Universal Traveler

Just a dude with a backpack, a plane ticket, and a nasty case of intercontinental wanderlust.

Location: Minnesota, United States

Monday, October 17, 2005


Well, I think I left all you guys hanging somewhere on an island in Thailand. Obviously, a lot has happened since then, but I don't want to get into details right now. I think it's time for the big picture to finally emerge.

Perhaps the main reason for my silence had to do with me coming to terms with the end of my 9 month odyssey. It was a slow process, one that took a long time to sink in. It finally hit me as I was sitting in a window seat on my flight out of Bangkok and the flight crew started the pre-takeoff ritual (the one with seatbelts and oxygen masks and all that). Then, all of a sudden, I knew it was over, felt it was over, and I couldn't help but shed a few tears. At the time, it seemed like a great loss...the end of the road. That loss, however, has been offset by the incredible gains I have made along the way.

People seem to want to know if I've had some sort of epiphany as a result of my travels...whether I've "found myself," or discovered the secret to life, the universe, and everything. The answer to all those questions, unfortunately, is no. But now that I think about it, none of the other travelers I met along the way had these revelations, either. So I don't think that my failure to achieve nirvana on this trip has made it a "dud" in any way. It seems that it would make more sense to conclude that anyone who transports himself to the highest Swiss peak or the lowest Cambodian river delta and expects to suddenly become enlightened is headed for disappointment.

Despite my lack of any "ultimate wisdom" as a result of this trip, I have learned a few important lessons en route, and these are what I want to focus on for this post. I'll try to keep things as simple and brief as possible:

Value space and silence. This lesson goes hand in hand with countless more practical lessons I learned in the backcountry. The fact is, as more and more of us fill cities across the globe, space and silence seem to be the only remaining commodities that we can't obtain through our on-demand, instant gratification lifestyles. And even when we make concerted efforts to find space and silence, we take our lifestyles with us and suddenly find ourselves unable to appreciate the very things we were looking for in the first place. But when you have the time to slow down and step back, your perspective changes. You're able to appreciate simple things like a drink from a clear, cold stream. Or a cool rain after a long walk. Or a panoramic view from a mountain peak. Or just sitting on a rock, watching the world go by, and realizing that it isn't going anywhere after all! When you realize just how rare these experiences are, you're able to appreciate them more fully, and that's when your soul really benefits.

Everyone you meet has a story. Be a part of it. When you travel, you can't help but notice how your life interesects with those of the people you meet along the way. The act of physically separating yourself from home's typical work/friends/family relationships tends to make you more receptive to creating new ones. Simply taking the time to listen to the stories people share often reveals fascinating aspects of life that you never knew existed. It's amazing how rewarding it can be to discover these stories, and perhaps help in the creation of future chapters.

It's okay to love your home. (Even if that home is America). These days it's very fashionable, especially among my generation, to bad-mouth the USA. Hey, guilty as charged. I will be the first to agree that there are innumerable reasons to jump on that bandwagon: Americans of all stripes do a lot of stupid, destructive shit. But it seems that everyone is so caught up in all this negativity that they completely ignore all the great things that happen here, the things that fly under the radar and don't make the evening news. Even if your relationship with your home country has been suffering, after spending the best part of the year on the road you can't help but acknowledge that it's your home nonetheless, and that maybe, just maybe, there's still a soft spot for it in your heart.

Let freedom be a means to an end, not the end itself. This, I think, is the single most important lesson I learned on the road, and probably the least intuitive one as well. In America, we are part of a culture that is obsessed with the idea of freedom. Politicians invoke it to gain votes. Marketers associate products with it to convince us to buy. Hell, lots of people seem perfectly content to regard "America" and "freedom" as practically synonymous. Freedom is a concept that enjoys nearly unanimous praise across the world. When you get down to it, though, it's really a negative term. You can't have freedom without something "bad" to be free from...otherwise the word would have no meaning. Attaining freedom requires that you successfully escape whatever negative entity it is you're running from.

Before I embarked on my journey, I was practically drunk on the promise of freedom. That, I had decided, was what I was after, and I knew I was in for a lot of it. And I looked at everyone I was leaving behind in the USA, and I saw the things that were keeping them from following me: homes, spouses, children, and so on. I began to regard these things, which have huge, meaningful significance to most people, as little more than anchors, slowing one's pace in the sprint towards total independence.

