Travel Thursday Snapshot: We Cannot Romania, We Gotta Go, part 2

The next morning, driving into Deva gave me my first look at Romania, and it was basically like a lot of places I’d seen in Latin America. Plenty of trees on those hills, but one had to wonder how long that would last, if industry and commerce and most of all capitalism blew into this town.
Then I was told Transylvania means “Land Beyond the Forest,” so maybe there was a chance. . .
First things first: find a real place to stay. The best hotel in town—which wasn’t saying much, the elevator was tiny and kept sticking—charged us four dollars—yep, four dollars!—for three nights. Even 25 years ago. . . you just gotta lie back and let that sink in. Yep, it’s true, not lying.
Second order of business: find a local in need of cash who will do my laundry.
Finally in the afternoon—nap time after the train and lumpy overcrowded couch—I got my first glimpse of downtown, and I actually did manage to dig up a couple of old photos taken once the rain stopped. Yes, that’s me posing like someone pretending to be cool in front of a giant sign that said Romania, as well as the guy on the right over the Transilvania sign.

Other adventures included getting a haircut and shave—with a straight razor—getting stopped by a hot blonde in front of a wedding store, and being given a chance to choose the music played at the dance club that night. My selections, awesome as they were, proved to not be popular with the locals, so I had to find another way of entertaining myself those nights.
One way was chatting with one of the few people who knew English, who happened to be a friend of the hot blonde from earlier. The most memorable exchange, apart from finding out how many words in Romanian are the same in Spanish, was when he said he loved the blonde, but platonically.
“But Plato was wrong about everything!”
“This is true.”
“Maybe you love her Socratically.”
The last part that was fun was walking back to the hotel at two in the morning, with my superior night vision. People claimed they didn’t actually believe in vampires. . . but they didn’t walk alone at night either.

Travel Thursday Snapshot: We Cannot Romania, We Gotta Go, part 1

Having a few days before I had to be in Munich but getting a little weary of Prague, I hopped on a train to Budapest, where I always knew where to go for fun, only to sit next to a guy who I took for American—totally no accent—only to have him be Norwegian. He was going to visit his girlfriend in Deva, the capital of Transylvania, as well as invest in a nightclub, and since at that point I’d never been to Romania, I figured why not and joined him on the train that would go across Hungary.
One of my main reasons for going, besides hopefully meeting some Olympic gymnasts in their training town, was the two books I had in my backpack. I’d taken many books on the trip and bought even more—sent a whole box back home I’d bought in Germany and Netherlands—which I kept in my big backpack, but I would always have a couple in my go bag, and in this case they were Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Interview With a Vampire. If that wasn’t a sign to go to Transylvania. . .
And they were needed, as eastern Hungary has some of the most boring landscape Nature ever created: a solid hundred miles of nothing but wheat fields. Kansas has nothing on this. The only exciting thing was at the border, where I was extorted $31 for a visa. It only got better—so to speak—when darkness fell, but the train was so slow we didn’t get into town until after two in the morning, and that’s only because I asked someone where we were. Bugsy—yep, that was his name, said so on the passport—was fast asleep and had about two seconds to gather his gear. By the time we got to the door the train was in motion and, big backpack strapped on, I jumped off and tried to land on two feet, which was a stupid thing to do for someone who was a big fan of inertia. Luckily the backpack stopped me before too long, but Bugsy took much harder and numerous shots from the cement.
So then I had to grumpily sit on my backpack while he called his local contacts, only to find no one could pick us up. Luckily there was one guy—a barber or baker or something—who made extra money by meeting the trains to see if anyone needed a taxi, so only an hour later–after two stops to pour water in the radiator–I was sitting at a table in a small dining room in a small house, snacking on potatoes and who knows what else while politely fending off glasses of the local moonshine. Soon after that I was catching some shuteye on a couch next to a stranger, wondering why I wasn’t in Budapest with a beautiful girl I’d met on a previous trip. . .
Finally excitement happened the next day. . . which you can read about next week.


