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October 25, 2009

Welcome To Vietnam

I'm writing from Hanoi, Vietnam, an incredible city. When we first made our plans to arrive in Vietnam, we thought of skipping Hanoi altogether, and I'm very glad that we didn't. Just when I think that we've seen everything that cities will have to offer, that cities that we visit will begin to blend together into an urban landscape void of uniqueness, we come across a city so definitive in itself that I will always remember our time there, no matter how short it was. Hanoi is that kind of city, and although we are heading tomorrow on to Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island, I've already forged memories of this city.

Looking at my watch now, I see that our taxi from the airport (an hour away) arrived outside our hotel about this time last night. That means we have had only 24 hours here, and yet it's been very memorable. Let me backtrack a bit. Sitting in Vang Vieng, Laos, we had to make a decision from three alternatives to get into Vietnam. First, there was the adventurous route, to travel upriver from Luang Prabang to a frontier town on the border; getting to the frontier town would require nine hours on the boat, the crossing an additional four hours, and assuming you caught one of the three buses a week from the border into Vietnam, you would likely find yourself crammed between crates of chickens and bags of rice for a nineteen hour trip. From reports we read, this route could take a week to complete. The second route was to take a chartered bus on a 36-hour journey; only those who've been on the roads of SE Asia understand the chill down our backs at this prospect. The third alternative was to pay a little extra, and take a 45 minute flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi. So we took the third choice.

The flight was unremarkable other than we had better service in that 45 minutes than a four hour flight in the US (they served a small meal). Unfortunately, due to a flight delay, we didn't arrive into Hanoi until after dark. I didn't know much about this city, other than it is a bit crazy and there are 3.5 million inhabitants; what I did know is that it wasn't going to be all that easy to find a place to stay. Isreal came to our rescue, by sending three of its citizens (two of them buff guys as well) to blaze our path for us. We'd seen them in Vang Vieng, and so I didn't feel too uncomfortable speaking to them as we stood in line at the ATM to get out Vietnam dongs. I asked them if they were planning on taking a minibus into town, to which they replied they weren't sure. They had a few names of hotels they'd gotten from the net, and they planned on trying to find those places. In SE Asia, it is not a wise idea to book ahead at hotels; it is essential to first see the rooms, and then to bargain for them; I had the listings in our Lonely Planet guide to show to the drivers. We were approached by a taxi driver, who offered us a ride for $15, which divided between the three of us was cheaper than taking the minibus. Off we went.

As we approached Hanoi, we had our first clues that this was a different city than most. The closer to the center we drove, the more motorbikes started to clog the road. As we entered the tight streets of the Old Quarter, it became more like an unorganized motorbike/moped race, except there was no particular direction. Intersections had no stoplights nor stop signs, so it was a free-for-all through them, unprotected bodies weaving past each other, occasionally punctuated by hostile taxi-drivers (such as ours). It was to the point that I could not make sense of any of the logic of the drivers, they drove so erratically and without any particular notion of road rules or laws that I couldn't see how there weren't constant accidents around us.

Now, our LP guide has been essentially worthless for the better part of this trip, but it did mention that a common scam is that the taxi drivers will take you to a different hotel than you requested, with all sorts of excuses (it burned down, it went out of business, etc.). We were expecting this to happen, so it wasn't surprising when it did; when we confronted them, we were told that we were at the correct hotel, but it had changed its name. This is where the large size of the two Isreali men came into play. They agreed to see the rooms (after all, the taxi was dumping us regardless), and the other three of us watched as they came down and stood in the lobby, apparently haggling hard by as much arm motioning was going on. They talked the price down to $7 a person, a good price in Hanoi for a nice hotel, and better than what the other Westerners I stopped at the door paid for their room ($10 a person). We agreed to stay, but then the taxi driver tried to add a few more dollars to our bill. I quote: "That isn't how this is going to happen. We are Isreali." We won.

I will say, our room here is the first in a long time that we've had AC, much less a TV showing HBO and numerous other US channels. Unlike our room in Vang Vieng, there isn't a literal army of ants canvassing our floor. I am not complaining about the $14 we paid. On the other hand, we certainly took advantage of the sink to wash our dirty clothes.

Today was spent wandering the streets. That is perhaps too loose of a term. In Hanoi, you don't "wander," you look very carefully around you in every direction before you even dare enter the street, for having a foot on that pavement places you in a precarious position. The streets are a nonstop torrent of motored vehicles, mostly consisting of bikes of some sort with occasional cars. On some streets, the direction of flow is mostly followed, and in certain intersections, there are even street lights that most people obey, though there are rogues who crash through intersections long after their lights have changed, careening through the traffic. Most of the time, there is no rhyme nor rhythm to how people drive here.

We didn't follow much of a plan today, we just walked, part of our normal routine. We had the vague goal of reaching the infamous Hanoi Hilton, the POW prison where John McCain had his arms shortened to their T. Rex-like shape. My sense of direction in the hazy mid-morning was shot, though, and even though we had this huge lake right in the middle of the area to use for orientation, we still totally wandered off in the wrong direction (east rather than south). An hour later found us peering closely at the map, not knowing that the reason that we couldn't find the street names was because we no longer were on the map. Again, a saint stepped in to help us out, this time in the form of a petite college student named Dao Kim Ngan (we called her Ngan, which is pronounced "nun," rather than "naan," which is the word for duck).

When she first asked us if she could help us, we considered her carefully, with our usual dose of skepticism. She seemed nice enough, so we decided to follow her when she offered to take us to the museum, at least long enough to see what the angle was (as we had earlier, when some lady forced us to put her stupid pole balancing two loads on our shoulders as well as her cone hat, then demanding 50,000 dong ($3) for the resulting picture, which we laughed at). We walked along, talking in length with Ngan, who turned out to be studying English to work in the tourist industry, and had been turned down repeatedly by people in requests for nothing more than a conversation to practice her English. A bit jaded, I was still expecting some sort of spin, until she paid for our entrance fee into a very interesting Confuscian temple, just to show us where she liked to pray before big exams. We talked about everything that we could think of, sometimes with difficulty, but she was an incredibly sincere person. We never visited the museum, instead spending the afternoon walking around with her, and when we finally parted ways, she had to struggle hard to keep from crying. She made our day, without a doubt.

In just over 24 hours, the best aspect of Vietnam has made itself clear, much better than any of the great Vietnamese food we've eaten or the best hotel room yet. That would be the people. There are some younger guys, who look and then sometimes act like hustlers, but compared to the more aggressive touts and street-salesmen of many other places, they even are tame. Usually, when you explain you already have a LP guide, a wallet, and that you don't smoke and have no need for a lighter with a picture of Ho Chi Minh on it, they just say something funnily exasperated in a forced American accent and go away. Thinking about it, I believe it is just the quick smile that you find here that makes the difference; today I would sometimes catch someone's eye, and they would keep this sort of restrained, bemused look on their face, until one of us would just break out in a grin, followed by the other. Sure, my beard has been mocked endlessly today, I had a picture drawn of it, and it brought a street-side barber nearly to hysterics as he suggested a bit of a trim. It was all in good nature, though; that seems to be the general attitude of the people here. They go about their business, spinning around each other on their mopeds, squatting down in the sidewalk cafes that literally are on the sidewalk, and all of the other multitude of activities people in Hanoi seem to be involved in, but one characteristic that appears to be general is their good nature.

Until next time, be safe.


October 23, 2009

Pictures From Thailand & Laos

These are pictures from our time in Thailand and Laos.

