Thursday, January 01, 2009

A Clove of Truth: Stinging Yet Clarifying.

My most sincere apologies to you all for such a prolonged absence from this, my Diary. I shall recommence regular postings presently. In the meantime, I would like to direct your attention to one of the greatest reasons for why I have been so silent as of late... I have helped launch a new online satirical publication, The Garlic Press, in order to challenge The Onion's unethical monopoly on reporting the fake news. I invite you all to join me and my partners as we celebrate our First Edition on this First Day of the New Year! (As an added bonus for the curious, I have forfeited my nom de guerre while serving as an editor and correspondent for this new venture.)

Happy 2009, Dear Readers! May this coming year provide us with all that we have lacked in the one now past.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Brokedown Budapest.

Ah, Budapest. Famed throughout the world for its beauty, this city is practically impossible to classify; riddled with paradoxes, it is a spot where the Christian West met and clashed with the Islamic East, and today its Neoclassical estates and Bauhaus townhouses mingle chaotically with its opulent Turkish baths. Little physical evidence remains of Budapest's medieval past... the cost of being such a coveted prize in the imperial wars of Turks and Hapsburgs, and then later in the airstrikes and sieges of the Second World War. Adding further to this urban identity crisis are the drably imposing blockhouses, the legacy of the city's hurried reconstruction under the post-war Communist regime. The finishing touch to Budapest's unique flair is the fact that it is split in two, straddling the vast river Danube, Buda's fortress on Castle Hill watching, ever vigilant, over the bustling streets of streets of Pest on the other bank.

My first day strolling down this streets, I found Budapest so breathtakingly gorgeous that, at one point in my excursion, I moaned aloud in admiration. Should I ever marry, I promised myself, I would insist on honeymooning here. As I stood at the midpoint of one of the city's three bridges spanning the Danube, gazing at the Gothic, palace-like Parliament, the past centuries flooded my senses, filling me with awe, as well as gratitude that I should have the opportunity to see all this with my own eyes.

My second day strolling down these streets, I accidentally strolled right into the middle of an extremist hate rally... without realizing it. I initially thought it was some sort of parade, what with all the cordoned-off streets and toddlers cheerfully waving red-and-white striped flags. The heavy (and heavily armored) police presence made me reconsider this first impression, and when the main event—an irate mob shouting slogans and delivering salutes reminiscent of those seen in old fascism documentaries—appeared, I was forced to completely overhaul it. I observed more of those striped flags in this group, now draped like capes over the shoulders of youths dressed in black and wearing ski masks. Feeling somewhat of an outsider to the enthusiasm of the crowd surging around me, I snapped a few hasty photos and then got the hell out of there. Considering what I learned happened later, my decision turned out to be a prudent one. This strike force, members of a radical right party, met up with another set of demonstrators—a combined gathering of nonviolent activists for tolerance and Roma campaigning for their rights—and decided to express themselves politically, attacking first the pacifists (hardly a fair fight, if you ask me) and subsequently the riot police who attempted to stop them. Several dozen canisters of tear gas later, the demonstration was halted, its members scattered after a hearty effort to spread their compelling message of "saving" Hungary—apparently by destroying it (the numerous vandalized cars and shops along the avenue they marched on can attest to this).

Feeling a need to unwind, I took a retreat to the Széchenyi Baths, the largest thermal bathhouse in Budapest, offering an array of indoor and outdoor pools with water temperatures ranging as high as 104°F. A crippling sense of exhaustion, coupled with a loss of direction, had crept up from nowhere and overtaken me: my next stop, after a three-day exploration of Budapest, was to be Croatia, but here it was already the middle of Day Five in Hungary's capital, and I still had made no effort to move from my plush hostel. Quite simply, in spite of my encounter with the neo-fascists, I did not want to leave Budapest. I enjoyed wandering its wide avenues by day, and slurping goulash and sipping sweet white wine by night. Weeks spent traveling alone, answerable to no one but myself, and now I was beginning to chafe against even my own vague, self-assigned itinerary. The pressure to make the most of each country, each city, see and do everything I was "supposed" to... all of this was burning me out.