As I experienced the liberty I'd been dreaming about, in places such as New Zealand's national parks and Norway's high country, I took stock of my situation. Could I be any freer than I was then? Perhaps, but when I extrapolated the concept as far as it could logically go, I came to a harsh conclusion: complete freedom demands complete solitude. That is, the more free you are, the more alone you become.

I realized that when you chase the specter of freedom, you really aren't chasing anything. You're running away. This led me to my next conclusion: if you are going to strive for a goal, strive for something beyond freedom. Rather than searching for what is most free, search for what is best. I know that sounds incredibly nebulous and probably raises more questions than it answers. But I think that this sense of what is best is something that's intrinsic in each of us. And I think that only when we allow this sense to guide us will we be steered toward the personal satisfaction that we all seem to be after.

Hmmmm. Looks like what I actually ended up writing was neither brief nor simple. Oh well.

I guess the only remaining question is, what's next? Well, while I certainly enjoyed my freewheeling, vagabonding lifestyle, the downside of it all is that it's ultimately unsustainable. Which means that I have to go back to work and make a living. But now, at the very least, I can do it knowing that I saw that big "something else" that most people only dare to dream of. I was there. I have the t-shirt to prove it.

As far as this blog goes, I'm tempted to simply take it out of commission. Now that I'm back home, mission completed, there isn't much reason for it to exist anymore. But I think I'll keep it around. While there won't be any more updates, I'll leave the site up to serve as an archive of my trip for anyone interested. And who knows...maybe the highway will call again one day and I'll have some new material to write about. After all, there's always the final verse of the song that inspired this blog:

Just be everywhere at home
Tomorrow is a brand new day
Let's go somewhere else

Until then, this is the Universal Traveler, signing off.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The "Thank You" Post

Before I wrap things up for good, I want to take a moment to thank all those people who helped make this trip great:

Thanks to Mom and Dad for staying remarkably calm and supportive, even after I told them that I was leaving my stable, well-paying job for a temporary stint as a wandering bum. And for contributing to the Blue Steel Memorial Fund.

Thanks to Hopie for setting the wheels in motion.

Thanks to all the great folks who generously offered me a place to stay at one point or another: Joanne, Hanne, Anand and Tammy, Karin, Calci, Nadja, Mikkel and Lasse, Ingar, The Eriksens, Elana and Thor-Eirik, Norbi, Anna, Mira, Emre, Dylan, and Nammon.

Thanks to the New Zealand Department of Conservation. You put those huts in all the right places.

Thanks to Ava for being a fantabulous travel buddy in Morocco. "Where's Ava? Where's Ava?"

Thanks to Søren for introducing me to the word "schwagabond." Usage example: "Shut your cake hole, you goddamn schwagabond!"

Thanks to Eivind Luthen for sending me off in search of Trondheim and, subsequently, glory.

Thanks to those kind Norwegians who refueled me with coffee cake and solbaer juice before my descent into mosquito hell. I don't think I would have made it otherwise.

Thanks to Ana and Demetria for the dog-eating-a-watermelon lighter. That is the coolest souvenir ever!

Thanks to Nammon for integrating me into his radio program. I've never had so much fun yelling "Get 102.5 international hit music!"

And finally, thanks to all you UT readers who followed me on my zany round-the-world trek. Especially those that left comments. Well, except for the homo-erotic ones. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

There's a little Universal Traveler in all of us...

Back home, when I talk to people about my travels, the number one response I get is this:

"Gosh, that sounds amazing. I'm so jealous!!!"

It's a line that every long-term traveler is familiar with, one that's predictable, but also perplexing. It's perplexing because I know that I'm not some sort of travel superhero; I don't have super powers that enable me to be a jet-setter while others can only watch from the sidelines. I have talked to scores of people, with backgrounds similar to mine, who want to travel the world but have convinced themselves that they can't.

It's an attitude that's especially prevalent in America. Here there is simply no cultural precedent of everyday people taking time off to see the world. In New Zealand, it's practically expected that people will have an "OE" (overseas experience) of some type, but back in the States, we have relegated such travels to the realm of students, counterculture dropouts, and the idle rich. There is obviously some sort of a disconnect here.

My point is this: you CAN travel the world. No, really, you can.

