Thursday, July 29, 2010

Dracula country

I arrived in Romania after a short overnight journey with my three down under friends and we went our separate ways. I decided that I didn't need to see Bucharest or Brasov again (even though it PROBABLY is the best city in the world) and so I headed to the adorable town of Sighisoara, which is the actual (maybe) birthplace of Vlad the Impaler (Dracula). Despite this, it is a lovely town with a citadel and old town square and nine towers on the city wall. I sat in the square people watching and reading and took what turned out to be a private walking tour led by two high school students that reminded me a lot of my kids in Albania. The tour was organized by a Christian charity ( that helps the people of the region and also runs a restaurant and a community center. Although obviously the tour is geared towards foreigners (it is in English) I thought it actually showed a great example of how a community could sustainably support the work of a charity. It also gave the kids something worthwhile to do in the summer and a chance for them to meet lots of people and practice English.

I had been in contact with some PCVs in Romania and had originally planned on going to the Danube river delta next. It turns out that because of all that rain keeping me from going to the beach, the delta area was flooded and not very accessible. I had gotten two responses from volunteers around the city of Iasi (pronounced yash) that turned out to be sitemates so I went to visit them. Jenn and Becca were awesome. We cooked Mexican food (my tortilla making skills coming in handy) and Jenn and I went into Iasi to shop and visit the botanic gardens there and make fun of Eastern European fashion. Of course since I wasn't near any sea, it was crazy hot and didn't rain. . . Iasi was also a perfect place to jump off to Moldova and Ukraine as it is right on the Moldovan border. I left Romania after too short a time, but the trip must go on!

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The hostel life

About half of my travel so far on this trip has been in "hostels". Hostels are loosely defined as private businesses that cater to budget travellers, youth and students for accommodation. The general picture that comes to my mind is a building with several large dorm rooms and some sort of shared kitchen, but I have found that hostels can vary widely. I have stayed in just about every type of hostel- from small, converted apartments with just a few rooms to large corporate affairs with a front desk and swimming pools (seriously, at a hostel in Florence!). My favorite places were probably somewhere in the middle- homey, but big enough that you don't feel like you are stepping on people and with enough people to have a wide variety, but not so many people that you can't seem to meet anyone.

I've met some really interesting people in hostels- from the guy writing his novel in Bulgaria to the many gap year Aussies and a few slightly odd ducks. Occasionally I've run into people again randomly, like the guy we met in Bosnia and then was in my hostel again in Kiev and the Norwegian guys from the hostel in Plovdiv who I played cards with halfway through Romania.

I was worried that I would be lonely or shy or bored travelling alone, and sometime I was. I've decided that I still do prefer to travel with someone (at least someone cool!) to travelling alone, but I have also found that I CAN travel solo. I have met a lot of people that are doing long trips, that make my round the world look like a mini break. I don't know if I could do it-after just a month on my own I was feeling ready for a break. We will have to wait and see how I feel in the middle of the longer (three month) trip later in the year.

Anyway, I have found he hostel life to be fascinating and I'm glad to have stayed in some really interesting places- and a few uncomfortable ones.

Tips for hostel travel- ear plugs and sleeping mask are a must when staying in dorm rooms (sometimes it seems like there is a snoring contest going on), talk to people- if you want to be alone you are staying in the wrong place, keep your belongings neat- the best way to lose something is have your stuff spread all over a dorm room, don't be afraid to cook in the kitchen but ask before you take any food that's no yours!

Happy travelling!

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Back in Bulgaria

After my short trip back to Albania, I returned to Bulgaria. Last year when I went to Istanbul and Romania, I went straight across Bulgaria three times and only stopped for a few minutes in the Sofia bus station, so I don't think you could say that I had "been to" Bulgaria. I had honestly heard mixed things about the country, but after my few days with the PCVs for the fourth, I knew I wanted to spend some good time there. When I arrived in Sofia, I got on the first possible train to Plovdiv, a sweet town in the central part of the country. Plovdiv has it all for an Eastern European city: Roman ruins, old mosques and churches, ottoman buildings, a pedestrian shopping district with street musicians filling the air with ambient music. Plovdiv was my first real stop without Alexi and I stayed in a hostel on my own for the first time. I will probably write a whole post later on hostels and "hostel culture," but for the moment I'll just say that traveling alone a different experience from traveling with someone or a group. I had to readjust to being by myself a lot and I had to start being brave and talking to strangers. I went to dinner with three British girls and wandered around the city by myself. When I am alone, I am less motivated to go to museums or things like that and more inclined just to wander the streets or sit and people watch.

