In Which I Fall Into A Volcano

Guys.

Guys.

I just…I cannot.

I left off yesterday with the end of our food tour and the knowledge that we’d be seeing our guide again the following day. So it was that I rose, slightly (lol) hungover and ready to explore some mud volcanoes.

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Isn’t this cool?

Let me start off by saying that our group had a few more people in it, which took the edge off the crazy from the tour guide. I appreciated that.

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We took a spiffy Mercedes van the hour and a half or so to the mud volcanoes, which are actually pretty cool. Baku is one of only a few places on the planet where you can see this type of activity, where mud “lava” flows sluggishly from multiple volcanoes, bubbling and oozing as it comes. It’s not hot, mind you, which is a good thing.

Now, if you read the title up there, you know what’s coming. You know.

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Everything is fine!

So there I was, little old me, hapless and clumsy and slightly inept, just a’walking around these volcanoes. We’re wandering from place to place, the guide slightly in front of us, taking photos and generally enjoying the scenery. Harrison had walked away and I decided it was time to move on, spotting a particularly large volcano that I thought warranted a closer look.

So off I went. One step, two steps, everything’s fine.

And then on step three, it happened.

You guys.

The floor was lava.

Aaaaaaand in I went.

Foot deep. Shoe deep. Ankle deep. Halfway up my leg and still sinking, I was mid-step and unbalanced, so what did I do? The only thing I could.

I kept walking.

Aaaaaand in went my other foot. Just as deep, just as muddy. Socks mushing and my shoes glued to the floor as I struggled to continue.

This continued for a few more steps, until I finally made it to firmer ground and collapsed on the floor laughing, with Harrison running up after me and taking advantage of the situation to create permanent evidence of this treachery.

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Horrible man.

Guys, my feet were like cement. Cement! My pants were glued to my legs and all of a sudden I was wearing a size 40 shoe.

The worst bit? It was the beginning of the day. So I spent the rest of the day stomping around in stupid lava shoes, right through an open air museum and in front of hordes of other tourists, all of whom took great joy in pointing out my situation to me, as if I were unaware.

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Strategically cropped at the leg, amirite?

And the tour guide took photos, for y’know, his Instagram. So I guess I’m famous?

The best bit?

The best bit?

You remember how I told you guys we were in a spiffy Mercedes van? Yeah. The driver wasn’t too pleased with my newfound foot situation.

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And that’s how I became the bag lady of Baku.

-Carissa “Super Smooth” Rawson

Help Me, I’ve Eaten and I Can’t Get Up

Hello Dear Readers!

Honestly, I really only spent four days in Baku. It just felt like so much longer since I ate…like…5 meals a day. To that end, for day two we had a cuisine tour scheduled. That wasn’t until the late afternoon though, so obviously we ended up eating a few meals first.

I accidentally woke up late enough that I missed breakfast, which was too bad (I hate losing out on free things), so off we went for more Azerbaijani food and also ice cream. Because why not?

Afterwards, we wandered over to the metro and just…hopped on.

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What am I doing with my life?

Have you guys ever done that? I mean, I can’t read Azerbaijani, and nor can Harrison, so we just climbed aboard and hoped for the best. It worked out pretty well, and we hopped off at some random point later down the line, where we found all the old soviet buildings and the multitudes of people gawked openly at us. Good stuff. Real stuff.

It’s a far cry from the Flame Towers and the Lamborghini dealership, I’ll tell you that. I feel like it was a part of town we (as tourists) weren’t meant to see, which made it all the cooler. Finally, late afternoon fell and we went to find our tour guide.

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Pictures from around the city

He was…something. He had a lot of *qualities*. That’s the polite way of saying he was a total crackpot, which Harrison found hilarious and which I uncomfortably endured, right down to the time he started detailing all the different ways aliens had come and spliced their DNA into ours.

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But the man did know his tea.

No, he wasn’t kidding. But he was sexist, and every time he and I were left alone, we awkwardly stared at each other over the gaping void of silence between us.

