Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Lunar Shuttle Experience

Perhaps some of you might not be aware of my experience commuting to the moon…

Flight 744 to Stevinus Crater is now boarding at Gate 52“. Damn! The Starbucks line is snaking its way all the way down the departure hall corridor of alternating red, grey, and blue colored carpet tiles, meaning there’s not a chance in hell of grabbing a decent coffee before departure. “If they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they…” went the old lament. And yet now we have whole colonies on the moon, more people settling in there with every passing week, and the airlines still seem utterly incapable of serving anything north of a watery mixture resembling that churned out by hotel in-room Folger’s packets.

Sheesh. What an ingrate I must sound like! Complaining about the beverage choices on a lunar shuttle flight. It wasn’t always this way. When regular air travel to the moon began, and I was hired on to help install the wireless internet in the southeast quadrant of the sunny side, I jumped at the chance, never giving even a moment’s thought to the in-flight service. As it must have been for those on the early transcontinental airplane flights, the thrill of being a pioneer, able to do what most could only dream of, was reward enough. Who cared whether they served Duck à l’Orange or stale peanuts.

Oh, but the quacking bird was on the menu. The exorbitant ticket prices had to be justified somehow, even if most were purchased by passengers’ employers or unpleasantly rich tourists, and so feasts were impeccably assembled and served. Once we were out of Earth’s atmosphere, that is. As no doubt you’ve heard, flying to the Land of Green Cheese isn’t quite like a traditional airplane flight. Much energy must be expended to escape the clutches of gravity, and so the first half hour or so can be quite unpleasant, as we are all squeezed into our narrow polyester-blend seats, two-by-two, lying back at a near-80º angle, strapped in with multiple belts – covering our laps, shoulders, feet, and head – as the vehicle accelerates to 40,000 km per hour, all while g-forces pull our cheeks and our lower lips down towards our toes.

And then, bam! We’re free. Or almost. “The captain has requested that while seated, you keep both your lap and shoulder straps fastened, in case we need to evade any unforeseen meteorites.” At which point the young, good-looking attendants (the program was too new to be a slave to union seniority rules) would pass out these most tasty mooncakes; not the hockey puck-shaped sweets of fruitcake consistency enjoyed (in the most non-literal sense) by Chinese around the world at the time of the autumnal equinox each year, but instead something half way between birthday cake and muffin, a morsel of semi-sweet goodness formed to appear like a moon rock. Sure, it was kitschy, but I always looked forward to their arrival, and the knowledge that these were just a few minutes from my taste buds made getting through the difficult phase of the flight that much more palatable.

They were always tastier on the way up than on the way back down, though, since just as Chinese fortune cookies aren’t produced in China, the “mooncakes” were baked not on the moon but in the facilities of LSG Sky Chefs at Los Angeles International Airport and stored on board in warming drawers that, by the time of the return flight, had dried them out to the point where they were only barely more edible than a three-day-old pumpernickel bagel. Of course, with the lesser gravity of the moon, the journey home was not nearly as trying and so the mooncake as pacifier was less of a necessity. Following that favored snack of shuttlers was the exquisite meal service; exquisite in presentation if not necessarily in taste, complete with cloth napkins, real silverware, and more courses than you could count. A food coma induced sleep would undoubtedly follow, and the soft parachute-assisted landing was barely perceptible, followed by an agonizingly long docking and pressurization routine.

These days, the mooncakes are gone, as is the Frenchified poultry and fresh-faced flight crew, as lunar shuttle flights, while still economically out of reach of the common man, have become routine enough to attain the status of, if not a Greyhound bus with solid-fuel rocket boosters, perhaps a double-decker Megabus with free Wi-Fi and onboard lavatory (with solid-fuel rocket boosters). It’s easy to think these trips are nothing special, so I must constantly remind myself how fortunate I am to be able to take such a journey, not once, as many would give their left kidney for, but every few months for many years, even if after I arrive I’m performing the fairly routine work of tracking down intermittent network connectivity problems with a wireless spectrum analyzer and time-domain reflectometer.

Giving Chinese A Break

Friday is the day I allow myself to slack on my Chinese, so last night I went to my local university’s 日語角 (Japanese corner), then after it ended, to the 英語角 (English Corner)。Lots of fun chatting, including with two guys from 新疆 (Xinjiang Province), who complain that everyone assumes they’re foreigners and so expects them to speak perfect English. But they are Chinese citizens!

Building a Life in Chengdu

When my alarm went off at 0400 the morning I left, I thought to myself “What the HELL am I doing?” Why was I leaving my good life, friends, & city to go live someplace across the world and far from a beach where I know no one.

I’ve now been here in China for just over a week and sometimes I still wonder. But I also felt that way in 2008 when I arrived in Japan for 5 weeks; yet by the end I was having such a great time and didn’t want to go home.

So I’ll stick it out for a while and see what develops. After spending my first 5 nights in a travelers hostel, I now have an apartment and started daily Chinese classes this week, and have been spending hours a day wandering the streets exploring my new town and its eats.

Xmas Lights & Ochazuke Dinner

I headed over to Tokyo Midtown the other day to check out their Christmas light display, consisting of over 40,000 LEDs.

Tokyo Midtown Christmas Lights

Tokyo Midtown Christmas Lights and Tokyo Tower

After looking at the lights from every conceivable angle, I went to take in their free Christmas concert by Meg, and after that I went hunting for dinner. I ended up lining up to get in to Kyo Hayashiya, a shop that specializes in tea-based sweets. I wasn’t interested in their tea cakes, but in a special offering of ochazuke, with a choice of salmon or tarako. I ordered the tarako.



You pour the tea from the pot over the rice and add the various toppings from the small dishes. It was all quite delicious!

Japanese Bakeries

When I first started coming to Japan, I was underwhelmed by the offerings on hand in the country’s bread and pastry shops. Since that time, things have greatly improved (or was it just my mind that expanded?).

The other day, I knew I’d be having a big dinner so I just wanted a simple small lunch that would leave me hungry for my first taste of ふぐ. I decided to head to my local outlet of the Vie de France chain, as I had a hankering for their black sesame & banana drink.

