WAY OUT EAST
Sent Sunday 16 June 2002 from Prague
To whom it may concern...
As promised, here is the second installment of our latest travels which should bring you up to date with our hil-ARIOUS adventures through Eastern Europe. I've been writing it progressively through Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and now in the Czech Republic, so, as usual, it comes with a Length Warning.
Thanks for your responses to the last one, already, though I think Mr Bruce Schwarz was speaking for all of us when he e-mailed:
your emails are too vague,
please send more information.
Mr James Fuzarone
You may note that I am managing to send this so that those of you who work can waste all Monday morning reading this and comparing your excitement-filled, office lives with mine (please refrain from using this line on me when I am back in an office). I am ALSO sending it now because in Austria the internet cost a criminal A$12 an hour!!
Also, just so you know, I just had ice cream and beer for lunch (not in the same glass - I'm not weird or nothin'...)
PART THE SECOND - GETTING TO BULGARIA
So there we were. Stranded in a foreign city, where we didn't speak the language, had very little local currency left and needed desperately to get out and into another country - preferably an ex-communist one. All we had were two bus tickets into the neighbouring country, two metro tickets that would take us to the bus station and...Actually, come to think of it, it wasn't too bad. We simply turned up at the bus station and caught the bus to Bulgaria. But THAT was when the fun began. Not only did we seem to be the only Australians on the bus, we were the only people without both Bulgarian and Turkish passports. Was this a requirement of entering Bulgaria/leaving Turkey? We would see...
I had a letter I wanted to send before we left Turkey and needed to find out if there would be an opportunity to send it before we left the country. I asked the bus assistant (there were about three of them on the bus in addition to the driver - maybe this was another requirement) if he spoke English. I received a totally blank stare in reply, followed by a string of either Turkish or Bulgarian words, none of which were familiar ones ("yes" or "no" were ones I was listening for). I gave him a blank stare in return. The old man behind me laughed. Round one - draw.
The rest of the bus ride was equally confusing. In fact, we weren't even sure if the bus was going to Bulgaria. (As it turned out, the bus actually didn't stop in the town we were hoping it would. "Sozopol?" I said cheerfully as the bus assistant checked our tickets after the bus had left. A shake of the head, despite what the travel agent had said: "Hayir - taksi". "I'll show you taksi" I replied, thankful that one of my parent's expressions was so readily available (and so biting)).
Every once in a while the bus would stop. Depending on whim and perhaps the direction the wind was blowing, none, some or all of the people on the bus would get off. Showing remarkable political aptitude, our policy was that, when more than 50% of the people did something, we did the same thing. At one of the stops, the bus driver and his assistants got off, took all of the luggage out of one of the compartments (including ours, which is why I can write about this in such detail) and started dismantling part of the bus! After removing a few, obviously unnecessary, parts, they loaded the bags back on and we headed off again, all feeling much safer.
Thankfully, at another one of the stops, when I again asked the helpful busboy what the hell was going on, a young guy who must have been the only other English-speaker on the bus told us the get-go and assuaged our fears. As part of our idle chit-chat, it was also at that time that he informed us that every other person on the bus, including him, excepting us, was a Bulgarian muslim who had escaped from Bulgaria in the late 80's when the then-communist government had started discriminating against the resident Turkish population, forcing them to convert to Christianity, listen to Posh Spice's new singles etc. They had moved to Turkey but now returned to visit friends and family. It explained a bit. About that, anway.
On arriving at the Bulgarian border (we knew this because the signs all had backward "N's" and "R's" and stuff) the Bulgarian border guard boarded (no terrible pun intended) the bus and immediately started hoe-ing into the other bus passengers. It was at this time that we discovered, just as if she had a Babel fish in her ear, that Natasha could understand Bulgarian near-perfectly. But the funny thing was she DIDN'T have a Babel fish in her ear!! It's just that Bulgarian and Slovenian are very similar (and, of course, she speaks Slovenian). Who wouldda thunk it?!?
Turns out the other people in the bus were speaking to the border guard in Turkish and showing him Turkish passports. He screamed back at them, in Bulgarian, "Don't speak to me in Turkish! I speak Bulgarian!!" and "Don't show me your Turkish passport - show me your Bulgarian passport! You are Bulgarian!!" He made his way down to us. Gulp. As he took our passports, seeing that we were Australian and Slovenian respectively ... he was all smiles! He cracked a few jokes about Australians coming to Bulgaria and kangaroos, IN ENGLISH, and then moved on to attack some more old people (in Bulgarian). He had become My Favourite Bulgarian!
