Thursday, July 12, 2018

Sovetsk, And A Little Jarring Surprise

I took the bus to Sovetsk, which is a small village on the border of Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast and Lithuania, separated by the Neman River. But I was soon to find out about something that I hadn't counted on. I got off the bus on arrival, loaded up my backpack, which I had stowed in the bus' baggage compartment, and set off to walk to the hostel where I was staying, which was only a few blocks away. I had walked a couple of blocks when I realized there was a car tailing me slowly as I walked. It was an older model, Eastern European looking car. I tried to ignore it for a bit, but then the car pulled up beside me, and a middle-aged stocky guy got out. He started talking to me in Russian, and I wasn't able to follow what he was saying. His tone was conversational, and not hostile or anything, and at first I thought he was trying to solicit an informal taxi ride. I shook my head and said, "Nyet," and he pulled out a wallet with some kind of identification. So he was some kind of policeman. He kept talking in Russian, and I still didn't understand, so I said, "nie ponimayu," which means, "I don't understand" in Russian. I asked him, "Passport?" because I assumed he wanted to see my identification, and he answered, "Da." So I pulled out my passport, migration card, and registration card from the last hostel in Kaliningrad; the Russian authorities usually want to see all of that, and it is legally required for you to have all that stuff on you. He inspected my documents, then asked me, "Angliski?" which means, "English?" I shook my head to indicate yes. He pulled out his phone, and pulled up an app that was like Google Translate. He spoke into the app and showed me the results. "You are a foreigner in a Special Border Zone. Do you know anything about that?" the words on the phone said. "Nyet," I answered, kind of taken aback. Uh-oh. What now?



He paused for a minute, and it looked like he was uncertain what to say to me. He then spoke into his phone again, and the phone read out the words, "Since you are in a Special Border Zone, you will not be able to go closer to the river than Victory Street. Do you understand?" I nodded my assent. He asked me verbally, "Piatiy Ugol?" which was the name of the hostel where I was staying. So he either knew where I was staying already, or he deduced it from the direction I was walking. I nodded my head to indicate yes. He typed, "Have a good stay," and held out his hand to shake hands, and I shook his hand, and said "Spasiba" (thank you).



I kept walking down the street, and he watched me head up to the hostel, following me a short bit. I found the door but could not open it in my nervousness from him watching me. I tried to walk down the block to see if there was another door, but he motioned me to go back to that door, and motioned that it was upstairs. Ah, I push, and not pull. I gave him a meek wave, and headed in. Well, that went better than it could have, I guess.


I poked my head in several places on the way up the stairs. Nope, that's not a hostel. Neither is that, it looks like some kind of official government office. I got to the top of the stairs, and saw the word, "Reception" in English. I went through the door, and there was a friendly-looking woman on the other side. She said in halting English that she spoke a little bit of English, and I answered in halting Russian that I spoke a little bit of Russian. She asked me for my documents, so I handed them over, and she made copies. She smiled in recognition when she saw the registration from the hostel in Kaliningrad, and said she had worked at that hostel two years ago. She said she was the only one working there, and it was a new hostel, and I was the first American to stay there. She showed me my room, which had five beds in it that weren't bunk beds like in most hostels, and was quite spacious. I was the only one staying in the room, so I had my pick of beds; they all seemed about the same, so I picked one by a window.



I told her that the police had stopped me, and told me about the Special Border Zone stuff. She said, oh, yes, you can't go down by the river, but as long as you stay away from that area, you will be OK. So it was common knowledge. I wonder if I strayed into the forbidden area, everybody would be looking at me, like, "he's not supposed to be there." Maybe.


I got settled in and went out for a foray into the town. I pulled out my phone to check Google Maps to see where Victory Street was, so I could stay out of the forbidden zone. First, I had to look up the word "Victory" on Google Translate because I had just seen the word translated on the cop's phone. The word that came up was, "победа" or "pobeda". I searched for thst street on Google Maps and nothing came up,  but I found it later under a slight spelling variation by eyeballing the map. It turns out that street is the town's main street, with a lot of businesses on either side, and set up as a pedestrian street, with benches right in the middle of the street for relaxing and people-watching. Also, the street is not a uniform distance from the border, and kind of went diagonal to it, and I was unclear on how far I could be from the border outside the length of that street. But I tried my best to comply with the order I'd been given, and constantly checked Google Maps to make sure I wasn't in an unapproved area. The street was several blocks away from the border at the farthest, and about a block away at the closest. But a good chunk of the center of the city was off limits to me, including a Lithuanian pancake restaurant that I really wanted to visit but couldn't since it was in the forbidden zone. There were a lot of people walking around the town with camouflage uniforms on. But I don't want to know anything; I just want to keep my head down and be a compliant tourist.


The first day I was there, I walked through my officially approved areas, looking for a restaurant. I found two restaurants on the main street that I wanted to try on Google Maps, but both of them had the area where they used to be emptied out, and workmen preparing the space. I was bummed, because I was starving as I hadn't eaten all day yet. But finally I found a restaurant called Mama Mia that was awesome. It was mostly Italian, but also had local dishes, and, to my surprise, their menu was not only in Russian and English, but also about a third of it was dedicated to vegetarian and vegan dishes,  and not just for show, but good, solid fare. And there was a lot of variety on the menu. It's very rare to see that in a restaurant in a small Russian village.


One thing I hadn't seen in Kaliningrad Oblast are the stolovayas, the ubiquitous cheap cafeteria-style restaurants that are plentiful throughout many areas of Russia. One of the closed restaurants I went to was a stolovaya, but I didn't see any others, and I didn't run into any in Kaliningrad, though I didn't look very hard there.


I walked throughout the parts of the village that were available to me, and there wasn't a lot of it. It's a small village with a little over 40,000 people, so the center is not very big. But there was a nice, spacious park at the heart of it. I was really only here to wait for the bus to Latvia (see my post on Kaliningrad for details), but I made the most of my time. On my way walking to the bus station to leave the village, there was a police checkpoint about a block in the other direction. I don't want to know.  I'm just glad I wasn't walking that way.  When the bus was heading to the border, I got to see some of the forbidden zone for the first time. Crossing the border into Lithuania was no big deal at all; I didn't get asked a single question on either side if the border, but there was a lot of waiting on both sides. All in all, with the waits on both sides if the border, the bus was stopped for about an hour and a half. But then we proceeded through smoothly, and we were onward to Riga.



In Sovetsk I stayed at: Piatiy Ugol Hostel, 1 Ulitsa Zhukovskogo 3 этаж, Sovetsk, 238750, Russian Federation. The hostel was nice, it had single beds (5 in the room I was in) instead of bunk beds, and my room was very spacious. No lockers, but there was plenty of storage space. I was the only guest in the entire hostel the whole time I was there, and was often the only person there, as it was the type of hostel where the manager is not there most of the time. There was free breakfast along with the room, and it was prepared just for me since I was the only one there. It was a great deal at a little over ten dollars a night. The room was up two flights of stairs, so we would call that the third floor in the US, and the second floor most other places. No doors were locked from the street to the room, but the manager gave me a key to the hostel's main door late on the first day of my stay. I never ended up using it; I tried it on the wrong keyhole and it didn't work, and the manager showed me the right way to use it later, but I was leaving shortly after that. The manager was very nice and helpful when she was there, and when she wasn't, she left her phone number, which I never had to use.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Kaliningrad During The World Cup

After visiting Minsk and returning to Lithuania a second time, I decided to go to Kaliningrad, Russia. Kaliningrad is an exclave of Russia, which means it is in bya piece of land that is completely separated from the rest of Russia. Up until shortly after World War II, Kaliningrad had been Königsburg, and had been part of Germany.  So there is this rich Prussian and German heritage there in this small, separate part of Russia. And it was also hosting World Cup soccer matches while I was there. I don't follow soccer much, but it was interesting to see the bustle going on from all the foreign tourists, which it seemed the city was not used to.


I took a bus from Vilneus to Kaliningrad. When crossing the border to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast, we were all herded off the bus to wait for a while. The bus driver collected all of our passports in a pile. One by one, they called each passenger up to the window, and then when they were done with that passenger, the passenger would call the name of the next person. I figured I would be last, because the passengers did not speak my language, and would have difficulty summoning me. I was half right. After each passenger had gone up to the window, I waited a moment, and then approached the window.  But the guy behind the glass shook his finger to motion me not to approach. I waited a few minutes, but nothing happened. Then the bus driver motioned me to get on the bus. I never did have to go up to the window. Then everybody else got in the bus, and the bus driver divided up all the passports among four or five passengers to pass out to everybody. They called out names, and passed out the passports, but mine was not among them. We waited a little longer, and some official motioned the bus driver to walk up to the window. He returned with my passport, and started the bus.


Well, that wasn't so bad, I thought. It took a while, but it was mostly waiting. But it turned out that was just the Lithuanian side. We approached the Russian side, and we all had to get off the bus again. They barked out some commands I didn't understand, and motioned us toward metal detectors to walk through to go inside. The bus driver came up to me with my backpack; apparently I was supposed to bring it with me. I walked through the metal detector, and put my bag on the belt to go through the machine. Seemed like fairly standard procedure to cross a border. A wonan came up to ask me some questions, but she didn't speak English. I couldn't answer her questions with my limited Russian, so she went and got a piece of paper with English questions written phonetically in Cyrillic script, and haltingly asked me the questions, to which I responded iin Russian when I could. She finished, and I waited with the rest of the people. Then a guy came up to me, flashed a badge, and said he was a federal marshal and he needed to ask me some questions. He spoke pretty good English. I was escorted into a room, and he closed the door.  He asked me some questions for a bit, and seemed satisfied with my answers. I'm just a tourist with nothing to hide, so hopefully it was routine. Then he welcomed me to Russia and I rejoined the other people waiting. Soon we headed back to the bus, reloaded our baggage, and got on. I was in Russia again. We headed towards Kaliningrad.


