right? Well, the first issue is planning the trip. Air travel to the capital (Ashgabat) is not very popular (see travel stats above), and only a handful of airlines go there at all. When they do, it's at very random times. For example, traveling from Tbilisi to Ashgabat required a circuitous detour via Turkey on Turkish airlines, resulting in an arrival at Ashgabat at 2am. There are also options to see T-stan by land, essentially retracing the silk road. Sadly I did not have time for such an excursion, but you might!

Americans traveling to T-stan are required to have a Letter of Invitation from a tour company. I went with Turkmen Travel, which I would describe as "technically gets the job done but nothing to worship," as I'll explain throughout this post. They sent my LOI as a picture of the document rather than the original document, which several airport personnel weren't too pleased with, but it worked. When I arrived at the airport at 2am, I had to take that letter to a counter that said "Visa" which had a long line. The person at that counter takes your passport (warning for people who become anxious when separated from their passports) and gives you a little visa bill ($85 USD, must be paid in American cash (?!)). Rather than paying then and there, which would make sense, you take the bill to another counter with another line, and magically when you arrive and present the bill you are now expected to pay $96 USD even though the bill clearly states less. The people in front of me who complained about this were dismissed with a curt "It's a registration fee." I didn't bother complaining because a) I rarely indulge in confrontation at 2am and b) others' complaints were not successful. What are you going to do, refuse? Anyway, the first tip is to bring plenty of American cash.

Turkmen Travel was great because it was a one-stop shop. I got my paperwork, hotel, tours, and (most crucially) a pre-arranged ride from and to the airport all with the same reservation. My 3 day/3 night booking included everything except lunch and dinner for $685 (paid in cash the next day at the hotel, I guess I had the first night on an honor code basis). Gulp! It seemed pretty hefty at the time but when you realize the amount of effort that goes into it, it semi makes sense. For example, the drive to the Darvaza crater was 4 hours each way, which if you think of it as an Uber ride accounts for about half the cost in and of itself. It was also awesome not to have to deal with getting a taxi at, after the visa shenanignas, 3 am.

Before we get into more details, I have one extremely important piece of advice. DO NOT VISIT T-STAN IN JULY. I didn't really have a choice, since this is when my friend was going home to see family (see Azerbaijan post) and I had time between teaching and taking summer classes in Boston.

But July is the hottest month and, go figure, not a good time to go into the Karakum desert. I realize there is a heat wave throughout the entire world right now, but here you pretty much have to be inside from 8:30am (when temps are already in the 100s) to 7:30pm (a little before sunset). I obviously didn't do this since I had a lot to see in very little time, but my body is still not happy about it. Especially since, like Egypt and Jordan, this is a rather conservative country and dressing in clothing that shows any arm or leg will result in weird looks and unwanted attention.

Very typical "casual" Turkmen lady outfit. These hats seemed ornate to me but they were definitely very common. I did not make a great impression in my flowy top and linen pants, but on the plus side I didn't die of heat stroke. 


I had booked a tour that included Nisa, Ashgabat, and the Karakum desert. I had what can only be called a nap (4am bedtime, 8am breakfast) and then my guide and driver for the day met me at my hotel. Before I even got in the car, my guide warned me that taking pictures in certain places, even from the car, was forbidden and could result in a police officer taking my phone. It turns out that this is much more feasible than I initially thought. As soon as we started driving, officers would constantly either direct us onward or wave us to the side of the road for a random "show us your papers" check. Our car got checked twice in 2 hours. The driver nonchalantly handed 2 laminated documents to the officer each time this happened, and after a few minutes we were back on our way. My guide told me it was extremely common and not even an inconvenience for Turkmen people to do this several times a day.

So you're not allowed to take pictures of any government buildings. This is rough because almost every building in the city of Ashgabat seems to be a ministry or government office of some sort. The buildings are all made of white marble with gold accents.

