After his first trips to the Himalayas in 1999 and 2003, my dad got some letters from climbing friends all around the world. Once he’d removed the contents from the foreign envelopes, I cut the stamps off the envelopes and saved them in a small match box. Over the course of a year or so, my collection grew to house a dozen or so stamps from places as exotic as Nepal, Italy, and Turkey.
While working in Turkey, I occasionally thought about a little beige and red stamp in a matchbox some 11,000 miles away. It was a 100,000 lira Turkish stamp from Ugr, a Turkish climber who’d invited my dad to climb Mt. Ararat a decade earlier. When I absconded with the discarded envelope holding that foreign stamp, I felt as if I’d scored a real treasure, a tiny fragment of a mysterious far away place too far away for me to ever visit. Now I’d not only come to Turkey, but also scaled Mt. Ararat, experiencing the rugged and tiring joys of mountaineering.
Once we finished our filming on Mt. Ararat, some of the crew started talking about stamp collecting. But instead of collecting stamps of the postal variety, they wanted to collect stamps in passports. Once again, it looked as though stamps would further broaden my horizons. When a spiffy Ford Transit minibus showed up in the parking lot at Camp M, I knew that hopes of additional travel were soon to become a reality.
The journey began with an overnight drive on crazy turkish roads populated with even crazier turkish drivers. I’ve heard many accounts of insane third world driving, but never really appreciated them until I’d experienced a bit of that driving firsthand. Road signs are treated like billboards, bothersome advertisements to be ignored. Dashed stripes denoting passing lanes were treated like cones in a slalom course. Cars whipped back and forth, attempting to change lanes without rolling a wheel over one of the stripes. When blaring, wailing turkish music wasn’t loud enough, the driver could simply veer toward oncoming traffic to prompt an angry symphony of horn honking. Lumbering bovines, who seemed to enjoy meandering down the road, also provided an excuse to practice horn honking. Somehow, though, cows in the road never warranted using brakes.
Thankfully, our drive extended late into the night and the inky blackness outside hid from our eyes the perils flying toward our minibus. Then suddenly, I pushed a pile of bedding from my eyes and descried a splendidly furnished modern hotel room. Perhaps I’d died in a traffic accident and this was the afterlife? This certainly wasn’t unlikely, but then memories of a safe arrival and check-in at a rather luxurious hotel in Yerevan, Armenia filled in the gaps in my sleepy brain.
Though the time spent in Armenia and Georgia was certainly vacation-like, it was still a business trip. The Armenian people have strong ties to Mt. Ararat, so we interviewed a variety of individuals there, from a high-ranking Armenian church official, probably similar to a Cardinal in the Catholic church, to artists and vendors at as flea market across the street from our lodgings. A tour guide took us to ancient monasteries, through a church museum with holy relics, and through a museum containing thousands of artifacts from every civilization which has inhabited Armenia for the past 6000 years. When the day’s work was over, we walked a few blocks from our hotel to the city center, where lighted fountains attracted crowds. The proprietor of Camp M, who called himself the Black Bear, wanted us all to go downtown with him to find “beer and chickens.” We soon realized this meant finding female company at a bar. No one else was interested.
Following our stint in Armenia, we drove back to Georgia, where we spent a final night in Tbilisi before returning to Camp M. Our fourth story hotel room had large windows overlooking Georgia’s form of the National Mall. Government buildings enclosed a large square which housed a multi-lane round about with a giant column in its center. Atop the column, a golden St. George speared a golden dragon.
Before departing Tbilisi, we had just enough time to visit the remains of a stronghold perched on a hill above the city.
Georgia’s capital, the picturesque city of Tbilisi, stood in stark contrast to the rest of the impoverished former Soviet Bloc country. Large abandoned concrete structures dotted every stretch of every road we drove. Curious yellow pipes ran alongside all the roads, probably carrying water or natural gas. Everyone drove ancient, beat up Lada 1127s or monstrous soviet trucks powered by natural gas stored in giant red sausage-like containers on the roof.
While passing through a typically bleak Georgian village which exuded a dilapidated soviet bloc feel, red and blue lights lit up the rear view mirror of the minibus and our very concerned driver applied the brakes. Instead of the policeman coming to our window, the driver of our vehicle went back to talk with the policeman. A great deal of gesticulating conveyed the message that we’d been going 60km/h in a 30km/h zone and now needed to pay a 30,000 dram fine. The Black Bear found this very unsatisfactory and went to talk with the officer.
“Do not do this to us,” the turkish man said slowly and deliberately, “We are guests of your country.” The stoic policeman simply stood and scribbled on a thick packet of forms. Most of us expected the Black Bear to incur additional fines for arguing with the police. And then, just like the unlikely happy ending in an everything’s-too-good-to-be-true movie, the police officer decided to heed the Black Bear’s words and let his country’s guests go without any ticket or fine. A couple of our guys even had their pictures taken with the policeman, who appeared almost flattered by the media attention.
In retrospect, the police incident probably saved our lives. Eager to get his clients back to Camp M, our driver had been cutting corners, both literally and figuratively. Being pulled over reigned in his wild driving style and increasing our chances of making it home intact.
Home was a word I hadn’t thought much about for eight weeks, but as a customs official reached out to take my passport, I realized this final stamp signified the end of my great adventure, the end of The Kid being abroad. And with that heavy thought, I stepped aboard the Boeing 777 bound for Los Angeles International Airport.