Posts Tagged ‘WiFi’

A Mongolian Life

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

I waved goodbye to Matt at Chinggis Khaan International Airport and made my way to the taxi stand downstairs. I was on my own in the middle of Asia in a large, dusty city where my camera had already been stolen and where my friend had been pelted by a chunk of sidewalk. It was a bit nerve-wracking to me. I wasn’t sure how I would do on my own! My confidence returned, however, after wrangling a 5,000 togrok trip back to the city from some taxi drivers who had claimed it was impossible to get me back to the city for anything less than 20,000… then about 5 minutes later, 10,000.

So, for 9 days from August 18-27 I was on my own in the central-Asian nation of Mongolia. I didn’t have a lot of money (I limited myself to $10 a day, $6 of which went for lodging each night I was in Ulaanbataar, leaving 4 for entertainment, travel, and food). I spent some of my timing working on this site cleaning things up and uploading photos. I spent some of it (the daylight hours at least) walking the streets of the city seeing what I could see, from large markets to street-side DVD stands. Ger Restaurants on the sidewalks to road works projects. The city was bustling and I was just another citizen. Unfortunately for me, I was a citizen who looked like a tourist and couldn’t speak the local language. So, that limited my interaction with the real citizens of Ulaanbataar to what we could communicate with sign-language, my extremely limited Russian, and their broken (but better than my Mongolian) English.

It was a relaxed time schedule-wise for me, but a bit stressful as I tried to learn the ropes of a new city by myself. Most evenings I would hole up in the hostel’s public area to avoid the less savory citizens of the city. This gave me the opportunity to meet the people who were staying in the hostel. Most people stayed just one or two nights at the hostel, but some were there for longer. An Irish fellow getting over a bad intestinal parasite infestation was there for three nights. He had bicycled by himself from Beijing to Ulaanbataar and was going to take a horse-ride to the Gobi and western Mongolia eventually getting back on his bike and heading for Russia. He had been delayed a week, however, by his unfortunate illness.

Two Israeli men and a British girl stayed for a night, they were on their way to the Gobi to explore it for two days. Three French men were planning a walking trip to Western Mongolia. Two girls waiting for their plane flights out, one from France and one from the US, were at the end of their Asia trip which had taken them to several cities in Eastern China, the Gobi, and eventually Ulaanbataar. One girl was at the end of a year-long term working at a school for underprivileged children from the ger district—an area with about the population of the city proper people with nomads who are in and out throughout the year and live in their gers—which surrounds Ulaanbataar. It was an interesting place to be and made the evenings less lonely. I was even invited to join two French students who were traveling by horse around the Gobi for two weeks and had an extra horse leaving me to only pay the daily expenses, unfortunately I was leaving well before they would have returned so I had to turn them down.

I spent three days and two nights in the wilderness camping by myself and finishing out the supplies in a little town called Gachuurt, to the northeast of Ulaanbataar. It cost me almost 20,000 togrok for the taxi out there, but I found it was worth it to save the $6 a night for the hostel. It was a calming time and not altogether bad to be by myself somewhere I felt completely comfortable. Making the half-hour trip to pump fresh water, scouring the parched hillsides for sticks to make a fire and clearing a rock-free tent-site for myself made for good exercise and a great way to pass the time. When a goat-herd passed my little camp with a flock of 75-100 as I was reading my Bible, a nod and a smile told me that I was welcome there.

When I got back to the city, I was a bit disappointed to be back in the dirtiness of the city. I had discovered over the trip that cities always feel dirtier than the countryside. I have yet to find a city where I would be comfortable eating a grape dropped on the sidewalk, even if I washed it off. But in the countryside, a grape dropped on the dirt would be brushed off and eaten without a second thought. I walked back to Gachuurt and caught the 500 togrok bus to Ulaanabataar.

The last 4 days in the city were uneventful for the most part. I talked to the hostellers, watched a movie about a Mongolian nomad during Soviet days. Apparently the Soviet government had attempted to control all meat production which up to that point had been the purview of individual nomadic families. In order to do this, they offered buyouts to the farmers and gave them palotes (small apartments in large concrete buildings). At about the same time (coincidentally?) the government also released news of a plague which would ravage the flocks of the nomadic farmers and required that the animals be burned to prevent the spread of the disease.

It was a sad movie, but interesting in its (delectably accurate) depiction of the history of Mongolia during Soviet control. The movie was shown at a small coffee shop called Café Amsterdam and was attended by about 20 Dutch people and a group of about 30 mixed French, Yankees, Mongolians, and other peoples.

