Monthly Archives: October 2007

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Sofia, Bulgaria

Honestly I didn’t know what to expect from Sarajevo. I only knew a few general things about Sarajevo or Bosnia as a whole for that matter.

About Sarajevo:

In 1914 someone shot Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire, and as a result started World War I.

In 1984 it was the site for the summer Olympic games.

In 1992 war broke out Sarajevo was the site of the longest arterial bombardments in recent history. Reports of genocide and ethnic cleansing prompted an international response. NATO forces intervened.

There was a movie called “Welcome to Sarajevo” in 1995 which attempted to deal with the war here and its atrocities. I recommend the movie but will warn you, it’s pretty heavy if I remember correctly.

Tensions have not altogether gone away and there is still a small NATO presence. I saw a green NATO bus running up and down the streets. I also saw a Landmine Action Service truck outfitted for off-road travel driving through downtown at one point. Hiking and wandering off sealed surfaces is not advised. They have yet to clear all the landmines from the war.

All of this being said, Sarajevo is still one of my favorite destinations of the trip so far.

I was put at ease just entering the country. At the Bosnian border crossing the officials boarded and requested my passport. The official was joking and smiling with me and even made me laugh. This would be the first and probably last time a border official would have this effect. They, at least in my experience, are a bunch of stoic purpose-driven employees of the state. The Bosnian guard was a refreshing exception.

Instead of the usual hostel accommodation I decided to splurge a little and get my very own hotel room. For the 1984 Olympics a Holiday Inn was built, subsequently this Holiday Inn served as the base for the international journalists during the war. I used some accumulated hotel points from my business travel to get a room there for a couple nights. It was like a vacation from hostel travel. I had my own room, with a lock on the door, my own bathroom/shower and little soaps. Never have I thought of the Holiday Inn as luxurious before.

I walked out to explore the city and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I what I didn’t find was a place that looked like it had been under siege. Apparently reconstruction began as soon as the war ended. I walked through the new city into the old city and the transformation was dramatic. Like walking into the past, I crossed from the new tall concrete buildings and walkways to cobblestones and short buildings crammed with shops. The wonderful smell of grilled meats from the many little restaurants hit me like a wall when I entered the old section.

The many shops contained a wide verity of crafts that appeared far more Arab influenced than European and in several alleys you could hear the copper pots being banged into shape. There were mosques directly across from Christian churches and the mosques, due to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, were always full.

One of my favorite experiences was wandering through a public park to find a gathering of old men circled around a two foot tall chess set. The two men playing were thoughtfully walking through the pieces choosing their next move while the spectators watched intently sometimes pointing at the pieces and talking to each other, sometimes groaning at the choice the players made. I thought it was fantastic and it is something I would love to see in the parks and open spaces of Portland.

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I stayed for three days, each day making my way into the old city to eat and wander through the shops, always stopping by to watch the men playing chess. I don’t know what I expected to find in Sarajevo but what I did find was a very comfortable community rebuilding itself with few tourists and a sense of history. I would recommend it to anyone and don’t forget to try the ćevapčića… tasty.

Sofia, Bulgaraia

From Sarajevo it was a 26 hour series of trains to Bulgaria. I’m sure there are more picturesque parts of Bulgaria, unfortunately I didn’t see them. Sofia was more or less a stop on the way to Istanbul. Even the staff at the hostel seemed rather unimpressed with the available sites. And the majority of city was blockish and in desperate need of repair. Most of the buildings were falling apart, literally, one guy I met told me pieces of a plaster wall came down near him as he passed. The sidewalks were octagonal stone and didn’t seem to be set on anything substantial. Many many of them were unstable and shifted as you stepped on them. I was fairly concerned a few times that I would step on the wrong thing and disappear into the underground.

The hostel was certainly one of the high points of my time in Sofia. It was roomy and clean and very comfortable. The staff was very friendly and there was a huge common area stocked with DVDs and the walls were lined with couches. Breakfast was free and in the evenings there was a complimentary bowl of spaghetti with a glass of beer. I met some very cool people at the hostel, many of whom were long term travelers, ranging from 3 months to 3 years on the road. The further east I get the more serious the traveler I seem to find.

I did make my way to an 1100 year old monastery. The Rila Monastery is located on a mountain about 2 hours outside of Sofia and is an impressive compound. There is an Orthodox church in the center different from any I’ve seen so far. The icons are painted on the walls and set with raised silver halos and hands. Instead of the traditional pews the seats are all set against the walls. Hanging lamps provided the little light available in the church. Unfortunately they didn’t allow pictures.

Although I enjoyed the hostel and the people I met there, I was happy to move on to Istanbul.

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Belgrade, Serbia

“War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” -Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)

How different is that from today?

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“Didn’t we bomb this place?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure we did.”

Actually NATO did.

