Sofia, Bulgaria – Amazing Ancient, Historical

Travel to Bulgaria like I did and you will find yourself clueless as to what an amazing and historical place the capital city of Sofia is. Upon arrival, my new friend Tim sat me down in front of the computer and told me “Watch this, it will save us a lot of time and make your stay here more enjoyable. Later we’ll meet the guy that made it. ”

Now, if you want to see a little of what I’m seeing before I start writing about it and showing you my photos, you should watch it too. Very enjoyable and Tim was right, it saved a lot of time by telling me everything I need to know at the outset.

The next morning Tim took me on an amazing walking tour of Sofia. Here is a bit of what we saw:

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Exploring the DMZ – North Korea and South Korea No Man’s Land

I made this trip back in 2012…it seems like it was aeons ago. I considered finding a way into North Korea, but at the time it was beyond my budget in both time and money and I had a new child at home and was just learning what it feels like to have another human completely dependent on your choices – so I opted to go to the less visited DMZ in Sokcho, South Korea. This was after my first trip to Seoul and before my trips to the Penis Park in Samcheok and Busan in the South. 

I should start out with a rather silly confession. When I was a pre-teen there were two shows I watched I Love Lucy, Gilligan’s Island, Little House on the Prarie, and M.A.S.H. I can still tell you the names of every character on each show and outline the plots of nearly every episode even though it’s been more than 25 years since I would watch those shows after school and before bedtime. For those who don’t remember the shows, Little House on the Prarie was the story of the Ingles family as they homesteaded on the Great Plains in the 1800s, Gilligan’s Island was about a group of castaways from a Hawaii sailing tour, I Love Lucy was about a funny lady from the 1950s,  and M.A.S.H. was the story of the U.S. Army 4077th Mobile Surgical Unit during the Korean War.

Don’t worry, this post has nothing to do with most of those shows (though my psychological makeup probably has a lot to do with the show) and not much to do with M.A.S.H. aside from the fact that every preconception I had about South Korea, North Korea, or all of Korea was pretty much based on an American TV show made in the 1970s about a war that took place in the 1950s. This is probably the reason I was so surprised to find an ultra-modern nation rather than rice paddies and water buffalo as I had subconsciously been expecting.

In any event, since the Korean War had played such a large part in my childhood development through M.A.S.H, I knew that I would pay a visit to the DMZ that sits between North and South Korea.  DMZ stands for Demilitarized Zone and is an area where it is prohibited to have weapons, armies, or military facilities. The two Koreas are technically still at war but they signed an armistice back on July 27, 1953. The Korean DMZ is a 248 km long and 4 km wide (155 x 2.5 miles) swath of land that runs between Kim Jong Ils wacky North Korean regime and the ultra modern South Korean industrial state. This is the world’s largest DMZ and it has been active for more than 50 years now. The amazing thing about the DMZ is that since no humans have been in it for most of the time it has existed, nature has almost fully recovered and it is filled with wildlife, forests, and more despite once being ruined by the horrors of war.

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So, I wanted to visit the DMZ. I was going to go to the DMZ from Seoul but when I saw glossy tourist brochures and realized it would mean riding a bus with a tour guide and then taking an escorted walk into the (Panmunjan) area before getting on the bus again for an awful tourist lunch, I decided that there had to be a better way. I figured I would find it even though when I asked in Seoul, nearly everyone told me that this was the only way to see the DMZ.

In Sokcho, I looked at the maps and realized that I was actually closer to the DMZ than I had been in Seoul. I asked the proprietor of the guest house about it and he told me that if I took the number one bus to the end, then hitch hiked, I would be able to get to the DMZ and the Unification Observatory in Gangwan-do. From Sokcho I would go to Goseong and then onwards by thumb past Hwa-jin-Po Beach and finally, I would have to walk a bit and I would be at the Unification Observatory which sits on the South Korean Side of the DMZ and overlooks the mountainous coastline heading up the North Korean coastline.

Of course, I wanted to visit North Korea since I had  been fairly interested in Kim Jong Ill and his wacked out claims to have invented the toaster, shot 18 holes in one in a round of golf, and of course his prolific movie making, opera writing, and novel penning which defies human capacity. The problem is that to go to North Korea is way more money than I could possibly afford. This was probably as close as I’d get. I was nervous about hitching to North Korea, I thought about trying to find cheap car hire, but ultimately the idea of hitching appealed to me, so I decided to go for it anyway. This might be my only chance to see it before it disappeared in a cloud of nuclear smoke.

I got on the number 1 bus and rode it to the end of the line at Goseong. From there I got out and stuck out my thumb and a father and daughter picked me up. They didn’t speak any English but they understood that I was heading to the DMZ. They took me up the coast through the concrete tank traps and along the barb wired Hwa-jin-Po-Beach where they dropped me off and I walked along the cold winter shoreline which was lined with barbed wire every inch of it’s beautiful length. Since the two countries are still at war, this is to protect against invasion, though in the summer months they open up the barbed wire gates to allow families to enjoy the gorgeous sand and shoreline. In fact, during the active war, this part was under North Korean control and Kim Il Sung used to bring his rotund son Kim Jong Il to play on these very shores.

From there, I caught a ride with two guys who were taking a weekend leave from their military duty and had driven overnight to come up and see the DMZ. These Korean soldiers were big guys, much taller than me and even though we didn’t have any language in common we ended up having a fun day together going through checkpoints, climbing to the Unification Observatory, and walking through the Gangwon-do DMZ museum.

At the observatory, we looked out over Mt. Geomgangsan and Heageumgang. Gangwon-do is the only divided province in the country with half belonging to the North and half belonging to the South. Looking at North Korea to the north there were mountains, coastline, and an empty road leading into the distance. Not a human soul in sight. And I might add that there were three other visitors at the DMZ observatory and they were all Korean. No tourists except me sandwiched between my new Korean soldier friends.

