Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The North of Portugal... (3-5 August 2008)

I wanted it to be the last time in a bus. Up to Porto, and there Eduardo was. We were invited for lunch at his uncle’s house – Ze – and his Brasilian wife, Fabiana. We had Muqueca de Camarao, fish and shrimp in a coconut sauce with veggies. It is kind of unbelievable for me to realize that I am completely proficient, not necessarily fluent, but I understand the grand majority of conversational Brasilian Portuguese and I am able to say almost everything that I want to express. Yet, with Portuguese from Portugal, I am understanding very very little. I suppose it’s similar with Spanish, in that I am really fluent in Latin America and when I’m in Spain I have to put more effort and concentrate more.

In the evening we drove north, to his grandparents’ beach house which is about 50km north of Porto. A serenely quiet village with very little happening, a wild beach, and a cute little house with a lovely mother and Kika, the princess kitten.

Monday was a pretty busy sightseeing day; after our morning walk at the beach we drove to Viana do Castelo, a picturesque town which fulfilled my impressions of Portugal with small winding streets, weathered azulejos, cute outdoor cafes, grand ancient churches, and this sparklingly clear gorgeous Portuguese weather. We continued to Caminha, almost near the Spanish border to the north of Portugal, and this tiny village oozed charm. A quiet evening at home with feijoada…

Tuesday was pure relaxation, garden, sun, sand…in the evening we came back to Porto and arrived at his grandparents’ house where we had a big lomo de carne dinner and then headed into the old part of town, which is completely different from Lisboa but quite beautiful. Plenty of old buildings, with arguably even more large facades of azulejos (I’m really falling in love with these blue and white tiles…), churches, impressive plazas and vistas over the river and sea…later in the evening we went to a few bars and the atmosphere was exactly what I’ve been looking for…plenty of young student types, and young professionals, outdoors with beverages, enjoying the weather, chatting away, lots of expression, smiles, atmosphere…perfect.

Lisboa, Portugal (August 2, 2008)

I was intent on seeing as much as I could of Lisboa in one day. Ana had helped me plan a packed itinerary, and I started in Alfama. This section of town is set on a hill, and the place is atmospheric. Old cable cars parade through the streets, their bells tinkling and old facades of buildings with azulejos, the tilework that the Portuguese are known for, come together with the smell and sight of the blue sea. Ze Pedro told me his favorite thing about Lisboa is the light, and I understood. The sky is a full blue, and the sunlight reflects off the cobbled streets, which in and of themselves are carefully patterned mosaics all over the city, and the light plays off the streets, bounces off the tiles, and creates an ambiance which feels a world away from the rest of Europe, and in fact, I don’t know where I would compare it to.

I fell in love with Lisbon, winding streets and neighborhoods aching of a time of grandeur and splendor which is long gone, small cafes with simple but delicious Portuguese staples…it’s unusual for me to visit the colonizer after having been to colonies, and especially now with my plans to emigrate to Brasil, it was strange to see all the things that I identify as Brasilian or what I had seen in Guinea-Bissau be in Lisboa. Of course it makes sense, but it was strange for me. After Alfama I went back down to Baixa, and went to the Adamastor viewpoint for a big sandwich – which would become my favorite Portuguese staple – the bread in this country is so delicious. Then a wander through the neighborhood roughly headed down to the Praca do Comercio.

Again, the play of light was so beautiful. Wide avenues lined with shops, cafes, streets with white and beige stoned intermingled with black rock, smoothed over centuries, all leading down to the sea, and just before it, the Praca do Comercio. A huge square with a towering archway, from where I could get transport to Belem.

Belem is most known for the Mosterio dos Jeronimos, a huge monastery with great architecture, and then I walked along the coast to the Torre de Belem, a tower at the edge of land looking out over the Atlantic. A compulsory visit to Pasteis de Belem, although I didn’t indulge, and then I was pretty much exhausted. I decided to head back home before going out again with Ze Pedro and Ana.

In the evening we went to the Cantinho de Bem Estar on Rua do Norte in Bairro Alto. This was a really different neighborhood, with graffiti, alternative shops and plenty of small restaurants opening up onto the street. We had a great meal and then had some 2 euro caipirinhas, wandering around the area. Lisboa has an abundance of public places that are really beautiful, with views over the city, gardens, plazas…it’s great. I wouldn’t object to living there by any means. Could have stayed longer, but I was trying to get north to see Eduardo…

Tangier to Lisboa - nightmare day :) (August 1, 2008)

I awoke early in Tangier to catch the ferry across to Algeciras, Spain. Once in Algeciras it was already hot even though it was still 9am, and I went to speak to some truckers, and although there were 3 headed to Portugal, one would leave that night, one the next morning, and the other one didn’t know when his cargo would arrive from Morocco. I was going to try a bit harder but given all the horror stories I’ve heard about getting lifts in Spain, I decided I would take a bus to Sevilla first and then see what happened.

In Sevilla I managed to get on the main road heading to the highway towards Huelva, but no luck at all. People would avoid eye contact, others would honk bemusedly…it was hot. Hot, hot, hot. The police showed up telling me to get off the road and refused when I asked for a lift off the road, so I had to walk back to my original starting point…lucky enough, there was a bus headed to Portugal in less than an hour, so I gave up and passed out in the air-conditioned bus. At Faro, I switched to a bus heading to Lisboa, and was surprised by how many Africans there were on the bus. Of course, it made sense. My first contact with the Portuguese language was in Guinea-Bissau, and I knew that there were plenty of other former Portuguese colonies in Africa, but for some reason I hadn’t imagined that there would be many blacks in Portugal. Well, I was surrounded, and they were friendly, with their rolling mumbly accents and my exhausted, Brasilian Portuguese…they helped me contact Eduardo who put me in touch with his best friend in Lisboa, and I was ready to end this long travel day.

Once in Lisboa I waited in Baixa-Chiado until Ze Pedro left the cinema, and then I met him in Roma. He and his Spanish girlfriend Ana welcomed me, and it was so nice to be received into a home of friends of friends.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Fes (Help me...), Chefchaouen...on my way out

12 sweaty hours later, with many stops along the way, I arrived in Fes. I caught a taxi to Hotel Batha and met Paul. This Frenchman, 2 meters tall, dwarfing me, has been living in Fes for the past 6 months. Before this, Afghanistan and India. He is living in a house constructed in the 1700s with impressive tilework and woodwork, and they are renovating the house. This house, in Batha at the edge of the medina, would become my haven for the next few days.

Fes has long been known for hassle, hassle, and more hassle. It’s true. Shopkeepers and children and all different people call out to you in English and Japanese and French and whatever else their mouths can throw out, and it’s constant, unrelenting, and overwhelming. Fes has the world’s largest living medina, with donkeys transporting cargo throughout, fountains where people come to bathe and fill up bottles and buckets, shops and stalls selling everything imaginable, seemingly empty alleyways opening up onto shopping avenues…and it is a sure fact that you’ll get lost. A few hours in the hubbub of the medina was more than enough for me, the first day I went to explore alone, then met a Japanese girl who I invited to join me in the hammam.

I first experienced a hammam in Turkey with Abby in 2002 in Kusadasi, and since then have made it a point to visit a hammam in each Muslim country I go to. You strip down to your underwear and then a woman, normally an enormous one, scrubs layers of dead skin off you, revealing clumps of dead cells and your fresh skin underneath. There are normally 3 rooms, progressively growing hotter, and you go from the hottest to the coolest, being shampooed, soaped, massaged…it’s great.

The next day, Paul took me to his spots in the medina, then I explored a bit on my own, checking out the famous tanneries where leather is treated in the same way as it has been for centuries, then completely beat, I headed back home. In the afternoon I tried a bit more but was growing increasingly irritated and short-tempered with all the hassle around, so I gave up by sunset and went home. I was really ready to get out of Fes – and in fact, I felt, Morocco.

The next morning I went early for my bus to Chefchaouen, and I hadn’t been sure how long I would stay. I knew that I would like the town, and I knew it was a place where I could stay longer if I wished, but I also felt that by moving quickly through Chefchaouen I would be able to get more time in Portugal. So I left my things at the bus station and walked steeply uphill to arrive in the medina. It was every bit what I had hoped for. The streets are painted a ghostly pale blue, with turquoise, lavender, and periwinkle doorways, window trimmings, all with earthy red rooftops. It’s quiet, calm, and people are genuinely friendly.

Glad to have seen it but ready to finish my Moroccan journey, I jumped on the next bus to Tangier and arrived, met Cindo, a Portuguese man living in Morcco for the past 5 years, and after a feijoada passed out. I was at the edge of Morocco, just a short boat ride away from the European continent again.

I loved Morocco with its endless changing scenery, delicious food, and the real Muslims that are so welcoming, hospitable, generous, and want to share their beautiful country with you. At its best, it offers a supremely different, exotic place from continental Europe even though a tiny body of water separates the two continents. Architecture with exquisite craftsmanship, desert, mountains, canyons, sea, smells and tastes that burst with fullness and richness combine with people in beautiful clothes and fabrics, women covered racing down the streets with robes flowing behind them, children with bright smiles running around. But there was also the other side of Morocco, which wants to rip you off, constantly after you for something, which disrespects foreigners and especially women…it was great to go there, but I was also really happy to leave. I’m sure I’ll visit again, especially the south, but for now it was a chapter I was ready to close.

Zagora to Tinerhir, Morocco

The next morning we awoke and were lucky to reach the main road and precisely cross paths with a minibus headed north towards Zagora. In Zagora, we waited just a few minutes to get into a grands taxi to Ouarzazate. There was a man, Aissa, who approached me in Zagora. He was going to take the same taxi to Ouarzazate, and asked me where I was headed. I told him that that night I hoped to reach Tinerhir, and he told me that he also was headed there, that that was where he was from. He said if I wanted, I could stay at his home, and he could show me around the area. I took his number after he spoke to Mohamed as well. At Ouarzazate, just a few minutes to fill up the taxi to Klaa. In Klaa I split ways with Catherine and Mohamed, and off I was to Boumalne de Dades. In Boumalne, I jumped into a minibus headed up to the Dades Gorge. I was unsure of whether I cared to visit the Dades Gorge anyway, and I think I was simply too exhausted and hot to enjoy anything at that point. I can recognize why people enjoy the gorge, with Kasbahs (ancient forts) dotted along the cliffs, but I was done. I hitched a ride back to Boumalne and caught the bus to Tinerhir.