After Plovdiv, I took the train to the Black Sea coast city of Burgas. I decided last minute to head to Burgas and I sent out a few last minute requests to PCVs that I had found online. I got a last minute response from Tyler, an RPCV living with his HCN (Host Country National) wife. It is not uncommon to find PCVs in relationships with and eventually married to HCNs. Tyler and his wife Stella were great. Even though it rained, preventing me from going to the beach (again!) we had a great time. They were super helpful with getting me a train ticket to my next stop, made me dinner and took me to watch a world cup match at a local bar. The day that I left, the sun finally came out and Tyler and I went for a walk on the beach.

My last stop in Bulgaria was the town of Veliko Turnivo. This town may be one of my favorite stops in the whole trip. First, I stayed in a great hostel. It was the perfect size- big enough to have a lot of people, but small enough to feel homey. Second, I met some really great people- particularly three girls (two Aussies and a Kiwi). And third, we went on the most random, fantastic tour.
When I arrived at the hostel I met Andy, another Kiwi who had come on vacation to Bulgaria a few summers ago and had been coming back ever since to work in the hostel in the high season. His job required him to be on call at night and take tourists out on tours to interesting places in the surrounding areas during the day. In return he got room and board for the summer. The tour was very unique. About an hours drive away from town is an abandoned Communist monument nicknamed "the UFO" called Buzludzha. This meeting hall/monument was built high on a hill in the early 80s. After the fall of communism in Bulgaria, it fell into disrepair and now is closed up and falling apart. The building is just a drab concrete circle from the outside, with a flying saucer like shape (hence the nickname). But inside, the meeting hall is filled with magnificent mosaics in the communist realism style, glorifying the worker and the communist party leadership. You can tell that when this building was built, it was fantastic. As it is now, it is a bit surreal. The surreal aspects were increased by the cloudy, foggy, creepy weather (which turned into a downpour) and the herd of wild horses hanging out outside the building. The crumbling roof didn't do much to keep out the rain and after a little while inside we were all soaked and freezing. As the rain let up, we walked outside into the dreamlike fog and the horses galloping by. On the front of the building someone had written in large red letters "FORGET YOUR PAST" in between the poems extolling the virtues of work and nationalism. Many Bulgarians of the right age (late 20s) will tell you that they remember going to this site when they were school children, but many others now don't even know that it exists and now only foreign tourists with a desire for something unusual come to visit. For many people in this part of the world, remembering the past is still very painful and I guess I don't blame them for trying to forget. The only problem with that is that when you truly forget your past, you are only doomed to repeat it.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

56 hours for a Russian Visa

Travel tip: always allow extra time for visas. Lots of extra time. And expect that the embassy will be closed when you go to pick it up, it will cost more than you think and things will get lost in the mail.
. .

There are only two countries in my plan that required visas: Russia and China. Since I had residency in Albania, I decided to apply for the Russian visa before I left. I took my passport to the embassy in Tirana in April. I should have had a residency permit from the
Albanian government, but of course as things tend to go, I got my permit and found that it had the wrong picture on it, namely it had Amanda's picture on it. Now Amanda is a very nice person, but I don't think we actually look anything alike, so I had to send it back. This delayed the processing for a few weeks, so they only had a month to get my visa before I left. When I informed the lady at the embassy that I would be leaving the country on the 14th of June, she seemed unconcerned. The visa would get there when it got there and my ability to pick it up really had nothing to do with it. There is no such thing as express service.

The morning that Alexi and I left Albania, we stopped by the Russian embassy to see if my visa would be there for me to pick up. We found the door locked and the windows dark- the embassy was closed for some holiday . . . it didn't really matter anyway, when I was able to get online and call the embassy a few days later I was informed that my visa wasn't ready anyway. Call back in two weeks. Maybe it would be done by then. Maybe.

I started to strategize on how I would get the visa once it was done. One thing was sure, my passport had to get to Tirana. Because I was still traveling on my Peace Corps passport (I have two passports, I know, it's weird) that didn't necessarily mean that I had to be in Tirana, just my passport. Could I find someone to carry my passport back to Albania? Could I mail it? Once it was there, could someone else take it to the embassy for me? What documents might they need? I almost had a carrier (missed them by one day in Budapest) and I almost got the notarized documents and mailed it, but as I got closer to Albania again (Serbia, Bulgaria) I decided it would be easier and safer (although more time consuming and expensive) to just take the passport back myself. I had already made plans with the PCVs in Bulgaria to spend the fourth with them, so I planned my quick return to Shqiperia for after that. For resons that are beyond me, there is no direct bus service from Sofia to Tirana, so I had to go overnight to Skopje and then to Tirana (well, actually to Tetova and then to Tirana). I arrived in Tirana at 5pm, just in time to meet up with my friend Fraiser and watch a World Cup match. In the morning I headed to the embassy bright and early, got my visa and got right back on the bus to Skopje at 9am. 56 hours and I was back right where I started but with a permission to visit Russia stamped in my passport.