By the time it came to leave Ulaanbataar, I was ready to leave. It’s not that Mongolia struck me as an unpleasant place, or that I didn’t enjoy my time there, I was just done with the city and ready to be traveling again.

At 10 AM the Mongolian segment of my trip ended with the departure of my no-frills trip on Air China from Chinggis Khaan International Airport to Beijing International. Since 5:30 that morning, I had been getting ready, walking toward the airport, and, when the time was right, getting a 10,000 togrok taxi ride to the airport, and waiting after customs. My trip in Asia was coming to a close, but I still had almost a week before the true end of my trip.

Two Pretty-Good Days

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Sunday dawned (02/08), we tried to find a church and, when we did find one, although Russian speaking, we were turned away. I suppose we didn’t meet the customary dress code and also didn’t speak enough of the language to talk our way into the service. We strolled the city, walked through a few marketplaces where Matt looked for a t-shirt with odd sayings on it, and explored the Western part of the new old city which we hadn’t seen there. It was on a road in that section that we found CafeMax, a real Internet Cafe with free wifi for its customers! The chai was a bit more expensive, but we sat down and hunkered down for the long haul, we had a lot to do having not had internet for any length of time since Riga, a week before.

We updated the blog, got closer to caught up passing the computer between Matt and I, and got caught up with correspondences. Then, at 1500 Matt went to meet up with James and I finished up another post. We spent the rest of the day swapping stories with James. From being present at the recent riots in China which made international news, to driving a motor scooter across India, James had plenty to tell. We talked late into the evening over cups of chai and made our way back North to toward the train station. James was staying in the station hotel and so we were headed in the same direction. We stopped for some shish-kabaps served straight from the grill at the side of the road and hit the hay a bit after 2300 that evening, after being informed that we needed to checkout by 11 the next morning. No problem.

Monday morning, we left the hotel and headed South again, hunted for some cheap electronics and, finding none, hung out in the nice park on the other side of the river where we watched both a wedding and construction project try to take place simultaneously right next to each other. We cooked up some food and headed north, spending the rest of the rather drizzly and overcast day in a nice little restaurant with 80KT chai called Samovar. That evening, we stopped by CafeMax again for an hour or two and then headed back to the train station.

It was late by the time we got back, after midnight, and we were expecting to be able to rent the room for 12 hours, as had been the custom, the lady at the desk, however, had apparently not been having a very nice day and had decided to surprise us by imposing a rule of 0900 checkout, regardless of check-in time, on repeat customers who had been planning on giving them a glowing review. We had no idea why and tried to explain our position, asking if she could give us a discount then, asking if we had somehow offended them or accidentally broken something in our room. Nothing, just a stolid insistence that there was nothing she could do. We finally got to our room after 0100 and an unpleasant discussion.

The next day (04/08) we awoke unhappily and were out of our room by 0900 as requested… It was drizzling outside and looked as though it might rain at any moment. We didn’t really want to be out there and had already seen most of what Astana had to offer, so we hung out in the train-station’s waiting room and enjoyed free wifi which we had not noticed before. The only problem came when Matt tried to plug in the computer and found that the station administration ladies were adamantly against anyone using their electricity. It seemed like it would be another situation like the night before where, for no reason at all, paying customers would be denied what they wished, for no good reason. That’s when I decided to stop being pushed around, grabbed my train ticket—dated for later that day—and approached the lady who had just unceremoniously and with no regard for our pleading questions, yanked our power cord out of an otherwise unused plug.

I approached with a bit of trepidation and politely explained my position. She had no idea what I was saying, but was apparently impressed by my politeness and took me to a phone where she got her friend who spoke English to translate for us. I was informed that the plugs in the waiting area were for “technical use only” but that Irena, the lady, would find a place for me to work. She did! A nice couch in a little, out-of-the-way waiting room apparently reserved for polite people with tickets. Matt and I switched off using the internet for a while and, when I wasn’t working online trying to trouble-shoot a website issue that had developed, I had a nice discussion with Alexey, a man who explained his job by informing me that he answered the radio and kicked drunks out of the station.

We talked for a few hours about politics, international relations, work, money, our families, and life in Kazakhstan. He knew no English, but with my phrasebook and my limited Russian we had a good conversation. That evening, Matt and I went and hung out in a little cafe in the train station and watched a volleyball match between Spain and Russia before boarding our train for the longish drive to Omsk.

Moscow and Trans Siberia, Our Style

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Dan and I arrived in Moscow before noon on the 27th, with only the afternoon and early evening to collect our next train tickets and explore. I would be unable to experience the city’s infamous nightlife. Given the nature of this journey, however, we weren’t completely disappointed in our tight schedule. Moscow is the priciest and (according to a study) rudest city in the world. Alas, we wouldn’t have time for the world’s most expensive cup of coffee among the world’s largest number of billionaires. Not our style.

