First Contact With the Middle East

“This is where I die,” I thought to myself, as I braced for another attempt to cross a street in Tehran. Being a city boy myself, I didn’t think traffic can get any scarier than it is in Kuala Lumpur, I was wrong. 

Iran Backgrounder and Tehran

Tehran is the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and home to around 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people. To say it is a busy city is an understatement, there are no empty roads, and no deserted corners until late at night. Rows of shops and mosques line up the streets and boulevards, against the sound of engines revving, and honking cars. While it is not the most touristic city in Iran, it is the buzzing heartbeat of the nation, and there is no lack of activities for travellers. 

Standstill traffic is the best time to cross the road in Tehran. Make no mistake, it is a busy city, but the subway is surprisingly easy to navigate. Air quality is not ideal though.

Attractions like Golestan Palace, Azadi Tower, Tabiat Bridge, and various gardens are the go-to photo spots of Tehran, and they did leave me good impressions. However, the highlight of my time in Tehran was witnessing the observance of Tasu’a, and the Day of Ashura, religious holidays of the utmost importance to Iran’s Shi’a Islamic faith. While almost no businesses were opened during the holidays, crowds, all dressed in black, flooded the streets, especially parts within the vicinity of any mosques. I could hear religious chants, songs, Quran recitals, and see parades. This was also my first encounter with Iranian hospitality, as I was constantly offered food and drinks in the streets with my fellow traveller friends. We spoke no Persian, they spoke no English, but we communicated through the language of warmth. 

Golestan Palace is a nice place to learn about different dynasties in the Persian Empire. You can take a guided tour or an audio tour.

 

I enjoyed my visit to Tabiat Bridge, a three-tiered pedestrian bridge offering nice views of the Tehran cityscape as well as a couple of nice cafes. It’s a popular spot for families, especially as dusk approaches. As shown in the photo, Iran is a very mountainous country, climates vary across the nation; Tehran gets hot and dry in the summer while the winter months might bring snowfall.

Iranian culture cannot be separated from religion, Islam, in particular Shi’a Islam, is present in almost every aspect of life. Religious holidays are not just days off for students and the workforce, the mosques are always full as people fully embrace their religious identities. Speaking about mosques, you can find a different mosque for every 10 minutes you walk, it is a place of worship, as well as a communal space. 

Tasu'a
It was a great privilege to witness the observation of Tasu’a in Tehran. People flocked the streets, mostly dressed in black, as makeshift stands serve food and drinks to anyone within the vicinity.

 

Drummers, Tasu'a
There were a few parades I came across in the streets during Tasu’a. Pictured are a few young drummers who walked along as a small box collecting donations followed.

It was on one of the public holidays that I decided to visit the Grand Bazaar, around 80 percent of the shops were closed. In contrast, I had became the attraction for the locals who were there, it’s not often Iranians see an obvious foreigner walking alone. I also made the mistake of wearing knee-length shorts, which is not illegal, but something that Iranian adult men don’t do. Lesson learnt, read up on local customs carefully before heading somewhere new! Women would need to always cover up their hair with a veil in public, and dress modestly, this applies even to foreigners. When in Rome, do as the Romans. 

Azadi Tower
Azadi Tower is a symbol of Iran’s modernisation following the White Revolution in the 60s and 70s. There is an observation deck but it was closed the day I visited. The coloured letters say “Tehran” in Farsi.

With the continuous international sanctions imposed on Iran, the country’s currency: the Iranian Rial, is constantly fluctuating. Exchange rates found online are generally unreliable so there isn’t much point to checking. At the time of writing, IRR1,000,000 is equivalent to around MYR37. You can get a good fulfilling meal easily under MYR10, so no worries about emptying your pockets on food; taxis are also pretty affordable, and usually very thrilling because of peculiar Iranian driving habits, best buckle your seatbelts. As sanctions go, it also means many international brands do not conduct business here. Coca-Cola is one of the few rare ones that do, but even so, they have to be bottled locally. 

Tabriz in Pictures

As I was headed towards the Republic of Azerbaijan in the North, I took an overnight sleeper train from Tehran to Tabriz in the East Azerbaijan Province of Iran. The East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan provinces are inhabited mostly by ethnic Azeris instead of  Persians. Whilst the official written language here is still Persian/Farsi, almost everybody converses in Azeri Turkish. I spent two nights here at the home of a local – my host Milad who was nice and eager enough to show me the highlights of the region.

Tabriz is located much higher in altitude than Tehran, meaning summers are much cooler and winters much colder. I enjoyed the breezy weather in September, with temperatures staying between around 14 degrees celsius to around 18 degrees celsius. The landscapes of Iranian Azerbaijan are simply astounding. Long stretches of mountains and hills line up the out-of-town freeway, it’s the polar opposite of what you see in and around Tehran. You see the same reckless driving in the city, but when the last concrete building passes by, it becomes a scenic trail.

 

East Azerbaijan Drive
Stretches of golden hills in the East Azerbaijan Province. With views like this, the ride in the shaky old cab was so much more enjoyable.
Lake Urmia
Lake Urmia is a salt lake outside Tabriz, and used to be one of the largest in the world. The lake is known for its red hue, caused by algae and bacteria. Looking closer, you see thousands of Artemia brine shrimp in the water, one of few marine animals that thrives in highly-saline waters.
Kandovan
After visiting Lake Urmia, we pressed forward towards Kandovan, an ancient village of rock houses still inhabited today. It is situated at the foot of Mount Sahand, and is one of the top attractions in the region. I have never been to Cappadocia, but I imagine this is what its like. Amazing how these thousand-year old houses are rock solid and resistant against earthquakes. Parts of one of the houses had collapsed and nobody knows how to reconstruct it, so they just left stilts to keep it standing!
Tabriz Carpet
Tabriz is known as World Carpet Weaving City. The carpets made here are regarded as best in the world. On display is one of the largest carpets in the world known as “mother” at the Azerbaijan Museum in Tabriz, with the three “daughters” in the background.
Sa'at Tower
The iconic Sa’at Tower – city hall and municipal office of the Tabriz municipal government.
Observation of Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram at the Bazaar of Tabriz. The bazaar itself is one of the oldest in the Middle East, and is the larges covered bazaar in the world. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Meal in Tabriz
Milad’s mom prepared delicious home cooked dinner for me during my two-nights’ stay. I am really grateful for all the hospitality shown towards me, an obvious foreigner during my time in Iran.

Final Thoughts

What can I say? I didn’t know what to expect for my first foray into the Middle East, I did have some doubts, but things turned out way better than I had hoped it would. Whilst the views were amazing, I am stunned by the enthusiasm and warmness of the people. There is no doubt I intend to return to this country in the near future, but expectations will be much higher!

The Land of Ice, Fire and Everything in Between- Iceland

Iceland was the first country I traveled alone to, and to date, it is still the most beautiful country I’ve ever visited. Its iconic landscapes are easily identifiable, but based on my Instagram poll, most of you still wanted me to dedicate a post to this island of 300,000 people.

Let’s begin with a little recent background, tourism in Iceland wasn’t always as big as it is now, it really took off after the country’s financial crisis of 2008 to 2011. The three largest privately owned Icelandic banks defaulted, causing a major economic depression. I am not an expert in economy and finance but Iceland essentially shifted their focus to international tourism as a replacement for banking as its primary source of foreign earnings. Tourists started flocking in, especially from the United States with the introduction of low-cost airline, WOW air, connecting major US cities to Reykjavik and other European hubs. A two-way trip from Chicago to Reykjavik can cost as little as $200, that’s less than what I pay for a local flight from Des Moines.

Now, is Iceland really as pretty as you see on Google images? Yes, a very hard yes. Should you visit Iceland, given the chance? Yes, let me tell you how I enjoyed Iceland below.

