Thursday, December 15, 2011

Coming To This



Column number ten out of twelve has been published in the Exeter News-Letter. It chronicles my brief visit to Azerbaijan, and especially the walk I had around an old tank graveyard with, among others, the incomparable Jamie Maslin.

A new link has been added to the right-hand sidebar for your future browsing convenience!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Coming to This



My ninth travel column has been published in the News-Letter. Don't be afraid. Go ahead and click here.

As usual, I have added a link to the right-hand sidebar as well.

I suppose this might be as good a time as any to state the obvious and announce that I probably won't be posting much more on this blog as my trip is now well over. I might throw the occasional thing up, and I'll continue to post when I have new columns published - probably just three more to round it out to an even twelve over a year.

In the meantime I'm working on the finer aspects of being unemployed, pursuing international work opportunities, thinking about peddling my travel presentation to likely venues throughout the area, and writing a worthless novel as part of NaNoWriMo.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Talk at the Library



On Tuesday the 25th I'll be giving a talk at the Exeter Library about my trip. If you're in the Exeter Area, you should come out since nothing else happens around here on Tuesday nights.

From the library's promotional release:


The Flightless Journey of Ethan Martin

6:30 PM - 7:30 PM  Oct 25, 2011


 Join Exeter resident and world traveler Ethan Martin at the Exeter Public Library, as he shares his photos and stories of his 1 year, 30,000 mile trek through roughly 30 countries on 3 continents.  Ethan grew up in Exeter, studied English at UNH and lived in Utah, Turkey and Korea.  He has always had a love of traveling and made it his goal to travel by land and sea, across Eurasia to the Atlantic.  In September of 2010, using monies he had earned teaching in Korea, Ethan began his journey, leaving Korea by boat and continuing on by ferry, train, van, bus, horse, foot and hitchhiking.  Within a year, Ethan had accomplished what he set out to do and extended his flightless trip with a celebratory transatlantic cruise.  Ethan will be telling tales of his trip, of the cities and the countryside, the people he met, books he read while traveling, as well as sharing some of the logistics of and the reasons for his overland trip.



 The presentation is free and open to the public.  It will take place in the meeting room of the Exeter Public Library.

I'll have some photos and and a little Google Earth tour of the places I talk about. Hope to see you there!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Coming to This


Yes, the daily retrospective photo has come to an end. I think we all knew it was going to happen sooner or later, and hanging out in the woods for ten days without the Internet was as good a time as any to quit.

However, I am continuing to write monthly travel columns for the Exeter News-Letter. Yet another installment has been published and can be viewed here. I even took the initiative to write my own headline and send in a few pictures along with the article. Click on the main photo to check out the sketchy dentist office I didn't patronize.

In other news, I will be giving a talk about my travels at the Exeter Library on October 25th. The show starts at 6:30PM. More to come on that.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

To Olkhon Island


This is the ferry plying its way across Lake Baikal to and from Olkhon Island. We arrived after a bumpy van ride with an ugly but supremely happy-looking young Russian couple, a doughy Asian woman, and some guy sleeping in the front.

Neither the lake nor the island made a great first impression. As you can see, the sky and the water were both gray and cold. I snapped some pictures from a rocky outcrop, being most impressed by the sharp shoreline behind  this shot. We watched the ferry slowly making progress and a couple dozen people, some on foot, a few in vehicles, boarded for the quick trip to the largest island in the world's deepest lake.

Irkutsk


October fourth, our first full day off a train since the day before we got on a train in Vladivostok. That's like five or six days. Exploring Irkutsk, which I think can be described as a generally unattractive city with some very pretty buildings, we strolled through a plaza by the circus, quite close to our under-construction hostel. There, men had horses and camels and other beasts for photo opportunities, little go-karts for children to tear around in, and there were legions of audacious pigeons with no qualms of snatching food out of peoples' outstretched hands.

I really like this photo for the soft color palette, the full extension of the pigeon's wings, the geometric shapes of the background, and the borderline-disgusted What-The-Fuck look of the girl.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Train, Day the Last

I'm a day late again. I know this. That's why on this post, you get to see not just a photo from last year's today, but a video too.

Three days on a train is a long time. You can sleep, read, listen to music, drink vodka and beer, eat, play backgammon, cards, and nap. There really isn't much more. I didn't mind it so much, but the nights were slightly stifling. Sitting in the dining car for breakfast, this is how Adam felt about the heat in the bunks at night.


He may well be loading his imaginary gun to blow his brains out.

Looking out the window in Siberia is beautiful, but even that can get old since there are days worth of the same view from the windows. Most of the variety comes from the time of day and quality of light. This is a brief video of early morning somewhere east of Lake Baikal, our last day on the three day train from Khabarovsk.


Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Brief Stop


This is the Chernyshevsk-Zabaikal'skiy train station, located riiiight about here. The statue is the man the station and town is named after, Nikolay Chernyshevsky. We had a quick break here last year today at around 8:30PM local time, which was hours ahead of the official train time which is on Moscow's clock.

For three days, the only time Adam and I got off the train was at brief stops, between 5 and 25 minutes, at various stations such as this one. Generally, we'd get off and stretch on the platform a bit in our shorts and flip-flops, blending into the other passengers comfortably dressed in track suits and sweatpants.

Here's another photo of the station, from a more distant perspective with the tracks and entire building in view. Maybe it's an old photo, previous to some renovations or just not well shot, but it sure looks a lot shittier than it does in my picture.


Russia, Train 2, Day 1


I like long train rides, and last year's today was the beginning of the longest train ride I took the whole trip. We left in the morning and rolled past golden hills and blue skies. Fall isn't really the most popular time for tourists to ride the Trans-Siberian, and we were going the opposite way of most tourists anyway, so it was a relatively quiet ride on our first day, perfect for a couple beers in the dining car, contemplating the passing fields and hewn cabin villages.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Couchsurfing Khabarovsk


Marjana was the first person I ever couchsurfed with. She lives in Khabarovsk with her husband who later taught us how to play backgammon. It was a good thing we had arranged to surf with her, otherwise Adam and I would've showed up to town, been tired as shit from a lack of sleep on the overheated train, and probably just wandered aimlessly around town until we were fed up with being dirty and tired and clueless and we probably would've had a terrible time.

Fortunately we got to have a rest, a shower, and a tour thanks to Marjana. We went into town and saw the American Corner where she works. It's an office in a beautiful old library filled with all sorts of American comforts like flags and books in English. She brought us to an auction in a run-down orphanage, and also helped us work out our onward train ticket which would've been a huge mess if we had had to do it on our own.

Original post for more details.

All Aboard


I'm a day late again. And a dollar short. Oh well, here is a photo from a year ago yesterday.

This is a Russian man named Igor who speaks no English. He wandered into our compartment looking for conversation and drinking buddies. He spoke for hours, it seemed, and all we could do was say "da" and smile and wonder what the hell he was talking about.

Igor was intent on smashing down any language barrier by constantly repeating things he said until we pretended to understand. The only thing I did grasp was "vodka", a word he uttered just before disappearing to fetch us a bottle.

Nice enough guy, I think, but I was still relieved when another compartment mate of ours got on. This guy spoke English and eventually our English-only conversation cut out Igor enough that he decided to wander back to his own compartment.

The rest of the evening involved more vodka.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Day on the Town


If you want to be an ass about it, I know it's already the next day and this is late. Just relax, there's a time difference or something.

