Peter and Kevin go to Bulgaria to discover its ancient mysteries! In this episode they visit Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, which is famous for its brutalist architecture. Check out the old man glaring at them in the final few seconds of the video!
Check out part 1 of my trip to Bulgaria! In this episode we discuss Bulgarian yoghurt, but unfortunately we are drowned out by the sounds of protests.
Now that I’m back in Australia, I thought I’d address a home-grown issue – that of kangaroos. Sure, they’re cute, fluffy and sexually liberated, but what happens when the government decides to cull 14,000 of them in an act of revenge? Let me know what you think of the issue.
Have you ever wanted to learn a phrase but are not really interested in the meaning? Probably not. But if so, this episode is for you! Let me know whether this was helpful – although I think I already know the answer.
There’s an old Lithuanian saying:
‘The only reason to go to Lithuania is to leave Lithuania!’
There are obviously problems with such logic—not least the fact that, if you’re already outside of Lithuania, you don’t actually need to go there in order to leave. You are already out of Lithuania’s orbit and it would be unwise to enter it purely with the intention of leaving it. But such a statement didn’t become Lithuania’s national motto without containing an element of truth. And what I saw in Lithuania in July, 2010 has left me scarred.
I had come to Lithuania purely to spite some two Americans I’d met in Krakow a week earlier: a delicious father-and-son-combo, both of whom were historians. I’d mentioned to them my desire to travel to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, and although I had no concrete plans to go there, I hoped it would make me seem more appealing and adventurous. Of course, it didn’t work.
‘Why on Earth would you go to Lithuania?’ the son asked me, obviously irritated. He was a fit, blue-eyed young man with short brown hair and a baseball cap to prove that he was an American citizen.
A natural coward, I tried to defuse the situation with my trademark non-committal shrug, answering with a friendly: “I just thought, ‘why not?’”
He remained unimpressed, furrowing his forehead and pressing his index and middle fingers above his eyebrows, confused and possibly in pain. ‘Wait a minute. I don’t understand what historical value Vilnius holds! Why would you go there? It doesn’t make sense!’
His father interjected. He was more of your classic historian; greyed and seasoned, wrinkled from years of academia. He wore a baseball cap; again, to prove he was an American citizen, but also possibly to hide a bald spot. ‘This is what I always tell you! Discover new places without planning! No, I agree with this Aussie’s thinking!’
The son maintained a stone-cold silence. Great, I’d just destroyed their relationship. Still, I decided there and then that I would travel Lithuania—out of spite, if nothing else. And sure enough, the next week, I was stepping off a Latvian coach and onto the pagan soil of Lithuania.
Of course, travelling anywhere out of spite is bound to lead to disappointment. Sure, I enjoyed being shoved to the side of the road by gangs of boys led by hip, fit, Lithuanian priests. Sure, I enjoyed exploring the former KGB headquarters, breathing in the musky air of the execution chambers and sighing to myself with smile. I excused the ‘Independent Republic of Užupis’ for not being a republic (it was merely a street filled with Eastern European hippies) and I even enjoyed the takeaway boxes of mock-Chinese food, cooked and served by Lithuanians who knew that their own cuisine, pork fat and sludge, wouldn’t impress even the most adventurous of culinary tourists.
So you can understand why, after two days, I was keen to hop on the first train to the airport. But Vilnius’s worst horrors were yet to reveal themselves, and that may-or-may-not include any brutal massacres from pogroms the Russians carried out over the previous centuries.
I was standing in the queue of the Vilnius railway station. The backpack was weighing heavily on my shoulders and my armpits were sweating in July’s intense Baltic heat. There was nothing to suggest anything unsavoury was going to take place. And then it happened.
A pigeon flew into the foyer. It wasn’t a remarkable pigeon, mind you; just your average greyish, brown city-pigeon, the kind that flutter about in Lithuanian skate parks picking scraps of sandwich crusts out of Soviet-era rubbish bins. As anyone would be, I was amused at the pigeon’s attempts to fly back outside, hitting itself repeatedly on the glass doors. Life is filled with such simple pleasures, and although pigeons show many signs of intelligence in day-to-day life, this one looked a damn fool.
Soon a balding white-moustached man rose up from his small, plastic chair in the waiting area. Smiling at the group of sweaty backpackers in the ticket queue who were looking at the pigeon’s follies with wry amusement, he took it upon himself to saunter towards the grey-spotted bird, carefully enveloping his hands around the wings and calming it with a few strokes across its feathers with his right thumb. It was a beautiful sight. This man’s simple act of kindness would ensure the pigeon would continue to live a happy and free life.
Except that’s not what happened at all. Although retaining his warm smile, he did not move toward the exit as I would have assumed—instead, he carried it eagerly across the foyer and straight into the men’s bathroom. As the door slowly shut, there was a stark silence. I felt sick.
I paid for my ticket and caught the fastest train directly to the airport. I’ll never know for certain what happened to that poor pigeon, but if one thing remained clear, it was that old, familiar catch-cry:
‘The only reason to go to Lithuania is to leave Lithuania!’*
*Not an actual Lithuanian phrase.
Our next stop was the citadel of Sighisoara, yet another Saxon city, this one a little further north in Transylvania. The train journey ran through a more rural area than anywhere we’d been so far, which meant an abundance of Roma people grouping together on their own carriages together. The train moved very slowly, while most of the stops barely looked liked stations at all. Instead there was a layer of concrete placed on the grass so that people could hop off the carriage and greet their friends and families who waited under a small, decaying shelter surrounded by farmlands and old, shabby homesteads. It was pretty awesome.
The Sighisoara citadel sat on a nearby mountain top, with its Saxon-style church tower, all looking wonderfully Gothic. The train station was built in the Austro-Hungarian style, recognisable by its trademark sense of faded grandeur. It was also the first place we’d visited where horse and carts were used, and after a few moments of scrutinisation, I was able to confirm that these were legitimate, not simply part of tourism. We retained this sense of awe we wound our way over a river, past a farmer’s market and up the hill towards the medieval citadel. After days of relentless activity, it seemed like a great place to unwind.
But just as we were busy patting each other on the backs and began to ascend up the hill towards the town centre, a sparrow suddenly swooped down towards our faces. I jumped back and Kevin ducked, and it flew head-on into a brick wall and fell onto the footpath. It then sat perched by our feet, trembling. What the hell just happened?
We stood around for another few minutes, wondering if the sparrow was okay. It wouldn’t move when we came near, but it was obviously alive and blinking. Perhaps it had brain damage? This was a bad omen. The sun still shone and Sighisoara remained a beautiful, relaxed destination. But we were ill at ease. This place was clearly haunted.
But we shouldn’t really have been so surprised. After all, this town was the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. It turns out that he grew up surrounded by Saxons, which was a comparatively peaceful place for a Wallachian prince to live in the Middle Ages. Not so much for the Saxons, of course, because later he would return and have them all impaled, presumably part of his ‘cruel to be kind’ policy.
We’d booked a room in a German pension inside the Sighisoara Citadel, connected to a beautifully preserved set of stone buildings which had remained intact since the middle ages. The owner was a curly-haired Greek-Romanian named Sorin who, with a gentle, hospitable demeanour, who offered us a complimentary glass of elderflower lemonade. We’d never even heard of elderflowers, but the lemonade tasted pretty good.
The pension also featured an unexpectedly extravagant breakfast. In the morning we took a tight wooden staircase, with its stone citadel walls on either side, down into the cellar to a lavishly decorated breakfast room with lit candles and baroque paintings. Sorin took us on a tour of the three tables, which featured an organic tour-de-force of game meats, cereals, various milks and cheeses, home-made preserves, and anything else he’d bought from the nearby farmer’s market – which, as Kevin and I had seen on the journey up from the station, was frequented by horse and carts with genuine peasants. (Is it appropriate to refer to these people as peasants? Probably not.) And just for atmosphere, Sorin kept a CD-player running, repeating the same dramatic, haunting Transylvanian soundtrack. It was a bit much at eight in the morning.
But Kevin and I hadn’t come to Sighisoara in search of breakfast. Because there was something suspicious going on in this particular region of Transylvania and we needed to find out more. A certain Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, has been buying up a lot of old property on the outskirts of Sighisoara lately. Sure, it seems innocent enough. Prince Charles is well-known for his environmental and architectural preservation. However, things get more suspicious when you analyse Prince Charles’ genealogy and note that he is related to a certain Wallachian Prince – that’s right, Vlad the Impaler, or Dracula, if you will. So just what was Prince Charles up to?
That morning we boarded a taxi, driven by a heavy-smoking, silent Romanian who knew little English, who drove us through run-down mountainous villages filled with shirtless, sunburnt men and bored young girls hanging about on tiny bridges and dirt roads. We passed groups of Romanians with horse and carts filled with hay, up to the top of a hill, stopping at an old rusty gate and paid an old woman 10 Lei to unlock it while a dog watched us, wagging its tale.
We visited a variety of old Germanic churches and castles, most of which were heavily run down after decades of communist rule. But a few which were being refurbished, noticeably according to the Prince of Wales’ taste. The taxi driver would play tour guide, taking the cigarette out of his mouth, grinding it into the stone floors with his feet, pointing in through dark stone corridors and saying, ‘here is corridor’, or ‘this is room.’ It may not sound engaging, but his delivery was quite good. Soon we ventured into the darkest regions of one of the castles; the gloomiest, dankest dungeons where we can only assume Prince Charles disappears into on the weekends to avoid Camilla Parker Bowles; perhaps bringing a coffin and sleeping in it, possibly naked.
Now I’m not suggesting that the only reason Prince Charles is buying property in Transylvania is that he has an unquenchable thirst for blood. It just looks slightly suspicious. Especially when you consider that Dracula was the Prince of Wallachia, and that Charles is the Prince of Wales. Very similar-sounding titles, if you look at them – the first three letters of the regions in particular.
After five hours of collecting photographic evidence, our taxi driver dropped us back outside the citadel. But opening the large wooden door of the pension into the cobble-stoned courtyard, we found Sorin alone with a small shot glass of palinca brandy, who quickly gestured for us to join him for a drink. Flocks of starling circled above in the sunny Transylvanian sky, our intoxication levels rising as the sun set over the citadel.
‘Did you enjoy breakfast this morning?’
‘Yeah, it was great,’ I replied. ‘Great selection. Very unique.’ To be honest, neither Kevin or I liked the breakfast much – because even though he’d put a lot of effort into everything, there’s only so much salted meat and moist grey bread with sour yoghurt that an Australian can deal with. But I remained complimentary. ‘I also liked that game meat you gave us,’ I said, taking another sip of palinca. ‘I think it was venison, right?’
‘Ah,’ he smiled, ‘that was bear.’
Kevin and I looked horrified. ‘What to you mean, that was bear?’
He casually took another shot of palinca like it was no big deal. ‘Well,’ he shrugged, ‘technically we’re not supposed to have it, but some of the guests like to eat it, so…I provide it.’
We both fell silent. After all our fears of being attacked by bears on this trip, it turned out that it was they who should be fearing us. Kevin finished his second shot glass of palinca – I finished my forth – and we headed out of the pension courtyard. We remembered the bad omen of the sparrow the previous afternoon and shuddered. Transylvania was as terrifying as all the books and films suggested – perhaps even more so.
Having had just about enough of Bucharest, Kevin and I decided to buy a one-way ticket to Transylvania, a region which could have very well remained an unknown entity if it weren’t for a certain British author with puritan tendencies who penned a famous novel about a vampire.
And it did hold an undeniably eerie atmosphere, from the tall, static armies of tall birch trees, to the foreboding mist which hovered over the tips of the mountains. Even more eerie was how, immediately as we began our trek from the Brasov Train Station, a lightening-bolt struck and we found ourselves taking shelter in a thunderstorm. As a welcome to Transylvania, it lacked subtlety.
Brasov is one of many former Saxon towns in Transylvania. These Saxons, from where is now Germany, arrived in Transylvania during the dark ages on the invitation of the Kingdom of Hungary — who ruled Transylvania right up until the end of the First World War — where they did the typical German thing and began trading from the safety of a fortress, keeping the Romanian peasants at bay. But tainted by their connection to Germany during the Second World War, and later in the mid-eighties when they migrated back to Germany because trading in Romania during communist times was as difficult as making a Romanian woman smile, the only trace of Brasov’s Germanic roots lie in Brasov’s architecture. That, and the abundance of sausages and sauerkraut on their menus.
We arrived drenched to our hostel. Through some error, however, the staff had split us up. Kevin was put in a room called ‘The Snorer’s Den’, which in fact contained a genuine snorer — not sure if he was deliberately put in that room or not — and I was put in ‘the Tiny Room’, which was, of course, the largest room, which I had to share with nine strangers.
We were taken on a quick tour of the hostel by a blue-eyed woman woman with her hair in a bouffant, who one moment seemed very helpful and friendly, the next seemed agitated, complaining about how long her hours were, about how terrible her co-workers were, and generally over-apologising for everything. “I want to apologise again for the mix up in your rooms,” she lamented while leading us downstairs, “my co-workers make my life so difficult, it’s horrible and I’m very sorry.” But just as I was getting used to her mournful apologies, she became strangely playful, hiding behind a door and whispering with a smile: “You open the door! I’m too embarrassed!”
“Why?” I asked.
“What if someone is having sex in here? Check for me!” she demanded, grabbing my shoulders and pushing me towards the door. I opened the door slowly and peered inside. There was only one person in there-some old guy watching soccer and drinking beer. There was no hint that he was having sex with anyone.
“It’s fine,” I told her. She looked relieved and left back to reception.
The next day was taken up by a long castle tour; one of those ‘must-do’ things in Brasov, no matter how tedious these tours usually are. Ours was only moderately guided, luckily. Together with another eleven hostel guests, our hostel arranged for our own minibus driver who had been instructed to take us to various castles in the South-Transylvanian area. But it meant that we were merely sightseers, which to me is a fairly depressing way to spend a day no matter how impressive the architecture. Luckily our company were fun, consisting of a group of rowdy young Irish guys who were pretty entertaining (and only very-slightly annoying) as well as a typically friendly, polite group of travellers from Hong Kong. Travelling solo was a drifter from Colorado who was in his thirties, wore a baseball cap back-to-front and had been to over fifty countries, and finally a pretty, half-black Canadian girl named Rebecca, who mainly chatted with Kevin and I because we tend to give off a vibe of ‘nice, non-threatening guys’ according to various sources.
The first stop was the Neo-Renaissance castle of Peleș, an overblown 19th century residence of the now-extinct Romanian royal family, which may not have been particularly old, but, as a relic from the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was a wonderful display of overblown lavish luxury. But it was a Saturday, so getting inside the castle for the guided tour was difficult. The Hong Kong group managed to get inside on a Chinese-language tour, but the English-language tours were all booked up.
Still, we pushed up against the large, wooden castle doors and a tall, serious-looking Romanian woman opened up.
“Are you Polish?” she asked. I didn’t know what to answer.
“Yes,” Rebecca replied straight away.
