Sunday, May 27, 2007

Rain, Rain, Rain

The good thing about rain is that it drives the weak inside so the more dedicated tourists like myself have wide open side walks all to ourselves. The bad thing is that you get wet. It's raining now and it rained all last night. Today it won't be so bad because I can find a museum but yesterday at about 6 pm after all the museums were closed, I was stuck in the rain. I was not to be deterred and saw as much as possible.
If i had been in a time machine, here is how my day would have proceeded. First in Oxford maybe i would head to the cafes for discussions with past students like Adam Smith, JRR Tolkein, or for the best chat maybe Dr. Seuss. I'd go back to the glory days of British transportation and get the train down Oxford. (I actually took a bus that was an hour late because of traffic). Once in London I jumped to the future because hospitality among young people has probably reached its height. Thanks to Katie who studied in Budapest last semester, I have a place to sleep with her roommates here in London.


Off to explore the city I would maybe get on a horse drawn trolley back in the day. First stop was the British Museum with its remnants of the Acropolis in Athens, Mausoleum of Maussollos at Halicarnassus, the Rosetta Stone, and a mummified cat. I also would have peaked in the reading room to see if Dickens, Marx, or Darwin were doing a bit of research but it was closed for me.


And just when i thought i was far from Hungary, I stumbled upon "The Gay Hussar" Hungarian cuisine in London. I even checked out the menu and it looked quite authentic with Hungarian wine and liquor and of course gulyas. Back in my time machine I'd wander down to Piccadilly Circus maybe at the turn of the century so as to avoid the neon signs, McDonald's, Starbucks, Gap and every other major chain label. A wander down Piccadilly street would bring up St. Jame's Church and maybe I'd stop and have a chat with Sir Christopher Wren in the 17th century as he was building what Dickens called "not one of the master's happiest efforts." I would provide some better words of advice.


Just as I was walking past a Ferrari parked next to a BMW Z4 I read in my book that Berkeley Square was one of the centers of aristocracy in London. Back in my time machine I'd run over to # 48 and see if Sir Winston had time for tea. He lived here only before become PM, or maybe I'd visit next door at # 50 where a former prime minister lived and ghosts still haunt to this day.


My next stop in Mayfair would probably be Hays Mews to visit the coachmen and rent a horse in the mid 19th century. Down to Shepherd's market designed for all the coachmen and stocked with all the necessary goods before the designer shops took it over for today's consumers.


After Mayfair I'd drop down past Buckingham Palace. I'd stop in for a chat with maybe George III about America's Revolution, and even Queen Elizabeth the II. She'd say I shouldn't be out in the rain or I'll get sick, but I'd just shrug her off and keep walking. Off to Trafalgar Square where I'd watch them erect the statue of Horatio Nelson to much applause. Then down Whitehall past 10 Downing Street. Maybe I'd step into yell at Neville Chamberlain or perhaps have the confidence enough to even approach Margaret Thatcher.


Next past the Cabinet War Rooms where I would watch Churchill plan WWII during the Battle of Britain. A stroll past Westminster perhaps in 1605 on November 5 where the first ever Guy Fawkes night would be taking place. Made popular in V for Vendetta, Guy Fawkes and other Roman Catholics tried to blow up parliament on the opening day with the king in attendance on November 5, 1605. The failed.


Maybe I'd stop in at Westminster Abbey to see a monarch crowned like William the Conqueror. I suppose I have to jump to the future for my attempt to enter the Tate Museum. There are actually two Tate Museums - the modern one being open until 10 pm - not the traditional one.


So this made for a nice long river along the Thames to the modern Tate Museum. Maybe I'd pass underneath the original Blackfriar's bridge and then come upon the actual Globe Theater before it burned down. Into the modern Tate Museum - I HATE MODERN ART.

Ok so the only reason i went to this museum was because i was wet and cold. It just reminded me how pointless modern art is - what a waste of space. I kid you not, I saw a guy sitting on a chair in front of a giant canvas that was painted all red with a solid line of purple along the right side. They actually have that crap in museums. Other favorites included a simple table that you or I could have made, BUT because the artist was inspired by divided families in Columbia - it becomes art. I hate to be insensitive but honestly - what makes something artistic? The museum also had stuff from famous artists like Pollock, Rivera, and others. I saw one painting and said to myself, hmm that's what would happen if I tried to copy a Monet - it was a Monet.

After my modern art museum experience maybe i'd take a time machine back to turn of the century Paris so I could see some impressionism. Set on the river I'd come back to 2000 for the opening of the Millenium Bridge - right when it was so wobbly they had to close it down for repairs. Across the river to Sir Christopher Wren's Masterpiece (as every book calls it) St. Paul's Cathedral. I'd maybe suggest a few changes to Chris and then head over to Old Bailey's to see if there are any interesting court proceedings taking place. Finally it was about 10:30 and pouring rain so I began my long walk home.

Writing on Buses

Bus Oxford to London, 11:53 AM Saturday

Oxford was gorgeous. I am so enthused about spending time in Britain after my one night with Martha. It was a good way to reenergize the batteries.

Luckily on the way in to town Martha decided to call me on the bus. I had tried to call her but my phone wasn’t working. She was there waiting at the bus station and made getting to her college much easier. Oxford is basically the grounds of Oxford University which is made up of 30 some very independent colleges. Martha goes to one such college which has about 150 students. Some of these students are completing their degrees which means the culmination of hell. There grades over the three years do not matter whatsoever. Only the scores they receive on these exams go on their diplomas – now that’s pressure.

I got myself put into Martha’s room and we went for a walk through the university parks and then down to the Thames to watch some Oxford rowing. Nothing more typical of Oxford past time than watching some crew on the river. The rest of the town is really calm and quaint. The buildings are short, lots of parks, flowers, and trees. The streets are narrow and traffic is minimal so it has a really nice feeling. Something completely different than London.

Then came dinner which was all too fitting. Dinner is a sit down formal meal where you sit at a long table in a very nice dining hall. Waiters bring the food out to the table and then you get served out of some very large dishes. Friday night was curry night and the whole college eats together in the dining hall.

After dinner, Martha and I along with two South Africans went to the park to play some frissbee. I’ve met a lot of interesting people over the last week and these two guys did not disappoint. Phil spoke a fair bit Afrikaans and some click languages and Ben had traveled to places all over like Buenos Aires, Uganda, etc.

Phil, Martha, and I headed for the Turn Tavern, Phil believes it’s the oldest bar in the world. It does have one wall though that’s remaining from Roman times. There are also some plaques on the wall commemorating some famous Oxford alum. Like a former Australian premier who holds a Guinness world record for drinking a yard of beer in 11 seconds.

Not be out done, Americans are represented by good ole Bill Clinton. The plaque says it is alleged that the Turf is where Bill Clinton may have smoked but did not inhale an illegal substance.

After the last week of traveling I was pretty beat so Martha and I called it an early night around 10:30. She has a pretty bizarre schedule over here. She doesn’t have any regular classes but instead tutorials that might meet once a week or once every other week. They are incredibly individualized and mostly revolve around writing papers. That takes dedication. She has a paper on Milton due Monday and another on post colonial lit due Tuesday so I wanted to skedaddle before I got her too far behind.

Saturday morning at 8 we had breakfast in the main dining hall which included peanut butter. PB is so ubiquitous here I don’t know what to do with myself. Can’t imagine what it will be like to have Jiffy everywhere.

I also still can’t get over everyone speaking English. I’m used to trying to eavesdrop on Hungarian conversations but now its just too easy and uninteresting.

After breakfast we went down to the world famous Oxford Press bookstore. So many interesting books to read – I could have spent all day in there. Also a trip to the Oxford market before getting the bus to London. This bus has a little plug in by my feet so I don’t even have to use up my battery power while I enjoy the scenery. Some of the buses to London even have wifi. On the plane I was wondering what I was going to do with all my free time in London, but after reading my guide book – there is so much to see. I’ll be running from museum to museum during the day and cruising the city by night. I’ll be exhausted by the time that flight home on Monday comes to pass.

