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To India

I’ve never been at O’Hare for what anyone would consider a layover. It’s always been more a “desperate sprint from one far-flung terminal to another”. Wandering through terminal C, looking for somewhere to grab a drink and food, therefore, feels novel.

The high arched ceiling of the main corridor alludes to gothic cathedrals. The niches and warrens that house shops, bars, and cafes strengthen that tie. Unfortunately,  the limited space also makes it hard to find somewhere to sit. So I stand awkwardly behind a row of occupied barstools sipping a $10 pint of $3 beer.

Table churn is slow. Food will have to be found elsewhere. The co-worker I’m traveling with gets a salad from the food court. Possessing an iron stomach and the culinary discretion of a raccoon, I opt for the “Chinese” buffet. Bellies full and wallets lighter, we board our flight to Frankfurt.

Upon hearing several mentions of it being a full flight, the thought briefly crosses my mind that this being United, I may be at risk of being assaulted and pulled from my seat. But then I remember that I am a straight white man and go back to reading my book.

I read for most of the flight, attempting to sleep a few times and failing until 30 minutes before touchdown.

Frankfurt is the most German of German airports, all clean lines and gloss. The path to our connecting terminal is more byzantine than German though. It snakes through multiple buildings and seems at times as if it is taking us back to where we arrived. Eventually, it deposits us out at an unexpected security checkpoint.

German TSA appears very concerned about the electric razor in my bag. The x-ray agent studies it in a similar fashion to the apes approaching the monolith in 2001: A Space Oddessy, flicking the power button and jumping in surprise when it starts buzzing. Given that it is a Brauhn, a German brand that should be familiar, I am a bit confused by the reaction.

The x-ray agent waves an assault-rifle-toting polezei over to discuss the situation.  She flips through my passport and confirms my travel plan with me. After a back and forth with the x-ray agent that overlaps with none of the small amount of Deutch I know, she returns my passport, says that everything is fine, and wishes me safe travels.

Four hours later we are on our way to Bangalore, having failed to acquire better seats because of a lack of integration between United and Lufthansa’s booking systems. Being three rows from the back of the 777 makes for a take off that feels on par with a turboprop hitting jet-wash – that is to say, very bouncy with a lot of harsh lateral movement. I put on my headphones and eye mask and doze off and on for the majority of the flight.

As she’s serving breakfast (chicken shiha, the beginning of this trips’ Indian food), the flight attendant jokes that she has not seen me the entire flight, given that I slept through all the previous meal/snack services. She also mentions that my eye mask looks like a bra, which is true, but it is excellent and I do not care.

Very Good

Bangalore’s airport is not as busy as I expected (in fact, it’s almost empty), but it is 1 AM. Due to very ambiguous signage, we stand in the wrong immigration line but are soon re-directed to the correct line.

The security stance appears to be the exact opposite of Frankfurt. I could have handed the immigration official any piece of paper in my possession and received an equal level of interest. The customs agent pushes my bags through the x-ray machine, waves me through after I set off the metal detector, then proceeds to go back to sleep.

Our driver is waiting for us and guides us out to a parking area for hired cars. Cool night air filled with the scent of curry powder and chai from the airport’s outdoor vendors replaces the previous 24 hours of recycled airplane stench (John Roderick’s airplanes as “fart-tubes filled with long pigs” remains one of the most accurate descriptors of the modern age.)

Our hired minivan careens down highways and side roads at double the speed limit. Lane discipline, turn signals, and other familiar Western driving concepts are not Indian thought technologies. Our driver takes us flying over speed bumps and potholes, honking at cars, tuk-tuks, cyclists, pedestrians, and stray dogs to warn them of our approach down the center of the road.

We weave around large trucks for which different signaling rules seem to be needed, flashing the high beams instead of the horn. There does seem to be a method to the chaos, but I can’t fully decipher its rules.

An hour later we arrive at the hotel, which is heavily guarded – high fences, bomb-sniffing dogs, and x-ray machines. The staff is cordial and helpful in a style that is almost uncomfortable. “Namaste. Namaste. Namaste. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. No seriously, I can carry my bag.” Whereas an American hotel might have just one or two staff in the lobby at 3 AM, this Marriott is swarming with receptionists, bellboys, waiters, and valets.

We are offered a selection of juice-filled tumblers. I take one that turns out to be lychee juice and am guided by a hostess to my room where she painstakingly shows me how to use all the different room controls and light switches. I do my best to be polite, but shuffle her out the door as quickly as possible. I want more than anything is to go to sleep.

I set my alarm with the intention of getting breakfast, but hitting snooze multiple times takes me past the hotel restaurant’s breakfast hours. I drink Nescafe and eat a bag of masala-flavored Lays for breakfast instead. The masala wakes me up more than the coffee.

As I consume my non-coffee and spicy chips, I notice a woman hanging laundry on the rooftop of an office building across from my hotel in what looks like a scene from Ip Man. Still sleep-drunk, I imagine an army of Wing Chun practitioners sparring between the clotheslines.

The daytime traffic is fascinating to watch. Motorcycles and tuk-tuks swarm around larger vehicles while pedestrians dart across the road. Occasionally, a vehicle will pull into a drive, turn around and then drive the wrong way back up the road to the turn they missed. The ebb and flow are hypnotic.

The office address we were given shows as being a half mile away. The sidewalk along the route is in process of being demolished to make way for a new metro line, making it a bit challenging to navigate.

