Turning 31 – Reflections on Confidence and Relationships

Over the past few years a tradition of sorts has arisen. To celebrate my birthday, I sit down, put on my thinking cap, and ramble a bit about some of the things I’ve learned over the previous year. Sometimes these are musings still being digested, other times topics I’m more thoroughly confident about. Regardless, today I celebrate turning 31 and in honor of the occasion have focused on two topics. In some ways the two are complimentary. In others ways they’re worlds apart. I hope you’ll enjoy the musings and take them for what they are – just reflections and an attempt to share the world as I see it and how I relate to it. You can see my more detailed 30th birthday post here, my musings on turning 29 here, or 28 here. This year I also stumbled upon a long-forgotten blog post written on my 23 birthday (yeah, I’ve been blogging that long) which you can view here.

Flower Patch

Social Discomfort

A couple of years ago I had a realization. As I sat with several friends, on multiple occasions, we’d arrive in a situation where they were uncomfortable. Before long, they’d get antsy and comments would start to flow. Often it was about the people present, or aspects of the venue. Perhaps the people were too young, or too naive, or acting too embarrassingly American (in several instances it was young college students on their first exchange). In other situations the beer was too warm, or the venue had failed in some utterly trivial and minor but nevertheless comment worthy way.  Visualize the hipster that ends up in a trendy club and is utterly out of place, or the posh southern socialite who ends up in a grungy dive bar. Picture the polished model who regularly is at ease and comfortable in fancy cocktail bars ending up in a grungy little bodega that only serves beer and bitters.

In these instances their comments were often somewhat embarrassing, in no small part because they’re typically made fairly loudly or at the expense of those nearby. That sense of surprise though also got me to monitor my own behavior and, sure enough, I started to discover I had the same coping mechanism. I also suspect it’s a mechanism that is particularly prevalent within academics as it’s often the easiest and safest defense mechanism for discomfort. Ultimately though, it’s also something all of us do and on a fairly regular basis. Those that are best at conquering the impulse, are those that also seem to be exceptional at integrating into foreign cultures such as the photographer who magically befriends locals or the social butterfly that drifts effortlessly from group to group.

My Fantastic Packing Mistake

Perugia, Italy - Traveling Boots

I had a comfortable late-morning flight to Rome.  The route to Copenhagen airport is an easy one.  Hop a reliable bus for a 5 minute ride, switch to the metro for a 35 minute trip and boom. Next thing you know you’re at Copenhagen airport ready to move quickly through their efficient security lines and on to your destination of choice.  The whole process is an easy one and something that I’ve gotten the hang of.  But, what’s the old saying? Complacency is dangerous? That sounds about right.

Perugia, Italy - Traveling Boots

Many of you probably found your way to VirtualWayfarer because of one of my packing videos or blog posts.  Both are an area I specialize in and consider myself a bit of an expert in.  So, when it came time to pack for my 5 day visit to Italy I didn’t stress out about getting things pre-packed.  Oh, sure, I  did the basics and made sure that the laundry was done. I even spent some time the night before fretting over what formal clothing to pack.  You see, I was heading to Perugia as a finalist in the Perugia International Journalism Festival’s ‘Stories on Umbria’ contest but there in lurked my pitfall.

The Colosseum - Rome - Traveling Boots

As I fretted over which suit to pack … to go formal or casual … which tie to take … and how to get it to Italy without turning it into a wrinkled mess in my backpack I neglected actually packing the essentials.  When morning came and it was time to leave I launched into a flurry of motion tossing clothing, electronics, and the usual assortment of items on the bed.  I was confident – and dare I say a bit cocky – chatting on Facebook and chuckling when friends asked if I’d packed yet.  After all, I’m an expert – I only need 30 minutes.

Rome - Traveling Boots

Sidetracked repeatedly by conversations and general distractions I eventually realized that I was running a bit behind.  I made the last minute decision to wear a sports jacket, dress shirt, jeans and a pair of leather dress oxfords for the flight. I’d only have about 30 minutes between when I was scheduled to arrive in Perugia and the welcome reception/dinner so I ruled out changing upon arrival.  I also packed a full suit and dress shirt which I took in a hanging bag as a carry on for the following day’s official ceremony.  This meant I needed to pack my normal walking shoes in my backpack.  Which I did. Quickly.  Grabbing a pair of my signature Keen Targhee IIs, tossing them in an old supermarket bag, and burying it deep inside my bag all took about 45 seconds. Then in went the rest of my clothing, camera chargers, spare batteries, dopp kit and the like. I paused, and with a flourish tossed the bag over my shoulder, snagged my camera bag, my suit and was out the door.

The Vatican - Traveling Boots - Rome

I made my flight to Italy with oodles of time.  The trip from Rome to Perugia was uneventful. I applauded myself for my efficiency.  The dinner was delicious and provided an incredible opportunity to socialize with veteran journalists from the likes of the AP, New York Times, and Telegraph.  The following day’s award ceremony was equally enjoyable. Though I didn’t win the prize, being in the final three was an incredible honor.  Particularly because I was the only blogger in attendance.   I spent the remainder of the day walking around Perugia in my black dress oxfords.  It was only the following morning as I transformed from semi-formal journalist to relaxed travel blogger that I realized I’d made the worst packing mistake in my personal history.

