anecdotes, blog news

Physical challenges on the stairways to paradise…

Yesterday’s outing to the Kubach Cave was sort of a test for me. I’ve always been a pretty healthy person, albeit fatter than I ought to be. That is, of course, because I’m not as “herbal” as I ought to be… (with many apologies to Livingston Taylor). I like good food and I drink a lot of beer and wine, as well as the odd cocktail. I probably should stop doing that, since I’m in my 50s, but I’ve got no reason to hang around here… So I might as well enjoy myself while I can.

Here’s James Taylor’s brother, Livingston, singing the song of my people…

Still, it’s not that easy for me to climb up and down stairs anymore. I’m actually pretty lucky, though. I’ve so far been blessed with very robust physical health. I have some friends who have needed knee replacements or other complicated orthopedic interventions. I don’t have any problems with my knees (yet). I do have lower back aches that can sometimes make walking a literal pain, but it’s not so bad that I don’t eventually loosen up.

I was a little worried about yesterday’s caving experience, but it turned out fine. Other than a little minor soreness in my thighs today, I feel mostly okay. I did do a lot of “huffing and puffing”, as my old riding teacher used to say, but I recovered fairly quickly. So now I know that two upcoming physical challenges that I will almost definitely face are well within my reach.

The first challenge I know I will face will be the Cesky Krumlov Castle Tower in Cesky Krumlov, Czechia. I climbed this tower on my birthday in June 2008. One week from this coming Tuesday, we will be back in Cesky Krumlov for a couple of nights. If the weather is good, maybe I’ll work up the gumption to climb the tower again and get some fall views of the beautiful town. During our first visit in June 2008, we happened to arrive in time for the Five Petalled Rose Festival. Everybody was dressed in medieval garb! I thought I had stumbled into a theme park. This time, that festival won’t be going on, but I already know it’s a picturesque town. I was sad we had to leave last time we were there. This time, we’ll get a couple of nights to enjoy the ambiance. And maybe my old body can still handle all those steps at the tower…

Only 162 steps… that’s less than yesterday’s challenge!

Since we’ll have a little more time in 2023, maybe we’ll have the chance to visit the castle itself, although if the weather is nice, I can see myself wanting to just walk around the town. It really is very charming, and I have a feeling it’s a place a lot of American tourists miss. We only found out about it because we stayed in Passau, Germany for my birthday in 2008 and the innkeeper at our hotel told us about it. We had a wonderful day there, and in nearby Cesky Budejovice. Now I’m kind of wishing I could have booked one more night!

We will also be going to Brno and Prague on our next trip, and I suspect there could be climbing challenges in both of those cities. I’ve never been to Brno, but I have read and heard that one of the best activities in that area is caving. There’s a good chance we’ll visit one or two of the 1100 caverns and gorges in the Brno area– especially since only five cave systems are open to the public.

And Prague no doubt has towers to climb… church towers at the very least. I may be in the mood for a visit to a beer spa by then. Prague now has several beer spas. So do other towns in the Czech Republic! Bill and I are really big fans. On the other hand, after our experience at the beer pool in Austria, plain old “beer spas” kind of pale in comparison. Looks like they’ve gotten really pricey now, too.

Prague does have the famous Astronomical Clock Tower, of course… but I see you can take an elevator! Maybe by the time we get to Prague, I’ll be screaming for an elevator! We only have two nights in Prague, anyway. I’m hoping to find us some new art for the house.

The next physical challenge I know I’ll be facing will come when we visit Yerevan, Armenia in November. I know I’ll face the Cascade Steps… and that I used to be able to do them without too much trouble. In fact, there was a time when I climbed up and down them on a daily basis. But then I discovered the escalators and figured out the public transportation system and quit punishing myself with the steps. It’s a shame, really. I have never been a very athletic person, but I have always been pretty strong physically. I just don’t enjoy how I feel when I’m exerting myself. I do, however, like the rush of endorphins. Must be the adrenaline junkie gene that the men on my dad’s side of the family seem to have.

