Saturday, July 21, 2012

"All's well that ends well, that's what I say, Gromit."

I've been back in the US for about two weeks now. Maybe I'll post again next time I do some traveling, but I have no plans to leave the country in the near future. If you're interested, I'm still blogging over at my regular blog, but that's less about exciting travel things and more about just some things I'm thinking. If you're just happening on this page and are interested in doing a big gap-year trip (or just want to talk travel), feel free to drop me a line; my email address is my name (first and last) at gmail.

Thanks for reading! This has been fun.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

What was your favorite place?

I have a lot. Here are four.

Dharamsala (by which I, like most white people, mean McLeod Ganj), because it's really pleasant. The Tibetan government and Dalai Lama live there, the climate is nice, and I found it easy to meet other travelers that I really got along well with. You can take classes in anything, do yoga, whatever; in another universe I just zoned out there for a couple months. I'm not sure if that would have been better or worse than the constant traveling that I did.

Ladakh, because it is really something else. Beautiful gompas, rugged mountains, usually-freezing weather. I am still a little frustrated I was sick my whole time here. If I had to make one trip back to India, I would take a friend or three and go hiking in Ladakh.

Switzerland, because it's all it's cracked up to be. Everything is clean and nice, first of all. The Alps, like the Himalayas, are cold and crisp and awesome.

Bosnia, because it's not. Great roads for motorbiking, rocky hills (or small mountains, if you will), great weather in spring, and super friendly people who gave me hours of their time even though I'm just some guy wandering through. Great food (if a bit heavy).

Other places I really like but didn't quite make this list: Bhutan, Darjeeling, small cities in the Czech Republic

Some other favorites (feel free to ask me about any of these if you're interested):
Favorite small city: Wellington, NZ
Favorite big city: Amsterdam or Munich but probably Amsterdam (this surprises me, as I used to think Amsterdam was kind of dirty)
Favorite artists: Frantisek Skala, Czech Republic; Amerigo Tot, Hungary
Favorite food: Bengal, Kerala, Nepal, and Bulgaria
Country I would most like to move to, if I had to move to somewhere: the Netherlands (although this is a cop out, because it's really just the country most like home)
Favorite beer: Germany. I can't count Belgium because I didn't go there, and I got to really like German beers this time. I think I prefer German beers if I'm going to be having a few.
Favorite language: Dutch (still, yes)
Favorite script: Tibetan. Because come on, this is the kind of script that wizards write in: 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Music to travel the world to

Gang Gang Dance, Eye Contact- lying in bed in Leh, Ladakh, altitude sick, sleeping for 20 hours, in one of the more remote parts of one of the more foreign countries in the world, reliving the past day of driving on the friggin' moon and sucking down Maggi noodles in parachute dhabas, listening to this bizarre record and wondering where the hell am I, and why?

The Police, Synchronicity- on my next long long distance bus ride, from Leh to Srinagar in the middle of the night, getting again a little freaked out by "Mother" and then just enjoying the slightly-adventure-spooky "Synchronicity II" paired with reading Lovecraft. Picking it up again months later humming "Tea in the Sahara" while drinking tea in the Thar.

Charlotte Gainsbourg, IRM- same as above. Leh to Srinagar by the full moon and songs about lobotomies or electroshock or something. Geez, couldn't I have picked something a little more uplifting for my first month diving into the deep end?

Cults, s/t- ah, but here's where things start to get a bit nicer, on somewhat-more-sane buses around the somewhat-more-sane roads of Himachal Pradesh to easy places like Dharamsala. This is fuzzed out pop rock, 3 minute tasty morsels that remind me that my college-radio life exists somewhere.

Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot the Son of Chico Dusty- and let me tell you, there is nothing like stopping overnight in the dark and, well, very dark border town of Mahendranagar, Nepal, rousing yourself at the crack of 4am, drinking some weird bitter lime tea and slamming into the front seat of a bus that you know will take 12 hours, wishing for something to be a little easier, and then this record starts off with "it is on!" and you can just tune out everything else and thump along to this super fun slick rocking hip hop. Maybe the best album I've heard in the last year.

Friendly Fires, s/t- in Wellington, New Zealand, I had a week to indulge things that I enjoy: drinking coffee, underground theater shows, working on easy coding projects, and hipster indie music like this. Of those four, listening to this record had the least staying power.

Bill Callahan, Apocalypse- On a late 28x bus in Pittsburgh, listening to a rambling yet surprisingly sticky poem called "America!", not being able to decide whether it's praising or criticizing. Feeling about the same way about this country. It's complicated.

Bot'ox, Babylon by Car- Back to disorienting, this one had me mentally wandering while I was physically wandering the streets of Ascoli Piceno, Italy. Tracks like "Tout Passe, Tout Lasse, Tout Casse" served as a safeguard against getting too positive, I guess, while reminding me that I don't know languages.

Orbital, Wonky- techno, but... sometimes very human and optimistic? Meaning that "one big moment" is still good music to catch the sunrise on the ferry from Italy to Croatia.

Daedelus, Bespoke- not only is this the first Daedelus record that I would recommend to just anyone, it's the soundtrack to my putzing around Lublin, Poland. It's great beats and guest vocals, but a little eclectic and queasy. Kind of like I felt in this foreign place, with a few welcoming friends, but still wondering how to plan a trip around an indefinitely broken motorcycle.

Justice; Audio, Video, Disco- freezing through Alps and Poland on a motorcycle is made a lot easier if you've got something this pounding to be singing.

Yeasayer, Odd Blood- sitting in a tower on the old city wall of Pecs, Hungary, realizing that I've just been sightseeing for a month and a half and will probably continue to do so, but now I've got a day to myself to just wander around and this is fine; in fact I can just sit here and listen to this record for a bit and not keep moving and that is also fine; actually it doesn't matter whether I'm sitting or moving because this thing is so damn good. Please hurry up and listen the heck out of this. You can start here.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Costs figured out

I've updated the Costs page with more info about Europe. It's tricky to figure out, especially with 2 credit cards and 1 debit card, but I've got at least rough estimates. Since I spent such a short time in many countries, I've broken it up into just Western Europe and Eastern Europe.