Smug

Bus to Oxford, Britain 3:29 PM Friday May 25, 2007

I don’t like Britain. I know that’s unfair because I’ve been inside the country for precisely an hour and fifteen minutes, but I’m not too excited to be here. This is for a mix of reasons I’m sure not least being that I’m 3 days from being home and 3 hrs removed from departing my favorite city in Europe. But damn, this place is trying.

I think mostly what gets someone like me is the money. At least when there are hassles in Hungary you don’t mind because A) you don’t speak the language and B) everything is uber cheap. Now when you are asking questions in English and they charge 18 pounds for a bus ride from heathrow to oxford (something that would cost $1 in Hungary) you start to feel a little nostalgia for the old communist bloc. I think I might even understand Hungarian better than I understand British accents. I’m not going to let this dampen my whole trip, so instead this post is going to recount my fabulous last day in Budapest.

Probably what made it so great was the way it was typical of so many days throughout the year. I got off the train from Zruich at 11:30 and was at my university by 1 to say good bye to our director and assistant. Good bye could only start after eating at my favorite lunch restaurant in the whole city. Cafeteria style lunch with chicken and French fries usually.

The good bye was a bit hard. They were like our family over here and I’ve gotten to know them pretty well over the course of the year. It was a bit sad for all three of us but they will have a whole new set of kids next year and I’ll be back enjoying (hopefully) Middlebury

After the good byes I of course headed over to Eric’s while I sat and watched him watch lost on his computer. Just like all semester. Naw it was good to see the lazy bastard after the week abroad. After a bit of packing back at my place I took a long stroll through the city saying good bye to all my favorite places. Hero’s Square with its magnificent columns representing Hungary’s greatest figures. A stroll down Andrassy, Hungary’s most glamorous boulevard meant to remind residents of the Champs Elysees . Then off to our favorite restaurant in the whole city: Poszonyi Kisvedeglo. I got my last bowl of gulyas and Eric got his favorite roast beef with onion rings – I’ve never seen him get anything else. Dinner was with Szabi, my Hungarian roommate, Jeff from this semester and his visiting friend Kevin, and then Eric’s two Austrian friends Marcus and Andrea.

And finally as the end of the night was nearing Eric, Marcus, Andrea, and I summited Gellert Hill for one last night view of the city. Walking through the dark trees up to Budapest’s highest point kind of fit the mood. Marcus was a bit tired out by the time we reached the top so he insisted on a drink. He was nice enough to buy us all a couple of drinks as well as absinthe shots for him and Andrea. They had an interesting walk down at about 1:30 and we were off to Eric’s place to cap it off with a viewing of Boondock Saints. Just about a perfect day in Budapest. I was a bit sad to go but take whatever cliché you like: all good things must come to an end, one ending means another beginning, that’s that. Eric and I did a lot of ruminating about conclusions of our time in Budapest which I’ll probably put on another post, but now I can go back to ranting bout the British.

THEY ARE SMUG. I don’t think there is any better way to describe it. First story, the bus driver gets on with his little microphone and tells a couple of bad jokes going through safety procedures and then says that everyone must buckle seat belts (seat belts on a bus…what?). To illustrate he tells us a story of a child who didn’t buckle his seat belt and cracked his head open. As if this is not enough, he then says, “Subsequently, the parents missed their flight.” NO SHIT. Does no one else see the problem in worrying about a damn flight when a child’s skull is cracked?

Second story, well not so much a story but just general demeanor of everyone I’ve seen. The British waiting in line at the ticket counter, getting off the plane, and even at the bus station, smug is the best word for it.

Ok so I don’t hate all British. The lady that sat next to me on the plane, boy can she talk. I got one article read in the Daily Telegram (still mourning Liverpool’s loss) before she started talking. It was a 2 hr 15 minute flight and she didn’t stop talking. She was nice enough and told me all about Australia, Singapore, tea time, and her family history (If your last name is Lacon you might be related). I was looking to sleep but she was nice enough so I didn’t mind. And she wasn’t smug either.

And plus the British girl that is letting me stay in her flat is definitely not smug. I had this same feeling when I first got into Belarus, like where am I but I’m sure it will subside in the next hour when I meat up with Martha. Her phone doesn’t seem to be working so not sure how that’s going to work out, but these things seem to come out fine.

Not to seem too cliché on this grandest of all days but a) its raining and yes b) my ticket really did cost 18 pounds. Welcome to Britain.

Also, I don’t seem to avoid departing airports without cutting it close. I was at the airport well ahead of schedule this time, but last in line. So my time comes and British Airways in their mighty fine wisdom decided to only allow 1 bag up to 70 pounds rather than two with 50 as in exactly what I’m holding with 40 minutes until my flight leaves. ERIC! I get all my important stuff switched around and then my other suit case in left luggage at the airport in Budapest. It was this or pay 60 pounds just to get it to London. To finish off the story the ticket attendant came and found me and expedited my way through security – no waiting. We talked all the way to gate and she actually studies at my university and works at the airport two days a week. Hungarians work hard, they aren’t smug!

I must intercede just right here. I keep seeing people driving next to the bus and then no other lane. The British in all their smugness even have to drive on the wrong side of the road – Damn. Well that last paragraph was pretty random. I guess that means its about time to end the post. Should have plenty of time this weekend to write down my thoughts – can’t afford to do anything else. Then home to the great US of A.

PS: They speak English here!


Eric is right, see his comment about deserving recognition. He should be happy though because I bought him pogacsa in the morning out of the goodness of my heart. It was about half way through playing frisbee, i was Like oh shit, the suitcase is the broken one and Eric won't be able to get the handle up. I chuckled a bit but also felt really bad.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

AC Milan 2 Liverpool 1 - Robbed

Corvinus University, Budapest, 2:34 PM

Twelve long hours later I'm back in Budapest. Actually the train ride was quite pleasant and I only noticed I had neighbors in the seats next to me is when I woke up to them leaving. I had a little grouping of four chairs to myself. It was upon noticing one such person leave that I saw today's newspaper and deciphered the German enough to figure out that Liverpool had suffered defeat in the Champion's League Cup. For all you biased American sports fans out there this is the Superbowl of European soccer. I only watched the first half before I left Zurich and was still on my damn train by the time the game ended, got published, and printed in a newspaper half way across Europe - that's what made me realize it was a long train ride.

Day 2 in Zurich was pretty relaxing in keeping with the Swiss spirit. We got up late and rented bikes (for free) and rode around Lake Zurich and a bit of the town. Ate some delcious bratwursts with Emily feeding the ducks. Back for a nap then up to the zoo for Eric's marvelous idea of a view (acutally there wasn't a view just rain) and back to the apartment with some Carlsberg, spaghetti (carlsberg for liverpool, spaghetti for milan). Damn shame that Liverpool dominated most of the game and still ended up losing. Also too bad about all those crazy English hooligans getting kicked out of the stadium (secretly i'm laughing).

Back in Budapest for a day and up to Oxford and London tomorrow. See how the English will help me ease this transition back to the states. Maybe their funny accidents will be just the stepping stone i need. If not that, i'll sure be happy to see Iowa prices after spending the Pound.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

I love Switzerland

The Apartment, Zurich, 1:15 AM Wednesday

We had a great day, and did nowhere near as many things as the past days included. We got a bit of a late start and got a train off to Lucerne at 10:30. Of course the Swiss trains leave on time so we had to run onto the moving train, but we made it. Also, we of course bought the wrong tickets because we couldn't believe how expensive they were - wow is this country expensive.

We got to Lucerne at a decent hour and walked around the town. Eric and Emily had been here before with Eric's dad who lives in Switzerland. They both just got back from study abroad programs in South Africa and Madagascar, respectively.