What You Already Know

There are places in Iceland everyone has seen on the internet now, here’s a rundown on those I actually visited. There are some I missed out, intentionally or not.

 

Reykjavik Mural
Reykjavik has some of the best murals I’ve seen. The city certainly has a hipster feel to it, but step on the Old Town and you can just see how tourist-centric it is. There are puffin stores aplenty and souvenir shops all over.

 

Reykjavik Panorama
A panoramic view of Reykjavik, the capital city from top of Perlan, a domed fine-dining restaurant. Shoutout to my Couchsurfing host Birgir for showing me around the city (he coached the Icelandic sailing team at the Sydney Olympics 2000!)

 

Little Geysir
Geysir, as part of the Golden Circle of Southern Iceland. The Great Geysir hurls boiling water up hundreds of feet every couple of minutes. Pictured is the Little Geysir

 

Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir National Park. If this place looks familiar to you, it’s because they shot Game of Thrones here.

 

Vik Church
Vik Village. Home to just over 300 inhabitants. Pictured is the Vik Church behind Lupine flowers present almost everywhere. Lupine if kind of considered an invasive species in Iceland.

 

Reynisdrangar
Beautiful basalt formation at Reynisdrangar Black Sand Beach.

 

Solheimajokull
Solheimajokull Glacier. They offer glacier walk tours here, but I didn’t want to pay more to walk on ice.

 

Gljufrabui
I visited many of the popular waterfalls of Iceland. Gljufrabui is my favourite. Located near the much larger and more popular Seljalandsfoss, Gljufrabui evokes emotions of fantasy and intimacy with nature. When you enter the canyon where the waterfall is, it is literally just you, the walls, and a beautiful stream of water.

 

I would recommend GeoIceland Day Tours if you’re not in a position to visit these places on your own. I had a great experience with them, they picked me up at my hostel in a minivan and the small group meant it was easier to ask questions and learn stuff. The prices are also reasonable given how Iceland is NOT a budget-friendly country for backpackers. 

Now, you might notice I missed out on Blue Lagoon. I did go there, but I only watched from the outside. The main reason being that I travel on a budget, but Blue Lagoon brands itself as a luxury experience. The entrance fee was (probably still is) 5000 ISK per person (35 Euros), why would I pay that to bathe alone among a bunch of tourists? I paid 7 Euros to enjoy the geothermal swimming pool at Laugardalslaug next to the national stadium. That being said, I would have been willing to enter the Lagoon as part of a group, seems to make more sense to me. 

Things you might not have known

Not following a planned schedule allowed me to look into some other interesting places and activities in Southwestern Iceland. The harbour in Reykjavik has ships and boats that take you to nearby islands, It was here I discovered Videy Island

 

Videy Island
A quiet, pristine island filled with lush greenery and surrounded by the ocean. Videy Island was where I unexpectedly spent half my day. There weren’t many people here but it’s an amazing place to just take in the view, have a picnic and just explore old structures still on the island.

 

Videy Island Anchor
Perhaps my favourite photo from Iceland, taken on Videy Island.

 

Hafnarfjordur elf cave
Have you heard of the relationship between Icelanders and elves? Huldufolk (elves) is an important folklore in Iceland. People sometimes draw windows and doors on rocks or tree stumps believed to be houses of elves. I read that the town of Hafnarfjordur is a hotbed for elf activities, so I took a day trip there in hopes of finding one. I was told they live in little caves like this but I couldn’t find any. My day was ruined because I fully expected to meet a real living elf.

 

Puffins
Real-live creatures also exist in Iceland. I didn’t join the puffin tours that are offered everywhere but I did see these funny birds. Pictured are puffins I saw from extremely far away. They just float on the water like rubber ducks, sometimes they fly towards to cliffs, pretty cute creatures.

Some things I ate…

Icelandic cuisine is a little different than most. Although fish served in restaurants are super fresh and yummy, I also tried some rather…non-mainstream food. 

First, a little anecdote, I tried to save money by making soup myself. I was looking ribs at a Bonus supermarket and bought what looked like pork ribs. They turned out to be horse meat and I didn’t know until I consumed the soup and my host Birgir had told me. It didn’t really make the soup taste any different but the meat is pretty reddish even after cooked and quite lean considering how much horses run. Horse meat is one of the cheapest types of meat in Iceland, not many people eat them but they’re there. 

 

pickled whale meat
Some appetizers for tasting during Fisherman’s Day at the Reykjavik Harbour. The yellowish foodstuff in the large silver bowl is pickled whale meat. Again, I didn’t know what they were until after I tried them and asked the lady who offered them to me. It tasted like a sour fruit, but it was very chewy. Some restaurants in Iceland serve whale meat dishes but I’ve heard a lot about how they’re only doing it for tourists, since locals don’t really eat whale meat much. Here is a little PSA, don’t order whale meat in restaurants, it’s not really a part of Icelandic cuisine and whales shouldn’t have to die for it.

 

seared whale
I was also offered seared whale meat for tasting. They tasted like beef, looked like it too.

 

Hakarl
I went deliberately in search of this infamous Icelandic national dish- Hakarl. It is fermented sleeper shark meat known to smell and taste very very pungent. The smell really overwhelmed me. I couldn’t smell anything other than ammonia when I opened the container. Taste-wise, it wasn’t that awful, but wasn’t pleasant either. They are usually consumed with brennivin, a local type of spirit. I also made a rather risky and dumb decision to bring them back to Malaysia on my carry-on bag. Luckily, the container was tight enough that the smell did not leak.

 

Dried cod's heads
Dried cod’s head hanging on a drying rack. They are exported to various parts of the world, including to as far as Africa.

Incredible Landscapes

Icelandic Moss
Mossy lava field in Iceland. Do not step on the moss in Iceland! They are very sensitive and takes up to a century to regrow. Justin Bieber once caused a stir for trampling on Icelandic moss while filming a video.

 

volcanic soil
Mineral-rich volcanic soil.

 

Ram, Iceland
A ram, up close and personal. The arctic fox is the only mammal native to Iceland, every other species were introduced to the country. There are zero large predatory animals here, more importantly, there are no MOSQUITOES in Iceland.

How do I Spend Less in Iceland?

For half my trip I stayed at Kex Hostel, a very hipster place that used to be a biscuit factory. It was just about affordable enough for me as I said before, Iceland is EXPENSIVE. I Couchsurfed the other part of my trip, helping save a ton of money and knowing my wonderful host Birgir!

There are also campsites around the country and if you’re adventurous and have your own tents and essentials, why not? 

For food, there really aren’t too many options. I cook myself sometimes but it would have to be a very basic meal, meat is expensive. If you want to eat outside but not spend too much, there are two options I know of. 

 

Fish & Chips Wagon
The Fish & Chips Wagon found in Reykjavik is not too expensive and the portion is pretty big.

 

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur
This is probably the most popular hotdog place in Reykjavik. Located in downtown, there is always a line so you wont miss it. Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur serve relatively cheap hotdogs and taste pretty good. Alas, we can’t live on a hotdog-exclusive diet.

Bottom Line…

If given the chance, visit Iceland! It is not the most wallet-friendly destination (none of the Nordic countries are,) but if I (someone who avoids touristy places) could enjoy it, I believe most people will!

Resilience Personified- Poland

Flanked by Germany to the west and the Soviet Union to the east, Poland was one of the biggest victims of World War II. The country was divided and annexed by their powerful neighbours while cultural hubs were systematically destroyed in an effort to wipe out traces of Polish identity.

Unfortunately, much of the historical landmarks in Poland today are not original, such was the destruction brought forth by the occupying Nazi forces. Warsaw, the capital, was almost completely razed to the ground by the Luftwaffe. Over 80% of the city was destroyed and had to be rebuilt in the mid-20th century.