Also, finally got the number for how much the whole trip has cost: about $17300, for 10 months. So I guess if I had spent the whole year, it'd be around $20 grand. Still, I'm under budget, even with a motorcycle and 3 months in Europe. (It's a little shorter than I thought I'd travel, too.)

I won't argue that everyone can travel the world for a year. However, I will argue that everyone who can save up $20 grand (or maybe $15 grand if you spend less time in Europe) can do it.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Back in the States, somewhat indefinitely

It's true, and only a little bit weird. Heading straight into the DC suburbs and a rental car, from the train-and-bike paradise that is the Netherlands, is a little depressing.

Travels continue for a week, but they're a little less interesting to you, dear reader, as they consist of DC and Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Some of the best coffee I've had over a year in India, Aus/NZ, US, and Europe

This guide is for you if you'd rather seek out a cafe than a museum, if you care about quality of coffee first and foremost (but you're also excited about a place that has good style), and if you like good drip coffee.

Cafe Coffee Day Square, Bangalore, India
CCD is India's Starbucks. Most of them are diabetes-inducingly awful. But in this cafe (maybe their flagship?) they're actually serving single-origin beans from around the world, including some from India.

People's Coffee and Brewtown, Wellington, New Zealand
Especially Brewtown. Run by a real coffee enthusiast. I think they lacked wifi, but they have all kind of stylish magazines and stuff.

Lamason, Wellington, New Zealand
Siphon/vacuum pots! Neat. They let me use the wifi after I asked nicely.

Victrola, Seattle
I mean, of course. My home base. If you're headed to Seattle, other A+ names include Vivace, Stumptown, Zoka, and Trabant. But Victrola is for me tops.

Miedzy Slowami, Lublin, Poland
The Polish cafe scene is in a sad state. So I was pretty stoked to find this one, complete with a wide array of Turkish coffees and shelves of books.

Kaaba, Prague
I walked in and saw a customer writing something with a fountain pen and a set of different-colored inks. Yes, this is the place for me. Actually good Americanos!

Karma, Krakow
A bit outside the tourist center, but probably in the student quarter. Solid espresso, aeropress, and scones.

Screaming Beans, Amsterdam
They offer barista workshops, which is a good sign. A half dozen single origin beans on V60, Chemex, Aeropress, or French Press. Note that asking people for a good coffeeshop in Amsterdam might not get you what you want.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

This shebang is winding down. Instead of real insight, I'll share some facts about houses in Europe.

Hey! In Europe things are like this, and in America things are like this. Let's take a moment to focus on really quite minute differences. And then let's compare things and say who's better. Culture!

- smaller fridges. Point: Europe.
- no garbage disposals. Point: USA.
- European windows. They have a handle and if you turn it down, it opens like a door, but if you turn it up, the top of the window leans into the room. These are great. Point: Europe.
- often the toilet and the sink/shower are in different rooms. Point: Europe, I guess?
- sometimes the toilet has a shelf. Stuff lands on the shelf, then the water flushes it down into the hole. Still don't get this. Point: USA.
- sometimes the shower is on the same level as the rest of the floor. Like in India. The whole floor gets wet. This is silly. Point: USA.
- usually there's a hand-held shower head. This looks useful but is actually inconvenient. I need one hand to hold the shampoo bottle, one hand to put the shampoo into, and one to hold the shower head. Point: USA.
- sometimes there is no shower curtain. What the hell! Do you sit down to take a shower? Point: USA.
- sometimes there is a water heater. This can be kind of neat, in that you actually hear when the gas starts, so you get a little feedback that maybe makes you use less hot water. One guy I stayed with, though, he had to make sure not to ever turn the heater on while the shower isn't on, or it could start a fire. Usually you don't even notice.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Well, so much for no-internet.

Here's the thing: it's hard to do an intense retreat in a city. It's harder when the retreat is pretty casual, everyone is all friendly and welcoming, it ends at 5:30 every day, I have three roommates in my hostel, my hostel is halfway across town, and that town is Amsterdam.

So I kicked the intensity down a notch and enjoyed it as a pretty relaxed retreat for a few days. Here's the schedule:
9:30-11:00 zazen
11:00-11:10 chanting
11:10-12:00 chores (if you volunteer to do something)
12:00-12:30 zazen
12:30-1:00 lunch
1:00-2:15 chores (again, if you volunteer)
2:15-2:45 zazen
2:45-3:30 dharma talk (in Dutch; no, I couldn't understand this)
3:30-4:00 tea
4:00-5:30 zazen
By "zazen", I mean "sitting meditation for 25 minutes, then walking meditation for 5 minutes." So we meditated about 4 hours each day. Which sounds like a lot, but it was interspersed with other stuff, so it wasn't really so hard.

The people were nice. There was more ritual than I'm used to, but not a lot more, and they were pretty cool with me just joining in, so that was fine too.

Next up: visit my friend Ross (from when I was studying in Maastricht) in Eindhoven, then back to Maastricht to see Michael and Daniel (again, though Michael wasn't around the first time), then up to near Utrecht to meet some... cousins' cousins? Whatever, it's all cousins.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Switching gears again.

Brian and I spent the last couple days in Groningen, then Arnhem and the Hoge Veluwe National Park, then to Den Haag (The Hague) where our friend Adam is living now.

It's been great fun! The Hoge Veluwe is awesome, one of the few national parks anywhere that I particularly dig.

And then it's been heck of fun in Den Haag. Adam, Beej, and I have been sightseeing and taking it easy in the Netherlands' third city. ("What's fun to do in Den Haag?" "Nothing. Go to Amsterdam." We've heard this a couple times. Not entirely true.)

Adam and Beej. We're at Madurodam, which sounds South Indian but is actually a mini Netherlands.

