One year of teaching in China and two years of Peace Corps in Malawi later, my dear friends from Semester at Sea and I finally reunited. Alexis and I flew to Burlington, Vermont within 20 hours of Garrett's homecoming, and these are the good times we enjoyed. When I'm not at work, I don't want to be continuously documenting my life in high def. That's why I played with Instagram this time around (click on the images to view in lightbox).Read More
Q: I am from Birmingham, AL this is going to be way out of my comfort zone do you recommend finding a friend or just going alone. Is their a good floor to be on and does the inside/outside room make a difference? How many classes did you take while you were there and did studying abroad put you behind in your studies when you got back to school?Read More
A tsunami smacked me on the head last Tuesday, energy and activity in one exhausting wave, rendering me not quite unconscious but with twitching eyes and a crumbling mental capacity. And I don't mean that in a bad way.
Since the dawn of this website, I've known a radiant being of 6'1" stature and a high verbal capacity. Alexis Reller was my potluck, shipboard roommate on Semester at Sea and an instant friend, even though she found my ship ID photo pre-meeting downright worrisome. Alexis and I continued to galavant around the MV Explorer and the world's ports thinking, "Gosh, how lucky am I to have a partner like this broad," only to disembark post-trip and reunite regularly for the next three years with our friend Garrett Russell.
Since then, we've tackled fifteen European countries in thirty days (on a budget) and experienced ski and road trips alongside each other. She's my ultimate travel pal, one whose friendship is instantly renaissanced upon a simple "s'up" regardless of the time between interactions.
For the last year, she's been teaching English at a university in China. Emerging from the Mother Land in one piece, she carried with her musings on communism, the ample travel opportunities of the expansive land, and the power China can have on her expats. Her first night in Indianapolis, we discussed these - and many other - topics ad nauseam, letting conversations go conceptual at the drop of an adjective. I was thrilled to be back in contact with the person who helped me hone my appreciation for the world and its powers.
Late night chats welcoming later bedtimes and early morning rises squeezing in a sense of productivity; I wired myself with caffeine and racked my brain in the afternoons for food and entertainment ideas in the Indy area. It's rare I seize the day in my own city, and I usually save those occurrences for guests. We rode thirteen miles on bikes, hit up Michael Jackson (a tribute, of course) in concert, and grabbed a beer next to a handlebar mustache at the Rathskeller. And best of all, we coexisted in the same hemisphere - nay, the same room - for six days of social splendor.
Now you know why the website has been a little barren recently.
Opening our Conversation Up
With great friends come great conversations. Instead of using seemingly-unnecessary, elevated text to relay my fun week with a friend, I wanted to pose one of our musings for a more public debate. What's the point of having a blog versus a journal without calling for commentary?
Question: Does the quarterlife period virtually guarantee a change in character, often catalyzed by extreme factors, such as living in China? Or is the quarterlife a time to expect your friend pool to thin out automatically, as we all branch and swerve different ways, ultimately becoming the persons we were meant to be all along or will be formed into?
Alexis felt the country of China does weird things to people, mainly to the expats she knew, but I also felt people go through distinct changes post-graduation from college or simply in this transition period to "job world." It couldn't be just China, based on my own exposure to crises stateside, but I can only imagine what a year in Mao Country can do to a person.
And on that note, I'm sure both Alexis and I have changed since our high school or college years. We could very well be among the population of vastly changed individuals, but for the sake of our conversations, we are never in the wrong. Never.
What's your take on the changes in the quarterlife? Comment below or contact me!
I'll admit this off the bat: this week's video post is all over the place. Yes, it's dedicated to the betterment of the self-taught skills, just like last week's. Yes, it covers material from last year, this year, and calls for agency in yourselves! And yes, there are three videos this week. Just roll with it.
My Thought Process
Recently, I answered a question on how to best groom yourself for the World Traveler Internship, and since a huge part of the job is video editing, I thought it wise to encourage some exercises that will only improve our skills in videography, yours and mine. Unless you take formal classes or have a mentor, you have to push your own development in order to make travel videos people want to watch.
Last week's video showed a lengthy experience squeezed into something compact with a bit of flare, and I called for suggestions on how I could have made the piece more dynamic with different techniques or styles all possible with a simple point-and-shoot and Windows Movie Maker. Many people don't create travel videos because they don't have the top gear, like HD camcorders and Final Cut Pro, but that shouldn't stop anyone from having an expressive final piece that stretches the abilities of that gear.
Video #1: Self-Teaching the Analysis of Theme
I created the following a year ago, while taking a trip to Iowa with friends. I wanted to show unexceptional and mildly inappropriate subject matter submerged into an unlikely theme, to hopefully enhance whatever charm can be extracted from a party bus situation.
Please don't judge.
Did this technique of pairing old and new, classy and not classy, work in your opinion? How would you have captured the same subject matter with a different angle, using the same tools of a point-and-shoot and a simple editing program? Comment below, and let's move on.
Video #2: Self-Teaching New Accessible Techniques
I am a MatadorTV intern (did you know?), and this week, I've been on the lookout for interesting videos under the theme of photography or photo-centric. This brought my attention to a technique called photomotion, which I love. I decided to give it a go this week, with the help of a Matador tutorial.
Give it a try yourself. If you have a DSLR, keep your finger on the shutter button for some rapid succession shots of something that moves. Also check the continuous shooting options on your camera and see if you can't make it do the work itself, possibly resulting in 9 frames per second if you're lucky.
If you have a point-and-shoot, I think the fastest you'll be able to capture is a photo a second, and it may help to turn the photo review off. You may not be able to capture enough frames to make it seamlessly animated, but it's a great technique to try out!
Bottomline: Don't not create because you don't like your subject matter or don't have the perfect gear. No doubt my subject matter would be cute no madder how I captured her. Great topic to start with.
Video #3: Self-Teaching How to Hunt Inspiration
And finally, today's last video is about finding new inspiration. Did you already know about photomotion? How can you learn other techniques without waiting for someone else to tell you about them? I found an easy way for anyone to come up with new methods.
I have twelve days until I take off for NYC and Mexico on my first business trip as producer and editor for Project Explorer. With this fourth series coming up, we want to get really creative with our filming techniques, in order to make learning all the more entertaining for students. Also, some archaeological/historical/cultural sites don't allow filming, so how are we to deal with these barriers?
By getting creative.
If you're finding it difficult to diversify your storytelling abilities, not sure how to capture certain subject matter in a new and compelling way, or just want to try something new, check out Vimeos channels!
Did any of this widespread content help you in conceptualizing better travel videos? Any other ideas to share? New techniques to try out? Fill me in, because I get further direction knowing what you, the reader, thinks!
This week's video post is dedicated to the betterment of the self-taught skills. Recently, I answered a question on how to best groom yourself for the World Traveler Internship, and since a huge part of the job is video editing, I thought it wise to encourage an exercise that will only improve our skills in videography, your's and mine. Unless you take formal classes or have a mentor, you have to push your own development in order to make travel videos people want to watch.
Along with the next video of the week, I'll be displaying some work I created almost a year ago exactly, while taking a trip to Iowa with friends. How do think I could have captured this moment better? Any techniques I could have used? Photo motion? Visual effects? Let's stretch our minds and see how many ways this experience could have been documented, using reasonably accessible gear like point-and-shoot cameras and Windows Movie Maker (what I used for this video).
Leave your suggestion or technique in the comments below, and let me know what you think of this exercise!
She's been intimate with an octopus and smuggled scorpions onto a cruise liner under her clothing. She's traverses five continents and now tackles her most recent escapade. Let's check her out.
I've had the stellar privilege of traveling with Alexis around the world. As someone who takes their travel buddy choosing very seriously, I was amazed at the karmic happenstance of scoring a potluck roommate aboard Semester at Sea that became such a dear comrade and friend.
I report this to you not because she's my best friend (or because she could squish me with her trekking shoe) but because she's someone you should know. She's Alexis Reller. She's taller than everyone in China, except maybe Yao.
Her Bio: I'm a 186cm Western female romping around China for a year (6"1' for all the confused Mei Guo Rens, Americans)... that means I fall somewhere between celebrity and freak to the Chinese. I am here to teach English and American Politics and Government at Hebei Normal University in Shijiazhuang, China. My flexible and non-demanding workload make traveling easy: this country is NOT small, but I travel it like it is. My current passions include self-depreciation for screwing up my Madarin tones, consuming gratuitous amounts of noodles and pi jiu (preferably simultaneously) and furthering my love/hate relationship with my 2009 Lonely Planet China.
What sort of music are your students listening to, and does China love American music as much as the rest of the world?