Wat Pho Compound In Bangkok

The Famous Reclining Buddha

Aaron & Stupa In Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai Temple (Wat)

Jess Plowing Thru Noodles, Chiang Mai

Massive Ancient Stupa, Chiang Mai

Sunset Over Night Market, Chiang Mai

Jess & Lao Bus To Vang Vieng

Country Cow, Vang Vieng, Laos

Cave Spider, Vang Vieng, Laos

Rice Paddy, Vang Vieng

Aaron Pretending To Be Dirty Hippie

Farm Near Vang Vieng

Rice Paddy Near Vang Vieng

Sunset, Vang Vieng

Same Sunset, Vang Vieng

Another Shot Of Sunset, Vang Vieng

View From Our Room, Vang Vieng

Valley & Fields, Vang Vieng

Water Oxen, Vang Vieng

Hill En Route To Luang Prabang

Monk, Luang Prabang

Boat On The Mekong River, Luang Prabang

Jess On Boat On Mekong, Luang Prabang

Aaron On Boat, Luang Prabang

Monks In Boat, Luang Prabang

The Might Mekong River, Luang Prabang

Monk Robes On Mekong Bank, Luang Prabang

Until next time, be safe.


October 20, 2009

A Perfect Day In Laos

Yesterday was one of those days that goes down as perfect in my book. We slept well after all the crazy traveling from the day before, and we felt calm and refreshed for our first full day in Laos. We had no specific plans other than we wanted to do some type of outdoor activity. That is one thing that Vang Vieng is known for. The tourist offices offer guided rafting, rock-climbing, and trekking trips, but we just wanted a quiet day to ourselves to explore the area.

The manager of the guesthouse had recommended an area for walking and swimming called the Blue Lagoon, so we set off into the lush green countryside. The main road out of Vang Vieng took us over a bridge across the Nam Song River, which was full of dirty water from the previous night's rainstorm. We shared the muddy dirt road with fellow pedestrians, motorbikes, bicycles, and old-fashioned tractors, as well as friendly cows and chickens. We stopped for a bit and provided the cows with a bit of company by scratching their ears and patting their heads. The surrounding countryside was beautiful with its flat, green rice paddies, the workers in their wide-brimmed triangle hats, and the tall, jagged, rocky karst peaks towering in the background. Our only complaint was the intensity of the tropical sun, which made us sweat profusely all day long. As we walked along, we thought how it was bad enough to be a tourist walking in the heat, so it was hard to fathom what it must have been like to be a soldier in this area during Vietnam.

About 3 km into the walk, we found a drink stand and decided to sit down with the owner and have a conversation under a shaded umbrella. He recommended that instead of continuing on the road, that we enter a hiking trail across the way that would allow us to visit four caves without the hassle of multiple tourists, and we would "touch some nature," as he said. That sounded like a pretty good idea to us, and we promised to buy a drink on our way back. The hiking trail was covered with tall bushes and trees, providing us much needed shade. The only living creatures around were the critters, the birds, and a few cows. Eventually we came upon a very rustic farm that had no electricity but the owners charged a small fee to enter the cave area, about a half mile away. We paid the fee, and took two flashlights, and headed out on the path which took us over the rice paddies towards the karst peaks nearby.

As we neared the cave area, there were plenty of slippery, jagged rocks that turned our stroll into a scramble. I love a good scramble, but this was too slick to enjoy. It took us about twenty minutes to climb to the first cave. We slowly dropped down into the entrance, and were quickly thankful for the much-needed flashlights to guide the way as darkness swallowed us. The cave was really quite impressive, with stalagmites and newly forming mineral crystals from the continuous water drops. It took a lot of climbing and scrambling through very tight crevices, and I prayed the flashlight battery would stay alive. We were coming near the end with a glimmer of light shining in the distance, when Aaron noticed the largest spider I have ever seen right above our heads, guarding a passage that led us out of the cave. As we shined our lights on it, it would slowly creep along the slick, wet rock, its beady eyes reflecting in the darkness. It was me, Aaron and the spider. After a worrisome but successful photoshoot, we decided to face our fears and attempt to exit. Fortunately, Aaron went back into the cave to retrieve a bamboo stick that he'd seen. This weapon was used to move the spider, prior to our entry into the passage; sadly, that was the direction it chose to scurry. Being a bit of a wuss, I made Aaron crawl through the passageway first to make sure the coast was clear. Then I followed, and gladly, made it through insect-free.

After climbing out of Cave 1, we continued our scramble to two more caves, again sweating profusely and caked with mud from head to toe.  The other caves were nice, but didn't compare to Cave 1. After several hours, it was time to head back, and we decided to take a break and swim in a small stream nearby. The water was muddy and the current was quite strong from the rainstorm, but there was a little pool off to the side that looked very inviting. Once again, the clothes came off, and we were instantly cooled; the relief from the heat only lasted until we got out of the water. We were looking forward to getting back to the drink stand for a much needed cold beer. The hike out was uneventful but beautiful, and with evening approaching, there was a slight breeze in the air. Back on the road, we chugged a beer and had a quality conversation with a traveling Brit, and then we slowly took our time getting back to town.

Back in Vang Vieng, as we walked towards our guesthouse, it was clear that we were the dirtiest, grimiest couple of folks in town, which is a lot to say since this area is littered with Hippies. This is our favorite kind of day, to go out and explore the natural settings in solitude, away from tourists, and to earn a beer. We then showered up and washed our clothes in a bucket, turning the water into a muddy color. Then it was time to hit the streets for another beer and some Lao food. As Dad says at home, about this time of day, "It's Miller time." Well, here in Lao, it was Beerlao time. Cheers, Jess.

October 19, 2009

Learning Experience In SE Asia

We are now in Vang Vieng, Laos. It has been an interesting and educational journey to get here.

We left Bangkok for Chiang Mai four days ago on a night bus. Perhaps if I'd looked at a map while considering how we'd obtain our Vietnam visas, we would have never gone to Chiang Mai, as it is north and west of Vientiane, Laos, where we had to go for the visas. I did neither, though, I just felt strongly that we needed to get out of Bangkok after two nights and that Chiang Mai was a good place to go. In hindsight, we should have purchased the Vietnam visas in Bangkok, which would have saved us a trip to Vientiane altogether, but it's funny how clear hindsight can be compared to the rush of the present.

Our night bus to Chiang Mai was quite a cool experience. We were on the VIP bus, which in SE Asia means that they put your luggage under the bus rather than on top. We needed to get to the tour company office in downtown Bangkok, a distance that looked remarkably close to our neighborhood on the map, which would have been a true miscalculation. It turns out the distance was 6 km, through very confusing neighborhood. As it was, we struggled to find a taxi driver that would turn on their meter (a common trick with taxi drivers is that they try to bargain for the price rather than use the meter, because you can never bargain them down below what the meter would charge). Once we found a taxi driver, it still took us over an hour to get to the tour office through the most incredible traffic that I've ever seen. We'd literally sit still for 5 to 10 minutes at a time; I could see the time ticking on the meter. At the end of the trip, the meter read that we'd idled for 35 minutes--to go 6 km, or 3.5 miles. 

The bus was worth it, though. We were on the second floor of a double-decker, at the very front, so we had a private windshield that was more like a big-screen TV showing the downtown of Bangkok rushing around the bus. Whereas the taxi had to wait its turn, this monstrous bus bulged out into three lanes of traffic, because it was that big. They showed a movie, Wolverine, which I've seen enough to be able to follow the story despite the fact it was in Thai. We rolled into Chiang Mai an hour early, which would have been cool if any of the stores were open at 6:30 am. I wandered around while Jess watched our bags, and found a cool little guesthouse filled with dark wood and the scent of mosquito repellent smoke, called Your Guesthouse 1.

Our stay in Chiang Mai was unremarkable in most respects. The city itself is well known for the multitude of excursions you can do, such as trekking, elephant rides, rafting, village visits, etc. That is all well and good, but Jess and I had neither the inclination nor the budget for such things, and so we just relaxed for two days in the city. We mostly stayed in the Old Town; venturing out to the bus station to buy tickets to Laos, we found that Chiang Mai is a smaller version of Bangkok, including its traffic. We still really enjoyed our stay in Chiang Mai, we walked all around the Old Town, we ambled through multiple markets, we ate large amounts of cheap Thai food, we drank as many fruit smoothies as our GI tracts would allow, and we befriended a great Chinese fellow. It was nice to have a couple of days where our schedules were as empty as we wanted them to be.

