journal #5: banská bystrica, part one.

2.10.08

This was a monumental morning.  I managed to sleep through the snoring that occurred in the bed to the left of me:  a Canadian dude who was also reading Umberto Eco, but a different book than mine.  But this could be the only positive thing for most of the day.  I headed to the train station after checking out at the hostel, the smokers gravitating towards me as usual… and I impatiently waited for the train to Berlin.

It arrived and left on time.  However, this didn’t last for long as this might have been the slowest train I’d been on in my life!  It stopped at odd non-station locations, and I was growing uneasy as we puttered through the plains of Slovakia.  I had the compartment to myself for most of the trip, except for the final inches to Bratislava.

The train pulled into the station at 12.25, only a few minutes after the train to Banská Bystrica left!  I was livid.  I ran to the info booth to ask the lady when the next train to B.B. would be; she said at 3.21.  Three hours at my least favorite train station in the world!  Just after Christmas, Gareth and I missed our train to Budapest from here (which was my fault then, not a slow-as-molasses train).

Cursing everything around me, I ran to the currency exchange booth and got some koruna before going to the cafe which boasted Internet (since the pay phones here freaked me out a tiny bit).  I finally managed to get on G-mail after the incredibly frustrating Slovakian keyboard almost threw me into hysterics.  I emailed Don, Jana, and Peter to tell them my dilemma, hoping amongst all hopes one of them would catch it and sort of get in contact with Peter.  [Addendum:  My dad’s cousin is Donald John and he married a Slovak woman, Jana.  Her brother, Peter, lives in B.B. and said he’d show me around the city.]

After a ton of waiting done by me at the accursed station, I got onto the train on a different platform, claustrophobic-ally waiting to board.  I finally caught a shut-off compartment that two teenage girls were reserving for themselves.  Naturally, I barged in and so did some other Slovak youths who needed a place to sit.  It was a packed train car, people having to hang out in the corridor for the entire trip.

This train of course was late to leave Bratislava as well, but after another long ride, I reached B.B. around 7.  I totally forgot to inquire about Peter’s appearance, but he was there with my name on a little sign like you see at airport arrival areas; it was pretty cool to see that, but also frightening.  From behind my name stood Daniel Craig, no joke.  After a few minutes, the resemblance waned, but the first impression threw me for a double-take.

I expected to do some couch-surfing this time around at his apartment, but instead Peter set me up at this pretty neat 4-star hotel!  Talk about raising standards from a creaky-floored hostel in the centrum of a big city!  I’m in a two-bed room on the fifth floor of Hotel Dixon, with my TV which hopefully will show the presidential debates, a swanky bathroom, a nice bar, free food, a swimming pool, a sauna, tennis and squash courts, and the Crown Jewels.  And I didn’t pay a cent!  I felt slightly guilty but Peter has told me that I am not allowed to pay even for the strong one-Euro beer.  He knows the manager; and he owes Peter money, so this is the payment.  I’ll take it.

So, after a frustrating majority of the day, I get this pristine treatment, along with a steak dinner and two strong Pilsners.  I’ll be a happy fellow in a few hours.

3.10.08

I set my alarm for 1:00 am because that’s when I thought the debates would begin, but I was wrong.  Now that I look back, I think the time was around 3-3:30 when my eyes opened up to see Palin’s face on the TV.  That slapped reality back into me as I lay in bed.  I watched the debates from the Iraq war to the end.  Biden seemed more confident here; Palin’s voice was strung with nerves at times during her many convoluted answers.  And I couldn’t believe my ears at some of her replies.  One I caught stood out.  Her Achilles’ Heel question:  she didn’t even answer that one; she flat-out didn’t give a retort to this inquiry and went on blabbing about her strengths.

This made me not like her any more; her insinuating remarks about being a single mom were unacceptable.  Biden made a great and touching reply abuot his capabilities of being a father, a single father because of his wife’s death.  Maybe it’s because my grandfather is near his end that has flushed the emotion a bit for me here.  I will 100%, with no qualms, be voting for Obama.  With such a capable VP by his side, he is perfect.