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ain't no party like a PC party 'cause a PC party don't stop

A few months ago right on this very blog, I posted the first outline for this trip with a call for advice, help and people to meet/stay with. I got a comment on that post from a PCV in Bulgaria that basically invited me to come anytime- which was exactly what I was looking for. When I contacted her to let her know I was on my way, the timing wasn't great- her group would be at their MSC conference most of the time I would be there, the new group had not yet sworn in and
the other group was staring to COS- so I might have a hard time finding hosts- but did I have any plans for the fourth if July? In fact, it worked out perfectly because Alexi had just left and I was on my own and I couldn't think of a better way to spend the fourth than with tons of strangers that were certain to become friends quickly.

The great thing about Peace Corps is that volunteers are the same wherever you go- we have many of the same struggles and successes, incredibly similar stories about training, site, host families, staff etc. but just enough difference to still make it interesting. For example, while most volunteers in Albania are placed in towns/cities of moderate size, most volunteers in Bulgaria are in rather small villages.

Anyway, so I arrived at Brian's, a PCV about an hour from Sofia. He has a great house, perfect for a laid back BBQ. Over the next two days I met about 15 PCVs, ate more meat than I thought was possible, and tried three different kinds of Bulgarian beer. We also played kickball, watched the new Twilight movie and sang patitotic (and other songs) very loudly for several hours.

Hanging out with PCVs is probably one of the best ways that I can think of spending a 4th of July. It didn't really matter that I had never met any of them before, we had a ton in common, not least of which was our similar experiences over the past years. One thing that I have found through my travels is that PCVs are the best people to stay with- they have all the inside info, speak the language and understand what it's like to be traveling in a new place. I look forward to staying with a lot of volunteers on the next part of my journey . . .

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Night train to Belgrade

It was hard to pull ourselves away from Budapest, but the trip must go on, especially since Alexi had a ticket to fly out of Sofia so we had to get there. Looking at our time, we had a few choices- we could go straight 15 hours to Sofia, or we could split it up with two night train journeys and a day in Belgrade. One of the best ways for a budget traveler to save some money and time is to take night trains. Except for the border check that inevitably comes just when you've fallen asleep, I tend to sleep pretty well on the night train as long as I spring for a bed. The problem, of course, is that you never know how things will be. You buy your ticket and just hope for the best. . .

We got on the train (it seems as always) just as it was leaving and dragged ourselves to the compartment to find a full room- we were on the top bunks of the six bunk couchette. We managed to climb up (not easy with 35lbs on your back) and get settled. At around 2:00 when the border check came I woke up dripping with sweat and hardly able to breath. When the door opened a rush of fresh air came in hat made me realize how hot it really was. I climbed down to go to the bathroom and discovered the truth- it was significantly hotter up in the top bunk and there were tons of open bunks in other compartments. Under the principle of ask forgiveness not permission I grabbed my sheet and went to sleep in an empty bottom bunk.

We arrived in Belgrade not very well rested but still determined to make the most of our 16 hours there. Belgrade fit into our tour of capitals nicely. With lots of fountains, a relaxed coffee shop culture and a really, really big church under construction it was somewhere between Sarajevo and Tirana. While I imagine there could be more to see and someday I would love to come and really talk to people (and maybe get another perspective on history) I feel like we made a good choice to spend just the day there. We made it back to the station with plenty of time (time in fact to watch a movie on Alexi's laptop) but still somehow barely made it on the train since we had to go back to the ticket counter to get a refund for the couchette reservation
since the sleeping car didn't actually exist. We were actually able to sleep more without the couchette since we staked out an empty compartment and stretched out on the seats.

Sofia is another one of these cities like Istanbul and Sarajevo that is a strange mix of east meets west. But more confusing. I'm not sure why, but we got lost more in Sofia than in any other city. We would turn down one street and then look up and realize we were on the completely other side of the city from where we thought we should be. We felt like we either must have been the biggest idiots in the world, or the city had some sort of weird voo-doo that made otherwise smart
people get completely lost. From Sofia we took a day trip to Rila Monastary and got Alexi ready to leave Europe. Sadly, my lovely traveling partner had to head home (sad) to start grad school (happy!). So now my journey continues solo.