Tinerhir felt like a completely different world. As I got off the bus, locals smiled warmly and welcomed me, advising me of where the nearest Teleboutique was in case I needed to make a phone call. A few would-be guides approached but when I informed them that I already knew someone in town, they said sorry and wished me a nice stay. Wow.

Aissa came to meet me and we went to his hairdressing shop, which he closed so that we could go for a walk. Winding streets in the Ville Ancienne, the old part of town with the mud houses, women washing with buckets in the streets. We stopped for tea in the house of Aicha, his neighbor, who was thrilled with my limited Arabic and Berber vocabulary. We continued down into the roads, and we emerged on the palmeraie; dazzling green plots of land awash with everything you could dream of. We walked amongst dates, olives, figs, almonds, corn, pomegranates, apples, pears, potatoes, onions, different spices…it was gorgeous. Donkeys piled high with fresh crops being pulled along by women and children.

We finished with a panoramic view of the city, the red mud buildings contrasting with the green palmeraie spreading into the mountains. We went back to Aicha’s house where she taught me how to prepare a tajine. We played with origami and wrote names in Japanese before we retired on the rooftop.

The next morning we headed early to Todra Gorge, which was definitely more impressive than the Dades Gorge for me. I love the layers of red rock which rise up, towering over your head. A thin river runs through the gorge with crystal clear water. This water supplies the palmeraies in and around Tinerhir. I was intent on getting to Fes that day, and the only buses were at 9:30am or 5:30pm so I was rushing to get on the morning bus. We managed, and I was on my way.

Saharan Dunes: Erg Chigaga, Morocco

Arriving in Tagounnite, I met Hmad and my first reaction was that of trust and friendliness. He explained where we would go and the trip program. There was a couple nearby, a French woman and a Moroccan man, older than me, and I didn’t speak to them. It turned out they would also join to go to Erg Lehoudi, where I was headed.

At the campsite, I have to admit that my first reaction was that of disappointment. I have been lucky enough to see gorgeous sand dunes in both Death Valley, California, and Wadi Rum, Jordan. In both of these places, the sand dunes are not necessarily tall or vast, but they are extremely beautiful. Erg Lehoudi was a beautiful place, no doubt about it, but it wasn’t the stereotypical image of sand dunes in the Sahara that I had imagined. At this point I learned that the other tourist couple, Catherine and Mohamed, were planning to go to Erg Chigaga the following day. I had really wanted to head out that way, but at this time of year it’s only possible by 4WD, and there was no way that I would pay for the whole vehicle by myself, so I had decided against it. I discussed with them that I was interested in going, and then the whole drama started.

To be honest from the start, I had serious doubts about visiting Morocco from before I arrived. Egypt is without doubt the place that I liked least during all my travels, and I would say that West Africa was difficult for me in general. Of course, a lot of this was conditional with my personal situation at the time but nevertheless, it wasn’t easy going. When I left West Africa, I vowed that I would probably never return. I said the same about Egypt…well, genius Yuri, look at a map, and Morocco is kind of the in-between of these places. And, well, Southern Morocco especially. You have this mix of Saharan culture with Africa, continental Africa, so the feeling I got in Zagora and Tagounnite was a sort of Timbuktu but with more Arabs than blacks. Strange sensation. I digress.

The night deteriorated into the traditional Moroccan game of bargaining and discussing. There was a time several years ago when I literally loved bargaining and debating and the banter and the whole process of coming to agree on a price. Those days are gone though. Now, I want to be offered an honest and fair price, agree to it, and pay for what I get. Welcome to Morocco. Mohamed, who lived the grand majority of his life near Ouarzazate, and is Berber therefore speaking Berber and Arabic, did all the talking for us because in this country there is undoubtedly much more respect and importance placed on the man. I had earlier been thrown off a very grumpy dromedary, and so had some muscle cramps and was 100% not willing to get back on the same animal to take me back to the main road as we had discussed earlier. After 2 hours of discussing, if you can call it that, some intermediary tentative agreement was reached.

There were several characters involved. My guide was Hmad, who I had agreed with to pay 250 dirhams (approx. 25 euros) for the tour which comprised of transport to Erg Lehoudi, a dromedary ride, dinner, breakfast, and transport either back to Tagounnite or to the road to catch the bus which was heading north from M’Hamid. Then there was his cousin, Salah, who I have no idea what his role was. In Morocco (and many other countries I’ve been in), there is an array of cousins, brothers, friends, whoever, that is always involved, whose role you are never quite sure of, and who you just have to accept is getting a slice of your money just so that more people can have some sort of income. I believe Salah was one of these cases. Then Abderrahim, who was in charge of the domestic hospitality duties; as far as I know, he was in charge of setting up camp and presenting food, preparing tea etc. Then, M’bareq, who was the driver of the 4WD. So here we were in the desert, with 4 guys, who at the start I had tried really hard to be a good smiling kind tourist with. After I fell off the dromedary, I was of course not thrilled at the idea of going on the dromedary. My guide expressed very little concern. I found out that Catherine and Mohamed were going to pay 800 dirhams for the day trip out to Erg Chigaga. It would be optimal, of course, if we could split that in 3 by me joining, and not have the price go up at all.

This wasn’t going to be easy. I was not happy with what I received, which was a sore leg, and an unwillingness to change the program despite the fact that there was only one dromedary around, not 2, to take me back to Tagounnite, and there was a huge argument which erupted around what the price should be if I chose to go to Erg Chigaga. A totally nasty side of Hmad and Salah emerged; I pointed out that we had arrived in Erg Lehoudi too late, and only been able to visit the larger dunes of that area after the sun had already set. They responded that I had arrived too late in Tagounnite, which was completely ridiculous since I had arrived at 5pm, and we sat at Boulangerie du Sud until past 7pm because the heat of the day was too hot. I had no problem with this, I agreed, but I also was not going to be held responsible for a missed sunset. Then when the issue of the dromedary arose, and all 3 tourists said that the guide was responsible for not controlling his animal, he claimed that it was my fault that I was not positioned well. But shouldn’t the guide tell you where exactly to sit on the animal (if I was poorly positioned anyway?) Needless to say, tensions arose and Catherine and I decided that it would be better for Mohamed to proceed with all the discussions. I was ready to leave the next morning if what we were asking for wouldn’t be given, as I didn’t want a day tainted with arguing and ill feelings.

Too hot to sleep inside the tent, too windy to sleep outside, I ended up outside at 3am and passed out. We had agreed upon a 5am wakeup to head to Erg Chigaga, some 40km away from Erg Lehoudi.

I awoke to a bright sun…no way it was 5am. I fumbled for my bottle of water, squinted to find my camera, checked the time…it was 6:40am. What had happened?

I saw Mohamed and Catherine strolling on the dunes near camp and headed that way. My leg was sore. We decided to wait for M’bareq, and sure enough, as we were almost at camp, he arrived. A few minutes later, we were off.

The journey to Erg Chigaga is surreal. The desert expands in all directions, without any visible end. The rocks and cliffs and mountains are all exposed vulnerably to the brutal blue sky. Occasional trees stand out like staunch defenders of a land they have forgotten why they are protecting. There are 4WD tracks, but all headed the same way. You come here to pass through, not to stay.

The heat. My god, the heat. I have never experienced anything like this in my life. Cold water becomes hot tea temperature within minutes. Your body craves liquid so much that drinking hot water is pleasurable, necessary. We finally emerged at the foot of tall mountains, which were the sand dunes. It was about 11am. We began to climb up the dunes, which were astonishing. How does so much sand arrive here, and how does it get formed into these mountains with the twists and curves? We walked up the highest sand dune, which must have been at least 300m high, and then it was back down to the small settlement. Inside the mud house was infinitely cooler, and cool well water was brought by the bucketful. I kept wondering why I had come here at this season. But in the same way I enjoyed being in Patagonia in the middle of a blizzard, I could appreciate, I believe, even more this desert in the heat of high summer. You realize that you are nothing. Humans are nothing. We can create cities with buildings high up in the sky, we can fly airplanes, connect to the internet, use telephones, cars, whatever, but ultimately we are animals, weak and helpless, and you better not forget it. Get lost in the desert, or run out of water, and you are dead, no question about it. The desert, since the first time I went in California in 2002, has been the landscape that has most captivated me. It hasn’t changed.

After our break, we drove to another side of the dunes where there is an oasis, and we nested under a huge palm tree. We went to the well where we had our “douche” – buckets of water thrown all over the body, completely clothed, and it was utterly delicious. Soaking wet, you would feel cool for a few minutes, until the sun parched you and you were bone dry again. By 2pm, we had eaten and been told that it was time for a ‘raha’ – siesta, soneca, sieste, nap – one of my favorite words in the world. Like in Marrakesh, the sleep was more a rough collapse awakening with thirst and heat, rather than a gentle snooze.

At around 5pm we headed back towards Erg Chigaga, and by this point I was fully heat exhausted, heat poisoned, all of the above and all I remember of this ride was painful thirst and the group taking care of me, helping me with handkerchiefs soaked in water that needed to be re-wetted every 10 minutes. We arrived back in Tagounnite, and decided to stay the night as all were way too exhausted to carry on any further, and off we were to a campground, where I collapsed into a deep sleep on a mattress in the sand.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Morocco: Marrakesh to Zagora, 22-25 July, 2008 (Written 3 August 2008)

Morocco. It seemed that I was destined to go there. It started because I realized when I arrived in Paris in May that although I was thrilled to be back in Europe, it is, or so I thought at that point, quite homogenous; I wanted something within my 14 weeks that was a truly different experience, an assault on the senses.

So it was that I arrived in Marrakesh at 2am. Amine had come to meet me at the airport, and as we jumped in the taxi to his house, I was literally blown away by the hot wind, even at this hour. The wind blows against you but it heats you, rather than cools you. Little did I know…

We got up at 7am, and I was introduced for the first time to Moroccan breakfast, which can consist of fresh bread, dipped in olive oil, followed by apricot jam. I have never before seen a combination of olive oil and fruit jam, but of course I tried, and I liked it. We headed into town and walked from Ville Nouvelle into the medina.