We disembarked from the train and starting walking north, searching for a Wi-Fi connection. We knew we needed to collect our Trans Siberian Railway tickets but we were clueless as to where we could find the Real Russia office. We would ned to find the tourist agency and collect before our train departed at 10:45 that night. No pressure. Along our route, we exchanged some money at something like 44 Rubles per Euro. It’s always surreal to handle bills with so many zeros, but we took consolation that there was much more money in the pockets of most people we passed. The Cyrillic alphabet was new to both of us so we started deciphering business signs as we walked. Dan related his knowledge from our guidebook but we found no sign of an ИНТЕРНЕТ КАФЕ (Internet Café).

Instead, we found more familiar letters spelling “McDonald’s.” Say what you will about the fast food chain, but it still offers free bathrooms and often, outside the States, free wireless Internet. We found a power outlet on the second floor and Dan began trying to coax life from the macbook’s damaged power cord. Apparently, Apple had recalled its cords for their faulty wiring. PC fans out there: judge not lest ye be judged. Apple will replace damaged cords for free. We just didn’t have time to find an authorized reseller in Moscow, collect a new cord, find Real Russia’s address, find their office, and pick up our tickets.

I set out to find the ИНТЕРНЕТ. It was a challenge because no one understood my intentions. After half an hour of making a fool of myself, a young man pointed me in the right direction. I soon returned to the Mickey D’s with an address and Google’s directions to the RR office, a thirty minute walk. We lugged our luggage across town until pausing for a break. A friendly hostel owner stopped to ask if we needed directions, helpfully identified a nearby Metro station, and pointed us in the wrong direction. We followed our map to the office, presented our passports, and left with eight train tickets. Dan and I stopped at a park on the way back to the subway and I popped the rest of the popcorn. A laughably cheap snack in such an expensive city. Our style. We braved the Metro system to find the Red Square.

Our packed subway unloaded just across the road from the Red Square wall. We entered through the Resurrection Gate, a copy of the original Stalin destroyed in 1931 because he felt it impeded his parades and demonstrations. The lovely Kremlin’s occupants liked to strut their stuff around the Square. After several days on the train, we were less than strutting about the Square. Not our style. We saw Lenin’s Mausoleum but not the father of Soviet communism’s embalmed body, the world’s most famous mummy. A secret until the fall of communism, Ol’ Lenin was preserved by being wiped down every few days and then submerged in a tub of chemicals, including wax. For a million dollars, you can have the same done.

Alternately, you can pass the tomb and view the incredible St Basil’s Cathedral. What ridiculously wonderful swirls of colors! The building is the culmination of the Russian style, developed in wooden churches, and contains nine chapels. I was struck that it looked like candy, like technicolored peppermint-striped candy. The eccentric colors made me want a taste. It was constructed over the grave of the an equally eccentric character, Saint Vasily (Basil) the Blessed. Great guy. Great style. He was an early nudist and liked wearing chains, perhaps the equivalent to “bling.” He told Ivan the Terrible off for not paying attention in church and for his violence towards the innocent. So we appreciated the nutty saint through the Cathedral, and circled the Square, past the State History Museum and the State Department Store, both closed.

Back at the main train station, Dan and I took turns exploring a local grocery store while the other “watched” our luggage (I took a nap). I pulled another close-call, returning to quickly walk our bags to line 3, struggle down the narrow isle, and sit down, just as the train pulled away from the station. We were on the Trans Siberian Railway, one of the 20th century’s engineering wonders. We shared the “row” with four others, one young man and one elderly, and young and older women. The older man spoke a little English and grilled us as to why we were traveling Russia without a translator. After a while, he began repeating the phrases, “Don’t be afraid. Everything will be fine.” It was a little unnerving. Dan and I had our own beds on this train so we were content.

We had plenty of time to enjoy our beds; our first TSR leg lasted three nights. Days were spent in sleep and reading. I love books but I began to regret my iPod’s deceased condition. The morning of the 28th, the train stopped for an hour and almost everyone awake in the car, got out to smoke and buy snacks from numerous vendors. Dan and I, stocked with provisions, remained on the train, reading our books. That night, around 11:00 Moscow time, we shared my “birthday meal” of Ramen noodles, cooked with the hot water available on the trains. Totally our style. Dan surprised me by producing a delicious jelly roll cake-substitute and, to my delight, a 1,5 liter Mountain Dew. I was appreciative and we enjoyed a pleasant dinner in the low light and calm car. I drank half the bottle and my body, unused to the caffeine so late at night, remained awake until around 4:30 a.m. Completely worth it. I am 21 years young.