A valet at the hotel tells us the project is scheduled to take three years, but will likely take five. Barefoot workers chop at the dirt with assorted shovels and pickaxes, scooping debris into shallow buckets that look like poorly treated woks. Five years seems ambitious.

We arrive at our destination to find that it is the wrong building. After struggling to communicate with the security guard, I make a call and one of our local contacts comes to fetch us. He chauffers us to a building that is just a few blocks from our hotel.

The parking lot and garage are filled with more motorcycles and scooters than I have seen in aggregate during my life – Hondas and Royal Enfields as far as the eye can see.

Seemingly dozens of people introduce themselves and I struggle to remember their names. We spend most of the afternoon comparing notes and coordinating meetings for the days ahead.

Our walk back to the hotel is much shorter than the trip to the wrong building but feels more dangerous due to the narrow street and high volume of traffic. There is more sidewalk, but most of it is taken up by parked motorcycles and vendors selling an indecipherable selection of food, which I ask one of our local contacts about.

“It’s nothing you would want. Most of us wouldn’t even eat it.” I’d already assumed as much due to the unappealing smell – a mix of spices and fruit gone/going bad.

Hungry and tired, we drop our bags and head to the hotel’s main restaurant. The menu is a mixture of traditional western dishes and westernized Indian food as well as some items that seem entirely random. I order “Kung Pao” (their quotes) chicken.

It turns out to be good but incredibly spicy. I have to shoo the waitstaff away as they don’t seem to believe I can be trusted to scoop rice and chicken onto my own plate. One waiter, in particular, is genuinely stressed out about me not letting him help.

“Sir please, allow me…”

“I’m good. It’s OK.” I shovel a spoonful of peanuts onto my chicken.

“Sir…” He’s sweating.

“Thank you. I’m OK serving myself.”

“Sir…” He slowly backs a few feet away but continues to watch me. Eventually, he finds someone else to help, but I notice him eying our table for the entire time we’re there, even as other staff re-fill drinks and clear plates. I feel a little bad for not letting him help.

I’m asleep by 8 PM but wake at 1 AM. Luckily, I manage to go back to sleep until a more reasonable hour. We eat breakfast and successfully navigate our way back to the correct office without getting run over.

The morning is full of meetings after which we are shuffled up to a cafeteria on the 8th floor.

“Do you want a meal or a sandwich?”

“What are the meals?”

We’re shown to several stations serving what all seem to be the same stew in slightly different colors.

“What would you recommend?”

“The meals aren’t any good, but some of the sandwiches are.”

“OK, which one?”

“Corn masala sandwich is good.”

Corn masala sandwich is not good. It is an unpleasantly spicy mixture of sweet corn, onions, and tomatoes – mostly onions. I manage to eat half of it in an effort not to be rude while making jokes at my own expense about not being able to handle so much spice. Everyone laughs and nods.

I’m also served “buttermilk” accompanied by the statement that it is “good for digestion” which doesn’t inspire confidence. “Buttermilk” turns out to be warmish milk curd spiced with chilis and cilantro leaves. It isn’t bad and online research reveals that 1.) the drink is more appropriately known as chaas or mor depending on where you’re at in India, and 2.) it can be very good if properly prepared.

After lunch, I comment that I would like to buy my wife a saree (which seems like the most stereotypical Indian thing possible) while in the country and ask if the clothing sizes are similar to US or British scales. This produces a confused look followed by laughter.

“Sarees are all the same size, six yards of fabric.”

“Oh. So it’s basically just a long blanket?”

“Yes.” With ‘stupid American’ remaining kindly unspoken.

Derp Derp

We end our day and wander back to the hotel.

Its elevators are plastered with advertisements for barbeque at one of the hotel’s restaurants. Overwhelmed with curiosity for what constitutes a pulled-pork sandwich in India, we make our way to the second floor and find the Whitefield Bar and Grill located pool-side. It is entirely empty.

“Reservation?”

“Umm… no?”

A sigh, then a look back into the restaurant. “We can seat you on the patio, I guess.”

I order a Moscow mule and the pulled-pork sandwich, which turns out to be something like a sloppy-joe topped with coleslaw on a black bun. It’s not bad, but not barbeque.

I fight it, but again, I’m asleep by 8.

The next morning, we try a shortcut someone at the office recommended. My coworker decides to film the walk with his GoPro. Possibly because of being self-conscious about looking like tourists taking video, this is the first time I realize that we are and have been the only white people walking on the streets, even though white Westerners make up the entire residency of the hotel.

When we watch the video later, it’s startling how big a difference there is between inside and outside the office park. Outside is chaos – mounds of trash, noisy traffic, throngs of day laborers rushing past one another trying to find work.

Inside, workers sweep every inch of sidewalk and floor, the constant honking of tuk-tuks and cars is muffled by tall concrete walls, and rich-in-comparison IT workers buzzing around offices adorned with the logos of Western technology giants. Bangalore is rising to what San Francisco is descending to. Hopefully, when they meet, Bangalore will keep climbing.

At the office, I get a call from the coworkers I had asked about sarees. They ask for my wife’s t-shirt size. An hour later, they show up with a shopping bag containing a blue kurti and leggings. This seems to be a standard, modern outfit for Indian women who aren’t wearing Western-style clothing.

Fashion!

