Thursday, September 27, 2012

Istanbul, Turkey – The Center of the World

More often than not, getting from one country into another has been rather trivial. Often we don’t know exactly when we go from one country to another. That was not the case traveling from Varna, Bulgaria to Istanbul, Turkey. The bus stopped, we all got out, the dogs searched for drugs and bombs, we put all put our stuff through a screening machine, and we paid the visa toll. Well, we almost paid the Visa toll.

It was only about $40, but we had used up all of our Bulgarian currency. They also took US dollars, Euro and Turkish Lira, but we didn’t have any of those. No problem, we had a card… they didn’t accept Visa. “Is there an ATM machine nearby?” I asked. “Bankomat?” using a common term for ATM… there’s wasn’t an ATM at the border.
We had made some friends on the ride from Bulgaria, but they didn’t have the cash to cover us. When it started to look like we were lost, one of the workers on the bus reached into his pocket and fronted us the money. He had been a complete stranger to us up until this point, and even needed help from one of his colleagues to communicate, “You pay back. Istanbul.”
The bus ride itself was incredibly comfortable. It was air conditioned, and had a guy who was like a airline-steward walking up and down giving out free snacks, water and coffee. They even made an unscheduled stop by an ATM . TV screens were embedded in the seats in front of us, which were quite good, even though they were all in Turkish. I watched “Ice Age III” and some nature shows, you don’t need to understand the moderator to figure out that the leopard wants to eat the gazelle.
It was a long ride though, and the population changed as we went along as Bulgarians got off and Turks got on. For the first time since Morocco, we were entering a country with an Islamic majority. Soon, the hajib (head scarf) turned from an oddity to the norm.
Istanbul has the reputation of being a big city, but I didn’t realize just how big the former Constantinople was. The city limits have almost twice the amount of people as London. We reached the outskirts of the city almost two hours before we reached the central bus station. Istanbul is massive.
It took two trams and about forty minutes to get from the main bus terminal to the central district of Sultanhamet. Sultanhamet is known for being a religious place, and as soon as we got off the tram there were two hugh beautiful mosques staring us in the face, with lights illuminating them, making it easy to see in the night. One of them looked a bit like Cinderella’s castle to our right, which we guessed was the Blue Mosque, and a reference point for the directions from the hostel’s website.
We walked across a major square that seemed to have people meandering across, when a man in front of a restaurant stopped us with the familiar, “where you going?” Usually, this is the call of hustlers trying to get us to buy something, but since we didn’t know, I told them.
“Big Apple Hostel,” I said and soon, the man was giving us excellent directions to the hostel. I thought it was odd, this man didn’t try and get us into his restaurant, just gave us directions.
Turns out, I’ve just become a bit jaded. The Turks ended up being incredibly helpful. Usually, if I answer the “where you going?” question the tout usually tries to explain why I don’t really want to go there. I really want to go in their restaurant or on their cruise or whatnot. As a rule, the Turks politely and accurately helped us find what we were looking for. It was quite pleasant.
We soon found our hostel, which was a twelve person dorm in the middle of the Sultanhamet tourist district. We were hoping to see the prices drop. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Donor Kebab, which is a major Turkish staple was about 18 Turkish Lira, which is about $10. We walked up and down the street, but didn’t find a single restaurant where things were decently priced.
Eventually, we stopped by a street cart in front of the hostel, who was selling Kebab for 7 lira each. It was the best kebap I’ve ever had.
It was a single cart, with half of it being a refrigerator and half being an open-air BBQ. The man running it was short, a bit stocky and was graying at the temples. He looked more like a coal-miner than a chef. We ordered “beef and chicken.” “No chicken,” he said. “beef.”
“Two beef,” I said. He added two skewers of beef to his fire. He had knee-high plastic stools sitting around his cart, with a couple foreigners and a couple locals either eating, or waiting, but there was clearly more meat-skewers on the grill than there were people waiting.
He grabbed one off the grill, set it along a flatbread with shredded lettuce and tomato, pulled out the stick, put some sort of pepper sauce and sprinkled a spice mix over the top. He then wrapped it in tin foil, put some napkins on the outside of the tin foil and put it in a plastic bag. Then, he ran it down to the taxi parked on the end of the street that I hadn’t noticed before. He served the people next to us on a stool, then a guy who worked in a nearby hostel popped his head out to collect his order.
Soon, we had ours and I had realized we had stumbled upon a fantastic chef. He started running out of the pepper mix so made some more fresh pepper sauce, right there on the street. A taxi drove by and grabbed one through the driver-side window. He was a drive-thru as well.
We ended up eating from this guy a few times and I realized that he was a very well respected man. He would show up at 7pm and people would be waiting. Sometimes, his wife was there to help. He’d cook until he ran out of meat, then he was done for the day. The next time we showed up we were late. Leslie got the last beef, so I ended up with kofte, which is a spicy Turkish meatball. Before we were done with our meal he was turning people away.
The travel day ended with us on the top of the hostel, on the European side of Istanbul, looking out over the water at the Asian side while standing in an Islamic city. We had reached the center of the world.
Our first full day in Istanbul saw us head to the main square to take some pictures of the Blue Mosque before heading to a small cafe for some Turkish coffee. The highlight of the day had to be heading to the Grand Bazaar.
Entering the Grand Bazaar was a unique experience, as it was an absolute crush of humanity. The Bazaar itself was encircled by a large cement wall, even though merchants spilled out of the front and into the street. They were selling lamps, tourist swag, purses and hand carved backgammon sets. If you need spices, jewelry or chess sets depicting the Ottomans versus the Crusaders than this is where you needed to go.
For us, we were after jewelry. Specifically, a ring.
