Thursday, November 26, 2009

Houses of Earth and Wind

I have spent the last couple of days living in a cave. I recommend it highly.

People here in Cappadocia have been living in caves for thousands of years now. The caves are man-made, and they've been carved into the super-soft rock, known as tuf. The rocks come up in peaks, and if you look closely, a lot of them have little holes in them for windows. Some of them are little one-room caves, but not all. Many Christians in Roman times holed up (sorry) inside these caves and even made churches out of them. There are elaborate altars with 1000-year old frescos of Jesus, Mary, the Prophets, and other biblical characters. Unfortunately, a lot of them have been defaced. I mean that literally, their faces are gone. It's a combination of Christians (among others) taking a piece for good luck and Muslims and also early Christians removing the face intentionally-- the eyes first because early Christians felt that Jesus was watching them, and then the rest because images of of holy people are forbidden by Islamic tradition.

After catching a bus from my cave hotel in Ürgüp and hiking through the Rose Valley filled with abandoned cave houses and churches, I came to the abandoned village of Çavuşin. It's not just a set of caves, its a vertical labyrinth. The picture you see here is a view from near the top, looking at the rest of town.

It's been a long time since I've had so much fun exploring a place. I was traversing ledges, finding tunnels and hidden stairways, following the wind through the cracks to find little nooks with fantastic views over the valley. I couldn't decide whether I felt more like I was in an Indiana Jones movie or just an adult-sized McDonalds PlayPlace made out of stone.

But that place was a little vertical tube compared to the underground cities. There are hundreds of known underground cities, and one of the biggest open to the public is in Kaymakli. If you've ever wondered what the inside of an anthill looks like to an ant, I think this might come pretty close. It's an eight story (five excavated) network of underground tunnels, pits, and caverns. This is the kind of thing you think must exist only in fairy tales. Let me tell you, the real world is full of them. Not as full as you might like, and not usually in the places you think they would be, but they're there.

My only complaint? The days are too short to enjoy the place. Though of course that doesn't stop enjoying things like Turkish food, or even more so, the company of the Turkish people themselves.

I feel like the vast majority of places I go, people are friendly to travelers, but in Turkey, especially here in Cappadocia, the people take it a step further. I've lost track of the number of times people have come over, just to ask me where I'm from, and try to talk with a mix of my phrasebook-Turkish and their high-school-English. They're almost always smiling, happy to see me, and often aren't satisfied until they've given me some hot tea in one of their trademark tulip-shaped glasses. When I leave, they want to know when I'm coming back.

I think my Turkish vocab runs about to "Hello", "Do you speak English", "I don't speak Turkish", "Please," "Thanks," "What's that," "Toilet" and "Where's the bus stop." It doesn't matter if those are the only words we have in common, I still get a seat, a tea, a lot of smiles, and any kind of help I can figure out how to ask for. I remember the word for yes, but I keep forgetting the word for no. I wonder if that has anything to do with why people seem to like me so much here...

Before coming to Turkey, I figured out that I had a dozen or so friends who just happened to be connected to Turkey or really like Turkey, and I was a little surprised at the coincidence. Now I know it isn't a coincidence at all.

Check out this entry's Photos.

P.S. Happy Thanksgiving from Turkey! I'd say "no pun intended," but I was taught that lying is a bad bad thing.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Travel Tip: Talk to Strangers

People ask me about me how I get into interesting situations, meet interesting people, and walk away from a place with interesting stories. Today, I'm going to tell you one of my tricks for accomplishing just that.

Your mother may have been one of the few mothers to tell you not to talk to strangers as a child. I'm going to tell you the opposite. If you want to get a full travel experience, you need to talk to strangers.

Talking to strangers teaches me about local culture and history, and gives an excellent sense of what's really happening wherever I am. It's the reason I'm never lonely while traveling solo. It also regularly gets me free food, drinks, transport, places to stay, tickets to cool stuff, and invitations to the kinds of things you only hear rumors about in guide books. All I have to do is talk to someone I don't know yet. If you try it, you'll reap benefits, too.

A disclaimer: This does not mean you should wander up at night to the group of shifty-looking characters with baseball bats in a back alley and ask if they can break a $100 bill for you. Please be selective in who you talk to.

If the person makes you nervous, that's not always a bad sign. You just have to think about why you're nervous. If you're just nervous that the cute girl/guy at the bar won't like you, suck it up and go talk to them. If you think the old man on the porch won't speak your language or won't like people of your demographic, just be extra respectful, smile when you say hello, and judge further conversation based on his reaction. If you're nervous that bothering the guy wandering down the street at midnight swinging a machete might put you in physical danger, then maybe you should trust your instincts and go elsewhere.