Lucerne was a quaint littel town with a lake at the foot of the Alps. We got some lunch at a fast food Italian place and then headed for the beach. What a good decision. The day turned out to be incredibly hot and we spent maybe 3 hrs napping, playing frisbee and swimming. By far the perfect way to spend the day in Switzerland. If for no other reason then we weren't spending money on anything else.

We got back here to Zurich at about 6:00. I have to rave just a bit about Swiss transportation. All the stations are right down town, very fast and easy to use and just generally awesome. Everything works perfectly, basically the Swiss have the perfect life.

Ok anyway we went shopping and bought all the ingredients for a great dinner. We whipped up some pasta, ceaser salad, and some very bad wine for dinner. Then drafted a few emails and out to explore Zurich proper.

This city is so beautiful. The trams go everywhere and there are all these little pedestrian streets with cobblestones on both sides of the river. Then there is this nice little hill with a park on top and a chess board with pieces the size of dogs. And every corner of the city is beautiful, modern, and clean. back at the apartment, and i should head for bed. tomorrow is a long day with a train departure for budapest at 10:30.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Big Relaxing Sigh

Eric’s Dad’s Apartment Zurich, Switzerland, 8:57 am

Back in the Western world. As nice as Belarus was, it still feels a bit nice to not see socialist buildings everywhere. The city is clean, efficient, and pretty. It’s been raining since I got here last night, so I guess it will be really pretty when it actually dries off. We’re headed down to a village closer to the Alps today and exploring the city tomorrow.

Monday was quite the busy day in Belarus even though I had to fly out. We had the car until 10 am, so we go up at 7, got our breakfast and headed out to the village of Khatyn. I’m a bit confused because I’ve read about a village called Katyn where the Soviets massacred a bunch of Polish soldiers. Our book made no reference to that but instead said this memorial commemorated all the villages in Belarus that were burned down by the Nazis.

Still it might be the village I had heard of and simply the stories have changed because of the communists in power. Still the memorial was huge and kind of chilling. It had a little square for every village that was burned – what was stunning was how many villages were destroyed.

Got the car back by 11 am, but they didn’t seem to care about it being late. Seeing as we hadn’t discovered much of Minsk yet, we took a walk around the city. We covered the two main streets rather quickly before I had to head out. We also saw the president’s motorcade drive by which was far and away more intimidating than the US president’s. Just the size of it was intimidating.

Highlights of Minsk include a little area that’s been rebuilt to look like a 19th century town. Also Lee Harvey Oswald’s apartment after he defected to the Soviet Union. Minsk also has a number of beautiful parks that spring up all over the place. The river winds its way through town and parks and paths kind of straddle it.

The people here don’t act like they are living under a dictatorship. Everyone is incredibly nice and generally amiable. I guess the president just let’s them do what ever they want as long as they don’t mess with him. Wonder if they will ever come around to the western world. I mean the villages are definitely poorer than in Hungary but I would said the cities are prettier and more modern.

We headed to the bus station to find a bus to the airport. Found out one wouldn't leave on time and had to get a taxi. The taxi we settled on was really terrible. I was worried it wouldn't make it to the airport, but we made it alright. He did take me down some tiny roads - reminiscent of Montegro so i quick took out my cell phone just to make sure he knew i wasn't going anywhere without a fight. Made it on the flights fine and caught up with the news thanks to Austrian Airways policy of giving away English newspapers. Also there was a flight leaving Minsk for Istanbul. I want to know who flies from Belarus to Turkey.


Got into Vienna and immediately felt like Western Europe. Then i got to Zurich and the feeling was even better. Not that i don't love travelling in all those countries east of the iron curtain, but there is something settling about the way of life over here. I got to sleep in the best bed I've felt all year. Now we're going to try and catch a train which you know will leave exactly on time because its Switzerland.
Hotel Yubeleiny (Jubilee) Minsk, Belarus 1:45 AM Monday

So much driving. Today we got up in Brest, toured the village, saw the Brest fortress, visited two small towns in rural Belarus and drove all the way back to Minsk – a 4 hr drive. We should be asleep by now but we’ve been enjoying all the videos of Byelorussian babushkas we took today.

First off we made it out of bed by 7:30 in time for breakfast. That was some delicious rice and cutlets to Virginia’s ?, I call it oatmeal. As always with all Russian meals tea as well. We toured around the town a bit to see Engel’s Street, Red Square, Lenin Square and a nice tall statue of Lenin pointing at a Polish Church.

Then off to the most visited attraction in all of Belarus. I don’t actually know if that’s true, but I told Virginia it was and have decided it so. This was a fortress built centuries ago but actually soldiers defended it against the Germans for a month during World War II. It is huge and has all kinds of sights. There is a huge face of a soldier sculpted next to a giant obelisk with a eternal flame in front. When we were visiting a group of 14 & 15 yr olds were training how to guard the flame. The fortress basically functions as a huge park and there is a brand new Orthodox Church inside the fortress.

There is also a palace where the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed that drew the Soviet Union out of World War I. Having a car for today was almost necessary after everything that we fit in and the state of public transportation in Belarus. Still most of the time we feel right at home. I’m still a bit nervous about driving because I’m scared of getting pulled over, but otherwise it seems like we could be in any Western city. Virginia and I both feel the country is very clean, modern, and orderly. The people are extremely nice and welcoming. It’s just too bad their leader is an ass.

After the fortress we headed out near the family village. First stop was a town right next to it of a decent size where all the residents go to work, school, and church. There is also a big cemetery. We played the oh so stereotypical roll of genealogists and searched for the graveyard for Nosik (family name) or Hocik as its spelled in Cyrillic letters. Yea my Cyrillic is coming along nicely. We actually found about 5 different Nosiks in the village but we don’t know if they’re related. Virginia was standing next to one such grave when a man and his family walked up. Virginia started talking to him and realized this guy’s uncle was actually a Nosik. After a bit more discussion it turned that he probably belonged to a different group of Nosiks but still the coincidence was quite odd. After scouring the graveyard for all traces, we went back to the village to get some more info. Turns out the lady wasn’t related to Virginia, but she was really helpful and pleasant – I still feel useless.

Before heading back to Minsk we stopped at the Museum of Confiscated Art, which the authorities took from people trying to smuggle stuff into Poland. Wow that sucked except there were a few cool paintings but all kinds of icons. I mean who would have that much astounding art in Belarus anyway.

Deciding we should put the car to good use, we decided to stop at two different villages on the way back to Minsk. The first one was a town of about 15,000 set on the edge of a huge lake. It had a big fortress with a moat around it, though the fortress was under reconstruction. The weather has been beautiful here like 80 degrees and sunny everyday. Our luck continued and even enough to invite the mosquitoes. We were wandering through the park around the fortress when 3 girls heard us talking and kind of invited themselves with us. Pretending they didn’t speak any English, they spoke Russian to Virginia and made her translate the tales of the town and fortress to me. After we walked around and saw some statues they finally started speaking English which they did excellently. They were great tour guides and showed us some cool sites of the town which included a 16th century clock tower, a beautiful Polish Catholic church, and a 16th century town hall. Things that are surprisingly old for most of Belarus where things were mostly destroyed during the Great Patriotic War.

We said good bye to the girls and moved on to the town of Mir which pretty much could only boast of a nice big castle beside a pond. Now I love a good castle and Virginia has never been to one since those fool Russians don’t’ know how to build a proper castle. We were too late to go inside but got a nice view of the outside and spent some time next to lake trying to get infected with malaria.

We hadn’t eaten since breakfast so we were hoping this village of about 2500 had a café. We found just the one in the town center, though by this time I’d say it had turned into a bar and served as the town hang-out. I got some kielbasa sausage and Virginia got some potatoes and vegetables. For some reason she thinks shes gone vegetarian – I know the truth. With tea and everything the dinner cost $3 total.

