Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Albino and the Albanian

       First of all I have to say that when I set out on this trip I had no intention of getting involved with any men.  Maybe have a little fun but absolutely no feelings would be involved.  I intended to take this journey alone and get to know myself a little better.  Figure out what I want without anyone else swaying my decisions.  Since I've been single for so long I didn't think it would be an issue. Sometimes it just happens though.  But before get into my two weeks on what I like to call Gilligan's Island I should try to remember back to Budapest.

       Oh Budapest.  Randomness at it's finest.  Most of you reading this are my friend on facebook so you've probably seen the pictures.  It seemed like every corner I turned there was something to make me laugh.  My second night in town I went down to the river to watch the sunset.  It was breathtaking.  And I mean that literally.  For whatever reason the city has decided to line the entire waterfront with dumpsters.  Combined with the heat, the stench can be a little overwhelming but the view was worth plugging my nose for a while.  I sat for a couple of hours and watched the sun go down and the bridges light up.  It really was beautiful.  I was walking back towards the general direction of my hostel when I stumbled upon what I consider a people-watching-jackpot.  A late night, booze filled, book fair in the middle of the street complete with a DJ on stage and a plethora of dancing fools.  I think my jaw dropped open when I stumbled upon this gem.  Immediately I found a seat and proceeded to watch these fine folks dance the night away to an array of ridiculous American music.  Absolute entertainment.

     The next day I was still feeling a little under the weather so I took the hostel receptionist's recommendation and went to one of the Bath Houses.  This is what the city is most known for.  I wasn't sure what to expect so I was a little surprised when I found the place.  It looked more like an ancient castle than what I thought a bath house would be.  This was no modern day Gene Juarez type of spa day.  The grounds were originally built in the late 1800s of which most has remained the same.  Once I paid my entrance fee I knew the inevitable was coming;  I didn't bring a swimsuit with me on this trip which meant that I would have to rent one for the day.  I know what you're thinking---That's disgusting!  Well, I learned very quickly once I left the comforts of home that if you don't have a "Get over it real quick" attitude you're probably going to have a miserable time.  So I told myself to get over it and just rent a suit.  I really wanted to sit in those jacuzzi pools!  I went up to the rental counter and the friendly middle aged man just looked at me and smiled.  He proceeded to hand me three tiny bikinis to choose from.  Let me just say that the only time I've ever worn a bikini was in 6th grade on a camping trip.  I'm pretty sure there were one-piece suits available but I just grabbed one and prayed that it would at least cover my goods.  That guy knows what he's doing!  It fit me just fine so as I looked around and realized that 99% of the people in this place have never been close to being model I again told myself to get over it and not worry about what anyone else thought about me.  It was an empowering moment. There were tons of jacuzzi pools, each at a different temperature.  Starting at cool and going all the way up to what I imagine the tap water in Hell must feel like.  I sunk down in one of the pools for 15 minutes and then it was time for my massage.  The gentlemen at the counter said his brother would be doing the honors.  I was imagining some tall, dark handsome man to call my name back to the tables.  Then out walked a not so friendly, older German lunch lady looking woman.  Her demeanor made me feel like I was about to enter a torture chamber.  But it was actually great. That massage was just what I needed.  I spent the next few hours going from pool to pool.  It's crazy how many different types of people I've met in the last six weeks.  That day I met a pilot from Egypt who was offering me a discounted flight from New York to come visit him and see his homeland.  As tempting as it sounded I'm pretty sure I'm not the first lady he's thrown out that offer to.

       The hostel I was staying at was the worst yet.  It was dirty and small and I was ready to get the hell out of there.  It was time to go to Greece!  Getting there would be no easy feat.  I had to take the Metro to the Airport--Fly to Athens--Take a bus to the port--Take an overnight ferry to Crete Island--Find the bus station--Take a bus from Heraklio to Xania--Transfer to another bus to Plakias--and then find my hostel.  It was an absolutely exhausting 19 or so hours.  And I can't forget that I almost didn't make it!  The bed on the ferry was so much more comfortable than the sheet-covered-plywood at the previous hostel, that I overslept.  No big deal, right?  I woke up to find that my cabin mates were no where to be found and it sounded like the ship's engines had started. I jumped out of my bunk in an absolute panic, threw my things in my pack and ran out the door.  I had overslept by two and a half hours and the ship was getting ready to head back soon.  Needless to say it was not a great way to start the day.  I managed to find the bus station just fine.  I had to wait two hours for the next bus so I had time to brush my teeth and hair and change clothes.  Thank goodness because I looked like an absolute mad woman.