Travel Thursday Snapshots: Djerba, Tunisia

No one told me to put on sunblock before going to bed at night. . .
Sighing heavily, knees creaking as my feet hit the floor, I walked over to the large window behind the bed, the stars of last night replaced by the heavy sunlight that had awakened me. Below the almost-tropical blue sky was a beach, though it had plenty of big rocks, enough to make real surf noise that had probably helped in lulling me to sleep last night, not an easy thing to do when you suffer from both insomnia and apnea. . . plus in this particular instance jetlag.
The scene made it easy to picture Odysseus’ men lazing on the sand while subsisting on lotus flowers, probably that blue water lily I’d seen on my first walk. Often called the “Polynesia of the Mediterranean,” Djerba was an island of palm trees and sandy beaches, along with the inevitable luxury hotels. What made it different than the rest of the Med, as well as the Carib, the Pacific, and basically everywhere else, was that it belonged to a Muslim country, albeit one not all that strict. Off the coast of Tunisia, Djerba not only had pirate castles, ancient synagogues, buildings that were featured in the original Star Wars (those were the droids you were looking for!) and open-air markets full of potters and silversmiths, it also had a casino. . . not that I would be wasting my time gambling, though I did hear there was a game room, with air hockey, Galaxian, skeeball, etc. You know, in case I got bored with all the sun. . .
Which I did, but not before walking what felt like the entire island’s circumference; at least my knees were creaking for an honest reason now. Realizing I was still early for dinner, I took the scenic route back to the hotel; unlike most tourists, I savored the moments amongst the locals, both their festivities and everyday work. How else would I have met so many friendly people, watched some dancers rehearsing for some festival, come across a wedding procession with the bride riding a camel? All soundtracked to melodious flutes and pulse-pounding tambourines.
And then end the day sharing the absolute splendor of a Mediterranean sunset with fishermen still casting their nets at this late hour, though I figured the clock didn’t matter, since fish don’t sleep.
Refreshed and relaxed without having stopped the walking, I wandered back towards the hotel, my mental GPS unerring as usual as I walked through shady gardens of fig, apple, and pomegranate; I’d grown up with a granada tree in the front yard, so I recognized that last fruit easily without wanting to reach up and grab one. Skipping the olive groves, though taking in the gnarled trunks that proved just how old civilization was on this island, I found myself high enough to look out, in the last dregs of post-sunset glow, to what I’d heard called The Island of the Pink Flamingo, as always wondering if it would be worth the trip. . .


