Thursday, February 11, 2010

Home and in Retrospect

On Tuesday August 4 I came home.

I took the bus to the Dublin International Airport. The guy at the security counter in Dulin said he had never seen a passport as marked up as mine. I have to admit I'm a bit proud of all the ink on my passport.

I slept pretty well on the plane on the way from Dublin to Chicago. I didn't have time to get philosophical about being on American soil or kiss the ground like the Pope does. I only had an hour and a half to deboard plane, get through Customs and Immigration, go through security, and get to the gate for my connecting flight to Nashville. The Immigration officer asked me where I'd been and I told him I'd been to about 30 countries. He then asked me to name them. So I rattled off a recount of my travels that I had done hundreds of times to fellow travelers. That was the first time it occurred to me that maybe I should have booked a ticket with a longer layover. I had been to places like Colombia, Bolivia, Cambodia, Kosovo, etc., that could possibly seem suspicious. I had a party to get to and really didn't want to miss my connecting flight. After listing off my countries, he asked if I had been to Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Cuba. I told him I had not. He then stamped the last tiny bit of blank real estate left on my passport and I hurried along through security and to my connecting gate. The plane was already starting to board by the time I got there.

I was struck by how it didn't seem like any time had passed. Flying in to the Nashville airport felt like coming back from any domestic work or leisure trip. My mom, sister, niece and nephew were there to greet me. Leaving the airport and traveling on I-40 and I-440 was really weird in that it seemed like my trip, even the most recent parts, were a distant memory. There was new building on the Nashville skyline. The Gulch looked different. But Nashville looked mostly the same as I left it, even if I looked different. I lost about 45 pounds and grew about 6-7 inches of hair while I was gone. I was kind of surprised my niece and nephew recognized me right away.

I went to the Outback for a sort of coming back party. About 20 or so friends showed up. It was so good to see everyone again. Even though I hadn't seen anyone in a year, it seemed like no time had passed and I picked up right where I left off. Huge thanks to everyone who made it out.

I'd like to give a shout out to a few people:

1. My family - for not freaking out too bad about me quitting my job and traveling for a year to a lot of places that are perceived as being dangerous. Or at least not letting me know they were freaked out.

2. Greg "The Beast" Overby - for taking care of my mail and scanning and emailing a bunch of stuff to me. It was a thankless, unrewarding job, but someone had to do it.

3. Heather, Jen, and Jason - for meeting up with me in Costa Rica. A lot of people said they come see me on my trip, but only they were truly game.

4. Everyone who read my blog and posted comments or sent me messages about the goings on back home - I guess it's the modern day version of getting letters from home, and they meant a lot.

5. Everyone I met along the way - far too many people to name. If I hung out for a few weeks, a few days, or even a few hours with you on my trip, I really enjoyed the time we shared. I really wish I had done a better job documenting the people I met and the conversations I had.

Have I changed any as a person since I started the trip? I don't think I've changed to any great extent. I'm in my mid 30's and I think who I am is pretty set at this point. If I had done this trip 10 or 15 years ago I think I might have a different answer. I think that maybe by doing it at a younger age maybe I would have gotten to be who I am earlier maybe? I am happy with the physical change though. I hope I can keep off the weight I've lost. It would be really nice to go as The Dude next Halloween instead of as Walter.

I have a few bits of advice for anyone thinking about doing something like this. People tell me all the time that I'm really lucky to have had this experience. I don't like to think of it as luck so much, but luck probably did play a part to some extent. I tell people, only half-jokingly, that they need to work hard, save money, and don't get married. If I was seriously giving advice, It would be first and foremost you need to be debt free and have a good bit of money saved up. Not to get all Dave Ramsey on everyone, but having money and zero debt is absolutely necessary to do a trip like this. The second thing is that you really have to want it. Quitting a job and traveling a year is not a decision that one can come to rationally. I was quite obsessed with making this trip. I had a globe and a world map in my office at work. I had a atlas above my fireplace at home. When I daydreamed, I daydreamed of traveling and specifically I dreamed of this trip. It made no financial sense whatsoever, but I did it anyway. Third and lastly, anyone doing this kind of trip must be sociable and be able to make new friends easily, but also be comfortable with spending time alone. You will get to a foreign country. You'll be all by you yourself, and it's going to really freak you out. But there are lots of people out there in the same boat as you.