       The bus rides were a little scary but very pretty.  Most of the time was spent on a tiny road going through the mountains with peeks of the sea here and there.  Apparently these buses are also used as courrier services.  The driver pulled over to an unmarked tree or bench a few times and left a brown paper wrapped package for someone to pickup.  It looked a little sketchy if you ask me.  But little did I know I was entering the land of no time and no rules.

      When I finally got off on the bus in town I couldn't believe my eyes.  The water was bright turquoise, the sun was shining high over the mountaintop.  It looked like heaven on earth.  When I finally made it to the hostel I was greeted by Sky, one of the girls who works there.  Her job is mainly to greet the new folks, get them aquainted with everything and cook breakfast every morning.  I was absolutely exhausted but she said that she was heading down to One Rock in about half an hour.  When I decided to go with her I didn't know what I was getting myself into.  We hiked through the heat for about 45 minutes and there it was---an absolute oasis.  We carefully climbed down the wall of rocks and onto the tiny beach.  I've never seen anything like it.  It was filled with about 20 other people.  Mostly tan young men.  They all turned their heads as I layed down in the sand.  If I ever felt like Casper this was the moment.  I don't think most of them have ever seen someone as pale as me. The stares were a little bit intimidating but once again I told myself to get over it.  I went into the water with the bikini Sky let me borrow and just soaked it all in.  I was absolutely content.  Not long after that one of the sexiest men I have ever laid eyes on came swimming up to me.  I saw him as soon as I got to the beach and assumed he was staring at me for the same reason everyone else was.  He swam up close to me and in his Albanian accent said "You're very beautiful."  He didn't speak very much English but his forwardness was very clear.  I had to keep saying "No I'm not going for a swim up around the cove, No I'm not going to kiss you".  When it was time to go I just smiled and waved goodbye.  I had a feeling that this was a pretty small town and if we were meant to see each other again we would. 

       I went back to the hostel and took a much needed shower and got ready to go out with everyone for the night.  When I came out of my room there he was--Sitting at the table playing Perudo with the whole crew.  We all headed out to Joe's bar and proceeded to drink entirely too much Raki.  (Definition of Raki--The town's homemade liquor that is ridiculously strong and tastes like rubbing alcohol;  It is usually poured from a plastic water bottle;  It is custom for the waiter, person working at the bar, the pita shop, whoever to offer you a shot at any point during a meal or while just sitting in a chair;  You are also never allowed to say no)  This would have a huge impact on my trip.

      My new friend Meti and I really hit it off so I ended up staying with him almost every night I was there.  His place was up on the mountainside and the only way to get there was by his motorbike.  Not a Vespa or a motorcycle but a small, old school dirt bike looking thing.  Since my accident a few years ago I have been terrified to ride anything of the sort.  This is now a fear I think I have somewhat conquered now. 

      Because we couldn't call each other on the phone we'd pick a place and time to meet every night.  We'd have drinks and dinner with his friends and family.  Most of them spoke very little English so I found myself lost in my own thoughts while they carried on.  I didn't mind at all.  When the night was over we'd take the terrfying ride up to his place.  But the mornings were the best.  I'd wake up next to Meti and we'd sit at his little table and eat breakfast together.  His adorable little cousins or his dad who lives around the corner would come in and join us.  Although we couldn't really speak to each other I really grew to care about them.  They were all so very kind to me.  Seeing how much they loved each other made me miss my family very much though.  In the afternoon he'd usually take me back into town.  I'd take a shower at the hostel, change clothes, go to the beach, read, eat and just relax.  I relaxed more than I have my entire life and enjoyed every second of it.  It was the perfect arrangement. 

       Some nights his father would cook for us.  The three of us would sit together with the table completely covered with plates of food, none of which I had any idea what they were. The first night they piled my plate full and I was expected to finish it.  Two hours later the table was cleared, the dishes were cleaned and I was still sitting there with food on my plate.  I was so afraid they thought I was being rude but there was no way I could finish.  His father just smiled at me.   The food was always so delicious--Except for the fish;  I've always hated seafood which I explained to them but out of sheer politeness I tried it.  They stared at me and just laughed when they saw the look on my face when I tasted it. The meals were everything I could expect an authentic Greek meal to be and I'll never forget those times we sat together.