Next chapter: finding out how PCVs party in the rest of Eastern Europe.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Budapest's second chance

Eight years ago, when I was studying abroad in Prague I took many weekend trips around central Europe including one to Budapest. I try not to blame it on Budapest, but the trip was not what you could call 'great.' I took the trip with about 9 other students from my program in Prague- first lesson, don't travel in big groups . . . never again.

Things started to go downhill right from the beginning- while crossing the border to Slovakia in the middle of the night two of our friends were taken off the train because they didn't have the correct transit visa to go through Slovakia. None of us really knew what was going on until the train was moving and our friends were not on it! When we arrived in Budapest (two people short), the accommodations that we had arranged were somehow wrong or something changed (maybe because we were two less people, but I have no idea- I didn't arrange it). From that point it was just a mess- trying to get 10 people to agree on anything or move in any direction is impossible. Basically, it was cold, I didn't end up doing or seeing very much of Budapest and the trip was only saved from being a complete wash when three of us broke off from the group and found this wonderful outdoor skating rink in front of a castle and spent the morning by ourselves there.

When Alexi and I first started talking about taking this trip together, Budapest was one of her top destinations. I knew when I left the last time that I would have to go back sometime to give it a second chance. Budapest passed the second chance with flying colors.

Being back in Budapest made me actually get a little bit nostalgic for Prague. It is a big city, but the center is very walkable. It also has some of the best public transportation around (I love the super deep Budapest metro). The Danube, while not really blue, is really pretty and the two parts of the city sit in wonderful contrast to each other. I knew that there were a few things that I wanted to do in Budapest that I didn't get to do the first time around, namely tour the Parliament and go to one of the famous thermal baths. In the former, I was thwarted again when the tour was full the first day we tried and closed the second. I did, however, get a dip in a thermal bath and a massage, so that pretty makes up for everything. Other highlights of the 4 days in Budapest included eating falafel twice, seeing a 5 hour long Waggner opera (in box seats!) for only about 5Euro, and meeting Outi, a Finnish girl that we couchsurfed with for two nights.
We also took a one night trip out of the city to the town of Gyor. Gyor also was lovely. We happened to arrive on the weekend that they were having a festival of some sort. It seemed to involve various kinds of music and dancing, as well as medieval events (there were some people dressed up in armor . . .and flag throwing). So the town felt very festive. We fed the ducks down by the river and watched tango dancing. And in our (never ending) search for the best gellato in the world, we found a good contender in Gyor. Sometimes there are gems in the most random places . . .
I left Hungary feeling as if I could honestly say "I liked Budapest," maybe even loved it. I might just have to go back again, but not because it has anything to prove.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Ok, so I feel a little bit bad about skipping Croatia. Croatia doesn't deserve that. Croatia is great. Really Croatia, it's not you, it's me. . .

When we left Mostar, we headed to Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik has the reputation for me as being one of my mom's favorite places. I don't know how many times I have heard how wonderful it is. Alexi and I talked a bit about this, what makes a place great (or not great) for different people. A few months ago, in addition to posting my plans here, I sent out an email to all of my friends and family getting advice for my upcoming trip. The response I got was great. I got a few tips on places to stay or poeple I could stay with, a few people passed on my message to another friend with more info and a lot of people told me about places they have travelled. I really loved getting these messages, but it was kind of funny, because sometimes I would get completely contradictory advice about a place. It could depend on so many things. How do they like to travel? What was the weather like that day? Who were they with?
I bring this up because I liked Dubrovnik. I didn't love Dubrovnik. It rained both days we were there (crazy hailing thunderstorms) and things were a bit expensive for me. For example, to climb the old city walls and walk around up there cost about 10€. That seemed a bit steep to walk around the city (in the pouring rain no less) so we skipped it. Also because of the rain, we didn't get to go to the beach, one of the things I was really looking forward to in Croatia.
My favorite part of Croatia was Plitvice national park which is in between Zadar and Zagreb. A lot of factors went in to my general "like" of this place. First, it is insanely beautiful- it is a system of lakes connected by waterfalls that you walk across and through on raised wooden platforms. Second, we stayed in a great guest house outside of the park with the softest beds and best shower I've had in ages (especially compared to the bus station floor we slept on the night before).
We skipped Zagreb, partly because we were short on time, partly because we arrived with perfect time for the last train to Budapest, but mostly because we got more "don't bother" reports than "I loved it!" reports. . . But who knows, maybe we would have loved it.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

So I had started to write a post about Croatia, but I got bored writing it and I figured if I was bored writing it, you would probably get bored reading it. As I have been traveling, I have been thinking a lot about the form of the "travel blog" in which people tend to just write "then we went here and it was great" sort of posts. I really hate that. So anyway, we went to Croatia and it was great . . .

