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, 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


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 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...

Sunday, July 17, 2011


That's Mihai making me breakfast before I set off for Milan from Munich. I stayed over at his place even though we just met the night before via the Internet. Shit, this sounds like it could be an irresponsible homosexual tryst, but it's just an average CouchSurfing story and completely platonic.

I've mentioned CouchSurfing at least a few times on this blog, but don't think I've gone into too much detail about it. It's a simple principle: a website that unites travelers. You stay with people on their couches/floors/spare beds for free and you can host people on your couch/floor/spare bed. I won't get into it much more, it might be boring.

When I recently hitchhiked from Germany to France, I stayed with a couple CS hosts along the way. It's kinda a hassle to organize this when you're hitchhiking without a phone since you don't know when you're going to get into a city you don't know, and you don't know where you will wind up after your last ride, but I made it work twice on really short notice.

This attests more to the great hospitality of the hosts I stayed with more than my resourcefulness. I was lazy and had only about a day to organize myself to stay in both Munich and Milan. I don't think I'd have the patience and endurance to couchsurf and hitchhike all the time like the good man of letters Jamie Maslin, who has done so from one end of the earth to the other.

Anyway, on a windy day in Germany I was sitting in Mihai's temporary apartment thinking about CouchSurfing and it (re-)dawned on me how fantastic the site and community are. There I was in Munich, sitting on a couch with a Romanian kid who just started a new job in a new country, chatting away about traveling and learning a bit about Romanian linguistic history.

I'd really taken CouchSurfing for granted, thinking that it should only be natural that I can meet people who are interested in my travels and would like to help me out with a place to stay and recommendations for things to do around town. That's what I would want to do for travelers, so that's what I expected.

The next night, the Polish truck driver that brought me to a gas station just outside of Milan insisted, without speaking any English at all, that he call up the host that had agreed to let me crash at her place at the last minute, and get her to pick me up so I didn't have to find my own way into town.

Antonella drove up and ferried me away, and brought me directly to one of the best meals of my trip at restaurant and indoor bocce hall that was tucked back off the street in the shade and bordered by train tracks. There was no menu and the meal was just freshly made pasta with a creamy sauce and the meat of some wild bird that was beyond her translation abilities.

It was the sort of place no one would ever find on their own, and it was cheap, atmospheric, and so goddamed tasty. And it was all enjoyed with a chat with someone who lived in the area, who had more to say to me than just how to get to the nearest metro stop, or where the supermarket was, or what time the museum closes.

CouchSurfing is great for saving money alone, but as I see more and more clueless backpacker tourists on the beaten path doing the same mundane shit in the same oblivious state around the "must-see" sites and cities of Europe, I've ceased to simply be appreciative of the hospitality and advice I receive from CS hosts, and am now truly grateful. It's natural to go somewhere and want to meet people who live there - surprisingly hard to do as a tourist - and very fortunate that there is such a website to make it happen.

Thanks to all the people who've hosted me and kept me off the streets, out of hotels, and brought me to places more interesting than museums and souvenir shops.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


I've uploaded a bunch of photos of Germany, mostly from Berlin. The link is to the right, as always.

Hitchhiking: Germany to France

View Hitchhiking in a larger map

It took me longer to get out of Berlin than I thought. Getting out of cities is hands down the most difficult part of hitchhiking. Fortunately, there is a site called HitchWiki that provides good advice.

Getting out of Berlin was actually easy, it just took awhile to catch the right train to the right spot. It was an easy walk from the train station to a highway rest stop where I got a ride after about five minutes with a slobby-looking guy named Stefan who spoke no English and incongruously drove a sleek, brand new VW.