I awoke again at 9 and put some clothes on to nab some breakfast downstairs before it “shut down” at 10.  I had a nice bit of cheese and turkey with tomatoes, along with some tea for good measure.  Then, I caught a tray that had been keeping eggs and kielbasa warm.  I naturally needed some of that.  After I had my fill, I read part of a chapter in Baudolino.  I also checked the Internet and found out my grandfather is inching even closer to death’s portal.  Along with that came another stern insistence that I stay in Europe for the rest of this month.  I need to interact with some people soon, because if I stay alone with too much happening this weekend, I will flip out!  I will plan to head back on the 6th to Vienna or Bratislava… a day early.  There will be no quick journey to Rokytov; I have not heard a peep from the people there, so I’m guessing I’ll continue going westward instead.

This is a bit awkward; I’m not sure how to handle this at all.  I might need to contact someone who talks fluent English, not that Peter’s incapable.  Anyway, to pull my mind from that stuff, I went swimming in the hotel’s pool and also relaxed in the jacuzzi there.  It was nice to be aquatic for a short while and not have anyone around – at least at that moment.

I headed back to the room and hung out there till 1, finishing the chapter I began that morning in Eco’s book.  I called Peter, and he told me he would be busy till 5 or 6.  So I departed to the city to check out the center, which was pretty and not too busy.  Reminded me a bit of the pedestrian area of Scarborough.  Now comes the present:  I am in a cafe writing this and watching old music videos from the ’70s.  I wonder what the night might hold; I’m just excited that I’m up-to-date here in the journal!

I’d been waiting for a long time at the hotel.  Peter finally arrived around 7.  The reason was because of his work; he had come around 4 to see how I was doing but I was in the centrum of B.B. at the time.  Before setting off, we had some dinner in the hotel restaurant; well, I did.  Peter ate fried ice cream.  Strange guy.  He showed me his apartment and his “vicious” dog, Freddy.  It would be a dog I’d have, not too big, quite excitable, but not too much, and not loud!  He took the spaniel for a walk, and then we headed off to a fitness center where his girlfriend works.  We waited until her shift was over and she was finished cleaning up.  I checked my email there and chatted with Jess for a tiny bit before he headed off.

We hung out at a pool lounge for the night; it was interesting because I hadn’t played darts in years and that’s what we did.  However so many rounds we had, I never won once.  It’s always a bit upsetting for me (if only a tiny amount).  I never seem to be the victor in these type of games; only rarely does it happen.  I think I’m cursed.

journal #4: budapest.

30.09.08

The alarm clock this morning was Jimmy.  He headed into the living room and alerted me to the fact that it was 5:20.  In the morning.  I had to wake up that early because the only bus heading into Arad in the morning left Hăşmaş at 5:45.

The ride was quite long:  a dozy 2 hours (with odd thoughts such as crazy murderers possibly traveling by bus and sunrises while on the road).  There was also a bit more time tacked onto that because the driver had to stop so that everyone on the bus – including himself – could have breakfast at a nearby village.  We eventually reached an otogar, but it wasn’t the one where I had arrive at in Arad.  I was lost.  This particular person on the bus decided to be my savior for the day; he led me to Arad’s train station as the bus driver was not too accommodating.  My aide had no knowledge of English, but he knew a tiny morsel of Spanish (as do I).  So we managed to converse in broken Spanish on the way there.  He knew the language because he does business trips to Spain from time to time.  Who am I to argue with that?

It was truly an incredible moment for me.  This guy did not have to help me out at all, but he did.  He had to be in Arad anyway, but his reason there was not to direct me as if I were a lost child to the otogar.  I was real grateful for this man.

The ride from Arad to Budapest was mostly painless.  I had an entire cabin to myself for the first half hour.  The most in the whole cabin were 3 people other than myself.  I actually had border control and passport stamps this time around on my train travels; however, customs in Hungary wanted to inspect my entire luggage for any drugs possible there.  As you well know, I be a shifty bugger.  At least the officer was genial enough, not like the bitch who “scolded” me for putting my feet up on the seat in the earlier legs of my journey; I was the only one in my compartment, for Chrissakes!

