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Our Home Away from Home in Amman

Midnight, about to leave for the airport

Our time in Amman was so refreshing. (This photo was taken at midnight right before we got in the cab to go to the airport, so disregard how tired we all look.  And our matching outfits.) It was fun to be a completely different culture when we left Cody and Vanessa’s apartment, but being in their home was almost like coming back to America for a little bit. We didn’t cram too much busyness into the two weeks. The main activities were just hanging out with Cody and Vanessa and their girls while they went about their daily lives.

C + V's apartment building

Urban goats

Aubie cat

We ate peanut butter and jelly and Kraft mac and cheese and burgers and burritos and watched The Little Mermaid dubbed in Arabic. We did laundry and played with their kittens and slept in late. Alicia participated in many elaborate imagination sessions of Sparkle Princess Sisters.

Sparkle Princess Sisters

Ella's gumball

Ella goofing off on the roof

More Ella goofing off on the roof

Ella and Simone on the roof

Fearless Ella

Besides hosting us for nearly two weeks (with just as much advance notice!), Cody and Vanessa gave us their own bedroom, kept us well fed AND set us up with five hours of private Arabic lessons at their language school, the Latin American Cultural Center (not a typo – you can learn Español and English there, too).  What?  Too, too much, but that’s how they roll.

Arabic notebook

Arabic teacher Nancy

Latin American Cultural Center

We learned about 70 basic nouns and pronouns, including greetings and numbers. It was awesome to dabble in another language and the experience made us really interested in pursuing some sort of language learning when we get home next year. Inshallah!

Foreigners on Parade

Ella's photography

Shukran, Cody and Vanessa! Baaraka Allahu fik!

26
Nov 2012
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Jordan

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The Money Brick

(All photos in this post courtesy of Iowa photographer and all-around swell guy Joe Pyle.)

A few days before we left, our Iowa City friends threw a little back yard shindig to send us on our way. Speeches were made, hotdogs were consumed, small bits of crepe paper streamers were licked to verify that yes, the probably highly toxic dyes do taste astoundingly awful.

Our friend Stan, who is usually plotting ways to redecorate peoples’ yards while they’re on vacation, secretly took up a collection and at the end of the night handed us a rectangular bundle to help us do something extra special. As you can tell by our unhinged jaws, we were shocked. Shocked! And humbled. We can think of hundreds of more worthy charitable causes than the Tony and Alicia Have Quit Their Jobs to Travel to Who Knows Where Foundation. But for some reason, you crazy people decided to love us.

We decided that we would 1.) use it on an experience that is the best in the world for whatever it was we were going to do, 2.) use it on an experience that we wouldn’t have otherwise chosen, and 3.) film a bit of it so you can be there with us.

So here it is. Here’s what we did.

Thank you SO MUCH.

11
Aug 2012
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Iowa City

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Rained out in Borjomi

Borjomi park

Sean and McKinze planned for us to take a trip to Borjomi National Park, a one hour marshrutka ride away. Borjomi is famous for its mineral water springs. The park is situated in a lush forest that spans a section of the Lesser Caucasus mountains and the Mtkvari River gorge forms its southeast border.

Its website says that Borjomi National Park is “one of the largest in Europe – it covers more than 85,000 hectares of native forest and sub-alpine and alpine meadows, home to rare species of flora and fauna. A network of trails invites you to experience the stunning variety of blossoming plants, breathtaking views and a magical atmosphere.”

Unfortunately, the rain that poured down all week didn’t want to take the day off just for us, so we saw none of that.

Rained out

We tried to wait it out by having an early lunch at a great little pizza restaurant, but the bad weather persisted. We thought we’d start on a trail anyway, and managed get through the family-oriented playground area before we got thoroughly wet and cold and decided to abort our mission.

Mtkvari River

Mtkvari River

Pints!

Sean knew of a restaurant nearby and we ordered some pints of Natakhtari and set our shoes by the fire and spent the rest of the time snacking and making the most of the afternoon.

Borjomi street

2Pac is alive!

Highway through Borjomi

The avtosadguri (bus station) at Borjomi.

