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.

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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.

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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, 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.

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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.


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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.


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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.


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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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September 28, 2009

Flying Through Poland

We are deep into our trip through Poland, and our week here is going by incredibly quickly. Before we know it, we will be in Turkey.

We had a great last few days in Spain. Every night that we were in Granada, we spent exploring the city for the best free tapas that you get with a drink. We stayed out far too late each night, with the folks we met in the hostel. Our last day in Granada, we were up at 7:30 to check out from the hostel, because our plan was to take a day trip to the nearby mountain hamlet of Monachile. Our guide came by 9, and we headed to the bus, and then on the town. We are big fans of little villages, there is a much more authentic feeling about them than the very international cities, with travelers from all corners of the world. Our guide actually lived in the little town, so we stopped by her house so she could bring along her very bad little dog, Mojo. We continued into a nearby nature reserve and spent the next several hours hiking along the river. In some places, we'd have to crawl under rocks as they protruded over the trail and towards the river; I imagined mysel (and my camera) taking an unexpected swim. The hike was quite nice, getting some fresh country air felt terrific after being in the city. We stopped by a restaurant for lunch, which was covered by the 15 euros the excursion cost (the meal was quite worth that by itself); funnily, our guide happened to work there, as well as the tea house we stopped at last, as it seems she was plugging the places that employed her. She was an excellent guide, though, and quirky to boot, so we enjoyed the hike thoroughly and it was a great day of exploration in Spain's countryside.

We arrived back in town in time to arrange our bags at the hostel and then hike to the train station. Our bags weigh a combined weight of nearly 40 kg, and the train station was about 2 km from our hostel, but it was all downhill, and we wanted to wear ourselves out for the night train to Barcelona. That didn't work that well; I still didn't sleep until around 2:30 am, even with 50 mg of Benadryl, but when I fell asleep, I didn't wake up until we pulled into Barcelona. There, we quickly found our hostel and set out to get the most out of our day in Barcelona. It was more like our typical European city exploration than we've done for a long time; we headed out from the northwest end of town, all the way the center, around the port and the center, as well as the Barrio Gotic (Gothic Quarter), and then all the way back to the hostel. It was an incredible, five hour hike; according to Google Maps, it was about 12.7 km. We weren't done, though; we showered and cleaned up, then took the metro back to the center, where we met up with friends from Tucson. We walked all over the center with them, had some tapas and beer, and around 1:30, we walked back again to the hostel. We burned off some extra trimmings that day.

The next morning, we were up at 7:30 yet again, this time to check out of the hostel and take the metro to the train station, and then a short train to the airport for our flight to Warsaw, Poland. That trip was remarkably uneventful; once in Warsaw, we figured out which bus to take and rode it into the center. That bus took us directly to our hostel, which turned out to be quite great. The hostel, called Hostel Krokodyl, was super clean and seemed fairly new. It had a very nice kitchen, dining room, and common room. The beds were really comfortable, we even noted that the mattresses were Ikea, and we didn't get eaten alive by bedbugs so that we looked like measles victims in the mornings. The best thing was that there was free laundry service, so we had our clothes machine washed for the first time in just short of five weeks. For those of you who don't understand the beauty of clothes that aren't washed by hand in the sink, consider yourselves underappreciative, as it is a glorious thing, the washing machine.

We had our standard procedure there in Warsaw. We dropped our bags, and headed straight for the center. It was getting on in the evening by this point, the sun was setting as we jumped on a tram that took us into town. We reached the center with one objective: to find the restaurant that is co-owned by the owner of our favorite restaurant in Tucson, AZ. It wasn't as easy to find as I expected, even though we had found it on a map. The streets of Warsaw's Old Town are windy and getting your directional bearings is a real chore. We ended up walking again for several hours, and saw most of the Old Town in the process before we reached the restaurant. There, we had a bit of an awkward moment: it was difficult to explain just why we were there, and by asking for the owner, we overwhelmed the poor waitress. Enter in the imposing cook, who asked in a monotone, somewhat aggressive voice: "What do you want?" We just grinned uncomfortably, showed him the video we'd shot with the co-owner in Tucson, and got the hell out of there, as the owner wasn't coming in until the next day. After that, we basically had a beer in a different cafe, then headed back to the hostel. It was too late for dinner, so we had a meal of pickled herring with cheese and crackers, an essential Baltic meal and quite delicious.