When the war ended, Poland was in tatters. The Red Army had pushed the Nazis out, but this was the beginning of an era of Communist rule in the country. Living conditions were awful, many people left for Western Europe after the fall of Communism in 1989. Life isn’t always easier abroad, Poles are often the subject of discrimination due to their tendencies to take on more menial jobs.

Maciej, my host in Bialystok for a night returned after a decade in the UK, he told me he doesn’t need a high paying job in Poland anymore. Owning real estate and working a medium-wage job (for Polish standards,) he seems set for the rest of his life. The country has developed a lot and that is no small feat for a population of almost 40 million with such a heavy past. I was very impressed by the big cities like Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw, the streets were clean, public transportation was excellent. It is a country that has bounced back and not looked back.

 

 

Warsaw- The Modern Capital

I effectively started my tour of Poland in its capital, Warsaw. I could not imagine how the city would have looked after the Nazis left . How could this traditional, sunny, uplifting major capital city been a pile of rubble and dead bodies just over 70 years ago? 

Rynek Stare Miasto Warsaw
Old Town Marketplace in Warsaw. The city’s old town was nearly completely destroyed and it took a major rebuilding effort after WWII to restore it. I could not tell most buildings were not original because they used as many of the original bricks as possible during the rebuilding process. Pre-war and 18th century architecture plans were used to recreate the facades making it effectively the newest old town in Europe.

Building facade, Warsaw
There is a story behind the three faces painted between the two rows of windows. The former owner of the unit had 3 daughters, the one with a floral crown is not married and available for courtship. This is how the bachelors in town were notified. I am unsure if this is original or recreated, it would be amazing if they actually recreated such detail from the past to preserve a story.

Krakow- The Ancient Capital

Krakow was capital of Poland until 1596. It is one of the cities left unscathed from Nazi occupation because the Germans thought it was an “ancient German City.” Instead of destroying it, they segregated it and attempted to Germanize the city. The infamous Krakow Ghetto was formed, citizens of Jewish ancestry were forcibly moved there, followed by Poles and Roma before being transported to Auschwitz Concentration Camp or Plaszow. 

If you watched Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” you will notice many familiar buildings and places in the Jewish Quarter because many scenes were shot here. In fact, Oskar Schindler’s factory is still here, now serving as The Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, dedicated to the period surrounding WWII. 

Krakow
Unlike Warsaw, Krakow remained intact throughout and after WWII. There has been a long existing rivalry with Warsaw regarding which city is the true capital of Poland. This will be explained in the photo below. 
Wawel Castle
Wawel Castle, the historical royal residence, burned down in 1595, instead of reconstructing it, the king opted to move permanently to Warsaw, effectively making it the new capital. The castle did get reconstructed eventually but over the years, neglect, war and foreign occupation has seen it detoriorate. Today, it is a national museum.
Auschwitz-Birkenau
Unfortunately, a huge part of Krakow and Poland’s modern history has ties with Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. However, I sincerely believe no trip to Poland is complete without a tour here. It is here that you learn the true horrors of the Holocaust. There were many rooms and chambers that gave me goosebumps I never knew I could feel and in today’s political climate, we ought to learn about the dangers of extreme nationalism.

The Tri-City Region

The most visited area in the north of Poland is probably the tri-city area with the three cities being Gdansk, Gdynia and Sopot. This is a coastal area and is a little more different from Warsaw and Krakow. The unusually hot summer of 2018 made for some interesting sightings. Despite that, Gdansk is probably the prettiest city out of all I visited in Poland. 

Motlawa River
Algal-bloom in the Motlawa River during a very hot summer. Not surprising nobody was enjoying a swim. At the beach in Sopot, nobody was allowed in the water for a few days due to the growth of a harmful bacteria because of the heat. Climate change is real and not 100% natural, do not listen to nutcases and conspiracy theorists who claim otherwise, educate yourselves.
Gdansk viewpoint
View of Gdansk from St. Mary’s Church tower. I climbed 409 steps of a very narrow spiral staircase to get here, worth every step. The tower in frame is the Town Hall tower which offers another viewpoint. Most of the buildings you see were also rebuilt as 90% of the city was ravaged by the Nazis during WWII. Some of the older destroyed buildings in Poland could not be rebuilt to the exact likeness of the original as no existing drawings or plans exist.
Sopot Pier
Walking along the longest wooden pier in Europe in Sopot.

Lublin, Wroclaw and Poznan

Getting around Poland was very easy despite its size, (thank you Flix Bus.) I was very lucky to see more of the country. Believe me, this is a country you want to spend more time in, there is so much to unveil, from learning how to pronounce “Wroclaw,” to trying the St. Martin’s Croissant in Poznan, a recipe protected by the European Union.

Lublin Castle
Lublin is small compared to the other places I visited. it was also a little sleepy because I visited on Sunday and a Monday. There were also less English speakers here so I felt a little lonely. However, Lublin Castle is fresh in my mind because it is the most distinct castle I have ever visited. Moorish in design, it is unlike most other European castles. Lublin is also home to some of the best ice-cream I’ve had, pay Lody Bosko a visit. Poland has some very good ice-cream, or “lody” as they call it.
Ostrow Tumski
Ostrow Tumski (Cathedral Island) in Wroclaw is infinitely beautiful at night with the lights all turned on. I was very lucky to have spotted a daily ritual in practice, more to follow below.
Lamplighter Wroclaw
I caught the lamplighter of Ostrow Tumski on camera! Wroclaw is one of the only two cities left in Europe to have its own lamplighter (the other being Brest in Belarus.) For over a hundred years, a lamplighter wearing a cape and a hat will light up the gas lanterns around the island everyday at sunset. He moved rather quickly so I had to follow him around in order to get some blurry shots.
Wroclaw dwarf
Wroclaw’s biggest attraction however, are probably the tiny sculptures of dwarfs scattered throughout the city. They initially served as a symbol for the peaceful protest group known as the Orange Alternative back in the 1980s. Today, there are around 400 of them in Wroclaw and I spent around half a day looking for them, managing to find almost 20. You will never have a dull day in this city, you can always do some scavenger hunt.
Poznan
The colourful market square of Poznan is vibrant and uplifting. Pictured are a row of “merchants’ houses,” a row of narrow shop houses dating back to the 13th century. They used to serve as herring stalls that also sold everyday items like salt and candles. Today, artists and souvenir vendors set up shop here. The town hall is on the right.

Every midday, two mechanical goats on top of the Poznan town hall clock will come out cuckoo style and do battle. This unique event attracts huge crowds especially grandparents and children. I watched on as I tried the St. Martin’s croissant exclusive to this very city because the recipe is protected by the EU. This means the baking of this pastry needs to follow the exact recipe with no exceptions. The croissant is made up of 81 layers consisting of white poppy seeds, raisins, orange peel, walnuts, biscuit crumbs, eggs and almond flavouring. For me it tasted a little sweet, but the feeling of having tasted food protected by the EU is priceless. My apologies for not having images for both these amazing things!

All in All, Visit Poland

There’s something for everyone. Pierogis, Kielbasa and Polish Sausages for the foodies, a glut of history (both tragic and triumphant) for the scholars, pristine coastal areas for the beach bums, and well-developed cities for the city slickers.

It is simply amazing how this nation rose from the ashes of war and then emerge from an oppressive regime as one of the most developed country in an unfancied region of Europe. The Poles are nothing if not resilient, see for yourself. 

No Hunger in Paradise- Cuba

I am naming this post after Michael Calvin’s excellent book and documentary about aspiring footballers in England, and how their journeys are so heavily romanticized. Less than 1% of all  young players actually make it to the glitz and glam of top level football.

How many Cubans actually just sit back all day in Varadero puffing cigars and dancing salsa? People go to Cuba expecting paradise; pristine beaches, delicious rum, cheap cigars, classic cars, it is supposedly a place filled with “don’t worry, be happy” vibes. I often wonder why people long for “authentic” experiences when travelling somewhere but never actually stop to think what “authentic” really means. Cuba, like most of Latin America and the Caribbean, is an impoverished country, it is a fact, there are no ways around it.