At the next rasthof, I waited for about 30 minutes before I got my second and final ride. I think it only took so long because two hitchers were already there before me. They said they'd waited 90 hours at the last place they were at, probably because they looked like homeless ravers: random pieces of hair shaved, other pieces in dreads, random colors, baggy camo pants, piercings. I support people who want to look like cyber-clowns, but it's not conducive to easy hitchhiking. Having moved further down from their spot as is customary when arriving after other hitchers are already waiting, I got picked up five minutes after they hopped on a huge empty bus and passed them on the road ten minutes later.

An Italian guy named Moreno gave me a lift to northeast Munich. He ran some restaurants in Berlin, and was looking to open more. Avril Lavigne ate at one of his places the previous night, and was coming in tonight as well. He was a slight little guy and liked to talk with gesticulations. He had lived in America and loved the country, dreamed of going back there, and had thrown out US-bashing Germans from his restaurant. I got a train into the city and stayed with a Romanian CouchSurfer who just moved into town for a job.

The next day was kind of a bitch in terms of hitching. The road from Berlin to Munich was straight and direct and fast. No such luck getting from Munich to Milan. I had to go through two countries to get to Italy, and use several roads which meant several changes of rides. On the bright side, this is the sort of scenery I was dealing with:

That's looking into Austria from just over the Swiss border. Switzerland has the most stunning mountain scenery, and all I got to see was vistas through a window on the highways. If one is to actually go hiking through Switzerland, or hang out in some rural villages, I believe one may never want to leave.

All in all, it took me all day and nine rides to get to Milan. At one point I was dropped off at a Heidiland rest stop. They had an anamatronic Heidi show in a small tower, and a pen of bleating goats:

I was never fully convinced I'd get to Milan that day, but with crisp beautiful weather and Alpen mountains to look at, I wasn't too worried. It did start to rain while I was waiting near the Italian border. I went inside the rest area to wait out the worst of it and found that a last-minute host on CouchSurfing had said I could stay with her in Milan. Knowing I had a place to stay that night, I went out and stood in the rain until a Polish-Italian trucker who spoke no English gave me a lift. His kindness was overbearing, insisting to call the girl I was supposed to stay with, and arranging for her to come pick me up at a gas station outside the city. I didn't want to push her limits of hospitality, but after he got a hold of her number from me, there was no going back.

Fortunately, she was happy to pick me up in her beat up Panda, and after one of the most amazing pasta meals of my life at a neighborhood bocciofila club, I was happy to sleep after the long day of standing around surrounded by beautiful mountains.

My final day of hitchhiking involved figuring out how to get to gas station on the highway outside of Milan since there wasn't much good advice on HitchWiki. A quick ride with an orthopedic doctor brought me to the next big station where a couple picked me up and brought me down the coast past Genova. Turned out that the woman was into John Irving and was quite tickled to learn I was from the same town, and my father went to school with him. They were super nice and I offered her a tour of Exeter as known through Irving's books if she ever came around to the Boston area.

A young couple in a Jeep gave me a lift further on into France, past Cannes. At that point it really hit me that I had no idea where exactly to go in France other than Provence, which is a big region. Stephane wasn't answering his phone and I had no Internet access. So I sat around for a few hours, trying to call on payphones, and eventually just deciding to hitch further on, anywhere, since sleeping in the bushes at a highway rest stop didn't appeal much to me.

This is where my luck really changed. After a few minutes a French girl driving alone stopped. I learned later that Audrey was thinking, "You're driving alone. Why the hell are you stopping to pick up a hitchhiker?" Well it turned out that she was very interested in my travels and invited me to stay at her family's holiday villa in the countryside with her and her mother when she learned I had nowhere to sleep that night.

That's a story in itself: the place was one of the nicest houses I've been in, and I was served amazing food, and completely made at home with Audrey and her mother. After a day of lounging, good food, swimming, and strolls around the tiny old village nearby, I finally figured out where exactly to meet Stephane, and got driven into Avignon with Audrey. She wanted to see the festival that was going on. Turns out that was more good luck. We met up with Stephane together, and in the main plaza in Avignon, hoisting an enormous mug of beer, surrounded by happy crowds and street performers and musicians, I finally made it to a place that I didn't quite know I was headed to.