After that it was past 11 and we still had a long drive back to Minsk. Again a slight detour in the city due to misread maps but we ended up at our new hotel fine. This one I like the best and actually has carpet.

So many things I want to bring up, but I just can’t fit them into this space. Perhaps the most bizarre thing was at the toll booths on the way to Brest. They don’t actually make you stop and when you approach them, they just wave you through without any real consideration. The first time this threw us off, but knew what to expect for the next three toll booths. Also we saw toll road written in English several times along the way one such phrase that was actually translated.

Another thing I can’t capture is how welcoming the people are. Every person we run into is very kind and loves to talk. No one has a bad attitude and Virginia wants to trade up her time in a Russia for a few extra weeks here. Unfortunately, that wont’ happen. Ok I fell asleep before writing that last part, so I had better get under the covers.
Hotel Inturista Brest, Belarus 11:09 PM

You know its been a long day if I’m thinking of sleep anytime before 1 am. Today was just that. We successfully rented a car and drove across the country of Belarus – All in a day’s work.

Wake up was supposed to be at 6 but 3 hrs was not enough sleep so instead we got up around 7. Breakfast was an all you can eat buffet on the 22nd floor of our hotel. The hotel was the main Minsk hotel so basically anyone staying in town is there, and even yes the four typical American tourists showed up at breakfast – but what a great view. We had a big breakfast thinking we’d use it for lunch too. Great apple juice and tea, eggs, hashbrown type things and even some cereal and of course delicious pastries.

Ready to go by 9, we headed to the car rental agency in the hotel to see what we could muster. We thought we might need an international driver’s license but these countries usually make flexible laws when it means money coming their way. The woman (aka 22 yr old girl who explained to us she had way too much to drink the night before) happily rented us the car – and Virginia doesn’t have her license with her – so this means I’m driving a stick in Belarus until Monday!

After precisely 15 seconds, driving in the car felt just like driving anything back in the states. I thought after a 9 month deficit I might be a little rusty but it came back like clockwork.

Ok so let me just get you in the right frame or mind. Belarus is the last remaining dictatorship in Europe. And yes I mean dictatorship. Two Americans accidentally flew into Byelorussian airspace during a Hot Air Balloon race around the world and the president commended the Byelorussian air force for shooting down the balloon and killing the pilots. He also has required that 75% of the music on the radio be Byelorussian, and welded shut the gate to the US Ambassador’s Residence sparking an intense diplomatic battle. So yea that’s the setting for driving a car 350 kilometers to the city of Brest. Needless to say the last thing we want to do is get pulled over. The whole trip I’d say we’ve been a bit on edge just wondering what we’re not supposed to do.

After an hour of paper work we finally got into the car and we were set. I’m pretty sure I opened the door and looked at Virginia and said, “Virginia, what the hell are we doing.” After just a little while, though, it felt just like all the road trips we’d done before. At times with the rolling hills of trees, huge fields of yellow flowers, we thought we were in Illinois on our way home from Middlebury.

Anyway we made it out of Minsk fine, just a little bit of being lost and made it to the interstate to Brest. Luckily we had no problems along the way though we saw lots of cops pulling people over. Also the speed limits aren’t very well posted so we were mostly just hoping we were going the right speed – tough to do when there aren’t any other cars on the road.

Ok so I should mention that the purpose of this trip is for Virginia to do genealogical research on her great grandparents that left Belarus ahead of World War I. It’s actually a really cool story of how the great grandma and three kids journeyed from Belarus all the way across Russia via the Trans-Siberian railroad, sailed to Seattle, and made it to her waiting husband in Pennsylvania. Yea ok romantic I know. Anyway the relatives departed from a little village outside of Brest and we were hoping to do research in the archives in Brest and then find the actual village.
Our map of Brest was actually pretty good and we made it to the archives. The lady there was really helpful, though she wouldn’t let us do any research because they didn’t have any records before WWI. She wouldn’t tell us how to get to the village either so we were on our own.

We checked into our hotel – not as nice as last night but a great view of a beautiful Orthodox Church. The room shines in 70’s bright orange. We went over to an internet café to try and find out how to get to the village. Virginia had looked it up before but didn’t have a print out. Using google earth we just happened upon the village – it wasn’t labeled but VA recognized the streets. Using a satellite image we traced the roads back to the city of Brest, tried to memorize some landmarks and just got in the car and hoped for the best. We only made one bad turn and after about 30 minutes we found ourselves in a village of about 100 people with only two streets at running perpendicularly to each other. We had found the countryside. I don’t know how we would have done it without a car.

As in Romania and Transylvania, people often just sit for long hours on the benches in front of their houses. After taking a turn down through the village we stopped at one such bench and Virginia plowed into finding info about her relatives.

I should also mention how there is no way I would survive here if she didn’t speak Russian. In all the other countries I’ve been to, you say you don’t’ speak the language and they’re like oh stupid tourists. Here they’re like how the hell did you get here. Most places at least have Latin letters and you can figure out the basics like internet, toilet, etc. Not here. Not to mention that Virginia is fluent and can have full conversations about relatives, wars, etc. The few minutes when I have to go park the car or while she checks out a restaurant I’m scared someone might actually talk to me.

So she launches into her story and the village people (pun intended?) turn out to be very helpful. This one guy leads us into like 5 different houses and talks to people all over the town. They were really helpful and explained that the town basically got burned down during the war and people only came back after a few years and most were new residents. We did happen upon one lady that Virginia thinks she is related to. Her uncle had the same last name as that of Virginia’s relatives. I think she might call her tomorrow and find out some more info about the family.

I can’t explain just how bizarre this whole time in the village was. Virginia is walking up and down this one road talking to all the residents in Russian and I’m standing there useless. I figure I’ll just be the cameraman/driver and try to take as many rustic photographs as possible. I have a few favorites. I also played this game with myself where I tried to take pictures of all the people without letting them know it. Crossing my arms and sneaking a photo, turning the other way.

Also a highlight was when I tried to walk back into someone’s backyard and take a picture of a goose. I heard yelling and VA tried to translate as quickly as possible that I would be eaten by a big scary dog if I went any farther – I stopped. Virginia found out a bunch of useful info about the relatives. Funny how all these people in this old abandoned village were encouraging her to use the internet to contact the Byelorussian archives. Small world.

I can’t explain how nice it is to drive. Even though I’m in a town in Belarus, it still seems like I’m just at a stop light in Iowa. I’m always impressed when Western culture permeates these countries. Hear Eagle Eye Cherrie’s Save Tonight while waiting for a stoplight. Hear some rap music while parking the car. Got back to the hotel and turned on the TV with choices of Tin Cup or Jackie Chan for entertainment. You can’t escape it.

After our tour in the village we headed back to Brest to get dinner at this restaurant in the “Park of Culture and Leisure.” Awesome food and cool view over this artificial lake. There was a huge concert going on and the whole park was like a mini carnival. Apparently it was the place to be on Saturday night. Its tough to get an act to fill such a crowd because all the bands protest the government so only state-approved acts are allowed to perform.

After dinner we used the car to check out one of the nicest train station’s I’ve ever seen. A beautiful, clean interior with neo-classical motifs that look like they belong in the US Capitol. Also saw a nice big statue of Lenin and some colorful Orthodox Churches. We also got a head start on the Brest Fortress which we’ll be seeing tomorrow.

I know I’m getting wordy here but there’s so much to say. Byelorussians are obsessed with World War II, or as they call it “The Great Patriotic War.” Russians and Byelorussians are taught in school that THEY won the war and no one else. Ok so the point of all this is that you see tributes to WWII everywhere much disproportionally than anything else. Brest was awarded one of eleven “hero cities” under the USSR and apparently still supports this identity. Even in the village there was a monument to honor those that died in that war and no other monuments.