The theory of diminishing returns that I learned in college economics proved to be true on this trip. A year is a long time to travel. Although I've seen a lot, there are still many more places I haven't seen. I haven't been to Japan, China, Russia, Nepal, New Zeland, most of Africa, and much of central America and Mexico. Yet, getting anything else in on this trip would have been wasted. I had had my fill and was ready to come home.

Three questions about the trip I get the most are a) what was my favorite place, b) did I feel safe, and c) how were the hostels.

a) I really enjoyed all the places I went. It's hard to say what I like the best. But if I had to list three places that exceeded my expectations, they would be Colombia, Laos, and Bosnia. None of these countries were high on my radar screen. None had a marquee sight like a Taj Mahal, a Machu Picchu, or an Angkor Wat. But there was something special about these places and I think they will be the hot new places for tourists in the coming years.

b) If you believe what you see on movies, TV, and even the news, you would think the world is this horribly dangerous place, and that is just not the case. If you believe movies like Hostel or Turistas, the moment a foreigner gets off the bus there's a guy in a car looking at him or her through binoculars and talking on a cell phone with his organ harvesting/kidnapping partner. The biggest thing I worried about was petty crime, i.e., my backpack or wallet getting stolen. As readers of this blog will no doubt know, my backpack was stolen twice and my wallet stolen once. I met several people who were robbed, but these robberies were mostly late at night and they didn't lose huge amounts of money. I would have lost a lot less money and valuables if I had been robbed coming home from a bar or club late at night.

Having said that, there was one instance early in the trip in Panama City. It was the day before Thanksgiving and I had just arrived from Bocas del Toro and was flying to Medellin, Colombia the next day. I walked down the street from my hostel to a local market to get lunch and a new pair of flip flops. On my way back, there was a big crowd gathered on the street. As I made my way through the crowd, I noticed bullet holes in the glass of a building. I turned around and saw a body laying on the ground. He had been shot and was laying face down, likely dead. He looked like he might have been a teenager, but I couldn't really tell since he was face down. I actually had my camera with me but thought it would be unwise to start snapping pictures.

c) Are hostles ok? Yeah. If you're not too high maintenance. At one place the showers had translucent dividers between the coed showers. It wasn't very clear. I could tell there was a body in the next stall over, but I couldn't really see much detail. I really couldn't tell whether it was a man or a woman. I made the comment to some other people at the hostel that Europeans were more comfortable with nudity and that shower set-up would never fly in America. They thought I was kidding. They assumed from watching reality shows that all Americans were quick to get naked in public. But by and large the hostels were clean and a great way to meet fellow travelers of all ages.

There are a lot of small differences in English among Brits, Ozzies, and Americans. A trunk of a car is a boot, a jacket is a jumper, pants are trousers, sneakers are trainers, and cigarettes are fags. It is very common for an Englishman to say, "I'm stepping outside to have a fag." In Australia, root means to have sex. So if you say you root for the home team, Aussies would think you to be a dedicated fan.

I didn't buy any souvenirs to speak of. I had replaced most of my clothes during the trip either because they had worn out or because they had gotten too big. I did have a suit custom tailored in Bangkok. It fit me perfectly in April 2009, but now the pants are a bit too loose and the coat is a bit too snug. But I didn't buy any real souvenirs. I couldn't carry then in my backpack. Shipping stuff home would have been expensive and iffy. Now that I'm back, I kind of wish I had bought a few pieces of artwork. It would be kind of cool if I had bought a painting from that artist in the favela in Rio. I also would have liked some works I saw at this little market in Vietnam. These would have made infinitely better conversation pieces than something I bought at IKEA or Target.

OK. So I've been home since August. It's now February. You may be thinking, "Why has this taken so long and what have I been doing?" The reason it's taken me so long to write the last few posts and the trip wrap-up is because I didn't really know how the story was going to end. The story couldn't end with me being 37 years old, unemployed, and living with my parents. Also, it felt less weird to write posts when I was away and anyone reading them would be thousands of miles away.