I won't spend too much time trying to convince you of this, because there's someone else who can do it better and much more eloquently. That person is Rolf Potts, author of a short but compelling book called Vagabonding. This is a book that inspired me prior to and during my travels. It was good enough for me to read it several times. If you have even the slightest desire to travel the way I did, do yourself a big favor and pick up a copy of this book. It costs less than $10, and you can read it in an evening. Who knows...it may just send you down an exciting path that changes your life forever.

There is a passage from the book that I think encapsulates the overall message:

There's a story that comes from the tradition of the Desert Fathers, an order of Christian monks who lived in the wastelands of Egypt about seventeen hundred years ago. In the tale, a couple of monks named Theodore and Lucius shared the acute desire to go out and see the world. Since they'd made vows of contemplation, however, this was not something they were allowed to do. So, to satiate their wanderlust, Theodore and Lucius learned to "mock their temptations" by relegating their travels to the future. When summertime came, they said to each other, "We will leave in the winter." When the winter came, they said, "We will leave in the summer." They went on like this for over fifty years, never once leaving the monastery or breaking their vows.

Most of us, of course, have never taken such vows--but we choose to live like monks anyway, rooting ourselves to a home or career and using the future as a kind of phony ritual that justifies the present. In this way, we end up spending (as Thoreau put it) "the best part of one's life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it." We'd love to drop all and explore the world outside, we tell ourselves, but the time never seems right. Thus, given an unlimited amount of choices, we make none. Settling into our lives, we get so obsessed with holding on to our domestic certainties that we forget why we desired them in the first place.

Vagabonding is about gaining the courage to loosen your grip on the so-called certainties of this world. Vagabonding is about refusing to exile travel to some other, seemingly more appropriate, time of your life. Vagabonding is about taking control of your circumstances instead of passively waiting for them to decide your fate.

Thus, the question of how and when to start vagabonding is not really a question at all. Vagabonding starts now.

If that doesn't at least get the gears in your head turning, you may be a lost cause. But if that passage resonated even the slightest bit with you, it might be time to start considering travel more seriously. Don't be afraid to think in uncommon ways simply because they're uncommon.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Say WAT???

After several days "languishing" in Bangkok, I finally got off my ass and began my mission to Siem Reap, Cambodia to uncover the mysteries of Angkor Wat. Despite its position on the UNESCO World Heritage list and awe-inspiring beauty, Angkor Wat doesn't get much exposure in the West, so for a brief overview check out this site.

I should preface all this by noting that traveling from Thailand to Cambodia has long been problematic to varying degrees. As my guidebook says, "visiting the Thai/Cambodian border was once suicidal." That's no longer the case, but it still has its idiosyncrasies. Unlike travel within Thailand, nothing is "easy" in Cambodia.

Getting from Bangkok to the Border was simple enough, and I actually made it through Cambodian immigration with no problems. Thankfully, I was able to avoid the well-known "official" SARS clearance form scam. The Cambodian border town of Poipet, while dusty and unattractive, was not as menacing as reports had suggested. So maybe I let my guard down a little bit. Rather than insisting on taking a share taxi from Poipet to Siem Reap, as is recommended, I ended up booking a cheap ticket on a minibus. This was the start of my problems. We left as scheduled at 2 in the afternoon, but somehow I got stuck in a seat over the wheel well, meaning that I had my knees to my chest for the first 3 hours of the ride. Maybe this would have been marginally tolerable if not for one unalterable truth, namely:

The "road" from Poipet to Siem Reap is THE WORST "ROAD" IN THE UNIVERSE.

I say "road" only because I don't think a word exists in the English language that can accurately describe the thing that connects these two cities. It is truly apalling, to say the least. Probably only 5% has any pavement whatsoever, and of that, perhaps 5% is in what might possibly be described as "good condition." The rest of the road alternates randomly between mud bogs, ruts, potholes, and rock fields. Not 5 minutes into the journey, and I was seeing potholes that could kill a car at 20 paces. After 5 more minutes, I lost count. We rattled around helplessly in our minibus, and I felt as though my left lung had shaken loose and gotten tangled up in my small intestine. If I had any fillings, I'm sure I would have lost them. At one point, I decided to record our plight by sticking my digital camera out the bus window and recording a short movie. The result is a surreal little clip showing the bus buck up and down through the pothole minefield while our Cambodian driver whistles the tune to "Dancing Queen" by ABBA. Ask to see it when I get home.