Vie de France lunch

Vie de France lunch

In addition to the aforementioned drink, I had a maple scone (made with real maple syrup) and a bread roll stuffed with edamame and ham.

It was all so good and so filling, I started to worry that I wouldn’t have room for that big dinner.

The Perfect Lunch

It’s for meals like this that I come to Japan.

A piece of “red fish” cooked in mirin, with all the fixin’s. This can be yours too, if you’re in Ikebukuro, for only 680 yen (lunch time only), tax included.

British Interest in American Election

I was walking along a small suburban London street yesterday when I heard a woman tell her male friend “I just wasted most of the day watching election coverage”.

I thought hard but couldn’t recall any British election going on right now. Could she possibly mean our election?

Sure enough, she went on to talk about watching all the speeches from the “Republican Conference”, as well as Michelle Obama’s speech from last week’s convention, all on the BBC website.

I didn’t identify myself as an American (or elsewise for that matter) so I could eavesdrop research without affecting the results.

She went on to say that she found Sarah Palin to be “absolutely abhorrent” and that she couldn’t “wrap my mind around how anyone could possibly vote for these people.” I couldn’t agree more.

After I found my way back to my hostel, I noticed that BBC television was breaking into programming (mostly American sitcoms) to play any RNC speeches they considered interesting.

And the headline on one of London’s free daily newspapers today was

This level of interest surprised me, I guess because British politics receives barely a mention on American newscasts and in the public sphere (diehard C-SPAN watchers notwithstanding). But then the Brits don’t go around bullying others and starting wars. Anymore.

Traditional Culture Experiencing Zone

I couldn’t help but wonder if these two locations were in fact one and the same…

The same place?

The same place?

OK, to be fair, there was a lot less smoking in Korea than in Japan. For example, smoking is prohibited in most restaurants in Korea, a situation unimaginable in my homeland.

Accidental Film Festival

Regular readers of this space know that I have trouble resisting a film festival. So I was excited when I was in Busan, Korea looking for my next destination and discovered that the Jeonju International Film Festival was under way and ending in a few days.

Soon I was on a bus to Jeonju, and upon arriving I went straight to the Tourist Information Office outside the bus station (little English spoken, but the representative was quite fluent in Japanese) and picked up the program guide for the festival.

Jeonju Film Festival area

Jeonju Film Festival area

After getting a room for a few days at a local love hotel, I headed into town and started watching movies. I didn’t get to see any from Korea, but my favorite was “Buddha Collapsed Out Of Shame” (Iran, 2007) about the situation in Afghanistan told through a 6-year-old girl, who is “kidnapped” by boys playing Taliban & Americans (like we might play Cowboys & Indians).

They try to show all films with both Korean and English subtitles, and since few film prints have both, they have extra small screens at the bottom (for English) and side (for Korean) of the main screen, upon which they project extra subtitles by way of a projector attached to a computer. What an interesting idea!

After the films are done for the day, many gather at a nearby plaza. It was here that I saw an American singer (and English teacher), Seth Martin, playing for a small crowd.

Seth Martin in Jeonju

Seth Martin in Jeonju

I hung out listening to his music (it was pretty good) and talking with some of the locals until late in the evening before heading back to my love hotel (alone) to rest up for another full day of movie viewing.

I’m now trying to figure out how I can come up with a good reason to go back next year for the whole festival. They even offer cheap dorm accommodations for visitors. I’m seriously tempted…

Korean Food – cheap and tasty!

My three weeks in Korea were great. Perfect weather the whole time didn’t hurt, and neither did the meals. I thought I might get tired of eating Korean food two or three times a day but I never did. There was always plenty of food (although the banchan (side dishes) are all-you-can-eat, I never needed to ask for more), and the prices were always more than reasonable.

Pictured below was one of my favorite meals.

Albap lunch in Busan

Albap lunch in Busan

It’s called albap and consists of fish eggs (とびこ) and other ingredients on rice.
The soup was some kind of fish soup. One of the banchan was more little fishies. This whole meal, in a casual sit-down restaurant in Busan, was only $3. No tax or tip in Korea.

Central Europe wrap-up

Yes, it’s been about two and a half years since I returned from this trip, but you know what they say about better late than even later.

Some highlights:
Visiting with my old friend Ellie after so many years
Dinner with Evi in Munich
Witnessing the rebirth of the Dresden Frauenkirche
My 9-hour guided walking tour of Berlin
Spending a day in a Hungarian high school
Klezmer dancing in Budapest

Although this trip summary is long, it just barely skims the surface of what I did. While this piece runs about 4500 words, my full trip journal comes to over 13,000 words. If anyone wants all the fine details, I can post that too, as I’ve done for other trips I’ve taken.

In October of 2005 I took off on Air India from Los Angeles to Frankfurt. Why Air India? It didn’t hurt that they were cheaper than everyone else, but the idea of flying Air India sounded more exciting than flying some boring American carrier. And the meals! I ate such delicious vegetarian food on those flights.

I had no planned itinerary. All I knew was that I would be flying out of Budapest seven weeks later, and would have to slowly wend my way there.

I arrived at the Frankfurt airport, hopped a train for the main station, and then boarded a bus that would take me to the hostel I was staying at. I noticed that before it was time for the bus to take off, the driver was reading the Holy Qur’an. A sign of changing Europe.

It’s funny how we travel to experience new things, but sometimes we gravitate back to doing the same things we do at home. I happened to notice that a Korean film series was being held, so I went to see “To A Starry Island” at the film museum. And a Japanese guy I met at the hostel told me he had just gone to a German soapland!

A Gay Bar in Frankfurt

A Gay Bar in Frankfurt

After a few days of wandering the city while recovering from jet lag, including an interesting exhibit at the Modern Art museum made entirely of items bought on eBay, I began my U-shaped journey around the country.