Marrakesh was, I won’t euphemize…completely disappointing. I have no idea what all the hype is about. The souqs have got nothing on the Middle East wonderlands, there is a lack of atmosphere, and for a city of just a million people, the amount of noise and air pollution is completely unacceptable. The main square that is so often romanticized is Djemaa el-Fna. There are snake charmers playing for cobras, Gnaoua dancers spinning their heads to make the tassels rotate (watching them made me dizzy), orange juice vendors…but for me it didn’t click. However, the two main palaces that we visited DID impress me…the Moroccan tilework, the woodworking, the carvings, and the exquisite architectural design of open rooms opening up onto a central courtyard with a marble fountain…beautiful.

We met a Japanese couple and we set up an appointment to meet that evening. Amine and I went to lunch with his relatives who live in France, and it was a wonderful introduction to Moroccan cuisine. Veal brochettes, a kefta and egg tajine, wonderful tomato salad…

By mid-afternoon it was beyond scorchingly hot and I felt there was little option other than passing out. It was at least 46 degrees…and I don’t mean Fahrenheit. We returned home and I did exactly that, but the sleep I was having in Morocco wasn’t restful, and I would awake drenched in my own sweat and not feeling any less tired than before. Yes, I know, I chose to go to the country in July…

In the evening we returned to Djemaa el-Fna to meet the Japanese couple, and watched as the square transforms into a giant entertainment complex. Hundreds of street vendors come; snail soup, gingerbread, spice tea that is supposedly viagric, kebabs and brochettes and tajines and…of course, the snake charmers, dancers, storytellers, and singers are going full strength and all forcefully demand your dirhams…

Wednesday morning, there was little time to do anything more than prepare my things and head to the bus station. The ride to Zagora was about 8 hours, and the first part of the trip, climbing up through the Atlas Mountains, was breathtakingly beautiful. Green terraced fields, rocky mountains with goats scaling the sides, occasional nomad tents dotting the horizon…

As we descended into Ouarzazate, the temperature climbed again and I began to grow worried. In Marrakesh when I told people I was headed to Zagora, I received bemused looks and occasional chuckles, as they warned, Il fait chaud…for Marrakshis to say this, where it’s averaging 45 degrees now, I thought, uh oh, I really don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into.

Descending even further from Ouarzazate to Zagora, the temperature continued to rise as the landscape grew more desolate. Rocks, pebbles, trees became bushes, bushes became patches of grass, and soon there was nothing green in sight. I arrived in Zagora at 7:30pm and even at this time it was scorchingly hot. I was met and taken to Hamid’s house.

They made me fall in love with Morocco. Hamid is on CouchSurfing, and is a 24 year old Arab born and raised in Zagora. He has this childish, innocent smile that just invites trust. I was brought in and introduced to all the family…and that means a lot of people. He has 5 other siblings, and his 3 sisters have 7 children combined, and then there is his mother, Fatima. With my extremely limited Arabic vocabulary, and their limited French and English vocabularies, we managed to connect and exchange welcomes and thanks and smiles.

Hamid had told me I should try to arrive by that day because the next day there would be the engagement party of his brother. What a day. Baskets of gifts were prepared to bring to the village of the bride-to-be; dried henna, almonds, dates, candy, clothes and other gifts; after the women dressed in their finest kaftans and applied their makeup, using ground stone as eyeliner, the drums arrived. The women either drummed on the instruments or the table, and a wailing chant began, and didn’t stop. The whole way we were in the van for 30 minutes they continued to sing and drum, announcing to everyone along the way of this happy event and the beautiful bride.

We arrived in the village and the singing and dancing continued as we entered into the mud house, women and children in one section, and men in the other. I was embraced by dozens of women who kissed me numerous times, and thus began the day. From what I understood, the majority of the day was sitting in this part of the house and chatting and gossiping, playing music, dancing, and lots, I mean lots, of eating. Brochettes with fresh bread were the first savory item served, following the coconut cookies and various other sweets, of course always accompanied by delicious sweet Moroccan mint tea; and then I watched the people cooking. Lunch was a gorgeous tagine with lamb, and in the afternoon I had my siesta while the kids and women played more drums and sang.

Later on, the young men took me through the palmeraie. The palmeraie is basically a parcel of land that is cultivated near the village where each person, or family in the village, has their own plot of land to grow things on. In this particular palmeraie, the grand majority of production was dates, followed by corn and grass for livestock to eat. If you have only ever had dried dates that you buy in a supermarket, it may come as a shock that fresh dates taste completely different, and I would argue infinitely better than the dried dates. Mustapha climbed up the tree and handpicked dozens of dates of the perfect ripeness, and it was pure joy in our mouths.

The evening continued with more dancing and then I was escorted to a woman’s house, who wanted to show me her house, and we ran across the tiny village. She went to milk her cow, and for the first time in my life (after all I’m a city girl), I watched a cow being milked, and drank the fresh milk straight from the cow. I’m lactose intolerant to some degree, so I kindly declined a large quantity but for cultural sensitivity and curiosity I knew it was important to try the milk, and I was not disappointed – it tastes completely different from what you can buy in a store.

By this time, the sun was going down and I was getting exhausted, so we feasted on the hand rolled couscous and went home to Zagora. I was thrilled, having gotten the opportunity to see a real Moroccan celebration that was completely not contrived, the real thing, and I was allowed into a woman’s space that is seemingly unbreachable.

The next day was spent in Zagora until about 2.30pm when I decided I should try to start heading further south. I had debated about whether I would try to head more into the desert, because I thought maybe it was too hot for me, but I decided that since I had come all this way, I should go, even if it was just one overnight visit. Hamid’s friend Salah had a friend, Hmad, that works as a guide in Tagounnite, so he said I could go there.

Well, Friday is the day of Islam, and most Moroccans are sane and choose not to travel in the midday hours. Not the idiot Japanese girl. The bus and grands taxi station was deserted, as temperatures soared. Finally we had enough people to get into a big taxi and off we went. Desert. The desert is deserted. Definitely.

Espana, oh wait, it's Catalunya - Cadaques and Barcelona, 18-21 July 2008 (Written 3 August 2008)

An early start from Toulon, started off by the lovely Anne-Laure, and I was on my way. A smooth, although slow run down to Figueres. The majority was with one ride, an elderly trucker from Portugal, who took me from Aix-en-Provence all the way to Figueres. One of my best hitching experiences, we cooked together at a truck stop in the South of France; a true Portuguese man, meticulously dicing and chopping and preparing everything with such care. He was extremely kind, and curious, and shared everything with me…as he left me in Spain, he made me take the rest of the bread and juice with me because he claimed I would not know when I would have my next meal (let’s not forget we’re in Western Europe…no shortage of food availability by any means) I had communicated with Enio and knew that there were buses at 7 and 8pm from Figueres to Cadaques, so I decided it was better for me to take this option rather than try to hitch to Cadaques – I was unsure of how much traffic there would be headed that direction, and I’d heard nightmarish stories of hitching in Spain. As I was walking towards Figueres town, a Moroccan guy stopped and I jumped in. I just asked if he could take me to the bus station in Figueres and he asked where my final destination was; he said he didn’t know where Cadaques but he could drive me there. Hmm. Wasn’t sure what to think. So as we sped off to the bus station, time was ticking, and of course it was Friday at 6:40pm, so even in sleepy Figueres there was traffic…I missed the bus. Finally, after forcefully making sure he understood there was no payment of any sort involved, I said he could start me on the road to Cadaques. I got in touch with Enio again and it turned out that he was headed up from Barcelona to Cadaques and had just passed through Figueres. Sheer luck, and we were able to arrange a pick-up/drop-off point just north of Figueres for me. It worked out wonderfully. Minutes later, I was showered with kisses and hugs from the 3 in the car, the Catalan Enio, Argentinean Gernan, and Mexican Amilcar.

The windy road up to Cadaques is gorgeous, breathtaking, and definitely induces carsickness. Switchback roads with green rocky cliffs, tantalizing views of blue sea, and finally, the glimpses of the white town finishing at the water. A lovely stay in town, lazing at the beach and visiting Salvador Dali’s old house in Port Lligat…

We arrived back in Barcelona on Saturday night and went direct to Taina, a steakhouse where Enio used to work and I polished off my 500 gram entrecote and helped out with a few others. Yum.

Sunday was mole poblano at Amilcar’s mother’s house – definitely a treat I hadn’t been expecting – and dinner at Gernan’s restaurant, which was a mouthwatering array of tapas ranging from steak tartare to tuna tataki with guacamole, hummus, calamari, and a huge pot of arroz marinero, seafood rice that I think most people would love, but of course I could barely stomach. No worries though, because there was plenty of wine to wash it down.

Between meals, we visited much of Barcelona by foot, and the city reveals itself to those that wait. It was my third time in Barcelona, and I have to be honest and admit that if it wasn’t for Enio being there, I would probably not return to the city. Spain is one of the countries where despite my fluency in the language, and compatibility with many cultural elements, I’ve never felt drawn to it. However, I recognize the definitely unique ambiance and the sheer beauty of the place. It’s a city where all the senses come alive. Old buildings with laundry hung out the windows; the stench of gutters in the street; graffiti; winding alleyways; it’s this mysterious yet strangely familiar place.

Monday was my tourist morning. I left home at 8am and walked, walked, walked. From Enio’s house near Plaza Catalunya all the way to Parque Guell, which is Antoni Gaudi’s masterpiece in the city. I passed his other famous works, Casa Batllo and La Pedrera, on Passeig de Gracia, and I was yet again astounded by his genius. There is a reason why millions of tourists visit Barcelona each year. The fantastical mÈlange of colors and animals and shapes and nature and function and form and reality…

Passing by the Sagrada Familia, the unfinished massive cathedral that stands out against the city skyline…I was just in time for my lunch appointment with Amilcar. We went to a tiny bar, absolutely crammed with people, where bottles of cava are 2 euros and there is a dizzying array of sandwiches available; lomo con queso, and chorizo…mouthwatering.

Later in the day Enio and I went to La Boqueria, the enormous market located just steps away from his house, and I was thoroughly impressed. I would say that it’s the best food market in Europe that I’ve seen in terms of variety of produce and products from all over the world available…we meandered until I had my final Spanish dinner, and off I was to the airport.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

France (Lyon, Valence, Toulon) 15-17 July 2008 (Written 2 Aug 2008)

Wow, I am so far behind on the blog.

I arrived in France, by TGV, on 15 July. Stepping off the train in Lyon, everything just hit me, so hard. The last time I was here was in 2005, just weeks before I would arrive in Japan. Ah, Japan. Lyon has always been a place where I happen to be in the middle of something...first time in 2003 with Jenny Winston, as I was experiencing my break from university, and then with Lucile and Jean-Charles in 2005...