What if I don't want to go to Croatia? I wondered as I floated in warm, watery meditation. I had, after all, started this voyage with the intention to travel freely, no obligation and no schedule. Hell, the only reason I added Croatia to the list was because every single person in the States who found out I was backpacking around Eastern Europe had eagerly asked me, "So, you're going to Croatia, right?" to the point that I had started to worry there might be some kind of secret I was missing out on there. And now it seemed like most backpackers I had met went there to party on the beach—a somewhat sad activity to try on your own. (To any Croatians out there who may be reading this, I mean no offense—I am sure yours is a fine country.) Okay, Croatia's out, I decided with a (dignified and authoritative) splash. We'll save it for Eurotrip 2: The Revenge. But where to go now? I couldn't stay indefinitely in Budapest; that would defeat the entire idea of backpacking AROUND Eastern Europe. Tomorrow, then. I'm leaving tomorrow. I'll figure out where when I get to the train station. All I knew is that I had a plane to catch out of Prague on October 3...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mama Said There'd Be Days Like This.

The day started off badly when I awoke in the bathtub. This was around 5AM, and I was not certain what had made me decide to curl up there, fully clothed, in the hostel's bathroom for the night; but I knew I didn't want to stay there, so I quickly pried out my contact lenses (by this point solidly adhered to my eyeballs), washed my face, and snuck into the dormitory next door. I figured I would sleep late, perhaps until 10AM, then go normally about my day in downtown Budapest.

When I did get up, after 11 o'clock, it was with a vicious Harpy of a hangover. How could this be, I asked myself, when I don't remember over-indulging last night? Then again, I didn't remember what had inspired me to crawl into the bathtub either, so I was going to have to accept the fact that I had indeed drunk too much and figure out how to get through the next few hours as painlessly as possible. This, I realized too late, is what comes of putting that old adage "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" into practice, and going out the previous night with a group of hard-drinking Australians and Irish to experience the city's nightlife.

An hour and a large mug of coffee later, I was still feeling god-awful, the inside of my head pounding like a punk drummer. Too much acidic caffeine on an empty, uneasy stomach is a bad idea, it turns out, and I was forced to retreat to the bathroom and converse extensively with the toilet. Great, I thought, there is no way the hostel receptionist missed hearing that, so now my current condition is obvious to all. I opted to return to bed and nap for a couple hours in order to relieve my headache (that was by now tempting me to rip out my own eyes), desperately hoping that my body would give me adequate warning should it require a return to the bathroom.

I slept all goddamn day. Or at least I stayed in bed for that duration. Much of the time there was spent mentally whimpering over my throbbing skull, alternately freezing or sweating under the covers, and cursing the over-affectionate couple sharing the room with me for their obnoxiously loud kissing and pillow talk. (Come on, people, this is what private rooms are made for!) Finally, around 6:30 in the evening, I arose and washed, determined to eat something and not allow an entire day in Budapest to pass by un-enjoyed. I decided to dine at the restaurant most recommended in town by my Lonely Planet guide, which turned out to be a mere five-minute walk from my lodgings.

Note to self, and to others: telling your body, "Fuck you, I am going to enjoy myself, whether you like it or not," then ordering a thick, creamy garlic soup for an appetizer—all shortly after having been physically ill—will NOT convince your body that you, and not it, are in control of the situation. I had just taken a second bite of my main course (a savory roasted pork and potato dish with vegetables) when my stomach strongly suggested that I figure out where this classy restaurant's classy restroom might be. Stumbling past the bemused hostess, annoyed waiters and oblivious diners, I eventually found the door with the desired "man" symbol, reminded every step of the way by my roiling midsection that I did not have much longer to delay. Resolute that I would not lose my dignity in front of Budapest's Sunday-evening crowd, I threw open the door, rushed past the one person standing at the urinal and into a blessedly free stall. Then, in absolute agony now, I proceeded to wait, hovering uncertainly over the porcelain bowl, still determined to not have one more witness to my misery. I don't know what the hell this guy was doing at his urinal, but my ears informed me that he was not using it for its intended purpose, nor was he leaving. Finally, defeated, I again leaned over the bowl and released the contents of my rich meal into (and slightly onto) it. Naturally, even in my distracted state, I could still hear the disgusted scoff of the man at the urinal, apparently believing the sounds emanating from my stall to be of a somewhat different nature. Having thus done his part to ensure my embarrassment, he finally left the restroom... and it was then that I discovered I had chosen a stall bereft of toilet paper.