I took a fast ICE train (I realized later that unlike the Shinkansen, not all ICE trains are all that rapid) to Bonn, where the suburbs looked to me very much like 住宅地 in Japan), and then on to Köln, where a roommate of mine at the hostel, a guy from Taiwan who has lived in France since 1987 and would like to stay there, explained to me that his wife wants to move back to Taiwan but that’s because women’s brains are smaller and they therefore have only sixty percent of the intelligence of men. He offered up as proof that women have never made it past Level 6 in the game of Go. I have not independently verified any of this information, especially the size of his wife’s (or his!) brain.

I find that most of my travel highlights involve interaction with locals, but making those connections can be difficult. We are often staying in tourist areas (this makes sense; would a tourist really want to stay in El Cajon (in San Diego) or Reseda (in Los Angeles)?), don’t speak the local language, and our brief talks with the hotel desk clerk are likely to be the only time we speak with a native. Several months ago, I was on a trolley in San Diego, sitting next to two tourists from another state when one mentioned to the other that they had been in California for weeks and still hadn’t spoken to a local, so I did them a favor and started speaking to them, answering their questions and offering up some advice.

And so it was in Germany. My first local experience was with an old friend who, while not a native German, has lived there married to a German for many years. She lives in Bernkastel-Kues, a 700 year old town in the beautiful Moselle Valley, surrounded by vineyards.

(click any picture for a larger version)



And sure enough, she and her husband are in the wine business. I got to try federweisser, new unfiltered wine, for the first time, and got a personal tour of all the neighboring small towns, complete with a rundown on each town’s current issues and gossip.

On my way back up the valley, I stopped for one night at another river town, Cochem, before rejoining my main route and spending a night in Mainz. This was a Saturday night, and I got up early Sunday morning to attend services at the beautiful old Mainz Cathedral to experience it the way it was meant to be.

Mainz Cathedral

Mainz Cathedral

Moving from Episcopalian to Jewish, I stopped briefly in Worms to check out an old synagogue and mikvah, dating back to 1330. The temple was heavily damaged in the war, but in 1961 the city restored it in an attempt to attract Jews back to the area. But aside from a few Russian Jews, who stayed for a few years before emigrating to Israel, the plan didn’t work. I was surprised to find a small shopping mall that was open on a Sunday, but when I walked in, all the shops were closed except for a gelato shop run by Italians.

Then it was on to Heidelberg. When I walked into my room at the hostel, there were two French guys smoking pot. They asked if I minded and I told them just to keep the window open. When I later invited them to share the dinner I had bought in the hostel cafe, they told me they were surprised to meet a nice American. Our room overlooked the zoo and we could hear (and smell) the animals next door at all hours.

It was next, in München (Munich) that I had the privilege of spending time with another local. I had just been eating some dried fruit and wanted something to counter that overly sweet feeling in my mouth. I wandered into the brand new Schrannenhalle shopping hall and ordered a green tea at a little tea & dessert counter. The woman next to me was eating a piece of cheesecake and I asked her if that was her dinner. Speaking of dinner, she started giving me suggestions on where to eat dinner before offering to take me to one of her favorite restaurants. In fact, it’s where she had her wedding reception. Her husband is a professional photographer and owns the studio roland schmid.

She had ridden her bike to town, so she rode back to her neighborhood while I took the train, and we arrived about the same time and then walked over to Cafe-Bistro Stemmerhof, where we shared a fish with spaghetti and veggies (Zanderfillet), and a goat cheese on apple appetiser (Ziegenkäse Appel). Both were excellent. She also introduced me to a “radler”, half beer and half lemon-lime soda, and I ended up drinking these for the rest of my trip. (The British have this too and call it a “shandy”.) She grew up near the Czech border, but said that it was as if that other country didn’t exist. Now, she says the border area is full of Vietnamese selling various things. I seem to be good at meeting technophobes – perhaps it’s one of those “opposites attract” kind of things. This woman teaches yoga, doesn’t own a mobile phone, and hates computers, telling her friends that if they want to communicate with her they should call (but only when she’s at home, I guess 🙂 ).

It was in Munich that I ate my first Chinese meal, and this became a staple of my trip, especially when I was in places where no one spoke English. I found I could always go to a Chinese restaurant and communicate well enough in 中国語 to get what I wanted.

After five nights in Munich, it was time to move on, and I stopped for several hours in Bamberg, to wander the town and see the sights. On my walk back to the train station, I stopped at a doner kebab place and ordered an eggplant mousakaa. He started speaking English to me. He came here from Syria 43 years ago to study, but dropped out: “big mistake” he said. We talked about the word “doner”: he said it’s Turkish for sandwich but he needs to use that and other key words on his sign. He said no one here knows “schwarma”, the Arabic word for the vertical grill. He asked me how I know mousakaa, but said I know the Greek version with meat. His is Syrian and has only eggplant and tomatoes and such, plus cheese is added (I don’t think they use cheese in Syria).

I asked him if he ever gets a vacation. He said when you have your own business, no. If he closed down for a few weeks he would lose too many customers. He said his was the first such shop in Bamberg, but now there are so many, mostly run by Turks. He said the government encourages them to come over because they need the labor. I asked about the meat he uses and he said his vertical grill meat is chicken, and that’s what most shops use. They used to use beef until the BSE scare. I said now people are scared of Avian Flu so he may have to switch again. He served me some arabic tea for free. I mentioned that there are so many of these shops around, and he said he thought it was like that in L.A. with this food too, but I told him that doner shops are not nearly as common in the U.S.

Again, one talk with a local is worth a thousand visits to old historical buildings.

Finally, it was time to enter the former East Germany.

My first taste was during a 45-minute layover in Leipzig. I threw my pack in a locker and walked around the market area, then over to the opera house where some fancy premiere was going on, then back to the station, through the mall in the station, and just barely caught my ICE.

I arrived in Dresden, and the differences were immediately apparent. In contrast to the cities in the west that I had visited, Dresden was very quiet, especially considering that this was a Saturday night, and you still saw many old East German cars. I wandered deserted streets and found a restaurant specializing in goose, where I had some pretty good German roast pork with potatoes and cabbage (sorry, no goose).