Last Minute Packing

As I sat in my dimly lit hotel room, still a bit groggy from the night before, I pulled on my jeans, tossed a black v-neck t-shirt over my head and then dug around in my bag for my walking shoes.  Unceremoniously I yanked them out and dumped the yellow Netto bag out onto the floor.  With one hand pulling my t-shirt down over the rest of my body I slipped my left foot into my shoe and then kicked the right shoe into position.  Then, as I went to slide my foot into the right shoe I realized it felt odd.  I re-positioned, still not focusing on it, and tried again.  That’s when I looked down and paid closer attention.  That’s also when I realized that in my haste I had made an impressive error.  I had packed two Keen Targhee IIs, true.  Unfortunately the two were also two left shoes in similar, but slightly different colors.

Rome - Traveling Boots

That’s right.  I packed two left shoes. Two left shoes that were also different colors.  Sure, it would have been bad if I ended up with one left shoe and one right shoe from different pairs – that I could have passed off as being creative, or gritty, or…hell, I don’t know.  Instead I was left with one simple conclusion.  I was an idiot. Not only was I an idiot sitting in a dark hotel room, 2 days into his trip laughing at himself, I was an idiot that had three days of hardcore walking around Rome scheduled.  Not something you typically want to do in a pair of black dress oxfords with minimal support, smooth souls, and stiff leather. As far as just wearing the two left shoes?  Fat chance.

The Pantheon - Rome - Traveling Boots

Too stubborn (and perhaps cheap) to buy a replacement pair of shoes for a mere 3 days I pressed on and wandered Rome alternating between my shower flip flops and my Oxfords.  To make matters worse the Oxfords were relatively new, which meant that the leather was still quite hard and hadn’t formed to my feet. So, my penance for rushing out the door and not packing properly?  Blisters, sore feet, and a bit of blood.

Monument of Vittorio Emanuele II - Traveling Boots

Oh, and for those of you that might wonder why I have two pairs of near-identical Keens – it’s because I picked up a replacement pair right before my 50 day Africa/Europe trip this past summer.  The old pair were still good, but not quite good enough to risk the trip.  The end result: two near-identical pairs of keens which sit like old dogs at the foot of my bed. The latest in a long line of shoes which have been featured repeatedly in the 320+ photos that comprise my traveling boots album. So, if you noticed that the shoes in my recent Italy Boot Shots were a bit out of place…now you know why.

Moral of the story?  Even if you think you’re an expert, it’s still a good idea to pay attention.  After all, no one is perfect.

Three Hundred Twelve Boot Shots, Five Years and Five Continents

Traveling Boots - Isle of Skye - Scotland

A few years ago I decided that I wanted to craft a signature photo. Something that I could easily carry with me, that I could insert into photo after photo that would help humanize shots.  I wanted something that could be used or done anywhere – even if I was alone in the depths of rural Argentina.  What I came up with was a series of boot shots.  I feel that they help convey a sense of wonder, add a human element, and at the same time are something that is readily and easily identifiable as part of a long term photography project.

Traveling Boots - The Austrian Alps

Upon returning from my recent trip to Austria and Turkey, I sat down and edited the most recent batch of boot photos. The final candidates numbered 26 and brought the total number of boot photos I’ve uploaded to 312.  The oldest of the photos was captured in late 2008. The most recent on April 2nd of this year.

Traveling Boots - Zambian Safari

Within the album you’ll find photos from North America, Central America, South America, Europe, Africa and Asia.  Subjects in the photos range from penguins, polar bears and sharks to castles, cliffs, and caves. A number of current and former wonders of the world are also featured.

Bergen - The Old Warehouse District

To my knowledge, this is the most extensive project of its kind based on number of photos taken, time period covered, and sheer diversity of locations featured.  While many of the photos showcase one of three generations of Keens I’ve owned and traveled in, flippers, flip-flops, snowshoes and bare feet can also be found.  The boots are my go-to for travel, but were never intended to have meaning beyond that – thus, it will be interesting to see if future photos continue to feature them, or other footwear becomes increasingly common moving forward. What do you think – would a pair of neon-green running shoes spice things up a bit?

Belize Barrier Reef - Foot Shot

Why Do It?

This is an album dedicated to wanderlust and the open road.  It is dedicated to conveying the spirit of travel, of adventure, and of the unknown. Of reminding us to sit, pause, and to relax while in the moment.  To soak it up, and to enjoy it.  To be inspired and to have our imaginations run wild.  It is also an album about memory and reflection.  It is about re-visiting rich experiences and re-living them.

Perito Moreno Boots

As I sit here writing this post, I find myself going through old photos.  Each of these photos takes me back to a special moment.  It’s amazing how time blurs our memory if we don’t have anchors to bring our experiences back into focus.  As I flip through photos from mere months ago I find myself re-living the minutes that led up to and followed the taking of the photo.  Small details come back to me.  Smells. Sensations.  All of it.  Without these anchors and small reminders these sensations might easily be lost to the ravages of memory and time.

Grand Canyon at Sunset - Boots

The photos themselves also tell their own story.  They do more than showcase where I’ve been and a set of locations.  They document my growth as a traveler, photographer and travel writer.  The quality of the photos has gradually increased as I’ve slowly mastered the art of photography and editing.  Of equal aid is the progression in equipment.  The first photos were captured on a point and shoot Canon G6. Later generations were recorded with a Canon G11 while the most recent photos were taken with a Canon 600D dSLR.  When I started I shot almost exclusively on automatic.  More recently I’ve begun to tackle the delicate dance that is Av, Tv and M modes, white balance, f stop and ISO. The art that is editing is also its own adventure and challenge – sometimes I succeed, other times…well…other times I learn.

Tikal - Boot Shot

There’s also an element of disbelief.  A surreal type of surprise when I sit down and look through this album.  In 2007 I decided to make travel a fundamental part of my life.  I chose to prioritize it in a major way and to invest heavily in it.  Over the past few years that decision has payed off with the chance to see, experience and do things I never imagined possible.