Russia has created a special deal for those who are arriving for the World Cup. For those who bought at least one match ticket their ticket serves as their visa, and they are issued a fan ID that gives them all kinds of perks as well. For instance, they got free public transportation on match days. One perk that I benefitted from was that  T-Mobile offered free 4g in Russia for the World Cup. I use T-Mobile because they give me free data in most of the countries I go to, but it is usually 2g and very slow. So, strangely enough, I had the fastest internet I've had anywhere, and I was not as dependent on wi-fi.


Kaliningrad doesn't have a metro, but it does have trams, buses, and small private vans called marshrutkas. All of these options are pretty much dirt cheap. The buses are twenty rubles, which is about thirty cents at sixty-three rubles to the dollar. There is a conductor on the bus on addition to the driver, and the conductor will approach you shortly after you board to take your money, in exchange for a ticket. I didn't take any trams, but I assume it works pretty much like the buses. The marshrutkas are only twenty-two rubles, and you pay the driver when you get off.


There are sellers of kvass in little booths all over the city. Kvass is a fermented beverage made from rye bread, and it is supposed to be high in probiotics. I'd describe the taste as being that of rye bread soda. It's not too sweet, and fairly pleasant. The price goes down the larger of a quantity you buy. I bought it several times, and the largest quantity I bought was a liter, but I could have bought much more. Just a cup of it was about 25 rubles, or somewhere around 40 cents in US dollars.


I spent several days taking in the sights in Kaliningrad, but the highlight was a tour bus to the Curonian Spit. I set up the tour the day after I arrived in Kaliningrad, but the tour was a couple of days later. On the day of the tour, I woke up with intense pain in my right pinky toe when I put on my shoe. The pain was so bad I could hardly walk, but I had set up the tour, so I wanted to do it anyway.  The tour guide was talking a lot, but it was all in Russian, so I didn't understand what she was saying. Most of the stops were short walks, but walking was staggeringly painful. Most of the time we were on the bus, I took my shoe off to avoid the pain.


The first stop was the Dancing Forest. This was a forest where the trees grew in strange, twisty ways, seemingly randomly. I was in a lot of pain, but walked around the whole loop pathway through the area.


At one point we stopped for two hours so people could walk to the beach on the Baltic Sea on the west side of the spit, which was not far, and walk to the lagoon on the east side, which was a couple of kilometers away. I was in so much pain that I figured I would skip the east side. I hobbled toward the beach, and stopped to sit on a bench to take my shoe and stick off to see what was going on with my toe. My toe was about twice its normal size, and bright crimson red, and so painful to the slightest touch that I could barely even touch it. Great, I probably had an infection. I tried to play out in my mind what I would do in Russia with a painfully infected toe. I kept my shoe off and walked toward the beach. The pain was hardly noticeable with the shoe off. I got in the salt water of the sea and stayed there for a while to soak my toe, hoping that would help.


After the beach, I sat on a bench again to massage my toe to see if it would help. At first it hurt like crazy just to touch it, but i started kneding it firmer and firmer, building up my tolerance, until I was applying some fairly strong pressure. And that seemed to help a little. Screw it, I thought, I'm going to put my shoe on and walk to the east side of the spit. I only had about forty minutes left to walk about two kilometers and back, but I figured I would make it if I walked briskly. And I was on the other side if the world, and when would I get this chance again? So I put my shoe on, blocked out the intense pain, and walked the two kilometers. But it was worth it. The dunes on the lagoon were beautiful, and the forest on the way there was amazing.


The last stop was the bird sanctuary,  where there was a big net to catch and band migratory birds, and there was a presentation where a ranger showed the different bands for the different birds and explained the procedure. He also banded a bird and set it free.


Though I was worried about the infected toe, I kept it monitored and massaged it frequently. If it had gotten worse, or if i had seen any radiating red lines leading away from it, I would have sought medical help. But it resolved itself on its own within a couple of days, thankfully. By the next day, most of the swelling had gone down, and while it was still painful to walk, it was much more tolerable, and by the second day, the pain was even less. I'd say three or four days later it was completely back to normal.


One of the highlights in Kaliningrad was the House of Soviets. This was a building that was built in the 1970s on the ruins of the former Konigsberg Castle. It was never completed and it was never occupied because it was structurally unsound. There was a fan area for the World Cup matches that was set up right in front of it. You could also see some of the walls of the demolished castle in front of it, tiward the street. There was also a really good vegan restaurant right down the street from it.  Fairly close to there was the Museum of the World Ocean which was spread out along the river.  I thought there would be a display of aquatic animals there, but it was mostly devoted to military maritime transportation. The was a submarine there, the B-413, that people could board, and that was interesting to see.


Right in the middle of the Pregolya River is the Island of Kant. This has a big park called Sculpture Park filled with sculptures. Before WWII, the whole island was covered with buildings and activity, and there are placards all over the park showing that was there before. On the island also are Königsberg Cathedral and Immanuel Kant's tomb, connected to the back of the cathedral.

There are a lot of forts around Kaliningrad, but many of them are not open to the public. One that I went to that was open was Fort Friedrichsburg, or rather, Friedrichsburg Gate. Most of the fort had been demolished, but some of the rooms in the entrance way and the courtyard are still there. There are also a lot of gates still around from the city's defensive walls all over town and I visited several of them. One of the weirdest and eeriest defensive structures was Grolman Bastion. The main building is not open to the public, and I got run off by a guard when I tried to go in one of the gates. But I went into another one, and nobody stopped me, though I couldn't get far, and only around to the back of the building for a bit rather than inside. There were some businesses that were installed in parts of some of some of the ancillary buildings. To the north and south, stretching out on lines like walls, were these long, fortified hills that had paths along the top of them and were wooded like a forest. I walked on the paths, and it was really creepy up there. There was nobody up there for a while except for a few kids running around, and quite a ways down the path, in the middle of the forest, I saw a couple of cops just incongruently sitting there. They were facing the other way so I just backed away quietly so as not to attract their attention. All along the hills stretching either way from the bastion, there were patially buried brick buildings, and vents to stuff that must have been underground. I could glimpse a walking path on the other side of the bastion down the back side of the hill, but it was too steep to get down in that direction, and I couldn't find any path down the hill to get there.


My plan was to go to Riga, Latvia from Kaliningrad. I went to the bus station in Kaliningrad to look at the bus schedules. But I found out there is only one bus that leaves every day from Kaliningrad to Riga, and it leaves late at night and travels overnight. I am not terribly keen on overnight buses, but I kept it in mind as a last resort. I saw there's another bus that leaves twice a week, but it departs really early in the morning, which I preferred not to do also, since I'd have to get to the bus station from the hostel really early, but it'd be better than traveling overnight. Also, since the bus only leaves twice a week, I would have had to extend my stay in Kaliningrad for three nights longer than I had planned. Now all of these options were doable, but not preferable.  But I cobbled together another option. There are domestic buses that go to Sovetsk, a town in Kaliningrad Oblast right on the Lithuanian border, just about every half hour. So I figured I would just go to the bus station and get a ticket on the spot when I was ready to leave, rather than reserving one in advance, I'd stay in Sovetsk for a couple of days, and then I'd catch the early morning bus to Riga from Sovetsk instead of from Kaliningrad, when it would arrive later in the day and not super early. That option would require me to either spend three nights in Sovetsk, or extend my stay in Kaliningrad another day and spend two nights. I chose to stay in Kaliningrad one more day, since Sovetsk is a small village and I figured Kaliningrad would be more interesting (though a woman who worked at the hostel told me that Sovetsk was an interesting town with lots of history). And this was a rare moment in my trip when I had absolutely no future plans already reserved.



So, with that plan in mind, I made some future plans in for the next few weeks, except for the bus to Sovetsk, which I planned to get at the bus station right before leaving. That was a bit risky because the buses could be full, but with buses leaving multiple times in the day, I figured there would be one that had space. And, in fact, when I got to the bus station, they sold me a ticket for a bus heading in three minutes, so I got on the bus and left immediately.


I stayed at: Hostel Akteon Lindros, Ulitsa Svobodnaya 23 apt 22, Kaliningrad,  236000, Russian Federation. The hostel would have been nice, but my room smelled horribly of pesticide, and it was nauseating. The place was otherwise decent. There were only Russian speakers staying there, and only one staff member spoke a little English, but she spoke Spanish much better, so we conversed in Spanish much of the time. About half of the people staying there seemed like workers rather than tourists. The hostel was easy to find and only up a few steps. You have to be buzzed in to get in, sometimes it takes a while, but there is staff there 24 hours. It had a nice kitchen, and refrigerator space seemed available the whole time I was there. Also there was little problem using the bathrooms though the were only two of them.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Minsk In A Pinch

I was not originally planning to go to Belarus because they have a difficult visa to get, and the previous time I had looked into it, which was about three years ago, I decided not to apply for the visa. Which turned out to be a good decision at the time, because I might not have been able to use it, since I got called back to the States on my last journey earlier than I thought I was going to return.  But a couple of months ago, I looked at Belarus again and found out that in the meantime, after the last time I had looked into it, they had created a visa-free way to visit, which was rather shocking to me for this country that is still very much modeled on the former Soviet Union. But I guess they had seen the tourist bonanza that the neighboring Baltic states had reaped, and decided to try to get a piece of the action. There are a few strings attached, or rather, there are some strange conditions to visiting visa-free, if you come from one of the countries that they will allow to do this. You can only go in for a maximum of five days, and you can only fly in and out, and only to and from Minsk Airport. And you can't come in from or depart to Russia. So what I did is I booked a return flight to and from Vilneus, Lithuania, which is probably the closest place to fly in from. I stayed for four days, just short of the five that I was allowed to stay. It was really only three days, but every portion of a day that you spend somewhere counts as a day, so it counted as four days.