This time, I was headed to Valence. I arrived, exhausted, at 10.30pm, and Sylvain and Gaelle were there with open arms. Second wave of emotions. I met them in Djenne, Mali, on a dusty Tuesday morning when, yet again, a transformative circle was enveloping me. My personal struggles with my impending move to Japan, difficulties with Abby (we would part ways less than a week later, in Timbuktu), and wow the physical struggles with the heat, the food or lack thereof, the overwhelming stark cultural differences...

Their home is a haven of West Africa. They lived in Senegal for 2 years, in Ziguinchor, where I went after Mali to visit them. In Mali and Senegal I felt they took me in with extra open arms, perhaps because of their awareness of my sensitive nature at the given time...well, either I'm still coming off as a nervous wreck, or they are just simply kind, generous, loving, open, caring people. Amazing. Anyway, in their apartment are heaps of African cloth with bissap to drink and a Malian bogolan on the wall...an enormous collection of African music and photos of their comrades from their time in Africa adorn the walls...

The next day we went to Crest, on the Drome River, and spent the afternoon on this beautiful isolated bend of the river where crystal clear water flows down through cliffs with a mountain view and we picnicked. Perfect.

Sad to go but I was intent on getting to Toulon in time to see Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Pinheiro. It was a quick, easy hitch down with 3 rides, nothing strange at all...it's a cute, small town with a French seaside feel (logical, considering its location), and I spent the afternoon wandering around. Anne-Laure, an absolutely wonderful girl from CS who has a Vietnamese grandmother, was letting me stay and her home just 10 minutes north of the city was a paradise of gardens, East Asian fabrics, fragrances, and tastes from her parents' vegetable garden.

It was time for the show...I arrived not too long before the show would start, and my biggest concern was how I would be able to speak to the group. This is the chance happening that most transformed my experience in Cuba...the day I was asking around so intently in La Habana Vieja for a supposed music practicing studio, didn't find it, gave up, headed towards the Malecon...and walked in on them. I was really lucky in that I saw the group appear and walk into their tent backstage. I quickly ran behind the tent and started waving frantically, hoping to catch the eye of one of the band members inside. And it worked. Raspa, the 61 (maybe now 62) year old lead singer made a face and called over Frank, and then it was a blurry wave of hugs and kisses and exclamations. All 7, with the addition of Frank's brother. Wow...what a reunion. I was pulled in backstage and we had a pre-show shot of Havana Club, true to tradition...exactly what I had been hoping for.

The show was great, the crowd got really into it, and afterwards we sat and chatted for awhile...it was so crazy to think that here I was, in the south of France, meeting up with this band that I met in Havana, Cuba...

We parted ways promising to reunite in Cuba, Japan, or donde sea...

Monday, July 21, 2008

Too Perfect (Switzerland), Written 21 July 2008

14th, July - Monday morning 6am...pouring rain...was I sure about this hitchhiking thing?

Decided to try...after all, it should only take an hour to Lucerne...made my way to where I thought I should place myself (with the help of Maja and Andreas)...soaking wet...no one stopping...10 minutes later, a guy from the north who had to go to a suburb of Lucerne, Kries, for obligatory military training. Pouring rain...he took pity on me, and with his over-punctual Swiss nature, he had 40 minutes to spare, so decided to drive me up to my door in Hergiswil. Amazing.

Seeing Luciana...lovely. We met in Guatemala, in Xela (Quetzaltenango) last December...my memories of her in Guatemala in the days that we explored markets together are that of an enormous love for cheese...all good in my book.

We talked talked talked, and finally went down to Hergiswil village to watch the glass making factory. This is Hergiswil's claim to fame, and indeed, every Swiss person I told that I would go to Hergiswil said, oh, that's where they make the glass...Anyway, it was quite interesting actually.

After alpenmacaron for lunch - macaroni with cream, butter, and cheese, with roasted onions...sounds like a heart attack that Yuri would thoroughly take pleasure in bringing on...I had a nice long siesta, after which the weather cleared up substantially so we went into Lucerne.

Lucerne is packed in summer with hordes of tourists, and it's easy to see why. Gorgeously placed on the river and lake, beautiful old buildings, ringed by snowcapped mountains...we wandered around for a few hours, climbed the city wall, saw monuments, bought chocolate and Lindentorte - delicious raspberry pie...

and went home for raclette, my favorite Swiss dish that I had requested. I was beginning to realize that I love Switzerland but I had to get out soon...the amount of high fat, high calorie things that this nation consumes, yet somehow manages to stay so fit because of all the mountains and gorgeous lakes and active lifestyle...it's really amazing.

Tuesday morning, I was really fortunate and the Keisers gave me a ticket to use the Pilatusbahn, the train that goes up Mt. Pilatus. It's the steepest cog train railway in the world, and this of course means it is no surprise that thousands of tourists flock, especially Japanese who are fascinated with the "world's most-steepest-highest-fastest-_______ whatever". But, the hype was true. Breathtaking views all around, glaciers and snow in the middle of July, while you're on Alpine green fields with cows whose bells you can hear from hundreds of meters away.

Down to Kries, where Silvana kindly drove me to Saarnen so I could start my attempt to get to Valence, France. The first part was smooth...short ride with a guy from Zurich to Brunnig pass, then a honeymooning couple to Ballenwald, a Hungarian girl to Interlaken...then a woman from Interlaken on her way to Spiez for a dentist appointment. At Spiez the problems began. Several locals approached telling me it was really dangerous, and insisted I get off the road, actually taking my luggage with them. I tried to argue and they said no, they were going to call the police. I explained I didn't have money for the train (I had, but didn't want to spend it) and they said no, this doesn't work...etc etc. 5 minutes later the police arrived and deposited me at the train station in Spiez, waiting for me to buy a ticket. I took it a few stops, got off the train, and there were more police, because they probably suspected that I would try to hitch again. So in the end, with all the hassle, and the heat of midday (it was hot!) I conceded and used my credit card to get to Geneva.

In actuality, it was a good experience because I had started to get bored of always explaining my story, my trip, my life, my country, the differences between Asia and Europe, etc...I had forgotten how nice it is to get in a train, sit alone, and listen to music or not and just look out the window and watch the world go by...so it wasn't so bad in the end...

But...arrived in Geneva, contemplated hitching, realized I was done trying for the day, and waited 2 hours to take a TGV (fast French train) to Lyon, where I changed to go to Valence.

Switzerland...people follow the rules...people watch out for each other, i.e. don't mind their own business...the people said, c'est votre affaires, it's your business, but they call the police...it's so painfully beautiful, so perfect, but I don't imagine I could stay for too long...this sensation reminded me very much of Japan and Singapore...but, really, to visit, marvelous and impressive.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Swiss Wonderland (Written 13 July 2008)

I arrived in Zurich by train - the first time I've had to take public transport to my destination since I left the Czech Republic. It was a long, strenuous day with bad weather on the road from Belgium, a few bumps and troubles, nothing major, but finally I arrived in Singen, Germany, and my driver insisted I take the train - it was getting to be night and there wasn't much traffic, and he claimed that hitching in Switzerland is difficult because Swiss people don't like people that don't have money (I simply quote him)

Anyway, I arrived in Zurich at 10.41pm (yes, much much later than I had calculated - I had guesses by 6pm?) - and all the stereotypes of Switzerland seemed to be true - trains exquisitely punctual, clean, everyone is polite, everything is orderly...in a strange way it reminded me of Japan, much more to do with these surface observations rather than the actual culture of the people.

Wonderful, really wonderful, to see Maja and Andreas. Maja had come to Japan to run a marathon in November 2006 and I was her guide in December for two weeks. We had formed a really good bond during those two weeks and it felt like a homecoming in Zurich, even though it was my first time in Switzerland.

Wednesday I lazed about until I met Brodie - what a strange coincidence - I know Brodie from Tokyo, when we lived literally 100m from each other in Nakano, and since then we seem to cross paths quite frequently in Tokyo...about a week ago he sent out a group email that he had arrived in Zurich for the IronMan (yes, he's crazy) - and he would just be hanging out for the next week. I couldn't believe the coincidence (I knew he was going to participate but had no idea of the date) and we arranged to meet up. So, on Wednesday we met at the station, gawked at how expensive the market food was (he resigned himself to a small plate of curry for 15 CHF - about 1550 yen - 15USD), then went to rent bikes. Zurich (and other large cities in Switzerland) has a great program where they are trying to promote eco-tourism and provide jobs for unemployed by renting free bicycles - you need only to leave a 20 franc deposit and the bike is yours for the day! Really great - so we rode around the lake, and ventured down to IronMan Land, as I call the area where it was being hosted, and finally to the Lindt Shop - yes, Lindt chocolate. I believe we spent about an hour poring over every single different variety and flavor and collection and package...I almost succeeded in not getting anything, Brodie had 9 bars of chocolate, including a 300g almond orange dark chocolate one, mmm...and when we were outside and I unlocked the bike, I dashed back inside to get the Summer Edition Strawberry Rhubarb. YUM.

We then rode back to meet Maja at the hospital, and from there we went to El Lokal, a really funky cool international feel bar along the river. There's indoor and outdoor seating and when that fills up, people get their drinks at the bar and then they find a spot along the river. Kind of not what I was expecting in Switzerland. I don't know why. Relaxed, beautiful, laid-back people enjoying sun with their sandals kicked off and smiles all around. Wow.

Thursday I met Raffaella, who I had met in Buenos Aires this March, and we wandered around the old city and finally succeeded in getting my Travellers Check cashed. My signature in my passport is written in Kanji, Japanese script derived from Chinese characters, and on my Travellers Checks I had signed using Latin script. Swiss banks are so go-by-the-rules that I actually was not permitted to change my check, even though I had my passport, a number of Credit/Debit Cards, and student ID etc. Wow. Figured out a way around it though, and I was all cashed up - which means nothing in Switzerland because money disappears like water in this country.

I then met Brodie at Burkliplatz, got bikes, and attempted to ride up the hill in the Southeast of town but I am out of shape and still not a cycling expert (very very far from it) so gave up and instead went to Werdinsel. This is an island very close to the city center, and it's unlike anything I've ever seen in a city before. People are sprawled out in bathing suits. You just jump in the river and the current, which is quite strong, carries you downstream until you come to a roped area with ladders to get out. The river flowing through the city is so clean that you can do this! Wow!