Probably the highlight of the visit to Chiang Mai was during the last few hours there, when we went to the boisterous Sunday Market. It encompassed several parallel streets, and sold everything under the sun, from cheap clothes to Thai toys to Hippie jewelry. Of course, our favorite part of the market were the multitude of food markets--we ate everything we could. We started with vegetable spring rolls, then had a banana wrapped in rice wrapped in the banana leaf. We moved on then to several pieces of dim sum (not Thai, but hey, when it's cheap, you eat it), and finished with big plates of pad thai. We couldn't finish without sampling the oddly looking black jello licorice drink, which we challenged each other to try but then sucked down like the nectar of the gods. In silence.

The relaxation came to an end at that point; it was time for yet another epic travel day, Asia-style, which throws into conflict whether we can even call the comparatively calm trips in Morocco and Europe "epic." It started out with a tuk-tuk ride to the bus station, followed by an eleven hour bus ride south and then east to Udon Thani, where we caught another two hour bus to Nong Khai. That is the border town between Thailand and Laos. We jumped onto a tuk-tuk to go to the border, and had to forcefully refuse as the driver tried to divert us to a travel agent that would have doubled our visa costs into Laos. At the border, we were stamped out of Thailand, and caught a bus across the Friendship Bridge across the Mekong River into Laos. There, we ran into trouble.

This is where our trip became educational, and where hindsight was far more revealing than foresight. Our best plan would have been to buy Laos visas in Chiang Mai, which would have been a little more expensive but easy. The second best plan would have been to have had US dollars, which we found out too late. The visa cost was $35 a person, but when I tried paying in Thai baht, they wanted the equivalent of $90 for the two of us, instead of $70. I argued, but got nowhere; they told me to go around to the currency changer. When I did just that, they offered me $78 for the same amount, and so I entered a round-and-round. Jess says that I got angry, I say I was only standing up for my rights. Regardless, in the end and despite my objections, I still had to pay 3000 baht; it will be the last time I am in SE Asia with no USD on hand.

Anyhow, we then took a bus on into Vientaine, the capital of Laos. Our first objective, after obtaining Laos kips (their currency, which I had worried about being able to get from ATMs after reading online forums, which turned out to be wrong), was to get our visas for Vietnam.  We decided that after all that riding, we would walk to the embassy, which looked like it was just down the road. It was a little longer than that, but we made it, at 11:20. That was cutting it very close, as they took a two-hour lunchbreak at 11:30. Still, we had our visas within ten minutes, and the Vietnamese officials couldn't have been nicer. They obviously cared much for their lunch break. We caught yet another tuk-tuk downtown to the backpacker street, intending on staying the night. However, as it was only noon, we decided that we could keep going, because Vientaine doesn't have much going for it.

So, we booked a bus at 2 pm, had a bit of lunch and coffee, and then caught a tuk-tuk and then a minibus to the big bus, which brought us to Vang Vieng. That last bus was promised to be a VIP, the equivalent to a Mercedes, but it was really like an old, dusty, beat-up Pinto. That was obvious when we pulled up in the crammed minibus and saw some guy hanging out of the engine of the bus we were supposed to trust us in the mountains of Laos, a scary thought. They wanted to throw all our bags on the roof, but looking at the clouds above, I refused, and carried it with me to my seat. Everyone else had their bags lashed to the roof, but fortunately, it didn't rain en route. The ride to Vang Vieng was along a twisty, rough road, although the scenery was some of the best we've seen yet on this entire trip. Somehow, that bus slowly rolled along the hills of Laos, around the curves, through the crowds of cows and chickens in the road. (That was remarkable, given that during the bathroom break the driver had to make sure the engine was still attached, and someone noticed that the tires were of an uneven size. Sweet bus, though, really. There will be pictures of it later.) It was supposed to be a 3 hour ride, and four and a half hours later, we finally arrived under the cover of darkness (perhaps to hide the Pinto-esqe appearance of the bus?) in Vang Vieng. It was 6:30 pm.

The Car Equivalent Of Our Last VIP Bus

So, let's add those rides all up. We started out at 7 pm, and ended up in Vang Vieng right at 6:30 pm, meaning the trip took 23.5 hours, with only a few hours of walking and eating and shouting at customs officials involved. We rode a total of four tuk-tuks and six buses in less than 24 hours. In all likelihood, we truly deserved the Pinto bus-ride to Vang Vieng, because by the point that we boarded that bus, we looked more rough than it did. They say when you look as bad as your passport picture, you're too ill to travel. I say, when you look as rough as we did, you are one step from being a professional Hippie, a crowd that swarms this area of the world. We fit in well today.

Until next time, be safe.


October 14, 2009

Bangkok For 60 Cents

Hello from Bangkok, Thailand! We have arrived in our 8th country and 4th continent of the trip, and today I finished my third 4GB memory card full of pictures.

I suppose I need to cap off the Europe experience. Let's see, I last wrote from Turkey, from the nice little city/town of Selçuk. We were deciding how to get to Greece, the cheapest way of which would cost at least 70 euros. In the end, we took the ferry out to the island of Samos, which was quite nice. There's not too much to say about that, it was a Greek island, which is to say that it was brilliantly sunny, the buildings were whitewashed and glowed in the sunlight, and Jess forgot her swimming suit, which found her swimming in her skivies on a secluded beach. Given the condition of our two pairs of underwear each at this point in the trip, that was much less tantalizing than one might think.

Anyhow, we had a remarkably tame night bus ride up to Istanbul (meaning they didn't try to dump us off at any point, and I slept like a baby). Our last day in Istanbul, despite being weary from being on a night bus literally every other night that week, we burned off the pounds by walking all over the city of Istanbul. We found a few sites on our map that we wanted to visit, a mosque here, a spice market there, and we set out to find them. We were successful, and we saw neighborhoods of Istanbul that few tourists bother visiting, which is a real pity. We even crossed the bridge to see another neighborhood; there we found an exciting fish market, something that I always love, and the trip back across the bridge was the highlight of the afternoon. We didn't notice as much on the way across, because we were on the upper level with the cars and the tram, but coming back we walked on the second level of the bridge, which was a pedestrian walkway lined with shops and restaurants. Up above on the upper level were dozens if not hundreds of fishermen, dropping their lines over our heads to try to catch the fish swarming for the bread they threw in. Of course, being that the fish probably deal with a constant barrage of fishermen using the same old tired bread, I doubt that they bite very often. Still, it was a sight for us, the kind of culture that you don't get sitting on a tour bus.

Our flight from Istanbul to Bangkok the next morning was unremarkable, though I should mention that flying on Etihad Airways reminds me of the the good ole' days before all the US airlines went borderline bankrupt and cut their services. We were almost pampered by the airline, so rare when I am used to being abused and neglected on a good day flying in the US. Sure, Etihad is the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, but what happened to the joys of flying? Now, airlines like Ryanair in Europe are talking about making you pay to use the bathroom on the plane, and have considered designing planes so that you are in a semi-standing position. Shame!

Anyhow, we arrived in Bangkok as scheduled. Unfortunately for myself, I didn't sleep a wink during the flight, so I was in the beginning phase of a coma by the time we came out of the airport. A good monsoon rain was waiting to greet us as we found our express bus to the neighborhood we planned on staying in, called Banglamphu. I fell asleep on the bus, only to be woken up to the driver telling us to get off his bus. We staggered off into the rain, fortunately just outside a cafe. We didn't have reservations for a place in Bangkok; it's better here to actually see the bed you'll be sleeping on before paying for it. I didn't anticipate the rain, though. So, instead of the two of us lugging our backpacks around the neighborhood, I had Jess hang out in the cafe with a good cup of hot coffee and I headed out with my rain jacket and the Lonely Planet to find somewhere to sleep that night. 