We knew that we were going to be traveling a long way, so didn’t want to bring our wedding rings. I got a temporary wedding ring. We had been looking for awhile, but Leslie ended up deciding on a ring in Turkey. It’s a silver ring with a turqoise stone. After she picked it they measured her finger and had the ring resized in about ten minutes.
Dinner was at a very popular Turkish Kofte joint that we found in the Lonely Planet. They specialize in Kofte to such a degree that it is one of only two main dishes on the menu (along with Lamb Kebab). The restaurant was three stories tall and each floor had a barbeque that was constantly cranking out the spicy meatballs. As a result, your order would be there in a flash. They also served a seasonal salad, pepperonchini-like pickled peppers and a lentil soup that Leslie really liked. Rolls would be served for free and the waiter would put a big dollop of spicy pepper sauce on your plate.
Watching the locals, we learned that it’s often eaten by taking one of the rolls, hollowing out the white part of the bread, then stuffing it with the peppers, a meatball and the salad before topping it with dried, crushed red pepper. If you guessed these could become spicy, you’re quite right. They serve a drink called “ayran” that is partway between yogurt and milk, which is great for cutting the heat. It wasn’t cheap, so we split an order… three seperate times.
The next morning I read online about the attacks on the US embassies in Libya and Egypt. I handed Leslie the newspaper article to read on the tablet we were carrying. I wasn’t sure what the reaction was going to be like, and I didn’t want to say anything out loud. We were Americans sitting in the middle of a Muslim country during a major international incident. I didn’t feel like we were in any danger, but felt that discretion was the word of the day.
Well, discretion and “nargile”, which is Turkish for waterpipe. These are better known in the USA as a hookah, and are a Turkish tradition. Our mission for the day, go smoke a hookah.
We hopped onto the public transportation and headed to the famous “Tophame” section of Istanbul, known for it’s hookah bars. Before long, I was teaching Leslie how to play backgammon as we smoked the traditional waterpipe. The call to prayer went off right next to us at a mosque. By this time, we’d heard the call-to-prayer so many times that it kind of blended into the background.
It was okay and the backgammon was pleasant, but I think we did something wrong. The waterpipe lasted for two hours before we just decided we’d leave.
We walked up to Taksin square, then down the famous Istikal Avenue, which seemed to be the beating heart of modern Istanbul. Sultanhamet is clearly a religious center, but Istikal is about shopping. An ancient streetcar runs up and down the street, going very slowly in order to avoid squishing the wall-to-wall people. Street vendors selling roasted things that looked like hazelnuts, fresh mussels and lottery tickets mix with The Gap, McDonalds and KFC.
Mini-skirts mix with hajibs as pre-teen boys hang onto the outside of the streetcar for a free ride. Donor-kebabs half the price of Sultanhamet mix with bars and high-end restaurants.
The mob of people in the street moves almost like a wave. At one point, Leslie paused to take a picture and I lost her, but found her again soon.
This was the moment I realized there was something dramatically wrong with the coverage of the international crisis I’d been reading about. The US news sources kept saying there were protests “throughout the Muslim world”.
I saw no protests, and we were in one of the world’s largest Muslim cities on the holy day.
Of course, there’s protesting, extremist Muslims out there, but they should not be confused with the majority of the Muslim world. I would bet there were more Muslims on Istikal Avenue in a three hour time-span then there were protesting for the past three weeks.
The people we’ve met have cared about their families and their neighbors. They were very friendly and never once were we treated with anything but respect.
There are more Muslims interested in eating at a KFC than throwing things at it. They don’t care about the political implications, they just want some fried chicken. End rant.
The hookah had been more expensive then we originally thought, so our original plan to take the public transportation turned into a money-saving walk across Istanbul. Okay, so I had an ulterior motive.
There’s fish-kebab grills by the water, which ended up being a very tasty fish sandwich. They weren’t that filling though, so we ended up sharing another kebab in front of the hostel.
I’m going to miss that kebab guy.
Next stop, Capadoccia, Turkey.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Varna, Bulgaria – The Black Sea

What better time to arrive to a new place then midnight? Yep, we arrived to Varna, Bulgaria via bus at midnight. The best part was we heard the taxis were untrustworthy and they usually end up taking you a longer route. I feel like most taxis in the world will try and pull this trick, but we heard it was particularly bad in Varna. As a result of this news….we walked.

Me – “Do you think it’s safe to walk 30 minutes with our backpack at night.”
Bryan – “I think we’ll be fine.”
Bryan was simply trying to make me feel better even though he didn’t know a lick about the dangers of the city. Thanks, honey.
Turns out it was just fine and we made it safely to our hostel 30 minutes later. This included stopping to eat a kebab.
The hostel was rated at as one of the best in Varna, and we quickly understood why. Party. It’s a party hostel, and while this may have been a good thing in our early twenties, we no longer accept this as a reason why a hostel is good.
The showers were ridiciously small…so small that I actually rubbed my leg up against the toilet while trying to wash my hair. Also, we woke up the next morning to find a bunch of hungover Australians. One guy actually thought it was funny that he puked in his bed…he was still drunk mind you.
Besides these two things, the hostel was okay, but compared to the other outstanding month five hostels, this hostel sucked.
So, the reason we chose to go to Varna was because a couple in Zdair, Slovakia suggested it. Then we realized once we saw Varna, the couple didn’t like Split,Croatia which was absolutely stunning and they complained about everything. Why did we listen to them?
Varna was nothing special. All that made is special was the Black Sea, but it was too cold and windy to enjoy it.
So, keeping with the positive, we people watched in the main downtown pedestrian walk while sipping coffee, went thrift shopping on a strip that had about a 100, relaxed in our hostel room, ate sushi for the first time since leaving Seattle in a restaurant right by the water, and ate my favorite traditional Bugarian soup, Tarator.