Government buildings in the distance. Don't worry, I took this from the safety of my hotel room. 
Our first destination was Nisa, where you can see the ruins of an ancient settlement, supposedly built around 200 BC. My guide gave me lots of details and facts about this place, but unfortunately I was a sub-par audience.

Guide: "And here in this room were discovered remnants that lead us to believe that there were once statues carved into the wall, a symbol of importance for then king Arsaces..."

Me:

Nisa is really neat though. Do make sure to wear a hat because there are no ceilings and very little shade. Another tip for that location would be to look out for the hundreds of wasps that have made a home in the precious UNESCO-recognized mud walls.

The Nisa settlement as seen from the entry point.

Monuments

After Nisa, we drove around (in the mercifully air-conditioned car) to see the various monuments in Ashgabat. This site breaks them down for you, so I'll just give you my impressions. 

The "president" (/dictator) and former president have many monuments in their honor. Niyasov, the former president, wrote a book entitled Ruhnama. Since he was a dictator very influential, the book is required reading in all Turkmen schools (kindergarten to university). You must cite passages of it verbatim without error in order to obtain a driver's license. In addition to many monuments to the author, there is also a monument to the book itself

According to Wikipedia: Each evening at 8:00 pm, the cover opens and a recording of a passage from the book is played with accompanying video. Here's an inexplicably head-banging excerpt from a documentary with footage of it. 

That's nice, but we can all agree it's not quite enough recognition for the book. But what else could you possibly do? Niyasov was ready with the answer. He officially changed the name of the month of September to "Ruhnama." Because he finished writing the book in September. Obviously! Publishers, are you writing this down? Also, henceforth, the month of May will be referred to as "Las Pastillas de Oro."

Very few in, no one out

We know that not many people visit T-stan. Sadly, the other side of that coin is that very very few citizens are allowed out of the country. My guide (name withheld just in case) told me about how, when he was studying languages and tourism, he earned a spot in a study abroad program in Germany. He completed his visa requirements, bought his ticket, and had his family come with him to the airport to see him off. He got as far as the border patrol before he was told that he was not allowed to leave the country. As someone who studied tourism, he "knew too much" about T-stan. He simply turned around and went back home. The only country to which Turkmen citizens can freely travel is Turkey. 

That reminds me, a quick demonym lesson: People from T-stan are Turkmen, people from Turkey are Turkish. And demonym is a greek amalgamation of "demo" (people) and "nym" (name)  the name of the people (from a certain place). Lesson over, good job!

The food

Not so vegetarian friendly. I had lots of lentil soup and bread. I ordered a beet salad once and got a heaping plate of shredded beets, which was hilarious and a little bit gross. 

The craters

Ranked as the number 1 thing to see in Turkmenistan, the craters are Kind of a Big Deal. I was pumped because I had read several blogs of people visiting the craters and getting these epic pictures. The biggest-deal crater is known as the Doorway to Hell and the guide/driver (a different one from my guide the day before) gamely drove me the 4 hours out into the Karakum desert to see it. We brought sufficient supplies:
Frozen water bottles were a necessity.

On the way, there are 2 more craters. These are definitely the "opening act" craters, and maintenance on them is not exactly up to code.




We finally arrived at the Doorway to Hell crater, and it's extremely cool. To see. It's extremely not cool to stand next to in a desert that was already 110 degrees before you stood next to a massive flaming pit of fire. 

There were only a handful of other tourists there; all of them were camping for (at least) the night in the nearby yurts, which made me jealous.
"People are going to want to see these yurts," I thought to myself. 

However, there was a major bummer. There was now a guard rail! And it was sufficiently maintained! So sad. My guide said they put it up last month, probably because it's dangerous to let people get right up to the edge of an enormous flaming fire pit. But still! 




This was clearly the spot for a handstand picture, but the guardrail was not very photogenic. 

There was only one option. 
It was time to cross my fingers and hope that no state police were lurking around, and hop it. 

My driver was doing his best to take the handstand pic, but he was so nervous about me being over the guardrail that he kept struggling with it. At that point a charming Italian guy walked up and showed me the screen of his fancy camera: it was my handstand!

