30 June 2008

Cirauqui to Los Arcos

Day 4
6:25 am - 4:25 pm
36.3 km

I fell back into my stride on this day. Leaving Cirauqui early, I made it to the next town, Lorca, where I had originally planned to stay, at a reasonable enough hour to enjoy a cafe con leche with my (self-prepared) breakfast. The going on this day was easy in that it was mostly flat, but difficult in that it was extremely hot and a little bit dull. This is not an overpopulated country, clearly, because the towns are small, begin and end abruptly, and are few and far between. The countryside is beautiful and all, but try walking through it for hours and hours, days and days. As I said about Mt. Ventoux, it is well, perhaps, that such things are generally appreciated from a distance. That's not to say I don't like what I'm doing! I love walking, and I am enjoying this walk immensely. But this wouldn't be much of a blog if I didn't squeeze a few barbs into even the most innocuous of posts. For example, why the f*ck don't these people speak English??

From the second to last town of the day to the last, Los Arcos, it was flat, flat, flat and boring. The camino cut a more or less straight path through endless fields with no interesting features on the landscape. When Los Arcos finally appeared, after 12 km of this, I felt it was a miracle. The very name had a mythic quality to me, like some far away and slightly mysterious Mexican town, and I was eager to reach this sanctuary, a haven safely removed from the previous days' pilgrims, who had mostly decided to stay the night in the last town. When I arrived at the local albergue, surprisingly run by Austrians, I was even more surprised to meet a Japanese woman manning (womanning?) the desk. She spoke some Spanish but was quite pleased to be able to speak Japanese for a change, which I was more than happy to do myself, since my Japanese is still better than my Spanish. She put me in a giant dorm room that was completely empty except for me. I slept like a kitten.

¡Buen Camino!

The Internet in these pilgrim albergues costs €1 for 20 minutes, which means I do not have time/money to write a proper update of my last four days of walking. I ought to reach a city in the next day or so, and I am hoping that cheaper netsurfing is available there. So for now: I am alive, I am walking the camino, I am in a lot of pain, as usual, and I am loving it (more the walking than the pain, but you know how much I like pain, too). I also seem to have recovered my ability to speak Spanish, which is gratifying, though the desk girl at the albergue I'm staying at tonight turned out to be Japanese...

29 June 2008

Pamplona to Cirauqui

Day 3
6:55 am - 2:00 pm
31 km

I got a late start today and made slow progress due to the steadily expanding and increasingly worrisome size of my blisters. Every night, I drain them with a needle, but they keep coming back stronger than ever the next day, like hair that grows in fuller and darker after you shave it off. Do blisters follow the same principle? On this particular day, I had greater ambitions than I could pull off. I had hoped to cover 35-40 km/day, but I was exhausted by the time I reached the little hilltop hamlet of Cirauqui, so I decided to chuck it in. Plus, it was extremely hot that day, and, though I like the heat, I am not immune to its debilitating effects. I know I'm not mentioning anything terribly interesting as far as what happened to me along the way, but this is largely because, after a year of meeting people and trekking with people and in every way being constantly exposed to different people with different languages and cultures, all asking me over and over where I come from, etc., I have made it a point to isolate myself on the Camino de Santiago and treat it as a proper, personal, pilgrimage, a quiet time at the end of my trip before I once again have to deal with the little, awful difficulties of regular life. Thus, I am trying to do it alone and speak to as few people as possible. I know most of my fellow pilgrims regard this month of walking as a spiritual, life-alterting deviation from their boring and pointless lives back in whiteland, but, obviously, it's pretty run of the mill for me. So I prefer to leave them among themselves to be amazed with how interesting other affluent Europeans are. In the evening, I stayed at nice, private albergue, the only one available. These pilgrim albergues typically cost anywhere from nothing to €9, with this one being at the top end. Martin, a nice Swede who is one of the few people I have been talking to, showed up in the evening, and that was fine. We keep running into each other. He went out, though, to watch the final football match. In Basque country, apparently, the Spanish soccer team is not a hot item, but they did find a place to watch it, and, I later learned, Spain won. Hooray.

28 June 2008

Roncesvalles to Pamplona

Day 2
6:15 am - 4:15 pm
42.8 km

This day almost killed me, because my backpack, I soon realized, was way too heavy for cross-country trekking. Still, I managed to plunge my way down into the heart of the Basque country, where I basked in the glory of reaching bull-running central in a mere 10 hours. My feet grew enough blisters to cripple an entire race of marathon runners, but I still managed to hobble over to the supermercado to buy cooking supplies. I made six giant burritos out of avocado, olives, mushrooms, eggs, cheese, fish, and squid. Everyone in Pamplona seemed to be drunk or getting drunk that night, and I later learned that the big Spain vs. Germany European football championship was coming up. Otherwise, like every other town and city I've come across in this country, it was completely dead everywhere else at all other times. This is strange to me. Also, nothing is ever open. Also, nobody speaks English. In a way, Spain reminds me of South America.

27 June 2008

St. Jean Pied du Port to Roncesvalles

I have no choice but to use the expensive Internet terminal, but I don't have unlimited 1 euro coins, so I am going to try and cover the last six days of walking with brief blurbs. Seriously, I will be brief this time!

Addendum: There are actually many routes to Santiago. I will be taking the Camino Frances, or French Road, which is the most popular and best marked. The total distance from St. Jean to Santiago is variously given, but 819 km (509 miles) seems to be the most accurate. The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compestela, where St. James is allegedly buried, was the third most important pilgrimage in medieval times, after Rome (been there) and Jerusalem (done that).

Day 1
6:30 am - 12:15 pm
27 km

In St. Jean, I received my "pilgrim credential" which is sort of like a passport but more useful because it entitles me to cheap meals and cheaper (or free) beds at all the pilgrim hostels along the Camino de Santiago, whereas a regular passport merely entitles me the right to enter a country, with no accompanying discounts. I am obliged to get my credential stamped at each albergue or hostel I stay at, but I can also get optional stamps wherever I like along the way. Of course, I love this concept, and I've basically stopped everywhere I possibly could to get my pilgrim passport stamped. The first day of walking was typical for me, because, although it's supposedly the most "difficult" (not exactly Himalayas difficult, I can attest), it is also supposed to be one of the most spectacular, since it takes you up and over the Pyrenees before descending down into Spain. The typical part is that it rained the whole day, so there were no views, and I got completely soaked. In Roncesvalles, famous as the setting for the Song of Roland--the story of Charlemagne's best knight, who took on more Moors than he could handle--I spent the night in a pilgrim's "hospital" that's been serving in the capacity for about 800 years. Basically, it's a giant medieval hall with about 200 bunk beds. Imagine the echoes of the snoring in such a chamber! I would have to imagine it too, because I carry earplugs.

26 June 2008

St. Jean Pied du Port

I am in St. Jean Pied du Port. Tomorrow I will (are you listening, Zach?) walk into Spain. I don't know about Internet access after tonight. Probably intermittent.

Here's a sample of what Google's planning for its new mobile phone OS:

"A GPS-enhanced social networking app that lets you map and track your friends in real time while using the IM function to plan impromptu meet-ups on the go."

Doesn't that sound great?!

Kill everyone. Let God sort them out.

The same day that I returned, recovered, from Mt. Ventoux, I left Avignon for Nimes. I had hoped to see Arles, as well, but given the time I had, I decided that my secret love for the Robert DiNiro movie "Ronin" was not a good enough reason to rush through my last day in Provence. Anyway, the big draw in Arles is a Roman amphitheatre, and Nimes has one, too--in fact, the best preserved one in the world. Score for me! Little did I know, but the day before they played in Milan, Radiohead performed in the f*cking Roman arena in Nimes! Maybe it's a good thing I didn't see them there, because I might have had an ultimate bliss-out heart attack. Isn't it cool that they still use these 2000 year old performance spaces, though?