The next day was quite a treat. By sheer coincidence I had arrived just in time for the reconsecration of the Dresden Frauenkirche. This church (the city’s largest and most important) was destroyed (needlessly, many say) by the Allies at the end of World War II, and its bombed-out shell had sat there for over fifty years, until reconstruction began in 1993. Twelve years and €180 million later, it was finally finished, and the whole city was full of joy over this occasion, with many people weeping openly.

the dark-colored stones are those from the original building

the dark-colored stones are those from the original building

Unfortunately, this great event also meant that I was unable to visit the inside of the structure, as the line to get in was three hours long, and once inside you were limited to ten minutes. Instead of spending half my day in line, I wandered the city and had yet another “local” encounter.

I stopped in at a café for a Heisse Shokolade. The guys at the next table asked where I was from and when I said “California” they said “Let’s talk about George W. Bush.” I happily obliged, and found we were mostly on common ground. They said Americans don’t care about people in any other country and are barely aware of them. I had to agree, and we had a nice talk. This wouldn’t be the last time that strangers wanted to engage me in a discussion of American politics.

Before leaving Dresden, I walked out to the far end of the train platform. A friend back in San Diego often monitors a web cam directed at this location, so I called him and told him to go to that web page and he’d be able to see me. Perhaps the precursor to

Then it was on to Berlin, where I spent my first full day on a nine-hour walking tour by Brewer’s Tours, conducted by Preston, an American German History major who had lived there for six years. This was a great introduction to the city, and after my mother arrived to join me a few days later, I spent several days retracing our steps and repeating to Mom the stories I had been told.

I don’t have to tell you that Berlin has become (again?) one of the world’s hippest cities, and is full of places to see and things to do. All through Germany I’d been impressed at the modern architecture I saw. Some places even looked to me like Japan. I liked the fact that Germans were willing to look forward, structurally speaking, unlike Americans, who tend to want to live in the past.

For example, when Germany rebuilt their parliament building, the Reichstag, they did it in a very modern style:

Reichstag, Berlin

Reichstag, Berlin

If the 9/11 hijackers had succeeded in destroying the Capitol, do you really think it would have been rebuilt in steel and glass?

On my all-day tour, I also met a species of Americans that I would run into over and over on this trip. The one-country-per-day tourists. These people come to Europe for a week and do a day each in places like London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and Budapest, often catching their sleep on overnight trains. This seemed odd to me. I guess it lets you say you’ve been there, but you don’t have time to see much more than the superficial.

After showing Mom around Berlin, visiting Potsdam, and getting together with an old family friend, we took a train to Praha (Prague) in the Czech Republic. My mother and I did the typical tourist activities, and she was especially interested in trying some of Praha’s finer restaurants, especially after eating the slop that passes for daily fare. We also attended some of those too-short, overpriced, mediocre classical music concerts.

I had thought I could survive this trip on the light sweater I brought along, but as we got closer to Winter and the temperature dropped, I found I needed more. We spotted a sign for a Carrefour, so we headed to a small shop near there and I picked up a winter jacket for USD$24. That, and the thermal longjohns I also found in Praha, kept me comfy for the rest of my journey.

After five days, Mom went home and I took my backpack and went to find a hostel to stay in. The first one I went to was Travelers Hostel, located near the old town square. While I was waiting to check in, I started reading the guest book on the counter, which was full of complaints about dirt and cold showers, so I quickly snuck away and called Sir Toby’s hostel, which, while a little out of the way, ended up being a great place to stay.

Free from my mother’s reins, I began my usual urban exploration, including participation in events geared to locals rather than tourists. In that vane, I attended a jazz festival, Žižkov Meets Jazz, that cost only $4 and lasted for hours, and I had a lot more fun than when I sat for one of those 30-minute tourist rip-off shows.

Žižkov Meets Jazz

Žižkov Meets Jazz

Aside from a day trip to Kutna Hora, which once rivaled Praha economically, culturally and politically, and now famously is home to the Sedlec Ossuary with its sculptures made from the bones of graves dug up to make room for new (dead) arrivals

sculpture made from human bones

sculpture made from human bones

the only other city I visited in CZ was Olomouc.

Olomouc is a university town in northeatern Czech Republic, and like most uni towns, had a good variety of fun and culture. I stayed at the Poets’ Corner Hostel, run by an Aussie couple who came several years ago and just never wanted to leave. While there I took in a modern folk music concert, with classical guitar, electric bass, and violin stick, which I enjoyed although I couldn’t understand any of the patter or lyrics.

watching an opera rehearsal in Olomouc

watching an opera rehearsal in Olomouc

I also enjoyed a relaxing three hours in a Dobra Cajovna teahouse, where I used the opportunity to catch up on some reading, followed by an evening in a bar with a bunch of foreign students (mostly Japanese) studying Czech at the local university.

I didn’t think I would visit Poland on this trip. Poland is quite a large country and it seemed best put off for another time. But I kept running in to other travelers who spoke highly of Krakow, and it wasn’t too far out of my way, so that’s where I headed next. As I learned to do on this trip, I checked and booked a bed at the top-rated Mama’s Hostel, just a few steps from the main square, and a very friendly place. While there, I took a walking tour, and joined some fellow hostelers on a day trip to the salt mine.

I also spent a day at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. It was a very cold day, and the ground was covered in snow, adding to the eeriness of the place. Although I was a bit cold, I felt I had no right to complain, even to myself, when the prisoners (the ones who were not executed upon arrival) had to survive the cold with very little clothing.

Birkenau concentration camp

Birkenau concentration camp

I enjoyed exploring the old Jewish neighborhood and reading up on the history of what happened here during the Nazi occupation. At one synagogue, I started talking with an Israeli from London. He asked if I’m traveling alone. I said yes and he said “You come here for happiness, but the sadness continues.” I tried explaining that I like being alone and not having to listen to what someone else wants to do, but he didn’t seem to comprehend this concept, and was convinced that I must be sad if I’m on the road alone.

It was here that I ate my favorite perogie. I was hungry so I went looking for a cafe and came across a perogie restaurant where a little girl was picking up an order to take home to her family. This was a good sign, so I went in and ordered the smoked fish perogie and a tea. They had a choice of sauces including “Mexican” but I chose the traditional bacon and onion, and they were excellent.

