Monday, June 20, 2005

A Word on Prague

It’s past midnight and I have to be up at 8am to catch the plane to Greece, so Prague—a city already well lit with praise—will have to settle for this:

On my travels so far, three places have received the most enthusiastic and universal raves: Buenos Aires, Laos, and Prague. The Czech capital doesn’t disappoint, and when you’re on the Charles Bridge overlooking the Vlatava River at sunset, surrounded by the city’s hundred twisting spires, you have to remember all the things you love about Paris to stop yourself from proclaiming Prague the prettiest girl you’ve seen and calling an end to the contest right there.

Many of those hundred spires are sticking up from one of the city’s many churches. Mom and I were at St. Nicholas Church today, taking in the Baroque beauty after paying our 50 crown entrance fee (“Praying free 8:30-9:00am”). As the gold plated figures shined down on us I remembered something a group of Christian girls I met in Thailand last year had said. They wondered why the Buddhist temples needed to be so big, what was being proven and glorified by erecting the world’s largest reclining Buddha. I can confidently report that there’s nothing more excessive at Bangkok’s Wat Po than at Prague’s St. Nicholas.

Another religious opinion we’ve all heard is that Islam is a violent religion. I haven’t read the Koran but some people seem to think the book advocates violence while others say there are only a few such passages in a large text. Nothing in the book can be much more violent than the depictions at the alter of St. Nicholas. One statue depicts a man stomping on another’s neck while a more resourceful saint has found a pitchfork to lance an evildoer with. If you didn’t know much about Christ and walked into St. Nicholas, you might wonder what kind of religion he’d set up. “This doesn’t seem to match his teachings,” mom said.

Prague’s a peaceful place though, all-in-all. It’s a bold type name on any European map and that brings pride to the Czech people. It also brings the Czech people to Prague; “Prague-centrism,” as a country girl explained it to me. But it brings people from further away than Cresky Krumlov. They crowd onto the Charles Bridge for the long, slow sunset and take pretty pictures of the saints doing nasty things.

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Have a Nice Life

June 8
Mom wanted to do the backpacking thing, she even worried I’d be disappointed if we got stuck in nice hotels instead of ratty hostels. She thought it would be great to share the backpacker experience with me. She seemed quite convinced of it until we got to a hostel. “I’m too old to share a bathroom,” she decided and we went and checked into the obscenely priced hotel.

When we took the bus from Prague to Cresky Krumlov it turned out they were having their annual Rose Festival, which involves half the town dressing in Medieval garb and the entire town drinking liters of Eggenberg beer. The only place we could find where we wouldn’t have to share a bathroom was way up the hill at the edge of town.

Yesterday night we were way down in the middle of town and it was getting dark. It was 10pm but it was still finishing getting dark, the way it does in June when you’re this far north. We had followed the music to Hostel 99, which is tucked around a cobblestone corner next to one of the bridges that lead over to the King Arthur-looking central town. The hostel is a bar too and we got our half liters of Eggenberg and listened to the Czech band playing their American-sounding songs and tapped our feet on the cobblestones. It was a lovely place, with the music and a bunch of backpackers and a bunch of older people allowing the mother of a somewhat old backpacker to feel at home.

After a while one of the tables opened up and we sat down across from a couple of Czech girls who had taken the bus from Cresky Budejovice (home of the real Budweiser) for the festival. They spoke enough English to convey their preference for metal and hard-core music (that was the brunette sitting on the left) and their observation that I must not like cigarette smoke (the blonde on the right). Mom went to get some beers and came back with Marta, a Spanish girl we’d seen on the bus who was eating dinner alone inside by the bar. Marta is living in Prague, and though she loves the city she’s finding to her surprise that it’s not a great place to learn English.

Mom tried to buy everyone dinner or at least a beer but they declined. It was Marta who ultimately bought us a beer once we didn’t need one. She was happy to have someone to talk to now that her friends have moved back to Spain and she’s traveling alone for the first time. It was her first night in a hostel dorm.

The Czech girls finally got up to leave. We had talked about America and the Czech Republic and music and speaking English and speaking Czech. We had a few beers and we were friends now. “Have a nice life,” mom said, a bit melodramatically, I thought. “Yes, have a nice night,” one of the Czech girls said. I told mom that if I wished everyone a nice life who I knew I would never see again I would be doing it quite often.

When we finished Marta’s unnecessary gift it was time to go home. She took my e-mail and promised to send recommendations for my trip to Spain. We went out towards the bridge and readied for the walk up the hill to our room with it’s own bathroom.

When you stop into a hostel and ask to look at a room, you’ll follow the dingy hallway down to a small box with a couple narrow beds and decide it’s worthwhile to shell out for the obscenely priced hotel. But some night when a Czech band is playing in the courtyard and the long tables are full with backpackers trading stories about their hometowns, you’ll understand what the rooms with their own bathrooms lack. “I’m sad now,” mom said. “I wish we had stayed at the Hostel 99.”

