Budapest, Sweet Budapest

So my march through Central Europe continued in Budapest, Hungary.  I arrived Halloween night after a seven hour bus ride from Krakow.  The bus left late in the day, so it wasn’t long before it was dark.  There was almost a full moon that evening which peeked through the clouds.  Along the way, we passed several cemeteries lit up with candles.  All Saints Day is celebrated in Poland with people going to the cemeteries and placing loads of candles on the gravestones of loved ones passed.  For the entire evening ride, the bus never seemed to get on a major highway.  The trip consisted mostly of winding country roads through Poland and Slovakia.  We also passed a few castles which added to the ambiance.  I had some good music going and felt pumped up for some reason.  Perhaps it was the exotic nature I had imagined Hungary to possess.  After arriving at the bus station in Budapest late in the evening, I tried riding the metro to my hostel.  I knew exactly what lines and stops to take, but the ticket machine in the station only took coins.  I just had my notes from the ATM, and nothing was open to make change.  I think taxis are a rip and abhorrent to my thrifty vagabond nature, so I had to walk almost two miles to the hostel.  After sitting for seven hours, I felt the walk did me good anyway.  I passed an old cemetery and several people dressed in costumes along the way.  It was a Halloween I’ll never forget.

When I was in Scotland, I met someone from Budapest at a Couchsurfing meetup.  She told me she would put together a great list of things to see and do if my travels ever took me there.  We stayed in touch, and she delivered a pretty epic list.  Thanks Judit 🙂  This post is going to be rather long because there was so much going on in Budapest, mostly because of that epic list.  The highlights include some incredible architecture, bath houses, ruin pubs, interesting people, good food, a castle, more history lessons, a petting zoo, crazy inflated currency, tech news, the new James Bond movie, an election all-nighter, and yet another awesome hostel experience.

Hungary is part of the European Union, but they’re not on the euro.  They still use the Hungarian forint which, unfortately, is somewhat inflated and can be fun to figure out how much you’re paying every time you use it.  The country technically has a democracy, but events of late are a little troubling which I’ll get into in a bit.  First, some post-WWII history.  Leading up to the war, Hungary benefited economically from its ties with Germany and Italy.  Their government had also become increasingly pro-fascist, and was eventually pressured to join the Axis powers.  They reluctantly joined, but were hoping to avoid direct involvement.  Eventually, their forces were used to invade the Soviet Union.  Towards the end of the war, they attempted a secret peace negotiation with the US and Great Britain.  Germany discovered this, and occupied Hungary as punishment.  Eventually, the advancing Soviet forces took control of the country and as a result, they ended up in the Eastern Bloc after the war.  As with the other Central European countries I visited, they had communism until 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed and a revolution took place.  They now have an elected prime minister, and in 2004, Hungary joined the EU.  However, the current leader, Viktor Orban has recently passed laws restricting media and voter registration, much to the chagrin of European Union leaders.  I asked a local tour guide about it, and he confirmed what I had read and heard.  My couchsurfing friend from there seemed disappointed as well in the leadership, and where things were headed.  It will be interesting to see what happens.

My little history write-ups are really high level, and lack even basic details.  But I try to understand something about each place I visit because it’s almost always relevant to what’s going on now.  On to the fun stuff…

I went on another free walking tour, and learned that the name Budapest actually comes from the two sides of the city separated by the Danube river.  The Buda side is hilly and contains the castle.  The Pest (pesht) side is flat and is where the vast majority of residential buildings are located.  They only came together to become Budapest in the late 1800’s.  Locals will also point out it’s pronounced Bu-da-pesht.  It’s the capital city of Hungary.

View of Pest from the Buda side with the Chain Bridge over the Danube River..

Architecture

The parliament building was modelled after the one in London.

The Hall of Heroes

Not sure what this one was.St. Stephen’s Basilica
Same basilica from the front.  I thought this looked pretty cool.  It’s a church carved into a cliff face.Academy of SciencesMuseum of Fine Arts.  There was a Cezanne exhibit that I liked.  The interior of the building itself is impressive, even without the art.
Castle on the Buda side at night.Chain BridgeHall of Heroes again at night.