When I arrived in Havana, I was in awe with how different this place was to any other places I’ve ever been to. It felt like I went back in time, cars from the 50s and 60s filled the streets, people gathered outside in groups. It was like a huge movie setting, making it easy to forget that everything I saw was a reflection of the socioeconomic problems Cubans face. We’re talking about one of the last true socialist countries in the world, it isn’t just another island paradise where rich White people go for crazy beach parties.

Cuban taxi
Taken from my taxi in Havana. It was a two-seater with no safety belts nor air-conditioning. Cars are incredibly expensive in Cuba, for less than US$ 10,000 you can only get a model from the 60s. Anything considered “modern” (not from the 60s) can cost upwards of US$15,000. The old car vibe of Cuba is not just a show for tourists, many people can’t afford cars on an average state salary of US$ 20 per month. Driving an old taxi in Cuba is about as profitable as it gets for a local, one driver I encountered in Vinales told me he was a certified lawyer, but driving a taxi earns so much more since professionals get paid peanuts by the state.

 

Duplex house Cienfuegos
Duplex houses in Cienfuegos. My bed and breakfast is on the second floor of the building on the right. Initially, I wanted to Couchsurf with locals but I found out it is illegal for Cubans to host foreigners in their homes for free. Many turn their homes into B&B’s for extra income and to meet people, given they rarely have a chance to see much of the world. My host Alexey and his family were some of the loveliest people I’ve met on the road.

 

Locals of Cuba
Locals of Cienfuegos. Most houses in Cuba are small with no yard or porch areas. Many people leave their doors open, probably to ventilate air and create an illusion of space.

 

Cuban life
The real Havana, the other side of paradise. Cubans enjoy free healthcare and education but high literacy rates do not translate to good living. The easiest way to earn a living is by exploiting the growing tourism industry. Being an obvious foreigner I was constantly heckled on the streets by illegal money changers, vendors, street performers and prostitutes. Cuba is one of the only countries that uses two currencies, the CUP (pesos) for locals and CUC (convertible pesos) for internationals. 1 CUC is equivalent to US$1.00 and 1 CUC is 25 CUP. As a foreigner you will always be given CUC when you exchange currency from legal bodies. Most vendors list two prices and paying in CUC will always lead to paying extra.

 

Fidel Castro mural
You can’t talk about Cuba and not mention Fidel and Che. The shadow of the Cuban Revolution still looms large over the island. Che Guevara is still the nation’s hero; a symbol of Latin America martyrdom. Fidel Castro is more polarizing given how he settled for the cushy job of dictator while Che continued fighting in the American continent against imperialists. However, the revolution’s impact goes far beyond producing figureheads, it created a precedence for anti-Americanism. Fidel and Che were key figures in ousting the American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista who allowed private American businesses to dominate the country’s economy. This paved way for the rule of the Communist Party of Cuba. While it was a symbolic victory of the people, it was the beginning of a regime that probably set Cuba back a few decades. The Communist Party of Cuba only recently started loosening its socialist policies due to the poor economy. Currently, less than half the population have access to internet, which is state-controlled and can only be accessed through public WiFi hotspots. Mobile internet was only introduced in July this year. (For foreigners, purchase prepaid internet cards from ETECSA outlets, the country’s telecommunications company. 1 hour of internet costs 2 CUC. There will always be a line outside these outlets, you can’t miss them. Alternatively, some locals sell these cards for higher prices near main streets.)

 

Cretins
“The Cretins” featuring Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr, and George W. Bush. Taken in the Museum of the Revolution in Havana. Talk about anti-Americanism. I do believe this sentiment is winding down with the younger generations.

 

Trinidad, Cuba
No doubt Cuba is a beautiful country with beautiful people capable of mesmerizing moments like this. Taken in Trinidad.

 

Che souvenir
“Come for the rum, stay for Che.”

 

Tobacco farm, Vinales
Tobacco farm in Vinales Valley.

 

Street, Havana
A typical street in Havana.

 

Old Bus, Havana
A haunting reminder of how difficult life can be in Cuba. I am blessed to be given these opportunities to travel the world. It isn’t just about seeing the most beautiful sights in every continent. Sometimes beautiful buildings have less pretty stories.

This post was also shared on Matt Supertramp’s blog at www.cowboysfromspace.wordpress.com

Check it out for more inspiring stories about travel and culture.

Solo on the Road: The Good, the Bad, and the Lonely

I underwent my first solo backpacking trip in 2016, to Boston and then to Iceland for two weeks. Since then I have embarked on three more separate journeys alone to different parts of the world. As much as I’d like to tell you every single moment on the road was perfect, I can’t, I don’t think that is possible in any walk of life. That being said, I would never trade my experiences in those four trips for anything else in the world. Let me separate this post into a few sections; the pros, the cons, and some tips.

A sneaky selfie at deserted Gauja National Park, Cesis, Latvia.

The Pros

The perks of traveling alone anywhere allow for enriching experiences if you organize yourself well enough. The one thing I love most about just bringing my own ass and a backpack anywhere is that I have all the freedom in the world. I get to pick where I want to go, when I want to go, and what I want to eat, no compromises needed. Traveling with a group of friends is obviously a fun thing but you don’t get to do everything your way. There might be someone in the group who does not want to stay in that cool hipster hostel you found or they just do not want to do that day trip you planned. A lot needs to be planned beforehand when you travel in a group, there needs to be a solid itinerary with everybody’s consensus if you do not want to waste precious exploration time. I don’t plan much, I never know what city I’m heading to next until a few days before I’m due to depart because I can make that decision in an instant. When you’re able to go online, everything can be settled within minutes.

Going solo also allowed me to meet people I would not have met had I had the comfort of travel companions. Living in hostels you can find many like-minded solo travelers from around the world. For an introvert, sort of ambivert-ish guy like me it’s a great way to meet people. I find it so much easier to make friends while traveling than being in university because on the road, I find people a lot more open-minded and a lot less hypocritical. Maybe that’s because we’re (if I can call myself a traveler) less inclined to be ethnocentric, and less likely to impose our own values on different societies, we’re not afraid of differences. I’ve had wonderful experiences exploring small villages and towns with fellow hostel dwellers, these are places I did not know existed nor would have I visited alone in fear of being completely lost. Yes, I am aware that I would probably never see some of these friends I made on the road ever again, but we share moments I will always remember and I think about them from time to time.

Kitten in Skopje
I think traveling alone makes you more observant to your surroundings. Here’s a shot of a kitty I spotted in Skopje, Macedonia.

The Cons

Yes, hard to believe, there are cons to flying solo, from small things like being on a bus alone with strangers for 32 hours (yes, I did that) to big scary things like the consuming void that is loneliness. To be honest, I did not exactly plan my first solo backpacking trip, I did ask some of my friends if they wanted to join, I was okay with going alone but that wasn’t the original plan. There are activities more suited for parties of two and above, like bar-hopping (if you’re not joining hostel-led tours) and going for parties. It simply does not make sense to me to go to a bar and drink alone hoping people would approach me. I do not work that way. More often than not, if I had not been able to meet anyone to go out with, I find myself reading or playing with my phone in an empty hostel room at night, and sometimes night extends to nights. I’m not saying it is bad to spend time alone at night and not go out but it is sometimes harder to enjoy cities with more vibrant nightlives alone if you’re not extroverted.

Then, there is loneliness, particularly on a long trip. I felt it, there were moments I wished I could share with friends back home. Sometimes it was hard wandering the city and witnessing families, couples and friends having fun while I sat on a bench licking my melting gelato. Those moments sucked. I think some places are more practical for group travelers, like Cuba. Almost no one spoke English there and I don’t speak Spanish, the country basically has no real internet connection for visitors (you have to be at designated hotspots.) While some nights I met groups of Europeans or Australians and have some Cuba Libre, others, I go to bed by 11 p.m. struggling to fall asleep.