I arrived in Nimes full of a renewed determination to enjoy life, having just had it saved. Much to my horror, however, the train station didn't have a left luggage room. "Why?!" I screamed in my heart, before heading out, with backpack, to see what sense I could make of the world. Walking along the main drag, I soon passed a hotel. Ah, I'll simply ask... "We cannot store luggage for non-guests" the sign read. So, I was not the only one who had faced this problem, and I was also facing an unfriendly city. The next hotel I passed was a posh Novotel. Figuring my chances were slim, I confidently strolled up to the desk and begged the sweet-looking young woman there to have mercy on me. For security reasons, she informed me, they were not able to store bags for non-guests. I asked why Nimes, unlike every other city I'd ever been to, was at Defcon 2. I asked if I looked dangerous. I asked if it was the beard. Finally, she relented, this proving to me once again that I am charming enough to get anything I want (but remembering the lesson of the previous day, it did not make me cocky).

I then went off and walked around and around the amphitheater, blithely (that's right, blithely) ignoring the "passage interdit" signs, walking on the top rim and through all the different levels of passages. I am still a kid when it comes to ruins, especially Roman ruins. I met my Canadian female counterpart when I boarded the bus to another ruin, the also Roman aqueduct known today as the "Pont du Gard" which I have really, like her, always wanted to see. She (Michelle) even turned out to be a graduate student, so, in addition to ancient hydrodynamics, we had much else to talk about (like how ridiculous it is that bottles of water at the Pont du Gard cafe cost 3 euros). Sadly, we only had a short time to visit the Pont before the return bus. She had to organize her travels for the following day, and I had to catch the train that evening to Carcassonne. Back in Nimes, I drank two beers with fruit-flavored syrup (a European thing we haven't adopted yet in the States), picked up my backpack, and went up to the train platform to await my next TGV...

...to Carcassonne! Carcassonne is a famous castle town in Southern France named after a popular board game. Strangely, I could not find this game for sale anywhere in the city. A woman working at the castle gift shop told me that it might be because it, like her, is German. European prejudice strikes again! It may be for much the same reason that, as my previous host Stephane had informed me, it is impossible to buy foreign wine in France. Like everything else I've been visiting lately, "I've always wanted to go to Carcassonne." "Whatever!" you're saying to yourselves by now, but I mean it! And it's not even because of the board game, though you are within your rights to suspect it. No, it's because the Kevin Kostner movie "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" was filmed here. If there's a better reason to visit a place than that it once served as the set of a Kevin Kostner movie (also starring Alan Rickman!), I'd like to hear it. Of course, I wouldn't tell most people this. To the man on the street, I say that I'm fascinated by the medieval heresy of Catharism, one of its main centers having been Carcassonne. This is not untrue--I love the Cathars! They were a Christian sect so radical, they actually believed people should live according to the precepts of Jesus. Naturally, the Roman Church had no choice but to eradicate them in the 13th century, thus inaugurating the Dominican order of monks and the Holy Inquisition (cue Mel Brooks musical number) of much fame. It was during this "crusade" against the Cathars that the commanding priest, when asked how the soldiers would be able to distinguish Cathars from Catholics, famously uttered the quote headlining this post. Great religion, eh? At the Carcassonne train station, I was met by a Frenchman born in South Africa (as he describes himself) named Owen, my new host. He brought me to dinner at a friend's apartment (another couchsurfer) and then back to his place with his cute five year old daughter who wouldn't talk to me. I slept.

The next day, I "did" the castle. Carcassonne is divided into two separate "towns": the castle town up on the hill, inhabited by only 60 residents and 12,000 tourists, and the lower town built sometime around the 13th or 14th century (so much newer). The castle town is enormous and provides the eager sentimentalizing visitor (guilty!) with the best-preserved castle fortifications in... wait a minute, haven't I heard this before? "Whatever!" is what *I* said; it's UNESCO, it's gorgeous, I feel like I'm Christian Slater as Will Scarlett: all is well. In the 19th century, the city was restored and medievalized by the same guy who restored Notre Dame in Paris. This means that, instead of rebuilding the towers the way they actually were, he stuck a bunch of ridiculous Cinderella roofs on top of them. I'll have to watch the movie again to see whether or not they were Photoshopped out. The castle itself (the "castle castle" and not just the castle town) was nothing too special, in my estimation, though it did have a few of those quirky contemporary art exhibits the French seem to stick randomly inside their old monuments. With my entrance ticket, however, I did get a mandatory guided tour of the inner ramparts. Ramparts are cool because the word "ramparts" is awesome. I walked on the ramparts. How often does one get to say that? I also walked around the castle town walls a few times, inside and out, because I like walking around things (this much you know) and very much feeling like I was trapped in a David Macauley book come to life. After the castle, I popped back into town to visit a small John Miro exhibit at the local museum and do my last bit of food shopping in France.

This morning, I will be taking a train to the small Pyrenean border village of St. Jean Pied du Port, which is difficultly pronounced "Seun Zhon Pieh(d) doo Por(t)" but is still not as bad as Arles (don't ask). From there, I will begin the Camino Santiago, a one month pilgrimage walk across the north of Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostella. Along the way, I will visit the most beautiful cities, set in some of the loveliest countryside, of the Iberian peninsula. And that is how I will put a cap on this one year voyage around my smooth world. I'm living my dream, my friends. Are you living yours?

25 June 2008

A Lovely Day Ascending Beautiful Mt. Ventoux, or, Why Won't I Ever F*cking Learn?

They all told me it would be difficult. I scoffed. Mt. Ventoux? Difficult? It's not even 2000 meters! It's an armpit pimple compared to what I've already done! Take plenty of water? I'm The Steve. I don't need more than a trickle of forehead sweat running back into my mouth. If Petrarch, that lazy Pope-bitch who couldn't even read Greek, could do it, surely I could run laps around the thing. And with this hubristic attitude present in my mind, the travel gods struck me down.

I left my pay-for style accommodation in the morning, catching the first bus I could from Avignon to Carpentras. At the tourist office there, I inquired about onward transport to the village of Bedouin, 14 km away at the base of Mt. Ventoux (the highest mountain in Provence--yawn). There is a bus, apparently, but it only leaves twice a day at completely inconvenient times. This left me with only one, expensive option: taxi. So I hitchhiked. Lucky me! It only took the nice Swiss man who picked me up 15 minutes to find me. And he even brought me, out of his way, all the way to Bedouin! Wonderful! And guess what, he says to me, Monday is market day! Hurray! Not only do I get a ride to the cute, medieval farming village, but I'm treated to stall after tantalizing stall of Southern French cuisine--herbs and spices, cheeses, meats (not for me), olives, tapenades, produce, seafood, bakery goods, chocolate, soap all for sale, all beckoning deliciously (including the soap: I bought a violet). The entire Mediterranean diet and lifestyle strung out along a single, handy village lane. After the tiny bit of shopping in which I allowed myself to indulge, I pompously sauntered up to the tourist office, pizza avec quatre fromages in hand, and demanded to know the way to the mountain. The trail begins, the woman informed me in French (which I seem to understand), at an even smaller village 4 km further down the road. "How many of these f-ing villages are there?!" I yearned to ask but could not think of how to translate. I may not have mentioned this, but I can't help speaking English with a French accent when I'm in France (and much of the rest of the time, too). At the beach party, Max convinced me (it was pretty easy) to speak this way the whole time to everybody. My story was that I was French but living in America. My parents wanted me to learn English so I would fit in and didn't teach me French. Unfortunately, *they* taught me English themselves, being highly educated in it, so I ended up with their accent and no French-speaking ability. Much to my surprise, the French seemed to buy it, while those in the know were highly amused and impressed by my skill. I think I'm quite convincing, actually. The point of this aside is, I received retribution for this little stunt on the mountain.