Well, as the trend has been for LP on this trip, it was almost entirely useless; the maps were wrong, and the only two guesthouses in our budget apparently no longer exist. That's not to say that there aren't a ton of guesthouses in the general vicinity of Khao San Road, the famous backpackers street in Bangkok. The issue is that it was raining while I was going from one to the other, looking at the rooms that they offered. I saw some very dark, musty, and generally scary rooms before I found a clean guesthouse that offered a basic room with a bed, a fan and a window for 230 baht ($9.70). Then I ran back through the rain to the cafe, and Jess and I went back to the guesthouse to collapse for a 4-hour nap. Our evening was quite relaxing, we wandered around the area, and we ate Pad Thai from a street stand for 30 baht ($.90).

Today was a remarkably interesting day, relative to the general continuous flow of interesting sights and experiences we have come across. We started this morning after breakfast to find a neighborhood of palaces and temples that is south of our neighborhood. Up to that point, I had initially thought that Bangkok was less crazy and busy as a place like Marrakesh, for example. Remember, I'd slept on the bus into town, and we remained insulated in our little backpacker neighborhood overnight, which contains more white folks than Thais. We experienced the real Bangkok, just minutes away from Khao San Road, a street that I'm willing to guess most backpackers never venture far from. 

 Navigational-wise, we weren't doing so hot. It is monsoon season in Thailand now, so there is usually a cloud-cover to match the oppressive humidity and frequent random rainshowers, and getting your bearings in this city is next to impossible. It's hard enough to try to gauge where you are with all the traffic blasting past in the street, and then if you stop just long enough to look at   map, more frequently than not someone stops to offer some advice about where you are going. Now, we are skeptical about such helpful people, they almost always have another motive to offering advice. Let's say that you make $2 a day; are you going to walk around offering advice to foreign people, just for fun? Doubtful. So we put up a resistance, but talked with a few people, including one old guy that was so friendly that our guard was let down. So began our adventure.

The next fellow to amble up while we peered at our map surely had some angle in our day, although I'm not sure how. He was full of great advice, telling us that it was a special day where the government was sponsoring rides via tuk-tuks (those funny little converted motorcycles) to the valuable sights. He was quite reassuring, and even flagged down a random tuk-tuk with the proper government plate. So, against our normal routine, we climbed aboard, and off we went. Our first stop was indeed at a little temple with a huge sitting Buddha. Cool enough. Our next stop ended up being another one of those awkward moments that you don't really believe you had later on. He dropped us off at a "factory," which I was picturing to be a big warehouse full of poor Asian kids on sewing machines. No, instead it was a cashmere suit tailorshop, and we found ourselves backing out the door explaining how, as Americans, we just weren't interested in a $400 cashmere suit or coat. Off we went down the road, to the government run travel agency, the TAT.

This was the only part of the day that I became angry about. We went up to the counter, at which a sluggish fellow told us that the bus to Chiang Mai (our next destination) was booked out tomorrow night, a terrible event as we were planning on getting out of Bangkok. He offered to sell us train tickets, and at our insistence "found" some bus tickets that he offered at 1030 baht each ($31, not bad in other countries for a 12 hour bus ride, but in Thailand?). We argued about the price, until finally we insisted we were going down to the bus station to talk to another bus company. We went outside, irritated to say the least, to find the tuk-tuk driver ready to take us to the next factory. We declined his services, to which he became quite agitated, surprising because he was supposed to be taking us around for the mere charge of 20 baht (60 cents). He drove off in a huff, and as we aren't people willing to let things go easily, we went back inside the agency, showing him our LP that stated that a bustrip to Chiang Mai should cost anywhere from 450-620 baht. He countered that our book was from 2007, and that prices have gone up; "They've doubled?" I demanded to know. Before long, he was on his feet and others were hovering around, in case things got out of hand. In the end, as we had no way of knowing if we were being ripped off or not, we bought the tickets; later, on Khao San Road, we found the tickets for 350 baht, but perhaps for a less safe bus company. Hmm.

Anyhow, we exited to find our tuk-tuk driver sulking further down the road. Upon seeing us, he again offered his services, to which we declined, and then the truth came out. He showed us a card that gave him $5 of free gas, which he said that he received for each "factory" that he took us to. He then offered to drive us free around town and back to our neighborhood if we agreed to go to the touristy shops. I was fairly delighted by his frank honesty and so off we went again. We saw a huge part of Bangkok from that little tuk-tuk, and if you haven't seen Bangkok from the back end of a tuk-tuk hurtling down the crazy busy streets for three hours, you haven't seen Bangkok. Especially if you only paid $.60 for it. As we neared another suit shop, he stopped the vehicle and turned around, telling us that it was ok if we didn't buy anything, but that it was important that we take our time. So we did, politely looking at the fabrics and shooting the breeze with the salesman, who surely knew from our looks and shoddy outfits that we were never going to buy a suit. We stopped at a jewelry factory, which was better because we actually saw the fellows in the back room making the jewelry and could call it an educational experience. It was just the standard old Carpet Shop Scheme all over again from Morocco and Turkey, only this time we were in on it. The guy got his gas cards, and we got to see several of Bangkok's great sights, although they rushed by as he pointed at them and shouted something inaudible in the wind back at us. We're thinking that this could be a volunteering opportunity, where we offer to get these guys free gas by going around with them all day to the tourist shops. Nothing like a good deed...

Anyhow, Bangkok has been good so far. It's as crazy and chaotic as they say, and then there are the sidestreets that they don't talk about, the food stands and the gambling halls, the Thai martial art rings and the genuine fake Rolexes and T-shirts. Sure, we may have paid three times as much for our bus tickets to Chiang Mai (and from the government no less), but that is the result of being in a new country every week. As soon as we figure out the angles in a place, we are heading off to the next one, with all its new angles. That's just part of the adventure of it all, though. If there weren't some angle, some hidden agenda, some gas card waiting to be obtained, then it would be so boring.

Until next time, be safe.

October 10, 2009

On The Road In Turkey

We are seven countries, twenty different hostels, and 6 overnight buses/trains into our trip, and we are still having a blast and managing to get along with minimal arguing.  We have decided that each month of this trip is equivalent to 2 years of married life since we are together every second of each day.  So come March, instead of our 3rd wedding anniversary, we will celebrate our 13th!  Quite an accomplishment really!

The past week spent in Turkey has been another true adventure. I'm so glad that we only spent one night in Istanbul and decided to visit other areas of this interesting country.  We both love hıttıng the road and seeıng all that we can ın the amount of tıme we have ın each place.  The bus rides are always interesting, and you just never know what the journey will bring.  The journeys we have taken in Turkey have certainly not left us disappointed!  When we left Istanbul last Monday evening, we were picked up by a transportation company to take us to the bus station.  Nothing like a good minibus ride!  I love a good Mercedes minibus!  The ride to the station was a hair-raising experience to say the least.  It was such a thrill to fly through the crowded streets and get a different view of the city.  The driver cursed incessantly and was the recipient of many honks and hand gestures as he drove furiously through multiple traffic lanes to get us to our bus on time.  Once at the station we were hustled through a very crowded non-english speaking office to get our tickets.  We managed to get on the bus and find our seats, and soon after we departed Istanbul for Goreme, which was a long 11 hour journey.   Ahhhhh...nothing like an overnight haul, not knowing where you are going to land.