I'm sure I could blabber on endlessly about the pure evil of this road, but the fact is it's impossible for anyone to even fathom until they've ridden it themselves.

Anyways, about halfway through the trip, our driver noticed something he didn't like about the behavior of the minibus, although I don't know how, since I felt like the thing was on the verge of explosion the entire time. So we pull over to a "service station" (i.e., a shack with some tools in it) to see what's the matter. Nothing major, it turns out...only that THE CHASSIS HAS A 3 INCH CRACK IN IT. Back in the USA, this would have instantly totaled the vehicle, sending it scrapyard-bound. In Cambodia, however, this translates into a 30-minute welding job. The mechanic hauled out some random piece of scrap metal, slapped it onto the frame, and sparks started flying. True to his word, in 30 minutes she was "good as new."

By some act of divine intervention, the bus was able to hold together for the rest of the ride...and only once did we have to get out and push to dislodge it from a mud bog! Can you guess how long it took us to traverse the 150 km (93 miles) from Poipet to Siem Reap? How about 10.5 HOURS. That's an average speed of 8.9 miles per hour. Incredible.

Once I finally made it to Siem Reap things settled down considerably, and I launched my multi-day exploration of Angkor Wat. I wish I could post some of the pictures I took of the temples, but the internet cafe I'm at doesn't allow it. Anyways, suffice it to say that it's truly a place of staggering enormity and artistry. The entire site is so huge that you realistically have to hire a tuk tuk or moto in order to see the best parts. Another great thing about Angkor Wat is that almost the entire place is up for exploration, and only a few sections are considered off-limits (mainly because the ruins in these sections are in danger of collapsing at any minute, so I'm not sure I'd want to visit them anyways). You can climb all the steps, peek into every nook and cranny, examine every relief and observe every sculpture. Really nice.

Well, after a few days playing Indiana Jones in Cambodia, I decided to head back to Thailand to begin the final stage of my Southeast Asia travels: beach mode. I am writing from the island of Koh Chang, a mountainous jungle island near the Cambodian border. The beach is beautiful, the water's perfect, and I have a beachfront bungalow that's costing me only $3.75 per night. Can't ask for much more than that.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Waaaaaah! My name is David and I want to see photos! Waaaaaah!

Man, you know a blog is on its last legs when you start seeing sophomoric post titles like that. But, in my defense, David (over at Your Thoughts Exactly) has been consistently critical about my inability to provide a constant flow of eye candy. AND he dropped an unprovoked low blow asserting that I only visit "white" countries. Well, correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe Whitey is definitely in the minority in places like, say, Morocco and Turkey and Thailand and Cambodia. In fact, I am noticing a distinct shortage of cracker-ass crackers here in Bangkok.

So here are your precious photos, Dave. Now would you please kindly go to hell?







HA! Just kidding about all that. You didn't really think I was an axe-grinding sociopath, did you? DID YOU?!?!?

On to the pictures!

The first set is from a canal cruise I took during my first few days in Bangkok. A local CouchSurfer chartered a longtail boat and invited Nammon (the guy I was CouchSurfing with) and myself along. Who were we to refuse?

This sight greeted us upon reaching the ferry pier. Did you know that Thailand has one of the highest rates of canine lung cancer worldwide?

This is the type of boat we rode in:

This monk was sweeping up outside a monestery we passed along the way. I'm not sure what he was burning...his own abandoned desire, perhaps? That would be a pretty cool Buddhist parlor trick:

Apparently there's something about canal cruises at sunset that cause me to grin like an idiot:

Hauling ass back to the pier:

The next two shots are from the ruins at Ayutthaya, which used to be the capitol of Thailand. I think they're pretty much self-explanatory:

I took the next several photos during a motorbike ride through the mountains around Pai and Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

Said motorbike. These Honda Dream 100cc bikes are ubiquitous all over Thailand. Despite being underpowered, they are pretty fun to ride. This particular one was quite good to me during the few days I rented it. In fact, I believe it to be the latest reincarnation of the spirit of Blue Steel. I think I shall call him...Black Steel:

Rice fields near Pai:

The road to Soppong:

The last three shots are just garden variety tropical paradise shots I took on Koh Tao. No additional explanation is needed:

A Slight Change of Plans

Judging from my previous post, one would probably assume that my target destination for the near future is Laos. After all, it's a Lao visa that I've been waiting for all these days, right? Well, as the Flaming Lips might say, "suddenly everything has changed." Turns out I won't be going to Laos after all. Instead, I will go to Las Vegas.