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Monday, June 13, 2005

American Graffiti

Greetings from Budapest, the goulash, graffiti, and paprika capital of the world. If you’re like me, your main impression of the Hungarian capital came from the Michael Jackson concert that was videoed here and played on VH1 about a thousand times in the late 90’s. At the end of the show he got in a space suit, strapped on a jet pack, and flew off the stage and into the night. “Michael Jackson has left the stadium,” a voice intoned. It was only after watching the show a half dozen times that I was able to pick out the moment when Jackson swapped places with a stunt double who performed the trick. But that doesn’t have much to do with Budapest, does it?

My trip from Asia to Europe went like this: Bangkok to Seoul to Paris to Athens. It took about 24 hours. I was killing time at the Paris airport when someone kissed the side of my face from behind. “Hi Brook.” I didn’t have time to fully formulate the short list of possible culprits before I turned around and saw my mom. She was supposed to meet me in Athens but managed to surprise me in France.

Now we’re in Budapest, which as I mentioned has perfected goulash, graffiti, and paprika. Goulash is really good. You can get it as an entree of chopped meat in a lovely sauce or as a soup with vegetables. In either case it’s spiced with paprika.

That leaves the topic of graffiti, which is ubiquitous here. I’m not sure if this is a common Eastern European thing or not (and going to upper crust Vienna and Prague next may not reveal the region’s norm) but it is everywhere.

Budgetarily, Eastern Europe is a good halfway house between Asia and Western Europe. A good meal is $5-$10. That’s a lot more than $2 curry but a lot less than what I’m expecting in Paris or Rome.

Culturally, I am very much in the West and it’s different. It’s the West: the bathrooms have toilet paper but the restaurants don’t have flies. The streets have cars instead of motorbikes, the tourist maps highlights churches instead of wats. There are tourist maps. The tourists are harder to spot because everyone is white so people assume you can understand their language but you can’t.

And, worst of all, I’m afraid I’m “that guy.” That guy is the guy who complains about what I’m about to complain about. Mom and I were shopping at a market today when a voice cut through the peaceful murmur of commerce. It was a loud female voice that sounded American. Her origin was confirmed by a few “hey man”s. Why are these stereotypes always true? Why is the loud, obnoxious person always an American?

What makes me “that guy” isn’t just my disdain for the loud American. My real thought about her and her friends—and as soon as I thought it I hated myself for thinking it—was this: “Who do these punks think they are getting all excited about being in Europe? This is backpacking Disneyland. Try a week in Delhi if you think you’re such a world traveler.”

Some European friends have told me I’ll regret coming here; that Asia, Australia, and South America are better traveling choices. I don’t believe them and I’m certain I’ll have a great time in Europe. But for a moment I couldn’t even let some girl who DJs at a radio station (we all learned a lot about her as we shared the market with her) enjoy herself. That’s a fairly unforgivable traveling sin. The only stereotype worse than the loud American is the I’ve-been-everywhere snob. And in case I’m unknowingly a loud American, I can’t possibly risk being both.


Buda and Pest are actually their own cities but have come to be known by their combined name. Here are some pictures...

Thursday, June 09, 2005

No One Told You Life Was Going To Be This Way

Hark! Backpacker! Come to Vang Vieng. It’s a lovely Laotian hamlet just north of Vientiane and it won’t take more than a couple days of your time, assuming you muster the good sense to leave. Get off the bus and choose a guesthouse, any ole’ guesthouse, they’re all the same. Get a nice one down on the river if you like. Look at the limestone cliffs on the other side of the water, watch the sun go down behind them from your porch.

Get dinner at a restaurant, any ole’ restaurant, they’re all the same. You’ll see. Same menu, same prices, same little cushioned platforms with little knee-high tables. The seats all face TV’s playing episodes of Friends. All the places—four or five of them can be seen from one spot in the middle of the dusty main road—are not only all playing Friends, but playing the same season of Friends at the same time. This is not hyperbole in any form, so please friend, really, choose any ole’ restaurant. You’ll choose the one that’s always crowded of course because you think maybe you’ll start a conversation with one of the other solos taking up their own booth. You might even nod a knowing nod at the girl you left in the middle of season eight last night, who is now eating breakfast to the early episodes of season nine. You’ll make a joke to the girls to the right about them maybe watching too many episodes if they know there the rapid fire “da-dam-da-dam” hits in the “I’ll Be There For You” open. You’ll smile appreciatively at the different quick-cutting shots they use in the open from season to season. You’ll think about peaking your head into one of the dim, sparse bars that have dared to play Kill Bill instead. (This is literally the only other programming I’ve seen in any of the bars of Vang Vieng). But you’ll see it’s a bad copy of the movie and keep walking.