They also give me a couple of Diwali (which just ended) related gifts, a steel platter full of mixed nuts and a clay candle cup.

I can’t help but think this was partially driven by “he’ll never figure this out on his own”, which is likely true. Whatever the case, its a much-appreciated kindness.

Throughout our meetings, there are several mentions of a Friday outing. I eventually gather that it is to “a resort”, which contains “a water park, but not like an American water park”. We are invited.

The cycle of wake up, eat, walk to the office, hold meetings, walk to the hotel, eat, sleep continues for the next two days, over which I manage to find out the resort we’re scheduled to visit is called Club Cabana, there will be “team building” activities, and we’re to be picked up at 7 AM.

From their website:

Club Cabana offers hospitality that symbolizes Indian traditions and culture with a blend of modern preferences. A welcome as warm as this ancient land will enfold you as soon as you step through our doors. Be prepared for a standard of splendour that you thought was long past.

During breakfast on Friday, the coworker I’m traveling with complains of feeling ill but still plans to visit the resort. This remains the plan until our ride arrives at which point he bails to go back to his room.

Recent rains have washed out many of the roads, resulting in giant potholes that in-turn create stop-start traffic and jarring, metal-on-asphalt bounces. My sick coworker’s choice to stay back at the hotel proves to be a wise one.

We pick up a local coworker, then drive to the apartment complex of yet another coworker, where we trade the compact four-seater we’ve been riding in for a larger SUV. Taylor Swift blasts out of the stereo as soon as the driver starts the car and we proceed to listen to a soundtrack of American pop against the backdrop of small Indian towns and countryside.

Several wrong turns are made as a result of conflicting GPS directions and local geographical opinion. We arrive just as breakfast is ending and in time for a “state of the business” presentation. The room has a high metal ceiling and the PA isn’t properly tuned so I do my best to focus on what’s being said but most of it is indecipherable. I just clap when everyone else claps.

After the meeting, there are “team building exercises”, which turn out to be a task relay and a game where we are blindfolded and asked to make animal sounds to find others on our team. Everyone seems focused on making sure I am enjoying myself and I have to reassure them that “Yes, this is fun.” Given the rigid hierarchical structure that most Indian businesses adhere to, it’s nice to see the managers making clowns of themselves and committing to their roles in the games.

Games complete, we are released to the resort’s facilities, which include the water park, a cricket/football pitch, a tennis court, an archery range, and a bowling alley. I didn’t pack any swim trunks for the trip but find out they can be purchased onsite for 200 rupees (about $3 USD). I buy these shorts sight unseen and on unwrapping the packaging find that they are somewhere between a speedo and boxer briefs in size. I will be a pale ghost in tiny pants for the day.

Out in the wave pool, I discover that most of the resort visitors don’t know how to swim and definitely don’t know how to float. So I become a minor celebrity as I float through each wave. I am asked several times how I am floating and tell them that Americans are made of 50% fat, so we float easily.

I spend the afternoon switching between the slides and the wave pool, sticking mostly with the recent college graduates in the group who want to ask me about American movies and comic books.

“Marvel or DC?”

Around four I swap back into dry clothes and visit the archery range. Archery has a long history in India, so I expect that I will be embarrassed by the others outshooting me. It turns out to be the opposite and I’m able to cluster most of my arrows on top of each other in the bull’s eye and in a group to the far right that contains all the arrows with missing feathers. Given that I haven’t shot a bow in 15 years this can be attributed to luck and a limited memory of how to aim.

Before leaving we settle in for tea and snacks. Knowing that the ride back will be rough, I limit myself to a few bites of fried zucchini.

The return trip actually turns out to be faster and less severe due to taking a different route that is mostly highway.  Along the way, the Indians I’m traveling with tell me about their trips to America and how hard it was for them to not honk the horns on their rental cars when they visited.

One was warned while in Houston that honking at the wrong driver may result in him getting shot.

“Is this true or was he joking at me?”

“Unfortunately it is.”

It’s fully dark when I’m dropped off at the hotel and I stop at the restaurant to order another round of “Kung Pao” chicken. It doesn’t seem nearly as hot this time.

The next morning we coordinate with some of our local coworkers to have lunch and go shopping. The hotel provides a driver who takes us to Mahatma Gandhi Road further into Bangalore. Along the way he stops several times, wanting us to get out and shop at what are obviously his friends’ shops. We have to tell him repeatedly that we don’t have time to stop because we are meeting people.

Even with the asides, we make it to our destination a little early and have time to buy some knick-knacks from a store with a needlessly complex checkout process.

  1. Pick out purchases.
  2. Go to the clerk in that particular area of the store and trade your selected items for a checkout ticket.
  3. Once all items have been selected, go to a central purchase counter, turn in your tickets and pay.
  4. Take your receipts to a “delivery” area and trade them for your purchased items.

This is what I imagine visiting a JC Penney in 1930 was like.

While picking out items, our local coworkers seem surprised by my knowledge of Hindu mythology, which is honestly very limited. I am able to point out a few major members of the pantheon from the shelves of statues but have to ask about most. I end up with a Ganesha:

and a Shiva depicted as Nataraja which is kind of awesome because he’s standing on a dwarf (which apparently represents ignorance). I can get behind that (smashing ignorance, not dwarfs, who have never done anything to me).

We walk to a building called the Barton Center to eat at a restaurant on the 13th floor called Ebony.