So, how did it turn out? I don't know yet, he was camping out there with no digital connectivity and said he could email it to me "sometime in August." I was also so hot that I might have given him an incorrect email address. I'll put it on my instagram if/when it comes through!

Scraping away the rubble in preparation for possibly the most badass handstand pic yet; also apparently doing a Michael Jackson impression. 

In case you're still wondering why there are no other tourists in the pics from this part of the trip: practically no one else was there! At the mosque where I took the handstand pic, there was one other tourist who was inside at the time. That's the upside of visiting one of the least popular visited places on earth 😉



Books for this part of the trip:
Small great things, Jodi Picoult. Amazing plot and writing style, horrific subject matter.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Tbilisi, Georgia

After a week in Azerbaijan, it was time to take a long weekend to explore some nearby countries that I wouldn't otherwise travel to separately. One of those was Georgia, a confusing place to tell people you're visiting if you're from the states ("not that Georgia"). Fun fact: the only time I went to the state of Georgia in the US was on a layover.

I stayed in the capital, Tbilisi, which means "warm place" in ancient Georgian due to the thermal springs that tempted some ancient dude to found the city there. Ancient Georgian is about as intelligible to me as modern Georgian - not. at. all. I was not even close to understanding words. Their written language reminded me of Hindi or some other southeast Asian script. It was beautiful!


I only had 2 days in Georgia due to the horrible flight schedule between my next destination and any other country ever (dictatorships be like that sometimes, more on that in the next entry). So I crammed in 2 tours: a tip-based evening tour and a prepaid all-day tour led by the lovely Tamo. They were both awesome and had relatively little overlap (the main overlap was a visit to a bakery that has been continuously functioning for hundreds of years. I was obviously ok with visiting the bakery multiple times.). 

My favorite part of the tours (other than the bakery, obvi) was the street vendors selling fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. Just like in Azerbaijan, pomegranates are big here, and I am literally eating it up. 
 

Another fave in Tbilisi was the statue that overlooks the city: Our Mother of Georgia. The protector of the city is female and holds a bowl of wine in one hand and a sword in the other. My guides differed on the symbolism of the wine (is it held as a tribute to the hard work that goes into the production process, or raised in a gesture of welcome to friendly visitors? I got a vibe that it was the latter.) but the sword's message is pretty clear ("I like swords.")

Wikipedia pic


My pic (after taking the cable car to the top of the city).

Tbilisi is has one of the best exotic-to-manageable ratios I've experienced. It is really different from western European cities, but absolutely charming and very picturesque. Everyone speaks Georgian, most people speak Russian, and a healthy handful of guides/merchants/hotel staff speak great English. 

Speaking of Russian, we had a middle-aged Russian lady on the night tour. She left halfway through the tour and I asked the guide what was up. He said she had lectured him on presenting Stalin and Lenin as neutral facts in Georgia's history. She was upset because she expected that when he mentioned those names he would extol the virtues of the Soviet influence on Georgia. When he gently told her he wasn't going to do that, she left the tour in a huff. I was shocked that someone willing to travel internationally could have such a narrow worldview. In related news, Russia's  brainwashing of its citizens seems to be quite successful. 

On the opposite side of the spectrum, I met some awesome girls from Poland and Spain on my other tour, who like me were just hoping to explore a new country over the weekend. Mission accomplished for the 3 of us!