Tarator is a cold soup consisting of yogurt, garlic, cucumbers, and walnuts. It was delicious and we found our favorite restaurant near the hostel who served the best. Our waitress at this place was also a dove whisperer as she had about two or three doves fly right up to her hand to eat seeds. The doves were from the wedding across from the restaurant, and they did this with anyone who had seeds, but it was still cool. I regreted not asking for seeds to feed them as well. Doves are beautiful.
The main drag had shops and restaurants lining the place. They served corn off the cob as a street food. You’d get a little cup topped with butter, cheese or whatnot. It smelled great, and tasted pretty good. We ended up throwing a couple spoonfulls to some songbirds, who expertly ate the inside of the corn while leaving the skin on the ground.
Overall, I’m glad we made it to Bulgaria, but just a little sad we didn’t make it to the smaller and cuter beach towns in Bulgaria we passed while on the bus to Turkey. There was one town we went by that looked a little like Lincoln City on the Oregon coast. Oh well.
We’ll always remember Varna as the place where an Australian guy puked in his bed and thought it was funny.
Next stop, beautiful Turkey. Hint – I LOVED Turkey.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Belgrade, Serbia – The Final Frontier

These are the voyages of the Backpackers Wokich… our continuing mission. To explore new lands, to reach out and touch historic civilizations, to eat weird foods that we’ve never eaten before!

Belgrade is one of the world’s great frontiers. The Sava river joins the Danube in Belgrade at the magnificent Kalamagden Fortress. There have been over 100 recorded battles for this fortress as well as evidence of neolithic camps inside the fortress. At times in it’s past, it’s been the southernmost border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the northernmost border of the Ottomans, the edge of the Roman Empire and many have considered it the edge of the Christian world. It was the end of the Greek alphabet and the beginning of the Cyrillic alphabet, with letters like ? and Π entering into street names. We are reaching the end of Europe.
And which of these unique nd interesting cultural experiences did we come to Belgrade to enjoy? Why the floating hostel of course!
We found ArkaBarka Floating Hostel on as they were in the “rare and unique hostels” list. When the opportunity presented itself, we just had to give it a shot.
The day didn’t start for us so well though, as we got onto the 7:55am train from Mostar, Bosnia to Belgrade, Serbia and realized we had packed no food, nor was there any sort of dining cart on the train. We did our best to stoically wait out the ride, but when some nice Serbian ladies came into our cabin and offered us some snacks we just couldn’t say no. Just to be polite, of course.
Once again, it was dark by the time we exited the train station in downtown Belgrade. A young woman named Tara helped us find the right bus and before long we were on the 83 heading towards “New Belgrade”. We got off by the Usce city park and walked across what seemed like a really sketchy parking lot, only to find a well-populated and well-lit trail going up and down the Danube. We turned right and walked 3/4 of a mile in the wrong direction before turning around. If we had turned left, we would have been right on top of it. Oh well.
The hostel itself was a two story houseboat floating right on top of the river. The common room downstairs had glass windows looking out over the river and towards War Island. I have no idea why it’s called War Island because it’s a bird sanctuary.
Unfortunately, when you have a houseboat, you have mosquitoes, so we spent the evening hunting down mosquito repellant.
The next day saw us take a trip into the Old Town of Belgrade, walk the streets and end up at Kalamagden Fortress. It was quite interesting to see the different additions that have been made over the years as the core of it is a large stone defensive wall overlooking where the Danube and the Sava join. Nevertheless, people have been building on it, upgrading it, leveling the ground and whatnot since the beginning of recorded history. There’s archealogical digs going on right outside the fortress and others that are likely to begin to discover more about every inch of the old building.
Not to worry, there’s still plenty of modern uses for it as well. Next week there will be a huge concert inside.
For dinner we went to Skadarska, which is the “Bohemian Part” of Belgrade. Cobblestoned streets and restaurants lined the car-free zone which was dominated by white table-cloths and waiters in slacks. Even though it looked to be a bit of the high-rent district it was still pretty reasonable, with full dinner plates available for $7. One of the things that surprised me was the wandering musicians. It truly reminded me of Mexican restaurants at home where the mariachi band comes and sings at your table while you smile at them awkwardly. This was very similar. The instrumentation was different, as there was a stand-up bass, guitar, violin and accordian. We still smiled at them awkwardly.
I ordered a chevapi and Leslie ordered a stroganoff, but the thing that really stuck out to us was a shopska salad. Tomato, cucumber, a tad bit of onion and some shredded cheese. I think it was sheep cheese, but whatever it was, it was really good.
The second day saw us wake up and get close to going out on the town. Then we thought, “wait?” why did we come here? We spent the majority of the day hanging out on deck at the floating hostel. Sure, we missed Tito’s Mausoleum, but we had some floating to do! I think we were also worn out from the adventure with Bata in Mostar in the last blog.
That night we made it back to Skaparska, and took care of the important business of figuring out our next destination. We were looking for an overnight train to Istanbul, but none existed, so instead, we bought tickets for the overnight train to Varna, Bulgaria, which is a coastal city on the Black Sea.
The night trains in Eastern Europe have been much more pleasant than the Western European ones, but I think that’s because we’ve actually sprung for proper sleeping accomodation in Eastern Europe. By day, there are second class private cabins that comfortably sit 8, but at night, beds fold out of the walls and six people can squish into the bunks quite well. You get an opportunity to meet your bunkmates and it’s always an adventure.
