Monday, June 16, 2014

No, Thanks. I Don't Want to Disco with You, Bus Attendant Man

There’s a certain blackness that can overtake you when you’ve been traveling. For me it nearly always begins with vendors who are either unfriendly or so friendly you feel violated by their greasier-than-a-car-salesman approach. The blackness is a sort of refusal to mesh with the other realities offered by nationals. The blackness hates the smiles of the vendors and their stupid tricks—“Pretty lady! Hi! I like your dress!” “Why are you angry? Excuse me? Smile face!” “Where are you from? America? What state? I am like your neighbor—I’m going to New York!”—and the blackness wants to pluck out the eyes of anyone staring at the backside of the human in which the blackness is manifest.

The blackness is often compounded by leering men and/or crying babies. Crowded transportation does not help alleviate the blackness. The blackness might exist in the heavy bitterness of misunderstanding.

The blackness can barely manage not to snarl when the bus manager says, “4:30 bus? No. Cancelled. You must wait. 6:00.” It growls, though, the blackness, and it sulks. The blackness cannot even find amusement in a Turkish Chuck Norris playing the egg shaker on a flat screen television in the chintzy, sweating waiting room where plugs hang socketless out of the walls. The blackness cannot be happy, even when drowning in the ridiculousity that comes with trying to eat a juicy peach with angry dignity. In fact the blackness finds itself angry when a friendly older woman gabbles at her in Turkish (probably) and pats the seat next to her. The host of the blackness recognizes the woman’s goodwill and knows that in a happier time she would have tried to understand what in the world the woman was saying. She doesn’t. The blackness is much more consuming.

I like to think the more depraved of my readers have felt that sort of all-encompassing frustration/exhaustion/apathy. Or maybe that’s just me, travel or no travel. An older Turkish man helped me on the busy tram today—letting me step on first in the crowded train, helping me move my luggage to a corner, reading off the stop names as if I were too deaf to hear the tram’s loudspeaker say exactly the same thing or blind so as to be unable to read the signs of each stop. I would have been touched by his kindness if he hadn’t kept bumping his crotch against my butt and, when I shifted as much as I could, my hip. It was crowded, so it could have been an accident. The gender make-up of the train: 80% men to 20% women, only one of whom was traveling without a male companion, maybe three without headscarves.

Luckily the blackness rarely lasts long: who has the energy for that? That was my last day in Istanbul before hopping on a night bus. The bus ride turned out to be even more ridiculous than the Turkish Chuck Norris or the obnoxiously juicy peach:

        1.      The bus stopped four times in the first four hours and once when I went to the bathroom, a Turkish girl in a bright pink headscarf stole my seat, refusing to leave it until the bus attendant made her.
        2.      In baggage control during the border crossing into Greece (at 1:00 in the morning), only I and one other man were “chosen” by the bus attendant to have our bags searched. While a taciturn Greek lady dug through my underwear and Tums, the bus attendant said to me, “Disco!” and shook his hips a little.

        3.      In the morning, the bus attendant waggled his hips at me again and asked me to go drinking and dancing with him in Athens.

        4.      At some point during the ride I found a business card from someone named “Murat Bahri Sarihan” in my backpack. Handwritten on the back: “for you! Next time contact pls” and an email. I have no memory of this man or receiving his business card. Small mercies.

        5.      When the bus finally stopped in Athens, the terminus was a gravel parking lot on the side of the highway. No buses, no metro, no ATM to help pay the taxi drivers obnoxiously “offering” their services. The bus attendant opened one of the luggage hatches to reveal a man in his underwear, groggy from sleeping on a mattress beneath the bus. I got directions to the metro and walked—and by “walked” I mean “fled”—twenty minutes to get there.

But Greece is great! I live in a refurbished train car and have played soccer already, watched Greece’s bland defeat at the hands [er, feet?] of the Colombians and I am already in love with baklava. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014


In America, it’s duct tape and Windex. In Thailand it’s Tiger Balm. In Korea it’s probably kimchi. In Bulgaria, the magical potion that can fix everything is rakiya, the national alcoholic drink. My friend asks me if I want some. She doesn’t take any herself, but her mother pours a full glass with a mischievous smile.