The food is good and I’m dealing better with the spice now. I see one dish with sambal oelek, which I’ve had before, so I use it as a spiciness baseline. It turns out to be the hottest thing on my plate, so that works out well.

Our original plan was to eat here at night to see the city lights from up high, but the daytime view works relatively well, although we’re facing away from downtown.

On the way to the elevator, I notice that the interior of the building looks like a rectangular version the tower from Dredd, which was filmed in Ponte City Appartments in Johannesburg. So it actually looks like Ponte City, I guess. I only know this because I listened to an episode of 99% Invisible about it.

The leader of our shopping expedition takes us to an area called Commerce Street for “street shopping”. She is committed to helping me get a saree for my wife and says that this is the place to do it. What I thought was going to be “buying a blanket” turns out to be more involved than I expected and I am grateful to have a guide.

I buy the saree, then a blouse, then a petticoat. Then we have to visit a tailor in a semi-collapsed alleyway who adds some structural support to the decorative edges of the saree. All of this is done while wading through the densest sea of people and vehicles I’ve ever seen.

My arms are constantly getting clipped by the mirrors of tuk-tuks and I have to step over the tires of multiple motorcycles which are edging up on me as I walk. I do my best not to get run over by the dozens of food carts we encounter, several of which are advertising “American Sweet Corn”.

I momentarily forget about the specter of Delhi belly and try some spiced pineapple from one of the stands. It is very good.

The smells and colors of the market are overwhelming. As is the variety of random items for sale. Socks seem to be one of the more popular items, but there are also quite a few vendors selling stuffed animals.

The crush of people is incredible but there are occasional gaps where we can catch our breath.

I notice lots of birds in the sky as we wander deeper into the market. They are accompanied by an increasingly strong smell of dead fish so I assume we are getting close to a seafood market. Our shopping guide confirms this.

We avoid the fish market but walk to a nearby church. They are holding service inside and I can see the altar lit up in flashing neon, which I’m not used to associating with Catholic mass.

This seems to be the edge of the market area so we begin making our way back to one of the main streets to call an Ola for the return trip the hotel. This takes quite a bit longer than expected. Our coworkers tell us that the area is about to flip to nighttime pricing so the several drivers we summon put us off to wait for the pricing to go up. Eventually, a driver arrives and we say goodbye to the kind people who have accompanied us all afternoon.

On the way back, we notice the driver has selected one of the longer routes that Google offered him. He also stops at one point to pee by the side of the road. So basically just like Uber. Our hour-long ride only costs 365 rupees (about $5.60 USD), so taking the longer route isn’t as annoying as it could have been.

A quick dinner, then a shower and I am ready to head to the airport. During the car ride, I think of how much I like this place. The people have been incredibly kind. The food has (mostly) been good, and the perspective has been invaluable.

I close my eyes and sink into the seat. As we hit potholes and soar over speed bumps, I let myself melt into the motion like I’m riding a wave. Soon, I’m asleep.

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It is fall in the mountains

Air curling up from the hollows on either side of the mountain runway shoves against the sides of the plane so that it shudders and jumps as we descend. We bounce once, then a second time before making a solid connection with the tarmac – turboprops roaring, reversed full speed.

We wait while the gate agent makes small talk with the stewardess. “Them planes sure are big,” she says, pointing at several military, cargo planes across the runway from us. This goes on for several minutes before she glances back at the passengers staring at her, anxious to get off the plane. “Oh! Sorry!”

We’ve landed in West Virginia.

The downtown market seems frozen in time. Every shop is still in business, every worker still employed. I order a fish sandwich and clam chowder at the seafood stand, determined to eat all of it even after my stomach aches.

We walk through rows of produce, mums, and pumpkins. We laugh at over-fed birds picking at crumbs, too fat to fly. It is simple and unassuming, but it is one of the golden places of the world.

We drive through our old neighborhood and find it has lost its luster. It was growing and healthy when we moved away, but development has stalled. Houses sit unfinished, some built but abandoned, scaffolding rusted in place. The concrete of the road erupts into the air and is interrupted by tall weeds and small trees. Unmaintained and poorly irrigated, just five years old and the earth is pulling it apart and back into itself.

Still, it is fall in the mountains.

The next day we visit with friends for lunch and dinner at favorite restaurants. Downtown is resilient, small businesses abound. Books and ice cream and pizza. The night air holds a chill we’ve missed – sweater weather, no wind.

We walk back to the hotel full.

We stop for biscuits in the morning, buttery fuel for a day hike. Winding roads take us to the New River Gorge and a forest I’ve missed.

Most of the trail is empty, we pass only occasional groups of hikers and rock climbers. We watch rafters navigating the river below and a train snaking along the valley track.

The leaves are burning through the shades of fall, deep greens to reds to oranges to browns to empty air. The moss remains constant – four season flooring.

Thousands of people are just a few miles away at a bridge festival. We’ve been here several times on festival day, but we’ve never been to the actual festival. The trees are better company.

After the hike we stop at a restaurant we’ve tried to visit on every trip to the Gorge. Their schedule is random and we’ve always missed business hours by an annoyingly small margin. Today, we arrive five minutes before opening. It doesn’t disappoint. Salmon and creamed beef and sweet potatoes.

We finish our meal with coffee and chocolate tortes, then begin our drive back to the city. We make a stop on the way back at a gift shop in a log cabin where I buy a hand sewn monkey, then a final stop to look out over the Gorge and watch people ride a funicular.

