A Travellerspoint blog

I'm Not Lost, I'm in the Balkans

But could someone please tell me how to get out of here?

When Jenni and I began planning this trip, we had the romantic notion of buying our first plane ticket west, then setting out with no plans but to make it around the world. That idea quickly hit the bricks when we discovered that the first stand alone, one-way ticket to Fiji was nearly the same price as an entire preset itinerary around the world. So we did our best to estimate our costs, calculate our time abroad, and pick our major points. But hey, this still left us weeks in between jet rides to be footloose and fancy free.

Quickly however, every ill-defined interval seemed to become well-defined. In Fiji, we took excursions. In Sydney, we were hosted by friends. In Bali, we stayed put to soak up the Yoga Barn. And in India (*gasp*) we signed up for a tour. There were few spur of the moment decisions; mostly it felt like things were preplanned and then executed.

At last we flew to Europe. After visiting Istanbul, we set our eye on Dubrovnic. We knew we were going to cross the Balkans overland, but could find very little info before we left on how to do it. We decided that if worse came to worse, we could buy a spur-of-the-moment airline ticket and get airlifted out.

In Istanbul, we bought our first bus ticket to Plovdiv, Bulgaria. No one in Istanbul could tell us how to get from Plovdiv to Sofia, but assured us the folks in Plovdiv could get us sorted. And it was true: at each city, we would be set up for the next leg of the journey, and promised that the following step would be competantly dealt with when we got to where we were going. We were finally doing it: no planning except in the very moment, hopping day-by-day, bus ride-by-bus ride across southeastern Europe.

It is very exciting and very romantic. That is, until you arrive at a bus station at 3 am, with no place to stay, no ticket onward, and no one available to help you. After you have been up for 12 hours on a bus. And need to stay awake for 4 more hours, until the bus station opens. Guarding your bags. In the cold. With no food but an overly-salty bag of almonds. And no water, because you finished that 6 hours ago. Which is good, because you already have to pee, the toilets cost money, and you just arrived in a new country and have none of the local currency.

In the end though (once you have slept, peed, and bought a new bus ticket), you find yourself someplace you had not planned to be. In all likelihood it is also someplace you would have never dreamed to say (in Chicago) "let's go there." It is very exciting, but a lot of work. Every few days we experienced a new language, a new alphabet(!), a new currency, and a new city. By the time we had figured things out, it was time to move on. It wasn't exactly what we wanted to do, but discovered the next bus out might only run two or three times per week. And we do have a time table of getting to Sancerre by the beginning of May.

The pay off, however, can be extraordinary. You step out of a hotel you found by chance that has a decent bed and a enthusiatic staff. You walk down to the main square of a city you had never heard of before and still cannot pronounce the name of. You stroll into a place for lunch, and discover a local cuisine and wine from autochthonous grapes. And you discover a culture that, until now, had been an obscure footnote in your history and anthropology classes. It is overwhelming enough to make you smile like an idiot, act as giddy as a virgin, and want to cry in sheer delight.

We did finally make it to Dubrovnic, and settled in for five days of well-deserved shacking up. But in between we discoved the mountainous Balkan landscape, the countries of Bulgaria and Macedonia, and the delightful cities of Plovdiv, Sofia, Skopje, and Ohrid. Writing it all down makes it seem like it was a small achievement, but in the moment it was tiring, confusing, and frustrating. And absolutely worth it.

Posted by Stravaigin 00:31 Comments (0)

Turkish Delight

A Europhile Comes Home

Europe. Ahhhhhhh. The moment I set foot in Istanbul I suddenly felt like I knew this place. Istanbul has been fun and beautiful, and has set both of us more at ease than we have felt in awhile. It has also allowed us to return to some of the things we know and enjoy as part of our routines: a good cup of coffee, a glass of wine with dinner, and even the unexpected pleasure of returning to the flavors of western herbs and olive oil!

Despite being a Muslim country, there is no overriding religious tones. The buildings are mosques rather than cathedrals, but you could leave it at that if you want. We, of course, are exploring more, but it is not like India and Bali.

In both of those countries, religion is daily life. Every morning in Bali, we watched the entrepreneurs place out the day's offerings: one on an altar for the good spirits, and one on the ground for evil spirits. When we remarked how friendly everyone was, we were told they have to be...poor manners would bring bad karma, so a smile and warm greeting was nearly a religious necessity. All of this piety did have its price, however; the Balinese spend every spare dollar glamourizing thier temples, to the detriment of maintaining thier homes and public infrastructure. The current generation has begun to question these practices, wanting to spend thier hard-earned money elsewhere.