What I Can Share

You don’t need excessive planning but it is smart to study the region you’re heading to, where buses, trains and planes go to if you’re on a multi-city trip. I was planning on heading to Belarus by bus from Lithuania but luckily I was told by my German hostel roommate that visa-free entry into Belarus is only available through the airport, I would have been denied entry at the border. Do your research, especially if you’re going to less touristic places. Look up Google Maps and plan out a general route, what kind of transportation link these cities/countries up. In my opinion, there are no countries in the world not worthy of a visit, you can even travel solo locally, it is something I’m planning to do in the future, a trip around Peninsular Malaysia.

On accommodation, I tend to not be picky about it, I like hostels because they have all the necessities you need and you can meet people. It’s not true that hostels are dirty and full of dangerous people, there are many popular well-maintained places with quirky themes, but of course it’s not for everyone, some people like more privacy and I understand that. For more adventurous travelers, do try CouchSurfing, it is an app where you can find hosts in different cities willing to accommodate you at their place for free. It is a fun way to meet and interact with locals, learn how they live and discover hidden spots not really exposed to travelers. I wrote two articles about my experiences CouchSurfing in Ames, IA and St. Louis, MO and I’ve only met great hosts so far.

Graz sunset
Sunset of Graz, Austria I shot while I was CouchSurfing at my host Jose’s place.

I know some people fear language barriers and getting lost. For communication, many younger folks in large cities do understand English, even when they don’t, body language and hand gestures usually bring simple messages across easily, I believe human beings have naturally strong non-verbally-built bonds. If you have internet access, it’s even easier with translation apps and maps. If you don’t I suggest downloading the MAPS.ME app onto your phone, download the map of your destination before departing and use it offline while you’re there, navigation is also available. I can’t tell you how much I loved the app while I was in Cuba. So there really aren’t many barriers to traveling somewhere alone that cannot be solved with a phone, but of course I speak as a privileged Asian male.

So…

Do it, go on solo journeys, it can be overwhelming at first but it can be life changing. As I stated, your trip won’t be perfect, there will be bad days. There will be days with bad weather and your plans are just in tatters, days when you just don’t want to go out, then don’t, do what you want, that’s the beauty of it.

The Bohemian Rhapsody- Lithuania

If you tell me you’ve always known that Lithuania was once the largest country in Europe, I would call you a dirty liar, or maybe I would feel extremely bitter because you might be smarter than me. Of course, back then in the 14th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania also included Ukraine, Belarus and parts of Russia and Poland. Today, the Republic of Lithuania is only the size of West Virginia.

From one coastal city to another, I took a bus from Liepaja, Latvia to Klaipeda, Lithuania. I prioritized Klaipeda over Vilnius because I absolutely wanted to see the Curonian Spit (more on that.) I found the city itself a little sleepy and more family-oriented. The two ports, one for passenger transportation, the other for vehicles were pretty crowded. Klaipeda is also slightly closer to the Hill of Crosses; another must-see site, than Vilnius, making it a good stop for a few day trips.

Hill of Crosses
The Hill of Crosses or Kyrziu Kalnas in Lithuanian, is a Christian pilgrimage site near the city of Siauliai. It is one of the biggest attractions of Lithuania. The practice of leaving crosses and religious symbols started in the 19th century by Catholic pilgrims and today the hill has over 300,000 crosses. Lithuania was the last country in Europe to accept Christianity and over 70 percent of the population today identify as Catholics, but Christians across the world of different denominations come and leave their crosses as well. This place really is something else and it is worth a day trip if you find yourself in Klaipeda, Vilnius or Riga. Just take a train to Siauliai and then a 20 minute bus dropping you just outside the hill, and if you’re a believer yourself, you can purchase a small cross, put your name and message on it and leave your mark.

 

Nida, Curonian Spit
The Curonian Spit is a sand dune spit separating the Curonian Lagoon and the Baltic Coast. Just imagine a thin long island separating two bodies of water. Pictured is a sand dune in the town of Nida and its surroundings. My amateurish photo skills do not do this place justice, its beauty can only be fully absorbed being there in person. When you’re on top of the dunes and you see the vast sandy land ahead of you with open water, it makes you tear up.

 

Curonian Spit, Ship
Overlooking the western side of the spit, a ship sails on the Baltic Coast. The northern part of the spit lies in Lithuania while the south is part of the Russian exclave; Kaliningrad Oblast. Without a Russian visa i had no access to the south but I heard the northern part is better anyway.

It was in Lithuania that I engaged more with local food due to the larger availability of non-tourist traps. It was also here that I learnt Baltic people love potatoes. Potato pancakes, pudding, dumplings etc. are served almost anywhere that sells food and they’re always among the cheapest main courses. Prices have gone up in the Baltic states since they adopted the Euro (Estonia in 2011, Latvia in 2014, Lithuania in 2015) as their national currencies. Much like how some Singaporeans like spending in Malaysia, some Lithuanians are heading down south to Poland (where they still use the Polish Zloty) to do their shopping. With my journalist math, I believe a cheap meal at a restaurant without a drink costs approximately €8.00, so it’s still hardly the most expensive region in Europe.

smoked fish
Smoked fish in Nida. Very cheap and good with a pint. There are many joints in Nida that sells this. I took very few photos of food, this is 1 of 2.

 

Cepelinai
Cepelinai, or zeppelin in English (because of the shape) is a national dish. Simply put, they’re potato dumplings stuffed with meat (or anything else) eaten with sour cream and bacon bits. The first few bites were a little weird for me because of the texture but it grew on me. I still prefer blynai though, which are potato pancakes. No bullshit, just pancakes made of potatoes. This is 2 of 2.

I found Lithuania to be a little more bohemic and free-spirited than its Baltic neighbors, not least due to the young artists living in Vilnius, the establishment of the Republic of Uzupis neighborhood and the fanaticism revolving around their national basketball team. Yes, they are crazy about basketball, some people call it a religion. This is particularly notable considering Lithuania is surrounded by footballing nations.

Magical Mouse, Klaipeda
“The Magical Mouse” of Klaipeda. The words surrounding the band says “turn your ideas into words, words will become magic.” It is said that if you whisper your wishes into the ear of the mouse, they will come true.

 

Kaunas
A little tribute paid to Lithuanian basketball in Kaunas, the second largest city in Lithuania.

 

Republic of Uzupis
Have your heard of Freetown Christiana in Copenhagen? The Republic of Uzupis in Vilnius is of a similar concept but with less controversy. This “country” has its own constitution and parliament (a pub.) It is a popular neighborhood for young artists and some of their works can be seen along the river and on the walls making up the district. If you bring your passport to the tourist information centre, you can get an “official” stamp on it.

 

Street art, Vilnius
Street art in Vilnius, near the bus station. I’m sure you recognize the two subjects on the right, they’re good friends. Here they’re sharing a joint.

 

Uzupis egg
This colorful egg used to be erected in the centre of Uzupis, but it is now replaced by a statue of an angel blowing a horn. The egg now stands in another part of Vilnius.

Of course, being part of Eastern Europe, the country had seen its fair share of tragedies. It was the first nation to declare independence from the USSR; fifty years after its annexation. Like its neighbors, Nazis temporarily drove the Soviets away during World War II to impose their own brand of cruelty, culminating in the Paneriai massacre, where 100,000 people were killed in the span of 3 years.