Caving in Budapest

Yet, when you’re caught in the midst of it – of planning the next trip, reflecting on the past one, and trying to document everything in-between it is easy to lose perspective over all you’ve done.  I don’t think that’s something that is limited to serial travelers either, I think we all do it on a regular basis and in our day-to-day lives. It’s just that most of us lack an album that helps document and showcase those accomplishments and experiences.  To that end, it is my hope that these photos and this post help inspire you to not only take a moment and to reflect on your own adventures, but also to consider how you might begin your own project. Something to tie your experiences and life-changes together.

Playa del Carmen - Sunrise Boot Shot

I am also reminded by these photos just how awe inspiring the world is. We live surrounded by incredible beauty and while some of it can make for one heck of a difficult journey to get to, there are always incredible sights to see, places to explore and moments to discover in our own back yards and within reach regardless of what resources we have available to us. The weekend is just around the corner – have you decided yet how you’re going to use it?

Iguazu Boots

I invite you to head over to the complete album on flickr and to look through the photos.  I hope you enjoy the story they tell and that they resonate with you in some way.  I hope that they trigger memories of your own, and that they inspire you.  I hope that they pull you out of this moment, and allow your mind to wander and your imagination to run free. I would also love to hear which photos resonate with you the most and what format you prefer.  If you have questions about where they’ve been taken, feel free to ask.  I’m always happy to share, and of course please feel free to share this album and this post with anyone you think might enjoy it.

Prague Part 2, Vienna & Bratislava

Bit of time to kill before I catch my bus to Croatia, so hopefully I’ll get caught up! It’s brutal how easy it is to fall behind and I hate writing when things are not still fresh in my memory…but here goes!

Prague continued: The show and ballet I saw were both the highlights, but in general Prague is a very musical city. It was not unusual to find street performers which always livens up the experience. On the first day I explored the natural history museum. Quite a different experience than many of the others I’ve seen. The whole thing seemed stuck in time. The exhibits came in basically three different forms…the mineral exhibit, the early human artifact exhibits, and the stuffed animal exhibit. The early human exhibit was interesting, but fairly small. It consisted of a few old artifacts prior to and including the start of the bronze age and a bunch of bones. The mineral exhibit was large, but very different in feel as all of the gems were locked away in old wooden cases with viewing windows. It would not surprise me to learn that they dated back to at least the early 1900s. The stuffed animal exhibit was just that. Rooms and rooms of anything and everything they could kill and stuff…a very weird vibe to it, especially as some had not weathered well and as a result the various butchering cuts and stitches were becoming evident. The building itself however was gorgeous with a beautiful interior.

Night life – while I spent just about every night mixing and meeting people, I only spent two of the nights out at the main bars/night clubs. The first night I did a pub crawl. So far these have been a fantastic way to explore the city’s night life and meet other people. The crawl was lead by an odd American and his sister, and took us to 4 or 5 bars and clubs before ending at a night club. Both were friendly and the crowd on the crawl, despite being almost all guys, was a good group. We wandered the bars, hitting up some interesting ones, some dead ones, and some boring ones. At one point, while walking through the bottom levels of a club that was just starting to pick up, I encountered a group of friendly Nigerians selling weed and smoking it in the bottom part of the club. It struck me as really odd, especially since the people working at the club must have been aware of what was going on. Needless to say, I ended up back upstairs fairly quickly.

The second major evening out was my final one in Prague. I formed up with a couple traveling from England that were at the hostel and then set off to meet an Australian guy I had met in Frankfurt at a club recommended to me. To be honest, it was really bizarre. There were loads of beautiful girls on the subway and around parts of town, but at night in the bars and clubs they were nowhere to be seen and it was mostly tourists. When we arrived finally at the club recommended as a locals joint there was a massive line. I think we were the only 3 (4 once Brad joined us) foreigners in line. But, as we talked to the people around us it turned out the club was all inclusive so the door cover included unlimited drinks even though it cost a good bit more. We’d all hit up happy hour at our hostel and decided to check out another club instead – apparently one of the largest in Europe that was in the tourist district and a good 5 stories tall with different themed floors.

We set off for the club and after a brisk walk and quick tube jump we were there. The place was just starting to pick up. We did a quick walk through of all the floors and then because it was a bit brighter and completely ridiculous, ended up on the 3rd floor which was oldies with light up squares on the dance floor. There is nothing like a huge white dance floor with bands that lit up in different colors to the music. It was definitely fresh out of the movies. We grabbed a beer (the great thing about Prague was even at the club half a liter was only about 2 dollars US) and started dancing a bit. Before long others came out and joined us and we had stumbled into several others from the hostel including a big group of girls from the States of all places. We spent the next few hours dancing (during which I realized that the beer I had been ordering was 12%…ouch). It’s been a slow process, but I guess my ballroom stuff is finally starting to help me on the non-ballroom dance floor. Within about 15 minutes, I had two of the American girls repeatedly tell me how good I was and that they were intimidated. They would rotate intermittently throughout the night until the night club got so hot that I took my leave and headed out for air.

The Prague castle is interesting but was a bit disappointing. Overlooking the city it’s not a castle, even in the more Eastern Euro-German sense, it’s more a monstrosity with a wall stuck on top of a hill with large marshaling grounds and a cathedral in the middle. Still the view was beautiful.

On the day I caught the quartet in the small library that I loved I got out right around sunset and made my way down to the river. Luckily there was just enough cloud cover to make for a few fantastic minutes as the buildings and trees reflected on the river water and cast everything in a rosy hue.