Tomorrow I'm going to this zen retreat at Zen Centrum Amsterdam. Oddly, it's not residential, but I'm still planning to go off the internet for about 4 days. See you in July!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Scooter data

Total cost for me to ride the scooter for 2 months: $1694. Yeah, I was unlucky, but even without an engine replacement (so, $500 cheaper) it would not be cheap.
Total distance traveled: 5278 km (3279 miles)
Total gas consumed: 174.2 liters (46 gallons)
Gas mileage: 27.8 km/liter (64.5 mpg)

Average daily distance traveled: 222 km (138 miles)
Average time on road: 6:41
Average speed: 33.3 km/hr (20 mph; pokin' along!)

Longest day, time-wise: April 23, Fussen to Zurich, 9.5 hrs. Probably the most climates too. Included a summer valley, ski resorts, a big city, and yaks. Sort of freezing. Maybe the biggest ups and downs day.

Longest day, distance-wise: June 12, Ceske Budejovice to Munich, 355km. The first half was fine, the second half was driving rain, but I was in a hurry to get back. Maybe the worst overall day.
Fastest day: May 12, Kecskemet to Miskolc (Hungary), 52.67 km/hr. This is the one where I ran out of gas and then had to get a battery jump. Started at 2pm, ended at 8pm with daylight running out fast.

Best day #1: Zurich to Savognin (Switzerland). Just alps. A lot of wind, high speed, good roads, good weather.

Best day #2: Split to Dubrovnik (Croatia). Mountains and coast.

Day I thought I was most likely to get lost in the wilderness: Mostar to Sarajevo. In an effort to find a more interesting road, I ended up on a dirt path for about a half hour.

Least favorite countries to ride in: Italy, Hungary, and Poland.

Favorites: Switzerland, Bosnia, and the Czech Republic.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Netherlands, from bottom to top

From Amsterdam we went south to Maastricht, the southernmost biggish city (120k) in the Netherlands. I studied abroad in Maastricht in 2007. We met up with my friend Daniel who is still studying robots and AI and game theory there. Explored the city, ate Limburgish things like zuurvlees and vlaai, went to some caves. Shopped for shoes.

Maastricht's nice. It was only a little bit weird to go back there. Next we headed up to Groningen, the northernmost biggish city (190k) in the Netherlands. We planned to go wadlopen (hiking across mud flats), for which we did the aforementioned shoe-shopping, but all the wadlopen was canceled this weekend because of the weather. So now we're just hanging out here for a day or two.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Hup! Holland! Hup!

Two days ago I was in Heidelberg, visiting my friend Kemal. Great fun to catch up with him, as he's just started a PhD at the (old, famous, prestigious, impressive) university there. We talked about geeky computery things like Random Forests.
I'm the one without muscles.

It's a nice town. It's got a castle and stuff. (My friend Brian informs me that I've been saying that about pretty much every town.)

The castle is nicer than most. It's old and crumbley and has the world's biggest wine barrel. There's also a hill called Heiligenberg next to the city. We hiked a bit through a Random Forest and saw an old Nazi amphitheater and a ruined monastery.

Now I'm in the Netherlands. Brian (sometimes known as "Beej") arrived yesterday and we've been palling around Amsterdam, along with Guido and Joyce, who I met in India. Guido and Joyce have been super friendly and welcoming hosts, and it's great to see Beej again too.

Me, Beej, and Guido, paddleboatmen extraordinaire

Not a ton to tell. Went to the Van Gogh museum, saw the Boom Chicago improv troupe (their main show was meh but their late all-improv show was spot on), paddled around canals, watched the Dutch lose a lot at football. Soccer. You know.

All's well! Having a good time in the Netherlands. I like this place.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Times five. Six.

5. The engine kind of stalled out. This happened once before, in Switzerland, on another windy day when I was going fast. Both times, it just started back up again. Along with my heart.

6. I didn't get hypothermia. Seriously, Europe? It's June 13. Chilly temperatures, driving rain (NPI), and a distance of 355km to cover made for the worst day of the whole trip. Good note to end on, I guess; now I'm relieved to get the bike back to John (its owner) and move on.

But man, it's been fun. Goodbye, little Igel, and thanks for the memories. And thanks John for making this all possible! It's been the trip of a lifetime, and I couldn't have done it without you.

Monday, June 11, 2012

In which I'm the kind of the luckiest person ever, times four

1. Tenuous situation: my health. I can't seem to stop eating white bread, cheese, and beer. The occasional red meat. Went for dinner with my CS host, we ended up getting tartare (raw ground beef) served with fried bread. Today at lunch I just pointed to something on the menu; it ended up being a jar (a jar!) of marinated cheese, with bread. Tonight for dinner I thought, I will finally get some good healthy food, and I picked something from the "salatka" section... it was a pasta salad.
Luckily: my stomach is made of friggin' titanium? I don't know. Thanks again, genes!

2. Tenuous situation: my cash. If I get $100 poorer, stuff like buying food gets dire. I'm almost out of Poland, making good time, when a cop on a motorcycle waves me over. Shit! I was speeding! I've never been pulled over speeding in my life! I guess I blew through a god damn two-bit burgh without noticing the sign that said I was officially in a "city", which means the speed limit drops from 90kph to 50. So he has me doing 90 in a 50. (Kilometers, but still.) Yikes. We talk in German because ya nie rozumiem Polski. He looks at my papers. He asks: "Alkohol?" Stunned, I reply "Me? Nie!" He looks at my papers some more.
Luckily: he returns with one German word: "Langsam!" ("Slow") and lets me go. Whew, good thing I passed the sobriety test!