When we boarded the night train we found an empty cabin, six beds already folded out and four with two sheets and a ratty, disgusting pillow. No pillow case, no blanket. We put one sheet down, wrapped a sheet around the pillow and hopped into our bunks right before a couple young ladies from England joined us.
We had the two middle bunks, they had the bottom. Unfortunately, one of their bunks was broken, so Katie made the climb up to the top of the bunk using a small metal ladder. Once she was up, we took down the ladder and she was stuck.
Pillowcases were a must, so Leslie went and asked if we could have some. No dice. Then I tried. Still no luck.
Leslie than snuck into the linin cabin and grabbed four more sheets for the lot of us. (Don’t tell the Serbian train people). Later, as it was getting cold she went back and grabbed full blankets.
We slept pretty well, which is to be expected on these night trains. Unfortunately, the other thing you can expect is to be late. We rolled into Sofia, Bulgaria at noon, four hours after we were due to arrive. As you can guess, we missed our connection. In fact, we missed the next train to Varna as well. Our ticket was still good for the train leaving at 10pm, which would have meant back-to-back night trains. Yuck.
We learned our lesson (don’t book onward transportation when traveling internationally), decided to eat the $40 on the train to Varna and grabbed a bus. We were supposed to be in Varna with our train about 3pm. Instead, it’s 8:12pm and I’m writing this blog on a bus traveling through the Bulgarian countryside.
At least we’ll make it to Varna today.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina – You Crazy Backpackers!

“You backpackers are crazy!” said Bata, our tour guide and owner of the hostel. “I only had seats for 8 people in my girlfriend (his van), but my sister said yes to 14, so I opened the back. Not only did you crazy backpackers climb in, but actually fought over who got to sit in the back! There are no safety devices, just hold on to the side. This is the Balkans!”

It was the beginning of our second day in Mostar, Bosnia/Herzagovina and the beginning of a tour that came highly recommended by both The Lonely Planet and those who had already been on the tour.
Two days prior, we had taken the bus from Dubrovnik, Croatia to Mostar. We were traveling off the Adriatic Sea, due east, winding through tall hills, or small mountains. It had been hot and dry, evidenced by the half dozen brush fires we drove past. The fires were a curiosity to Leslie and I, but they seemed to be expected by the locals.
For those of you who don’t know, my last name is Serbian. Great-Grandpa Savo Wokich came from a town called Sanski Most in the northeast of what is now Bosnia. I’m not 100% sure about this, but there is a good chance that when he left the Balkans around beginning of the 20th century the land was actually part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, although he was quite adament about being a Serb. There was no state of Bosnia at the time and Serbia was the only true South Slav state, with Austria-Hungary to the north and the Ottoman Empire to the south. We know part of the reason he left was because he was a rabble-rouser of some sort. I’m reading a book called “The Serbs” which was written by an Englishman during the 1910s, which gives a clue as to how life could have been for Savo and what his history was like.
But current history is very different. There was a civil war during the Clinton administration, culminating in NATO engagement and the breakup of Yugoslavia into multiple countries. I was not exactly sure what all the fighting was about, nor am I sure now, but I have gotten a much better grasp on it after traveling the Balkans. What I knew at the time, was that the Serbian Army under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic committed some rather heinous war-crimes, many of them against the Bosnians. What I didn’t know was how Americans of Serbian ancestry with a Serbian last name would be received when entering the scene of the crime.
Darkness had just fallen when we disembarked the bus two hours behind schedule. We were booked in Hostel Majdas, one of the top rated hostels in all of Bosnia. One of the reasons is free pickup, as Majdas herself was waiting for us with a little sedan. She explained the driver side door was broken as we placed our packs in the trunk. In a well-practiced motion, she climbed in the passenger side door and shimmied over to the driver side before taking us to to the hostel. She pointed out a couple things along the way, including the sniper building, which is an old bank building that the Serbian Army shot from during the war. Most of the damage has been repaired, but this building still had visible war damage, as did many of the others around Mostar.
The hostel was very nice, clean and homey, although it could have used a few more bathrooms. We ran into a couple very tired-looking people who had just come back from “The Tour” that the hostel puts on and highly recommended it. We put our names down for the next available tour, two days later.
That night, we went to Old Town with a group of travellers and to a place called Hinden Han, where Leslie had grilled chicken with mushrooms and I had some Cevapi, which is ground beef spiced and rolled into small sausages. On the way back we found some live music for a bit.
The next day saw us wander about the Old Town of Mostar. The highlight has to be the new, old bridge crossing a chasm, 21 meters above the river below. All 7 bridges connecting the two sides of Mostar were blown up in the war, and have since been rebuilt. The largest and most famous is known as Stari Most. “Stari” is actually the name that Dad used to call Savo, but it doesn’t mean “grandfather”. It literally means “old man” although it’s used as slang to mean “old friend” as well. Most means “bridge”.
According to local custom, you’re not a true Mostar Man until you jump off the bridge. There was actually a diver walking back and forth along the bridge collecting money from tourists, and once he got enough, he’d jump. We got lucky and saw a guy jump in right as we arrived. Even though we stayed within shouting distance of the bridge all day, we did not see another person jump.
Stari Most was built in 1566, but was blown up in the conflict in the 90s. The current one is an exact replica.
There are a ton of buses that come from Croatia on day trips to Mostar that are filled with tourists. They descend upon the city around 11, stay for five hours or so and leave. There are a ton of little shops selling cheap trinkets and whatnot lining the Old Town as well as a plethora of restaurants built to serve the tourists. We generally avoided those, opting for places that had been recommended by the hostel.
One of these was the Ali Baba Cafe, which was pointed out as a good place to get cool on a hot day. Ali Baba is actually inside of a cave and had flat areas and stairs carved out of it. The cave is naturally cool. We had some water and fresh squeezed OJ, which cost 7 markara, which is about $4.