The lady opened the door for us, unconcerned by the fact that Rebecca was half-black. It was tantamount to genius. So it came to be that a Canadian, two Australians and a group of Irish guys came to take part in a Polish-language tour of an old Romanian castle. The legitimate Polish tourists frowned as us in suspicion throughout.
An hour passed as we were taken from room to room, filled with armour, old pianos and portraits of members of the ex-Romanian royal family. After a good thirty minutes of following the Polish tour group around the castle, we found out that weren’t allowed onto the second level of the castle unless we paid for another ticket. Running behind schedule anyway, we decided to decline the obvious rip-off and turned back to the minivan where the rest were waiting for us.
The next destination, Bran Castle, is probably Romania’s number one tourist attraction, as legend has it that it was the residence of Vlad the Impaler — Dracula, in other words. There are a few problems with this legend, however. Firstly, and most obviously, historians know exactly where Vlad’s castle is: the Poenari Castle in Wallachia, as Vlad the Impaler didn’t actually live in Transylvania. So for all the tourists who flock to Bran Castle every year for its Dracula connection, I hate to break it to them, but they’re in the wrong place. Not that I think anyone really cares, and to be fair, Bran Castle does look like a spooky Dracula castle. But that’s only from the outside. Inside, it’s just another nice-looking Saxon castle with a token dead bear flattened on the carpet.
There was a section which delved into the history of Vlad the Impaler, who was a fascinating historical figure indeed. This cruel Wallachian prince was born into a violent, turbulent kingdom, constantly under attack from outside rulers and warlords. His father was killed by Turks when we was young, and he and his brother were sent to Istanbul — the idea being that he would return to his Princely court as a loyal subject of the Ottoman Empire. Instead, he returned with a new-found thirst for torture and misery, becoming an avid fan of impalement, specifically, putting people to a torturous death by sticking them on top of a wooden pole so that they spent three days dying in agony as it slowly inserted up their arse and through their entire body. But this wasn’t limited merely to criminals or invading Turkish armies, but in fact anyone who Vlad felt deserved it: Germans, peasants, the poor, and visiting Polish noblemen who complained about the stench of death. But as I was discussing this history with Kev, we were overheard by a nearby Vlad enthusiast.
“Actually, those are all myths,” the dark-skinned Romanian guy told me, looking offended. “He was a good man. He was a hero, like Robin Hood-he only killed evil people, and he eradicated poverty.”
“Well, yeah, but he eradicated poverty by murdering the poor,” I replied.
“But they were only Turks.”
Not wanting to cause a pro-Vlad riot, Kevin and I grinned awkwardly and walked away.
The exterior of Bran Castle featured a wide range of assorted tackiness, things like Dracula mugs and vampire toys, and gypsies selling raspberries — although these may have been actual gypsies, now I think about it. There were also a few men wearing vampire masks and long black capes, chasing around frightened children in a desperate attempt to increase the spookiness in what was actually a pleasant area. The sad reality of Romania’s weak economy is that people must degrade themselves like this on a daily basis.
Relaxing back at the hostel, a brunette girl walked into the room and asked us for a bottle-opener for the hostel’s complimentary daily beer. She was a 21-year-old American girl named Sarah, serving in the US army, but taking a break to see Europe. And interestingly, with her surname being ‘Braun’, she was on a quest to Germany to discover whether she was related to Hitler’s wife, Eva Braun. According to her, the link was very real. One suspects, however, that Braun is a very common name in Germany and that her quest would be quite difficult. But you never know.
Before heading out, I went up to the reception to see if my clothes had been washed and dried. This time the receptionist was a hipster-bearded Romanian man who looked at me with a big, exaggerated smile.
“I don’t know, maybe the Gypsies stole them! Haha!”
As a result of my delaying, Kevin, Sarah and I were five minutes late for the walking tour. We were on the lookout for a tour guide who was supposed to be dressed in orange in the Brasov town square. The trouble was, there appeared to be a political organisation dressed in orange trying to get petitions signed. We considered approaching them and asking about the walking tour, but they seemed to be made up primarily of old, angry Romanian old women.
Sarah suggested we ask some strangers if they’d seen anyone dressed in orange. She asked a few passing Transylvanians but predictably they pointed towards members of the political group. It was a lost cause. However, using a map, we managed to conduct our own walking tour; on which led us up some lovely Saxon towers, around the crumbling grey town walls, and eventually to the dodgier outskirts of town which featured some gypsies in traditional dress. They looked quite glamorous, except I suppose, for their obviously bad health condition.
Brasov was a charming, then, with a little bit of grit. Having dealt with Romania’s biggest tourist attraction, Kevin and I were now free to wander up into less well-known Transylvanian territory.
Taking a train from Bulgaria to Romania is just as difficult as you’d expect. First we had to catch a taxi from Veliko Tarnovo to a nearby town called Gorna Oryahovitsa, then we stumbled around looking for the international ticket booth, which was located inside an old room run by a quiet, serious, blonde woman. We’d arrived twenty-minutes before the train to Bucharest was scheduled to arrive, but in fact it took her just about that long for her give us our tickets – apparently the station’s internet was down so she couldn’t reserve our seats for us. Eventually she told us to just take the train anyway – I guess reservations are just a procedural thing.
But the train was comfortable enough. We even sung ‘Dragostea Din Tei’, the 2004 Moldovan/Romanian hit also known as ‘the Numa Numa song’, as a way of celebrating as the train trundled over the mighty Danube River. Given Romanians are supposed to hate that song, I guess we’re lucky to get into Romania alive. What’s interesting is that, after so many years, Romania and Bulgaria have only only one main bridge crossing the Danube River. This meant that historically, neither city has been very interested in interacting with each other. Successful cities such as Budapest, Belgrade, Vienna and Bratislava are all built along this huge, long river, to assure ease of trade. But neither Romania or Bulgaria have bothered to build cities along the Danube. During the Communist times, Stalin forced them to build a ‘friendship bridge’, linking the two countries along the small Bulgarian town of Ruse. Now it is known by the less enthusiastically titled ‘Danube Bridge’.
It was a bit difficult exchanging money. Not many exchange offices would accept Bulgarian money, despite Bucharest being merely a two-hour drive from the border. So when I first handed over the Bulgarian money, the angry old woman shook her head angrily and closed the glass window. I guess they really don’t like Bulgarians.
Our hostel in Bucharest was situated in yet another dark, concrete, ‘brutalist’ apartment block. But once we’d climbed the seven flights of stairs, the hostel revealed itself to be a beautiful decorated, lively hostel, which really showed what a little interior decorating can do. As we walked up the stairs, Kevin and I wondered whether we were in the right place. ‘If we hear Australian voices, then we will know it’s a hostel,’ I half-joked, but when we opened the hostel door, we were greeted by just that – an Australian. What was more puzzling was that he seemed slightly stoned.
“G’day, I’m Michael, yeah come in, make yourself at home I guess, drop your bags and shit.”
We sat and waited for him to show us to our rooms.
“Oh no I don’t run this place, Marius has just run off to get an ice cream or some shit, just have to wait for him to get back.”
He wasn’t the hostel owner. What a relief. We sat on some colourful rugs while Michael did a long rant about how he was sick of travelling, how he’s been floating around Europe for three years, working illegally on a fishing trawler in Norway. We asked him if he enjoyed Bucharest.
“I haven’t even seen the fucking place, I’ve fucked up my knee so I’ve seen fuck all!’ he explained. He was a peculiar Aussie; not the usual hippy-variety that you usually see in offbeat locations like Romania, but more the type who you’d find playing pool in a suburban pub. Soon he was joined by a Turkish backpacker.
“Oh so you’ve finally woken up?” Michael asked.
The Turkish guy looked extremely hungover and had a head of wild, curly hair.
“Yeah, I was out until six in the morning,” he replied. “So what are you doing in Romania guys? Going out, meeting girls?”
“We’re just travelling around for twelve days – mainly staying in Transylvania, seeing Brasov, Cluj Napoca, Sighisoara and Sibiu. Should be good!” I answered, looking at Kevin.
“Twelve days?” he asked, looking slightly irritated. “Why are you staying in Romania so long?”
“Well, it’s not that long really. I’m just interested in seeing those Transylvanian Saxon towns up north.”
But Michael and the Turkish guy didn’t look too pleased with us. “I’m just fucking sick of town squares and churches. Seriously, I’ve already seen one in the last town! Fuck this shit!”
As the Turkish guy began giving tips about how to score with Romanian women (apparently you need to just come up from behind and grab them) Kevin and I were greeted by Marius, the well-dressed, tall, handsome young hostel owner.
“Hey guys! You are..Peter Van Dort! With a German surname, am I right?”
“Well sort of. Dutch.”
“Hm. And you’re from Australia? Where in Australia?”
“I’m from Melbourne, Kevin is from Canberra.”
He looked excited and pointed his finger straight at Kevin. “Ah! The most boring place in Australia! Haha!”
“Yeah, that’s the place!” Kevin replied.
Marius then sat us down with a map of Bucharest. “So, Australia. Are you corrupt?”
“Australia? No, not really,” I replied with a smile. “But we can learn.”
“Hmm that’s not good, you need to be corrupt. It’s the grease that keeps society going, you see. Just a little bribe here and there get things done!”
It was hard to tell how serious he was being. He was obviously young, funny, and talented enough to create this exquisitely designed hostel. The room was covered in boards with colourful chalk writing, listing every upcoming hostel activity, with various well-maintained pot-plants, and even a bicycle attached to one of the walls as a decoration.
Either way, Kevin and I were amused. We sat at chatted for about an hour. This was mainly because Kevin and I asked him how to deal with Bucharest’s notorious stray dog problem.
“You’re afraid of dogs?”
“No no, it’s just that we had this issue in Bulgaria because they were very territorial and…”
“I have a mission for you Peter. And also for you, Kevin. By the end of your stay in Bucharest, you need to pat a dog. And let it lick your hand.”
Very soon afterwards, Kevin and I had, in fact, completed this mission and taken a picture; unfortunately we never showed it to Marius and perhaps he didn’t really care. He was a theatrical sort of guy. He finished showing us our rooms and led us back to the main common room, pointing at a sex club card which had been left on a small table. “I just want you to know that we are not in any way affiliated with this sex stuff.” And you know what? I believed him.
We began walking around Bucharest that night and were immediately struck by the grandeur of the old town. It wasn’t like Sofia, as I’d assumed – especially because in the centre of the town you got a Western European vibe, a sort of strange, Eastern European version of Paris – with more sleaze and stray dogs wandering about the place. It used to be known as ‘Little Paris’ for exactly this reason. Unfortunately allied bombing, combined with decades of communist rule under the insane megalomaniac Nicolae Ceausescu meant that much of the old city was destroyed. Still, the looming Parliamentary Palace, which is the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon, is a wonderful symbol of North Korean-style dictatorial egomania.
To add to the overall Bucharest experience, it was great when we discovered that that night, the hostel was populated by five teenage Mormon girls from Utah. The Turkish guy avoided them because they clearly weren’t going to have sex with him – although I’m suspicious that he would have had trouble having sex with non-celibate girls too. I was just happy to chat to Mormons to be honest, and just as I hoped, they were all cheerful and easy to talk to. They’d been working in an orphanage for a month and were taking a few days off to explore Romania.
“Oh right, Mormons!” I heard Michael, the Australian, comment. “You’re like, not allowed to use electricity right?”
The Mormon girls laughed. “No, that’s the Amish!”
“Isn’t that the same thing?” he asked.
“No, it’s completely different!”
What an idiot.
After a pleasant, but obviously lightweight Mormon chat, Kevin and I left the hostel to buy a few bottles of water. But Romania isn’t known for providing outstanding customer service. So when Kevin and I approached the counter of a small corner store, taking a bottle of water and placing it on the counter, the old woman looked pissed off.
“Just this water thanks,” I said, handing her a 5 Lei note.
“No,” she replied, frowning and shaking her head.
She mustn’t have understood. Again I pointed at the bottle and pushed the 5 Lei note towards her with a smile. “Err, I would like this water please?”
“No!” she said, more blunt this time, pushing my money away and pointing to the door.
She didn’t want to conduct business with us. I have to admire her for that. But we were avoiding going back to the hostel because Michael seemed like the sort who would get angry and swear at us if we made noise as we returned to our dorm.
We weren’t too far off, because even though we silently slipped into our bunk-beds, about half-an-hour in, one of the guests switched on his light and left the dorm to use the bathroom – which was quite annoying, to be honest – and very soon, Michael woke up and yelled: ‘Fuck, is this cunt for real?”
Kevin and I both remained silent but it was amusing.
We spent our one full day in Bucharest exploring the large city, which involved a walking tour run by a funny, slightly dorky Romanian tour-guide, later visiting the fairly cool ‘Museum of the Romanian Peasant’, which was mainly great because of the basement, which was a storage place for ex-communist documents, paintings, posters and statues.
We finished the day with a long walk around a relaxing open-air museum, then walked all the way back to the old town where we relaxed with a couple of beers and typically heavy Romanian cuisine. It all sounds like a pleasant day, except it was excruciatingly hot and we were nearly unable to move at the end of the day.
After checking out the next morning, Kevin and I asked Marius if we could leave our bags at reception.
“No,” he said, bluntly.
“Oh,” I replied, sensing another Romanian refusal of service.
“I’m joking!” he laughed. “I mean, who the hell would just refuse that? Really! I mean come on!”
But we explained the incident from our first night, involving the refusal to sell us a bottle of water. He thought for a moment. “Hm, interesting. Did you smile?”
“Well, yeah, we smiled.”
He shook his head. “Never ever smile in Eastern Europe. Never! You need to be firm with them, okay? Otherwise you’ll never get anything. You need to place the product on the counter angrily, like this!” he said, putting on an exaggerated angry face, and bursting out in quick laughter. “Or act like your mother just died!” He burst out laughing for a second and then, one more time for a reminder, said: “Never smile in Romania.”
With this sound advice, Kevin and I left to purchase yet another two bottles of water. We made sure not to smile; not even once. And you know what? We purchased the water with no trouble. A valuable lesson learnt.
Leaving Sofia, Kevin and I journeyed over to Veliko Tarnovo, which was the capital of Bulgaria during the dark ages, or known as the ‘Second Bulgarian Empire’. It’s hard to imagine, but Bulgaria was an important, expanding empire before 1000 AD. They actually had influence and prestige in comparison to the rest Western Europe. Oh, how times have changed.
Our trip took over three hours so they chose to show us Bulgaria’s choice in family entertainment: ‘The Punisher’. This brutal 2004 film turned out to be an appropriate choice of viewing, given how close we came to death as the bus driver, with his dark shades and static smirk, conducted some of the most extreme overtaking I’ve ever witnessed.
Upon arriving in this sleepy-looking town, we did another of our trademark exhausting walks from the Veliko Tarnovo Bus Station and up a hill, using the far-away fortress as our guide. The town slowly revealed its beauty as we followed the winding road over bridges and valleys, until we reached the enchanting Roman fortress on the top of a hill. We’d stopped for a moment to catch our breath, enjoy the view and to take a few photos, when we were approached by a short, buff Bulgarian man with a blue tee-shirt, who’d spotted us with our backpacks from afar.