I particularly encourage you to talk to local people. Fellow travelers are easy to talk to because you already have travel and being foreign in common. But locals are often more rewarding to meet. Ask for directions, instructions, and recommendations. It's flattering and you'll pick up information, maybe some new skills, and, if you click, a new friend or three.

If approaching random people on the street for that kind of thing scares you, we'll start somewhere easier. In fact, we'll start with four somewheres: your accommodation, on public transport, near tourist sites, and in nightlife areas.

For accommodation, it's going to be a lot easier if you stay somewhere with shared facilities than if you stay in a hotel. If you have a single room in the hotel, your opportunities are limited to the busy staff and people you see in hallways, elevators, and other places where extended conversation gets awkward, fast.

If you stay at a hostel on the other hand, you expand meeting places to a shared kitchen, common lounge most hostels come with, and of course the dorm you sleep in. Here are the magic words: “Hey, where are you from?” You can turn to anyone in any hostel anywhere and start a conversation, completely out of the blue, with those five English words. Even better, the staff are usually locals who like travelers, know the area, and often are more than happy to hang out and even show you around town after their shift is over if you take the time to actually talk to them.

As for transportation, especially on long train and boat rides, conversations spring up naturally if you're open to them. Everyone is going to be kind of bored and will be happy to talk to someone from out of town. Even if the “talk” is mostly gestures or passing a phrasebook back and forth. This is where you'll most often score free stuff like food or drinks. Just remember to share some of yours too.

Tourist sites, weirdly, are better places to meet people than you might think. Obviously you can meet tourists. But you should also talk to the staff, especially tour guides. They're mostly local people, most of them will speak English (and a few other languages to boot), and a lot of are often otherwise really bored and happy to have someone to chat with. You'd be surprised how little interest tourists seem to show in these people's lives outside of their jobs. Don't make that same mistake.

Finally, there's meeting people the same way a lot of people meet each other at home: nightlife districts. Pubs, bars, and clubs everywhere are places where you can, by unwritten law, strike a conversation with just about anyone. The only problem is that it's probably the most intimidating place to do it. If you're feeling self-conscious, just remember that 95% of the people you talk to are going to be worrying too much about what you think of them to pass any kind of judgment on you.

These are just a few places to get started. Don't let them limit you. You can talk to strangers just about anywhere you can find strangers, from in a public library to knocking on someone's door to ask to borrow some cooking ingredients. Unless stated otherwise by cultural taboo (see your travel guide or guidebook for details), they're all fair game.

If you're stuck for conversation starters, use props. One of my favorites is food. I've been a lot of places, and I have yet to find someone who doesn't smile when they're offered a cookie. Even if they turn it down, they'll often try to talk to you or offer you something of theirs within a few minutes. Another good prop is anything technological. If you've ever walked down the street with a friend who owns an iPhone or iPod Touch, you know how this works. My little netbook still gets me a lot of attention. But really anything interesting enough to elicit comment (though not offensively so), can work. I still remember walking down the street in Chicago with a bouquet of lilies and having every third woman I passed say something to me (mostly "ooh are they for ME?").

One last piece of advice. Think about the age of people you talk to. I was born in 1986. Almost anyone in the world my age or younger will speak some English, or be with someone else who does. However, if you've got the language skills, try to talk to older people. The older, the better. These are the people who lived the history of their homes and who can teach you more about the culture of a place than any of us youngsters can.

Now get out there and talk to people!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Nobody's Business but the Turks

In the background is the Hagia Sofia, also known as the Ayasofia, rebuilt as a church by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century, converted into a mosque in 1453 by Sultan Mehmet the conqueror after his conquest of Constantinople, (formerly Byzantium, today Istanbul), and finally secularized by President Ataturk and turned into a museum. It's an architectural marvel and a fascinating religious symbol, covered in Islamic tile work, slowly being scraped away to reveal Christian images beneath.

In the foreground is a cat sitting on my lap, purring her head off. She really liked tummy rubs.

If there's two things Istanbul is full of, it's these: historic architectural marvels of the ancient Roman and Islamic world, and stray cats.

It makes some sense. According to some here, Napoleon once remarked that if the entire world was a republic, this city would be its natural capital. It was the capital of both the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire. It's the only place in the world I know of where you can take a ferry for about a dollar, cross to a different continent, and still be in the same city limits.

And as for the cats, the city is of full of fishermen at every dock and bridge to feed them, tons of tourists to lavish them with attention, and the craziest nooks and crannies you could ever hope for to explore and hide in. It's a pretty good life.

Like a lot of tourists, I spent a lot of time ogling things like the Topkapi Palace, containing what they claim to be Moses' staff, John the Baptist's skull, and an odd collection of Mohammed's teeth and bits of his beard. Then there was the magnificent Blue mosque, the only mosque outside of Mecca with six minarets (the towers from which we hear the call to prayer five times a day). And of course relaxing in a Turkish bath, sampling Turkish delight, and stuffing my face with kebab. Search “travel blog Istanbul” and you'll see similar stories about those.