The next day we were back to reading and sleeping. I was working on Desiring God, a wonderfully challenging John Piper creation expounding what he calls “Christian hedonism.” Strongly recommended to anyone! Dan finished Eco’s The Name of the Rose and began Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Around 6:00 p.m. the train stopped and ominous, uniformed Russian officials inspected our faces and validated our visas. We always feel a little nervous at these borders; we have nothing to hide but are doing our best to stay out of prison. The government officials in these districts seem to do their best to intimidate. The train continued a little further and stopped at the Kazakhstani border. The gruff border guards collected our passports and the packed car waited in the hushed silence that reverberated fear and apprehension. For an hour and a half. During that time, one guard searched our bags and one took Daniel aside for questioning. Note: questioning works very poorly when neither parties speak the other’s language. The guard wouldn’t even try to understand Daniel and seemed disappointed for some unknown reason. More on that later. The locals sharing our row laughed as we finally left the border, blaming us for the delay. We could only shrug. I was merely happy to have made it into my 39th new country. The next morning (July 30th) we pulled into Astana’s train station, our first TSR leg complete. The two of us had made it out of Russia and into Kazakhstan, not without some excitement. It’s our style.

South to Praha

Friday, June 12th, 2009

While the guys continued enjoying the view of the city from the Reichstag dome, I set off through the Brandenburg Gate and returned to the Bebelplatz square. Earlier that day I had stuck my head into an atrium-like room off the square, attracted to the techno beat and kaleidoscopic light show. I learned the university was hosting a benefit dance party that night. I arrived around eleven and persuaded my way inside for half price. The party was slow in starting so I chatted with the student manning the Macbook and the music until around midnight when the real DJ arrived. I hung off to the side until working up enough courage to join the growing crowd on the dance floor for a good passionate dance. The guys were expecting me back at the car before 12:30 so I could not stay as long as I would have wished. Instead, I tried to navigate the Berlin subway system. I arrived an hour and a half late to cold pasta and toast. At junctions, I had to ascend to the surface and walk a block or so past a few raving drunks to descend to the desired subway’s station, then wait for the next train traveling my intended direction. Interesting characters on the subway at 2 am in Berlin. We departed Berlin and Ziegler drove an hour south as we fell asleep.

Mid-morning we woke and David drove to the Dresden Monarch American football team’s stadium where we celebrated with oatmeal. While Ziegler napped, the other three split up and explored Dresden’s Altstadt, the old city center. The area’s architecture is awe-inspiring, especially since it’s a recent recreation. The buildings all appear weatherworn and of ancient Baroque style, despite much of them are less than 20-years-old. It was hard to remember. In February 1945, Allied planes firebombed the city, laying waste to 75% of the city. Pictures portray Dresden as a wreckage where 40 thousand people died. During the Communists’ rule, the area was only partially rebuilt. Today, however, the skyline is adorned with majestic spires and cupolas. I admired the Semper-Oper, the opera house restored to its pre-war glory; the Frauenkirche, the impressively reconstructed 4-year-old cathedral; and what appeared to be the Dresden Schloß palace. Easily distracted, I crossed the Elbe River, drawn by cheering and music. I watched a few minutes of a beach volleyball tournament sponsored by Smart, the makers of those tiny cars only recently introduced in America. On my return through the Alstadt streets to the car I splurged on a German bratwurst, totally worth a Euro.

Reassembled, we left and headed into the Czech Republic. Shenk, my navigator, and I had some fun trying to find Terezin after signs stopped pointing the way and forced a little guesswork. We arrived too late to justify the several Euro for an hour in the small museum so we walked the town and two memorials. The town especially interested me for its history as a ghetto for Jewish artists; these internationally known fine artists and musicians would have been missed if killed by the Nazis. Portrayed as “Hitler’s gift to the Jews,” Terezin’s inhabitants were forced to act out a false cultural ideal for Nazi films and a Red Cross visit. Before that visit, the S.S. thinned the population by killing thousands in Auschwitz and threatened death on any who revealed Terezin’s true living conditions. The ghetto’s Nazi offices churned out propaganda from the Jewish painters. After hours, though, those same artists would use their propaganda materials to draw and paint the true nature of the camp, some of which were discovered later. They are powerful images, Holocaust art from the inside. I appreciate their deviousness: expose the Nazis with the tools intended to conceal.