Hostel Life

So I know I sound like a broken record when I talk about my great hostel stays, but I’ve been on an awesome run since Prague.  My goal for accommodation has been to find someone who’s turned an apartment or home into a small cozy hostel.  The common area is usually a living room, perhaps with an attached kitchen, and the max number of beds should be something like 20-24.  Budapest is filled with great hostels, and a lot of people go for the ones dedicated to partying everynight.  I’m a little beyond that stage of life, and look for places that are more conducive to meeting other solo adventurers to go exploring with.  In Budapest I found The Big Fish.  Sounds goofy, but it turned out to be my favorite hostel of the entire trip.  The staff were all Hungarian and extremely helpful and friendly.  They were always more than happy to make a phone call or look up opening and closing times for whatever you might be interested in.  On my first night, I met some other backpackers who I explored the city with for the next few days.

They had a great movie selection in the common room.

On my fourth night, I wasn’t feeling too well and needed some fresh air.  I went for a nice long walk around town, over one of the bridges and along the Danube river for a couple hours.  By the end of it, I felt a lot better.  I came back to the hostel to find two new roommates… Anthony and Lucy from Melbourne, Australia.  They had just arrived, and seemed kind of tired after a 10 hour train ride from Romania.  We hit it off right away and despite a busy day, we all seemed eager to go out for a night on the town.  I had a blast hanging out with them and swapping travel stories.  We had been to a lot of the same places, and agreed Edinburgh and Berlin were some of our favorite cities.

Bathhouses

So I didn’t realize it until I arrived that one of the things Budapest is best known for are its bathhouses.  The area has a massive amount of geo-thermal activity which provides the city with loads of hot water for these mineral baths.  There are several around town, but we went to the biggest and most popular one, Szechenyi.  Anthony, Lucy and I went one evening and were really glad we went after dark.  The atmosphere was pretty freakin’ cool as you can tell.

The main pool outside was heated to 38C (100F).  You felt instantly relaxed the moment you went in.  We also went into the sauna.After that first night at the bath house, I knew I’d have to come back at least one more time.  I was enjoying the city and the people I was meeting, so I extended my stay a couple more days, and joined my friends for a morning bath session this time.  I felt like I was some billionaire swimming around in that place.  The funny this is that the bath house admission was only $15 for the whole day.

Ruin Pubs

Another staple of the Budapest scene are ruin pubs.  Think bombed out or abandoned building that no one bothered to repair.  Just put a bar in there, add some lights, and don’t worry about the section where the roof is missing.  This is what a ruin pub looks like.  The most popular one is pictured below and is called Szimpla.  Lonely Planet travel guides rate it the third best bar in the world.

I didn’t take any pictures inside, but found this one..Cendes (CHEN-dish) means quiet in Hungarian and is the name of this other ruin pub my CS friend recommended.  As its name suggests, it was pretty chill.  My friends from the hostel and I went here a couple times and had some Hungarian wine.  Unlike Germany or the Czech Republic, Hungary is known more for its good wine than beer.Near the Danube River on the western side of the city lies a giant market.
My couchsurfing friend from Budapest recommended the food upstairs.  Not only was it very delicious, it was traditional, and also cheap.  We agreed to each order something different and share so that we could sample more of the food.  Backpackers really don’t think anything of this.  We share rooms, common areas, kitchens, bathrooms.  Why not germs? 🙂A second visit to the market… more shared food experiences.  I could have eaten at the market everyday.  The cabbage rolls with sauerkraut on the bottom left was one of my favorite dishes.

At the hostel almost every night, one of the workers would offer everyone a shot of pálinka.  It’s a traditional homebrew Hungarian fruit brandy.  I know, it sounds like moonshine, but I felt if they were offering it all the time, it must be safe.  This particular one was made with honey so it was fairly smooth going down.  We never had just one shot 🙂

In a bit of tech news, I bought a Budapest travel app for my iPhone.  At $3.99, it turned out to be a really great move, and I used it everyday to not only find my way around, but also find good places to eat.  I really have no need for a data plan on my phone when I can get an app that has a map and the ability to use the phone’s GPS to find points of interests, restaurants and cafes.  It’s was one of the best travel apps for a phone I’ve used.

Some other random highlights included seeing the new James Bond movie, checking out Margit Island, and watching the US presidential election returns.  Skyfall hit the theaters in Europe before the US, and Anthony, Lucy and I along with some of my other roommates went.  The hostel employee called ahead and made sure the showing we went to was in English (with Hungarian sub-titles of course).  Cool movie, and we all enjoyed it.