“Hello, where are you staying? Come with me, I have a nice hotel.”
“We have accommodation, thanks,” we replied, turning back from the fortress gates and attempting to walk back in the opposite direction.
“Where are you from? English?”
“We’re Australian,” I replied.
“Come here! See! Look at my book, I have Australia comment.”
Even though we should have walked away, we were curious to see what was written inside his notebook. He flicked through a couple of pages and showed us a message written in shaky handwriting, like a child trying to impress their teacher I second grade.
“This is a beautiful hotel, great views, cheap price and great service. I do not think he is a bad man. – John, England.”
And that was all that was written. We tilted our heads back up at the man, who with his red eyes and unsettling gaze did, in fact, look like a bad man. My eyes glanced over the message again, in case there was a secret message begging us to save him from the man’s rape dungeon, but there was none; perhaps the man had torn out that page. It was also interesting that the person had written that he didn’t think he was a bad man. That left yet another layer of uncertainty. But as he the bad man pleaded us to come back to his hotel, we ignored him and made our way down a winding stony path which led to our hostel.
Our hostel was featured in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald with the caption: ‘Is this Eastern Europe’s best hostel?’ and even though it’s pointless to argue whether something is ‘the best’, there was a magic to Hostel Mostel, due to its great location and view, the hostel’s relaxed layout, and the convenience of everything – they even had an honour-system whereby you took any drink you wanted from the fridge and noted it on a list, paying for everything when you checked out. The only problem was, when checking out, they noticed that I’d only taken one beer and three bottles of water. “You’re Australian, yes? Are you okay?” they asked.
I shrugged. “I’m going through an identity crisis,” I explained.
During breakfast we struck up a conversation with a group of young Canadians, and so, as often happens when you meet Canadians, we were soon riding in the back of a 4-wheeled-drive, looking for a waterfall to jump off. We stopped at a nice, remote monastery on the way, but all the monks surrounding the gloomy Orthodox chapel appeared to be topless Bulgarian men chopping wood and smoking cigarettes. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure they were monks at all.
The waterfall-jumping action was textbook waterfall-jumping, so I don’t need to go into any details. Let’s just say that I was the first to jump off, although two of the girls actually waded into the lake first to make sure it was deep enough. But Kevin and I were confused when, drying off after the waterfall-jumping and swimming experience, it was revealed that we were hopping in a rented car in search of a UFO. But we didn’t ask questions. Only half-way towards the UFO did I ask for an explanation about where we were going. After all, I was merely picturing some stupid UFO-sighting location. But as it turned out, they were looking for something less made up and more realist and Soviet, so this excited me.
The only problem was that I couldn’t seem to get my hands on my daily lunchtime coffee. Hungry after our swim, Matt, Kevin, Blaine and I went to a corner store which boasted ‘English menu’, ‘Lunch’ and ‘Coffee’. But when I asked for a coffee, handing money to the old Bulgarian lady and pointing at the machine, she smiled, looked at the coffee machine and replied with a short, firm ‘no.’ Interesting. We had further troubles when I asked for a beer and a coke – because when she asked ‘you want beer and coke?’ I made the mistake of smiling and nodding. She took the beer and put it back in the fridge. I sighed and paid for the coke.
What we’d forgotten was that in Bulgaria, nodding your head means no, and shaking your head in a wobbly fashion means yes. This explained many other instances of miscommunications we’d had in the past week when ordering food, and in a way it was very funny. We sat and ate kebapche (a Balkan staple consisting of a log of fried mince, which I’m pretty sure ihs the same as Serbian chevapcheche) and then prepared to find the Soviet-UFO everybody was talking about.
It was an interesting mix of people. In some ways it was like a Scooby-Doo mystery, with Kevin and I as Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-do respectively (because of my hair). In another way, it was like the entourage of a horror movie. We had two Canadians with us – one was Matt, a young engineer student from Toronto, who was the most keen on seeing this ‘UFO’, and then we had Blaine, an adventurous blonde girl who drove the car and seemed to have no fear (because she had spent the waterfall expedition scaring me by teetering over the edge of a cliff on one foot), and we had two Portuguese-speakers—one a young, pinked-shirted Portuguese man who seemed nice, but had a touch of sleaze to him, and Carlos, a middle-aged Brazillian man with a gut, who had an annoying tendency to rudely interrupt our conversations with a loud “Eh?!?”
Carlos also was one of those people who feels the need to be the leader in a situation, even though they might not know where the group are headed. Just like Kevin and I, all he knew was that we were going somewhere interesting with some Communist connection. But despite his lack of knowledge he decided to ask Bulgarians for directions–which seemed strange, given he had a poor grasp of English and definitely didn’t know Bulgarian, and also because, in his thick Brazillian accent, he would ask Bulgarians at petrol stations such vague questions as “Hello, we are looking for the Communism! Can you please tell us how to find the Communism?”
Matt wasn’t very happy that Carlos was revealing to where we were going to complete strangers, as it was illegal to trespass there, and apparently days before, another group of Canadians had been found trying to enter the UFO and were turned away by police. Besides, Bulgarians don’t like to talk about the Soviet days—and definitely didn’t want to talk about this Communist-UFO. But as it turned out, the Bulgarian man he asked knew exactly what way to the Communism, and pointed us in the right direction. What do you know!
We noticed that many drivers and motorcyclists passing were nodding at us – just friendly motorists, proud of us going on this secret journey. So after travelling for nearly two hours, we parked the car and looked up the hill; it was a hill which was hidden by many others, and right at the top, half-hidden by mist, was a concrete UFO-like building, with a tall tower next to it with a red star. It seemed like something straight out of a fifties science fiction film. We trekked up a winding path, gasping in awe (within reason) and trying to work out the meaning behind it all. My first thought was ‘Freemasons!’ but apparently not.
Around the entrance were huge concrete symbols, with gigantic stone stairs leading up to huge closed doors indicating a sealed-off entrance. But very shortly we found a hole in the concrete, which we managed to crawl into by standing on three clumps of stone. One person would crawl inside, careful not to cut their backs on glass, then we would pass our bags and bottles of water up inside to that person, and slowly we all crawled inside—even Carlos, who originally refused to come inside until he realised that we didn’t actually care, and then asked me to help him crawl in.
The concrete walls would periodically crumble as we tried to grasp it, and we had to lookout for protruding pieces of glass and rusty metal. Once we crawled out of the darkness and up the echoing concrete steps, we emerged in a strange amphitheatre, covered in rubble and red plastic dust – the red plastic seemed to be, indeed, the ‘communism’ itself. Various decaying murals were painted all over the circular walls – some images seemed to celebrate the victory over the Turks in the 19th century, and others were portraits of Communist leaders, although with one face curiously removed. The faint hint of a moustache on the removed portrait indicated that it could have been Stalin, but since there was no sign of Lenin on the wall, it was probably some Bulgarian Communist leader unknown to me. The overall impression, though, was that a bomb had gone off in the centre.
We explored for an hour, sometimes climbing down into dark passages, looking down carefully so as not to fall into steep drops that seemed to fall down to nowhere. For a while, I followed Matt underground, as he’d strapped a torch to his head. Water would drip on our heads, and to add to the atmosphere, the mist from the clouds would pour in through little holes in the walls. Concrete continued to crumble everywhere we crawled, and it’s unsettling to think how easily we could have been injured. But at the time it was all just awesomely atmospheric.
But I was too busy taking photos of the place, so much that I lost everyone in the group bar Carlos, the one person I didn’t want to be stuck with. I searched around for a while, but everyone had vanished. Carlos and his bad English led me to believe that ‘they go!’ so I took that to mean that they’d crawled out of the UFO and had gone back to the car. So I held Carlos’ water bottle and glasses, then helped him crawl out and together, we walked down the hill.
But I could not see the rest of the group anywhere, so I told Carlos that I wanted to go back inside to look for them.
“Eh?!’ he asked, looking at me in annoyance, and gesturing me to come back down the hill with him. After walking for a few metres I stopped. But when Carlos didn’t look back and continued to march down the hill, I ignored him and climbed back inside the UFO.
But this time I was alone and I still had no idea where the others were. I tried to call Kevin on my mobile, and I eventually got through – but it was too crackly, and all I could make up was ‘the stairs, we’re at the tower’. But I was trying to work out how going down the stairs and into the darkness would lead me up the tower. Besides, the red star tower appeared to be detached from the UFO. I decided to exit the UFO again and to find the entrance to the red star.
But outside again, I saw Carlos in the mist, waving his hands at me, still yelling ‘eh!?’ I walked around the huge UFO, ignored him, and then realised that the only way inside the tower would be back inside the UFO. Great. But I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of going back inside – crawling in through that hole the second time, I’d already slightly grazed my back on some glass. But my mind was made up for me, because in the distance I noticed that some Bulgarians had unleashed their pet dog, which was running and barking towards me. As it ran out of the mist, I noticed that it had a unique facial structure—it was a pit-bull terrier. I didn’t waste time and hopped right back up into the hole, nearly getting stuck in the gap, and hurried back inside the Communism.
I stumbled around for a while, helpless and lost, sometimes crawling down into mysterious, dark cellars, then turning back because I didn’t have a torch with me. But luckily, after about fifteen minutes, Blaine had appeared, shining a torch at me and saying ‘there you are!’
I had been saved.
The only problem was that usually, if a blonde girl leaves a group to find someone who’s lost (in this case me, Scrappy-do) she will end up dying. But luckily horror films are fairly fictional and all that in the end, she guided me down into a basement area, where she showed me an iron-ladder, which revealed itself once ducking down into another hole in the concrete wall. The ladder went vertically up into darkness, so she shone her head-torch from under me and together, we climbed up 25 ladders. It was a very good workout and should probably be replicated in gymnasiums.
At the top I saw Kevin and Matt sitting triumphantly on the top of the tower, surrounded by so much mist that we couldn’t actually see any scenery. I had felt quite embarrassed about getting lost, but it didn’t matter once we were at the top. I had made it, and Carlos hadn’t. That was the most important thing.
As I’d had this experience without getting my usual lunchtime coffee, the only thing keeping me going was the adrenaline which the mysterious setting provided. So by the time we drove back to Veliko Tarnovo, the adrenaline was well-and-truly gone and I felt like a ruined man. But it was nice to join the Canadians for pizza later that night, eating at a fancy Bulgarian cafe and enjoying a whiskey and coke. It was a nice end to the evening and Tanja, a tall, extroverted Vancouver girl, bought a bottle of cheap wine for us to share as we walked back to our hostel.
It was now past midnight and people were exhausted after such a jam-packed day. Little did we know that a new adventure was about to unfold – an adventure that taught all of us something about the notion friendship.
It all began when Tanja and I were trailing behind the rest of the group, sharing wine from the bottle and chatting. A white stray dog suddenly emerged from under a bench an trotted next to us, lightly wagging its tail and sniffing our fingers. Tanja petted it and let it lick her fingers. Soon it was joined on the street by black-and-white dog, and they both followed us for a few minutes, wagging their tails and playfully biting each other’s snouts. When the original white dog vanished, we were left with this new black-and-white variety of street dog whose tail didn’t wag so much; this new friend had decided that we were a pack – and he was now our leader.
There are humans like this too, who need to be the leader of the pack rather than seamlessly blending in and adding to the conversation. They remain quiet, on the lookout for danger, prepared to risk their lives for the good of the group, whether the group wants them to or not.
The problem was that as we moved down into one of the tight, cobble-stoned alleys which led back to our hostel, it became clear that basically every other dog in Veliko Tarnovo hated this new dog—which Tanja and I had Christened ‘Mr Buddy’. Because as we moved down the alley and ignored their first barks, Mr Buddy barked back, then began whining.
We pondered whether it would be safe to continue via this route. Matt warned us that he’d met a guy who’d spent a night in Veliko Tarnovo nights before who’d been bitten on the heel by these same dogs, and whose trip now involved an agonising search for a hospital for rabies shots. So we just couldn’t take the risk. We needed to be rid of Mr Buddy.
But we couldn’t see to shake him off! Blaine and I (in hysterics because of the absurdity of the situation) tried to lead Mr Buddy up another small, winding path in between various houses, but after he followed us up halfway, a kitten arched up its back and hissed at him. He ran away with a whine. This was ridiculous. I took him aside for a little chat.
“Look, Mr Buddy. I don’t know how to say this but – you’re kind of getting in the way.”
Mr Buddy looked at me, confused.
“It’s not that we don’t like you. But you’re just sort of fucking up our shit. You see, those dogs down the road—they’re winners. You? You’re just a fucking loser. No offence.”
Unfortunately no offence was taken, and he continued to stay on the lookout, making out that he would protect us against anything, when he was, in fact, a little pussy. We continued our attempts to rid of him, in fact we nearly succeeded when Mr Buddy was distracted by a group of Bulgarian teenage boys. But even after we had run down a tight set of stairs and down into another steep lane-way, it didn’t take long for Mr Buddy to find us again.
We were still laughing and passing the bottle of wine around, taking large gulps and yelling “Just fuck off, dog!” But it all became a bit scarier when we attempted to hail a cab; which we hoped would stop and take us to the entrance of our hostel. But once one arrived, Mr Buddy ran and jumped up at the driver’s window, trying to bite his arm—which was enough to make the taxi ignore us. Mr Buddy then looked up as if to say: ‘Don’t worry guys, I’ve got your back.’ Piece-of-shit-dog.
Frustrated, we tried to enter our hostel from around the side alley. But as soon as we did this, we heard the dogs barking angrily from both sides, leaping out of bushes! They had ambushed us! Mr Buddy, of course, ran away whimpering, abandoning us like we all knew he would. Our group hurried up two sets of stone steps – I took another swig of wine and even managed to stop laughing for a while when I realised we might get attacked.
The problem was, we wrongly assumed the dogs were merely protecting their little piece of territory. But when they chased up the steps, it seemed that they probably WERE intending to hurt us (although I argue that they probably didn’t want to take on a group of five humans), so we hurried into a gate for a swanky-looking hotel, blocking Mr Buddy from entering. Then I closed the gate and shrugged at Mr Buddy.
We all huddled around the entrance in a mild panic, taking out the hostel’s pamphlet so we could call them. Then a Bulgarian man noticed us, came out from behind reception and asked if we were okay. We apologised to him and interrupted each other in out attempts to explain our stupid situation, but he smiled and invited us to sit down inside the hotel and relax.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Hostel Mostel! We need them to help us! The dogs were chasing us!”
There were no dogs to be seen, except for Mr Buddy who was outside, whining.
“No,” he smiled, “what country?”
It was a bit embarrassing how nervous we all seemed. Obviously Bulgarians are completely used to these dogs and know how to deal with them (I think they just ignore them) and our group of Canadians and Australians, supposedly hardened from having to face dingos and bears on a daily basis, were coming across as cowards. But he happily phoned up our hostel, spoke to them in Bulgarian, and arranged for them to pick us up. When the young guy from reception drove over to the hotel, he was partially amused and partially annoyed. We thanked the man at the hotel and clamoured inside the minivan. Mr Buddy was NOT allowed in.