The kiddies do enjoy some American beats, namely the late great MJ. All of the songs they blast on their speakers are quite behind the times; I just heard Elliott Yamin crooning "(Baby I will) Wait For You" and an unidentified American pop hit from the 1970s. I haven't the slightest idea how they get these random songs, especially considering China's well developed illegal downloading cyber infrastructure.
Do you have any other jobs in China other than teaching at the university?
Many foreigners easily pick up extra teaching or tutoring to pick up some extra RMB on the weekends. Some of my friends and I have picked up some "modeling" gigs. I was paid a handsome sum to wear an ugly red dress and hand out flyers at a grand opening for a luxury housing development. My friend Josh received the equivalent of a third of one month's salary to appear at a medical conference in a neighboring province. He was provided with a pre-written speech and an alias: Dr. Jesse McCartney, M.D., Specialist in Prostate Cancer (No, I'm really not kidding). I still have not yet wrapped my head around the Chinese intrigue with foreigners, but until I do, I will continue to accept gratuitous amounts of cash for doing next to nothing.
Maybe the Chinese maybe overuse the word "maybe". Maybe after you are here for awhile you will maybe do the same? Maybe...
What are the most hilarious cultural trends or habits specific to the Chinese?
Everyday in my neighborhood a large truck drives by blaring carousel music a la the Ice Cream Man. Don't be fooled, this truck doesn't bring ice cream. Instead, they spray the street down with water. Apparently, its to control the dust.
They also LOVE foreigners. One of my students once told me, in all sincerity, that he thought Americans hated them, the Chinese. I asked him why he thought this. He responded, "Well, when my friend and I went to Tienanmen during the Olympics we saw many Americans. We ran up to the to say hello and take pictures of them, but they were not friendly to us." The Chinese love foreigners but are super awkward in expressing this feeling. Two months into the semester I still have students that whip out their phones to take pictures of me as I am trying to turn on the computer/write on the board/blow my nose. Reminiscent of the Paparazzi, it can be a little obnoxious. But they really mean no harm. So get ready for your close-up...
Any sticky situations with that infamous Chinese traffic yet?
I've been lucky, but I was once trying to balance a large potted plant in my bike's basket while talking to my friend on the phone, and I nearly ended up squished to the back of a city bus. Not wise choices.
China really has no traffic rules. They have traffic suggestions. Maybe. I also find that biking in China is both a simultaneous stress inducer/reliever. Inducer in that people are forever swerving, cutting me off or playing chicken with me. Yelling obscure English curse words out loud is somewhat of a relief though.
I know you've been all over the country these last few months. What's train travel like?
Train travel in China is not your mother's sport. Many new travelers to the train scene might be a bit overwhelmed. There will probably be odd smells, shirtless men, only squat toilets and people yelling into their cellphones at five in the morning. The Chinese don't often bring things to entertain themselves (ie books, magazines); if you are a Western, be prepared to BE the entertainment, for a little while, at least.
All that being said, traveling by train in China is AWESOME. I have seen hours and hours of beautiful countryside that would have been totally missed if I traveled by plane. Once I learned how to work the system, I learned that traveling by train in China is convenient, affordable and fairly comfortable. I'm also very proud of my train ticket collection (22 tickets in about 80 days).
China seems to have jobs for English speakers out the yin-yang. What's the ex-pat community like?
The ex-pat community in China varies greatly, depending on where you are. Metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai are like playgrounds for foreigners with plenty of decent Western eats and bars. Some smaller cities like Guilin, Kunming and Dunhaung also have thriving expat communities. Most foreigners are here to learn the language, teach their own language and/or have a blast.
But almost as bad as the Ugly Tourist is the Ugly Foreigner: someone who abuses Western Privilege. The Chinese are intrigued by foreigners and thus Westerners are often times given advantages over the locals. This comes in great handy if you have someone escort you to the front of a lengthy queue or you dodge a few cover charges at clubs. But I have seen far too many foreign Beijingers romp around like they own the place, degrading both the scene and the countries they are representing. All in all, I've met some darn cool people.
What home comforts have you found in your city?
There are a couple of grocery stores in my city that sell cheese, baguettes and Skippy peanut butter. Oh yes, and Shijiazhuang also has a Dairy Queen.
Living abroad is not easy, and I remember China being an aggravating and difficult place to travel. How have you learned to cope with the frustrations of ex-pat life?
Pi jiu with my peng yous. (Beer with my friends)
I jest. But only partially.
I have a job that I love in a city that I hate....which happens to be conveniently located on a major train line. I have been here nearly 3 months and this will only be my second weekend in Shijiazhuang (I'm staying to stimulate my economic situation). I travel constantly and I love it. My friends in nicer cities like Beijing and Guilin have not capitalized on this opportunity to roam and are already starting to envy my adventurous ways.
It also helps that I have a strong network back home to support me in times of stress/homesickness. My parents and Reller-tives surely have some frequent buyer discount with the US Postal Service, given the amount of treats they have shipped over the Pacific to me. And even though they are on the other side of the planet, my friends/sisters are still sending me love messages from the bar and coaching me through my law school personal statement (thanks especially to Linsey, Cecilia and Mikala). My coordinates may have drastically changed, but my friends still keep me grounded.
Can you teach us a good phrase in Mandarin that will tickle a Chinese funny bone?
An easy phrase to use is pronounced like "Ren Shan, Ren Hi!", literally meaning "People Mountain, People Sea" or "Oh Cripes, this place is packed." ANYONE traveling in China will inevitably find themselves in a crowded situation at some point. Busting this phrase out will surely lead to some chuckles...and probably rapid Mandarin responses as everyone around will now have assumed you speak their language fluently. Congratulations for momentarily fooling them.
How do you think you'll feel when you return to America in July of 2010?
POOR, sad and hungry. But also proud and grateful for my year in China. And I'm sure it will be wonderful to see all of the family again, too.
One of the first questions that any Chinese person will ask you is, "Do you like Chinese food?" My first few months here I would respond positively through gritted teeth: secretly, I was NOT a fan. I was so sick of fried rice and pork dumplings I once resorted to eating KFC, something I would never crave in the US.
Now, I am in love with the food here. Everything is unprocessed and fresh. In China, I watch my noodles being rolled and pulled right in front of me. My veggies are not chopped until I order. Since food is really cheap here, I can go out with friends a lot. My opinon might change with time, but I am currently dreading my return to US food. Especially when a lunch out with friends costs 8USD for a sandwich and unfrozen soup instead of 40 cents for a giant bowl of family recipe, time perfected, glorious homemade noodles and tofu. Hen hao chi! Delicious!
Do you have any questions for Alexis about China, teaching English, or being an ex-pat? Leave a comment, and I'll get them to her (as she has a terrible internet connection).
The STA World Traveler Internship is becoming a dot on my horizon now, within viewing range and getting bigger and more omnipresent in my daily life with each globe rotation. And if you've been wondering how I am preparing for this experience, I guess you haven't been following my blog. Wa waaaaaaa...sad. Well, I've been building my domain from its humble roots at blogspot to where it is now, a whole lotta pages of stuff. And with my previous trip still hovering in a cloud above my head like unprocessed thought bubbles, I've been busy putting that experience in an oak barrel for further fermentation before its eventual publication (in book form, baby!).
In the last couple weeks, I've had some thrilling moments, all in the name of travel and enjoying the Motherland. With this focus on "being where I'm not", I often shrink out of the social picture or adopt the ways of penny-pinchers to increase my spendings for future trips abroad. Oh, but not this time.
Road Trip to Des Moines
Two weekends ago, I decided to honor a promise I made to a certain sorority house in Des Moines, Iowa, one which graciously offered incredible support for a girl they didn't know in a contest that thrived on public outreach. I called up my travel buddy, Garrett, a Semester at Sea friend, and asked him if he was doing anything that weekend and wanted to fly to Indy for a road trip. Within hours he was booked, and within a week we sat in Broad Ripple (a neighborhood/the Indy Mecca of all things party-like) at a dimly-lit Egyptian restaurant talking strategies for shocking our friend, Alexis, tomorrow in Des Moines. Alexis is another Semester at Sea friend, my potluck roommate, and my ultimate travel companion. She knew I was coming but didn't know about the impromptu Flight of the Garrett.
The drive across three "I" states went from flat to flowing and chatty to hilarious. Needless to spell out in eloquent script, she was happy with the Garrett surprise hidden in the truck under my Dora the Explorer pinata and then immediately led us to our afternoon activities of outdoor paint fights and formal affairs (yes, it was a quick turnaround of cleanliness and demeanor, but we're professionals).