We continued to Praha (Prague) that evening, doing some intense wardriving before we found free wi-fi (pronounced wif-fee). While we shared the access and opportunity for communication home, we followed the lead of two teens who passed and ate from a cherry tree across the neighborhood road. We ate our full until an old woman passed and scolded us in Czech. On-line, Ziegler and David looked up some Mennonite Your Way contacts along our route, whom they emailed regarding hosting four smelly young men. We also found n English-speaking church for the next morning, a change from the native services we had enjoyed until then. Satisfied, we headed out of the city for some food and shut-eye. A busy day.

Matt

On a Boat

Monday, June 8th, 2009

Our ferry ride from Stockholm left Thursday (05/28) at 1745 from the main port. We had visited the ferry port twice on the preceding two days, first just after they closed and second while they were opened and we purchased our tickets. We had spent our day downtown and had a bit of a rush to get through the crowded city streets to the port in time for our 1645 boarding time. We did make it, however, and, exactly at 1645 checked in and were ushered onto the boat.

Our room was on the 8th deck and was about as small as a railway cabin. Just enough room for four fold-down beds, a corner toilet/shower room and a tiny desk attached to the wall. We got all our stuff in, including our foul-smelling bag of dirty laundry and Matt began washing his stuff. We had hoped against hope that there wouldn’t be a fourth person in our cabin, for his sake. David and I went out to explore the ship and Matt kept washing.

The boat was huge. It looked like a cruise ship. I’ve never been on a cruise ship, but I’ve seen a few in harbor and this looked almost exactly like one of those, except it was a bit smaller and didn’t have a climbing wall. It did have a spa, a casino, an arcade, two restaurants, a fast-food joint, a night club, a disco, and free (but slow) wifi. It also had three decks of rooms and two decks of car and truck parking.

I got back to the room and checked in on Matt who was soaking wet, had his shirt off, music playing in the shower and had the bathroom full of clothes hanging off the the two bed ladders he had wedged above the sink. He said our cabin-mate had showed up and greeted Matt with an expectedly shocked expression, dropped off his stuff and left.

Dan and David showed up a few minutes later just as the captain of the ship was making an announcement in Estonian. Not long after our cabin-mate showed up again and introduced himself as Rauno and, after we had apologized for the smell in the cabin, we all sat down and talked. As we talked, one-by-one each of us would disappear into the shower for a few minutes to wash ourselves and our clothes and, within a few hours the rooms scent had improved drastically and we were all much cleaner. We had learned quite a bit about Rauno, as well in his very good, although not perfect English–he said he has never learned Swedish or Norwegian so gets plenty of practice speaking English.

Rauno is in his mid thirties and works as a carpenter and cabinet-maker in Sweden and Norway for seven or eight months out of the year, with a visit home every few weeks. He has a family in Voru, Estonia, a wife and two little girls who live in a small, two-room apartment and he has been in the process of building a house for the past 5 years and expects to be done with it by the end of the summer. He is a pleasant, peaceful fellow. Soft-spoken with short, thinning hair, a ready smile and a gentle demeanor.

Over our shared peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches and his drinking yoghurt–delicious, real yoghurt with live cultures–we learned about his work history. Back when Estonia was under Soviet control, Rauno studied welding in the state university. After graduating, however, he was unable to find a job and so he began working at a logging camp. For several years he drove a 25-ton Soviet, treaded tractor pulling a large rake. His job was to follow after the clear-cutting of the loggers and rake all of the branches into rows to be collected and mulched. He said he hated that job. The cabin of the tractor was open to the air and temperatures could hit -20ºC and he was dropped off in the middle of the forest at the beginning of the day and picked up at the end.

After working as a logger for long enough, Rauno said “I looked around and realised that this is a s**t job. So, I told my boss ‘I quit’ and didn’t come back the next day.” After that, he picked up some jobs as an electrician before finally settling into carpentry around the time Estonia joined the EU. Rauno told us about how work is unavailable is in Estonia and how great it is to be able to travel to other EU countries where there is work–in his case Sweden and Norway. He said that for the past several years he has had to find work outside Estonia and, while that’s not ideal for him and his family, he is willing to do it and is very glad for the work.

From all he told us he is a hard worker, willing to do almost anything to get a job done right. When we explained to him what we were up to and how we were living on the road, he told us about working in Norway right before Christmas when he and two of his friends worked in a house 500 meters away from the outhouse, with no heat and the only source of water next to the outhouse. He said they went weeks without showers, we could sympathize, although it hasn’t gotten quite that bad for us.

During this entire time he seemed completely unfazed by the fact that we were washing our clothes and had then hanging all over the room, even helping us set up the ladders to make a great drying rack. I felt a bit self-conscious for imposing on him so greatly, but he truly did not seem to mind and seemed to enjoy hanging out with us as well. After a few hours we had finished washing our clothes and ourselves and we all dispersed to hang out throughout the ship.