Paneriai Memorial
Perhaps the most chilling place I visited. This pit was a mass grave in Paneriai, a site of 100,000 killings by the Nazis. Today it is part of the Paneriai Memorial Museum. Towards the end of WWII, Germany realized they were going to lose the war, and in a desperate attempt to hide their wartime atrocities, Hitler and other Nazi leaders called for the SS to dispose and burn all bodies at sites of mass murder. Slave workers were ordered to dig pits, pile up bodies of their peers and cremate them. The ladder was a tool used to slide bodies into the pit. I visited on a rainy day, there was hardly anybody else there, it was eerily quiet, but it allowed me to take in and imagine how the place felt like in 1942. It must have been similarly quiet except for the sounds of gunshots, dragging and burning. I could feel the sense of dread, I felt encapsulated by the forest, but it was nothing compared to what the victims felt back then, they must have knew they were never getting out alive. The museum is located 30 minutes outside Vilnius, I believe it’s just one of those places people should go to once in life to see for themselves, and to vow never to let something like this happen again.

 

Paneriai stone
A memorial stone at Paneriai. Flowers bloom around as if they’re signifying a new lease of life here. On the background, train tracks lead the way out of the Paneriai forest.

It is unavoidable that I would write about the Holocaust and WWII having visited this part of Europe. The Nazis left everlasting damage to these countries and the crimes they committed should never be forgotten, not only to prevent any future recurrences but also to remember how strong our powers of recovery can be. That being said, let’s end this post on a high note as I describe a couple of the better photos I took in Lithuania not already posted.

Trakai Castle
Trakai Island Castle, a 14th century castle 30 minutes away from Vilnius. Some parts fell into disrepair and were reconstructed in the 19th century. It is now a museum and a huge tourist attraction. I was very happy to be able to capture the blooming lotuses.

 

Ladybug in Vilnius
This ladybug caught my eye as I went for a panoramic view of Vilnius. It reminded me that summer had truly begun.

Of Lakes, Trees and Fast Internet- Latvia

Since it was a World Cup period, it was essential that I was somewhere with the best internet connection to stream games (nothing else.) Latvia happens to have one of the fastest internet speeds in the world. The Baltic states in general, are quietly very technologically advanced, the best way of being good at something(my previous post on Estonia touched on how it is a startup paradise.) At 5:30 in the morning, I left my hostel in Tartu, eastern Estonia, and headed to the bus station. The bus arrived late in Riga; the capital of Latvia, and I had to rush to my connecting ride to Cesis in the northeast of the country. Through my short sprint I noticed the local babushkas at the market and a cab driver using Waze in Russian. Having never been to Russia, this was probably the closest to Russian culture I had witnessed so far.

Gauja Trail
The Baltic States are filled with natural beauty. I spent half a day walking the trails of Gauja National Park; one of four national parks in Latvia. Quiet and serene, it felt as if nothing was separating me from nature.

Gauja kayakers
Two kayakers on the Gauja River. Gauja National Park is not just a place to observe sandstone cliffs, recreational activities are popular. In the winter, ski resorts operate near the slopes and hills.

The country’s history and Russian influence is something to take notice. Like Estonia, having been annexed by the USSR from 1940 to 1991, Soviet influences can still be seen, not least the near 500,000 ethnic Russians who live in Latvia and the 37 percent of Latvians who speak Russian. Many signs and shops display Russian as a second language.

Cesis Castle Tower
One of the towers of Cesis Castle, the main attraction of the town of Cesis. It was built by the Livonian Order; Catholic knights in medieval Europe. The interior of the castle ruins are very dark but visitors can pick up an old fashioned lantern from a small stand before exploring.

Latvia is not the perfect destination for ravers and party animals, you won’t get the Amsterdam vibes in Riga nor would you see many Ibiza-ish beach parties along its 500 km Baltic shoreline. Nightlife in the Baltic states may not match those of Western European strongholds or the crazy Eastern European parties of Bucharest or Kiev but you need not shed your hedonistic self, Old Town Riga is as lively as it gets with restaurants and bars galore. For lonely self-deprecating nerds such as myself who have intrinsic desires to learn while on holiday, Riga itself has several interesting museums in the city centre which are either free or charges a small entrance fee. There is much to learn about the country’s fate during WWII and subsequent communist rule. For travelers with a taste for the alternative, Karosta Prison in Liepaja is a great place to visit. Built during Tsarist Russia, the former prison is now a museum but visitors can pay to spend nights there and be treated like prisoners. Basically, you can pay for people to treat you like shit and live in bad conditions.

Liepaja Beach
Foggy Liepaja Beach. Very quiet and peaceful, it was nice reading a book here.

 

Northern Forts
The Northern Forts of Liepaja. One of my favorite spots ever. Some distance outside the centre of Liepaja is an area filled with abandoned Tsarist Russian era bunkers. Attempts to blow the fortress up failed and today the ruins lie with the Baltic Sea in the background. Absolutely haunting yet beautiful setting for an afternoon or evening stroll.

Like its neighbors, Latvia’s abundance of beaches, forests and modern history makes for a versatile and wholesome travel experience but what fascinated me most were the sites of memory. The country’s troubled past lays bare for all to see, visitors have access to sites of mass murders and torture chambers.

KGB House
A cell in “The Corner House;” a former KGB prison and office. It earned its nickname because of its location on the corner of a street. Most people brought here only ever entered the main entrance once, they were either killed or sent to gulags in Siberia. KGB agents used torture methods to force confessions such as putting “prisoners” in “special” cells which were much damper or darker and without windows. A hidden room in the garage served as the execution chamber, the room was soundproofed to the point that no prisoners knew people were being killed in the compound. Life behind the Iron Curtain was tough for Latvians especially during Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror. Many people were sent to labor camps in the most inhospitable areas of Siberia for years. Some never made it back, others raised families in exile. Latvia, along with its Baltic neighbors restored their independence in August 1991.

 

Riga Ghetto
Remaining barbed wire fence of the Riga Ghetto district. During Nazi Germany’s occupation, Latvian Jews were removed from their homes in Riga and placed in this neighborhood. They lived in cramped, desolate conditions and were forbidden from leaving the ghetto. Outsiders seen feeding or helping them would also be killed. Around 24,000 Latvian Jews were rounded up in the nearby Rumbula Forest and killed by the SS in 1941. Only approximately 1,000 out of 50,000 Jews forced into the ghetto survived the Holocaust.

 

Beware

 

 

 

 

Enter the Baltics- Estonia

What did I know about the Baltic states? I know it’s made up of three countries known as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania respectively. I know Skype was founded in Estonia. I know they used to be part of the Soviet Union. I also know they don’t have very good football teams. That was about it, but I visited anyway.  Tallinn, the capital of Estonia was a 2-hour flight away from London (90 dollars, very uncomfortable with Ryanair.) This was the first time I went somewhere without really knowing what to expect.

Old town, Tallinn
One of the best preserved old towns of Europe in Tallinn. Crowded with cafe patrons and tourists on a sun-shiny day. The weather plays a big part in my impression of a city.

Doing the bare minimum of research, I found out that Estonia is what they call a “startup paradise,” the Skype thing suddenly makes sense now. Most impressive to me was their e-government, all the bureaucratic bullshit we have to deal with, Estonians do it online. They were the first nation to introduce online voting in governmental elections in 2005 and now they pay taxes through the internet. This is even more astonishing considering they only reclaimed independence in 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union. It took merely one generation for this small nation to grow from an isolated post-communist state to a booming tech hub. The iron curtain was raised in an alarming speed.

Despite all this talk of it being the Silicon Valley of Europe, Tallinn’s historic center is one of the best preserved medieval old towns in Europe, rightfully earning a spot on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.

Tallinn steps to viewing platform
There is a Bohemian feel about the old town, especially walking up the steps to a viewing platform to the sound of busking musicians.

I stayed in a hostel 5 minutes away from the old town by foot. The early summer weather made it easy to walk everywhere, on good days, the sun would shine so brightly but temperatures would stay around the perfect 22 degree celsius mark. It had all the makings of me falling in love with the city and yes I did. I don’t have anything negative to say about the city.  It’s clean, public transportation is top notch, it’s beautiful, it’s contrasting past and future makes for an interesting narrative, and the growing startup culture is attracting young people to the city.