It was time to leave Poland, but my stay in the country was a little longer than I had planned. I had a tight train connection to make in Katowice (in retrospect, I should have taken the train the previous hour), which wasn’t a problem until we were sitting there on the tracks just outside the city for 15 minutes. That was just enough to cause me to miss my connection. I went to one of the ticket windows, where the woman informed me that the next train to Zilini in the Slovak Republic doesn’t leave until 22:56, in about seven hours. Seven hours??? She was apologetic, but what could she do.

When life serves you milk, make a milk shake, right? So I took advantage of my situation and wandered the city until it got dark, at which time I found a large bookstore/café (Empik) and sat in there reading and drinking hot chocolate, followed by dinner at a bar, until it was time to collect my luggage and wait for my train. Not a bad seven hours at all.

The train was late and, after most people got off at the following few stops, a bit scary. I was all alone in my compartment, now in the middle of the night, so I locked the door, opening it only to let in the immigration folks at the border. This run started in St. Petersburg and terminates in Budapest; I guess people on for the long haul (the trip is scheduled at 28 hours) must have been in a sleeping car somewhere (or maybe they flew).

The St. Petersburg-Budapest Express

Waiting for the St. Petersburg-Budapest Express

I finally arrived in Zilini, Slovakia at 03:45, and tried to find a place to stay. There was a hotel across from the station, but it appeared to be shut down. I finally relented and just hopped in a taxi and asked to be taken to the Hotel Slovakia, which was listed in my guidebook as the nicest place in town. As it was, I didn’t need to worry about spending much, because all they had left were old unrenovated rooms, which was fine by me.

It was at this point that I decided to switch from trains to buses. I found that the trains in this part of the world tended to be old and rundown, and usually operated on the periphery of towns, so you never got to see the places you were passing through. Buses, on the other hand, were much more modern, ran more frequently, and actually drove through the center of the cities along the way.

Not too many hours later, I woke up and hopped a series of buses to Levoca, via Poprad. We had a lunch break at a train station and I thought the driver said to me (by pointing to his watch) that we’ll leave in 20 minutes at 13:25. So I left my luggage on bus and went to the cafeteria there for some bad food. I was in the station lobby when I heard the sound of a bus engine, so I ran outside to see my bus about to turn out onto the highway. I ran fast and just barely made it back on the bus. The driver yelled at me. I can’t imagine what a hassle it would have been for him to leave with my luggage. Since that day, I’ve always been ultra careful at intermediate stops, especially when everything I own is on the bus or train.

Levoca is a small mountain town and I spent a relaxing evening there reading in restaurants and cafes.

Levoca, Slovakia

Levoca, Slovakia

That was pretty much it for my time in Slovakia. The next day I hopped to Kosice (where I considered stopping for a night, but it was raining), and then into Hungary to Miskolc. I had about an hour to wait there, so I went across the street to the modern shopping mall and grabbed some dinner. I also tried to procure a Hungarian SIM for my mobile phone, and approached both providers in the mall. One said “Our network is no good” and the other just said “no no no no no”. I still don’t know what the problem was. I ended up getting one from a third company, T-Mobile Hungary, the next day.

I arrived in Eger that evening and spent a full day there, exploring both the town and the surrounding wine country, all on foot.

An interesting structure in Eger, Hungary

An interesting structure in Eger, Hungary

At the time, a friend of my father’s had a son who was spending the year teaching English at a high school in the middle of nowhere in Hungary, in a town called Sarkad. That seemed like a good excuse to go visit, but he had to round up some bedding for me, as the town doesn’t even have a single hotel or pension. On the way there, I had a several hour layover in Debrecen, and walked into town for lunch, before heading back to the bus station. However, because it was Sunday, the only place open was our good friend Mickey D’s so that’s where I ate (hangs head in shame).

Debrecen, Hungary

Debrecen, Hungary

Sarkad, in addition to not having a single place of lodging, has only one restaurant (but two Chinese goods shops), so that’s where we went for dinner. The next day, I talked to each of his classes and did my best to lead a discussion about my travels and California, and I even gave a primer on Chinese characters.

Students of English in Sarkad, Hungary

Students of English in Sarkad, Hungary

I was impressed that he was working there for only USD$500 a month plus housing (nothing luxurious I assure you) and cable TV (but no Internet) and yet he gave free private lessons to any student who asked. He obviously wasn’t there for the money.

The students really wanted him to stay and teach them for a second year, and made up a poster to this effect:

Brent, please stay with us!

Brent, please stay with us!

But I was free to leave, and so I did, taking my first train in a while to the county seat of Bekesava, where I spent my layover walking into town, eating a snack, and walking back to the train station, all while consulting with one of our programmers on the phone from San Diego.

Then it was on to Szeged, complete with a casino flying an Israeli flag that promises an Israeli meal if you play roulette or buy a beer. I didn’t take them up on the offer, though the idea of an Israeli meal sounded good.

Szeged’s main attraction for me was a huge and ornate synagogue (the “New Synagogue”, built in 1903), with seating for 1300. Before the Holocaust, the city had about 8000 Jews. In order to get in to see the place, I had to track down the caretaker, who works at a nearby Jewish old age home. He said there were 300 to 400 Jews left. There are probably even fewer now.

New Synagogue exterior in Szeged, Hungary

New Synagogue exterior in Szeged, Hungary

New Synagogue interior in Szeged, Hungary

New Synagogue interior in Szeged, Hungary

On November 25th, after wending my way through five countries over six weeks, I arrived at my final destination. It had been a while since I had been in a real city, and I was excited to take advantage of everything the big city had to offer. So what’s the first thing I see upon detraining? A Korean couple singing Christmas songs:

메리 크리스마스

메리 크리스마스

Budapest was probably my favorite city of the trip, despite the thermometer hovering around freezing. I spent a full week there, stayed in a great hostel, and attended lots of activities geared to locals. One night I went to a jazz concert, and the next night I went to a Klezmer concert. But it was more than a concert. After the first set, it turned into a dance, and everyone was encouraged to participate.