We managed to drag ourselves out of bed and walk around the city, which is pretty small. We started at the end of the Trans-Siberian Railway, what would really be the start for us. There's a decorative locomotive sitting on the platform, and this post with the kilometer marker. It's a long ride to Moscow.

We moved on to mingle amongst a bunch of old people on land for a few hours off their cruise ship (traveling by cruise ship, pff, who does that?), walked past Yul Brynner's birthplace, hung out at a festive section of sea side and rode a funicular up and down a hill.

Funicular.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The San Francisco of Russia


The San Francisco of Russia. That's what the proverbial "they" call Vladivostok. It's the harbor, the hills and the diversity. Really, Vladivostok is apparently one of the most diverse cities in Russia, being so close to other east Asian countries and about half the world away from the extreme racism supposedly found in European Russia.

Last year today we stepped off the ferry and waited our way through customs, bags sniffed by a spectrum of mongrel drug dogs and intimidated by stern women in crisp uniforms who were decidedly unsexy.

This day was also the night of finding ourselves in a sort of speakeasy cinema pub located in an unlit nook behind an unmarked door down a dark alley off an obscure parking lot reached by an unassuming driveway tunnel that we were led to by a waitress-turned-tourguide whom we fortunately over-tipped in our new-country naivete.

Monday, September 26, 2011

I'm On a Boat


Sometimes people get confused when I say I traveled from Korea without taking a plane. "Did you go through North Korea?" No I did not, that place is fucking nuts.

I left on a boat, and went to Russia. This is the room of bunks Adam and I had shared with two other people. It was really comfy and a surprisingly nice boat. You could buy bicycles made by Hummer or Porsche in the lobby, and there were colored fiber optic lights and a big open deck.

We met some other American travelers and some Russian girls coming back from studying in Japan, and hung out in the otherwise empty nightclub.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Train to Donghae


Adam and I took an evening train to the port city of Donghae on the evening of last year's today. I should have appreciated the beauty of the the countryside more, but I was preoccupied with dealing with a last minute phone crisis until the sun had gone down and a genial but bad-breathed trainmaster decided to chat up us waygooks and show us cell phone videos of his wife driving in their car.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Adam's Birthday


Today is Adam's birthday, and it was Adam's birthday a year ago too. Happy birthday Adam. Here's a picture of you riding a mechanical bull near Suseong Lake in Daegu. After making rounds of the little amusement park which included shooting pellet guns, riding a mechanical dog, and me rear-ending my ex-girlfriend into a wall after she cut me off on the go-kart track, we hung out with a dog in a bow tie trained to ride scooters, ate Russian food for dinner and spent the evening with a voice actress from Seoul and her chubby friend. Ah, sweet memories.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Retrospective Begins Because I Have Nothing Better To Do


Compared to traveling, not traveling kind of sucks. That's why I've been sitting around twiddling my thumbs for three weeks.

I decided to start writing up my notes and journals from the last year of travel. I'd like to write a book eventually, but what I'm doing now is just cleaning up a lot of sloppy diary entries and organizing thoughts and memories that aren't written down before I forget them.

What I'm writing now will not be a book itself. If it was, it would be boring as shit, and long as hell. I've written 15,362 words so far, describing only 18 days of travel. And most of those days aren't even interesting. A lot are from when I was sitting around in Korea recovering from an inguinal hernia surgery. When I get to the interesting shit, I'll probably be writing five or six times as much per day on average.

Either way, at this rate, my notes will work out to more than 300,000 words, or the length of about three novels if I ever finish.

So here's something easy I know I can do: each day I'll upload a photo I took exactly one year ago.

Thrilling, I know.

So up above, there you have it, the first photo of my daily photo retrospective. Go ahead, click on it. It's much bigger that way.

It was taken from Kristin's roof in Daegu. She let Adam and I crash at her place while she was off on vacation. The 23rd of September was the day after Chuseok.  The sky was incredibly clear this day last year, compared to Chuseok the day before which was rainy and gray. Looking south, the mountains were especially crisp in the clear air. I recall that even the ugly cement high-rises looked nicer.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How It Ends


I really meant to stay up all night so I could watch the sun rise over New York City and watch Brooklyn Terminal approach, but I slept in a bit. Deciding to have a quick nap at four AM never works out the way you plan it.

Still, I did get up early enough to see the sky brighten as the ship backed in to the terminal. The Statue of Liberty was off in the distance, looking far more impressive than the first time I saw it, as a speck from a Greyhound window over the appalling pre-dawn roofline of Newark.

It was after five AM and the whole ship, all 2,400 passengers and 1,200 crew, were up. The Queen Mary 2 was restocking and leaving the same day, a pretty impressive feat when you think of how much food, fuel, water and so forth it takes to support three and a half thousand people for a week.

Only the stiff wasn't up. Someone died on the cruise. A "Code Alpha" was broadcast over the ship-wide PA as I was waiting around by the planetarium one day. The voice sounded of forced calm, and it was the first ship-wide announcement of the cruise other than daily transit updates from the commodore at noon. I figured one of the old people had a heart attack, especially after the "Code Alpha" was repeated not long after.

It's not such a strange thing, people dying on a cruise ship, especially this cruise ship. My estimate is that at least half of the 2,400 passengers were over 60. You're stuck at sea for a week at minimum, odds aren't bad that one of the 1,200 geriatrics will croak.

Up on deck in a hot-tub conversation, I was told that on the average transatlantic crossing six people die. The same guy also said in another breath that he was a 21 year-old retired mainstream gay porn actor ("300 scenes at $3000 a scene, you do the math") who'd been living on his own since he was eight and owned homes in Florida and San Diego. This was the same kid who claimed he would kick down his door if he got locked in his cabin when he found out to his shocking disbelief that the ship has no jails.

He wasn't a very reliable source.

But back to the stiff. After I met my father at the terminal and we got ourselves organized, he mentioned that he'd heard about a death on board and wanted to know what I knew about it, which was nothing other than a suspicion. He'd been told of it by a member of the terminal staff, and suddenly the "Code Alpha" made perfect sense.

I wondered if the hearse that passed us on 95 just outside of NYC was carrying one of my former fellow passengers.

Getting carted off on a gurney and taxied away in a funny-looking car was how it ended for one of the passengers, but for most of us, we just got off the boat early in the morning with none of the ceremony that greeted us as we embarked. No flag waving, no band, no gauntlet of servants in epaulettes. We stepped off onto the pavement of Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, and everyone went their merry ways, and it was as simple as that.

For me, it was the end of more than a cruise. I'd traveled roughly 30,000 miles without airplanes, stepping foot on four continents. I'd been happily lulled into an unshakable state of sloth on the Queen Mary 2, and was in no mood to haul my shit around New York City. I ditched plans to meet up with friends for a week before heading back to New Hampshire, and got into the car with my father who drove down just to watch the ship come in, and who was heading right back home with or without me.

It was one of the few times in the last year that I took the easy way out, but I felt I had earned it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Coming To This


Article number seven has been published in the Exeter News-Letter. The link is on the right as always, or just click here. In this month's edition, I talk about language.

Though my trip is finished, I'll continue writing articles for the next five months to make the column go an even year. Enjoy.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

An Arduous Crossing


It turns out that at least two of the seven sins are alive and well on cruise ships: gluttony and sloth.