I arrived in Minsk fairly late. I prefer to travel earlier in the day so I can have plenty of time to figure it how to get where I'm going, and to get settled. But I didn't have a lot of choices on cheap flights. So my flight got there about nine at night, and by the time that I got through immigration and got my baggage picked up, it was nearly ten. Getting through immigration was a lot easier than I thought it worked be. They just checked my passport, checked my health insurance on my phone (another requirement for the visa-free visit), and that was about it; I was through quickly. And there was no customs check at all. I was pretty amazed by how quickly and smoothly it went.


So now I had to get into the city. The airport is quite a distance from the city; about fifty kilometers. There is a bus that goes there, and since I got in so late, there were only two buses left to run for the day. A taxi driver offered to take me for twenty bucks, but I declined, saying I'd take the bus. I'm always leery about taxis in foreign countries, especially if I haven't been to that country before, because some of them can possibly be scammy or dangerous. I was in time for the penultimate bus, but it filled up before I got to the door, and the driver motioned that I couldn't get on. Come on, I motioned, I'll stand. But he was steadfast, and didn't let me on, too my disappointment. The taxi driver came up to me again, and I told him I would take the next bus. But I wasn't so confident about that. There was only one bus left for the day, and it wasn't for forty-five minutes. So I thought about it for a few minutes, and I found the taxi driver, and asked him, "Twenty dollars?" He nodded his head, and we were off to his cab.


But as we were walking there, a couple of Mongolian women came up to me and said they needed a ride into town, could we split the cab? I was OK with that, but the cab driver was negative about it. Why not, I asked him. I was thinking I would save some money, and I felt a little safer with a couple of other passengers, too. He grudgingly accepted, and the Mongolians said they would split the fare fifty-fifty; that was fine with me. I'd pay half and they would pay half.  Only one of them spoke halting English so I mostly talked with her, in a mix of her bad English and my bad Russian. She asked me if I had a hostel and I said yes, you can come to the hostel and see if they have spaces available. I gave the cab driver the hostel's phone number, and he called the hostel to see where it was; I had told him to ask the hostel if they had a couple of spaces too, but he didn't understand me, and didn't ask.


We arrived at the hostel about an hour after leaving the airport. Minsk was a lot bigger than I thought it was and the cab driver pointed out some sights on the way.  I paid for the cab and told the women we could settle up later, but they paid me shortly thereafter with a mix of US dollars and Belarusian rubles, which was fine with me. It turned out there were spaces at the hostel for the two women, so that all worked out.


Minsk was a lot colder than most of the places I had been recently (with the exception of a couple of days in Berlin), and it was raining a lot. I had been used to mostly t-shirt weather, but I had to break out the long sleeves and a raincoat. It was very late when I arrived at the hostel and all the places to eat nearby were closed, so I didn't get dinner, but I had some trail mix to munch on. I usually keep a constant baggie of nuts and dried fruits in my pocket; when it runs low, I'll go to a local store and find some more nuts, seeds, and dried fruits to add to the mix, rotating the mix for variety.


The next day I just wandered around and checked out the city. There are signs in many places telling people not to walk on the grass, and people seem to take this pretty seriously as I didn't see a single person walking on the grass; I kept in mind that Belarus still has a very active KGB. So, I figured, when in Minsk, do as the Minchyani do, and I stayed off the grass. I also didn't see any graffiti at all. Minsk has some beautiful parks, including Victory Park, its crown jewel, which follows the path of the Svislach River, and borders the monumental Palace of Independence, which contains a World War Two museum, or, as they call it there, The Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Also, there is Gorky Park, which contains many amusement park rides (including an enormous ferris wheel which is supposed to have some of the best views of the city, but the amusement park was closed when I went there, so I didn't have a chance to ride it), and a large sports complex.



Outside the Palace of Independence, and around the city in various locations, crews were preparing for Belarus' Independence Day, which falls on July 3.  But this was no ordinary Independence Day, it was an Independence Day dedicated to Belarus' one hundredth anniversary of independence from the Russian Empire (notwithstanding their later inclusion into the USSR), so they were celebrating their centenary. In fact, all of the Baltic states are celebrating their centenaries as well this year. Unfortunately, I was already scheduled to leave Minsk on July 2, so I missed the main event capped by a huge concerts, theatrical events, and a parade, though I did catch many of the street concerts leading up to the big celebration, including a jazz concert in the area near Minsk City Hall.


Another attraction in Minsk is the Island of Tears on the Svislach River. This small island has a bridge that leads to it and had a small memorial to the mothers of lost soldiers.



The next day I hung out with Howie from NYC and BethAnn from Melbourne and we trudged around the city in pouring rain and considerably colder temperatures. The day before, it had rained sporadically, but on this day (July 1), it poured down for most of the day. I had a raincoat, and so did Howie, so I let BethAnn use my umbrella. We checked out the interior of the Great Patriotic War Museum, which I gazed walked by the day before but hadn't entered, and we found a little nook for some authentic Belarusian food. One interesting thing that the three of us saw was a trolleybus driver who reconnected a pole that had gotten disconnected from the wires above, cutting off the electricity, and bringing the trolleybus to a halt. The driver jumped out and repositioned the pole back on the wire using a long pole tool that was specifically designed for that task. I always wondered how the trolleybus drivers kept their vehicles close enough to the wires to stay connected, since they drive on the street and not on tracks like many trams do. Apparently they can stray a bit and get disconnected. We also wandered around the central city area and then Howie went off to meet some friends to watch one of the World Cup matches while BethAnn and I sauntered through the big underground shopping mall.


The next day, on July 2, I had to fly back to Vilneus. I was going to take the metro to the bus station, and then take a bus to the airport, but it was pouring rain again, so I decided not to walk with my backpack to the metro station, and I took a cab to the bus station instead. Taking a cab to the bus station was much cheaper than taking it all the way to the airport, about four dollars, though the metro to the bus station would have cost about sixty cents. And the bus to the airport, which was the bulk of the trip, was only about three dollars.


I stayed at: Trinity Hostel, Starovilenskaya Street 12, Tsentralny District, 220116 Minsk, Belarus. You need to take your shoes off at the entrance, which is common in countries in the Russian sphere. It was delightfully social and international, and had staff members who spoke very good English, and one who even spoke fluent Spanish; I conversed with her in Spanish for quite a while. The rooms were nice but mine was a bit cramped, but there were outlets for every bed and nice, decent wi-fi in the common area the first day but it barely extended into my room (but cut off frequently in the room); wi-fi didn't work after the first day but a staff member set me up with an alternative method that only worked near the front desk. Bathroom time was sometimes difficult but not as bad as some places I've stayed. It was in a really great central location, right on Trinity Hill near the Island of Tears and right next to the Svislach River. Transportation to the bus station and train station is easy to arrange via metro and about a five-minute walk to the metro station. Getting to the airport is a little more involved (see above for my descriptions of how I got in and out), but still fairly easy. No free breakfast, but many restaurants nearby. Nice kitchen, but crowded, you might not be able to get in to cook when it's busy. They advertised tours of the surrounding areas, but the tours are contingent in getting people together and happen sporadically; none materialized while I was there, which was a slight disappointment, but there was plenty to do in the city. It's not a huge party hostel, which is a plus for me, and drinking is in fact not allowed on the premises. I'd recommend it just for the social atmosphere as it is a good place to meet a wide range of people.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Vilnius

Well, I'm in Vilnius, Lithuania. The center of action seems to be Stotis. You want to be near Stotis, but just about all the buses will take you there. Stotis has the Iki, and is walking distance from Senamiestis. And a really cool place is Užupis. I hear that Šnekutis is really happening, too, but I didn't make it there, and might not have time to go there on this leg of my trip.


Odds are that you have no idea what I'm talking about. Here I am, in a part of the former USSR, though I don't think that most of the Lithuanians were all that happy to be in the USSR. The Lithuanian language is in the Baltic family, distantly related to the Slavic languages, and just weird and incomprehensible to this native English speaker (even though I speak bits and pieces of a bunch of languages). In fact, I don't know a single word in Lithuanian for actual communication as of when I'm writing this, other than the words I used above for some locations. Not "yes", not "no", not any numbers, not "thank you" (which is probably the most important one). I just give a nod for "thank you". I tried. I looked up some commonly used words, but they were so unlike anything I'd ever seen that they just didn't stick in my head. I might give it another pass at some point. The Lithuanian language is apparently about the most unchanged language from Proto-Indo-European, so it's popular with forensic linguists. I have seen a few words in the street that are like words in some Slavic languages, but not many.


But let me decode some of the words I used above.  Stotis is the bus and train station. My hostel is near Stotis. Just about every bus that comes back to the center of the city is headed for Stotis, and it's also where you catch a train. It also seems to be near where all the street prostitutes in Vilneus hang out, if you're into that. They aren't terribly bothersome or aggressive like they are in some cities. 


The Iki is a huge supermarket. I've seen other Iki stores around town also. I think "iki" may be a Lithuanian preposition because I've seen it in some sentences and it appears to fulfill that niche. But I really don't know; I'm just guessing.