We caught a marshrutka home just in time for the sun to come out.

08
Jul 2012
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Georgia

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Simple blessings in Leliani

Sean and McKinze gave us a great start in Georgia with our weekend in Tbilisi, and they planned to share one of their favorite places-and people- with us by sending us to Kamran, Eleni and Dato in Leliani.

McKinze put us on a marshrutka and told the driver to drop us off at Kamran’s office in Leliani. Since Kamran is apparently a famous person in Georgia (we say that only half joking), the driver knew exactly where that was. Leliani is located in Georgia’s far eastern Kakheti region, which is famous for winemaking and fertile fields.

Marshrutka to Leliani

It took several hours to get there, and on the way, two ladies, a mother and daughter named Nino and Nunu, pointed at animals and objects along the way and tried to teach their Georgian names to Alicia. They thought it was hilarious when Alicia resorted to crowing when she was unable to communicate that she wanted to know the Georgian word for rooster (mamali). Just before we got to their town, Nunu handed Alicia a gaudy pair of earrings. Unfortunately, the only thing she had to offer in return was a mandarin orange fished from the depths of her bag, but she tried to express her appreciation for the ladies’ interest and kindness with many grateful repetitions of didi madloba. Literally, “big thanks.”

The road through Leliani

At last, we reached Leliani and met Kamran. Kamran is one of Sean and McKinze’s fellow Peace Corps volunteers. He’s from North Carolina, has been in country for two years and was recently approved to extend his service for a third. Eleni and Dato are his host mom and brother. The three of them live on a 100-year-old farm that has been passed down through Dato’s father’s family (now seven years deceased). On the other side of the mountains to the north is Russia, and Azerbaijan is a few short miles to the east.

Eleni's cow

Eleni works the farm, taking care of the animals, baking bread, making cheese and keeping the dining table heaped with the labor and bounty of her hands and land. Dato was recently honored with directorship of a local school. Kamran works at the youth center just up the road from the farm.

The house is large and airy, with tall ceiling and enormous porches that make it easy to imagine its splendor in earlier Soviet times. The well runs constantly with cool mountain water, and travels through a gutter along the length of the house and empties into a small stream that runs through the front yard. The detached bathroom is large and luxurious by local standards – it has an electric water heater for the shower and a washing machine.

bathroom

The spring/well

A garden, vineyard and cow pasture cover the property behind the house and are populated by dozens of chickens, a pregnant cow and calf, and several bee colonies. And Charlie.

The vineyards

The garden

The bees

Chickens

Alicia and a chick

Charlie Chaplain is Dato and Eleni’s loyal dog who guards the chick crates at night and lives on table scraps and large hunks of puri. Eleni says he is “an American,” although his true lineage is unclear. He was born in Tbilisi, either to American owners or perhaps to a dog that they had brought with them from America. Charlie was initially suspicious of us, like any good farm dog should be, but was quickly won over when he realized Alicia was a reliable source for belly scratches.

Charlie: baby chickie protector

After a quick tour of the farm, Kamran took Tony to their wine room, where they dipped wine the color of apple juice from the kvevri – large clay jars for aging and storing wine, buried to their tops – and into pitchers for the table. Alicia noted the wine’s color and naively asked if it was “like a rosé,” which Kamran found extremely amusing. Nearly every household in Kakheti makes their own wine using whatever grapes their ancestors planted in their vineyards.

Ladybug on a grapevine

Scooping the wine from the kvevri

Pouring the wine into pitchers

That evening, we were treated to a feast – a supra. Kamran assisted with expert translation. Many toasts were made. To God. To mothers. To children. To future children. To siblings. To America and Georgia. To the dead. To friendship. Our glasses were constantly refilled with the golden wine at a wonderful and terrifying pace.

Supra table

Supra table

Supra table

We ate fried chicken, khachapuri, bread, tkmali (spicy, sour green plum sauce), generous slices of cheese, and greens and herbs. All sourced a few feet from where we dined. In the United States, there is a big trend towards locally sourced organic foods, and “slow” foods prepared with care from scratch. In Leliani, this is not a new thing. It is Eleni and Dato’s reality, mostly unchanged for centuries, save for the added luxury of propane burners and the ice cream bars we had for dessert.