I wasn't really too sure how the cruise would be, in terms of eating or dressing or drinking or whatever, since I'd never done anything so luxurious or white before. I brought my suit for dinners and seven bottles of wine for my cabin.

Life was not hard on the ship. Besides actually forcing myself to visit the gym throughout the week in a pale attempt to make up for a year of self-indulgent travel and consumption, time was mostly taken up by eating and sleeping and napping.

The food was good, but more importantly, there was an infinite amount of it. At the dinners whereat I snazzed myself up in my suit, I feasted in the Britannia, my assigned swanky (but not most swanky aboard) restaurant.

I dined on delicious and pretentiously named dishes such as cauliflower polonaise, pont neuf potatoes, chicken and wild mushroom terrine, fig and apple chutney, Indonesian vegetable bahmi goreng, tamarind-glazed duck breast salad, and herb-crusted rack of lamb, to name a few.

There was always a buffet elsewhere, usually with Asian food or grub classics like ribs or fries or roast pork. Room service was also available 24 hours a day, always a nice option at three in the morning after killing a bottle of wine and having a dip in one of the pools.

I came to eat so much that I eventually just started ordering two entrees at dinner, eating two breakfasts in two different restaurants, and eating when I wasn't hungry. If there is any place I can realize my fantasy of jumping into a swimming pool full of fettuccine alfredo, the Queen Mary 2 is probably it.

As far as sloth goes, I'd tell you all about it, but after all the naps and late mornings facilitated by the absence of windows in my cabin, I just don't feel like it.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Atlantic Blackout


Firstly, an update: I've uploaded an album of photos from England. Click here or, as always, find the link on the right-hand sidebar.

Carry on then.

I'm sure I'll be breaking some sort of unspoken rule of etiquette when I drag my ratty backpack and guitar onto "the most magnificent ocean liner ever built", as Cunard modestly describes her. I'll also be wearing my jeans and boots so I have enough room to stash the wine I'm bringing aboard.

Well assuming they let me on in my vagabond state, I certainly won't be posting any blog updates for the next week. I'd like to take this opportunity to apologize personally to my audience. I sincerely hope all four of you can somehow get through the next seven days.

My cabin mate, whom I met for lunch last week in Hampstead, has informed me that though Internet connections are available, it's expensive and slow. I won't bother. This will be her second voyage on the Queen Mary 2.

I plan to use my time somewhat more productively. A daily gym regimen in the mornings, swimming and reading in the afternoons, napping, watching movies, gluttonizing myself at all opportunities, hobnobbing with the retirees, and of course dressing up in my suit.

Quick aside about that suit and more bastards at customs: I had to pay 30 pounds for my own goddamned suit in taxes and handling fees for the parcel company the customs are in cahoots with. Dirty bastards. At least it was easier to deal with and less exploitative than than the crooks in Turkey.

I've also heardtell that the stars are not to be missed at night. The Sonoran or Australian deserts are great places to get away from light pollution, but the middle of the Atlantic surely has even those places beat providing the ship isn't obscenely lit up. Hell, the boat even has it's own planetarium.

I've got quite a library of books to get through, in addition to what's available in the ship's library. I'm currently reading Half of a Yellow Sun, then after that will surely be Within Whicker's World, seeing as I have been described as the American Alan Whicker. Then The Satanic Verses, and if I have time, The Guv'nor by Lenny McLean. McLean fought gypsys in bare-knuckle boxing matches, and his autobiography's tagline is: "I look what I am - a hard bastard!"

If you thought I was erudite before, just wait until I get through this reading list.

A Bit of Rhyming Collocation and Bob's Your Uncle


Cockney rhyming slang might be the most valuable contribution to the English language to ever come out of Britain. I was pleased to discover its existence from the renowned travel writer Jamie Maslin during a shared hiatus in Kazakhstan, but also shocked that a learned scholar such as myself remained ignorant of it for so long.
Rhyming slang phrases are derived from taking an expression which rhymes with a word and then using that expression instead of the word. For example the word "look" rhymes with "butcher's hook". In many cases the rhyming word is omitted - so you won't find too many Londoners having a "bucher's hook" at this site, but you might find a few having a "butcher's".
That's courtesy of cockneyrhymingslang.co.uk. Clearly there is rhyme here, but never any reason. I think that's the beauty of rhyming slang: it's got less sense than an initial glance at that slab of stone pictured a top. That's the Rosetta Stone by the way, they got it at the British Museum. You know, the rock they named the software after? Turns out, it's designed to make sense.

Rhyming slang confused the hell out of me for awhile, but I've started getting it down. I collocate the word in question, and then find a rhyme for the most likely pair, and I usually work it out.

Still don't get it? The Wikipedia page is pretty straight forward.

Sadly, it's just contrived and unnatural when a septic like myself tries to use it. Still it's helpful to understand, just in case rhyming slang gets thrown on the critical language list for the US foreign service. Having a bit of that, along with Korean, would really boost me in the selection process.

Just remember, collocate, rhyme, and Robert's your father's brother.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Home Stretch Begins


I was enjoying the stunning sunset through Bob and Amy's windshield on the M25 and thinking about how there wasn't much more to go until I was back in America and home, as the word goes.

The last year of travel had been mostly about the travel itself. The long train rides, the visa applications, the crowded bus stations, the bad sleep, the process of transit all that it entailed. Sightseeing and recreation was largely just a symptom.

There wasn't much left to figure out. Bob and Amy were going to drop me off at a train station and Amy, who had done most of the talking in the passenger seat, had explained to me in minute detail how to get to the Tube system, and from there I had it covered to Jamie's apartment.

Then it was a week of relaxing and strolling in the rain and perusing museums, then a pre-booked bus ride to Southampton for a shockingly cheap eight pounds (about the same price as a standard round-trip Tube fare - the bastards), a week of leisure and class on a ship, a quick visit to some friends in NYC, a wedding in Cape Cod, and The End.

There was nothing left to figure out.

I'm not sure whether to feel proud at achieving a goal set ago, or nervous about what to do next, or disappointed to be reaching the end, or what. So I think I'll just defer all judgements until further notice.

My suit is pressed, my shirts are ironed, my bag is packed, I just shaved, and I have one more full day in London before the home stretch gets just a bit shorter.

The Last Hitch


Naturally, the skies turned gray and rain began to fall the closer I got to England. That wasn't so bad though, because at the start of the day I wasn't even sure I'd be able to get close to England at all.

After a couple of hours on public transport to get to the northern fringe of Paris, I approached a gas station to see 6 people already trying to hitch north. There were two British girls heading to London just like me, and a cluster of four Polish guys who'd been waiting overnight.

The girls were gone when I got out of the toilet in the gas station, minutes after I arrived. They'd been waiting only an hour. I wasn't surprised the Polish guys had spent all night at the gas station. They were lazy and slobby and tried to get lifts by waving obnoxiously and calling out. Not the way to get a lift, and being a group of four doesn't ever help. I ran into a group of four Polish girls outside of Madrid who also spent the night at a gas station. If four fine-looking polite girls have a hard time getting a ride, four indolent guys might as well give up.

I wasn't so sure about the whole attempt to get to London anyway. Somehow I'd have to get across on the ferry which seemed like it might've been hard, especially after looking at this forum post which eventually devolves into inanities, misinformation, and pathetic moral posturing.