3. Tenuous situation: my bike. It just had its engine replaced, a veritable heart transplant, and now I'm riding it over 1000km at max speed in 4 days. Something's bound to go wrong, right? In the middle of day 1, I am driving down the road, when all of a sudden I lose steering control. Ever have a blowout on your back bicycle tire? It felt like that. I pull over, drive a few more feet to make sure I'm not imagining things, and pull into a gas station. It is 3:02pm on Saturday in the middle of nowhere in Poland. Everything is closed until Monday. You may note that a 2+ day delay would really ruin all sorts of stuff right now.
Luckily, part 1: this gas station has an attached diagnostic unit- for car exhaust or something? Like an E-Check booth? I don't know. There is one guy working there, just about to leave, and he has some wrenches and stuff. He's by no means a motorcycle mechanic, but he's able to look at my bike and figure out what's wrong. There's one particular nut missing. Zakrętka. You can get one from a mechanic, or a hardware store, but everything is closed. Also there is a bit of hose that has come undone and is kind of just flapping around.
Luckily, part 2: the hose doesn't seem to matter. What?! I still don't know what it does. It's been disconnected for 2 days now and everything still works. ... okay.
Luckily, part 3: the guy's friend, who lives next door, just stops by. He thinks he has something. He comes back with a zakrętka that just happens to fit exactly. These two guardian angels vanish into the... mid-afternoon... without even letting me pay them. Two days later, the nut is still attached perfectly.

4. Nothing tenuous about this: I'm in the Czech Republic, and stuff's pretty again. I like this country. Here is a bit of Czech humor; my dad will be confused, and Brian Gray will think it's great.

One more day to Munich! In the words of Han Solo, "Hear me, baby? Hold together."

Saturday, June 9, 2012

On the road!

I've got a functional bike (knock on wood), a helmet, 450 zloty ($130), 80 USD, 40 Euro, and 300 Czech koruna ($15). It's a lot of cash, but I have really completely no way to get more until I get to Munich in 3 1/2 days. Still, lodging is the only major expense, and credit cards and Couchsurfing will see me through.

A lot of stuff going wrong puts you in the mindset that things will continue to go wrong. Here's hoping that's not the case. Tonight I'm heading to Czestochowa, Poland; tomorrow to Olomouc, Czech; the next day to Ceske Budejovice (aka Budweis), Czech; and then Munich. Let's rock!

Friday, June 8, 2012

This is why it's hard to be poor.

Remember when I said yesterday was the total final deadline for getting the engine for my scooter? Well, as of 8:30am this morning, Ninja Serwis received the engine, worked on it all day, and fixed the dang thing. Guess I can stretch it a day. Didn't expect this! Good news.

Went to the bank at 4pm on Friday to get some cash to pay them. I had 500 zloty ($140) in my wallet and needed 1750 zloty ($550) total. I paid off my Mastercard's cash advance (plus hefty fees) and luckily it had gone through, so I was able to withdraw $500 again.
... except it was denied. What!

Luckily, I had my Visa card too, and that has only a $250 limit, but maybe I could scrounge together enough extra cash. ... but that was also denied.

(My debit card, you may remember, is not working, because my bank got bought by another bank and they canceled all the existing cards. My new debit card is in the transatlantic mail as we speak, thanks to my wonderful parents.)

Turns out I never set up a PIN on my Visa. Note to self (and everyone else): set up a PIN on your credit cards. It's sort of stupid that this isn't automatic, but it's not, and you have to request it and then they mail (mail!) it to you in 5-7 business days. Argh, etc, but "not possible".
As for my Mastercard, general fraud alert on the account. Apparently one cash advance in Poland doesn't trip their system, but two does. At least this was fixable via a phone call.

Oh, one more thing? My helmet. I thought I had left it with Ninja Serwis, but it's not there. Our current hypothesis is that I left it with Skuteromania (the first guys who took a look at my bike). So first thing tomorrow, I'm going there to try to find it. Second thing, I'm going back to Ninja Serwis to (hopefully) pick up the bike. Third thing, I might actually get back on the road. Fingers crossed.

Where did the title come from? Why is it hard to be poor? Because your problems are all super urgent. While I've been traveling, I've had to deal with issues like "where will I sleep tonight?" And even so, my problems are easier than a poor person's problems, because even when I run into money problems (like now) it's just because the money is in a different place, not because it doesn't exist. Imagine being poor, and every night you have to worry about where to sleep. You can't concentrate on other stuff. You can't think about making a resume and wearing nice clothes and getting a job because you have to worry about scrounging together a few dollars right now to make rent, so you don't get kicked out on the street with nowhere to go. You have to worry about actually going hungry today.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Happy Corpus Christi.

I'm in Lublin, Poland, anxiously waiting for my scooter to get fixed, or not.
May 19: bike broke.
May 21: one guy finally looked at it and decided he couldn't fix it, so I took it to Ninja Serwis. They estimated about a week.
May 26: they realized it was seriously broken and they needed to order parts. They waited a few days to get a piston, connecting rod, and crankshaft.
May 31: I talked to them again and said don't wait around, just order a new engine.
June 1: They ordered an engine, it was supposed to arrive Monday, June 4.
June 4: No engine.
June 5: No engine.
June 6: "It's still not here, and we don't know why."

which brings us to today, June 7, which is finally the point where even if the engine appeared in front of them, they couldn't fix it up for me in time to go meet my friends Kemal and then Brian. This is also fine; now we consider other options like transporting it (how do you transport a motorcycle?!) or selling it (the bike's owner is cool with this). But like I said, I have to move fast. Every day counts.

Poland is very (96%?) Catholic. So whenever a Catholic holiday comes up, nobody is working. For example, the ninth Thursday after Easter is the Catholic holiday of Corpus Christi. Today is the ninth Thursday after Easter.

Enjoy your holiday!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Bring it on! This wouldn't be any fun otherwise!

My trusty bank, Watermark Credit Union, got bought by Sound Credit Union. I remember an email saying something like "we will send you a new debit card. You should use this instead of your old debit card." But you know, "should" means they won't mind if I wait a month until I'm back in the US, right?

Nope! Last night: it's Monday and my debit/ATM card is now completely unfunctional. I'm in Poland. I have 90 zloty (~ $25) cash. I owe a hostel $80 for 5 nights, and I'm leaving the next morning (Tuesday). On Wednesday I will owe a guy about $550 for fixing the scooter. (This is tricky even in the best of times, because my bank only lets me withdraw $500/day.)

