Sunday, April 3, 2011

Nothing Says Ukraine Like a Long Train Ride...

The title says it all...and I couldn't wait for Heid to get a glimpse of Ukraine first-hand.

After spending a few days in the Western Ukraine city of L'viv, I wanted to head down to Simferopol, where I taught English for a spell. From there we could make a quick trip to the Black Sea, visit my former colleague Olga and just see the place I once called home. But, first a 24-hour train ride lay ahead.

I didn't even struggle a little bit when buying the tickets. However, when we boarded the next morning I soon realized that I neglected to make one important request: to have a cabin away from the bathroom. In fact, we were right next to the loo which, as previous experience has shown me, can lead to some unpleasant odors. Luckily, however, nobody was sharing our four-bed least not immediately.
After a few hours of chilling in our cabin and playing cards, we arrived in the town of Ternopil...and with that came our cabin mates, Nikolai and Victor. The two burly middle-aged Ukrainian men entered our compartment with a couple of small bags and a big suitcase, which they proceeded to try, unsuccessfully, to fit beneath the bench in numerous different ways. Finally the hoisted the massive thing into an overhead shelf. Shortly afterward came the obligatory introductions, where I explained my rudimentary knowledge of Russian, Nikolai tried some broken English, Victor explained he would only be speaking Ukrainian (as he has great pride in his homeland) and Heidi smiled and nodded.

Shortly thereafter Nikolai, from the bench the two men shared across from us (which would later serve as a single bed that evening), explained it was time for lunch. He grabbed a fully-packed duffle bag, unzipped it, and began emptying its contents onto our tiny shared table. First came the table mats, plastic silverware, napkins, toothpicks, cups and shot glasses (despite the fact that alcohol consumption is now forbidden in train compartments. That being said, this is Ukraine and such a rule is like outlawing gay men from a Cher concert. Who is going to enforce it? Certainly not Cher's publicist!)

Next came the liquids, which included a 2-liter bottle of sparkling water, four small bottles of beer and about 1.5 liters of samogon, or Ukrainian moonshine. Although vodka is probably the national drink of this country, samogon is what puts the hair on your chest and makes a boy a man...or an alcoholic. But all those drinks are worthless without some food...

From his, seemingly, endless bag Victor produced a bounty of edibles: a dozen hard-boiled eggs, bread, deer-liver pâté, salo (cured slabs of pork fat), pickles, a couple of different pickled beet salad spreads, and even a whole chicken (fully cooked, and still warm, as if he picked it up at the train station). I knew where this was headed, and my suspicions were confirmed when Victor set four plates and began spreading the pâté on four pieces of bread. I whispered to Heidi that our pathetic store-bought sandwich would stay in its bag, as we were about to get down Ukrain-style. While she prostested and asked me to do the same in Russian I explained that such efforts were futile.

In the tongue of his motherland Victor explained that we were guests of his country, in response to Heidi's feeble attempt at a "no thank you" with the wave of her hand. "Vceo domashnie," he proudly explained to me. In turn I quickly translated to Heidi that this grub was home-made and declining such an offer would be nearly insulting. Of course, if you accept ones food, you must also take his drink.

"No, daviete," Nikolai exclaimed as he raised his shot glass, moments after his business partner topped off the four shot glasses with the clear fire-liquid in the unassuming (re-purposed) water bottle. In suit, we all raised our plastic cups and clinked them together to a toast to us ("Za Nas!"). I showed Heidi that a pickle chaser helped with the burn and she grabbed one too.

For the next hour we had a long, and hearty, meal along with some good conversation. Nikolai had worked in Canada for six years and was anxious to try his hand at rusty English, while I was more than happy to speak to them in Russian, which is a close cousin to Ukrainian. Along with the food came a few more shots, and a glass of beer. (I merely pointed out that I hadn't seen honey beer in Ukraine before and, seconds later, the bottle was opened and a plastic cup full of the brew was in my grasp!)

After the meal we talked football (aka soccer): Dynamo Kiev was playing Italy that night and the guys were bummed they wouldn't be able to watch because they were on a train to Simferopol. A little later we all started to pick up reading materials and the compartment fell silent for some time.

At dinner Heidi and I snuck off to the restaurant car, for some peace and quiet. The guys were great but too much time in such a confined space with strangers can be taxing.