      I do wish I had spent a bit more time with the group at the hostel.  Most of the people there have been coming back for years and years so it feels almost more like big family than a group of random strangers.  And everyone knows everyone in town.  It had it's pluses and minuses.  It was nice knowing that everyday I could walk down to one of the restaraunts and know my friend Viktor would be working and we could sit and talk for a while.  It was nice knowing that I'd see Arthur walking around in just his swim trunks looking for girls.  And it was nice knowing that everyone would be at Joe's bar every night.  And I knew I'd see Meti's best friend Klodi every night.  He was so very nice to me and put alot of effort into translating what was going on so I felt included.  I can't wait to hang out with him and his wife when he moves to Seattle!!  What wasn't nice was that in a place so small everyone likes to gossip.  I felt like everyone knew my business the first night I didn't go back to the hostel.  It made me really uncomfortable.  It made me feel guilty when I chose to hang out with Meti instead of them.  But I reminded myself that this trip is about me and I can't always please everyone. 

    I did meet some really great people at the hostel though--Jess from Australia was awesome!! We had so much fun together and I'm hoping we meet up again in Ireland.  The scuba instructors Mo and Mark---Both fantastic guys who I won't forget.  I'll never forget the four of us drinking Raki, eating bread and olive oil at their apartment and witnessing one of the last epic jam sessions.

      I was scheduled to leave the island after one week but decided to stay two.  I just wasn't ready to go.  Although my love affair wasn't exactly a fairy tale romance I think I made the right decision by staying.  We really do care about each other and had a great time.  I was dreading leaving because I learned very quickly that traveling from city to city is very exhausting.  I was also worried that my time in Plakias would be the highlight of my trip and nothing else could possibly top it.  It's also very hard to go when you have a ridiculously good looking man asking you to stay with him for another week.  So I forced myself to pick a date and book a flight.  My last night I went out to dinner with everyone from the hostel.  Then we all went to Joe's where I met with the Albanian crew.  We drank and danced and I took my last trip up the mountanside.  Saying goodbye and leaving was one of the hardest things I've had to do so far.  I made some really good friends who I hope to see again someday.

   I'm here now writing from Rome.  Today I was the absolute tourist--Went to the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Castle, ate Gelato and a Calzoni.  It's been a great day.  It's all going by so fast and I'm looking forward to seeing how this second half of my trip will play out!!

Friday, June 3, 2011

I Left My Heart in Krakow

Well, part of it anways.  I already know I want to go back again someday.  It was unlike anywhere I´ve been so far.  The streets are all cobblestone and filled with shops and markets and cafes.  It has almost a midevil feeling to it.  The first day I just sort of wandered around and had lunch in the square.  Later I went back to the hostel to take a shower and get ready to go out that night.  When I got back to my room there was a very handsome young Australian man unloading his stuff into the bunk next to me.  The conversation started the same as in every dorm room so far. "Hi. I'm so and so.  Where are you from?"  We started talking and an hour into the conversation he asked if I wanted to go out for a beer.  (Conversations typically lead to going out for a drink)  So we found a tiny little bar down the road.  There was only one bartender and a handful of people in the place.  We drank the local beer and after a few hours had passed he asked if I wanted to get dinner.  So we wandered around through the tiny streets, through an iron gate and walked up to what looked like it could be a restaurant.  We sat down at one of the four tables and proceeded to have the best dinner of my life.  We talked about everything.  About our family, our lives, our goals.  He was funny, charming and sincere.  I've met and gone out with alot of different guys but there was something different about him.  It was all incredilbly romantic.

The next day I decided to go out on my own and go to Auschwitz.   I´ve lost track of how many documentaries I´ve watched and books that I´ve read regarding the Holocaust.  I´ve always been compelled to learn more about the atrocities the victims endured.  I took the hour long bus ride through the Polish countryside and once I arrived  I was assigned to a group with a guide.  It was a beautiful day outside.  Warm, sunny and green grass all around the barracks.  It looked nothing like how I had imagined it in my mind.  The guide walked us through barrack after barrack.  Some were completely untouched since before liberation.  There were pictures of the victims.  Walls and walls lined with photos of women and children.  One of the buildings held nothing but belongings of the people.  The Nazis tried to burn all of the evidence but what is just a small portion of what was left was still able to fill entire rooms to ceiling.  A room filled with suitcases, a room filled with brushes, a room filled with kitchenware, a room filled with eyeglasses.  It was proof that these people really believed that they were being relocated to another city and had no idea what their fate would soon be.  I finally started to tear up when I walked towards the window looking into a room filled with human hair.  Most people know that everyone had their heads shaved upon arrival at the camps, but to see an entire room filled to the ceiling with what was physically a part of these people was almost too much to take.  Absolutely heartbreaking.  We continued walking and went through one of the gas chambers.  Out of respect for the victims it is asked to be absolutely silent while walking through.  It was so hard to believe that I was standing in the place where so many lost their lives.  I almost felt guilty for having the freedom to walk through there.  It was an experience I will never forget.