We had a light lunch of wet noodle fish kabobs dipped in sauce at the small restaurant at the observatory and one of the Korean soldiers bought a souvenir scarf which he then surprised me by presenting to me as a gift. It was a sort of traditional paisley pattern orange bandana with a map of the area of Gongwan-do showing North Korea, South Korea, and DMZ plus the towns that exist. No towns exists in the DMZ and to the North they are hidden in the folds of the incredible mountains.

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Our final stop of the day was the DMZ Museum which is the only DMZ museum in the world. The museum presented a history of the Korean war, the separation of the country, the creation of the DMZ, and the hopes for peace and unification some day. There was something very special about going through this museum with my new soldier friends and each of us writing our wishes for peace on the leaves of the peace trees inside. The museum detailed the entire DMZ, had a large collection of relics from the active part of the war in the 1950’s, as well as lots of information about North Korean attempts to tunnel under the DMZ, infiltrate beaches with mini submarines, and sabotage the South Korean government with spies.

The tunneling in particular is amazing since these weren’t like mineshafts but more like underground highways being carved out to move huge numbers of troops, armor, and equipment. From the DMZ and the world under Seoul, I can see one thing…Koreans love to dig tunnels. If this were middle earth, the Koreans would be the dwarves, though I was certainly the dwarf next to my tall new friends.

Grand total for the day was about 15000 won or $15 U.S. versus the nearly $100 a tourist trip from Seoul would have cost. So, I saved $85, made some new friends, had a unique experience, and didn’t have to ride a bus with a bunch of annoying blue haired baby boomers. All told, this day was a huge success.

As a bonus, I guess I could combine my childhood TV with my experience and write a new series called “Little House on the DMZ”. At the end of the day, my friends dropped me off in Sokcho and headed back to their base while I suddenly had a new understanding about Korea, the Korean War, and the DMZ. I still hoped that at some point I would see a rice paddy or a water buffalo though…

Night Train from Istanbul to Bulgaria

Night Train Istanbul to BulgariaIn 2012 while living in Istanbul, I was fortunate to make many friends and have many adventures. This was the beginning of one of them.

If a Turkish night train sounds dangerous to you, you might want to consider getting some travel insurance  before you begin your cheap trip to the Balkans.

Leaving Istanbul is like leaving home. As I say goodbye to my friend Gaye, I can’t help but feel sad to be leaving this incredible city that delights the eyes, mind, body, and soul.

Still, the fact that the bag with all my ‘good’ clothes in it and another bag with the rest of Hanane’s and my things from Turkey both sit in Gaye’s basement means that I’m coming back.

Not to mention, I’ve got a flight to catch to Malaysia at the end of the month. And then another flight from Istanbul to North Africa when I get back. So, like friends and those we love, for Istanbul it is really only a ‘see you later.’ That helps.

Also helpful is the fact that I’m boarding an overnight train from the former Constantinople and into Sofia, Bulgaria. Not only is Bulgaria new and unknown to me, I’ve got a berth on a sleeper car. There’s something just incredibly cool about that. The cost of the ticket…about 30 euros including the sleeper.

The train itself looks old and as if it has come out of a Soviet Republic. I admit I knew nothing about Bulgaria before leaving and it was only when I mentioned on Facebook that I was going into the former USSR, that a friend told me I was wrong. Still, it was Eastern Block and hardcore communist, so I suppose that excuses my American ignorance a bit…that and the fact that I am American. Usually I do better, at least I don’t think Cuba is in Australia or Asia.
An American couple are in the cabin next to the one I share with a Bulgarian mountaineer who is just returning from Nepal. He actually lives in Seattle, he tells me Nepal was the most disgusting place he had ever visited.

The story continues below, but I thought you might want to see all the pictures I took first…the the slideshow is next with the story below it.

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Next door, the American man and woman are getting progressively more smashed and I swear I hear one of them crash down from the bunks to the deck. At the border crossing at 3 am they go to the tiny duty free stall and carry back what looks like a bottle of whiskey. When we arrived at the border the Turkish engine detached while we went through a relatively painless customs procedure. The conductor had to wake the Americans by pounding on their door for about five minutes. This was, of course, before they went to the duty free.

The two hour wait at the border was because we had to wait for the Bulgarian engine to come to us. We arrived in Sofia about 3 and a half hours late at right around 1:30 pm. Prior to that we made a stop in Plovdiv where the conductor this time spent ten minutes waking the Americans who staggered out with their clothes hanging on them the wrong way. As I had gone to sleep I heard them having progressivly more slurred conversation. Something like “Just because you fell, doesn’t mean you can’t be proud of getting up there, I mean you did it.”

I kind of loved these two. Getting shitfaced on a night train from Istanbul to Plovdiv. I didn’t want to talk with them because I was afraid it would spoil the nice spell they had charmed me with. when they staggered past to get off the train at Plovdiv the man, who looked a bit like Johnny Depp said “Hi” to me in the drunkest tones and the smell of bourbon wafted up. I took their pictures as they looked around the platform completely confused. I just didn’t want to forget them. Even if they wouldn’t remember their trip.

Arriving in Sofia, it was cold. The train station was freezing and the effect of having cyrillic alphabet all around me was that giddy feeling of culture shock that I both love and hate. I felt completely disoriented. My phone  wouldn’t work in Bulgaria, but I was very pleased to find that Bulgaria has the decency to put a wifi hotspot in the train station. Sitting in the cold station, I found my couchsurfing host’s number and then called him with Skype. You have to love technology.

He told me to go to the bus station and get a cab to his house instead of using one from the train station since the guys at the station would rip me off.

The cab was just about three euros and that took me to Tim’s door. In my pocket was the drunk American girl’s hat which I’d spotted in their cabin as i got off the train, picked up, and kept as a souvenir. It was very fluffy and very blue. I imagine it was how the two of them felt when they woke up later.

Korean Bathhouses – The Wonderful World of Jjimjilbang

On my first trip to South Korea, back in 2012, I found many wonders. I disocvered the joys of the Penis Park and the value of Love Motels as well as visiting the DMZ and exploring Seoul, Busan, and Samcheok. All of that was spectacular, but the thing I loved most were the Korean bathhouses , jjimjilbang. 