I also met and petted a lot of cats. You might read something similar about that in those other blogs too.

So I'll write about something else. It starts with a local connection. Some of my best hosts on this trip have been connections that sound like something out of the Mel Brook's movie, Space Balls. This time, it was my father's colleague's identical twin sister. She invited me to a talk for an NGO about helping women entrepreneurs in countries like Turkey. Intrigued, I accepted.

I got to the talk and realized I'd gotten the concept backwards. I'd assumed I was coming to join a group of people, who generally wanted to do good in the world, listen to a speaker who was an expert in going to different nations and helping women entrepreneurs. Instead, I was in a room with some of the most powerful businesswomen in Turkey who had gathered to hear a motivational speaker who generally wanted to do good in the world.

So, the most interesting part for me wasn't the speech. It was the questions from these women leaders.

After the speaker went on for a bit about The Power Within You and how Nobody Can Lead Like You , and how We All Have The Same Goals and the effects of these Principles on Synergy, he opened the talk up to questions, so that he could try to address the specific concerns of women CEOs and business owners in Turkey.

They were not easy questions. A lot of them had to do with stories. One started with the phrase “Istanbul is not Turkey”. She went on to explain that she was the owner of her (Istanbul-based) business, and even in Anatolia, when she went to another company for a meeting or deal of some kind, the men there refused to believe she was the owner. Every time they spoke to her, they insisted on asking for her boss. They still cannot believe that a woman can own a business.

After a few more questions and stories like this one, the speaker came out with what he was really thinking:

“You know,” he said, “I think I'm giving this talk to the wrong people. It sounds to me like it's the men of Turkey who need the help, not you.”

The women laughed, and then looked around. Including me, there had been three men in the room at the beginning of the talk. Early on, both of the others had left. From the murmurs I heard in English, nobody seemed to know why.

That was one of two points that really stuck out for me. The other was a question posed by my host:

“I have always I wanted to be independent. I want to stand on my own two feet. Yet I also feel that I want to be a good Muslim. I asked one of the Muslim leaders I most respect about how I can unite these two principles. He told me that, after a time, I will enjoy being submissive, and that I won't feel the need to be independent anymore. I rejected that, yet I still feel a need for some connection to my faith. Something that doesn't conflict with my independence. How can I resolve this?”

Nobody had an answer for that.

Even in the car, before I was dropped off, one of her friends showed me something.

“Look at this, I have this on the radio.” She turned on the car radio and flipped through stations until we heard a man with a deep voice speaking evenly without any background noise.

“It's the Koran. Twenty-four hours a day. I listen to this in the car all the time, and I just can't stand it. I can't agree with Islam as I know it. I just wish there was something somebody could show me that could unite some of the principles we talked about tonight with the faith.”

It's funny. I'm used to giving advice to people on all sorts of things. Even if I don't have an answer, I usually have a few ideas, including for the other questions that had been posed that evening. But this time, I had nothing I to offer. All I know about “a woman's place” in Islam is what I'm fed by western media about extremist groups. I never believed that could represent mainstream Islamic thought. But if this night was anything to go by, maybe it's a bit closer than I realized.

With any luck, I'll learn more about this over the next few weeks.

EDIT Nov 22, 2009:
Just got this response from my good friend, Ayse, a Turkish-American dual citizen:

"The problem is, is that it's not mainstream Muslim thought if one looks at the amount of female doctors, lawyers, etc., in Pakistan, India, America, England, etc.. If you were to go back to Turkey in 1923, you'd find that there were women leaders in the revolution and, early on, many women in parliament.The world's first female fighter pilot was Sabiha Gokcen, a Turk and daughter of Ataturk. The problem, especially now, has been the AKP government and the regression of modernity in Turkey as a response to rejection by the West.

P.S. How many female CEOs are there in America? Not many."

I thought that ought to be shared. 

Check out this entry's Photos.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Travel Tip: Get Quick Dry Clothes

Today, I have another tip for you that's simple. When you're shopping for a long trip, especially if you're backpacking it, buy clothing that dries quickly.

Obviously, clothing that dries quickly makes life easier if it accidentally gets wet from tropical rainstorms/saltwater spray from friendly dolphins/spilled Oktoberfest beer. Wet clothing that stays wet is uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing. Remember, Murphey's law states that all spilled liquids will magically aim for the crotch of your pants. The longer it's wet, the more stupid jokes you have to make up about your 'little accident.” More importantly, packing wet clothing in you backpack causes problems, including making half of what's in your bag smell awful for the rest of the trip. Actually, that's more of a symptom. I'll let you imagine the problems it indicates for yourself.

