Archive | September, 2010
September 14, 2010

People of the Week: Adam and Michael

People of the Week: Adam and Michael

What a way to celebrate our 100th day of travel.  Fate led us to two interesting people– Adam and Michael.  We will not soon forget either of them but for very different reasons.

Adam

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Adam is a fellow long-haul traveler. He left his comfortable, corporate banking job in Sydney to spend the year in Europe. Rather than taking buses and trains, he is making his own way on a 2008 Bonneville T100.

His fuel injected, 900cc’s of fury have taken him across the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, and now Croatia. The bank gave him a leave of absence, but he has artistic aspirations and plans to attend school. His travel blog makes for easy reading. I particularly like his hooker story from Berlin and the time he fought off the crazed canine. Luckily, we haven’t had either problem yet.

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He tried to explain to us why anyone would eat Vegimite, but I still don’t get it. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our conversations with Adam, and we hope he has a great trip.

Michael

We also met a gentleman from Denver by the name of Michael.  Where do I begin…

Most people attribute anti-American sentiment to President Bush and our foreign policy. I completely disagree.

I believe Michael is the primary source.

I don’t mean to be a jerk, but I was not crazy about Mike. This 44-year-old loudmouth unleashed a campaign of shock and awe on every conversation for four days.  You need to see him in action for the full effect, but here are a few quotes to support my case:

“You have to watch out for those turks in Germany, man. I know about Turks. I’ve seen Midnight Express.” A Turk was sitting right next to him…and it was his birthday.

“What is it with these fatties in America?! You walk around, and you go whaaaat the f**k! The only place you can find a skinny woman is in a f**kin’ strip club!”

“Well,  f**k! I’m going to be careful in Ukraine. It is swarming with Russian mafia.” This gem was directed to a Ukrainian couple on their honeymoon.

“Germans are f**king miserable people. Just f**king smile already.” You guessed it– to a guy from Munich.

“Come on, you fag! You are such a f**king fag.” Just offensive in general.

“If you ask me, the NFL stands for N***ers For Life.” Are you kidding me?

Like some sort of reverse comedian, Mike had a set of monologues that he inflicted upon us every few minutes.  Repeatedly.  I escaped to our balcony whenever possible to watch the train wreck from afar. They usually included something about his 44′ catamaran, depressed Germans, and how horrible “American blacks” are.  He especially liked that last one.

Was this some sort of elaborate performance art?  I was waiting for Ashton Kutcher to bust in with an MTV camera crew.

The best was yet to come. Michael regaled us with a tale from his youth on our last night.  On the candlelit pier behind our hostel, we huddled together to hear his story.  It was a doozy.

I won’t bore you with every exaggerated detail. Believe it or not, this is the short version:

Michael traveled to Brazil with his mother shortly before his 17th birthday. On their flight home, he had the bright idea to smuggle 35 grams of marijuana in his shoes back to America. He was strip searched by big men with machine guns, and he was thrown in jail. His mother was due back at work, so naturally, she abandoned her underage son in Brazilian prison and caught the next flight.  Seems perfectly plausible to me.

Mike was imprisoned for 16 days before being released to the mean streets of Rio with nothing but his suitcase and his wits (dim as they may be). Having no money or passport, he was forced to walk eleven hours to the Copacabana beach, bury his luggage under a palm tree, and beg on the streets. Just your typical coming of age story.

His mother hired 22 people to scour Rio for young Michael. I guess they found him, and he moved in with his lawyer’s mother.  Not sure how he met up with the lawyer or the lawyer-mother.  She found him a job repairing motorcycles. His buddies in the shop entered him in a motorcycle race (even though he had never ridden a motorcycle before), and he proceeded to almost break the track record. Wow!

Team Marlboro just happened to be present and were so impressed, they signed him on the spot! The professional racing team gave him an apartment and a car. For the next two years, he raced every weekend and beat off women with a stick.