All right, cosmic hand of fate, trickster god out there, let's rumble! Call up bank. (TGIM.) Can you reactivate my card for just a week? Can you overnight a replacement card to Lublin? No and no. They send me to 1-800-VISA-911, which is what it sounds like, except my new bank doesn't participate in their emergency card program. Okay okay. Western union? I guess, but then I've got to ask my family to wire me at least $630, and even that takes... a day? I can do better! Credit card cash advances. I've never used these, because they carry a 3% fee, but they let me withdraw (internet internet...) $500 and $250. Bingo. Of course I set up a PIN before I left home. My wallet is fat and I am happy.

(Except I'm still just waiting on a bike engine to arrive. I think it will be soon, but all the guys can say is "let's hope it arrives tomorrow." Kind of getting sick of waiting on this.)

Monday, June 4, 2012

Calm before the storm in Krakow

I've been here for 4 days now, and this will be the last time I'm in the same city for 4 days in a while.

It's a pleasant place to spend 4 days: nice cafes and restaurants and cool sights. Reminds me of Hampi, India: I arrived somewhat spontaneously to kill some time before my end-of-trip plans start, saw some famous things out of obligation, met other people who were all partying a lot, but personally just relaxed. Both places occupy a strange place in my memory: they're cool spots but I am just too mentally worn out to do anything.

Oh, except I did visit Auschwitz. And I feel weird about that too: a bit sad and rather tired. As soon as I go to any museum and start reading things, my rational brain takes over, and it's not the kind of place best processed by the rational brain.

The sizes of things surprised me. Auschwitz is not big. Maybe 20 buildings that look like about 2 suburban houses each. You can see the whole thing pretty easily. Weird that everything that you've read about Auschwitz happened in that small area. (Well, and at Birkenau, which IS big. But still:) For the amount that has happened there, I expected it to be a whole city.

Next few weeks (fingers crossed): pick up bike in Lublin. Ride 1200km in 4 days to visit Kemal in Heidelberg. Ride 300km back to Munich to return the bike. Get up to NL somehow, meet Brian, head to Amsterdam, Maastricht, maybe Utrecht and the Hoge Veluwe, and Den Haag. Whew!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Let's visit Big Cities in Europe.

It's a bit weird to go back from places that no tourist goes (Lublin, Ivano-Frankivsk, Miskolc, Kecskemet) and places that a few tourists go (Lviv, Pecs, Kosice) back to places where all the tourists go (Prague and Krakow). At first it's refreshing: Back to the Future! Arriving in Prague's central station is like going to the shiny Tomorrowland.

Also, in Big Cities in Europe the central squares are really pretty:

But Prague is all full of tourists, and tourist infrastructure, and tourist "infrastructure", which is kind of soul sucking. Instead of a generally pretty good experience like in a small city in Europe, you get a few really amazing moments (like the Strahov Monastery) and a lot of wondering why are there so many terrible souvenir shops and nightclubs.

Whatever. It's also got good coffee shops. And I got to spend some time with my ever-delightful friend Victoria, whom you might remember from Halloween in Uttarakhand last year. We explored coffeeshops, restaurants, and bars with many basements, cooked amazing zucchini/potato pancakes, and of course played Bananagrams. It was a good couple days.

Now I'm in Krakow, which is another Big City in Europe. It's got a famous salt mine called Wieliczka, which has a lot of tourists and is kind of soul sucking but also really cool. (sensing a theme?)
Here are some gnomes carved out of salt, but what you're really looking for is a photo of the famous underground chapel.

Scooter update: they can't get a new piston, so they're swapping out the whole engine for a new one. ETA Tuesday? Wednesday? It depends on when the engine arrives, so there's nothing they can do, but I hope it is no later than that. :O

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Thoughts on Ukraine and Ukrainianness

First: It is not some backward primitive place. I was ready for it to be, based on Long Way Round, in which Ewan McGregor and his friend Charley notice that all the roads go to pieces and people are driving horses and buggies as soon as they cross the border into Ukraine. (they are later hosted by a vodka-swilling AK-47-owning maybe-mafia guy.) I'd say if Germany is 100% "modern"/just-like-home, Poland and Slovakia are like 90% and Ukraine is 80%. There are just a few weird difficult things in Ukraine, like buying train tickets and managing with Cyrillic. (this makes it also more interesting.)

Second: It's not very culturally different from Poland. I guess eastern Ukraine is. Western Ukraine (for reasonable historical reasons) is not.

Third: so I'm a bit Ukrainian. Okay. Given that it's 80% just like home, I'm not sure if I learned anything. I mean, the guy I stayed with in Lviv was (entirely coincidentally) an almost-coworker at Google. I've seen some old-style houses in Ukraine and in Poland at cultural museums. All this ancestor-following kind of confirms what I imagined: in Poland/Ukraine it's dark and rainy and you make fences out of bent slices of wood because nails are too expensive; in Italy it's beautiful and you hang out on piazzas and drink wine. (guess stereotypes exist for a reason?)

Fourth: well of course people who lived 100 years ago don't have much bearing on my life now. It's just cocktail-party interesting, like Myers Briggs tests or astrology.

Monday, May 28, 2012

I guess I might as well update, given that I'm two countries away

Hi! I'm in Prague. My poor scooter will take another week to fix, and I don't want to miss the chance to visit my friend Victoria in Prague, so I went ahead and did that. Lviv, Ukraine to Zilina, Slovakia to Prague, Czech Republic in just 20 hours.

European trains are different than Indian trains, and I was trying to articulate how, but then I realized it is mostly just this: they are ten times as expensive and half as full.

You can still get tea. (And it's still pronounced "chai".) That is ten times as expensive and half as sugary.

All is well! I feel like an international superhero, hopping countries every three days. It's a tough life, right?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Ivano-Frankivsk and Yaremche: now I am officially Off The Beaten Path

Well... off the American beaten path. I managed my way to a slice of the Ukrainian beaten path.

