Friday, June 13, 2014
Thursday, May 29, 2014
Monday, December 2, 2013
"Dominic Carrillo expresses the wonder and unintended humor that all travelers -- not just Americans -- find on the road."
–Nate Holman, San Diego Reader
“When I finished reading, I had that bittersweet feeling of wanting more. I didn’t want the journey and the humor to end.”
“I love the way this author writes... constantly amuses the reader.”
–The Kindle Book Review
Thursday, September 12, 2013
I took another swig of crisp, clean German lager as I spied the nascent Oktoberfest fairgrounds across the street. Only the steel frames and brewery names were up—the stark beginnings of the world’s biggest booze fest. I knew I wouldn’t be back to attend the festival this year, but had celebrated for a few hours on the Theresienwiese years before. So I could picture the famous festival in full swing—the carnival rides spinning, the lederhosen-ed men, the women in dirndl, the elaborately decorated beer tents fully adorned and packed with revelers. But now, in the construction phase, I saw it in a different way. I saw it as a massive investment; a colossal undertaking for an event that would run a mere two weeks.
‘Why? How did it all start? How much did it all cost?
‘Tens of millions,’ my new German friend, Max, chimed in. ‘But it brings in over a billion.’
I sipped from my stein of lager. It tasted great—perfect, actually. Maybe it just seemed better because I was drinking it in Munich, a city rich in beer history and tradition. What that history was—aside from tourists getting rip-roaring drunk in beer halls like the Hofbrauhaus—had remained a mystery to me. It hit me that I’d never bothered to inquire, which made me feel like more of a dumb American than usual, so I asked.
‘Max, this may be a stupid question,’ I said, ‘but why’s there an Oktoberfest?’
‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘Can you repeat that?
Up till that point, I’d assumed Max’s English—like most Germans’—was more advanced than mine.
‘Oktoberfest? What’s the history?’ I said, ‘Aside from a good excuse to get wasted.’
Max told me and I listened like the student who’d missed a week of school and now desperately needed to catch up. He was an educated man, a convincing German from Munich, so I ate up every word.
‘See that beer you’re drinking,’ he said. “It all started here.”
‘Beer was invented in Munich?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Beer was first made in Mesopotamia and Egypt thousands of years ago. But Munich is where lager beer—what you are now drinking—was first made.”
‘That’s why Oktoberfest is here?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he said, expressing a hint of exasperation with my ignorance. Then Max leaned forward and readjusted his position. ‘Well, perhaps... May I explain?’
Max explained, in near perfect English, that Munich brewers discovered the ‘bottom fermenting’ method in the 15th century, which produced lager beers. This cold temperature brewing method differed from the traditional warm brewing method (top-fermenting) which produced ales. Since this was all pre-refrigerator, he said, during the warmer months barrels of beer were brewed in caverns in the Alps to produce lagers—cleaner beer, with presumably less bacteria than warm-brewed ales. Soon after, Bavarians passed the Reinheitsgeobot beer purity laws (1516) which stated that the ingredients of beer be restricted to water, barley, and hops, and set a standard for good, clean lager beer throughout southern Germany.
‘Max,’ I said, ‘I really appreciate this, but I’m never gonna’ remember the details. How does this all relate to Oktoberfest?’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘A few decades after the beer purity laws, summer brewing was outlawed in Bavaria. The rulers knew cold brewing made purer beer with cleaner qualities than top-fermented summer ales. The official brewing season was restricted between September and April, which meant that a large supply of beer would be stored in the chilly Alps during the summer.’
I stared at my beer on the table in front of me, then at the Oktoberfest fairgrounds across the street; then at the faint outline of the Alps in the deep background. I was beginning to see where Max’s story was headed.
‘By the end of summer,’ Max continued, ‘The many barrels of lager remaining in the mountain caves were brought down into Munich and—with the knowledge that the new brewing season would begin—the old beer was consumed in celebration. I believe the festival was sponsored and encouraged by the king and nobles to keep the common people happy.’
‘Wow,’ I said. ‘That’s really interesting—and makes sense.’ I drank the rest of my lager and felt much smarter than I had when I took my first sip.
That night—inside our spacious room at the Hotel Seibel which overlooked the Theresenweise—I shared my newly acquired knowledge with my girlfriend. She seemed impressed. So impressed that she immediately went to searching ‘Oktoberfest history’ on Google and fact checking.
‘I think Max’s story is bullshit,’ she said after reading a bit.