 The next morning, we found that they had a delcious spread of not only the typical hostel-breakfast of bread and jam, but also meat, cheese, and vegetables, a standard for Baltic and Scandinavian breakfasts. We were ready to head back out, but met a couple from New Zealand and ended up talking to them until noon. We hurried back to the center, only to find that we'd covered most of it the previous night, and the only difference was that it was packed with athletes running a marathon and spectators. We walked for awhile, then had lunch in what is known here as a milk bar, a cheap cafeteria that serves cheap Polish standards. We found a small, local outdoor market, and a stall that sold really excellent beer, "without preserves." brewed in a small family brewery. We sat talking to a couple of travelers, until we noticed the sun setting; we needed to find the bus station for the next morning, so we hurried back to the tram. En route, we visited the restaurant again; the owner wasn't to be found, but it wasn't so awkward, they seemed to expect us this time, although one of the waitresses fled again.

We found the bus station without trouble, although we had a little detour on the tram getting back to the hostel; the language barrier can be trouble. We had a great meal of pasta (yet again), and talked to the Kiwi couple until almost 1:30. We took our time getting breakfast and packing before heading to the bus station, and about three hours of bladder-torturing bumpy roads later, we found ourselves in the smaller city of Lublin (population 325,000). Our hostel was right next to the bus station, so we checked in, dropped the bags, and jumped on a bus that took us out to the concentration camp that sits on the outskirts of town, Majdanek. The exhibits buildings and the visitors center were closed as it is Monday, but the camp itself was open, so we walked around. The barracks were sad, but the most dramatic parts of the camp were the gas chambers, the building that housed the crematorium, the huge pile of ash left from victims, and a building lined with piles of shoes from the victims. The emotional impact may not have been as much as we expect to find in Auschwitz, outside of Krakow, but seeing the shoes made us feel as though the presence of ghosts of the 80,000 victims were standing around us; we weren't able to walk down the corridors of shoes until the lights were on.

Back in the Lublin center, we walked to a restaurant that served very traditional foods, recommended by the hostel. There we stuffed ourselves on pierogi, barszcz (borsch soup), and wild boar, and had to walk back to the hostel, just to help digest the meal. The center, or Old Town, in Lublin, is quite nice, if small, and our hostel is nice as well. Even though this is a quite large city, it has a small town feel to it, and that is a nice change, after being in Granada, Barcelona, and then Warsaw. Tomorrow, we are going to the really small village of Kazimierz Dolny, population 400.

Until next time, be safe.


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September 23, 2009

Back In Spain...For Now

We are resting our heels in Granada for a few days, having finished the African portion of our trip.

Coming back from Chefchaouen couldn´t have been easier. We had been expecting a hectic, difficult day of travel on Monday, since it just so happened to be Eid, the end of Ramadan. We arrived at the bus station anticipating crowds of people as well as a bus trip similar to the one that we had experienced en route to Chefchaouen, where the bus was jammed with people, and sweltered in the hot afternoon with no AC for relief. Instead, the bus was nearly empty. Once we reached the bus station in Tangier, we found that it too was nearly empty of travelers, and we shared a taxi with an Aussie couple we´d met on the bus to the port. There, another astonishment: a ferry was heading across the strait to the city of Algeciras within fifteen minutes; we bought tickets and hustled ourselves aboard. 

All was going swell to reach our desired destination of Granada, except that I had forgotten to take into account the two hour difference between Spain and Morocco; instead of arriving in Algeciras at 3 pm, we arrived at 5 pm, after the last train to Granada had left. Algeciras has what is likely a poor reputation as a seedy port city, so we really wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. We walked the Aussies to the bus station and bid them farewell (we never did make introductions, though) and continued on to the train station, where fortunately a train was leaving in the hour for a little town called Ronda, about halfway between Algeciras and Granada. We jumped at the chance to go there; I called the first hotel in the Lonely Planet guide, which had availabilities, and off we went.

The ride there, which took about two hours, was quite amazing; we saw a part of Spain that we hadn´t expected or known about. The landscape outside changed from the developed areas of Algeciras to a wild and woolly landscape of steep hillsides, plunging gorges, and thick trees and shrubbery. It turns out the route had the train clinging to the side of a gorge in the Sierra de Grazelema Natural Park, a wild area of Spain that looked as wild as parks in the US and Canada.  The sun was setting behind the train, and orange light bathed the hillsides. Eventually, the wildness gave way to little whitewashed villages and long expanses of brushland and farms. We talked about how nice it must be to live in such an area, a place far from the bustling cities, a place of peace and quiet.