The main Prague cathedral was pretty impressive with fresco and gold paint everywhere. They definitely were all about the gaudy look. The inner city itself was beautiful with a great mix of architectural styles. Many of the buildings had fantastic doors with a very old, medieval, almost castlesque feeling. It was also really interesting to see how many small courtyards there were and in many cases there were arches and small walkways between the streets creating a kind of interconnected maze. There is also a large astrological clock in Prague which draws a lot of tourists on the hour for a little animated show. The clock itself was beautiful…the show was dumb. It’s just a bunch of figures on a circular piece inside the clock. Two small doors open and they walk up to the window and look out as they revolve past.

It’s an odd thing how in Prague and Vienna to a lesser extent they often build right up to/around their cathedrals. They usually, but not always, still leave the public square part, but it can also be a ways away from the cathedral.

Vienna: Vienna is a very different city than Prague. Every bit as beautiful as Prague, if not more so. It still has the rural industrial feeling but the inner city is composed of large grass areas, squares, and ornate buildings. You can see the wealth that the rulers had and invested in the city in their massive palaces and buildings. While some of the buildings are gothic, most have been designed with greco-roman architecture in mind. In fact one of the main buildings (I believe it was the Parliament) is a massive building that was obviously based upon the Parthenon in the Acropolis though it also has distinctly Roman elements (two curved, sweeping walkways to the entrance). Located between the walkways is a huge statue of Athena with various figures at her feet. I believe it’s closely based on the statue of Athena that was originally located in the Parthenon. At each of the 4 corners of the building’s roof there are huge bronze chariots with horses in motion. They are elegant and beautiful.

Located in the heart of the city is the palatial area which now spreads between the city hall (a stunning gothic building) and the old palace which is now a set of classical reading rooms, modern library, set of museums and galleries. Between the two sets of buildings there is a huge park with gardens, statuary, another much smaller greek building, and large grass areas. Off to one side mirroring each other with fountain-filled gardens are two identical buildings which are now used as art and sculpture gardens. These buildings are massive and incredibly elegant.

Beyond that area are Vienna’s wandering streets. In the older parts of town each building is strikingly different though they are all based on the same uniform architectural style. Most of the facades have some sort of figure or scroll work supporting, surrounding, and adorning every window, corner, and door. On some of the buildings the null space is then painted with ornate images. The theaters and opera houses are exactly what you would expect and right in line with how i envisioned them. They fit right in with the rest of the Viennese theme.

While I would have liked to have seen a show like I did in Prague, many were expensive or playing odd pieces I didn’t have a desire to see. I did however attend an Opera at the old opera house. The ticket was 2 euro for standing space, which while a fun thing for a quick peak at the house and the show, was definitely NOT the way to see the opera. Despite enjoying the show, at the first intermission I took my leave, my legs were killing me, it was hot, the view was poor and the acoustics were marginal (we were located all the way at the back in the top). While not as small or ornate as the opera house in Prague it was definitely very impressive.

I met an Englishman who was killing some time after having plans fall through. He was staying at the hostel, but had lived in an Austrian town a bit outside of Vienna for a while a bit back. On the day I’d set aside to tour the city, he was eager to join me, and offered to play tour guide. Apparently, he’s also a fairly proficient musician (level 8 cert) and about to start a masters program in linguistics. As we wandered the city he had all sorts of fun tidbits to share. In addition to covering the bits I mentioned above, we also walked through a large outdoor market street which runs all week long. While there we were passing a wine shop selling (I believe it’s called Vino?) and we stopped for a drink as he introduced me to it. Made from the thicker parts of the wine that they sift off it is apparently only available a few times a year and because of how it ferments cannot really be exported or sold elsewhere. I tried a red, he had a white – it was a potent wine, but also had a champagne feel to it. Much thicker than wine, it would settle if you left it sitting for more than a minute or two. It had a much sweeter and juicier element as well. All around a very pleasant drink.

Later, again ready to rest our feet after hours of walking, we made our way to a small dingy coffee shop he had found during his time in Vienna. The sign looked like it was straight from the 40s and the interior was dark, musky and brown. The walls had mismatched wallpaper, which definitely came from a wide variety of mixed fashion styles and decades. (It reminded me my childhood when my grandparents would take me to the old Brown Derby for hot chocolate. This place though was much older and grungier.) In some places the wallpaper had peeled off…in others it looked as though it had burned and in others people had written all over it. The chairs and tables were piled into the place and the lighting was marginal. The place was fantastic! We made our way to a corner and ordered our coffee and rested our feet. I felt as though I should be madly writing an opera, book, or poetry.

Yesterday I decided to check out Bratislava (some of you may remember it from Euro trip) – located about 50 k (or miles I’m not sure) from Vienna. It is a 10 Euro round trip bus ride and takes about an hour and a half. Lewis (the guy I’d toured Vienna with), Sarah (A kiwi girl I bumped into in Prague and saw again here in Vienna) and I were preparing to set out when we also picked up another American (his name escapes me at the moment). We set off, caught the bus and were in Bratislava by noon with open minds and high hopes. I’d heard that it was worth a visit but not worth an overnight stay. That was an exaggeration. The city itself is an industrial mess with a skyline that is interesting only because of the number of smoke stacks. It has cheap multi-story residential buildings being built and smog. The old city itself has one or two beautiful buildings. The rest are built in a very simple, very plain architectural style that was generally bland and boring. Even the castle perched up above the town on the hill reminded me more of a Holiday Inn than a castle. We explored the city for 2 hours or so, then looking for more to see and feeling like there had to be something we were missing started looking at postcards…unfortunately, everything on the postcards we’d seen. The only really cool thing was a set of bronze statues they have built on/into the streets. One is a camera man peaking around a corner, another is a classicaly dressed figure leaning on a bench, and the third is a chubby construction worker up to his shoulders in a manhole leaning out.

