Friday, April 29, 2011

Passing Frontiers

I made it into Zagreb, Croatia yesterday afternoon after a 3 hour train ride from Ljubljana. Just to fill all of you in, I left Germany Easter Sunday; got a ride with a girl driving from Freiburg to Munich, then caught a night bus from Munich to Maribor, Slovenia. I had perhaps one of my best couch surfing experiences ever in Maribor. The guy I stayed with lived out in the hills outside Maribor and had a wine cellar fully stocked with his Dad's wine from his vineyard down the road.

Swing Dancers in Ljubljana. My host is the Zoran, on the bottom left.
One observation I've had so far about southeast Europe is that there is a constant theme of "frontiers". Every country sees themselves as on the eastern frontier of Eruope. Germany thinks that it's carrying the burden of the West because of Eastern Germany and Poland. Slovenia sees itself as the frontier of the European Union - the last country to the southeast where Euros are accepted. Croatia is the eastern frontier of Catholicism and sees itself as absorbing the the eastern Orthodox and Muslim influences next door in Bosnia and Montenegro.

I'm sure the further east I go, the more reasons I'll hear for why that particular country I'm in is on the eastern frontier. Bulgaria is the last country before Turkey; Turkey is the last country before the Middle East!

A rare sign of Russian presence in Slovenia. This "Russian Chapel" was built right after WWI as a tribute to Russian prisoners of war who died in an Avalanche building a road for the Austro-Hungarians so that they could get troops to the Italian front.
The road built by Russian POWs during WWI

Overall, the pull is back to the west, though. It is very obvious, here at least, that these "frontiers" are western oriented. Nobody is complaining of being the westnern-most Orthodox country, or having to suffer to the Protestant influence of Germany. I suppose that at some point, Russia's influence will kick in and I'll see a more eastern oriented frontier, but that hasn't happened yet. Maybe in Serbia?

The plan from here is to leave for Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzogovina on May 1, then on to Sarajevo and then Mostar. I'll be in Belgrade by May 13 and Bucharest by May 20. The Balkans are a pretty small place, but so dense. A month will not be enough to see much at all. I'm doing my best though.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Das Vaterland

I haven't really had time to sit down and write an entry that would do justice to the flood of memories, thoughts and observances that I've had sine returning to Germany on Monday. AFter 4.5 years away, I'm finally back - and staying at Heidi's house. It's like reliving my early twenties all over again. The bad and the good.

The idea behind coming to Heidi's was to find a place to rest and relax a little. Spend some time on a REAL computer (not just my iphone) to organize the next few weeks of my trip in the Balkans. On Easter Sunday, I get on the bus to Slovenia and I'll be in Croatia by the end of the week. After that, I have no idea. I'll get to Belgrade by mid-May, but before then, I want to see Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and the (the disputed territory of) Kosovo (That was just for you Marko.) We'll see if that actually happens though. I'm torn between hurrying around the Balkans trying to see everything versus just going to find a nice little bombed out town in Bosnia and watch the flies congregate for a few days. It's all up in the air.

The past week has been all that I would have expected from Western Europe. The ferry from Iceland to Denmark was fairly austere, unless you were willing to spend heaps of money on heat lamp pizzas and french fries. I opted to bring my own food, which consisted of dried fish and canned peas. And peanut butter. I was still happy that I chose to cross the rest of the north Atlantic Ocean via ship, but I don't think I need to do it again.

In Aarhus, Denmark, where I stayed for two nights, I went to a theater festival (Quonga) with my couchsurfing host. Watching plays in a foreign language in challenging, but it makes you really pay attention to the actions of the actors and reactions of the crowd. Totally different experience. I enjoyed the plays with none or as little dialogue as possible. One such play was a re-enactment of a video game. They captured the style really well, in such a bizarre way that I could only expect from Scandinavians.

From Aarhus, I took the overnight train to Freiburg, where I've been since Tuesday morning. I hardly slept at all on the train and, as a result, had an interesting encounter at about 4am. In Hannover, our train had acquired a few coaches from another train. As I wandered through the hallway looking for some water, suddenly found that all the signs had changed from German to Cyrllic.  Hmm. Then, about half way down one of the coaches, this woman leaned out of her cabin and yelled at me "END WAGON!" And then we fought over whether or not I could buy a bottle of water. Really mean woman. It turns out that it was a train from Warsaw and she was one of the Polish crew. I instantly regretted not going to Poland (opting instead for more time in the Balkans) because, judging from her at least, it appeared that you had to fight for everything in Poland. That would have been fun.