Korean Bath HouseMy favorite thing about Korea is the jinjabongs. I know, best is a word that one shouldn’t really use when writing about world travel since it’s such a subjective word, but here it applies. Korea is filled with wonderful things but the jingabongs (or jjimjilbangs) are the most wonderful.
So, what are they? Well, unlike Hamams in Morocco or Turkey, these are not just places for bathing and massage. These are full blown social zones. The thrid place extraordinaire. As you can see, I’ve become a bit of a bathhouse aficionado (okay, how gay does that sound?) and I found these to be without compare.

So, once again, what is a jingabong? Okay, it is a bathing place, and it’s a place you can get a massage…and more. Let me just describe the process. I didn’t take any pictures but found a few on the web to show you. Plus, a Vagobond reader provided these links which are the jjimjilbang I went to in Hondae
http://www.vesta.co.kr/ and the other in the area which is the www.hotelnongshim.com/.

JjimjilbangFor usually less than 10 Euros you can check into a jingabong for 12-16 hours. They are open 24 hours. When you check in they will give you jingabong clothes. Usually simple shorts and blouse, sometimes colored white for me and pink for women. You will also be given a locker key. Go in, take of your shoes, find your locker, grab a towel, and take off all your clothes (no room for modesty here, but I should point out that the locker and bath rooms are segregated by sex.)

Once you are nude along with all the other guys or girls, head into the bath room. First of all, you should make sure to shower in the stalls first. No one wants to share a bath with the backpacker grime that has accumulated all over you. After washing, you have a choice of a number of tubs ranging from cold to very very hot.

Jump in, soak, try not to be bothered by the fact that you are the hairiest person anyone there has ever seen. In fact, aside from there being tubs and steam rooms, an assortment of yellowmud, pine, charcoal, or salt saunas, a cold room and an oxygen room and a few special rooms where you can choose to get a massage, it’s not so different from locker rooms all over the world. So, that’s it?

JjimjilbangNope. This is where it gets really cool. You finish your bath and maybe you chill out in the massage chairs or get some electrolyte drinks from the vending machine. Then you throw on your ‘jingabong clothes’ and lock your stuff up in your locker. Don’t forget to bring money with you, you’ll want it.

You will now enter the area where the sexes meet. You’ll find that there are mats and pillows, plenty of space to lie down on the floor, multiple TV rooms, extensive manga libraries, video games, a restaurant, more massage areas, private rooms, and excercise areas just for men and for women. So, you can grab a meal, enjoy some tea, grab a mat and take a nap….

In fact, you can have a beer, go to the cinema room, go to the smoking room, or do just about anything you can do in the outside world but in a nice, safe, quiet little cave complex where stress seems to disappear. You can nap (but do be careful of your key while you nap since your valuables are presumably in your locker.)

JjimjilbangWait a minute…if it’s open 24 hours and you can shower, sleep, stash your things in a locker, drink, and eat there and you are allowed to stay there 12 hours or more, why don’t people use it as a hotel?

Ah-ha! Now you have it. Show up at night, have a nice shower and a relaxing bath, enjoy dinner, watch some television, lay down on a mat, sleep, and wake up for another shower in the morning. In fact, the facilities are better than most hostels or one or two star hotels and you are paying around $10. Not to mention the food is good, it’s easy to make friends, and you leave feeling completely refreshed.

My only regret is that I didn’t discover jingabongs until near the end of my time in South Korea. I should have avoided most of the time I stayed in hostels or love motels and just stayed in the jingabong. In Busan, there is even a view of the sea from the baths of the jingabong.

I love jingabongs. In fact, I love all kinds of bath houses. I can’t believe I just said that….

Girona, Spain – a very pleasant accidental stopover #slideshowsaturday

Girona, SpainIn 2011 and 2012, Vagobond was taking me all over Europe and Asia and even into North Africa. I was doing my best to save money so that we could emigrate from Morocco to the USA, and in the process, I often got lucky in discovering places I might have otherwise missed. I’ve placed a small slideshow of this visit at the bottom of this post. 

World travel is at it’s best when you find something completely wonderful and completely unexpected. As I mentioned before, in order to get the cheapest flight from Fez, Morocco to Volos, Greece – I had to arrange a couple of stops and layovers along the way. The first one was just to get out of Morocco.

The cheapest flight was to Alicante – which I was tempted to take because I love Alicante – but the problem was getting a connection that would lead me to Volos. I needed to get to Milan and a flight from Alicante to Milan was nearly triple the cost for a flight from Girona to Milan and would have involved going several days earlier. I know, that wouldn’t have been so bad, but the truth was, I was already feeling a bit guilty about leaving my wife and new baby at home for a few days so I didn’t want to stretch this out any longer than necessary to get me to the sailboat and then back home.

So, I flew to Girona. I’d been to Barcelona before but never to Girona. I figured it would be just another RyanAir town and I might be able to get lunch, have a nice walk, and then after my 7 hour layover – head on to Bergamo/Milan.
I was very pleasantly surprised to find that Girona itself is scenic, historic, charming, and filled with a veritable treasure trove of things to see and do. I’m not sure how it would be to spend a few days there, but my seven hours were very nice.

From the airport it was just a couple of Euro to get the bus into the city center. From there, I just started walking.
From Wikitravel:

Geographically set at the confluence of the Ter, Onyar, Galligants and Güell rivers, it has been a focal point of this region in Catalonia since prior to being part of the Roman Empire.
The Old Town is on the east bank of the river, with pedestrianized narrow streets surrounded by the old city walls. The “Rambla”, running parallel to the river, contains many street cafés and touristic restaurants. Tourist information is at the south end of the Rambla, beside the river. The newer town center on the west bank has wider streets contains more shops and hotels, plus slightly cheaper restaurants.

The town around the bus station is pretty blah in terms of just being newish concrete buildings with nothing particularly inspiring in terms of shops, restaurants or architecture. I walked along with what seemed the natural flow of traffic and soon found myself at the riverside La Rambla.