Hungry and done with the city we looked for a restaurant. We’d each converted between 5-15 euro into the regional currency. For me that meant my 10 Euro got me 330 or so SK dollars. Initially we’d expected to find keepsakes, have to pay for museums etc. No such luck. Not wanting to take the hit transferring it back we looked for a restaurant with what might be regional food willing to pay a bit more than usual to get rid of the notes. The place we found must have been an old monastery or wine cellar. It was a a maze of small rooms that wound down into the earth with small domed ceilings, brick walls, and odd paintings on the walls. We settled in, ordered, then waited eagerly for food…which unfortunately ended up being nothing like what we ordered. The waiter completely messed up two of the 4 orders (I think he just didn’t want to cook the pork knuckle i was going to try) bringing us instead plates of spaetzel with goat cheese, and another with sauerkraut and bacon instead of the goat cheese. Not having the time to wait 40 minutes more for them to correct the order we made do and ate hungrily. After finishing the meal we still had some time to kill and a few SK left. Somehow we found an old lady selling a bottle of Bratislavian mead (of all things) and decided to try it. We chipped in for the 150 SK we needed for it, got 4 cups and headed down to the river (Danube i think) where we sat around waiting for our bus, reflecting on how shitty a town it was and commenting on how odd the mead was. I guess at least now I can say i’ve been there, and it only cost me 20 Euro.

Next stop Croatia. Catching the 6 o’clock bus this evening. Wish me luck!

Oktoberfest Day 3

After pushing hard the previous two days we took it easy Sunday morning. We slept in until about ten and then kicked around the hostel until about twelve when we went for a bite to eat. After washing up we decided to stop by Oktoberfest and pick up some pictures. From there we planned to head to the old town and explore it in a bit greater depth before booking our train tickets for later that day.

We made the 15 minute walk to the fairgrounds where we took a number of photos, each bought a few souvenir t-shirts and casually wandered about. Eventually we worked up a bit of a thirst and couldn’t resist the urge to pop into one of the tents and poke around. We had heard fantastic things about the Augustiner tent and beer and so chose it. Luckily it was still early enough that the majority of the tents still had openings. We found the Augustiner tent and quickly located a small spot at the end of a bench next to two men and a woman dressed in traditional garb. In usual fashion we started talking to them and in no time had made friends. They helped us flag down our forgetful waitress and even shared a bit of their beer with us while we waited for our own steins when it became necessary to toast to a song.

As we sat and chatted we learned that they had been there since 9 in the morning and were already starting to hurt. One of the guys (the woman’s husband or fiance) went from drunk to partially passed out in the 2 or so hours we sat there with them. The three were incredibly friendly, sharing stories, food, history, harassing each other and all around including us in the fun. When anyone ordered food, it got passed around and shared and as the two foreigners we had to try everything. This ranged from a red cabbage/beet thing, to gravy-covered meat, pretzels, and a herring and onion sandwich. While I didn’t notice a huge difference between the beer in the Augustiner tent and the beer in the Pauliner tents we’d previously visited it was definitely fantastic beer.

The tent itself was incredible, see my photos (facebook – message me if you need the link) for an idea on how big it was and the atmosphere. The barmaids and men were fantastic, no idea how they did it but they would carry 5 or 6 steins at once, sometimes stacking an additional one in the middle on the handles of the others. The whole place smelled of rich food, beer, and people. The energy in the air was ecstatic as everyone was happy and as friendly and hospitable as could be. At one point there was a family who was sitting on the other side of our 3 German friends. I presume they were German and one of their kids – he had to have been 16 maybe 17 had a stein for himself. As we pounded on the table with our elbows, lifted our steins in the air to “prost!” and shouted along he kept pace with his own stein…which was about as big as he was. The funniest part was when it came time for him to leave, we all toasted him and he scuttled the last bit of beer he had to cheers from all of the surrounding tables.

Later, an older German man easily in his late 70s who was sitting behind me leaned back and challenged me to a toast. Though his english was very limited, I was able to talk to him for a bit which was really neat. Then, he would periodically lean back into our table and cheer or toast with us. He’d also sing along with one of the three (the guy who was still going strong) and they would collectively sing old drinking songs and bellow them out. Later we also picked up a German doctor who sat sandwiched in with us and reminded me of Mr. Bean…the similarity was uncanny….and he had a french-style pan haircut which made it that much better. The guy was nice, and merrily drank along with us. Another family also ended up sliding in later and though their two young girls were way too young to drink (even by Oktoberfest standards) the parents joined our merriment.

Around 3 we finally succeeded in finishing our drinks and avoiding having more bought for us. We dragged ourselves away from the tent. It was hard, the people were all so warm and the atmosphere so incredible – it almost hurt to leave. Once outside we wandered around a bit, picked up a few more items and some photos then made our way to the rail station. The unfortunate news was that our train options were pretty limited and as always expensive. The good news was after dealing with a complete ass of a rail attendant when I first tried to book my ticket, I talked to a nice lady at another window and got a sleeper compartment for the trip to Prague. Amber found a train back to Cologne later that night that left about the same time as mine. With time to kill we walked into the city center as night fell, ate and explored.