But there I was, in a truck cab approaching the port. It was my fifth ride, and I had to walk a fair amount to get to decent hitching spots after two well-intentioned lifts had earlier dropped me in very unhelpful places. If I had known better, I might've shaved a couple hours of the 14-hour day between leaving one flat in Paris in the morning, and arriving at my friends flat in London that evening.

At just past 4PM a French truck driver dropped me off by the exit ramp that veered away from the two lanes going toward the Calais port. Lucky for me, a car stopped about two minutes later on the rainy shoulder, before I could even get to the ticket booth and run into any problems getting through customs.

A Brit named Gerard was going back to England with his young son. He brought me through customs - the officer asking stern questions like why was I going to England, how long was I staying, how was I leaving, what boat, and so on - and past the ticket window. Either the girl didn't care that he was registered for two people and had three in the car, or she didn't notice the little boy in the back, caught up in drawings of dinosaurs and dragons.

Gerard wasn't going to London, but the cars soon lined up behind us, and I was able to find a couple heading there quite easily. They told me to meet them once on the boat. Don't believe that terrible forum post above, once through the customs and ticket booths, cars queue up in a huge lot and wait around for awhile, making it possibly the easiest place to find a ride ever.



I won't drag this out. I had some good chats with Gerard, a retired teacher from a hard part of England and we had a couple of pints. I charmed the elderly couple who was to bring me to the edge of London, and I took photos of the white cliffs of Dover sandwiched between the matching gray of the sea and the sky. Bob and Amy regaled me of tales of all the other hitchers they brought to and from the ferry - they had even picked up the same guy on two separate occasions, years apart. The sunset burning deep pink in the sky was stunning as we crested a hill on the M25.

I was left at a suburban train station, found an ATM, caught the train, got change at a fried chicken shack by Seven Sisters, picked up an Oyster Card, and got to Jamie's flat, and we tucked into the wine I had picked up that morning in Paris. The hard part was over, and my trip itself was nearly over.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Gay Pah-ree

First, an announcement:
I have updated my France photo album on Picasa. I thought my recent jaunt through Paris warranted a few more photos being added, so as always, use the link above, or on the right-hand side.
Back to the regularly scheduled drivel:

I guess it was about time I made it to Paris. I'd never really been too drawn to the city - the hype of something always makes me skeptical rather than interested, but it's an obligatory stop on any traveler's itinerary at some point on the road, so I let myself get excited for it.

And a lovely city it is. I had a leisurely four days of strolling through parks and cafes. I didn't see much in terms of all-star sights, deciding it would be better to prioritize relaxation over ticking boxes on someone else's idea of a 'must see' list.

I didn't see the Louvre or any other museum. I didn't go to Versaille or see Montmarte or Sacre Coeur or drink wine by the Seine. I caught a glimpse of Notre Dame at night, and the tip of the Eiffel Tower sparkling from a distance. I didn't go up the Eiffel Tower though I did stroll through the Champs du Mars and marvel at the numbers of tourists crawling about, and wonder who in their right mind bought the anamatronic puppies from the dozens of hustlers who laid them out on their mats.

I did have some wonderful picnics in the sunshine. I was impressed by the Pere Lachaise cemetery. I think it's great when a place full of dead people can be cheerful and relaxing rather than grim and depressing. There were plenty of trees for shade, beautifully sculpted monuments to the famous and common alike. Jim Morrison's grave was not very thrilling though; a gated off grave unremarkable but for the former human buried underneath, and the morose looking lurkers smoking cigarettes and moping like they were personally hurt by Morrison's early demise for some reason.

And, for the first time in a year of travel, I spent a few hours brushing up on my videogame skills with a few hours of online deathmatches playing Halo 3. I don't think I'm exaggerating by saying I did quite well overall, for a man out of practice or otherwise. Domestic luxuries, a nice benefit of CouchSurfing.

Lots of wine, good weather, social and solo picnics, getting stood up by other travelers and not caring too much, a fun night out at a neighborhood pub and gay karaoke basement, a great CouchSurfing host and flat, and tranquility. I know I'll have to come back to Paris. Four days wasn't much but it was enough to make me understand why it's such a well-loved city. I'll be looking forward to my next visit a bit more.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Photos!


I've uploaded yet more photos. I know, I know, please try to restrain yourselves. I uploaded an album of photos from Morocco, and I've updated my album from Spain since I made another brief trip through after coming back from Morocco.

The links, as always, can be found on the right hand side of the blog.

I'll upload more photos from France soon as well, as I'm nearly finished with my stay in Paris.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Dental Adventures


Morocco didn't seem like a great place to have dental problems. I was eating breakfast in Rabat, some bread and cheese and a yogurt drink, when one tooth started hurting intensely. It felt like a needle had been stealthy inserted below the gum line, and then jabbed into the base of my tooth. Or alternately, like flavor molecules were turned into thorn clusters that attacked in the crevices of my teeth and gums.

I wasn't surprised since I'd been having issues with this tooth, or the inflamed gums around it to be more specific, for awhile. I'd had it cleaned out in Beijing and Bangkok and things had been good for awhile.

It's not a fun part of travel, but shit goes wrong with bodies and it's gotta be dealt with, at least after you ignore it for as long as possible.

The pain in my tooth was so intense that morning in Morocco that I couldn't ignore it any more. Lunch, the Big Tasty from McDonald's, didn't cause as much pain when the juices and chemicals and mush attacked my tooth, but it was still bad. And for the record, I was only eating McDonald's because it was Ramadan and there weren't a whole lot of choices for eating. The flavor powder from the chips I tried eating was infinitely worse, like eating acid.

I cut my visit to Africa short by a couple days and got the train up to Tanger where I had planned on staying for the night but decided to get straight on the boat back to Spain once I was en route.

After a long wait for the bus to Malaga, a miserable night on a hostel couch, an abortive attempt to hitchhike to Madrid, I finally got into the capital late at night. My tooth wasn't hurting so much when I drank water, but I determined to get it dealt with. In the meantime I avoided eating until I was absolutely starving and chewed only on my right side, something I had done for quite a long time when I was having problems earlier on the trip. Then I got self-conscious about having a really strong jaw on only one side and looking weird, so I balanced it out when the lack of pain allowed it.

The next day I got a free x-ray and prescription for amoxicilin at one clinic, but no cleaning since the regular dentist was on vacation. It made me feel better, but not good enough. The next day I went into another clinic. The dentist there wound up mercifully anesthetizing me before she scraped the hell out of the tooth below the swollen gums and then surprisingly pulled out a pair of short pointed scissors and cut off a shitload of the offending tissue.

I wasn't so sure that was such a good idea, but I'm not the dentist. The shape of the gums looked normal, but that's not to say it would feel or function normally. I figured I'd be bleeding for days, but it sealed up quickly.

Four days later, so far so good. I just wish I got to keep some chunks of gum as a souvenir like I got to keep my cracked and shattered wisdom teeth when they came out.

And if shit does wind up going wrong, well, I'll be stuck on a ship for a week, half the world away from the dentist that is responsible, and then in America with no insurance or money. No big deal.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Coming To This


Another column of mine has been published in the Exeter News-Letter.

Click here to give it a read, or you can always find it on the list on the right-hand side.

Thanks for stopping by, don't forget to floss.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Photos!


I've gotten off my lazy ass and uploaded some photos from Spain. I'll be going back there in a day or two to start making my way up to England, but chances are I won't be taking many more photos since it'll just be for transit.