After enjoying a coffee, I walked up the cobblestone streets towards the largest spire in sight. It turned out to be the Saint Felix Church which since I always enjoyed Felix the Cat cartoons appealed to me greatly. With 2000 years of history, Girona is truly a jewel of culture and history.

The Força Vella (the old town) is surrounded by a beautiful wall which appears to have been either preserved or restored in a very authentic way. Inside, I especially enjoyed strolling through the ‘Call’ or Jewish quarter which was like wandering through a veritable maze of cobble-stoned, narrow and steeply sloping streets.

Inside the cathedral, I was told to not take any pictures by the harried attendant who was also telling about twenty other people not to take pictures. I stopped but I had already taken this one.

With a wide Gothic nave and a very impressive Baroque façade it felt like I was stepping back in time.

Of course, I had to visit the Arab Baths, El Banyos d’Arabs. It must have once been an incredible hammam. It was a nice reminder of the power the Arabs once wielded over southern Europe. The legacy of the moors is directly responsible for some of the most beautiful architecture in Spain.

Girona, SpainSome interesting facts about Girona:
* The ancient cathedral, which stood on the site of the present one, was used by the Moors as a mosque, and after their final expulsion was either entirely remodelled or rebuilt.
* The cathedral contains the tombs of Ramon Berenger and his wife, the Count and Countess of Barcelona.
* It is possible to walk the entire length of the walls and climb the towers, where visitors can enjoy panoramic views of Girona and the surrounding countryside.
* The slogan of Girona is “Girona m’enamora – Girona inspires me with love”

For those interested in famous architects, the Red Bridge of Girona (which truly is red) was designed by Gustav Eiffel. I’m amazed at how many things I’ve seen that he designed – in fact, I’ll probably write a future post about his work.

And for those who are fans of Salvador Dali, there is a Dali Museum in Girona that I wasn’t able to see on this trip but that is reputed to be beautiful and wonderful.

After that, a sandwich and a beer and I hopped on a bus back to the airport to catch my flight to Bergamo/Milan for another 7 hour layover.But first I took a picture of this wine shop- you don’t see a selection like that anywhere in Morocco…

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Sevilla – The Flower of Spanish Beauty and Culture #fridayflashback

I love Sevilla. I was there in mid 2009 and again in 2011. It was one of those places where – if I hadn’t of been on a schedule – I would have been very happy to hang around for a longer period. 

In doing a little digging, I find that this was the home of one of the greatest Sufi mystics ibn Arabi (aka Dr. Maximus)

A vastly prolific writer, Ibn Arabi is generally known as the prime exponent of the idea later known as Wahdat-ul-Wujood, though he did not use this term in his writings. His emphasis was on the true potential of the human being and the path to realising that potential and becoming the perfect or complete man (al-insan al-kamil).Some 800 works are attributed to Ibn Arabi, although only some have been authenticated

Also it was the home of Ibn Khaldun, the first real anthropologist, so my forefather by educational lineage.

…an astronomer, economist, historian, Islamic scholar, Islamic theologian, hafiz, jurist, lawyer, mathematician, military strategist, nutritionist, philosopher, social scientist and statesman—born in North Africa in present-day Tunisia. He is considered the forerunner of several social scientific disciplines: demography, cultural history,historiography, the philosophy of history,and sociology.


Finally, as if that isn’t enough, Seville is the setting for Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in which Christ returns to earth and is arrested

The main portion of the text is the Inquisitor explaining to Jesus why his return would interfere with the mission of the church. The Inquisitor frames his denunciation of Jesus around the three questions Satan asked Jesus during the temptation of Christ in the desert. These three are the temptation to turn stones into bread, the temptation to cast Himself from the Temple and be saved by the angels, and the temptation to rule over all the kingdoms of the world. The Inquisitor states that Jesus rejected these three temptations in favor of freedom, but thinks that Jesus has misjudged human nature. He does not believe that the vast majority of humanity can handle the freedom which Jesus has given them. Thus, he implies that Jesus, in giving humans freedom to choose, has excluded the majority of humanity from redemption and doomed it to suffer.



Seville was also the famous home of Don Juan, the world’s most notorious lover.

Don Juan is a rogue and a libertine who takes great pleasure in seducing women and (in most versions) enjoys fighting their champions. Later, in a graveyard Don Juan encounters a statue of the dead father of a girl he has seduced, and, impiously, invites him to dine with him; the statue gladly accepts. The father’s ghost arrives for dinner at Don Juan’s house and in turn invites Don Juan to dine with him in the graveyard. Don Juan accepts, and goes to the father’s grave where the statue asks to shake Don Juan’s hand. When he extends his arm, the statue grabs hold and drags him away, to Hell.

(Originally Published 03 APR 2009)

 

Below are a few more pictures I took when Iwas fortunate enough to visit this fabulous city. I hope I get the chance to go back again someday and simply enjoy the scenary and the food with nothing further on my agenda.

 

 

Pernik, Bulgaria – A Brisk winter Walk – #saturdayslideshow

Pernik BulgariaTravel to the places that don’t make it into most magazines or guidebooks is usually much more interesting and exciting than reading about Bali or Boracay from yet another person who has ‘discovered it’. Certainly I didn’t discover Pernik, but it was a pleasure to get to see it in this way.

We woke up bright and early to go up into the forest with my friend Borislav’s grandfather. He was much more bright eyed than either of us, but one thing I figured out quickly is that Balkan people can drink all day and all night and seem to not suffer from it at all. And they usually seem to start the day with a shot of schnapps.

As for me, I usually suffer if I drink the night before. The sidewalk was icy and it was C-O-L-D but that didn’t stop this 80+ year old man from being the first one down the street, the first one up the hill, and the first one to wherever he was leading us. To be fair though, usually the one doing the leading should go first.

He led us past the nuclear reactors and over the river and then past this amazing testosterone driven machine where the testosterone apparently gave out with a flat tire. Then we crossed the road and went up among the gypsy houses and gypsy dogs.