Budapest!  The entrance into the city wasn’t as harrowing, mainly because I’d been here before and knew how to evade the people wondering if I would like to get into their cab or stay at their pension.  I purchased a three-day transit pass and reached the Kelvin ter stop (where the hostel was).  Construction fucked up my route and I had to sweat through 15 minutes of rerouting my path.  Frustration was my close companion for that short bit of time.

I manage to choose hostels with no elevators.  This is the third straight time where it’s happened.  It’s a tiny bit aggravating, but it’s an OK hostel nonetheless this time.  The aura isn’t as convivial, especially in relation to the last two, but I’ve sort of befriended a few people here.

After my intro around the place, I headed out to Szechenyi Baths, which was real great.  The rooms seemed endless inside the place: tons of heated pools and mineral baths.  Also, there were a few saunas in the place.  I tried my luck in the hottest sauna there and lasted only two minutes inside.  Sixty to eighty degrees C is way too intense for me; the lower temps were less aggressive.  In one room there was an oval whirlpool, not as warm as the other pools (this one being 28 degrees C), but it was still great to go in a circular motion without much resistance or effort by me.  I could have spent hours in there.

I finally went outside and swam in the big “normal” pool.  It was a balmy 38 degrees C with fountains and jets.  In the center was an Olympic-sized lap pool for those in the exercising mood; also, another pool near the eastern end – which was chillier than the first but still warm  enough – sported idiot teenagers that acted like tools in the whirlpool area.  I didn’t linger there.   It was a decent overall excurison – minus the excess flesh sported by overweight 50-somethings in bikinis and Speedos.  I saw a ball dangling from an obese 70-year-old and almost went blind.

In the evening I gave in an at a doner kebap:  thankfully it was masked in gyro form with haydari and olives for good measure.  Right now I’ve had a Guinness and a tiny nap today around 6pm, so I can safely say I’m content enough to head on home.

1.10.08

The biggest trek me for today was on a bus to Memento Square (also known as Statue Park).  It took a long time in relation to being at the actual site.  I got some decent photos out of it, including a few with me using the self timer.  I didn’t know about the Communist control in Hungary too much, but I learned a few more things about it and kept the brochures to read on the train to Banska Bystrica tomorrow.

Personally I found the statue of Stalin to be the coolest thing there.  It was only his boots.  It had been pulled down by citizens during one of the revolts, or something to that effect.

Upon my return back to Budapest, I decided to make the entire climb up Gellert Hill.  In the winter, Gareth and I made it halfway before freezing up completely; it was a great accomplishment this time around as I reached the apex.  I actually sweated from the hike to the top.  After this, I made the very long journey back to the train station and managed to nab my ticket to Slovakia.  I’m all set.  Then came the mid-way-through-the-day lunch that I had while checking out political information on the Internet at the hostel.

The rest of the evening was a mix of wandering around Pest (but without my camera, as it had to stay charging in the room), and then a guilty dinner at Burger King because I felt a bit rebellious.

As I am writing, Pulp Fiction is on and I’m having a stellar beer that’s a bit stronger than I anticipated.  But that’s a great surprise to have.

journal #3: arad/hăşmaş.

28.09.08

I basically had the run of the hostel when I woke up the next morning because no one was awake yet. One of the staff finally had to be roused from sleep to help me check out. I lugged all my shit to the bus stop and then to the otogar, getting a ticket in time easily. The ride to Arad took forever, and my cabin on the train was soon full of people, three men a bit older than me and two elderly individuals right next to the window. A bag from a new girl near the end of the journey fell on me as I read. That of course wasn’t pleasant; neither did the smokers that continued to follow me wherever I went.  Whenever we stopped at a station, the guys in our compartment went into the hallway and cracked open a window so that they could have a cigarette. Very nice.

Finally, at around 4, I made it to Arad. There was no need to worry about not finding Jimmy – someone I had met during my teacher training in Cleveland who was now teaching in Hăşmaş with the Peace Corps; I caught him as I was waiting in the queue to get off the train. Two other Peace Corps volunteers tagged along to say hello. We went to a pizza place near the station and I scarfed down a pretty large pizza full of bacon and ham. The two female PCers headed off after this, and Jimmy and I headed over to the bus station where we had a long wait (surprise, surprise) for our bus to Hăşmaş. So we both cracked open a can of local beer and chatted about our present work situations, wondered about the people from our old TEFL course downtown, and also about the people we would be meeting on our return (or had left, in Jimmy’s case). Soon, the bus arrived. I wasn’t expecting such a long journey to Hăşmaş where Jimmy was stationed, but it took us down a long, long, long roadway and it was dark before we had reached the town. What I could glean was some streetlamps and a dusty road. The rest of the evening was meant for relaxing of course and drinking whatever was left in Jimmy’s refrigerator. This was a plastic 2-liter bottle of beer.