When we arrived at Burgas, the town we would have to catch a taxi from to get to Sozopol, the bus drove through the town, past the place where our Lonely Planet assured us buses stopped, and stopped on what appeared to be a residential street. The bus driver yelled something out and all of the people in the bus turned and looked at us. That'd be our stop, then. We were the only ones to get out. Just before the bus pulled away, we asked one of the assistants if he could show us on a map where they had dropped us off. He pointed at a girl walking by, said something in Bulgarian, presumably about the fact that it was her responsibility, nay, privilege, and drove off. The girl, in turn, said something that sounded like Bulgarian for where we could stick her nay privelege and also left.
"How ya doin', Bulgaria? Great to be here!!"
We decided to spend a night in Burgas before making the trek down the Black Sea coast to Sozopol. The cheapest we could find was an old hotel for about A$50 for a double. That bought us what turned out to be a particularly spartan hotel room with a "double" bed that was a little larger than a single bed, a tap that dripped all night, a black and white TV that didn't work and a 1998 calendar on the wall. It was everything I had dreamed of and yet so much less. Welcome to post-communism at its finest!
However, despite all this, Bulgaria was a pleasant surprise. It was relatively cheap, the food was good, the weather was excellent. There were few tourists, meaning we had a free run of the place, though it also meant a consequent lack of tourist-facilities (I'm not a tourist, but I like some of things that they like...). And the people were GENERALLY pretty friendly. Although, at times, it seemed that everyone was fairly keen help us, provided they were not actually paid to do so...
Time and again, the average Jože Blow in the street would have to help us when the tourist office/railway station/emergency hospital staff were unwilling and/or uncaring. Ahhhhh. Communism.
Burgas wasn't all bad. We got to see a very cool, very funky, live band in the main square that night, for one thing. But we still went to Sozopol.
The next day, we lugged our packs down to the bus station to check out the times that buses and/or minibuses would head down to Sozopol. While looking at the timetable, a very helpful man came up, who helped us decipher the Bulgarian-ness of it all. He also informed us that he could take us to Sozopol in his taxi for about 20 leva and that, if we caught a bus, the bus tickets would cost even MORE than that. Despite his help, we told him we'd check it out ourselves and then get back to him.
Whereupon we found and caught a minibus to Sozopol for 2 leva each. We certainly appreciated his help, though.
Sozopol was nice - it had a cute little blackseaside village kinda thang going on.
Then we left and went back to Burgas. Avoiding the taxi touts and the gypsies robbing and hitting each other (best to stay away from them...) we caught a train and kicked on up to Veliko Tarnovo, former capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Who wouldda thunk that the Bulgarians had one empire, let alone TWO!! I think they got the second one when the empire struck back.
You may or may not know/care that Bulgarians are generally Orthodox (like Greek Orthodox except Bulgarian). Orthodox Easter comes after Roman Christian Easter (because, due to daylight savings or something, Jesus was crucified later for these Eastern countries) and we arrived in Veliko Tarnovo the day before their version of Good Friday. We thought this might be a good opportunity to get involved in some of the Orthodox shenanigans that would no doubt take place over this time. However, we then found that a better way to celebrate Easter would be to see "Vlastelinat Na Prastenite" at the local cinema - "Lord of the Rings" to the layperson. This provided us with another opportunity to witness the glory of post-communism.
The first five minutes went past fine - it was like being in a cinema in WESTERN Europe! - and then, suddenly, the sound cut out and the screen went black, plunging the entire theatre into darkness. After some time, the Bulgarian response consisted of knocking politely on the back of the wall and then waiting. After a few more minutes, it became clear that the projectionist was not in residence. Bulgarian response? Sit there in silence so that the projectionist and other Workers don't shoot you or put you in a hard labour camp. I was just about to get up and sign language to someone to fix it when the screen came back on. Finally!! Although it quickly became apparent that, though we hadn't been able to see it, the movie had still been running for the past 5 minutes.
Then it went blank again.
And so forth. Bulgaria - you're a winner!
Anyway - Veliko Tarnovo is a very picturesque old town situated on the side of a river gorge. Well worth the effort.
Then on to Ruse - a town on the Danube and, therefore, on the border between Romania and Bulgaria. On the way, the train conductor informed us that there was something wrong with our train tickets. We were sure that everything was in order and asked him to explain.
"These are in Bulgarian prices."
"These are in Bulgarian prices," he repeated. "You need to pay international prices..."