We’re back in our orange room and sleep is setting in. Tomorrow we’re getting breakfast and then back to the village for a bit more sight seeing then back to Minsk. It seems like I just got here and I have to fly out on Monday already. Its been a productive trip so far.

Long Day



Hotel Belarus Saturday 2:15 am

I’m exhausted. That pretty well describes my day. My two plane rides were pretty uneventful. Seeing Hungary’s biggest Basilica from the air was quite nice as we followed the Danube over to Vienna.

I stepped onto the bus to take me to the aircraft bound for Minsk and thought I had entered a different world. I didn’t think anyone spoke English until I saw the four most typical American tourists. Lost, ignorant, English-demanding tourists. I was horrified. Got on the plane and sat next to this British guy that I’ve decided is a drug runner. Before I had even said a word to him, he took one look at me and said, “Boy, you’re a long way from home.”

He said he was headed to Belarus for business. Said he was in agriculture but he failed to go into the specifics. For some reason though, he had a multiple entry visa into Russia in addition to Belarus and was traveling to Belarus for the second time in two weeks. Also he had a huge suitcase and was only staying here for the same 4 days I am. I guess I’ll see what he’s drummed up on the plane out of here on Monday.

We waded through security together. Ahh my last American dollars spent. I’ve had two dollars in my wallet since I got over here in August and I’ve been dreaming up things to spend them on once I get back in the states. Just when I’m counting my chickens, Belarus goes and requires you to have medical insurance which costs $.50 per day. So the two dollars covered my medical insurance, but now I don’t know what to do. I’ll look in the seats to find some change.

The Minsk Airport seems like it should be something out of 28 Days that zombie movie set in London where no one is doing anything. It had the structure and size of any US airport. The Drug lord said it was built for Soviet troops but I didn’t believe him. Only something like 5 flights fly into the airport everyday. There is no one inside the airport except for a few workers. Just huge open corridors with no one to walk in them. Security is kind of a joke. Also the bathroom I ventured into didn’t have a proper toilet and looked like the inside of the local bar at about 3 am on Saturday night. Welcome to Eastern Europe.

Me and the drug lord got outside and I waited for the public bus to come for me and a friend for him (aka the grower). A really disappointed taxi driver wouldn’t leave me alone thinking I was ripe for money. The bus was surprisingly really comfortable. Ok so mind you no one speaks any English in this country so communication is a bit sketchy. Lonely Planet said the bus took me straight to the train station where I was to meet Virginia. Slowly everyone (as in three other people) got off the bus and suddenly I was alone. So I used my little guide book to tell the driver I wanted off at the train station and he figured it out, though he kept yelling at me and I have no idea what he was saying. I should also mention that the roads were huge, open, and bare. All this infrastructure for no one to use.

Minsk is beautiful. I can’t deny it. All the guide books warn of how socialist it is, and yes it has some of those buildings. But it has a number of older neo-classical and baroque buildings that are amazing. Plus not only is it very clean but all the parks are very modern, lots of fountains, well cut crass, beautiful sidewalks, etc. I know, I know, this comes at a price with no political freedom, many people living in poverty, and many other social problems but in a way the city is incredibly modern.

Virginia and I had set up a meeting place on the 4th floor of the train station at an internet café. I tried to meet her on the tracks and missed her so I walked up to the 4th floor and it worked like clockwork. These meet ups usually never happen this well. I tried to meet up with several friends in Paris and always failed.

VA got in at about 8 pm so we got the metro ($.25 per ride) to our hotel. The Hotel Belarus is beautiful on the outside but a bit “rustic” on the inside. I can’t complain because its been awhile since I’ve slept in a hotel, but its nice. Boy is the bathroom blue and the TV has MTV and Cnn. We got settled in and VA gave me a nesting doll of the Minnesota Twins. See picture.

It’s a little odd how the hotel works. A lady sleeps on a couch on each floor behind a desk. To get to your room you have to get the key from her every time you come back. For some reason time just seemed to escape us today. We ran around the hotel looking for car rental agencies for our trip to Brest tomorrow. Sometime during my journey earlier I had this terrible craving for a huge Italian pizza. I know this is probably a bad country to have such a craving but nonetheless I was thinking of one thing only. Well after the hotel drop-off we’re looking for some food and sure enough we happen upon a “hoppin’” pizza restaurant with club inside. I got myself a mighty fine pizza in the wonderful Belarus.

After dinner we went for a stroll and sought out the 24 hour internet café. What a city. Like I said, very tall, modern, beautiful buildings. We passed a number of parks and streets that could have been in any city in Europe. It was simply astounding.

We passed by some wonderful pieces of Soviet art as well as some newly rebuilt churches and the President’s house. This will have to be my parliament picture from this country because the President, Lukashenko,is basically the king of the country.

We got to the internet where I scored both summer job opportunities I wanted in DC so now I have to divide my time between the two. Hopefully it leaves lots of time for playing softball.

After the internet we made it back here to the hotel and we are exhausted. I also just drank the tap water which is a no-no and I hope I don’t get sick. Wake up is in a little over 4 hrs so I had better get some sleep.

Gyorsan (Faster)

Budapest Ferihegy 2 Airport, Friday 12:12 PM

Michigan Oliver oddly enough was the last person I talked to before leaving Budapest. I guess I don’t know for sure seeing as I have a half hour yet to board, but I assume it’s a safe bet.

Szabi and I call him Michigan Oliver because I never saw him without his Michigan hat. Yea I thought he was from Michigan too, but then I found out he was from Hamburg and got really confused. He’s getting his masters over here in Budapest. We’ve had a few classes together and generally have complained a lot over pogacsa. Oliver works for Lufthansa in addition to studying. I just learned that he worked for a period in Russia and studied for a year in Idaho of all places. Also has a mean hook shot knows more about college basketball than I do. The world gets stranger everyday.

Right now I’m stuck at one of those dead ends of an airport where they send everyone that’s traveling on a really small plane. Since my flight to Vienna is only an hour long, this is what I have to endure. It’s been a hectic process to get here.

This morning I woke up at 8 am to Eric talking in my ear (via my cell phone). I had promised him a cycle this morning but we were out too late last night for that. He of course had to call me and remind of this fact as well. We each had to buy train tickets where I had some great news – my ticket from Zurich to Budapest only cost about $45 instead of the $100 I was thinking it was going to cost. What a great way to start the day. Got some Burger King to celebrate this with Eric and then gathered my things and left to go to the airport.

My flight was set to leave at 12:50 (so I thought) so I of course was pushing it a little close and got on the bus about 2 hrs before departure. About an hour and ten minutes to get there and a little for check in. On the bus with Eric I glanced at my itinerary to see what terminal I left from and noticed that the flight actually left Budapest at 11:55 and gets into Vienna at 12:50. Shit! So Eric and I ran off the bus, Eric gave me 5000 forint and we found a cab and off to the airport I went.

The cab driver and I actually had a great chat in Hungarian for the 20 minutes. I think through this whole process Eric was a bit more worried than I so perhaps hes to thank for me getting here. I think on the bus I was like, oh my plane leaves in an hour, I guess I had better get a cab.

My driver told me about how he had broken up with his girlfriend two weeks ago and they had a 9-yr old child. We joked about the weather, Belarus, and driving a stick. I also assuredly told him not to visit Los Angeles but stick with other more exciting places. Jozsef was a really nice guy and gave me his number for when I get back into the city. I also told him that I needed to get to the airport quickly but avoid being dangerous if possible. He succeeded.

I got through check in and security fine though the guy seemed to take offence that I would bother him by checking in. I got down to my gate and was texting Eric and Mary that I made it when Oliver shows up and takes a seat. Imagine that he’s flying to Hamburg out of this same dead end. He does work for Lufthansa and gets discounted flights so going home for the weekend in is no problem.