In India, the differences went even deeper. Indian ideas of family are very strong, and despite seeming to want a western life, eveything about us is anathema to them. Arranged marriage is the norm, and despite a brief shift in that ideal, arranged marriage is returning to the fore. Family arrangements extend over generations: much of the family's earning are tucked away, and only parted with in the most dire of circumsatnces. Conspicuous consumtion is not typical. Moreover, if a family wants to sell something, the child must give his permission for his parents to sell the grandparent's possessions. And, of course, child rearing is the end-all, be-all of family life. As one man put it, a child is the principle, a grandchild is the interest, in the investment of marriage. When people asked if we had children, we learned to say "not yet," rather than "never." The idea of marriage without children only earned us looks of incomprehension, or even pity. And don't even mention the idea that we lived together before marriage!

We are on our last continent; it's hard to believe the trip is beginning to wind down. I'm looking forward to several weeks of "easy" travel, enjoying southern Europe. We have already decided that Turkey deserves a more comprehensive trip, but we need to keep pushing west. Bulgaria, here we come!

Posted by Stravaigin 02:42 Comments (0)

My Indian Mountain

and the Cliffs of Culture Shock

Everyone tells you that travelling to India is going to be a shock for a Westerner. You'll see cows in the street, suffer from the food, be appalled by the poverty, and never have toilet paper. Well, much of it is true.

For me, the cows and poverty were easier to take. And I love Indian food and have always had TP in the room. What devestated me was the trash, dust, noise, crowding, and poor hygene of the city of Delhi. Our first two days were spent in Delhi and New Delhi, and they were miserable. Cars honking constantly, the stink of urine on the pavement, a constant pall of dust in the air, and a barrage of people whose sole motivation seemed to be to deceive you into shopping in the markets. Cobblers would harrass you for half a block to fix your shoe. Touts are everywhere, ramming thier goods in your face, and one "No" is never enough. We stopped consulting our map to try to navigate the city, since it only made us more of a target. We were offered help three times, always with the same result...after a moment of "Where are you from...oh, I have a friend in the US" and "Where do you want to go" you are told "No it is closed today, I'll take you to the market" which then took several rounds of "no" to the point of almost having to say bluntly "Go away!" The only solace could be found in the beauty of the architecture and sights, cut off from the conniving populace at large.

It made us very sad to feel that way. We travel places to meet people, enjoy the culture, and travel within the realm of the society we are visiting. Having to mistrust everyone, all the time, was disappointing at best, stressful at worst. At one temple, a man led me around, telling me all the best spots to take a photo from (which I had already done over the last 20 minutes). I followed around, and repeated all I had done, thinking I was avoiding being rude. At the end, he was angry that I would not give him a tip. Every act of kindness seemed to turn into a debt that needed to be paid in cold hard cash.

We left the city, and I hoped Agra would be better. Not so much. A boy tried to trick me into paying him for using the toilet (some of them have a fee, but not this one). Agra was less crowded, and began to show some of the delights of India (cows in the streets, camels pulling carts, goats and dogs roaming free) but was still mixed with the unpleasant cacophony of honking tuk-tuks, crazed motorcyclists, and filthy streets. After a flurry of touts, the Taj Mahal reminded me of why I came to India,--but the respite was short-lived, obliterated by the need to walk back through persistent vendors to our taxi.

Leaving Agra, we finally visited a smaller town, set scenically below an ancient fort, now used as our hotel. We walked down into town, and when someone in the group asked a child if a photo was OK, he said "One photo!" Again, I was put off. But as we continued to walk, children charged our group smiling and crying out "One photo! One photo!" We took their photos, showed them the camera's display, and they ran off in delight.

Each day in India has been easier. The rural coutryside has less litter, but just as much dust. The small towns are still close, crowded, and dirty. You still have to look down as you walk, or risk a cow patty on your shoes (or worse). But as we drive by, the children wave, offering us a "hello" or "goodbye" as we pass. And the adults offer us a "Namaste" that comes with no sales pitch. We bought oranges in the market: we asked for two, but he gave us three. I don't know if he sold us an extra or threw in a freebee, but I don't care: the transaction was pleasant and smooth. (Besides, 40 rupees is less than $1.)

As Jenni and I head into our last week in India, I dread returning to Delhi a little. But Delhi is not India, no more than Paris is France or New York is the United States. We'll manage in Delhi, even if it means skimming over the worst of it as best we can in a private car. It is not how we would prefer to handle things, but traveling means adapting, as well as accepting situations for what they are. But Dehli is five days away, and as our guide has often stated, "India is in the little towns." You are right, Yaddu, and thank you very much for showing them to me.