Doesn't make very much sense, does it? Let me explain how this all happened.

While I was waiting for my Lao visa to process, I didn't feel much of an urge to go out and "see stuff," as I had already seen everything that I deemed worth seeing in Bangkok. (Not a very good attitude). So I spent most of my days...well, languishing. That's the best term I can think of to describe it. I think most people who have been here would agree that Bangkok is not a very good city to languish in, for reasons too numerous to get into here. But the end effect of it all was to put me in a rather pensive, reflective mood.

I started to ask those uncomfortable questions that travelers (universal or otherwise) tend to avoid. Questions such as Do I really want to go where I've planned? and Am I truly interested in this place? and Do I have the energy necessary to do these places/sights/experiences justice? and Just what the hell am I doing here anyway?

To which I answered "not really," "I don't think so," "probably not," and "gee, I really don't know," respectively.

I should also mention that I have observed a strange recurring phenomenon throughout my travels, whereby I might be hanging out in any particular location, having a good time, and then the mood suddenly turns stale and I get restless. This phenomenon culminates with me thinking to myself (pardon my French), "Christ, I've got to get the fuck out of here." Which I do. It's just that in the present scenario, "here" turns out to be anywhere other than home.

I initially assumed that there would come a time when I would realize I had traveled long enough. I had no idea when it would come, but I figured I'd run into it eventually. However, the longer I traveled without an inkling of such a feeling, the more I started to wonder if I was one of those folks that could travel indefinitely. A nomad. It's an intriguing thought, but a false one, apprently.

By now, I'm sure you can tell where all this is going. For better or for worse, it's time for me to go home.

David Byrne of The Talking Heads once elucidated the present feeling very precisely in a song called "What A Day That Was." Here's a lyrical snippet:

And if you feel like you're in a whirlpool
You feel like going home
You feel like talking to someone
Who knows the difference between right and wrong

And on the first day, we had everything we could stand
ooooooOOOOOOOooooooh, and then we let it fall
And on the second day, there was nothing else left at all
ooooooOOOOOOOooooooh, what a day that was

Oh, I almost forgot about the whole Las Vegas thing. When I called home to tell my parents that I'd be returning early, they mentioned that they were planning on going to Las Vegas (as a jumping-off point for visiting the Grand Canyon) in early October, and would I like to come along? Well, that sounded like good ol' wholesome family fun, so I jumped on the bandwagon. So on October 4 I'll be trading Bangkok for Sin City.

In the meantime, I have to make the best of my remaining time in SE Asia. Tomorrow I'm making the eastward slog to Siem Reap, Cambodia, which is the "base" for visits to Angkor Wat. I will admit that I'm not 100% gung-ho on the plan but, after all, it is supposed to be one of the most impressive sights in Asia, and apparently each year it becomes increasingly overrun by Japanese/Korean package tourists. I think it would be nice to see it before the highly unnatural presence of peace-sign-flashing, "Hello Kitty"-clad teenie-boppers is too much to bear.

After that, I think it would be the perfect time to find a nice, secluded beach on some coastal island. As luck would have it, this is pretty easy to do in Thailand. One last chance to lay out in the sun, collect my thoughts and otherwise while the hours away.

So I guess things are winding down, for my travels and for this blog. You can probably expect future posts to be less action-packed and more introspective than those in previous months. I think this is a natural consequence of my own effort to sort out the past 8 months and come up with some conclusions.

We'll see how that goes.

Sunday, September 11, 2005


Okay, I have a confession to make. You know how the "LOCATION:" heading of this blog has said "GOREME, TURKEY" for the past several weeks? Well, that is a lie. I haven't been in Goreme, or Turkey, or even Europe for that matter.

My current location? Bangkok, Thailand.

Yes, it's time I came clean. There is one last regional stop on the Universal Traveler itinerary, and that stop is Southeast Asia. Why did I choose to come here? Well, for a variety of reasons. First, it's nothing like New Zealand or Europe. Second, although it seems wildly exotic to most Americans, Southeast Asia is actually a well-traveled backpacker destination by global standards. Third, everything is dirt cheap here, and it's more or less the only region left on the globe (short of sub-Saharan Africa and select South American countries) that I can afford.

