Meanwhile, back on the ranch…

Time at home was good, in a way… I sure missed my family. I got to pig out on all kinds of nasty junky American food, and zone out in front of the tv for a while. I didn’t have to put a lot of thought into getting around. But on the other hand, that’s exactly why I wanted to get away– so that I would be engaged in every moment of my life.

It was hard to adjust to being back in the US job market. Spending weeks intensely searching for jobs all day, with little to no turnout, was not something I had ever experienced, coming from university jobs and then ESL jobs. I managed to save quite a bit teaching English here in Chicago.

Then I decided to make some adventure out of this time in the States. I took a wilderness trip leader job at a girls’ camp in Wisconsin. I was supposed to lead canoe/climbing/backpacking trips. On the very first day after going through a month of training, including flying to NJ to become a certified wilderness first responder, I fell and badly sprained my ankle. I tried to wait out the injury at camp, but it just wasn’t getting any better. So now I am back home again, experiencing a lot of frustration.

The good news is that between the money I made at camp, and the money from teaching, I am almost ready to go back abroad! I’m looking at an August departure date. I won’t say where until I know for sure, wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise… but I am sailing through this time because I have something awesome to look forward to!!!

African Dream

 

I loved Cape Town so much. It’s my second favorite place I’ve ever been, after Rio. I enjoyed going to the beach and hiking, eating chicken salad sandwiches and mango flavored drinking yogurt, cooking delicious tropical vegetable based dinners, and playing the ukulele at night while basking in the breeze. Table mountain was one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to. The contrast between the mountains and the beach was stunning.

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Valentine’s day didn’t disappoint, either. I spent it climbing Lion’s Head mountain with the extremely attractive Argentinean guy who was staying in the same hostel as me.  We sat on the beach cliffs serenading passersby who were having romantic walks along the mountain. A day I won’t soon forget.

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I really enjoyed my day trip to the penguin colony. How extraordinary to see penguins in a warm place!

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And the surfers beach of Muizenberg was amazing too– the beach stretched for as far as the eye could see. I could imagine myself lying there forever and living a very fulfilled life.

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Though being there was a dream, it was also a struggle. I tried so hard to find a job. I had taken a big risk by giving up the Russia job, and I had very little money left. But I was optimistic that I could get established there, partly because I was blinded by the extreme desire to live there. I went door to door, applied to a crazy amount of jobs online, and hustled connections who might know of an open position. The work visa situation was fighting against me– it’s really hard to get one there, especially since they have little need for ESL teachers. In the end, I couldn’t make it happen. But that’s just how risks are– some are worth it in the end, and some end in consequences. The consequence of this one was that I had to go home. I had just enough money left to book my return to the US. Thus, a sad and abrupt ending to round 1 of travels.

End of Eurotrip.. And Aftermath

The most beautiful city of all– Prague!! I loved this place. The Vltava river was so icy and beautiful, and the swans along the river were very pretty. Coupled with smetana’s music, it was a wonderful image. The Charles bridge is so dark and menacing, and almost looks burnt. I enjoyed walking around here.

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The food was the one aspect that was a bit disappointing. Things like potato mash, dumplings, and cabbage. The people weren’t very friendly either. I remember seeing a picture of a waitress hanging on the wall, and she wasn’t even smiling.

 

A highlight of the visit was a blacklight theater production that I saw. Blacklight theater is a genre of Czech theater involving elements of magic tricks/illusions. It’s pretty cool. The play I saw was called Aspects of Alice, and boy, was it a trip. There were all these neon lights and scary large things floating around the stage… I felt like I was on shrooms.

One thing that was funny was that you could tell the actors were sick of performing the same play every night. They were losing it a little. That is until two of the leads in the play took their tops of and started running around the stage. Wtf just happened?

 

Went to Slovakia. Didn’t see a whole lot, because I was pretty burnt out by this point.

 

A few things happened in Vienna:

 

1. A homeless man took a dump on the metro seat next to me. I got up and went to a different seat.

2. I saw the Vienna Boys Choir, which was really cool!

3. Missed my flight home, for various reason that are really messed up. Don’t want to go into it.

 

I then stayed in Istanbul for over a week, waiting for my Russia visa. In the end, the company said that the embassy had made a mistake and they had to send it back and reprocess it.  I cracked– I was running out of money and sick of the stress of waiting for this visa that never seemed to come, even after almost 3 months. So I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Storming the Castle in Hungary