Užupis is an artist and musician colony where there are a lot of squatters, and it has purportedly "seceded" from Lithuania. It has its own "government" that issues visas (though nobody checks them) and a Constitution on display in the streets with some truly interesting and bizarre clauses. The center of Užupis has a huge sculpture called the "Angel of Užupis". And Šnekutis is a local bar and restaurant that supposedly has some of the best Lithuanian food. I haven't made it there yet, and might not on this trip here, but I'll be back here in a few days, and might check it out. I have been mesmerized the last few days by this Lithuanian pancake restaurant that has all different varieties of pancakes. I've already eaten there twice. The buckwheat pancakes are especially delicious. They have all kinds of fillings, and you can order different dipping sauces for them. Instead of being made from buckwheat flour, they appear to be made from the groats just fused together, with a crispy veneer of a crust on the outsides. Man, they are good.


Vilnius is an amazingly beautiful city. Every street in the center, centered around the Old Town, or the Senamiestis, has wonderfully constructed really old buildings. It has a very European vibe with a flavor of old Soviet utilitarianism left over. The travelers here at the hostel are definitely more Eastern European than most of the places I've been so far in the last few months, which makes sense, since this is Eastern Europe.


Vilnius also has this homey quirkiness, exemplified by the aforementioned Užupis, and things like the Museum of Illusions, and the Frank Zappa memorial statue. There's even a commercial center called Zappa Square across the street from the Zappa memorial. Vilnius is a great place to just wander aimlessly in. Its tiny little Old Town twisting streets have some interesting surprises, and you never know what kind of ancient stuff you will run into. The old City Wall is mostly gone, but a few sections of it remain, connected to the antique Bastion, which is now a museum, and the Gate of Dawn, which is the last remaning gate of ten gates in the wall.


Today I'm leaving for Minsk, Belarus for a few days, then coming back to Vilnius. Some of the people in the hostel were telling me this morning that Minsk is a place where the Soviet Union never stopped existing; it was described to me as being very much like the USSR in the 70s. I'll guess I'll see for myself when I get there. I talked to a woman from Minsk at the hostel yesterday,  and was telling her about my round-the-world journey; she seemed mostly sad and curious about the fact that I was alone on my quest. Yes, it's lonely at times, I told her, but worth it to see the world.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Second Trip To Lisbon

I made it back to Lisbon for the second time. This time I stayed for five days. The first thing I did was go to the DHL office to see if I could get my replacement debit card. There had been a delivery attempt at the hostel's building that was refused. The first time I called DHL, I asked the person I talked to if I could pick up ther package at their office, and they said that was impossible, because the sender did not allow for that possibility. Frustrated, I tried to explain that that there was never anyone at the delivery location, but I hit a brick wall with the idiot I was talking to. I wanted to say, "Isn't it your job to make sure people get their packages?" But, luckily, my Skype call got cut off, so I called back and talked to a second person who told me that it would be no problem to pick up my package at their office in Lisbon. I don't know why some people want to use the rules to interfere with you, and some people try to use the rules to help you.


So, armed with these two contradictory pieces of information, I took a metro to the DHL office immediately after checking into the hostel, not knowing what kind of person I would have to deal with at the DHL office, and not completely certain that I would get my replacement debit card. But, luckily, my debit card was there for me. I then set out to find an ATM, and couldn't find one for a while. But I remembered I had seen one at Sete Rios train station, so I took the metro there. I had been getting seriously low on cash, and most places outside of Lisbon did not take credit cards, so I had been really conserving my money, and was down to my last few euros. I could have done some other stuff to get money if I had needed to, but it didn't come to that.


I spent the remaining time in the day wandering around Lisbon, and I treated myself to dinner in a restaurant since now I had money.  I had pre-reserved a return trip to Coimbra on the train for the next day, so I got up really early to make that journey. It was a pretty long train trip, and was pushing it for a day trip. But I enjoyed my visit to Coimbra, though I was a bit burned out by the end of the day.


After returning to Lisbon late at night, the next day I spent all day unexpectedly backing up the SD card on my phone, as I found it was almost full. It took me all day and waking up several times throughout the night to back up all the data. But I was glad I had a spare day available to do it. I didn't even leave to get food, since I was tethered with my phone to my laptop, backing up the data to both a hard drive and Dropbox. At least it only took a day; when I had done a similar thing in Hanoi, it had taken me three weeks of constant connection to the Internet with my laptop to back up my SD card.


So now my backup had been accomplished, and I had a way to get money. I decided to take a day trip to Sintra, which is a beautiful medieval town bordering forested mountains filled with fairytale castles and whatnot. On the train to Sintra, there was a guy playing accordion, accompanied by a guy playing the tambourine. Why do accordion players always play "Besame Mucho"? I wonder.


I looked up some sites to see, found about nine places that were good candidates to visit, and figured I'd get to about seven of them during the day. Ha, ha. The was no way I would get to that many places, especially since I spent half the day just wandering around. Sintra is not like most other Portuguese towns where everything is in a very compact place; all the sites are very far apart, scattered across forested mountains.


When I  first got to Sintra, one of the first things I saw was a regional bus that went to [Cabo], which is the westernmost point in Portugal and in Continental Europe. My first impulse was to jump on that bus, but then I thought that I could do that later in the day. I didn't get the chance again, because by the time I returned from sightseeing, it was too late to head out in that direction, because I wouldn't have had time to catch the last bus back. Oh, well.

I actually only had time to see two sites of the several I had picked out, which were Castelo dos Mouros, and Palacio da Pena. Both of them were phenomenal places. Castelo dos Mouros was right at the top of the mountain facing Sintra. There were some incredibly heavy winds there, with gusts that I would describe as hurricane-strength, on the way up to the main tower. I was blown over onto a huge pile of rocks on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire by winds that strong, and ended up covered with blood, so I tend to be a leetle bit careful with strong winds on craggy mountain tops. Especially, as was the case here, where there are precipitous drops on both sides of the rocky stairs.


Probably one would have to spend at least three days in Sintra to get a good visit of the attractions and surroundings. It's not really the kind of place that lends itself to a day trip, but in one day, I did manage to get a sense of the way the place feels. Some towns are optimal for day trips, some are not.



On my last day in Lisbon, I visited the Belém area, which is by the waterfront, and is a nice place to visit, though kind of touristy. I tried to get into the Jerónimos Monastery, but the line was really long, so I went into the attached church, which had no line, hoping that the line for the monastery would die down. When I got out of the church, the line was much, much longer, so I abandoned the plan to visit the monastery and just wandered around Belém.


I left the next day on a flight to Barcelona. I would have liked to have planned to see more of Spain, but the fact that the Schengen zone only gives me 90 days out of 180 days to stay there makes it so I can't wander as much as I would like. Maybe the next time I visit Europe I'll be able to see more of Spain.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

One Million Steps

I've now taken one million steps since I left on my journey in March 31 of this year. My shoes are holding up pretty well. I've found in previous travel that I need to change shoes about every six to nine months with heavy ambulation. This time, I bought some pretty good walking shoes for my trip, instead of getting what is on sale at Payless. So maybe they will hold up better than previous shoes.  Eventually, though, I'll possibly have to buy whatever shoes I can find to use. I can't really buy an extra pair, because I just don't have room to store them. Shoes take up a lot of room in a backpack. So I can't really buy another pair until these are ready for the trash bin, or unless I'm living in a semi-permanent location like an apartment, which won't happen for quite a while.


And, let me qualify the million steps. I've actually walked much more than that, because the app on my phone has been shorting me steps for quite some time. When I started out, it was quite accurate, but now it fails to register somewhere between 10% and 30% of my steps, according to my interval testing. From what I've read online, it's probably due to either a system update or another app that creates a conflict. Honestly, I don't care that much, it's just a rough estimate, and maybe there is an x multiplier of 1.3 or something. But some of the people talking about this in online forums act like crack addicts who have just been cut off cold turkey. Fitness obsession is a funny thing.


Friday, May 11, 2018

Circling Around Portugal

I flew from Porto to Lisbon, since I had found a relatively cheap flight, but I wish I had taken the train instead. The flight was only an hour, but airports are always a hassle and you have to get there early and wait (and pack everything in a special fashion beforehand), so I probably spent almost as much time as I would have with the train. Plus, I probably could have stopped in another place in the way.


When I got to Lisbon, it was easy to take the metro in from the airport, but there was a hugely steep hill between the metro station and the hostel. It wasn't too bad, but with my full pack on, it was some pretty heavy exercise. The hostel was very pleasant. My first day there, I took a walk around the area near the hostel, and it wasn't terribly interesting. But in the next few days, I went to much more interesting places in Portugal's capital. The city is VERY hilly, and if you walk around for a few minutes, the chances are that you will be soon climbing up a very steep hill.


The metro system is easy to use, and if you buy a day pass, you will have access to not only the metro system, but also the buses and the trains as well, as well as more esoteric forms of transportation, such as funiculars (called elevadores) and the Santa Justa Elevator (Ascensor de Santa Justa), which is a unique form of public transportation...it's an elevator that gets you up one of the steep hills. The day pass won't get you on the regional transportation, such as the trains to Sintra or any other regional trains, buses or ferries, but it is great fir getting around the city of Lisbon on days that you will be moving a lot. If you're not using a lot of public transportation on some days, you might want to consider just buying single trips. If you buy a single trip, you have a certain amount of time to change your mode of transportation within the city for no charge. Either way, you'll want a Viva Viagem card which you can load up with either a day pass or money for individual trips. You can also load single trips for some of the regional trains on the card.



I spent three days in Lisbon, just checking out the city. Probably the most interesting neighborhood was Bairro Alto, which is up a very steep hill from the waterfront area. You can either take a series of staircases there, or take the funicular called the Elevador da Glória; I did it both ways over the course of my visit. I had a metro day pass on the day I took the Elevador so it was covered in the day pass. Since Lisbon is so hilly, you can look at Google Maps, and it is hard to tell when you will be climbing very steep hills. Something that is three blocks away on the map might be quite the heady climb. If you're lucky, it might be downhill, but then you eventually have to face the trip back up.