When I got home, my intention was to spend a couple of months at home and then get a job and start graduate school. I was accepted into the MHA program at the University of Washington. After three months of looking for a job out there and getting absolutely no responses, I had second thoughts. The plan was to work and go to school. But the prospect of a $7,000 tuition and fees bill with no money coming in was pretty daunting. I went out to the first weekend class meeting, and after talking to fellow students about the local economy, I felt even worse about my prospects of finding a job in the Pacific Northwest. I decided to leave the program in time to get my tuition refund and open my job search nationwide.

Apparently a recession came while I was gone. It has taken a lot longer to find a job than I had imagined. But I've finally found a job at a hospital in Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. I start February 15.

I have enjoyed writing about my trip. I hope you have enjoyed as well. My life will be exponentially less interesting going forward.

I hope every one has enjoyed reading my blog. I had a blast writing it.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Europe Part 3

On July 8 I took a bus from Skopje (pronounced Skopia), Macedonia to Sofia, Bulgaria. Most of the advice I got from other travelers who had been to Bulgaria was to skip the big cities and get out into the countryside and small towns. That was pretty good advice, although Sofia was not a bad place at all. I really didn't do much in Sofia other than get out for one good day of sightseeing. I was pretty worn out from the previous three days of traveling.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Some statue of a guy on a horse.

Another cool looking statue.
Some cool looking building.
Sports arena.

Advertisement. I'm not really sure what they are advertising. I can't tell if it is watermelon that is being advertised or if it's some kind of metaphor. It's a bit racy, but fairly representative of European norms.

Many these countries use the Cyrillic alphabet. Bulgaria seemed to have less signage in English than many of the countries I've traveled in. Reading maps is difficult unless the streets are labeled with both English and the local language. An English-only map is useless because the street signs are in Cyrillic. A local language map is useless because it's impossible to pronounce the names of anything written in the local language. When traveling by train or bus, one has to know both. Below are them names of places in Bulgaria (България) that I visited:

Sofia - София
Plovdiv - Пловдив
Veliko Tarnovo -
Велико Търново

My train ticket from Sofia to Plovdiv.

I liked the Train station in Sofia. It had an old school communist-era vibe.

On July 10 I took a train to Plovdiv, The City of Seven Hills. Plovdiv dates back 6,000 years and is one of the oldest, continually inhabited cities in the world. Plovdiv was a beautiful city.

It had a Roman Stadium and a Roman Amphitheater, both dating back to the 2nd century.

From what I've read, twenty years ago, commerce in Bulgaria was quite different. In the Communist days, people had money, but nothing to buy. People would line up for hours to buy staples and basic stuff. My experience walking the streets of Plovdiv was that the opposite was true. There were tons of stores lining the streets selling the latest fashions, but they were almost completely empty, with the shopkeepers sitting outside on the front steps smoking and talking with the other shopkeepers. It seems like there are tons of things to buy, but no-one was buying anything.

I would have liked to have spent more time in Plovdiv, it was a really cool town, but there was no one else at the hostel I was staying at. I didn't really see any tourists (at least English-speaking) walking around or in the pubs. I only spent two nights in Plovdiv and then I took a train to Veliko Tarnovo.

The train station in Plovdiv.

It was pretty small.
Pics of sunflower fields taken on the train from Plovdiv to Veliko Tarnovo. The Bulgarian countryside was very nice.

On July 12 I arrived in Veliko Tarnovo. It was a charming town nestled in a steep valley. There was a castle on a hill.

On July 16, I took an overnight train from Veliko Tarnovo to Bucharest, Romania.

Since I would be coming back to Bucharest to fly to Madrid, I didn't want to stay there so I decided to go on to Brasov. It was still pretty early in the morning. Getting cash in Romania proved to be the most difficult of all places I'd been. I heard people say they had trouble getting cash out of ATMs in all of Eastern Europe using cards from western banks due to the level of fraud. But I had no trouble at all until getting to Romania. I finally found an ATM that would work with one of my cards so I took out a bunch of cash, went back to the train station and caught the next train to Brasov, the capital of the Transylvania region.

One good thing about being in Romania was a return to the Roman alphabet. The signs were easier to comprehend. The Romanian language originated from Latin, like Spanish, French, and Italian. This is a bit unusual geographically, with Romania being surrounded by Slavic countries.