Day #2 in Des Moines consisted of finding Garrett's pants, eating excellent BBQ, and loading into a purple party bus with $250 worth of canned, bubbly goodness. These Drake University sorority girls put on quite a show in the middle of the bus, bringing along stuffed squirrels, skis, and funnels galore, and I couldn't help thinking how interesting American undergraduate culture would seem to anthropologists from foreign lands and times. We laugh at the cows on the streets in India thinking, "Why is that necessary?" I wondered the same thing while rolling through downtown in a crammed bus, sipping chilled beverages, watching others drink and high velocity and volume, and listening to Flo-rida's obsession with boots and fur. What a weird world we live in.
The World's Greatest College Weekend. I challenge all to refute this statement. And though I will consider the point that it's delusional to believe without a doubt your college traditions are superior to others, I will speak firmly for myself and say I truly had my greatest Little 5 experience this time around.
Indiana University holds a bike race every spring where Greek and independent teams compete for pure glory and risk the bones in their body for our awe of the athletic spectacle. This time-honored tradition had apparently been in my blood for years prior to my actual attendance, as my father was on the steering committee for the events in his stint as a Hoosier. Of course, I don't bike, and neither does my dad, but we sure do enjoy watching things go in circles; and by things, I mean finely-tuned human machines on Schwinn bicycles.
As evolution would have it, the athletic event named Little 500 (standing in the shadow of the Indy 500 motor race 60 miles away) quickly transformed itself into a week-plus of gluttonous binge drinking and the active pursuit of making this guzzling action creative with varied activities (e.g. Greek events, massive themed house parties, strategic bar hopping, outdoor games, personal challenges, and the "early bird gets the tequila worm" mentality). Once again, the sight is one that simultaneously inspires awe, disgust, belly laughs, amazement, and disbelief.
This year was possibly the best because of my mastery in selecting venues and juggling my circles of friends. I had no idea I would could enjoy the bars on the busiest nights of the year (GO TOWNIE BARS!), hang with my favorite people (thanks to an unexpected, melodious blending of high school and college pals), experience new sides of my four-year home (Hello, Bloomington breakfasts), and all the while feel generally pleasant (life hasn't been the same since I found the "turn-off switch" for imbibing). I'm growing up and learning the tricks, learning who I like to be surrounded by, and understanding my own familiarities with new eyes.
On top of the weekend's perfection, I reaped once again the wonderful benefits of being an applicant in the STA pool. I got to meet up with a fellow Top Ten'er, Bob Fawcett, and boy did we have a good time. Friday night we met and exchanged a good amount of chatter at my new favorite townie bar, The Vid, discussing videos, potential life plans, experiences at IU, and all things deliciously travel related. Saturday night, however, brought on a whole new range of excitement with new townie bars, traditional Bloomington cocktails, night rides in pizza delivery trucks and a pre-dawn hang session in what most Hoosier students would entitle "Hippy/Creeper's/Skater/Don't-go-there-ever Park."
The most notable perk of this awesome encounter happened with our lingering stance on the curb outside the bars, where we conjured plans to ride in a very rumbly, intimidating truck parked nearby. Item #1 on my Life List keeps me always searching for the ultimate truck bed experience, but unfortunately Bloomington on race night is no place to challenge the laws of the State of Indiana. Instead, we asked the pizza delivery guy who owned the fantastic truck to take us along for his next delivery in the truck cab.
"We just want to see the town and go on a little adventure."
After showing us his teeth could pop out of his mouth (wow, they were in his mouth, and then all of a sudden they weren't!), he offered us a ride. We then proceeded to get our brains scrambled with the sudden acceleration of his loud engine and exchange looks in the backseat that screamed "Ridiculous!" in polite silence. It was a short adventure, but it left us laughing for a while as we eventually wandered towards People's Park for a chat that led into Sunday's sunrise.
I have finally found people that do what I do, share my oddball passion, and I thank STA once more for creating a venue for travelers to find each other and share what gets them going. Which leads me to my next pre-departure activity...
Lunching with a fellow Applicant
I'm not the only one who loves Yat's, Indianapolis, and traveling. After watching Jackie Knowles' application video for STA WTI, I thought "Yikes!"...I've got intense competition in my own 'hood! Though we don't share picket fences, Jackie and I share a side of Indianapolis, and we became in contact thanks to our Youtube videos.
We met up this week on an awesome weather day for an outdoor dining experience at our favorite eatery and exchanged travel stories that thrilled us. Jackie has had a slew of ballin opportunities, and lunching with this girl solidified my goal of reaching as many of those like-minded travel enthusiasts (applicants or otherwise) to contribute to the journey ahead.
It's really occurred to me now that the Youtube responses for the Internship are a coagulation of amazing minds that could make the trip mind-boggling in reach, motivation, and coverage. Just as I encouraged Jackie, I want to reiterate to anyone reading, "COLLABORATE!"
Wow. And that was just a week and a half in the Midwest. Not too shabby of a place, my friends, not too shabby at all.
So where am I supposed to be now? On my way to Prague. This backtracking is exhausting, and, frankly, it feels like the sort of anti-introspective writing that is not the mission of this adventure. I guess at some point I will want to remember what I did in Prague and honor my time spent there. Isn't that why most people write about their travels? Or maybe I feel I just need to document where I place my feet for those not walking alongside me. Maybe it's because all of these destinations are blurring together, not just in hindsight, and the most intriguing afterthought of the Eurotrip is finding out how I don't like to experience the world. With that said, why don't I just stick to the highlights. Sorry to anyone who was really looking forward to an elaborate account of this very old, and actually very cool, city.
1. Meeting our own personal local resource. On our twelve hour bus ride, a fellow American/EU resident sought out our company, and we instantly found a guide for the city's best local bar, the cheapest local transportation, and a place to stay upon our late arrival time. Matt was recovering from an emotionally rough week, and we offered him some company/drinking buddies in this city of prime beer quality. 2. Hany Bany, aka Hunny Bunny: our local bar of choice and the setting for two multi-hour sessions of relaxation and observation of the Prague youth. 3. The architecture...it wasn't half bad. One might say thrilling. 4. Nights of cheap groceries, home cooking, cheap beers and soccer viewing at our neighborhood pub. You could say we were a little shocked at the server uniforms for the ladies and their lack of...modesty. This was no raunchy bar, but I guess the frequent clientele like a little spice at their regular watering hole. We averted our eyes often.
Now follow me along to Berlin. Feel the breeze inside the, once-again, well-kept and modern train cars. Wander along with us as we find the metro stop "Senefelderplatz" (hey, that's like Seinfeld...yes, that's what we thought!) and find a super cool hostel in an old brewery. Oh, what fun weare having altogether in the beer garden, watching the Spain and Sweden Euro Cup game. Darn that Euro and its massive inflation of beer prices. Can't you feel your wallet emptying?
Alright, enough of that. Here's what I remember from Berlin. It's 4:30am, and I wake up to two Kiwis in my room, telling me it was time to go to the zoo. I fall back in bed, confused, and arise once more a few minutes later. I was fully dressed to go out and experience the Berliner nightlife, make-up smeared on the pillow...and a roommate not in sight. I pulled a Ricky Ricardo and stomped out of the room to hear some much needed " 'splaining." As I step out, a guy staying across the hall emerges from his room and says, "Are you looking for Alexis?" "What on earth is going on." "You fell asleep."
iiiiiiIIIIIIIIIIII FELL ASLEEP?!?!?! Ooooooh boy, the anger pot is a-boiling now.
Four hours earlier, Alexis and I were chit-chatting like school girls and playing cards on the floor, but after I returned from a restroom break, I found her asleep on the floor, unmotivated (after gentle questioning) to go out on the town. We have yet to go out on this trip, and I was anticipating a nice change of pace that night. However, we mutually agreed to go to bed.
AH! But alas! My trusty partner-in-crime ventured off during my subconscious adventures to befriend three guys across the hall and join them at the bars. There she was...sitting outside in the courtyard with her new friends. I gave her an ear and a fist full. APPARENTLY, the story goes that she got up to use the restroom and forgot her key. I was unresponsive to her door pounding, but the guys across the hall sure were. Socializing ensued...for her. What a friend. Lumberjacks, you can't trust 'em. Regardless of my dramatic interpretation, we ended up having a fun morning with these new friends and the rising sun.
Touring Berlin the next day had its perks, but the highlight of the day was the wild celebration we witnessed and joined at the public viewing of Turkey's last minute dramatic victory over Czech Republic. The beer garden was bleeding with Turkish flags, faces and apparel sporting the moon and star emblem. Those brave few with a Czech flag were given a hard time in that crowd. Our three new friends laughed, cheered and photographed while I hopped on Alexis' back to stream through the mosh pit of screaming Turks. We fled the scene with the mob, hoping to land on a lively after party, but amazingly hundreds of Turkey fans vanished in front of our eyes and reappeared streaming across the night sky, all squeezed into one overground metro car. We missed the party, but, man, what a night.