He also took us past a series of shops, one of which sold Azerbaijani honey. Now, I like honey and all, but the sign for it was written in Arabic, so obviously I had to go in. Inside was a surly looking dude, really huge and buff and kind of weird to be selling honey. The guide tells the guy that I can speak Arabic (in Azerbaijani) and the guy’s eyebrows shoot up as he looks at me.

So I address him in Arabic, right? How are you, blah, blah. Whatever. And this guys go. “Ok.”

And then every other time I tried to speak to him, he cut me off to speak in English.

Fine. Maybe he didn’t speak Arabic. But then who wrote the sign??

Alas, it is a mystery for the ages. But the honey was good.

OH! OH! I almost forgot the best part! So, he took us to a restaurant (on a food tour? Who would have thought?) and after we finished eating I got up to use the restroom. I had just seen Harrison return from it, so headed over and opened the door…right into a very surprised man using the urinal in it. He excused himself quickly and waved me inside…which I did, despite the fact that there was no toilet. I guess he thought I wanted to use the urinal?? I then quickly exited and made my way back to my table, telling the guide (and Harrison) that I’d just hold it.

It was at this point that the guide yells out across the restaurant (in Azerbaijani) something along the lines of “Yo, this girl needs to pee and ya’ll ain’t got no toilets!”

So that was how I ended up with an honor guard from the restaurant escorting me down the road to a bar, where he bade me wait outside until he could clear my pee-able status with the bar owner.

Yes, he waited for me to finish.

And then I found out he was going to be our tour guide for the next day too!

-Carissa “Honor Guard” Rawson

Brilliant Baku

Hello Dear Readers!

So, after that most auspicious start to Baku, I felt that the country really had a lot to make up for.

Luckily, it did. The weird thing about Baku is that it’s chock full of (oil) money, which translates into some pretty insane buildings. Tiffany stores sparkled next to Lamborghini dealerships, which juxtaposed oddly with the crumbling Soviet blocs literally a few hundred yards down the road.

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There’s so much construction going on right now, with huge, paved boulevards that are nearly empty. The whole place felt…a little dystopian, to be honest. Everything was perfectly swept, not a leaf out of place, and almost entirely vacant. It was a little weird, but also really cool. It felt like I imagine Dubai did about ten years ago, with gleaming buildings rising out of the skyline and the everyday man looking up, shrugging, and going on with his day.

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Look, I’m not gonna lie to you guys. My trip there was all about excess. Too much food, too many drinks, too much walking and wandering and being ridiculous. I essentially had to roll myself out of the country only five days later.

Our first day we meandered around the whole city, walking around and exploring, goggling at the sheer alien-ness of it.

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And then we ate at Marivanna.

This place. Let me tell you about this place. Here are the reviews on it, if you’re curious.

One of my best friends is a girl named Monica. She’s Polish, like, super Polish. And in my head, Marivanna is Monica’s grandma’s house.

It’s the most ridiculous, amazing, restaurant. Photos don’t do it justice. Comfort food warred with bouncy folk songs warred with antique dishes and lace doilies over every surface.

It was so good we went twice.

Look, my mouth is watering even thinking about it. Suffice to say it was delicious.

We also walked through the Old City and climbed the Maiden Tower, which provides a really great panorama over the city.

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We ate dinner at Firuze, which has more excellent reviews. They even provided live entertainment!

I ate some Azerbaijani food that I can’t recall (meat? Potatoes?) because basically everywhere we went we asked the waiters to send us something and then ate whatever it was. But it was good, I promise.

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Omnomnomnom

Afterwards, we walked some more, eventually settling down for shisha and Nutella crepes (yes, in two different locations. Our itinerary was like “walk 100 steps. Sit for an hour. Repeat”).

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Channeling Jordan

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Eventually we made it back to the hotel, with me falling immediately into sleep because if you’ll remember I had spent the night on a plane. I’m such a champ.

– Carissa “Breakfast, Second Breakfast, Elevenses” Rawson

But What’s In Azerbaijan?

Hello Dear Readers!