Stomping off from the tourist office, I headed into the foothills. The trail up Mt. Ventoux is clearly marked, well-maintained, and easy to follow. Naturally, I got lost. My first indication that something was amiss came when the trail simply stopped dead. "What?" I thought. Well, I'd been told that Provence received an exceptional rainfall this winter, so perhaps the mountain paths were just a wee bit overgrown. Wee bit! I couldn't find it at all! I went back and forth, forth and back, for hours, making very slow progress and having to bushwhack my way painfully through all the goddamn beautiful scenery (ha, beautiful from a distance--try walking through all that picture-perfect, skin-lacerating foliage!). At one point, some tree or other must have unzipped the front pocket of my backpack, because my clock, pen, and sunglasses case were all gone. No problem with that, since I hated all of them (the case was handy, though). But, now I couldn't track my progress, which was increasingly seeming to me a progress toward death. I am not overreacting, people! I was in the thicket "stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more,
returning were as tedious as go o'er", as it were. And I was running out of water. Many cries of pain later (those brambles really hurt once all your shin-skin's been stripped away), I randomly ran into what looked like an actual path. I was wary, at first. But it was real: a real path! How had I missed it? "Who cares?" in my delirium, I asked no one in particular. Off I went! So happy was I to hit the fastlane again, I drank all the rest of my water, assuming I could reach the summit in less than 20 minutes. Hey, that was pretty stupid! Because the top was still a looooong way away. And the signs I sometimes passed were misleading. According to one, the summit was a mere five odd kilometers away. I walk at least five kilometers an hour, even uphill, so I felt I could wash my socks in my water if I wanted to (surely there'd be a fully equipped cafe at the top, hopefully Petrarch-themed, I figured). Ahem, it was not five kilometers away. I think I took another wrong turn, because the trail crossed the road the lazy tourists drive on to the top, and then I just started following that. Big mistake! The road is always a lot longer! In retrospect, I think dehydration must have affected my judgment (which was clearly functioning when I set out that morning). I walked on this empty road for at least five kilometers before it joined another, better road, that cars were just zipping past all the time on. So, I thought I could hitch to the top. But nobody would stop. Perhaps my beard makes me look like a terrorist, but, come on, grant the guy on the mountain road in the middle of nowhere some mercy! No mercy. The drivers that day were all tourists, I suppose, and tourists are sans pité. I had unkind thoughts. But I kept walking. At a certain point, I looked up: there was the top! High, high above me... my God, it was high above me, and I didn't know what time it was, I didn't have any water, it was extremely hot, I was perspiring heavily, I felt tired and dizzy, and it might have taken me at least another two hours on the tarmac to get up there. "Might have?" you ask. Yes, I did the unthinkable. I gave up.

Turning back around, I had no better luck hitching down to civilization. Deciding to go with the devil I knew, I returned on the same route I came in on, but, don't act so surprised, I got lost a third time, but not so badly since I was still on a well-defined track heading in a downhillwardly direction. Nevertheless, I had a long way to go: at least 14 kilometers in the still hot sun, and I was so, so thirsty. I couldn't think straight except to beg the travel gods for deliverance (but not like in the movie). At one point, I took a pee, and saw that it, a mere trickle, was dark and yellow and menacing. I was pretty sure of my imminent death and wondered if I'd left any mature content on my laptop when I finally saw signs of habitation: vineyards! Yes! Guarded by giant, ravenous rotweilers! Oh no! But the track turned into a road and houses started to appear, and I knew I must be saved. My savior himself was the first little old French man I saw in the near distance. "Monsieur! Monsieur! Si vous plait! Je suis un stupid tourist Americain! Eau, si vous plait! Eau!" I hoarsely cried out. And eau he gave me. I haven't decided if this man or the Swiss guy who gave me my first ride (and suggested I take lots of water) were *the* travel god incarnate, but it is likely they are both among their ranks. The man brought me back to his ridiculously cute farmhouse, where I sat down and just started panting. I couldn't take more than a sip of water at a time, and his wife found my moribund condition highly amusing (I'm sure it was). Eventually, I regained my composure. At one point, their son Guillaume came in, and he spoke English. After conferring with his parents and informing me that it was much later than I thought (no bus back to Avignon!), he asked if I'd like to have dinner with them, stay the night, and then ride with him back to Avignon early the next morning since he works there...



So I had a nice shower, a nice quiche, and slept in the nicest bed that's ever been volunteered to me. The next morning, I sat behind Guillaume on his moto and loved him and loved France and blessed my luck in spite of my idiocy.

Incidentally, Guillaume works for the world-famous Avignon Festival, which you probably haven't heard of. I thought that was pretty cool.

22 June 2008

Too Many Popes

Did I promise to say something about my sightseeing in Avignon? Do you really want to hear it? OK--the number one attraction is the Palace of the Popes, the residence of the papacy during the so-called Babylonian Captivity of the Church in the 14th century. At this time, the Holy Roman Empire was constantly fighting with the Church over the so-called Investiture Controversy (sleeping yet?), that is, over who had the right to control the Church (and appoint bishops) within a given kingdom, the king or the Pope. At one point, Rome and the Papal States became overly threatened by the Empire, so the Papal Court moved to Avignon, which it owned. Meanwhile, the Empire appointed its own Popes in Rome while the Antipopes (no joke) ruled in what is now France. At one point, there were even *three* Popes, which is, in my opinion, just too many Popes. These days, the palace is monumental and beautiful but also empty. So I was glad to go there and soak up the ambience, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it to anyone else given the admission price.

For a change of scenery, after visiting the palace, I hiked across the Rhone (ah, the Rhone Valley, home to my beloved Syrah) to a little village called Villeneuve, once the entrance to France coming from Papacy-dominated Avignon and environs. There's a castle there I figured I might as well check out since, basically, I could. It was empty, too. And a bee stung me.

OK, forget all the rest. In the evening, I met up with my Avignon hosts, Stephane and Claire, who informed me that they would be going down to the sea for a beach party the following day and that I was invited. I'm going to say no to that? We were joined by their friends Timothee and Max, two of the nicest people, French or otherwise, I've ever met. I like the French! You bigoted Americans don't know what you're missing. I know they seem standoffish at first, but once they figure out that you're not going to bite their heads off and shove bullshit down their exposed, gaping throats, they become the sweetest people you'll ever meet other than the Japanese (which they remind me of a little). Actually, we didn't go to the beach with Stephane and Claire. They left early to set up the generator and sound system (cool, eh?). Timothee, Max, and I were picked up and driven down the shore instead by Francois (I don't know if I am spelling these names correctly, nor where the accents or hooks go), another sweetest guy I've ever met. At the beach itself, I can't say I felt the most welcomed in my life, even though most of the youths there spoke English. It's funny how an ample supply of beer and wine makes that irrelevant, though. And, yet again, I found myself dancing into the early hours of the morning--at two parties, actually, since I crashed the one next door when we ran out of beer (and met another couchsurfer there!). How do these things keep happening to me? At one point, during a moment of particularly high excitement, I jumped onto Max (a tall guy) who happily followed up by swinging me around in circles until I felt pukey. Things died down around 3 am, and it was then that I realized I had nowhere to sleep; everyone else had brought tents. Stephane had lent me a sleeping bag, however, and I prudently purchased a foam mat at the (mouth watering) hypermarket we'd visited the night before, so I curled up and passed out happily in the music tent.