One train. L'viv to Krakow. Perfect. No crazy town of Chop in which to disembark with fear. No hidden fees or problems foreseen. Or so we believed until the conductors and engineers started a pick-up game of bumper trains. I awoke and momentarily thought I was in a suspended metal ball, hanging at the end of one of those Issac Newton action/reaction demonstrators. This continued for about two hours at the border, as the train workers lifted and suspended train cars for examination and repairs. I'm glad they waited until there were people on the train to do this essential task. With the beautiful day outside and all the winking engineers, I could have enjoyed this time to relax, except for the fact that they locked the bathrooms to avoid workers getting a dirty shower below.
At this point in our travels, it doesn't even matter to me where we are. All I need is to feel safe, clean, settled and well-nourished. There's only so much bread and corn nuts a person can eat before they start loathing the stuff. As we stepped off the train, a hostel ad magically appeared in front of us, soliciting all the essentials we need and all the free additions we salivate for. It was called Hocus Pocus (the pun was intended). It was here that we nested in bliss for two days with bellies full of perogis and bigosz, minds enriched by local scenery and life, eyes entertained by nightly Euro Cup matches from the comforts of our personal living room.
Garrett's departure date from the continent was veering closer, and unfortunately our last shared day together was on that of our most intense and depressing experience. Let me begin this excerpt by saying how much I find Hitler repulsive. It's difficult to grasp your own dislike of a past figure, such as Saddam or Mussolini, until you are in the presence of their work.
I'd rather not describe in too much detail how I felt touring Auschwitz, because I am beginning to re-experience the depression and sickness I felt that day. With our tour guide narrating the dreaded details at each turn, my skin began feeling foreign to me, like it could do nothing and I was completely helpless and feeble. I realized my view on the human condition was limited to all but utter evil, and I suddenly lost all hope of the human race. It was a gorgeous day outside, which molded the thought of the hell hole these people knew into a hard glob I was trying to swallow. I will never return to this or any other concentration camp, because I have fully received the message and learned from the history of others.
Fun fact: Did you know Hitler was a vegetarian out of disgust for the cruel ways they cage and slaughter animals? What a fatally confused man.
We walked slowly and thoughtfully the rest of the day. It was like we attended a mass funeral we were still paying our thoughts and respects to, and, in a way, it was true. Once again, we sought the gastro-delights of Poland to nurse our souls before Garrett loaded his back with gear and left us, for good this time. Later on, we made a toast to the cyanide, bullet, and syphillis that were Hitler's demise. It's grotesque, yes, but some people unravel beyond repair. Cheers.
We arrive, and we still can't read a darn thing. Our tiny street map is written in Roman characters, so every street sign we see must be translated.
Alright, what does B - Pi symbol - H - R - Airplane beverage cart - V - backwards N spell?
But, hark! Aimless wandering led us to a woman with a visor, a fanny pack and a camera...an American!
Do you know where we are?
I haven't a clue, but our driver will...though he only speaks Polish...let's give him a try.
The following scene would have fit really well in an Audrey Hepburn movie. The tour group surrounded us on all sides, asking how they could help, where we were trying to go, where we had already traveled, if we spoke Polish, the works. When they realized how aimless we actually were, Roger, the self-proclaimed group leader, invited us to come along with them to see the sights, have some lunch, and represent our generation among his posse of WWII Polish refuges. This wasn't just some Contiki bus tour.
Each one of those 70+ year old tourists were displaced from their homes in Poland during WWII, their houses bombed or seized by the Nazis during their invasion, some even in L'viv. They were shipped away either to Siberia or eventually to London, where they all met. No one had a local friend or contact nor a £1 in their pockets, but they attended school and university in England, building their life foundations from there.
When all had finished schooling, the English government offered them to choose a new home of either the USA, Canada, Australia or Europe, since the UK was off the table. After they parted ways across the globe, they had no contact between each other until fifty years later when an effort was made to have a reunion back in their home country.
For the last couple years, they join together for moral support and socializing as they reexperience the mixed feelings of their childhood. Some of these trips prove to be intensely emotional as they are reminded of the travesties they experienced. The man who asked me, having seen the patch on my backpack, if I had been to Malaysia, was a young messenger boy during the Warsaw Uprising. When they toured Warsaw a few days prior to our meeting, he set his eyes for the first time on a sculpture of a young boy wearing an oversized German uniform. It was the monument for the Warsaw Uprising. He cried on the spot, seeing himself 70 years earlier in the statue.
Our conversations with each person were soaked in history and drama. They were eager to teach us from their personal experience, and we felt quite honored to be on the receiving end. They left us with full bellies at the town center where we found a hostel for less than $15 a night. Our luck left us astounded as the day ended. We surely could have hated our day in L'viv - the hot, complicated city of L'viv - but instead we witnessed such heartfelt hospitality from people who were busy reliving their mixed and painful memories of the past. We left first thing the following morning, knowing we already experienced the highlight and magic of that destination.
Game plan review: we want to go to Krakow. We've got gobs of time. It's hard to go direct from Eger. Where should we go en route? More mountains? Ukraine? ...wait...the Ukraine?!? Where did this choice come from? We first move closer to both options in Kosice, Slovakia, where we stop to make some Slovakian memories. We were not expecting such a darling town with an impressive church at its heart and a musical fountain nearby with "local color." Little boys dared each other to stand in the middle of shooting water jets, fully clothed and toting their backpacks-o-fun. Music blared through surrounding boulders or from a bell sculpture, all synced to the visual orchestra of gravity-defying H2O. A flutter of white out of the corner of my eye and there goes a wedding party, taking pictures of the new couple in front of city monuments. And another bride...and, yup, one more. I was a witness to multiple nuptials except the one I should have been at in Terre Haute, Indiana. The universe kept rubbing it in my face. It sort of made the 7th of June a hard day to enjoy with the constant reminder of my two polar lives. It's amazing how much of a stronghold time and money have on my present condition. Ah, semi-deep thoughts flow in and out...
Flip a coin. Heads is L'viv, Ukraine. Tails is the Tatra mountains because these here on the back of the €1 look like hills. ¤clink clink cla-clink¤ the Ukraine it is! Oh boy. We better bring some vodka.
Normally our limited knowledge of local public transportation gets us by as we traverse the globe, but there are the few instances when we fail to ask little questions that later are pivotal OR we rely far too much on the sometimes faulty word of our friends at Lonely Planet. Our 'sleeper bus' across China is an example. These moments when we expect one thing and experience something quite different often present more difficulties and ALWAYS produce fantastic stories. In this instance, we thought we were taking a night train to the Ukraine. Let's see how this goes...
We board train #1...it's not too shabby, standard for Eastern Europe. Two people can sleep on the benches and one on a mat across the floor. Perfect! Now we can let loose. Ah, but no...our new conductor friend informs us to pack it up because this isn't our only train this evening. Oh crap.
Already becoming sleepy, we left our 'sleeper train' around 11pm only to wait in the rain for the next one. All conductors left for the night, and our stop didn't have a sign or a nearby city. Our only instructions were to follow three other people waiting at the stop. We followed without question, even after we watched them load at least twenty bicycles onto the train, this most pitiful excuse of a train. And I'm not kidding, this train could have killed us Final Destination style. If someone sat down on the holed leather seat, the entire bench would fall to the floor, causing the cabin walls to shake down the asbestos in the broken ceiling. Exposed insulation would rain down from above and cover said unsuspecting victim with bits of itchy fiber, which they would immediately attempt to avoid by jumping up and grabbing the non-existent table, then the rusty trash bin, and finally the exposed electrical wiring, shocking them senseless and sending their wrecked body out the crooked window to the unknown world outside. At least it made a fun setting for a few documentary videos. And to top off all this fun, I sat in gum.
Accepting our fate, Garrett took to the restrooms only to return smellier than when he left, while Alexis and I tried to sleep on the tottering benches. Forty-five minutes later, we arrived in Chop, Ukraine for immigration. The power blondes were out this midnight hour, and they meant some business. Half-awake and draped with our sleep bags, we attempted to face the bereted blondes with purpose and wobbled into the main station area, where we suddenly stepped into an old propaganda film. The large open room was made of imposing stone, blocky and plain as can be, except for a massive mural depicting hard working civilians under the hammer and sickle regime. We had definitely crossed over.
This is where we could have panicked. We couldn't read the time table, which was written in Russian alphabet. Our tickets could no longer take us to L'viv, and the unhappy ticket clerk didn't appreciate my attempts to speak in Russian. Ukrainians are quite proud and not so much hospitable. A night chocked full of dilemmas; we could have lost our lids. Instead, we got excited...OUR FIRST ADVENTURE!!! Garrett and I ventured downstairs, past the old bomb shelter/raccoon den and bonded with the baggage holder, who was surprisingly nice for living in a room with no windows that hadn't been dusted since the birth of Communism. As he stuffed our bags in the corner of an empty room big enough for a thousand bags, my favorite song came on the radio, and this recognition and subsequent sing-a-long was a bonding moment between all of us. Our new friend, What's-his-whatever, held our bags for three hours as we went into Chop for the cheapest beers to date. How does $2 a liter sound to you. Sounds like great success to me. After we had to peel Alexis away from a homeless, blind puppy wandering around town, we booked it to our 3:30am train to L'viv, at last!