It’s finally time for a new country! Are you guys ready for this? Drumroll, please…..

Azerbaijan! Now, I know a lot of you are probably thinking “what is that and why did you go there?” Well, the answer to that is simple. Azerbaijan is a former Soviet country with some pretty intense development and a relatively low amount of tourism. Since my University gave us a week long holiday (to…um…study), I decided to head on over there and see what was up.

I will tell you guys, when I returned and told my professor where I had been, she goes “Azerbaijan?” with a blank look on her face, and then after a long pause “….Borat?” (I actually spit out my drink laughing).

Now, flights to Azerbaijan are scarce, at best. And I’m sorry to inform you guys, but this time I truly could not find a decent flight using points to get there. Most flights connected either through Moscow or Istanbul and took upwards of 15 hours. However, every third day, Azerbaijan Airlines has a flight from London (and a return every 3rd day to Paris), so that’s what I ended up doing.

I spent a total of five nights, and Baku, the capital, happens to be home to some really spectacular hotels at really cheap prices (both points and dollar-wise). The J.W. Marriott Baku is one of only a few J.W. Marriotts (their flagship brand) in the world at a category 2 level, meaning it cost me just 40,000 Marriott points for my entire five night stay (Marriott gives 5th night free on award stays). In contrast, the total cost were I to pay to stay there would be just over $1,000.

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For reference, the Chase Marriott rewards card comes with a 80,000 point sign up bonus after 3k spend in the first 3 months.

Since I’m an American Express Platinum Card member, I have gold status at Marriott, which meant that I received both a room upgrade and free executive lounge access for the duration of my stay. This was excellent, since breakfast and some excellent evening tapas and drinks were available on the daily. (As if I weren’t otherwise stuffing myself).

Ok!

I’ve just got to tell you guys, I had an awesome time in Baku. As I said before, there are relatively low levels of tourism, which meant that most of the time I was delighted to find that I *wasn’t* paying the tourist tax I’ve found in nearly every other country I’ve been to. A cab across the city cost 5 bucks, regardless of the destination, so obviously I splurged just a bit.

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I was actually meeting Harrison in Baku, and for the first time in my life I trusted someone else to plan the trip. Yes, I know, it was terrifying. But I’ll give credit where it’s due, I had a lot of fun and traveling is 1000% less stressful when you don’t have to do it yourself.

Now since I was meeting him, not arriving with him, I had to figure out how to get to the hotel from the airport at 5am.

Do you guys know where this story is going?

I feel like you do.

Enter me, disheveled and angry after an overnight flight from London to Baku (6 hours too long), with my trusty backpack on and absolutely no idea how to navigate a Russian speaking country. I did, however, manage to take out some manat (their currency) in order to grab a cab, which promptly fell out of my pocket and no one told me about. Thanks, guys.

Just outside of the airport were dozens of cab drivers milling about, and I quickly found one who offered to take me to my hotel. I usually prefer to use Uber, since there’s a literal GPS track of where you’re going, but since that wasn’t an option I settled for the sketchy looking dude who came nearest to me first.

Um.

Ummmmmm.

My first hint came when we walked out to his car, which was technically a taxi but also pretty run down and janky. Ok, fine, this is Azerbaijan.

So then I got into his car and off we went, me trying desperately to look at my phone in order to avoid talking and him chatting with just about…15 words of English. (Don’t you guys do that? Stare at your phone so you look really involved and unapproachable?)

Well, it didn’t work. Five minutes into what should have been a 30 minute drive, he pulls off the side of the freeway and insists that I move up front.

No thanks, I told him politely. He insisted again and no thanks I insisted back. Then I realized he wasn’t gonna move until I did, so into the front seat I went.

At this point he decides he’s a tour guide, so he’s driving 30mph on the freeway, weaving to and fro as he points out buildings. Ok, sure.

But then he pulls off again, asking for my phone number so he can give me a tour later. He then invites me back to his house.

And yes, I know, I could have given him a fake number. But then he called me! In the car! To make sure it worked! So thank goodness I didn’t.