In the day go to a travel place, any ole’ travel place, and rent a tube. You’ll know the tubes are all the same because no matter who you give your $4 to, the same pick-up picks you up and drives you three miles up the river. They drop you all off and give you good-sized yellow inner tubes and you jump in the river. You drift down slowly; no, leisurely, with your French-Canadian friends and the Aussie girls who shared your pick-up and the Danish couple that didn’t speak but were physically in the pick-up too. After not long guys on the banks of the river start throwing ropes and bamboo sticks at you, shouting “jump and beer, jump and Lao beer.” You grab a rope and they pull you to the side of the river. They’ve built little bamboo platforms on the edge of the river. They’ll watch your tube for you as you buy a Lao beer and jump off their platform into the river. The jump is free if you buy a beer. If you don’t buy a beer the jump costs 5000 kip, half the price of a beer. So you buy the beer and make the jump—10 to 20 feet depending on the place. The water is deep enough, they insist, and on your first jump—when you fold your legs to stop from going in too deep—you can’t even touch bottom. The second time you do more of a pencil jump, going much further down and hitting your left foot hard on the rocky bottom and maybe breaking a bone.

You drift along for awhile and get another beer and talk to the Aussie girls and start to feel tired that way you do when you drink in the afternoon. You get back and take a shower and head into town for a coffee and a snack. A coffee and snack should be the length of one Friends episode (all the commercials are cut out and they play on an incessant, continual, addictive loop). You think you’ll make something out of your evening after the snack but then it starts pouring and there’s no way you’re walking anywhere in that so you do some e-mail and it’s still raining so you have to go back and watch a few more episodes and get some dinner and watch a few more episodes. You have to be sad that you’re leaving Asia and its quirky, pointless, carbon-copied backpacker sloth-villes. So please, visit Vang Vieng or Ko Samui or Siem Reap or Nha Trang. Any ole’ backpacker town, they’re all the same. But you’ll remember Vang Vieng; that’s the one with the tubes on the river under the limestone cliffs.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Route 13

Carving though the Lao mountains down Rt 13 must be one of the prettiest bus trips anywhere. The distant green hills don’t roll so much as dance, the limestone jutting up sharp above the deep valleys as if someone had decided to combine Ireland, Thailand, and New Zealand into one place. To enhance the postcard effect, accommodating locals have built their thatch roofed homes above the valley and along the road. So after Rt 13 climbs up through a great stretch of undulating green, you look back at the coiled road behind you, wrapped hard around the belly of the mountain and take a blurry picture from the bumpy bus.

It’s all almost enough to make you forget how mortally dangerous Rt 13 can be. The problems go far beyond the annoyance of a laptop sliding across your lap each time the bus makes one of its hairpin turns, but I best mention that one first before it gets lost in the list. The hairpin turns cause all manner of difficulties. The constant, looming possibility of careening off the side of the road is sure to bother some. I wasn’t worried about that because I was asleep. I had reclined my seat a few inches and dozed off when suddenly someone punched me square in the temple. The right-cross had been fired by the bus itself, which by taking a hard turn had whipped my slumbering head against the window. For reasons sufficient to the bus’ designer, there is a hard plastic bar along the window at temple-level. There are no mirrors on the bus so I don’t know yet if I have a black eye.

There are sliding windows just below the black-eye bar on the side of the bus. The Lao man in front of me likes to stick his head outside the window—it just fits—and vomit onto Rt 13. It is a curvy, bumpy, windy ride and if it doesn’t get your head or your stomach maybe someone will blow up your bus. That’s happened a few times too so some people don’t like to make the nine hour ride between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. But Rt 13 has much to offer; the mountains, the thatch-roofed houses…well I guess that’s basically it. But as I’ve said there are plenty of distractions. I’d mention some more but the damn laptop won’t stop sliding and my friend in the fourth row has his head outside again.

When Friday Rested

The best water pressure in Asia is found after a 30-minute walk up Kuang Si falls. When you find that certain spot, almost hidden along the badly marked trail, the water comes rushing down so hard you have to brace your neck against it’s force. Then you jump into the pool below and talk to a British girl about Asia while your friend talks to her friend. You’re on the edge of a pool, right where the water slides down another 30 feet; it’s trying to push you over the edge too. You can see all the way down to where you started walking up, which must be a couple hundred feet below.

When you spend your Thursday at Kuang Si falls, it will be hard for your Friday to measure up so it might be best for Friday not to compete. That’s what our Friday did—mine and Kym’s, that is. My Aussie roommate Kym and I are both men with women’s names which can be convenient for girls you hang out with who mention you on their blog and have boyfriends back home.

Kym and my Friday consisted of waking up at 11, getting breakfast and confiding in each other that neither of us minded if we didn’t do much. In the afternoon Kym bought a boat ticket and I did computer work.