Klezmer dancing in Budapest

Klezmer dancing in Budapest

Despite the fact that I’m Jewish, I had never been to such a show, and it felt like family to be hanging out with other Jews in a place one doesn’t think of as having a large Jewish community. In addition, if “White Men Can’t Dance”, then Jewish White Men can barely stand. Therefore, Klezmer dancing is made to be so easy that even a total klutz like myself can do it. For an evening, I didn’t feel so incompetent on the dance floor.

Another highlight of my time on the Danube was going to a public bathhouse. With the outside air so cold, it sure felt good to be sitting in ultra warm water.

Budapest Thermal Baths

Budapest Thermal Baths

Inside, there were many different pools with water of varying temperatures and I tried most of these too.

Being a fone phreak, there was no way I could walk by the “Telephone Museum” and not go in for a look. It was housed in Budapest’s first central office, and the Strowger (step) switches were still there, along with the test board:

testboard at the Budapest Telephone Museum

testboard at the Budapest Telephone Museum

On my final night, I attended “The Bardroom”, a get-together for those speaking or studying English (mostly the latter). There were various readings of poetry and prose, and they held a contest where you are given a subject and you have ten minutes to write a short poem. The subject was “Hating Christmas”, which I should have been pretty good at, but my entry got just a few chuckles and little applause and so I ended up near the bottom of the pack, far below most of the non-native speakers. I guess it’s back to my day job for me.

And speaking of going back to work, the next day I flew home, bringing to an end this great adventure.

Summer of Music Festivals

Since 1995, I have taken time off during most summers to attend at least one music festival in North America. I tend to avoid overseas travel during the busy months of July and August when just showing up in a town and expecting to find a hostel bed is far from assured.

This summer was no different, and my festival-going started with the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, preceded by a night in Bennington, Vermont and an afternoon checking out the college there. This is, in fact, my longest running festival habit. I have attended Falcon Ridge every year since 1997 except for 2002 when I was traveling in Asia for five months. After camping at the Big Orange Tarp last year, I was back to my traditional home at Camp Dar and was happy to hear that they’d taken me into account when figuring how much space they needed.

A big attraction of these kinds of events is the opportunity to discover new artists, or even to give others a second or third chance. That’s what happened with me and the solo musician Ellis. I saw her first at Folk Alliance 2004 and wasn’t so impressed. I then checked out a set of hers at the 2005 Folk Alliance and thought a little more of her songs, but it was only after last year’s Falcon Ridge that I liked her enough to buy a CD. And now I’m completely hooked and can’t get enough of her.

Other people whose CDs I picked up at Falcon Ridge include Ryan Fitzsimmons, Randall Williams, Chris O”Brien, and Anthony da Costa, who would be amazing even if he weren’t only 16 years old.

After-hours were mostly spent mostly at the Budgie Dome, which provided live sets by the likes of Jack Hardy, Red Molly, Iain Campbell Smith, and one of my faves, We’re About 9.I did a lot of live recording with my new Roland Edirol R-09, but recording is the easy part. I still need to go back and split each recording into tracks, label them correctly, and do any necessary little cleanup. It will probably be sometime in 2008 before I have finished this.

My Falcon Ridge 2007 photos are now available.I had such a good time at Falcon Ridge that immediately afterward I started contemplating a return to the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. I say “return” because after attending annually from 1997 to 2001, I hadn’t been back since. A big incentive for me was that Ellis would be performing a mainstage set, as would Gandalf Murphy and The Slambovian Circus of Dreams. This group defies description, but I found myself missing their high-energy performance just days after Falcon Ridge ended.

A major reason why I hadn’t returned to Lyons, Colorado is the fact that on-site camping tickets tend to sell out in February or March and I usually don’t plan my life more than a week or two in advance. But when I checked at the end of July, a few such passes had become available due to returns and I quickly grabbed one. I figured that by not renting a car, I could do the whole weekend for less than $600. I discovered that I could get to Lyons from the airport for only $10 on the public bus.

And it was so nice to be back. The site is really beautiful, with a river running through it, and with quite nice facilities including real toilets and permanent stages (one of them now with covered seating).

I spent my first evening listening to the final night of the Song School open mike (the festival itself didn’t begin until the next day). My most memorable moment from that night is after Darrell Scott performed. He was so obviously superior to everyone else we’d heard that the MC said “I don’t know if I’m supposed to say this, but Holy Shit!”

During the course of the festival I got to see Judy Collins for the first time, see a great set by Catie Curtis, my reprise of Ellis and Gandalf Murphy (Josiah, the lead singer of Gandalf Murphy, said that listening to Ellis’s set is like sitting down for a chat with your older sister), discover The Guggenheim Grotto, Serena Ryder, Brett Dennen, and Darrell Scott, and catch up with old festival friends. Even Chris Isaak was a lot of fun to watch!

That wrapped up my summer camping, but there was still a hole in my schedule: I hadn’t yet been to Boston this summer. Unbeknownst to many, Boston is the center of the singer/songwriter universe, and I think it even bests Austin in the category of Live Music Capital of the USA.I flew out for Club Passim‘s Cutting Edge of the Campfire Festival, which runs from Friday afternoon of Labor Day weekend until Monday night, as I have done a few times before.

This time, though, I showed up three days earlier so I could partake in the fun of Greg Klyma‘s Tuesday night residency at Toad in Porter Square. Also taking part in the fun were Dana Price, Danielle Miraglia, and the Ryan Fitzsimmons Band. Before the show, I stopped off at Porter Exchange for the worst Japanese meal of my life. See my review on Yelp.

During the weekend festivities, I barely missed a minute, there were so many good performers. I ended up returning with 19 new CDs in tow, including Susan Levine‘s latest masterpiece, seven years in the making. I first discovered Susan back in 1999, playing the open mike at a neighborhood Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, not far from where I was living.

Impressive first-time (for me) performers included Moe Provencher, Todd Martin, Carsie Blanton, Christina Schell, Nicole Reynolds, Chad Perrone, Liz Longley, and Lindsay Mac (who plays her cello like a guitar).