The Brazilian courts released him at age 19, and he still has the judge’s home address and phone number.  I’m surprised the judge didn’t ‘friend’ him on Facebook too.

He returned home to become a real life shrimpin’ boat captain, meet three US presidents, and get shot in the buttocks.

If we weren’t sitting outside in the dark, I would say he was pulling a Kaiser Souzai and weaving his tale from our surroundings (spoiler alert).  “Did I mention the judge was fat?  I mean, like orca fat?”

Now, don’t think we’re just hating here, and we do feel bad about gong on like this. We like to keep this blog positive, but I felt compelled to share this encounter.

We could forgive his exaggerated stories and repetitive monologues. Whatever. No big deal. However, we cannot forgive his highly offensive statements (see quotes above) and blatant cultural insensitivity. This type of behavior reflects poorly upon all American travelers, and I was outright embarrassed to be associated with him at times. You travel to have conversations with people– not at them. He did not stop talking enough to learn anything from any of us.

The vast majority of people we meet are terrific.  Mike gave us a good blog entry, but we certainty don’t want an encore.

Get caught up on our other People of the Week! Have you run into a “Michael” on a trip or vacation?

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September 10, 2010

Lake Affects

Lake Affects

Our travels usually take us to one city after another, filled with gray concrete and black asphalt.  Except for our week in the Austrian Alps, we haven’t had many naturey activities. We took the advice of our CouchSurfing host in Zagreb and ventured to rural Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes for a two-day break.

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

It’s an impressive place.  The densely vegetated valley has 16 terraced lakes strung together by waterfalls and miles of wooden walking paths. The lakes constantly change from dark blue to bright green depending on the sunlight, temperature, and mineral content of the water that day.  The rail-free, slatted boardwalks and stone steps leave you feeling a bit unsteady at times, especially with strollers and elderly tour groups squeezing past.  Even on the cliffside paths, there was usually no railing to keep you from falling to your death (or injury at least).  I was very dizzy from dehydration at the end of the day, and Kim had to grab me a few times to keep me from falling off a waterfall.

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Our trek took about five hours, but you could easily spend eight or more hours here.  Park entry was 90 kuna (about $15) for each of us thanks to our bogus student ID cards. Admission includes use of the electric boats and trams that traverse the park.  Otherwise, it is a long walk around the 16 km of lakes.  There are many routes to chose from, but we focused on the upper lakes due to our time and endurance constraints. It was a tough hike at times, and our calves are still a little sore.  Be sure to check out all of our lake photos on Flickr.

There is no bus station, road signs, or much information of any kind at Plitvice.  Our bus driver just dropped us off on the side of the road in the middle of the forest.  Luckily, we planned ahead in Zagreb.  I saved a few Google Maps on the iPod, and we knew there were guesthouses a few hundred meters down the road.  The area has very few hotels and no hostels, but most residents in the area run makeshift B&Bs (sans the second B).  We ended up choosing Villa Zora run by a nice guy named Boris just outside the village of Mukinje.  We had planned on one night, but we ended up staying for two.  Unfortunately, this left us a little short on cash, and we had to walk three kilometers to pay our bill. The ATM was in the middle of the woods!

Getting to Plitvice was no problem, but leaving was another matter.  Boris had a bus schedule, but it takes some effort to find a bus that will actually stop.  You have to stand on the side of the road and wave them down, and it often takes hours.  Seemed like the perfect opportunity to try an alternative mode of transportation– hitchhiking.

I started showing some leg shortly after.

My mother always told me, “Clark…don’t you ever hitchhike.” So, naturally, I was all about it.

We had mixed success.  Our first customer was an edentulous guy in a windowless van.  He said he liked my “purty mouth” which I found flattering.  He wanted 200 kuna though, and we didn’t really want to be out $30 on top of being murdered.  Despite his charming comments, we passed.

Our second offer came from a hippy in a station wagon who offered to take us to some town 30km north of Zadar.  But then what?  Try to hitch from there?  We ended up passing yet again.