Let me backpeddle and say that a travel agency in Istanbul had arranged for the transportation and accomodations for our first several nights outside of the city.  We had two overnight buses to look forward to, and one night booked in a cave hotel.  Quality for sure!  So the first bus ride (the one I started to mention in the above paragraph) left us both in foul moods.   A few things to mention were the total lack of leg room due to seats directly in behind the back door of the bus, aircondition blowing into our faces all night because the individual on/off switch was broken, and a bus attendant that kept demanding to see our tickets and then yelling at us in Turkish.  Eventually we became convinced that we had gotten on the wrong bus.  The next morning at 7:00, in sleep deprived states, we were dumped off with other tourists at a random bus station 10 km outside of Goreme.  When asking the locals how to get to Goreme, they shook their heads and looked confused.  We were relieved when a minibus came to pick us up, but our bad moods flared once again when the seats filled too quickly, and we were left stranded.  The two of us, a gaunt looking American woman, and a very pleasant Phillipino couple stood helplessly for a while longer, until Aaron completely lost his cool.  Thanks to his tantrum (ıt wasn't pretty), one of the locals reluctantly found another minibus and got us to Goreme.  He pouted a bit and drove us in circles around the town several times, but we eventually landed at the Nomad Cave Hotel. 

We were very thankful to be staying in a cave the following night.  The bed was comfortable and free of bugs, and we even had our own bathroom.  Really quite luxurious!  The following night we found ourselves back on the bus at 9pm.  We managed to buy some beer, sausage, cheese and crackers to prevent hunger during the long 12 hour ride.  We were pleasantly surprised to see our Phillipino friends sitting in the seats next to ours.  This journey was looking promising at first because the bus was more modern, and we had proper leg room.  We both popped some benadryl and managed to sneak in a few hours of sleep until we were awakened by the attendant at 5:30.  He announced that this was our stop, a small dinky town called Denzili.  We got our gigantic backpacks out from the luggage compartment and were standing in the dark contemplating what to do.  We really wanted to travel for three more hours to the town of Selcuk, so Aaron went to go inquire about times.  It just so happened that the bus we had just gotten off of was heading to that location, but they said we had to pay a total of 40 YTL to get back on, and we only had 20 YTL.  Aaron busted for the ATM as I attempted to carry our bags back to the bus.  Unfortunately the ATM was out of service, so we were unable to pay the total cost.  The driver and the attendant held a small pow-wow to discuss the matter and decided that we could pay later.  Relieved, we hopped back on and rode for another three hours until we were awakened once again by the attendant motioning for us to get off.  Outside we were standing beside a closed gas station, a couple of cottages with goats and hens scattered in the yard, and a sign ahead saying that Selcuk was another 7 km up the road.  The driver used hand motions to tell Aaron to go and find money, so Aaron ran off while I was held hostage with the luggage, the driver and the attendant.   Once again, no ATM, so we were unable to pay.  We continued to point to the Selcuk sign and motion to our map in hand, and so there was another pow-wow between the driver and attendant, and they decided they would take us to Selcuk.   Finally in town, we stopped at the bus station where they let us off, and Aaron ran well over a mile to the nearest ATM while I was once again held hostage with the bags.  Thanks to a functioning cash machine, we finally managed to pay for our tickets wıth much relıef!

Today we are relaxing, preparing for our final overnight bus ride in Turkey. Aaron tried out the national beverage, called raki, which turns out to be his old friend absinthe, which was rough. Tomorrow we will arrive in Istanbul, and the next day we are off to Bangkok. The adventure never ends.

Peace, Jess.

Pictures From Turkey

Here are some of the many pictures that I took in Turkey. No worries, I didn't include too many of the rock formation pictures, though I was tempted.

 The Blue Mosque, Istanbul

 The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

 Jess In Istanbul

 Aaron In Istantbul

 Istanbul Streets

 Cave House In Formation, Göreme

 Pigeon Holes, Fairy Chimney Valley

 Monastary In Formation, Fairy Chimney Valley

 Abandoned Cave Community, Cappadocia

 Underground City Kaymakli

 Kaymakli Rooms

 Kaymakli Kitchen

 Jess and Aaron in Cappadocia

 Rock Formations, Imagination Valley

 Mushroom Shaped Formations

 Cave In Mushroom Formation

 Apartments In Cappadocia

 Jesus In A Cave

 Nunnery In Cappadocia

 Yet More Caves In Rocks

 Jesus and Mary Fresco

 Ruins At Ephesus

 Statue At Ephesus

 Library Of Ephesus

 Another Shot Of Library

 Tomb Carvings, Ephesus

 Port Of Samos, Samos Island, Greece

 Samos, Greece

 Aaron In Greece

 Jess In Greece

 Street In Şirince, Turkey

 Pasture Near Şirince

 Street In Şirince

 Mountain Village Of Şirince

 Catnap In Şirince

 Farm Near Şirince

Until next time, be safe.

October 08, 2009

To Greece Or Not To Greece

We are chilling in the calm little town of Selçuk, which is remarkably normal given its immense historical importance. The ancient city of Ephesus is just outside the city limits, and St. John retired here to write his gospel, along with the Virgin Mary; there are tombs professing to be of the two here, St. John's a short walk up the hill from our pension. Ruins are just scattered around the surrounding countryside; some have only been "discovered" by the larger world as recently as the 1970s, and surely the sheep herders out here know of places that haven't seen the inside of any guide books. Basically, our tone for our Turkey segment seems to be looking at rocks or piles of rocks. More on Selçuk in a minute.

Our final day in Göreme was really excellent. We were worn out by the bus ride into Cappadocia, so we slept longer than we wanted to, and missed what probably was a beautiful sunrise over the rock formations in the village. After a eating a traditional Turkish breakfast at the hotel, we headed out. We visited two different parks of the strange rock formations unique to Cappadocia, the first called Imagination Valley (the formations inspired wild comparisons, such as women and camels...always camels), the second Mushroom Valley. The latter park was named for the formations that were created when the softer stone eroded under the harder stone, leaving formations that resembled very tall, bizarre mushrooms. Worry not, I took no less than 250 pictures in Cappadocia, so I will soon upload some here. By the end of the second day, Jess was threatening to take away my camera if I took another picture of a rock, regardless of its formation or carvings. Even I don't know what I'm going to do with all of those pictures of rocks; surely they will mean much less to me when I am sitting at home looking through them, wondering why exactly I took so many pictures of stones.

The other major stop of the day was again in a valley of rock formations. The unique part of this particular valley is that early Christians had founded a substantial community here, and had carved into many of the formations to build chapels, monasteries, crypts, and homes. Quite a few of the chapels have faint mosiacs still painted on the walls, some having survived twenty centuries of the ravages of time and nature and war only to have some European scratch his name out on them. It was all very interesting, but reminiscent of Rome in that we had to elbow our way through the crowds to see anything.

Two other stops of the day were of the co-op / carpet-shop scheme variety. The first was a stop at a pottery co-op, which was quite interesting in that we were shown the methods that pottery is done in Turkey. It's done pretty much the same way as anywhere else, but the really good pottery has its designs painted on by hand, which can take weeks to months. It was beautiful, but incredibly expensive. Then we actually did stop at a carpet shop, albeit one where they'd posted a couple of women on looms out front to show how carpets are made. After staring at the women for a few minutes, we went into a showroom where a true Turkish spectacle was put on. Three men ran to and from a wall where probably at least one hundred carpets were rolled against, and this slick looking fellow narrated while they unfurled the rugs....er, carpets triumphantly at our feet. Of course they brought out the tea and wine (I was tricked into coming into the showroom on the false promise of free beer), and we were assured that these were absolutely the top quality carpets to be found, well, anywhere. As a matter of fact, if one of us ended up falling in love with a $6000 rug, that person should purchase it, because no one wants to be walking on the cheaper substitute rug at home and think only of that first rug, that would be a tragedy. The smallest rug out there was more than $300; I don't think anyone fell in love with any rug.