Ok, that's all for now. I posted more pictures from Iceland up on my flickr page. I've taken a break from pictures in Germany. I already have enough of them and you all have already seen pictures of the Black Forrest before. I would like to draw your attention to the most recent pictures, as they catalogue the shaving of my beard. I couldn't take it anymore and I am now ten times more comfortable without it. I don't see how you Paul Bunyons out there can stand such facial hair.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Last Day in Iceland

Looking outside my window right now, I can see the Smyril Line Norröna ferry ship that´s set to take me to Denmark in a few hours. I will arrive in Hirtshals, Denmark Saturday at about 9am local time. Iceland has been great - a challenge at time due to the inhospitable weather and the inconveniences of being in isolated places during the off-season, but overall, I´ve had some great experiences, met some really good people and learned more about Iceland than I´d ever really wanted to know. So far, I´d really have to say that my best experiences here were walking down an empty road, staring at snow capped mountains, seaside cliffs or lava fields for hours waiting for a car to pick me up and whisk me off to some new and beautiful corner of this island. Hitchhiking is definitely the way to make your way around Iceland - and to make sure you get plenty of interaction with locals.

I need to keep this entry short because I have to get ready for the ship. Think rye bread, peanut butter and dried fish can sustain me for three days? We´ll see.  The meals on the ferry are €18 a pop, so I am going to do my best to avoid the cafeteria. Still haven´t had a chance to add pictures, but I´ve got some good ones. They´ll come soon enough.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Hitchhiking across Snæffeslnes

Before I start this post, I just wanted to check to see if anyone knows anyone in Copenhagen or Hamburg who I could stay with for a night or two? I´ll be in Copenhagen April 16-18 and Hamburg April 18-19. (Dates are flexible). I´m a really easy guest - all self-contained in my bag here. All I need is a flat surface.

Ok, now that we have that, on to the show!

The theme of the past three days has been hitchhiking. If I had lots and lots of time and a computer that worked (I´m semi-stealing time from one at a hostel in Borgarnes right now) I´d draw a map of where I just was, but since I don´t have either of those things right now, a verbal description accompanied by this map will have to suffice.

On Monday, my host in Borgarnes dropped me off at the highway intersection outside of town on her way to work and pointed me in the direction that I needed to go: Stykkisholmur on the Snæffels peninsula, in western Iceland. I had gotten lots of tips to go there and nobody was willing to host me further north in Akureyri, so I went.

I´ve never hitchhiked before. The closest I´ve come was doing ride-sharing in Germany, which is pre-arranged hitchhiking. It does not involve standing on the side of the road holding out your thumb though, waiting for some kind stranger to stop and pick you up, which is what I did Monday morning. It took me about an hour and a half before I waved down "Bill", an Icelander who had lived in Perth, Australia for a long time and so had taken this adopted, English name when introducing him to foreigners. His real name was ÞÖÆRFGmaAjurll or something similarly impossible to pronounce and unsimilar to "Bill".

Bill was driving from Borgarnes to Stykkisholmur to pick up a fishing boat he had just bought but whose trailer had a flat tire the night before and so required a second trip with a spare to fix it. I was thankful for the flat, as it meant that I got the chance to get a free ride with him that otherwise would have cost me close to $20.

After a night in Stykkisholmur that included hanging out in a natural thermal bath (they´re everywhere!) I hit the road again the next morning with the intention to travel further west along the Snæfells peninsula  - just to see how far I could make it. It´s hard to make solid plans when you´re hitchhiking. I managed to get three rides though that took me all the way to Hellnar, on the opposite side of the peninsula and right between the Snæfells Glacier and the sea. From Stykkisholmur to Grundafjörður I rode with a telephone repairman going out to fix the phone at the local school. He slowed down when we saw seals in the bay - nice guy. Then from  Grundafjörður to Hellisandur, I rode with a teacher, and then from Hellisandur to Hellnar I rode with a Dutch couple touring through Iceland. I think they picked me up for the novelty.

Today, from Hellnar back to Borgarnes, was the toughest day. Being way out on the peninsula, there wasn´t much east bound traffic. I lucked out with a construction worker, then a guy who owned his own fish processing plant drove me a ways, then an off-duty police officer drove me the rest of the way into Borgarnes. Overall, I´d say that just the experience of hitchhiking was the best part of the trip. The scenery was amazing and my morning hikes along the seaside cliffs were awesome, but the feeling of being alone on a very long, cold road, just waiting for a car to come by and MAYBE pick you up is a much less familiar one to me.

The longest I ever went walking between rides was two hours. That wasn´t because people didn´t like the looks of me, though, it was because nobody passed me. My spirits were pretty dismal this morning as I was walking along in the blistering wind, trying to catch rays of sun as storms blew intermitently overhead. My ears would play tricks on me and I´d swear I heard a car coming, but then it´d just turn out to be the wind.