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 The next stop of my trip was Budapest. I really liked this city because of all of its little quirks. For instance, there’s a statue in town whose fat belly you’re supposed to rub in order to guarantee that your next meal will be very delicious. I really liked all of the people I met in Hungary, and only met one person who was nasty to me (the cashier at mcdonalds). I stayed with a very nice couchsurfer, and we drank a lot of homemade palinko– a spirit made with fermented plums. I didn’t do much during my time in Budapest– I was mainly concerned with locating various dishes I’d read about which sounded delicious and needed to be tried. I ended up not liking most of them– they sounded better on paper. However, I ate plenty of delicious pastries, such as sour cherry and plum tarts. and this cream cheese stuff coated in chocolate, and poppy seed pastries– i kept mistaking these for chocolate. I really enjoyed the energy of this city. It seemed so vast and dark and old, and I felt like I had stepped back in time. Hungary was pegged in guidebooks as a sort of dreary place, and I can agree that that was true, but the warmth of the people more than made up for it. I also learned a lot of interesting things about communism, such as how they considered wealthy ppl potential enemies and they shipped them out to the country and separated them. also how a lot of the city was destroyed for some reason, but communism promised everyone housing, so they had to hurriedly rebuild the city. all of these things happened so recently, and its still part of the mindset of the people. However, it wasnt so entrenched since communism was only there for a short time.

 

Perhaps my favorite day of the entire trip came when I took a day trip to Visegrad, a little more than an hour outside of Budapest. I had to take a ferry to get across to this town, since there is no bridge crossing over to it. The ferry also transported cars, since there was no bridge, and it was funny to see cars waiting in line to drive onto the ferry.

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Over in Visegrad, there were beautiful mountains and a deserted castle that I explored. It was a unique experience to be truly isolated like that, standing in the middle of an ancient place covered in feet of snow. It was almost a scary feeling to be there, it almost felt wrong. If something were to happen to me, I wouldn’t be saved. It’s interesting how co-dependent we are in this modern day. Standing there looking up at the castle gates, I put on some music from nancy drew and the royal tower. what an experience. Image

Eating Beans in Romania

On to Romania!!

Bucharest was the first stop. When I arrived, it was just becoming light outside, and the whole place around the train station was deserted. I felt like I had been transported to an ice world, some post-apocalyptic frozen city. A nice street dog approached me, and trotted alongside me on my early morning walk. Then, out of nowhere, I heard a thud and saw a truck zooming off. I  looked back to see the dog twitching in its final moments of life, and a few other street dogs surrounding it. This sickening moment was my first introduction to Romania.

Despite now being traumatized to go in the street, things started to look up once I found my way to the main plaza. The huge, rounded blocks of buildings reminded me of pictures I’ve seen of Paris. The streets smelled wonderful. Many little shops sold warm pretzel-like pastries filled with things like fruit, nutella, and chocolate. After a walk around in the city center, I made my way to my destination for the night, Brasov.

Brasov is one of the larger cities in Romania, but it still has this feeling that progress has been suspended for the past 50 years. In the town center, you’ll find a lot of taverns and small shops, and not much else. This was the same for every city I visited in Romania, except for Bucharest. It was pleasant to walk around all day, and then have my pick of places to drink a hot beverage and eat a pastry whenever I got the slightest bit cold.

The experience was much the same in Bran, except there they have a market selling huge rounds of various cheeses and… mulled wine! This is something I wish would come to the US– being able to drink hot, spiced wine on a blistery January day would make this place less dreary during the winter.

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Of course, there was another thing in Bran– Dracula’s castle. Oooooh scary. Actually it wasn’t but it was probably the prettiest castle I visited on the Eurotrip. Ol’ Drac really had the best view around.

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View from D-money’s Castle:

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On a whim, I decided to leave the same night for Sighisoara, a very well preserved medieval town. The train station was an experience, because it’s where the homeless people generally live. In fact, I was there waiting for about 3 hours and I was one of the few passengers hanging around in there. It’s kind of ideal for them, because there are plenty of radiators that they can stand by to keep warm. One kind homeless couple offered to share their radiator with me. There seem to be a lot of homeless kids who hang around here in a pack, and they come up to you and tap on you saying “dai, dai!” which I think means give! I was trying to eat a sandwich for dinner, but by the time all these kids kept coming up and asking for some, I think they got most of it.

My transfer to Sighisoara was a pretty dumb move, because I had no information about the town and just assumed I could find a room at 11 pm at night. Wrong. I knocked on the door of inn after inn and they all turned me away. I felt like I was in that Nancy Drew game where there was a werewolf on the loose, so no one would open their doors to let her in. I’m sure no one gets that reference.

Anywhoooo… Sighisoara was pretty cool, it really was like being in a medieval town. I think the coolest building was this clock tower that was kind of kooky and lopsided, with a brightly colored roof and banners streaming off of it.

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In summary, though, I think that there wasn’t a lot of variety of things to “see” in Romania– it was more about the food, and the chipper feel of the place. I wish I had stayed in one place rather than rushing around to see all of these places that didn’t present much new information. Overall, I really liked the country, and it was a highlight of the trip!