Don't sigh yet; more from the Ukrainian urban jungle to come.
There are very few places on this Earth more beautiful Croatia's islands, particularly that of Brac. Thanks to Stjepan's suggestions, we knew exactly how to maximize our time in this wonderland: with scooters! Driving along the coast, we felt waves of heat in the sun and refreshing cool under the trees. Bugs slapped our arms, helmets, chests, and faces with thuds probably audible meters away. We felt like singing along to the hum of the little motor, but the thought of a June bug explosion in the mouth stopped us from acting on those thoughts. None of the many white craggy beaches on our way seemed good enough for this island excursion, so we booked it across the island, 30km away to the city of Bol. The last 9km were magnificent; streets winding down the coast with steep, craggy hills off the road's shoulder. A wrong turn could have sent me on a fun, but fatal, fall to the sea. I loved it.
The beach in Bol had an ambiance worthy of bottling, and I felt I was finally detached from my familiar world. Alexis and I relaxed in peace on the smooth pebbled beach, swam in the crystal clear water, and sat with smiles feeling like we truly got somewhere we will forever remember. After that, the rest of the night was just a happy blur of beautiful scenery, ice cream and ferry beers, Cankles and Saddlebags, and a flavorful homemade stew in the garden. Stjepan, Mr. Lino, Brac, Split and Croatia treated us very well, to say the leastest.
Eleven hours in a train from Split to Budapest; we got serious cabin fever. We walked it out soon after the train pulled into the station when we made the thirty minute jaunt to a very hidden hostel. The street ambiance was a little worrisome, but all the women walking around at midnight displayed the safety of the city - either that or showed there was a nice 'after hours street walking' biz around these parts. Either way, I had a twelve kilo pack and a 7'13" companion for protection.
At this point, it seems like the time to reflect on our day in Budapest, starting from our reunion with Garrett, continuing with our handball games by the Danube, and concluding with a thermal bath scene; however, because I am so backlogged on all this writing, it is only the matters of the day that come to mind and not the mess of thoughts that pulse through my head with each giggle, step, and turn of the corner. I know I'm not completely amused with this sort of documentation and find the act of reading it more of a chore than a pleasure. So it may be now that I cut to my lasting impressions of Hungary.
A city is a city. There's so much to see that is uniquely local and telling of its residents, but when you hop from country to country in search of wide-ranging joys and unique memories, each place turns into the next location to take a shower, rest your legs, and find a way to do your laundry with a little sight-seeing on the side. All this jumping caught up with me.
I tried to order a pickle and received two chicken sandwiches instead. I tried purchasing a ticket for a cheap little train, but thanks to a woman in front of me in need of every train time table that week, I had to use a valuable day on my rail pass. Hungary got to me. And it wasn't for the mere fact that I was in this country - it was my 17th destination (at least) on the trip - in one month! It was another Malaysia; I couldn't quite appreciate it while there. My frazzled brain caused incidents only to be blamed by my ignorance. My legs hurt, my journal was blank, and I just left the mystical, therapeutic ocean. Good thing Eger was all about wine tasting. Eger was laying in a camper in the rain, tasting wine and the occasional thermal bath, but my gratitude to the country was missing. One of the greatest travel travesties...
Yeah, I know. Suck it up. Look where you are. I needed a jolt. I had slowly fallen asleep. And a jolt we received a few borders away.
Interlaken seemed as though it was constructed by a toy maker, by Giapetto maybe; tiny little buildings neatly placed in between two teal lakes and amongst colossal mountains. Every man or woman over forty was walking around town with ultra-thick socks, large, weathered hiking boots, with two walking sticks swinging, even if they were on flat, paved ground. The sight was amusing every time. Caro met up with the three of us after her day trip to Rome and became the fourth in our hostel room. Good times ensued. I think it was a perfect coincidence that all of us had our own ideas of outdoor fun the next day. The other three rented bikes and charted different alpine routes, while I slowly rose in the morning and took to the mountains. I went for a two and a half hike up a very steep trail. As soon as I entered the mouth of the trail and became submerged in the wooded cool, I started thinking metaphorically, talking to myself, stopping at every turn to take pictures of a steadily improving view. It seemed I was intellectually uninspired when all I could think about was that this hike was all about the big picture, but the present conscious has only the individual steps and footing in focus. With every bend in the path, I stopped to observe the ever-improving view and take pictures of my accomplishments. As I went higher, things in the distance appeared minuscule, and I became more and more...smelly...just like life. What an effortless interpretation and a surface level introspection into my own life from day to day. Maybe just like those dreams I had that chew on my entire education, so I have to experience the most common thought in order to reach something more. Regardless of whatever plain-Jane hiking metaphors I developed, I certainly was reminded of my odd mind purely by the songs I began to sing to myself while running down the mountain. The wedding march? The theme to Pee Wee's Big Adventure? There's that insanity I'm used to.
We parted ways with Caro in Zurich, while we headed to Innsbruck, Austria. The train ride revealed an even more majestic landscape, one of more piled mountains set in between rolling green plains. I've always put Switzerland and Austria in the same category; they seemed synonymous. Once we hit Innsbruck, the ambiance and culture seemed vastly different. It appeared that we enjoyed our lunch of cheap kebabs in "Junkie Park." The usual aimless wandering, which always brings us to a sparkling part of town, just led us to a fast flowing river. We decided to sit on the boardwalk grass and enjoy water music and mountain air. Suddenly we saw a human in the river, bobbing around in his wet suit and flying by at a steady clip. Three more floated by. It made sense when a motor boat came zooming by to save all four from a freezing, bumpy ride. The local rescue team was training new recruits. After a half hour among the wildflowers and singing Sound of Music tunes, we googled "Innsbruck" in search of its gem, which is apparently the old town across the bridge. No matter where we were in this city, though, crossing a bridge, smashed in between old buildings, strolling in a garden, the mountains followed us and peered through tree branches from a distance. The Alps don't lose their grandeur over time nor after much exposure...I said "WOW" in a forced whisper every time I saw Europe's tallest mountain in Interlaken, and these mountains here that have sponsored innumerable sporting events over the years inspired similar awe.
One realization from SAS that continues to stick with me is the common denominator between my favorite port moments. Every time I, often along with my lumberjack roommate, parted from the norm to see the outdoors, the seldom discussed regions, NATURE...I always had the time of my life; driving across Mauritius with coral-like, bright-green mountains approaching, waking up among the grottos in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Nature's salient presence electrifies even the most frustrating, sleep-deprived, culturally-shocking moment. When traveling to the next city or across the globe, the metaphysical reality of the Earth and its most magnificent properties are floating along the surface of consciousness. How we inhabitants transform and connect to its terrain is astounding. Just goes to show there's more than one way to do something...there's your own way. And the existential traveler in me has finally reared its confused head on the Big Journey.
Jump on another train to the third country of the day, equipped with a warm local beer and a Toblerone, and we are off to Munich! Thanks to Caro's list of suggestions, we had a mission to find the most traditional, classic beer hall in the land, the Hofbrauhaus. Liter beers and soft pretzels swayed side to side with live Bavarian music...it was all so hilarious. And with probably hundreds upon hundreds of hungry and thirsty patrons requesting their preferred form of bread, we expected service to be equivalent to a Saturday night at the local Greek-hounded university town bar. Ah, but alas, the nearly 55 servers buzzing around the hall with fists full of six or seven steins worked at the speed of drunken light. The American southern boys were a dime a dozen, spotted from afar by their brightly-colored polos and Vineyard Vines sunglass bands. Two New Yorkers next to us realized we spoke the same mother tongue, and, a few hilarious observations later, we were acquainted and became travel friends. And so the night blurred on.
Daytime in Munich was charming, but the air was full of something unpleasant while we searched around for authentic culture...English. The aimless wandering this time took us to the English Gardens where, again, liter beers and pretzels were consumed in the second largest beer garden in the world. I think at this point I have yet to ingest a single vitamin or mineral in this country. After such strenuous exercise of lifting that heavy glass stein, a nap under a tree was required. Alexis and I rewrote the lyrics to "My Favorite Things" to correlate with our personal vices and interests, while Garrett read hid three inch thick soap opera novel. Delightful moments amongst nature yet again. We ran out of sights and things to do...so we went to happy hour...and again to the Hofbrauhaus, this time ordering scrumptuous meals and accidentally befriending a German student too sloppy to realize his pants weren't serving their purpose of covering his hairy buttocks. A chance encounter with Indy friends brought some smiles before we caught the train to Ljubljana...a city we will never know how to correctly pronounce.