Eleni cooking a pot of chicken

Eleni and the calf

I’m afraid we were too exhausted from our whirlwind weekend in Tbilisi to truly communicate our appreciation of it all while it was happening. We struggled to surpress our yawns and clean our plates and absorb this new country and these new friends.

Kamran, Alicia, Eleni and Tony

To look at this with an American eye, our hosts may seem superficially “poor.” But Eleni is truly rich, and we will always be grateful to have been recipients of her family’s lavish hospitality and friendship.

Didi madloba.

Kamran, Eleni and Charlie

—–

Watch the video we made:

That’s Where You Are: Leliani

If you want to read more about supras, food and winemaking at Eleni’s farm, you can read what Sean and McKinze have written:

—–

04
Jul 2012
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Georgia

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A weekend in Tbilisi

(Hi visitor from the internets! Did you come here looking for info about 144 Stairs in Tbilisi? Here’s their Facebook page, or you can see a few pictures of it towards the bottom of this post. But do feel free to hang out here a while.)

After our early morning arrival and glorious introduction to Georgian food, the rest of our Tbilisi weekend was a blur of seeing everything, doing everything, and having a super fun time getting to know Sean and McKinze better and soaking up all the Georgia intel our brains could handle.

We visited the new city park that President Mikheil Saakashvili (we preferred his nickname, Misha) opened last summer. The glass-domed presidential mansion, “Misha’s house,” is at the top of the hill, so this new park is essentially his front yard.

The new park in Tbilisi and the President's house

Children playing in the splash pad at Tbilisi's new city park

A fountain at Tbilisi's new city park

We walked across the incongruously modern Peace Bridge at noon and at night.

Tbilisi Peace Bridge

Tbilisi Peace Bridge

We came across a free streetside wine tasting and sampled our first Georgian wine (they claim to have invented it 8,000 years ago) while a man alternated between playing his accordion and his organ grinder.

Tbilisi sidewalk wine tasting

Tbilisi sidewalk wine tasting

Tbilisi organ grinder

We climbed Narikala Fortress, whose first stones were laid in the 4th century, and within its walls, we saw a portion of a Georgian Orthodox mass in St. Nicholas Church.

Narikala Fortress

Narikala Fortress

St. Nicholas Church, Tbilisi

View of Tbilisi from Narikala Fortress

We cooled down in a Turkish tea house.

Turkish tea house

The bath houses in Tbilisi

We ate more Georgian food at “the Ossetian place” and piles of noodles and meat at “the Uzbeki place,” where we were treated to an awkward belly dance (is it rude to look, or is it rude to not look?).

Uzbeki food

Uzbeki food

We went to the gold bazaar where McKinze bought a silver St. George pendant (he’s Sakartvelo’s patron saint) and Alicia bought earrings.

Sean and McKinze shopping

Sean and McKinze shopping

We went to the regular bazaar.

Tbilisi bazaar

Near the Tbilisi bazaar

Sean and McKinze negotiated a great cell phone deal for us (up to this point, we didn’t have phones with us).

Cell phone shopping in Tbilisi

Cell phone shopping in Tbilisi

Cell phone shopping in Tbilisi

We had tea and lobiani (khachapuri with beans instead of cheese) in a cafe where a man played guitar and made up funny songs about the men gathered around the back table.

Impromptu musical comedy

We climbed the hill to the brand-new Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi, surrounded by rose gardens and a palpable sense of national pride.

 Holy Trinity Cathedral, Tbilisi

 Holy Trinity Cathedral, Tbilisi

The grounds of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Tbilisi

 Holy Trinity Cathedral, Tbilisi

Tony and Alicia at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Tbilisi

We visited the statue of Tbilisi’s founder, King Vakhtang Gorgasali, whose hand served as a perch to a real bird (although not the falcon of legend).

Statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, Tbilisi

Statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, Tbilisi

Statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, Tbilisi

We climbed 144 steps to a wine bar of the same name, where we felt like kings as we enjoyed the view of the city from the patio until a thunderstorm drove us indoors. We decided to wait it out, which ended up many long conversations later at 4:30 a.m.

144 Steps, Tbilisi

144 Steps, Tbilisi

144 Steps, Tbilisi

We walked. Everywhere.

Graffiti, Tbilisi

Wandering through Tbilisi

Children playing in a fountain, Tbilisi

Wandering through Tbilisi

The long escalator down to the Metro

All of that in one weekend. Exhausting. Perfect.

On Monday afternoon, McKinze escorted us to the marshrutka station, and translated all the requisite questions that the drivers had for us. Questions that we would answer again and again with every Georgian we would meet.

Marshrutka drivers in Tbilisi

Where are you from? (America… Iowa.)
Do you like Georgia? (We love Georgia! Georgia is beautiful!)
Are you married? (Yes.)
How long are you married? (Almost eight years.)
How many children do you have? (None). Concerned looks from the drivers.
When will you have children? (Maybe when we go back to America.) They perked up. An acceptable answer.
How old are you? (30 and 33.)

When it was time to leave, we hopped in the front seat, bound for Kamran’s village of Leliani. Who is Kamran? A guy we had never met before. Where is Leliani? Several hours east of Tbilisi, by the Russian and Azeri borders. You can’t find it on Google Maps. But we would soon find Leliani in our memories forever.

01
Jul 2012
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Georgia

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Iowans, Meet Georgia

Our first introduction to Georgia came before our feet even hit the tarmac of Tbilisi International Airport. We were waiting for the boarding announcement for our connecting flight in Istanbul. It was delayed by 30 minutes and everyone had gathered at the gate. It was midnight, there was an unexplained delay, and everyone clumped towards the front. It was not a matter who arrived first. Rather, it was who wanted to be first. Despite the late hour and the jostling for position, all the Georgians were happy. They were going home.

As we were two of the only three obviously non-Georgian or non-Russians on the flight, most chose to stare at us to pass the time. The stares are always overt, with no attempt to pretend they were looking elsewhere. To many cultures, including ours, this would be a terribly rude thing to do. But in Georgia… well, why would you not stare at the utskhoelebi (foreigners)? God gave you those eyes for a reason.

Tbilisi International Airport

At arrivals, we stepped into a crowd of people staring back at us and briefly felt like red carpet celebrities, but of course they were anxious for their own friends and family to walk through the door. The only blonde in the crowd was easy to spot, even though she is only five feet tall. McKinze and Sean gave us huge hugs and we piled into a taxi. Or maybe it was just an opportunistic kid who had a car and needed gas money. Either way, we were soon hurtling down George W. Bush Avenue (yep) towards downtown and the Peace Corps office. White lines? Merely a suggestion. We decided that either the drivers of every single vehicle on the road had hit the chacha hard that evening or the rules of the road were very different here.

Tony noticed a large glass building that resembled an American style car dealership, until you read the huge POLICE sign, written in both Georgian and English. McKinze explained that a few years ago President Saakashvili fired and replaced the entirety of an overtly corrupt 30,000 member police force. It was one of his more successful and beneficial initiatives for the country. Part of the overhaul included new police stations with glass facades as a symbol of transparency.

After a sufficient recall of traveler mortality statistics had passed through Alicia’s brain (motor vehicle accidents are at the top of the list), we arrived safely. It was 4 a.m., and rather than paying for a room for the remaining few hours of darkness, we would just sleep on the couches at the Peace Corp office.

But first, Sean suggested a bedtime snack of khachapuri imeruli at the cafe across the street. If you can imagine tangy, salty, homemade cheese stuffed into a leavened dough, baked into a flat, oily, disc and cut into pizza-esque slices, that is your basic khachapuri. Alicia was certain that the recipe had to include a generous squeeze of lemon juice, but Sean said that flavor was all in the cheese. Tony and Sean each enjoyed a pint of Natakhtari, not certain if it qualified as a nightcap or as breakfast.