I took the 2.5 hour train ride from Bucharest to Brasov. Brasov is another cool town and is the home base for traveling in the Transylvania region. Their motto is, "Brasov, Probably the Best City in the World."

On July 19 I took a castle tour.

Transylvania has only a loose connection to Dracula. The below pic is of Castle Bran, also known as Dracula's Castle. Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, was an Englishman who never visited Romania. He had read about a charming Romanian Prince named Vlad the Impaler, who ruled with an iron fist and savagely brutalized his enemies by impaling them. Impaling involves inserting a long spike into the anus, through the torso, and, out the mouth, and leaving the person to die. Vlad's method of impaling was particularly painful because it was done without piercing the vital organs. If a vital organ was pierced, the victim would go into shock and die quickly. Vlad's method produced a slow, painful death.

Castle Bran was the castle of his brother. There is no evidence or even likelihood that Vlad ever set foot in this castle, but it is the closest thing to a Dracula's Castle for tourists to visit. The Romanian people embrace their Dracula connection, or at least the people who sell Dracula related merchandise do.

Another castle on the tour. Some actors act out what I assume is a traditional Romanian play.

One of the little things that really crack me up about traveling is the way some signs and menus get less than stellar translations to English. This menu at a little restaurant in Brasov is a good example. It covers the cute (Trout in the Frying Pan), to the funny (Fried Crap), to the accurate but not very appetizing literal translation (Salt and Vegetable Dressing). There were tons of examples of this all over the world.

On July 20, I took a train from Brasov to Bucharest, the capital of Romania. I had heard nothing but bad things about Bucharest. I heard it was nasty, dangerous, and there were stray dogs everywhere. If I hadn't heard all these things, I would probably have thought a lot less of Bucharest, but given my low expectations, I didn't think it was all that bad.

I took a tour of the Palace of Parliament. The Palace was built in the 1980's under President Nicolae Ceausescu. A huge swath of the city's historic center was demolished to build this monstrosity of a building. It is the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon.

These steps were built and rebuilt five times to get them to Ceausescu's exacting specifications.

If I'm a little light on details about Bulgaria and Romania it's probably a combination of not really that much out of the ordinary happening and the amount of time that has passed since I was there. One night in Brasov me and about five guys took a girl out for her birthday. I don't remember her name (she was from Los Angeles), or the guys (one was from Australia and two from England), but we had a really good time. She did not know any of us before that day. Brasov had some pretty cool bars and nightclubs. I didn't tell anyone it was my birthday back in February, mostly because I had just gotten in to Australia the day before and slept most of the day because of the jet lag.

On July 22, I flew from Bucharest to Madrid, Spain. Spain was hot. Damn hot.

Spaniards love their ham. It can usually be seen hanging in the stores and restaurants with the hoof attached.

I went to the Bilbao museum one day. I did some other stuff too, but I'm drawing a blank on the details.

Madrid is a lively city. Spain is a late night town. People don't eat dinner until after 10:00. I even saw a lot of old people out after midnight in bars and outdoor restaurants.

One thing I really wanted to do in Spain was go to a Bullfight. In South America I seemed to always be just missing the bullfighting season in whatever country I was in. In Spain, it was a bit of an off-season, but there was still a fight. The Sunday night bullfight in Madrid featured younger bullfighters and only cost 5 Euros (Yes!!!). I was having trouble finding someone to go to the bullfight with me. No one at the hostel wanted to go see a bullfight. It was easier to find a date to go to a prison in Bolivia than to find someone to go to a bullfight in Madrid. Finally I met John from Texas who wanted to go. He was raised in Texas and moved to Scotland when he was fifteen. He had the craziest accent I ever heard.