“It’s like whiskey?” my friend offers. “It’s very strong. You don’t have to have any, but my mother says this will make your cough go away.”

She goes on to tell me mothers have been known to soak gauze with rakiya to place on their children’s sore throats. A dab of rakiya in the nose un-stuffs it. Rubbing rakiya on a child’s arms helps reduce fever.

I’m game. They pour me a few sips, not even the width of a finger high in the glass. They teach me the proper Bulgarian way to drink to one another’s health: by giving one another a significant look when you say “cheers.” They demonstrate with exaggeration, neither one of them able to hold a straight face. I give it a shot and butcher the Bulgarian phrase and take the barest sip of the rakiya.

It’s good. It’s strong. I can see why it might clear out a person’s nasal passages. I can barely finish my portion over the entirety of dinner.

I was feeling pretty sick when I made it to my friend’s house in the middle of somewhat-rural Bulgaria. The bus trip was 3 hours long and I almost peed my pants before I convinced the driver to make a pit stop 15 minutes from the final destination. It was a near thing. I am 100% serious. Moreover, my throat was sore and my nose stuffed from insufficient sleep on trains and secondhand smoking while trying to ration my water intake to avoid what nearly happened on said bus.

A day and a half with my friend and her mother and the rakiya was enough to put me back on my feet. Though it might be easiest to give the credit to the magical Bulgarian alcohol, I would guess my health’s quick upturn is due more to my friend and her mother. I am addicted to the stress of travel, to the challenge of finding my way through foreign countries on my own steam. But visiting folks like my friend and her mother are the real treat—because from them I learn the futility of my achievements.

Every time I find the right bus on time or the cheapest train option, I feel a distinct stab of traveler’s pride. But the lesson of a mother doting on her daughter, of my friend wasting huge amounts of time finding out where my bus was stopping so she could pick me up, preparing food for me, explaining Bulgarian culture to me—that is filling and rejuvenating the way accomplishment isn’t. If it’s not too cheesy, it feels much more like hope, specifically hope that I will one day follow in their hospitable footsteps.

“My mother pampers me,” my friend explained to me. “And anyone I bring home with me.”

I can’t think of a higher calling. Cheers.
The ancient Bulgarian capitol.

A Bulgarian waterfall! We had to hunt for it, which only made it cooler.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

From Bucharest to Sofia: Tales from the Train

Three Chinese boys join me in the ancient train compartment first. The lighting is bad in the compartment, the faded mint-green of the seats and the cloudy windows all seem shrouded in the aura of sketchy murder scene. They throw stock English phrases into their Mandarin-dominated banter: “Shut the fuck up, bro!” I’m think I might be glad they’re here to share the sketchiness of the train, even as I dread a long, sleepless night punctuated by swear words turned superlatives.

The train fills up—an English speaker who greets the three Chinese boys with familiarity, two American boys traveling together. Two girls visit from the other compartment, which also seems to be dominated by non-Romanians leaving Bucharest. “Ours is much more crowded,” one says.

One of the American boys hunts for something in his companion’s bag. “Where is it? Next to your Bible?” “No, it’s . . .” If I were bold, that’s when I would have started a conversation. I would have said, “You keep your whole Bible while traveling? Wow—I just tore out pages from mine and stuck them in my notebook” and invited his judgment. I didn’t, though. That same American has, like me, caught a cold. He sneezes many times, wiping his hands and face on his shirt. It is blue, without writing, but sprayed down the front with snot. I barely have enough napkins to cover my own sneezes and snot—a souvenir of nights of trains and days of walking—and for a single trip to the bathroom before arriving in Sofia in 11 hours.

A stack of passports, blue and red mostly, maybe a green, already in hand, the uniformed man asks for ours as well. When he’s added them to the stack, he leaves. I feel my anxiety mirrored in the others’ suddenly alert postures. Minutes ago we were sleeping, silent, waiting; now we wait until he comes back. “Um, okay,” he says, both authoritative and daunted by the foreign names in our passports. “Okay. Any Americans?” He reads the other boys’ names, but I am the only female. He smiles barely as he hands me back my passport. I can fall back asleep now.