A little after 9pm we were back in the car and reading, while bathroom smells seeped in through the wall and Victor sung along to Ukrainian pop music which blared from his cell phone, apparently unaware of our presence...or simply convinced that everyone else in the world longed to hear those tunes as well. Being too polite to say anything, Heidi and I sat in agony until a lady from the next compartment over came in around 11pm and politely implored him to turn the music off. Without even acknowledging her he shut it off and we were able to sleep, or at least rest.

You can certainly lay out on the bunks, but the tracks are often uneven, leading to a bumpy ride. Beyond that, after a day of consumption men are more likely to snore, and the two of them took their turns filling the void of the evening with loud inhalations. (I'm sure I participated as well.) Nonetheless, I did manage to get some sleep, albeit not the most restful of our year-long journey.

After sunrise, we all lay in our bunks, wide awake, until an hour or so before arriving in Simferopol. At that time we took turns washing up in the bathroom, folding our bedsheets and packing up our luggage. When we pulled up to the station, we both thanked the men for their hospitality, shook hands and headed our separate ways...

Reflections on Auschwitz & Schindler's Factory

Having traveled the last four months without the assistance of those nifty guidebooks, after the last one was pilfered, Heidi and I knew very little about Krakow's tourist those which loom heavy in the hearts of many the world over.

Just outside of Krakow is the town of Oświęcim, which Hitler converted into a place of imprisonment and extermination for Jews, Roma people, POWs, Polish intelligentsia and scores of others. I was drawn to the place and almost felt obligated to visit, not for the same reasons I was attracted to Iguacu Falls or the Parthenon, but because of something deeper. Perhaps it is the innate humanity within each of us which drew me to this place, to remember and pay homage to the victims of one of the most horrendous acts of genocide the world has ever known. Moreover, it was important to stand amongst those hallowed grounds to reflect that man, although inherently good (in my humble opinion), is also capable of such evil atrocities. After all Hitler, Himmler and all of the rest of those involved in these crimes against humanity were, indeed, human. As hard as it is to fathom, they had parents, and many went home to their children after, what they saw as, a hard day's work leading unknowing Jewish women and children into gas chambers which the victims believed to be disinfecting showers.

All told, it is estimated that approximately 1.5 million people were killed in the Auschwitz Death Camps in fewer than five years. Such a staggering figure is hard to truly grasp. Walking through Block 4 of the Auschwitz main camp one starts to get a small sense of the scale at which the murdering took place: huge piles of shoes, prosthetics and everyday items, such as brushes, pots and pans. Another room (which was closed during our visit) has just some of the 7 tons of human hair removed from the victims prior to extermination.

After being unloaded from crammed train cars the prisoners were sorted on site. With the wave of a finger an SS doctor would determine whether people were fit to work, or to be immediately sent to the gas chambers. About three-quarters of the people, including most women and children, were immediately sent to their deaths. Those that initially survived worked dreadfully long days, spending their evenings in cramped and unsanitary conditions, eating very little...about 20% of that recommended by nutritionists.

By the time the Red Army liberated the camp, in January 1945, the Nazis had destroyed all but one of the crematories, in an attempt to hide evidence of their crimes. Only the weakest prisoners remained when the Russians entered the camps, 7,500 in all. About 20,000 other prisoners were taken to a German concentration camp, on a forced march, when the Allied forces began closing in on the camp. (Many were liberated in April 1945 by the British.)

Needless to say, the visit was both powerful and solemn.

A couple of days later we visited the factory of Oscar Schindler, made famous by a Thomas Keneally book and Spielberg film.

A Nazi Party member and opportunistic businessman, Schindler came to Krakow shortly after the Germans took hold of the city. There he bought an old enamelware factory and used forced Jewish labour to make pots, pans and munitions. As the man witnessed atrocities, perpetrated by Nazi soldiers, he became increasingly protective of 'his' Jews, often regardless of personal risk or cost. All told, he is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews who would have, otherwise, almost certainly have been sent to the death chambers.

The museum itself is a well-designed, albeit lengthy, group of displays, focusing on life in Krakow during the Nazi invasion. Of course, there were also displays about Schindler's factory and numerous videos with reflections from survivors of the nightmare. If you go, give yourself about three hours...and sneak in a snack!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Budapest & Prague: Two birds of a feather...

I guess they are neighboring countries, so one shouldn't be surprised there are so many similarities, but Budapest and Prague are a couple of real Twin Cities. I will try to run down a list of the numerous similarities, as well as note a couple of the differences I noticed. (Budapest pics are on the left and those of Prague are on the right.)