That spectacle was actually quite amusing, because when you have no interest whatsoever in a rug, then there is no pressure, and it is possible to just sit back with the wine in your hand (though a poor substitute for a beer) and watch the men sweat as they unroll and then reroll dozens of carpets to a largely apathetic but certainly captive audience. On the other hand, I was a little annoyed that we paid a decent chunk of cash only to be carted around to four separate co-ops (the onyx factory, the winery, the ceramic factory, and the carpet shop). On the other hand, that day we ate lunch at a buffet, and the Turks should know better than to sit a cheap American backpacker down at a buffet and hope to come out on the winning side. Better yet, there was an Irishman on the tour with us, and we were equally enthusiastic about free food, so an unspoken competition took place. It doesn't matter so much who won, but rather that I felt much better about how much we paid for the tour after eating at the buffet.

We needed the food, because of the upcoming bus ride, which Jess is going to write about. Suffice to say, that bus ride was as interesting as the ride into Göreme. Yet we made it to Selçuk, which has been good to us. We napped in the morning, then headed out to Ephesus in the early afternoon. The 20 lira ($14) entrance fee (each) was a shocker, but we'd come too far to not go in, and when compared to the other entrance fees we'd seen across Europe (10 euros to go in yet another cathedral? Who are they kidding?), it was a bargain. Actually, Ephesus was really quite fascinating. Again, pictures are much more descriptive, and I tend to think of ruins as big piles of rocks, but these ruins, part of a thriving city that apparently at one time was a Wonder of the World, really impressed us. It's interesting to see a place that has seen 1400 years pass, that really has endured the ravages of time, and to realize that despite the diminutive piles of rocks and sad remains of walls and arenas, this was a huge, thriving, and beautiful place. To be here in its heyday must have been jaw-dropping, especially for those times. The city even had a sewage and water system, and its eloquent passageways were alighted at night the Roman version of streetlights. That doesn't even begin to address how eloquent and remarkable the carvings were in the marble, the statues and columns all demonstrating master artistry that mocks modern art of today. We got our "ruin fix" done, and we enjoyed it: what more could we ask for?

Tomorrow is a quandary. We want to go to Greece, if only for an afternoon to say that we've been there, to check it off if you will. We greatly underestimated the travel times in Turkey, though, as well as the cost of transportation. One option would be to take a night bus to Istanbul, then another long bus to the Greek/Bulgarian/Turkish border crossing, and then another long bus back to Istanbul, all by Sunday. Another option would be to stay another night here and make a day trip out to the Greek island of Samos. Both options are expensive, probably equally so. At least going to Samos would be relaxing. Either way, we have yet another night bus trip ahead of us to return to Istanbul.

That is to say, yet another adventurous night bus trip.

Until next time, be safe.

October 06, 2009

Istanbul And Beyond

Time continues to flash past for us. We bid farewell to Poland to take a night train to Berlin. We were interrupted numerous times during the night, but fortunately it took longer than scheduled (14 hours) so we had plenty of time to try to sleep. We were very sad to be finished with our time in Poland. The place has a bit of an edge to it--the people aren't as polite or cheerful as in Spain, for example, and they have little sympathy or feel little need to address all your concerns. The buildings can be very dreary, resulting from decades of Soviet inspiration in architecture. But the place is so rewarding, and the history is more rich than most places, which was quite unexpected. We were also quite amazed about how "green" their bus system is--the long-distance buses are even "solar heated," and true to Polish values, require a little character building en route.

Berlin. Hmm, what to say about Berlin? Well, to be fair, we were only there for a day, and it was blustery and rainy all day. Also, we had the excellent timing of arriving on a city holiday, the Reunification Day in Berlin, so everything (such as supermarkets) were closed. We did get on a bus that was to take us down to the center, where festivities were occurring; the bus driver, who was apparently one of the five people in Berlin who don't speak a word of English (even though it was an airport bus--right) didn't bother to announce nor stop in the center, and we found ourselves at the end of the line, all the way across the city, with the other foreigners trying to find their hotels from the airport. Still, we did find the center, and enjoyed brats and beer, but only a little, as Berlin is so expensive compared to Spain or Poland. Even our food situation turned out fine, as I found a little shop that had roasted chickens cooking for 5 euros, and we devoured a whole chicken that night. The next morning, on our way to the airport, the sun was shining, and the city looked much more pleasant with some rays on it.

With remarkably little drama, we found ourselves at our hostel in Istanbul. The airport in Istanbul is quite nice and easy to navigate, and the metro and tram system in the city is amazing, not to mention embarrassing when compared to the poor state of public transportation in the US. Istanbul is a little larger than most cities we've visited (with a population of more than 16 million people), but our little district there, the Sultanahmet district, seemed like a small city of its own, which was nice. Our hostel was decent enough, though we had little time to explore much in the neighborhood, since it was 5 pm by the time we checked in. There in the hostel, we found a couple of Americans who had been traveling a bit in Turkey, and we asked them what might be fun to do for our week. See, we have a habit, which could be considered either good or bad, of arriving into a country, usually with nothing but a reservation in a hostel, and making up the plans as we go. That surprises some travelers, who might have every last second planned, but it has worked well for us, and Turkey was no different.

At any rate, the pair had gone to an area of Turkey called Cappadocia. We'd heard about it before, and had considered going there, since it is considered to be one of Turkey's most interesting and beautiful regions. It also happens to be one of its most touristy, and tours that way were expensive enough that we'd pretty much decided to avoid it. Speaking with them, though, it sounded like we could make a quick, affordable trip to the region, so we decided to try for it. We'd paid for the next night in the hostel, but since we needed to catch the night bus to Goreme, which is the center of the region, we talked to the hostel manager and had the reservation moved.

We woke up early the next day to max out our time in Instanbul, since it was the only day we had until Sunday. The rain had followed us from Poland and Germany, though, and we found a strong downpour outside until around 9:30. The rain stopped at that point, and didn't return for the rest of the day, although it was cloudy and a little brisk throughout the day. I guess that is to be expected, as it is now firmly in October now. Once the rain stopped, we ventured out into the Sultanahmet neighborhood, first to the nearby and famous Blue Mosque, then down the waterfront for a long walk along the coast of the Golden Horn. We hooked back up into our neighborhood, and ended up talking to some travel agents about tours in the Cappadocia area. I still haven't decided if we got fleeced. Originally, the agent pulled out this extended, amazing trip that would have taken us through Cappadocia, then headed back to the Coast to other tourist site, including Ephesus. From the coast, we would have made a day trip to a Greek island, then we would have taken a night bus back to Istanbul. From the start, I was suspicious; they broke out cups of tea, which is always a sign that big numbers will be discussed. We asked him the price, and he said $500. We were amazed by that sort of deal, until he noted this price was per person, which made me choke on my tea, which suddenly tasted quite bitter. We bantered a bit, then told him we were off for lunch to discuss the situation.

Still, we wanted to go to Cappadocia, that was certain, and even though the other sites were interesting and had been under consideration anyhow, we figured we could cherrypick the best to do on our own for a lot less than $500 each. So we returned to the agent and asked for a quote for just the Cappadocia portion, plus the bus ride south to the coast. He pulled out a number that was still high, but better. We must have seemed skeptical, because he gave us a double room instead of the dorm. Though the daily cost for the trip was about $30 more than our daily budget, we finally relented. Later, though, doing the math, I realized that we probably could have gotten to Goreme, found hostels ourselves, and still taken the same tours, for about a third less than what we paid, based on how much the American pair told us they spent. Still, this saved us the hassle of having to do a lot of organizing.

So, we spent the rest of the day walking around our district of Istanbul, browsing the Grand Bazaar, then heading off into the more local areas. Jess found herself a little uncomfortable, not because anyone seemed lewd or dangerous, but because she was really the only woman in sight. This area was really the working class, with streets lined with shoes shops, car repair shops, and the like. It didn't take long to get back to our hostel, though, and we were picked up around 7:30 to head to the bus station. Now, this was the part that I was happy about our package the most; we had a ride to bus station. Istanbul is immense, and while I'm sure that it is quite possible to reach the bus station from Sultanahmet, it wouldn't have been relaxing or easy. Istanbul is a terrific city, very lively and busy, and at night it lights up like a giant carnival. Our trip to the station was fascinating.