My gripe for Tbilisi:
Transportation to/from the airport.
It's extremely cheap, which is awesome. The cost is .50 lari (ლ), or about 20 cents in USD, and goes pretty far (it takes 45 minutes each way and brings you straight into the city center). The problem is that you must have it in exact change. I changed money at the airport (ouch) so I could take the bus, and then when I got on and offered a 5 bill had the attendant wave me away shaking her head. Um, ok. The bus left. I went inside and asked the info desk what happened. She explained and told me to go to one of the shops to get change (some travel blogs say the info ladies will give you change. Lies!). So I got 5 1 coins and tried again. The next bus came in 20 minutes (not bad!) and I proudly offered my 1 coin, only to get the dreaded head-shake and a stream of Georgian explanation. I motioned that I was ok losing .50 cents and please just take this coin: no. Ok, I would pay for 2 people so it would be exact change? Also no. Finally a sweet woman just paid for me. I tried to give her the 1 coin in thanks (it was double her investment!) and even she waved me away. One person, .50 cents. NO OTHER OPTION.

The bus attendant on the way to the airport fell asleep on the machine. People kept waking him up to pay and he was livid. A lot of people just didn't pay (even when he was awake) and I'm beginning to think that was the better option. 


Book read during this portion: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Very entertaining, but a bit too long-winded for me. 

Friday, July 20, 2018

Azerbaijan

Remember when I moved to Boston and took a while to adjust to the freezing temperatures and hostile people? One of my lifelines came in the form of a friendship with a gorgeous, sassy, hilariously pessimistic girl from Azerbaijan. After 4 years of knowing each other, I finally convinced her to let me come with her the next time she went home to visit family and renew visas etc.

Let's start with this.
That's where it is :)

I had already learned a few things about Azerbaijan through my friend, such as:
a. Azeri is the official language, but the middle/upper class speaks (sometimes exclusively) Russian. The country was a former Soviet Union nation.
b. The vice president is the wife of the president (!!!!!!!). Nepotism is extremely popular.
c. Things like feminism and government criticism are... not popular.


But there was still much to learn, so after teaching a summer school course in Boston I hopped on a plane (via NYC) to the capital city, Baku.

Sites to see:
1. The Maiden Tower (old town)
Named for a woman who, legend has it, got a little too interested in a poor man and was sequestered in the fortress tower by her family to avoid a shameful union with him. She jumped to her death from the top story. I now realize I should have asked my friend when exactly this is alleged to have happened. I assume it was like the middle ages but now that I think about it the honor/money-heavy marriage mentality here does not seem to have changed much.


2. The Flame Towers (old town)
Azerbaijan is reportedly the home country of the prophet Zarathustra, who started the movement that developed into the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrians worship fire (among other cool stuff), and these modern office buildings pay homage to those religious roots. There are plenty of non-modern vestiges of ancient Zoroastrianism though, like number 4 on this list.





3. The Carpet Museum (old town)
France has wine and cheese. Germany has cars. Azerbaijan has carpets.
The craftsmanship that goes into carpet making is so complex that I watched a slow motion animated video on how to do it and STILL cannot fathom how one thread at a time can result in something so intricately detailed as the carpets produced here. There is a museum dedicated to the art form in which you can see not only hundreds of carpets spanning from the 15th century to the present day but also interactive loom displays where you can try your hand at carpet making (you will suck at it). The museum building itself is in the form of a rolled up carpet, which I think we can all agree is just the best.


And don't you dare call them Persian carpets! Azerbaijan is pretty sore on this subject.

A salty jab in the carpet museum #carpetwars
                                              

4. Ateshgah - the Fire Temple (outside the city)
Built on space that, during the 7th century, was thought to be holy due to the fires that seemed to burn constantly in the desert (a natural gas channel below ground provides constant natural fuel), this temple was obvi a good spot to worship fire for the Zoroastrians (see #2). You can go into the center of the compound where a large fire is burning even today. If you are masochistic, you stay there for more than 2 seconds. The average temperature during my stay in Azerbaijan was 99 degrees Fahrenheit, and in the sun it feels like about 110, and next to the massive fire pit it feels like 200. Still, a few tourists were dauntlessly taking pictures by it. Psychos.



5. Gobustan - Petroglyph site (outside the city)
My favorite! Generations of tribes have contributed to these rock carvings that show not only animals and hunting scenes but also dance parties. There is a museum (partially air conditioned, glory be!) with well-done interactive displays showing not just details about the carvings but also similarities between these petroglyphs and others discovered around the world.