We cycled back along the river, passing the public baths, again packed with beautiful bodies, and then met Maja at Burkliplatz, where she and I had agreed to go for a swim. This area of Zurich is beautiful, and we lounged around with hundreds of others in the sunshine-y evening. Maja had invited me for a barbecue at her friend Denise's house (actually her boyfriend's), and it was really lovely. I felt very engaged and welcomed and comfortable with everyone there and it was a good evening with lots of laughs and great food.

Friday, Carole who I met in Nicaragua and went to Costa Rica with, had the day off so we took a day trip to see the sights around Zurich. Einsiedeln, Schwyz, Brunnen...then swimming at Zug. This day out really made me understand a bit more about Switzerland (at least this part of the country) - it is so clean, so well-organized, so compact, so green...the lake views from Brunnen were among the prettiest I've ever seen in my life...and it's all within easy driving distance of Zurich. Unbelievable.

In the evening, Rebeka who I met in Guatemala (she's Guatemalan and working as an au pair now) came for dinner at Maja's place.

Saturday, horrible weather so lounging about before our evening fondue. Totally different from previous fondues I've had, I was thoroughly impressed, and thoroughly suffering after the meal. 200 grams of cheese per person, splashes of white wine and cherry liquer...what more could you ask for?

And today, we took a trip to Weesen and did a 3 hour hike along the Wallensee to Quinten. A beautiful walk, unfortunately no spectacular views of the tall mountains because of the bad weather, but passing fields full of wildflowers, green forest, all while looking at the glacial blue water wasn't any small pleasure.

They cooked a Zurich specialty for dinner, pork in a mushroom cream sauce, and rosti, which is essentially a giant hash brown with Aromat, the ubiquitous Swiss seasoning which is delicious MSG and onion and various other powders...

Tomorrow I'm off to Lucerne for a day before heading back to France...conclusion is that yes, Switzerland is expensive, but it is really kind of worth it, considering the high quality and the speed and efficiency of everything. I'm almost surprised I never wanted to visit before - this had more to do with the fact that I didn't really have any Swiss friends until I met Maja in 2006 - now that I'm here, I can see myself easily wanting to visit regularly to see more of this breathtaking, small but important nation.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Belgium (and Maastricht!)

I arrived in Belgium on Friday night, 4 July. Was headed to Hasselt, where Harm, who I met in Japan in March 2006 lives. It's a small city, quiet, and really beautiful...

On Saturday morning I awoke at 6.15 because I wanted to help (? - am I capable of this?) Harm's dad - he sells fresh waffles at markets all over Belgium. Unfortunately for me, he had started at around 5am so he was nearly finished when I arrived, but it was good to see the process and learn a bit about what he does and the markets in Belgium. So many different types of waffles! He makes Luikse Waffles, which means that there are sugar pearls in them and no fruits or toppings - there's vanilla extract in the dough. Others include the Brussels waffles which are the ones that are common in North America, with cream and fruit and chocolate or syrup. Yum.

After helping/watching him, I went back to bed until Harm woke me up so that we could go to the market and have a fresh waffle. As in every country, I love fresh fruit and vegetable markets. Belgium is no exception. We were in a small town but the market was crowded. After having some waffles and buying veggies, we headed to Maastricht.

Although I've now been in Holland 6 times, I've never been to Maastricht, and it is a really beautiful, clean, organized city (like everywhere in Holland) that's got a unique, relaxed vibe. We wandered around and satisfied my craving for Bitterballen (delicious deep fried croquette like things) before heading back to Hasselt.

In the afternoon we rode Harm's parents' folding bikes from Kuringen into Hasselt, a lovely ride along the river and wandered around the very compact city center in the drizzling rain.

Back home, and over to Leopoldsburg, where Harm's parents have a small boat that they go to on weekends, and they have people celebrate birthdays and weddings on board as a side business. It's a small canal, but it has a really calm, tranquil feel - the speed limit is, I think, about 10km/hr...ducks are relaxing, a few people walking dogs, a few families on bicycles...peace...and quiet.

We had dinner on the boat and then went for a small sail down the canal, again the brilliant light playing with the shadows made by the leaves...gorgeous.

After this, we got Tinne, Harm's girlfriend, from her house in Beringen and went to a bar. I'm thoroughly impressed by the Belgian beer varieties and had Barbar, a fruity honey beer that didn't disappoint. Long day, very enjoyable.

Sunday started slowly and basically we just had some food (in Belgium you can buy goat cheese wrapped in bacon, that you fry up...umm...dangerous?!) and then Harm took me to the intersection with the road headed for Brussels, since I wanted to hitch to Charleroi. I didn't have much luck on the entrance ramp, so I decided to just walk down to the actual road - I could see that there was a wide shoulder.

Sure enough, within 5 minutes a small white car with 2 guys, one who spoke Flemish, one who spoke French, pulled over. The fact that they could communicate despite the Flemish/French discrepancy made me realize they were foreigners from the same country, and I jumped in. They were 2 Greek guys who lived in Brussels, and the next 45 minutes was Greek music complete with snapping and clapping and it was great. They likened Japanese food to Greek food (many fish! many many fish! Good!) and dropped me off at the exit for the road to Charleroi.

Once I was on the right road, help up the Charleroi sign, and 5 minutes later a French guy got me and drove me to my door in Mt Sur Marchienne, where Stuart and Remo live. What a great time with them - upon arrival I was presented a bread, cheese, and salad array, and soon afterwards we went to Seneffe and the big big dam-like thing that is a container that takes entire boats in, then elevates them 70 meters - largest in the world - to take it to the next river. Remo finally got to cook for me :) - delicious chicken and potatoes - the potatoes with rosemary, oregano, parmesan cheese and other goodies - really delicious...

Monday we did a long day out, visiting Namur, with a beautiful chateau on top of the hill, followed by the Jardins d'Annevoie, a really impressive garden complex with perfect blooming flowers, and I saw black swans for the first time! We then went to Dinant, which is the home of Adolf Sax, who invented the saxophone...we also made a pit stop at Leonidas chocolate, and no one complained. We somehow got the idea to go to Brussels since I'd never actually visited the city, so off we went - to the Atomium, which was built for the 1958 World Fair in Brussels, and then around the downtown historic area, with a magnificent central square. By this time I was exhausted so we went back home, for a lamb chop dinner (fresh from New Zealand!) and tastings of some Belgian beers - my new favorite beer - Hoegaarden Rose - which has raspberries...my god, I could drink that stuff like water...

Hitching Emmeloord to Amsterdam, 29 June 2008 (Written 3 July 2008)

Sunday was a glorious day sailing in Friesland. We left from Zwolle at 10am and by 11am we were checking out the sailboat in Balk.

At around 5pm, we headed back towards home. I had asked to be dropped at a petrol station when our routes split, so we pulled into the Texaco in Emmeloord. Inge had warned that Sundays are empty highways, but it definitely wasn’t the case. I don't think there’s any time in the Netherlands that the roads are empty. Anyway, Corianna ran around asking people for rides and I hung out at the car laughing at her. After a few minutes with no luck, I went to ask for rides too since it seemed that my friends wanted to wait until they saw I was ok.

Went over to a guy alone, buying a Red Bull and asked if he was headed south. He was going to Den Haag and said he could leave me somewhere convenient in Amsterdam. So in I went.

Meet Reza, from Iran, living in the Netherlands for the past 14 years. He is one of the kindest, gentlest, makes-you-feel-comfortable people I’ve ever gotten a ride from. Matches Luis in Brasil (Niko que saudade!) In the next 70 minutes, we spoke of how I keep getting my stupid tourist visa to Iran denied, my love for Persian food (thank you Khatereh), his truck driving job in Holland, how it took him 3 years to learn Dutch well (his English is perfect, he was educated in Iran), my love for Holland, his previous experiences with hitchhikers (he took a Germany guy from NL to Copenhagen), and I got a full intro to contemporary Persian music, of which some scarily resembled Reggaeton (agh – I hope this trend of Reggaeton taking over the world ends – soon).

He offered me his Red Bull several times, I declined, and he took a few of my Kaas Vlinders when I offered.

He pulled over to get out his GPS so that he could type in my destination address, and took me to my door, going really out of his way. Experiences like this are why I love hitching.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Netherlands...oh oh oh I love it here!

The Netherlands captured me on my first visit in 2001, and following that first visit to Amsterdam, I visited the country in May 2003, November 2003, April 2005, October 2005, and this is my 6th visit to this small but dynamic country.

My love for the Netherlands has nothing to do with soft core drugs – initial interest may have been sparked by this, but what has made my interest and admiration stay for this tiny nation is how it manages to sustain what I view as one of the most well integrated, tolerant, progressive socities in the world.

It is true that with the current globalization, there are now increasing numbers of cities where you can observe people that appear to be from all over the globe sharing a common space. In most of Western Europe, North America, and even Australia, you will see many different ethnicities in larger cities. However, over the past year of my traveling, I have strongly begun to feel the lack of integration in many places. Ethnicities are sticking together, rather than identifying themselves as part of the culture that they now live in. It is true that even in the Netherlands there seems to be a growing problem of integration with Moroccans and Turks. There is job discrimination when it’s not allowed, and many of the older generation of immigrants don’t speak Dutch.

However, I don’t know exactly how serious this problem is, and if you were able to put this aspect aside, it is really well integrated. In Amsterdam, Eelco took me to a photo exhibit on a street in the east side of the city. It’s an exhibition called “The World in One street” (Het wereld en een straat? God my Dutch is pathetic) and has portraits of different residents of this one street. Although there are no written descriptions, it is easy to see from the photos that there are Indonesians, Sub-Saharan Africans, North Africans, people from the Middle East, “Dutch” Caucasians, and mixed color families all in the same street. Perhaps you could argue that in the really wealthiest parts of the city you would only find rich whites; but the reality is that in the normal neighborhoods it’s an ethnic mélange that’s managing to work itself out.

Eelco asked me in Amsterdam why I love Holland so much. I proceeded to name my list; I love that the quality of food is very high, especially considering its location towards the north, and that so much food is produced within the country; I love how green it is all over the country; I love that people cycle everywhere; I love that people are liberal and progressive; I love that people are curious. What really makes Holland Holland is the Dutch people.