The other big benefit of clothing that dries fast is that you can do your own laundry and have it ready to go soon later. Saves time and money over the ho(s)tel's laundry service, even if it “only takes 24 hours.” Since you won't be carrying that much clothing, you're going to need to do laundry a lot more often than you do at home. You'll want a drain plug, some laundry detergent, and a clothesline.

One thing I should clarify: when I say “quick dry,” I don't mean it has to be specialty clothing with a label somewhere that says Quick-Dry(tm). It just has to be made of a material that dries fast. Just take a look at the laundry label. Synthetic materials like polyester are usually the easiest of these to find. Nylon is also good, most commonly found when looking for pants. The material you want to avoid is cotton. Unless it's specially treated, cotton almost always takes forever to dry.

Unfortunately, cotton also what about 90% of clothing is made of today. So we need to find that other 10% I tend to look for sports clothing stores, outdoor supply stores, and occasionally, if I find them, dedicated travel supply stores (tough to find outside the US). Then of course there's the internet (don't forget overstock sites for discounts and googling for coupons before checkout).

An extra note on the specialty travel stores. They are good, but they're often the most expensive option, and you run the risk of walking out with an outfit more suited to a colonial era safari rather than modern Europe, Asia, or anywhere else today. Buy stuff you wouldn't get odd looks for wearing at home.

Now, one thing to note is that even the most expensive SuperDooperUltraQuik-DryMax shirt from BiggAdventure inc. isn't going to dry immediately in cold or damp places if you just ball it up and throw it in a corner. Drying this stuff out is going to take time. If it's completely soaked, it'll sometimes take a few hours. If you're smart, it'll take fewer. Here are three ways to dry your stuff out faster:

1) After wringing it out, roll it up in a dry towel and squeeze. The towel will take a good chunk of the moisture out. Yes, you will then need to dry out the towel, but since you're using it after you (I hope) shower, you had to do that anyway.

2) Hang it up, with space on either side of it, in a place that is warm, airy, and dry. In that order. In other words, hanging it next to your bunk in a heated dorm room is better than on a line outside in near freezing temperatures, even if it is airy and dry out there.

3) Wear it. Given a little time, your body heat actually dries damp clothing out pretty well, as long as you're not wearing much over it to keep the moisture in.

And there you have it! Clean clothing, and a bag that doesn't smell (much). Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Online Traveler

Sometimes I think I spend too much of my time these days online. Having a laptop with so much free wifi around is a pretty strong temptation. I see travelers everywhere glued to instant messenger and Facebook. Back when I didn't have a netbook, I tried very hard not to be one of those people. I didn't want to spend all my time in a foreign country browsing the same websites and doing the same things online that I'd do at home.

But my line of thinking has started to shift a little bit. I woke this morning in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, and checked my email and one of the three online news sources I regularly read. On it, I found the headline, "Bulgaria Still Stuck in Trauma of Transition."

If I hadn't seen that, I would have had no way of knowing that today marks the 20th anniversary of Bulgarian independence from its communist leader, Todor Zhivkov, and the start of a democratic state. There are no celebrations here in the former capital. There don't seem to be any celebrations anywhere.

The newest and poorest member of the EU is still showing a lot of ambivalence about its new democratic system. Probably the most impressive statistic I saw in the article was that, when asked if the changes in 1989 benefited ordinary people, only 11% said yes. It's a surprising sentiment I've found in a lot of different former soviet states, including places like (former) East Germany.

But my point isn't about the debate over communism vs capitalism (somehow still paired at the hip with democracy, as if democracy can only exist in a capitalist system). My point is that if I hadn't flipped on my computer and spent half an hour on the internet this morning, I would have completely missed the significance of this day in this country.

A lot of shelves and server space is filled by articles talking about how much technology, especially the internet, has changed the world. I don't know if I'm the most qualified to say anything about the subject, but I can tell you it's changed the way I travel.

I spent the first six months or so without any laptop of my own. I even left my old 30gig iPod Photo (remember those?) at home. I had a digital camera and cell phone that technically can browse WAP internet, but charges a hefty amount by the kilobyte in the countries where it works. Aside from the that, the only piece of technology I carried was a portable FM radio. My idea was that I wanted to immerse myself completely in the places I was, rather than sitting in my little American bubble with my American music and my usual American websites where I talked to my American friends.

I'd spend about three hours a week in an internet cafe on on a hostel computer, taking care of my photos, updating this blog, and checking my email. Sometimes, if I trusted the connection, I'd do some online banking to make sure my travel funds were under control. That was all I did with the internet or technology as we talk about it today.