Image result for gobustan dance carving

The only thing that is really disturbing is that while animals are portrayed somewhat realistically, and men are portrayed perhaps with a bit of delusional phallic superiority, women in the carvings are portrayed without heads or arms. Obviously my interpretation of that design choice isn't foolproof, but it doesn't seem to bode well for valuing women's intellectual and artistic contributions at the time.

Animals

Man
As my friend noted, the guy on the left was perhaps "the first porn star."

Women
How are they holding the oars/bows?

Other things to experience in Baku include:
1. Pomegranates
They. are. so. good. They factor prominently in local art. I learned how to cut them like a pro.


2. Art
The magnet that you see on the top left of the second picture above came from an art gallery in the old town that features the work of artist Ali Shamsi. When we ducked in, the artist himself was padding around barefoot in his studio (apparently a rare sighting) as customers fawn over his gorgeous works of art. The person usually in charge of ringing up purchases had left the counter to help another customer, so I was awkwardly standing with the magnet and money in my hand when the artist himself saw me. I motioned to pay him and he immediately walked away (I wasn't too surprised, this was not exactly the procurement of a priceless canvas, which several other customers seemed to be interested in doing). But then he came back with a little envelope. He drew an impromptu little still life on the envelope to match the print on the magnet and handed it to me. Then he gave me a big smile and said something in Russian I didn't understand, but my friends translated as "You have a strong guardian angel," and he wouldn't let me pay for the magnet. So cool.

3. Food
It is not difficult, I repeat, NOT difficult to be a vegetarian here so far! There is always a cucumber tomato salad or eggplant-based dish to be had. Also, the food is extremely cheap. Even outings at high end restaurants cost a fraction of what a meal would in Boston. This one (in the touristic old city) cost about $5/person including tip:


New travel tip:
Bring magnets!
I brought these tiny magnets on a hunch and they are definitely paying off. I'm currently using them to secure clothes to a clothesline since there are no clothespins in my air bnb. This shirt held overnight despite some gnarly wind!

I also use them to secure things that I would normally use safety pins for (rolling up hemlines, etc.).

Gripes for Azerbaijan:
1. The (lack of) recycling
There is one recycling bin in the city: in the touristic old town center, not far from the Maiden tower. Essentially no one uses it. The big apartment buildings are at least a 30 minute walk from there, and many people would have to take the bus or subway to get there. I had generated so many plastic bottles (tap water isn't potable) that there was no way I could throw them in a dumpster. I dutifully traipsed the ~ 2k with my bulging recycling bag, much to the chagrin of my friend who had to share the strange looks we got. In true pessimistic Azeri fashion, she reminded me the whole way that they probably just toss the recycling in with the rest of the dumpster trash. The thought of all that plastic in a major capital city going directly into the environment is sickening.

2. The attitudes regarding marriage
As your friendly neighborhood unmarried-and-extremely-happy 32 year old, I was appalled. I'll give you an example. Another local friend, who I'm convinced will soon be a millionaire running tours in Baku with her perfect English, shared her experience with me: "Oh yeah. If you go to any doctor with any sort of pain, their first question will be 'Are you married?' If you're not married, that's the problem. It doesn't matter if your leg is hanging off by a thread. 'If you had a husband, this wouldn't be happening.'"
We are not talking about your judgmental neighborhood middle aged gripers. These are medical professionals peddling this nonsense. Grow up!


Tomorrow I leave for a short solo side trip to Georgia and on to Turkmenistan. I've been getting some very weird and sometimes overtly incredulous reactions when I've told Azeri people that I'm going to Turkmenistan. A reaction I got more than once was "Let us know when you get back safely... well, IF you get back safely." Is it really that bad? I will report back!

Books for this part of the trip: La distancia entre nosotros, Reyna Grande. Very good. Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead. Horrific but I learned several new words. Where'd you go, Bernadette, Maria Semple. Not many epistolary books these days!