How I remember them in 1995… Special thanks to my Peace Corps friend Elaine, whose photo I ripped off from Facebook (mine are all in storage). 🙁
What they looked like in 2019! Special thanks to Gerd Eichmann on Wikipedia, who authorized use of this unedited photo. շնորհակալություն! (Armenian for thank you!)

The Cascade Steps in Yerevan go up 387 feet, but you can take your time ascending. Or, you can go to the left of the steps and find the seven escalators that will take you up, so you can see the views without getting winded or sore. I suspect the air quality in Yerevan is better than it was in 1995, so I am hoping for some great views of Mount Ararat– if we have decent weather, that is. But we’ll be there a little over a week, so perhaps we’ll have some good luck. I’m sure I’ll climb the steps at least once during our visit.

Over the years, Bill and I have done some pretty great physically active trips. Usually, when we were doing them, I thought I might die. But, as you can see, I never did.

There was the visit to El Yunque in Puerto Rico, where I fell and landed on my ass on a rock. It took months for the tailbone pain to go away. But we had a really great day!

We did a lot of work to get to this crowded waterfall in El Yunque in 2010.

There was the walk from hell from Lake Bled, Slovenia to Vintgar Gorge, during which we neglected to bring water or wear sunscreen. Then, once we got there, we hiked the gorge. It was another great, but exhausting, day. And yes, I made Bill get us a taxi for the ride home.

There was also the time we walked from the port on the Isle of Capri in Italy to the town. It was a long walk uphill. I had a cold, and many Italians were good naturedly laughing at us as we sighed, huffed, puffed, and groaned… We did make it, and we ate lunch served by a guy who looked a lot like Matt Lucas on Little Britain.

I remember climbing up the mountain to visit Highline 179 in Austria and the castle ruins on either side. Later that day, we visited the aforementioned beer pool in Tarrenz, Austria, which perfectly soothed my muscles.

We visited the All Saints Waterfalls (Allerheiligen Wasserfälle) in Baden-Württemberg a few years ago, and that involved some pretty stout climbing… as did our visit to Slap Savica in Bohinj, Slovenia. And I could pontificate all day about our two thrilling, but physically exhausting, trips to the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia!

Bwahahahaha… I guess as long as I keep walking and climbing things, I won’t get quite this big.

We’ve also climbed a whole bunch of church towers in multiple European cities… way too many to list here. And not once has the embarrassing situation in above video ever happened to me. On the other hand, the last time we were in Bruges, I made a point of avoiding that particular tower.

Anyway… I’m just glad we managed to successfully visit the Kubach Cave yesterday and I’m not too worse off for wear today. It gives me hope that my body isn’t too far gone for some of these adventures. I realize that there may come a time when I can’t do this kind of stuff anymore, so I’m going to keep using my body before I lose it. And I will continue to thank God for having really strong and healthy genes. Some of my friends and former classmates haven’t been so lucky.

Bill is off to Bavaria again today, so I guess I’ll spend the next few days planning our upcoming trip. I can hardly wait, because I definitely need a change of scenery… and this blog could use some fresh content. I continue to be shocked that this is my life… and that I’ve managed to have all of the wonderful experiences I’ve already had with Bill. No wonder he makes me smile so pretty. 🙂

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Champagne Bucket trips, holidays

Well, it’s official. In two months, we’ll be in Yerevan…

I don’t remember where I found the featured photo– but it does appear to be a very clear photo of Yerevan. When I lived there, air pollution was so bad that we didn’t get to see Mount Ararat every day. I hope for many pictures of it this time…

Last night was interesting. Bill came home and got out his trusty computer, so he could do some administrative tasks for his job. I had floated the idea of maybe using credit card points to help pay for plane tickets to Yerevan and back for our anniversary in November. It costs a LOT to go to Yerevan– especially when you insist on flying in business class. 😉 So we tried doing that, but realized that while the points would make our tickets significantly cheaper, we’d rather just let them ride and use them for a really epic trip in the future.