Finally, we flagged down a bus headed for central Zadar. It ended up costing us 180 kuna, but it had windows and everything. I’m not sure if this counts as true hitchhiking. Better luck next time, I guess.

Zadar

Forbidden Fruit - Zadar, CroatiaWe enjoyed two scenic albeit laundry-challenged days in a vacation rental which included a very scenic view of the Adriatic from our balcony.  Each time we walked past our neighbor’s yard, we would pluck a few grapes off his vines.  We grew bolder one evening and cut off a bunch with our Leatherman for a late night snack.  Kim was worried the owner would discover us helping ourselves, and we would be subjected to his grapes of wrath instead.

The kiwi was borrowed from yet another neighbor.  We failed to find a beer or deep dish pizza tree.

We did find two interesting pieces of urban art in Zadar.  Listen to our seaside recording while reading on:

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Sea Organ steps

The Sea Organ is situated near the new cruiser port and consists of several stairs that descend into the sea. The stairs extend about 70 meters along the coast and contain 35 pipes of different lengths and diameters.  As the waves lap against the stairs, the organ plays seven chords of five tones.

Why doesn’t Chicago have one of these?

Greeting to the Sun - Zadar, Croatia

Down the road, we discovered the Greeting to the Sun— a 22-meter wide disc of colorful light.  It was designed by the same architect as the Sea Organ, Nikola Bašić, and it also serves as a solar panel which powers the lights of the entire waterfront.  The lights are constantly swirling and changing colors, and the border projects intense beams of light into the clouds.

St. Donat's Church - Zadar, Croatia

The Church of St. Donat was built in the 9th Century and is one of the largest examples of Byzantine architecture on the Dalmatian Coast. It was originally named the Church of the Holy Trinity but was later changed and named for a local bishop and bakery owner.  It was built on top of the old Roman forum and incorporated some of the old structure.  You can see some of the ruins in the right side of the photo. Much of the forum was cannibalized to build the church.

In the end, it’s safe to say Plitvice Lakes and Zadar definitely affected us.  We look forward to exploring the Croatian islands before moving on to Bosnia and Montenegro.

September 5, 2010

More like Beautipest!

More like Beautipest!

To save a night of lodging, we decided to take the 10-hour night train from Krakow to Budapest.  This was our first trip in a sleeper car, and we thoroughly enjoyed lying in bed watching the Polish, Czech, Slovakian, and finally, Hungarian countryside whiz by.

We didn’t get much sleep though. The cabin was a bit stuffy with the window closed, so we left it open all night. The noise from wheels screeching to a stop woke me up every few hours, along with the lights from the stations flashing in the windows. Around 3:00 a.m. we stopped somewhere in rural Czech Republic for about 45 minutes while our car was detached and coupled to a new train.  It’s a strange feeling to fall asleep on one train and wake up on another.

After a great dinner at Castro Bisztro (try the carrot soup), we decided to relax at a late night swim party at Rudas Baths— a 16th century Turkish bath on the Buda side of the Danube.

We soon discovered that Budapest is a very pretty city!

Budapest is rich in thermal springs, so there are dozens of baths around the city. The baths are one of many gifts from the Ottoman occupation of Budapest in the 16th century.  It is a favorite activity for locals and tourists.  Doctors even prescribe bath sessions as therapy!  The water in the baths is rich in calcium, magnesium, fluoride ions, hydrogen-carbonate, sulphate and sodium, which supposedly helps all sorts of ailments.

Having read up a little on the baths beforehand, we were prepared for a little confusion about how to pay, where to change, how to work the lockers, etc. Everything we read was accurate. The entry fee was a fair price (around $15), but we forgot towels. Luckily, they had towels for rent, but at the steep price of 15,000 forints– that’s over $7 each! Not until we entered were we told by the smarmy door boy that we would get 4,000 back upon leaving.  Good news.

We entered the turnstile with our rubber RFID bracelets and were pointed toward a dour older lady who barked directions at us in Hungarian. After much confusion, we handed her our receipts and she handed us our towels while yelling, “down, down!” repeatedly.