You can find the link on the right hand side as always.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Life's Tough


Marrakech in August is hot as hell, so I'm glad I decided to spend the extra six bucks to stay in the hostel with the swimming pool.

I didn't do a whole lot. I read no history of the city, I had no guidebook to inform me of any sights. I went on two excursions to check out suits only to discover I was slightly to exorbitantly overquoted for low quality shit, despite the salesmen's unsupported claims of "good quality".

I did find some good deals at the huge supermarket outside the walls in the new city, but even though I was prepared to purchase and don a suit from a supermarket, I couldn't find anything that fit right.

The upside of the supermarket visit was that I found one of the few places that sold booze during Ramadan. One of the few places that sold booze period, as far as I could tell. You have to register your passport info to enter the liquor section.

I lounged by the pool in the mornings and napped when I felt like it. I picked up a copy of American Rust that was sitting on a table in the reception area. It's not the best book I've gotten into, but it keeps one entertained. Life's tough sometimes.

I justified my laziness by telling myself that I had an unorthodox mission in my pursuit of a suit. I've since given up that mission with the intention of having my good suit from home shipped over to London. Beats paying for a piece of shit and then dragging it across three countries.

Plus, I thought I deserved to chill out for awhile since I haven't been doing that enough over the last 11 months. I had planned on sitting around and reading and relaxing in cafes anyway, so things were going according to plan, only the cafes I saw were mostly closed or really expensive or not relaxing, and thus were replaced with the pool deck.

I did meet a Sri Lankan guy from London who was all ready for exploring: shorts, hiking boots, a day pack, sunscreen not completely rubbed in, and a plan for things to see that day. The sight of him made me feel a bit guilty about doing essentially nothing, but after all, I did have a plan to stick to.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

First Steps in Africa


It was a long day of travel from Sevilla, where I spent one night to see a friend. Fortunately, all my connections went smoothly. A city bus brought me to el Prado de San Sebastian bus station, and I got on a bus to Tarifa twenty minutes later. In Tarifa, I walked through town, blown over by gusts of wind which attracted all the kite surfers, which in turn supported the hundreds of surf shops and schools along the boulevard, and got a ticket on the 1PM ferry.

Morocco's port city Tanger was nicer than I thought. I expected a dirty rambling city built on hustled money and sucker tourists. Just the cynic in me, I guess.

It was a bit dirty and a bit hustled, but a bit charming as well. Me and two Swedes wandered around the medina and the souks. I had to drag my luggage around, making me sweat even more in the heat. There were no lockers at the train station where I had booked an overnight train to Marrakech.

In fact, I hadn't showered since the day before in Sevilla, and my general feeling of hygiene was even worse due to the long stretch of traveling.

I found a barber near the main mosque and got shaved clean for $1.50, then we asked our way to a hammam, having to pay off a little kid one shop owner sent to lead us, and another guide who latched onto us and did the talking.

The bathhouse was full, apparently, but we still got to shower for another $1.50, no doubt a tourist extortion, but standing in the stalls with exposed rusty pipes felt like heaven after dragging around my guitar and pack through the heat and the sun, the souks crammed with people selling everything from cigarettes to steel lamps to spices to sides of lamb.

It's the middle of Ramadan too. Needless to say, it's not easy to find a beer, and not so easy to find a restaurant except for a handful of places that overcharge foreign infidels like myself and my two Swedish friends. We had a couple small meals, one in an outdoor cafe that's been around for 200 years, one in a small shady alley where the small shady man insisted he had no menu and quoted us prices that were much larger than the small portions.

Such is the fate of a tourist.

But for everyone that squeezed a few extra dirhams out of us, there were an equal number of people who were genuinely kind. Two young men stopped to chat with us and were interested in my guitar. They gave us advice and asked for nothing in return and were happy to practice their English. The two taxi drivers were happy to give us the rundown of the area in Spanish after we negotiated the fare, and the man who was getting a shave in the barber shop before me insisted on showing off his 59 year-old strength in a powerful handshake, and grinning with the few teeth he had. "American? Welcome!"

I did seem to get many warm responses from the many people who asked where we were from. The Swedes basically just confused most of the people when they explained where they were from, but everyone who heard I was American was enthusiastic.

Good to know we still have some rapport somewhere, even if you have to squeeze through sweltering alleys to find it.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Is My Home Zombie Secure?


I've been in the small Andalucian town of Alhaurin el Grande for the last two weeks. I'm doing some work at a "glamping" site called Casa de Laila. I take care of the property and help with all sorts of random stuff. I wanted to chill out and save money and so, via the wonderful service provided by HelpX, here I am.

The house and property is many things: it's beautiful, classy, relaxing, quiet. But the big question I have is: is it zombie secure?

Let me first consider the setting. Alhaurin el Grande is by no means a big town. The area is not urban, but is easily accessed by Marbella or Malaga, both small coastal cities. The town itself has a main drag lined with cafes and restaurants and sidestreets of shaded alleys. Whitewashed houses climb up and down the surrounding hills.



I think if a zombie outbreak began in urbanized areas, which they do according to most of the movies I've seen, this town's location would provide a temporary safe haven in which we could strategize and gather our wits about us while the epidemic spread. Unfortunately, it's not far enough away from anything to escape a drawn out zombie outbreak, so I'm forced to evaluate my location here for the storm to come.

The property. I live in a large multifloor villa on a squarish piece of property on a hill. The villa is high up, giving a decent view of the valley below, but not of the center of town, where zombies would surely turn up first. There are decorative bars on the windows which would add a small level of security, though how strong they really are is unknown. The kitchen is large, there is plenty of storage space, and there are lovely gardens running up and down the hill with various palms and bigass aloe-esque plants that stab the hell out of me as I weed.



There are five tents spread around the property, which can comfortably sleep 15 people in total, and a swimming pool with a great deck and sheltered open-air kitchen. The property is surrounded by a border which in places is solid cement, but in other places flimsy chain-link. Also, by the top of the property where the remote-control gate is, due to the nature of the hill, the wallis quite low, meaning errant zombies wandering at random in search of brains are capable of stumbling through the vegetation by the low upper fence and into our property.



My expert analysis of this property isn't too positive, unfortunately. The property would be handy only at early stages of a zombie outbreak. The walls and fences would deter zombies from randomly wandering toward the house or tents and feasting upon my brains, but once a full scale epidemic was in swing and hundred of zombies were mindlessly clambering and climbing and pawing, at one point they'd get through and it would be game over. One good point about this though, is that to get to a chain link section, the zombies would first have to overrun our neighbors, an event we would surely know be aware of, letting us prepare a bit.

The gardens, although colorful and lovely and teeming with oranges, apples, avocados, and other fruit, could also prove dangerous. Any trip outside the tents or villa at night would be fraught with shadows and potential lurking points for stray undead who found their way in. On one hand, the great presence of stabby aloe-like plants might actually slow down the random zombie that hat the bad luck of stumbling into the needley flora. At the very least, they would provide a great opportunity for an extremely creative zombie kill, perhaps by bashing one of a terrace onto the center of a huge plant with extra sharp tips. The lushness of some of the plants create blindspots that can't be monitored from the second floor roofdeck, and the deck itself, with comfortable all-weather furniture and shaded patio, might even add to the problem by lulling us into comfort and laziness.