Well the trip hasn’t even begun yet and I’ve already got a page typed. I’m taking my computer with me so I’ll be able to keep a more detailed account of the trip – I hope. Perhaps when we’re driving through the Byelorussian countryside I’ll have some time to type a few words. I think my bus is here to take me to the plane – lets see what more drama I can stir up.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Serbia (Again)

Ok I promise this is the last bit about spring break, and you really don't have to read it all if you don't feel up to it. Jeff and I decided to stick it out for a day in Belgrade and get the night train while eveyrone else was getting the day train straight back to Budapest. So we all went to, yes I have to admit it, McDonalds for breakfast and a nice bathroom. The Balkans doesn't really do breakfast so my Big Mac at 7 am was a bit weird, but I dealt with it. Then we said good bye to the other 5 and headed for the Chinese Embassy. This is one site that is not in Lonely Planet. During the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, they "accidentally" knocked bombed the Chinese Embassy which was located next to a radio tower. The Embassy just happened to have some radioactive material in the basement and is dangerous till this day. We found it, snapped a couple of pictures and then headed for Tito's grave.

This man was the dictator of Yugoslavia for 40 years and yet the people still revere him. It's a bit odd. The grave is also really odd because its in this park kind of and there is a really silent hall for him and then a musuem for all the gifts he received from foreign countries. The whole experience is quite surreal and it was nice to have Jeff there who had been through it before.

After Tito's tomb, we went to what I really wanted to see - the Nicola Tesla Musuem. Perhaps you heard of him in the Prestige played by David Bowie. In real life he was a graet scientist but a terrible businessman. He was a rival of Thomas Edison and worked for him for a time. His many achievements include inventing the radio, making mechanical engines work, and basically designing the Niagra Falls power station.

The musuem was free and we were almost the only ones there along with John who works for the WHO and has been to 130 countries and a very nationalistic Serbian that had emigrated to Canada. Quite a crowd. The young tour guide put on a demonstrationg that was really cool and made mechanical engines click in my head - at least for awhile.

After leaving the musuem, Jeff and I decided to leap frog our way back to Budapest. We were going to stop in two smaller towns along the way, both of which used to be Hungarian towns. We said good bye to Serbia and headed for Novi Sad.

We think this town had a soccer match going on because they cleared out an entire car of the train just for the hooligans destined for the town. We kind of had cramped quarters but not too bad. Once we arrived there were about 100 policemen in riot geer to escort the hooligans to the stadium. The one really cool thing about Novi Sad was the old fortress on the hill above the river. It was huge and every August hosts a huge musical festival with bands like the Killers and The Shins headlining. This clock tower was part of the fortress and designed with a bigger hour hand so everyone could see it. In fact everyone that could see it was charged a clock tax.

The town also had a beautiful baroque downtown and was quite lively, but we didn't discover this until we had to leave.

From here we caught another 2 hour train up to the town of Subotica which had a huge Hungarian influence. This dowtown was also beautiful though in a very different Art Noveau way. Seeing as we had been away from Hungary for almost 10 days, I was desperate for Hungarin food. Well the book recommended one such restaurant where we walked in the door and they greeted us in Hungarian. This dining experience was chaotic.
We walked in and there were two musicians playing. We ordered gulyas which came in a huge pot that could have served 5 people. This was the best gulyas I've had yet. Ok so then all the drunk Hungarian youth in this town paraded through the restaurant. They danced on tables, line danced, sang all the folk songs, and just generally had a party. We had our giant packs with us in the restaurant so we kind of stood out but nobody cared. I couldnt' take the noise for too long so we went to the town square and chilled for a bit. We basically were falling asleep sitting there so we journeyed over to the train station and watched an episode of West Wing on Jeff's laptop before the train came.
Wow were we tired. We fell asleep as soon as we were on the train, woke up for the border guards and then didn't even budge until the cleaning crew at Keleti swept through the train. Back in Budapest we both went home and slept, and then I had to prepare for guests from Paris.
What a way to end spring break. It was a hell of a trip and I don't regret any of it. I never thought we would make it thorugh with that many people but we had pretty good company throughout. Freshman year: New Orleans, Sophomore year: Western Virginia, Junior year: The Balkans, who knows what senior year will bring. Until then...stay classy San Diego.

Macedonia

Macedonia was beautiful, at least the parts of it that we saw. In this country we would see an awesome monastery, the surprise arrival of Jeff, Macedonians serenading on a bus, a lakeside town reminiscent of Okoboji, and another walled off old town and a castle. Ok so we spent all our time at the little village of Ohrid, but I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. We took a bus through the capital, Skopje, and everyone generally agreed there wasn’t much to see there. Here’s how we made it happen.

Like I was saying in the Albania post, the border crossing was a bit intense. It was like a deserted stretch of highway. Also the no man’s land between the two checkpoints is like half a mile long because these countries really hated each other at one point. We made it across and then we were looking for either a bus to Ohrid or for the monastery that we had been told about. We walked aimlessly down this two lane road until we happened upon a giant sign in 5 langauges that pointed to the monastery. Once we arrived there we found a bus to Ohrid, our destination, leaving in two hours. The monastery was like 500 years old and beautiful. Also there are peacocks guarding it – a bird I had never seen up close before. The monastery also stood overlooking beautiful lake Ohrid. We had lunch here at the monastery’s restaurant which of course was very cheap. We also drank beer with our lunch – is that appropriate?

The whole trip we had been planning to meet up with our friend Jeff along the way. He did Easter with his parents in England and flew down to Sarajevo. Anyway through text messages we kind of figured out where he was and how to meet up. So we’re sitting at this picnic area in southern Macedonia and low and behold Jeff comes pulling up in a taxi. It was quite the random encounter but it worked out. About 15 minutes later we all caught the bus to Ohrid, once again incredibly beautiful. This village stands on this hill between a castle on the hilltop and this lake that is surrounded by snow covered mountains. It stretches on forever though you can see across it at some points. Breath taking.

We arrived at the bus station which is in the boon docks so we had to get a cab ride into town which cost 2 euro per cab. The guy at the bus station told us about a travel agency, but upon arrival they wanted 15 euro per person. We didn’t like that so we just found the water front and sat down to rest. Thinking over what to do, I kid you not, a construction worker at a site across the road walks over and speaks about 5 words of English. That’s enough to communicate to us that he has an apartment available for us for 6 euro each. We thought this was too good to be true so we agreed to take a look. They came and picked us up and dropped us off at the most amazing accommodation. We had this huge apartment with a full kitchen, bathroom, two bedrooms and a balcony overlooking the lake. All for 6 euro, we could barely contain ourselves. This was at about 4 pm so we unloaded our stuff and went for a swim.

By swim I mean jumped in, yelped a bit and got out quickly. This was when we met Christopher Columbus. We were swimming at the “beach” right next to where this guy was painting his boat. He was quite jovial and spoke a fair bit of English. He kind of told us about the lake, and how he took people out in tours and showed them the monastery and different mountains and what not. He was a fun guy to talk to and said we could go out in his boat if we helped him paint a bit. Some of the guys were really looking forward to kayaking a little bit, so we asked Chris about this. He looked into it but the way he made it sound was that Macedonians are more hung up on liability than the Americans. He said no one wanted to rent us boats because what if we drowned and blamed them. Basically they were scared of the repercussions of lending out one of their boats so we had to nix that idea. This is the lake before sunrise.

The first night in Ohrid was pretty fun. We found a nice enough restaurant with very entertaining waiters. I don’t remember what I had, but I think it was pretty good. After dinner we went for some gelato. Andrew drank a whole bottle of wine at dinner and got into an argument about the proper price of gelato. Thinking he had been overcharged by 100% he was demanding 10 scoops of ice cream. This was quite entertaining to the rest of us and to the girl working who didn’t really speak English. She held her ground and didn’t give into the crazy American. Holding no grudges, he went back there at least a couple of times.

Once again we called it an early night to enjoy the next day sightseeing. I woke up at about 6:30 after the schedule we had been keeping. I went out to the balcony to read and wait for Kenric and Jeff to get up at 7. I was extremely glad I did this because I got to see the sun come up over the mountains and across the lake while reading my Atlantic Monthly.

