Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

Leaving on the midnight train to Sighisoara October 5, 2008

Well, the 23:25 train, but same difference. I’ve checked around, and the route has a bad reputation in general. Now by ‘bad reputation’, I don’t mean to say I’ll be abducted and sold into white slavery, just an above-average chance of petty theft, day or night.

On the other hand, the advice I keep getting is to never take my eyes off my bag. Thus, in a strange way, I may be better off on a night train in that I can sleep with my bag (the hostel owner pantomimed what I would call spooning my bag through the night). I’m not thrilled about this, but I figure I’ll do what I can do to minimize the risk, and not worry about it further.

Actually, I would say that philosophy encapsulates a small epiphany I had recently: So much time is spent worrying about and fretting over and developing complex strategies to control things that never come to pass or cannot be controlled. Yesterday, after spending so much time “planning my actions” (a.k.a. worrying) about this night train, I decided to throw in the towel. I’ll still hide ‘the good stuff’ in the bottom of my day pack and lock it and – depending upon the vibe I get – bike lock it to me, and I’ll still planning to try to befriend the train conductor (by telling him/her straight up that I’ve heard bad things and am concerned and can they help me), and that’s all I can do. Onward and upward.

In other news, I had my first true bought of homesickness today. I had some moments early in the trip that I thought were homesickness, but I now realize were just garden variety fear. However, today I saw the first Malamute of the trip in a park in Budapest. From a 100 yards away, I could see it peeing on everything in its path and taking five minutes to sniff every three feet. A Mal if ever there were. But at that pace, I was able to catch up to the owner. I asked if he spoke English, and he said no. So I persisted. I identified the dog as a Malamute, and he agreed, and I tried to explain that I had one too. He scowled at me. I tried charades. He looked away.

I walked ahead of them and sat on a bench, considering turning on my computer to pull up a picture of my dog so that he would understand what I was trying to say, and maybe let me pet his Mal. At that moment, they started to approach, and the dog stopped to sniff a tree three feet to my left and a bush one foot from my knee, and never acknowledged me in the slightest. And in a stupid way, the realization that the dog WASN’T my dog – or anything like him (If Dozer loves anything, it’s a human being he’s never met before), was quite sad.

It was the sense that something that looked so incredibly familiar could be so foreign. Like seeing the mirror image of a loved one, and having them walk right by like you don’t exist.

So to stave off some ‘lost at sea’ feelings and kill some time before the late train, I decided to go to the movies. I’ve been wanting to go to the movies for weeks now, and having done everything I set out to do in Budapest, the time was right. Hungary just got the ‘new release’ of the Dark Knight (Batman) movie, and it was still in the original English (with subtitles). I got my ticket, but the concessions looked off, so I didn’t indulge in one of my passions – movie theater popcorn. Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure that a country that only sells Cheetos in ‘hotdog’ and ‘ketchup’ flavors is going to find a creative way to screw up popcorn. Like maybe covering it in prune juice or something.

Anyway, it was a good movie, and good escapism, and it was almost laughable how the sight and sound of Morgan Freeman could feel so comforting. And I guess that’s why, walking out in the Budapest night, I suddenly felt crushingly sad and lonely and…homesick.

But it was a pretty long walk back to the hostel in Pest, and on the way I had a chance to work through my feelings. And what I realized is that in its own way, homesicknesses is a blessing. It’s the other side of the coin of adventure and independence and solitude. And it’s a reminder that you belong somewhere and have a place to go back to…and that you want to go back to.

So the key really, in those ‘weak’ moments is to draw from them, and realize what’s good about feeling bad. Because feeling like a stranger in a strange land means you’ve undertaken a big adventure and pushed yourself far beyond what you thought you were capable of. And longing for your home? That means you’re fortunate enough to have a home and people that love you and a whole country where people talk and you can understand what they’re saying without getting a headache. And feeling sad, well, that just means your heart still works.

So here’s to the fear and the sadness and loneliness. Without it, it’s much harder to define who we are, and who aren’t, and who’s important, and what really matters. And with that information as a compass, we’re able to get on a night train to Romania feeling calm and knowing it will all work out in its own strange way.


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.


There’s a time and a place for patriotism…but my passport ain’t it September 29, 2008

So I have this memory from my original solo European journey back in 1992. I’m 99% certain that I’m recalling the details accurately, but it’s so bizarre to me now that there’s a small part of me that thinks maybe it was a dream or something. Anyway, here’s what I (think I) remember: I was crossing into Hungary from Austria, and the border guard came through the train. He stopped at a young couple a few seats in front of me, and made them completely and totally empty their bags so that he could search them.

This was – and remains – one of my ‘nightmare scenarios’. Not because I have anything to hide, but because I have so much stuff crammed into a 30 liter space. It takes FOREVER to pack the thing, and I’ve never even endeavored a full unpack/repack. Shudder to think.

Anyway, as he got closer to me, I was sweating bullets that he’d want to do a deep dive. Instead, what happened was this:

  • He looked at my passport

  • Looked at me

  • Looked my passport

  • Looked at me

  • Looked at my backpack

  • Looked at my passport

  • LICKED THE PHOTO ON MY PASSPORT (and when I say licked, I don’t mean like you’d lick a stamp. I mean LICKED like a full-on Gene Simmons photo op moment)

  • Gave it a stamp (I can still remember exactly how the stamp looked – kind of like fireworks with some printing in the middle)

  • And moved on.

Now I’m no expert on foreign relations (although, from the little bit of news I’ve picked up, it appears I am an expert on foreign relations when compared to Sarah Pallin), but this strikes me as a bit unprofessional.