From Wikipedia:

The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (code-named Operation Allied Force by NATO) was NATO’s military operation against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia that lasted from 24 March to 10 June 1999 and is considered a major part of the Kosovo War. It was only the second major combat operation in NATO’s history, following the September 1995 Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

NATO’s proclaimed goal was to force the Serbian government to end the civil war in Kosovo between the military of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Serbian paramilitary police forces on the one hand and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA or UCK) on the other. The Yugoslav Government claimed that it was protecting the minority Serbian population of Kosovo against attacks by the Kosovo Liberation Army. The US State Department previously had classified the KLA as a terrorist organization.[6][7]

And here I am less than 10 years later looking at a city absolutely thriving! The streets are alive with people; the cafes are full of youth and laughter. It’s an old city, but a very clean city. You look down the alleys and you don’t see garbage, you see garbage trucks. Everything could use a coat of paint and some plaster but this city is on its way to recovery after decades of economic strife. (in 1993 inflation ran away at about 300,000% causing currency to be printed in values of up to 500,000,000,000 Dinar notes. Which were worth, at their height, equal to 6 US Dollars)

funny money

To be honest the fact that I knew there had been a war here in my adult lifetime was a big reason I wanted to visit. At the time of the war I’m sure I couldn’t have picked it out on a map. Also, it being a place nestled in Europe that is effectively off the lists of tourists held great attraction for me. I’m sure it will get much harder than this but for now this is the top. Available English is dramatically reduced and Serbian is a combination of Cyrillic and Roman alphabets. NOTE: I can’t read Cyrillic.

Very lucky for me I ran into an American named Matt after getting off the train in Belgrade. It was night and while I had the directions written down I had no idea how useless they would be. Like I said, luckily there was Matt, he speaks some Russian and can read Cyrillic. He didn’t have a hostel so he decided to see if the one I was booked at had any beds. The directions I had to my hostel were transliterated so showing them to the Serbian/Russian speaking cab driver did very little good. What would have been even more challenging without Matt would have been deciphering the street signs, which of course didn’t match my written names at all.

Example: Cika Lubjana

Street Sign: цика лубйиана

We arrived to find basically a two bedroom apartment converted into a hostel. There were six beds in one room and four in another. The “funky room” pictured on their web site was basically a small dining area with a picnic table in it where the staff, and occasionally the guests, would sit together. I’ll say they really did a good job with their advertising here. The pictures looked much better than the real thing. There was one bathroom and the shower was a bathtub with one of those hand held nozzles, no curtain. The finishing touch had to be the transparent acrylic toilet seat inset with coiled barbed wire. Those quirky Serbs…

It took a while for the staff to warm up, so I mostly avoided them. The restaurants and cafes were very cheap and I would visit a different one for each meal. This also gave me an excellent view on the unending stream of humanity flowing up and down the pedestrian mall.

I just walked most of the time. My head cold had made its way to my chest and I still wasn’t feeling 100%. I very effectively got lost trying to find the Tesla museum but by the time I found it, it was closed and would be closed the following day as well. I kept walking and people watching. Eventually finding myself at the two buildings that Belgrade has apparently not chosen to rebuild after the bombings and it’s hard to imagine what it was like here when that happened, maybe these shelled out carcasses serve as a reminder.

I hope to visit this place again in 10 years to see how much further it has come. With 30% growth for the past several years and a hope to join the European Union… I can only imagine what it will be like.

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Filed under Europe, Round The World, Serbia, Travel

What am I missing?

So far I’ve just been writing brief bits about each location I’ve been and the getting there. I’ve been taking pictures that grab me personally and that I’m happy with.

But… There is much more to this experience, I take more notes than I write about and should take more pictures of the little things than I do.

So I put it to you, the few people that are keeping up with me as stumble like a drunken sailor across the world: “What am I missing?”

What would you like to see or read more of? I’ve received requests for more video and more pictures of the hostels I’m staying at and the foods of the different countries, but what else? I make no promises but please share your thoughts and wishes. After three months on the road there are likely things that I take for granted or am numb to that you might be interested in. Let me know, in whatever media you wish (audio/video/photo/written), and I’ll see what I can do.

Thanks for following along! I’m three countries behind right now Serbia, Bosnia, Bulgaria and I’m off to Turkey tomorrow. I’ll try and do some catching up tonight.

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Budapest

My 7 hour train ride to Budapest was fairly uneventful aside from being sold a reservation for a seat that didn’t exist. At this point I always get a reservation even if I’m told I don’t need one. In at least one case (Budapest to Belgrade) I think the combination of Reservation + Eurail pass kept me from having to buy a ticket in a non-Eurail supported country.