Leslie was also quite a trooper as she agreed to watch Arsenal smash Liverpool 2-0 at a little cafe we found on the side of the street. We spent the rest of the day shooting pictures in Old Town before going back to Hindin Han for dinner. We figured, it was good and good value, so stick with it. I had a whole fresh grilled trout for $5.
The T-Shirt shop we found deserves a mention because of the funny shirts I could read (many were in Arabic). The McDonalds logo with “McCevapi” was pretty funny, but I actually laughed when I saw a t-shirt that said, “I’m a Muslim. Don’t Panic.”
The next day saw us eat fried zuchinni on toast for breakfast at the hostel followed by 14 of us packing into Bata’s girlfriend for a day-long tour of the Mostar region.
Bata’s tour was a combination of history, comedy, culture and flat-our weirdness. The man has an inhuman amount of energy and almost never stops talking. If Robin Williams had been born in Bosnia he would have been Bata.
We started by driving around and looking at the rapid development that has been happening in Mostar post-war. There are laws regarding development, but these are not enforced. Shopping malls are springing up all over the city on land that isn’t zoned for it. A rich person will buy a high-school, tear it down, and put a shopping mall up. He pointed at two or three of these. “Welcome to the Balkans! This is my country,” yelled Bata.
Next, he took us down what was recently the front-line of a battle. The city didn’t like the look of the buildings, so put up a facade of a nice apartment building. That said, there’s no electricity, plumbing or anything else needed for living inside of it. The facade is empty. Next door is a bullet-ridden bunker. People live there. “This is my life!” says Bata.
Before leaving Mostar, Bata took us by a high-school, which he described as a sociological experiment. During the morning, one ethnic group goes to school. During the afternoon, they’re removed and an entire new student body arrives. The schools are segregated. Not only does the student body change, but the teachers change, as does the things being taught. Bata reminded us to make sure you knew who was telling you history, because you would often get different versions from different people. He himself was of Muslim heritage, even though he wasn’t fully aware of this until the breakout of the war. This gave him no other option but to flee to Sweden.
Then he yelled, “Shakey-Wakey!” and jerked the wheel back and forth while going down the highway, flipped on blue and red strobe lights and cranked up the TurboFolk music, which is a sort of techno/folk/pop that is terrible, catchy and sweeping the Balkans.
The tour made its way by an airport hanger, that Bata said was used as concentration camps during the war.
We soon made it to a place where six children had claimed to see the Virgin Mary. In twenty years, a very small town has become a center for Catholic tourism as tours from Croatia and Italy come to see the place where the Virgin Mary appeared. One of the children still lives there and sometimes even talks to the Virgin. She also sells souvenirs out of her house.
A quick bathroom stop saw us switch seats and we joined Bata in the front of the van, at which point I told him that my family hailed from Sanski Most. I assumed he’d be friendly no matter what, being a friendly guy, plus a tour guide and all. He soon learned that I didn’t know any family in Bosnia, nor did I know any of the languange. I told him that my family was Serbian, but that was soon glossed over as he discussed how the Serbians and the Croatians are trying to eliminate a Bosnian identity. The sub-text being, “Sanski Most is in Bosnia, therefore you’re Bosnian.”
He pointed out how the term “Serbo-Croatian languange” is used, even though Bosnian is just as valid as either of the other languages. His reasoning is that denying that the languange exists helps to deny there is a unique Bosnian identity, and if there is no Bosnian identity, then there is no reason for there to be a Bosnia. He said that this is what they teach in Serbian schools, that Bosnia isn’t a “real” country because so many of the people are actually Serbs or Croats. He said he’s had this confirmed by Serbians who’ve taken his tour. The belief makes it easier to justify violence against Bosnia, although he was clear that he doesn’t understand it, for the sort of violence committed is not understandable. Understanding something means there’s a valid reason for it, and there was no valid reason for the sort of violence committed. “Welcome to my life,” says Bata.
Before the war the Croatians and the Serbians actually made a pact, and agreed where the lines to the two countries would be. They had agreed to remove Bosnia from the map. If they had been successful, the line would have gone right through Mostar, with Stari Most touching both Serbia and Croatia.
On that bright and happy note… “Waterfalls!” yelled Bata as we headed towards a swimming hole he went to as a kid. That was an absolute blast!
There was a big swimming hole with a half-circle of waterfalls falling from all around. We grabbed the waterproof camera and crawled around the rocks for the next hour and a half or so. One of the highlights had to be trying and get the entire group together behind one of the waterfalls for a group shot. It was difficult to get everyone in the shot though, so the photographer had to back up away from the group, which took them directly into the waterfall. I got a laugh out of watching the photographer try and say, “smile” and tread water while the waterfall tried and drive them under.
After we gathered back at the restaurant Bata informed us that we weren’t allowed to order and got us all a huge plate of food consisting of salad, chevapi and a bunch of other meats.
We then headed to Pocitelj, which is a partially ruined Ottoman village where we got to crawl around the beautiful old military town. It was originally built as an Ottoman outpost, so there were rock fortifications and houses. Part of the place was falling down, but other bits had been well preserved, and there were no other tourists.
It was also an opportunity away from prying ears and eyes where Bata could tell stories without the risk of being overheard. One of his best examples of how the tensions are simmering beneath the surface is Sarajevsko.
Sarajevsko is a beer from Sarajevo, which is the captial of Bosnia. Meanwhile, the Croats control much of Mostar and run many businesses. For example, by the Virgin Mary site you could buy Croatian flags, but not Bosnian, even though you were in Bosnia. Another example is the local government is keeping the airport closed, so anyone who wants to see the Virgin Mary has to fly into Split, Croatia and cannot fly into the much closer airport in Mostar. They’ve also been changing all the street names to Croatian names if they can.