However, one tiny downside is that people are starting to notice this city, there were multiple travel tour groups from as far as Korea visiting the city. If there’s something that repels me from a city, it’s crowds of tourists. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad the city and country is getting the recognition it deserves.

Market square. Tallinn
Market square of Tallinn. A good point to purchase Estonian souvenir, handicrafts ,and traditional dresses.

 

Dog along the Baltic Coast, Tallinn
A dog owner watches as his two dogs have fun in the sun along the Baltic Coastline of Tallinn. That’s right, if a dope old town, Soviet history or tech startups are not your thing, there is the sea.

 

Brown dog
A doggo having fun in the water. After watching doggos have fun by the sea I visited the Seaplane Harbour of Tallinn. It is a museum that houses old ships from the war and more peaceful times.

Basically, I find Estonia to be at the crossroads of Scandinavia and the Eastern Bloc. Helsinki is a 3-hour ferry ride away across the Gulf of Finland, but the shadow of Russia looms large in the east. Perhaps the longing of some locals for a Nordic identity rose from an urge to erase its Soviet past, still fresh in the minds of some. Former KGB HQs and offices have been converted into museums like their neighboring Baltic nations with the cells intact, everyday commodities of the communist era are preserved in museums, including the Estonian National Museum in Tartu I had the pleasure of visiting.

Old houses of Tartu
Houses of Tartu dating back to around a century ago. I took a stroll around the Supilinn neighborhood (Soup Town.) It used to be a slum for peasants, the streets are named after vegetables; ingredients used to make soup (peasant food.)

 

Estonian open air museum
An exhibit of the Estonian Open Air Museum. The museum is a short drive away from the centre of Tallinn. I very much encourage a visit to this museum. It is a life-sized reconstruction of an 18th century Estonian village. On display are houses from different parts of the country, churches, schoolhouses and farms. The open air museum concept is not exclusive to Estonia as I found out there were others in the Baltics as well as Poland. You can easily spend up to 5 hours wandering here learning about the country’s humble past.

However developed Estonia may be today, the nation remembers where it came from, hard-earned independence taken away by the Red Army in 1940, German occupation and the Holocaust during World War II followed by decades behind the Iron Curtain from the rule of Stalin up to Gorbachev. The will of the Estonian people to put a rather tumultuous past behind and successfully form a strong modern nation is one to be admired.

 

Moving West- Central Europe, back to the Balkans

It is a regret of mine that I didn’t see more of Hungary other than Budapest, I simply did not allocate enough time to do so, but I am very glad I saw Budapest before it truly becomes one of the Barcelonas, the Pragues, the Londons, before it is completely taken over by tourism, it’s getting there.

Chain Bridge
The Chain Bridge, the most iconic of the 3 bridges connecting Buda and Pest across the Danube.

My House in Budapest, My Hidden Treasure Chest

I arrived in Budapest all grumpy and tired, I couldn’t sleep on the train and I hadn’t showered for a day, I also got ripped off by a cab driver (note: lots of them in Budapest, cabs and exchange offices). Once I started exploring the city everything was better, Budapest was definitely the highlight of my trip. Easily accessible streets, the river, the city is as vibrant as it gets, things to do from dawn to dusk, and also after that. Strolling around the city in the hot sun for 3 hours was not ideal but it was worth it.

It’s a beautiful city but I think the best thing is getting vibes from the people here, they know how to have fun and enjoy, there’s never a shortage of people. There is also the small matter of cruising down the Danube at night getting absolutely hammered (not me.) After a wonderful 3 nights in Budapest I decided to use Bratislava as a buffer zone between Hungary and Austria, like many people do (no offense, Slovakia is great.)

Budapest is only 3 hours away from Bratislava by bus, do consider RegioJet Bus, it’s the best bus service ever and trips usually only cost 5 Euros. They operate mainly in Central and Eastern Europe but offer routes to as far as London. Imagine an airplane on land (basically a bus), yes, with wifi, food (payment needed of course), movies, radio and games, I tried looking for their services whenever possible. No they did not pay me to do this, (I have like 5 readers,) I just liked them a lot and wanted to share this info with you. So, yes, Slovakia.

Cumil sculpture
A sculpture in Old Town Bratislava known as Cumil, meaning “the Watcher” in Slovak.

Bratislovin’

Old Town Bratislava is a very charming place, people were passing out drunk as early as 2pm, I can certainly see why Bratislava is a party city. I was supposed to have a host here but she went on jury duty out of town without telling me, I spent half the day trying to contact her with my bags walking around the city. Ultimately a fellow couchsurfer took me in for the night and he was super nice. The dude was crazy in a good way, for awhile he had the left side of his head shaved before fully shaving it and he showed me his half-tanned scalp, that was the funniest thing ever. Slovaks are my favorite people because as my host Juraj told me, they’re the fun side of Czechoslovakia (I didn’t say this, Czechs).

For the first day I climbed up to Bratislava Castle with my bags because I didn’t want to waste the day waiting for a response from my original host, the castle was okay, nothing quite special. The atmosphere of Old Town was sick though because it was Champions League Final day and many bars were showing the big game.

The next day Juraj could not host me so I checked into an Airbnb dorm, weather was shit but I took the bus 30 minutes out of Bratislava to Devin Castle, it was pouring and I didn’t have an umbrella (meaning I don’t own one, I still don’t.) I don’t know why but my adrenaline kicked in when I reached the top of the castle, I stood there looking at the Danube for a good 10 minutes and the greenery surrounding it, I was all wet (not in a good way) on the bus back. This was the third city and country I had seen the Danube in, a goal of mine, to see them in all possible countries.

Bratislava is small, but it’s super underrated, I guess that’s how it maintains its charm, as a buffer zone or layover destination for people wanting to get to Vienna, which was where I was heading.

Volksgarten, Vienna.
Volksgarten, Vienna.

Ich Liebe Wien

So there I was, in Vienna, music capital of the world, the city where Mozart rose to fame, painfully expensive tourist city but also a very enjoyable place. I spent probably the most in Vienna, not least the many 2.20 Euro metro tickets (please plan ahead in Vienna so you know if you need the day passes, I didn’t). It’s the only city I didn’t buy keychains from as souvenir, they’re usually 9 Euros each.

Let’s not talk about the cost, overall I would compare it aesthetically with Budapest, supremely beautiful, especially in the Innere Stadt (old town) area, but there wasn’t much going on, not many people were out and about, sometimes a good thing, sometimes not so much. The metro is very accessible and easy to use, I easily navigated the city despite its size.

Highlights include Schonbrunn Palace, probably the most well known attraction in Vienna, normally I don’t pay for tours of historical places but I took an exception for this one and I didn’t regret it. I took an audio guided tour of 40 rooms in the palace and it was fascinating, especially if you like history of Habsburg monarchies.

Take a stroll at Volksgarten, it’s the perfect place to relax and read a book, and one of the few free things you can do in Vienna. Small tip, have bratwurst or currywurst for lunch to save some money (not everyday), they’re also very good, to treat yourself find some cool gasthaus(es) and order anything from the menu, they’re usually all in German and the staff members might not even speak English, I’ve only had good experiences ordering blindly. Discovered leberknodelsuppe or liver dumpling soup this way.

Schloss Eggenberg Garden
A park outside Schloss Eggenberg, a Baroque palace, Graz.

From Graz with Love

From Vienna it takes around 2 and a half hours to reach Graz, the 2nd largest city in Austria after Vienna, but is actually very much smaller (feels so.) I did enjoy myself here more than in Vienna because it is a university town, I don’t know what it is with me and university towns. I couchsurfed with a Guatemalan student here and it turned out there was an AIESEC event going on that week, I tagged along and met a bunch of other students. Always a fun time hanging out with other students. Graz is less grandeur-esque compared to Vienna but I think it has everything a student needs within its boundaries, including a myriad of cafe bars serving cheap food and beer, tried pfandl for the first time here (german pasta-ish dish), it was excellent, you get to choose what you want in your pfandl, cheeses, meats, veges etc.