I didn't get to see a whole lot in the three days I was in Lisbon, but I'll be heading back there again soon. I did make it to the top of the Amoreiras Tower, which is supposed to be the highest place in Lisbon, to see the views of the city. It looked from there that there might have been higher mountains surrounding the city, though. I also managed to take the iconic Tram 28. There was a huge crowd lined up for the tram, and people kept cutting in line, so it took a long time to shorten. This antique tram would be difficult to replace with a newer model, because the tracks are very narrow, and it goes up very narrow, winding streets with sharp turns and steep inclines. The tram was packed, and only had small rows of single seats and standing room only in the aisle. It sounded like metal was grinding on metal at times.


On my last day, I took the metro to Sete Rios train station to catch a train to Faro, in the Algarve region at the south tip of Portugal. When I was taking the train from Lisbon to Faro, I accidentally missed my scheduled connection by jumping on the wrong train. The train before mine was late, and showed up a minute before mine, so I thought it was my train. I found it it wasn't the right train just as the doors snapped shut and the train took off, so it was just a second or two too late to get back off. I was bummed. My ticket was reserved on a specific train and was non-refundable, and now there was no way I would make that train. And that was the first specific travel reservation that I've missed in either the last world journey I was on or this one! Which is pretty amazing, considering all the travel I've done in the fast few years. I got off at the next station, asked which train to take to get back to Sete Rios Station in Lisbon, and took the train back.


I went to the ticket window at Sete Rios, sheepishly explained that I had missed my train because I got on the wrong one (it was now about forty minutes after my train had left), and asked what I could do. The ticket seller was very helpful and sold me a ticket for the next train for the difference between the original cheap non-refundable fare and the regular fare, but unfortunately, the next (and only) train to Faro for the day was four hours later. And I definitely couldn't miss that train. Not a huge deal, I just had to wait at the station, but I used that time to plan out some future travel and make reservations, so it was put to good use. And I'd still make it to my hostel in Faro that night.


It was a lot hotter in Faro than it had been in Porto or Lisbon, which were coolish in temperature. Faro is in the Algarve region on the southern edge of Portugal, and the climate is definitely warmer in the Algarve. Faro is kind of a mellow little sleepy town with a small town center.


I took a day trip to Albufeira, which was VERY touristy. But it had some beautiful beaches with magnificent cliffs, so I mostly spent my time walking in the beaches, wading in the water (there were signs saying swimming was prohibited ir discouraged, probably because of dangerous tides). Wish I had spent more time in Faro, because I could have checked out the Algarve area more, as there were buses and trains running throughout the region.


I took the train from Faro to Évora, and it changed at Pinhal Novo, a few miles southeast of Lisbon. But the first train was running late due to some delay along the way. It was a very fast train, running over 200 kms. per hour, but for some reason it only ran about 20 kilometers per hour for about half an hour. It was supposed to arrive at 5:22 pm, and I was supposed to catch my connection at 5:48 pm at Pinhal Novo. But 5:22 came, and then 5:30, and we still hadn't arrived. I was getting a little nervous about whether we were going to arrive on time. When one of the train ticket checkers came by, I asked him what time we were going to arrive at Pinhal Novo; he shrugged his shoulders and said he didn't know, but it was the next stop. It didn't help that Google Maps was completely malfunctioning for me, and showing that our location was hundreds of kilometers from where we actually were. About 5:42 we hadn't gotten there, and there was no announcement, so I was afraid I was going to miss my connection. I gathered my backpack and put it on so I could dash out the door when we got there. Finally, there was an announcement. We stopped at 5:46; I had two minutes to spare. I just jumped off the train, full of adrenaline, and started running as fast as I could with my full backpack on. Luckily, I passed a screen saying that the train I needed to be on was arriving at track 2, so I sprinted to track 2, running and puffing up the stairs. I got to the train that I needed to change to with about twenty seconds to spare. All that leisure time; I guess you could say I ran too fast. Of course, I wasn't on the right car, but at least I had made it on the train. I found my car and my seat and sighed a breath of relief.



I arrived in Évora, and it smelled like rain, so I put the rain fly on my backpack. Sure enough, it started pouring like crazy. I took out my umbrella, and it was about a half hour walk in the rain to the hostel, mostly uphill. Not crazy steep uphill like it had been in Lisbon, though.

Évora is a beautiful, small, sleepy town, and the town center is completely encircled by an outer wall, and an inner wall that is mostly gone now, but there are still some remnants of it. The town center encircled by the wall is very compact and small, and there are a lot of narrow, snaking alleys thst are barely big enough to allow a medium sized car; some even won't fit car traffic. There is an ancient aqueduct that passes into the town.  It seems like it has more buildings built into its arches than most of the aqueducts I've seen. It also gets lower and lower in the town until it disappears.


In the town square in the center of Évora, there is a Roman Temple constructed in the first century to commemorate the Emperor Augustus. It is called the Temple of Diana, though it really has no known connection to the goddess Diana. Across the street, the Garden of Diana offers some beautiful views of the town from atop a hill. And right around the corner, bordering the same square, are the Cathedral of Évora, on which construction started in 1280, and the town museum, with many interesting archaeological remnants.



One of the highlights of my visit to Évora was an archaeological tour I took just outside the city to three megalithic stone sites. Mario was our guide, and he was supremely knowledgeable about not only the archeology of the area, but also about much of the geography and biology of the area. The first site was the Cromleque dos Almendres site. It is near the village of Nossa Senhora de Guadalupe. This megalithic stone formation is built in a symmetrical ellipse, but has many stones missing. It predates Stonehenge by about two millenia. The line that bisects the site leads due east to where the sun rises during the equinoxes, and there are two marker stones some distance from the site that indicate where the sun rises on the summer and winter solstices.



Next, I went out to one of the standing stones of Almendres (Menir dos Almendres). This single stone is several kilometers away from the ellipse of stones that make up the Almendres Cromlech, and is the marker stone that signifies where the sun rises on the summer solstice, as viewed from the main site.


And, finally, I went to the Zambujeiro Dolmen site. This was a burial mound for Neolithic people of high status, constructed around the time Stonehenge was built. It has been shored up and supported due to problems with structural integrity. There are bricks and wooden structures supporting the stones, and a metal shelter covering the site. The site is close to collapse, and these were meant to be temporary support measures constructed in the 80s, but have stayed there since.



I took a train back to Lisbon after four days in Évora. I have had some anxiety for about a week and a half due to the fact that my debit card was apparently cloned, and somebody tried to use it in Houston to take money out of an ATM. Fortunately, the attempt was unsuccessful, so I didn't lose any money. But the bank cancelled my debit card, and is sending me a new one. I had just taken out some money before the card was cancelled, but now my reserves are dwindling. I checked the tracking on the web, and apparently an attempt was made to deliver the card to the hostel in Lisbon, which I will soon return to, but the delivery was refused. I'm pretty sure that the delivery person rang a bell at the site (there are several bells there and the hostel is on the third floor), and some person from another floor unrelated to the hostel answered the door and refused it. Also, there is rarely someone on site at the hostel; it's not one that is staffed full-time, just when needed to greet new arrivals. So I contacted the carrier, and hopefully I'll be able to pick it up at their delivery warehouse when I get back to Lisbon. I still have butterflies about it a bit, though.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Some Future Plans

I've been making my plans kind of in a piecemeal fashion. Usually I will plan one thing far ahead of time, and then I will fill in the gaps of what to do until I get there.  My last big thing was the flight from Edinburgh to Porto. I was just kind of bouncing around, looking at flight calendars. Most days, this flight was around €150, but I found one day when it fell to a little over €30, so I pounced on that day. Of course, it ended up being a little more expensive than that, because it was with Ryan Air, and that price does not allow a checked bag. So I ponied up about €20 more to bring my big backpack, and carried on my little one. My REI Grand Tour 85 pack has a detachable little bag which I usually use as a carry on. So all I had to do is fill in the gaps in the UK until the flight.



My next big move will be a cheap flight from Lisbon to Barcelona in about two weeks. I'm in Lisbon now, so I'll circle around Portugal and come back again for the flight. I think the next time I come back to Lisbon, I'll mostly devote that time to day trips to other places in the region, and I'll devote this time to exploring the city of Lisbon.  I already scheduled one day trip for when I come back to Lisbon, to Coimbra. This will be pushing it, because Coimbra is almost three hours away. But I'll leave really early in the morning, and come back very late at night (and hope that I don't feel like crap that day and am up for a marathon). I had to finesse this journey,  because there were a couple of discounted tickets on the day I'm going, but I had to get them at the train station, because they weren't available online. I'm pretty sure any of the other day trips I'll take can just be arranged cheaply in the day I want to take them; this one to Coimbra was an exception.


I made the reservation for the flight to Barcelona quite a while ago. Now I'm starting to realize that the French rail strike is really going to fuck my lunch along the way. I mean, the workers deserve more, as workers always do. But I need to be really careful, or I'll get stranded, which could turn out to be a real problem. The strike is affecting trains across France, a pretty good deal of trains in Spain, a fair amount of trains in Italy, and probably other countries as well, because the French trains are not only in France, they go internationally as well. So, to be on the safe side, and also to not cross a strike line, it looks like I will take buses from Barcelona through France, maybe into northern Italy if I go that way. I'm not sure yet.  The upside is that buses are cheaper; the downside is that they are slower.



But I did plan my next big move. It's a combo. I found a cheap flight from Berlin, Germany to Vilnius, Lithuania about a month and a half after I arrive in Barcelona, so I'll have to figure out what to do in that time between Barcelona and Berlin. My original plan was to go to Northern Africa after Barcelona, and then come back into Europe through Sicily or Sardinia, but then I found the cheap flight originating in Berlin, and decided to pivot.