"I see Bled!" We jump off around 6am and follow our noses to the Bledec Hostel, which sits just behind the iconic Bled Castle from every tourism brochure. A 4 hour nap, a jaunt to the cheapest supermarket yet, and we are off around the lake. The entire parameter spans 6 km, which gave us plenty of spots to stop for a shady picnic and a dip on a sand bar. Out from the shore, stretching towards the church on the island, was a stretch of clear, light blue that led us to believe we were in the vicinity of prime water fun. The nearby sign that forbade swimming only egged us on. A few other Slovene tourists with matching shirts and farmer's tans followed our lead, and we watched as massive fish swam away from their water commotion. We were a little fearful at first when the "moving boulders" came towards my feet in the water. They turned out to be scaredy fish, and we got in deep, as happy as can be. We did flips and launches, sunned again amongst the wildflowers, ate oranges, and pelted the peels at each other like Olympic beach volleyballers. Just as Cosmo Kramer wishes he could bottle his smell after a day at the beach, so I wish I could preserve or easily recreate the feeling of walking home from a day of sun and water. Lake or beach activities provide so much joy to those who partake in them, and that walk home with half-wet clothes, ratted hair, blanched and bronzed skin, squeaking flip flops and quiet smiles makes me happy to be alive. I'm not sure if Ralph Lauren would or could bottle that essence.
Another cheap market meal, chatting, music, and beers, and we are in bed by 10pm, exhausted. Hike to the castle and on to the swimming dock by noon. The water is cobalt blue, like the high seas on a cloudless day, but covering the reflection from the sun, I could see down to the bottom. The runoff from the Julian Alps is a crisp 74 degrees or so and perfect for jumping in to cool our burning backs. We heard a few English speakers, but largely everyone around us was either local or a speaker of some Slavic language. Why this spot is seldom traveled by Westerners is hard to tell. This fact only increases its value in our eyes; Bled is a gem.
Alexis and I were saddened to hear Garrett's plan of parting ways with us, even after our diamond-in-the-rough discovery in Slovenia. Swimming, tanning, storm watching, cheap prices, local pubs, free breakfasts, and a six person room to ourselves in one of Europes finest hostels. Nevertheless, Croatia pulled us south, while Vienna magnetized him north.
Four hours after a late, post-clubbing bedtime, poor Garrett and Alexis were summoned to rise for Cinque Terre with my parents. A gorgeous four more hours later, Caro and I awoke, sparkling, to a room filled with golden light and wandered down to the pool. A hectic day of sunning and lounging was to begin. We floated, read, enjoyed Italian coffee, lunched for hours on the patio, and slept on our pool chairs, covered in towels, feeling the occasional trickle of rain on an exposed toe. Every activity was blanched with the warmth of satisfaction. The Burgassi family came during the afternoon to prepare the exterior of the villa for the next tenants. I took this opportunity to accept their offer for housing in July. I made an effort to delay my affirmation prior to this, thinking I was being responsible to think of all sides of the spectrum. They must have thought I was crazy not to consider this option as divine intervention. Caro and I spent the rest of our lazy afternoon inside, drinking wine and playing gin until the entire Burgassi family (Otto included) stuck their heads in the door "Brady Bunch-style" to say they were so excited I was coming to live with them. It was a moment for the scrapbook.
Around 9pm, I heard the four Cinque Terre goers approaching from outside, and immediately we became cooking machines for dinner. Oven on, pop in the rolls, chop every vegetable and meat product sitting around, open loads of beans and, well, what do we make with beans and chicken and cheese and veggies? Chicken surprise and garlic fritattas! And be sure to drink up the wine, so it all tastes somewhat edible! Genius ideas went hand in hand with dancing around the kitchen to Earth, Wind and Fire, loud enough to hear from the next hilltop town. It was a memorable last supper.
The next morning we squeezed five large pieces of luggage and five travelers into the car, all bound for Milano; the end resulting feeling being a universal one of stress and sleeping keisters. The city of Milan didn't meet my expectations coming in, as its ugly webbing of streets seemed to lack history, tradition, or that Italian charm. However, with only a few hours to spend in the fashion industry capital, our time was spent wonderfully with Alexis' childhood friend, Katie, who had been studying there for the past semester. She showed us a good time with cheap pizza, castles and parks, the Milan metro, the majestic Duomo and Galleria, our last gelatos, and revealed to us the perspective of an American in Milano. We returned to a hotel room with two sleeping parents and camped on the floor.
The next morning was quiet. Showers, packing, sitting, reading...we waited for time to arrive at 10:40am, when we left to board our train to Interlaken. The moment of embarkation was reminiscent of February 4th, 2007, the departure date for SAS S'07 - blubbering. 178 days until I reconnect with my family in Hawai'i. Until then, I think the Dead would agree: it's gonna be a long, strange trip.
It may never again be the case that my weekly schedule includes two of the same day, a Groundhog Day-esque situation where déjà-vu is on the agenda. I can easily get lost in every activity and duty I have this week, but times like these need to be relished. We are crossing the International Date Line tomorrow night, and our previous time travel attempts will suddenly be trumped by massive proportions. We've started a trend of contemplating yesterday in order to make sense of today, and in the spirit of doing so, I need to take a minute and remember the massive country I visited just a few weeks ago.
The rain created an unpleasant ambiance outside but an "oh" so glorious one in the cabin as we pulled into Hong Kong. I snoozed until the large, loud buildings burst my dream bubble with their antennas, and I crawled up to breakfast for a priceless view of a very wet city. Unfortunately, this wonderful moment in time came with a bitter tragedy, as we congregated in the Union to learn about the Virginia Tech shootings. To be comforted by the Archbishop was a moving experience that sadly had to occur.
After a talk and a moment of silence, Hong Kong beckoned us to its more authentic locations where the Chinese influence resonates audibly. Garrett, Alexis, and I boarded the cleanest bus we had seen in months to explore the great Kowloon Walled City Park, set up the hill away from the city life. Garden pagodas littered the natural paradise, which provided an arena for many to practice Tai Chi. A leisurely walk down the road led us to a temple complex for Buddhists, Confucians, and Taoists worshippers, and the colors and sounds were invigorating to every sense.
After soaking in the exotic ambiance and hitting up the Ladies market, Alexis and I prepped our lovely selves for a night on the town of all towns. Two hip American ladies in colorful dresses strutted along the waterfront to view the city light up with flare, and then we hopped on a ferry, a bus, and a subway to the nightlife district.
The next morning started a non-stop travel fest where Alexis and I, equipped with massive backpacks, took every form of transportation imaginable, excluding horseback transport. When I awoke the next morning on a sleeper bus with the smell of feet and smoke engrained in my nose, I was in Lijang, China, a beautiful city adjacent to the most spectacular craggy, snow-covered mountain. After applying layers of clothing in the parking lot, we began to tackle a very sleepy city at 5 am.
The old town was at the least picturesque, with long stony streets lined with antique architecture and winding rivers reminiscent of old European cities. It might have been my imagination, but every little stray dog that scurried by looked oddly like a dragon. Taking a moment to enjoy the morning traffic, we stopped at a nearby Tibetan restaurant and ate a breakfast I continue to fantasize about. Vegetarian dumplings and steamed rice…as Dad would have described it as a culinary extravaganza.
The Black Dragon Pool park, on the outskirts of the town, showed us once again that nature reigns supreme over all, with calm ponds that reflected the omnipresent mountains in the distance. I bought an ink painting near the entrance by an artist who paints with his palms and is known throughout Asia for his skill. The depth and mood of the work that I picked was dreary and mysterious, completely opposite of the physical space I was viewing. Monkeys and peacocks ran amuck to thrill the tourists, but my favorite moments did not include the "wildlife" but the cool stones in the shade where I laid back for a nap.
The students painting the surrounding landscapes made me feel I was in the presence of true inspiration Another tasty Tibetan meal later, we were on a five hour bus ride towards the borders of Myanmar, Tibet, and mainland China. The streets of Dali at night were an incredible sight to behold: rooftops lined with Christmas lights, women dressed in mountain Sherpa cultural apparel, and brilliant pagodas lit from beneath. Our window shopping flew to a halt when a sudden rainstorm blew into town for sixty seconds and receded back into the mountains as fast as it had come.
We welcomed the night, anticipating the most pleasant sleep in days, which unfortunately only lasted about five hours because the mountains called our names in the early morning. We took an incredibly bumpy rickshaw ride to the cable cars that scaled up the steep and leafy mountain side, and once we reached the top, market vendors, restaurateurs, and policemen were waiting for us. The views from the mountain were hazy and grand, especially from where we scaled the ancient cliff side dwelling near the summit. The altitude made this five minute hike the most draining length to date, but the destination made all the wheezing worthwhile.