We stayed up on the terrace chatting until 4am. I took a shower, remembering I’d begun the day swimming in a murky lake, and having gone an entire day with only one coffee, it wasn’t hard to fall asleep. I only woke up once, and it was at the sound of a whining dog being attacked at the entrance to our hostel.
Sorry Mr Buddy. Sometimes you need to surround yourself with winners.
We were warned not to come to Sofia back when we were in Plovdiv. Our guesthouse manager Hstro has asked us where we were headed next – when we told him that we’re going to Sofia, he gave a disappointed sigh.
“If you must go there, I strongly suggest only staying one night.”
“Oh…we’re staying for two nights,” we replied.
He looked down and shook his head. I felt bad, and decided to soften the blow.
“But actually, the first day will mainly be spent travelling to Sofia on the bus, and on the second day, we’re going to wake up very early to visit the Rila Monastery,” I lied. “So we won’t really be in Sofia at all.”
He smiled when I told him this. “Then, I suppose it’s okay,” Hstro said, reassured, and dropped us off helpfully at Plovdiv’s South Bus Station.
There was a reason for Hstro’s bias against Sofia. Plovdiv was all set to become the capital of Bulgaria when they reached independence from the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century. Russia had liberated Bulgaria from the Turks in an act of altruism (I suppose) but also in order to gain influence in Balkan influence, to as a counter to Austro-Hungarian rule. It’s this same ‘altruism’ that led Russia to declare war on Austria-Hungary in 1914 when Serbia was invaded. But the western powers such as France and Britain hoped to contain the spread of the Russian Empire’s influence in Eastern Europe, organising for a new treaty to be written in which the south of Bulgaria was given back to the Ottoman Empire (albeit as an autonomous region). Therefore, Sofia became Bulgaria’s new capital city; not just because they wanted a fresh start, but because it was handily located closer to the borders of Serbia and Macedonia, should they wish to invade and expand their territory. So although Bulgaria managed to wrestle back Plovdiv from the Turks in the next few years, Bulgaria became more and more fascist (if you’ve ever read Tintin in ‘King Ottokar’s Sceptre’ you’ll know what I’m talking about) as certain maniacs in Bulgaria set their hopes to creating a new Bulgarian Empire. It didn’t really work out as Bulgaria sided with Germany in both of the World Wars, keeping roughly the same territory and with it, a similar low-economic growth.
We arrived in Sofia confused and disorientated, and just like in Plovdiv, decided to walk the two kilometres to our hostel as a test of endurance and a way to see the city without having to work out how to buy a tram ticket. It was a brutal walk over cracked pavement in intense heat, and it seemed that by the time we got to the hostel, we were no longer on speaking terms, although we weren’t sure why.
There was a real communal feel to the hostel, with lots of people laughing in the large common room, enjoying free spaghetti and beer, as soccer played on the television. This is usually a good thing, but we were too exhausted to socialise. It probably didn’t help that we’d been eating mysterious Bulgarian yoghurt for the last three days and it had made us nauseous. But I was certain that Bulgarian yoghurt contained magical healing properties and we were to continue to consume it no matter how terrible we felt.
There was a Korean guy in our dorms named Yung, who with his spotty skin and unfashionable glasses turned out to be an inoffensive but vaguely amusing friend for the next two nights. He was kind enough to warn us every time before beginning his daily exercises, which could be anything from situps in his bunk bed, to a full-blown pushup routine which he would conduct on the wooden dormitory floor.
Sofia had a lot of churches and a nice amount of cafes, but it wasn’t a special city; merely a nondescript, Soviet-feeling capital with a few nice orthodox churches and a good cafe culture on the main shopping strip. The lack of an old-town (whatever old town they had was destroyed by the Americans during World War II) is what made it lag behind otherwise similar post-Soviet cities like Riga, Tallinn, or indeed, Plovdiv.
I was impressed, however, by the architecture on display. The Central Station, for example, was built in the style of 1970s Soviet ‘Brutalism’, with a fantastic concrete lightening-bolt striking over the enormous main building, all designed to make you feel insignificant and powerless. So if you’re like me and you enjoy feeling helpless, insignificant and destitute, you’re going to have a great time in Sofia.
But it was hard to argue that Sofia was a miserable place. The girl who hosted our walking tour for example was the happiest tour-guide I’d ever seen (and I’ve had three in my lifetime). As per the norm in Bulgaria, the girl was young and beautiful, bubbling with energy and enthusiasm. Days later, Kevin and I were still impersonating her outrageously happy, smiling, Bulgarian-accented comments, such as “well, we invented Cyrillic here in Bulgaria, we loove it, we know some people don’t like it but, well, we loove it!” Or, “Here is a church which is no longer used, some people say we should knock it down, but we loove it!” But her spirit was infectious and she was very helpful when we asked how to find some more Bulgarian yoghurt.
She also gave us a background to the Bulgarian protests which were taking place that day, which culminated in nightly protests outside the main parliament building. What was interesting was how placid the protests were – including entire families and their dogs (with a Bulgarian-flag sprouting out from their collar). To explain the reasoning behind the protests, she explained, cheerily: “We Bulgarians love to express our feelings, whether it is for love or something else!” I think she even winked once.
During a relaxing lunch after the tour, Kevin and I noticed that it was becoming more difficult to purchase Bulgarian yoghurt – almost as if they were trying to keep it away from foreigners, further adding to my theory that Bulgarian yoghurt contains a special bacteria that can keep you alive forever. When we asked for the blueberry-flavoured yoghurt from the menu, for example, he explained to us that they didn’t have any blueberries; the delivery hadn’t arrived yet. But when we chose a different topping for the yoghurt, it wasn’t a yoghurt at all. It was ice cream. Very suspicious.
We were lucky to enter the city’s largest park just as a group of promoters for some lemon-flavoured beer showed up, speaking very quickly in Bulgarian while we smiled and waited for the beer, saying ‘thanks!’ just so they knew that we had no idea what they were talking about. The beer was only two-per-cent strength, but even then, it was nice to be given free beer in a park. It certainly would never happen in Australia, and if it did happen, it would definitely never be offered by a group of hot Bulgarian girls.
I refused to take part in the pub crawl. This may sound like I was being a stick-in-the-mud, but I refuse to go on pub-crawls in all-male groups. Besides, I noticed that our hostel was filled with Japanese people and I was desperate to impress one of them with my rudimentary Japanese skills. So from 10pm until early in the morning, Kevin sat and read Shakespeare while I tried to think of a way to talk to the nearest Japanese guy near me – a bohemian-variety with long hair tied back and a short goatee. When his female companion left the room, I decided to say nervously “Hi – you’re Japanese? I just recognised a few words…”
He didn’t look impressed, almost as if he wasn’t excited about having a chance to speak in Japanese to an Australian guy in Bulgaria. But he was very cool, the sort of Japanese guy you meet now and again who does a lot of very exciting things with his life – volunteering in Africa and South America, travelling with little planning, basically doing the opposite of everything a Japanese person is supposed to do. So I’m glad I got to have a chat to him, even if it was all in English.
Before leaving the next day, Kevin and I went to the Ladies Market, as I’d heard that Scarlett Johanssen had visited a few years ago and had developed an unhealthy fascination for World War II memorabilia, particularly that of the Nazi party. But since we couldn’t find any of this (probably for the best, it would be tricky to get that stuff through Australian customs) I spent a few minutes recording some blind, accordion-playing buskers, because it’s always handy to have on your hands on some copywrite-free Bulgarian music.
It’s a bit sad that so many people tick Bulgaria off their list merely by visiting Sofia, a nice-enough capital city but with nothing special to recommend it beyond churches, prostitution and brutalism. But I certainly didn’t hate the place. It was a different experience; a poor-man’s Moscow. And if you’re really lucky, the Bulgarians might let you taste their yoghurt.
Kevin and I are now sitting on an air-conditioned coach to Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. But the first three days of our Bulgarian trip was spent in another town – the rival town of Plovdiv, the Bulgarian capital during Roman times with a recently discovered Roman stadium and an amphitheater protruding out of the concrete in the town square. Nice.
Our first concern once we arrived in Plovdiv was to find an atm which wasn’t surrounded by gypsies. We managed to find two, but both were out of order. Until we withdrew money we weren’t able to pay for a taxi, and given we couldn’t find any ATMs nearby, we decided to bare the intense heat of the late afternoon and to make the two kilometre journey on foot.
The streets were slightly decrepit – graffiti was scrawled over most walls, footpaths were cracked, and a few residential windows were broken. But young, well-dressed women walked the street alongside mothers and fathers with their children, so it didn’t seem particularly unsafe.
But as we walked up a long street leading towards ‘centrum’ (at least, that was my reading of Cyrillic) we heard an angry chanting, with horns and whistles blowing as a few police on motorbikes rode beside us. At first we thought it must have been one of those famous Eastern European soccer matches; but then we realised that a protest was going on.
“Wouldn’t it be horrible if those protesters came around the corner and towards us!” we joked, but of course, that’s exactly what happened. I heaved my backpack firmly on my back while Kevin tried to move up the street fast enough without his suitcase-on-wheels tipping over. We made it to the end of the street and watched the protesters spill over into the main square.
We tried to work out what they were protesting about, but gave up within a couple of minutes, opening our map and trying to work out how to get to the Old Town. At this point we were stopped by one of the protesters, a large, bald man with a Bulgarian flag in one hand. “Can I help you? You look lost,” he asked us, confident and blunt, but kind and concerned.
It appeared that the map we’d been given was incorrect. He urged us to stop using our map and gave us detailed, exact directions to the Old Town. It was very helpful in the end, with Kevin in particular impressed by this friendly flag-waving giant, with his stern, matter-of-fact personality. We thanked him and made our way to the hostel.
Kevin was also impressed by the sheer amount of heavy metal tee-shirts he could spot on the streets. You see, while travelling, Kevin carries a large notebook so that he can list any metal shirts he spots, noting down the type of person wearing it and the location. After finding a sad lack of metal shirts in Turkey, he was delighted with the amount he was seeing in the first hours of his time in Plovdiv; and not just AC-DC, Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath, but also lesser known likes ‘Stratovarius’ and ‘Burzum’. Whoever they are.
There were two Canadian guys in our hostel, but Kevin and I were divided in our opinion of them. On our first night we sat on the patio and shared a raspberry-flavoured beer with them. They were both recent graduates who lived in Alberta; one studied chemical engineering and the other studied accounting. They were quiet-spoken and when we returned from dinner the first night they asked us a very valid question: ‘So…why are you guys in Bulgaria?’
I explained that it was basically a joke that Kevin and I had years ago – ‘wouldn’t it be funny to go to Bulgaria?’ but which had somehow come true. In contrast, they were simply travelling through Bulgaria because they’d been enjoying themselves in Istanbul and now had time to kill before making their way to Germany. I noticed, however, that thirty minutes into the conversation, an icy silence developed. I think it was after they were discussing the stray-dog situation in Greece, and Kevin described a pack of dogs as ‘having a doggie-meeting.’
“A…doggie-meeting?” they asked, looking at each other, clearly not impressed.
“Err yeah, like we saw two dogs having a…doggie-meeting,” Kevin replied.
From that moment on, I got the impression that they despised us. Kevin, on the other hand, was of the opinion that they were nice guys who were just a little tired. I guess Kevin is a ‘glass-half-full’ type of guy. I’m more of a ‘glass-is-completely-empty-all-the-time’ guy. Either way, I swear the icy silence remained for the next two days. Every time they chose to sit on a different table to us during the morning breakfast, I knew exactly why.
Walking through the old town during our first afternoon in Plovdiv, Kevin and I were approached by a man with long, grey hair at a small market bench. Rather than trying to sell us any of his wooden carvings and various other Bulgarian knickknacks, he asked us where we were from. “Australia,” we replied.
He looked ahead at us sternly. “So you don’t speak Bulgarian?” he asked.
“No,” we replied.
“How dare you,” was his quick, blunt response. He stared us up-and-down for a moment. “Do you go fishing?”
“Not really,” we replied. He didn’t look happy.
“If you live in Australia and you don’t go fishing, that is a shame,” he said, looking at us in disappointment. He closed the conversation with good advise: “You move to Bulgaria. Beer is only 50 cents.” He then walked away, having made his point.
The protests continued as night fell – they would head towards an intersection, then various groups would splinter off into different directions. All things considered they were a very placid, respectable group of protesters – the sorts that bring their children and dogs along, all carrying Bulgarian flags, sometimes on bicycles. Their aim? To bring down the government, whose corruption and incompetence is stopping them from joining the European Union, I suppose.
We were eager to try some Bulgarian yoghurt. This is because in the early 20th Century, a Russian scientist had visited Bulgaria and tried to uncover the mystery as to why Bulgarian peasants were living so long. His theory was that there was a special bacteria in the air that was making a very pleasant-tasting yoghurt, one which contained special healing properties, which, if properly harnessed, could keep someone alive for a very long time – perhaps even eternity. It didn’t sound like a stupid theory at all, so we made sure to eat yoghurt at every single place we visited. And even though we both got mild stomach poisoning and various aches and pains that lasted for days, I’m sure that’s just the special Bulgarian super-yoghurt working its magic.
We visited a Bulgarian monastery near from Plovdiv called ‘Bachkivo’. Like most Bulgarian churches, their murals depict evil Turks torturing innocent Bulgarian peasants. It feels like the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was the only place where their identity could flourish, the violent images expressing their inner Bulgarian pain during the many centuries of Ottoman rule. As Kevin said, the religious imagery was more akin to a heavy metal album cover than anything else.
Plovdiv was a relaxing town where we ate a lot of yoghurt and climbed a lot of different hills. But it was only the first part of our trip and perhaps we hadn’t quite learned the art of hostelling – balancing out strenuous activity with elongated periods of ‘chillaxing’. Because ‘chillaxing’ is slowly evolving into a genuine English term. Get used to it.
I’d been in Moscow for three days and my visa was about to expire, so it was time to hop on a flight to Istanbul to meet my friends. Booking online, I was presented with two flying options – the cheaper, more reputable and quicker option of flying Russia’s Aeroflot Airline, or taking the longer, more expensive and questionable Air Moldova, the carrier for the poorest country in Europe. I think you can tell which option I chose.
Air Moldova turned out to be quite good. Even though I was yelled by security many times trying to get through security at the Moscow Airport (luckily in Russian, what you don’t know can’t hurt you) the flight itself was fine. The in-flight magazine had a few articles about the beauty of Moldova, written with enough self-awareness to admit that their country is embroiled in poverty (although they blamed all their problems on the breakaway state of Transnistria). Another thing I found most charming was that when the flight landed, over half of the passengers – I assume the Moldovans rather than the Russians – gave a calm, thankful applause. The aircraft had landed in one piece, although I was sure it would, given that it took entire country’s GDP to buy it.