At the moment, I am stuck in Bangkok waiting for my Laos visa to be processed. This will take at least two more days, during which I'll try to fill in the blanks about my first three weeks in Thailand. But here's a small taste of what I've been up to so far:

I have...

  • ...skanked to the sounds of a Thai ska band, as improbable as that sounds.
  • ...been given ten seconds of airtime on a Bangkok pop radio station.
  • ...sat next to a saffron-robed monk on a regional bus ride.
  • ...discovered the taste sensation that is the banana pancake.
  • ...driven a motorbike through the mountains northwest of Chiang Mai.
  • ...pushed said motorbike to just over 100 km/hour on straightaways (if you are my mom, don't read that last sentence).
  • ...scuba dived among the coral reefs off the coast of Koh Tao.

Details (hopefully) forthcoming.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

You can't go back to Constantinople...

...but you can go to Istanbul, which is exactly what I did after Hungary. It's an intriguing city, I must say. Just taking a cab ride around town, you're constantly taking in views of enormous mosques perched on various hillsides. The Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia (although it is no longer used as a mosque) are the most famous/grand of these. The city is also littered with various ancient buildings and relics, including the cistern and hippodrome. But hey, you can read about all that stuff in any Turkey travel brochure, so I figure I'll try to provide some alternative perspectives:

FOOD: Believe it or not, the food I enjoyed most in Istanbul was...the ice cream. Or dondurma as they call it there. You can get it from typically cheeky vendors at sidewalk stalls all over the place. The interesting thing about dondurma is that it has a sticky, almost chewy texture to it that is unlike any ice cream I've tasted previously. These physical properties enable the vendor to perform all kinds of tricks with the ice cream, including swinging huge chunks of it through the air with their serving/stirring/kneading paddles and twirling ice cream cones around as tourists try in vain to grab for the cone. Granted, this routine gets old after a couple tries, but the ice cream still tastes good.

While I'm still on the topic of food, let me let you in on a discovery I made in Istanbul that shocked me to the core. A little background: In Europe, it is possible to get a Turkish-style snack known as a doner kebab in just about any city, in any country. A doner kebab is essentially some gyro- or shoarma-like meat between two pieces of bread with lettuce, tomato, onions, and various sauces. They are generally cheap and very tasty, which means that I ate a lot of them. Perhaps too many. Anyways, once I realized that doner kebabs had infiltrated every corner of Europe, I decided to find out which region produced the best ones. So, in every city I visited, I resolved to try a local doner kebab, subjecting them to the most rigorous quality criteria. Before I came to Turkey, Berlin was in possession of the "World's Best Doner Kebab" title belt. The one I had there was meaty, juicy, saucy and, perhaps most importantly, huge. But this was no surprise to me...I believe that Berlin actually has the 4th highest Turkish population of any city in the world, being bested only by Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. So it figures that Berliners could turn out a mean doner kebab. But it was my assumption that the creme de la creme of doner kebabs was to be found in Istanbul. I mean, it's a Turkish food, right? Well, it turns out that I was horribly mistaken. I gave Turkey several chances to prove itself worthy of the doner kebab crown, and it failed miserably on every try. The Turkish doner kebab, I found, was basically the antithesis of the Berlin version: small, dry, and just not very tasty. People have since told me that the doner kebab was actually invented in Berlin, that the concept of putting kebab meat between two slices of bread had previously not existed in Turkey. Well, this may be the case, but I still don't think this excuses such a terrible all-around showing. C'mon, Turkey! Let's get with the program!

