Wide Awake in Wonderland

We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while

How can I be sore THERE!? October 4, 2008

The look of relief, as I drag myself out of yet another tight spot

The look of relief, as I drag myself out of yet another tight spot

Yesterday, after getting to Budapest, I went off to face the ATM for the first time since Venice, Italy. Although I tried to remain positive, I did feel a slight shiver of fear as I put my card in. I keyed in my PIN, got to the page where you select your withdrawal amount…and got confused. The amounts offered were 5, 10, 20, 40, 50. This might make sense in Lativa, where one Lat is worth about $2 USD. But here in Hungary, the Forint is trading at around 175F to $1. In other words, 1000F is less than $6.

These are the moments that make you feel like a giant dope. Were they truncating the amounts (i.e. 5 = 500? 50 = 50,000?) Had I misunderstood the exchange rate? This was Budapest, Hungary right??? What year is this? Who am I? Why is Madonna more famous in Europe than in America? What would you do for a Klondike bar?

Anyway, long story short, I am pleased to report a happy ending. Not only did I learn that you have select “other amount” and key in what you want (it feels super weird to key 200,000 into an ATM!), but it WORKED!!! The machine gave me money!!! Hallelujah! My ATM card really is back in the game.

Armed with what sounds like a ton of money, but really isn’t, I learned I had a choice to make. I had wanted to go to the Kiraly Baths on the Buda side of the city. Monday/Wednesday/Friday are female-only days, and yesterday was my one shot in that regard. However, Monday/Wednesday/Friday are also the only days you can take a guided tour through the caves outside the city, and the tour was leaving in 35 minutes. There are other baths open over the weekend (mixed gender), but I only had one opportunity to go caving. I changed into my sneakers and took off for the meeting place.

The woman in front of me, squeezing into yet another tiny space

The woman in front of me, squeezing into a tiny space. My ponytail filled with dirt during this section!


It was rush hour, so it took an incredibly long time to get there (via public transportation), but you eventually arrive at a little lodge/restaurant in the hills outside Buda. You’re outfitted with horrible grungy coveralls (mine was about four sizes too big and made me look like a member of the United Steelworkers Union), and inexplicably moist (later revealed as the sweat of the previous wearer. Ick.) hardhats. I shoved my camera into the giant front pocket, and we were off.

Caving is one of those experiences where if you suspect you might be claustrophobic, you’ll know for sure within fifteen minutes. I’m okay with tight spaces, although I don’t make a habit of forcing myself into them. Nonetheless, I’d pick that any day over serious heights.

Thus, it’s a bit harrowing to begin the tour by descending 100 feet down a ladder into the start of the caves. It’s already dark, so you really don’t realize how deep it is, until you’re climbing…and climbing…and climbing…and you still can’t see the lights on anyone’s hard hard. Once you get down, the real adventure begins.

For the next three hours you are led through a labyrinth of caves, and often via spaces that truly do not look big enough for a human body. A small cat, maybe, but not a whole person. At this point, these routes are well-traveled but I kept thinking about the people who originally went in there and found these ridiculous pathways.

The entrance to the Pál-Vőlgyi caves

The entrance to the Pál-Vőlgyi caves

They say ‘never say never’, but I can absolutely guarantee you that you will never in this lifetime hear me say, “Hey! There’s some caves no one has explored! Let’s go in them, and crawl through holes to see if we fit!” NEVER.

However, with a friendly Hungarian tour guide and a lopsided hardhat to protect me…why not!? There were seven of us in the group, and he decided to take us on the harder route. I’m pretty small, so I didn’t ever have a moment where I felt stuck or didn’t think I could make it through something, but it is pretty crazy to be crawling through a space so tiny that you have to turn your head sideways to fit.

It’s strangely exhilarating too…and far more physically strenuous than I would have imagined. You often have to kick yourself into a space with your arms stretched in front of you, flailing like some kind of failed evolutionary experiment. The fish that climbed out onto land, but didn’t quite make it off the shore. When you’re climbing back up and out of the caves, it’s like pulling yourself out of a tight, curved, slippery swimming pool…without the advantages of water buoyancy. It’s also a core workout like none the world has seen before, although I’m not really sure how to translate it into a routine that could be done at home. I woke up this morning feeling as still as a 100 year old woman. Even my bones ache.