Bullfighting is a bloody sport and I can can see how it would freak a lot of people out. The bull comes out and spends some time charging the Matador's team members. This is just simple charging with the team members holding pink capes. The matador is the only one who uses red. Then a guy comes out on an armored, blindfolded horse. The bull will charge the horse and the guy on the horse jabs a long spear a few times into the bull's back. The bull looses quite a bit blood and is weakened. Then the picadors come out. The bull charges the picadors and as it passes them, they get out of the way and jab two spears into the bulls neck. This weakens the bull further. After three passes (six spears) the Matador comes out and fights the weakened bull. After the bull charges the matador about a 15-20 times, the matador takes out his sword and sticks it into the bull's neck, killing the bull. The bull's carcass is dragged out of the ring by a horse cart and men come out and scoop dirt to cover the bloody spot. The process is repeated five more times (2 times per matador). It got a bit repetitive after the second fight.

Bullfighting is a judged sport. If the matador does a good job, he gets the bull's ear as a trophy. If he does an outstanding job, he gets both ears. If he does a superb extraordinary job, he gets both ears and the tail. If the matador sticks his sword into the bull properly, it will kill the bull instantly. This is desirable in the scoring. As mentioned earlier, these were young bullfighters. One of them was only 19 years old. He looked like a little kid. None of them got to keep any parts of the bull this night. In fact, one of them took four stabs to finally kill the bull. Blood gushed out the bull's mouth. The crowd was not pleased.

Plaza de Toros.

Although I was pleased with the low price of the ticket, it ended up costing me quite a bit more. Either at the fight or on the subway on the way back, I got pick pocketed. Luckily I had taken out my ATM cards and credit cards, but I lost about 100 Euros and my drivers license. This would be the last time I would be robbed on the trip.

The next day I took a train to Sevilla. Spain has a very fast and efficient (if a bit pricey) train system.

Plaza de España. Some scenes of Star Wars Attack of the Clones were filmed here, but were digitally modified in the movie.

Typical Sevillan street.

The Alacazar.

The Cathedral.

Some miners were holed up in the cathedral on strike. I'm really not sure why they were in the cathedral. They kind of kept to themselves and didn't bother the tourists.

The Plaza de Toros.

Nighttime in Sevilla.

On July 28, I went to see The Boss at La Cartuga Olympic Stadium. I kind of planned my trip around this. I wanted to go to Spain and I wanted to go to Sevilla anyway, so I planned the timing around this show. I went with three Brits I'd met who were spending their holiday following The Boss around Italy and Spain. This had to be one expensive holiday. The general admission ticket was 75 Euros ($108). This is the most I've ever spent on one concert ticket. I don't know if it was worth 75 Euros, but it was a pretty damn good show.

The stadium was not completely sold out, but it was pretty close.

Urinals for men in the back of the floor area. Europeans are quite a bit less modest about urinating in public than Americans.

The show was pretty damn good. This was my first time to see Bruce, so I was pretty pumped. He came to Nashville on August 21, 2008, exactly four days after I started this trip. This show was announced after I bought my ticket and paid for my Spanish school. Putting off the trip to catch this show wasn't really an option.

I think Bruce learned about three or four phrases in Spanish and repeated them over and over again. At the beginning he yelled out "Ola Sevilla!" about ten times. When he introduced the band he yelled "El Hombre Grande!" about five times. The Brits I was with said the set lists were better in Rome and Bilbao, but I was happy.

As true with Spanish culture the show started late, lasted until well after 1:00am, and people all seemed to have a killer time. I wonder where the Spanish get their money (75 Euro concert tickets and 8 Euro beers) and their energy (late night concert on a Tuesday night).

Sevilla was extremely hot. In the afternoons it would regularly get up to about 110 degrees. The siesta is strictly observed. Businesses close down from about 2:00 to about 5:00. Everyone goes home to escape from the heat and to take a nap. Businesses open back up around 5:00 and stay open until about 7:00 or 8:00. Dinner is usually eaten between 10:00 and midnight.

On July 30, I took a took a Ryanair flight from Madrid to Dublin, Ireland, my last country before returning home. Ryanair is one of, if not the largest discount carrier in Europe. Discount airlines in Europe advertise tickets for ridiculously cheap prices. Sometimes as low as a few Euros per ticket. When I booked my ticket, the initial fare for the one-way ticket was 15 Euros. As I clicked through the screens, it seemed like each click cost me more money. 18 Euros for taxes. Five Euros for an online check-in fee. Ten Euros for a checked bag. Five Euros to for a payment fee (I basically had to pay a fee to pay for the ticket). All told, my 15 Euro ticket ended up costing me over 50 Euros.