Waking early, Francois, Timothee, Max, and I dirtily trundled our way back to Avignon, where I had to egress from Stephane and Claire's (most awesome I've ever seen, old city) apartment due to mechanical troubles with someone's van at the party, an early morning the next day for Stephane and Claire, etc. So tonight I am once again (gasp!) *paying* for accommodation at the local hostel. It's so crude that some people actually expect you to pay money to stay with them, wouldn't you say?

20 June 2008

Foutu en France

In Europe, trains are never late. Except when I'm on one. So my train from Milan to Lyons, my high-speed pride-of-France TGV train, had engine trouble and was quite a bit late, and I missed my connected to Avignon. The SNCF staff were courteous and professional about it, though, and arranged for we who missed the connection, first a ride on a different train to Valence, then a shuttle bus from the Valence TGV station to the central station, then after a considerable wait during which I found a Turkish snack stall still open at midnight, a charter bus to Avignon, where I arrived at around 2:30 am with no clue what to do, my hosts there having had already to go, understandably, to bed. So I walked across the city to a hostel listed in my Lonely Planet. It was closed. I walked back to the train station. It too was closed. So I dropped my backpack to the ground, dropped my ass down next to it, and attempted to sleep on the pavement while the deafening chatter of construction work went on only 50 meters away. Luckily (luckily?), the station finally did open after 4 am, so I was able to park myself on an uncomfortable seat and sleep for a few hours with my face planted in my bag. At around 6 am, I roused myself and went out in search of coffee, for which I wounded up paying, in my delirium, 6.75VCU. I will say more about the sights and whatnot later after I've seen more of them. So far, I've only managed to tour the Palais du Papes, but Avignon is quite beautiful, and I imagine the rest of my time here will more than make up for last night's misfortune, which I should have expected after my "evil eye" bracelet from Turkey broke in the train. And I was really hoping last Friday the 13th would be the end of my misadventures. But this is traveling for real, my friends. No last minute 89 euro hotels for me when a nice, comfy parking lot is available for free. Funny that a beggar still asked me for money. How could I possibly have looked as though I actually had any? Pardon, mais je ne comprend pas le Français!

18 June 2008

Po' in the Po Valley

You last left your intrepid hero in the bowels of the former, as Oprah would have put it, "You go, Slavia!" But finally, from behind ye olde iron curtain, I have been crapped back into Western Europe. I thought I heard this on the overnight train from Ljubljana to Venice, but perhaps it was only my imagination:

"You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sightseeing and the sound of tourists but of mindless football fans; a journey into an overpriced land whose boundaries are that of the Schengen Agreement — next stop, the Euro Zone."

I was surprised to find that European trains are *less* comfortable than Indian ones. I wonder who the genius was that designed all the blocks of seats to face one another so not only do you constantly bump your knees against the other passengers, but you have to stare at their ugly faces for hours.

I arrived in Milan midmorning some days ago but had to wait until the evening to meet my host here, the charming and dashing Lorenzo. So I left my bags at the luggage room and tooled into the heart of one first Italian city in nine years. While Milan has a reputation for being unattractive, I think it's pretty enough, at least in the center. I walked past La Scala, where it's always been my dream to see an opera. "La Traviata" was on last night, in fact, but I was too busy getting drunk in the park outside the second night of Radiohead (more on that anon). As far as sights go--I saw few since I am now totally uninterested in them--I have to admit I was impressed with the duomo here, a ginormous white pile of towers, statues, buttresses, and even flying buttresses. But forget all that, because the coolest thing about it is you can go up onto the roof! Not just to the top of a tower, but actually ONTO the roof! Can you do that anywhere else? I've been to many cathedrals but none that permitted access there. As you can tell, I was delighted. See, some things still impress me. After that, I briefly met Raffaella, who, due to a miscommunication, biked halfway across the city to get a concert ticket from me that she mistakenly thought I had. Sorry, Rafaella! After that, after that, I randomly stumbled across a Peter Greenaway installation art exhibit presentation thing featuring Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper". This was pretty cool, too--Greenaway, in a departure from his usual pissing Cupid weirdness, uses special lighting and a soundtrack of mystique to explore and bring alive the painting, printed in large scale on a wall, in interesting and unusual ways. I felt after seeing it that I probably had a better experience of the famous painting than if I had actually gotten an appointment for the real one. I think I spent the rest of that day drinking coffee (LOVE IT here), eating pizza (still better in New Jersey), and wandering idly as is my custom. In the evening I met up with Lorenzo, and he was kind enough to cook risotto basilico for me. Yum.

The following day, I somewhat stupidly took a day trip to Verona, two hours away by train. But I had wanted to stop there--nothing could keep me away from the House of Juliet (I'm not joking). Also, I was supposed to stay with a man there named Sauro, who I kept changing my plans on. In the end, he was gracious about that, being a traveler himself, and still met up with me there for a brief tour and explanation about how the Church still owns the country. I skipped the Roman amphitheater on his recommendation (unusual behavior for me, but perhaps the Italians have had enough of Roman amphitheaters? they were preparing to perform "Aida" in this one), but I did pay too much money to visit the ridiculous House of Juliet and have my photo taken on the balcony. How could I possibly resist that? Beneath the balcony, there is even a bronze statue of Ms. Capulet. The famous photo most people (men) have taken there is of themselves holding her tit. I so wanted to ask them how they felt about doing that to a barely pubescent girl (Juliet was probably 12 or 13), in mid-photo naturally. But I did not.

In every way, Verona is a spectacularly beautiful city, perhaps one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. These Italian cities really are too much for me. They are just too attractive. I can't imagine living in such a place. Ah... sigh. Enough. Hightailing it back to Milan, I arrived in time for a major downpour. You may recall that I bought four tickets to a Radiohead concert here, hoping I might sell three of them in order to make some money, at least enough to pay for mine. These tickets were quite expensive, as was the cost of shipping and handling from the UK to the US and shipping again from the US to Italy. I thought I was so clever because, naturally, these tickets would be in high demand given the stature of this, my favorite band. There was, unfortunately, a certain football factor, other even than the rain and the presence of mafia selling their own tickets, that I could not have anticipated and because of which I cannot even bear to disclose the sad outcome of my little enterprise:


Truly, my friends, I had no chance. What can one do when the universe is so aligned against you? I went in and enjoyed the concert anyway with Raffaella (who bought one ticket at my cost) and some other Couchsurfers. Que sera la vie.

The next day, since most people selling tickets for my show couldn't even give them away, I had the bright idea of going to the second show. Unfortunately (for my plan), it turned out to be a gorgeous day with no football, and the scalpers had no mercy, even after the show started. Nevertheless, I *still* had a great time hanging out with a bunch of even more couchsurfers and miscellanious Italians on the grass outside, listening for free and getting completely drunk. This morning, no hangover.

Sadly, I did not make it to CERN. My tour was cancelled, and they couldn't guarantee me a spot for the following day, so I opted not to waste time, money, and my own dwindling energy going up to Switzerland. No matter, today I am off to Avignon. Ciao!

15 June 2008

This is Illyria, lady.

Given the cost of Internet in Euroland, my posts may start becoming more perfunctory, unless I am writing from a host's computer, which today I am not.