Refusing to end the evening by abruptly fleeing the premises, I hid in the stall until a lull in the human traffic occurred, at which point I bolted out to the sink area and scavenged a handful of paper towels, returning to the scene of the crime with my contraband. A few passes with absorbent papers and the area was as good as new—and I even remembered not to flush them, gracefully sidestepping a potentially even more public disaster. Somewhat more composed, thanks to this triumph, I returned to my table freshened and refreshed, and—amazingly—managed to finish my meal without further incident. I even pushed my luck and bought an ice cream cone while taking a post-dinner evening constitutional down Budapest's scenic boulevards. Ah, to be young and to live dangerously.

Now, why did I decide to share this rather personal story with you (you may wonder)? Well, in part, to advise readers against drinking to the point that passing up your bedroom for the bathroom seems like a good idea. That, and I rather enjoyed having the opportunity to write a piece with such an unusual opening line. It turns out that there is a silver lining to regrettable moments resulting from decisions made under the influence, after all.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Where the Wild Things Are?

If, as a distant church bell tolled midnight, in a room illuminated by a single candelabra, the flames causing shadows to flicker and writhe across the walls, while the wind moaned outside and rattled the windowpanes, I put my lips to your ear and softly whispered into the darkness one word, "Transylvania," what would run through your mind? (Sure, probably "What the hell are you trying here? Get the $@#! off of me!" But besides that, I mean.) Odds are that images of decrepit castles clutching at forbidding mountaintops would rise unbidden from your subconscious; or perhaps a pack of wolves stalking through a misty forest under the pales moon, a cloud of screeching bats swarming up into the night... and almost certainly a dark-haired, sinister aristocrat flashing a beguiling, hungry smile. Something along those lines, yes?

Well, the first thing I noticed as my train pulled into the city of Braşov, my first stop in Transylvania, was the giant Hollywood-style "BRASOV" sign propped up proudly on the mountain overlooking the town. I realized then that the only bloodsuckers I was likely to encounter here were the ravenous-looking taxi drivers lining up outside the train station, already sizing up me and my backpack.

Happily, I soon discovered that much of the rest of Braşov has been left unmolested by the groping hands of "Progress." Warding off aggressive cabbies with the sign of the cross, I caught a bus to the city's historic district, where, among cobbled streets winding around lovingly-preserved traditional houses, I found my hostel, all of this presided over by the Black Church, a looming Gothic cathedral (so-named because of the makeover it received from a fire centuries ago). Braşov's residents have done an excellent job of retaining its antiquated aspects, making it an interesting destination for sightseers, without going too far and turning it into a soulless theme park. The one exception here—other than the tacky sign*, of course—was the restaurant recommended to those visitors seeking traditional Romanian cuisine (if "traditional" does indeed mean jacking up the prices and dressing the waiters in peasant garb). I tagged along with a few Aussies for this experience, but our attempt to dine here was thwarted by our collective aversion to "turbo-folk," a popular style of music here that, to my ears, sounds like a Looney Tunes-inspired techno polka. After less than five minutes at our table, we all bolted while our serflike server's back was turned, and opted instead for another popular Romanian dish: pizza.