Khachapuri imeruli, photo courtesy of Sean Fredericks

(photo courtesy of Sean Fredericks)

We caught up with each other’s lives, and they told us about what they had been doing during the nearly two years of service as Peace Corps volunteers here. The sun rose, the birds awoke and we finally walked back to the office and slumped into the couches for a few hours of rest.

Peace Corps office

When we awoke, we grabbed our bags and walked to the guesthouse where we’d stay that evening. It always feels good to find the place you’re sleeping and then leave your heavy bags behind. Our 34 liter backpacks are about half the size of the average backpackers’, and conform to even the strictest airline carryon maximums, but they’re still a ball and chain after a short distance.

Guesthouse

Guesthouse courtyard

We left the leafy courtyard and took the subway to the old city district, to a restaurant where we would have our Very First Georgian Meal Ever. (And the people rejoiced.) The preview of the early morning khachapuri was enough to get us excited for all the wonderful things we would soon be experiencing.

The fastest way to both of our hearts is through our stomachs and Sean and McKinze made sure it was love at first sight. They ordered puri, salty bread; lobio, mashed beans baked in a clay pot; kitri da pomidori salata, cucumber and tomato salad, always with lots of onions, parsley and salt, and sometimes with dill, basil, jalapeños or walnut sauce; two kinds of khinkali, large pasta dumplings filled with either mashed potatoes or ground beef, pork and broth; and khachapuri acharuli, a huge bread boat filled with tangy cheese, an egg yolk, and a slab of butter.

Lobio, puri, kitri da pomidori salata

We started in on this new type of khachapuri. McKinze instructed us to rip off a chunk of bread, stir it up, and eat. Sweet mother of heaven.

Khachapuri acharuli

Sean taught us how to eat the meat-filled khinkali. Hold it bellybutton side down, take a small bite from the edge, then suck out the broth. An expert khinkali eater keeps his plate dry. The bellybutton is edible, but most people keep them on their plates so they can count how many they’ve eaten, and so they can save room for more khinkali. The vegetable salad was a welcome break from the heavy (and heavenly) salt, fat and carbs, and would be something we would continue to order with almost every meal.

Khinkali

We felt only a little remorseful as we waddled out of the restaurant. We would pack a lot into this weekend, and the first day had barely begun.

01
Jul 2012
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საქართველო ლამაზია.

IMG_4430

So we went to Republic of Georgia. The first time we ever heard of Georgia was when the Russians invaded South Ossetia in 2008. The second time was when Alicia’s co-worker, McKinze, joined the Peace Corps with her husband Sean. Alicia remembers looking at photos of Tbilisi and Georgia and thinking it looked beautiful… but very far away, and a very unlikely that we would ever visit. Then we made a series of big life decisions that made visiting Georgia… well, a very easy decision.

Georgia has about 4 million people and is nestled in the Caucasus mountains. It’s bordered by the Black Sea on the west, Russia on the north, Azerbaijan on the east and Turkey and Armenia to the south. By modern continental divisions, it’s half in Europe and half in Asia. Being in the same neighborhood as Turkey, Iran and Iraq, it might be tempting to call it the Middle East, but that doesn’t fit either. For a large part of the 20th century, it was under Soviet rule. Georgians have a long history of cycles of occupation and independence and they are fiercely proud of their heritage. They speak Georgian (Kartuli), and, although the country is known internationally as “Georgia,” its true name is Sakartvelo.

So why did we want to go to Georgia?

First of all, Sean and McKinze have lived there for two years. We like them. If that wasn’t enough, Georgia is starting to appear on “best undiscovered places” backpackers’ lists. Not many people go there. This would be our first truly off-the-beaten-track adventure. And our friends could help us navigate and discover totally foreign country in ways that would be incredibly difficult to do on our own. We stayed much longer than we planned. Sean and McKinze showed us how to love Georgia. They also taught us our first Kartuli phrase:

საქართველო ლამაზია.
Sakartvelo lamazia.
Georgia is beautiful.