Of course. Natasha told him the equivalent of "Yeah right, mate - Piss off!" in Slovenian and we pantsed him and sent him packing.
Ruse was all right, except that it completely sucked. There was no cheap accommodation, which we and our backpacks learnt after walking around the sucky town for 3 hours or so. Settled on a sucky hotel for A$70 for a sucky double. (Incidentally, this was double the price for a Bulgarian couple – everywhere we asked for accommodation, they first asked: “What passport do you have?” – Bulgarian = cheap price, Not-Bulgarian = sucky price.)
That was the Saturday night, though, which is the big time for Easter in the Orthodox religion. Having shown that they are not too fussy about the historical accuracy of the date of the crucifiction (oops - genuine typo that I decided to keep), they also assume that Jesus was resurrected on the Easter Sunday ... at 12:01 am. So, the Saturday midnight mass is the biggie. We went to the Sveta Troista - an old Russian-style cathedral built in 1632. Seemed that the whole town had the same idea, which was kinda cool. However, there were none of the processions, parading around of old Saints bones or spontaneous combustion that apparently happen in other places. It was just a mass (held outside festival style coz the church was too small). So then we went back to the hotel (the hotel that sucks).
Next day, v. keen to get out of Ruse, though a little less keen about entering Romania - mainly because I didn't yet have a visa. All the information we had seemed to suggest that I could get one at the border (Natasha not needing one coz she's got a Slovenian (fellow ex-communist) passport) but we had met a girl in Turkey who said she had tried entering Romania from Hungary on the train and the border police had boarded (not again!) the train once the train entered Romania, saw she didn't have a visa and consequently placed a big "Deported" stamp in her passport and kicked her sorry ass off of the train. So, on the train from Ruse across the ironically named "Friendship Bridge" which traverses the equally ironic "Blue Danube" into Romania, I was fully prepared to get deported, catch a train back to Ruse and then catch the overnight train to Sofia and then look for cheap flights from Sofia to Budapest the following day. I was so prepared for this that, when I was simply issued a visa for the correct price by a smiling border-woman and told 'Enjoy your holiday!' by another border guard after he had searched the carriage for people trying to sneak into Romania (?), I was entirely unprepared for actually being in Romania. So for the next hour I rushed through the Lonely Planet trying to work out where we would go and how we would tell people that's where we would like to go, va rog.
We arrived in Bucharest on Easter Sunday, a city with a thoroughly bad name. Forewarned about the many scams perpetrated against travelers, we were, again, prepared for the worst. We had a fool-proof plan of attack. We knew which hostel we were staying in, where it was and how to get there. If anyone approached us, we would ignore them or, if they persisted, tell them to Piss Off. Harsh, but fair.
Got off the train. A tumbleweed rolled slowly across the platform and we could hear the wind whistling in the eaves. Despite our best intentions, it seemed the scammers had also taken a break for the Easter holidays. Bless them.
In the hostel was a guest book which showed us how lucky we were as it was FULL of horror stories regarding scams, all along the lines of "Thank God we found this hostel, because otherwise our experience in Bucharest would have been, um, not-very-good" (they weren´t very good writers). The funniest one was one that was almost entirely in Japanese, except for the odd, strange, thing in English. Like so:
Hey! Don´t you want to see my cash?
No, the police station is too far - let´s take a taxi.
(Yet more Japanese)
F*ck you! BOLLOCKS!!"
I kid you not.
Here's some notes I wrote about Bucharest:
Nice people on trains.
Safe when walking at night.
I actually really liked Romania - it was a definite highlight of the trip so far. Part of this was because how extraordinarily cheap everything except the pringles were - a pint of beer at a restaurant was about 30c US or about 60c Australian. It was also cheaper for us to eat in nice restaurants rather than cook our own meals in the hostels. The people were also quite friendly, despite their country being COMPLETELY f*cked (though they strangely recently voted a cartain Mr. Iliescu back into power, the former Communist leader who in 1991 took over from Ceausescu - the infamous dictator who went from being undisputed ruler of the country to being executed on public television 10 days later. He was not a popular dude.) The country is also stunningly beautiful.
Interesting statistic we heard from our friends in Budapest. Apparently, something like 78% of Romanians believe that Romania has made a greater contribution to the fields of art, music, literature and science than any other country in the world. I´ll leave that with you (but, suffice to say, they don´t get out of Romania much).
Got to visit Bran castle - so called "Dracula´s Castle". Also had a beer in the house where Vlad Dracula (Dracula means "Son of the Dragon", Dracul was his Dad) - also known as Vlad the Impaler due to his fetish for inserting large spikes into humans - was born. As you do.