The three of us explored the city a bit, finding the castle, amphitheater, and old church. We headed to the city market and grocery store where we picked up the necessities for breakfast. Back at the apartment we made ourselves a delicious egg, cheese, bacon, onion, fruit and toast breakfast and enjoyed it on our balcony. Now that’s what I call breakfast done right.

The rest of the day we explored the rest of the city which had an old town enclosed by city walls and also had a beautiful pedestrian street that could have been anywhere in Western Europe.

I should also mention that on the day we got into town, our door got locked and no one could open it. It was at this point that we realized we had no way of contacting our landlord and no idea even who the people were. We were kind of wondering about our trust and what we could possibly do. So I walked around the neighborhood a bit and down to the backyard of the building next door. There was a young woman sitting on her balcony. I explained to her the problem and she called our landlord and asked him to come fix it for us. He came and got us squared away. Now we were smart lads and got his phone number in case of any future problems.

Ok so back to Friday, departure day, we swam again and walked around a bit and bought a few souvenirs. We collected ourselves about 4 pm and talked our landlord in to giving us a ride to the bus station. Oh little did we know how that bus ride would go. We were scheduled to get a bus from Ohrid all the way to Belgrade which is a 12 HOUR JOURNEY. This would go through the capital Skopje and then all the way through Serbia, oh what an adventure it would be.

The first bus was fine, albeit the temperature was about 1000 degrees, but we had lots of space so it was fine. Jeff and I emailed my friend Katie to find out where the Chinese Embassy was in Belgrade (I’ll have more later) and then we kind of sat back and relaxed. That quickly ended when we pulled into the Skopje bus/train station. Somebody had decided that a different bus would continue on to Belgrade and ours would be stopping. This same person decided to oversell that bus by about 15 people and make it leave 5 minutes after our bus arrived. Talk about chaos.

Two girls got off the bus to go to the bathroom in the middle of all this. So the other 5 of us scrambled to move all the bags to the other bus and all the purses and other accessories off the bus and onto the newest bus. I can’t forget about Chuckles. I brought him up in the Bosnia section, but hadn’t seen him after Meredith left us for Croatia. Well in her infinite wisdom, Meredith had decided to deflate Chcukles and put him in her bag. Not to let us drown in sorrow, Meredith had put the life back into Chuckles in Macedonia and this time he was to make it the whole way home. Indeed Chuckles did make the switch ok, though I think a little of his heart was left on the previous bus (in the form of glitter off of his neck).

So the 7 of us plus Chuckles made it on to this new bus ok, but it wouldn’t depart with all these people in the aisle. First the driver made this gypsy mom and daughter stand up simply because they were gypsies – Rosa Parks came to mind. We also realized what a chauvinistic country it was when the driver started making women stand up so that Andrew and I could sit down. Meanwhile Jeff and Kenric camped out on the stairs guarding over Chuckles. Finally Andrew and I sat down so that the bus would leave and then immediately gave our seats back to the women.

Destined to stand for awhile we kind of made conversation. Slowly along the way, people drifted off the bus but still not enough seats. Andrew and I split time between a stoop on the floor and the middle of the back bench. Eventually enough people got off the bus and all of us had seats but very uncomfortable ones.

I was sleeping so I only vaguely remember this but at one point like 10 people ran off the bus with all their stuff. Then we kind of shifted and 5 minutes later they all got back on and took their seats back. Then an argument broke out in the front of the bus with the driver yelling at someone else. We also took a nice long break at the border where we got out and just breathed. Eventually I passed out and didn’t wake up until we pulled into Belgrade, but everyone else slept off and on all night. Kenric had an interesting run in with the border guard. I guess he just didn’t feel right about a 21 year old carrying a horse balloon around the Balkans. Little did he know…

When we got off the bus in Belgrade, we were all incredibly relieved. Never had we been so exhausted or tired of being on a bus. What an experience though, no bus will ever seem daunting again. I’ll pick this up on the Serbia post.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Albania

Albania is bizarre. There is no other way to describe it. As soon as you cross into this country, you are in a different world. Sure the buildings and the people look the same, but it has a different feeling. It seems like Mexico, at least the movie version of Mexico, in the way people aren't really doing anything. There are people everywhere, not doing anything, and they are all driving Mercedes. All the men are wearing dress pants with their sport coats that don't fit at all. But they all seemed dress for the occassion. There are no major roads, but on the raods that everyone takes there are constant horse drawn carriages or person drawn carriages. Generally the roads are the asphalt between the pot holes. It was just unlike any of the other countries we went to. Even as bombed out as Belgrade was, it was so much more modern than Albania. Well on to the story of our time there.

We made it through Montenegrin customs and then through Albania's as well. Albania charges a 10 euro fee to get in. As soon as we showed up with our big packs, all the cabbies eyes flashed with dollar signs. One particularly ambitious cabbie skadaddled his tubby stomach down the hill customs and had the border guard deliver us a message that he was willing to drive us to the closest big town. Now we weren't to be pursuaded and brushed by him looking for the so-called minibuses that were supposed to be at the border. Basically all these minibuses are entail men driving their big vans around the country to agreed to destinations. We found the perfect man and all of us piled into his van to drive down to Skodor (spelling changes of towns are common).

I should also mention that Albanians have odd body motions. They shake their heads up and down for no and back and forth for yes. You have no idea how important this idiosyncracy is. Even when there is a complete language barrier, in most countries you can use your head to communicate. Well in Albania this only gets you in trouble. Also the word for yes is po and the word for no is jo. I know confusing right. Well after a hard encounter with that first driver, we tried as hard as we could not to shake our heads in transactions. Also most prices were demonstrated by use of hands or showing bills of what they wanted.

This man in his nice big red van was our introduction to Albania. As I described earlier, the countryside is surreal. We made it to Skodor, paid the man in Euro and then looked for the bus to Tirana. Albania is a bit crazy in that it has no organized transportation. Buses operate by showing up at a certain place everyday with a driver and they depart when the bus is full. The bus is full when the aisle is full of people sitting on plastic seats. What a great country. Through all of this we still made it through fine without difficulty, so the system works I guess.

It was about a two hour drive from Skodor to Tirana. Andrew looked up the State Department's warning for Albania later that night and found out that US diplomats are not allowed to travel in Skodor without an armed escort. Good thing we're not diplomats. Along the way, we saw lots of these concrete bunkers unique to Albania. Albania had a crazy dictator in charge for years that claimed he was communist but alienated himself from all the other communist affiliated countries in the world over time. Afriad of invasion, he had these bunkers built all over the countryside. Designed for each Albanian to defend himself, there were 700,000 in the country. The dictator had the engineer build one and stand underneath it while they blasted it with a tank. The designer lived. Now they are an eyesore all over the country because they are very hard to dismantle. Our Lonely Planet Guidebook said that now they serve as the number one place for Albanians to lose their virginity.

We got into Tirana safely at the so-called "bus station." Again it was just a random street side where most of the buses to Tirana stopped. We asked our bus driver to show us where we were on the map, but he was useless. Instead we started walking in what we thought was the right direction. A group of junior high aged kids stopped us and pointed us in the right direction which was the way we happened to be heading. We journeyed through the city, which you can see in the pictures, until we arrived at one of the nicest hostels I've ever stayed in. These two younger guys run it and one happened to acquire a puppy in the last week. That did Meredith in. When you arrive at the place, there is a sign that says pull on the string. That's right, the door bell is a string that runs into this big house and rings a bell inside. Thinking the gate was locked, we waited, but we would find out later that they don't really lock their doors in Albania. We were across the street from the US Embassy so we weren't really worried. This structure couldn't be missed because it was basically a modern day, impenetrable fortress.