We gathered that we were to go downstairs.

Here we found rows and rows of changing room doors and little electronic kiosks on the walls. We tried a few doors with our bracelets only to get a red light. Denied. We stood watching what other people did for a while. Most were confused like us. Eventually, we realized that we needed to scan our bracelet at a kiosk for a changing room assignment, and then the bracelet would unlock the door. High tech, right?

After changing into our bathing suits, we were finally ready to take the plunge. We tip-toed out of the chilly locker room and climbed a short staircase. At the top we found a doorway with a little pool of freezing cold water a few inches deep to rinse your feet as you entered.  Was the bath going to be this cold?! We timidly walked through and founds ourselves in a huge domed room with a large steaming bath in the center and four more in each corner. There were doorways on all sides leading to saunas, steam rooms, massage rooms, lockers, and showers.

Rudas was built in 1550 and has only recently been opened to women bathers.

Most of our fellow bathers were in their twenties or thirties since this was the late night special (10 p.m. to 4 a.m.). Men were clad in everything from long, Michael-Phelps-style pants to Speedos to baggy trunks. Nearly all the women were in two pieces, some more modest than others. Europeans are not afraid to show a little skin.

The lights were low, the steam was billowing, and the water was hot. It was a very relaxing atmosphere. The water is not chlorinated. Each of the baths was heated at a different temperature. Bathers casually made their way from one to another and let the temperatures work on their bodies. The saunas and steam rooms also varied in temperature from mildly hot to stifling. I don’t care for the steam rooms, but Clark is a big fan.  He probably spent 30 minutes in the hottest one.

As you would expect on a Friday night, there were a lot of couples at the baths. It is the perfect weekend activity after a hard week at work.  Most were well behaved, just a little snogging here and there.  However, some were more bold.

About 10 feet to our left, one couple was obviously having a good time. In the interest of keeping this post rated PG, I’ll just say they were getting a bit frisky and left onlookers wondering what was going on under the hot, undulating water.

We spent a good three hours at Rudas and were quite limber when we departed, despite another run-in with the towel lady and rude door boy.

A couple of days later, we tried out the largest bath in Budapest, Szechenyi Baths. This huge complex is even harder to navigate than Rudas, but much grander and beautiful. There are corridors leading to seemingly endless pools of different sizes, temperatures, depths, and even current strengths.

The crowd here is much more varied during the day. Families, young adults, and bus loads of geezers. Physical therapy sessions are held right next to splashing kids. Massages are 20-30 minutes and are only 20,000 to 40,000 forints (about $20).

There is a beautiful outdoor complex of pools with old men playing chess in the water. Each pool is heated to a comfortable temperature (which is good because it was very rainy and chilly that day) and decked out with waterfalls, bubbles, jets, and a fun whirlpool. I highly recommend a visit here if you find yourself in Budapest.

I would have loved to try out every bath if I had more time. The atmosphere is mellow and everyone is there to relax.  Well, except for the undulating water couple at Rudas.

It rained a lot, but we really enjoyed the city. We saw some of the sights, but mostly relaxed and “lived” for a few days (i.e. went shopping, saw a movie, etc.). We spent four nights at Lavender Circus and two night Couchsurfing with a great couple, Aniko and G.  They made delicious paprikash that night, and we watched Coffee and Cigarettes on their movie projector.

We also got our Indian visas!  Hooray!  The Indian Embassy is conveniently located on top of a hill, in middle-of-nowhere Buda.  The price tag stung a little (52,600 forints), but what can you do?  The only downside from our week in Budapest is that Clark caught a bad cold (probably from the baths), and we think he passed it along to, our main man, G.  Sorry, G.

Overall, I’d call our stop in Budapest quite successful.  We are wrapping things up in Zagreb, and moving on to Plitvice Lakes National Park in central Croatia for a few days.  I imagine they will be a little colder than the thermal baths.


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