My two friends, Kev and Flick, had been travelling around Turkey for around two weeks, taking part in a tour which covered not only Istanbul but Cappadocia, Izmir, and other places which Kevin can’t recall right at this moment (he’s sitting next to me on a long-distance bus ride as I type). Instead of calling them immediately on my arrival I decided to surprise them by turning up at their guesthouse unannounced! This meant being crammed on a tram for around forty minutes and wandering around exotic looking cobble-stoned alleys, but thanks to various helpful Turks on the street who volunteered to help, before long I’d found the guesthouse. I adjusted my backpack, messed up my hair so I’d look extra travel-wearied, hurried up the tiny stairs and got ready to yell ‘surprise!’ But they weren’t there, so I had to call them on my mobile, and met them twenty minutes later.
We sat for hours at a local outdoor restaurant, drinking multiple coffees and beers, the waiter throwing in extra pita bread and hummus into the deal every minute we hesitated our ordering. If we hesitated any longer I think he would have eventually offered us a Turkish rug with dessert. But it was very nice and relaxing and the Istanbul atmosphere after sunset, with bright lights, fountains and multiple Ottoman temples.
But tragedy nearly struck us when walking back to the guesthouse. Carefully walking along an alleyway with various market stalls and restaurants, a taxi crawled behind us, waiting for us to move aside. I moved across to the other side of the road but Kev and Flick remained right behind the taxi, walking slowly and unaware of the car which was approaching us at over five kilometres an hour! A waiter saw this and gasped, ‘Please, watch out! There’s a taxi behind you!’
They slowly moved aside and let the taxi crawl past.
‘I save your life!’ the waiter gasped.
Well, early the next morning Flick left in a taxi to spend the next three weeks travelling France, Portugal and Germany. But Kevin and I packed our bags, rode a tram and train towards the coach station. After eating a kebab as a way of saying goodbye to Turkey, we caught a coach north from Istanbul, gazing out the window as the vegetation became less dry and slowly developed into a European green. After sitting at the back of the bus for a few hours and nibbling away at food offered to us by the Turkish family beside us, we suffered the hour-long ordeal of crossing the Turkish border and entering a new frontier; a place we’d only ever dreamed about, and even then, it was only one of those strange dreams you get when you eat too much cheese.
We were in…Bulgaria.
I’m just about to leave Moscow’s Paveletskaya Station to fly from Domodedovo Airport to Istanbul via Moldova. I spent a bit too much time early this morning flirting with one of the members of staff at the Apple Hostel, but only because she kept fluttering her eyelids and pouting when I said I need to check out. ‘But we only just met!’ she said, her face like a sad little girl. ‘But it’s okay, I’m sure you’re a good guy.’
‘And I’m sure you’re a great girl,’ I assured her, clipping the straps to my backpack around my waist like a dork and leaving the hostel.
The flight from Australia took 23 hours of my precious time, and I arrived at Moscow a broken man. The forty-minute wait to get to passport control didn’t seem so long after that, and getting into Moscow was surprisingly easy (the difficult work being done two months before when I applied for my visa) and soon I was on the Aeroexpress train to central Moscow.
Three years ago, I’d spent some time in Riga, Latvia. Riga is a unique city because although it’s the capital of Latvia, sixty-per-cent of its population are Russian. I came away from Latvia weary of Russians, who seemed a dangerous group of fat, balding men with parkas who chase after you when it’s raining and punch you in the back with their one free hand (the other hand was always clutching a bottle of vodka). That was my experience anyway.
But in general they seemed friendly, polite and (a little bit too) fashionable. It was also a more multicultural place than I expected, in the sense that it brings people from all over Russia. While the majority were undoubtedly Slavic, there were many Central Asian people who I’ll simplistically label as ‘Kazakhs’, or in many cases, a variety of darker skinned people who I’ll simplistically label as ‘Uzbeks’ even though they probably weren’t. Even better, there were African men on the street, handing out pamphlets and speaking fluent Russian. I’m sorry, but I just never thought I’d hear an African man speaking Russian in my lifetime and it was wonderful.
I soon realised that by speaking English instead of Russian, my chances of being approached by beautiful women offering to help me order food increased a dramatic 800 per cent. This is what happened after I gave up trying to order food from the old, Soviet-style canteens and entered the familiar ‘Subway’ franchise that’s served me so well in the past. Whether in Montreal, France or Japan, I’ve always relied on Subway as a safe place to speak English loudly and arrogantly without shame. But things were different this time. Despite my pointing and nodding, the teenage boy behind the counter didn’t want to bother trying to understand what I was saying, and called out to a pair of gorgeous women who were dining together. The blonde girl with huge blue eyes approached me, like you’d see in some American teen-comedy from the early 2000s, and asked me what I would like to order in her lovely Russian accent. I feigned indifference as always and sat alone with my foot-long sandwich and large, tasteless cappuccino.
I was only lost in the metro for about 45 minutes, but it was enough to master the Cyrillic alphabet completely – it’s one thing to make lazy attempts to learn it in your home country, but once you’re inside the subway, you’re given a choice to either learn it or remain stuck inside forever. But the Moscow Metro itself? It was an absolute wonder of a place. Built in the thirties when Stalin’s murder of Russia’s peasant population was in full swing, the grandeur of the subway almost made you forgive him. What do 7 million human lives matter when you have the most impressive architecture of any metro in the world? That’s what I say. But it’s honestly an amazing, never-ending spectacle. Each escalator goes down so deep underground, with huge arches making you feel like you’re journeying down into the city of the earth. And then you notice enormous statues and murals presenting Stalin, Lenin and various working people like religious figures. Chandeliers hang over the platforms, platforms with enormous dome-ceilings like you’d imagine inside a palace.
Over my three days in Moscow I spent a lot of time exploring the Metro system – although mainly because I was lost inside, travelling underground trying to work out which lines linked to which. Some stations were heavy on the Soviet imagery while others were more dedicated to celebrating the partisan fighters in World War II. The only problem was that the stations were all so enormous and it would take sometimes 10 minutes to change platforms or to get to ground level, which made my feet pretty sore by the second day.
My first night in Moscow was the most eventual. Within a few minutes of making my bed inside the Apple Hostel, a girl named Natalie arrived. Natalie was in Moscow for two nights before travelling to St Petersburg as a representative for the UK for the G8 summit. She told me how she’d nearly had trouble getting a visa in time, but that Vladmir Putin himself had personally intervened and got her one within days, and wouldn’t hear a word against the modern Russian Tsar. She was seemed very excitable and asked quickly if I wanted to join her for dinner and drinks. Exhausted after the long flight and with blurred vision, of course I agreed. We found a snazzy riverside bar with a gorgeous view of a basilica, recommended to her by a Russian friend who she said was ill. There happened to be a film screening that night with a guest appearance by Kevin Spacey, and although the place was swarming with paparazzi we spotted him in the distance for a few seconds in the end. Having to wait for an hour to get a seat for dinner, somehow Natalie managed to seek out the various British, Australian and South Africans and we all chatted and drank to kill time. I even managed to chat to a nice Polish girl, asking her hard-hitting questions about her opinions on Russians. She didn’t really have anything bad to say about them however, which was a bit boring.
By midnight I was in fairly good spirits, having fought off my jet-lag with two Long Island Iced Teas. I let Natalie continue on partying with one of the hostel’s staff members (all of which were fun, helpful Russian girls) and I decided to return to the hostel. Yes, I was drunk and stumbled about the metro system for about an hour longer than I meant to, but it felt like the authentic Russian experience. I even recall seeing two grown women playing drunken hide-and-seek inside one of the stations, which is always good to see.
The next morning I visited Red Square and the Kremlin, breaking up the walking with breakfast at a uniquely Russian Japanese sushi restaurant. I was enticed by the offering on the menu of ‘Bao’, the Taiwanese pork bun, and I was keen to see what the Russian twist would be like. But the cold, Central-Russian woman inside said it was unavailable. Without looking at the price, I ordered a sushi set together with a bowl of ramen and a coffee. Later I realised that I’d ordered over thirty dollars worth of sushi, but still ate the whole thing, knowing that it would fill me up for a good portion of the day. Indeed, I didn’t eat again until midnight, when I ate another bowl of Japanese noodles – because sometimes it’s good to stick to what you know.
As usual, I overdid my first three days in Europe, walking without rest from morning until night, through metro station underpasses, up hills overlooking the city, through massive parks such as the festive, famous ‘Gorky Park’ and the war memorial of Victory Park, sometimes popping into places such as the mysterious and iconic ‘Patriots Pond’ featured in the novel ‘Master and Margarita’, and spending time hiding from the rain in suburban forestry in the Sokolniki and Izmaykaya Parks.
Moscow was then a grand, gritty, fun metropolis with a lot of life to it. You can sense the Soviet history a lot more than the Tsarist history (with the exceptions of the beautiful fountains, basilicas and parks) and it was filled with quite nice people I thought. It’s almost as if all those James Bond films got it wrong, after all.
My next destination was Takayama, an old merchant’s town in the mountainous Hida region of the Gifu prefecture. Having befriended a Frenchman in Kanazawa, we shared a train up north to the town of Toyama, from where I would need to change a train down south. We shared doughnuts at Japan’s favourite doughnut store, ‘Mr Donut’—which should really be retitled ‘Donut-san’—until we realised I only had five minutes before my train arrived. So I quickly wished the Frenchman ‘adieu!’ and ran over the pedestrian crossing back to the main train station.
One of my many psychological problems is that I try to impress myself by taking absurd risks that don’t actually impress anybody else or serve any good purpose. For instance, I was nearly at the station, ready to flash my JR pass at the station master and board the train to Takayama, but to my left I saw an underpass with an enticing sign displaying Kanji characters which I could not understand. I couldn’t resist changing my route and running down into this underpass. After all, it was possibly a short cut to my train! Of course, it possibly wasn’t a short cut to my train, but I was willing to take that risk. Like so many of the risks I’ve taken in my life, it didn’t pay off, and I was left waiting in Toyama’s empty platform, trying to find out when the next train would come.
I asked the Information Desk how I could get to my next destination. But unfortunately, even though I was trying to get to ‘Takayama’, which means ‘Tall Mountain’, I made the mistake of asking how to get to ‘Takoyama’, which actually means ‘Octopus Mountain’. Luckily they clarified with me that I meant ‘Takayama’ and two hours later, I boarded the correct train. I was very relieved, especially since, if there really was such a place as Octopus Mountain, I might have been sent there instead. And that would have been a fate worse than death.
I arrived at Takayama late in the evening. Although described in guide-books as a busy tourist town, it was remarkably small and quiet, a town where life drifted slowly by; as in any small town, really. I no longer felt the need to rush like I had previously in Kanazawa. I knew, however, that the town was about to get much busier; for in three days time was the Hachiman Matsuri, an autumn harvest festival which has taken place in Takayama for centuries. However, I thought it would be clever to merely stay in the town for the three days leading up to the festival instead—when the festival began, that would be my cue to leave. It seemed like the logical thing to do.
I took a two-hour stroll around the town in the pitch-black night. I was delighted to find that the famous Takayama merchant’s area, known as San-machi, was virtually deserted and I was free to take some beautiful night-photography by the old, red bridge lurching over the river. The only people I saw were a group of excited Japanese housewives dressed in traditional kimonos, who asked me to take their photo. I happy obliged them with a confident ‘hai!’ and even though the photo didn’t look that great, they acted amazed at my photographic skills, mediocre though they are.
On my first night, I found myself sharing the dormitory with a group of seventeen-year-old students from Fukui, a small town south of Kanazawa. As I was their elder, I was much more willing to embarrass myself and talk to them in my extremely limited Japanese. It went well to begin with: they replied to my questions in very polite English, introducing themselves one-by-one. They explained how they were in a ‘handball championship’. I asked them if they meant dodge-ball, and mimed as if throwing a basketball at them. They shook their heads in slight confusion and began chatting amongst themselves in Japanese. I can’t be sure, but I sensed that they were mocking me. The remainder of my interactions with these teenagers involved me saying ‘sumimasen’ at various times in an effeminate manner as I trod carefully around their schoolbags and their little ‘Fukui’ flags; at least I got a little giggle out of them.
Still, I managed to make some new friends down in the kitchen that night. I sat with three travellers; a Dutch girl named Heleen, a middle-aged Japanese man from Osaka, who was very friendly and funny—typical of many Japanese from the Kansai region—and then, to my right, yet another Frenchman, wearing a stereotypical black polo-necked jumper. I kept a watchful eye on my wallet.
The four of us chatted for over an hour, but the mood was dampened by the appearance of an ‘Erojougo’, which according to my Japanese iPhone application means ‘horny drunkard’. At first, he appeared to be a member of the staff, as he kept trying to organise day-trips. Old, incoherent and reeking of alcohol, wearing a red leather jacket and the gaze of a pervert, this erojougo was a variety of Japanese man I had wanted to meet my whole life! But I think that Heleen didn’t seem to appreciate his slurred offering of beer—partly because it was in Japanese and she couldn’t understand him, but mostly because it was accompanied with a performance of him pointing towards her, then miming taking off an imaginary top and juggling some is imaginary breasts. He then laughed, stumbled up two flights of stairs and then fell silent. ‘A bit insulting,’ Heleen commented.
I didn’t feel like doing much on my second day in Takayama. Sure, there were huge mountains nearby and several world heritage sights featuring open-air museums of old, thatched-roof farmhouses. But the town was so slow and quiet, it seemed far more appropriate to head to the morning market, where I not only enjoyed a lovely European-style breakfast in a little room above a shop selling wood-carvings, but I also saw far more dogs being pushed in prams than I ever expected to see. The larger the breed of dog, the more hilarious it looked. I recall briefly looking in the eye of a large collie; and in its eyes, I could see it thinking sadly to itself: ‘I’m too old for this.’
At other points during the day I managed to drag myself to the station, intending to catch a train towards another village or two. But my lack of enthusiasm meant that I was soon back eating soba noodles or drinking an iced coffee. I just didn’t feel like punishing myself again, especially after those several intense days of walking in Kanazawa. Maybe after a day of resting, I argued, I’d be ready to return to the rigorous daily torture that I knew I deserved.
As evening fell, however, I felt slightly lonely. People were laughing down in the kitchen but I didn’t feel like walking downstairs and introducing myself—at least, not without some sort of prop. But what was the ideal prop? At the Family Mart down the road, I found something ideal—a takeaway bowl of salad! I was certain that if I sat in the kitchen with a salad, someone was bound to start up a conversation with me.
And by golly, it worked. Sure, one of the men was an angry-looking Australian man who looked like an ex-convict—except that, by virtue of being in a town like Takayama, he was probably but a gentle soul. Heleen and the wily Frenchman sat around the table as well, but it was a bubbly, chatty Japanese girl named Yuko, from the small town of Gifu, who insisted I sit with them, making a space for me around the table in between her and Kanako, another Japanese girl from Chiba, but more quiet-spoken—perhaps typically, being from the outer-Tokyo region. We chatted and laughed for hours. I explained that one of my hobbies was trying to incite conflicts between nations, and took out my list of Japanese derogatory terms, hoping that there may be some racial insults against ‘foreign barbarians’. Unfortunately Japanese insults were quite tame, and when they did strike hard, it was because they were aimed at me personally—after all, I’m the product of mixed parents. Heleen compared them to my list of Dutch swear words, and found that in terms of nasty severity, nobody beats the Dutch. Nobody.