Ryanair really is the bottom of the barrel for flying. Some people think flying on Southwest is slumming it, but Ryanair takes the cake. The seat pockets have been removed to make more room for more rows of seats. The doors to the overhead bins are plastered with advertisements. There was a soccer team on board and they screamed soccer soccer chants for the whole three hours.

It was almost midnight when I got into Dublin. I handed my passport to the customs agent and he looked it over. By this time, my passport was quite full. I had just enough space for a European Union sized stamp to enter Ireland and a stamp to get back into America. The customs agent told me there wasn't any space left in my passport. I pointed to a spot on a page. He then proceeded to chow me the Irish stamp, which was different from the standard EU sized stamp. It took up almost an entire page, which I didn't have. He flipped through it again and told me that without sufficient space for a stamp, it was not a valid document. I didn't know what to say other than to beg for him to "be cool". He flipped through it one more time and stamped the back flap, which was totally not an authorized visa page, and let me pass. When I got back to the states I sent my passport off to have more pages attached so I could travel again some day.

The next morning I took a walking tour of Dublin.

Trinity College.

Dublin Castle, which was not a castle at all.

Sand sculptures near Dublin Castle.

Some churches - St something or other. There were two big ones in Dublin. Both charged 10 Euros each to go inside. By this point on my trip I had been in enough churches and didn't deem these two to be worth 20 Euros.

This building was formerly a warehouse that was a music venue in the 70's and 80's. It is one of the venues where U2 got their start and built their following.

Pubs, pubs, and more pubs.

No better sight than a settling Guinness.

I was really looking forward to my first pint of Guinness. I've heard that a Guinness in Ireland tastes totally different from a Guinness in the states. I really couldn't tell a difference, but it had been over a year since I'd had a Guinness in the states. I had wanted to spend a good bit of my time in Ireland in drinking myself silly in pubs. But at 4.50 Euros a pint, I would only be able to drink myself mildly amusing.

Ireland is a crazy expensive country. A simple meal like fish and chips or Irish stew would be at least 10 Euros. A nicer dinner would be 25 Euros if you made the early bird special. The money I saved by traveling in Asia was spent in Western Europe.

Bridges over the River Liffey.

Doors of Dublin.

Spire of Dublin.

The Guinness Brewery.

I had four days in Dublin, which was probably a little much for Dublin, but not really enough to get in another location. Dublin is a lot of fun, but it's really not a very attractive city. I wanted to get out and see the Irish countryside. On the advice of a fellow traveler, I decided to go hiking in County Wicklow.

It seemed an easy day trip from Dublin. I took the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) to the last station Greystones and hiked to Bray, the next to last station. This was a good hike and a great way to see the Irish countryside, even if I did get a little lost along the way.

I hike up a mountain/hill on a marked path. The marked path to the top was pretty straight forward. I wanted to go down a different way. So instead of turning around at the top of the hill, I just kept on walking. I figured if I kept going down the hill, I would eventually end up in Bray. It's not like it is in the US. Ireland is a small country and the chances of walking for a day, or even a few hours without running into a town, were small. I did go through some shady looking paths and climbed a few fences.

Passed several sheep farms.

I passed a farm house, after which a paved road started. A car was outside, and some kids were out playing in the back yard, but I kept on going. I came up on a motorized gate. I couldn't get around it or over it. I had to wait for a car to come by, which thankfully only took about 15 minutes.

The countryside was absolutely gorgeous. Keep in mind that I am not a good photographer and have a very basic digital camera.

It was closing in on the last day of my trip. I was growing weary of traveling, but I wanted to do something on my last day and night. During the day, I took the DART to Howth, a charming little fishing village on the last stop on the other end of the line.

That night I went on a literary pub crawl. Ireland has a great literary tradition (Wilde, Joyce, Shaw, Yeats, etc.) and many of the pubs where they drank themselves to death are still in business. Two Irish actors took a group of about 20 on a tour of five pubs. At each one they acted out works of Ireland's famous authors. It was a very entertaining look at that part of Dublin's history.

On the morning of August 4, I took a bus to the airport. I was going home.