But then the feeling of exhiliration that came when you finally did see a car and they finally did slow down to pick you up instantly wiped out any anxiety that you had been feeling up to that point. I didn´t care at all who was behind the wheel (most were middle aged men - all very friendly) as I figured dealing with them was preferable to dealing with the weather outside. I have way more respect now for Iceland since I know that I can (for the most part) get where I need to go by hitchhiking.

Now there is the question about tomorrow. I´m trying to get to Akureyri, which is way up north. I could take a try at hitchhiking, but Akureyri is a good 130 miles north. The bus is $40 - hitchiking is free, but certainly comes with its own discomforts. I suppose we´ll just have to see how I feel when I wake up in the morning. I´m pretty exhausted from the past few days of anxiously waiting for cars to come up from behind me. The road to Akureyri is much more traveled - I could even land a one-way ticket there...

The excitement of the road beckons.


Monday, April 4, 2011

The Boonies

I´ve made it well outside of Reykjavik now to Stykkisholmur! Don´t have much time right now as I´m borrowing a computer, but I wanted to post this video I took a couple of days ago as my entry to keep everyone up to date.

I made a couple of mistakes in it. The mountain range/peninsula that I´m actually showing you is called Snaeffels peninsula - not Seyðisfjöður. I get my names mixed up, sorry.


Friday, April 1, 2011

Iceland: Land of þor

I´m just beginning day four in Reykjavik, Iceland and already I actually know what sounds the characters ð, æ and þ make! For those curious, þor is the Icelandic spelling for "Thor" - the head, supremo god of these here parts. "ð"is a softer "th" sound and æ actually makes some sense, it´s "aahhyeee".

Linguistics aside, my time here in Iceland so far has been great! Again, I´m on a mac, so I can´t quite give you photographic evidence from my trip here so far, but I promise that I will soon.  In the meantime, I will do my best to describe it.

I landed at Keflavik airport, about 30 miles south of Reykjavik, 630 am Tuesday morning. My hosts live only about a mile from the bus station so it was an easy walk to their place. Pretty much everything is about a mile away in Reykjavik. It´s a small town, but not very traditionally European in its density. The population is less than 200,000, but the buildings are pretty spaced out. There is also a regional airport right in the middle of town that kind of breaks things up. It´s a funny place.

I dropped off my stuff at Tobba and Holli´s apartment (these are just their nicknames - their real names are much more difficult to pronounce, much less spell) and set off to see the town. My initial try at seeing Reykjavik wasn´t all that successful. I had only gotten about an hour of sleep on the flight over here and so I was a little tired and cranky. But the next day (Wednesday) I took a nice walk along the seaside and toured a decommissioned Icelandic Coast Guard ship. Iceland has no military force; they basically depended on the US up until 2006, when we bailed and left them the Keflavik airport that we were using as a base.

Later that night I went to the weekly swing dance here in Reykjavik and, since I was the foreign guest, they put me at the DJ table. I don´t know how many of you have ever DJed in your lifetime, but it is hard. I have a hard enough time DJing car trips and to make my job even more challenging (and my relative success just that much more spectacular) all I had was my iphone to work with! Sheesh! I DJed for about an hour, with only one screw-up when I accidentally hit "stop" in the middle of a song. I´ll consider it a win - especially because I played almost exclusively Austin bands.

Thursday I went to the National museum and learned all about Iceland´s transition from paganism to Christianity. You could tell that there was about 300 years when Icelanders were trying to figure out the whole Jesus thing. They had a lot of mixed symbology and unique images of Christ (some that were strikingly similar to an elf) but then by about 1300, they were towing the Roman Catholic line and all their images depicted the white, long-haired, longer-limbed, bearded Jesus. That in-between period was pretty cool though. I´d be interested to see how other societies back in the day transitioned from their pagan gods to Christianity; just imagine how confusing that must have been!

After the museum, I met up with Asta, Gunnar and Lilja -  friends-of-friends-of friends (the traveling networking thing is working out) and they drove me to this mountain a little outside of town to get a taste of the barren, exposed (and in March, muddy) landscape of southern Iceland. Beautiful views of Reykjavik and the ocean and the surrounding mountains greeted us at the top - I´ll post those pictures later. After our hike, we had a few beers at a bar and had great conversations ranging from FARC in Colombia to Elves to why Oranges in Iceland are called Appelsina: literally translated into English as "Apples from China". Allegedly, dockworkers back in the day got a box of oranges labeled "Apples from China" and, not knowing english very well or what an orange was, mistook the contents as apples, when they were actually oranges. I guess the box was mislabeled...? I don´t know about this story, but I was on a mission to get an explanation and that´s what I got.

So. Today I´m going to go swim at a geothermal beach and then get on a bus for Borgarnes - about 40 miles northwest of here. I´ve had enough of the city life and am going to return to the country for at least a week while I make my way around Iceland.