As for the beer, Croat restauranters often refuse to serve Sarajevsko, because it’s Bosnian. Many shops won’t stock it, and even the grocery store next to the hostel would not sell Sarajevsko until the stream of backpackers from the tour asking for it caused them to stock it.
It’s a great example of how even though the war is over, there’s still a long way to go. Bata’s point, “It’s just a friggin’ beer!”
Another interesting story was how he actually started the hostel. Bata had returned from Sweden to visit Mostar and found two American backpackers looking for a hostel. He had no idea what this was, but invited the two Americans in and soon, they were showing him and He noticed that Mostar wasn’t on there, so he signed up, filled out the form, said he had six beds and soon, Mostar was on the map. Three days later he was booked full and was scrambling to get enough beds for the hostel in their apartment. Now, the hostel is run by Bata, his sister Majdas, their Mom and a couple of twenty-somethings.
He also told a very interesting story about how he escaped to Sweden, but I don’t really feel appropriate putting that here. Ask me about it sometime.
We wandered the streets, but the highlight had to be a trip up the old lookout tower. It’s more ruin than tourist-trap, so there was no lights except those provided by cell phones. It provided an excellent view from the top, but definitely required some extra care to avoid slipping and falling down three flights of stairs.
The end of our time in Pocitelj saw us get to try local drinks and desert from a family who lived in the structure. They made distilled syrups and mixed them with water, then we all guessed. Leslie was the only one in the group who guessed the mint one correctly. It was actually made out of mint flowers as opposed to the leaves.
This family was interesting because the first time they had met Bata was when he had taken a tour group to Pocitelj and it was pouring down rain. They had stopped the group and invited them all inside out of the rain to dry off. The people inside of Pocitelj had all been driven off by invading armies during the war, and this family was the first to come back. The place was full of bad memories, but she perservered. Her act of kindness went unpaid for, as it would be rude to pay for hospitality, but soon, the Bosnian coffee, syrupy-sweet drinks and tasty Bosnian shortbread were a staple of the tour and she was making pretty good money. She’s now a local celebrity, and has a surprisingly modern home, considering it’s inside of a partially ruined former Ottoman military compound.
The final stop on the tour was Medagorje, a Dervish habitation. Bata was very clear that it’s not a monastery, because they’re not Christian monks, but that might be the most similar thing to it. It was a beautiful buidling at the bottom of a massive cliff, with water from an unknown source coming out of a hole in the rockface. It was gorgeous, but we had been touring for almost 13 hours by this point and we were tired and ready for bed.
We headed home, packed up and went to bed.
As I fell asleep that night I couldn’t help but think about the fluid nature of identity. “The Serbs” book discusses how people would often use multiple identities because the political masters were changing so often. One day, a person would be Hungarian, the next, Serbian, depending on what situation they were in and who they were talking to. I couldn’t help but feel that even in this modern world, for a guy four generations removed, these were still loaded questions. The tensions are beneath the surface, but they’re still there. It will take a long time for them to heal and I just hope they can heal them non-violently. For me, these are interesting cultural and historical issues. It’s something I deal with once, not part of everyday life. I’m not Bosnian, I’m not Serbian, I’m an American.
Fortunately, I was quite tired, so drifted off easily. The next morning we caught the 7:55am train to Belgrade, Serbia.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Dubrovnik, Croatia – The Walls of the Sea

For the first time on our trip so far, we finally purchased beds for the train.

One of the major things to we wanted to do in Europe was take the overnight train in Eastern Europe, so we purchased what we thought were beds for $16 with our Eurail pass.
We hopped on the train at about 5pm only to find we were in a regular compartment, and there were no beds. Bryan and I were also in different compartments since we purchased them last minute. We were hoping to find a solo traveller to switch with but instead one compartment had a group of six Hungarian ladies and the other one included a German couple as well as three Brits traveling together. Bryan and I sat together with with the German couple and the three Brits, making sure they knew we would be separating when it was time to sleep. Instead, one of the very young and quite annoying Brits started complaining that there was one extra person sitting, so we left and ordered a very cheap bottle of wine in the dining cart. This was fine with me because one of the Brits took his shoes off, wearing no socks, and his feet stunk very badly. He then proceeded to put is feet up on the bench right next to where I was sitting. It was already pretty stuffy and hot in the compartment, so you can imagine how bad it was.
However, before we left the compartment we learned that two people sleep on the bottom, one on each side, then two at the top right and left where the luggage is usually stored, and then there are mid beds that fold down when it’s time to sleep. We did have beds after all.
After using the restroom and coming back to the dining cart, Bryan informed me that the Hungarian ladies had made my bed for me.
Bryan and I said goodnight and separated for the night. I went into my compartment and sure enough my bed was nicely made. The only lady who spoke English said for me to wake one of them up if I need to use the restroom in order to watch the luggage. The compartment can be locked and they didn’t want anyone to steal anything. However, at about 3am I really had to go to the bathroom, but I never did because I didn’t want to have to wake them up.
In the mean time, Bryan went back to the stinky feet compartment and found all of the British guys luggage on his bed. Jerks!
Sleeping on a Eastern European night train was such a cool experience. First of all, the dining cart was cheap (so different from Western Europe) and you can put all the windows down on the train if you wish. The night breeze, sound of the train, and knowing I was sleeping with six nice Hungarian ladies who didn’t speak a lick of English, made it an unforgettable experience. By the way, I slept very well that night.