Back in town, it’s time to re-pack and prep for an early morning flight.

We walk around downtown before going to bed. It is cold, but neither of us mind.

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Central Europe – Day 9 – Burgers & Wine

The Hungarian forint is not in high demand outside of Hungary, as evidenced by the 10,000 forint bills being spit out by the ATM. The 30,000 forints I receive are equal to roughly $107 US. Knowing they will be nearly impossible to exchange later, I do my best to spend them all.

Even with its weak currency, Budapest is experiencing a renaissance. The old buildings in the center of Pest have been restored and there are new construction projects underway on nearly every block. The new and old have yet to fully mesh, and the transition between modern retail/commercial, and centuries old apartments is slightly jarring.

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The rebuilt city squares are filled with statues, flowers, fountains, and pools. Also, Starbucks.

We walk along the Danube. It is less clear here than in Vienna with a stronger green tint. Buda stairs down on us from across the water.

Yachts full of geriatrics are anchored at the river’s edge. Young stewards carry luggage and push wheelchairs. Viking’s public TV ads appear to be money well spent.

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Further down the river we encounter the “Shoes on the Danube Bank”, a memorial to Hungarian Jews killed by a fascist militia. There are surprisingly few tourists and those present are quiet and respectful. The sunshine and lack of clouds feels inappropriate.

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We walk to the Hungarian parliament building and then into the mid-rise shade of the nearby consulates and boarding houses. I have no frame of reference for the Hungarian language but pick out the Hungarian Intellectual Property office on one the side streets. For some reason its sign is in English.

It is mid-afternoon and we are hungry. The nearest restaurant to the hotel is a spectacularly kitsch take on an American burger joint. Burger Jake’s is blaring country music and the burgers coming off the grill are the size of hubcaps. There seems to be an even split between locals and tourists.

The salads and fish & chips look the least ridiculous of the menu items so I order both and take them back to our hotel room.

At 5PM, taxis arrive to take us across the river to Buda for a wine tasting in the basement of a hotel, which is much nicer than it sounds. The sommelier presents us with well-rehearsed dad jokes and the history of each wine. I have never been a fan of wine, but everything presented is very good. I get wine now.

I sit on the corner of the table and talk to two of the Australian men, asking about the perception of Americans in Australian (and vice versa). The feedback is generally positive, with a bit of perplexition around America’s gun culture. I smile sadly and nod my head.

“Do you ever worry about some person shooting you?”

“Not really, but I don’t know if that’s because of numbness or denial.”

I try to answer honestly when asked about the American perception of Australia.

“We are almost entirely self-involved. Past Crocodile Dundee and kangaroos, most Americans don’t have any perception of Australia. Or anywhere else for that matter. We have to purposfully seek out the world’s news if we want to be exposed to it.

The U.S. actually is a great place to live, and I think the good outweighs the bad. It’s just like anywhere though. If you have a choice to pick where you live, you have to decide which bucket of bullshit you’re more OK dealing with. Everywhere has problems.”

The sommelier offers us the Hungarian variant of plum brandy before we head back across the river for dinner. It is smoother than the slivovice I had in Český Krumlov.

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It is our final group dinner and we eat what I think is the best food of the trip. Sous vide duck, cabbage pasta, goulash, goat cheese, beef marrow, pork knuckle – all of it delicious.

There are toasts and we inadvertently make our guide cry as we express our fondness for her. She has been excellent.

I compliment the Australians on how positive they have been and how the general lack of complaint made the trip much better than it could have been.

For someone who generally operates on the premise of “prove why I shouldn’t hate you”, I am sad to say goodbye to the group. Walking away from the restaurant, we pause on a narrow island in the middle of a street to hug and shake hands.

“… and the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.”

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Central Europe – Day 8 – Cake & Statues

Second breakfast is sachertorte at the Demel Bakery. We sit outside watching people from all over the world pass by. My iced Turkish coffee is 1000% superior to any of the hotel coffee we’ve had on the trip.
We tour the Sisi Museum in the Hapsburg Palace. It is moderately interesting but somewhat spoiled by visitors clogging the corridors as they stop and listen to electronic audio guides. I again struggle to not crush children and small Japanese men.

The exterior of the palace is far more interesting. Its entrance is surrounded by sculptures that I wish I had for my house. Maybe that can be a weekend project. Sculpting can’t be that hard, right?

We visit the crypt of the imperial family. The air is cool and pleasant, a welcome reprieve from the rapidly warming streets. There are dozens of intricately designed sarcophaguses, the newest are less than a decade old, others go back centuries. Nothing is macabre, only calming.

Capuchin monks maintain the site, and upon learning this I can’t stop thinking about little capuchin monkeys running around in robes, sweeping up and dusting.

We study the dates on each plaque. Many of the deceased were less than a year old. There are many Ferdinands, Leopolds, Rudolphs, and Maximillians.

The Albertina is our favorite stop of the day. Their collection is impressive. They have Picasso, Munch, da Vinci, Monet, and countless others. Docents shuffle quietly through the visitors, gently steering children away from the priceless art.

The paintings are engaging, but I spend far more time wandering through the Lee Miller exhibit. Each of the tiny silver gelatin prints is evocative and slices apart my confidence as a photographer. I have so much to learn about light and shadow, composition and narrative.

