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. ZakrÄ™tka. 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 zakrÄ™tka 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