The FM radio worked a lot better in theory than in practice. I got to hear some kids radio plays in El Salvador, and occasionally in major cities I'd find music stations (mostly playing American music), but when the thing worked, I mostly only got talk radio in whatever language the country spoke. Great, if I spoke the language. If I didn't, or if I was between cities (like on a bus, when I most wanted something to listen to), I was sunk. Plus the radio broke and had to be replaced twice, and then was stolen along with my sweater and had to be replaced again. Now it's broken one more time and I haven't bothered with a replacement yet.

Then came the netbook.

I wasn't sure buying it was a good idea. But it was a small, light computer, for about US$180. I fiddled with it some, spent a ferry ride between the north and south Island of New Zealand making a case for it out of duct tape, and got it doing the things I wanted it to. Which it mostly did, even with a tiny (we're talking 800x480 pixels tiny) screen, and a hard drive with only four gigs, more than three of which were taken up by the operating system.

I was still nervous. I determined to limit my time on the thing as much as my will power could allow, because I figured I'd  spend all my time online, not learning a thing about where I was, wherever I was.

But instead of locking me into a bubble the way I thought it would, it led me deeper into my travel destinations. First was the wealth of free information. I could check the local news in my language anywhere I got an internet connection often including responses from the people I met. Through first wikitravel, and then when I found they posted all their guides' info online for free, I could find out opening hours and tricks to check out experiences I otherwise wouldn't have known about at all. Then I could go out and use that information to get somewhere and try new things out wherever I was.

But the bigger impact for me was through online communities. Facebook of course lets me stay in touch with the hundreds of people I've met from all over the world. Travel forums and networks like Bootsnall and the Thorn Tree, I can learn a lot about different people's experiences in different places doing different things. If I wasn't sure if I wanted to do something, I'd just check the forums or other travel blogs to see what kind of people liked it (if anyone did).

But the by far the biggest travel community I've tapped online has been CouchSurfing. 1.5 million people in almost every country in the world dedicated to meeting each other and helping each other travel. And it's growing fast.

So not only has the investment brought in a wealth of information and opportunities, but it's given me free places to sleep, often free food, led me to art exhibitions and shows (yes, many of which were free), and made two-day acquaintances in Asia turn into friends I get to see again in multiple countries in Europe.

Most importantly, it's led me to some of the adventures I started traveling for in the first place. Midnight bus to hike up to the top of Mt Fuji? Tip off of Wikitravel. Cheap ride on the autobahn from Berlin to Munich in time for Oktoberfest? Arranged ride from German ride share website. Party on a skyscraper's helicopter pad in Seoul? Couchsurfing connection. Last minute deal on an icebreaker to Antarctica? Contact found on the Thorn Tree forum.

I'm surrounded by backpackers calling overseas for free using an iPod Touch and Skype. People are reserving hostels at 3/4 price on hostelbookers and hostelworld and finding them with their smartphone's GPS. Even my travel insurance is completely online, down to how I make claims if I ever need to.

Yes, sometimes I will end up curled up IMing my friends from home and watching reruns of the Daily Show. I still think a lot of travelers spend too much time on Stalkerboo-- erm, Facebook. If you're not careful, the web will shut you up in a bubble even more than I originally feared. But I think, if you can use it the right way, you end up getting a lot more out of my travels than you would have otherwise.

Anyway, I think I'll let the pictures do the talking when it comes to the stuff I've been doing offline in Romania and Bulgaria. The only one I can't share that way is the inside of the Peles castle in Transylvania. If I win billions of euros someday, I might buy it. Search online for photos of the interior if you want to know why (I sadly wasn't allowed to take any).

But here's the ending headline that has nothing to do with anything else mentioned in this post (don't you love it when I do that?). Tomorrow marks the beginning of a big transition in this trip: I'm going from Europe into the Middle East.  Tomorrow, with any luck, I will wake up in the city of Istanbul, right smack in the middle of the two. Stay tuned.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Travel Tip: You Don't Speak the Language

One of the most common excuses Americans use to not travel internationally is that they don't speak the language. As any Aussie, Kiwi, or Brit can tell you, this is a dumb excuse. More than you probably realize, thanks to a combination of the British Empire, the Marshall Plan, and the budget of Hollywood and American pop music, English is the international language of the world. When two people from different countries with different languages meet, 95% of the time, they will speak to each other in English.

That said, nobody likes the tourist who walks up to locals, asks for something in English, and when not understood, repeats themselves more slowly and loudly. The surprising thing is that most of the people who do this aren't native English speakers themselves (and are probably repeating themselves because they think they messed up). The point, however, is that to have a deeper experience in a country, you need to speak a little of the local tongue.

This is a problem. Learning a language can take years. If, for example, you want to do the traditional backpacker's circuit in SE Asia of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, that's four languages to learn right there, ignoring regional variations complicated enough to make people from opposite ends of each country not understand a word the other is saying. Unless you're an amazing linguist (I've met them, they exist) learning them all could take you half a decade or more. I don't know about you, but I'm not that patient.