The inner city was beautiful, especially at night with the buildings and cathedrals lit up. We stopped for gelato and then found a 3-person classical street group playing in an alcove (cello, violin, flute). There we paused for a good 20-30 minutes and listened. As with so many other things on the trip it seemed straight out of a movie. Eventually we got back to the train station and hunkered down to wait for our trains. While we waited in the small coffee shop we started talking to a few of the others. The first couple ended up being Americans traveling – we exchanged stories and tips. Then I noticed that the two somewhat rugged travelers (with huge packs) had what I immediately recognized as a fly fishing pole holder. I engaged them in conversation and it turned out they were from Kansas over in Europe backpacking and fishing. Though their fly fishing luck had been really poor we chatted about fishing stories until it was time for my train to leave. They were interesting chaps, each about the size of a mountain . When we all stood up (cafe had closed) they dwarfed me…weird the people you meet, such contrast on the road!

I got lucky for my sleeper car – it was 6 beds, 3 stacked on each side of the cabin and reminded me of what I’d imagined the bunks on a submarine must look like. 4 of the other bunks were filled by a group of Asian American girls who were my age and had just finished some program or another. We got acquainted then settled in. It was somewhat comical as I warned them that I might snore and invited them to nudge me if it was disturbing them. Well at two points during the night I must have been snoring because as I was in a half sleep I remember a pillow from above flying down (I was in the middle bunk) and thwomping me on the head. It was hard to keep from laughing. By a stroke of luck, I just barely fit (and by that i mean my feet only kinda dangled) and I was able to get a good night sleep.

The next morning I awoke in Prague. I’ll continue that story soon.

Amsterdam – Updated

After evaluating my options I decided to book a flight from London to Amsterdam instead of trying to deal with the ferry/train situation or wasting days going by bus. With Easyjet, Bmi, and Ryanair it’s amazing how cheap flying can be. Think Southwest – but sometimes even better. I made it to the airport by tube, got through customs and check-in without any hiccups and then enjoyed the brief flight down to Amsterdam. There I was relieved to find that almost everything/everyone was in/spoke English. This let me navigate around and find my way into the city proper without too much trouble.

The entire city spans out from the central rail station in oddly shaped rings with canals making wide loops mirroring the streets. It’s a pretty incredible layout – but also very confusing for something that seems apparently straight forward and symmetrical. The architecture is incredible. For whatever reason a lot of the older buildings have settled which results in all sorts of oddly leaning buildings meanwhile the cobblestone streets are beautiful and the canals – every turn you find yourself in an even more picturesque setting. Also, the leaves on a lot of the trees are starting to turn -or perhaps are always colored- either way it adds to the feeling. The canals are usually fairly quiet, with boats moored all along them everywhere you look. The boats themselves are pretty amazing. Old barges, small pleasure craft, odd little skiffs, you never know what you’ll see… if it’ll be halfway under water, or how it will be colored.

My hostel was located about a 5 minute walk away from the central rail station right on the edge of the red light district. To be honest, I think the street in addition to being where most of the hostels were, also was the gay district. There were some really…different shops along it. The hostel opened up onto the small pedestrian/bike street and behind it there was a large circular courtyard with a church in it. My room on the 2nd floor -which i shared with 9 or so other beds-opened up onto the courtyard…which was great, but also a bit annoying at times… go figure…the church had bells =) The hostel itself was a bit of a dump. They allowed smoking in it, so the entire place smelled like weed and while the beds were decent and the sheets were clean the walls had writing written all over them/carved into the walls. Perhaps the most comical part was the Bathrooms. The compartments were so small that one almost needed to open the door to sit down or stand up before shutting the door again…that or become some sort of super human circus acrobat.

It was also interesting seeing an active mini-cathedral on the fringe of the red-light district. On that same square there were several “coffee” shops and if memory serves there may have been an adult store or two. Wild contrast – but then again, that’s Amsterdam.

I spent the first part of the day proper after arriving exploring the architectural elements of the city. I basically just wandered around – got lost and explored. It was great. The winding streets, packed with people, with new sites and scents etc. were all pretty fantastic. The swans, the trees, the bicycles – that’s the other thing – there are bikes EVERYWHERE. There is one bike parking station in front of the rail yard that is the size of a 2-3 story parking garage – all full of bikes and nothing but bikes. In fact, the most dangerous thing about Amsterdam I think is the bikes and mopeds. They all have bells and just go roaring down the streets ringing them. God help you if you don’t move.

The red light district was intense…especially at night. You always hear talk of the doors/windows etc. but it really surprised me how many there were once the sun set and the red lights went on. Normal buildings you walk past during the day suddenly transform into a veritable art gallery full of flesh in all different types, shapes, and sizes. Definitely a different experience walking down those streets. Sometimes I felt like I was the one on display, not vice versa. With the girls staring you up and down, trying to engage you, even had a few knock on the glass to get my attention trying to get me to come over. No worries though, I didn’t browse the wares. Though there were times I definitely felt like Odysseus tied to the mast, as he passed the Siren’s isles.

In addition to deciding against a hooker, I also decided mushrooms didn’t really have any appeal or draw. A fact I only mention, because I don’t even want to imagine what y’all might expect from a 22 year old male wandering Amsterdam on his own. Any how – After exploring the red light district a bit at night, getting some food, and grabbing a drink I headed back to the Hostel and called it a night.

The first day proper consisted of walking and exploring. The day itself was overcast and misted off and on throughout the day. Nothing to fret about, but still enough to keep things cooler and make taking photos a PIA. I woke up, pulled myself together and then before I left the hostel started chatting with an Israeli couple traveling together and an American-or was it Canadian? girl staying in the dorm below me. She was traveling on her own before heading to London to work in the Fashion industry. Both being on our own, we ended up hitting it off and elected to meet up later that day to explore the nightlife. Two other Canadian girls (hairdressers actually) traveling in Europe before a conference in Greece also joined us.