Besides overworking every muscle in your body, you also spend a lot of time on all fours, which HURTS. I eventually mumbled that I could really use some knee pads, and the guide laughed and pointed to his Power Rangers-like outfit (quite a bit more snazzy than my Jiffy Lube uniform), to let me know he had some on. At least I had the helmet, because I hit my head at least 15 times. And whacked my elbows. And pounded my tail bone. And did something that has resulted in a big bruise on my hip. But I would do it all again. Tomorrow, if the tour were on Sundays.

I remember this moment as stressful and strenuous, but apparently I was enjoying myself from the look on my face!

I remember this moment as stressful and strenuous, but apparently I was enjoying myself from the look on my face!

It was super fun in a scary/exhilarating way. At the end of the tour, he offered us the option to go about 30 meters (90 feet) in total darkness. Caving, he told us, is a group effort, so we would have to take direction from the person in front of us, and help the person behind us.

Then we all switched off our head lamps and got started. We began holding hands and being shown (via touch) the walls ahead of us. I would inch forward a foot, and then stop and show the path to the girl behind me. Then there was a small climb up into a tube, after which you had to switch to a seated position and slide out. All the while you’re trying to make sure you understand what’s coming, while making sure to take care of the person behind you (who is in turn doing the same).

Then we got on our hands and knees, holding onto one another’s ankles in a train. I kept thinking I could see light or see things, but I proved that theory wrong when I tried to sit up (convinced I could see that there was space above me) and clanged my helmet into the ceiling for about the 20th time that day.

Emerging from the birth canal for the second time in my life...

Emerging from the birth canal for the second time in my life...

In a stupid way, it was strangely comforting. The Hungarians used the caves as a bomb shelter during WWII, and I kept thinking how awful it would have been to be down there in the dark, wondering if the world would end, or if you’d ever find your way out of this blasted cave to see it again. Navigating this way, I saw that it was actually possible (at least if the person in front knew the caves a bit or was willing to take some knocks to figure out what was coming) and not really that bad. In fact, it was kind of heartwarming, the way any sort of ‘trust experiment’ with other people (particularly strangers) restores your faith that in a pinch, we all really would help each other out.


Brought to my knees by the Bank of America September 28, 2008

So yesterday was a toughie.

I could kind of see it coming by the time I posted my blog, but when something is REALLY bothering me, I tend to keep it to myself. I think maybe I prefer to resolve it, and THEN tell you about it. However, I may be in the midst of a pretty big problem I can’t fix. Or at least that I have yet to see a clear solution to. So maybe you can help?

Here’s the deal: Five days ago, my ATM card quit working. I wrote you a long, highly detailed account of how I figured that out and what I’ve been through thus far to fix it, but it was boring so I deleted it. You’re smart people. You can fill in the blanks.

The card won’t work, and I can’t get any cash. NOT GOOD.

Some of you know that due to an incident in May, I already hate Bank of America and was closing all my accounts. To them I will say, Yes, it’s true, and I am so dumping them when I get home (unless they’re the only bank that hasn’t gone under, and then I guess not), but all my direct deposits payments were set up to go there, and I couldn’t get that changed.

Anyway, yesterday morning, I explained this little problem to Fabri, the strange guy who ran the B&B I stayed at in Trieste. Actually, I wouldn’t call it a B&B so much as a B&b. The little room I had was fine enough. Pretty basic, but whatever. Fabri had some bizarre decorating taste and a serious incense habit. I like incense as much as the next guy, but not when there’s so much smoke that you wonder if maybe a really fragrant forest is burning down next door. But it was for one night, so whatever.

The evening before, Fabri made a big deal about “what time would I like breakfast,” and was very specific about setting a date. Thus, when I pulled into the kitchen at the appointed hour, you can imagine that i was a little bit surprised to find a cappuccino cup, a very small juice box (30% real juice!) with a cartoon hippo on it, and a what looked like a single “Little Debbie” snack treat, still in the original cellophane wrapping (but on a plate). Hmmmm… Where’s the full Irish breakfast? Where’s the muesli and yogurt and cheese? Where’s the beef, Fabri?

Fabri in his eclectic and incense-thick glory padded out and poured me the requisite 1.5 ounces of super strong strangely thick cappuccino, and sat back to savor his hospitality as I struggled to open my Little Debbie wrapper.