Now, let me be honest here. These were very kind, simple, and humble people. Their apartment was anything but luxurious but filled their needs. That’s why when we got to the massive house they live in during the summer, I was so surprised. It was gorgeous. Decorated like a boutique hotel, each room different with a different flavor. In the basement, the canned preserves, the still, and the big vats of wine just sitting and waiting to be poured into old coke bottles.

The weather was turning worse, we took a winding path through trees and down icy trails and no one fell but if they had I would have remembered Katya telling me that the funniest thing in the world is the confused look on people’s face when they realized they are no longer standing up. Even if it was me.

Finally, our historic guide decided to go back home where it was warm and asked Borislav to complete the tour by showing me the various monuments and statues in the town of Pernik. In fact, we did see those but given the blue faces we had, we deemed it best to duck into a cafe and grab some coffee.

We did manage to see the old church, the statue of the town protector, the old mining building, and some other statues and monuments that the cold weather made impossible for me to remember.

After that we went back to his grandparents for lunch with his aunt and while there was some rakia, I avoided getting so much of the hospitality of these wonderful people this time that my head would feel like it might explode.

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#flashbackfriday Wicklow and Glendalough – Old English Ladies, the Loch Ness Monster, and St. Kevin

#flashbackfriday – Back in 2009 – I had to make a mad dash trip from Morocco in North Africa to the USA so that I could get the paperwork and documents necessary for my Sahara marriage (2010) – it was a crazy trip that took me across Canada by foot and thumb, back to my hometown of Big Bear Lake, California, and many other places – among them – a very fast stop in Ireland where I had the opportunity to sip some Guinness, drink a little whiskey, and take this beautiful outing to Wicklow and Glendalough…

Glendalough
Yesterday in my jet lagged no sleep state I signed on to a tour of some pretty places outside of Dublin. As mentioned earlier, the guide was pretty good except for the fact that he didn’t tell me I wouldn’t get a ride back to where he picked me up until the end of the day and then dumped me off I’m not sure exactly where.
Wicklow County
I don’t remember a lot of what he said, lots of the same tourist jokes you hear all over the world. Pointed out where James Joyce mother lived and the homes of some fictional characters from ‘The Dubliners’. Yes, real homes of fictional characters. He wasn’t shy about his dislike of the English despite most of the other passengers being old English ladies. Also there wes a French couple that spoke no English and a couple of Germans.
Glendalough
I like old English ladies. They told me about their gardens and the lovely places back in England. They had a million questions about Hawaii and Morocco and so my guide skills came in handy.
Hey, what's the lochness monster doing in Ireland?

Hey, what’s the loch ness monster doing in Ireland?

We visited Glendalough in Wicklow County and drove through the moutains and peat bogs. A few mountain towns and a stop at a little village for lunch. Unfortunately, all Irish villages look like fake country villages. I had a bowl of veggie soup that was pretty good.

Situated right in the heart of the Wicklow Mountains National Park, Glendalough is one of the most visited locations in Ireland, with over 1 million visitors a year.

We stopped and looked over a lake they call Guinness Lake due to it’s black waters and white sand beach (and the fact that the water to make Guiness comes from it)
Glendalough gets its name from the Irish language. Gleann dá locha literally means the ‘Glen of the two lakes’. We stopped at a waterfall that was …you know…it was a waterfall from the road.
waterfall glendalough and Wicklow
And then we drove back listening to the kind of Irish music that makes me feel like it’s Christmas and actually…I hate Christmas.
Heather in Bloom Ireland
The saving grace was the old English ladies with thier over the top cheerfulness and their sarcastic wit. Also since I was the only one who speaks any French besides the French people, I did chat with them for a bit too…they spoke no English and we had a surprisingly decent conversation considering the state of my French. I need to improve that.
glendalough Wicklow
A lot of the tour was about St. Kevin, although this legend of St. Kevin wasn’t included but I found it online:

Perhaps the most famous legend is the one about Kathleen of the “eyes of most unholy blue”. She is said to have pursued the handsome Kevin in a bid to captivate him, ignoring the fact that he was bound by holy vows. He became annoyed and repulsed her by beating her with a bunch of nettles. She later sought his forgiveness and is said to have become a very holy woman, noted for her grate sanctity.

Nothing like beating a woman with a bunch of nettles. What a guy!
Here is the tour description from the company’s website.

Tour Ireland with Over The Top Tours. We’ll show you Ireland in a way that larger coach companies cannot. Experience fun and adventure off the beaten track.
Wicklow Glendalough
We offer you the opportunity to enjoy this land of mysterious mountains and spectacular valleys.
The tour starts over the Dublin mountains and into the picturesque Sally Gap. Experience breathtaking views with complimentary coffee! Wicklow is widely known as the “Garden of Ireland” Stop where you like and when you like along the route.
See the famous film locations for Braveheart and Ballykissangel. Visit hidden lakes and luscious waterfalls. Travel the by-roads to beautiful Glendalough and after a healthy walk, time for lunch* and a drop of the famous brew. Returning home via the depths of the Wicklow mountains passing the scenic lakes of Blessington.