I must have walked the length of the train three times – “408, 409, 410, 411, 413” – as if I’d just overlooked the 40ft steel box labeled “412” and it would be there on the third go-round. Anyway, I spoke to the conductor after looking fruitlessly for my missing train car, and was told that it was out of service and he unlocked a second class cabin that I could have all to myself, for a while…

I watched a man carrying a laptop head towards the bathroom at the end of my car. He shot a glance my direction as he passed. I waited my turn and, after what seemed like a very long time, he eventually exited and looked my way again. I took my opportunity and in what I felt was a short amount of time returned to my cabin to find the grumpy looking German all set up in the seat across from where I’d been sitting. I’d had little to no sleep the night before and wasn’t feeling social. The sum total of words exchanged in the 5 hours he sat across from me was a “hello” from each of us.

Upon arriving in Budapest-Keleti station I was set upon by several large matrons wondering if I needed a room for the night. They had their three ring binders ready and open to show me pictures of the rooms they had available. I declined, as I already had some portion of a room reserved somewhere at a hostel.

After Vienna, Budapest was certainly a different tempo. The blockish Soviet buldings and aged uncared-for paintwork let me know I’d entered “Eastern Europe.” I wandered around for a little while looking for an ATM as the currency had changed at the border and then found the signs to the subway for the train I needed to take. I walked out of the grey stone and dirty floors of the train station to find a shiny white new underground with fancy turnstiles and escalators. I was a little surprised but then decided it was probably a fairly recent addition. When the subway car arrived I realized they had only partially invested in new toys for the underground. It looked like an old over-ground tram retrofitted to operate on these new tracks.

I got to my hostel, was assigned a bed number in the 12 bunk dorm, and tossed my things into a locker. Surprisingly I felt like I had more privacy in this long large room than any other multi-bed dorm so far because there were curtains at the end of each set of bunks. You knew there were 11 other people sleeping in the room but you couldn’t see them.

Most of my stay in Budapest was to be in this bunk or in a coffee shop. I’d developed a fairly nasty head cold and couldn’t go too far from a tissue source. You see, my face was leaking and before I left I probably sawed off a good ¼ inch of nose using the single serving TP that was readily available.

I did get one good day of walking in and one good night of drinking before I decided I needed to just take it easy. In that day I saw most of the sights and learned a few things about Budapest. Like, did you know, Budapest is actually Buda and Pest? One on each side of the river Danube. There’s also o’Buda but nobody goes there so it was vetoed in the name combo. Plus how silly does O’BudaBudaPest sound? Or PestO’BudaBuda? I could go on. Thankfully at whatever committee meeting there was to name the place they erred on the side of brevity.

The Buda side seems far less cared for than the Pest side. Graffiti is on pretty much everything below 6ft. and many of the more interesting buildings are boarded up. The Pest side is where the wonderful Parliament building is along with most of the shopping and restaurants. I didn’t get to visit any of the famous bath houses, which apparently are quite wonderful, but I’m sure I’ll have time for that when I get to Turkey.

Next stop, Belgrade, Serbia.

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Filed under Europe, Hungary, Round The World, Travel

While we were sleeping…

Admittedly this is more immediately relevant to me than to most of the people reading this I thought I might make a note of it.

My money is disappearing. No, I’m not spending it willy-nilly on trinkets or booze or lush accommodations – trust me there. But every day my bank account holds less value. The invisible hand of the currency markets is reaching in and snatching my dollars and cents.

I haven’t watched or read much news in the past couple months but every time I walk past a currency exchange I notice the difference between the Dollar and the Euro and the fact that it is slowly growing. Slowly because I see it nearly every day. In the aggregate the Euro is moving quite quickly North of the Dollar.

After a conversation with a Canadian in my hostel in Belgrade, where I was informed the Canadian Dollar had reached parity with the US Dollar (1=1), I decided to look into it a little further. Sad thoughts of all the cheap sushi I’d had in Vancouver, BC flashed in my mind. Ahh, the good old days.

I’m not an Economist so my description of things will be sketchy at best so let’s get out the charts and graphs…

Here is the 5 year performance of the dollar to the Euro

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Look closer, this is what it feels like in my bank account…

1 year USD to EUR performance…

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And here is the Canadian “Looney” to US Dollar over the past 5 years.

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All of this is great news for other countries that want to buy US goods but bad for countries that want to sell us things. It’s also bad for us if we want to buy things from other places. Which, with a nearly $800 Billion dollar trade deficit, we do A LOT of.

I won’t attempt to discuss the finer points of monetary policy, as I would have to do a lot more reading to teach myself enough to scratch the surface of that, but I will say that the US Dollar slipping nearly 40% to the Euro and finding parity with the “Northern Peso” is bad for all of us.

Here is The Economist magazine’s take on the Canadian situation.

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Pictures: Vienna and Budapest

Here are some pictures from Vienna and Budapest. I’ve had a cold so the photography has been suffering in new places.

Here’s some fun highlights…

Vienna

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No, not getting arrested, just finding out what it would take…

Budapest

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I didn’t get his name but he seemed friendly enough…

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Filed under Austria, Europe, Hungary, Photography