Laziness in Berlin

After my family left Europe, I had nothing to do. There I was, in Berlin, having made it from Korea to western Europe by land, my original goal completed.

Instead of basking in the culmination of my achievement and making concrete plans to move on or head home, I moved into an open room at a friend's place and was thoroughly lazy. I tried hunting down some boats on the Internet that would take me across the Atlantic, but that wasn't very successful.

Eventually I had to move out, and I spent three days in a hostel wondering what to do with myself. I went to a fashion trade show with an Australian CouchSurfer I'd previously met, lounged in parks, and accompanied a Swedish kid while he bought weed from some shifty Africans that kept their stash hidden in plain sight in trash among the bushes in Gorlitzer Park.

I had some friends I considered visiting elsewhere, but hadn't made any plans with them. I hadn't heard back from a friend of mine in southern France via email so I finally got the novel idea of calling him up. Stephane answered, and was in the hospital because one of his tourists hurt himself since he wasn't used to being clipped into bikes.

It was Wednesday evening, and he said he had all next week off. That was perfect since it would take me at least three days to hitchhike from northern Germany to southern France. All of a sudden I had another goal, and just like that, felt excited to be in Europe again.

The only thing was, I should've asked Stephane what town he lived in before I left Berlin the next morning.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Coming to This!

I've had yet another article published in the Exeter News-Letter, the July 8 edition. The headline isn't too imaginative or entirely accurate, but let's not split hairs. The article is about Georgia (the country).

Give it a read, and maybe you can leave a sarcastic and insulted reader reaction.

The link will be in the right hand column as usual.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Friends in Many Places

Certainly one of the benefits of traveling is meeting people from all over the world. One of the benefits of that benefit is that you can meet up with these people further on in your travels and have a friend in a strange city or have a place to stay and be lazy when you don't know what else to do.

Way back in Laos, Adam and I met a couple of German travelers on our way to Savannakhet from the 4000 Islands. It was Lalita's birthday and she was celebrating by spending a day in steaming buses and vans on Lao roads, and occasionally puking. Martin was flying home the next day.

We found a cheap hotel in town, and spent the next few days together, fruitlessly waiting for Thai visas, exploring a river and cave that Lalita fortunately convinced us to go to, and moving onward to Vientiane and beyond, meeting up again in Luang Prabang.

Fast forward to Berlin. Thanks to the beauty and horror of Facebook, I met up with Lalita at a show, and she offered me a place to stay in her flatmate's room while it was empty. Mom was leaving the next day, and I didn't know where to go or what to do, so it was a perfect situation.

I may have overstayed my welcome, but Lalita is too kind and knows what it's like being a traveler. I didn't do much besides sleeping in, lounging in the apartment, lounging in parks, going to yoga classes as part of a cheap promotion and frequenting CouchSurfing meet-ups. It was a carefree and unproductive week. In fact, it was remarkable for it's high level of unproduction.

I did make a decent meal one night to justify my presence there, and we watched a couple movies together. When she wasn't working or out with her boyfriend, we had some good talks about traveling and life and hipsters and yoga and cats.

I also met another friend from one of my Australian trips in Berlin. We ate cheeseburgers on the Fourth of July and I felt truly American. In Baku, Jamie and I stayed with a friend of his he met through CouchSurfing in London, and I also went out for dinner with a Dutch friend that I kept running into throughout Russia, Mongolia and China. And in Amsterdam I had a couple drinks with a friend from Korea.

Spend enough time traveling, and you have a network of travel friends who can actually become real friends if you actually follow up with staying in touch and making visits. I'm theoretically off to see some more friends, but with how lazy I've been the last week and a half in Berlin, I'll be surprised if I wind up actually getting anywhere.

Friday, July 1, 2011

I'm a Spoiled Prince!