As we neared Ronda, the sun finally set over the hills opposite of us. The jagged peaks turned a complete black, while the sky was an astonishing dark orange, almost red, and seemed so vivid that one could imagine that it wasn´t real, a sheet of velvet painted across the horizon. It was a terrific sunset, one of the best I´ve seen in a long time. Once we reached Ronda, Jess and I found our hotel, dropped our bags, and headed out for dinner. We wandered until we found a street with outdoor cafes; there we dined on gazpacho soup, a cold soup of tomatos, onions, and delicious spices, as well as a plate of seafood that was just the right amount of food. Sadly, it was dark, and our train left at nine the next morning, so exploration of the scenic town of Ronda wasn´t possible.

Granada, at first glance, seemed disappointing. We´d heard several other travelers talk about how much they loved Granada, and so we imagined the same for ourselves. Yet, walking in the center, a busy area of traffic, pedestrians, and the kind of grandiose buildings and churches hiding around corners you expect from most European cities, we found that we weren´t all that impressed. Also, Granada is said to be the Moroccan city of Spain; coming directly from Morocco left us a little cynical about what we found, like going to a Chinese restaurant after visiting China itself. We did like our hostel, and opted to stay, but we talked to one of the employees, who told us about a little town about a half hour bus ride away, where we could get a little hiking in; that was our plan for today.

Last night, though, we met an Australian couple, as well as an American fellow. The Aussies are finishing up a 18-month journey; the American is en route to Casablanca to teach English and study Arabic for more than a year in a bid to start a career in the State Department. We went out on the town with them, and found that there is a particularly grand tradition here in Granada: for every drink that you buy, you also receive a free tapa (small portion of food). These tapas are actually quite a good portion, and after several portions of paella and sandwiches, downed with inexpensive beer, we were completely stuffed. That helped improve our attitudes about Granada.

Then, this morning, as we were enjoying our free breakfast here at the hostel, we found that there was a free walking tour around Granada. We decided to go on the day trip tomorrow, and to explore a more interesting part of Granada today. The tour took us up above the city, giving great views for pictures. It also took us through a very interesting section of town--the inhabited caves. There are hills on the north side of town, where for centuries people have been using natural caves or digging their own as homes. Some of these caves are just a hole in the side of the hill, covered with a blanket or tarp; others are as complex as having walls and outer rooms, even solar panels. What these caves have in common is a perplexing contradiction: most of the inhabitants seem to be of the solitary hermit types, looking to escape the crowd, only they form a whole community of solitary types. There are also apparently a lot of Gypsies, Euro-hippies (a particularly grungy brand of hippies, often with hair styles that usually are a wicked combination of mullets, dreads, mohawks, shaved parts, or all of the above, and often in clothes you´d expect on a Gypsy), and even wealthy, eclectic types. For me, I´m glad to not live in a hole in the ground, but different strokes for different folks. It seems like these people are related to another European phenomenon in several European cities, the Squatters, and the subsequent Squatter Rights Laws that are being tossed around these days; that´s a whole different entry.

Speaking of European phenomenons, we noticed a huge number of European girls in Morocco wearing what I´ve seen described as cheese-cloth parachute pants. Essentially, these lower garments are what appears to be a long dress, but halfway down the shins, it becomes a pair of pants. Again, it´s kind of the Gypsy style, and agonizingly ugly. We figured that it was the European effort to fit into a place like Morocco, though quite unsuccessful. Anyhow, we looked for them upon arriving in Granada, and lo and behold, girls wear them here as well; however, this is Spain´s Morocco, so maybe elsewhere...?

Anyhow, we feel much better about Granada. It turns out the city is quite nice after all. We are staying in the section of town considered the old Muslim district, with narrow, windy passageways, loads of restaurants and cafes, and plenty of interesting characters roaming the streets. Perhaps Granada isn´t our favorite European city, but it has a laid back charm that we have really enjoyed today. I´m glad we made it part of our itinerary, on our way to Barcelona and then Poland.

Even if they do wear those ridiculous parachute pants here.

Until next time, be safe.


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September 07, 2009

Pictures From Spain

I have used up the first memory card for my camera. That means I have taken 700 photos, using up 4 GB of space. I am thinking that I am going to have to buy a few more cards. Here are some from Spain.

 Segovia, Spain

 Segovia, Spain

 Jess In Toledo

 View Of Toledo From Tower

 An El Greco Painting (Shhh..)

Until next time, be safe.


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The Bull Fight


After much debate as to whether to post anything about it, I´ve decided to write about our experiences at a bullfight. I am a little worried about people who might be offended that we even went to a bullfight, much less write about it, but this is part of our experience and so I am going to write about it. If you sense you might be offended, then I have two points: now might be a good time to stop reading, and also, as I don´t support bullfights, I won´t be going on about how fun or great it was.