Then a few days later, I'll fly a round trip from Vilnius to Minsk, Belarus and back. The reason for this is that Belarus recently started allowing US citizens to visit for five days without a visa, but only if they fly in and out of the airport in Minsk, and only if they are not going to or coming from Russia. So, Belarus, which had previously been relatively off the table, is now on the table, but only if I do it this way. Then, by the time I get back to Vilnius, I'll have about a week left in the Schengen Zone. Actually, I'll have a bit more time, but I was to reserve about a week for any unplanned transit back through Schengen to somewhere else.


Let me explain about Schengen. Europe allows US tourists 90 days out of every 180 (the 180 days counts backwards from whatever day today is) to be in the Schengen Zone. The Schengen Zone roughly corresponds to the EU, but not quite. Some countries in the EU have opted out of Schengen, and some countries outside of the EU have opted in. So once you have used up your 90 days, you can't come back to the Schengen Zone for another three months, or you risk being fined, deported, and banned (possibly for five years, but the fact that you were banned stays on your record permanently). If it weren't for this restriction, I'd just kind of merrily saunter across Europe without much attention to the time. But I only have 90 days, or really, about 80-85 because I want to save a few days in case I need to return back through Schengen for transit to somewhere else.  Also, I may do a three or four day excursion briefly back into Schengen later. So I can still haphazardly wander, just not in Schengen until three months after each three month period there. So the French Rail  strike and the Schengen restrictions are kind of shaping things that I wouldn't do otherwise, but reality always seems to intervene somehow. Honestly, I'd love to spend more time wandering through Spain, France, Germany, and in other countries in the vicinity right now, but that may have to wait until the next time or the time after that. I don't think I can afford to dip up into England and Ireland for three months because they are too expensive, and I want to head towards Russia to use my Russian visa while I still have it. I have to plan things so expensive countries are balanced with cheaper countries. And it would be nice at some point to have a little more comfort than what is provided by rooms full of bunk beds, with bathrooms and kitchens (if the place has a kitchen at all) you might have to wait your turn to use. I lived in a tent for six months in Austin before making this trip, so obviously cushy comfort is not a huge priority, but nice to have when available.



There are a lot of European countries, and countries close by, that are not in Schengen. England and Ireland are not in Schengen. Bulgaria, Romania, and most of the former Yugoslavia are also not in Schengen. The Middle East and Northern Africa are also places I could go in my three months of Schengen exile, as well as Turkey and most of the rest of Asia.



My plan right now is to go into Russia from the Baltic States; ideally, I'd like to be in Russia by July-ish. Russia will give me more time; I can stay for 180 days at a time, and my Russian visa is good for almost another year. I probably won't stay that long, but I could go in and out of Russia from Central Asia for a while. I think I want to be out of Russia before the winter comes, and maybe go someplace warmer.  So we'll see where the path takes me; all of these plans are subject to change and/or disruption that could alter their course.


One shitty thing that just happened is that my debit card got canceled because somebody tried to fraudulently use a cloned copy of it in Houston. Luckily, the transaction was not allowed. This is the debut card that has been my primary ATM card throughout my trip. So my bank is sending me a new one. I hope it gets to Lisbon before I leave.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

My Last Days In And Around Porto

I finally managed to get some walking socks in Porto, at a place called CampingShop. And I managed to conduct the whole transaction in Portuguese, which I was proud of. The guy there convinced me that their merino wool socks would be too hot for my feet, so I compromised and bought one pair of synthetic socks for warm weather, and one merino wool blend for cold weather. But the one pair of merino wool socks I already had haven't been overheating my feet; they've been just fine.  I've been using the new warm weather pair, and they are OK, but they don't seem as cushioned as the nice pair I brought with me.


I took a bunch of day trips my last few days in Porto.  Porto is pretty awesome, but I wanted to see some of the surrounding area too. On Sunday, I went to Matosinhos, which is a little bit northwest of Porto, right on the Atlantic Ocean coast, and it has an awesome beach. It is in the Porto municipality; in Portugal, municipalities are sort of like counties.  Then, later that day, I visited Vila Nova de Gaia (sometimes just called Gaia), which is right across the Douro River from Porto. It was lightly raining in the afternoon, and I found a little Italian restaurant down an alley in Gaia where I had one of the best calzones I've ever had in my life. I mostly wandered in the park, snd then by the Douro River.


The next day, I went to Guimarães, which is a little bit farther. It's pretty easy to take day trips in the trains in Portugal, for the most part, and you can just buy tickets in the station that day for most. There are some destinations where it is a little more involved; you might have to buy advance tickets. But if a destination is on an urban or intercity line, the tickets will be cheap and simple. I might write another blog post on the subject of Portugal's trains because I have their whole system figured out pretty well. But, anyway, I went to Guimarães for a little over €3 each way, and just bought the tickets at the São Bento train station in Porto. When I got to Guimarães, the weather was completely schizo. It would pour rain for about fifteen minutes, and then get completely sunny, like, not a cloud in the sky, and then stay pouring again. I was really getting tired of this, though I toughed it out for a good portion of the day. I visited Guimarães Castle and Paso dos Duques, and walked around the town a good deal.  Guimarães is known as the "birthplace of Portugal" because Portugal's first king, King Afonso I, was born there in 1110 in the castle, and the first county of Portugal (not a county in the American sense, but one overseen by a count) was centered around that area. 


But in the late afternoon, the next rainstorm came in with a ton of thunder and lightning, and I thought, OK, that's it, I'm heading back.  I headed to the Guimarães train station, but the next train wasn't coming for quite a while, so I walked around some more, and the thunder and lightning had dissipated. Nevertheless, I took the next train back to Porto.


The next day, I went to Vila do Conde, just north of Porto, early in the morning, which was one of the most fantastic places I've been to in Portugal. The first thing I saw when I got off the train was miles of ancient Roman aqueduct. Sometimes it would break up for a while and then start up again. The aqueduct passed a really cool cemetery, and ended into a medieval monastery. There were other great sights around the town, and the walk along the Ave River was amazing. I came back to Porto in the late afternoon, and then decided to go to Aveiro, about an hour south of Porto, thinking "I can't believe I'm going to another destination today. " But Aveiro was another amazing place, loaded with multiple canals filled with tourist boats, and beautiful parks.  Aveiro is famous as a bird haven, and it is a good place for bird watchers. I wanted around there for several hours, and got back to Porto fairly late at night.


Then, the next day, I said goodbye to Porto and headed to Lisbon.  More adventures ahead, hopefully.


Friday, April 27, 2018

Porto And Surrounding Villages In Northern Portugal

I arrived in Porto on Tuesday. I had purchased a rental car when I made my flight arrangements with Ryan Air, and they had offered me a rental car at too-good-to-be-true rates, about three Euros a day. So I had paid about 21 Euros to rent a car for a week. But I had been nervous about it for a while.  I had Googled info about cheap car rentals in Portugal, and found it there were all kinds of hidden fees in these too-good-to-be-true deals. Plus, I found that parking in Porto was extremely difficult and cars get towed all the time.  And, gasoline in Europe is expensive. I had been struggling for some time as to whether I was going to just abandon the car rental, but left the decision to the last moment. When I  got to Porto, I finally decided to ditch the rental car. I mean, it would be nice to have a car for a week for exploration, but it just didn't seem worth the hassle. So I saw the guy from my car rental company standing around with a sign, waiting for me, and I told him I wasn't going to pick up the car after all. I'm out 21 Euros, but I'm ok with that decision. I'm staying in Porto for a week, and part of the reason for that was that I had gotten this cheap, week-long car rental. Part of the reason is also that Portugal is much cheaper than the UK, and I need to save some money, so I'm willing to sit still for a little longer, though surely there are some interesting day trips in the area.


The metro was pretty easy to take to the hostel. The hostel is on a walking street, and there is no reliable parking anywhere near (and they don't offer parking), so it's probably a good thing I didn't get saddled with a car for a week. I got settled in after dark, and promptly explored the city. The next day, I went on a walking tour and a boat tour. It seems like those tour guides make pretty good money. The walking tour had about 40 people on it, and it was booked as a pay-what-you-want tour, but almost everybody paid 20 Euros, and some paid more. So that's 800 Euros for two hours' work, and the tour company probably takes a cut for finding customers, but the guides are basically working for themselves and taking in a lot of untraceable cash. I had talked to a bus tour guy in Scotland, a personable guy named George who was just a fountain of densely packed historical info and dark jokes about all the stuff we saw, and he really liked the gig, said it paid great, and he could work as much or as little as he wanted. He said he used to be a civil servant, but leading tours gave him more freedom. It's probably a better deal in these European socialist countries that offer benefits like health care not tied to jobs.


When I got to my room in the hostel, there was an older guy there, who joked, "Finally, I'm not the oldest guy in the room!" I answered with,  "Yay, I win!" A good laugh was had.



Total fuckup guy shows up at the hostel on my second day here. He comes in late at night and gets in the wrong bed...somebody else's bed (someone who had been in that bed for two days already and was pretty irate when they arrived and found someone in their bed, but total fuckup guy was asleep and not wanting to wake up when original guy and the hostel person yelled at him, so original guy took another bed, having to move his stuff from the bed's locker...hmmm, stuff in that locker should have been a clue that the bed was taken)  Some of my food in the hostel fridge had gotten eaten, too (first time EVER that had happened); I suspect it was total fuckup guy. Then the next morning they have to wake him up to check out about 2 hours after the check out time. Of course he takes an hour to wake up, while the irate hostel person waited for him to get his shit together, which is scattered far and wide.  Then as he's leaving he can't find his key, and looking for it all over the room with the frustrated hostel worker. And he's acting like the aggrieved party. Good riddance.