Travel Thursday Snapshots: Spokane, Washington

One could hardly be blamed for thinking of rainy Seattle when Washington state was mentioned, but the view all around me was as different as it could get. All the liquid precipitation fell west of the mountains, which was why the coast averaged over ten feet of rain a year while on this other side of the Cascade Range both the ground and the people were much dryer. Here in early fall there was plenty of sun, tons of fresh fruit, and a vast rolling countryside with lots of space for everyone.
But don’t visit in winter. . .
Due to the miracles of modern refrigeration and irrigation, this part of the country was pretty famous for growing a lot of food, but for that same reason, plus all the snow in the winter, it didn’t get many visitors. Amber waves of grain might sound poetic, but to the eye, and camera, they were pretty boring. Most tourists, like most residents, preferred to cluster with the seafood around Puget Sound.
I’d visited this part of the country only once before, during my collegiate sports career, and thought it was high time—whatever that means—to check it out when I wasn’t worried about soccer or Grinch-like soccer coaches. Once here I simply wandered around, going wherever the spirit took me, figuring I might end up somewhere in Montana or Wyoming before I got bored.
Problem was, I was already a little bored, after hours of the same landscape. Still, it would be different once I got to Idaho, since mountains are so much more fun.
But now, as the highway crested the hill, my eyes were filled with the panorama of Spokane, sprawling a lot more than anyone would have thought before seeing it. I’d read there were close to 200,000 inhabitants, but from the view it didn’t look like they were jammed into a small place, and after all it was the major metropolis of a pretty big area, stretching from the Cascades to the Rockies, which for some reason was called the Inland Empire, like there wasn’t already one of those in Southern California, neither of them having monarchs. . .
I sighed at the way my mind worked sometimes and looked for a hotel.
Other than a local college volleyball game, where I spent more time looking at a blonde on the visiting team’s bench, the eastern part of Washington state hadn’t thrilled me on my first day. The next morning brought me to the tourism office, which pushed a “finest old homes” tour that bored me in a hurry, but Manito Park had a Japanese garden where I enjoyed myself for a while, as well as a more formal garden—it had “formal” in the name, after all—with the kind of scenery that had me maxing out a couple of smallish memory cards, so I really couldn’t complain.
For a moment I thought about dropping all the way down to Oregon, thinking of all the shots I’d get of the fall foliage, a sharp contrast to what I was seeing now. The entire Palouse region, between the wooded hills surrounding Spokane to the Blue Mountains—nothing like the Australian version—was full of barren knolls, low but steep. The tourism guy had told me this was the best wheat-growing land in the world, and if it wasn’t just pure homerism then I had to wonder how bored a grad student must have been to think up that study.
Somehow I ended up at the Grand Coolie Dam, which was, as one might expect, the centerpiece of the Grand Coolie Area. Not worried that I’d be missing the “spectacular” laser light shows shown only during the summer, I just stood there and looked up at what had at one time been the largest concrete structure in the world. . . then shook my head and got busy shooting the lakes, which, according to the tourist propaganda, reached north almost to the Canadian border. Before the dam, the Columbia Basin was so barren locals said you had to prime yourself to spit, and jackrabbits had to carry canteens. Definitely hard to believe, the way things looked now, but all the scenes of irrigation sprinklers bubbling happily along and over the wheat, grapes, corn, potatoes, and other stuff I couldn’t identify now made sense.
Realizing I was feeling tired, I remembered something I’d read in the tourism propaganda and dug through the stash. There it was, Soap Lake. I tried really hard—and was only moderately successful—to ignore the part about them having the world’s largest lava lamp, concentrating on the spa of it all. The name of the place, they claimed, came from a local native term for “Healing Waters,” even though in one of the photos I could see the buildup of what really did look like soap right at the water’s edge. The tribes used the lake for healing purposes, even brought their animals, so I figured it was good enough for me. If one of the twenty-three minerals—or more likely a combo of them—in the water and mud didn’t work for me, it wouldn’t be from lack of trying.
A quick meal at a place with wi-fi brought me more info; although I was looking for a good massage spa, I kept getting sidetracked by the science. At least I learned a new word: meromictic, which meant the lake had two layers of water that never mixed. The first layer was over eighty feet of mineral water, while the second was mud, with a stronger mineral composition and concentrations of unusual substances and microscopic life forms. That caused some pause, as I didn’t want any kind of life forms, especially unusual ones, all over me, but then I figured I didn’t need the mud pack as much as the massage. Seeing there were only eleven meromictic lakes in the whole country, I filed that away for the next quirky road trip.
Then I really got excited at the end of the list of minerals present—sodium, chloride, carbonate, sulfate, bicarbonate, etc.—when I read it matched the contents of the water in the Baden-Baden spa in Germany! Having been there and enjoyed it, in fact was one of my fave places in all of Europe, I let out a little chortle as I wondered if this might be just as good a stop as that had been. . . but since I didn’t think I’d be running into any European supermodels here, I doubted it. The waitress looked at me a little funny, but I merely grinned, thinking this would be the highlight of her boring day.
Once there I found references to the lava lamp unavoidable, though I couldn’t help tsking at how some locals didn’t want it, thinking this icon of the 60s would inspire other cultural artifacts of the time, namely drugs and sex. On my trip across the state yesterday I’d passed through Moses Lake and found the description exactly like a friend had told me, and now realized she’d been dead on as to the “moral” aspects as well, though morality was hardly the word I’d use for it. No wonder Martha the Stewardess left this area.
Finally I was having the massage I’d promised myself, followed by a dip in the healing water. I wasn’t about to go for the whole works; the thought of those microscopic critters was still on my mind. Eventually I settled for the therapeutic mineral water bath, foot bath, and biofeedback, though I didn’t expect to need that any time soon. I almost gave in to my curiosity about the detoxifying infrared sauna, but somehow managed to rise above.