Campfire Festival CD Table


No I didn’t buy a copy of each and every one of these.

I wasn’t back in San Diego long before my mind started thinking of “What If”s. What if I headed up to Oregon for the Sisters Folk Festival? What if I head out to Joshua Tree for their festival? Or maybe I’ll stay put for a bit.

Bulgaria vs. Greece – Part 2

OK, so maybe I should have listened a little more closely to what the Greeks told me about Bulgaria, and been a little more careful.

I always tend to trust people, and in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, this resulted in having my camera, along with most of my trip photos, stolen.

I was wandering around the town lost when a guy who looked like Jeff Spicoli of Fast Times at Ridgemont HighJeff Spicoli pic came up, introduced himself, and offered to help me find my way. He pointed me in the right direction, then helpfully offered to take a picture of me with his buddies.

I was a bit suspicious, and even briefly considered yanking the memory card from my camera just in case, but I handed it over, and after he took a few shots, he ran off with my Casio EX-Z40.

His two friends didn’t run, but since technically they hadn’t done anything, there wasn’t much I could do. I urged them to help me find their friend, but they claimed to not know him and eventually they gave me the slip and ran off too.

I went back to my hotel and asked the owner if I should call the police or if that would be just a waste of time. Her response: “It’s a waste of time. I’m sorry.”

I’m not sure there are really any lessons to be learned here. One might be tempted to just not trust strangers met on the road, but if I traveled with that attitude, I would miss out on too many experiences. 例えば、I never would have had dinner with a bunch of Egyptian students who approached me in Cairo, and I would not have allowed myself to be invited into two homes in Morocco for meals and coffee.

So I will try not to be cynical, and if the price for these adventures is the loss of an occasional camera, so be it. I still maintain that most countries in the world are way safer than the U.S. After all, they didn’t shoot me. And I even had an excuse to buy a new camera.

Live Music in Greece & Bulgaria

Being a live music fan, when I travel I naturally like to seek out some live music venues. I haven’t been very successful in Greece or Bulgaria.

Greece is full of “music bars”, but that just means that the bar plays music over their sound system, or maybe they have a DJ (sometimes brought over from the U.S.) spinning tunes.

In Thessaloniki, I went to Face Bar for their “Girls Play Guitars” night, but I messed up and went on Thursday instead of Wednesday.  I’m not sure how I did that, but I still had a great time, and my one experience hanging out and talking with locals (other than people I was renting rooms from).

The one concert I found was entirely by chance. I was on my way back to my hostel in Athens and I was peering in an open door when an old man on the street told me that a concert was about to start and he thought it was free. He checked with the staff and it was indeed free so I went in for a while.

It was a guy playing instrumental tunes on an acoustic guitar, and I quickly fell asleep, owing both to the lack of vocals and the late hour.

Ahh, the late hour. This is a beef of mine and I must admit that it applies to much of Europe and many other places too. That concert didn’t start until 23:00, and that seems to be early.

Now, I must point out that I’m a late-night person and you’ll often find me hanging at Lestat’s until two in the morning, but that doesn’t mean I want my concerts to start after midnight.

Here in Sofia, Bulgaria there are a bunch of places called “Pop Folk” clubs, and that got my hope up as a chance to see some local pop or folk artists. But when I inquired I was told that most just have a DJ.

However, there’s a place near the hostel I’m staying at that does have live music. I was told they open at 22:30, so I went over there about 23:00 to see about getting in.

The first bad sign was the large number of security dudes standing by the door, along with two metal detectors and an icon indicating that knives and guns are not permitted inside. Oh, and the name of the place is “Sin City.” It doesn’t quite have the ring of “Java Joe’s.” Basically it’s a dance club.

However, it’s a big place with two floors with different music plus a smaller room called “Folk Club Help” and they said it would have live traditional Bulgarian music (not quite what I wanted, but better than the thump thump thump I heard coming from the rest of the building). I paid my 8 leva (4 euro) and went inside. Of course it was so early that I was the only one there besides the staff. They said the music wouldn’t start until midnight. Oh, alright. But then I was hit with the really bad news. The room was fully booked. “No room at tables. No room at the bar” they told me. And I noticed an unopened whiskey bottle on each table, and a small rectangular stage in the middle of the room. I tried to talk my way into being allowed to stay, but it didn’t work. I was able to get my admission fee back from the cashier even though the Folk Club staff told me they don’t issue refunds but I’m free to roam the rest of the (thump thump thump) club.

It probably would have been an interesting experience. I noticed that some of the other Folk Pop clubs I visited promised a striptease, but it looks like I’ll never know.

The problem with visiting a country for just a few days, apart from not being able to grasp big things like the language, is that it can often be the little things that are truly frustrating. Sometimes you have to live somewhere for months (or years) before you learn your favorite places. In a few days, you just don’t have the opportunity to find the places you might love. But sometimes you luck out and find a great place. And maybe a word like “Folk Pop” doesn’t mean quite what you think it means.

Update on 2007-07-01: I don’t know how I forgot to mention my favorite live music experience in Greece, at Lyrakia (AKA Liraki AKA Cafe Crete AKA Kafe Kriti)musicians playing at Kafe Kriti in the town of Chania (AKA Hania or Χανιά). The Lonely Plant guide describes this place as “rough and ready”, and indeed a fight broke out one night between two of the regular patrons and spilled out into the street. But the music was authentic, traditional Cretin, and the place was patronized both by locals and by tourists, many of whom said they return here year after year.

Bulgaria vs. Greece

After two and a half weeks in Greece, I have finally crossed a national boundary and I am now in Bulgaria.

All the Greeks I met warned me about Bulgaria. “Be careful” they would say. One told me, “It’s not like here.”

You can judge how safe a place is by how the residents act with regard to security. In Greece I was constantly amazed at the number of doors I would walk by with the key in the lock.

Likewise, drivers making a quick stop would often get out of their car and leave the engine running. Scooters parked on the sidewalk would also often have the key left in the ignition. One Greek I met said he always leaves his helmet just sitting on his scooter seat, and he’s never had a problem.