This is how I woke up so many times during the night. It’s enough to long for the future warned by every science fiction novel ever when I can simply leave my wrist dangling over the seat edge and snore on while security IDs me from some bar code in my veins.

It’s 5:30 and mists are hanging over green swells of farmland. I curl back up on my checkered towel. Sleep has not waited long this entire ride.

At some point the bathroom finally becomes necessary. I steel myself, but my senses were not prepared for the stench of soured piss and the sight of it pooled on the floor. Or maybe it’s water. It’s water from the sink. Definitely. A bolder part of me—the same that might have started the conversation—wants to lean out and yell into my compartment: “Which one of you can’t aim? This is disgusting.” But there is no point. Disgusting toilets are part of it all.

It’s 7:30 and two security guards wander past. I blink awake and see them pointing angrily at my shoes, which are rested against the seat across from me. I take then down. They leave. By now the Chinese boys have left. So have the Americans. It is me, an English man, and mostly Bulgarians. I fall back asleep.

Not long after that I decide to wake up for real. I open the bottle of orange juice I bought the night before and take a swig. Revived, I set it down to reach for my torn out Bible pages. Sometimes I lose track of my elbows. The juice splatters against the glass, spraying me and the unprepared man sitting caddycorner from me, a full three feet away from the juice debacle. The bottle falls to the floor and the rest of the juice finds its way across the compartment to one of the English-speakers’ shoes. The rest pools around my suitcase. I apologize and try not to laugh at myself as I mop up what I can. I can feel the others’ amusement, perhaps derision in their nonchalant postures. No one looks at me.

“Seriously, who let the clumsy American on the train?"


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Snippets of Reality

Perhaps my favorite part of traveling is entering little pockets of reality I never knew existed. Or rather, knew existed, but had no way of existing inside of them because I had no experience doing so. I know what life as an English teacher in Korea is like; I know what graduate school is like; I know what being a student at Calvin College is. Those are realities I can exist within, if only in thought. They are my realities, past and present. But there are a thousand, a million and more realities of which I cannot conceive.

“Be it life or death,” H. D.Thoreau wrote, “we crave only reality.” I am convinced—after quite a few solo ventures in various countries—that only a very skewed version of reality exists outside of community. People are what make reality real.

This is the crux of traveling: people can make or break a trip. My flight over to Europe was completely “made” by my seat-partner and will forever remain in my memory as one of the most pleasant voluntary 8-hour incarcerations in an uncomfortable seat on a giant metal cylinder with wings. Plenty of other plane flights will be forgotten, but my Polish grandmother made that one a reality.

Budapest was made real by my hosts, Bekah and Caroline (day 7). Both are Calvin alumni I met through the English department who have been teaching this past year in Hungary. From Budapest airport to fast asleep on their couch, showered and exhausted, was one of the smoothest transitions into a city I’ve ever experienced, despite anticipated difficulties, given Bekah’s somewhat “shazzy” directions:

“Getting into the building - there is always someone around and they are good at holding doors open. Take the elevator to the fifth floor and the key will be under the mat. Turn it four times to the right to get in.”

Like magic, as soon as I found the apartment building, a neighbor held the door open for me. I took the elevator up, found the key, turned it four times to the right, tapped the brick three times with a wand, and did the hokey pokey. I failed to figure out how to turn on the shower, but succeeded in washing most of myself by awkwardly crouching beneath the tall faucet in their tub. That’s not weird, right?

Bekah hand wrote me directions to places I’d vaguely thought about going to see, gave me tickets and, in the evening, they took me to their house church, attended by expats and Hungarians alike. Over an Italian dinner even my jet-lagged stomach could appreciate I learned that Hungarians believe that if a woman sits on a cold floor, her eggs will freeze up and she’ll become barren. I also learned that Hungary prefers to be known as “Central” rather than “Eastern” European (it implying development) that “utca” means street and that all Hungarian children must be named from a governmentally pre-approved list of appellations.