There’s an island in the northeastern part of Budapest called Margit (Margaret Island).  It’s accessed from one of the bridges.  Daniella, another Aussie backpacker from my hostel, joined me for walk to check it out.  I was just expecting a park, but we also stumbled upon a small petting zoo.There was also a ruin of a 13th century church.  It’s funny, we first thought it was an old bathhouse until we saw the sign.

And yes, I was actually able to watch the US presidential election returns live.  Hungary is six hours ahead of EST in the US, so the online coverage I watched started at 1:00AM.  I was determined to stay up all night if necessary.  The common room in the hostel didn’t have anyone else in there, so I just sat there patiently with my laptop watching each state get called.  It was 5:00AM before I got to bed.

As I mentioned, Hungary’s currency is called the forint.  It takes about 225 forint to equal one US dollar.  A very quick rough calculation I did to do conversions was chop off the last two digits, and then divide the result in half to roughly get the US dollar amount.  For example…

10,000 forint would be 100 divided by 2 or roughly $50.  It’s actually $45.40, but it’s better to overestimate a tad.

My original five day stay in Budapest turned into six, then eight and finally nine days in total.  I just kept extending my stay and had trouble leaving.  I almost wanted to go back immediately after I left, it was such a great visit.  It put all of my travels into perspective and made me realize that some earlier cities weren’t as amazing as I had first thought.  It was that perfect blend of an interesting city, with loads of things to see and do, awesome travel companions, good food, and a sweet hostel.  That said, I don’t think I’d want to live in Budapest.  Hungarian is one of the hardest languages to learn, and I don’t think the job market is the greatest right now.  The country also has some issues around its leadership and future in the EU that are troubling.  But the city is at the top of my list of fun places to visit, and I really hope I’m able to come back someday.  I love you Budapest, please don’t go back to being in a country that has a dictatorship.

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Krakow, Poland

Well, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been traveling through more of Central Europe than I thought I would when I left the US.  Part of the reason is going with the flow of what feels right, but I’m also getting more adventurous as I continue to travel.  I’m spending almost four months in Europe, and it would be a shame to only do Western Europe and Scandinavia.  Poland was definitely not on my radar as a possible stop, but I found myself there in late October.  My main interest was going to Krakow and making a day trip to see Auschwitz.  I didn’t realize the camp was so close to Krakow, and was a big reason a lot of backpackers go there.  I also wanted to catch up with a friend I met while traveling in the US who was now living in Krakow.  The stay in the city was really made all the better by my choice in hostel.  I probably wouldn’t have cared much for Krakow if it wasn’t for the hostel and the interesting people I met there.  Combined with the really good Polish food and beer I had, along with the cheap prices, Krakow turned out to be good, but not necessarily at the top of my list.So a bit of history.  As with the Czech Republic, Poland was under Nazi occupation during WWII after it was invaded very early in the war (1939).  Towards the end of the war, Polish resistance fighters attempted to overthrow their Nazi occupiers.  They wanted to achieve sovereignty because they knew if they didn’t, the advancing Soviet forces would eventually liberate the city from the Nazi’s, and place a communist government in place.  The resistance failed, and after the WWII, Poland found itself in the Soviet slice of the pie.  The pre-war Polish government living in exile were ignored by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and a communist government was instituted which lasted until the Soviet Union and Berlin Wall fell in 1989.  At that point, they gained democracy.  In 2004 they joined the European Union. 

After staying in a really small hostel with a chill vibe in Prague, I went looking for similar places in Krakow.  I ended up finding the Football Corner Hostel and got exactly what I was looking for.  The Football reference was to European Football and not Soccer, as the owner was a big fan.  He had even named each dorm room after different leagues in Europe.  The place was basically a three bedroom, two bath apartment.  One room had 8 beds, another 6, and the other four.  The small number of people, and cozy nature of the living room space definitely made it feel like someone’s home and not a hostel.  I had the bed on the left closer to the window.  Bunk beds are so lame for a number of reasons, so it was nice to have my own bed.  The mattress wasn’t all that comfortable, though, but that’s typical for hostels.On my first night, I met a guy from London, George, who I would join on a visit to Auschwitz.  There were three Americans there as well, along with a Kiwi couple.  I already talked about the Auschwitz visit, so I’ll talk about the rest of my time in Krakow. On my second day, I woke up to snow.  At the hostel, we were all a little giddy and wanted to get out and walk around.  The kiwi couple, Rose and Sam, along with a couple others joined us on a walk through the main square and castle complex.The snow turned out to be very packable as we say back home, which means it was good for making snowmen, forts, and snowballs.  Rose got into the spirit…
One of my favorite moments of the day was when we stumbled upon this Halloween market.  They had good food and hot wine.  Hot wine is basically mulled wine and has become one of my favorite drinks.  They had it every where in Prague as well.  The market stand in the picture below had the most appetizing food, and we each ordered something different then shared so we could taste more of the food at the market.