Then we got guy who never leaves the room.   I mean, I don't view that negatively or anything, but the guy never gets out of bed, as far as I can tell, except to use the bathroom. I think he's watching TV online most of the time. I'm not judging, though, just reporting. Maybe he has a disability or something.  Who knows. He doesn't seem to speak much English or Portuguese, so I haven't had much contact with him, except to exchange pleasantries.


Wow, almost nobody has been using the hostel kitchen here. It's a great kitchen, too. Some hostels don't even have kitchens. Some have kitchens that are so packed and busy all the time that you can't find room to store your food or prepare a meal. But this one is nice, and, so far, underutilized. But I've been using it a lot. There's plenty of storage room in the fridge, and also lots of room for dry goods.



Wednesday, I took an impulsive day trip to Braga. I was walking by the São Bento train station, which I had visited previously to check out the impressive tile mosaics depicting historical scenes, and saw there were several day trips available. So I bought a return ticket to Braga from one of the ticket machines for just a little over six euros, and hopped on the train. Braga is a nice, peaceful place with a small-town feel. It's Portugal's fourth-largest city, but doesn't seem that big. It's really not huge or anything; there are a little over a hundred thousand people there. But it's a nice wander, and there is an interesting cathedral in town with lots of archaeologically interesting stuff and some ancient relics...a lot of these old cathedrals have body parts of religiously significant people. A few kilometers outside the city, near the village of Tenões, there is an amazing religious retreat on a mountain called Bom Jesus do Monte, which is an elaborate, multi-layered monument with spectacular views of the surrounding area. I kept climbing higher and encountering more amazing and meticulously constructed pieces of landscape, architecture, and art. Then I hired up a dirt road leading farther up the mountain, and found another elaborate religious monument called Santuário do Sameiro.  I managed to get inside the church at Santuário do Sameiro, even though the hours posted indicated it was closed. I had tried the main door, which was locked, so I thought I wouldn't be able to get in. But then I saw a tourist slip out of a side door, and it was unlocked, so I went in. There was nobody in there but a nun praying, and she seemed to be giving me the stink eye for being there. And my shoes were squeaking loudly on the floor and echoing throughout the whole church, even though I was trying to walk as softly as possible. On the lower level, I was surprised to find a hypermodern motif. The gardens surrounding the sanctuary were elaborate, and, once again, the was a great view. I was able to catch the bus back to town from there, and then take the return train back, but I decided to stop in a random town cathed Trofa for a bit. It wasn't terribly spectacular and just seemed like a bedroom community for the bigger cities in the vicinity. But it was a nice walk. I missed the first train I tried to catch out of Trofa, as I  got back thi the train station a few minutes late, but caught the next train, and arrived in Porto fairly late. It was about midnight when I got back to the hostel.


I'm trying to speak Portuguese as much as possible. And by Portuguese, I mean Spanish with as many Portuguese words as I know thrown in, probably pronounced like they would be in Spanish. But I do know how to pronounce a few Portuguese words. Amazingly enough, this strategy seems to be working enough to communicate fairly well. And the more I do it, and the more I hear the responses to the things I say, I weed out the Spanish words and mispronounced Portuguese words, so it gets better and better. I have very little knowledge of Portuguese verb conjugation, so I keep it simple. And I use my general rules for speaking languages I don't speak very well...things like, use helping verbs so you can just use the infinitives, ask questions that solicit yes or no answers whenever possible, etc.


Friday, I went out on an unsuccessful journey to find some merino wool socks, and maybe sock liners as well. My feet are doing better, patially becsuse all the raw stuff is getting calloused up, and partially because I've been wearing a new pair of comfortable merino wool socks. Unfortunately, I mostly packed the old merino socks that I wore on my last trip for a year and a half of walking. But, though they look fine, they are pretty worn out, and their usefulness to protect my feet has somewhat diminished. When I finally washed the new pair, I discovered, to my horror, that I had apparently culled out all my other pairs of brand-new merino wool socks when I was winnowing down the stuff I was taking with me, and this one is the only pair I have. So I've got to get some new ones soon, and it's a very high priority. Merino wool takes a long time to dry, so I had to wear an old pair today, and they are definitely not as comfortable. Note to self: on future trips, bring brand-new socks. Seriously.  I looked online for where I could buy merino wool socks in Porto, and some forum mentioned that somebody had bought some at a place called Berg's, an outdoor supply place. So I Googled Berg's, and it was quite a walk across Porto, but I was up for a good walk. Unfortunately, when I got there, it turned out it was an online company, and the only thing there was an office suite filled with coders and corporate types. Shit. Finding brick and mortar places is a big problem on Google. Whenever I Google "where to buy product X in city Y", all I usually ever get are mountains of results from online mail order places. And it's much worse overseas, just forget about it. And the sad thing is, the brick and mortar places are out there, their results are just buried in a haystack of online crap. When traveling, it's much easier for me to buy things from an actual place if I can find it, because if I have to buy things by mail, I have to coordinate when it's going to get where I'm going to be, and give that place a heads up that a package will come for me. That's if the online place will even let me ship stuff at all to a place that's not my verified home address, or will take an order at all from some foreign guy who they can't necessarily even verify as real. Hassle city, but this is important enough that if I can't find a street retailer, I'll have to dance the online ordering ballet. Tomorrow I'll try to remember to ask the hostel folks if they know a good hiking clothes store, though that's kind of a specialty thing.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Cranking Into The Crunchsmush In Glasgow, A Series Of Misfires, Blundering Through Northern Scotland Towards Portugal

I have been walking a lot. And it has taken its toll on my feet. After walking a long way the other day, my feet were sore and painful, and I took off my shoes to take a look, and my right little toe was just one huge blister.  It even reached under my toenail. I had blisters in other places as well, but the one on my little toe was the worst. I remember this kind of stuff happening to my feet on the last trip I was on; when I was walking through Australia, I had similar problems.


So I did the same thing I did then; I looked online for solutions. The problem is that then, as now, none of the listed solutions really worked for me. If I cushion my foot where it is hurting, then my feet are even more packed in my shoes, rubbing against them worse. And my feet swell as I walk, so they get to really rubbing against the edges of the shoes. I also tried compression socks, but then my feet are squeezed in different ways, and I start getting more problems between the toes as they rub against each other.


No, the only solution seems to be just to crank into the crunchsmush. Just take all that raw, painful, soft sore stuff, and keep walking on it, working the crap out of it, painfully, until the soft, raw stuff turns into hard, calloused protected stuff. There just doesn't seem to be any way around that.


But, for now, I did sort of tape up a few of the worst spots with toilet paper covered with adhesive tape, even though it is not the greatest solution. And I also changed to new merino wool socks. I had been wearing my old, worn merino wool socks, and changing to the newer ones seemed to help a bit. But this will probably be a fairly chronic, recurring problem as long as I'm walking as much as I am.


I had one day with just a series of misfires in Glasgow. I went online to try to find an all-inclusive bus pass for the day. I had seen the First Bus buses running by the hostel, so I went to their site to buy a day pass. And I did, with relative ease, though I had to download their app. But what I didn't know at the time, and didn't find out until later (with fairly mortifying consequences), is that there is not just one bus company in Glasgow operating the city buses, there are several. And each company runs buses with similar numbering patterns, but the buses are split between these different companies. And if you buy a day pass for one company, you can't use it with the other companies, which makes it near useless, because if you take three buses somewhere, they are probably going to be with three different bus companies. Fuck privatization, goddamnit. So that was my first misfire, though I didn't find this out until later, when I tried to board my second bus, after using the pass on the first bus. But I'm getting ahead of myself.


I tried to go to Seven Lochs Wetland Park. It sounded like a cool place to visit, and their site said though it's outside the city, it's easy to reach by public transportation, BUT IT DOESN'T SAY HOW! So I went to Google Maps, and it gave me the way there. Or so I thought. I took my first bus there using my day pass, and then I was to take a second bus. There was a nice little wilderness area to hike around in nearby, called Todds Well, so I wandered there for a while since I had some time before the next bus. But, when I got back to take the next bus, a lady at the bus stop told me (wrongly) that I was at the stop going the wrong way. I believed her, because the Google map of the bus route was weird and improbable, and the route went in a strange loop going in an imponderable direction that didn't involve streets, so I didn't know what to think. It made it look like I had to catch the bus on the wrong side of the street, and then it would turn around and go the other way. So she said I had to go down the street to the stop on the other side of the street. So I did that, only to see the bus I was supposed to catch arrive across the street while I missed it. There was my first misfire. And this particular bus only came once an hour, so I was screwed. I decided to walk out into the country to where Google Maps said the park was, rather than wait for the next bus, which I couldn't take anyway with my day pass (though I didn't yet know that), because the bus belonged to a different company.


So I walked down this narrow country road with no sidewalks, having to jump out of the way into the bushes when cars came, but there was no entrance to the park along the road I was on. I think the park may have bordered that road, but there was no path to get in.


Anyway, I kept down that road for a really long tone, until I had long passed where Google told me Seven Lochs Wetland Park was, and it was apparent that it wasn't happening. So I Googled some more about the park, and found someone's blog where they talked about going to the park, and found what I thought was the location they were talking about on the map, and mapped out the way there on Google Maps. I would have to take the bus I missed (the next one arriving) farther out, and then change buses to get to the new location. I waited for the bus, and when it arrived, my day pass didn't work. I tried to scan it several times, but it wouldn't accept it. The bus driver put his glasses on and looked at my pass, and he told me that it was a First Bus pass, but his bus was McGraw's. So I added him how much the fare was; it was a little more than a couple of pounds.