So, what do you do? Strike a quick balance. How quick depends on how long you will be in the area. If you're in a place for more than a month, consider at least language tapes or a lesson or two before and during your stay. While traveling abroad local language classes are usually cheap and easy to find. If you're there for a few weeks, get a phrasebook published in your country (if you speak with an American accent and you get a British-based phrasebook, the pronunciation guide will be completely off). If you're not going to be in the country very long, then you just need the very basics. Here's where I usually start:

The first four things I try to learn are "Hello", "Thank you", "Sorry/Excuse me," and here's the big one: "What is ____ in (your language)?" Most people miss this his last one. This question, combined with pointing, is how you're going to actually get a deeper experience out of your travels. Full disclosure: you're going to forget 90% of what you are told almost immediately after they tell you, but that other 10% will come in useful, and there's a good chance that you'll recognize at least some of the first 90% the next time you hear it. More importantly, you are already ahead of the average traveler because you are displaying a genuine interest in this person's home and people, and it takes them out of the awkward situation of bending over backwards to try to communicate and help you in a language they're trying to remember from high school.

Next, learn what language quirks you should be familiar with to be polite. For example, in Spanish, there are two words for "you": tú and usted. Depending on the country, you'll hear both used very often. But if "tú" should only be used with people you are really familiar with (and maybe small children and pets) or you'll offend someone by being overly familiar. In Thai, it is considered respectful to end all your sentences with either "khaa," if you're a woman, or a higher-pitched "krup" if you're a man. Things like that. Guide books will tell you these things-- borrow a friend's if yours doesn't. If you can't find it in a guidebook, you can usually find out at the nearest tourist anything-- hotel, info counter, transit center, or anything else with at least a sign on the wall in English.

If the written language doesn't use characters you know, the obvious temptation is to learn it so that you can read street signs and building names. It's not a bad thing to learn, but that's not really the right reason. Street signs are notorious worldwide for simply not existing when you need them, and major cities' signs are usually transliterated into the Roman alphabet anyway. You're generally better off with a map, a friendly local (remember "excuse me") and a little gesturing. Don't forget the "thank you" afterward.

There is, however, one thing you will want to know written: restroom. There are times when you need to know where the toilet is and you won't want to waste time with a map and gestures. Not every toilet in the world had a little white person with pants or a dress over a blue background on the door.

Finally you'll want a set of emergency words. "Toilet" aside, there are a couple more words you won't need or hear very often, but that when you want them, you want them right away: "Help," "Stop," and "Doctor," should all be in your vocabulary, for obvious reasons. Just don't wander down the street practicing them out loud. Also, while not really an emergency thing, I'd learn the word for "soap." It comes up more often than you might expect.

After that, it's mostly a question of not being shy and remembering to keep a smile on your face. Pass around the phrasebook if you have it. Figure out nonverbal ways of communication (don't underestimate the power of the gesture). Don't be afraid to look dumb and make mistakes. The fastest way to learn a language is to talk to people and read. The rewards are immediate, not just in feeling good about being better than the average tourist, but also in things like free food and drinks, behind the scenes "tours", new friends, and great stories. Even "hello" by itself is enough to turn a suspicious look at a foreign stranger into a big smile.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Balkan Talk

This is Belgrade. This is a bomb crater. This is the leftovers of a war that I grew up hearing about but never remembered. I knew enough to burst out laughing when somebody pronounced Sarajevo something like "Sarah-Jehovah," but not much more. Thanks to a couple good friends, including one who's starting a masters degree on the subject in Vienna, I know some more about the story. I'm not here to write about that though. I'm just going to tell you about a few conversations I had.

The first was on an overnight bus from Croatia to Bosnia. The sleepy-looking woman next to me was a couple years older than I, and she had a Croatian passport. She said she was going home to see her parents. I asked why the Croatian Passport if she and her family were from the Bosnian countryside. She just explained that they were "Bosnian-Croatian."

She translated a few things for me, including a couple of the epithets an old man hurled at the driver for turning on a Bosnian TV show at full volume around midnight. I don't remember how I steered the conversation to the war, I just remember being very careful about it, ending by saying I'd only been a kid and didn't remember much.

"Well, it was from when I was eight until when I was ten." She said. "I mean, if I hadn't been here, I wouldn't have paid attention or remembered it either."
"Did you know anyone who died?"

She snorted derisively. Not the smartest question on my part.

"Yes. Of course."
"Anyone in your family?"
"Well, not my parents or my sisters. But there were some cousins who were killed." She looked out the window. "And for nothing. Just stupid politics."

I didn't ask any for any more details. There was silence for a while. She translated a loud comment from the old man about how he had no leg room. I said something about the TV show. She said something about how I could learn a bit about the Bosnian way of thinking from the show. The conversation veered off again.