I went to Ivano-Frankivsk because it was another place besides Lviv in Galicia and there are relatively many couchsurfers there. Then I had a free day there and no idea what to do, but my cheerful host Anna mentioned that a lot of folks come to Ivano-Frankivsk on their way to go hiking (or even skiing) in the Carpathian mountains. And the easiest way to get there was to go to a small town called Yaremche.

Language confusion is sort of the best and the worst here in Ukraine. I guess it is one of the least English speaking places that I might normally go to, at least according to one guy. I muddled through Pimsleur Russian enough that I can invite Mr. Pronin for a beer at Cafe Savor (unless he would prefer wine), but western Ukraine is the most Ukrainian-speaking (and least Russian-speaking) part of the country. Nevertheless, the languages are close enough, and enough people speak both, that you can get by with Russian just fine. ... if your Russian is good enough to also understand Mr. Pronin's response to your invitation, which mine isn't.

In short, it's the hardest place to get around. I know less Polish/Czech/Balkan than Russian, but whenever something serious has come up, there's been an English speaker near enough. Ukraine is the only place where I've felt that we might just have to abort the conversation.

Me, in broken Russian: "Do you going Yaremche?"
Bus driver: something I didn't understand.
Me: "Uh, you travel Yaremche?"
Bus driver: "No."
Me: "Okay, thanks." (gets off bus)
Bus driver and everyone on the bus: kind of looks at me funny out the window
Me: (getting back on bus) "I don't understand. Yaremche, da?"
Bus driver: "Da!"
Me: laughs, sits down.
Bus driver: "Hah! I don't understand!"
Everyone on the bus: laughs.

Anyway, Yaremche was nice. There's a waterfall totally surrounded by souvenir stands. Where am I, Nepal? I guess there's also a nice trail to walk on.

Me: (again, broken Russian) Where is the "way of Dovbush"?
Guy: (laughing) Go autobahn, there. (points to road)
Me: Okay, thanks.
Guy: (still laughing)

Me: Excuse me, where is the Way of Dovbush?
Lady: (pointing, says something I don't understand.)
Me: Uh, okay. (starts walking one way)
Lady: (something else, pointing the other way, the way I just came, where there is clearly no Way of Dovbush)
Me: Oh! Okay. (I start walking the other way, then pause, turn around, and scurry past, the way I was originally going, while she's talking to someone else.)

So I didn't go hiking.

Ivano-Frankivsk is nice too. Anna gave me a thorough tour. It has lots of iron art sculptures, because there's an iron-art festival every year.

It also has this cool pond.
It also has at least one great cafe/wafflery, where I am now, and where I'm going to leave because it's crowded, and I've been sitting here for a long time.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Lviv is a great place to eat and drink.

Over the past day and a half I:
- drank coffee lit on fire (with some liquor) and dripped through metal pipes in an underground coffee mine (which is funny when you think about it)
- had lunch in a bunker dedicated to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which fought against both the Nazis and the Soviets. You have to say the password ("slava Ukraina", or "glory to Ukraine") to enter; Seattle bars take note!
- stumbled into a bar themed on torture instruments. When I was done, the waitress put a wood block on the table with the check on it, then chopped through it with an ax.
- ate dinner at a nice cafe on the central square
- had a drink with some Couchsurfing folks in a 5-story multi-room cafe where each room has a different theme

They really do their theme restaurants/cafes right. Remind me to put this place on my list of "places to go write an app for a week".

Other sightseeing: some churches and museums and stuff. Really cool cemetery. Kept looking for Warcabas, but no luck.

Famous writer Ivan Franco.

Also went to the obligatory high place to get a view of the city:
It's nice here! Very lively; there are some performances and stuff for the upcoming Euro 2012 soccer tournament, and just a lot of people out around town. This is definitely a city where there are old guys playing chess in the park. And everything is cheap. As my CS host Yuriy joked, "when I went to the US, the prices stayed the same, except in dollars instead of hryvnia." 1 dollar = 8 hryvnia.

Moving on today to another Galician city, Ivano-Frankivsk. Careful readers may note that it's named after a famous Ukrainian writer.

Monday, May 21, 2012

"It, uh, problem! Big!"

Shop 1 couldn't fix my bike, so they sent me to shop 2. The guys at shop 2 seem pretty good, they speak English*, and they have a van that can transport my broken bike. I think it's in good hands. They said it'd take until about the end of the week, so tomorrow I'm going on to Ukraine by bus. Hang out there a bit, come back and hopefully pick up the bike in Lublin again, and charge on!

* whenever I say something like this, I want to put a lengthy disclaimer about how "they speak English" is sort of incidental, not the reason that I think it's in good hands. I feel weird pointing it out. Interesting thought: talking about speaking English feels like talking about race.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Here is a sunrise in Lublin.

In Lublin, I've been hanging out with my friend Anu from college, who is now in med school, currently studying for some exams. She also goes to this circus group sometimes. They juggle, spin poi and hoops and staffs, slackline, aerial silk, and other amazing things. So that's cool.

We juggled and spun with them on Friday, then hung out afterward and drank and talked and stuff until the sunrise. (that is not quite so late here; it's summer, it's far north, and it's on the eastern edge of the time zone, so we're talking 3 or 4 AM. still.) Cool folks! They're very friendly, and we can communicate well enough, due almost entirely to their speaking English. Some students, some other young people, all very creative.

Anu and I have also walked around and seen things in Lublin. There is a very cool cemetery. There is also a castle and a pretty old town. (there must be an old town factory in Europe. every city has one. maybe it's the same factory that makes Chinatown gates.)

This is in the cemetery. It's not the castle. Also, that's Anu.

On Saturday night, Anu had to study, and I am on a surprising extra weekend in Lublin because of bike woes, so I juggled and partied with the circusers again. I think I have now seen more sunrises in the past week than I had in the previous 6 months.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Dancing lessons from God, dancing lessons from God

I was just on my way out of Lublin when something sounded kind of explodey in my little scooter's engine. My handlebars got all wobbly and I had to coast to a stop. Luckily, I safely pulled it off to the side of the road. Then it made a noise like a big gnashy metal monster when I tried to start it back up. I suppose I am not going to Ukraine today!