Actually, Dracula's hometown, Sighisoara, was absolutely fantastic - a stunning little medieval town that also manages to be refreshingly cheap ("cheap" being something of a mating call amongst us backpackers). Don't expect this to last, though! You'll be pleased to know that this relatively untouched town will soon be host to the horrors and thrills of "Dracula Park", being planned and built by an international consortium that includes Coca-Cola amongst its members. Welcome to capitalism, boys!
After too short a time in Sighisoara, we had to bid farewell to Romania and say "helloooooo, la, la, la" to Hungary.
Does anyone else reckon that that song by Julio Iglesias' son, Drongo or Ringo or whatever, the one with Anna Kournikova about "You can't escape my love", is the biggest stalking song since "Every breath you take"?
Budapest is a fantastic city. Getting there is not a fantastic journey. For one thing, our trusty Lonely planet informed us that May was the wettest month in Hungary and, sure enough, after 10 or 12 days of uninterrupted perfect sunshine, the minute we crossed the border, Bon Scott said "Let there be rain!" and there was rain. Also, between Romania and Budapest is "The Great Plain" of Hungary. It should be called "The Unfeasibly Plain" or something - it's just a vast expanse of flat nothing-ness, just as if The Nothing from The Never-Ending Story had passed by on its way to get Sebastian and that big rock monster. Yeah. It's very early in the morning now.
But Budapest - fantastic!! Fantastic architecture and fairly cheap (although, when I worked it out, the costs were about equivalent to Australia, meaning that Australia is as cheap to visit as an ex-communist Eastern European country...). The Danube runs through the middle of Budapest, so it was good to get reunited and have a beer with Dan. Also, we had two fantastic friends (see the Greece update - the two Californian girls, Chelsea and Zhanna) who let us stay with them in a cool, nay, FANTASTIC apartment in the centre of town and who have since expressed a desire to come to Australia on hearing it´s as cheap to visit as an ex-communist Eastern European country.
You’ll be disappointed to hear that we had few crazy adventures in Hungary and not much went wrong, so I have little to write about. However, we did go out with some of Zhanna´s friends one night and managed to get checked by ticket inspectors while travelling on the metro for, as one of them who has lived in Budapest most of her life said, the first time in eleven years. We did not have tickets. The wheels were not in motion.
It was cool to live with friends in Budapest - we felt like locals after about 4 minutes. The second day we were there, we ran into someone we knew just walking around out on the street. He was actually waiting in a HUGE queue outside a cafeteria. I started to ask if that was because there weren't many food places in Hungary but he beat me to it: "Yes, this is the only cafeteria in Budapest." Fun-ny guy!
Hungarians themselves, though, are, apparently and statistically, the most depressed people in the world. A lot of this stems from the fact that they used to part of a great empire, and now they are just Hungary. After World War I, under the terms of the Treaty they signed, Hungary lost 60% of its lands to surrounding countries. While in Budapest, Chelsea said she saw a guy, an OPTIMISTIC guy, wearing a T-shirt proclaiming "Greater Hungary" - with a map of Hungary that incorporated most of the surrounding countries up to and including China and South Africa. He wants more Plains. He should also get a hobby. And a haircut.
Tried to get my Czech visa in Budapest, which was a vastly unsatisfying experience. (See, because everyone in the world thinks John Howard is a complete clown, Australians (read: poor, Australian backpackers) need visas to get into most any country outside of the EU, unlike our friendly, woolly cousins across the Tasman). Went to the embassy on a Monday and found out it was only open between the hours of 9 and 11 in the morning (they must work REALLY hard for those two hours...). So, next day rushed to get there and arrived at 11:00:01. Closed. So, the next day we rushed a little harder (and better) and got inside, only to find out that it would take a week to get the visa and that this period of time would not be reduced under any circumstances whatsoever, so get out now, you stupid Australian with a garden gnome for a prime-minister and your father smells of elderberries! So said the sign (just below the other sign: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here...")
A lot of mineral spas in Hungary and we visited the Szechenyi Baths - very cool experience. A lot of old blokes go there and play chess in the spas. I also got sunburnt there for the first time this year. Despite spending a lot of time on the beaches in the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Seas, the first time I got sunburnt was in a city in a valley thousands of kilometres from a decent beach (those decent beaches being in Australia).