Talking with Inge about the same topic, she said that the Netherlands is a small country with a small population. Dutch people are aware that in the grand scheme of things, the Netherlands really don’t matter that much. There’s 17 million people in a country you can drive across in 2 hours. Comparing with its neighbors, it’s really insignificant. This makes the people humble, and always looking outward. A large percentage of Dutch travel abroad regularly, and those that don’t are also well-educated and keep up to date on current events around the world. You go in a supermarket (Holland really might have my favorite supermarkets in the world) and you will be able to find food from all over the world, that people are cooking and consuming on a daily basis. Its colonial days are seen in the Surinam and Indonesian food that is widely available.

In the past week in Holland I’ve spent lots of time at home with little kids, a day trip in Friesland sailing with Corianna, Wilko, Inge, and Frank, with a lovely homemade picnic, and a hot chocolate in Sloten. Sloten is one of the dozens of tiny traditional Dutch villages that don’t seem to be changing at all. The government recognizes how important it is to keep these villages intact, with their well-known windmills, cobbled streets, bridges and canals, and they are so picturesque it’s hard to believe that it’s an actual village with people living and working there.

It may have been sheer coincidence nearly 6 years ago when I approached the pair of tired-looking, shabbily dressed Dutch girls in the Galapagos, but what’s made my admiration for this country stay is this unmatched combination of appreciation of what’s available inside and outside of the country.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Jeff Sedevic, 27 June 2008

I met Jeff, Chris, and Lisa Sedevic in May 2007 when they came on tour to Japan. I was blessed to be their guide for two weeks around Honshu. All 3 of them instantly won me over, and they would be my companions for the next two weeks. I was able to develop a special relationship with each individual, and spend lots of time with them alone as well as with others.

Jeff was one of the most positive, optimistic, genuine people I’ve been lucky enough to meet. There are so many moments with him in Japan that I’ll never forget. He was always so generous, and always inviting me to stuff, and expressed gratitude with such honesty. Every day during the tour he thanked me for the great day – even on free days when I wasn’t doing much guiding, he would say that my explanations of the free time options were making their time great. I remember in Nikko and Takayama he said that he would love to come back and spend a few weeks in each place just walking around the hills and exploring the area at a more leisurely pace. He loved the sushi in Hiroshima. He loved red wine. We were in Hiroshima at The Shack, playing pool, and we talked just the two of us about life and what we each, as individual human beings, had an obligation to do – to pursue what we loved and to live with purpose. He certainly did that.

I am grateful that I had already had a trip planned to Australia. Tasmania wasn’t on my itinerary but meeting the Sedevics, I decided to change my route – not only would I be able to visit one of the most beautiful areas of Australia, I would be able to see this wonderful couple again.

I arrived in Launceston in July 2007 and spent 5 days with Jeff and Chris. Even at home, he retained his jovial, directed nature. The days I spent in Tasmania were a highlight of my trip to Oz. I got to spend lots of time with each of them alone, as well as the two of them together. Their breathtaking location on the isolated east coast of Tasmania combined with Chris’s culinary abilities, Jeff’s love of red wine, and their shared love with mine of cheeses was a combination I haven’t experienced often. King Island yogurt and cheese…this was the epitome of it all.

We were able to visit some of Tasmania together and though we encountered rain, the journey to the waterfall and the stop at a farm making cheese was so memorable. Whenever Chris and I went off on our own, we’d get back to the property and Jeff would be out working, with Yuki in tow. He’d come greet us with a big smile and ask about our excursion.

I really can’t believe that he’s gone. I hate to sound patronizing or pretend that I was a big part of their life, considering the short length of time since I met them, as well as the short amount of time we’d spent together. What I can say with honesty though, is that I really believed that there would be many more times that we would spend together – we lightly discussed a big road trip across Australia, and certainly discussed them coming back to Japan.

I hope that the Sedevics do remain a part of my life, and from here on forward anytime we are together in body or spirit, we are sharing our love and experience with Jeff and will always remember him with pure hearts.

Berlin to NL, written 26 June 2008

A slow start in the morning, breakfast in the flat…finally left home around 11am, and by the time I found the petrol station in Nikolassee it was noon.

There was a German guy trying to head south to Numberg and I chatted with him, and we agreed to help each other get rides if possible. I got him a lift with a Polish couple, and he got me my ride heading west.

We were on the autobahn at 12.22. Anmon was an Israeli who came to Germany 36 years ago and had been based in Koln since then. Fast, smooth ride, interesting conversation as he is a gaffer, meaning he controls light for film production, and he has been in Germany long enough to be able to tell me things about it as an outsider that isn’t so new to the scene. Really kind, and as we stopped for his lunch in Hannover we checked out a map and he took me to the closest petrol station to where we would be splitting ways, as he was headed south towards Dortmund to get to Koln.

He dropped me off, and as I was getting my bearings looking for NL plates, I decided to go to a young guy in an Audi with German plates. He was headed to Munster but knew of a good place to drop me before Osnabruck where many people would be heading to the Netherlands. So 10 minutes after arriving at the petrol station, off I was.

A bit of roadworks meant delays but arrived no problems, and asked around but it was more difficult as people were either going short distances or had no space in their cars.

Then a heavily tattooed guy in an Alfa Romeo approached me and said he could take me to Enschede. So 10 minutes after arriving at the petrol station, off I was. Well, I’ll preface by saying it was probably the worst lift I’ve ever gotten. That said, it really wasn't that bad. He was blaring electronic music, but that deep house trance stuff that I really can’t stand, and it was a fully loaded Bose speaker car, so I was getting a headache. That was ok, because I kept talking to him so that he had to turn down the volume to hear me. Then, when we were approaching Enschede I sent a message to Lillian, Marion’s sister, who works in Enschede, and we agreed to meet at the Grolsch factory. I asked the driver if he knew where this was, and he said he did, no problems, we would be there in 10 minutes. Well, he proceeded to drive around in circles, refusing to ask for directions, and 30 minutes later we call Lillian, he’s upset because he’s wondering why she can’t meet me in the city center etc etc. In the end, he still refused to ask for directions and I told him I didn't want to waste any more of his time so I got out at the Politie, police station, and apologized to both him and Lillian and waited for her to arrive. Turned out just fine in the end, though I did feel quite bad about the whole situation.

We arrived in Zwolle just after 7pm, so really good time for the whole journey, went straight to the Brederostraat where I’ve been visiting Marion and Onne since 2003, and I was back home.

Berlin, Written 26 June 2008

I’ve never been interested in Germany. I don’t really know why, considering I’m someone that’s interested in places I don’t even know I’m interested in. For some reason, it’s never drawn me. So when I met Arnaud in Japan a few years ago, a French illustrator living in Berlin, it was really the first time I’d given it any thought. But I still wasn’t convinced. During my trip planning, I asked if it would be possible to meet in France…but no, so it was decided: I would go to Berlin.

Perhaps the lack of expectations and the complete ignorance with which I entered the city was what made my experience utterly rich and incomparably genuine. After I arrived from my long hitch from the Czech Republic through Poland to get to Friedrichshain, we directly left to catch the last bits of light and did a big loop through the area, walking about 2 hours. What I saw; electronic music blaring in the park with small groups of people dancing unabashedly (reminded me of Lapa), little makeshift barbecues in the park, trash on the ground, graffiti all over the walls (much of it unimpressive), people wearing all different colors and styles and hairstyles and makeup, lots of green, people jogging, cycling, walking…in a nutshell, nothing that I thought Germany exemplified.

Monday morning – to Arnaud’s QG – quartier generale – Tres Cabezas y un Amigo, a small café with lounge chairs in front. Armed with an acai power and a sandwich, I sat and read Japanese children’s books. What? Yeah, it was great. Probably from too much adrenaline, the previous night I hadn’t slept until 5.30am, so after breakfast I had a little siesta, then did my first research about Berlin until Arnaud was ready for his lunch break. We walked to Nil, a Sudanese restaurant where I had a big vegan platter for 4 euros…a little ice cream and coffee break for him after, and then we were off on our ways.

I went down to Kreuzberg and walked along the river westward for awhile, before heading up to Jannowitzbrucke to meet Fernanda. We went to one of the famous beach bars, where there are spots along the river where people actually set up sand and beach chairs, ping pong tables and volleyball nets, and there’s music and drinks. Not too bad, if you have to be stuck in a concrete city nowhere near the ocean.

We then spent a few hours with Marius wandering around, checking out different bars and areas – this is one of the things that really made me fall in love with Berlin. Everywhere you go, there’s some hidden doorway or alleyway that looks like it holds nothing, but once you walk in, this whole new vista is opened up to you…it’s pretty special.

We ended up in Warschauerstrasse at a great little bar with old furniture from the Communist Era, and had currywurst and kofta kebap thrown in – the most commonly eaten foods in Berlin today, I imagine.

Tuesday I was determined to be a good tourist so after a leisurely breakfast off I went – headed to Museumsinsel, Museum Island, where 4 of the important state-owned museums are located. There is a great-value 3-day museum pass which allows entry into all the state-owned museums for 3 consecutive days – if you have a student ID it’s only 9.5 euros. Fabulous deal.

So I wandered around the museums there, and was really impressed the Alte Nationalgalerie collection as well as the Islamic Art in the Pergamon Museum. The replicas of Assyria and Aleppo made me shiver, and really brought back strongly the sensation of wanting to go back to these places.

I went to meet Eva, who I had met in Laos in February 2007. She had been reading 1984 and I started speaking to her on a hostel veranda in Vientiane, almost instantly the topic of Burma came up, and within hours I had convinced her to head up to Ponsavanh with me. So we shared this huge mezze platter at a Lebanese spot in Kreuzberg, then went to meet Fernanda in Jannowitzbrucke. Turned out we were headed back to Kreuzberg for the Turkish market.

WOW. WOW. Wow. Along the river in Kreuzberg, the Turkish market represents for me, what Europe may look like on a much larger scale in not too much more time. Kreuzbeg has the third largest Turkish colony outside of Turkey, and it is really apparent when you go to this market. Turkish men have produce at impossibly cheap prices, calling out in German and Turkish…Turkish women roll their wheeled carts through the street paying no heed to others, rolling over feet and bags and whatever else may be in their way without a second thought. It was really a fabulous market, and even though I was leaving Berlin in less than 2 days, I somehow ended up with a lot of fruit and vegetables. I mean, 5 avocados for 1 euro…there was manioc…I couldn't help it. This small area of Berlin exhibited so much life and energy and vitality…it was really amazing.