A nice guy at a local car shop called a bunch of scooter mechanics, but they were all closed for the day weekend. (Europe, man! Weekends are serious business. Or rather, serious not-business.)

I clumsily walked it down the road to a scooter shop that I passed. They were just closing up, but they took it and will get to it on Monday.

This is fine. I had to quickly notify a few couchsurfers in Ukraine that I would not be there today and perhaps not at all but I don't know yet. I had to pass on the worrying news about the scooter to John, its German owner. I am inconveniencing my friend Anu and her roommate Tara by staying at their place unannounced for a couple more days. (I am attempting to make up for the last part by cooking them some good food.) But this is life; as a traveler I am continually inconveniencing a lot of people.

It is nice that there's no reason to get all fussed about all this. I am glad that the explodey incident did not go a lot worse, I'm glad that I'm safe and among friends, and I'm glad that today too has had too much life to write down. Thank you for everything, I have no complaints whatsoever.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Poland, where the forests are cold and dark

Do fairy tales come from Poland? I would imagine they do. There are a lot of forests, and they're dark. There are some farms too:

For the last couple days it's been about 50F, overcast, and spots of rain. It's about as cold as I'd want it to get to keep riding, but it's still okay. Yesterday was actually fun: I wanted to get to Lublin (and off the road) as fast as possible, so I drank a bit of coffee and blasted through a Brothers Grimm forest. Unfortunately, I can see where some people get the need for speed. (fortunately, I can't do much about it. also fortunately, 50mph feels pretty fast on my bike.)

Just previously, I stopped in Kolbuszowa, Poland, near Rzeszow, where a couchsurfer named Mateusz kindly invited me to stay with his family. It's a small town, but they have a neat museum area there were you can see how things were in the old days.

And then yesterday, I arrived in Lublin! Probably the northernmost point I'll hit on my bike. It's so far north that the sun comes up at something stupid like 4 AM. My friend Anu is in med school here, and I've arrived just in time to interrupt her studying for finals. I'll hang out here for a couple days, then head to Lviv, Ukraine.

(geez, and I didn't even mention Kosice, second-biggest city in Slovakia, where there was a cool bunch of CSers and a nice old town. life is happening too fast to record. this is a good thing.)

Gear update

Socks are all terrible. Nobody in the world makes a good pair of socks. Pricey ones from Smartwool etc are too warm, and my recent ones (cheap Dockers whatever black socks) have holes after <10 wearings. Replaced with some more nonsense socks by Nike or Umbro or whatever.

My poor shirt has seen the end of its days. I wanted it to last the full year, but after a couple of rips I think that continuing to wear this garment
makes me officially at least a little bit slovenly. Replaced with new khaki colored shirt:

Oh yeah, and due to cold weather, the Cool hat has a new life as the Cool neckwarmer.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

I'm in Poland

Went through Slovakia, spent a nice couple of days in Kosice, and am now in Kolbuszowa, Poland. Look that up on your map!

In short, all's well, Couchsurfing a lot which is mostly great, weather is cold, but the bike and I are still alive, so I'm doing fine. Details later!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Let's Generalize About Hungary!

Here are some things I think about Hungary, after my in-depth research based on four days of being there.

The land: I hate a lot of it. Much of Hungary like a Thomas Friedman book: Hot and Flat. (not crowded, though, thank god.)
Once I got up into the northern part, though, around Eger and Miskolc, it got interesting and hilly and forested and full of castles and pretty.

I think I would have liked Eger (and Lillafured, in the national park between Eger and Miskolc), but I had to speed through as the sun was setting.

The cities: Pecs was pretty cool. Student town, bikers, people out in the main square, etc. Kecskemet and Miskolc were a little less active. As with other post-communist countries, Hungary is full of ugly blocky apartment towers. These are really soul-crushing.

Completely wild speculations about people: I've heard that Hungarians are kind of pessimistic. My hosts agreed with that one. I also heard that Hungarians were really smart (Erdos, Liszt, von Neumann, a bunch of nuclear physicists, etc) and my hosts could neither confirm nor deny that. I think Hungarian art is kind of neat, based on the one museum of modern Hungarian artists I went to. It's all a little blocky and abstract but not minimalist or nuts like Rothko or Pollock. This guy made some neat things. Also, all the restrooms have interesting yet recognizable men/women signs.

Food: again, I know only the junk food. Langos is my favorite Hungarian pastry. No wait, Pogacsa is my favorite Hungarian pastry. Cancel that, Kürtőskalács is my favorite Hungarian pastry. I guess they have goulash and peppers and all sorts of other things, but they do have good pastries.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Nothing ever goes wrong ever.

Today I ran out of gas. Here is why I ran out of gas:
1. I was going through Heves, Hungary, about which my hosts had warned me "you probably don't want to stop there. A lot of gypsies."
2. As soon as I entered said city, my gas tank light went on. But I figured I had another 30km or so.
3. The next town, Fuzesabony, was hard to navigate; I wandered around houses for 15 minutes wondering where the hell the y'know businesses are.
4. Gas station #1 in Fuzesabony was closed.
5. Gas station #2 in Fuzesabony was closed. A couple guys in a truck driving by saw my plight and said "Eger." (Eger was 20km away.)
6. On the road to Eger there was another gas station. Said gas station had no gas. "Benzene. Nem?" "Nem. Eger."
7. 0.5km from Eger, I ran out of gas. It was all downhill from there. I rolled and walked into the gas station. Yessss!

Also today I almost blew up my bike, and some guys in a car worked some magic. Here is how this happened:
1. My battery died because of the gas thing I guess. I try it every five minutes just in case it will magically start working. Nope.
2. I asked the guys at the gas station if they could give me a jump. "Are you sure that would work, from a car to a bike?" "Nope, I'm not sure at all!" (confer confer) "Actually, it will not work. It would make your battery explode." Oh.
3. A guy in a scooter pulled in to get gas, and we convinced him to jump my bike. No luck. "Well, I think it is not the battery then."
4. "Ahh, it is Saturday evening, and all the mechanics are closed. There are mechanics in Eger, but it is Sunday tomorrow and they will be closed too. Do you have anyone you could call?" "Um, not really. Hmm." "Hmm."
5. Another car pulled up. The gas station guy conferred with him. "Can you start the bike?" "Okay, I'll try." It starts up!