I checked and, indeed, the information online said that the first Oktoberfest was held in October of 1810 to commemorate the wedding of a prince and princess. The citizens of Munich were invited to the royal wedding, which took place on the current Oktoberfest Theresenweise fairground. The public party happened there the following year and became an anniversary celebration of sorts, complete with a horseracing event. The addition of local brewery beer tents came decades later and Oktoberfest (as a beer festival) grew from there.
That was it. Nothing about beer purity laws, lagers, or the Alps. Nothing I read online resembled Max’s version of history, but I much preferred Max’s explanation.
The next morning, as I gazed over the Theresienwiese fairgrounds from our hotel room, I remembered my one experience at Oktoberfest. I drank three steins that night, ate a huge pretzel, and was more full than drunk. I watched a person stand on a table in leiderhosen and dance, fall four feet down to the hard ground, get up, laugh, and continue dancing. I witnessed someone fall victim to an extreme gang-wedgey that ripped their underwear to shreds just because this unfortunate person was caught in the area of the beer tent where underwear was traditionally verboten. I remember loud, goofy German folk songs, international drunken diplomacy, and huge lines just to piss in a putrid fifty-meter long metal trough. I had no idea about the history or the breweries involved, or anything aside from what I believed at the time to be the whole point of Oktoberfest: to get sloshed; shitfaced; wasted.
Now, looking out over the mostly vacant and lifeless Theresienwiese, I finally had collected some background and solid facts about the grand event: 7 million visitors. 10 million liters of beer consumed. Over 1 billion dollars generated in two weeks. The biggest festival in the world. With knowledge comes respect, I gathered.
But why Oktoberfest?
I still didn’t have a definitive answer. There was the online-trivia-short answer consensus, and then the more layered beer-based story that Max had told me. I wanted to believe it was a combination of both. But as I looked at the grand beer tents under construction and the otherwise barren Theresienwiese, I mainly wanted to attend the event again with a new sense of perspective. What’s more, I wanted the experience, which is really the appealing thing—not the history outline; not the bullet-pointed facts; and not the red thumbtack stuck into a black dot on the “Places I’ve Been” world map on the wall. The rich history, the energy around the event, and the beauty of Munich got me excited about coming back in late September with new eyes; a new appreciation.
Oktoberfest—how’s that for a spontaneous five-day trip!?
I asked the receptionist at our hotel—across the street from the fairgrounds—what the availability of rooms was during this year’s Oktoberfest. Before looking at his booking calendar, he laughed. ‘During Oktoberfest?!’ he said. ‘You’re about a year too late, my friend. We sold out six months ago.’
He told me that there were still vacancies somewhere in Munich between September 21 and October 6, but not at his hotel—or any others in the neighborhood. ‘Maybe I’ll save it for next year,’ I told him, defeated. But when I got back online later that day, I found myself distracted from my original task, instead drifting into a search for flights to Munich on Kayak.com and rooms on Booking.com. From what I gathered, a last minute trip to Oktoberfest would be quite expensive, but not impossible.
Tuesday, August 6, 2013
I’ve been parked in front of the twenty-foot tall double gates of the US embassy in Kosovo for about two hours now. The good news is that it’s given me the opportunity to read up on the Kosovo War of 1999 (including the numerous mistaken US/NATO bombings of civilians), which helps lend some perspective to the ridiculous and frustrating events that have led to my current situation:
Stuck in Kosovo.
The short answer: Because a Kosovo border agent had her head up her ass just long enough to screw up our lives for the next 48 hours (at least).
10:00 pm. In our tenth hour of driving from Dubrovnik, Croatia, my girlfriend and I waited in our car, in line at the Albania-Kosovo border. As we rolled toward the Kosovo border police, we had our passports and car documents in hand. The female police officer kindly greeted us, but then informed me that I needed to buy special insurance at a booth thirty meters behind us (technically in Albania) before entering Kosovo. She told us to park the car ahead of her booth (technically in Kosovo) and that she would hold one of our passports—Itoro’s—until we returned with the required insurance form.
10:05. We shook our heads in disbelief, cursing under our breath in front of the window of the Kosovo insurance booth. The man behind the counter had just told us that it cost 30 euros for the mandatory insurance to enter Kosovo, and that he didn’t accept credit/ATM cards or Croatian Kuna (the only currency we had). He told us that our only option would be to turn around and drive back to the nearest ATM in Kukes, Albania to withdraw euros. After making this two-hour round trip drive, he explained, we could purchase said Kosovo insurance and enter the country. I staggered back toward our car with the painful vision of driving through the Albanian mountains for two more hours.
10:08. My girlfriend waited in the car while I went to get her passport from the Kosovo border police so we could begin our backtracking ATM mission into Albania. When the officer saw me she stopped the traffic in her line, redirected the idling cars to the other agent, closed her booth, and ushered me inside an office. ‘Why the special treatment?’ I thought, ‘Maybe a warm American welcome?’