Travel Thursday Snapshots: How I Became a St. Kilda Fan

Back in the mid-nineties I was on my first official trip to Australia (official=non-military-related). It was my first time in Melbourne, and I wanted to visit a friend in one of the suburbs despite the rain that wouldn’t let up my entire trip. (Is it any wonder I prefer Sydney?)
So I jump on the tram/trolley/train/whatever and end up sitting next to a lady in her 60s or so, with whom I amuse myself by pretending I’m a local and checking out how well I can do the accent.
When I got to my stop and said goodbye she looked surprised, at which point I realized I’d forgotten the accent. “Bloody Yank!” she laughed and waved as I dropped off, a nice memory as I searched for the right address to find Christina.
A few hours later I was back at the station, though in no hurry, as I had nothing planned for the rest of the day, just wandering downtown. This time I was sitting next to a big blonde guy who would not be out of place in a boxing ring in Russia or Germany, but his cheery “Good day, mate!” left no doubt he was in his natural habitat. We spent the whole ride talking, mostly on the differences between our countries, and then he asked me if I’d ever heard of Australian Rules Football.
Oddly enough I had, which surprised him. I’d actually only caught a glimpse of it on a sports news show, where a player was sitting on the grass with his right kneecap somewhere in the vicinity of his lower shin. The amazing part was that he didn’t seem to be in any pain, simply staring at this weird circumstance. . . until he drops his hand to try to smack the damned patella back into place. Still the strangest sports moment I’ve ever seen. . .
He agreed with a huge laugh, then said he was a player on a local team named St. Kilda—the Saints, as one might expect—and invited me to come watch them practice. Having found the game an interesting mix of soccer, American football, a touch of basketball, and possibly some others, I heartily agreed, and was happy I did when we walked into the stadium and the team manager asked if I wanted to dress up and play, despite not knowing what the hell I would be doing.
So of course I said yes!
It wasn’t easy. The hardest part was getting used to the ball, which was more or less shaped like an American football, but quite a bit bigger. Having been a wide receiver and kicker in high school, I eventually made some good catches, though I had no idea it was okay to whack your opponent in the back or climb all over him. The kicking was a bit more difficult, as I was used to booming it as hard as I could, not aiming at a teammate thirty meters away. The hand passing was hard too, never having seen anything like it. But I was really excited to score a goal, even in practice, because this sport has by far the best scoring salute by a referee.

Oddly enough, in this gif St. Kilda just scored!

Oddly enough, in this gif St. Kilda just scored!

My best moment was going on a long run through the midfield, barely remembering to dribble that silly-shaped giant ball, dodging a few tackles with a couple of spin moves, and then kicking on the run in the general direction of the goal. Turned out to be a forty yarder right over the last defender, and as I tried to slow down I pictured the umpire in my mind with his double-gun salute. . .
It was magical. . .