THE BUS RIDE FROM HELL: Christ, just writing about this unfortunate story makes me cringe. I decided to take a brief two-day detour from Istanbul to the Kappadokya region, known for it's impressive "moonscape" geological formations. The 11-hour bus ride out there was pleasant enough, and I enjoyed my stay while I was there. The night bus back to Istanbul, however, was a complete nightmare. It started with my assigned seat: in the very back row, where they try to squeeze 5 seats in where there should normally be 4. On top of that, they put some fat Turkish guy next to me, who was so corpulent that there was essentially no way he could sit without him resting his sweaty elbow on my chest. Very, very uncomfortable. By around 2 in the morning, I had decided just to give up trying to sleep, although I drifted off eventually. When I woke up (around 6 AM), I had, shall we say, a "gut feeling" that caused me great alarm. Yes, folks, it was the onset of The Shits. Something I had eaten back in Kappadokya (probably one of those damn doner kebabs) was not agreeing with me. As my old boss Alan would have said, it was fighting back. With a vengeance. Normally this would not be a huge issue, except for the fact that this bus didn't have any sort of a toilet on board. So I went up to the driver and asked him to pull over at his earliest convenience. Almost as soon as I said this, traffic on the freeway began to slow down to a crawl. A traffic jam. (I later discovered that this was the result of a truck overturning several KM up the road). My worst fears had been realized. Total gridlock, and I had nowhere to go. It was becoming increasingly difficult for me to avert disaster, with "urges" coming in waves that had me straining with all my might. I think I came close to fainting at one point. It got so bad that I actually asked the bus driver to just open the door so I could go over to the side of the road and do my business. Think about that for a moment. I was so incredibly distressed that I was actually entertaining the thought, nay, begging for the opportunity to drop trou and empty my bowels in front of hundreds of horrified onlookers. Well, by some miracle I was able to make it through the traffic jam to the next rest stop, at which point I sprinted to the men's room only to find both stalls occupied. So I just went next door to the women's bathroom. Perhaps this might be labeled "culturally insensitive" in a country where Islam is practiced by 90% of the populace, but if given the choice between cultural insensitivity and colonic explosivity, I'll take the former every time.

Alright, I'll be honest with you: After spending a good chunk of time writing this post up to this point, I really don't feel like writing any more. Not that I didn't have a great time in Turkey, of course. If you want the whole story, you can always ask me when I get home.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Hungary Redux

Once again, I have done a God-awful job of posting regularly, so I'm just going to do a brief recap of my Hungarian travel experience. My time in that country was divided between two cities: Budapest and Pecs (pronounced "paych"). I spent about 7 days in Budapest and 2 days in Pecs.

With Budapest, it was great to spend a good chunk of time in one place and really get to know the city. I found that it had fewer communist-era leftovers than Prague, but it seemed to have an intriguing split personality of sorts. Depending on what neighborhood you were in, you could definitely see whether the people there had vigorously embraced the full-throttle capitalism of the 90s, or lagged behind, stuck in the "old ways." I saw a surprising number of Ferraris and Lamborghinis while I was there.

Budapest was also special for me because I got to CouchSurf with not one, not two, but THREE different Budapesters! One of the things I like most about CouchSurfing is that every time I stay with a local somewhere, I end up doing things that I would never have even thought to do otherwise. For example, on my first night I went with my host to what was probably the most interesting bar I have ever visited. It was housed in what was essentially an abandoned, gutted factory complex. The bar itself was in the courtyard, but if you felt so inspired, you could freely wander through the buildings, maneuvering in darkness up stairways and around piles of trash. At one point we ended up on top of one of the highest buildings, looking down on the bar bustle below. Unrefined, perhaps, but definitely unique.

With another host, I went to a local cafeteria that served up traditional homestyle Hungarian food. Basically, Budapest's version of Boston Market. Budapest Market, perhaps? Hungarian cuisine is typically very rich, very hearty, full of paprika, and served in very large portions. Some people say that every Hungarian recipe begins by sauteeing onions in butter. Which may be true. Still, very tasty and very filling. Afterwards, we went to a local bar which happened to be doing a karaoke night. Hungarian karaoke is, for those who have not experienced it, a very interesting sight to behold. Probably 75% of the songs sung were Hungarian rock 'n' roll tunes, influenced heavily by Elvis, Chuck Berry, and other early rockers. I asked my host for a brief synopsis of the lyrical content, which was somewhere along the lines of "I love my girl, she is so beautiful, we have so much fun together, blah blah blah..." So nothing revolutionary, but it definitely inspires Hungarians to get on stage and make fools of themselves.