Eva and I continued to Gorlitzer Park, apparently the druggie park of Berlin. Shirtless muscled guys practicing hakky sak in one corner, lots of black people hanging around the park, the scent of burning cannabis lingering in the air…there are some bare grassy areas where people lounge, and that’s where we hung out until Arnaud came to meet us.

Pizza and ice cream, then to Mobel Olfe, a gay bar that totally welcomes heterosexuals and is quirky, eclectic, laid-back, and extremely comfortable. I was quickly being won over by this city which has obviously been strongly affected by its impossibly complex history of the past century yet looks forward unabashedly and does it with confidence and style.

Wednesday I did more museums – Potsdamerplatz area, over to the Brucke Museum, and the Gemaldegalerie…then to the C/O Galerie in Oranienburgstrasse, which was displaying easily the most emotional exhibition I’ve seen in the past year. A series of photos with captions about the condition of women in India, specifically in Delhi – I felt the blood in my body moving again. I’d forgotten that feeling.

A quick meeting with Eva in Kreuzberg in a floating bar while the streets raged with the Germany vs Turkey Euro Championship game, and a relaxed cooking evening. All good.

So what is Berlin? Charming, unexpected, green, wild, evolving, laid-back, relaxed, creative, open, cultured, inexpensive, and extremely welcoming. 10/10.

Czech Food

I recognize that Patrik and Jitka are atypical Czechs. They are extremely liberal and open-minded, have traveled quite extensively, and lived in the UK and New Zealand. Their diets are not representative of what most Czechs eat – they are aware of the fact that they eat much more fruits and vegetables, and try to cut down on meat.

But, a lot of the food culture seems to have remained intact in the Czech Republic. The concept of seasonal foods seems to be strong – right now, it is strawberry and cauliflower season. This means that you can get these items for cheaper, it’s fresher, and tastier. They concede that in the wintertime, now you can get things from all over the world and maybe they’re not as fresh or cheap, but they are available. But I would say that in many parts of the world, the concept of eating produce that’s locally in season has been lost. Today walking back from Patrik’s parents’ flat, we passed a number of people on the street selling buckets of strawberries that looked gorgeous. Tasting the produce, it doesn’t taste altered; they are sweet and tart and all taste slightly different and look different – size, color, shape, all vary a little…that’s real food.

Ostrava and mountains, written 26 June 2008

Friday and Saturday in the Czech Republic were fantastic. Since the country is so compact, you are never far from the mountains; it’s landlocked, so you’re never near the sea but being near the green mountains is really special. We visited a few different spots in the mountains and did a few walks that really gave perspective on the beauty and relatively undeveloped nature of the country. We had a great meal on the top of Radegast, beef with a gorgeous sauce made of celery, garlic, onion, celery, and cream, and I finally tried the ubiquitous dumplings. With, of course, a glass of beer – the beer culture in the Czech Republic won me over, 100 percent. I’m enamored with this nation that cherishes their beer, but really with passion.

Friday evening we got back and Patrik and I directly went to a French Music Festival in the park where I mingled with various Czech and French people, it was definitely a relaxed vibe and a good time – thought the French techno left much to be desired for my taste.

Saturday I went with Jitka to the market where there was a decent variety of fresh produce, then we were off to the mountains again with a few of their friends. We took the wrong path up the hill but it was still an enjoyable walk. I was yet again presented with my conundrum of meeting people, and them taking awhile to open up to me…but I’ve definitely gotten better with this, and have learned to slow down, relax, and just let it happen.

Jitka was lovely and made me my requested mushrooms in sour cream, delicious, and in the evening we did a sushi and yakitori party…and it was tasty.

I have so much gratitude to Patrik and Jitka and all their friends for taking the time and energy to teach me so much about their unique country and to show me and share with me so many things I would never have otherwise had the opportunity to experience.

Olomouc to Ostrava, written 20 June 2008

I headed off at around 8.15am, and followed the instructions I’d been given. I walked to the main railroad station, got the tram heading out of the city, walked under the pedestrian walkway to get to the main bus station, and headed north. Crossed the big junction, and since I had seen a petrol station icon on the map Anna showed me, decided to walk a few hundred meters further north. Got to the station, asked around and no one was headed to Ostrava. So I decided to jump on the side of the road and got out my Ostrava sign…and within 30 seconds, a truck had pulled over.

Well, there was really no communication whatsoever. Do you speak English? Ne. Lots of very quickly spoken Czech, me laughing openly at how ridiculous this situation was going to be, but we managed to say Ostrava, nod fervently, and off we went. I texted Patrik asking how I said in Czech, “I’m headed to Vyskovice but you can leave me anywhere in Ostrava”. He replied, and I tried my very best to pronouce the multiple consonants and keeping in mind the different pronunciations of different letters in Czech, and he nodded with a smile. He was a bit older, perhaps late 40’s, and had a fully equipped truck. 2 cell phones, DVD player (which remained turned off), a fancy GPS, coffee maker, random cutlery lying about…the ride to Ostrava was quick, passing through more poppy fields and farmland, and before I knew it we were reaching city limits. He pulled into the parking lot of Hotel Vista and told me I was 1km from the center of Vyskovice. He was headed to Frydek Mistek, so had gone out of his way to drop me as near as was reasonable to Vyskovice. I thanked him a lot and then I was in the parking lot. Went into the hotel, found out the address, texted Patrik, and within 15 minutes I was getting a big hug.

I arrived at 10.30am at their house, which means I made fantastic time from Olomouc and more than made up for my slightly more frustrating run the previous day. Their home feels like…home. It’s lovely. They keep saying how small it is and they’re sorry etc etc but it’s really wonderful here. It feels a bit country in a way, lots of window light and high ceilings and earthy furniture – lots of wood and bright red sofa, potholders, aprons with plums on them…it’s like where I would imagine Little Red Riding Hood to have lived hundreds of years ago. It’s super kawaii. So we had a gorgeous lunch of slightly breaded cauliflower and vegetable soup, potatoes with delicious butter, and fresh green salad – which I haven’t seen thus far in the Czech Republic…then I had my siesta…

In the afternoon we went for a walk in Bialsky Les, a small parkland just outside of their home, where you feel instantly in the woods and it’s not crowded but there are a few kids riding their bikes and mothers pushing their strollers. I asked dozens of questions to Patrik and Jitka and loved what I’ve learned.

They claim that you can recognize Czechs by their lack of style; socks with sandals and completely unmatching clothes. I’m much more than this fascinated by how the country worked under communism and how it’s changed so quickly, yet at the same time holding on to some of their roots perhaps? For example, the health care system and unemployment benefits. I’m equally amazed that nobody questions how the fall of the Soviet Union came about. They know the date – November 17, 1989, but they don’t know what happened, who caused it, why it happened in Prague and simultaneously in capitals all over the Eastern Bloc, and why it switched over so quickly. They say the system has changed but the people have stayed. No one was ever prosecuted for the crimes they committed during Soviet rule. They say perhaps no one asks for details because they are all happy the change happened; they don’t need to know how it came about. They say it’s all a game, and it was time to change.

The housing system is really interesting. They technically don’t own the flat that they live in but instead, Jitka is a member of the group of tenants in the building. So you buy a spot in this group (remnants of communism) – and she can sell her spot to somebody else. But that does not mean she is selling the property itself, since it is owned by a company. If you want to actually own a flat and be its proprietor, it is much more expensive and not common. This is a completely different system to anything I’ve ever heard of before (unless I’ve forgotten which is always a possibility). However, they have made changes in the apartment, i.e. flooring, painting, taking out the sink in the bathroom to put in a washing machine – without permission, although technically they are supposed to have any changes approved.

Anyway, Patrik went to karate and Jitka and I went to the city centre to meet her fellow English students – she had just finished her course. So we sat at a pivnice, had a pilsner, and I learned how to count in Czech, swear in Czech, and some basic other necessities like toilets – the day before when asking at the petrol station outside Brno where the toilet was, I had to resort to Damy (women, as is written on the door by the women’s toilet – I remembered this from Prague) – and making a peeing sound. I got laughed at but it worked. Now I know how to ask properly, which is probably a good thing.

After this, Jitka and I walked around the city centre, which was eerily quiet. It was a Thursday evening around 7.30pm, but since all the buildings are offices and retail shops, there is very little reason for anyone to go there after working hours. She said they’re trying to revitalize the centre but there’s really no way to get people to go there. It was strange. Beautiful buildings and nice atmosphere but quiet.

We caught the tram to meet Patrik and their friend from orchestra, Hanser (sp?) at Pizzerie Jerek, where I enjoyed my first dark Czech beer which I loved, it’s almost like caramel…I might be converted. Then had a pizza with mushrooms, mmmm. I love the curiosity of the Czechs in this case too, it took awhile before anyone started asking me questions about Japan and culture and scenery and prices and hotels and travel and people, but when they start, they are so inquisitive, I love it.

We went to stay overnight at Patrik’s parents’ flat because they’re away on holiday and there’s more room there (I don't think they realize by Tokyo standards their flat is enormous) and here I am now, hopefully pretty soon we will go to play in the mountains.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Prague to Olomouc, Written 19 June 2008

My last evening in Prague was fantastic. A small pub drilling out some low key drum and bass (that seems like an oxymoron) with a student feel, lots of younger Czechs exhibiting different clothing and hair styles, just having a good time. It’s pretty mellow but fun is definitely on the agenda…

I really enjoyed my time with Jaroslav, our conversation meandered from Southeast Asia to Japanese and Korean film to growing up in communism to canoeing in the Czech Republic to hitchhiking horror stories…I really wish I could have stayed longer in Prague. I have a feeling I’ll be back.

Wednesday morning I got a relatively lazy start to my day and headed off to the hitchhiking spot listed in hitchwiki. Metro from I.P. Pavlova to Opatov, and found the right bus to get to K Suvoku. It was just a 9 minute bus ride from the metro station, but…it was miles away. Getting off in Suvoku, the only establishments were some pivnice (beer houses) and restauraces…green green green, with red roofs and white houses scattered about. I really was astonished that so close to central Prague I felt completely in the countryside. Not like the suburban sprawl of Tokyo, obviously, but not even like the sprawl in France, or England…lovely.

I got to the petrol station, asked around for a ride to Brno at the McDonald’s, no one was headed that way, so I decided to use the restroom, then went out to the lot again, and asked the only person that had arrived in that timeframe. He was headed to Bratislava but agreed to take me, so off I was. First ride of the day took 7 minutes to catch.