The next morning, I went out for an fantastic brunch with Yuko and Kanako. Sitting on mats on a tatami floor, we ordered three bowls of raw seafood to share together with sake and some complimentary green-tea ice cream. It was a great experience, especially since Kanako kept my sake cup full. I was being treated like a middle-of-the-range samurai, and it felt good. Yuko only drank a dash of sake, as she was riding a bike later. Apparently riding under the influence of even the tiniest bit of alcohol is illegal in Japan.
Loic the Frenchman arrived in Takayama that afternoon. When we last saw each other in Toyama, we’d promised each other that if we were to meet in Takayama, we would party, and party hard. And so when I met him that evening outside his hostel down the road, he had dressed himself up as the perfect young Frenchman out on the town: leather jacket, slicked back hair, and a European earnestness. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, from what I’d seen, Takayama had virtually no nightlife.
Our hearts were set on a burger shop which had been recommended on the Internet; but like so many other places which were recommended, we found it was closed. So we settled on Katsu-don from a small little house with a sliding door and an elderly couple serving. I think there’s an old saying that goes: ‘When life hands you lemons, make katsu-don,’ and it seemed particularly accurate on this night. And while it was certainly delicious, I was afraid that I’d had better Katsu-don in Melbourne. Still, that merely meant that we have some quality Japanese food back home, even if it’s nearly always made by Koreans.
Alley after alley, Loic the Frenchman and I searched for a bar—somewhere where we could strut-our-stuff on the small-town-Japanese-dance-floor. Alas, time and time again, we’d slowly slide open a door to a bar to find a private function booked and a smiling face apologising to us across the room. We’d obviously picked the wrong Monday night to go out. The only options left were bars which looked less than reputable; with names like ‘Share-Girls’, for example. Still, ‘Passion-Snack,’ a small bar in an alleyway lit up with blue neon-lights and love-heart symbolism looked like a legitimate operation, so we pushed open the wooden door and stepped inside.
Inside were two sleazy looking young men, their arms stretched over the bar with big grins across their faces. To their left was a large, old, balding, red-faced Japanese man—another ‘erojougo’—who looked across at us foreigners with a shocked, open-mouthed alcoholic gaze. ‘Sumimasen,’ the Frenchman smiled, and a space was made for us on the two remaining stools of the tiny bar.
‘Where are you from?’ he asked in a slow but booming, heavily-accented voice.
‘Australia,’ I answered.
‘France,’ Loic followed quietly with a nervous smile.
‘Furansu!’ the old man exclaimed. He paused for a moment, staring at us with large, bulging eyes. He then pursed his lips together and puffed out his chest in a feminine fashion, mocking him with some incoherent French-sounding gibberish. As we sat down cautiously, the two bargirls explained that we needed to pay 4,000 yen each: this would entitle us to unlimited alcohol for that first hour. However, the idea of being intoxicated in the company of three erojougo was not as enticing as it might seem.
‘Please, sit down! I will buy you drinks!’ he offered, drunkenly.
Loic asked the two bargirls whether this was permissible; it wasn’t. We apologised politely and made our way towards the exit; unfortunately for us, the erojougo was not happy. Not happy at all.
‘In Japan, we have a custom!’ he spat, slamming his fist on the table. ‘When you sit down…you drink!’
We looked over at the two embarrassed bargirls, who were nodding and pointing towards the door with nervous smiles. ‘Arigatou-gozaimasu!’ we nodded quietly, trying to step around the angry erojougo.
‘Stay here and you will get soft bodies!’ the man yelled. ‘You listen to me! I give you soft bodies!’
Loic and I looked at each other awkwardly. ‘Soft bodies?’ I asked him.
‘I think we better go,’ he replied.
‘Sumimasen,’ I smiled, trying to get around the erojougo. But he still wouldn’t let me through.
‘Stupid…gaijin!’ he roared. Yes, he used the word gaijin; the derogatory term for outsiders. It’s a word which is fine when it comes from a fellow non-Japanese person, but when a Japanese person says it, it cuts deep to the bone. Luckily one of the girls ushered us out a special back door and we were able to escape. Looking back inside as the door slowly swung shut, I caught a glimpse of the erojougo inside; he’d apparently calmed down already, and was lifting up another shot-glass.
‘Well, that experience is going in the blog!’ I said to Loic. The Frenchman.
Passing by the main station on the way back to our respective hostels, we witnessed a smartly-dressed, middle-aged Japanese man step out of a limousine, falter slightly, and drop to the floor. Before we could do anything, three people jumped from the back seats and helped him up. We simply watched, waiting to see if there was anything we could do to help. As the man was assisted back up onto his feet by his friends, he stared at us for a moment and smiled: ‘thank you!’ in English.
What was interesting, however, was that Loic was unsure why he couldn’t understand the man’s Japanese. I had to explain to him that it was merely English in a Japanese accent, which highlighted the fact that even though he may know Japanese quite well, there had been many times when Japanese people had spoken to him in hard-to-understand English. So while there were many times when Loic had to translate Japanese into English for me, in a strange twist, I’d often have to translate Japanese-English back to English for Loic to understand. It was a complex web of miscommunication but it was a fun web to be wriggling in all the same.
The big day had finally arrived! The ‘Hachiman Matsuri’ began the next morning, and Loic and I were excited to see the much-lauded mechanised puppets, the ‘Karakuri Ningyo,’ which are over a century old, carried on old ‘yatai’ floats, and that drew an enormous crowd in the centre of the san-machi area towards midday. Loic and I soon found ourselves caught in the middle of the excited Japanese folk; only due to our above-average heights could we actually see the yatai.
A hush fell over the crowd and traditional Japanese music began playing. The music alone made the whole experience feel wonderfully ancient and Shinto, with snake-like melodies plucked from a Shamisen or Koto, played against an uncomfortably enticing off-beat rhythm. The puppet itself looked slightly tacky, but we were certain that the performance itself would be mesmerising and impressive.
Unfortunately it was a complete waste of time. The puppet barely moved, and when it did, the crowd gave annoying gasps of amazement—as if there was something impressive about a mechanical puppet moving once from left to right in a five-minute timeframe. At certain points, monkey-like puppets jumped forward and flipped around on a bar; but even then, it only occurred once every few minutes. The entire sequence sucked the life out of us, leaving us not only disappointed, but angry at it having wasted our time. We left in disgust.
As usual, my last hour with Loic was spent in a rush; getting lost, running back to my hostel, wasting time bowing to the staff so as not to be rude, and running onto the train with only a minute to spare. But it was great sharing a few adventures with this Frenchman. He may have been born a lousy Frenchman, but as far as I was concerned, he had the heart of a decent Englishman. Bon voyage, monsieur.
Kanazawa is a medium-sized city on the west coast of Central Honshu, a few kilometres from the ocean, and is one of those cities which are partly famous for not being bombed during World War II. Similarly, its old Edo-period Samurai and Geisha areas have never been set on fire; another remarkable feat. The biggest draw in Kanazawa, however, is the lovely Kenrokuen Gardens, regarded as the best garden in a country chock-full of beautiful gardens. Being a peaceful, calm, monk-like creature, this was my main reason for visiting the slightly-out-of-the-way-city.
I stayed in Guest House Pongyi, an old Japanese house which had been converted from a nineteenth-century kimono warehouse. Maru-san, a short, smiling Japanese woman showed me around the little house, making sure I didn’t hit my head while entering the rooms, and sat me down on a little mat on the floor by the Japanese-style reading table. There, she introduced me to another guest; aloof and quiet, he was a young Frenchman. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and shook his hand, before making sure to secure my belongings and make sure I was carrying my wallet on me at all times.
I was quite a coward during my last trip to Japan, where I would walk the streets for hours, hoping to stumble across the most tourist-friendly place to dine; somewhere where I could order my food with the minimum amount of embarrassment. As Kanazawa didn’t have a great number of foreigners, I really needed to order my meals in Japanese this time. Luckily, my two months of studying paid off and I was able to order a meal of scrambled crab on rice. And I’m not going to lie to you, it was great. I vowed then and there never to gaze upon another crab, lest it be scrambled first.
First, I visited the northern Geisha district, which had a suspicious lack of geisha, yet a delightful abundance of cats. It was very quiet and dark when I arrived, however. The only sounds I could hear were the distant beating of chanting and drums from a nearby shrine. But I was enjoying the solitude, and celebrated by giving a loud cough; something I would be more reluctant to do out on a busy street. In doing so, I startled an old lady who was sliding open the door to her how at this exact moment that an old lady. She quickly laughed away the fear, and I laughed along too, although forgetting to say ‘sumimasen’, which is ‘excuse me’. But I was mainly laughing at her, for she was taking her cat out for a walk on a leash, which is a pretty funny sight. That said, I was impressed at the cat’s discipline. I think that the best thing about walking a cat on a leash is that you’re interfering with the one thing cats value most: freedom.
I arrived back at the Guest House with very sore feet, sat on the mat near the reception, and talked to Maru-san and Yuko-san about an hour. They asked me many questions; about where I’ll be visiting next, where I had come from, and soon, they asked me what sort of Japanese food I like. And if I’d mastered anything in Japanese, it was how to convey that I like something! So I put on a big smile and announced, ‘gyoza ga dai suki desu!’ which meant: ‘I love Japanese dumplings!’
From here, things began to spiral out of control.‘That’s great! Tomorrow we will throw a gyoza party! You will help us make 100 gyoza!’ Yuko-san cheered, clapping her hands happily. ‘In fact, you will make 200, because we will have more guests!’
What had I gotten myself into! I felt that in the future, I should tone down the word ‘dai suki’ (love) to the slightly less enthusiastic ‘suki’ (like) if I want to avoid these situations in the future.
The next morning, on my way to my daily Starbucks breakfast, I looked back to see an old man with a cane, possibly blind. So I held open the glass door for him to go through. He thanked me with a simple ‘arigatou…’ and walked way aimlessly. It was a disappointingly casual thank you to receive. I thought that my act required something a little bit more polite; after all, I say ‘arigatou gozaimasu’ merely when I receive change at a convenient store. I was infuriated and swore never to help an old Japanese person again.
Strolling out of the park down a stone path into a small ‘Honda-Forest’ area, I started to unwind. The air smelt strangely sweet, unlike the fumes from the cars which the Honda family represent now. There was also a tall pillar commemorating the fallen soldiers in the Greater East Asia War – I thought it might be interesting to see such an awkward historical memorial, but since it was mainly written in Kanji, it wasn’t actually very memorable. I’m not even sure if it was the right memorial, come to think of it.
I finished the afternoon by purchasing a ticket to the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum, which is inside the old Army Barracks, build in a European Style during the end of the Nineteenth-Century. I was genuinely excited to see a museum covering anthropological remains, taking me through different eras in the Kanazawa area and leading all the way up through the Edo-era, the Meiji-era until the end of World War II. Once again, my inability to read kanji left me feeling quite stupid, as I walked around, merely looking at a series of pictures and models, probably taking in as much information as a two-year-old would. But at least there were some silent films shining from a tiny projector showing old footage of Kanazawa. However, as I stepped into the room, I found a group of bored Japanese schoolchildren lying on the seats, probably killing time before their teacher came back to collect them. I lumbered to the front seats and sat, trying not to block their view. They whispered amongst themselves and laughed, but I maintained my dignity. There were ten different buttons at the front console where you could choose which Kanazawa footage you wanted to watch. I noticed that every time a clip would end, a young boy would go to the front and repeat the same footage. I watched this footage about three times, but I felt slightly unwelcome. So I put my satchel bag over my shoulders and left the room awkwardly, although I managed to say ‘bye-bye’ in my usual silly voice. ‘See ya!’ they replied, mockingly. Strangely, when I looked back over my shoulder and looked back into the projection room, I noticed a shadow spread over the screen and blocking the footage. The shadowy figures resembled two very-young girls kissing each other romantically, as if in the moonlight. I took this as a cue to leave the museum.
At 5pm, preparations for the Gyoza party began. Yuko summoned me, a German guy and a different French guy, this one named ‘Loic’, into her tiny little car. She drove us to the local supermarket, where we bought ingredients for the gyoza and additional salad, as well as a lovely bottle of sake (which was my suggestion). Back at Pongyi, I was set to work. Loic and I chopped cabbage and spring onions, and mixed it in a bowl with the pork mince. Later, we were sat down in the common room, kneeling down on the little table, and were given round gyoza wrappers which were needed to be wrapped around the mixture and pinch until they looked like a Japanese dumplings. I steadily got worse with each gyoza, while the two Frenchmen next to me made theirs significantly better. However, they had the advantage of having the blood of thousands of French chefs running through their veins, so I didn’t feel so bad.
The party was a lot of fun. A Spanish couple and a German guy joined us around the little table. Yuko had some fun games up her sleeve: for instance, we were required to go around the table and make animals noises from our respective countries. It turned out that European animals all say the same thing; French cats, for instance, meow, but in a French accent. Japanese cats on the other hand go ‘niaa’. It was informative AND educational.
I spent the next day walking all over Kanazawa for the third time. My legs were aching, but I needed to see the Kenrokuen Gardens; after all, that was the reason I’d come to Kanazawa. I treated myself to a lovely Katsu-don above a tourist shop, overlooking the gardens, and felt a wonderful tranquility; I was the only person in this old windowless former Japanese mansion. I knelt down, drank Japanese tea and for the first time in my life, I felt at peace; for a few seconds anyway.
The Kenrokuen Gardens were nice, but I realised that when you’d seen one beautiful reflection over a lakeside, you’d seen them all. It was certainly a pleasant place to walk around in, but the presence of multiple tour groups, some with loudspeakers, affected the serenity somewhat. Luckily, my new French friend, Loic, had organised to go out drinking with me that night. Yes, I know he was French, but I decided that if there was ever going to be peace on Earth, I needed to forgive the French for the Napoleonic Wars of the Nineteenth Century. Besides, he was a cool guy; he’d left his job in Paris and had come to Japan on a one-year working holiday, and without any solid plans for employment. Even better, he could speak Japanese, although unfortunately, he spoke it quite well and so I wasn’t able to detect his French accent, which would have been pretty funny.
After a few rounds of excellent sushi off a lane in Kanazawa’s exciting ‘Kanamachi Scramble’, we set out to look for somewhere to drink. The first bar was tiny, but exactly what I expected: there was a long-haired, Hawaiian-shirt wearing bartender and a few drunk Japanese businessmen who immediately asked where we were from. The most novel aspect of the bar was the sheer amount of peanuts which were supplied. In fact, you had to walk through a sea of peanut shells just to get to the counter. I gave them one extra point for that.