We then played drunk backgammon and Jimmy went out continuously to smoke. I wasn’t expecting backgammon to be that popular in Romania, but that and smoking are a very common pastime. Quite out of it after a few rounds of the game, I plopped on the couch and fell asleep pretty quickly.

29.09.08

The main part of this morning involved a small jaunt around Hăşmaş – a town of 600 people – to find grub for the day.  This proved to be a fruitless endeavor.  Instead, Jimmy and I returned back to his place and had fried potatoes for lunch with a healthy portion of orange Fanta.

I took in my dosage of politics by reading a real disgusting article in Newsweek involving Sarah Palin.  Seriously, I need to watch this debate on Friday; I’ll be so sad if I miss it.

That afternoon, Jimmy decided to take me to the village of Clit.  Yes, it’s true.  That’s the name of the place.  Obviously, it had not been given with its English meaning but it’s still shocking to see that on a white sign in large black letters.  The place is minuscule with only around 80 inhabitants.  It was peaceful with many dogs, chickens, and pigs loitering around.

We lazed about for the remainder of the day.  I got some reading and some sleep done.  I also took a shower!  You have to heat up the water manually by building a fire in a furnace adjacent to the tub.  The furnace is connected with the water pipes, so it took a few hours for there to be enough hot water.

At around 5, I had the highlight of my stay in Hăşmaş:  I had a visit with the mayor (primar).  Jimmy and I saw him at the general store, and he invited us back to his office where we talked about random, uneventful topics.  For instace, what’s the normal income of a police officer in the USA?  Romanian is an interesting language; I could understand quite a bit of what the primar was talking about, without even Jimmy needing to translate to me most of the time.  There was not a literal understanding, but I got the gist.  Only Jimmy and I drank, but it was still a good time.  The primar even gave me a EU-approved guide to Hăşmaş and autographed it!

Nearing sunset, I caught a second bit of strangeness for that evening.  Cows were being sent home by a shepherd, who guided them from the rear.  The whole phrase “party till the cows come home” had now fully been cleared up for me.  They walk down the road and turn, of their own volition, to the house house they belong to…without fail.  It’s mad how with conditioning they know where to go.  Maybe they just need to be milked badly!

Dinner consisted of a delicious meat from that region (zăcuska) and rice.  I also tried this local spread most people put on their bread (mici).  Divine.  More plastic-bottled beer tonight, but Jimmy had to turn in a bit early so I watched Waiting for Guffman drunk and clumsily read a bit before my rendezvous with the sofa bed.

journal #2: braşov.

26.09.08

The serenade of snores began again. An Aussie and a British tosser (with an annoying cockney accent) decided to return to the room at around 5am and be obnoxiously loud. These ‘tards had raucous snores that seared the eardrums. I got a few more erratic hours of sleep before waking up and making a similar breakfast as yesterday’s.

Most of the day involved trying to get to Braşov. The train was uneventful except for gypsies going back and forth down the aisles with giant tote bags that could only be dragged along the ground. The elderly people around me offered food and constantly gabbled in English and Romanian, occasionally talking about how annoying the gypsies were and that they should find a seat and stay there.

On the way to the hostel, I found myself exiting at a different plaza than I intended. The bus decided not to make its expected stop, but I made it to Kismet Dao eventually, again with all my luggage.

The oddest thing that happened next has to be that I ran into Zack and Josh, the two guys from the hostel in Bucharest. We were staying in the same place, but not the same rooms. That evening, the three of us and five other people headed on out to eat dinner at this Turkish chain café called Mado. I sneakily had the non-Turkish pork while others bathed in iskender and guveç, two dishes I recommended to them.