On the other hand, I’ve been brushing up on my customs and etiquette for the brave new Eastern European leg that lies ahead. Thus, you can imagine my dismay to learn that the Bulgarians and the Turks have got it all wrong. From what I’ve read, in both countries they shake their head side to side to say “YES!” and nod up and down to say “No.” It’s permanent ‘opposite day’ (a game I never liked and which always annoyed me) in Bulgaria in Turkey.

Seriously though, talk about the Tower of Babble! It does make you notice (and wonder) about language and what we’re taught (and eventually communicate as second nature) and how it all evolved so differently all over the world. For one thing, I’m going to have to endeavor to channel the Tin Man during my time in Bulgaria and Turkey. This will be a challenge, since so much of my communicating consists of pointing at something and nodding enthusiastically when they grab the right thing, or shaking my head from side to side while frowning a little if they’ve got it wrong. Now I”m just gong to have to rely on Jedi mind tricks.

Meanwhile, it turns out nothing is open on a Sunday in Croatia during the off-season – and this includes markets, grocery stores, and restaurants – so I was pretty hard up for food yesterday. I had an orange and an apple and a tin of anchovies (don’t ask), but by dinner I was down to the emergency rations.

The emergency rations are three packages of instant soup (now just one) purchased all the way back in England. The first soup consumed was lentil, and it was horrific. I ate about three spoonfuls, poured it down the sink, and decided I’d prefer to be hungry that night. The second was potato leek (last night), and either my standards have gone down or it wasn’t half bad.

Anyway, I was reading the instructions (in English! Hallelujah!) on the back of the package, and they started with, “Empty contents of package into a pot, add 800 ml of water, and place on the hob.” Wait. On the WHAT? The hob? Do you mean stove? And it seemed so ridiculous that they would call a stove a “hob” (which is kind of a funny word, and may even make you start giggling like a dumbass if you repeat it to yourself enough times). Anyway, once I calmed down, I started thinking, “Well, what makes STOVE such a good word? Why not a hob?” But all this deep thought leaves you wondering (or at least if you’re me). So it’s only in the last 100 or 200 years that all these people that migrated over the ocean from England and Ireland and everywhere else, and eventually adopted English as their language (at least in the majority of cases). Why did they transition from ‘hob’ to ‘stove’? And from ‘torch’ to ‘flashlight’? And ‘lift’ to ‘elevator’? And where did our cool accent go along the way?

Like I said, Tower of Babble, baby.

At any rate, back to the original thing about the customs agent in Hungary: Maybe that was just a sign of approval of the United States or a coded threat: “We’ll let you into Hungary, but don’t outstay your welcome or things are going to get sticky”? I was reminded of this because on Saturday, on the bus from Italy to Croatia I had my first real border crossing passport check. Usually you just ride across borders like they’re states. Bus from Lithuania to Latvia? Didn’t even stop at the border. Train from Germany to Poland? No one ever even asked to see a passport. Flight from Ireland to Portugal with nothing to declare? Just walk on through. In a way, I’m bummed because I’m missing out on all kinds of cool stamps.

On Saturday I was near the back of the bus, and the guy got on and started making his way toward the rear. Those passports I’m guessing he recognized as Italian or Croatian he barely glanced at. For the Australian family I mentioned yesterday, he stopped and gave each of them a stamp. Then he got to me. And he looked at my passport. And looked at me. “Here we go….” I thought.

Then, he proceeded to flip very slowly and deliberately through each of the pages, studying each of them and maybe looking for stamps or visas from countries that would cause me a problem? This went on for what seemed like forever, and as I and the rest of the bus watched him do this, I remembered that the new passports have all these ludicrous patriotic pictures on every page. I renewed my passport in 2007, and I was dismayed to get it back looking like a souvenir you’d buy at the White House. Plus, they ruined my cute picture by plastering a stars and stripes hologram over my face. When you look at it in the right light, there’s a big star right above my lip – like the Cindy Crawford mole, only much, much larger.

An hour later, he finally stamped it and gave it back. At that point, I decided to look through and see what was so interesting. It was then that I actually tuned into the quotes on the top of all the pages. Nothing is blatantly WRONG with the quotes. They’re mostly from Presidents of yore, plus a token comment from the Native Americans (about the value of animals and the hope we don’t kill them all off – keep hoping, guys). However, I have to stop and ask myself, “Was this really NECESSARY?”

The pictures are bad enough. On pages 16 and 17, one finds a lovely bit of Americana – a scene of a steamboat chugging down the Mighty Mississippi. No harm done. Pages 18 and 19 feature a farmer plowing his fields the old fashioned way, with the aid of some bulls. In case you wonder what he might be farming, there’s a big ‘ol closeup of some wheat on page 18 to help you out. But then, blazoned across the top like a manifesto, is the following quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower, a president about whom I know nothing because my high school U.S. History teacher was obsessed with the Civil War, and we never made it past 1890.

That aside, Dwight apparently said, “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world, must first come to pass in the heart of America.” This I see as a problem. Probably not when he said it, but in light of recent events, I’m not too keen on flashing a passport that talks about America going out and doing stuff/enforcing our values/protecting our oil interests/WHATEVER in the greater world. Everyone knows it…do we really need to plaster it all over our passports? That’s the kind of sh*t that gets your American @ss kidnapped in some countries.

In the big picture, I suppose I should be grateful my passport doesn’t play “God Bless the USA’ when you open it. You know it, right? I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free… That would go over big in the Middle East. Open your passport, and hear the sound of 50 semi-automatic weapons being cocked, as you hum along to that terribly catchy little ditty.


Yesterday being Sunday, I got nowhere with BofA. However, I also didn’t spend any money, so I’m holding strong and – with any luck – will get this fixed before things become critical. Here’s hoping!!!