Walked 260 steps on stairs up to the Schlossberg, a hill with a public park on top and a clock tower. You see a great deal of the city there, the view was great (might just be a defense mechanism to convince myself I didn’t waste all that energy going up.) I also treated Graz as a sort of layover between Austria and Slovenia, but it certainly exceeded my expectations. Fact: Arnold Schwarzenegger was born 1 mile from Graz in the village of Thal.

Food market in Ljubljana
Friday night food market in Ljubljana.

The city name you can’t pronounce

My final stop was Ljubljana, Slovenia. I spent 4 nights here because I wanted to settle in one place a little longer, I was moving every 3 days prior and was tired from all the travelling. Ljubljana was a good place to settle for a while, I enjoyed my night walks in the city center because it was always teeming with life, there were performers, people were outside, there was just something that made me very happy.

It is a small city but most points of interest are congregated in the city center, buses are fairly straightforward and accessible although you need to purchase a card from the kiosks in the city to be able to pay for buses. After walking around the city for a couple days I became an expert of the local dessert scene, my favorite place is Cacao, probably the best ice-cream place around that also serves cake, I had cake for dinner once, no judging.

The Slovenian national football team were also in town to host their Maltese counterpart for a World Cup qualification game and I was there to witness as Slovenian star striker Milvoje Novakovic played his last professional football game and also scored to much fanfare from the home fans.

If you find yourself in need of some nature, just take a bus to nearby Bled, about 50 minutes away. The Vintgar Gorge that I did not fully explore was gorgeous, especially on a nice sunny day, bring your bathing suit, water is fucking crystal clear and cooling. The famous mountain treks for Triglav National Park also begins in Bled, it’s something I would like to explore in the future.

Lake Bled which was supposed to be the main attraction was disappointing for me because it looked just like an oversized swimming pool, but the surroundings were nice, too many mosquitoes though. Slovenia is also a country I feel I did not explore enough, would love to go back and visit Koper and Maribor next time. When you’ve been to other former Yugoslav countries and visit Slovenia, Slovenia doesn’t feel like the others, (as of this sentence I have not been to Croatia and Montenegro yet.)

 

Philip II Arena
Overlooking parts of Skopje, including Philip II Arena, from Skopje Fortress.’

Macedonia, the epitome of Balkan weirdness

Fast forward a good 2 weeks, I would be in Skopje, FYR Macedonia for a long weekend due to Bajram. Buses to Skopje from Prishtina are frequent and the journey only takes 90 minutes. It is a city of mixed cultures with Macedonian, Albanian and Turkish populations. The Stone Bridge across the Vardar River seemed to also separate the Macedonians from the Albanians and Turkish because from my observations, one half of the city looked more Greek, the other more Ottoman.

Skopje is a city of a ridiculous amount of monuments, most of them unfortunately have no significant relevance to the history of the city. They were built as a recent initiative by the government to (insert word here) the city and also very weirdly placed and built very close to one another, I don’t really know how to describe how the city looks, it’s not super ugly but it looks very weird. There are also piles of trash in random corners. I arrived close to the peak of summer and my days in Skopje were the hottest days I experienced in Europe, it was even hotter than Malaysia.

In terms of things to do, there aren’t much but it’s nice to walk around and see some of the weird shit that shouldn’t be placed together, placed together. Half an hour away from Skopje is the Matka Canyon, supposedly a large canyon with a network of caves, I say supposedly because I never saw it, because I never got there, not because I didn’t try but because someone decided to commit murder in a nearby village the day I was trying to go. Roads towards Matka was closed, the bus driver who didn’t know what happened dropped us off 3km from our destination and told us to walk there, halfway through police told us we couldn’t go further.

As a consolation, I decided to walk to nearby Lake Treska with 2 Slovaks I met there before finding the bus stop for buses back to Skopje. The lake was very shitty, it looked like a sewage treatment plant, there were also cows around, one cow looked really pissed, I was afraid it was gonna charge. We then spent almost half an hour locating the correct bus stop to go back. All in all, my time in Skopje was rather weird, it was strangely quiet for a weekend and there was a murder case. Lol.

Romania-The Search for Dracula’s Castle

As my semester abroad in Serbia finished, I took 3 week holiday. I spent it across 9 cities in 5 countries, best time of my life. Tried to spend as little as possible on accommodation by Couchsurfing, you’ll be surprised by the people you’ll meet. I recommend it to everyone because it is the easiest way to assimilate and understand where you are, who lives there, what they do, and of course you save money.

For my first stop I took a short train ride to Timisoara in the west of Romania. Even though Romania is one of the more prosperous countries in the Balkans, expenses are still pretty cheap here compared to most of Europe. I spent more time here than other countries I visited because I thought I had more time than I did. Here’s how I rank the cities I went to, Cluj-Napoca>Brasov>Timisoara>Bucharest (smh).

Cathedral in Cluj
Dormition of the Theotokos Cathedral, Cluj-Napoca, a Romanian Orthodox Church.

Strolling Around Cluj

Ironically, my favorite city in Romania is also the city I took least photos of. I find myself drawn to this city because of its potential, it had all the makings of a modern well functioning cityscape with a young population, the country’s best (?) university and a shit ton of heritage buildings. Versatile. A significant number of Hungarians live here and it is very easy to get to Budapest from Cluj.

 

Brasov old town
View of Brasov from the Black Tower.

The Legacy of Dracula

To be honest, I came to Brasov only because it is the closest major city to Bran Castle (Dracula’s Castle). I had high hopes for Dracula’s Castle but in the end I felt that I wasted my time in Bran, could have done more in Brasov. The small town of Bran has been milked by the tourism industry so much it is now a resort town, going into the castle costs 8 Euros.

Peles Castle in nearby Sinaia was so much prettier imo, it was the vacation home of the royal family until 1947, and you don’t have to pay to see the castle up close. I really like the “Brasov” sign on top on Mount Tampa (pictured), even though it looks like a cheap Hollywood knockoff , you can actually hike up to where the sign is. Generally a very chill city, good place to spend a whole afternoon in the centre reading a book.

 

Street art in Timisoara
Street art in Timisoara.

Street Smart Timisoara

Aesthetically I think Timisoara was the most beautiful city I went to in Romania with a rich mixture of Baroque and Gothic buildings. Piata Unirii was simply breathtaking and the most picturesque area I went to. You can find glimpses of the city’s local history turning corners of the many streets with signs telling you info about old factories and bridges. I rank it only in 3rd mostly because of myself, it was the first city I went to and I was not yet in the mood to engage with people and communicate.

 

Romanian Atheneum
The Romanian Atheneum, a concert hall in Bucharest.

The Lesser of the Bu-est capitals

Bucharest is the capital of Romania and maybe because of that I had higher hopes for it, but usually people say capital cities are never representative of any country. I didn’t have a wonderful experience here, I thought the city looked ugly, it rained all 3 days I was there, my host was very friendly but creepy and made me feel uncomfortable (a me problem).

The highlight of my first day there was hiding from the rain in a shitty mall with half of its shops closed and stealing Wifi from H&M. I need to go back there someday when the weather is better. All in all, I just couldn’t identify anything with Bucharest, maybe that’s why people know Budapest more than Bucharest. Ouch.

I took an overnight train from Cluj to Budapest, a 7 hour journey. Romanian trains are not very comfortable, when you use the bathroom, you’ll notice you’re peeing or pooping directly onto the tracks. In summer you also have to deal with the heat and your own sweat, when your seat mate is 100% Romanian who speaks no English, 7 hours feel like 70.