A German couple who were headed to Bratislava because he races motorbikes for BMW. They had a decked out van with a trailer behind for his motorbikes. DVD Player was blasting Dire Straits and Rory Gallagher concerts, and he was winding adventurously through traffic considering the size of his vehicle and trailer. Lovely couple, he has a used clothing company in Germany and he distributes used clothes to Africa and Eastern Europe. He regularly heads off on trips to ride his bike around West Africa and Eastern Europe. She barely spoke English but lots of smiles…a great ride.

We were chatting too much and we missed the last petrol station before the road split, me wanting to head north to Olomouc, them heading south to Bratislava. So I asked to get let off at the next petrol station, which unfortunately was headed in the wrong direction. We sat and had a coffee and I decided I would wait optimistically since there was a turnaround point, but it didn't work. The sun was beating down and after 1.5 hours, I decided my approach would be to catch a bus back into Brno and then try and find a good spot to hitch from. If I couldn’t, I would catch a bus or train to Olomouc.

Went up to a guy who spoke no English, so he wrote on a sheet of paper the bus number I was looking for and gave me very detailed directions, none of which I understood, as to where I could catch that bus. I signaled in the direction away from him, and he nodded yes, and I’m thinking, hmm that is a lot less complicated than what you just blurted at me. Anyway, thanked him and headed on my way.

10 minutes later, totally confused as to where I am, no bus stops to be seen, and wander into the IKEA parking lot where I meet David. He is playing with his son in the parking lot trying to put things in the trunk and I ask him if he can tell me where the bus is. I show him the number 67 and he says, oh, Brno centrum. I say yes, and he says, if you want I can take you there. Of course I oblige, and then I meet Christopher, his 2.5 year old son. When Christopher is told to greet me, he says ahoj with no hesitation, but when he realizes I’m getting in the car with them, his eyes widen and his lips draw shut. I’m told by David that he has just gone over talking with him about how he should be careful of strangers. Go figure.

Anyway, we chat on the way back to Brno, about his travels in Korea and Vietnam for 8 months, how he doesn't like Czech people because they’re grumpy (all Czech people say this yet they’re all smiley…strange strange people)…and we go around Brno for a bit before I get let off at the bus station.

Turns out I missed the bus by…2 minutes. Next one is in…2 hours. I decide to go over to the bus stop anyway, and find the one person in the line who speaks English and he tells me in fact there is a bus in 5 minutes headed to Olomouc. I’m suspicious but stick around (what options do I have at this point?!) The bus driver arrives and I’m told that in fact he isn’t going all the way to Olomouc – only to Prostejov. But it appears that’s on the way to Olomouc so I think why not, I don't want to stick around the bus terminal for the next 2 hours.

What a gorgeous ride. Czech countryside is…rolling poppy fields, bright floating white that looks like cotton balls swaying in the grass…yellow flowers dotting the landscape…castles popping out on the horizon…tiny, tiny villages with elderly Czechs riding on their bicycles with bags of potatoes strapped to their bikes…

I arrived in Prostejov…I can bet that tourists aren’t common there…the bus timetables in the Czech Republic make no sense whatsoever. So imagine the scene: the place names are listed vertically; Brno, Prostejov, Olomouc, Ostrava. Then the times listed next to them are listed, but they’re going reverse – therefore counter-intuitively, you’re actually looking at a bus that’s going from Ostrava to Brno. This happened many times on the chart, but also sometimes there were schedules for buses that were indeed going from Brno to Ostrava. So many different columns for km traveled, price, time, special holiday time, etc etc…it was a big mess. I pondered over the schedule with a lovely girl from Olomouc and finally she said that she thought there would be a bus in 15 minutes, and if there wasn’t, there was a train in half an hour. Prostejov was a small town that felt like most small almost-countryside towns feel, and it was great to watch the people going by.

We did get the bus at 17.45, and rather than go the 20km direct to Olomouc, it went on windy countryside roads to get to Olseny to drop people off. The public transport in the Czech Republic is impressive; punctual, affordable, numerous, with good connections, clean, and safe. I’m a big fan of countries with good public transport so this is greatly augmenting my impression of this place.

I arrived in Olomouc and watching the names of the bus stops clearly written, realized I was in Fakultni nemocnice, where Petra had told me to get off to catch the tram. I did so, and arrived in the city centre shortly thereafter. She came to meet me and we went to the Good Tea Room ( in Czech) – another small (or not so small) detail of Czech life that I’ve quickly grown fond of.

Tea Rooms are increasingly common in the Czech Republic. Basically, they’re smaller dim-lit establishments where there are tables with chairs, or there’s a separate area with cushions and you sit on the ground without shoes. There’s a separate room for nargileh/sheesha. The walls are covered with various photographs relating to tea; perhaps of plantations around the world with the locals involved, or just portraits of locals from areas that grow tea, and there are trinkets, mostly of an Asian feel – bamboo window coverings and small lamps and candle holders. It’s supremely relaxing, of course added to by the fact that you’ve got this book-thick menu to peruse through with descriptions of tea from hundreds of regions around the world, talking about their histories and their distinctive tastes and purposes and functions.

I left the tea room after awhile to take some twilight photos around Olomouc and loved the feel of the empty streets in contrast to the lively pivnices around town. It’s got a completely different feel to Prague, and though I did see a few guesthouses dotted around, it seems to remain largely unspoiled by tourism as of yet.

I had my first Czech meal in a pub and enjoyed it – Pepin’s pork with mushrooms on rice. I went back to meet Petra and company and then we moved back to the pub I had eaten at, joined by some biology professors from the university. I think the Czechs are extremely friendly people once the initial interaction is made; maybe breaking the ice seems more difficult or awkward, but they’re really lovely people.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Ostrava to Berlin, 22 June 2008

7am...the alarm that was set for 6.45am didn't go off...oh well. Got dressed, brushed teeth...walked back to Patrik and Jitka's flat from his parents' place. Packed my bags, got my food...

Patrik drove me all the way to the Polish border. What a nice guy. Really.

No cars. Either direction. Arrived at the border at 8.30am.

I had my highlighted maps, and I was trying to take the 45 to Raciborz to hit the autobahn...after about 30 minutes, a Czech car stopped. No common language, jumped in, and realized they were going to Rybnik - not where I wanted. So they let me out and I was back to square one.

Walked to the starting point of the 45, found a shady spot, waited half an hour, then decided maybe I had better rethink my route. After all, my map showed Rybnik in all capital letters (perhaps indicating a larger town?)...so went back to the main road.

I was getting a little frustrated, mostly just because I was surprised at the lack of traffic, but looked around and thought to myself that being stuck in this gorgeous countryside with bright blue sky wasn't the worst situation I could be in. An army truck with two officers came to check my passport and were totally amused that I had ended up there. They said they could take me to the train station...

About 10 minutes later, a guy pulled over and said he could take me to Rybnik. Jumped in. In Rybnik, about 20 minutes after he picked me up, he left me at a bus stop and after about 10 minutes I got a ride from a guy who was headed to Zory but said he could take me towards Gliwice. So about 20 minutes with him, and he left me 2km from the autobahn. 5 minutes til a young guy stopped and took me to the entrance of the autobahn...

By this time it was about 10.45am and I had gone about 60km...15 minutes later, a car with two guys stopped and agreed to take me to Opole...this was 80km away so I was pretty happy to jump in. They left me at the exit to Opole, and in less than 10 minutes, at 11.50am, a big truck transporting beer stopped. I was in luck - I thought my next stop would be Wroclaw, but he was headed further, to Legnica. Slow pace but comfy ride, so I had my lunch and a little snooze. I got to see a lot of the Polish countryside with him...church roofs dotted the landscape and cute countryside homes, lots of green and fields full of yellow flowers...He left me at a petrol station on the side of the road and I asked around with no luck...

So got on the road, and about 10 minutes later a construction worker stopped. No smile or anything but he had the kindest eyes I've seen in a long time. No communication whatsoever so he pulled over and showed me on the map that he wasn't headed to Berlin - he had to drive west across Germany. I was torn about what to do, since I was really excited about the idea of getting this long ride, but it wasn't exactly where I had wanted to go...but I decided to take it, and showed him that I wanted to get off at Dresden. He said ok and off we were.

What I had failed to realize was that indeed the roads in Poland aren't exactly what we can call highways. The A4 that I had been on, which goes straight to Berlin, WAS a proper highway, but the route I went with the construction worker wasn't. It passed through beautiful countryside though, so no complaints. Plus I was comfortable enough to have a short snooze. We stopped for some lunch and I had my only Polish meal, and all smooth til the turnoff for Berlin. Throughout the day just looking at all the signs and menus and things in Polish, I realized just how foreign this language was. So many multiple consonants together which seemingly made no sense to me at all, and the pronunciation seemed impossible to decipher.

Unfortunately, there were no service stations near this spot so I had to walk the exit (luckily in Germany there's a huge shoulder) and stood...it's not ideal to hitch on the autobahn in Germany since the cars are going so fast - they don't have time to stop. But I had no choice...and in less than 10 minutes a Citroen stopped, I ran up to them, and I was on my way - direct to Berlin.

This couple was lovely, and they had both grown up in East Germany and loved all the questions I was throwing at them. We talked about the wall and they showed me old maps of Berlin and how the underground used to stop at the Western border...about traditional German food and different beers...about what I perceive as the differences between Europe and Japan...

They were in their late 40's, so they really lived through the communist times. It was like having my own private interviewees for 1.5 hours. (Unfortunately, until this ride, the whole day I hadn't been able to speak to my drivers because of language barriers...)

They totally coincidentally live about 15 minutes drive from Arnaud...so they said they could take me to the S-Bahn station nearest his house...and then proceeded to drive me to his door. So my total cost was 0 for transport today because lovely Patrik started me off and this couple took me to the final destination, meaning I didn't pay for public transport even once.

According to google and Michelin, the original route I wanted would have taken 6 hours and 10 minutes from Ostrava to Berlin. Add in lunch and fuel refills and realistically, driving straight through in a passenger car, it would have been 7 hours. Changing the route as I did, to go to Rybnik instead of Raciborz, and Dresden instead of Cottbus, it should have taken about 8 hours and 15 minutes. So adding in my lunch stop, and factoring in the slow speed of the truck driver, I did fantastically well to arrive in just over 10 hours.

Exhausted but happy and glad to have done the trip. I was really impressed by how kind the drivers were about taking me to the best spot convenient for both of us, and how much they tried to communicate with me.