"Do you think there will ever be a united Yugoslavia again?" I asked.
"No. Never." She said. "If anything I think Bosnia might split up too, maybe three ways. It'll be political again."
"You think it will just break apart?"
"I don't know. I don't care. I just don't want any more war."

A day later, I was outside Sarajevo with some Bosnian college kids hiking towards a waterfall. They told me they do that every weekend or so, but usually they'd just stop at a cabin partway up because it had good homemade food, and fresh rakia (plum brandy). I told them about the Bosnian show I'd seen on the bus from Croatia, and they all groaned loudly.

"Yeah that show is terrible. So awful." Said one..
"Only the old people like it."Added another.
"I don't know," I said, "Is it that bad? I didn't understand what they were saying, but I had someone next to me translating bits. Even without that, I think I got what was going on at least."
"Yeah. Well, nobody watches it here anymore," the first said. "Only the Slovenians and Croatians like it." she gave me a look that said very clearly 'and what does that tell you.'

One of them peeled off ahead of the others with me to tell me about her time working with youth programs in Germany. Interesting stuff.

"But I like it here better," she said afterward.
"How come?"
"Well, people there are so... hard. Like I was three minutes late and they yelled at me! In the Balkans, that's just how things work! People here are just more relaxed. Life here is nice."

The night, back in Sarajevo, inside a restaurant called Aeroplan. I was part of a group of about fifty couchsurfers who had come to a town for a big Balkans meetup. It was getting very hot, so I stepped outside for some fresh air. A Serbian girl from my table came with. I asked her about something she said earlier. She'd told me that she didn't identify herself as Serbian, she identified herself as Yugoslav. As soon as I said something about the history, she started talking about how so many Serbians talked about how it was so terrible what the Americans did to them, etc. but they "deserved it."

"But what people need to understand that what our president did isn't what the people wanted to do."
"Yeah, well," I said with a wry smile, "I think I know what you're talking about. I know what it's like to feel like you're supposed to defend a president who does things you don't agree with. We had one of those." She laughed at that.

I swapped story for story, telling her about my dad's visit when it was still Yugoslavia, and talking about how surprised he and so many others were when war broke out between the people.

"Well, Tito was good at holding us all together. 'Peaceful coexistence' he called it. After that, everything fell apart."
"So life was pretty good under him."
"It was good for the time. Nobody thought about the future. He didn't do anything for advancing anything. It was just a big party while it happened. I mean, he didn't even build a subway or anything in Belgrade. I mean, it's a major city and it still has no subway! Can you think of anything like it?"

To be honest, I could think of half a dozen cities like it that way, but decided against bringing that up.

At that point, a French-Canadian came out with a cigarette. We said hi. He figured out that the war and politics were on tap for discussion, and immediately interrupted with why communism sounded so great to him.

"It sounds like such a great way to do things. It's appealing."
"Well, it was great at the time," The girl started, "but under Tito--"
"I really like the idea," he interrupted. "But it doesn't work. Unfortunately, competition is necessary."

I tried steering the conversation back the Yugoslav girl's experience, and he interrupted a few more times, repeating that capitalism is the least worst system there is. Finally he asked,

"What was it like here during the war?"
"I don't know." She said flatly. "I'm from Belgrade."
"Hmm. I can't imagine it," he said, staring moodily into space. "I need to know what it was like. How it felt."

I considered telling him he wasn't going to find out until he stopped interrupting and started listening for a change, but decided against it. So the conversation went for ten minutes before we the Yugoslav girl and I "got too cold to stay outside."

Two days later I was sitting in a hostel kitchen in Belgrade with a couple backpacking kiwis who were raving about how cheap everything was.

"Even the food is like three bucks! And if you pay more you get something massive as!"
"We went and asked for this burger thing they do-- actually no first we went and nearly asked for a doner kebab, you know because everywhere else in Europe those are so cheap. Then we figured out, that's the wrong thing to ask for here."
Doner kebab. Turkish. Muslim. In Belgrade, Serbia.
"Yeah." I said. "'Bout that." They laughed, slightly uncomfortable.

On my way out of that hostel, I happened upon a BBC article online, talking about how Serbian Radovan Karadzic, accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and more against was being defiant at his hearing in the Hague. I clicked on a video link for a related story, and saw the typical wartime footage, this time archived from the conflict. Explosions, people scattering for cover. A lot of grey and dust colors everywhere. A dirty undecorated street. I stopped the video and looked more closely. I knew that street. I'd walked down that street four days before in Sarajevo to catch a bus. Same buildings, same bridge over the river, probably the same streetcar tracks. I replayed the clip, and it looked very different from the first time.