The group was a varied assortment: a Portuguese woman, a 50-year-old Dutch traveler, two Peace Corps American volunteers living in Moldova, and also someone else who spoke Spanish but I don’t recall where she lived. We headed to a smoke-infested pub with horrendous ventilation and rugby playing on all the flat-screens. I had a freshly poured Guinness which was a delightful finish to an evening with too much smoke clinging to my clothes.

27.09.08

This was basically a travel-alone day. To start off, my breakfast coffee had no milk, and my shower drain did not work while I was taking it. I was wading in soapy water run-off complete with a floating drain cover.  Nothing too bothersome.  I headed off for a walk around town – to the fountain in the center and also to Black Church, to take some decent shots with my camera.

I decided to go up Tâmpa, this mountain overlooking the village of Braşov, but I was lazy so I used the lift to get there instead. The view was great, the fog was not too strong.  I didn’t receive the spectacular, mind-bending experience I had while I was in Edinburgh however. I still enjoyed myself up there, and I was able to walk behind the giant “Hollywood” sign that spelled the city’s name against the mountain.

On the way down, I sauntered down the serpentine pathway to the bottom, and here I was thankful that I had not climbed the bastard. Most of the descent wound over moist earth, leaves, fallen limbs, and dirt. Almost felt like I could do almost anything right there and no one would be any the wiser. I seriously was alone the entire journey down, not a soul to be seen.

I headed back to the center of the city to have lunch. I ate some chicken soup (with a stock bone in it) as well as some cabbage salad. Stupidly, a Silva Dark was to be my drink: a large bottle of a very strong stout brewed in the region. To make things interesting, I took a bus to see the fortress at Râşnov not long after and made sure my bladder voiced its complaint after 2 minutes on that bus. I had to exit sooner than the stop at the fortress so that I could find a place with a toilet. Building after building provided no spot to pee, and I was becoming tempted to just let loose in some back alleyway even though it was broad daylight. Soon, I finally found a bar and used the loo there. I felt guilty about going in and not purchasing something, so I intelligently got a beer.

I finally made it to the fortress which took a lot of clicks on the pedometer. The views were amazing and I somehow managed to evade the ticket people at the entrance so the visit was free for me.

The wait back to Braşov was annoyingly long; therefore, a quick trek to Bran was out of the question as I didn’t know the other bus schedules. I took the slower bus to the city, sneaking onto a 3rd one because the ticket counters were oddly missing on the bus. How do people get new tickets if they run out of them in the middle of the journey? Another part of Romania I have yet to understand.

Had a quick dinner and soon came back to the hostel where I got another beer, having to pay unfortunately because I couldn’t find my complimentary beer ticket that all guests receive upon booking. The night was a relaxed one for me, writing in my journal and watching Igby Goes Down on the TV.

Kismet Dao has a policy not to make excess noise in the front lounge and kitchen balcony after 10 because they want to be polite to the neighbors. They forget that they should be polite to the guests as well, and realize that the walls and floors are not too thick; wax paper’s thicker. I needed some early sleep because I had to nab the 9.30 train to Arad. Music blasted into the basement until 3.30am and no complaints would change the piercing noises issuing up from the floor. I was none too pleased.

journal #1: bucharest

24.9.08

I think I’m going to try and write in this daily and see how far I get. This always starts with a religious dedication, but then it slips away into disrepair.

I began my illustrious journey across Europe by burning off all the soup and candied figs I ate at lunch with Jon and Sibel; this was due to the fact I had to lug everything I owned to the ferryboats instead of nabbing a taxi. I ran into the two Katies and Michael, who were on their way to class; they accompanied me till the ET street and we parted ways. After the typical boat ride and a traffic-laden havaş ride to the airport, I breezed through check-in, everything going smoothly enough.

The flight to Bucharest and passport check were also swift and worry-free. Then came trying to find the right bus to get to the city center.  First was the bombardment of people asking if I’d like a taxi. Then I started asking others where the bus to the city center was. As I turned back to the terminal, I saw the bus. I got to the door and realized, much to my chagrin, that I needed to buy a ticket and verify it on the bus. No signs had been posted anywhere in ANY language to help me out. I went to the kiosk that sold the tickets and found that they only accepted lei. The woman behind the counter acted like the ditz and decided not to know where the nearest exchange spot would be. I found one finally in a tiny niche far away within the bowels of the airport. Mind you, I’m still carrying all my baggage at this point, every single bloody piece of it. Soon, on the bus, and eventually walking to my hostel in Bucharest. Lesson: the majority of Romanians aren’t the friendliest bunch.