Rose and Sam were two of the most memorable people I’ve met so far.  They had been traveling for something like six months.  They were at the end of their trip and heading back to Auckland in the next few days.  We agreed to meetup again when I get to New Zealand (probably March-ish).  Can’t wait, really cool couple and I loved hearing their travel stories.

So I mentioned meeting a friend from my US travels while in Krakow.  I met Natacha from France way back in Salt Lake City this past July.  She was one of the people on that epic day trip to Arches National Park.  We ended up meeting again in San Diego and planned to meet again when I got to Paris.  She offered to show me around which I was really looking forward to since I’ve heard it can be difficult navigating Paris with English only.  We’ve stayed in touch through Facebook, and she messaged me while I was in Prague that she had taken a job in Krakow and wouldn’t be able to show me around Paris afterall.  I was a little bummed, but totally understood.  Natacha joined our group from the hostel for our snow day walk around Krakow.  We also met up again the following day and tried to buy bus tickets.  She was looking for a monthly pass for the city transport, and I was looking for a ticket to my next city.  You wouldn’t believe it unless you saw it, but there’s a giant three-tiered shopping mall attached to the train and bus station area.  You almost can’t avoid walking through it, and it makes figuring out where to go nearly impossible for someone not familiar with the setup.  Looks like any other shopping mall I’ve seen in the US… It took a while, but I eventually found a cheap bus ticket out of town.  We never did find the place for Natacha to buy her monthly bus pass.  The place felt like a maze.  We both had a good laugh over this board pictured below with bus departures out of Krakow.  Looking at it now, it makes sense to me, but after wandering around the Glowny station for a couple hours lost, this board looked like Chinese to us.

We then went for a walk through town.There’s a green space that completely encircles the main city center.  Centuries ago there was a wall that surrounded the city, but now it’s just trees, grass and park benches.  Really beautiful site with all the snow.

We wrapped up the day with some really good Polish food at this place called Chata (pronounced HAH-tah).  I think it means hut in Polish.  The place was recommend by the hostel, and I had been there a couple days earlier.  Super cheap, authentic food within a really warm and cozy atmosphere.  Add in a pretty French girl for company and what more can you ask for?
Afterwards, Natacha and I said our goodbyes.  It’s too bad we won’t meetup in Paris, but I totally understand.  (She reads this blog, so Natacha, I’m totally serious… no worries 🙂 Congrats and good luck on the new job.  Really glad we got to hang out again in Poland.  Best wishes on your new life in Krakow.  Hope to stay in touch).

In other food and beverige news, I tried a few Polish beers, but this one called Warka (pronounced Varka with a rolling R) was my favorite.  At about $1 for 650ml, I let myself have a couple beers whenever I went out.

Another interesting food find in Poland is something called a zapiekanki.  It’s basically like a french bread pizza with cheese and mushrooms, but not pizza sauce.  The one I had was okay.  I mainly tried it out of curiousity when I heard it was a very popular treat amongst the locals.

In prior blog updates, I used to show pictures of the currency in each country I visited, but for some reason I haven’t lately.  I’ve only been in one country that was on the euro… Germany.  Poland is not on the euro but instead kept their currency… the zloty.  It’s about 3 zloty to 1 US dollar so mental currency conversions were a breeze.So that’s my story about Krakow.  Overall, it was good, but not as impressive as other places I’ve been.  If it wasn’t for Natacha and all the people I met at the hostel, the trip would have been a lonely bore.  When I first started traveling, every city would become my new favorite place.  I’d tell anyone who would listen how awesome the place was I had just been.  However, after four and half months of non-stop travel, I’m a little more discerning.  Krakow was fun for me because of the people I met, not because of the city itself.  I probably wouldn’t go back, but I would definitely recommend going there for a night in order to make a day trip to Auschwitz.  That’s a history lesson you should definitely go see for yourself if you get the chance.  So, if you’re backpacking through Poland, stop to checkout Krakow, but just don’t stay too long. I ended up spending six days, and that was probably two days too long.