It was nice to get a bit of time to get out of each others hair, and on a ship that big there was plenty of space. David found a quiet corner and read for a while and Matt got on the internet and got some personal correspondence and photo uploading done. After I had been doing a bit of reading in our room (Dune by Frank Herbert), Rauno walked in and we started talking. He asked me about the book I was reading and I described it for him then asked him what type of reading he does. He said he doesn’t have a lot of time to read, but when he gets time, he’s in the middle of a book on Yoga by an Estonian guru.

The subject of Yoga got us talking about religion and the bad parts and false parts and real parts. He believes in God but dislikes the word God so he calls Him The Absolute. He also doesn’t really appreciate most organized religions, but believes that all of them have some good in them, particularly when it comes to moral law. I discussed the origins of morality and the origins of sin, the origins of the world and the end of our lives. He seemed to have an almost Christian view of the afterlife, but the method for getting there is through conquering our will through our own means. In a way his faith was Christianity without Christ. Doing good, loving your brother, living a good life, trying to not sin so you can get to heaven, but without Christ or the Holy Spirit. He seemed to be very thoughtful and seeking and I enjoyed our conversation and hope I left him with a bit of understanding of the religion I’ve embraced.

Rauno and I talked until after 2300 and he went off to find a friend of his to try to get a ride to his hometown the next day and I went to find Matt and David to see what they were up to. That evening at 2330 was a cabaret show in the nightclub involving lots of glitter, crazy costumes and top hats. David, Matt and Rauno went and watched at least part of that. According to David and Matt, “The show was laughably ridiculous, especially since it seemed like it would have been better suited to Las Vegas than Estonia.”

In the meantime, I started working on the website. When I got up after a bit to borrow Matt’s room key to go get a snack of some jørdnotters–delicious and relatively cheap salted, roasted peanuts we had found in Stockholm–I found Matt taking pictures at the ship’s dance floor and soon joining in with the dancing. The music was live and performed in about 15 different styles by a group of 4 guys and a synthesizer. The event was quite a spectacle.

Anyway, I returned to the computer and spent the evening working on pictures, maps, etc. for the website and doing a bit of chatting with my homies and Rachel. Since we had the free internet readily available, we decided to make the best of it so I ended up staying up quite late getting quite a bit done (you may have noticed around that time a number of improvements to the site, if anyone was keeping track). That evening I felt like a fly on the wall of the ship’s nightlife.

I was sitting in the little fast-food area–which was open 24 hours a day–so I could see people coming and going through that area. At about 0100 there was a group of about 5 drunk truck-drivers sitting around eating burgers, hotdogs, and fries and talking in Swedish. After about half an hour they left and for the next hour or so I was alone with my headphones in listening to Flight of the Conchords and enjoying the quiet. Then, a shriek of anger, three people yelling and a man, sobbing loudly threw open the door to the sundeck and stormed into the drizzly night. A few minutes later three people–two who appeared to be a couple and another girl, apparently his friends–followed him rather timidly on deck. Some quiet murmuring outside and they returned with the angry fellow meekly holding the hand of the previously unattached girl. They disappeared down the hall and all was quiet again.

At 0130 the last glimmer of the sun finally disappeared from the horizon and, except for the distant thudding of a drum, the thrumming of the engine and the slight whistle of the wind, the night was quiet. At 0240 my peaceful evening was once again shattered by three of the same truck drivers from before, but this time they were more drunk and, therefore, louder. They ordered another round of fast food and beers and laughed and spoke slurred Swedish to each other for another half hour, then disappeared again. At about that time, the two couples with the anger issues from earlier came back, although they had apparently solved their issues and seemed rather drugged on a combination of beer and hormones, they left shortly after arriving. The sun began to glimmer again at about 0245.

I kept working and listening, now to several NPR podcasts from before we left. 0300 came around and the disco drums grew a bit quieter and fewer people passed up and down the stairs and the sun grew stronger just over the horizon. By 0330 I was nearing the end of my work on the slow internet and appreciating the quiet of the evening, then the largest and hairiest of the truck drivers stumbled into the cafeteria, placed his order loudly, and stumbled over to a table with a burger and another beer and apparently enjoyed them. After him, a man and his two Estonian women in way too-short skirts came in, ordered drunkenly, and, with an excessive amount of making out and feeling up, joined the truck driver to eat their meals and drink their beers.