The next morning I woke up to hungarian laughters and the smell of the fresh air from the window I was sleeping right next to. I then put my bed back in place (I was sleeping in the middle right) and went to wake Bryan, so we could eat breakfast in the dining cart. Breakfast included bacon and eggs and it was delicious and cheap…such a wonderful combination. The breakfast also included a wondeful view of the sea.
We arrived in Split, Croatia at about 9:30am. For those who were counting, the train was a total of 16 hours.
Split looked absolutely beautiful, and we really wished we could have stayed a couple days, but the world is just too big to see everything, so on the bus we went to Dubrovnik.
We arrived at about 2pm. The directions to our hostel told us to get off when we saw Bakery Klas, but it did not say there was more than one Bakery Klas. We got lost for a bit and then found a internet cafe and pre-cached the map on our new Samsung Galaxy Tab. We hopped back on the bus and finally made it to the most beautiful hostel we’ve stayed in yet.
Villa Divine was clean, modern, and we had the most wonderful waterfront view. We could see cruise ships come in from the balcony. I should also mention the wonderful staff. The hostel is owned by a really nice Croatian family who recently moved back to Croatia from Germany.
Bryan and I had a private room and we had our own private door to the balcony. We were in what was called the “purple room.”
We were pretty tired, so we stayed at the hostel the rest of the day, enjoying the views, travellers lunch, and good company.
We met Estar from Barcelona, Spain and Sandra from Brazil. We had good conversation on the balcony before deciding we should take advantage of the barbeque. We went to bed knowing we would all meet up the following evening for some good grub.
Breakfast the next morning was the best “breakfast included” we’ve had so far. I had everything I wanted….fresh fruit, yogurt, musli, refillable drip coffee, and eggs. Thank you, Villa Divine!
Bryan and I then ventured to Old Town for the day. Old Town was absolutely gorgeous, and my favorite old town so far. It was surrounded by a stone wall with the Mediterranean Sea on the other side.
We walked around, ate gelato, and found a cliff bar with a view of the nothing but the sea. You could also cliff jump, but unfortunately, we didn’t bring bathing suits. This place was heaven.
Later we decided to pay the 10 euro and walk the walls of Old Town. We almost decided not to, but I’m so glad we did as it was a definite highlight of the trip so far.
To start we walked directly up four flights of stairs, and then I instantaneously understood why this is on the top 20 things to do in Europe according to Lonely Planet. The walls shot directly out of the sea, and we were up high enough to appreciate the architecture of old town, the stone rocks surrounding it, and the beautiful coral sea on the other side. It took about 2 hours to walk around, and I took about a million pictures along the way. It was really hard to choose pictures for this blog as there were just so many good ones.
At about 6pm, we met Estar and Sandra at the entrance to Old Town and made our way to the market to purchase BBQ foods.
The barbeque was the coolest one I’ve seen. It was massive stone structure which required wood and coal. One of the staff cooked all the food for us, pulling fresh rosemary off the plant next to the BBQ. We didn’t expect him to cook for us, but he insisted. We didn’t complain.
The whole hostel joined in on the fun and we all had a great time eating some of the best food we’ve had, including Bryan’s favorite, chevapi, and grilled eggplant. Estar made a Barcelonian special which included bread and whole tomatoes. The hostel staff ended up buying a couple bottles of wine for everyone. Such a great night.
The next morning was spent relaxing in the hostel and then we walked to a beach nearby. There was a giant floating jungle gym called the wibit or something like that. Bryan and I played on it, we both fell on our butts, and then went back to sunbathe and read for a bit. We walked all around Lapad, went to another beach, and then made our way back to the hostel to take showers.
We went to an Italian restaraunt for dinner with Estar and two people from Australia. We then went to another bar to watch Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid on a big outdoor screen before heading back to the hostel to enjoy the balcony.
The next morning was sad as we had to leave the hostel. We packed our bags, ate a nice full breakfast, and then walked along the water a bit before making our way to the bus station.
We almost decided not to go to Dubrovnik, but I’m so glad we did as it is now on my list as one of the best places in the world.
When deciding where to go next in Budapest, I googled Mostar and looked at the images. I remember telling Bryan, “I want to go there.”
Next stop, Mostar, Bosnia.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Budapest – Center of the Magyars

I was sitting in a pizza cafe in the transportation hub of Kovice, Slovakia, waiting for two things: Leslie to come back from the bathroom and our train to leave to Budapest. Leslie came back first, with a look of urgency on her face. “We have to go,” she said. “They ditched her.”

“What?” I asked.
“The Scottish guys,” she said, referencing the group of 4 Scottish college students that had been on the same public transportation as us since Zdiar. “Cameron broke up with Emily and they ditched her.”
I had forgotten there had been a fifth member of their group back at our last hostel in Zdiar, Slovakia. She was a girlfriend, and the only female. Turns out that Cameron had broke up with her 3 days before she was due to fly home from Budapest and they told her not to travel with them anymore. As a result, she had taken an earlier bus to Poprad, an earlier train to Kovice and had been waiting by herself for hours. She was crying when Leslie found her.
(disclaimer , Mom-inappropriate languange coming) Its understandable if you want to end a relationship, but ditching a 20-year-old female by herself in the middle of a foreign country where she doesn’t speak the language has to be the most immature asshat move I’ve ever seen.
We packed up our stuff, paid our bill and hustled to join to Emily.
The three of us grabbed a cabin together as we rolled down the tracks towards Budapest. The six hours passed relatively quickly, although one of the Scottish guys actually showed up to ask if they could borrow Emily’s cards. She said no and sent her now ex-boyfriend a “you’ve got some nerve” text.
When we reached Budapest, Cameron joined our group of three as they had to go through the logistics of the breakup such who has which tickets, what to do with the single room they had booked, etc.