Around 5pm, our Friday having successfully conserved its energy, we set out on adventure. Kym had rented a bike and I got one too. The bikes only cost $1 for 24 hours so it didn’t matter that we weren’t really going anywhere. We cruised through town along the Mekong River and Kym spotted a shop along the way selling Lao whiskey. The whiskey was called Tiger, and since Kym had been swiped at by a playful, somewhat-caged tiger the previous day at the falls, he felt compelled to buy the bottle. It also helped that it was $.80.

I suggested we get some coke for the whiskey but Kym was afraid it would get warm. “Warm?” I asked. “Aren’t we drinking it now?” And so we were.

There weren’t any plastic cups to be had so Kym called on some Asian ingenuity. Soda is often sold in re-used glass bottles and if you want to take it away they pour it into a plastic bag, put a straw in it and tie off the top of the bag. All through Asia there are people drinking out of plastic bags, which is quite odd at first. We got a couple bags of Pepsi and found a spot along the Mekong. We added too much Tiger whiskey and a bottle each of M-150 (a Red Bull knockoff).

An Australian girl came by and said hello. She was drinking a papaya shake out of a plastic bag. It was quite good, and even better with a ton of whiskey in it.

As the sun went down on the Mekong and Kym and I got drunk, we considered feeling sympathy for Johanna and Maya, the American sisters who would have to deal with us at dinner in our Tiger-induced state. It was a brief consideration.

We had two hours before we had to meet them and we scheduled our evening with great care. After downing half the bottle of whiskey we biked through town in pursuit of a massage. In addition to buying a boat ticket, Kym had spent his day surveying the massage options of Luang Prabang. (These are the types of concerns that face backpackers when they aren’t visiting waterfalls). We settled on a place and had our massages. I was awake for several stretches of mine, getting my $3 worth.

At 8pm we met the girls at the shop in the night market with all the round lanterns. We were still a bit groggy from our whiskey/massage evening and Maya clearly had reservations about getting on the back seat of Kym’s bike. But when Johanna got on mine, her sister followed suit and then we were dodging shoppers in the narrow space between stalls. The bikes could have been a bit steadier and the path a bit more designed for bike traffic but we made it through the market and down an ally back to the massage place. It was also a soup place. The bowls of traditional soup—noodles, beef, greens, mint, lime, chilies—were $.50 each.

After soup we climbed back on the bikes, picked up some fresh spring rolls at a stand along the way, and cruised through town. Luang Prabang is a great town to bike through and it’s my hope to find more towns so pleasant and accessible by bike. After a while we found Hive, a classy, touristy bar where the 20oz beers are $1.20 instead of $.80. We shared many Beer Laos (or is it Beers Lao, like Attorneys General?).

Everything in Laung Prabang shuts down early—smart of us to start early then, wasn’t it?—so around 11:30pm they kicked us out. The girls hopped on our backseats and we drove them home. There's something really cool about peddling a girl back to her guesthouse at the end of the night.

After we dropped them off, Kym and I heading back along the Mekong towards our place and I shouted across to him that I was hungry. We passed a place that still had a couple lights on and saw that the workers were sitting down to eat. We asked if they had any more of the soup they were eating but they didn’t. They could make us some barbeque soup though, for 35,000 kip ($3.50). “Thirty-five thousand, oh no, so much!” Kym shouted with a smile and a quasi-Lao accent. “I’m a poor backpacker, I have no money. Thirty-five is too much.”

I knew he was enjoying this so I went to the bathroom and when I returned we had procured soup and two drinks for 30,000 ($3.00). The table had a ceramic pit in the middle of it and they came by and filled it with hot coals. Then they put a big metal plate over it. It wasn’t really a plate though—it had a trough around the edges which they filled with water and a raised area in the middle that functioned as a grill. Meat went on the grill part and vegetables and noodles went into the broth. “It’s the Asian Benihana,” Johanna observed, when I brought her and Maya there the next day. The soup cooked there in front of us and Kym explained that Aussie should be pronounced as if the “s”s are “z”s and that the first syllable in “Australia” should sound like “us.” Our soup attendant ladled the broth into our bowls.

Kym and I had our soup and got on our bikes. It was pouring and we took off our shirts and tucked them into our shorts and peddled hard through the thick rain. The streets were empty and silent except for the rain. The receptionist at our guesthouse heard us parking our bikes and opened the door even before we knocked. He had long before gone to sleep on the floor between the reception desk and the entry door but he knew the guys from room two were still out.

We came in soaked and topless, trying not to get things too wet on the way. We changed into dry clothes and Kym packed up because the slow-boat was leaving in six hours. In the morning, with his pack already slung onto his back, he shook me awake and said goodbye and wished me safe travels and left to go north.