Finally, today I almost did a dumb thing, but I was saved because nothing ever goes wrong ever. Here is an internal dialogue of these events.
1. "My bike is running! My bike is running! I will not turn it off until I reach Miskolc, where I am going to sleep. Worst case, I can deal with it in the morning."
2. "Well, the closest route is through the national park. 50km, no sweat."
3. "Boy, those clouds look threatening."
4. (25km into this 50km road) "I wonder why all those cars are stopping. Oh, a truck is on fire in the road. Okay."
5. (pulls over, stops the bike, instinctively turns it off.) "fffffffuuuuuu--"
(long pause while the fire department takes care of the truck on fire in the road.)
6. Nothing ever goes wrong ever, the battery was the problem all along, and it starts back up instantly.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Turns out Sarajevo is really nice and the politics are a hopeless soup

Sarajevo! Do you think of wars and stuff? Don't: that was all 17 years in the past and now it's a really neat place.

Skippable political interlude: Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country, has two parts. They are not "Bosnia" and "Herzegovina." The major ethnic groups in B&H are Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. When Yugoslavia split up, Serbia got most of the Serbs and Croatia got most of the Croats (of course), but some of the Serbs and Croats were living in Bosnia and didn't really want to move, so now they are "Bosnian Serbs" or "Bosnian Croats." There were a lot of Bosnian Serbs, so they set up the "Republika Srpska" within Bosnia and Herzegovina; it's like there are two states within Bosnia and Herzegovina, and RS has 49% of the political power while the "Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina" has 51%. (FoB&H has mostly Bosniaks but also some Croats.) As far as religion, Serbs are mostly Orthodox Christians, Croats are mostly Catholic, and Bosniaks are mostly Muslim.

Whatever! The relevant part for a traveler is that Bosniaks are really friendly. (Serbs and Croats probably are too, but I can't comment as much.) Sarajevo, capital of B&H, and within FoB&H, is a city where you go in to get a minor bike fix, and they not only drop everything to help you, but the owner takes you around sightseeing on his bike and buys you lunch in the meantime.

It is culturally neat, because it's mostly Muslim, but with lots of Orthodox/Catholic things too. Islam came from the Ottomans. Bosniaks are pretty easygoing, and the Ottomans were not terrible rulers, so they mostly adopted Islam, and it worked pretty well. As my couchsurfing friend said, "You go to Paris, you see a lot of things built by kings for kings. Here the kings built things for the people." Examples include the water fountains (like the first picture above) and various Waqfs/vakufs: buildings donated to the common good. Lots of mosques here are waqfs.

The white things in the foreground are a Muslim cemetery. It's a very European Islam: very similar to things that are familiar to us, just a little different.

But time is marching on, so I moved on to Banja Luka, another biggish city in B&H, but this time in the Republika Srpska.

It's cool too. Supposedly the greenest city in former Yugoslavia. Also supposedly there are 7 girls per guy. I think the latter number is inflated, but it is very green.

Twice I saw big groups of old guys playing giant chess in the park. What a great idea! Why are there not giant chessboards (and groups of old guys) everywhere all the time?

Finally, the food here is pretty heavy but surprisingly I love it. A couple of main genres I've been able to enjoy:
- burek. Take fillo dough, roll it around meat ("burek") or cheese ("sirnica") or spinach and cheese ("zeljanica"), then roll that food-stick into a spiral. Served with yogurt to drink.
- cevapi. Spiced meatballs in a pita-ish bread. I guess this is nothing new. I heard that there are no factory farms here. Maybe that's why the meat tastes so good.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

As promised:

Red = past, Green = future, peppers ("paprika" in Europese) = where I'm spending a night. Well, except Ancona and Split; I only spent one night between them, on the ferry.

Croatia! What a nice ride!

Not sure it was entirely worth it to go out of my way to visit Dubrovnik, as I am tired of tourist towns, but here's the thing: I don't know where else to sleep. Especially in Croatia. There are a million rooms along the road, but I am guessing they are all out of my price range. In Dubrovnik, a room costs about 50 euro; I'm sure it's less on the road, but I don't know how much. In a tourist town like Dubrovnik, there is a hostel, which keeps me in the 20-euro range. Oh and I guess it's kind of nice to have an ancient city there to walk around or whatever:

Same with Mostar.

So I guess nowadays I'm thinking:
1. actually talking meaningfully with people who live in a place is probably the best thing to do while traveling
2. hanging out with other travelers is nice too, about equivalent with:
2. walking around and looking at things

For #1, I have Couchsurfing. That's about it; I don't know how else to interact with strangers in a non-customery way. So when I can find a couch, that's a fun thing. When I can't find a couch (and my luck has dried up in Italy, Croatia, and most of Bosnia), I've mostly been looking at things. It is pretty solitary, but not in a bad way. I am kind of enjoying the chance to be totally anonymous.

And it's not like I have a ton of spare time anyway. Riding takes most of the day, by the time I suit up and get out, drive halfway, stop every so often for coffee or lunch or gas (and to get out of my helmet, which hurts after a couple of hours), get lost at least once, maybe end up stuck on a gravel road in the middle of nowhere (hup, today), arrive at my destination, find a place to sleep, and eat some food.

A friend said in an email "hope you're having the best time!" and I was going to reply something wishy washy about how I mean it's pretty good, but sometimes difficult, sometimes lonely, sometimes scary, sometimes worrying (why is the bike so loud recently?), sometimes tiring, and then I stopped, because if I'm going to quibble here, what the hell do I want?! There is a lot going on, I am seeing places and people and times shoot past at 100 figurative miles per hour, and that is the kind of diverse multicolored experience I was aiming for here!

So all's well. Sarajevo seems pretty swell so far too. Good night!