I left and looked around at how unaffected the whole place seemed. in the whole city, I saw just two buildings like the one I pictured above, with the craters still in them, "to show what the Americans did to us." No hostility, just a simple display.

In Brasov, a town in Transylvania, I brought that up. I was talking to a group that included two veteran travelers, a 31-year old American who left the states in 2005, and a man in his sixties who told us a Dutch girlfriend he'd had seven years ago once counted up how many countries he'd been to and come up with the number 140.

"Hell," he said, "I was there when the bombing was happening."
Everyone else's jaws dropped all around the table.
"Really. I mean, they were very upset, of course. They wanted to know why we were doing this, and they all had several reasons why Clinton should die." But they hadn't been hostile to him personally, even as our country dropped bombs on them.

Nobody had anything to follow that up with. Even now, deep into Romania, I don't know what I've learned, but I don't know if I need to. Some things with history like this seem to overpower the present for anyone visiting. Maybe the experience of seeing it touch everyday life was enough.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Travel Tip: Visas

Today we're going to talk about visas in a little more detail. A visa is typically a sticker in your passport that gives you permission to enter a specific country. You don't always need one, but when you do, you need a little preparation.

Before you try to cross a border, double check the exit requirements of the country you're in and the entry requirements of the country you're going to. Guidebooks are okay to check, but these things change frequently, so the best place to find this is online. For American citizens, is your best resource. Other major countries have similar websites maintained by their foreign ministry. British citizens can find theirs at Canadians have Aussies have I could go on, but if you don't find yourself listed here, do a quick google search and/or complain to me. I'll see what I can do.

Never assume that rules that apply to another country's citizens also apply to you. On your government's website, find out your visa requirements. For any given border crossing you will either need a visa in advance, need the paperwork to be issued a visa at the border, or won't need a visa.

If you need a visa in advance, apply directly to the consulate of the country you're going to first. In other words, if you're in Argentina and want to go to Brazil, you go to a Brazilian consulate in Argentina. As a tip, the consulates in outlying cities are usually faster and easier to deal with than the busy embassies in national capitals. The Brazilian embassy in Buenos Aires can take weeks to issue a visa, the Brazilian consulate in Puerto Iguazu can usually do it within 24 hours. If you really have problems with the consulate, try travel and tour agencies, who will take care of it for you for a fee.

In either case, you will probably need a passport sized photo or four, cash, and your approximate dates of travel. You will also be asked for some combination of contact information within the country, and a smattering of the kinds of things you'd put on a job application (recent employer's contact info, criminal history if any, etc), as well as a smattering of other facts that you'll probably know from memory (like whether you have had contact with left-handed albino pot bellied pigs within the last ten weeks). Outside of India, some of the fields on these forms can in fact be left blank, but the more you fill out, the less likely you'll be told to go to the back of the line and finish your paperwork. Often they'll have someone going through the lines and checking this in advance, so you're unlikely to have serious problems.

The day before I apply for a visa, I usually run over to the consulate to make sure I know exactly where it is, what it looks like, and what hours the visa section operates (often they shut down at noon). You can also try to get the paperwork you need in advance, but only trust it if it comes directly from the consulate itself. That's the physical office, not the website; the forms consulates post online are almost always out of date.

Occasionally there will be a curveball. Russia is the most notorious, as of this writing requiring an official invitation from an agency within Russia. This sounds tough, but you can order one online for about $30. A quick search on google will tell you plenty (I personally recommend Also occasionally you might find people telling you that you can't apply for a visa in any country except your own. Don't believe this until you hear it from the consular employees directly in person, it's usually just a tactic to try to keep the consulate's workload down.

Speaking of which, you will hear all kinds of rumors about what kinds of crazy things you need for a visa for any given place that will surprise and scare you. Once again, don't believe them unless they come from an official government source, like your country's web portal, or an employee of their country's consulate. Before applying for my Russian visa in Beijing, I was told that I would need a Chinese residence permit by multiple hotels and tour agencies, countless travelers, several unofficial websites, and even by signs posted inside of the Russian embassy itself. When I asked the employees inside, they said I didn't need one. They also said that the rumors I had heard about stamped tickets for onward travel, proof of health insurance, and a recent negative test for HIV were false as well (though if you want something other than a tourist visa for a US citizen, that might be different).

If you need a visa but can get it at the border, life is much easier. Make sure you have all the paperwork, cash (know what currency they accept beforehand, anyone changing currency at these borders will rip you off royally), and photos you need before you arrive. Usually your passport details, a rough itinerary of where you're going (that nobody will double check after you enter), cash, and a passport-sized photo or two will suffice. You will have to fill in similar paperwork as described above, but blank spaces are usually more easily tolerated than they would be when applying for a visa in advance.

And that is how you get a visa! Like most things in travel, the more information you have, the easier it is. So make sure you know what you need before you go.