With that settled, I booked our eight crazy nights in Yerevan in mid November. I am pretty excited about this trip. I lived in Yerevan for 27 months as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the mid 1990s and haven’t been back since August 21, 1997– the day I left. Things have changed a lot since my departure, although there are still a few people there who remember me from those days. I look forward to showing Bill around and getting to know the city again. If all goes well, I’d like to come back with Bill and show him around the country. There’s a lot to see– and since it’s the size of Maryland, touring the country is doable. We’ll just have to stay out of the dangerous areas near Iran and Azerbaijan.

For this trip, I mainly plan for us to stay near Yerevan. Maybe we’ll go to a couple of nearby spots like Garni/Gerhard and Khor Virap, which are definitely must see excursions. It’s taken me a long time to convince Bill to go… and it’s taken some time to convince myself.

When I left Yerevan, I was really ready to get out of there. I was burned out and depressed. But I’m better now… mentally and emotionally, anyway. Physically, maybe I’m worse. I don’t think I have the stamina I had when I lived in Yerevan and used to walk all over the city. Luckily, we have money now, so we can take cabs. And the cabs now have meters! 😀

In any case, I expect this trip will go fine, and we will be able to come back for more fun, as long as we’re still in Germany and it doesn’t take two days to get there. I am very proud of Armenia. It’s come a long way since I first arrived there in 1995. I have a feeling my mind will be blown by the difference.

Even during the time I lived in Armenia, it changed so much. When we got there in 1995, there was no power in the airport or running water in the public restrooms… By the time I left in 1997, we had 24 hour power, and many places had running water. Now, Yerevan is like a lot of European cities, and has most of what you might ever want or need. The Peace Corps is still there, but Volunteers all live out in the regions. That was becoming true as I left, too. Yerevan is much too fancy for Volunteers now.

In fact, what was once called Hotel Dvin, the hotel where we swore in, is now a super expensive five star resort. I thought about booking it, but decided I’d rather be closer to the center of town, in a place where I can chat up the bartenders. So I chose Paris Hotel Yerevan. I almost booked the Marriott— which was called Hotel Armenia when we arrived in 1995 and stayed on the “old side” of the hotel. It was extremely Soviet in those days, with matronly women sitting on each hall and collecting the room keys (with huge bulblike keyrings) every time we went out of the room. I remember the hot water only worked for two hours in the mornings, and the rooms were downright rustic. After I left, Marriott bought the hotel and fixed it up, but I’ve read a lot of middling reviews. It is significantly more expensive than the hotel I chose, and I prefer to avoid staying in an American corporate hotel… especially one with ties to Mormonism.

On the other hand, you can’t beat the location of the Marriott, as it’s right on Republic Square. But, Paris Hotel is also very close and will probably be quieter. I’ve noticed a lot of street names have changed, and some iconic places have either changed or closed. For instance, I read that the big historic shuka (Pak Shuka) on Mashtots Avenue was bought by an Armenian oligarch who completely overhauled it. What a shame that is! I would have liked to have shown Bill that bustling marketplace. Hopefully we can visit a different shuka in another part of town that hasn’t been turned into a western style supermarket. They are really unique and something special to see.

I look forward to trying some wines, brandies, and local cuisine– especially horovatz (Armenian BBQ)– if I can get it. And I look forward to seeing old friends and making new ones! As hard as being in the Peace Corps was for me, it was a life changing experience on so many levels. I might not be living in Germany if I hadn’t joined the Peace Corps.

I’m also hoping that if this trip goes well, we can arrange a trip to neighboring Georgia. I have been in Georgia, but I haven’t had a proper stay there. Bill went there for work in 2008, but it was about a month after the South Ossetia crisis/Russo-Georgian War. I’d like to go there and try more wines. 😉 Georgian wines are wonderful! And I l’d like to sample wonderful Georgian food and take many photos.

Anyway… 2023 seems to be our year to visit the former Soviet Union. I’m excited about this trip, as well as the one we have planned for next month, to the Czech Republic. This blog is about to come alive again!