Clubbin’ it up in Bulgaria

Whenever I pictured Bulgaria in my head, I pictured lounging on the beach by day and visiting wild parties by night. I’ve always had a strange affinity for Bulgarian dance music, especially for the very famous singer Andrea– my college roommates can attest to this, since they’ve often heard me blasting these sexy, exotic tunes right before going out for a night of drinking. Well, suffice to say, my experience in Bulgaria wasn’t really like that. when I arrived in Sofia, it was after a long night on the bus, cramped into a small seat next to a large woman wearing an even larger fur coat. She took up her own seat and half of mine. By the time I got to the bus station, it was still dark outside, and I had no idea what to do next. I was tired and overwhelmed; was I crazy for embarking on this race through 8 countries, none of whose languages I speak? I calmed down a little once I had waited out the nighttime. My personal trick is to never leave the airport/bus/train station until you are feeling confident and comfortable, which means that I slept/sat in the bus station for a few hours before I was ready to leave. I found my way to the tram, which was so primitive it barely had a door. But the windows, fogged over by the cold, cast a very peaceful glow on the interior. In the early hours of the morning, I enjoyed the silence and solitude of the ride. after dropping my stuff at the hostel, I took one of the free city tours. I guess that these exist in many towns throughout Europe. It’s a good idea, but unfortunately my tour guide focused so much on the history/architecture of the buildings and not very much on
people/arts/music/food/behavior,
which are things I’m more interested in. Some of the buildings were really cool though:

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The city has some cool spots, like many thermal water fountains that are open to the public, and large cathedrals, mosques, and synagogues. I learned that the Bulgarian language was the first to use the Cyrillic alphabet. I was also reminded that in Bulgaria, a head shake means yes, while a nod means no… let’s see what kind of trouble I can get into with this! the biggest point of interest was one I found on my own: an arts and crafts flea market. There were many vendors selling crafts, mostly crosses and other religious paraphernalia. I decided to test out a theory that a friend had once shared with me. She had said that street vendors get overlooked and ignored by most people, to the point where they can stop feeling like a human being worthy of being noticed. She had talked about the experiences she had had of just allowing vendors to she her their merchandise, and even if she didn’t buy anything, they were grateful that she had given them a bit of her attention. So I wandered through the market, allowing people to show me their crafts. It was a really heartwarming experience, as people eagerly showed me the items that they had built their livelihoods around. One old woman showed me her knitted cats with such pride, and when I told her how beautiful they were, she had the hugest smile on her face that I’ve ever seen. This walk through the market was possibly the best part of the Bulgaria trip. for lunch, I decided to go through the supermarket and pick out the most unique looking things. The first was a tub of goose pate. It tasted kind of like cat food. The next thing I tried was a drink made with yogurt and chunks of chocolate in it. I definitely wasn’t used to having chunks in a drink like that. Then the third thing was actually really good– a roll filled with some kind of pumpkin mash and powdered sugar. back at the hostel, there was a very strange situation developing. A Japanese man who didn’t speak English or Bulgarian was living at the hostel, in some uncertain (strained) arrangement with the management. The other tenant/worker in the hostel would always try to talk to him and ask him to do stuff, like go to the market to pick up some groceries, but by the time they succeeded to communicate, she might as well have gone herself. Listening to them try to interact gave me a headache– it took 10 minutes for her to get him to understand about the groceries. I could barely understand her, but his English was unintelligible. It was like watching 2 toddlers try to interact in their own made-up languages. You could really feel the frustration growing every time they tried to talk. I am really curious why that guy decided to go live in a place where he couldn’t at least understand English… what a strange and difficult life. anyhow, the night was the best part. Any of the people who lived near my dorm room in college have probably heard some unusual music coming from my room at party time– I am really into Bulgarian pop artists such as Andrea and Liana. Anywho, it happened that Liana was performing live at a night club that evening!!! Seeing her was one of the highlights of my trip, it was so cool to see that this music is actually listened to and appreciated in some part of the world– I had always wondered how authentic it was. I learned an unsavory fact about these singers though: most of them are prostitutes, including my two favorites. It’s just part of the business in Bulgaria. I saw for myself how men came up and whispered to Liana during the breaks in her performance. Um…

The next day I went to the ethnographic museum. One cute fact is that when a woman got married in the countryside, traditionally she would bring her spoon with her to her new home. I guess she was trying to say “hey yall, I’m here, where’s ma dinner?” Another cool thing is that Bulgarian women share a large amount of mitochondrial DNA with Native American women. I wonder how this link was formed.

After the museum, are at Hajidragonov’s cellar, an underground restaurant with absolutely delicious food, like pork stew cooked in a clay pot.

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And tried some clover tea with solid honey. I didn’t know that some honey was solid. It was kind of like biting into fudge.

Overall, it was good to get my feet wet in Bulgaria, but I will definitely need to be back. I’d like to see the beach areas, as well as some more culturally immersive places such as Plovdiv. Sofia is not a tourist city– it’s just an average city.