Anyhow, we felt that going to a bullfight would be an important cultural event, as we are in Spain and this definitely a part of the culture here, like it or not. We purchased the cheapest tickets, and were at the stadium early to find our seats. I knew that the fights were of a lethal nature to the bulls, and possibly the humans as well, but I didn´t know much more about it. To give a quick synapsis of the fights (there were six of them), first there are a group of six or so fellows that wait for the bull to come rushing out. When the bull enters the arena, he is obviously angry and aggressive. So these guys use their capes to have him charge, and they see how close they can get to his horns without injuring themselves. This short segment is followed by guys on horses (all of these have names, I just don´t which ones are which, except for the obvious matadors). The guys have lances, and they provoke the bull to charge the heavily insulated horses, at which point they use the lances to drive off the bull--the first blood. This is followed by the next segment, probably the most distressing, when a couple of the guys on the ground trade their capes for short blades, which they stick into the back of the bull as he charges them. This is both very dangerous for those guys, and injurious to the bulls. Finally, the matador comes out, and after having multiple passes under his cape, in which he tries to elicit a response from the crowd by having the bull pass incredibly close, he uses a long sword that he drives into the bull´s heart, and the fight is over in as short as six seconds.

That is the short version, however, and clearly is a clean version of a dangerous, violent, and disturbing fight to the death. Theoretically the matadors will have a clean kill, but that isn´t always the case, which is a very disturbing event. Then there is the idea that this is a ¨blood sport,¨which is untrue in definition--there is nothing sporting about it. The odds are heavily stacked in favor of the men, which is natural; no one would want to get into an arena where the chances were quite high that they could be gored or killed. Even as it is, the bull weighs well over 1000 pounds and is impressive fast and powerful; one mistake could easily lead to a meeting of flesh against the razor sharp horns, which could be the end of a career or of a life. But it seems very unfair that there are up to eight men on foot or horse against the one bull, injuring and tiring it in a way that by the time the pompous matador walks into the arena, he is facing a very weakened bull. A more equal field might have the bull facing fewer men, and facing the matador when he is fresh and angry and above all, healthy.

At any rate, there are a dramatic range of emotions that occur in the bullfight. I found myself repulsed, especially in the beginning, first by the failure of a ¨clean¨kill and then by the cheers of the crowd around me. I found that I was cheering for the bulls, hoping that they might take down their opponents and perhaps live for another day; indeed, one of the matadors, facing a very weak bull, became so arrogant that he walked right up on the bull, and stood inches from its horns while looking up into the crowd. The bull suddenly came to life and flung him around a good bit, and Jess and I both cheered heartily, at least once it was clear that the matador only suffered a bruised ego. There is sadness at the demise of the bull, a massive, powerful creature that seems too strong to be brought down. There is relief that the meat isn´t wasted, but given to charity. There is anxiety and excitement when a matador or picador comes a little too close to the horns and looks as though a good goring is coming their way. There is certainly a degree of anger that people, of much greater intellect, taunt an animal that flies at them in such furious, instinctual (as well as inefficient) way, that the beast can´t seem to figure out that it would be better to ignore the cape and target the thin, sequined figures of the fighters. Finally, there is relief, after the fight, when the bull has died, and you know that the suffering has ended, especially when the sword meets its mark and the bull dies very quickly.

 The Bullfight

From an American perspective, this sort of event can be seen very much as a savage, barbaric, and inhumane. Yet we have a skewed view on this sort of thing. We watched the fight with a couple of Australians who we met in our hostel, and as the guy said, this is simply a different way of killing the animal, perhaps a longer way but not necessarily a more inhumane way. We buy a juicy steak from the market, and yet we don´t think about where that meat came from, or the methods used to produce it; we couldn´t or we would lose our appetites. I would think that these bulls, given their size and ferocity, lived better and more free lives than most livestock we consume. Besides, there are hundreds if not thousands of years built into this tradition, and Jess and I try very hard not to judge the cultures of other people, even the parts of those cultures that we find distasteful or disturbing. What it is to those people has much more meaning to them than to us, and believe me, there is plenty about American or Western culture that people around the world find very disturbing.

It gave us much to think about after the fight; we were in definite need of a beer. I don´t know if any of the four of us enjoyed watching the fight; you have to wonder about the mental state of a person who enjoys watching the demise of an animal. On the other hand, it was part of the cultural experience. I am betting that we can count on having additional cultural experiences and encounters that will ruffle our feathers. That is part of exploring outside the comfort zone we build around ourselves. That is part of exploring in general.