Now, our trip to Goreme wasn't quite so enchanting, although it was funny once we looked back on it. The station was just pure chaos, buses packed like sardines and going in every which direction. I am pretty sure we may never have found the company going to Goreme, much less the bus itself, if we hadn't been dropped at the door. On the bus, we found that we had a steward, albeit one with an attitude. He tromped along the aisle like a sultan, briskly ordering the cowed passengers with various grunts and hand motions. For awhile, he seemed very confused about his passenger list, and I was suddenly very afraid we were on the wrong bus, especially when he asked for our tickets multiple times. Given that you're lucky not to get beheaded on a Greyhound bus in the US, it was interesting to have a steward on a bus for awhile, but he lost his esteem in our minds at 4 in the morning when he turned on the lights to serve another round of tea and coffee. Our seats weren't the most comfortable, and there were fairly frequent stops considering it was a direct bus to Goreme, but I think we managed enough sleep to not be completely wrecked upon arrival in Goreme.

That was a good thing, because we were awoken at 7 am to be dropped off at some random gas station that turned out to be about 15 km from Goreme. I haven't any idea why the bus didn't go on into town, but there were other buses as well that dropped their confused passengers to shiver in the cold Turk dawn along with us. We were told a minibus would be coming for us, or at least I think we did (no one spoke English out there), and eventually one did. That minibus was too small, and we didn't move fast enough to get seats. Around 7:35, I became a little more hostile to the agents in the nearby tour agencies, and lo and behold if they didn't reluctantly have a minibus waiting. And Jess always tells me that hostility doesn't get me anywhere...

Anyhow, the driver didn't know which direction to drive in to Goreme (resulting in an amusing 10 minute tour on some town) and he wasn't very good with a manual transmission, but eventually we were dropped off at the bus station in Goreme, which wasn't far from our hotel, the Nomad. There, we had a little breakfast, and around 9:45 we were picked up by another minibus. This time an old man who spoke no English was our driver, and for about 30 minutes I was terribly worried that the assurance of an English speaking guide wasn't going to pan out for us. At some point, though, we met up with our guide, who had a good handle on his English, and the day only improved from there.

Our first main stop was in an area with all kinds of "fairy chimney" rock formations. That is an impressive way of naming an area of soft stone that has been heavily eroded over the eons. Starting almost 5000 years ago, people have carved tunnels and rooms into various formations. We hiked through a valley where there were pigeon hole structures, which were small holes carved in the stone far up these formations; apparently they were accessed from inside the stone via tunnels, and pigeons were housed in caves in order to harvest their droppings to be used as fertilizer. This system is still in use; the fields along the valley had people working in them, and apparently the pigeon poo helps along the crops, much like bat guano. People have also carved homes, even apartment like structures, as well as churches and monasteries. It was like an ancient combination of Mesa Verde and the Painted Desert in Arizona. Our hike was quite nice.

Before lunch we visited the ruins of an entire hillside community of such carved homes. History has continually flowed through this area of Turkey since people stopped picking berries to build up towns, from the Hittites to the Persians to the Romans to Muslim conquerors. That makes it difficult to say what civilization has done what, or even if such communities have been continuously improved upon over the past two thousand years. After lunch we had several other visits, several of which were a take on the old carpet shop trick (we stopped at an onyx shop to "see the process of jewelry being made" as well as shop for it, and we stopped at a winery for wine tasting). The highlight of the afternoon was a visit to an underground city, Kaymakli; I had visions in my head of a cavern with an immense city. While this was wildly inaccurate, I wasn't disappointed. We found ourselves walking and at time ducking through the corridors and rooms of a continuous network that had been carved out of the stone to provide protection for people from invaders. Of course, people never continuously populated the city, it was for defensive purposes, but it could hold between 10,000 and 15,000 people. The underground city was really something worth the bus ride from Istanbul.

We still have another full day of touring tomorrow, and then a night bus out to the coast. From there, we still don't have a definite plan, although there is talk of trying to get back up to Istanbul by Saturday morning and then trying to reach the Greek/Bulgarian border. Given how we like to wing it, those plans won't be definite for a couple of days yet. 

Until next time, be safe.


October 02, 2009

Pictures From Majdanek & Auschwitz

These are depressing pictures from the two concentration camps we visited in Poland, Majdanek and Auschwitz. My blog posting about these pictures and the concentration camps is directly below, under all of the pictures, so keep reading.

Human Ashes, Majdanek

Crematorium, Majdanek

Watchtowers, Majdanek

Red Shoe In The Pile, Majdanek

Gate Of Auschwitz

Warning Sign, Auschwitz

Execution Wall, Auschwitz

Street At Auschwitz I

Electricity, Auschwitz I

Gate Of Death, Auschwitz II

Selection Area, Auschwitz II

Until next time, be safe.


Pictures From Spain & Poland

Here are cheerful pictures of our last few days in Spain, and a few of the many from Poland. After the pictures, look for the blog posting about them.

Hike In Monachil, Spain

Monachil, Spain Inhabitants

Warsaw, Poland, At Night

Warsaw At Night

Center Of Old Town, Warsaw

Jess In Warsaw

Meat Stand In Warsaw

Drinking Polish Brew In Warsaw

Evidence Of Warsaw's WWII Past

Eating At Polish Restaurant, Lublin

Fresh Produce, Lublin, Poland

Artwork In Krakow, Poland

Basilica Of The Assumption Of Our Lady, Krakow

  Krakow Old Town Center

Krakow Courtyard

Wawel Hill Palaces, Krakow

Krakow Street

Krakow Church

Until next time, be safe.


Dark Side Of The Poland

We are spending our last day in Poland. How exactly this week has passed so fast, I don't know. I can barely keep up with how fast time goes by here.

We ended up staying another day in Lublin, instead of visiting the tiny village of Kazimierz Dolny, as we had expected. For the first time in our trip, we had a rainy day, quite unexpected.  Downpours came and went throughout the day, and at first we decided that we would stay in the hostel we were in, and simply make a day trip to the village. Stormy weather and procrastination had us standing at the bus stop at 1 pm, looking at the schedule, and realizing that while it would be at least 2:30 by the time we reached Kazimierz Dolny, the last bus left before 6, so it seemed a little silly to head out. In the end, we had a day of forced relaxation, which turned out to be nice. We hung out in coffee shops, and in the evening, we ate another meal of pickled herring and cheese, eaten with beer and card games. It was a nice, quiet evening.

We came to Krakow the next morning, which was my birthday. The bus ride ended up being six hours, a little long, but we'd left just after seven, and so it was only 1 pm when we arrived in Krakow. People really seem to like Krakow, and it's immediately evident why. The center, which is the Old Town, is just packed with old, amazing buildings. Of course, you can pay to go into any number of them, which Jess and I are far too cheap to do. We just walked around the center and took a lot of pictures. Krakow is a beautiful city. For my birthday, we went to a restaurant near our hostel, to have traditional Polish food. For the second time in three days, we ate ourselves into an uncomfortable state. This time Jess had cabbage rolls, I had a sauerkraut meal of some kind, with seven types of meat in it. Both were delicious. We headed back to the hostel soon after.