01
Jul 2012
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Toulouse Hospitality

In January, Tony scheduled a tattoo appointment for May 11 in Toulouse. An old friend of his happens to live there, so he emailed her to see if she would like to meet us for coffee while we were in town. Sharla, her husband, Laurent, (and fancy kitty friend Eugenie) ended up hosting us for five days. Despite the fact that Tony hadn’t seen Sharla in over a decade, Alicia had never met her, and neither of us had met Laurent, we had a great time. Sharla took us to a sorta-almost-secret spot to look out over the city, to a great crepes place, and on an evening walk through the park. Also, she makes really, really good granola.

Laurent’s parents, Jean-Pierre and Anna, were determined that their son’s American guests would have the opportunity to sample the best of French cuisine, so they hosted us for lunch on Sunday. After meeting their teenage and half-century old tortoises, we had champagne and sampled a variety of canard delicacies. There was magret séché de canard (salt-cured duck breast), three types of duck sausage, crispy fried duck skin, and some foie gras Jean-Pierre potted himself. Then came wine and salad and delicious cassoulet, which featured more duck sausage and duck legs. Then five different types of cheeses, ice cream and chocolates for dessert, and a sampling of the sole remaining bottle of Laurent’s grandfather’s homemade plum liquor.

It was a marvelous feast and we enjoyed every bite. Toulouse duck is far and away more delicious than any wild Mississippi River duck. Thank you Sharla, Laurent and family very much for your kind hospitality!

(The dinner photos in this post are courtesy of Jean-Pierre.)

13
Jun 2012
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France

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Xampañería

For several days in Barcelona, we had been lamenting the fact that it would be a long time before we could walk down a street and see a familiar face. Alicia said, “I just want to run into someone I know today. Anyone. Wouldn’t that be so nice?” Late in the afternoon of this particular day we were tired and getting a little cranky. After walking way too far to check out the zoo, which ended up being more than we wanted to pay for “maybe this will be cool” late afternoon entertainment, the decision was made to just go back to our hostel on the opposite end of the city.

The closest metro stop was a few blocks away at Barceloneta. We walked less than a block and a familiar face showed up! That lightly bearded face belonged to Kristian who works at our hostel. When you meet him you feel like you’ve known him for years. Case in point – he immediately introduces us to Michael and Panos, whom I assumed were old buddies of his, but it turned out that he just met them at a Greek restaurant earlier that day. He was taking them to his favorite place, which he only referred to as the xampañería and invited us to come along. I had no idea what a xampañería was, but it sounded like a place where they serve champagne… so yes, let’s go there.

Five minutes away from where we met, he took us down a quiet, seemingly unused block to an unmarked bar with people literally spilling out the front. Kristian dives right into the crowd and forms a channel for us to push our way to the back and find a counter to lean against. The interior is unpretentious. A few cured whole hams hang from the ceiling among the industrial light fixtures and a large wooden sign revealing the name of the mystery bar – Can Paixano.

His xampañería turns out to be a cava bar. Cava is Catalonian champagne. It is pink, bubbly, delicious, costs about €1 per glass, and it’s the only thing served at Can Paixano other than the small plates of cheese and hot sausages they pair it with. Michael brought us up to speed with Greek politics. Kristian told us about leaving his home country of Cyprus in search of adventure elsewhere, which currently finds him in Barcelona. We told him a relatable story.

12
Jun 2012
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Spain

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Day Trip to not-Luss

On our last day in Scotland, most of Stanely House and its guests decided to go to a picturesque village on Loch Lomond called Luss. Getting there involved taking the train to Helensburgh and then getting on a bus, but we missed the last bus of the day. So we hung out on the pier, had lunch and ate ice cream. Helensburgh is located on a loch in the Firth of Clyde, which is a pretty great name for a body of water, if you ask us.

On the way home, an extremely jovial man told us all about the best football team on earth, the Glasgow Rangers. “Rrrrrrangeers! Hup hup ho!” When he found out a member of our party was from Texas, he sang a poorly-enunciated version of Dixie to us.

Another great day with great people. We also learned how to snap a whole apple in two with our bare hands. Thanks, great people.

01
May 2012
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Scotland

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