Until next time, be safe.


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An Interesting Night

Hello All!  It´s Jess.  We are still in Seville and will leave for Tarifa in the morning around 9:30.  We are both looking forward to our upcoming journey through Morocco.  Our experiences there will be so different from the ones we have had in Spain and Portugal.  It should be a good time though!

So last evening we went to see a bullfight.  I can´t say that I am proud of the fact that I have now witnessed such an event, but it seemed we should go to experience this part of the Spanish culture.  I will try not write too many gruesome details, but there were several thoughts that I took away from the experience. 

I do not believe that bullfighting is an actual sport.  Prior to the matador making his grand appearance, the bull has been charging for 10-15 minutes towards various colorful capes and has been horrifically stabbed 5 times.  So, when the matador enters the arena, the bull is exhausted and bleeding profusely.  There is virtually no chance of the bull actually winning the match.  The matador then taunts the poor animal until he then decides it is time to stab it.  If it was actually a fair game, the matador would confront a healthy vibrant bull, and the animal would have chance for victory. 

As I sat in the stadium surrounded by cheering fans eagerly awaiting the kill, I wondered what happens to the bull once it has died.  We did learn the answer, and apparently the meat is donated to charity.  I suppose hearing this pleased me somewhat.  So basically this is just a different form of killing an animal to use its resources.  Instead of being sent to the slaughterhouse, he is sent to the ring to be taunted and stabbed by the matador.  It is unfortunate that the latter death is not quick and painless, but drawn out to 20 or so minutes. 

I could write down more opinions on this, but I won´t because I would probably type all day.  So, in my small and humble opinion bullfighting is in no way, shape, or form a sport.  It is just another way to slaughter a cow, which in the end provides nutrition for those in need, thanks to donation.  I would never go back to a bullfight, but Aaron and I try to immerse ourselves into the culture when traveling.  I don´t always agree with what I see, but I try not to judge because each and every place is so different.  I guess that is what makes the journey so interesting.

On a lighter note, tonight we will join the hostel group for dinner of paella and drinks.  I am sure a good time will be had! 

Peace, Jessica

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September 05, 2009

The Tiring Life Of Living Out Of A Backpack

We have arrived into Seville, Spain. (In Spain, it is known as Sevilla; Spanish folk won´t understand you if you ask about Seville). It has been a long trip here.

Madrid is a nice city, especially in the evenings when the crowds come out into the plazas and cafe terraces; there is a great energy in the city. Still, it is a really big city, which can be a little overwhelming after awhile. So, we took a day trip our last day in Madrid. We jumped on a bus and headed out to a little town called Segovia. It is a nice town for sure, but it turns out that it is fairly touristy. It doesn´t help that it has a huge and amazingly intact Roman aqueduct just outside its walls, or that it has the castle that supposedly inspired Walt Disney´s Snow White fairytale castle. The streets get pretty choked with the tourists. Still, it was a nice trip to get outside of Madrid. 

The next morning we were off early to get to Toledo, which is a real magical place. It isn´t nearly as touristy as Segovia, it seems so much more authentic and interesting. To be clear, it is a much larger city than Segovia, and was in fact the capital of Spain for a long time until it became clear that it would not be able to keep up with the growing importance of the capitalhood (it is build on a relatively small hill). It is a fascinating medieval city, winding streets and tall buildings that frequently are older than the US. We only had a day there, but we walked a lot, and ended up seeing the city from end to end (there are 56,000 inhabitants, but it is a compressed city). That was actually fairly impressive, because we managed to visit one of the most interesting museums for a couple of hours in the midst of getting ourselves repeatedly lost in the hilly streets of Toledo. That museum, the Museo Duque de Lerma, was probably the most interesting museum that I have visited for a long time. It is relatively unknown museum, we were the only visitor, and for our entry fee, we got a personalized tour. It was really nice, because sometimes you walk through these big, impersonal museums, and if you aren´t an art or history buff (I am not, for those who might wonder), then it turns out to be about as exciting as a kick in the face. Our guide went through the entire museum with us, telling us history and information about the pieces. The museum was a hospital for the poor at some point, which is interesting especially for those of us who are nurses. There were patient charts from the 1700s that had hand designed covers, and an advanced pharmacy from that period that was really amazing. Not only that, the museum had a number of El Greco paintings, which were displayed much more intimately than, say at the Prado; you could put your nose about an inch from the canvas and really look at them.