Transylvania is a region difficult to catalog; through the ages it has been claimed by numerous peoples and nations. Today is population is mainly made up of a combination of ethnic Germans, Hungarians, and Roma (the minority formerly known as Gypsies), in addition to those of Romanian descent. In an effort to better understand this melting pot—and sometimes clash—of culture, I sought aid from representatives of yet another minority group in this land, this one an endangered species: the Romanian Peace Corps volunteers. Yes, Peace Corps is here too; you will find that, if you look hard enough, we are just about everywhere. Like the American middle class, however, this brand of Peace Corps volunteer is slowly fading into myth and legend. As the countries of Eastern Europe continue to develop, or join the EU, Peace Corps is being phased out of the area. I found these guys to be an odd bunch—inhabiting apartments with electricity, running water and often DSL internet, instead of the mud-brick huts with bucket baths that I associate with Peace Corps—but very hospitable.

After my performing a sort of Transylvanian tango—sweeping around to explore medieval castles and fortresses, interspersed with visits to towns inhabited by American volunteers, but always ending up back in Braşov—curiosity led me further afield, out of Transylvania and into Maramureş, the northernmost region of Romania. This part of the country, long walled off from the outside world by the Carapathian Mountains, is one of the last areas in Europe where rural peasant culture still exists—thrives, even—and it was here that I met some Peace Corps volunteers whose experiences I could relate to more easily (with respect to isolation and limited transport). I had originally considered giving this out-of-the-way region a miss, but I am now grateful I made the effort; my flagging enthusiasm and energy were completely rejuvenated by apples plucked straight from the tree in mountain orchards and stimulating conversation with my hosts over glasses of ţuică, the throat-scorching local plum-brandy. And so I returned to Transylvania yesterday, refreshed and ready for more excursions. I am currently based in the northern city of Cluj-Napoca (not Braşov!), but come 3:30AM I will be railbound for the baths of Budapest, my romp through the Romanian wilds finally come to an end.

I should add that, although I admit to getting a thrill from riding a midnight train past the Borgo Pass made famous by one Jonathan Harker, after a few days in Transylvania you tend to forget those fanciful tales of undead fiends chasing scantily-clad maidens through the gloom. There are just so many interesting real attractions to this region, you eventually stop letting your imagination run away with you and accept the fact that vampires are simply the stuff of enjoyable fiction.

Now if only the same could be said for all these goddamn werewolves....

* In its defense, at least you are allowed to hike up the mountain and touch this sign. Some readers may recall, I got chased by an LAPD helicopter the one time I tried this with the atual Hollywood sign.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

My Hostel for a Dingo.

This trip is turning into quite the educational tour. One interesting fact I have learned is that during the summer months Eastern Europe becomes home to roving groups of young Australian backpackers. Correction: make that roving HORDES of young Australian backpackers. I think that I may have run into more denizens of Down Under than I have actual locals. I wouldn't mind this so much, since my fellow travelers have been (mostly) warm and welcoming, but the rub is that their good cheer is being fueled by the consumption of massive amounts of beer. From what I have observed, it is a rite of passage for Australian youths, upon graduating from university, to tour the whole of Europe for a year... all the while in the grips of a grueling, never-ending bender. A few months in, by the time they reach the eastern region of the continent, most of them are well into the ugly thick of this [your expletive here]ing bar crawl. As such, when they are not partying, they are comparing notes on the best cities to party in, as well as the various nationalities of the girls they've, er, "known" thus far on the trip, and where the easiest, prettiest girls can be found (Belgrade, by overwhelming consensus). Now, it just so happens that my list of planned lodgings corresponds almost exactly with the bulk of theirs, so I am now taking a break from trekking in order to heavily revise my itinerary, so my path will intersect theirs as little as possible. Don't get me wrong, I don't dislike (again, most of) these Matilda waltzers, but I'm attempting to engage in a voyage with very different goals from theirs, one of solitude and contemplation, not flip cup marathons. (Dear lord! I realize only now that I have gone and matured a little! The horror!)