Prelude to International Travel

On the bus ride to Vancouver, my brother reminded me that although it may not feel like it, this was the start of my international travel.  My only impression of Vancouver before arriving was that I heard it was very beautiful and cosmopolitan, both of which proved true.  The backdrop of the mountains and Vancouver Bay surrounding the city is incredible.  I’ve seen similar scenery in Seattle and Portland, but the foothills are so close in Vancouver, and the micro-climate around them creates this cool view from the downtown area.  According to Wikipedia, over half of Vancouver’s citizens speak something other than English as a first language.  I didn’t take my own survey, but I did find the city to be extremely diverse and rich with culture.  I heard at least 6-8 different languages just walking down the street everyday, and it wasn’t just tourists.

Shortly after arriving, I switched out my currency and went the grocery store to stock up for the week.  I realized on this trip that my whole routine of eating cheaper by getting food at the store is also a really cool way to get a feel for local customs.  In Canada, almost everything is labeled in French and English.  You also have measurements in kilos or mililiters… as does most of the world.  It’s the mundane things I find the most interesting sometimes.

Once again, I found myself in a hostel.  I stayed at the Samesun Backpacker’s hostel on Granville street right in the middle of downtown Vancouver.  It was a great location, and as usual, I was able to meet some people to go exploring with.  An interesting tidbit… the hostel had a bar open to the public on the first floor.  I guess this is common in Europe, and it’s obviously a great way to meet people.  Some of the hostels in the US don’t even allow alcohol on the premises, or really restrict where you can drink.  The drinking age is 19 in Canada, but most of the people staying in hostels are over 21 anyway.  I guess the slightly greater potential for underage drinking scares US hostels?

Up until my last night, I hadn’t met a single American staying in the hostel, but there were tons of Germans and Austrailians.  A lot of the people staying in the hostel were looking for jobs and places to stay.  Much of Europe and Austrailia have an arrangement with Canada for those under 30 years old.  Residents can get a working visa in Canada without an employer sponsoring you for one year.  Aussies actually get two years, and thus explains why you find so many in Canada.  That’s a pretty cool arrangement, and in theory, equal amounts of citizens go work in other countries so no one is “stealing jobs”.  In fact, I met an English girl a month ago who was headed to Austrailia for work.  If there’s some downside to this, please let me know, because I think it’s a shame we in the US don’t have a similar arrangement with other countries.

Throughout my USA travels, I’ve really become accustomed to using the maps app on my phone to navigate new cities and public transit systems.  I could have let my phone roam in Canada, but that would have been really expensive.  So, on my first day, one of my hostel mates, Shahar, and I were interested in seeing if we could get sim cards for our phones.  Shahar is from Israel and was on her own solo trip around Canada.  She was staying in Vancouver for a couple weeks.  After we checked out a couple cell phone providers, one called Telus seemed to be the best deal at $30/month ($10 sim card + $20 service) for a data/text plan.  It was a bit much for just one week of usage, though, so I decided to stop being a wimp and see how I would do going one week without full use of my phone.  It turned out okay with the paper map from the hostel, and there was just one time where I really wished I had my phone.  I found WiFi all over, including the hostel, coffee shops, restaurants, and the Visitor Centre, so I was at least able to get email, and look things up.  A bit of tech news… a friend turned me on to a phone app called Viber that I found pretty cool.  It’s similar to Skype, and I used it for texting, though it does voice as well.  Viber doesn’t require a login, and just uses your phone number to uniquely identify you, but obviously is just doing text and voice over the internet.  If you let it scan your contact list, it will show you everyone you know who is also on Viber, so no need to “friend” people like Skype.  I don’t get any kickbacks from Viber, but I think it’s definitely worth checking out if you will be out of the country and want to stay in touch or send friends quick pics or updates.

On my first full day, Shahar and I went to Stanley Park which is on the Northwest edge of downtown.  It’s this huge urban park just Northwest of downtown.  It’s a little bigger than Central Park in NYC, and contains some huge trees, and ponds.  I’ve become so used to Pacific Northwest scenery that the dense forresty of Stanley Park wasn’t that new to me, but for Shahar, she was really blown away.  Everything from the birds, squirrels and racoon we saw amazed her.  She reminded me that Israel, especially Southern Israel, doesn’t have much greenery or wildlife.  It gave me a new perspective, and I found a greater appreciation for what I’ve been able to experience in my travels.

After Stanley Park, Shahar wanted to go to the Vancouver Aquarium.  I wasn’t exactly planning on going, and the $30 admission does a lot of damage to my daily budget goal.  I also didn’t really care to see a bunch of fish, but Shahar talked me into it.  Definitely a good idea, and glad I went.