So. I think I said I would say something about Albania. It's probably not as bad as you think... how about that? It looks pretty much like everywhere else. The women are exceptionally beautiful, something I appreciated when I crossed into Montenegro, where, decidedly, they are not. I had a great time hanging out with Teni. He told me all about Albanian history and had some interesting opinions about things. Albanians believe themselves to be the descendants of the ancient Illyrians, who occupied what is now the former Yugoslavia in ancient times (I just wrote "is now the former Yugoslavia"... is that an anachronism or prolepticism?). Teni told me that what most Grecians, who think ill of Albania, don't know or refuse to believe is that they are actually Albanians themselves. Sounds pretty typical! Naturally, we went bar hopping in the evening and got drunk. I am starting to wonder if Europe isn't just a place where people are always either in cafes or bars and most likely watching football. Such a decadent place. At one point, I went down to a grassy bit next to the "river" (which looks like a sewage ditch) and attempted to show Teni the head stand yoga position. I failed. Later, I noticed that all my Albanian lekes fell out of my pocket in the process. The next morning, I went back, found them, and bought breakfast.

Crossing the former Yugoslavia was a bit grueling. I first took a minibus from Tirana to Shkroder, a town in the north of the country. I think that's how it's spelled. From there, I had to take another bus across the border itself into the world's second newest country, Montenegro. Montenegro is SLC wedged in between about five other SLCs. I had to bus-hop from town to town to make my way across it. Despite its size, this took all day. At one point, I met a Montenegrin from Chicago who said he works for Bank of America and is the President of the American Society of Montenegro or something. He was wearing a nice suit, so I believed him. He also told me how much the Montenegrins hate Serbs and Croats. Some VIPs showed up later, including a religious figure in appropriate apparel. I ended up around midnight in a place called Herci Novi or something, a town, like every other town in Montenegro, with a castle, a historic center, and a bunch of bars. I had intended on staying in Kotor, which has Europe's southernmost fjord (and, I suppose, a good alternative place to visit if you can't a-fjord Scandinavia haha), but the bus attendant told me I was better off going on to the end of the line. I hate him now, because I couldn't find any cheap rooms in Herci Novi and ended up paying a budget slaughtering 38 euros for a shitty hotel room that including a shitty breakfast that was mostly meat (I gave it up again because it was sickening me). I'm glad I didn't sleep outside, though, as I thought I might, because there was torrential rain, most of which leaked through the window into my shitty hotel room.

In the morning, I learned what I was about to face in Croatia when I had to pay an extra 2VCU to store my bags in the luggage compartment of the bus to Dubrovnik. Bastards! Upon arrival in Dubrovnik, I immediately set out to visit the old town (one of these days, I *will* get sick of old towns), which was once known as Ragusa and was a major rival to Venice during the Renaissance. Well, Dubrovnik turned out to be the ultimate overpriced FTT. It is very pretty but just completely overrun with camera-toting bus people (and cruise linering boat people). One saving grace were the city walls. I love walking around old city walls. Dubrovnik's are particularly well-preserved and from on top of them you get some lovely views of the expensive cafes.

After a few hours in Dubrovnik, I split for Split (Spalato in Italian), just barely missing the early bus because of traffic and resigned to the somewhat later bus, which deposited me in Split around 8 pm. So, I had two hours (until 10 pm, when the bus station luggage room closed) to visit the awesome remains of Diocletian's palace, most of which has been converted into a series of, you guessed it, overpriced bars and cafes for decadent Europeans to waste their money and lives watching football. Still, the palace is impressive, and I was lucky that the cavernous basement was still open. I've never seen a Roman ruin of such grandeur before, mostly because none of them are left. But this place, in its beautiful hugeness, is special, and I hope someday to go back when I'm not rushing across the Balkans like an idiot who can't plan trips.

At 11 pm, I caught another bus to Zagreb, the last place I wanted to go. But there was no other choice. I paid for a piss, I paid to store my bags on the bus, and off I went on an uncomfortable, mostly sleepless journey to the capital of Croatia. I arrived in the early morning and went to the information desk to ask about onward buses to Ljubljana. I was told in Dubrovnik and Split that I'd easily be able to get one and that they depart every half hour. The information lady, naturally, told me there's only one per day at 2 pm. Groan. What about a train? She didn't know. This is a problem in Croatia. The information people don't know anything about other cities. In Dubrovnik, nobody knew about buses out of Split. In Split, no one could tell me about onward transport from Zagreb. I think they should rename them "misinformation offices" and put a lowercase 'm' inside of a circle, instead of an 'i'. The lady in Zagreb was unfriendly, too, as were many people I had to deal with there. Anyway, I wandered in a 5 am daze around the city, looking for the train station, to which I kept being misdirected. I found a nice man who couldn't speak English but whose German I could just barely comprehend, and we went to the station together, since he was on his way to Belgrade. Luckily, thank you travel gods, there was a 7:50 am train to Ljubljana, Slovenia, and this I took, and now there I am.

My host here, Tamara, happens to work at the "hippest" youth hostel in town and, apparently, one of the 25 top places to stay in the world. It's a converted prison in which the rooms are former cells, each one renovated in a unique "hip" style by a different "hip" designer. It is a pretty cool place as hip youth hostels go, but at 19 euros a night, not a place I would deign to stay if I could avoid it. I have to say, too, that it bears out Ljubljana native Slavoj Zizek's observation that the relics of the Communist era have, in a strange way, become fetishized emblems of "the good old days" of Communism today (strange because of the brutality of the Communist system; you don't see this sort of thing happen with the remains of Nazism, for example)--so it is natural that a prison would be converted into a hotel. The current prime minister of Slovenia was even held here once, and he and his fellow inmate-comrades recently came to the hotel for an anniversary luncheon. I didn't see much of the city this first day, because I was tired and it was raining, but I did find one of Zizek's no doubt many offices in the Faculty of Philosophy building (he did *not* magically appear and sign my book, though), and I visited the "castle" (not so impressive). Ljubljana has been compared to Vienna, and I guess I can accept that. It is a little bit like Vienna on a small scale, with many pretty buildings, fountains, a river, and so forth. And, of course, bars--to one of which Tamara, a friend of hers, and I repaired when her shift at the hostel ended. There followed the usual drinking and dancing until 4 am (how do I keep letting myself get talked into these things?) after which Tamara and I went back to her place and slept until noon. Today, I meandered around the old town part of the city a little bit more, visited the city museum, and had the best falafel of my life at a little restaurant operated by a Palestinian. We had a nice chat, and then he charged me 3 euro each for two pieces of baklava. I paid, picked my eyes up off the floor, and went off to write this blog entry. Tonight, I'm overnighting it by train to Milan via Venice (groan again).

So much for perfunctory...

11 June 2008

A Grecian Tragedy

Friends, I am ashamed of myself. I have betrayed not only my calling and good sense but also the cause of backpackers around the world. Do you remember when I said that I could easily lie to get into the Acropolis for free as a "European" student? I just couldn't bring myself to do it... and the travel gods have punished me. Oh, I got my look at the most famous monument of Western Civilization five years after the first time I saw it--and it looks more or less the same--but I paid a high cost, higher than the 9VCU entrance tariff.

The following day, I finally got around to buying a bus ticket to Tirana, Albania. Beforehand, I had lunch with John Coleman, the Cornell archaeologist I worked for briefly in 2003, and his wife, Laura. I had a great time seeing them again. John just finished teaching only one of two courses in the history and philosophy of atheism in the United States, which courageous act earned him the ire of many of his enlightened Ivy League colleagues. I doubt he cares much, though, because he's just retired and he and Laura will be building a house in Greece (of course I plan to visit). Oh yes, I had a great ole time, until I went back to Lena's place and 1) discovered one of my three pairs of high performance underwear missing, 2) with only minutes to pack and rush to the bus station, accidentally locked the keys to my backpack inside my backpack... for the second time this trip (scroll back to my first Mumbai post), and 3) on arrival in Tirana, found that I had also left my shampoo and beloved shower poof ("loofah") at Lena's apartment. I have learned my lesson, friends, and will not be telling the truth any longer where my integrity as a scum of the Earth traveler is concerned. Clearly, it angers the powers above.