coins in Wicklow and GlendaloughI thought about going down and collecting those coins but instead I just added one more and made a wish. Also wrapped my arms around St. Kevins cross and made the same wish, I’m not telling what it was. That’s me reflected in the middle and a couple of my old English lady friends on either side.
By the way, lunch and the ‘famous brew’ were not included and were overpriced at the little stop which is why I opted for coffee and the famous veggie soup.
Glendalough and Wicklow in Ireland, Dublin tripIreland is sort of like Hawaii in that there are lots of stone walls everywhere, sort of like the Pacific Northwest as there are lots of blackberries and people with big red noses everywhere, and like nowhere else really…I like it, but as I’ve said before recently, I’m finding travel to be more humdrum and boring than ever before, in particular this kind of tourist trip.
Here is more on Glendalough:
Glendalough, or the Glen of two Lakes, is one of the most important sites of maonastic ruins in Ireland. It is also known as the city of the seven Churches. Fourteen centuries have passed since the death of its founder, St. Kevin, when the valley was part of Ireland’s Golden Age.
The two lakes, which gave the valley its name, came into existence thousands of years ago, after the Ice Age, when great deposits of earth and stone were strewn across the valley in the area where the Round Tower now exists. The mountain streams eventually formed a large lake. The Pollanass river spread alluvial deposits across the centre of the lake and created a divide to form the Upper and Lower Lakes. The Glenealo river flows in from the West into the Upper lake which is the larger and deepest of the two lakes.
Before the arrival of St. Kevin this valley (glen) would have been desolate and remote. It must have been ideal for St Kevin as a retreat and area to be ‘away from it all’. Kevin died in 617 A.D. at the age of 120 years and his name and life’s work is forever entwine with the ruins and the Glendalough Valley.
The recorded history of the wooded valley dates from the 6th century – the dawn of Christianity in Ireland. For 500 years it was one of Irelands great ecclesiastical foundations and schools of learning. The establishment was attacked, burned and plundered by the Danes, who were based in the stronghold of Dublin, a shortish distance away, and making it an easy target..
Glendalough, despite extensive fire damage in 1163 A.D. prospered until the early 13th century. In 1163, Laurence O’Toole, Abbot of Glendalough, who later became Irelands first canonised saint, was appointed Archbishop of Dublin.

The arrival of the Normans in Ireland sealed the fate of Glendalough, as in 1214 the monastery was destroyed by the invaders and the Diocese of Glendalough was united with the Sea of Dublin. After that, Glendalough declined as a monastic establishment and gradually it became deserted.
Glendalough St. Kevin
The buildings fell into decay and more than 6 hundred years elapsed before a reconstruction program was started in 1878. Further work was carried out in the 20th century Today the valley of Glendalough is extensively wooded and a comprehensive network of walk ways have been completed and continually improved, which provides good access for the visitor and researcher to wonder the valley.
(Originally posted 02 October 2009)

Brussels – Comic Murals, Skate Parks, and Chess Bars – Saturday Slideshow

There are plenty of things that make Brussels a great place and it’s probably not those stuffy EU suits going about their dull business. Instead it’s the things you don’t have to avoid in the street. Belgian waffles, great beer, and of course, the beautiful comic art murals that grace the sides of buildings that are centuries old.

I love that Brussels is so proud of it’s comic heritage that intermingled with the ancient buildings are full scale murals of famous comic strips.

BrusselsBrussels comic wall

The Notre Dame church is the Belgian starting point for a very famous Vagabond/Pilgrim trail that runs all the way to Santiago Spain.

The route known as the Camino de Santiago is neither a road nor a highway. It’s a walkway trod by travelers of all kinds for more than 2,000 years. Christians have traveled it for nearly 1,300 years.
Much of the route described in a 900-year old guidebook is still in use today. Some of it wends its way over the remains of pavement laid down by the Romans two millennia ago. Its a route that writer James Michener no stranger to world travel”calls the finest journey in Spain, and one of two or three in the world. He did it three times and mentions passing through landscapes of exquisite beauty. The European Union has designated it a European Heritage Route.
Christians are attracted to this remote corner of Europe because of a legend that Santiago de Compostela is the burial place of the apostle James the Greater. As such, it ranks along with Rome and Jerusalem as one of Christendoms great pilgrim destinations.
The Camino de Santiago has its origins in pre-Christian times when people of the Celtic/Iberian tribes made their way from the interior to lands end on the Atlantic coast of Galicia. For them, watching the sun set over the endless waters was a spiritual experience. As part of their conquest of Europe, the Romans occupied Iberia by 200 B.C. They built infrastructure, including a road from Bordeaux in modern France to Astorga in northwest Spain, to mine the areas gold and silver. Some of the original road remains on todays Camino.

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Kadikoy – A Trip to Istanbul’s Asian Side – Flashback Friday

From 2010 to 2012, I was fortunate to live in several Turkish cities. Istanbul, Izmir, and Manisa. Turkey and Turkish people won my heart over and over. There is nowhere like it on Earth or presumably anywhere else in the universe. I am grateful for the time I was able to spend in Turkey. For a time, I began to feel like a true Istanbulu, a resident of Istanbul. This was written during that time….

Istanbul

Istanbul is the only city in the world that sits in both Asia and Europe. The amazing part of that is that many visitors to the Queen of All Cities never leave the European side. In fact, a day trip to the Asian side can be interesting, delicious, and won’t cost you very dearly.

The ferry from either Eminonu or Kabatas will cost you 2 Turkish Lira each way. The trip itself across the Bosporus takes about fifteen minutes and while you are gawking at Sultanahmet from the sea on the right side or the Bosporus Bridge on the left, don’t forget to pay attention to the little tower that rises from an island in the middle.

IstanbulThe Princess Tower is a place of legends and fairy tales and dates back to the Byzantine era. While there are more than stories than one, the most famous is that of a king who wished to save his little girl when a seer told him she would die. As in most such stories, his plan backfired. In any event, keep your eyes open on the left side of the ferry.

Arriving in Kadikoy you will notice the big thing that looks like a balloon. In fact, it is a balloon. Filled with helium, the Turkbaloon takes passengers up for sight seeing during the summers.

IstanbulAfter you disembark from the ferry you will see a lot of construction work underway. This is for the tunnel under the Bosporus. In a city with 5000 years of history, every inch yields new archeological finds…and bureaucratic red tape to hinder completeion. It should be complete in a couple thousand years more.

Passing the construction head into the backstreets of Kadikoy and enjoy some shopping without the hassle of the Grand Bazaar or other touristic areas. Duck into the passageways and you will find both treasures and oddities. One passageway is filled with the odd collection of comic books, military gear, and sporting equipment. Somehow the three go together.

IstanbulDifferent passageways have different themes so you can find book areas, clothing areas, and of course there are the street vendors offering all kinds of deals on all kinds of things. In fact, Kadikoy is home to the biggest food market in all of Turkey!