Of course, it’s a lot of big fish tanks, but they’re filled with some exotic stuff.  The highlights of the day, though, were the shows.  They have trained Beluga whales and dolphins that do some things you think would be impossible to train an animal to do.  It still baffles me how it all works… a simple hand wave and the dolphins jump about 10 ft out of the water in total synchronization.  Too bad I couldn’t time it right, or I would have taken a picture.  The whales were awesome too, and had almost human like expressions on their faces.

I spent just about all my time in the downtown area, but also made it to Granville Island which is actually connected to downtown through a bridge.  They had a cool public market and a good brewery… I couldn’t resist trying their sampler.

Honestly, I didn’t get around or take advantage as much of British Columbia as I should have.  I could have tried to make it to Whistler or some of the surrounding islands.  For the first time on the trip, I felt a bit of travel weariness.  I wouldn’t say it was burnout, I just didn’t have the same fire for going out exploring as other cities.  It bothered me I felt that way in such a cool city, and wondered for the first time if I had enough gas for a lengthy overseas trip.  I have been on the road for two months, but I don’t feel like I want to come home yet… not even close.  I can’t expect to always be pumped up, and it’s quite common to have this feeling from what I’ve heard from other travelers, so I’m just chalking it up to needing a few more down days.

So, once again, good trip, and my only regret is not getting out of the downtown area.  I need to work on a couple things for when I get out of the country.  For one, my bank card didn’t work in the ATM’s here.  It worked for purchases, though, and my bank couldn’t explain the problem.  Luckily, I had enough USD on me to convert to Canadian dollars, so no biggie, but definitely something to iron out.  I’m really excited to begin the overseas part of the journey.  I know it’s going to get harder, but it will also be more interesting.  Canada is still North America and not really that much different from the US.  The Europeans I meet all keep telling me how much different it’s really going to get, so can’t wait for the experience.

Random Thoughts, Portland, and Planning For Overseas

I’m entering my 8th week on the road.  At this point, travel life has become the new normal.  I enjoy and welcome the randomness that each day can bring.  Thoughts so far…

Overall

The trip has been nothing short of awesome.  It’s not possible to put it into words so I won’t try.  I have no regrets about leaving my old life behind for a period of time while I do this.    I’ve developed a sort of a pre-arrival routine for each new city where I start by researching some history and culture about my destination to get a sense of the place.  Next, I investigate the public transit maps, and try to determine what’s easily accessible and what’s not.  I read event pages and things-to-do lists looking for well known hot spots and places that would be cool to see.  I check out the Couchsurfing community group and activity pages to see what’s going on.  My basic formula is to try and maximize the experience for my budget and learn something new.

In order to save on accomodations, I stay in hostels and couchsurf… however, both of those have major advantages way beyond the cost savings.  For travel, I take buses and trains, not just within, but between cities.  (I shared a cab once in DC, and that’s the only taxi I’ve been in the entire trip.  I’m quite proud of that fact.)  For food, I eat out once or twice in each city, but most of my food is from grocery stores.  Once you remove the costs of flying, hotels, taxis, and eating out everyday and replace them with more everyday types of things, it becomes possible to travel for a month on what most people spend in a week of vacation.  I’m still probably spending more than I need.  I could camp, eat ramen noodles, or hitchhike between cities to cut expenses further.  I’ve met other travelers doing this, but it seems a bit extreme for me.

Hostels and Couchsurfing

The best description I ever heard for Couchsurfing is that it uses technology to facilitate real-life human interaction.  I couldn’t describe it any better than that.  I’ve had great CS experiences.  Seeing the city through the eyes of a local is always a treat.  However, sometimes, the people you stay with are busy, and don’t have time to show you around.  So that’s why I’ve also discovered staying in hostels can be just as good.  CS was never about a free place to stay for me.  It’s more about getting a local’s take on the location.  Take it from me, hostels are so cool, and if you mention that horror movie to me of the same name, I’ll kick you in the teeth.  I’ve met so many friendly and awesome people from other countries while staying in them.  I have a wealth of input from Europeans as to where I should go and things I should see when I get over there.  So, CS is great, but when you combine it with hostel living, you really get the most out of travel.