I couldn’t find my hostel because it was wedged far away in the middle of some building. It was also situated above a “night club”: the Romanian term for “strip joint”. Outside this place were a pair of woman’s legs bright neon, wearing dangerous stilettos.

The hostel was tiny, but it was comfortable enough and definitely not noisy despite it being above the classy establishment known as “Heaven”. I befriended two guys in the kitchen/living space: Zack and Josh, from Australia and South Dakota respectively. It was Josh’s birthday so we decided to celebrate it by going to a bar/club in town: Club A. Strange note first: both had just arrived from Istanbul two days earlier. Josh had been there for 2 months studying geology overseas. That was a weird connection. A bit maddening was that he knew more Turkish than I did, well at least had a better tackle on it so as to speak with more complex sentences than “How are you?” and “I want five coffees.”

It was ’80s night at the club, but all the songs playing were NOT from the ’80s. The drinks were ridiculously cheap; a vodka-tonic for example was only 4 lei which converted to around €1,20! Madness. Two VTs, 2 vodka-and-cokes, and two Tuborgs later and I found myself quite tipsy. We all danced with some Spanish girls for most of the night…and then not too much later (okay, it was pretty late, around 4), I headed back to the hostel without the others. I was too befuddled to care.  Random drama had enfolded and I didn’t want to take part in it; so I skulked back to the hostel and collapsed grumpily onto the bed, turning in for the first exhausting night in my trip.

25.9.08

I woke up with the smell of smoke still on me. This would prove to be a continuous problem throughout my trip, sometimes an easy fix with enough deodorant. It would come back over and over again, especially in Romania and Spain.

The start of the day brought some decent toast and cheese for breakfast before I left. Josh arrived back from his night out at around 12.30pm, exactly at the time I was to depart.

The sightseeing part of Bucharest wasn’t to fulfilling, especially as the weather was particularly overcast, borderline rain. The fountains at Piata Unirii were not running at all, so there was some mediocre architecture to grace my eyes and that was about it.

The Parliament was cool enough for it being the 2nd largest building in the world. I didn’t go in nor did I really get good enough shots of the place (in my opinion). Also, the park near the hostel would have been great if the weather was halfway decent. But it wasn’t. So I had a whole pizza for lunch to make me feel better.

A nap commenced in the afternoon – a very decent one. I continued my saga in this journal at a pub called Dreamer’s, which was fine enough for what it was. The rest of the evening kept me indoors because of the lousy rain; it brought a lot of card playing with the other hostel people (one Minnesotan and another Australian, both of whom knew how to play euchre, so my mood rose dramatically!). It was nice playing euchre once again, despite the fact that I lost. I’ve been bad luck recently when it comes to card games, backgammon, most other things.

The rough thing about the night was the e-mail I received from my mom. Apparently my grandfather might pass on in the span of days or weeks. So basically my premonition when I said goodbye to my grandfather in 2007 might become true. I feel somewhat helpless here, as my mother is refusing me to even consider coming back. I could still go back without her approval, but I’d rather listen to them. I feel torn and guilty. Why shouldn’t I go back and be with my family when something like this is happening?

I’m just worried about what everyone will think about me gallivanting around Europe when this grief-stricken moment has arrived. That in itself reeks of conceitedness almost, which makes me feel more atrocious. I think I just want to be trapped in a box for a tiny bit of time and just be with me and not worry about anything else for a few weeks.

The eulogy idea sounds good.

travelogue.

I shall be posting my journal from my travels last September-October here, with photos as well.  This shouldn’t be too cumbersome a venture as I have everything written in my journal.  But it could take some time.  I’m also attempting a switch in domain names that is more navigable and friendly to side-pages that can be updated and organized without too much hassle.

So, be on the look out for more frequent updates aquí!  Gracias.