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anecdotes

A blast from the past…

For some reason this afternoon, I decided to look up a haunt I used to know about when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Armenia.  During training, we were introduced to a restaurant in Yerevan owned by an Armenian-American named Gerard.  It was called The Chicken Coop.  Gerard also owned a small upscale food store that carried a few odds and ends that Americans would most likely be interested in.

For some reason, I thought of The Chicken Coop today.  I only ate there one time during the entire two years I lived in Armenia.  But I wondered if it was still operational.  I looked it up on Google and didn’t really find anything about the restaurant that suggested that it was still open.  But I did find a photo that mentioned it.  I clicked on the photo and suddenly found myself looking at a whole gallery of pictures taken by a man who had served in the Peace Corps with me.  The pictures were posted in 2008 and it doesn’t look like he still maintains the album.

As I looked at the photos, I was suddenly transported back in time about 18 years.  In fact, today is an anniversary of sorts.  On May 31, 1995, the 32 people in my Peace Corps training group boarded a United Airlines flight to Paris, France, where we would spend the whole day waiting for a 7:30 flight  to Yerevan, Armenia.  Since Armenia is two hours ahead of Paris, we would be landing in Yerevan in the middle of the night.  As I recall, it took many hours for us to get out of the airport.  The public restrooms were filthy and disgusting and the place was poorly lit because there was little electricity back then.

I remember how the group that came before us, A-2, showed up at the airport to say hello to us.  I think they gave us drinks and snacks as we passed through.  Seems to me we were headed to Hotel Armenia just as the sun was rising.  We had breakfast there and a meeting, then went to our rooms on the “old side” of the hotel.  I think I slept all day and regained consciousness sometime that evening.  The next day, we had another meeting and then got shuffled off to our host families.  I remember my name was the first one called when we were getting our host families.

I was 22 years old then… and would be turning 23 about three weeks later.  It was my first big adventure and really quite a daring thing to be doing.  Back then, I was quite a mess and probably had no business going to Armenia.  But I got through the 27 month commitment in one piece and came back profoundly depressed, yet stronger than I was before.  I learned a lot during that time.  Being in the Peace Corps made me braver and awoke the travel bug that I was probably born with.

I wish I could say that I was an exemplary Volunteer or that I joined for altruistic reasons.  I joined the Peace Corps mostly because I wanted to break out of the life I was in at the time.  I was actually very surprised the Peace Corps accepted me, since I didn’t have a particularly exciting resume at the time.  I went to an average college and wasn’t involved in that much service work.  I’d had average grades in college, too.  Maybe it was because my sister was also a PCV at one time.  My overachieving sister had also been a Volunteer, back in the 1980s.  She went to Morocco and the proceeded to embark upon a successful career working for an non-profit organization.  I thought maybe I was headed in the same direction, but fate intervened.

Looking at Zach’s photos, I learned that one of the Peace Corps Volunteers who served in A-5– they had come two years after my group– died in a car accident just as she was on her way to start a new job in Nigeria.  She’d done her time in Armenia, plus worked there for three more years.  I’m ashamed to say that I barely remember her, though she apparently did some really great things for the people of Armenia.  What a tragedy that she lost her life so young.  She sounds like a remarkable young woman.

I pulled down my own photo albums, which are full of a lot of pictures that aren’t as artistic as Zach’s are.  In a way, those photos are kind of painful to look at.  It was an exciting time and I learned and grew a lot, but I was really depressed and unsure of myself back then.  I don’t think I really lived up to my potential.  I can’t say it was wasted time… but I’m sure the time I put in there could have been more wisely spent.  I wish I had spent my time there being more productive than I ultimately was.  I did accomplish some things, though, and I can honestly say that the Peace Corps affected my life in a profound way.

I still talk to some of the people I knew at that time in my life, but it all seems kind of like a dream now. I mean, the years have flown by very quickly and it seems like yesterday… and yet it also seems like a lifetime ago, almost like it never happened.

The group that had survived up until four months before our service ended…  I was really ready to go home by then.
 
 
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