Europe is Coming

My last week in Columbus before starting the trip was filled with a lot of anxiety.  I knew I wanted to travel the world.  I made the necessary preparations, but the actual jumping out of the plane part was still coming fast.  Over the last 7 weeks, I’ve become accustomed to travel in the US, and feel very comfortable just picking up and moving week after week.  It feels quite normal to be honest.  My pending launch into Europe brings back similar anxieties, though.  I don’t speak the language in most countries I’ll be traveling in.  There are customs and cultures potentially very different from what I’m use to.  US dollars will be exchanged for pounds, euros and kroners.  Most intimidating of all is that I’ll be a foreigner, more vulnerable to my surroundings than I’ve been up to this point.  I’m really glad I took the time to travel the US first.  I feel it prepared me to be on the road, and adapt quickly to new surroundings.  Europe is just harder, but not all that different than what I’m doing now.  At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Portland

Portland is, frankly, just a really cool city.  I can’t think of any other way to describe it.  I would love living here.  For starters, it’s extremely bike friendly… the best I’ve seen so far.  Bike lanes are every where, drivers are courteous.  The light rail here even has hooks inside the train to hang your bike on while riding in order to minimize the footprint.  If you’re not biking, the public transit rocks too.  I rode the buses, MAX light-rail, and even the streetcar.  I didn’t have any issues getting around, and I went to places in all four quadrants of Portland at all times of the day and late at night.  Best of all for life here, the mountains and water are not far away, so there’s tons of scenic trails and adventurous climbing if you’re up for it.

I must also say, the couchsurfing community in Portland is THE best I’ve ever experienced.  It’s kind of hilarious I didn’t couchsurf here considering that.  I went to three CS meetups my first three days… Two were happy hour meetups, and the other was a  9.5 mile hike through the foothills of Mt Hood.  (That’s where those pics above are from).  The group is really cool and welcoming, and very, very active.  Impromptu meetups will bring out 15 or more people.

As for touristy stuff in Portland, I did the following…

Powell’s Books… quite possibly the biggest bookstore in the US if not the world.  It takes up a whole city block, so the pic below is like tip of the iceburg for the store.  I walked around for at least an hour in this labryinth of books.  What’s especially cool is that the place is packed with people, and most seem to be buying a book or two.  I’m more of an e-reader these days, but happy to see a thriving bookstore.

Voodoo Doughnuts… famous for their maple and bacon doughnut.  Sorry to my veggie brethren, but sometimes I suspend my vegetarianism when a local favorite demands that I do so.Old Town Pizza… supposedly haunted pizza place in the Old Town area (duh).  They brew their own beers like a lot of places in Portland.  I got a small pizza and didn’t see any ghosts, but I had couple pints of really good beer.  I had great beer every place I went here.

So that’s the status of things.  In other random news, I bought an iPhone 4S.  I got a crazy deal from my carrier to get one for only $140, and they’ll unlock it when I get overseas. I’ll be able to place a pay-as-you-go sim card from carriers in Europe.  They will also allow me to place my phone into a “seasonal stand-by” mode in the US which will suspend usage of it while traveling abroad.  Of course, that’s how it’s suppose to all work in theory.  I’ve been assured multiple times it will, but we’ll see.

Portland, Oregon

Wow, 36 hour commute here from San Diego, but I made it. The scenery was great along the way as you can see from some of the pics.  Portland is a blank slate for me. I know very little about it or what I’m going to do, but I’m sure I’ll find adventures.  I booked a hostel for the next five nights, so that should hopefully lead to some fun.

San Francisco

I arrived last night and walked around a bit before it got dark. The 15 hour train ride from SLC wasn’t so bad since I was able to sleep for about half of it. I grabbed dinner with a hostel roommate from Spain at this Indonesian place across the street. After two weeks of hiking and nature site-seeing, I’m up for some city fun. Definitely no need for a car here.

Salt Lake, Hostel Life and One Incredible Road Trip

I came into Salt Lake City with the intention of not really doing much, but I was open to whatever.  I ended up having a little more fun than I thought, but I had to get out of the city for that to happen.  When I arrived by train around 10:00PM on Monday, I found a town that was completely dead, and no bus service to where I had to be.  Things worked out, but unlike my previous cities, I hadn’t sent out any couchsurfing requests.  I had been surfing for three weeks, and stayed with some wonderful hosts, but felt it was time to change things up.  I booked a hostel for the entire five night stay and it turned out to be a really good decision.