After meeting each other and socializing a bit i struck off to explore the city. I wandered until I found some food (Burger King of all things) then continued on until I meandered past a 3 story sex museum. Three stories for 3 Euro seemed like a fair trade so in I went. The museum itself was pretty fascinating. Chock full of erotic carvings, photos, video, etc. from across history. When you look at modern social perception of pornography – it’s often – in the states at least, treated like some new creation that stems from modern perversion and technology. It’s funny how different the reality of it all is. From ancient oriental wall hangings that had a secret pull away front end that revealed hand painted porn to authentic Greek plates and vases that depicted sexual acts. One of the more bizarre was a sword that King Leopold had commissioned which had a man sexually engaged with – if i remember right a lion on the pommel. Hows that for a firm grip on something? The Museum also had a number of mannikins some of which were animated. It was an odd experience to say the least.

From there I had something truly unusual happen. As i explored the city, map in hand I got lost. Occasionally, I’ll get a bit off from where I mean to be as I wander, but this time I was 100% confused. No idea which direction was north, or what would take me weird. To be honest, it’s one of the first times that’s happened to me in years. It was an odd and humbling feeling. It wasn’t so much scary – as i knew i could always ask directions – as it was just eye opening. It was a new feeling, a new sensation. Definitely different than what i was familiar with. I can’t imagine feeling that on a regular basis.

Eventually I continued to wander until I figured out where I was – which as it so happens wasn’t close to where I thought I was. Oops. The downside of my lost wanderings was that I missed my time-frame for the National Museum in Amsterdam. The upside was I got to see a lot of the city, wandered through the flower market, and a book flee market. The wandering was beautiful, and in many ways I think I got more out of it, than wandering through another museum – Berlin’s better for that anyhow right!

After my wandering, I returned to the hostel, took a quick nap then headed downstairs to the pub under the hostel for a discounted meal (hostel owned) where I bumped into the first Canadian girl from earlier. We ate, then headed upstairs to pick up the others who had gotten then hands on some mushrooms earlier and were sobering up. They all finished getting ready and we headed out to the pubs – where we poked around and explored a bit. Meeting some locals, as well as some other travelers while relaxing, unwinding, taking in the sites and partying a bit. The night for the most part was a fun blur as we wandered between 4 pubs and spent some time out by the canals.

Unfortunately, I’ve run out of time. So, that’s it for now. Time to switch to another hostel here in Berlin for a night and to hit up the city! Did the national art and Bode yesterday. I’ll try for the wall and some other sights today.


It’s about 11:00PM Sunday evening here – and I’m just winding down from an incredible 3 day tour of the Isle of Skye and Scottish highlands. After arriving and meeting a few of the guys in my sleeping area we hit up the town and explored a bit.

Day 1: The first night a group of 4 of us formed up and headed down to the local Three sisters Pub which has a large outside area and was showing the Scotland-France soccer game. The pub was packed and the energy level was insane – after a lot of back and forth Scotland eventually scored which resulted in an explosion of activity and excitement…everyone was jumping up and down and shaking things, pints, and pint glasses fell to the ground left and right, and the whole crowd was jumping up and down in excitement. After things settled down a bit Scotland eventually won, 1 zip which led to another round of celebration. From there we explored a few other pubs, met a number of other travelers and eventually found our way back to the Hostel.

Day 2: I woke up fairly early, did some wash, got settled and set out to explore the town with Chris – one of the guys from the night before. We started with a 3 hour free walking tour of the city, which covered history, and was just a great general intro to the city. Edinburgh is really incredible, because as a capital city – it’s incredibly small and has a fantastic historic/old town. In addition to the old town and tenement buildings, the closest part of the new town was all built in the Victorian era at the same time on a master planned design. So it has an incredible classical uniformity, beautifully laid out pedestrian and motor oriented areas and a great standard look. When the tour ended we explored the city proper a bit, found a market, the bus station, the train station, and a number of other random stops before returning to the hostel, cooking dinner, socializing with a few randoms in the kitchen, then taking a quick snooz. About 10:00 we woke up and made our way down to what I hoped was going to be an active Salsa club. Unfortunately, it was a standard night and the turnout was poor – i’ll try again Monday (which is a designated salsa night). After leaving the salsa club – pretty much upon entry we walked around a bit more and sampled a few other random pubs. Unfortunately, while Edinburgh has a ton of natural beauty, it’s missing natural beauties. About to give up and call it a night, we stumbled into an odd Cafe/bar that had a great local crowd and was full of attractive, friendly girls. After an hour or two we called it a night – both having early mornings.

Day 3: I decided to do a 3 day Isle of Skye/Highland Tour to really get a good taste. The tour consisted of 10 people. Myself, Simon (our Driver/Tour Guide, 2 other Americans, A Tasmanian, A Hungarian, 3 People from Taiwan and 2 Germans. From Edinburgh we made our way straight into the country side. Our first stop was the castle where Mary Queen of Scots was born for coffee/tea and to introduce ourselves. From there we made our way to a historic battle field where Simon shared a mixture of folklore and history with us. After the battle field we meandered through the lowland country side – which included a brief stop to feed/see a harry island cow (had to throw tater and carrot slices at the fat thing to get it to come visit/eat some more). When we crossed into the highlands we made a quick stop to look at the country side/rolling mountains/talk about peat at which time Simon also pulled a bottle of single malt Scotch Whiskey from his pocket and explained what made it special, before teaching us a traditional toast and then passing the bottle around. The bottle of scotch followed us throughout the trip and served as a fun little tradition whenever we had stops that were exposed, especially cold, or rural and significant.