Further along pull a chair up to one of the tables at Hamsi. Hamsi is oneIstanbul of the best kept secrets in Istanbul. Here you can enjoy great mezas, fresh black sea sardines (Hamsi), and a couple of pints of cold Efes beer. If that doesn’t appeal to you, right next door is the most delicious lahmacun (Turkish pizza) in the city. Some may argue about this, but when you taste either the meat or the cheese version, you will know the truth. Don’t forget to sprinkle the purple spice on it. It’s a form of poison ivy, but don’t worry, it’s not poison, it’s slightly bitter and delicious. Make sure you also sample their fresh Ayran (yogurt drink).

In fact, Kadikoy is filled with bars, restaurants, and even cinemas. This neighborhood dates back to about 5500 B.C. and today has approximately a half million residents. With all that, a trip to Kadikoy is definitely worth your time.

 

Traveling Across Canada by Foot and Thumb – Arcadia, Quebec, the Great Lakes, the Prarie, the Canadian Rockies, and British Columbia

My trip across Canada caused me to fall in love with the country and her people. Both of my grandmothers had roots in Canada. On my mother’s side – her grandmother was from Moncton, New Brunswick and on my father’s side – his mother was from Victoria, British Columbia. If you look at genetic nationality, I guess that makes me 3/8ths Canadian – so it’s not a big surprise that I would love the place. The other 5/8ths were old American families rooted in California and Washington by way of Texas and Michigan – but none of that really matters. What matters is that Canada blew my mind. Yes, there were some hardships – in particular, one night in Ontario when the weather dropped below freezing – also, the black flies and the Mounties in Ontario were pretty rough on me as I tried to find rides – but mostly – Canada was beautiful, welcoming, and warm. The Canadian people reminded me of how truly good humans can be. Thank you Canada.

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Hitching Across Canada – Black Flies, Freezing Weather, and Near Death Experience

Across Canada

In early spring of 2009, I was in an existential crisis. I’d fallen for a girl in Morocco and far too quickly, we’d decided to get married. I felt trapped but at the same time I was in love and wanted to marry her – something inside me or inside her wouldn’t let me escape. I had varying degrees of panic, emotion, and fear along with a sense of things already being written and no chance of changing what the future would be. I had one chance to get away…away from rings and engagement parties and expectation – bureaucracy combined with poverty could save me. She knew I didn’t have any money and also, when I set out travelling, I hadn’t brought things like my birth certificate or other paperwork I would need for marriage with me.

Across Canada

A friend had offered me a kayaking guide job in Alaska and I proposed to her that I leave, work for the summer – gather my paperwork, and then come back and have a wedding. My thought process was that if we allowed ourselves five or six months apart – our emotions would cool and we’d probably both decide it was better not to get married. I didn’t have enough money to fly direct to Alaska from Morocco – so I had to be creative with what I had. I booked a flight from Morocco to Madrid, a flight from Madrid to Germany, Germany to Ireland and then a round trip flight from Dublin to New Jersey. I figured I would take the ferry from Maine to Canada and then hitchhike to Alaska. It might sound crazy but that was the cheapest way to do it and this was in the days that I was still paying cash for everything – I didn’t have a credit card only a bank account and a debit card. The European flights cost me a combined total of about $150 USD using Ryan Air. The trans-Atlantic round trip cost about $600. That left me about $300 to get across Canada and I figured when the work in Alaska was done, I would be able to pay for a flight back to New Jersey if I wanted to actually go through with the wedding at that point.

Across CanadaThere was only one problem –  my bank saw all this European activity and the ferry ticket to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia and they shut down my debit card and cut me off from all the money I had. By the time I was boarding the ferry in Portland, Maine where I’d couchsurfed with two awesome waitresses,  I didn’t know it but all I had was enough money in my pocket to get $4 Canadian…and that’s all I would get for my trip across Canada. Also, one other hitch – when I’d landed in the USA, I found an email from my friend in Alaska – they’d already given the job to someone else – there was no job waiting for me. I couldn’t write about this at the time – maybe I shouldn’t be writing about this at all – since I ended up eventually going back and marrying the girl in Morocco – but there I was. Trying to figure out what the best course for my life was – trying to take control of my destiny – but my destiny was already laid out. I had thought there might be escaping it, but I’ve come to believe in powers greater than ourselves guiding our every decision. I believe that free wil is an illusion…an important one, but still an illusion.

Across CanadaWith no plan, I decided to proceed across Canada by thumb and by foot.

Canadian Customs can be tricky. They sometimes are angry that American customs treat them badly. The same happens on the other side – unfortunately  for me, I was targeted by an angry middle-aged Canadian customs agent. I’m convinced I reminded her of some guy who had done her wrong in the past, because she was relentless tearing through my bags…asking me suspicious questions in a machine gun patter….and ultimately, because she was convinced there must be something – she used drug wipe cloths inside a used book I’d bought in Portland, Maine and told me that it had tested positive for heroin. She read my journal angrily and when I protested she said “Why? Is there something in here you don’t want me to read?” “It’s my diary,” was all I was able to say. After several hours of interrogation and being locked in a small room – eventually a supervisor came and apologized to me –  he said that someone had used duct tape to tape thedust jacket on the book and duct tape often came up as a false positive with that particular test. I didn’t see the agent who had ‘apprehended’ me again. I was led outside and released into a beautiful spring day in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

Across CanadaI spent a few days with a lovely couchsurfing host named Carla. She was the chief Across Canadareporter for the newspaper in her area and she led me to pickled aliens, student pinwheels, and I got to go to the Mayor of Yarmouth’s birthday party and eat some delicious mayor cake. Nova Scotia was amazing. I loved it. Acadian culture is a mixture of the French, English, and Native American people who lived in Eastern Canada over the past several hundred years. I said goodbye to Carla and stuck out my thumb.