Pecs was a big change of pace from Budapest. It's basically a rural outpost with some interesting history (it was once an Ottoman stronghold), one of Hungary's universities, and a cute, squeaky-clean town center. Honestly, I probably wouldn't have gone there if it weren't for the fact that I was meeting my friend Anand (of Utrecht fame) and his girlfriend Tammy there. A particularly interesting (if somewhat harrowing) aspect of my visit was my accommodation. I ended up staying in one of the town's university dormitories, as most of the actual students were on summer holiday. The room itself was nice enough...it actually reminded me a lot of Liggett 2, my freshman dorm floor. Things took a turn for the worst when I visited the bathrooms. As far as I could tell, they hadn't been cleaned since the students had left in the spring. One of the stalls looked as though a stick of shit dynamite had been placed in the toilet and detonated, creating a scene that would have brough a tear to Jackson Pollock's eye. So basically, I resolved to take care of all my bodily functions in town. On the bright side, I only paid $5 per night for the bed. Maybe that's a fair tradeoff.

So that was Hungary, in a very tiny nutshell. After that, I flew from Budapest to...Istanbul! Which takes me to my next post...

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Random thoughts on Norway

LET'S BOUNCE: For some reason, Norwegians seem to own a lot of trampolines. I know, it sounds strange, but I've seen plenty Norwegian yards in my time here, and an awful lot of these yards feature big, blue trampolines. I have formulated a few theories as to why this might be the case:

  • Norwegians have difficulty understanding the Theory of Gravity, and the only way they can grasp it is by empirically observing its results. They do this by repeatedly attempting to launch their bodies into deep space, only to be pulled back to Earth each time. What device makes all this possible? You guessed it: the trampoline. After spending several weeks bouncing away perplexedly, the Norwegian eventually has an epiphany, and the Theory of Gravity is understood. He/she then celebrates with a $12 beer.
  • In order to remain outdoors for any length of time, Norwegians must remain in bouncy perpetual motion in order to avoid the hordes of pterodactyl-like mosquitos.
  • Norwegian women like to welcome overseas visitors by donning skimpy clothing, bouncing on trampolines, and giggling, a la The Man Show's "Girls Jumping on Trampolines." (I am still waiting for this to happen).

THE GASP: This one truly perplexes me. You know how when Americans have a conversation with somebody, they might say "yeah" or "uh huh" as an expression of affirmation, or simply to let the speaker know he/she is listening? Well, in Norway, they don't say "yeah" or "uh huh," even when they're speaking English. Instead, they make a bizarre noise that I have never heard anywhere else. It's basically a combination of "yah" and a quick gasp. It's like they're trying to say "yah," but they get confused and inhale instead of exhale. When I first heard this sound, I thought I was saying something shocking or offensive, which surprised me because I figured train schedules would be the last thing to offend anybody. Then I started hearing people using it EVERYWHERE! If someone can explain this to me, please do.

KRONER? I HARDLY EVEN KNOW HER!: The kroner (crown) is the Norwegian unit of currency. I hate to beat a dead horse, but if you ever visit Norway, don't get to attached to them as you'll be parting company with an awful lot of kroners in various denominations. While here, I asked around and determined that Norway is almost unanimously regarded as the most expensive country in Scandinavia (including Iceland). I also found out (from people who had visited both countries) that Japan is slightly cheaper than Norway. This settled it for me: Norway is, without a doubt, the most expensive country on the planet. I mean, think about it. The only other countries that could possibly come close would be the other Scandinavian countries and Japan, and Norway apparently bests them all. Most Norwegians don't seem too worried about this, probably because they (or their government, at least) are sitting on a ridiculous amount of oil wealth. Another mind-boggling example of how expensive it is here: On more than one occasion, I have paid the equivalent of $1.54 to use a pay toilet. I shit you not (pun definitely intended).

THE ARYAN NATION: Norway has the reputation of being chock full of beautiful, blonde-haired, blue-eyed people. I found this to be only partially true. I will say that Norway certainly has a higher per-capita allocation of physical beauty than most places I have lived in or visited, but I was also surprised to find a large number of rather homely bumpkins running about. On several occasions, I was unable to tell whether an individual was a native Norwegian or a German tourist (not a good thing). So, in my opinion, the overall beauty title resides with...Denmark. If you have read my previous posts, you probably gathered that I was, shall we say, "smitten" with the Danish womenfolk. I have decided (and I think archeological and anthropological evidence will bear this out) that Denmark is the "nexus of hotness" in Europe: the epicenter from which European beauty radiates. I will be publishing my findings in the next issue of "Nature."