After our introduction to the Highlands we continued on making a few other stops to explore lochs, glens, or take pictures. Eventually we arrived at the valley of Glencoe made famous in songs and folk lore that recalls the massacre that occurred there. The place itself is incredible. A riveting valley with rich waterfalls and steep, graceful walls all around you. We parked and walked the 1/4 of a mile or so down to the river where we paused for more lore/history before making the way back up to the bus. When I get photos up – this is definitely one set you need to see. From Glencoe we continued along our way making a few other stops and eventually coming to a reconstructed version of an old castle. The castle sat out on a small island and was connected by a bridge. Rebuilt to spec in the early 1900s it was incredibly picturesque. As the sun set, and the golden rays of dusk started to reach out and embrace the castle we took a few photos, shivered from the cold northern wind and piled back in the bus. From there we had one final brief stop at a super market to pick up food for the evening and headed to the hostel. All the while the sunset was one of the most incredibly and gorgeous sights I’ve ever seen. In fact, it was so incredible, as we wound down a 1 lane rural road we stopped to just take it in for about 15 minutes (the whole sunset lasted a good hour).

We reached the hostel which was a great little place, then started cooking – as part of the tour we all paid an additional £35 which included lodging, breakfast, and dinner. We BBQd Ribs, Hamburger, Sausage, and Chicken before all heading to the local (tiny) pub to meet some of the locals and reflect on the day.

Day 4: (The Isle of Skye) – The day was a blustery, cloudy, rainy day – one quite different than the day before. We left our main packs at the hostel (we’d return there again for the evening after making a circuit of skye) and piled into the van. The first 30 minutes or so was pretty quiet as everyone suffered through their respective hangovers and tried to figure out what exactly had happened the night before – but then shortly after that we all got back into touring mode. A good 20 minutes took us to the main bridge from the mainland into Skye and another 10 minutes later we stopped at a lookout that sat across from a huge, majestic, bald, sweeping mountain. At the foot of the mountain and all around us there were – what looked a bit like large ant hills made in the peat. There Simon told us about the folklore that claimed that each was a Fairy den and how the locals avoided harvesting peat from them out of respect. As the weather continued to deteriorate we piled back into the car and made our way further up the coast. After a few other fun stops for local lore, history, or fun photo shoots we came to a set of high cliffs that reminded me of a miniature version of the cliffs of moehr (Moore?) in Ireland – except, unlike those cliffs a waterfall shot out and off the down one side, spilling crystal blue water out and down the 200 or so feet to the rocky cliffs below. On the other end of the lookout we could see the sheer cliffs as they plunged into the sea.

We left the cliffs and made our way to one of the old ruler’s former castle. The castle was perched majestically on the side of a cliff overlooking a bay, with a large island. The spot we stopped initially gave us a great vantage point while Simon told us a bit of the history. From there though, several of us decided to brave the rain and howling winds and make the 10-15 minute walk the long way to the castle. It was well worth it. After arriving at the castle and exploring it briefly the others (who had stayed in the van and come around to walk out a shorter – straight but less interesting path) arrived as well. Hunkered down in a corner overlooking the bay Simon again recounted more of the Castle’s quirky history. As we made our way back down to the van we had to cross a stretch of exposed coastline. The wind was so fierce that you could lean halfway into it. The sheer power of it inflated your cheeks and stole the breath from your lungs as the soft rain stung your face. It was incredible! The energy, power and crispness. The castle behind us, cliff to the side of us, beautiful gray torn ocean out past us and highlands in front of us.

Drenched, cold, and excited we continued on a short way where we elected to stop at a small goods shop. Where we picked up sandwiches, hot pies, and drinks – before heading down to the coast where teh waves were crashing in. Huddled in the van we pulled up onto the dock and faced out into the wind and the bay while we ate our meals and watched the wind blow the rain past us. The sea and sky merged into one gray, glorious entity as the waves came crashing in onto the black rocks dotted with orange seaweed and kelp. After finishing lunch we continued along our way and eventually came to stop at a beautiful waterfall near the road. Behind the waterfall as a majestic backdrop was an incredible stone formation that looked like a spear or spire sticking up from the mountain. Again after a few photos, a lot of water, wind and rain, and a few people slipping and sliding on the wet grass/hill we paused with the waterfall crashing down beside us to listen to Simon recount the story of an old man (who later became the stone spire) and the brownie he helped.

From there we continued along the way – almost all 1 lane roads – surrounded by hundreds of waterfalls, awe inspiring highland mountains, beautiful lochs, and peat covered in blooming heather (a beautiful red/purple low bush) to what Simon called the fairy Glen. The glen was a beautiful little area with a climbable spire – about 100 feet up that offered an incredible view of the valley, loch etc. Just visible through the mist and fog across the valley were huge waterfalls. Meanwhile in the glen there were sheep everywhere, wild ferns, peat, old treas covered in green moss, small streams and a gorgeous waterfall. We explored the glen for a good 40 minutes. It reminded me of some of the opening scenes in the Lord of the Rings/the parts around Rivendell – only it was real, the rain was still falling but more of a light mist and with just a bit of wind.

From there we continued along and stopped for goods and a snack at one of the larger towns on Skye. We checked out an interesting Himalayan bizarre they were having, i grabbed some chips (fries) and then we headed home.

I’ve left bits out, and I’ll try and follow up when I have better internet access – needless to say though – it was incredible.

Day 5: The return – I’m out of time now but it was also a great day. Mixed weather we stopped at Loch Ness, an incredible canyon where there was a beautiful waterfall with jumping salmon and moss covered trees, the last battlefield ever fought on British soil and a quick scenic stop. I’ll have to continue later as I’m out of time. Hope to get photos up soon!