I went to bed at at 0400 having accomplished a significant amount and rested comfortably the rest of the night. At 0930 we all woke up, packed up, said goodbye to Rauno and made our way to the car. We were separated at the packed elevator and Matt, who took the next one ended up on the wrong floor. David went to move the car while I went to hunt Matt down. Before I could find him, however, I found a lost looking Estonian man who begged me in German for help opening a locked door to the car area. I couldn’t help him open it, but I did show him where another door was. I went out, talked to David, got my passport (Matt had his on him) and told David to go ahead and drive out because the trucks were waiting for him to get out of their way.

While David did that I went hunting for Matt and found him just a few minutes later. We walked off the pedestrian ramp, at every point looking for a way to get back to the car before customs, then walked through customs without stopping (Thank you EU!), made our way to to the ground where we found ourselves separated from David by a high fence. We motioned to him and after a bit he drove out to us. Matt and I hopped in and off we went.

This was the longest boat ride of my life and, although there were several portions of it that made me slightly uncomfortable–mainly the entertainment and several of the other passengers–I enjoyed the ride.

Daniel Z

The Lowlands

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Between the two fields, we awoke Wednesday morning (19/5) had some Harvest Morn bars and packed up our stuff. David had slept outside the night before so his sleeping bag was a bit damp, but it was a bright morning and we soon had everything dried out. So, we started north toward Brussels.

The Belgian countryside is quite nice, but rather unremarkable. Rolling hills and fields, lots of agriculture, and small farming towns. Politically, the country is a bit divided, but not violently so. The conflict centers around Belgium’s relationship with their neighbors. With French and Walloon (a French dialect) spoken in the south and Flemish (a Dutch dialect) in the north, there is sometimes a pull by the French-speaking areas to tighten their relationship with France. A few years ago, a francophilic member of government accidentally sang the French national anthem instead of the Belgian national anthem in front of the press and caused an uproar.

Belgium is also the seat of government for the EU which has its quite impressive and modern headquarters in Brussels. We parked in Brussels near the center of town and visited the main market square, surrounded by beautiful, tall buildings, and visited Manneken Pis, a small, eternally urinating statue. We then sauntered through town past the national library, the palace and the surrounding park and arrived at EU headquarters. The headquarters complex is a feat of modern engineering. Not as ostentatious as, say, the Scottish Parliament building, but impressive nonetheless. In the first courtyard, the four surrounding buildings are connected by a raised, circular walkway. In that courtyard is the main entrance and also an information center. We explored the outside of the building then headed back to the center of town where we had seen a waffle shop.

Belgian waffles are an experience unlike any other. The mass-produced Eggo contrivances pale to cardboard in comparison with real, hand-made Belgian waffles drizzled with chocolate or strawberry or piled high with whipped-cream or fruit. One by one we went up to the little window and ordered our treats. Mine with chocolate; Matt’s with kiwi, strawberry, and banana slices; David’s with strawberries; and Dan had two: one powdered sugar and one chocolate. After his first, Dan exclaimed “I will never look at waffles the same” and promptly bought another.

Dan and I had recently read an “historical” article in our favorite satirical newspaper (The Onion) about how Belgians had halted World War II German advances by serving the attacking forces waffles until they could attack no more. We were certainly fully satiated by these delicious morsels, partly because our appetites have shrunk from not feeding ourselves as often or as much as we had at home, but also because Belgian waffles are rightfully famous.

Anyway, after our confection break we piled back into our mud-covered, semi-stunning Passat and headed toward Amsterdam by way of Antwerpen. We didn’t have a lot of time so we just stopped to send and receive some emails and Matt and I each ordered a half-pint of famous Belgian beer each. Matt did not enjoy the taste of his, but did appreciate the experience. I, however, had ordered one brewed by the Belgian Trappist Monks of Grimbergen since 1128 and enjoyed it quite a bit.

At that point David got an email inviting us to join the youth group at in Bad Pyrmont for hamburgers “American Style”. That event, however, was to take place on Thursday evening at 17:00 and we hadn’t planned on being in Bad Pyrmont until Wednesday so, we had to book it. We left that afternoon and got into Amsterdam early that evening.

Amsterdam is a city with the feel of a small town. We pulled in the day before a national holiday (although we didn’t know it at the time) and the streets at 22:30 were full of families on bikes, couples walking hand-in-hand along the canals, and groups of friends relaxing at outdoor cafés. There were a few street performers out, and hundreds and hundreds of bicycles. We saw the Anne Frank house, the national museum, the Hotel America, and generally took in the feel of the town. We left late that night and went north along the Noord-Holland peninsula toward Friesland. We camped that evening at a parking spot just off the road.