The train had been running late, so it was dark and we were in a part of BP that didn’t have the safest vibe about it. We got subway tickets and stayed together until the first transfer, which saw the two of them head towards one hostel while we headed towards another. I kinda wanted to put her in her room because you never know when that guys going to bail and it didn’t feel safe to leave her alone in a strange city at night. We offered to help her find the hostel, but she said she was okay with her ex, so that was the last we saw of Emily and Cameron.
Tiger Tims was the name of our hostel, which was passable. It was a 12 bed dorm on top of a four story building north of the downtown core. The common room was upstairs, and although it had some character it was a bit messy and there was no breakfast.
Our first full-day in Budapest was also my 33rd birthday. Leslie helped me celebrate by pulling a gray hair out of my beard. We also spent the morning on the walking tour, where they brought us around the city, showed some cool parts and shared some history.
The guide was actually pretty funny. He explained that at the end of WWII, while the Nazis were occupying Hungary the people of Budapest were hoping for the US to come play the role of liberators. They got the Russians instead. The USSR did a great job of liberating the city from the nazis… they just forgot to go home afterwards. Nevertheless, they put up a big statue of Lady Liberty to look over the city. After the fall of the USSR they covered the statue with a big tarp for awhile, then uncovered it again, rededicating the statue. He also made sure we could pronounce buda “PESCHT”. The “s” in “Budapest” is like the Enlish “sh” sound. If you say it with the English “s” sound you are actually saying “plague”. They also hate it when you mix Budapest with Bucharest, which was famously done by some Atletico Madrid supporters who flew to the wrong city to watch their team play.
We attempted to find the Arsenal match that night, but instead found some pretty good truffle and potato soup and the formerly Jewish quarter. We followed it up with some questionable Serbian food.
The next day saw us make a classic mistake. We had seen a mall and had decided to just grab some breakfast on our way to the mall. We’ll be able to find palatable breakfast easily, right?
First, we found a Starbucks, which was rediculously expensive for Hungary. Second, we found a bar that had sandwiches. Finally we found a buffet that seemed pretty popular, so we went there. We got a crazy hodge-podge of “breakfast” food, including a gyro, pudding, eggplant salad and some pizza. Not exactly healthy, or what we were looking for, but it filled up our bellies.
We spent some time shopping, as Leslie had no shorts, and I wanted to get some light-colored shirts before we went into the scorching heat that I expect in the former Yugoslavia and Turkey. I also needed a new belt, as traveling has caused me to lose some weight. You could actually see the wear-marks in my belt in the three different spots. I was using the smallest slot, and the belt was too big. I considered fixing it with a hammer and nail, but decided to spend the $3.50 when I found a belt that fit right. Just to give you a taste of the math, that’s about 1000Ft (Hungarian Forint). Changing currencies so often is definitely sharpening our mental algebra skills.
That night, we went to a place called Paprika, which had been recommended by the tour guide as well as some people at the hostel. I had a traditional Hungarian goulash, which is actually a soup as opposed to a stew like we usually associate with goulash and some Hungarian beef fillets. Leslie ordered “beer butter chicken”, which sounded unique, but was actually, “beer battered chicken”. She’s not a big fan of battered meats. She also had a raspberry soup, which was cold, creamy and served with a big dollop of whip-cream topped ice-cream. It seemed more like a desert than part of a meal, but was quite good. We also had some Bull’s Blood wine, which is a unique Hungarian vintage.
The walking-tour guide said Hungarian wine was really good and the bit that we had seemed to back that up. He also said that very few people in the world know about Hungarian wines because they are terrible at marketing.
This third night we had to begin making hard decisions, as we have a flight from Istanbul to Bangkok in 20 days, and only a bit of time left to see a lot of Eastern Europe. The plan had been to head down the Croatian coast, making at least three stops. Then we checked Hostelworld and learned that Croatia is as expensive as Italy or France.
We almost decided to skip Croatia, but everybody who has been there has said it’s been one of their highlights, so we decided that we were going to do it. We also knew that sooner or later we were going to have to cover some serious ground going south to get to Istanbul. Travelers we’ve met, Lonely Planet and Grandma Wokich all seemed to agree that if you’re going to go to one place in Croatia, it should be Dubrovnik. Put all that together and we decided to bite the bullet and accept that it was time for a very long, and likely very difficult travel day. We booked the overnight train from Budapest to Split, Croatia with the goal of getting off the train in Split and immediately catching a three hour bus from Split to Dubrovnik.
Fortunately, this basically gave us another day in Budapest. We used it to go to the bath-house.
I didn’t really know what to expect when we went in, but first, they seperated the genders and sent us to the locker rooms to change. Then we came back together and emerged into the middle of the bath-house. It was HUGE. There were two extra-large hot-tubs with about 100 people in each on either side of an Olympic size lap-pool. One hot-tub had a large statue of a woman enjoying a goose a little too much with warm water spraying out of a fountain and a collection of men playing chess off to the side. The other had bubble fountains sprinkled around the pool and a circle in the center with current taking everyone in a circle. Sunbathers relaxed outside the pool and a raised porch by the entrance had a couple different restaurants on it. Inside the building were smaller pools, some hotter or colder, some with minerals. Some chlorinated, some not.
We spent most of the day hanging around the bath-house before heading back to Tiger Tims to pick up our packs. We settled up with Tim for the equivalent of $21 a night for the two of us and headed to the train station.
The massive travel day was upon us.
Unfortunately, since we had booked so late, we had beds in different cabins. We were hoping that we would find a single traveler in one of our cabins who would switch with us. Instead, we ended up in a cabin with some 20-year-old Brits…
Next stop, Dubrovnik, Croatia, and the former Yugoslavia.