And so I sit, hunched over books and maps in a hostel in Bucharest, Romania, having arrived a couple days ago by train from Bulgaria. After departing Sofia, I continued on to the cities of Plovdiv (renowned for its numerous Roman ruins and "Old Town" quarter) and Veliko Târnovo (Bulgaria's medieval capital), also by train. If someone had suggested to me, say, five years ago, that one day I would travel alone through Eastern Europe via its railways, I would never have believed them. In spite of my recent conclusion to two years spent living and traveling through West Africa, I am not a naturally adventurous person. Those who know me best would probably tell you that my idea of a fun Friday night is going out to a good movie and following it up by having a quiet drink with a few friends. Still... I could get used to this. The lands through which I'm wandering... Bulgaria, Romania... their names, and those of their towns, intoxicate me as I sound them out aloud, rolling them off my tongue, promising me an earthy mystique. And they do not disappoint.

In Veliko Târnovo, I had the exciting experience of meeting one of the authors of the Romania and Bulgaria entries in the Lonely PLanet guide, which is my preferred travel bible. To his credit, the guy was trying to keep a low profile, just saying he was a travel writer when asked his business, but eventually (after enough beers) he slipped up and I was subsequently able to identify him. Talking to someone I admire is, for me, a lot like dating—I'm not very good at it. The same problems manifest: first, I try to act "above it all," like hanging out with them is no big deal; then I show off, trying too hard to impress with my knowledge and wit; finally, I get self-conscious and awkward, uncertain whether I should retreat and leave them alone or just simply shut the hell up. Fortunately, for once it seems I broke this vicious cycle, because not only did the man NOT sneak out of the hostel to avoid me, he even gave me his business card and an invitation to look him up when I am back in New York.

Like Sofia, Bucharest is a capital city with a less than stellar reputation when compared to other towns in the area. Still, it does have some sights to recommend it for a visit, such as the Palace of Parliament, the largest and most expensive civil (i.e., non-military) administrative building in the world, built during the last years in the reign of the late, not-so-great Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. This man had the brilliant idea of leveling a large portion of Bucharest's picturesque historic district in order to construct this monstrosity of bureaucracy. Ultimately, Ceauşescu got his comeuppance—via firing squad—in the bloody 1989 revolution, and there are still many standing examples to give the curious an idea why Bucharest was once known as "the Paris of the East." Other highlights include the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, where, in addition to a room devoted solely to Romania's communist past (busts of Lenin abound here), there is an impressive collection of textiles and household artifacts, an entire 19th-century home, and Orthodox Christian icons made of painted glass. Saint George is a popular figure in these latter items; my particular favorite was a comic-like depiction of him smirking back at me as he shoved his spear down the dragon's throat, as though he were bragging, "Yeah, I'm the shit." In most of the other icons featuring him, he's still gazing at us, but appears to have been pumped full of Xanax. Often featured as well in these images is a little guy sitting snugly behind George on his horse, brandishing a tankard and seeming to be really enjoying himself. I naturally assume that this is the artist's representation of one of the hundreds of Australians teeming through this beautiful land.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

An Innocent, a Broad...

Important things to remember to forget to pack, in order to make your international voyage more challenging (and thus enjoyable): a towel, for use after showers in hostels; an iPod charger (assuming you bring an iPod on your trip, which I did); a Nalgene bottle, or some other container intended for the transport of refreshing, crucial drinking water. I like to think that only wimps "come prepared."

I flew into Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, a couple days ago. I was aided in my planning process by a friend and fellow retired Peace Corps volunteer, who offered me the following invaluable advice to make my overseas excursion more enjoyable: order kosher. It turns out that on some international flights, when reserving your ticket, you may select a "type" of in-flight meal, an attempt by the airline to defer to passengers' dietary preferences. Examples of such specialized meal options include vegetarian, low-calorie, low-cholesterol, gluten-free, halal, and, yes, kosher. My friend, on his flight back to the United States, sat next to a gentleman who ordered the kosher meal, and observed that not only did the man receive his tray before everyone else, but the food was of higher quality and quantity than my friend's own ordinary, gentile dish. And so I was counseled to benefit from my comrade's experience and request the kosher plate, which I did... not because I especially cared about what I would eat on the plane, but because the airline was German, and I am an ass.