Luck missed us on our descent when they decided to oil the cable lines and cause us to miss our check out time at the hostel. Then came Beijing...
I left off last in my adventures listening to Led Zeppelin with one headphone in my left and the other in the right of the toothless old man next to me (read the lead-up to this story in Flashbacks of Nam). After convincing all the men on board that my iPod was not for sale, the guy hanging out the window, picking up hitchhikers, motioned for me to run up and jump out of the moving bus. I stood at a T in the road, my backpack in tow, with a cloud of dust blowing up from around my feet. My new bus friends pointed in one direction as they sped off into the hills, and I started my trek down a long dreary street.
An hour later, I found a little beach town, met a man who owned a hotel and scheduled a bay trip for the following night. A little wandering got me a long way in this town. I found some excellent vegetable dishes at a seaside restaurant, a fantastic night market, and wandered a smelly yet scenic beach in beautiful solitude. I let sleep come peacefully to me that night, since the questionable stains on the wall could have kept my mind racing all night.
I awoke early to take in the morning activity only to fall asleep on a beach chair on the next day. After some errand running, I hopped on another motorbike to the waterfront where I boarded a three story wooden boat in the most chaotic and destructive marina environment I've ever seen. Vietnamese boat captains believe bumper boats don't just exist in the amusement parks.
Floating alongside the humongous grottoes that rocketed out of the teal waters was a sight my camera couldn't capture accurately. The hazy day created an eerie tone for our afternoon cruise, and the visit to a monstrous and dramatically lit cave only amped up the mystery evoked by this natural wonder. Young girls from a nearby floating fishing village came by offering different fruits insistently, and I had to partake in eating the swirling pineapples I had seen by the roadside stands.
Our captains and "guides" appeared to be bilingual, but they definitely took advantage of the language barrier and left the majority of us extremely confused with the facts of our situation. Apparently, there was a government problem, and everyone could not stay on the ship as they paid to do. Everyone piled off the ship at a nearby island to stay in a hotel, but at the last second, the captain grabbed my arm and told me to stay on the boat. I sat with my backpack strapped on, alone on a pirate ship, watching my new friends walk away and became terrified for my own safety.
Eventually a whole new group filed on and the night proceeded as it was intended to. Hours of talking to experienced travelers and listening to conversations in German later, I fell asleep on the rocking boat, a task at which I am very skilled; however, one thing I am not accustomed to is hearing the rustling, pattering, and squeaking of little mice under me. This fun encounter led me to steal a seat cushion from the dining floor and sleep with the limestone islands outside.
The rest of the day centered around introspection...floating through the grottoes with a soft breeze, riding in a bus back to Hanoi, a dinner of crackers and soy milk in a nearby city park, and a flight across a country that would leave me mystified for years to come. I was ready to leap back to the ship and prepare for one last day of sight-seeing and inexpensive shopping sprees. And that I did, but not without more crazy episodes of crazy motorbike rides, yelling at scamming taxi drivers, and deep-fried scorpion antics in the cabin…thanks to a one Miss Alexis Reller. She truly made my worst nightmares come true.
I parted Vietnam with a smile, knowing this beautiful country witnessed my first true instance of lone traveling in the Third World, and luckily it was a success.
What do you think about my first solo female trip? Was Ha Long Bay more beautiful than you imagined? Comment below!
Tears dropped with the rain this morning as the words "Port of Kobe" came into clear focus. A brass band resonated off our approaching ship from the dock, and the faculty found some early morning giggles by marching to the beat. I, on the other hand, felt static and confused with the impending implications of a last foreign port. I have yet to discuss so many things, complete multitudes of homework, meet 600 more people, and understand what this trip is all about. Twenty days remain, and in order to accept the future, I need to reflect on the past. After watching too many Vietnam War films at sea, I became overly excited for this new country of wonder and history. Wading up the Saigon River lacked the usual color and vigor of a port sunrise, but today, little fishing boats approached us from all sides, curious as to who was on board and what the ship was like. I tried to let this moment sink into my memory; however, I was preoccupied by the inevitable conversation with Garrett…that he wasn't going to join me for Ha Long Bay.
After the predicted blow, I spent my morning shower in tears, trying to comprehend how I could still enjoy this port for which I was so enthused. Hours of contemplating later, I decided to make my own dreams come true, so I went. Ho Chi Minh City buzzed with motorbikes, but I paid no mind to the rickshaws that were following me down the street. Instead, I enjoyed the little shops and the conical hats that littered the heads of many.
Alexis, a few other girls, and I took a service trip to nearby schools for the deaf and an orphanage that housed children who suffered physical and mental handicaps. I exercised my artistic skills and drew pictures of Mickey Mouse and caricatures of Alexis for the little girls who loved the humor and signed their appreciation to each other and to us. A short night of market shopping, incredible bargains, and leisurely walking concluded with intense packing for a trip that would mark my memory forever.
I awoke at 4:30am, hitched a ride with four other random kids, waited in six different lines for airline tickets, and flew off to Hanoi by my lonesome. I couldn't help but hear the sounds of my parents' voices echoing in my ear, "Please promise me you will NEVER travel alone." I felt incredibly torn between keeping my family at ease and following my own path that I would surely regret forever not taking. The answer was obvious.
Upon arrival in Hanoi, aimless wandering got me to the city bus station, where about ten motorbike drivers helped me get onto the right route. I gave the astounded bus fare collector a dollar bill, hoping he wouldn't kick me off from lack of Dong. Instead, he charged me more, kept the dollar for himself, and I remained on the bus next to a woman squatting and hurling on the floor. Pleasant.
The next bus ride made history in my own timeline, a roller coaster literally and mentally. A man approached me off the city bus and shouted "HA LONG BAY?" about three inches from my face. It seemed he knew what he was doing, so I followed him to a ticket office, paid three dollars, and climbed onto a mini bus where I was forced to sit in the back. The song "Rosa Parks" stuck in my head for the remainder of the trip.
Once I was an official passenger, the driver pulled out of the station, as though all he needed was one real ticket holder to validate his transportation services. About three minutes later, ten of the driver's "boys" piled onto the bus in a frenzy, and I thought I was surely done for. I masked my all-consuming worry by listening to my iPod, but that only spurred on the interest of multiple guys to come check out my electronics.
Just before I let myself get comfortable in my seat, a man rolled next to the bus with the oldest rickshaw known to Vietnam, and on this rickshaw sat a large metal apparatus that I can only imagine was a land mine (or rather, an engine). And as was expected, on this magical mystery tour to Ha Long Bay, the men grabbed the explosive/mechanical device and hauled it onto the bus. I laughed, thinking this trip couldn't get any more eventful…keep in mind we had yet to even leave the sidewalk outside the station.
I flew from one side of the bus to the other as the driver weaved through cars and traffic, laying on his horn to notify the city he was passing. One man always kept his head out the door and yelled at people on the side of the road, some of whom waved us down and hopped on for a few miles. At one point, I had four old men watching Family Guy on my video iPod and wanting to exchange their cell phones for my hi-tech contraption.
What do you think of my first solo journey thus far? Continue reading The Terror of the Tung, and/or comment below!
The brilliant skies of a port sunrise illuminated our cabin before we cleaned up our mental messes from India, but regardless of your readiness for another mind blowing experience, they rise out of the horizon and thrust you to land. Malaysia was a 270 degree sight to behold, where billowing clouds transformed into neon palettes that decorated the mountains in our path. High dock prices kept the Explorer in the harbor, so we boarded our own lifeboats to tender onto Penang Island. City buses helped us avoid the taxi rush and dropped us near shopping malls and street markets, where raw fish and chicken carcasses dampened the mood to shop for the local candy and pretty trinkets. Alexis and I shocked ourselves with a multi-hour stay in a massive indoor mall, equipped with a Starbucks and internet cafe. Reasoning that we would be one with nature the next day silenced any internal disappointment immediately, and we continued to spend money.
Trishaw rides, local beers, and night markets gave us our first cultural taste later that evening, but we cut the evening short in order to rest up for an early morning bus ride to the Cameron Highlands. Anna, Laura, Alexis and I caught a tattered old bus and discussed life goals before the bumpy ride rocked us to sleep. We took Lonely Planet's suggestions and set up camp at Father's Guesthouse, where the sound of rain drops on the corrugated steel roofs won us over. The mountains wrapped a misty haze around our relaxing day, and we soaked up the lush land we so often miss at sea.