After settling in, Andrew went to find an internet cafe to register for classes. His time for registerring just happened to coincide with arriving in Albania. (Little did I know, I would be registerring for classes from the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania).

Off to explore the city we tried to go into a mosque. We were informed that it was time for prayer and that later would be better. The guy that explained this then went on to lecture us about what a terrible rap Islam has and how we should convert. 33,000 people in the US converted to Islam after 9/11, I guess we should be some of them. Well anyway deterred by that we went and got some delicious pasta and pizza for barely anything. The city is insanely cheap. Then me and two other guys on the program walked to some of the worst parts of town and found a nice local bar. The nicest guy was running the place and apologized for not talking to us because he was making a new railing for the front steps (in front of us). We about made him cry when we gave him a $1 tip for 3 $1 beers. Then we were walking back to the hostel when we spotted the sky tower which is a bar 13 stories above Tirana with a rotating sitting area. This we didn't know until our packages were sitting on the balcony and rotating away from us. I had apple pie that cost $2.50 on top of Albania. My friend Kenrich spotted a ferris wheel from the top of the tower that we really wanted to see. So after seeking it out, we arrived just in time for it to close down.

That was pretty much the end of the night. We headed back to the hostel, got some advice on how to get out of Albania and then hit the sack.

Of course I made everyone get up early, so the next day, Thursday we woke up around 6 am hoping to catch a minibus around 7. Out of the hostel by 6:45 we only had to walk two blocks to catch the minibus, aka hitchhiking, to the Macedonian border. We found a guy with just enough room for the six of us agreeing to take the bus to this town called Pogradec. The guy at our hostel said just walk from here to the border, so we’re like whatever.

The bus ride down was once again beautiful though the mountains of Albania aren’t quite as nice as the sea coast in Croatia or the mountains of Bosnia. Of course there were random stops at cafes, but we made it to Pogradec fine. Then the guy said he would drive us to the border for an additional dollar averting an hour walk. This turned out to be a good call b/c there was absolutely no transportation on the Macedonian side of the border.

The border crossing was once again epic, most notable because of a sign with the happiest family pretending to shoot each other and demonstrating that guns are not to be brought into Macedonia – good idea. This was only made better by Kenric actually taking out his camera and filming the signs. This border crossing was also next to a lake, and this one Macedonia had successfully used for tourism. Also on the Albanian side there were a few taxis and guys just generally hanging out but absolutely no one was crossing the border. We were kind of wondering what we had got ourselves into. Well this ends the Albanian part of the tour just Macedonia and Serbia to finish it off.

Montenegro

This country was easily my favorite of the trip. The people weren't quite as friendly as the Bosnians, but the location was amazing. Again the bus ride down was awesome with a view of the coast. We got to the town of Herceg Novi and had about a

45 minute layover. Maia and I hunted around the town for an ATM. This town was beautiful in its own right with a cool old town and so we headed back to the bus to tell everyone we should wait, but they had already loaded our stuff on the bus, so off to Kotor it was. This bus left the coast for a jaunt around the largest fjord in Europe. This is one of Mary's pictures from the bus. The fjord was so big that it takes like 2 hrs to drive around it. We knew we were staying in a town on this fjord, but we had to pass like 5 small towns to get to it. The wait was well worth it as we enjoyed the view of this fjord forever. It was startling that the sites on this trip just got better and better.

A bit about accomodation. The three I mentioned earlier had arrived in town about noon and arranged accomodation for all nine of us. We had cell phones but everyone's phone except for Laura's stopped working in Montenegro. Earlier in the day we had received a text from her that they had found us a place on the water for 15 euro per night. So we got into Kotor and had no idea where to go. So we just picked a direction of the coast and started walking. After about 10 minutes we met up with a police officer who spoke a bit of English. We got through what the problem was and he let us call Laura's phone with his phone but it didn't work. We thanked him and then split up into two groups to try to find the pioneering three. As luck would have it, the other threesome just happened to be walking through the city's main gate when the pioneers were showing up. Laura then texted us so we could finally meet up. Imagine how else we would have found where we were staying. Still nobody got worried at all and everything worked out. We went into the old town which again is like Dubrovnik with its old fortress walls and small narrow pedestrain only streets. The city and location were incredibly beautiful and this was the most beautiful place I had ever been. These snow capped mountains surrounded this huge fjord and there were these walls that marched half way up the mountain. I tried to capture it with the camera, but in no way did it justice. In this picture you can kind of see the walls snaking up the mountain. The next one is an aerial view of the old town.

We sat down for pizza and just about everyone was exhausted. The food was incredibly cheap and here we sat underneath the mountains of Montenegro. Who knew such a gem existed in such a random part of the world. After dinner we all bought 2 liters of beer thinking we'd have a good old time back at the accomodation, but of course we were all too exhausted for that and ended up leaving our beer behind. I was of course all too excited to be by the coast so I had to go swimming on our first night in town. At about 11 pm I decided the time was ripe and just about froze to death, but it was worth it.

The next day, Kenric and I played party to Andrew's quest to find a fishing rod. After visiting the local shop and thinking rods far too expensive, we instead found a bamboo stick and turned that into a rod. With a little line and a couple of hooks from the shop, some shrimp from the grocery store we had ourselves a rig. We threw it in the water just outside our place, but unfortunately nothing big was around. The only hooks we bought were too big for the little fish that were interested. Still it was a mighty attempt. We went swimming all day, played frisbee golf (through a construction site), and generally lounged. A great way to spend the day after all the rushing about. I also forgot to mention how at 5:30 AM we had decided it would be a good idea to hike 1500 steps up the mountain to where the fortres was and see sunrise. It was an awesome pay off but an exhausting one. We didn't even see sunrise because the mountains are so high it doesn't rise until like 10. Also during this day, Kenric and I scouted out buses for the next morning. They of course were listed in Cyrillic so after getting some help from the local workers I was able to transliterate the letters enough to figure out where we needed to go. The next day would be the journey to Albania - what a story.

We finished out the day at a seafood place, seeing as we were on the water, where I had some fish soup and enjoyed Bob Dylan songs all night. Again I think we all had the idea of having some fun that night, but the 6:30 am bus the next morning necessitated an early bedtime.

This gets us up to Wednesday which was kind of the landmark day of the trip. We would end up going via four modes of transportation from northern Montenegro to Tirana, Albania. The 6:30 bus was destined for Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro which is basically shite. It's full of communist buildings rebuilt after an earthquake. I should also mention that at this point we were down to six people as Maia decided to head home from Montenegro and Mary and Martha wanted to see Croatia on their way home. Six turned out to be the perfect number for all the minibuses and cabs we took.

We got into Podgorica after having talking to this Irish kid on the bus on the way there. He had just come form Albania and explained that basically the only way to cross its border is with cabs and minibuses. The information guy in Podgorica confirmed this so I went outside to make friends with a cabbie. I found one that I liked, spoke English, and seemed legit b/c of his nametag. He said I could ask information if I wanted his credentials. Anyhow, he agree to take us to the border which was like a half hour drive. Three of us were in his cab while he got a friend to drive the other three. This was probably the only part of the trip where I was a bit nervous. These two cabbies took us on all these one way roads in the back hills of Montenegro with no sign of civilization. My driver didn't speak any English and our cell phones didn't work. Still everything turned out fine. We made it to the border, my new friend was really helpful and we journeyed onward. At the border there was a group of about 20 guys just standing on the Montenegrin side staring at us. Later we noticed that they were all Albanians waiting to get papers for entry - needless to say we didnt' document for fear our cameras would get stolen. It was odd though because the border was next to this beautiful lake that was ripe for toursim excpet that it was in Albania.

The Montenegrin border guards let us out of their country fine, and we had to cross a good 200 meters of no man's land before we met up with the Albanian guards. I don't know if I'll get to Albania tonight, but quite a story it is. Still Kotor was my favorite as maybe the pictures can demonstrate.