The next day we spent the day driving through northern and eastern Netherlands seeing the dikes, windmills (most of which were modern wind generators, but there were a few old-style mixed in). We stopped at a small town called Oldeberkoop (founded in 1105), visited the local church (built in 1125), saw a county fair, and watched some handball games at a sports camp. Then, we were on our way again. We passed into Germany an hour or so later driving straight to Münster.

Münster is the city where, during the Anabaptist reformation, several Anabaptists set up a small kingdom, took biblical names and proclaimed themselves prophets. They then proceeded to rule with impunity from biblical laws killing people who rejected their claims and, when the city was besieged, led the men in a brutal fight. This led to a shortage of men and polygamy broke out. All in all a bad situation, and really not very good for Anabaptists or Christian witness. In the end, when the besieging army finally broke through, the bodies of the three leaders were hung in cages from the tower of the town church and the cages remain to this day. A rather gruesome history, but a nice city.

From Münster we went northwest toward Bad Pyrmont and, after being thrown off our route by construction twice, we eventually made it into town and, using a stray wifi signal eventually worked out where David’s friends lived and made it there at about 17:45, just 45 minutes late.

Daniel Z

Edinburgh, Jewel of the North

Friday, May 8th, 2009

Morning dawned cloudy after our unexpected nocturnal adventures (ie losing ourselves in the wonders of Edinburgh during construction season). It has been raining off and on for almost a week now and to tell the truth we’re all getting a bit tired of it. Another thing we’re getting a bit tired of is having Harvest Morn bars for breakfast each morning. Although these are delicious and highly nutritious, a full week of them begins grate on the senses. That’s why we decided to enjoy a full breakfast of free-range eggs, thick-cut toast, and real scottish bacon. It was spectacular. A breakfast which will stand out in legend for ages to come.

After fully enjoying the cooking and eating of our spectacular morning meal, we set off for a full day of exploration in the capital of the Scottish world, Edinburgh. A sprawling city built between several hills near the end of the Firth of Forth, Edinburgh has become a mecca for anyone seeking the “Scottish Experience.” Lining the steeply downhill Golden Mile from the ancient and stately Edinburgh Castle to the impressive and glamorous Holyrood Palace is a plethora of shops and tourist traps. The Scottish Whiskey Experience, Thistle Do Nicely, and The Edinburgh Woolen Mill share the road with two magnificent cathedrals and dozens of 18th and 19th century buildings.

Throughout the entire city, history meshes with kitsch in an amalgam of historic beauty and garish modernity. The finest example of this dichotomy was seen near the bottom end of the Golden Mile where ancient Holyrood Palace shares an intersection with the new Scottish parliament building. Built within the past decade to house the Scottish Parliament–a body devolved from the UK Parliament in 1997–the parliament building on the outside is made of shaped steel, wood and glass in a way which calls to mind an image of a bamboo forest. In any modern city (eg Chicago, Columbus, even Belfast) it would have been quite an interesting and beautiful building, but as the seat of power for the leadership of the rugged, rocky and natural nation of Scotland and when contrasted with the ancient stone cathedrals, palaces and castles surrounding it, it ends up looking simply tacky. But enough about architecture and back to exploration.

I’m not sure exactly what David, Dan and Matt did during the afternoon, but I made my way out of town in the car with our clothes only about half of which had dried overnight and used one of the first dry days since our arrival in Scotland to hang our clothes out to finish drying. I drove about 20 minutes out of Edinburgh and pulled off the highway doing a bit of exploring until I found a driveway leading to the entryway of a field. There tied up a line from the car to a fencepost and strung our laundry up to dry. It took about 2 hours even in the bright sun and constant wind, but I managed to get some reading done–I’ve been reading Frank Herbert’s Dune after finishing Starship Titanic earlier in the trip–and took a nap. It was a very nice day and no one bothered me until just as I was taking the laundry down a fellow drove up and asked if I needed any help and when I said no he asked if I had been dumping trash there–apparently a problem in the area–I told him I had just been drying my laundry and he said “Right. No problem. Cheers!” and drove off. We’ve been quite amazed by the friendliness of pretty much every single person we’ve encountered here (except for one rather curt waitress in Galway).

After my leisurely afternoon, I rejoined the guys at our appointed meeting spot in Edinburgh (the Burger King with free WiFi). Soon we were on our way (after a dash to get back to the parking lot before our time expired and we got charged €4.50). We drove steadily northwest toward Loch Ness and the Lake District of Scotland–not to be confused with the Lake District of England–and one of my ancestral homelands.

We spent the night by a stream just a few miles outside of Inverness at the tip of Loch Ness and were not attacked by monsters of any sort.

Daniel Z