Something positive here is the survey of animals I've taken. We have 5 chickens to supply us with eggs and meat; we have one fat sluggish dog and one small sprightly dog that would help warn us of breaches; we have small koi, a couple of frogs, like four (?) cats, and a number of small lizards to eat should be get desperate; and, saving the best for last, we have three horses. These belong to a friend of the owner, but if he was lost to the teeming hordes of undead (and he probably would be) they would be invaluable to us. I learned a little something about the advantages of warfare on horses in Mongolia. We could ride horses through crowds of zombies, swinging hoes and dirt rakes, and ride off into the sunset. And like the Mongol hordes, if shit got real desperate, we eat the horses and drink their blood.

The house is another bright point. Being large, it can easily harbor enough survivors to monitor its perimeters. There is a large kitchen, as I said, and also a small side kitchen on the first floor, plus the kitchen upstairs. Food can be stored in the cool basement which is unfortunately only accessible from outside.

It's quite possible for thirty people to live in the tents and house, and lay low while the army is mobilized to take care of the zombies that will certainly make it to Alhaurin el Grande. For how long, though, is the big question. But feeding that many people would be difficult, it might be better if it's just the three of us who work/live here even though there would be more work for each of us. Besides myself, there's Linda, another helper from the Netherlands, and Anne Marie. She runs the place and lives here full time, and is also Dutch.

If it were just the three of us (a perfect match with the horses...), we would be in good shape. Anne Marie is pretty small and probably wouldn't be much of a zombie warrior, but she's a caterer and great cook that could keep Linda and I well fed. Judging by how Linda took a pickaxe to the sun-baked garden when we were planting new plants, I trust her to be a great zombie warrior. Naturally, I would excel at such a task, if it ever came to the point of defending myself or my property from the hordes of undead. I might even go so far to say it's my true calling in life, kinda like Woody Harrelson in Zombieland, except without the sad dog backstory.

There is plenty of water to last through an inital lockdown. The irrigation system I spent days updating has a large reservoir which we could exploit for drinking water, and the swimming pool could also be filled with potable water. Food stays for a long time in the cool basement, and there are three full size fridges in the house and a small one in the pool kitchen. When the electricity goes due lack of maintenance when all the engineers are infected and turn into the enemy, we'll be in tough shape, but hopefully an outbreak wouldn't get to that point. Of course, we'd blackout the property at night in any event so as not to draw attention. This would mean uprooting the solar lights that illuminate the white stone walkways at night, no more laying out candles for atmosphere, and certainly killing the pool lights. We'd also have to slaughter the dogs that the neighbor keeps jailed in a cement kennel that borders our property. Their mournful sad barking all the time would just attract too much attention.

The last thing about the property is a positive point. Slightly outside of town, we're a little bit up in the hills which could shelter us should the need to flee occur. I've been too lazy to do the hike so far, and probably won't have time in the next couple days before I leave, but I'm told that all construction and civilization stops after hiking about ten minutes out of our gate. This is definitely a happy option to have should the shit really hit the fan and our residential defenses fail, and the horses would really come in handy here, carrying us off to the safety of nature like a modern cowboy. (Note to self: write a zombie Western screenplay...)

In terms of weapons, we have a good supply of garden tools: shovels, hoes, pickaxes, etc. There's a bunch in the basement, plenty of tools in the pool house, and some dusty drills and power sanders in the garage. Unfortunately, there are no firearms, but we'd be okay for hand to hand combat should it come to that.




Overall, I can't give my present home anything better than a B- rating in terms of zombie security. Better than most in the area, but not great. This means that the property and house are safe and secure during early, low-concentration outbreaks, but will almost certainly not survive a full-on zombie apocalypse. The main weakness leading to this grade are its less than desirable perimeter defenses which would be difficult to enhance. However, the property is applauded for it's moderate self-sufficiency, limiting dangerous and potentially exposing trips out for necessities, and its size and capability for harboring other survivors. I also am pleased to know there is unspoilt nature very close by, adding a very helpful Plan B.

One of these days, the proverbial shit is bound to hit the fan. In this case, 'the proverbial shit' is actually an army of zombies, 'hit' is actually 'eat the brains and flesh' and 'the fan' is actually poor, underprepared humans.

What I'm trying to say is that the zombies are coming, be prepared or be eaten and turned.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Trains, a Suit, and Africa


I'm considering changing my plans again. Instead of going directly north to France again, and doing another work exchange for a week or two like I'm doing now, Morocco is on my mind.

The idea came into my head the other day when I was saying goodbye to a couple that live in Morocco. It wasn't a very profound spark. It was more like, "Hey, they live in Morocco. I could go to Morocco."

I'm getting pretty lazy concerning hitchhiking, but fortunately Moroccan trains are cheap. Riding trains is one of the three reasons pulling me toward Morocco. I'd really like to take the overnight train from Tanger to Marrakech, spend a couple days, then take day trains halfway back up north, then east to Oujda, stay a couple days, then back to Tanger and Spain. Maybe I could even swing through Gibraltar for the hell of it. That way I can see where John and Yoko were married and check out the overseas territory that Spain is all bent up about since England won't give it back.

The other two reasons are a suit, and Africa. I've never been to Africa before, I'm a bit ashamed to say. I think it's about time I step foot on an unvisited continent, something I haven't done for five years.

Plus I have what appears to be an unfounded suspicion I can get a suit tailored for relatively cheap in Morocco. This fancy-schmancy cruise I'm taking apparently has formal dress codes for dinner. I'm already going to be the odd one out for being under 50; I don't want to be the only one dressed in duct taped flip flops and ratty t-shirts.

Nothing I've found online concerning tailored suits in Morocco is promising though. Maybe I'll just head to Morocco and ride trains and frustrate myself in futile searches for sartorial satisfaction while moonlighting in cafes filled with hookah smoke and belly-dancers. Christ, you know it ain't easy.

It's a roll of the dice right now. I don't want to spend too much cash since I don't want to be dead broke when I get home. However, if I can find a cabinmate to share the cost of the cruise with me (since I've singlehandedly paid for a twin room) then I'll be saving $800 bucks which I can guiltlessly blow in Africa.

Life's hard when you don't know if you're going to relax in southern France or travel around Morocco. Let me thank you in advance for your sympathy.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Things I Carry


When I left, I figured I could say I've been traveling a long time when I wore out or lost all the original clothes I carried with me. I've nearly gone through an entirely new wardrobe, but I don't think I'll make the full changeover by the time I hit American soil.

Two things don't count: my jacket and my boots. Those things are supposed to last a long time, and pretty much the only two things I would be disappointed to have to replace on a journey. And my backpack. That's still here.

I think of this because my flip flops recently blew out during an evening on the town in Barcelona. Fortunately, it was on the tail end of the evening, I had embarrassed myself sufficiently at some dance club playing salsa music in a sort of walled tourist castle, and I was drunk enough not to be bothered at walking with a single barefoot down the hill, on the subway, and back to my friend's place.

They were 150 baht Havaianas I bought on the strip along Kata beach in Phuket. I bought them with "Audrey". I liked the flip flops, but on the other hand, I'm glad to be rid of attachments to certain memories. Same thing happened with sunglasses from an ex-girlfriend I left on a sun and water splashed deck along the river in Vang Vieng. Oops.

So I'm on my third pair of flip flops, and my third pair of compact shoes. First was a pair of seven dollars sneakers I bought in Beijing the first time so I could have something to wear to a club with an Iranian woman. Those pieces of shit didn't last long. The next pair were leather slip-ons that brought me to a Vietnamese wedding in class. Now I've got some canvas slip-ons I picked up in Barcelona for $20 which sadly seems cheap to me now.