Eurotrip Overview

3.5 weeks and 7 countries later, I emerged from an intense and exhausting Eurotrip. I started in Istanbul, made my way through Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and finally Austria before flying back to Istanbul. My overall impression was that it was crazy how different each country was from the other, even though they are so small and close together! I wish I had had more time, because I felt pretty rushed, stressed, and tired throughout– spending about 2 days, 1 night in each city before taking the train to the next was a challenge.

 

Train travel was a major feature of my experience. After this trip, I decided that I really hate trains. Before setting out, I had read some horror stories about European night trains– stuff such as thugs getting onto the train in the middle of the night, flooding the sleeper cars with noxious gas, and then robbing the unconscious passengers before hopping off at the next stop. I had quite a bit to lose (due to the time constraints of getting my Russian visa) so, even though I knew the rumors were probably false, I didn’t sleep more than 15 minutes at a time on any of the night trains. Any small noise or human motion in the corridors set me on edge. Unfortunate.

 

Another thing was that I couch surfed in a lot of the countries. I had some really great experiences, such as spending time with a Polish family with 2 cute little kids. But there were also some not so great experiences, such as the guy who clearly had some pretty desperate romantic intentions behind his invite. And another who stayed out drinking until 11 am the morning I was supposed to leave for the airport, and I couldn’t get back into his house to get my stuff after going out for breakfast– I ended up having to pay 230 euros for a new flight! Overall, I don’t think I will be keen on couch surfing again.

 

And one more thing that pervaded the trip was listening to composers hailing from the country I was currently in– e.g. Liszt in Hungary, Mozart in Austria, Smetana in Czech Republic. I feel that it really gave the music new meaning to be in the cities where it was composed. Plus, winter in Europe with classical music– it was a really beautiful touch.

 

So now for some bests and worsts awards (these are obviously just my opinion):

 

Most beautiful: Hands down, Prague was the most beautiful city I visited. The word I would use to describe it is “majestic”. My favorite part was sitting on the banks of the Vltava river, near the Charles bridge, and watching the swans float down the icy waters.

 

Best food: Romania. You wouldn’t think there would be good food in Transylvania, since there are so many vampires 😉 But everything there was so delicious and comforting. Things like pretzels filled with melted nutella, porridge with cheese and sour cream, and creamy mashed beans with sausage– I’ll be incorporating some of these recipes into my repertoire.

 

Worst food: Vienna. First of all, the food is super expensive. For a reasonable price, all you can get is a hot dog or breaded chicken. I tried one of the most popular fast foods– Bosna mit Kasekrainer– and it was one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever tried. Sausage hot dog stuffed with pockets of nacho-type cheese (almost like pimples bursting in your mouth), topped with raw onions, curry powder (yes, just in powder form!) and paprika and chili powders. All the powders just create a dry coating on your throat so that you can’t even swallow– the torture just goes on and on.

 

Best Value: Bratislava. For whatever price you pay, you will get more than you bargained for. This was my experience. For instance, huge food portions. Beers costing 30 cents. And the only hostel I’ve ever seen that offers free use laundry machines and hookah.

 

Worst Value: Krakow. This may be sort of a generalization, but I had a horrifying experience of purchasing train tickets. Though the trains to and from Poland were admittedly nicer than the others, they came at such a premium that you could have just flied for the same price.

 

Best nightlife: Sofia. Again, this is just my opinion, given my background of loving Bulgarian pop music. I was unaware that these famous singers regularly sang live in nightclubs throughout the country. It was awesome to see this.

 

Most interesting: Budapest. I think Budapest had the most atmosphere, and a lot of energy in the air. There are lots of statues with clever meanings throughout the city. The communist history is very interesting, and the mix of communist architecture and other styles is cool. Plenty of secrets to this city that you would never discover on your own.

 

Friendliest people: Hungary (all). All over Hungary, people were very helpful, smiling, and kind. I only met one unpleasant Hungarian the whole time I was there.

 

Overall Best: Prague. This is the place that really captured my heart, for its beauty and the immense history that you can feel while walking through the streets. It will be the first place that I will return to.

Ketchup

Long time no see! I’ve been stalling on updating my blog because my travel journal blew away in the wind while I was writing in it. I couldn’t be bothered to try and recall again all the things that have happened. But I’ll try. So since I last updated, a lot has obviously happened. First, I took my trip around Europe, stopping in 7 countries. Then I returned to Istanbul to wait for my Russian visa. Unfortunately, there were even more delays and I couldn’t afford to wait any longer. I started working on the Russia move in November, and it was already early February and still no visa. I decided that it wasn’t worth it to wait any longer, and I went to Cape Town instead. I looked for a job there for 2 weeks, but no luck, so I decided to then fly home. I’m now living back in the US. But we’ll get there…