Out of boredom and unfounded vanity, I was looking over the columns I've had published in the Exeter News-Letter when I found this scathing reaction to my article concerning Alan Whicker and exiting from Kazakhstan:
"Congratulations on getting safely out of my country, you spoiled prince. In Kazakhstan, people always treat foreign guests worthy, even border security officers. That's what happened to you. Don't look down on them."
To avoid being too much of a dick, I'll just say claiming that foreign guests are always treated well in ANY country is just as foolish as saying they're always treated poorly. My critical friend here, as a citizen, probably doesn't actually know exactly how foreigners are treated in his country.

Example 1: Two foreign teachers I CouchSurfed with in Shymkent described in great detail how they are routinely stopped in their car, being forced to pay bribes to corrupt cops. This actually happens to everyone in Kazakhstan, not just foreigners, but most foreigners also have to have special plates that identify them. Hmm.

Example 2: Almost immediately after boarding a two day train, I was taken out of my berth and brought to the provodnik's compartment. First they asked me for cigarettes. Then they asked me for dollars. Then they asked me for tenge. Then they said straight up, "Baksheesh". I was smart enough to play dumb and quick enough to grab my passport back and leave. My passport, by the way, being the only foreign one on the train. Hmm. No other passengers had to suffer demands of bribery. Hmm.

Corruption and bribery is rampant in Kazakhstan. I know not so much because of these easily dismissible examples, but because every Kazakh person I met told me so.

In regard to my actual exit from the country: I was missing a vital stamp. Why the stamp is vital is a mystery to anyone, but nonetheless I was in a bind. The border guard would only have been doing his duty if he were to detain me, but thanks to a language barrier and a small confidence trick, I got out with no problems and without paying a bribe like a previous traveler in the same unfortunate position. It wasn't entirely legal, but it worked.

So, my insulted reader friend, thank you for your input. I agree that most Kazakhs are hospitable and genuinely kind people. But don't get all huffed up and insulted when someone brings up a little dirt; it's there whether you like it or not.

Travels Soundtrack: Central/Western Asia

I don't really know what to say about music and Kazakhstan. I want to use the Beatle's 'Back in the USSR' for pretty much all the ex-Soviet states I went to, but I'm going to save it for Georgia since they actually mention Georgia in the song. The very word 'Kazakhstan' I guess just doesn't fit so nicely in pop lyrics.

Anyway, Kazakhstan is home to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the site that launched the first human into space. I think this justifies my selection of 'Major Tom' by Peter Schilling. The eponymous Tom wasn't that first man that blasted off from the Kazakh steppes, but at least the theme matches.

After a very ex-Soviet ferry crossing (empty, massive ship, rusty stairs held together solely by layers of heavily applied paint, and a captive baby eagle), I next stepped foot in Azerbaijan. I was only in this country for like 3 days, and was down with a quick flu, so I wasn't inspired by much music at the time.

However, Azerbaijan did win this year's Eurovisision contest, so that song gets my selection. Unfortunately, the song is fucking awful. Just real bad, which is why I won't actually embed the video.

This is seriously the best that Europe can come up with for pop music?

Oh well. Enjoy, if you can.

On to Georgia (not the state). It's time for that famous Beatle's hit. Just think, European music went from 'Back in the USSR' to 'Running Scared'. The world really is going to hell in a handbasket.

My last stop in Asia was Turkey. A lot of people might tell you that Turkey is European, which is technically true for about 3% of the landmass. Sorta like Georgia and Azerbaijan, but Turkey has the Bosporus Strait as a clear delineation between Asia and Europe, rather than the more ambiguous Caucasus Mountains.

But I digress. Turkey's song, which I actually did listen to in Turkey, is by the Pogues, who have more songs about Turkey (and Australia) than one might expect from a drunken Irish folk-punk band. Forthwith, 'The Turkish Song of the Dammed'.

That might do it for my series on my travels soundtrack. I'm in Europe now, and I don't really know any songs about Belgium.