We eat lunch in the Albertina’s cafe and watch a group of American tourists get agitated because the waitress hasn’t split their bill. Math is hard.

The U1 Red Line takes us to the banks of the Danube and we walk along the boardwalk until the heat drives us back to the subway station. Everyone along the river seems to have brought their personal hookah kit.

Given the people we have seen in speedos and bathing suits this trip, I will never again worry about looking good at the beach. Although fewer speedoed Viennese  are working in their gardens than the other cities we have visited.

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In the evening, it takes a bit of searching to find a restaurant that is not serving schnitzel. The Hard Rock Cafe is vetoed by everyone, it’s only redeeming quality is that it is cool inside.

The trip is winding down and we are struggling with not wanting it to end. Given the opportunity, I would live in Vienna and/or go on a never-ending tour with the Aussies, singing songs and making friends with the world.

“Here’s to Chris! He’s True Blue! He’s a Piss Pot through and through. He’s a Bastard so they say and he’s not going to heaven, he went the other way! He’s going down! down! down! down! down!…”

We re-pack and prepare for Hungary.

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Central Europe – Day 7 – Sweat & Schnitzel

I wake up coughing. My throat has been destroyed by the second-hand smoke from last night.
Breakfast is again lunch meat and hard boiled eggs, but I find the bread and jam hidden behind one of the food baskets. The jam is the friendliest employee at the hotel’s restaurant.

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Several in the group have acquired new luggage that comes close to overwhelming the trailer being pulled behind today’s transport.

“This group has set a new record for most luggage.”

We ride along a winding road through the Czech countryside and across the border into Austria. I buy cough drops at a convenience store when we stop for gas. Turns out, “Vicks” in German is “Wicks”.

The area of Austria we drive through appears to be made entirely of farmland and windmills. If not anchored by the weight of the Alps, Austria might fly away.

Vienna looks rougher than expected, but as we approach the city center, the volume of lame graffiti fades. The U.S. beats Europe on quality of graffiti by a wide margin.

Our hotel is near Schwedenplatz in an area of town called Fleischmarkt, which appears to be related to 18th-century, Greek butchers and not prostitutes. We drop off our luggage and immediately launch into the town for an orientation walk.

Everyone is hungry and this seems to fluster our guide as she has not planned to take a food break until after the walk. We visit a nearby market where I shove lava-hot prawn rolls into my mouth as quickly as possible. Something in my DNA  drives me to never be the person who holds up the group.

Vienna’s town center is packed with tourists, but somehow seems better equipped to handle it than Prague. Our guide points out various landmarks for us to return to later. The juxtaposition of advertising and museums throws me off and I find myself frustrated with the signage and storefronts, but Vienna is otherwise a magnificent city.

It has reached 100 degrees and we take that as a signal to go back to the hotel. There is no air-con in our room, but with both door and windows open, it is bearable. A maid wandering by takes pity on us and brings us a fan.

The EU is doing everything it can to combat anthropogenic climate change while the U.S. government sits on its hands. I refuse to complain about no A/C and acknowledge that I am ordinarily spoiled by what is to the rest of the world, a luxury.

Self-righteousness be damned.

Dinner is at a beer garden in the outer ring of Vienna. A gruff-looking, bear of a woman serves as our waitress. Carafes of white wine and sparkling water are littered onto our table and our order is condensed into combined sets of the two main dishes and two sides that the restaurant serves.

No one touches the sparkling water.

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The schwein schnitzel fills the plate it is served on and is very good. Conversation is lively and my respect for our guide grows as she responds matter-o-factly to someone complaining about Europe not having air conditioning.

“Yes. It is Europe in the summer. Maybe your country should ratify the Kyoto Protocol.”

Burn.

The Australian end of the table has grown loud and our gruff waitress has asked us to quiet down so that the restaurant’s neighbors do not complain. They have out-rowdied the Austrians and I am proud of them.

Take that, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

 

 

 

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Central Europe – Day 6 – Bicycles & Rafts

Breakfast is lunch meat and hard boiled eggs. The waitress is less than enthused that we exist on the same planet as her. She jabs a finger at a table and grunts “Coffee or Tea?” I smile at her and she scowls back.

“Water, please.”

After breakfast, six of us meet for a bike ride. We are ported to a hill several kilometers from town and dropped off with 18-speed bikes and helmets.

“Do not use left shifter. Mostly flat.”

The first kilometer is at a 10 % grade uphill. It is not difficult but I am reminded that I have not ridden a bike in a couple of years.

At the apex of the hill we stop to take pictures on some rotten hay bales. My leg penetrates the hay and surrounding foliage up to my thigh on my first attempt, but I make it to the top. Within a few seconds my entire leg feels as though it is covered in paper cuts. I’m a bit confused as to why (not a normal effect of hay) until our guide mentions that we should be careful not to touch the fuzzy-leafed weeds surrounding the bales as they will cause your skin to burn.

“They are good for you though. The Russians hit each other with them.”

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My leg has stopped burning by the time I climb down from the hay. We peddle on further into the forest.

The rest of the ride is downhill and we pick up a decent amount of speed, but brake cautiously against the menace of cars traveling the narrow road. We are underneath the canopy of the cedar forest until we reach the edge of town.

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I recover from our ride in the hotel room, which is slightly warmer than the previous day but not unpleasant.