Despite these mishaps, I at least made it to Tirana. The bus ride took about 16 hours, with a nice 3 am border crossing to keep me on my toes. To gain ingress to Albania, I was charged the princely sum of 1 euro at the border, what for I can only guess. My Lonely Planet said I would have to pay 10, so at least one pleasant surprise was intermingled among the bad news of the day. I was met in Tirana by Irena, a kind Albanian I contacted through the Couchsurfing website. By the way, if you want more information about this whole couchsurfing thing, here is a video report on it from Business Week magazine: http://feedroom.businessweek.com/index.jsp?fr_story=f265eaf6c3ab4de95757e228d778f6851e82fcfc

Anyway, Irena met me and right away we bumped into her friend Tani, the guy with whom I spent most of the day. They brought me to a kind of apartment homestay--really nice place. The young woman there, when I asked the price, said 10 dollars or 10 euros. I said, "Really? Or?" She said, "...yes." "Really? Don't you know they're different?" "It's OK. You decide." Luckily, I had VCUs on me and paid her with that, my currency of choice, but only because I am loyal to my country and prefer using its products and finance instruments whenever possible. The punchline is, as I was later informed, she's studying economics. But, as I was also informed, Albanians, once they say something, don't like to contradict themselves. Certainly works for me. I will have more to say about Albania in my next post. Tani showed me around the city, which looks typical enough, but he, Irena, and I will spend more time together after the nap I'm supposed to be taking, and now will go and take, right now.

08 June 2008

All Rhodes lead to Athens

Like a Rhodes Scholar, I left dusty Rhodes (having accomplished my goal of visiting Rhodes not taken) and sailed to Athens. More precisely, since I didn't do any of the sailing (and the ferry was not wind-powered), I boarded the jumbo Blue Star ship "Diagoros" which cruised smoothly to Piraeus, the port of Athens (now and 2500 years ago). The classic way of traveling by ferry in Greece is to find a quiet corner in one of the lounges and set up a little camp. The ferries are enormous and quite plush, so comfort is not an issue. I even managed to take a shower. Luckily, June is not quite high season in Hellas, so the ferry was practically, for its size, empty, and I had an entire couch to myself. I slept happily for much of the 17 hour journey and read "Gulliver's Travels" the rest of the time. I did not throw up.

On arrival at Piraeus, I boarded the convenient metro to Ano Patisia station, from which I walked to the apartment of Lena, my Grecian Athenian host, who seems to have hosted most of the global couchsurfing community (or is currently). She wasn't home, so I was let in by Michelle, a Brooklynite also staying here. And I met Michael, an American (Baltimore) classicist-linguist-archaeologist (he calls himself a "Mycenologist" but you don't know what that means, do you, readers?) who explained to me--and I was eager to listen--the precise etymological reason why the Grecian words "zoe" (life, as in zoology) and "bios" (life, as in biology) are really the same word. Cool stuff, I warrant you. After lounging around waxing philolinguically for awhile, I set out for the National Archaeological Museum, my putative only reason for bothering to come to Athens again (which, I admit, I like better this time around--it's nice to be in a country for once where I can at least say "please" and "thank you" and where I even have a fighting chance at being able to read things). I spent about six hours there and was blown away by much of what I saw: almost the first thing was the famous gold mask called (erroneously) by Heinrich Schliemann (he got around) the mask of Agamemnon. I have to say, however, in all honesty, that the museum's collection is, judiciously speaking, not very good. Unfortunately for Greece, most of its signature archaeological treasures have been looted by Europeans. What remains are the remains, what has been donated, and recent finds (some of which are certainly impressive). The museum feels a bit empty, though the exhibits are well labeled, and the museum as a whole presents a decent overview of the history of Grecian art and sculpture--when it isn't being Hellenocentric, that is, and suggesting the natural and obvious superiority of everything Grecian (as in "My Big Fat Greek (sic) Wedding").

I got a student discount, of course, though I have discovered that EU students get into all these attractions for *free*. They always ask me where I am from, and I have become tempted to start lying, much as it pains me (while I readily tell untruths, I do not like to lie). I started back to Lena's place but ran into her outside the metro station and therefore turned right back around to head to the beach (she's a fun lady) to join a couchsurfing party in progress. Once again, and not at my expense, I got trashed. We finally made it back (note the lacuna) to the apartment after 4 am, covered in sand, and Lena, myself, and her son all collapsed in his room. Today, I woke up late, walked around the Acropolis, and sat down to finish Gulliver's Travels. Plaka, the historic part of Athens, is still a FTT. Ah, just as I remember it. Tonight, I'm going to *another* CS party.

I like these Grecians.

06 June 2008

Death Drive

The title of this post refers to the Freudian concept by which the very pursuit of (and failure to obtain) something--a desire--becomes itself the basic function of life's continuance. For example, I travel, theoretically anyway, in order to reach destinations. And yet, as soon as I reach a destination, I am already looking forward to the next destination (or looking forward to remembering it? like sexual intercourse?). I never actually "arrive" anywhere (psychologically, anyway). There is no satisfaction. My drive to travel just continues to circulate, endlessly, around the unachievable goal. If I were to achieve it, I suppose I would cease to exist, since that would mean cancelling out the mode of my existence (that is, my personality). I think this must be the case, because there is no other explanation for what keeps propelling me forward on this ridiculous and ever more ridiculous adventure. To wit...

Umit bid me farewell two mornings ago at the Turgutreis port. A little over an hour later, I was stepping once again onto Grecian terra firma--the tiny "party island" of Kos. Having no intention to stay there any longer than necessary, I quickly purchased a ticket to Rhodes departing the same day at 4:30 pm. Unfortunately, only the high-speed option was available, so the ticket cost me (spit take) €30. Fortunately, I had enough time to check out this island. Much to my delight, there were ruins. I like ruins, you understand. They remind me of life's fragility. Ha ha, no they don't! That's stupid! I just can't get over the fact that entire societies existed in the same space we occupy before us and that things from them remain, things from which we try so hard to draw continuities to ourselves, however much they persist in being completely different in ways we cannot fathom. And they're picturesque. I was in luck on Kos, because, as I mentioned, it was the home of Hippocrates, father of medicine, and a few sites there were connected with him. First of all, there is a large plane tree (not looking so good, actually--seems to have been split in half by Zeus's lightning or something) that the Grecians claim is the exact same tree beneath which the old man used to teach his students. Believe it? I really, really don't. What is with people? Do they just *want* to believe stupid shit like that? I took a photo, of course, and even bought two Hippocrates statues from one of the ubiquitous souvenir vendors for my doctors back home (they've earned them). Being from the vicinity of the magic tree, I assume they will have some kind of supernatural palliative power. A 4 km walk from Kos town ("You can't walk!" they told me) are the ruins of the Asclepion, once an important temple sanctuary dedicated to the eponymous god of healing, where doctors would pray in their dreams to the god for healing and, presumably, healing powers (today, doctors just worship their medical equipment and computers). I managed to hitch a ride back to town with a nice German couple (the other option was the Disneyland-esque tourist tram, on which I WOULD NOT BE CAUGHT DEAD). You see, it's important when traveling, and makes life much easier, to learn the local language, which, in Greece, is German.