Speaking of which, we have had a couple of very strange hostels in a row. Our place in Lublin was simply odd. Granted, Lublin isn't particularly a tourist destination, and there aren't hostels in the town, so this new hostel that we stayed in (open only for three months) is a new concept to Lubliners. Still, it is basically an apartment where the back rooms have been converted into bunks. The bunk rooms are normal enough, but the living room hadn't been changed much, and had a dinner table, a computer on a stand, and some furniture like the couch. The owner didn't have a room of his own, and had to watch the door at all times, so he slept on the couch. I borrowed his computer for attempts at updating the blog, but this made him very nervous and had him pacing behind me; I'm sure he had something inappropriate on the computer he didn't want me to find. It was like being in a Pole's living room, a Pole who didn't really want you there. The table had a doily on it, and we felt so uncomfortable rolling it up just a little to play cards.

 Just when we thought that was strange, our hostel in Krakow, the Blue Hostel, really stunned us. We walked down from the bus station (one great thing about the hostel is that it is close to both the train and bus station, and is right on the edge of the Old Town, a great location), and found it. Right from the start, the owner was weird. We had to convince him that we were customers just to enter, and then he took our money, showed us the room, and disappeared. We didn't see him the rest of the day, and the hostel seemed entirely deserted. Usually in a hostel, there are people sitting around in the common rooms or the dining area, but in this hostel there was no one. We had questions for the man, but couldn't find him, which was irritating. We ended up using their laundry machine, because he wasn't there to stop us. The next day, it was more of the same, although we stayed another night, and got a great deal because we wanted to move to a cheaper room but he was too lazy to have to clean up our first room, so he let us stay there for 40 zl less (ąbout $15). It is just eerie to be in a hostel, and yet have no one else around, except a Chinese couple who loudly entertained themselves (a polite term) in the private room next to our room.

Anyhow, yesterday we visited the Auschwitz concentration camp, a must-see for anyone who can possibly visit Krakow. We spent the better part of the day in the park, and it was so much to think about that it was a little overwhelming. Actually, it was quite overwhelming. The parks are difficult to describe, I'll start with the physical aspect of them. There are two main areas of Auschwitz and a network of something like 40 subcamps; the two main camps, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, are what people go to visit. You start in the first camp, the original, which surprisingly is a small camp of two-story brick buildings. Originally, this was a camp mostly for Polish men, not necessarily Jews, as first the Nazis were busy fighting the Polish underground. This isn't the image most people have of the camp, of square wooden buildings in a sea of mud; that would be Auschwitz II. There is a gas chamber and crematorium here, in addition to the barracks, and this camp was infamous for particular scenes: the daily procession to and from the fields for forced labor, the mocking gate that still states in German "Work Will Make You Free," the court where inmates stood for hours at attention in a cruel form of weeding out the weakest. At Auschwitz II, the scene of the infamous Gate of Death and the railway that led directly to the gas chambers, the buildings were a mix of brick (used first until supplies ran out) and then wooden structures, most of which don't exist anymore because the wood was reused by impoverished Poles at the end of the war. Here the worst atrocities took place, the train loads of people who came in and died. An estimated 1.1 million people were murdered at Auschwitz, most of them in the gas chambers at Auschwitz II, which sat under crematoriums that could process over 1000 corpses a day. We took a guided tour, which was really excellent, and as our guide said, numbers were abstract, if not impossible to calculate (towards the end, they stopped counting the train loads of people they directed straight into the gas chambers, so numbers are short, if anything). The fact remains that Auschwitz is the world's largest graveyard, of 1.1 million souls, none of whom ended up in graves but in nearby fields and ponds in the form of ashes (2 meters deep in one field); Auschwitz is the evidence, the witness, the singular definition of human cruelty towards another. Numbers simply stagger the mind, as does the absolute cruelty, the evilness that I couldn't imagine a human being capable of.

Trying to grasp what we'd seen really had my mind churning in the two hour bus ride back to Krakow. We went into one of the buildings in Auschwitz I that was dedicated to the Polish resistance movement; it was such a powerful building. Much attention is given to the plight of the Jews, for good reason, as 1 million of those murdered at Auschwitz were Jewish. This building, though, took us through the experience of the Poles. The intention of the Nazis was simple: to exterminate the idea of Poland, through the murder of all intellectuals and cultural people, as well as millions of other Poles, and the removal of Poles to camps to become slaves and eventually to be eradicated. The Nazis wanted to replace the Poles with German settlers, and they set about murdering any Poles they could possibly find an excuse for. War crimes unimaginable went on, both from the Germans as well as the Russians, an alliance that history conveniently covers up. Images of Polish massacres were astounding; one image struck me like a slap in the face, of a German pointing his rifle at an unarmed woman, facing away from him, her child held in her arms, her back curved in an attempt to save her child from the bullet that came seconds after the image was taken. That was the kind of image that I will never forget.

What I can't understand is the forgiveness that has taken place. Poland is now a cheerful neighbor of Germany and of Russia. Germany set out in the lifetime of many people still alive to absolutely eradicate Poland from the map, to murder all of its people and destroy its culture. Germany completely leveled Warsaw at the end of the war, every building, and killed 150,000-200,000 people of that city, while the Russians, aware of the massacre in the city, sat on its outskirts and waited for the resistance to be broken so they wouldn't have to bother (it's amazing to be in Warsaw, in the impressive Old Town, and know that all of those buildings have been in existence less than 65 years). Russia today would love to take over Poland, to have a Soviet Union again; if you don't believe me, look at those in power, such as Putin, who was a KGB agent in the USSR. At least Germany is run by different people than the Nazis, there has been no change in attitude in Russia, nor a change in leadership, from the same party that signed an agreement in 1939 with Nazi Germany to wipe Poland off the map. I can't understand how the world hasn't demanded at the very least financial payments of billions from Russia and Germany, how we haven't demanded Russia get off it's arrogant high horse and repay the atrocities it committed. Surely there is a collective guilt in Germany, though it seems that people there today feel as disconnected from their own history, the history of their parents and grandparents, as anyone else in the world. Seeing the evidence of a system of genocide, so methodical and efficient as Germans are known for being, I can't help feel anger towards a nation that sponsored the worst terror, and I can't understand how Poles don't harbor rage against their neighbors. That, I suppose, is the power of forgiveness.

Incredibly, of the 7000 people who worked the camps, less than 900 were ever caught, and less than 100 met their deaths as a result. Most of the Nazis disappeared into the German population with changed identities (such as the wife and children of the commandant of Auschwitz, all of whom are probably still living and have never been found). Many others went off to South America, to places like Brazil and Chile. I've been to German towns in Chile, where for three or four decades after WWII, German was the primary language spoken by inhabitants. Those inhabitants weren't the descendents the common German soldiers out fighting against Brits and Americans; they are the descendents of the type of people who created and ran places like Auschwitz, who went on to have normal lives, to reproduce and create generations. There are people today, my age, whose grandfathers were guards and directors of places like Auschwitz; it is an idea that causes a strange, helpless anger in me, one I can't help, one that no one should be able to help after seeing a place like Auschwitz. Even the infamous Dr. Mengele, who performed the types of experiments on humans that I can't even write about, disappeared into South America, raised a family, and drowned while swimming in the ocean in 1979! Unbelievable. No wonder it is so hard to prosecute war criminals of today, we were so unsuccessful after WWII, with evidence as blatant and ugly as Auschwitz.

Still, it was an experience that Jess and I couldn't pass up on. There is nothing like it, there is no place in the world that is similar. Our world needs this kind of reminder, so that the millions of Jews, Gypsies, Poles and other victims will not be joined in the future by others. War and genocide will likely continue, despite the efforts to stop them, but hopefully never on the scale as what happened in WWII. 

At any rate, we came back to Krakow and had dinner with a great Kiwi couple. They'd visited Auschwitz the day before, so we were able to share our experiences. That was a good thing, to talk about what we'd seen and how it had affected us. Fortunately, our conversation evolved away from the crimes of the past and on to much more cheery subjects, for hours. Perhaps that is how people in Poland survive the idea of their history; it's there, but it is better to move on, to more cheery subjects. For us, friendship and laughter, jokes and stories, brought the day to a close, a very good thing.

Until next time, be safe.


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