In the main part of the Scramble were multiple hostess bars. The main crossing featured multiple wavy-haired Japanese men in vests, standing on every corner of the intersection, being intimidating without saying anything. Every now and then, an older, more refined-looking Japanese man with carefully-combed hair would ask us to come inside his bar, promising us that we were allowed to touch the women inside; later, walking further down the main street, men tried to convince us to enter their bars by promising us ‘lip service’ Yes, lip service. He even promised an English menu if we needed one.
One thing which I noticed was that the Frenchman received more attention from Japanese people than me; usually just after the point that he revealed that he was French. Anyone who’s been to Japan probably knows how much the Japanese love the whole ‘French-style’ thing, hence the abundance of mock-French cafes and bakeries. And although I knew I should still be happy with their only-slightly less excited reaction to me being Australian, it still hurt.
The Frenchman and I checked out from the Pongyi Guest House the next morning, as we both needed to take the same train up the north coast of Honshu. We took photos with Maru-san, being sure to give peace-signs, Japanese style; the ultimate proof of post-war pacifism, and our spirits were only slightly dampened by walking to the station with an older Japanese man who had lived in Los Angeles for fifteen years and therefore talked a little bit too much about nothing. But only slightly.
This wasn’t the Japan I remembered. I remembered an icy cold Japan, a place which carried a strange, misty mystique; a biting nippiness. It was a Japan which lived forever in winter. It’s a kind of shame, then, that I’ve broken through my delusions and arrived in Osaka in early October, which is still recovering from summer. Was I ready to face a hot, sunny Japan? I wasn’t so sure.
As I’d been studying Japanese for the past two months with the assistance of iPhone apps, I was fairly confident that I could call myself fluent. I chuckled to myself as I walked through the third floor of Kansai airport, thinking about how I’m going to order a coffee in fluent Japanese and surprise them with my amazing diction. But just to test the water, I decided to start with something simple: a cappuccino from Starbucks. How could I go wrong?
‘Konbanwa!’ a cheerful young woman greeted me.
‘Hai…’ I managed to say, feebly. ‘Cappuchino wo onegaishimasu.’
Unfortunately, she started speaking Japanese, and I couldn’t understand a word. I imagined that she was probably asking me whether I wanted any sugar.
‘Hai,’ I replied. ‘Futatsu.’
‘Ni?’ she asked, holding up two fingers.
‘Err…yes! Hai!’ I smiled. I’d just ordered a cappuccino with two ! I was amazing!
But I was embarrassed to find I’d actually ordered two separate cappuccinos. To save face, I took both of them with a smile, thanked them with an ‘arigatou gozaimashita’ and left in search of an imaginary friend I was pretending to give the extra coffee to. When I was convinced that I was out of their site, I dropped it into a rubbish bin and fled the airport in shame.
Osaka was also seedier than I remembered. My hotel was surrounded by homeless men and women, who in turn were surrounded by homeless-looking cats. The only difference was that the cats didn’t wear beanies, although in my opinion, beanies would add an interesting touch and if anyone can implement this new idea, it’s the Japanese.
I only caught two incorrect trains when trying to come home, and even the sight of drunken Japanese businessmen with terrible sadness in their eyes and wearing poorly-tucked white shirts couldn’t revitalise me. I wasn’t in the mood. When I finally alighted at the correct subway station and emerged from up the stairs, I was hoping for the excitement of Osaka’s night-life to lift my spirits. Alas, this was down-town Osaka, and I was surprised at the sheer number of homeless people wandering up and down the streets. But the worst that happened was that one of them said ‘hello’ to me, and I’m only sorry I made the common mistake of saying ‘Hi!’ back – because now I seem like an arsehole who replies ‘yes’ to greetings.
It was nearly midnight and I felt awful, but managed to summon up the courage to leave my room, order a Japanese meal on the street using a simple: ‘Kore wo, onegaishimasu’ and pointing at a picture, I brought the takeaway rice meal back to my room. I was particularly looking forward to the boiled egg on the side, but as I tapped it with my wooden chopsticks I noticed it was cold and hard. I cracked it open and realised it was raw. This was a slight disappointment but I mixed it into the rice and beef and sucked up the yoke like a man.
The hotel room was only 3500 yen which I found suspiciously cheap. But I had nothing to be suspicious about and it was a nice end to an exhausting day. The bathroom was fitted with a ‘shower-toilet’, a ingenious devise in which you can choose to use either a bidet or an arse-shower in your robot-toilet. This was all controlled via a remote control, which also controlled the heating of the toilet seat. This was going above and beyond! I wasn’t in the mood to try it out, however, so I simply showered, lay in my nice large bed and switched on the TV.
After a few zany commercials advertising kittens (where they would play bright, cheesy music and displayed different kittens inside stars, although I think they were merely display models) and after finding out where Celine Dion makes her money nowadays (singing in Japanese), I watched a game show where Westerners were lost in Japan and would accidentally turn up in the wrong place due to their poor Japanese. The audience found it very funny. I’m glad somebody’s fucking laughing.
So Ryan and I arrived in Kuala Lumpur for the third time. But we arrived with a sense of relief because we knew our way around this city, it was no longer foreign. We knew that there was a Reggae Bar in Chinatown, and we knew where our hostel was (okay, this didn’t actually stop us from getting lost.)
Ryan was unable to touch alcohol, but we still headed to the Reggae Bar and each ordered Singapore Noodles. Being Chinese New Year, of course, this was unavailable and we settled for a burger served by a Rastafarian (not so surprising given the bar’s name). I happily played a few games of pool against Ryan and even won a game, despite my meagre abilities. But this was all time-killing – we were waiting for two people to check-out of our hostel so we could get keys. Soon we returned to the hostel and on Ryan’s insistence, negotiating to get our own rooms and paying extra to have a bunk bed each to ourselves. It was a bit ridiculous, but I was glad to get some solitude.
But I had a mission to accomplish. Ten days before, on our nightly stopover in KL between Sri Lanka and Hong Kong, I’d promised to meet Helena a second time, and there was no reason to go back on that now. I’d emailed her just before leaving Georgetown, and checking the internet in KL, she’d replied that she was drinking beer alone at the Classic Inn. So I deserted my brother yet again, telling him that I’m off to meet Helena, the Slovakian girl. He had no idea who I was talking about.
I should point out just how tired and exhausted I was. Very. So, running around KL at night, without a map, with bags under my eyes and sweat under my armpits, the whole night had become a bit of a haze. When I arrived at Imbi and walked through Times Square Plaza, I immediately went into a 7-11 and bought a can of red bull. All tonight’s faith lived inside this little can. I made my way through the back car park, over the road and up the steps to the Classic Inn’s cosy patio, over to the wooden seat where Helena sat with her legs crossed and her laptop on her knees. Her hair was curled and she wore a nice, alternative black teeshirt.
I sat on the cushion next to her and we chatted about the last ten days – she wanted to know how Hong Kong and Bangkok were, about all the adventures I’d had while she was chilling in KL, waiting for her friend to arrive. Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Australia’ played on the plasma television, complete with Malay subtitles – just the way I like it. She was the ideal person I wanted to talk to, filled with great stories and adventures, world-wise and intelligent. And so the first three hours with her were spent discussing religion, politics, problems with travelling with siblings, and the difficulty of English-speaking subtleties. In Slovak, you don’t ask for something by saying ‘Would you mind passing me that wooden paddle?’ Instead, you say, ‘Give me that wooden paddle, you bitch.’ But we both agreed that English, and by proxy, Australian English, are much gentler and warming languages.
We were getting on so well that time flew past very quickly and it was approaching 2am, so soon she packed up her laptop, explaining that she was going to bed. After all, she had to collect her friend from KL Sentral at 8am and she was tired.
So afterwards I was wandering around KL on a Friday night, with no clue about where I was. The Light Rail, Monorail and train systems were all closed. I stumbled past a few shady characters and prostitutes, eventually hailed a ‘teksi’, asking to be driven to the Reggae Bar. This is because, on our first night in KL, Ryan and I had agreed to meet two young travellers there on the 4th of February – a Canberra girl and a Dutch guy who studied at an international school. I had a quick look through the crowded bar, past the multitudes of underage kids, realised that hanging around there was pointless. I was lost for a further thirty minutes, doing drunken laps of Chinatown through stinking, rat-infested alleyways and past prostitutes and random groups of drunk Europeans.
When I finally found the hostel, it was locked, no matter how many times I punched in the key-code. The Sri Lankan owner moved downstairs and she opened the door with a tired smile. Once I got up the stairs to use the bathroom, I found Ryan sitting in the main room with three 18-year-old Melburnian girls. They had been travelling around South East Asia and were on our same flight home the next day. My brother told bizarre, delirious stories about our cousin (who he never sees but still hates) and about other pointless things, like his favourite beers or what car he wants to buy. But we all got on well, despite the odd presence of a random French-Canadian man who was sitting with us, never contributing to the conversation but presumably trying to pick up one of the girls through the magical powers of silence. It didn’t work. An old, fat man was complaining about the noise we were making, so after another hour (while he lay back on a couch and delivered a few death-stares) and we all went to bed before 4am.
I ate breakfast with my three new 18-year-old girlfriends and at 9am we checked out together and lugged our baggage down the stairs. They took the first teksi, Ryan and I took next teksi. ‘Last one to the airport is a rotten egg,’ I declared and the race was on. We arrived at KL Sentral first, but couldn’t find them once we arrived, and hopped about one of the many airport buses. We watched them hop on the bus in front of ours, which departed immediately. Shit. They got through immigration at KL’s low-budget LCCT terminal first, and thus, they won.
But it was good having them for the flight home. To mark the halfway point of the eight-hour journey, Ryan and I walked over for a pointless flirt and discussion before heading back to the back of the plane and sitting back in our chairs like dunces. Before long, we’d landed in Melbourne and were waving goodbye to the three girls. Immigration wasn’t nearly as hellish as I’d remembered, our sister picked us up, and that leads us up to the present day.
I woke up the next morning and didn’t really bother about worrying about my brother. So again, I just hung out with Hella.
The night before, she had expressed concern over Jimmy. Jimmy was forever holding a can of Tiger Beer. He came across as a tragic character in an old folktale – half the time, he was making a huge effort to bring travellers closer together – ‘I put chair here! You talk yes there! Tiger Beer, 1, 2, 3? You all have Tiger Beer. Happy Chinese New Year!’ The other time, he was just not making any sense at all, telling you some story in broken English. You may want to ask for clarification on some point, but it was too late. He would be confident that you’d understood him, tapping you on the shoulder and said ‘yes, yes. Me Jimmy.’ According to Hella, he a blabbering mess, giving her multiple sad hugs. After all, it was Chinese New Year. Where was his family? He was going to sleep at 2am and needed to be awake at 6am for hostel duties. She took me aside and quietly pointed outside the room. I could see Jimmy sleeping on the wooden stage in the common room, with nothing but a cushion by his head. Poor Jimmy.
We shared a table as we ate breakfast outside, consuming multiple cups of coffee – god knew I needed them. We didn’t say much, but she showed me her multiple mosquito bites and the prints on her legs caused by sleeping in her jeans. She was supposed to check out that day to move to another guesthouse, but first she asked Jimmy whether there were any vacancies. ‘Tiger Beer? I sleep only four hours. I get you Tiger Beer. You wait.’ He never came back. So Hella checked out of the hostel and I accompanied her to her new guesthouse – just so I knew where she was. ‘But I must be putting you out?’ she asked. I shrugged and we walked slowly down Love Lane.
When she’d rocked up in Georgetown the day before, carrying her luggage down Lebah Chulia (Chulia Street), she was approached by an Indian man resembling, as she described him, Captain Jack Sparrow. He’d promised her accommodation immediately – although she would have to sleep on the old, tattered couch in his ‘reggae cafe’. She turned it down but agreed to come back on the second night to stay in one of the rooms. But when we showed up, she was turned away by an old, glasses-wearing British guy – when we came back a second time, we sat at the cafe and waited for Captain Jack Sparrow to come back from the hairdressers. When he returned, he sadly admitted that there was no longer any bed available – he had other guests extending their stay. It was a little annoying, but he recommended a new place around the corner from Love Lane, so we continued to walk together through the oppressive Malaysian heat back to Love Lane. The inn that Captain Sparrow recommended seemed fine, but she didn’t want to stay in this street; it was well known that travellers have been mugged in this area and indeed, there were a few crazies hanging around outside. One of the crazies was particularly amusing – an old, drunk Chinese man, dressed in full ancient Chinese gear, trying to sell me some sort of red ball. ‘Yeah! You! Hello! This is you! Yes? Hello! Hey doggie-doggie-doggie! Hey doggie-doggie-doggie!’ A convincing sales pitch, but I didn’t require a red ball at this moment.
So another few hours were spent drifting aimlessly around Georgetown. One of our aims was to get into the Penang Towers to get a view that stretched right out to the mainland – but being Chinese New Year, it was closed. We did, however, walk through four shopping malls (filled to the brim with closed stores) into elevators, up spooky staircases, trying to find a secret entry into the towers. But we never succeeded. Later we sat down for a Malaysian Iced coffee. The Malay owner was wearing a Melbourne teeshirt, so I questioned him. He laughed and said that his son visited Melbourne.
When we returned to the Red Inn, we found an Argentinian girl in our dorm, chatting flirtatiously to my brother on the bottom bunk, who was nonchalantly replying with: ‘I thought you liked it on top.’ Hella looked uncomfortable that the girl was sitting on her bed (the bottom bunk; I was on the top) and said, ‘your brother really loves women’. She couldn’t really have got it more wrong, but I didn’t say anything – besides, nothing ever happened between them as far as I know. Hella and I went back outside to share a small, round table, cross our legs, rest our chins on our palms and gazing down Love Lane. The crazy Chinese man with the red ball turned up outside the hostel, talking in tongues, once again, aggressively revealing his red ball. ‘Yeah, I’ll be fine,’ I called out, and he eventually trundled away.
Erin asked Hella and I about our plans. We were planning to visit the Kek Lok Si temple, recommended to us by Bronwyn and her boyfriend in the morning. It is supposedly the largest Buddhist temple in South East Asia (an unlikely claim given Thailand is nearby, and later I found out it was merely the largest in Malaysia, a predominantly Islamic state. Not such a big claim now). Either way, Erin joined us as we caught a bus half an hour up from Georgetown, winding through a mountain or two. When we arrived, the scene was not as mystical as Hella or I imagined. Erin, being from Beijing herself, said it was similar to entering the Great Wall of China – especially being Chinese New Year, with all it’s spiritual prayers for prosperity. And prosperity means business, and business means selling thousands of useless knick knacks. Erin kept walking ahead and losing us, but she was able to find the entrance by reading the chinese characters. I thanked her for using her magical Chinese powers.