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In the afternoon, our group is again carted out of town, but this time deposited with inflatable rafts by the riverside.

Our float trip is far less crowded than what I am used to in the U.S. and there is a riverside bar around almost every bend in the river. Our raft makes slow progress both because of the refreshment breaks and some spectacularly in-effective rowing. We mostly float, and this is OK.

It is 7PM by the time we make it back to town and well dressed locals are filtering   in for a concert taking place on the castle grounds. As a result, the restaurants are mostly full and it takes several stops before we can find one that can accommodate 16 people. It is an outdoor pizza place covered in a haze of cigarette smoke.

The pizza is very good and the waiter works hard at hamming it up for tips.

Swarms of insects gather around the town’s lights as twilight transitions into night. The massive halogen flood lights targeting the castle are surrounded in clouds of gnats thick enough to dim their glow.

The town remains busy well into the early morning and we are woken by a fight taking place somewhere below our room’s window.

I will miss Český Krumlov.

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Central Europe – Day 5 – Rabbit & Absinthe

Our guide said “Student Agency Bus” and I immediately envisioned a big yellow school bus with sliced-up seats.
The bus that meets us is instead a two-story land yacht with video screens and drink service. The ride is un-notable with the exception of our arrival in Český Krumlov at which point the stewardess curtly informs everyone to “Get off bus, now.”

Český Krumlov was effectively frozen in time during the 1600s but fell into disrepair during the Communist era. It seems to have recovered.

Today begins the hottest portion of our trip and I was initially concerned that our hotel, built in the 15th century, would be miserable. But our room is pleasantly cool and I remember that old buildings are made of thick, insulating stone and that I am an idiot.

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We have lunch at a vegetarian restaurant by the riverside. It is a much needed break from the traditional Czech food and the first time I have seen a salad since arriving in Europe.

The town is small so our walking tour is appropriately brief. Highlights include a Jesuit monastery which has burned down multiple times due to the priests’ beer making and the castle that dominates half of the town.

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The town and castle are significantly less crowded than Prague so that we have time and space to explore the details.

More traditional food for dinner, I pick the roasted rabbit, which is surprisingly good and not stringy or tough as expected. We are told it is too early to visit the cocktail bar (it is 9 PM) so we migrate to a another restaurant with a river terrace.

Our guide suggests that I try slivovice, a Slavic plum brandy.

“It is not good, but you should try it.”

It smells like plum saké and I cannot imagine that it will be unpleasant.

“Sip or slam?”

“Slam, definitely slam.”

Our guide looks on expectantly as I throw back the shot. It is very good and I should have sipped it – almost exactly like plum saké.

The waitstaff has not offered to re-fill our drinks and we take this as a hint that it is late enough for the cocktail bar.

It is a Thursday night but the bar is completely empty. Random Euro-Pop blares throughout the labyrinthine building. Surprisingly, the bartender knows what an Old Fashioned is or at least a cartoonish version of it with giant slices of orange.

Our group finds a comfortable nook and settles in. One of the Australian girls dances by herself while everyone else talks – our group bonding continues.

I flip through the cocktail menu.

Turns out, this is absinthe country.

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Central Europe – Day 4 – Laundry

We arrive at Prague Castle before opening time and take pictures from the courtyard. A man in anachronistic chainmail poses for the group, checking his phone between photos.
The skyline of Prague is diminished by an ill-placed Starbucks.

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We are among the first waves of tourists to enter the castle grounds for the day. I do my best not to step on any small children or Asian people as we shuffle through St. Vitus Cathedral. I am mostly successful.

The castle tour guide’s English appears to have been learnt from television – her phrasing and syllable emphasis call to mind a through-the-looking-glass version of BBC standard newscaster.

The church is an odd mix of styles – art nouveau, baroque, gothic, renaissance, gothic-renaissance. Literal tons of cast silver make of statues, coffers, and crypts. The Czech crown jewels are here as well, although sequestered away in a room protected by six locks.

The castle itself is still in use by the Czech government so only a limited portion is available to tour – a grand ballroom and the Defenestration Wing which is important to Bohemian history. Apparently the people of Prague really liked throwing one another out of windows.

By now the castle grounds have filled almost wall to wall with tourists so we make our way down the hill and back into town. On the way we encounter a selectively polished statue outside of a children’s toy museum.

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We find lunch at a French open-air market underneath the Charles Bridge – sausage, fries, garlic bread, and a pizza-like flatbread with cheese and onions that I did not realize was covered in onions until too late.

Across the Charles Bridge, we walk to the Jewish Quarter where we are met by a block-length wall of tourists. I am interested in visiting the cemetery and some of the other historic buildings in the area, but the horde of tourists, signage, and barkers put me off. These are the types of sites I visit to let history wash over me and to learn, which seems impossible in the context of a Disneyland of dead Jews.

We redirect to the north and people-watch from the benches in front of the Charles College School of Law. My right shoe is full of blood again. We spend almost an hour just sitting and watching.

Our tour guide told us that Prague would be a good place to do laundry, so we migrate back to the hotel and I search online for a nearby laundromat. Andy’s Prague Laundry fits the bill and is just a $4 Uber ride away.

I sit and read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” as our clothes spin in the washer. The other customers are mostly American tourists. None of them seem to know how to operate a washer and dryer. I am impressed as Andy patiently explains and re-explains the operation to them.

“Put token in. Then detergent in. Then clothes in. Then press start.”