I didn’t go to a single museum or open a single Wikipedia article while I visited Hungary. I drank wine and swapped stories with Bekah, Caroline, and their friend Mandy. I ate marrow while they told me about their co-teachers (a vastly different relationship from the American-Korean co-teachers I’ve known).
Everyday life: the anti-electrocution mobile

It was only for a few nights—but they allowed me to share in their reality, a reality they’ve probably forgotten as they live it out. Turning the key four times to the right. The coos of belligerent pigeons roosting outside their window, the flaps of their wings oddly resonate in the small living space. The mechanical heaves of the hev 5 tram as they roll into town, the sharp curve between the second and third stop on the line, and the thin metal strips, supposedly stairs, down to the platform (I almost face-planted the first time I alighted). Avoiding the red elevator in favor of the blue (it’s trustier). Converting Hungarian HUF to USD on the fly (take off two places and divide by two and you’ll come out a little ahead).

Budapest’s churches and parliament were photogenic. I enjoyed meandering down her stone streets—towering aged buildings lurking above—and figuring out her efficient transit system. But the real treat of Budapest for me was existing, if only for a few days and only in a small, small part, in a reality not my own.

Monday, June 2, 2014

My Polish Grandmother

Last night I was the fourth to last passenger to get on the plane and it turns out my seat partner had been anticipating my arrival. From her happy smile and broken English, it appeared that she had been extremely worried I might be overweight and thus gush into her elbow room. She congratulated me on my size with a few expressive hand gestures and before I could explain it probably has more to do with genetics than self control she patted the seat next to her and introduced the cushion to me.
“My—” She thought about it. “—husband! We live Chicago. Twelve years! But no—” She flapped one hand like it was covered with a sock puppet. “—no conversation.”
My Polish seatmate did not let that stop her. Her husband arrived not much later and he spoke to me in Polish a little bit. I nodded along even though everyone present knew I didn’t understand a word of what he was saying.
I yawned. She yawned. She smiled. I swear I could feel the earnest goodwill coming out of the wrinkles on her face.
“So tired?” I asked, reverting to my own version of broken English for simplicity’s sake.
“Yes. We have—work too much. Have tomatoes and onions and . . .” She conferred with husband about the third vegetable they grow; neither could think of the English word; I shrugged. “. . . Yes. Tired.”
I was already nodding off, so she had to point out the drink cart going by. I ordered a small apple juice. She and her husband each received two Bloody Marys.
“We” chatted a bit more. She asked me about my trip and I asked her where she was going, but before long I was completely unconscious again. That is, until the dinner cart went by and my elbow was jostled by my seatmate. Insistently.
“Food!” she announced, joyful.
I checked my watch—it was 10:30 p.m. Chicago time; 3:30 a.m. Warsaw time—and declined her invitation to join her in picking through airplane food as politely as I could.
“You hungry, you eat!”
“I’m really okay.”
She didn’t believe me, but she let me sleep. I wrote once about my Mountain Parents in Korea who, like my Polish seat partner, were convinced I would kill myself by sheet stupidity without them. The best part about that they helped me become unlost, showed me the temple I was looking for, and even drove me all the way back to the subway. The worst part was when they thought I might need assistance in learning how to use the toilet.
Toilet issues were, bizarrely, where my Polish seat partner shone. It was the middle of the flight and I—curled against my window—knew I had to get to the bathroom as soon as possible. I rummaged around in my backpack first, stalling because I abhor inconveniencing people and there may be nothing more inconveniencing than climbing over two senior citizens trying to doze off their Bloody Marys in economy class. I looked up and my Polish seat partner—although at this very moment I promoted her to adopted grandmother—was already looking at me.
“Um,” I said. “Can I . . .?”
“Toilet.” She knew. She poked her husband. He stood up and gallantly helped his wife out of the cramped row of seats. She pointed me to the toilet and then followed behind: Female bathroom solidarity on a plane with a tottering Polish woman. For all I knew she’d been waiting to go to the bathroom when I was ready.
In the morning she bullied the flight attendant into giving me a second drink, gave me her husband’s extra muffin (“He’s diabetic. Not me!”), and, of course, shepherded me to the bathroom again. The downside to my new Polish grandmother was that she took up all the elbow room on our shared armrest. Forgivable.

And some bonus pics:

Wurst puns ever!

Creepy/awesome eye graffiti