Before we left beautiful Budapest, we also watched The Simpsons in German. You´ll be pleased to know that it still funny and possibly even funnier in German. You can’t truly understand Homer until you hear him going nuts in German. Classic.
Also watched a bit of news and I think it was around this time that Jimmy Carter visited Cuba, the first visit by a head of state of the US (current or former) in a very long time. After this, there was, of course, much speculation about whether the US would lift its ridiculous trade embargoes on Cuba. George Dubbya stated that, until Cuba becomes a democracy, the US will have no dealings with them. Does this mean that the US will also cease all trade with China, most African nations, the fascist puppet governments in Central and South America that it controls and, based on the last presidential election, itself? I thought not. Three words: Bay of Pigs.
We will now return you to our regular programming
It was then time to return to Slovenia, where I could look forward to communicating by means of charades and sound effects again. And pivo.
Stayed with Natasha's brother and his family which was really good. Got to see that 1950's movie "Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the 50 foot Killer Female Tomato Clones" in Slovenia and I thought it rocked, actually. Less Jar Jar, no midichlorians, no tax storyline and yoda fighting makes homer something something. Only problemo - it was in English with Slovenian subtitles (this was good) but whenever the aliens talked in alien language (which in Star Wars movies is a lot) the subtitles were also in Slovenian. Meaning they really DID seem like aliens.
Yeah. Hoping to see it again in the Czech Republic.
Also saw Spider Man, which in Slovenia was called "Clovek Pajek" - loosley translates as "Person Spider".
Most of you have already heard a lot about Slovenia from the last time we were there, so I won't go into too much detail.
On Friday 17 May, we woke up at 8:02 am and had a breakfast of bread rolls, salami and cheeses. After showering, we then...I kill me.
Briefly, some highlights:
Natasha's sister-in-law looks after little children who don't knock on doors that don't lock, meaning that two little mali Slovenkas got to see the Riceman nekkid (and due to my lack of ability to say "Please get out and stop inviting your friends in" in Slovenian, they wouldn't leave the bathroom until, in desperation, I said "Nasvidenje" to them: "Farewell, it was nice to see you!").
In Ljubjlana by myself (again trying to organise my Czech visa), I ended up having a long conversation with a Bulgarian Harmonika (piano accordion) player...in Slovenian...
Went for a bike ride with Natasha's nephew who likes riding to Austria and back for kicks. He went easy on me.
I noticed this one time before the news came on the radio in Maribor that they play the music to the chicken dance ("Dana-nana-nana-na...").
Since Natasha wanted to spend more quality time with her brother, whom she's seen only twice since she was 2, and I had already spent 7 weeks in one of the smallest countries in Europe, I decided to kick on down to Croatia by myself for a week, since it's just around the corner and all. So the whole family decided to head down to the Slovenian coast (all 30 or so kilometres of it) and then to Croatia for a weekend and then, when they were heading back to Slovenia, I was going to stay and then meet Natasha in Ljubljana before kicking on again. Good plan.
On the way to Croatia I…how should I put this…I was given the opportunity to discover that I am not allergic to bee stings. Twice.
And I think I'll leave this one here, and finish it off in a third instalment - Episode 3, if you will. I'll try and reply to everyone's e-mails in the next one. Keep 'ém coming and don't go changing.
Tim-bo Gattuso also asked me to forward this on, to which I replied: "What am I, your freaking secretary?!?!" The answer was in the affirmative, so here it is:
FW: My "successful" ANSETT shares
An interesting observation from my cousin. Made me think of you...and beer.
Feel free to forward it as your own... I have no time to as I just spent 10mins typing the last e-mail to you. (I'm a slow typer).
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Andy Stringer [SMTP:email@example.com]
> Sent: Saturday, 30 March 2002 13:50
> To: Tim Gattuso; Shawn Boyd; Roxanne; robyn bowen; Prue & Dave; Michael
> Stanyer; micala Jacobs; Luke new Gattuso; Kaz Lyons; Kalia Perry; Jen
> Willis; Hanna Daly; fiona; Fiona Welsh; Eugene Stackpole; Erik Franzen;
> danni karam; ben quick
> Subject: My "successful" ANSETT shares
> Hi all,
> I have had a look at my Ansett shares and have come up with the following
> interesting statistics.
> If you bought $1000 worth of Ansett Stock one year ago, it would be worth
> $49 today.
> If you bought $1000 worth of beer one year ago, drank all the beer, and
> traded in the cans for the aluminium, you would have $52 today.
> Beer - is there anything it can't do?
> I am going down to the bottle shop now to make an investment.
> Take care