*Both are cut into two by a river: The Danube in Budapest and the Vltava in Prague.

*Both have prominent castles: Aptly, and respectively, named the Buda and Prague Castles.

*Both towns have beautiful cathedrals.

*Both are known for curative waters. Budapest is well known for its many public baths. We visited the The Széchenyi Spa in Budapest, the largest and most magnificent of them. For about $15 we spent the day going from outdoor baths, to saunas, to indoor baths, all of varying temperatures. It was quite the relaxing experience. Alternatively, just outside of Prague are the Carlsbad Mineral Springs, also known for the curative properties of its waters. Sadly, we did not make the trip.

*Both have famous bridges: In Budapest you have the Chain Bridge and in Prague the Charles Bridge.

*Both have lots of grafitti. Although the Lennon Wall in Prague is a sanctioned place for taggers, it is grafitti nonetheless. This picture in Budapest is also an impressive part of street art, although illegal.

*Both have a place for couples to lock up their love.

*Prague and Budapest were both former Communist towns which have since fully embraced capitalism.

*Both of the old cities have Jewish Quarters and, as such, were occupied by Nazi forces during the Second World War.

*Public transport is very well organized, and tourist friendly, in both cities, complete with buses, trams and metros.

*Tasty and hearty cuisine is not in short supply in either of the towns.

*Both towns are VERY touristy!

Despite all of the similarities, there were a FEW differences...

In Budapest...
*You can enjoy a VERY inexpensive cultural performance, thanks to government subsidies. We checked out Don Pascuale at the National Opera House. Our box seats, right next to the Presidential Box, ran about $9/piece. And, the cheap seats are about $2!
*There is a stunning National Parliament Building.

In Prague...
*You can check out the quirky Zodiac Clock, complete with hourly appearances by the 12 apostles.
*There is a TV tower with barcode babies scaling the sides.
*One can enjoy a glass of beer brewed at the monastery.
*You can visit a church adorned with HUMAN bones (a little ways outside of the city).
*Someone tried, unsuccessfully, to break into our hotel room! (The cops later broke the door down so we could make sure nothing was stolen.)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sarajevo in Pictures...

This bridge, known today as the Latin Bridge, was where a very important event occurred, which led to the beginning of World War I. It was here, on June 28, 1914, that Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated. This is Skender, our guide during a day trip retracing the siege of Sarajevo by Serbian troops. During the mid-90's conflict he was just a boy and his father became part of makeshift military forces while his mother kept Skender safe at home. He recounted those days with us in chilling detail, stating that heat, water and even food were often in short supply. Only on rare occasions, when the air-raid sirens fell silent for an extended period of time, did he get to play outside with his friends...for a short time.

Looking down at Sniper Alley from a hill above Sarajevo. This is an important crossroads that was constantly in the scope of snipers during the mid-90s siege. Hundreds of civilians were killed while merely walking to across this street, in search of food.
One of the few buildings not yet rebuilt since the devastation caused nearly 20 years ago. The large bricks on the right filled the hole of a mortar round, but hundreds of holes from small arms fire remain.

This tunnel once spanned more than 800 meters, below the Sarajevo Airport runway, and was the only connection to the outside world for thousands of residents of Sarajevo during the siege. Food, arms and other goods were carried, day and night, by hand and in carts in this dark and damp tunnel, saving untold lives. Prior to its construction people were forced to run across the runway and were often hit by sniper fire when doing so.

One of many "Sarajevo Roses" found throughout the city. These are scars in the concrete created by deadly mortar rounds during the mid-90s conflict. They were later filled with red resin, so that the victims may never be forgotten.
One of two memorials for the victims of two separate massacres at the Markale Market in Sarajevo. During the two shellings, more than 100 civilians, waiting in line for food, were killed while hundreds more were seriously injured and maimed. The second shelling led to NATO involvement in the conflict. In the reflection you can see that the market is back to business-as-usual today.
A couple of old-timers passing a cool Sunday afternoon with a little larger-than-life Chess.
The beautiful Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia, which was the site of intense destruction between 1992 and 1993. Shelling destroyed a Franciscan and Serbian Orthodox Monasteries, as well as a Catholic Cathedral and many other monuments.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Serbia Haiku

Belgrade cold and snow

The hostel warm but stinky

Smoky restaurants

Two days is plenty

Military Museum

Relief from the cold

Pedestrian street

Cobblestone and boutique stores

Snow and wind are fierce

Internet cafe

Man shamelessly watches porn

My headphones don't work

Cafes have good food

But they are filled with smokers

Waiters speak English

Someone stole our juice

From the community fridge

Karma is a bitch!