At the entrance, we were greeted by a herd of turtles, crawling around slowly in a pool of mud. One of them was helplessly stuck on its back – other turtles refused to lend a helping fin. We were a tiny bit disgusted. Once inside the temple, corridors winded around confusingly. We’d climb a heap of stairs and turn a corner only to find yet another dead end. It seemed to be done on purpose, as if it was a matter of trial and error, a test of the soul. But it was a good way to see a lot of happy Chinese families and some interesting Buddhist processions. But as Hella said, the whole thing was what you’d imagine Disneyland to be like. Particularly after I’d seen temples in Sri Lanka, it seemed particularly plastic.
Given you simply put the money in the machine and sit down on a bus in Malaysia, we were surprised to see a ticket inspector on board. What was more surprising is that he fined Erin. She had finished her bottle of water and disposed of her little paper slip inside it. So, while Hella and I produced our tickets, Erin was banging the bottom of her bottle, trying to get the ticket out. The ticket inspector smiled, repeating, ‘I’m sorry but it’s procedure’, and issued her with a 4 ringget fine – that’s $1.30 AUD. Buying the ticket cost merely 2 ringget, so it was probably worth fare evading for.
I later found out that Ryan had made the journey to the temple himself earlier in the day – he’d actually decided to do some sightseeing by himself. It was highly suspicious. Later when I realised he’d gone there to purchase fireworks, it made more sense. It also made for a fun night, especially when Jimmy found out. To begin with he was nervous about the police – after all, they were circling around our block every half hour or so. But he soon got into the spirit of things, and Ryan joined him back on the road, launching firecrackers and fireworks to much applause. Soon Jimmy ran out onto the road, looked both ways, launched a spectacular set of fireworks and came running back like some cartoon character. I had to laugh.
Hella and I purchased a few longnecks from 7-11 and walked down Lebah Chulia. There were no parks or nice places to sit down. In fact, Georgetown is a pedestrian’s nightmare, without a footpath in sight. Instead, there were open sewers with rats scurrying about, with small gangs of men hanging around their motorbikes. It was clearly unsafe and I suggested we head back to the hostel – when we returned, we were moved inside because it was past midnight.
I caught five hours sleep – my weekly average, slipped on my crocs and took a shower in the toilet (secretly, the day before, I had nudged the knob off the shower switch, which plummeted down into the drain, shooting through the pipes. The evidence was washed away and I chose not to say anything. I’m glad I didn’t, for it was a perfect crime). Already Hella was outside, preparing a cup of coffee and picking Malaysian banana cake and sweets for us to share. I wasn’t going to see her again after this morning and it was very sad.
I felt sorry for anyone trying to sleep in on this particular morning. For a van pulled up outside and a group of men entered the hostel as part of a traditional Chinese lion dancing posse. They made their way through he reception, creating a racket of bass drums, pots and pans and god knows what else. We filmed as much as we could, enjoying the loud spectacle. Others opened their French windows looking groggy and irritated. The whole thing was nicely surreal. Once the tiger had eaten the hostel’s offerings (strategically placed mandarins, probably not a favourite lion snack) they would dance their way out into Love Lane and back to the van.
Soon too, Ryan and I were collected and taken away. I wished goodbye to Hella, tried to call out to Erin, and soon we were on a five-hour bus ride down the Malaysian peninsular, until we were dumped somewhere that wasn’t quite Kuala Lumpur Sentral, but a taxi-ride away from it. Because it was Chinese New Year, they said that Sentral was closed. This was, however, a load of bullshit – in my humble opinion, there was a deal with certain taxi drivers involved, and we paid ten dollars more than we were supposed to. But as usual, it’s best to forget the times you were ripped off or stuffed around. It isn’t a big deal at the end of the day.
I’ve put off these blogs for far too long. I’m just going to rush in, even if ‘Fools Rush In’, according to that subpar movie starring Matthew Perry and Salma Hayek.
Penang International Airport was unpromising. The bus stops outside were unclear and we had to stand aimlessly in the sun, wondering which part of the car park the bus would stop at. This meant waiting for thirty minutes and being turned away from buses that seemed to be the right one, but weren’t. Then it was rush hour across Penang and the 45 minute bus ride took a fair bit longer – nearly two hours. Not a great start. We passed right through Georgetown, and past the street we were meant to get off at, until we alighted at the main bus depot and, in our fragile state, agreed to get into a taxi with the first dodgy man who shouted out. We sat in the unlicensed white sedan and noticed a lack of anything taxi-related inside. The locks shot down in sync, and I was worried. But I sat tight and in the end, the white car dropped us straight outside our hostel and asked for ten ringgit – there was no harm done. And the ‘Red Inn’, immediately seemed very social. There were round tables scattered outside filled with young travellers drinking Tiger Beer, and Ryan immediately made himself at home.
Our hostel was located on ‘Love Lane’, which has been made a World Heritage Site as part of the historical Georgetown. Georgetown was one of those early british trading centres, strategically situated in an important part of South East Asia. Today, most of these British-era buildings are completely decayed and rotten, but the Chinese migrants from the colonial days have made the town their own, and are greater in number than the Malays themselves. How convenient, then, that it was Chinese New Year. Or perhaps it wasn’t convenient at all! Perhaps it was very inconvenient and all the chinese restaurants, as well as most attractions, would be closed for the next two weeks! And given I was mainly in Penang for the food, having to eat hamburgers and burritos for much of my stay made a mockery of my entire decision! Chinese New Year isn’t the most inclusive of festivals, and from what I hear, the traditional Chinese New Year’s Eve is spent around the television watching fireworks from Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong.
But Jimmy, the alcoholic staff member at the Red Inn was celebrating early. He would call: ‘Tiger beer! More tiger beer! You want tiger beer?’ Approaching everyone on the tables, he would lightly pinch the skin under their wrists and test whether they needed more of Malaysia’s pride and joy – Tiger Beer. Sometimes it meant they did. Other times, he looked curious and said ‘no, you don’t need Tiger Beer’. It was the first of many confusing things about Jimmy, and Georgetown in general. The woman behind the counter was a particularly well-mannered Chinese woman. She was helpful and gracious, giving directions to the ATM and apologising profoundly for the fact that we had to rent our own blankets. Despite this, it was a personality that was completely inscrutable. A jokey comment or smile would only make her bow her head slightly – I could imagine her belonging to a royal court in a some old Chinese dynasty – despite knowing nothing about Chinese history.
It was interesting that Ryan got straight into the beer. After all, we’d been drinking throughout Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Bangkok – it was now seven days of drinking every night, with Ryan drinking drinking more than me in general. It wasn’t so much the alcohol consumption that was worrying me, but the fact that Ryan was refusing to eat most nights. Why eat dinner? That gets in the way of drinking time. In places like Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Bangkok and now Penang, I had chosen some of the greatest gastronomical cities in the world. By skipping lunch and dinner, I felt like Ryan’s alcoholism was seriously ruining my plans. By midnight, I had refused all Tiger beer, but while Ryan chatted to three young Melbourne girls (who were not the ideal company – and besides, they went to the same high school my brother’s evil ex-girlfriend) I kept to the other side of the tables and chatted to a great American girl from Ohio, Bronwyn. She was taking a break from teaching in South Korea, and was a rare example of an American that I was funny, friendly and world-wise. In fact I’ve met a few American girls like this. If things keep going on like this, I’ll have to drop my prejudice against Americans altogether.
After midnight, I found the perfect reason to join in with the drinking. There were two quiet Swedish guys sitting across from me. One of the Melbourne girls yelled at them, asking them to speak english, so I thought, if she doesn’t like them much, they’re probably cool guys. And they were great, typically Swedish young men – underneath a straight-face and no-nonsense expression, they were warm and funny. After talking about their adventures in Thailand (where the blonde guy had got so drunk that he’d brought a Doberman back to his guesthouse) I decided that they had a great novelty value – all my life, I’d wanted to take shots of vodka with Swedes! So we bought a few flasks of cheap, fake-labelled vodka from the convenience store at the end of Love Lane. I ran back and forth a few times to buy extra polystyrene cups, and on my second journey, one of the Swedes immediately got up to accompany me, saying ‘I’ll come with you! It’s unpleasant to keep running back there all the time, all by yourself!’ It was another rare show of kindness. We drank six shots together, each time hitting our cups together saying ‘cheers’ in different languages. ‘Prost! Skål! Salud! Tervist! Kippis! We stopped at two small flasks, promising to spend the next night drinking a further three.
The next morning began with my brother bursting out of the dorm to throw up in the bathroom. This happened a few times and soon it was obvious that Ryan had alcohol poisoning. How could it be food poisoning when my brother hadn’t actually eaten anything for so long? So I ate breakfast and went back to the room, but my brother was out of commission. He lay asleep under the John Lennon poster in the common room, before crawling off the wooden stage and into the bottom bunk in the dorm room. He was gone. He told me that he’s not doing anything today, and so I decided to go for a little walk to the internet cafe. When I returned, he was gone. So were any friends I’d made the night before. It was unsettling and I was forced to spend the day without my brother. It was a relief, except I was sure that he’d gone off on a wonderful day trip with everyone else, and I’d been left out. That was a little bit embarrassing and disappointing.
There was only one other person back at the hostel, a blonde girl sitting outside with her luggage, who I exchanged glances with as I went inside the hostel to look for my brother. He wasn’t there. I decided to act uncharacteristic, to pull up a chair and say hello to the girl. We chatted for a few minutes – her name was Hella, she was from Stuttgart in Germany, near Heidelberg (where I had been last July). She had just taken a long bus ride from Singapore and was staying in Georgetown for a few nights, and only one night in the Red Inn. I wandered in and out of the hostel aimlessly, unsure as to what to do. Hella was heading over to the botanical gardens – her boyfriend’s email had given her a list of suggestions. I, too wanted to go to the botanical gardens. But I didn’t know where my brother was and besides, I didn’t feel like spending the day with a girl with a boyfriend. It felt a slight bit scandalous. I needed to avoid that. So when she mentioned that she’s leaving for a little walk, I got nervous and said, ‘Well, I’d better go to the bathroom. I’ll see you later!’ She waved me goodbye awkwardly but enthusiastically and I felt strange and stupid when I saw her dawdling slowly away from me down Love Lane. I wanted to join her, but I stopped myself.
I spent the next few hours in a strange malaise. Georgetown is a strange place to be. It’s considered one of the best places to eat in the world, but when it’s Chinese New Year and everything’s closed, that’s meaningless (unless you want to eat indian food, which isn’t so bad, but not what I came for). I had an awful feeling that Ryan and the others were at the botanical gardens without me, and I ended up walking through Little India to Fort Cornwallis – the British fort that they used to torment the Malaysian kings for so long. Don’t you love inspirational colonial stories like this: The Sultan of Kedah, who the British took the island of Penang from, did it on the deal that they would protect Kedah from Siamese and Burmese armies. When under threat by Siam, the British did nothing – so the Sultan of Kedah attacked Fort Cornwallis. The Malay armies were crushed and the Sultan had to sign a deal with the British to leave them alone, in return for annual payments. Don’t you love it?
It was Chinese New Year’s Eve in a city holding Malaysia’s strongest Chinese population. But there wasn’t much noise being made, as everyone was in with their families. A few families were throwing firecrackers out on the street, and as I walked about there was a definite energy in the air. But I was hungry and every single Chinese restaurant or eatery was closed. However, I found an outdoor bar and bistro that was advertising Penang/Malaysian food on a blackboard. Chee Cheong Fun, here I come! Alas, when I sat down alone like the old lonely expat I was, an old chinese woman handed me the burrito menu. ‘Only burritos, chinese new year,’ she said. I was about to leave, but I recognised some humourous value here – on Chinese New Year’s Eve in Georgetown, one of the gastronomical capitals of the world, I was reduced to eating a burrito. ‘I’ll have a Taco Bell style burrito’, were my final words of defeat.
That night I slunk back to the Red Inn, where some guys told me that they’d looked for me for a while, then gone to the Botanical Gardens without me. When I asked about my brother, the Brisbane guy said, ‘he was pretty crook, man’, and apparently he’d not really enjoyed the journey as he spent most of it throwing up. Meanwhile, Hella had returned. Like everyone else, she’d been to the glorious botanical gardens, apparently a lush jungle with monkeys and a waterfall. It was exactly what I wanted to see, and I’d missed out. Still, mustn’t grumble. Then the Swedish guys, who had promised to drink three flasks of vodka with me, pulled up their chairs and produced three teacups. They were true to their word! This time it was much harder to take, and after the first flask was empty, they made their excuses and went to their rooms to sleep. At 11pm, on Chinese New Year’s Eve! Perhaps more shockingly, Erin, the new chinese girl from Beijing who was sitting with Hella, also made her excuses and went to bed early. On her own Chinese New Year’s Eve! It boggled the mind, but soon they were gone. Hella, however, remained with me to see Chinese New Year’s Eve out.
My last blog was mainly written under pressure on a particularly low day in Georgetown, while I was trying to fill in past events in Bangkok. But due to lack of sleep and actual social excitement, I wisely didn’t spend too much time on my blog. Back in Melbourne, I will now cover the last six days of activity, perhaps in one tidy blog. This may take a while, I’m afraid.
I think I’ll continue from where I left off: Bangkok, the final night. While eating dinner, an eight-year-old Indian kid approached us with a sign, which was a cutely written thing asking for a little bit of money. But the night before, Ryan had given money to a child whilst drunk – and during the next hungover morning, the girls at our hostel had reminded him that he was just supporting the culture of making children beg on the streets. And really, it is a horrible thing. So this time, Ryan refused, but began asking the kid questions – does he enjoy what he does? Each time, the kid looked down at his feet and nervously bit his lip. Soon I realised that his dad was nearby, on the other side of Khao San Road, watching him. Ryan continued to talk to the kid – going through a list of cartoon characters and asking him if he liked any of them. The kid shook his head over and over again. That is, until Mickey Mouse was mentioned. The kid’s face lit up with a smile and he nodded. It was a moving moment and soon he was acting like a normal kid – taking pieces of his little sign and throwing it on the nearby english girls, poking his fingers through our spring roles and giggling. I touched him on the nose and he laughed. Then he looked down sadly and went back to his father. I’m glad Ryan was able to make him smile, though.
Behind the desk at the hostel, one of the staff was laying back, strumming ‘Karma Police’ on ukelele. Due to my worship of all things Radiohead, I had to lean against the desk and harmonise with him. I asked if I could use the other ukelele and soon I was reading a chord chart and playing ‘Imagine’ with him. So while I was hanging around reception singing ‘You may say I’m a dreamer’ before strumming that lovely E Major, a girl with a heavy backpack came to check in to the hostel. She seemed impressed enough. But soon the thai guy told me to go and play outside.
So outside, I had a little audience – a Dutch guy, a Canadian guy, a British guy, a big, smiling Jamaican/British chick, and various other people. I tried to take requests but I never seemed to know the right songs. So I played ‘Hey Jude’ once I’d learned the chords, and that went down well. I also played ‘La Bamba’ when the British guy told me the chords. This was good! I had a little audience in Bangkok! I’d discovered my inner ukelele! And the girl I’d met at the reception, a Belgian girl immediately sat beside me and touched up my arm, while flirtatiously commenting on how hot musicians are. It was a good situation to be in.