Thus, all hyped up on sugar and caffeine, I decided to endeavor a conversation to determine if Bank of America was screwing with me, or if I was somehow dialing wrong. Bank of America kept sending me 888 and 877 numbers, but they wouldn’t work in the pay phones (even when I put money in.) Then they (the phone receiver) always rattled something off in Italian. Fabri thought about this, left for a while, and then came back and offered to try dialing from the phone in his room. He returned, and told me that the recording was saying that 888 and 877 aren’t proper extensions in Italy. And here some kid (via e-mail) SWORE that number would work. Idiots. No wonder the banks are all going under.

Anyway, Fabri had the idea to look on the web site (and laughed rather extensively when he learned that my problems were stemming from an institution called Bank of America), and found a number for the credit card department that would receive collect calls from Europe. Incredibly relieved, I called them that afternoon, but they’re only open 8am to 5pm (of course). When I got to Croatia yesterday evening, I called again. Actually, I called ELEVEN TIMES – all collect, and anywhere from ten to thirty minutes per call. I spent two hours and thirty seven minutes calling. And each and every time I was transferred to the wrong department or the wrong area, and eventually ended up in one of two of Dante’s layers of call center hell:

  1. A queue in which there is some very chipper music that reminds me of The Sims, but which starts to make you feel homicidal after about thirty minutes. I could totally sing you the tune if you were here. Anyway, it is regularly interrupted by a male voice that says, “Your expected wait time is at least five minutes.” Then it starts saying, “Your expected wait time is approximately two minutes” and you start to feel hopeful…for ten minutes. And then back to the five minutes, no wait two minutes, five minutes, two minutes…until finally there is a silence and a sound of fumbling, and you’re hung up on. That exact scenario happened three times.

  1. You have to interact with this CRM system where you must speak to it. Again, it’s a male voice and he sounds pleasant enough. This is to mask the fact that he is actually the devil.

Please tell me a little about why you’re calling today.”

“My debit card is not working.”

Okay, did you say you’d like to hear about a loan?”


Okay. Please tell me a little about why you’re calling today.”

“ My DEBIT CARD will not WORK in the ATM.”

Okay, did you say you’re looking for an ATM location?”


Okay. Please tell me a little about why you’re calling today.”


I didn’t quite get that, could you repeat it?”


I didn’t quite get that, could you repeat it?”


“Okay, let me connect you…”

Silence. Sound of Croatian dial tone.

After the seventh such interaction with that guy, I cried a little. Not a lot. But maybe four or five hot, fat tears. And I felt kind of defeated. And I’m a pretty optimistic person overall, but I really am not sure how to get beyond the 300 departments at Bank of America and talk to someone that can help me. And I didn’t have it in me to call back for a twelfth time, and I’m staying so far out in the boonies that there are no pay phones, and I couldn’t call back last night.

The only thing that brings me even a little comfort is the hope that all those collect call charges amount to at least $500, if not more.

However, rest assured that today has three exciting things on the agenda:

  1. Figure out the train schedule for tomorrow

  2. Find an internet cafe to post this

  3. Call the f-ing Bank of America back and hopefully restore access to my money

Meanwhile, I took the bus from Trieste to Pula yesterday. All was looking good for a quiet journey until an Australian family pulled in at the last second. The man looked almost exactly like my chiropractor (and was equally enthusiastic), and he and his wife had a sulky teenage boy and very bizarre 13-ish girl in tow. I used to have a boss who always referred to her oldest daughter as “special needs.” I never knew what was ‘wrong’ with her, per se, she was a pretty girl and looked normal enough, but she was a bit strange – standing too close, asking weird questions, telling you really off the wall stuff, etc. I’m pretty sure that whatever was ailing my boss’ daughter also had its teeth in this girl.

They came to the rear of the bus where I was, and all took their own row. The girl then proceeded to slam the tray on the back of the seat up and down for about fifteen minutes. The whole bus turned around to look at this at one point or another, but the parents didn’t seem to notice. If anything, they were really hard on the 15 or 16 year old boy, that he was “starting trouble.” No wonder he was so moody. He’s growing up in backwards universe, where the kid with obvious issues is the good one.