About travel in general: Travel is hard work. This is the first time in my life (or since I was a kid, I guess) that I have ever had such a long period of time with no responsibilities whatsoever. This in itself is strange and I tend to feel like I should be doing something . . . My biggest worries each day are getting from one place to another and finding food. Other than that, I have nothing real to do. It's a bit strange. But somehow, travel feels like work sometimes. You have to get up early (some days earlier than I ever did working) to catch buses and trains or get a jump on the museum traffic. You have to do a lot of reading and research.

About travel buddies: I have been traveling (since COS) with Alexi (a fellow G11er). This is the longest that I have ever traveled at one time and the longest I have ever traveled with another person besides my family. I think that finding a good travel partner is hard. If the fastest way to ruin a friendship is moving in together, then the second fastest way to do it is to go out on the road with someone for a few weeks. People travel in so many different ways, that it can be a real crap-shoot. Sometimes someone you are really close to would be the worst person to travel with. Although we have known each other for two years, I wouldn't say that Alexi and I were close during our service. For one thing, we lived on complete opposite ends of the country. We shared a room together at the COS conference and started talking about this trip. I was really happy for the prospect of having someone to travel with for at least the first bit. Things with Alexi have been great. We get along well, we travel well together, we have similar interests. She is a bit more subdued and introverted than I am, but that has not really been a problem. And having a travel buddy has so many benefits- someone to watch your bag when you go to the bathroom, someone to split a double room with, someone to talk about the museum/church/monastery/park that you are visiting. When Alexi leaves in a bit, I will enter a new phase in my trip- my solo/peace corps couchsurfing phase. It will be weird to be traveling without her . . .

Phase two- the Balkans loop

After getting my dad in a cab to the airport, Alexi and I started the next leg of the big adventure- the Balkans Loop. Our plan was to head west into Montenegro, then go across Bosnia and then swing up through Croatia to Hungary, down to Serbia and finish up in Bulgaria. From there, Alexi will fly home and I will continue on my way.

Our first stop was Durmitor national park in Montenegro. We started off fine, having good luck finding a good taxi driver to take us over the border, finding a bus that (amazing!) took us right to the park, finding a cheap place to stay. The town was cute (although we had a hard time finding any good bread) and the park itself was pretty good too. With a big lake and lots of well marked hiking trails things were looking good. But then we entered the world of cartoons. Two to be specific. First, I want you to imagine Pigpen from the peanuts. You got that? Ok, now imagine that you are Pigpen and he little cloud of dust that follows you around everywhere was actually made up of flies and mosquitoes. So now you have a bit of the picture of the hike that Alexi and I embarked on. It was out of control. I sort of expect bugs in the forest, but not swarms. By the time we got up to the point where we couldn't go on (impassable ice field since we left our ice axes at home. . . ) the war had begun. This brings us to our second cartoon- the one where Mickey kills 7 (flies) in a single blow. I started my attack (on the mosquitoes mostly) and by the time I got down the mountain I had a body count of over 40.

From Durmitor, we headed into Bosnia-Herzegovina, starting with Sarajevo. For me, Sarajevo was very interesting for the fact that I think the was in Bosnia was probably the first war that I really remember clearly. The signs of the war are all over, and even though there has been an incredible amount of reconstruction work, they don't let you forget about the war. Besides that, I felt like Sarajevo was a very livable city. They have tasty food and a great market and a vibrant feeling city center.

We finished off the country with a trip down to Mostar. Where we saw the (new) old bridge (most as in Mostar). The old old bridge was built several hundred years ago and destroyed in the most recent war. A few years ago they decided to rebuild an exact replica of the bridge using the same techniques and materials as the old one (with a few modern safety precautions, like metal scaffolding). The new (old) bridge is incredible; you can't tell it was a different bridge. Which actually brought up some interesting things to think about. When things (especially large/beautiful/historic things) are destroyed should they be replaced with something new or should they destroyed thing restored? If it is restored to its original condition, then have we lost some of the history of whatever did the destroying- which might not be bad, I'm not sure. Anyway, the new (old) bridge was interesting and Mostar was nice.

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