Off he goes again, more pointing, more invites, etc etc. Then he turns to me and goes “you are a good girl, Carissa, you know that?”

….sure.

And once more he pulls over. It’s now bright outside, since we are 45 minutes into our 30 minute journey. He wants to take a photo of me, you know, for the contact in his phone. I politely decline, and the same scenario plays out.

Ok. Fine. Take my damn photo and let’s go.

No, wait, it gets better. He then grabs my hand and shakes it, informing me once again that I am a good girl. We’re nearing the city center now, and I can almost see my hotel. Slower, slower, he drives, and he grabs my hand again.

He then declares that he loves me.

I ignore that bit and look very fixedly out the window, so he tries again, grabbing for my hand. He snags it and fucking kisses it, telling me he loves me again.

“What was that called?” He asks, mimicking the kiss he just did.

“It’s a kiss,” I tell him. I can see my hotel, just a couple hundred feet ahead, brightly lit and welcoming and full of no creepy men.

Finally, he stops, pulls up, and says,

“Can I kiss you?” while he reaches for my face.

I DON’T THINK SO, PAL.

I literally put my hand in front of his gross, creeping lips, and shoved him away. I then paid him (he tried to charge me extra!) and ran out of the cab.

Welcome to Baku!

– Carissa “At Least It Wasn’t a Proposal” Rawson

My New Life- Stories From Home

Hello Dear Readers!

As you all know by now, I’ve spent the last few months assuming my new life as a full-time student of Arabic at the University of Edinburgh. If you missed that post– congrats! You’re now in the loop.

That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped traveling though. Aside from making my way all around Scotland and England, I’ve also hit up a few different (mystery!) countries, which I’ll talk about in my upcoming posts. Until then, enjoy these photos from Scotland, my most favorite place in the world:

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My grandparents came to visit mere days after I moved in. We had a blast being tourists together!
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My apartment as seen from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle. Yes, I am that close. 

 

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Me, immediately after arriving and realizing I’m wholly unsuited for Scotland’s weather. Where’s the sun?
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Photos from my weekend at Dalhousie Castle, where I drank copious amounts of champagne and practiced falconry. 
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I journeyed to the highlands to feed a “hairy coo” and even found Nessie!
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Reunited and it feels so good! 

– Carissa “Can I Live Here Forever?” Rawson

 

Kata Tjuta- The Many Headed Mountain

Hello Dear Readers!

Are you ready to be done with Australia? Me too. It’s been an exhaustive series of posts and I’ve done so many other things these last few months- I can’t wait to share them all with you.

But first! One final post.

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My final days in the outback consisted of hiking Kata Tjuta, which is a series of small mountains (way cooler than Uluru, in my opinion), and watching the sunrise over Uluru and Kata Tjuta both.

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Enjoy the photos!

-Carissa “I Swear I’ve Traveled Elsewhere” Rawson

Uluru- The Aboriginal Bible

Hello Dear Readers!

I’m not going to lie here, I was more than a little excited to head into the outback. I mean, it’s something we hear about…all the time, don’t we? There are a thousand thousand memes about how everything in Australia wants to kill you, and of course I wanted to see that for myself.

I signed up to go on a two-day camping trip which sounded really cool and also promised to do some awesome things, like watch the sun set over Uluru, rise over Kata Tjuta, and hike round the Outback.

I’m going to be upfront here and tell you guys that I was mopey on this trip. And everyone was utterly in love with my RBF (resting bitch face), which meant that I somehow earned the moniker “the quiet girl.” The truth was, I had just come from hanging out with amazing new friends for a week and was missing them. Starting all over again just wasn’t appealing to me.

So that kind of set the tone for my trip. While by the end of it, I had made a few new friends, it was a much more sedate experience, self-reflective more than chatty, and that’s ok.

But it does make for less stories.

Anyway, our first day was mostly spent driving down. It was eight hours from Alice Springs down to the camp where we were staying. (We also picked some people up from the airport). Since we left at 7am, this meant we showed up mid afternoon, had some sandwiches, and headed out to Uluru to see what all the fuss is about.