I’m still new at this, but I’ll say hostel life is interesting.  When I was preparing for my trip, I knew hostels would be a part of my plans.  Some people joked with me about this, making comments about being around drunk 20somethings, or even getting kidnapped.  In reality, hostels are a very common way for super low budget travelers to find accomodations.  They typically involve a dorm environment with a shared bathroom.  They also have shared kitchen and common areas, WiFi, and laundry facilities.  The kitchen is nice because you can save a lot of money on food by going to grocery stores and keeping your food there instead of eating out all the time.  In SLC, I stayed at the Avenues Hostel which is just East of downtown.  I shared a room with two guys from Amsterdam who were on a crosscountry trip across the US.  They had been on the road for about as long as me, and had also just come from Denver.  I was surprised to find several people older than me staying at the hostel, and all the live-in help were definitely older.  For some, it’s a cheap place to stay, for others, it’s that plus socializing.

The really big advantage a hostel can have over a couchsurfing experience is the high probability you’ll run into other travelers who you can go on adventures and share rides with.  After my first full day of exploring SLC, I realized there wasn’t much going on in town.  As with Denver, I debated getting a rental car.  There’s definitely this balancing act going on in my head around cost vs experience.  It doesn’t make sense to come this far and not see the sites in the area.  However, I’ll have to cut the trip short if I can’t keep to a budget.  Fortunately, the hostel experience delivered.  On my second day, I was having breakfast in the kitchen, and overheard two other guests talking about renting a car to see some sites.  I asked if I could join them and help split the rental car cost.  About an hour later I was in a car with my Dutch roommates, another American (named Thomas) and a French girl.. Natacha.  Natacha was on a crosscountry trip around the US as well.  We discussed a couple different destinations, including Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, but a local resident convinced us that for a day trip, Arches National Park would be the best.

There are no words for that place.  I imagined it was like being on Mars because of all the red rocks.  We first stopped at a spot in a canyon and went exploring up in the rocks.  The towering walls of red rock contrasted with the bright blue sky was something I’ll never forget.

Afterwards, we went to an area where the park gets its name.  At first glance, it seems like the arches were formed by water flowing through them at one point, or maybe even the wind.  In reality, it’s a much more complicated process that I still don’t fully understand even after reading about it.  I recommend just enjoying them if you’re not a geologist.

Here’s a pic with Sam, one of the Dutch guys, and Thomas climbing.

Thomas, the other American, lives in the area and is into freeclimbing.  He was definitely the most adventurous of the gang, and I’m sure would want me to post the following pic of his most daring climb of the day.

After a day in the park, we headed into the nearby town of Moab to get some beers and food.  On the way home, it was my turn to drive.  We played a few games in the car, but my favorite thing was when Thomas suggested we pullover to the side of the road.  I figured he wanted a smoke break, but it was also to view the night sky.  Utah has very little light pollution relative to other states, and the view was incredible.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Milky Way in person, but there it was in the sky along with the billions of stars.  When we got back to the hostel at 2AM, we drank champagne and looked through our pictures from the day reminiscing about how spontaneous everything had come together.  The road trip, my new friends, beers and stargazing made for a memorable day, perhaps the best day of the trip thus far.  KJ, Sam, Thomas, Natache… it was awesome hanging out with you guys.  Hope we meet again.

The following day, Natacha told me about a concert in a nearby park, and we ended up going to check it out.  It was only about a 45 minute walk from the hostel.  I brought a blanket to sit on, and she got a big kick out of that, saying it was totally an American thing to bring to a concert or festival.  I guess they don’t do that in France?  She even got a Bud Light to complete her American experience and loved every minute of it.  It turned out to be a hiphop concert, so not really either one of our cups of tea, but we still had fun hanging out and chatting about cultural differences.

My final days in Salt Lake City were spent hiking up one of the mountains just North of the city.  I also took care of stuff back home, and prepared for my next destination.  The pics below are from one of the peaks just North of SLC.  You can see everything from the lake, planes taking off and the entire city which I’m told is two-thirds of the residents in Utah.

Salt Lake City was described to me by one resident as more of a big town than a city, and I have to agree.  Without the mountains, it’s not a destination I would find interesting.  I find it hard to believe the Winter Olympic Games were held here just ten years ago.  The city just doesn’t have an international feel from what I saw.  Sorry if you’re a resident and disagree.  I think Utah’s real treasure is its National Parks.  There are more there than any other state.  After seeing the Arches, I really want to come back and visit some of the other places.  They’re awesome spots to get lost in nature, and I would love to backpack, camp, hike and spend endless evening hours stargazing.