Having a bit of time left, I decided to try one of my old Grecian favorites at one of the rip-off tourist restaurants near the port: saganaki. Usually, this is a generous portion of cheese doused in liquor which is then set on fire at your table. I got a small slab of breaded cheese with no liquor that cost 6 verdant currency units (my new name for the once-almighty, now third-world American "dollar"). I frowned. I relaxed, because I had everything planned out and was quite pleased to have accomplished all that I set out to do. You see, my friends, I've been traveling for such a long time--and not just this trip--that I rather pride myself, humble person though I am, on being quite an expert at this business and on being diligent, thorough, punctual, and detail-oriented. Despite this, I STILL MISSED THE FUCKING FERRY!!! By about 5 minutes, I think. Why? Because I had set my clock slow when I should have set it fast. Ah, what could I do? At least get a refund, right? The woman at the travel agency was well amused by this suggestion. So instead, I had to settle for the slow (and cheaper) ferry departing the next morning at 5:30 am. My original option had been for one of these two boats, and I opted to save time rather than money. Little did I know that I'd end up buying both. Tip: buy your ticket at the port just before you leave, rather than in advance. Plans can change and idiocy often intervenes ("idiot" is a Grecian word, by the way).

Stuck on Kos for the night, I figured I should punish myself by sleeping outside. I considered this but also considered that I'd be eaten alive by mosquitoes. So I wandered, asking people where I could find a cheap room. On most Grecian islands, people rent rooms in their houses to travelers and line up to hawk them at the port whenever a ferry arrives. I found a good neighborhood for this and went into the first "Rooms available" place I passed. "How much?" I wondered. The affable lady in charge said €20. I frowned again and said I could pay €10 and no more. This excited her. Then she whispered to me that her mandatory German guests were paying €20, but if I didn't say anything, I could pay €15. I said no. She said, "OK, €14." I said, "I'll come back later." She got more excited. And then relented. Score! She has no idea what I've been through--forged in the fire of India, I am. But she made me swear I wouldn't tell the Germans. "I'm American, lady," I said, "I don't tell the Germans anything." The next morning, after an anxious, sleepless night, I made it to the ferry on time...

...only to be stopped by the police on arrival at Rhodes. I must look suspicious, with my beard, sunglasses, giant backpack, traveling alone. A plainclothes detective pulled me aside and made me wait with a group of miscellanious Europeans while they checked my passport. I reckoned that the other guys were Albanians or something. When I saw one of them emerge from around the corner of the police station with the detective, the latter removing from his hand a rubber glove, I grew a little bit tense. But they let me go without violating my privacy after their cute drug sniffer failed to find the dope. I left my backpack at the port and strategically did NOT buy a ticket for Athens, that ferry leaving at 6 pm. Instead, I hopped on a bus to the south of island. Two hours later, I was standing at the turn-off to the tiny village of Askleipieo, birthplace of my friend Alex Pappas's father. I figured I would visit for kicks, and I hoped something "ethnic" might happen to me. Sadly, Alex's relatives are all either dead, gone to Athens, or (like him) gone to America. Only one woman, a cousin, was left in the emigration-depleted village, and she wasn't home. The old guys at the cafe who helped me find her house offered to buy me coffee (ethnic experience here I come!), but, as usual, I was in a rush to get back to Rhodes town so I could catch the ferry to Athens, which, naturally, I missed. So once again I was off in search of a cheap room. When I finally found some rooms, the lady's starting price was €30. The first room she showed me was not bad: it only had two used condoms and a full ashtray on the nightstand, but was otherwise clean and comfortable. Registering my trauma, the lady quickly ushered me into another room, this one with an attached bathroom. "How much?" I queried. "How much do you want to pay?" she fired back. "€10," I answered truthfully. And she became even more upset than the Kos lady, telling me how it's impossible to find a room for such a low price. Uh huh. I've got two words for you, lady: off season. She offered €20. I said €10. She suggested €15. I thought about this and told her I'd think about it and come back later (works every time, my friends). She got a little panicky and said, OK, I could have the condom room for €10. Although I was disgusted, I figured this counted as a reasonable settlement, and I agreed. BUT. I slept in the single bed, not the double (ewww). This ruthlessness tactic seems to work best in the evening, when people are desperate to have anyone stay. The poor old lady kept her sweet demeanor, but I could tell she was quite vexed, and her negotiating certainly had its share of complaints and pleas. I am, however, homeless, jobless, and almost broke. Do you see the red halo around my pupils, growing thicker every day since I landed in Beijing? I have no mercy. When I saw the posted price for my crappy little room on the door (€50!), I felt even the opposite of pity. What goes around comes around, my friends, especially on this exploitative ball of shit and grief we call the Earth.

On day two at Rhodes, today, I explored the old town, which has the finest surviving medieval fortifications in the world and also the most tourist shops and restaurants per square foot. But I was glad I stuck around, because they really are spectacular fortifications. I started my day at the Castle of the Knights, restored by Mussolini but never used as his holiday home. Inside there was nothing to see, but I enjoyed the chance to wander around spacious medieval Halls that were once the principal stomping ground of the fabled Knights of St. John (oh wait, they aren't fabled, they're still a nation-state, remember?). I got there early enough to avoid the tourist groups, too, which made me happy. After that, I checked out the medieval buildings on the nearby Odos Hippoton, or Street of the Knights, and then walked out of the old city to visit the alleged site of the Colossus of Rhodes (not to be confused with my friend Alex Pappas), which could not possibly have stood astride the harbor, but did grant the island a +1 bonus to trade. And I spent the rest of the day as I always do in such places: gawking, walking at the pace of a dead march, and avoiding touts. My student card got me mega discounts everywhere, so I even got to see some sites (in addition to the castle, the archaeological museum), which would otherwise have cost me 15VCU each. One nice thing you can do is walk along the bottom of the old moat (it's dry and grassy now so you don't drown). I did this.

And now I must go again. My ship sails for Piraeus at 3 pm, and it's now 2:20. I don't want to push my luck again. The journey to the mainland takes 17 hours, during which time I will probably find repose only by squeezing myself onto the floor between the seats or sleeping with the motley herd of other backpackers on the deck. Truly, though, my way is the only way to travel.

03 June 2008

Allah Akhbar!

I forgot to mention: after reading the entire Quran, I converted to Islam:

Bicentennial Man

If you would like to view Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper", I believe there are a few reservation slots available in August and September. Otherwise, like me, you are S.O.L. Who would have thought (and I wish I'd thought of it sooner) you'd need to book in advance to look at one painting? Thanks, Dan Brown.

Friends, this is my 200th post! I think it unlikely that I'll make it to 300, though. I am finding less and less time these days to post. When I stay with people, as I've been doing consecutively since I left India, I try not to spend so much time on their computers. Also, travel fatigue is slowly transmuting into travel exhaustion. I recommend new readers to go back and read my blog from the beginning. Long-term readers (both of you), hang in there. We've traveled this together far on a long and winding road.

I have, for the past few days, been at the lovely seaside home of a woman with the unlikely name of Umit Ferguson--well, she married an American! Umit has just been couchsurfing herself in Greece, and I always love to catch hosts when they're recently back from being hosted, because they are that much more tolerant of guests. Those of you who know me well can vouch for how much toleration is required. Umit's house is on a hillside overlooking the Aegean Sea. My room (the best room) is on the top floor of the house; it's all windows, and I have the best view. Why? She is also the author of a Turkish cookbook and keeps insisting that I eat her food, which I keep failing to refuse. The town they live in is about 30 km from Bodrum and is a bit of a resort but is relaxed enough (Bodrum itself is god-awful touristy) and has that Greek-style "Electric Light" Seamus Heaney wrote about. From here, I can even see the Greek island of Kos, to which I am headed later this morning. I should warn you that, in the spirit of accordance with the "King's English", I fully intend, from hereonin, to refer to the people of Hellas, a la W. Bush, as "Grecians." We should be so lucky he didn't call the people of *this* country "Turkeys!"