Travel Thursday Snapshot: Copenhagen Thermometer

Having been born and raised in Southern California, I reach for a hoodie when it gets into the 60s. Oddly enough, I like cool weather, as long as I’m warmly dressed. My hands and feet don’t like it, but my legs don’t mind, which is why often you’ll catch me wearing shorts with gloves. As long as my nose and ears can take it, and the wind isn’t so bad, I’m good to go even in the low 50s.
Of course I did some skiing in the local mountains, shot the Vancouver Winter Olympics—really wasn’t that cold—and most of all did Arctic training in the Marines, where I learned the secret to going to the bathroom in freezing weather: don’t. But that was with the highest tech gear available, and with all the running around I was actually sweating as long as the wind chill didn’t get through the balaclava. So I have been in cold weather before, even ridiculous stuff—I only lasted two hours on Antarctica, but that was partly due to the smell of the penguins—but am in no way used to it.
It was early November as I took the shuttle to LAX, wearing my heaviest jacket because it wouldn’t fit in my luggage. Of course it had to be 104 in the city of beautiful angels that day, but by the time I landed in London it was exactly half that, so I ended up needing the jacket and was glad I’d put up with the sweat to start.
A few weeks later I was in Copenhagen, fully enmeshed in the story A Ton of Redheads, which you will find earlier in this blog history. It was a rare evening alone, so for once I didn’t have a redhead telling me which club to head to. Instead I wandered from the center of town, where the train station was, though not taking the Stroget this time, as I knew it well by now. I’m sure my fantastic sense of direction kept me from getting too lost—could always grab a taxi back anyway—but all these years later I can’t remember just where I was when I stopped to take a photo of something most tourists probably didn’t notice.copen
If my math isn’t as bad as usual, that thermometer on the building had it in the low 40s, but that was early in the evening, and the night was just starting. Take a look at the little kid in the right foreground, blimped up like the Michelin Man, to tell you what his parents thought about the forecast. (I later went over to see what he’d found on the ground that was so interesting, but it must have moved on.) I do remember walking down that street, looking for anything that caught my eye like I do in Berlin or Zurich or many other places. Perhaps I wrote something down in my journal about it, but there’s nothing that comes to mind in my brain about anything I saw there, which means nothing bad happened either. As long as I kept walking I didn’t feel much cold, until my ears and nose couldn’t take it anymore. At a certain point, not having any fun, I said screw it and flagged down a taxi to my hotel, knowing I had a full day of redheaded fun to come once the sun came up. . . and warmed things up a bit.

Travel Thursday Snapshots: Oostende

For a SoCal boy used to warm beaches and colorful sunsets, there was something almost magical about the gloominess of the North Sea. It was easy to tell these were regular everyday clouds and not storm clouds, though the water was roiling and the sea breeze was chilly, the kind of landscape that made imaginations run wild: warships, monsters, even hurricanes.
As had become usual for me whenever I was traveling in a cold place, I longed for ice cream, and found it easily, though the pretty redhead seemed at first surprised and then amused to have a customer in this weather. She’d literally been the bright spot of the day—and I don’t mean just her hair—as she’d been lonely without customers and, like a lot of Europeans, wanted to practice her English. She managed to slip in a remark about her husband early on so there would be no misunderstandings, and considering I was in my early 20s and just arrived in Europe I took it better than I might have otherwise expected, continuing to chat as I passed the time until I could move on to a warmer place.
And yet here I was sitting on the promenade, gazing at the sea. . .
My morning had started in London, more specifically at a hostel in the remains of a castle in Holland Park, just west of Kensington Palace. Waking up at such an early hour was bad enough, made worse because there were a bunch of people sleeping around you who would get riled if you woke them. Every sound as I dressed and packed seemed magnified until I finally lugged my backpacks out into the lobby to call for a taxi from one of those infernal British payphones where you make the call first and, once they’ve answered, make them wait until you put the coins in. Then it turned out the front door was locked and it took me a bit to find the rear entrance, by which time the cabbie was waiting impatiently in the cold gloom.
Though I did not fall asleep on the way to Victoria Station, I didn’t remember any of the ride. Nor did I fall asleep as I sat on the cold floor with my back against a wall, waiting to check in for the train that would take me through the southern part of England to the ferry/jetfoil/hovercraft. Luckily I was wearing my high school choir hoodie, which bore a huge maple leaf in honor of our Vancouver Expo 86 tour, leading an also-yawning couple to approach me and ask if I was a Canuck too. They didn’t seem all that disappointed to find I wasn’t, as we kept each other company through the trip, and I ended up having lunch a few times with them over the years whenever I visited Victoria. (One time Rob took me to his wife’s Bath and Bodyworks-type shop to surprise her—she remembered me too—and then led me a few blocks over to a strip club, but that’s another story.)
With the boat landing in Oostende I first made my way to the Eurail office to get my pass validated, then had my ice cream redhead time. Another hardy soul was womaning a pomme fritte stand despite the cold, but even though French fries are one of my fave eats I resolved to wait until just before heading for the train station to satisfy both my curiosity and my hunger. But that wasn’t for another two hours. This was obviously in a time before cell phones, when we had to lug around 1000-page books called “Let’s Go: Europe,” but I simply couldn’t manage to pull mine out because I was too mesmerized by this pedestrian yet somehow magical view of the North Sea. . .
Almost missed my train. . .