According to various guidebooks, Sofia is one of the least attractive capitals in Eastern Europe; if this is true, then I cannot wait to see the others! I was warned to expect an urban sprawl of gloomy Soviety boxes, but plenty of older architecture abounds, mixed creatively with edgy, newer buildings. The side streets, in some areas, bring to mind fun, quirky parts of Brooklyn or New York's East Village. The signs on the streets, however, are going to take some getting used to, as not only do Bulgarians speak a different language, they use an entirely different alphabet! The Cyrillic alphabet, used in Russia, Macedonia, Serbia, Ukraine, and Mongolia (among other nations), was invented here in Bulgaria, and is a point of national pride. It is thus both amusing and depressing to witness the West's (i.e., America's) corroding influence on Bulgarian culture, as many of the flashier advertisements around the city use English slogans, or a bizarre mix of English and Cyrillic. Out of morbid curiosity, I wandered into a McDonald's in downtown Sofia to observe the menu, and noticed that a good number of their items were labeled "Mak-[gibberish]" or "[gibberish] Mak-[gibberish]." I was reasonably certain, though, that I knew what the "[gibberish]-Mak" was.

When the street signs aren't making my head turn, the Bulgarian women are. Don't get me wrong, I am not ogling (really!), it's just that I cannot get over this simple fact: all women here look cool—at least, the young ones do. The older ones all look tired... probably from the effort of looking cool for years at a time. To my eyes, Bulgarian men look like any regular guys I'd see on a street in America, but the women seem somehow... European? Does that work? It's the only adjective I can come up with to describe their collective appearance. In any case, they all look like either models or punk rockers, nothing in between.

Other initial observations... unlike Americans, Bulgarians do not throw coins in fountains, just their cigarette butts. Byzantine church artwork is amazing, dazzling and ostentatious in a manner that truly inspires awe. The Lady's Market, a large outdoor bazaar, is populated almost exclusively by older people; the only young people in evidence there are cops and kids being dragged by the hand (the kids, not the cops). I have yet to figure out where the younger generation buys their food. Oh, and I ran into a familiar problem, often experienced in Burkina... that of "Sorry, no small change," followed by a waiter's satisfied smirk. My solution? "Sorry, smaller tip." I'm not handing anyone 30% gratuities, especially just because they refuse to give me small bills.

Finally, I will leave you with one more story. As jet lag was causing me to nod off by 7pm the day I arrived, I did not end up going out my first night in Sofia. However, for those of you curious about the Bulgarian nightlife, here is a breakdown of my second evening in town, during which I tagged along with a multinational hodgepodge of other hostel guests: beer at an Irish bar, two dollars; dancing at a Bulgarian birthday party you crashed, three dollars; getting propositioned by a persistent hooker when you leave the party, who won't take "no" for an answer and won't let go of your crotch... priceless.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Definition of "Typecast."

Just because I am currently backpacking through Eastern Europe does not mean I do not pay attention to the news. And by news, I mean the truly important events that are taking place throughout the world, affecting our lives, and those of our children, for years and decades to come. No, I'm not talking about Senator Barack Obama's nomination at the Democratic National Convention; that's not news, everyone already knew it was going to happen. I'm talking about Hollywood scandal! The actor David Duchovny, best known for his portrayal of the disturbed but brilliant FBI agent Fox Mulder on the cult show The X Files, has gone into rehab for sex addiction. Now why do I take the time from my Bulgarian sightseeing to point this out? It just so happens that Mr. Duchovny's latest role, for which he won a Golden Globe, is on the Showetime television series Californication... in which he just so happens to play a sex addict. And I think that's funny. Unfortunate and cosmically poetic, but definitely funny.

Talk about your method acting...