After the warnings I received, I expected to find Sofia, Bulgaria to have a completely different feel. But it hadn’t, really. OK, I haven’t seen any keys left in doors or engines left running, but women leave their purses on the next chair in restaurants (they don’t do this in places like Peru where you have to hold your purse in your lap even in fancy restaurants), and the parks are full of playing children unsupervised, along with families walking together.

Tonight, however, I went out after dark for the first time and found myself in a very different atmosphere. One thing I loved about Greece was the streets were hopping late into the evening. At eleven o’clock on a weeknight, the cafes were packed with people, and the sidewalks were a traffic jam, complete with women pushing baby carriages.

Sofia, Bulgaria at night, however, feels like an American suburb. Any restaurants open may have a few customers, but the streets are otherwise deserted. Where did all those people go who were out earlier? I felt a bit apprehensive walking around, and doubly so when I was approached by a guy who offered to accompany me in to a strip club.

¿What To Pack?

It’s almost time to grab my backpack and hit the road again, so I pulled out my trusty and tattered to-bring list.

I tend to pack rather light on these overseas trips, so you may think I forgot a lot, but trust me, I didn’t :-).

Because others have asked me to share this list, and because it’s time to commit it to bytes, here it is (in no particular order):

  • plane tickets (if not e-ticket)
  • printed flight itinerary (I never remember my flight times)
  • passport
  • extra passport photos (needed for visas along the way)
  • hat
  • sunglasses
  • towel, small (many hostels don’t provide one)
  • two pairs of long pants
  • short pants (weather permitting)
  • bathing suit
  • three t-shirts
  • two button-up shirts
  • windbreaker / light jacket
  • sweater (very light but warm)
  • jacket (only if Winter)
  • pyjamas
  • seven pair of underwear and socks
  • laundry bag
  • money belt
  • belt (if pants require it)
  • travellers checks (rarely used but good to have a few when the ATM network is down)
  • list of travellers checks numbers
  • hostel card
  • cash/credit cards/ATM card
  • list of CC numbers (in case they need to be cancelled/resissued)
  • international drivers license certificate (need varies by country)
  • sunscreen
  • shampoo
  • toiletries
  • ankle strap (only if biking)
  • earplugs (for loud concerts and snoring roommates)
  • small notebook / memo pad
  • guidebook(s)
  • flashlight (single AAA LED)
  • tiny push-to-light LED
  • copy of passport main page and any visas
  • GSM phone and charger
  • small padlock (for hostel lockers)
  • compass
  • umbrella, ultra compact
  • wristwatch (also used as alarm clock)
  • camera & card reader
  • camera battery travel charger
  • AC plug adapter (varies by country but the one for continental Europe works most everywhere except NZ & Oz).
  • apartment entrance key (so I can get back in when I return)
  • And a few things I always need to do before I leave:

  • pay bills
  • put snail-mail on Vacation Hold
  • set up vacation(1) response for e-mail
  • suspend newspaper delivery
  • clear out and turn off refrigerator (for extended trips)
  • turn off water heater/cable modem/router (on the morning I leave)
  • New Zealand / Australia trip diary

    I have finally (!!!) finished transcribing my trip diary from my 1997 trip to New Zealand and Australia (mostly New Zealand — it was just a few days in Sydney to visit a friend) and have posted it online. It’s long and boring for anyone but me, but it has proven helpful in answering questions from friends about exactly what I did down there (often asked when preparing their own trips).

    Home from Central Europe

    Well, I made it back home just in time to attend the Usenix LISA Conference taking place in San Diego. I’ll have a trip summary and some observations later, but since many people have been asking me how much my 50-day European trip cost, I decided to publish that information here.

    The total amount spent for my trip, including airfare, rail pass, and all expenses incurred along the way is $4193, or about $80 per day. Gee, that sounds like a lot. And I usually stayed in hostels. Of course my three weeks in Germany were more expensive on a per-day basis than my time in lower-cost countries like Slovakia and Hungary. Deducting the airfare, it’s closer to $68 per day.

    Lodging costs ran from about $10 per night in hostels in Hungary to $50 per night for some places in Germany where I chose to get a hotel room rather than stay in a hostel too far from the center of town.

    We won’t even start to talk about the opportunity costs, since much of my income comes from hourly work that I could not (or didn’t have time to) perform while on the road.

    Central Europe trip

    I am grabbing my small backpack and hitting the road again. All I know for sure is that I fly into Frankfurt and return from Budapest seven weeks later. What routes I take between those two points is currently unknown. Possible intermediary destinations include Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Austria, but I doubt I’ll hit them all. I tend to prefer a less-rushed approach, lingering for longer in fewer locales.

    I’ll be riding trains and staying in hostels, so as to keep myself firmly planted in reality. Fancy hotels tend to isolate you from the local culture (and drain your wallet).

    I have, however, made a few concessions to modern technology. I’m not bringing my laptop, but I have a small GSM phone and plan to buy a SIM in each country so that I can be reached more easily than in the past. I’ll also be logging on from Internet kiosks every few days.

    I should be back in San Diego by December 6th.

    Folk Alliance in Montréal

    I’m back from the annual Folk Alliance conference, held this year in freezing cold Montréal, Québec. It was four solid days of euphoria for me as I got to sit around intimate hotel rooms and hear some of my favorite musicians play, as well as discover new people.

    If I had to pick the performance that left the strongest impression, it was the showcase by Chris Chandler, a spoken-word artist I first saw at Kerrville last year, and his m usical accompanist Jo Smith. I keep notes on the performers I see, usually assigning a rating of 1 (decent), 2 (quite good), 3 (I need to get some of their CDs), or 0 (they suck). After Chris and Jo’s performance, what came out of my pen was “Oh My God!” as no number seemed capable of expressing my awe of them.

    There was such a great dynamic between Chris and Jo. So I was devastated to read just a few days later that Jo Smith had decided the life of a traveling musician is not for her and she and Chris will not be touring the country. If anyone has a tape of one of their performances, I’d love to get a copy.

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