When I made it back into town I decided I was going to take it easy that night and just relax.  I walked into the hostel kitchen to sit down and use the internet but as soon as I walked in the owner handed me a cocktail.  "You'll be the first one to try."  She was very pretty, petite and blond but something told me to not dare try to say no to her.  It turns out it was Polish Vodka Tasting Night.  So I sat down at the table with a group of guys.  We were listening to music, drinking and laughing when in walked my handsome new friend.  We all went out on the town and it ended up being another amazing night.  The details though I'll have to keep for myself.  I had to leave for the train the next morning and was wondering how our goodbye would play out.  I was a little surprised when he asked if I wanted to go out for breakfast.  We ate and then he said he'd walk me to the train station.  We got to the station and he said he'd help me find my train.  And then it was just like the movies---We got to the platform right before the train was leaving.  He kissed me, said a few sweet things and then I had to watch him walk away.  I'm not usually one to believe in fairytale romances or even believe that you can have real feelings for someone after just a few days.  But there was a definitely a connection between us and I'll never forget the time we got to spend together.  I just wish it could have been more.

Then came another 12 hour train trip. I owe my arrival in Prague to the kindness of a few strangers.  I had to transfer trains three times and without their help I could possibly be sleeping on some Polish farm right now.  Some stations are modern and have neon reader boards like the airport to help you find your way a bit more easily.  Not on this particular trip. You'd have to have some sort of degree in world travel to not have reached the level of confusion I did.  But once again I found my way and ended up in Prague.  I have to mention that getting to your desired train station is only half the battle.  Once you get there you have to figure the local transportation; Whether you need to take the tram, metro or the bus.  Once you have that figured out you have to decipher how to purchase a ticket.  There's usually 10 tickets to choose from.  And if I need to take the metro and then transfer to the tram I just accept the fact that I will probably end up paying twice as much for what I actually need to get me where I'm going.  After I've traveled for over 10 hours all I care about is finding the hostel and getting something to eat no matter how much it costs.

Another fun thing has been trying to calculate how much I'm spending in actual dollars.  I've used three different currencies so far.  Once I reached the Czech Republic I had given up on trying to figure it all out.  I paid for what I needed and that was that.  It's so nice to be back in the land of the Euro.

Sir Toby's Hostel was one of the coolest places I've stayed at so far but I think the city of Prague is over rated.  My second day there one of the locals, Richard, took us on a free walking tour of the city.  It was more like a sweat-your-ass-off-hike-as-fast-as-you-can-race.  He was insane but extremely funny and intelligent.  He sweated profusely and didn't wear deodorant but I felt like in those four hours he showed us the entire city and I learned more about it than I could ever really need to know.  There were only three other people with me.  A journalist from Australia, folk singer from Australia and a strange Ukranian girl from New York.  We were all starving so we went to a cafe Richard recommended.  It was absolutely delicious.  The Australian girl and I walked around and talked for a while.  She's taking the same sort of trip that I am.  She wanted to leave home and see the world for a few months while she figures out what she wants to do with her life.  We of course started to talk about men and she said she's already had two romances on the road so far.  She said she wanted no more just because of how sad it is when you eventually have to part ways.  Lately I've been wondering how to handle meeting all of these amazing people knowing that you only have a few days to spend together.  At first I thought that this would be the perfect circumstance for me.  Although it can be more of a fault than a strength I can usually disconnect myself from people pretty easily.  I'm not even three weeks into my trip and have lost count of how many wonderful people I've met who I would love to spend more time with.  There are just as many good-byes as there are good times.  I'm learning that it goes with the territory of taking a trip like this.  It's kind of sad knowing that the friendships you make have an expiration date.  Don't get me wrong---I am having the time of my life and still can't wait to see what happens next and who I spend time with. 

I've been sick since I left Prague but it's been nice to keep to myself for a few days.  Traveling like this is absolutely exhausting and I think it's nearly impossible to avoid getting sick at some point.  You have to share a room with up to 20 other people, you share small closed in compartments on some trains and Europeans have never heard of a little thing called a toilet seat cover.  I'm starting to feel a little bit better though and decided I can't leave the City of Music without actually hearing some live music.  So tonight I'm getting all dressed up and going to the Mozart Symphony.  Tomorrow morning I'm off to Budapest!