Toledo was quite a place. After walking ourselves into a stupor, we found a little restaurant that served the locals; those places are precious in their own respect. This one served paella and tapas, two dishes well known as Spanish specialties. We spent the evening hiking up and down the steep streets of Toledo, the place takes on a special sort of feeling, more quiet and calm and perhaps reminiscent of the days of centuries before, after the crowds retreat. Then we collapsed in our bed, which happily was in a cheap but nice hotel (41 euros for a private room!) and slept like rocks until this morning.

See, we are getting tired. Day after day of walking, miles and miles, begin to take their toll. Yet, when you only have a day in a place like Toledo, there is no way you are going to take a day off and relax. We walked for hours there, and the hills were impressive. That city might be built on the top of a hill, but it runs all the way down as well. So, today, we decided to have a rest day, with our one objective to make the trip back to Madrid by bus and then catch the train to Sevilla. The journey itself was impressively exhausting. We had to carry our bags down to the bus station; we both are imagining that these bags are slowly gaining weight, like a chubby kid at fat camp. Jess is convinced that her bag is holding more stuff now than before, even though if anything more of her stuff has migrated to my bag. Anyhow, we made the bus in the morning, and arrived back in Madrid. Then we had to walk into the metro system and get onto our correct metro line. Turns out that two stops from our connection onto the second line, they had closed our first line for repair, so we had to get off and jump onto a third line for several stops to get further up the second line in order to reach our destination. Besides the progressively heavier bags, the stress of trying to keep up with the changes in the lines, in Spanish no less, was taxing. By the time we reached the train station, we were both grumpy as hell. We made the train with no problem, but couldn´t look at each other for the first half hour on the way to Sevilla.

Then we arrived in Sevilla. Problem was that while I had booked a hostel in Sevilla, I hadn´t written down even the name of it, thinking I would have access to my email before we left Madrid (that was before the day trip to Segovia, and there aren´t internet cafes in Toledo that I am aware of, nor are there hostels). So, I had to go find an internet cafe, before trying to reach our hostel here. The hostel, which I now know is called Triana Backpackers Hostel, is located a distance from the train station, something like 3 km. But we are brave and independent, and too cheap for the bus (it would have cost 1 euro), so we decided to hike it, regardless of the oppressive heat and humidity here in Sevilla. The logic in that decision was called into question about ten minutes in, but by then we had started and couldn´t be turned back, even for the calling of an air conditioned bus that stops outside the hostel. We made it to the hostel, albeit sweaty and worn out.

Not that there is going to be any rest this evening of our self-described day of rest. We cooked food, we are going to do a little laundry, we are going to clean up a little (we smell), and then we are going to go see some free Flamenco dancing tonight. Tomorrow is a bullfight.

You see, we only have three days in Seville, and one is already over. There is not a moment to waste.

Until next time, be safe.

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September 02, 2009

Big City Madrid, Spain

We´ve spent the last couple of days in Madrid, Spain. This is a big, bustling city with narrow, winding streets filled with people out dining, wining and socializing. In other words, a pretty exciting place.

We weren´t so happy initially to see the city. Our overnight train ride from Portugal on Monday was pretty exhausting. Besides the rolling motion of the train, people walked up and down the aisles all night long, and being three in the morning didn´t stop everyone from talking in normal conservsational tones. I finally fell asleep around four, but only for a few hours, and neither of us was well rested. We were pretty disoriented coming into the city, it took us awhile to figure out the metro system. After a nap, we were fine, though.

Even better, we were able to wash our dirty clothes, in a machine, no less. We´ve been washing our clothes in the sink for the last week, which isn´t a big deal. Still, they don´t get terribly clean that way, so when we found we could do a load for 3 euros, we jumped at the deal.

Our hostel in Madrid is nice, a beautiful, modern place. The staff there isn´t nearly as nice as they were in Lisbon, where they actually knew us on a first name basis after three or four days. The hostel here in Madrid doesn´t have the homey feeling that we enjoyed in Lisbon either, but I guess we´ll be experiencing all sorts of living conditions.

Speaking of living conditions, we are spending tomorrow night in Madrid before heading to Toledo for a night, and then on to Sevilla. There, it turns out that we can rent a nice apartment for 50 euros a night, which is more expensive than we would like (our hostel here in Madrid costs 30 euros for the both of us; then again, there are 12 bunks in our room). There are hostels for much cheaper in Sevilla; we will have to decide whether we can splurge or not.

Our budget in Spain is 70 euros a day for each of us, which is far too much so far. However, looking at lodging in Morocco, we are realizing that we under-budgeted badly, so it would be better to save money in Spain to use in Morocco; perhaps we will come out even that way. Still, it is tempting to get the really nice deals because of our budget allowances, even when it is unnecessary.