I pulled out my change to pay the bus fare, and that's when the next misfire happened. I was about thirty cents short. I had been trying to use up all my change, because I was leaving Britain soon, and I didn't want to have a lot of change left over. But I certainly didn't foresee this situation at all, where I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, thinking I have a bus pass that is, in fact, worthless for this bus, and not enough money to take the bus.


I was mortified and chagrined, and faced with having to disembark from the bus far from the city. But a woman who was the only other passenger on the bus offered to pay my bus fare.  I accepted, embarrassed that I had enough to pay, just not on me. I offered her my change that was a little short, but she wouldn't take it.


Anyway, I had to transfer to another bus, and, luckily, it was a First Bus, which was covered by my nearly worthless day pass. But I did manage to cover two bus fares with it, so I just about got my money's worth. But, the park was nowhere to be found in this second location either, so I just took the next bus into town, luckily on the First Bus route. And when I got into town, that's when I noticed many different bus companies listed at every stop. Damn it.


My whole morning had been taken up by this series of misfires, so I decided to try to go to Glasgow Tower. But none of the buses that went there were First Bus, and I didn't have enough change (and didn't want to get money out of an ATM just for bus fare), so I walked there for about an hour and a half across town. Yet another misfire. But I saw a sign at one of the bus stops (of course, when I was almost there) that said you can pay by contactless card. In Europe, they have contactless cards all over the place; they don't seem to be very prevalent in the States. But they work the same as phone payment apps, which means I probably could have used the Samsung Pay app on my phone to pay for the bus rather than have a stranger bail me out. Aauugghh, misfire again. That one was a double backward misfire that would have canceled out the earlier one.


Well, anyway, I had decided to pay forward the good deed that the woman did for me when she paid my bus fare. Later, at the hostel, I met a guy from Montana who was going to London, and I still had my Oyster card for the London Metro with a little money on it, so I gave it to him, and rooks him when he was done with it, he could either cash it in for the five pound deposit, or pass it on to someone else. So I was able to pass on the good deed. Does that cancel out a misfire? Probably not. Not that I won't do any good deeds in the future if the opportunity for one comes up; hopefully there will be more. But at least I paid one forward.

There was just that one day in Glasgow that was filled with misfires.  The rest of the time was just smooth sailing. Then I moved on to Edinburgh. This time, I took the Megabus instead of the train. I did take one bus before, from London to Bath, but it was a National Express bus. The Megabus from Glasgow to Edinburgh was the cheapest way I found on that particular route. It was only £3.75, and the trains were much more, as was the National Express bus. But the strange thing was, it didn't even end up being a Megabus. It was a Citylink, and though I paid for Megabus online, they had apparently made some deal to carry their passengers on the Citylink bus, even though the fare was much cheaper. I'm not complaining...it was strange though, because I saw other Megabus coaches leaving from that station.

I arrived in Edinburgh, which was absolutely one of the most beautiful European cities I've been in, beating out even Kazan, Russia, and Prague, Czechia, though I have to say that Venice, Italy, is in its own class.  It's like everywhere I look in Edinburgh, the city is posing for me for pictures. But not in a contrived way, in a very natural way.  Edinburgh has one of the most unique city centers I've ever seen. There is a huge, craggy, cliffy mountain right smack dab in the middle of the city,  which has Edinburgh Castle at its peak, and The Royal Mile leading down from the castle to Holyrood. The huge hill has deep valleys on either side of it. And this unnaturally strange thing is right in the middle of what is basically downtown, though they don't call it that. The whole city on the hill is the Old City. It's not very big at all and was the city surrounded by walls prior to the eighteenth century, when the New City was built just on the north side of the Old City, flanking the Northern Valley, which now contains Princes Street Gardens, though in olden times, it just collected the sewage that people poured their windows in the Old City. Supposedly they took decades to dredge out the nasty old sewage that had gathered there for centuries when they decided to turn the valley into a beautiful garden. And it's one reason why it's so fertile.


I spent three days in Edinburgh, and on the fourth day, I took a bus tour across the Scottish Highlands, heading to Loch Ness, but stopping in a few towns along the way to sightsee a bit.   The longest stop on the way up was Dalwhinnie, and the longest stop on the way back was Pitlochry. There are three lochs in a row...Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, and then Loch Ness, and the bus traced the path of the first two before arriving at Loch Ness at Fort Augustus. We also saw some of Loch Linnhe near Fort William, which is a salt water loch leading to the Atlantic Ocean on the west side of Scotland; the others were fresh water lochs. There was an option to take a boat around Loch Ness, but I chose to walk around the town of Fort Augustus instead. I'm glad I did because the boat ride was not very long and didn't go much farther than I could see anyway. The day trip into the Highlands was a very long day trip; we left around eight in the morning and got back at around eight at night. I had to re-pack my backpack for a flight to Porto, Portugal the next day, which is where I am now.  When I pack for a flight, I have to put my pocket knife and nail clippers in my checked bag, take my electronics on my cabin bag, and empty out my water container. But I forgot that I had left a jar of Marmite on my carry-on, which got confiscated at the Edinburgh Airport, because who knows what nefarious deeds I could have committed with that Marmite. I might have actually eaten it.  But, alas, no, it was seized unopened, and probably even gone to waste. At least they could have fed the hungry or something (assuming the poor would eat Marmite).


I had an uneventful and peaceful flight to Porto, and took the metro easily to the hostel. I always look forward to arriving in a new country, even as I miss the old one.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Manchester And Liverpool

I really didn't make enough time for either of these cities, Manchester and Liverpool, but I wanted to try to visit both of them, so I arranged for two nights in each, rather than just stay in one for four nights. It was enough time to see a bunch of stuff in both cities, though. But my friend Dave also messaged me and told me he had a friend in Leeds and there was no way I could make that, even though I'd like to, and it's not far away from Manchester. But my plans are pretty much set for the rest of the time I'm in the UK. I have to make plans ahead of time, because otherwise train and bus tickets go up, hostels become more scarce and possibly more expensive, and I don't subject myself to the stress of last-minute hectic scurrying. Sometimes I've been able to meet with people that friends have suggested, sometimes not.


It's funny, because I don't have a lot of constraints on my travel, seemingly (except for money), but constraints seem to appear anyway. Speaking of money, the UK is eating my lunch. I've already doesn't more that my monthly travel budget, and it's only the middle of the month. The combination of the weak dollar and the strong pound is just pummeling me. I'll be OK, just have to dip into reserves more than I'd like, and I'll probably have to eventually sit somewhere cheap to live for a while. I did have a few extraordinary, one-time expenses that added to that total, and some of it is for plans ahead that are pre-paid. But I need to keep expenses down for a while.


Manchester is really a party town in the central district. There are a ton of clubs, and a bunch of young partiers wandering in the streets. The hostel I stayed at was probably the most partying hostel I've stayed at yet. There were eight guys traveling together who all stayed in my room; they were all from London, and all got in very late and baked. I don't really club much any more. I especially don't want to go in the places that have watchdogs at the entrances. That just gives me the creeps.


I appreciated staying in the central district after the hostel in Cardiff that was weirdly located (I wouldn't say it was badly located, just weirdly located). I like to just step outside and find stuff, though there is something to be said for a hostel that is away from it all too, especially if it's near a beautiful natural area. But Manchester is a busy city, and it was good to be near the centre.


I packed in a lot of viewing in Manchester in the short time I was there, then I took of on a train for Liverpool. Liverpool is pretty much centered around The Beatles. Beatles stuff is everywhere. I didn't take in any of the myriad of Beatles tours...I used to be a huge Beatle freak in high school, but now I've about had my fill, though they made nice tunes. Though, I did meet a guy in the vast connected to my hostel who said he lives a few houses down from where Brian Epstein lived. That was Beatles enough for me.


The first day I was there, I took a beautiful stroll along the River Mersey, and wandered around Albert Dock, then meandered through other parts of the city.  Today, on the second day, I didn't feel so great. I didn't feel sick, just drained. I've been walking more than most humans probably should every day, it's pretty unreal the territory I've covered on foot. And I always start out thinking I won't walk that much today, but then I get caught up in seeing stuff and more stuff, and before I know it, I've just walked 30,000 steps. And that's the way it should be. When you're having a good time, and not even noticing the effort you're making, that is the goal.


Today I would go out and walk, and just feel labo(u)red and lethargic, and it seemed like an effort just to get back to the hostel from a short distance. So I came back and slept most of the day, and drank a lot of water.  Probably all of the walking I've been doing is catching up with me.  Or maybe I'm getting yellow-ish fever from the live yellow fever vaccine I had last week (doubtful, but it was a risk...though I probably would have gotten it before now). If it's not enjoyable, there's no point. I remember meeting a Filipino traveler, I think his name was Daniel, and I think it was in Beijing. He told me that his philosophy was that when you travel, you don't have to do anything. Right on. You do what you want to do. You don't push it just because you're there. Maybe that book you'll read, or the person you meet because you didn't go anywhere, will change your life. You don't have to see stuff just because stuff is there; stuff is everywhere.


Here in Liverpool I'm basically by myself in the hostel room. The people at the desk said it was packed full the night before, but now it's fairly quiet and sedate. The first night, some guy bounded in at about 3 in the morning, and left early. He didn't even have shoes. I just greeted him when he got here, and wished him a good day when he left. I suspect he was just a local guy who partied too hard to make it home, and he has a friend working at the hostel. No worries. Maybe someone will come in late tonight, but I doubt it, because my bed is the only one that has blankets on it. But being alone has given me an opportunity to spread out and re-pack my stuff, and to do my laundry in the sink and hang it all over the room to dry. I had some perishable food left over from the last hostel; they had a fridge and a kitchen to use, but this one doesn't. They were kind enough to let me put my veggie burgers and other stuff in the bar fridge, and I prepared meals over the sink in the room's adjoining bathroom out of uncooked veggie burgers and other stuff.