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It is pretty scenic.

Now, I’m not a very spiritual (or religious) person. And Uluru is essentially the Bible for the Aboriginals for whom this is their ancestral home. My lead up to this place had been about the energy thriving through great stone monolith, the incredible vastness of its face, and the history that it had written for the people of the land.

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Don’t get me wrong. Uluru is pretty cool to see. But I think for others the experience had a lot more meaning. To me, it was a huge, sacred rock, and that was neat. But for others it is literally a Bible, and that’s infinitely cooler.

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Come on, read it.

What do I mean when I say “Bible?” Well, the Aboriginals here “read” the rock. All of their stories are “written” into the cracks of the stone. They mean it. They’ve got explanations for every facet of the rock, and there are even places, “women’s areas,” that are forbidden to take photos of.

After we traversed bits of the base (which is quite massive), we headed off to the museum, where we spent about an hour before driving out to take in the sunset from afar.

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Our tour guide, learning us some things.

Funnily enough, we weren’t watching the sun set behind the rock; rather, we were standing with our backs to it while it descended from the sky. The colors it casts on Uluru’s face are supposed to be incredible.

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Champs for champs.

I say “supposed” because, hilariously, the second the sun was meant to hit Uluru, it was obscured by clouds and remained so for the entirety of its setting. It did make for some really nice photos of Kata Tjuta, though, which was behind us.

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And we had champagne!

-Carissa “Mopey Pants” Rawson

Alice Springs- Outpost to the Outback

Hello Dear Readers!

So we’ve just left off with Cairns and one of the highlights of my trip- where I successfully managed to SCUBA dive not once, but twice. Unfortunately, this also happened to be the part of the trip where Katie, Shuaib, and I had to split up. They were staying on longer in Cairns, while I was due to head to Alice Springs and the Outback for a chance to visit Uluru.

Does anyone remember when I talked about my trip to Naples, where I found out after arriving that Naples was generally considered to be an unsavory and unsafe place to be? And how maybe a little bit of Googling could have saved me from that realization?

Yeah.

My first clue here was when half the people appeared to be homeless. My second clue was when everyone shut at 5pm and rolled steel cages down in front of their storefronts.

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At least there was a Target.

I had originally planned on staying 4 nights in Alice Springs, and thank God I did not, because I completed (essentially) the city’s sole attraction on day one, which is a hill that is slightly higher than the rest of the city.

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Such hill. Slight elevate.

I stayed in a hostel here too, one of the best as recommended by tons of internet sites and even Lonely Planet. It calls itself quirky- and that’s true. I slept in a shipping container.

Anyway, Alice Springs is most famous for being known as the final outpost before the Outback, and that’s true. I left early the next morning, eager to finally get into the “bush” and be wowed by the Australian landscape.

You’ll see.

Carissa “No Really Hobos Sleep in Shipping Containers” Rawson

A SCUBA Success

Hello Dear Readers!

Do you see that title up there? Do you?

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That’s right. I successfully scuba dived!

It’s a wonder what peer pressure will do for you. After leaving Airlie Beach, I had literally one day in Cairns before heading over to Alice Springs (and the Outback). After my most recent failure at scuba diving (not two days before) I was content to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. But I don’t know, maybe I was all jazzed up about the skydive, or maybe I couldn’t bear the look of incredulous disappointment on Katie and Shuaib’s faces when I told them I wasn’t going to dive, but I went ahead and signed up for scuba diving. Again. Third time’s the charm?

And it was!

This last time I was able to hold the panic at bay. It helped that it was a really simple beginner’s dive, and I clutched the instructor’s arm the entire time I was doing it, but scuba dive I did. Not just once, twice.

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It went so well that the instructor suggested I get open water dive certified. Lol.

Anyway, we had a fantastic time, and after the two dives were over, we still had plenty of time to snorkel, which we spent looking at fish and attempting to teach Shuaib how to dive underwater, which was…less than successful.

 

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But Katie and I looked good.

-Carissa “Scuba Master” Rawson