At any rate, Madrid is treating us well. We spent a good part of the day in the Museo de Prado, which is truly a world-class museum. There were some remarkable paintings from masters like Goya and Valenquez, as well as El Greco, that I actually enjoyed, despite my adverse reaction to the general art world. We walked around the place until our feet were sore; it has an immense collection, of which a high number of them are masterpieces. That is just hearsay, though, I wouldn´t know a masterpiece from a paint accident; really, they would have four paintings by the same artist in a row, all looking very similar, such as portraits done in the same fashion, and one would randomly be called a masterpiece. They were all about the same to me.

Tomorrow we are heading out for a day-trip, to a smaller city called Segovia, where there is a Roman aqueduct from the first century. That is a kind of history you don´t get much in the US.

Until next time, be safe.

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August 30, 2009

First Photos From The Trip

I was able to figure out how to resize a few photos. Here are some of them.

Cabo da Roca

Cabo da Roca

Lisbon View

Until next time, be safe.

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Last Night In Lisbon

We are staying in our hostel in Lisbon for the last night, for tomorrow we head on the night train to Madrid. It is a little sad, because this is the first place that we put down our bags and made ourselves home at. On the other hand, from now on, when people ask us where we have been, we won't have to say that we just arrived, or are "just off the boat," as rudely put by a couple of Canadians getting ready to head home.

Today we went off to a little town called Sintra. We were up and out of the hostel by 9 am, first because we wanted to avoid the inevitable weekend crowd, but mostly because the one palace we had interest in visiting, the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, was free from 10 am til 2 pm. Given how much we like free things, we were off of the train in Sintra, along with another American, Rafael, by 10 am.

The palace wasn't particularly spectacular. We aren't really museum folks; our attention span is shot after usually one museum or old building of whatever sort. Granted, it was a large palace, quite nice from that respect, but let's say we were happy we didn't pay to get in. Anyhow, I was wanting to head up a big hill to get to the Moorish castle at the top, which would have afforded some nice views of this scenic town and the beautiful valley it lies in. I was outvoted, we jumped on a bus at that point to head to the most western point of Europe, Cabo da Roca. The ride there and back was expensive (8 euros round trip each), and I was a little salty about not getting to see the castle (as my friend Will calls them, piles of rocks). The ride was great, though, a half-hour jaunt through some very normal, non-touristy, scenic villages along the kind of narrow, windy roads I suspect are the most common type in Portugal.

Upon arrival at the point, we took the normal pictures of what was a very spectacular cliffside view of the Pacific. If we had just done that and left, though, we would have missed out. We were sitting at the top, looking out over the high cliffs that fell down to crashing waves, when we noticed that there was a trail that led off into the coastal grasslands, and looked as though it led down into a gully that might end us on a beach. So we set out, it was steep at times, quite rocky and loose, but as difficult as the trail was, arriving on a rocky beach was completely worth it. There wasn't a soul in sight, as most people wouldn't have a clue that the trail existed, and most of the rest would be put off by the difficult and steep trail. The waves were big and ferocious, and in one tall spike of a rock outcropping, the ocean had bored two tunnels through the rock. It was absolutely beautiful, and quite relaxing, with the sounds of the crashing waves. Of course I took pictures, but I am having a lot of difficulty uploading them. 

Our American companion stated that the beach made his Portugal segment of his trip. Despite the exciting and fun Lisbon, I would tend to have to agree with him.

Once back in Lisbon, we found that most grocery stores were closed for Sunday. We were lucky enough to find a store open, and for 5.75 euros, we bought enough food and even beer to absolutely stuff ourselves. We took a couple of beers to a look-off over the city and watched the sunset. Probably the best day in Portugal, I would have to say.

Until next time, be safe. 


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August 29, 2009

Good Times In Lisbon

We are having a great time in Lisbon. It is an excellent city.

We have been walking our feet off. Thursday, we rode a tram car to the far end of the city, then walked all around the neighborhoods there. We were looking for a specific church, but this city is difficult to get a bearing in, especially because there are so many large hills, and the roads are curved along the contours of the hills. We were mostly successful in getting ourselves lost, which worked out well. We ended up finding the church we wanted to find, but the search was the best part (entry was 4 euros each, which doesn't fit our budget well). We walked around the windy, cobblestoned streets to the point of exhaustion, then walked back to the hostel across the city. Yesterday, after exploring a few churches and a museum, we jumped on a tram that took us out to the little suburb/neighborhood called Belem, where there are several interesting attractions. For example, the Torre de Belem is particularly picturesque; it looks a bit like an enormous chess piece. The Jeronimos Monastery is also pretty amazing. Belem is known for its custard tarts, and we were enormously pleased to find a shop where we had a couple of them as well as some coffee for 3 euros.