A fiftyish, overly-tan man wearing Ralph Loren shorts and a Porsche Design polo looks completely overwhelmed. He asks another customer to help him. Later on I overhear him say that normally his maid does his laundry.

Andy’s guestbook is filled with curious entries. There are intricate sketches, personal confessions, and poetry. Only a few of the notes are the idiotic scribblings one would expect. The inside of the back cover informs the reader that asking Andy for extra detergent is the secret code to initiate a drug deal.

Back at the hotel we re-pack our bags and watch German TV. One of the shows appears to be a mash up of  The Bachelor, Real World, and Survivor except everyone is nude. The commercial breaks are filled with indecipherable Czech-language commercials and bizarre ads for equally bizarre junk food that still haunt my dreams.

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Central Europe – Day 3 – Rust & Spires

The train from Munich to Prague is not as nice as the other trains we’ve been on. It is decorated in early 90’s pastels and many of the knobs and gewgaws appear to be broken.
My efforts to open the window fail until an hour into the trip when another passenger recommends pulling down on only one side of the window. This does the trick and the breeze makes our ride much more enjoyable. Everyone in our cabin slides in and out of light sleep as the train climbs into the Czech hills.

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The Czech countryside reminds me of West Virginia – hilly and forested, towns in various states of decay and rust. It is not unpleasant.

As we grow closer to Prague there is a marked increase in graffiti.

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Coach drivers meet us at the train station. There are 16 of us and they have seating for 12. This does not appear to concern the drivers as they wave us towards the vehicles.

“Is OK. Is OK. Yes, 16.”

Panic and frustration etch themselves in our tour guide’s face, but everyone in the group smiles and assures her that it is, in fact, OK. This is one of many reasons I like most Australians I meet – they tend to lack the righteous indignation at slight inconvenience or discomfort that seems to hide just below the surface of American skin.

“In we go. Good on ya!”

The group bonds on the short ride to the hotel.

We have a few minutes rest at the hotel and then are out into the streets for a quick orientation walk and food.

“Praha Hotdog! Praha Hotdog! Bread or bun! Red or white hotdog!”

Praha hotdog is actually pretty good. And Praha itself is a kaleidoscope of people and architecture.

As we walk towards Charles Bridge, we go through an alleyway framed by massage parlors and Prague’s Sex Toy Museum. It is only later that I realize Predator was holding the Thai Massage sign.

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Tourists and shoppers clog the streets, but not overwhelmingly so. The myriad of non-English speech is pleasant to soak in – a calming white noise, the same that one would enjoy in a busy pub.

We split from the group and spend the afternoon wandering through Prague city center and down the Vltava river to Frank Gehry’s Dancing House, which likely leaks when it rains, like every other Gehry building.

Dinner is at a dive restaurant near the hotel. We are introduced to pig lard as a butter alternative and Budweiser Budvar of which America’s Budweiser is a pale, borderline-disgusting shade. Cream steak (svíčková na smetaně) and bread dumplings (knedlíky) – heavy but delicious. It’s all stereotypically Bohemian – Czech greasy spoon – but not cartoonish.

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Back at the hotel I discover the inside of my right shoe is stained with blood and my heel is rubbed raw. My phone shows that we walked over 10 miles today. I briefly consider that I should have worn socks as I fall to sleep.

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Central Europe – Day 2 – Trains & Castles & Cigarettes

The train rocks gently south toward Füssen. Solar panels seem to cover the roof of every building and a quarter of the fields we pass by. So far the S-Bahn is my favorite thing about Germany – I wish the US had a functioning mass-transit system.
It’s a short bus ride from Füssen to Hohenschwangau at the foot of the Alps. Schloss Neuschwanstein and cigarette smoke greet us at the bus terminal. The cigarette smoke seems to follow us for the rest of the trip.

Chinese tourists yell into their cell phones as we weave through the crowd to the reserved ticket desk.

It is cloudy today and drizzling intermittently – an improvement over the previous day’s heat. We climb the hill to the castle.

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The interior of the castle is unfinished. Only a third of it – the royal wing – is complete. The frescos are over-the-top: Jesus, dragons, lightning bolts.

“No photography, please. Please wear your backpacks on your chest.”

Ludwig the Second was deposed before he could complete his tribute to Wagner – charged with insanity and later found dead in a nearby lake. He only spent a few months in his castle, mostly alone.  The tour guide is rather cheerful as he relays these facts.

We eat a terrible lunch in the tourist village, a twice abstracted idea of what Bavarian food should taste like. The waiter teases me when I ask him “Sprechen Sie Englisch?”

“Yes, and Mongolian, and Chinese, and Spanish, and…”

On the train ride back to Munich a man wearing un-ironic overalls sits across from us and talks to himself, then his cell phone, then himself again. I’m glad that he has friends.

We arrive back at the hotel just a few minutes before we are scheduled to meet with our tour group – time to clean-up and then head downstairs.

Everyone sits in the hotel’s breakfast room and stares into the middle distance awkwardly – all jet lagged strangers to each other. Ten Aussies, four Americans, and one Singaporean. I am grateful for the split – an all American group would have been insufferable.

A slender Croatian woman with abruptly cut bangs and purple stockings bounces into the room and begins to give us the details of our tour. Her name is Tajna (pronounced Ti Na) and I immediately want to be her friend.

This will be a good trip.