Six-hour walking tour. What better way to get acquainted with the Bulgarian capitol city than by foot. In temperatures hovering around freezing we strolled by the Presidential offices, the statue of Saint Sophia, old guys peddling communist-era antiques on the street and myriad other sites. It is a beautiful city, and very walkable, but when it is so cold it should probably be broken up into a two-day affair.

One leva tea at McDonald's. Given the fact that we have gone from a hot African summer to the cold Balkan winter in a matter of weeks, the temps are a bit jolting, even for a couple of weather-worn Minnesotans. As such, it is great to be able to duck into the familiar Golden Arches for some hot tea, a place to warm up and a clean bathroom...all for less than a buck.

Fairly priced, tasty, food. It isn't Buenos Aires, but the food in Sofia is pretty darn good, and definitely cheaper than most places with similar fare. Besides an amazing home-cooked vegetarian meal, we also enjoyed delightful pastas, soups, pizzas and pastries while on the town.

Impromptu cultural performance. After the aforementioned homemade meal our Couchsurfing hosts and their friend ducked out of the kitchen, threw on some traditional garb and entertained Heidi and I with instruments, singing and dance of their heritage.

Affable Hosts from Couchsurfing. I continue to be amazed by the hospitality of people on Couchsurfing and Niki and Eli were no exception. They invited us into their home, made us feel very welcome, and treated us to a number of meals. They went above and beyond with the cultural performance, drive to the mountain and paying for our final meal in Sofia before it was even served (in order to avoid our protests).

Bus-riding scofflaw. On Sofia public transport you are required to have a validated ticket, which is purchased before boarding and validated by an archaic hole-punch-like device on the bus. While removing my ticket from the punch it ripped. Minutes later two ladies boarded to make sure nobody was trying to cheat the system. Well, they either didn't buy, or didn't care for, my story (and I'm sure the language barrier didn't help). So, I had to shell out a 10 leva fine right then and there.

Unpleasant Pumpkin. While in Ukraine I had tasted some warm baked pumpkin, skin on with brown sugar. It was delightful. While on our walk I spied something similar, on the street, which roughly translated to "sweet pumpkin" from the cyrillic words I recognized. Heidi wanted a chunk so we bought it and gave it a try. Disgusting! Not only was it not sweet but ice cold. The picture says it all...

Lovely mountain hike. Our Couchsurfing hosts drove us up to the Vitosha Mountains, which are just on the outskirts of the bustling city. After a short drive we got out and had a nice hike in the alpine setting. The trail was a bit slick, from all of the other hikers compacting the snow, but the sun was shining and the scenery beautiful. By the time we turned around to head back down we were all warm and removing some of our layers.

Great street exchange rates. Twice during our walk through Sofia, some guy approached us with a fishy story about being from the Czech Republic and wanting to buy foreign currency at a great rate...much better than that being offered by the legitimate outlets. I know it was a scam and figured he was handling counterfeit notes. I refused his offer, first politely and later more sternly. When I relayed the experience to a hostel employee I learned that the scam was giving foreigners old leva, which are now worthless. Sadly, I was told, others weren't so keen and fell for the scam.

A long wait for the police. On our way down Vitosha Mountain the tires on our hosts' little Mitsubishi lost traction on a curve and we had a low impact crash into a vehicle heading in the opposite direction. Luckily, nobody was hurt but we did have to wait for police to come and fill out a report. By the time we left, more than two hours later, we were all thoroughly chilled to the bone.

Rila Monastery. Originally built in the 10th century, this beautiful monastic residence is tucked away in the Rila Mountains, more than two hours from Sofia. It was built by the students of St. Ivan of Rila who lived in a nearby cave, with no possessions, for many years. The church has numerous vivid depictions of the book of Revelations. The setting is serene and breathtaking.

In search of a skating rink. Heidi and I had hoped to complete our day-tour of Sofia with a nice time on the outdoor skating rink in a park on the outskirts of the city center. We found the park easily enough, but we had no idea that the park was so huge. By the time we found the sheet of ice, more than an hour later, we were cold, miserable and in no mood to skate.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Planned exactly 100 years (to the day) before my birth, this is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox churches in the world, with the capacity to hold 10,000 people inside. It is adorned with beautiful murals and an impressive iconostasis (which we weren't allowed to photograph).