Given our daily budget (half of which goes to our hostel), it isn't particularly surprising that we cherish finding good deals. For what we have spent so far, we have seen and done a lot of things. Funny how having a tight budget encourages you to look for the free and cheap things to do. For example, we went downtown yesterday to a shop that had wine tastings for free. All we had to do is fill out a survey (they were all Portugese wines), but as backpackers, time is on our side, so we had no problem sitting down to put some marks on a sheet of paper for what ended up being a decent glass of free wine. (Note: wine is particularly cheap in Portugal, more so than beer, so a good bottle can be as cheap as 2 or 3 euros. Still, free is free.)

Tomorrow we are going to a little town near the coast that is apparently "fairytale like," called Sintra. I am going because there is a really interesting Moorish castle. Also, many museums and other places that charge entry fees (most places, at a going rate of 4-6 euros) have free entry on Sundays from 10 am to 2 pm; we're going to check out a palace while we're out there. We might also check out a few nearby places, although the bus tickets to those places may exceed our budget.

We did so much yesterday and for so little that we were just pleased as punch about our budget. So, to celebrate, we went out for dinner at a nice, decently priced restaurant. We ordered well-priced entrees, which would have kept us under the budget. However, we didn't realize that the appetizers (the plates of fish, the olives, the cheese, and even apparently the bread) are added up and placed on the tab, costing us an additional 10 euros. We were so sad that we had to get a beer with another American, and really blew the budget at that point. Tragic. 

Every day is a new attempt at the challenge of keeping a tight budget. It's fun.

Until next time, be safe.


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August 26, 2009

And So It Begins, In Lisbon...

We have arrived on our long-awaited trip. I´m sitting now in our hostel in Lisbon, where we plan on staying through the end of the month.

It was a pretty long trip, I´ll have to say that. We were up very early on the morning of the 25th, to catch our plane in Charlotte, NC. We flew from there up to JFK in NYC, and then on to Dublin, Ireland, on Aer Ingus. As commonly happens to me, I didn´t sleep at all on that flight. Even worse, it was only a 6.5 hour flight, so by the time I was getting tired enough to sleep, we were in Dublin. We had a two hour layover there, which had us sitting in the airport much like two exhausted zombies. Once we finally boarded our flight down here to Lisbon, we could barely keep our eyes open, and ended up sleeping the entire 2.5 hour flight.

Once in Lisbon, we had no issues. Our bags miraculously beat us out of the terminal, so there was no waiting or worrying for them. We loaded up and jumped on a bus that was to take us within a few blocks of our hostel, no issues there. The problem came once we disembarked from the bus, and found we had to struggle up an enormous hill to reach our hostel. 

I guess I should note the weight of our bags. At some point shortly before leaving from South Carolina, my bag weighed in over 70 pounds, once I attached the daypack to the backside. We did some hardcore weaning of our supplies, something difficult when you are trying to anticipate five months of travel needs. By the time we weighed our bags in the airport, my bag weighed 46 pounds, partly because I had the daypack on my back, and partly due to the weaning of the "unnecessary" supplies, including our sleeping pads, which we may end up regretting having left them behind when we go camping. Jess´s bag weighed about 30-35 pounds, which is pretty impressive given her small size.

At any rate, hauling the bags up this huge hill, probably at a 35-40 degree angle, after little sleep, little food, and loads of general grotchiness on both our parts, was a chore. In the end, we found our hostel with no issues and checked in. Per our budget, we are staying in a bunkroom, this particular room with a total of 8 beds. We even met our first hostel acquaintance, some Danish guy staying in Lisbon to study for five months (and staying in a hostel? Wow...).

We then headed out to see a little of the town while our strength held (turned out not to be too long, given this district of Lisbon is really, really hilly). We found a little cafe for Coke and pastries, and to learn a little Portugese. Later we found a shop where (according to our budget) we bought a bag of pasta, some tomato paste, some mushrooms and sardines, cheap wine, and some cookies for less than nine euros. Not too bad. We felt good enough about our budget, and the fact that we are staying under it for today at least, that we got a couple of beers in a little cafe that has a great view looking out over the bay, the big suspension bridge, and a nice section of Lisbon.

Until next time, be safe. 


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