So I have climbed my Indian Mountain. Like any climb, it is tricky, tiring, and leaves you a little bruised. But the views at the summit, the reason you chose to climb in the first place, make it all worthwhile. In all likelihood, Jenni's yoga will bring us back to India. With this trip's pitons in place, I hope to enjoy the climb even more.

Posted by Stravaigin 02:34 Comments (0)

Slowing Down in Indonesia

Bali = Ubud = Yoga

After the insanity of Perth, I was slightly burnt out. I arrived in Bali with a cold, and more or less missed out on our first couple of days in Sanur. We got a massage, but I was so self-conscious of my sniffling, it was hard to relax and enjoy it.

We quickly moved on to Ubud, which was to be the core of our visit to Bali anyways. As I recovered from my cold, I broke with traveler's diarrhea. Not unexpected, but not in any way fun. It only really slowed me down for one day, but after four days of it, you begin to think "am I dying of cholera?" Fortunately, it never really took me out of action, just slowed me down a bit.

In Bali, you needed to quickly get used to the idea that you will be constantly wet: if it isn't rain trickling down your back, it's sweat. The first two days in Bali were non-stop rain. It made us a little nervous about scheduling outdoor activities, and made the idea of seeing a moutain sunrise or ocean sunset pure folly. (We tried at Ulu Watu, with poor results.) So, we settled into yoga. We purchased the largest multi-class pass, grabbed a class schedule, and went crazy.We took Anusara yoga, Vinyasa yoga (Jenni's specialty), yoga nidra, and Hatha flow. And then we experimented with acro(batic) yoga, thai massage, and capoeira (a crazy Brazilian combat dance). For the mind, we did a Tibetan bowl mediation, and a crystal bowel meditation. I worked on my Downward Dog, Tabletop, Tree, Warrior One, Two and Three, Plow, Headstand, Handstand, Woman on Top, Pigeon, and even a few poses Jenni doesn't even know the name of. And then of course, our acroyoga "stackasana." We immersed ourselves in yoga and Ubud, and really enjoyed being in one place for so long.

Which isn't to say we did naught else; there a was a day of bicycling, and we visited several temples and a waterfall.

At our last dinner in Ubud, Jenni mentioned that yoga could take us to many exotic locals, perhaps long-term. I must admit, I immediately began to feel overwhelmed with future choices, planning, and life changes. Since 2009, Jenni and I have been living for the future: first the wedding, and then this trip. When we get home, I want to slow down. I want to live for today for awhile, with no real plans for the future except to share life in the great city of Chicago with my wife. I think most of my yoga instructors would agree with that concept. When we started this trip, we rallied around the cry "The Time Is Now!"; we had finally begun living in the present instead of looking towards the future. For a short while, a dreamless, unplanned, In-the-Now state is exactly what we need. Singing bowls optional.

Posted by Stravaigin 02:12 Comments (0)

Antipodal Adventures

Right about now in a country far, far away

Western Australia has been an amazing place to visit. We began in Perth, and immediately set out for the southwest coastline. I have never seen so many amazing beaches all in a row, and the magnificent, tall, white barked karri trees made me feel like I was in a remote elven forest. We then traveled to the Margaret River Valley, and dicovered that the Australian wines we can buy at home are no where close to the decilious varieties they do not export to the US market.

We also went to the extreme southeast tip of Australia, to a place called Leeuwin Point, where the Southern Pacific and Indian Oceans meet. We felt like we had traveled to the point where the world ends (or as the lighthouse guard cheekily put in, "where the world begins, from our point of view." I can never be this far away from home again without leaving the planet. (OK, to be technical there is a point in the ocean that is the true antipodal point from Chicago, and there is a land mass that is closer to that point, but all that is there is a French meterological station. I don think they have, much in the way of quarters for tourists.)

On the way back to Perth, a song by Moby played on the radio. Jen P had given me a copy of this album when she split with me back in 2001. Hearing that song reminded me of how far I've come since then. I saw her last July to return to her something I'd found of hers after all these years, and when I told her the Big Plan, she said it sounded great, but she could never see herself doing that. It was a odd eye opener as to how far the two of us has drifted on our new paths.

In a similar vein, Jenni and I were very lucky to get tickets to see Philip Glass in concert in the Perth Concert Hall. We are both huge fans of his work (for me, thanks to Nina at work), but I'll bet most of my old friends have no idea that I like Glass, and it is possible many of then do not even know who he is. I was able to fulfill a dream that just two years ago I would not have even had.

All of this makes me realize that I am nowhere near the person I thought I was going to be back in 2001, when my life took it's first major course alteration. I now want to live in a small apartment in the urban setting of Chicago, travel as much as possible, and own as little as I can. I am on the antipodal side of myself.

Posted by Stravaigin 18:13 Comments (1)

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