My current jeans are my fourth pair of pants on this trip, and my third pair of jeans. My button-up shirts I bought in Turkey, replacing one I brought with me and left in an apartment in Ulaanbaatar, a polo shirt another ex-girlfriend gave to me that I threw away, and a cheap Chinese-made shirt purchased in Mongolia I gave to Paul in Prague, to keep all the stuff I gave him in Korea company.

The only originals I'm still carrying are my three t-shirts (all purchased from woot.com), one pair of heavy hiking socks I haven't had much use for in southern Spain, believe it or not, two pairs of underwear that have been persevering valiantly, and some running shorts that I swim in mainly.

Things come and go. People do too. It looks like I'll be carrying a few things home with me; these t-shirts and undies have seen a lot o this trip. I may have to add a couple items to my sartorial inventory. Apparently on this fancy schmancy cruise I'm taking back to the States, dress codes requiring dinner jackets and other formal wear are enforced at dinners and so forth. Shit, if I can't find a cheap polyester suit at some thrift shop in London, I might starve to death on this dream ship.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Obligatory Travel Conversation


It's not long traveling until you realize you've had the same conversation with everyone you've met. Where are you from? Oh, I've been there, [say hello in their language]. Where did you come from? How was it? What's your name? Cool. Where are you going? I've heard that place is a-MA-zing. How long are you traveling for? Oh, I'm traveling for longer (thought silently).

This "conversation" is mandatory, and some people just love it. It bores the hell out of me. It's truly miserable after the hundreth time. You get the same set of answers. I know it's necessary though - you have to start somewhere. You can't just walk up to someone in a foreign land, shake their hands, make creepy eye contact and ask them if they believe in god. Unless you're a Mormon or Jehovah's Witness.

Like I said, some people wallow happily in it like pigs in shit. I try to get it over with as quickly and abruptly as possible, so I can move on to more interesting things. I rely heavily on trolley/surgeon dilemmas just to hear what people say. Not familiar with trolley dilemmas? The bro over at Philosophy Bro can give you the lowdown.

A certain someone I traveled with for four months seemed to put up with the obligatory conversations pretty well. Sorry brosef, but I remember we met someone once, might've been the Swiss girl in the van to Luang Prabang, and as you two were having the Conversation, I just thought, Kill Me Now. By now a seasoned traveler, I know at this point you're regaling all sorts of people with far more dialogs.

Anyway, Adam and I relied heavily on Would You Rathers to entertain each other, and soon employed classics like "Would you rather spend the rest of your life with latex gloves on, or have your fingers perpetually covered in Doritos powder?" to keep other travelers on their toes. There's always Would You Rathers concerning superpowers, but flying always wins, so it's not so interesting.

The Conversation is possible to overcome. Once the basics are laid down, a blunt question is generally acceptable, and you can move on to discussing involuntary organ-harvesting from executed Chinese convicts.

For the record, I support organ-harvesting, but I don't support the death penalty. If you're gonna ice some people though, might as well make use of them. That was a good conversation to have on a rooftop bar below the peaks of Yangshuo, even when a pony-tailed over-the-hill Canadian hippie butted in and started talking about slippery moral slopes and living and dying for ideals, and his younger sidekick really missed the point and started mentioning souls.

One of the best responses I got from one Conversation was from an Australian girl in Hue. At some point early on I asked her where she was from but she seemed not to hear and instead went on talking about the book she read that brought her to this town. About twenty minutes later when there was a break in the conversation, she said, "I'm from Sydney." I asked you that like twenty minutes ago, replied I. "Yeah, I don't really like to get into that stuff so soon."

At least I know I'm not the only one sick of it. Hey, thanks for stopping by.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Photos!


I've uploaded more photos! This time, from France. I had a blast in southern France, and hopefully will be able to schedule another stop there on my way up to England.

As always, you can find the link on the right-hand side.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Ticket Home


I thought it would be enough to make it from Korea to western Europe by land, but I was wrong. Since I've made it to Europe, the thought of saying goal achieved and just getting on an airplane is pretty repulsive. I don't know exactly why, but I decided to try everything I could in order to make it back to the States by sea.

My first thought was to crew on a yacht, sort of like what I didn't do in Thailand. After wasting hours on shitty crew-finding sites and posting messages in all sorts of forums, it turns out that the season to cross the Atlantic doesn't get underway until September at the earliest, and even then boats mostly go to the Caribbean. As much as I would like to chill out in the Caribbean, at this point I'm running out of money and interested in getting home somewhat directly. Plus, crewing a boat is a very unguaranteed method of travel. I would have to be willing to wait and hope and make rounds of a ton of marinas all over the Mediterranean. Scratch that.

Another option was to take a cargo ship cruise. Turns out they're insanely expensive. Scratch that.

Another option was a ferry from Denmark to Iceland. This appealed to me very much. It would be fairly cheap, and would drop me off in eastern Iceland (the middle of nowhere) from whence I could hitchhike across the country to Reykjavik. I spent five days in Iceland in 2004 and would love to go back, but if I were to do this option, I'd have to get a flight across the rest of the Atlantic. Tempting, but I'd still have to fly. Scratch that.

So I bought a ticket for a transatlantic cruise. I'm on the Queen Mary 2 of Cunard cruise lines, "probably the youngest person on the ship" according to the sales agent I bought my ticket from. The ship is the only liner purpose built for transatlantic journeys in more than three decades. It's even inspired the designs of cruise ships sunk in Hollywood movies. I'm not sure if that's something to be excited about.

Taking a pricey ($1500) cruise is not my idea of travel, but in my case, it works. I get across the Atlantic, I continue without airplanes, and I get to gorge myself on what better be goddam good food. I've got a double room to myself: the cheapest, most windowless room on the ship, I'm sure. I do have an option of finding someone to share the room with me, cutting the price in half. That'd be nice, but not an easy task.

I see myself lounging on the deck in the sun, reading a book while geriatrics in tuxedos hobnob about. I certainly won't have the formal attire required for a lot of the event, but fuck it. I plan on getting a trunk - what is any transatlantic cruise without a trunk? - and filling it with cheap booze and souvenirs bought from thrift shops before I leave from London.

I step foot in Brooklyn, New York on September 5th after seven nights at sea. That's a year of travel with no airplanes, and a lot of ground covered. This is not a small world we live in.

In the meantime, I'm doing work exchanges to conserve the measly finances left to me. This means I'm doing grounds work on a gorgeous hillside property in southern Spain with a comfy bed, amazing views and meals cooked for me. Being poor has rarely been so good. See you in America.

Friday, July 22, 2011

An Average Day of Hitching


Getting out of large cities is the hardest part of hitchhiking, followed closely by getting into them. The first time I ever tried hitchhiking I was 20 years old and was standing on a street in the middle of Auckland, New Zealand holding a sign and looking like an idiot. You can't hitchhike out of the middle of a city.

Fortunately, there are sites like hitchwiki.org that have tips for taking public transport out of cities to good hitching spots - ideally gas stations or rest stops along highways. I made it out of downtown Barcelona by walking from my friends apartment to the metro at 9AM, taking a train to Catalunya station where I changed to the commuter rail and a painfully slow train out of the city. Between those two trains and the one mile walk across a bridge and down a road to the gas station it took me two hours to start really hitching.