Back to the girl, after she tired of the tray, she very suddenly flailed all around violently, as though she were being attacked by bees. This caused me to jump and suddenly go on the alert. If there’s a bee attack about to go down, I like to be prepared, but apparently she was just frustrated because she couldn’t get her foot rest ‘just right.’ This caused her to change seats about 1,693 times.

The enthusiastic dad would call her attention to every last thing out the window on my side. And since she eventually settled in the empty row next to me (it probably was a lot easier to stare bug eyed at me from that spot), she would do things like rush up until she bumped me or throw out an arm out across the aisle until she nearly poked me in my bad eye.

Oh, that’s right. I also failed to mention my bad eye. That’s mostly because I didn’t want to worry you, and also because I didn’t want to further worry me.

So on Friday I put my contacts in, and during the train ride from Venice to Trieste, they started bugging me. It was incredibly hot in the car, and I swear it smelled like cigarette smoke from time to time. I also have these eye drops that I am now very suspicious of. At home I use these “Tears” drops that my ophthalmologist recommended. My eyes are really sensitive, and I react to all kinds of preservatives used in regular products. A refill was in my box that is now on my desk at home.

Anyway, I think there was some accidental leakage, because by the time I hit Spain, I was completely out. I went into the pharmacy and brought the empty bottle. Not one, but three people in white coats consulted about this, and I tried to explain the specifics as I understood them and referenced the ingredients to a degree that was probably insulting. Eventually, one of the guys reached under the counter and came out with a bottle that looked almost exactly like mine.

There are a lot of variations in eye drop bottle shapes, and the Spanish doppleganger gave me hope that this was the right stuff.

Now I’m not so sure. In fact, now I wonder if those people were promoted up from the “Everything for a euro” shop next door and matched my bottle to a lookalike, contents unknown. Sufficed to say, I put a bunch of that stuff into my eyes during the hot,, smoky train trip. At the time, I would have described the effects as “net zero” – didn’t really seem to help, didn’t hurt.

When I got to the B&B, I took out my contacts. My left eye was still pretty pissed off, but I figured it was from the High Holy Mass going on in Fabri’s room. That’s why I was pretty surprised to wake up yesterday morning to find that my eye hurt. Like really, really HURT. Closing it BURNED and made me wince and felt like there was glass in it.

I don’t know about you, but that’s scary. I could be bleeding out from a big gash on my arm and would figure, “That’ll clot. I’ll be fine.” But when it hurts like fire to close your own eyes…!?!? Well, it’s hard not to acknowledge a little low-grade panic setting in.

It’s probably fair to say that if you’re worried about some aspect of your health, the LAST thing you should do is get on WebMD. So that’s exactly what I did. Actually, minus the overuse of some words like “scarring” and “blindness” it was fairly innocuous and just said to flush with water and if the pain continued, go to a doctor. That’s easier said than done, buddy. I’m on my way to frigging Croatia. Know any good ophthalmologists there?

I was spooked enough that I got out my travelers health insurance information, wrote down the policy number, and used the online service to lookup some English-speaking doctors here in Pula. They don’t list eye doctors, but there’s a hospital, so I figured if worse came to worst, I’d start there.

However, as of this morning, it looks and feels fine. I’ll probably forgo my contacts for several days just to be sure (and I looked up doctors all the way to Vienna, just in case) but with any luck I am now just penniless, not blind and penniless (although the latter is a better combination for street-side begging).

Lastly, happy birthday to my dog, Dozer, who I miss very much, and who is three years old today. I’m sure he reads the blog daily, and is probably peeved that I don’t ever mention him, but it’s my general policy to keep this about me and not drag other innocent parties (or at least those I plan to see again) into it. Plus, I know it would be hard for him to reject any statements or make comments in his own defense, as his paws are too large to type effectively. Anyway, attached is a picture of him from last month (sent to me, obviously). He looks beautiful, as always, but he also looks a little down in the dumps. I’m sure he’ll cheer up when I get home in about a month and throw him a big, belated party.

(Also, buddy, if you do figure out how to use those big paws online, maybe consider wiring your beloved master some cash to the Vienna Western Union. Okay? Good boy. Go get yourself bone.)

He ain't no Lassie, but maybe he can figure out how to navigate the BofA automated phone system for me?

He is no Lassie, but maybe he can trot down to my local BofA branch and tear someone's pant leg off as a sign of protest?