Yesterday, I went into Bodrum proper to get a lay of the land. Bodrum was known in ancient times as Halicarnassus, site of the famous Seven Wonders of the World member the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. The word Mausoleum comes from the name of the king, Mausolus, who built it for himself. Hence, my final resting place shall be called the Syrekeum. Vegetarian burnt offerings only, please. Umit's husband, Jim, told me not to bother visiting the Mausoleum because there's nothing left of it except a giant pit in the ground. As if that would deter me! When I went, I was a little bit disappointed to see that there's nothing left of the Mausoleum except a giant pit in the ground that costs $4 to look at. At least the not quite overwhelming Museum of Underwater Archaeology housed in the former castle of the Knights of St. John let me in for free--finally Turkey recognizes my "student" status! Afterward, with nothing else to do, I went to the cinema, where a film I could only identify as "kung-fu movie starring Jet Li and Jackie Chan" was about to start; well, it certainly sounded like the kind of thing I would like...

I couldn't get a direct ferry to Rhodes from Bodrum or the town I am staying in, Turgutreis, so I must instead go to Kos, birthplace of Hippocrates, the father of medicine, and then transfer. And that is what I'll be doing today. I am excited just thinking about the next and last two months of my trip: since Obama has clinched the nomination, I won't be bothered anymore by people asking me who I support. Wish me godspeed, my friends, as I enter that wicked and unfriendly place Americans most fear to tread: the Eurozone.

Farewell, Turkey, I hardly knew ye!

01 June 2008


Warnıng: thıs post suffers from dotless 'ı' syndrome.

I love vısıtıng ruıns, as many of you doubtless are aware. But I've seen so many ruıns ın the past few days, I thınk I *am* a ruın. Fırst: Troy. When you've been enthralled by ancıent hıstory sınce you stıll had baby teeth, there ıs a certaın amount of heıghtened sentımentalıty that accompanıes a vısıt to Troy, THE archaeologıcal sıte, the archaeologıcal sıte par excellence. But I had to take a long bus rıde to get there.. have I mentıoned yet that my lıfe lately seems to be a hell of bus statıons? I have certaınly felt ıt. Other people have memorıes of travel that ınvolve lazy, ıntoxıcated days on beautıful, palm-frınged beaches; or gorgeous hotel lobbıes fılled wıth the concourse of gorgeous, prosperous people all lookıng for a score of one sort or another; or multıday adventures whackıng through jungles, hıgh-peakıng ın mountaın ranges, raftıng down ragıng rıvers, etc. For me, ıt's one smelly, chaotıc, overprıced bus statıon after another as I drag myself across Asıa's smılıng face (and I don't trust that smıle). Stıll jealous? OK enough complaınıng...

Back to the story. It took about sıx hours to get from İstanbul to Çanakkale, the base town for vısıts to Troy. We traveled vıa Gallıpolı, known to my heart as the Hellespont and to Australıans as the sıte of Peter Weır's early Mel Gıbson fılm "Gallıpolı" ın whıch a bunch of them (not Gıbson) get kılled for followıng the barmy orders of the jackass Poms. In my ımagınatıon, I had the followıng conversatıon wıth a local:

Me: Excuse me, but I am lookıng for Aıgospotomoı. Do you know where ıt ıs?

Local: What?

Me: Aıgospotomoı. It's the sıte of a famous battle that took place between Athens and Sparta durıng the Peloponnesıan War.

Local: What?

Me: It's a beach somewhere near the Hellespo.. uh Gallıpo.. uh Gelibolu.

Local: What?

Me: Never mınd. I'll fınd ıt myself.

Local: What?

From Çanakkale, I took a mınıbus to Truva, Troy, and suddenly there ıt was, the Bronze Age tel of my dreams. And busloads of Japanese tourısts, who I am usually delıghted to see. Thıs tıme I wanted to kıll them. Out front of the sıte proper ıs a gıant Trojan Horse for ıdıots to use ın funny photos. At the sıte ıtself, there really ısn't much to see, but you can gaze through the gıant trench the German amateur excavator Heınrıch Schlıemann moronıcally gashed through the mound at the vast plaın of the Troad and ımagıne Brad Pıtt stormıng hıs way across ıt to the gates (Run!).

I stayed that evenıng at Emre's place. Great guy. He had a date so I spent the evenıng, courtesy of hıs recommendatıon, fınally seeıng the new Indıana Jones movıe ın Englısh. For some reason, I could do thıs ın a country town but not İstanbul.

The next day, I left early for Bergama, another sıx hours away, another ruın, thıs one of the ancıent Pergamene cıty of... Pergamum (note the homology). Even more than Troy, I wanted to vısıt thıs cıty. I don't have a very good reason. Basıcally, ıt was ındependent for several centurıes after beıng conquered by Alexander and passed off to one of hıs generals and then the last kıng, Attalus I thınk, bequeathed ıt to the Roman Empıre ın hıs wıll. I never heard of such a thıng! Attalus: "I, Attalus, beıng of sound mınd, do hereby leave my kıngdom to the Romans." Servant: "Uh, sıre, are you really allowed to do that?" Attalus: "Sılence!" Anyway, I was stunned by Pergamum, blown away and amazed ın every way by how much the taxı drıvers wanted to take me there. I dıd get away wıth a decent prıce, but I have to say, Turkey ıs draınıng my money, even though I've been reduced to lıvıng on tea and bakery goods. Pergamum ıs famous for ıts hıgh Acropolıs, and ıt does loom quıte powerfully over the modern town of Bergama. I loved ıt. I thınk ıt's got a good chance to be one of the hıghlıghts of my trıp to Turkey. Not to mentıon the locatıon wıth ıts great vıews, not to mentıon the excellent theater carved ınto the top of the hıghest peak ın the area, and not to mentıon the decent state of preservatıon of the prıncıpal monuments at the very top, Pergamum ıs just enormous, and the remaıns of the lower cıty stretch from the top all the way down the back of the slopıng Acropolıs hıll to the bottom--where no tour groups go! You just follow the blue dots, and all to yourself you get streets, ancıent housıng, bathhouses, vıllas, mosaıcs, gymnasıums, and more toppled columns than a young boy (at heart) could know what to do wıth!

I thought the only place that could top Pergamum would be Ephesus. I left Bergama the same day I arrıved and reached ın the evenıng a cıty called Aydın, where I was met by Raşit, my next host. Serıously, people, there ıs no reason to pay for accomodatıon anymore! Today, I fınally dıd set out for Ephesus. When I arrıved, I had company: more tour groups than I'd yet seen anywhere ın Turkey. Ugh. To be sure, Ephesus ıs a nıce sıte. But ıt ıs by no means spectacular, UNESCO status notwıthstandıng. There's a gıant theater, a nıce lıbrary façade, and some partıally restored buıldıngs, but so much of ıt ıs closed off or just clogged, lıke a toılet at an Indıan bus statıon, wıth the shıt of humanıty that I found ıt hard to enjoy. Nearby the cıty ıtself are the mınımal remaıns of the Artemesıum, the great temple to Artemıs that was once one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancıent World (check!) and allegedly burned down the nıght of Alexander the Great's bırth (belıeve ıt...?). Above that are the remaıns of a basılıca allegedly buılt over the grave of St. John the Evangelıst (belıeve ıt...?). Lots of credulıty to go around ın Ephesus (they even have a cave where seven people slept for four hundred years or somethıng, and the house where the Vırgın Mary spent the last years of her lıfe or somethıng, but, havıng had enough Bıblıcal bullshıt ın the Holy Land, I opted not to vısıt). I thought about vısıtıng Mıletus, home of the Mılesıan pre-Socratıc phılosophıcal school, but fıgured ıt would be better not to rush thıngs. So I came back to Aydın to wrıte thıs post ınstead. Tomorrow, I wıll probably go to Bodrum and then, soon after, saıl off to Rhodes. And that's all for now. Thanks for readıng, readers.