What the city of Tanah Rata lacked in activity, it made up for in ambiance. We planned for a "Mossy Forest Hike" the next morning to quench our flora and fauna cravings and spent the rest of the night tasting Malaysian table wine, playing new card games, telling stories, and watching Alexis track jaguars outside. We neglected to tell her this was not jaguar country but tiger territory.
Our adventure began with the sunrise, as we piled into a van and drove up to the highest point in the Highlands. The wind was brittle on the lookout tower, as was the rusty tower itself, but we braved the cold and the tetanus to take our scenic photos. The mossy ground gave with every step of the hike, where we had to hurdle logs, weave around bamboo, swing around branches, and long jump frequent mud pits. Every few minutes, we would reach a clear patch that revealed a breathtaking view of the tea plantations, but the mood heightened from serene to exhilarating with the discovery of a tiger paw print.
The BOH tea plantation wrapped around every hill in sight, and the museum café that overlooked the fields was a perfect location to sip on a cup of fresh caffeine. Instead of heading back to the city, we asked our guide to drop us on the side of the road, just to make the trip a little more interesting. Strawberry, bee, butterfly, and rose farms littered the mountain roads, and we couldn't pass an opportunity to buy cheap and fresh produce at the little markets. Four American girls walked down the country roads in Malaysia, with bags of tomatoes, dried strawberries, and jam galore. While we walked back towards Tanah Rata, I had an incredible urge to hitchhike in the back of a pickup truck full of chickens, but my search for the perfect candidate went unsuccessful. Instead, we settled with the city bus that we flagged down by throwing our bodies in its path.
Only after a little shopping and dinner did we get back on a return bus to Penang, and I spent the five hour ride day-dreaming and giggling at Alexis sleeping with mouth open wide. We called it an early night in order to maximize our last day shopping and wandering aimlessly. After a stressful tendering situation, where I nearly received dock time, I stood on the back deck watching the lights of the city dissolve into the sea.
In short, Malaysia was a success.
"The stretch between Mauritius and India will be our worst waters of all." We are cruising at a speed of 12 knots on an ocean reminiscent of cobalt blue Murano glass. Whoever scared me into thinking this would be a week spent taped to my mattress is getting their room teepeed. As Alexis and I sat watching last night's sunset off the Garden Lounge deck, our non-existent wake and the slow ripples from the bow barely distorted the brilliant palette of colors that painted the ocean. I mentioned to her that our vista reminded me of a computer desktop background, a sad comparison that told me I am sorely nature deprived. It was a glorious and tranquil moment in time quickly ruined by the evening announcements.
Every day, San Diego gets closer and the pain of separating from the MV Explorer, from daily brilliant sunsets, and from my closest globe-trotting comrades becomes a burning thought, especially when my experiences keep getting more interesting and memorable.
Mauritius came into view around lunch time last Thursday, later in the day than we expected thanks to some rocky, nauseating waters slowing us down. After a dramatic turn of events within our travel group, Alexis and I exited the gangway with backpacks bulging and the mottoes of "Carpe Diem" and "Let's leave every American in our dust."
We did just so as our taxi cap plummeted us into downtown Port Louis and plopped us on a street corner, a.k.a. the bus station. As he urgently pointed towards a bus that predated Rosa Parks, we realized we had no Mauritian Rupees to pay the fare; however, in a moment's time, the nearby electronic store (with a non-existent inventory) transformed into a friendly American Express office, changing six of our USD into Rs 200 and giving us the benefit of the conversion doubt. Luck be these ladies so far.
An hour and a half ride (that definitely wasn't an express route) left us on a street corner of Mahebourg, and juxtaposed to our gawking eyes and aimless walking, the surrounding stray dogs looked like they were running errands. Once again, the words "Blue Bay" and a finger point were all we needed to eventually find our way down the stretch of rentable bungalows.
It only took four price inquiries, multiple tours, and a mile of browsing to find the gorgeous "Chantemer" and her wonderfully psychotic landlady, Ms. Indra Tinkler. All we had was all we needed: a queen bed, a clean shower, and a door leading straight out to powder white sands and views of neon green mountains. It seemed all too easy to plan a snorkeling trip and rent bicycles around the peninsula, especially when travel guides like Patrick are willing to drive to the nearest ATM just for convenience's sake. Sugar cane fields and roads leading right into teal waters made our leisurely ride a dream, which we finished with a grocery raid and a beachfront picnic.
Our American girl charm attracted a nearby Englishman staying in our chateau, and we shared Mauritian sundowners, life goals, and humorous accents until the wash of a trillion stars covered our rainbow sky. As any female American college student knows, evenings out are most efficiently enjoyed if teamwork is the number one priority, and work together we did. Thanks to a rental car, a local child with a Mohawk, an odd deck of cards in conjunction with the new game of "Walrus," a thorough impression of the Incredible Hulk, and our sly skills of persuasion, we experienced an unforgettable night that left us richer and fulfilled, laughing under the stars.
A few hours later, the sun came out along with a few malarial mosquitoes, but nothing could break our gazes with the fluorescent clouds that dwarfed sunrise sailors. Our private beach was littered with neighbors raking their backyard beaches and walking their rascally dogs, one of which darted to us and set up camp in my lap until others arrived for a sniff. Alexis, being the native San Diegon that she is, spent hours in the tide pools, searching for stranded animals and throwing starfish at the ocean and myself. I was not amused and photographed from a distance.
The day had come for us to pack our bags and depart from this island of fantasy and merriment, and, with an entire free day upon us, the last thing we wanted to do was rush back to a shipload of sun-kissed boozers. Instead, we went sailing. Along with the Englishman and his father, a Korean couple, and two local sailors accurately described as "pirates", we boarded the Renaissance and headed out, albeit hesitantly, on our three hour tour. The irony of our miniature voyage magnified with the passing of a one hundred year old shipwreck and the skipper's decision to jump off for a swim out to sea.
We arrived back at the marine park, where our previous snorkel trip took place, but our personal pirate proved to be an invaluable resources as he swam alongside us, grabbing wildlife for better viewing. I understood how crazy he actually was when the removal of his snorkel preceded two minutes of hole gouging and the emergence of eight long tentacles. Ink sprayed continuously until he slapped the angry octopus on the stomach of my roommate and told her to swim back. I remained a good fifty yards from the gelatinous creature, but this didn't stop the pirate from thoroughly scaring me at a vulnerable moment while climbing into the boat…twice.
A stop at the most beautiful beach imaginable gave our tour a magical and humorous turn as the ocean's massive waves sent us spinning across a pure white plane. On our way back, the crew couldn't help but scare the Korean woman a few more times with mock disaster before coming to shore in front of the Chantemer.
Our new sense of satisfaction topped off an incredible entire journey, and it was time to cast away from our vacation destination. A penny-pinching dinner on board gave us some dollars to spend on an enjoyable St. Patrick's Day celebration, where we reflected each detail of our adventure over Blue Marlin beers and basked in the glory of each accomplishment. Once again, the world's inaccessible, unfriendly, foreign façade lifted to let these American girls through.
I’m sinking into my shipboard bed (wow, no pun intended), and I can believe it. About two feet from my head is the open sea: crashing waves, gluttonous sharks, monstrous whales, and probably a good handful of shipwrecked boats. That’s scary to think about considering I am going to be on this vessel for the next one hundred days and am surely going to encounter my share of rough waters. The engine’s hum accompanies the ship’s pitches, and I thank the student directors from the bottom of my sea legs that I sleep on the lowest level, minimizing that rocking effect. After sitting through two sea meetings with the Dean and Co., as well as my Residential Director (the equivalent of an R.A.), I’m stunned in my own ability to hold down my dinner while swaying to and fro…ever so gently.
I am aboard the 92nd voyage of Semester at Sea; as unnerving as it may seem, this is my new life…be jealous.
An hour and a half of waiting in line got me to the ship, and five minutes of registration got me to my cabin. Upon stepping foot on my floor, a.k.a. the Aegean Sea, I met my roommate, who has surpassed my expectations thus far. A sophomore from Minnesota, with future plans in law and her priorities completely aligned, she’s also a winner in the personality department.
As I can only imagine, my mother is in Florida right now, meeting her girlfriends for a wee vacation, drinking margaritas by the pool, and crying about her sea bound daughter. Blubbering, from either side, can only describe the scene hours earlier, when I said goodbye to my parents for 100 days. And now as I adorn my room walls with antique-looking world maps and pictures like the marking of life achievements on the refrigerator door, I know I’ve got more to look forward to than I can fathom in this little confused brain of mine. Meeting hundreds of new friends on a daily basis, eating breakfast with a side of sunrise and salty air, and waiting for the next port of call to rise from the horizon line will be common events in the life of Lindsay Clark, world traveler…soon to be world citizen.
Today was a near perfect day, and the Colts winning Super Bowl XLI was the cherry on top.