Next came the hitch hiking. Hitchhiking is always a little bit risky. Hitching in Canada is safe but you run the risk of being left out in the prairie for a cold cold night. I traveled 2922.1 Miles by thumb and foot in 11 days. You don’t want to be in any country with only $4 Canadian…but if you have to pick one, it should be Canada.

Across CanadaHalifax is where the maiden voyage of Titanic really ended, with the most lasting legacy from the sinking located here. The world was stunned in 1912 by the loss of the liner Titanic on her maiden voyage. Halifax, Nova Scotia, located on the eastern coast of Canada, has one of the most moving and intimate connections with the Titanic disaster, playing a key role during the tragedy’s aftermath and becoming the final resting place of many of her unclaimed victims.

Three Halifax ships were involved in the grim task of recovering victims – many of whom were laid to rest in three of the city’s cemeteries. Rows of black granite headstones, each inscribed with the same date, April 15, 1912, are a stark reminder of the disaster.

In Halifax, I stayed with an amazingly funny girl named Anna – again through Couchsurfing. We hit thrift shops and out of the way and off the beaten path tourist locations. We had a blast. I almost didn’t want to leave. Actually, I didn’t want to leave – but I felt like I had to. I moved onward to Quebec City.

Quebec City is gorgeous. While the cities of Europe are very nice, they always felt like something was not quite right about  them. I think it’s because I’m a North American and we North American’s have a different sense of space, nature, and certainly history. Quebec City (like Victoria in British Columbia) has the charm of old Europe, the flavor of nobility, and the essence North America.

QuebecMost of my first day was spent in the beautiful Musee de Civilzation. A natural place for an anthropologist to end up I think. They had several interesting exhibits, one on Egyptology, another on the long lasting effects in North America of the 7 years war which it turns out led to the French Expulsion from Nova Scotia, the war of Independence in the states, and most likely to the horrid treatment of indigenous peoples in Canada by the English after the much more enlightened treatment of the indigenous by the French. Full citizenship to genocide including the use of disease ridden blankets by the English. My favorite was a look at creatures from outer space in fact and fiction.

I met up with my absolutely awesome couch surfing host, Kelie.  Over the next few days – she showed me as much of Quebec City as she could and frankly, each moment I was there made it harder for me to leave. She was one of the coolest people I met in my travels. And yet, I was to keep meeting cool people on this trip across Canada. I’d lived so close to Canada in Bellingham, Washington during the 1990s…I should have spent more time in Canada.

Across CanadaI left Quebec with that same feeling of being driven by something larger than me. That largers something drove me into the large province of Ontario. Ontario is huge and to drive along Lake Superior is more like driving along the ocean than anything else. I caught unmemorable rides all the way to Thunder Bay when i got picked up by Dawn and Leah. They liked my hat and they took me home to Sudbury where we spent the next few days recycling cans, drinking, having parties, going to parties, and absolutely loving life.

Sudbury is an interesting place. 1.8 billion years ago a huge meteorite smashed into this area. It was composed of mostly nickel. Then about 150 years ago the Canadians started mining here because of the nickel. The nickel mining process is incredibly environmentally destructive and until about five years ago Sudbury apparently looked like the surface of the moon because of the huge slag piles from the mines.
This is a railroad town and sits on the trans Canadian highway, so it has a familiar feel to it. Feels a lot like Bellingham, Washington to me. The people are an interesting mix of weeded out bums, artists, musicians, and environmental activists.

Across CanadaThomas Edison visited the Sudbury area as a prospector in 1901, and is credited with the original discovery of the ore body at Falconbridge.
During the Apollo manned lunar exploration program, NASA astronauts trained in Sudbury to become familiar with shatter cones: a rare rock formation connected with meteorite impacts. However, the popular misconception that they were visiting Sudbury because it purportedly resembled the lifeless surface of the moon dogged the city for years.

Dawn had just bought a car and hadn’t yet learned how to drive. She offered to take me to Winnipeg,  Manitoba where she wanted to visit a friend – if I were willing to teach her how to drive. Dawn is a midwife and again – one of my favorite people ever. Off we went! We picked up another hitch hiker along the way and finally, she dropped us both off in Winnipeg at a truck stop. The other hitchhiker wandered off but Dawn and I were all torn up at having to part company. It was hard to say goodbye! I forgot my travelling hat and about a month later, the lovely girl mailed it to me.
From Winnipeg I hitched to Calgary where I finally managed to get Paypal to let me access some of my funds through my debit card. I got a cheap hotel room before heading off into the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I got a ride to the rockies early but after that – no one was stopping. Late in the day, I noticed that I was being followed by three bears – a mother and two large cubs who were hungry after their long winter nap. A chain link fence stood between me and them as they walked on the railroad tracks and I walked on the road. As the road and the tracks got closer, I began to worry that the fence might end because the three bears were watching me intently.

Thankfully, a retired park ranger was driving by and stopped. He invited me to stay at his house and the next day drove me through the Rockies taking me to Banff, Lake Louise, the Three Sisters, and many beautiful spots. He dropped me at the base of the mountains on the British Columbia side and paid for a hotel room for me. All the way across Canada, I had people offering me shelter, buying me meals, taking me to their homes or getting me hotel rooms. I was awed by the sense of human deceny I found in Canada.

Across CanadaThe next morning I caught a ride early from a guy who looked like he was coming off a serious bender. Turned out he was. He told me horror stories about his wife and best friend who had gone into the porn business together and then abandoned him to make their own movies. He offered to give me his and her wedding rings and the Rolex watch she had given him – I was broke and probably should have accepted but didn’t want the karmic weight he had attached to them in his tales. I politely said no but accepted when he offered to buy me breakfast at a Denny’s in Vancouver.

After breakfast I walked from Vancouver down to the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine, Washington. When the border guards asked where I was coming from, I lied and told them I had taken a day trip from Bellingham – which is what most people crossing the border were doing. I walked across the border and called my friend Dave in Bellingham, he drove up and picked me up.

That’s how I went across Canada by thumb and foot. It was awesome. I love Canada.

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