I stood by the exit onto the highway with a sign saying Madrid. Signs are really only necessary when the road splits toward different directions and routes like it does outside Barcelona. After about 30 minutes a firefighter picked me up in his beat up car. He was in his mid-thirties, wore shades and some scruff. I had to practice my extremely rusty Spanish since he spoke no English, but I think we had a good conversation about the Coen brothers, Javier Bardem, the forest fires along the Barcelona-Madrid railway, his friends' craft-brewed beer, and Catalonian pop music.

He dropped me off after about 85 kilometers outside of the town he lived in. It was 12:35PM. In another 15 minutes, a couple in a small BMW coupe pulled up. I started to explain I was headed toward Madrid in ugly Spanish, but the dude just replied in very good English, "Where are you going?" They were an Argentinian couple from Chile in Spain on holiday. They'd just done a loop from Madrid via Lisbon, small cities in Spain, and Barcelona and were heading back to Madrid after a night in Zaragoza. They left me at a gas station outside of Zaragoza.

It wasn't a great place to hitch, though all the elements were there. It had a gas station, restaurant and store. It had lots of traffic, but it was not a good set-up. Usually, once you get onto a highway, it's easy to get rides from rest stop to rest stop, if not a ride directly to where you want to go. This place wasn't a pull-off/pull-on style rest stop like most places along a highway, it was along an exit, so cars coming off and going back on after a break had to drive further away from the highway before turning around and zooming back onto the road. By the time they were heading toward the highway, they were driving at full speed. This is not a good situation to try to catch a ride in.

It took me a bit to decide where to stand and wait, and eventually stood around across the street from where cars exited the highway for an hour as trucks and cars zoomed past me to get back on. Some cops stopped a truck and were inspecting it when I decided to go into the restaurant for some food to not push my luck. I haven't had any problems with cops since I've been hitching and I don't want to start.

I waited for another hour after lunch. First, one car stopped and the guy said he was only going into Zaragoza which didn't do me any good. I took the fact that he at least stopped as a good sign, and it was. Ten minutes later a large Audi stopped. There were four guys around my age in it, not leaving a lot of room for me. I wouldnt've stopped in their situation to be honest, but I wasn't about to complain about sitting bitch in the backseat.

They were cousins, three from Germany, one from Austria. The driver and eldest cousin, named Ken, drove like a fucking madman, making rapid use of all six gears in the Audi. To his constant frustration, there was construction along the road, limiting the length of stretches on which he could push the car up to 120 MPH. I talked mostly with Mal, the Austrian who was interested in politics and economics, and I really didn't have much to say to him on those topics, though I tried my hardest.

They were your typical party tourists: generally speaking, assholes that made jokes even I considered immature. One of the cousins got so drunk that he passed out on a beach on Ibiza and got everything stolen off of him and had to get a new passport. They were sincerely nice to me though, perhaps their German-ness making them empathize with a hitchhiker. After a rest stop where I snapped the above picture of an idyllic and colorful countryside, they insisted I sit up in the front seat and gave me ice cream and pretzel sticks.

A couple hours later, we were in the heart of Madrid. Ken was off to see his daughter, and they parked right near the Puerto del Sol, where I had coincidentally planned on staying anyway. But before we got there, he managed to sexually harass three women before we even got out of the car: first, a primped-up chick in a convertible he called "silicona" in order to get directions from her (to be fair, she was completely ignoring his polite and clearly audible 'hola's and 'perdon's. Second, a woman was filming something for the news on a grassy median as we were stopped in traffic. Ken shouted out "show me your ass!" in Spanish as we drove past, and later on when we were winding through small streets in the heart of town, we overheard a tourist saying in English, "...I don't know where he went..." and he blurted out, "To suck a cocks!" before speeding off again.



I was checking into a hostel around 8PM, leaving me time to clean up, walk through el Retiro to check out the badass statue of Satan as he falls from heaven, and then get a bus ticket for the next day, for a change of pace. That makes for 11 total hours of travel, including 2 to get out of Barcelona, about 3 for waiting for rides. That leaves 6 hours on the road, just about dead on with GoogleMaps' estimate for the 624 kilometer trip. I was lucky to get brought straight into the city. Usually, I wind up taking public transport in from some outer point, but I guess this time I just lucked out.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Southern France



A Parisian girl in Berlin told me that southern France was somewhere everyone has to go. "It's not as good as Paris, of course, and people there are a little conservative and backwards, a little racist, but you must visit."

My introduction to southern France was getting picked up by a French woman who brought me to her holiday villa on the top of a hill in the middle of the countryside, close only to a village of about 2,000 people. Her mother had dinner waiting on the patio next to the pool when I arrived. We sang karaoke in the village, drank local wine, and I lounged through the next day by the pool, eating freshly cooked food before Audrey brought me to Avignon.

Turns out that in Avignon, there was a massive performance arts festival happening. For three weeks every year, the city gets mobbed by dancers, jugglers, musicians, puppeteers, bands, breakdancers, magicians, actors, etc. etc. There are street performers everywhere you turn, in the main square, on the avenues, down the side streets and in the alleys. It's almost enough to distract you from the main events, which are performances in various venues throughout the city. It was quite a stunning atmosphere to blindly wander into. The place doesn't quiet down for three weeks, the intensity is stunning. I stayed two days in Avignon before moving out to the countryside to crash with my buddy who was working in the area guiding bicycle tours.



Stephane lives in a house in the countryside with his sister and brother-in-law. It was a full house, with cousins and their kids visiting, but they let me crash on the couch. Luckily, Stephane had the whole week off of work, his first since starting to guide rich tourists through the wine country and boutique, 300 Euro a night hotels. Day one, he brought me on a bike ride towards the world's largest standing aqueduct, but we turned back after about 10 miles because it was windy as hell with le mistral in full effect, and I was seriously out of shape and struggling. It's a 40 mile round trip.



We did the ride the next day in the afternoon. I was slow, but made it. The pont du gard is built over a beautiful river. There were a bunch of tourists, but not as many as I would've though. Then again, we did arrive at like six PM on a weekday. We drank a celebratory halfway beer and spent a couple hours lounging by the water, diving, and reading. It was like hanging out in a postcard. The aqueduct functioned for about 900 years and was built without mortar.




The rest of my time in southern France was spent relaxing in the shade, drinking pastis and playing petanque, eating elaborate meals, and drinking wine. It made me not want to leave. My last night, I went to meet some of the guides and people that Stephane works with. In a nearby town, his company has a house built right in front of a stony hill for their guides to stay in when they're in the area. The place is sheltered from the street and focused on overgrown terraced gardens that climb up the hill, with a patio made for dining and wide open doors that basically make the whole first floor open air. We dined with two other Americans guides, an English guide, and a gorgeous Italian woman who ran the office. The sun set over the villa roofs in Orange, the town we were in, and from up on the hillside, climbing through the overgrown vines, the view was stunning.

On one hand, the Parisian girl knew what she was talking about: southern France must be visited. On the other hand, I don't see how Paris could be any better of a place to live, though I suppose at some point paradise gets boring, just ask Adam and Eve. And speaking of that story and eating fruit, southern France had some amazing fruit growing all over the place too, and if a tree grows over the fence line of a property, it automatically becomes fair game for public picking. Mmmm, fresh fruit...