‘I’m very sorry,’ she said. ‘I lost the passport.’
‘You’re joking, right?’ I said.
‘No, I am afraid not.’
‘What? How?’ I asked.
‘I gave to another car by accident,’ she said. ‘I very sorry.’
I couldn’t believe it. I grabbed my head and squeezed it to make sure I was fully conscious; that I hadn’t reached a state of delirium from driving all day through four Balkan countries. Was I hallucinating? Was this really happening?
‘You gave it to someone else!?’ I said.
She explained that, yes, it was a horrible mistake, but the problem would soon be solved. She said that this kind of thing happened occasionally and promised that people always returned the passports to the station. She gave me her phone number, officer ID number, and told me to call her later, expressing great certainty that her colossal fuck-up would somehow be worked out in the next few hours.
How? I had no clue. Neither did she, I suspect.
‘So what do we do now?’ I asked the officer.
‘Go into Kosovo...’ she said, ‘And wait, I am afraid.’
‘But we don’t have insurance to go into Kosovo!’ I told her. ‘We don’t have enough cash to buy it.’
She paused. ‘Oh shit,’ she said.
I imagined us stuck for the night in that 300 meter no-man’s land between the exiting Albania border and the entering Kosovo borderline—a purgatorial asphalt strip where passport-less people waited indefinitely for their diplomatic nightmares to end.
‘I will pay for you,’ the police officer said. ‘Follow me.’
She was nice, I guess. Itoro joined us and I quickly filled her in on the Kosovar’s tragic error. To my surprise, Itoro was unresponsive—stunned, I suppose. All three of us walked to the insurance booth in Albania. The police officer lady handed over 30 euros, gave us the Kosovo car insurance slip, and we walked to our car. She apologized again and told us to call her when we arrived in Pristina.
10:15. We drove on the freeway toward Pristina in a state of shock. Without a passport, Itoro would be confined to Kosovo until it was found. What made it worse: losing the Bulgarian visa inside her passport (and all the work/money that went into acquiring it). During those 90 kilometers from the border to Pristina, we laughed a lot—maybe because it seemed the only alternative to crying. Perhaps it was maniacal laughter—brought on by a combination of driving fatigue, heat, and incredulity about the absurd sequence of events back at the border. At any rate, we drove and laughed as if it were all a big joke.
Now: The passport never turned up. I’m still parked in front of the twenty-foot tall double gates of the US embassy in Kosovo, waiting for Itoro to come out with some decent news. And the big question: How long will we be stuck in Kosovo? I honestly don’t know. So I’m going to get back to reading up on the Kosovo War of 1999, which helps lend some perspective to our current situation.
Sunday, July 14, 2013
I’ve been recently labeled a Booking.com ‘Genius.’ At first I thought the website had tracked my account, recognized all the great deals I’d found, and had—through raw statistical data—determined that I’m really good at finding highly rated, low priced hotels.
I was wrong.
A subsequent email from Booking.com clarified that my ‘genius’ status had been bestowed upon me because I’d booked 15 different places with them over the past 12 months. 15! I’m not necessarily proud of this. It just means that they’ve made a lot of money off me, acting as my online travel agent. While it’s always flattering to be called a ‘genius,’ I am aware of their rudimentary psychology-based marketing strategy. (By the way: you, the reader, are a genius as well.)
Part of the advantage to making reservations on Booking.com is the ability to see all of the services and amenities the hotel offers you in the price of your stay. Personally, I could care less if the room has a flat-screen TV or a safety deposit box, but air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, and a balcony are greatly appreciated. Of all the hotel amenities, “Breakfast Included” has become the one perk that my girlfriend and I have now made a prerequisite. No free breakfast, no booking. It’s not only nice to have breakfast close by when you wake up, but it also makes me feel like I’m knocking off the expense of a modest meal for two people, which could mean a savings of about 20 euros ($25)—and that adds up on a 40-day road trip around Europe.
(Yes, feel free to curse me for my extended vacation, but please remember that—for a variety of reasons—you are still a genius.)
There are three (non-family/friend-related) things that I miss about not living in the United States: live music choices, Mexican food, and the American breakfast. The problem is that if you ever expect an American-style breakfast while traveling in Europe, you’re sure to be disappointed. Here’s what I’ve come to expect laid out on a table in the lobby somewhere between 8 and 10:30am: Slices of ham, cheese, bread, yogurt, croissants, some form of fruit, juice, tea, and coffee. If we’re lucky, they’ll include a variety of fruits and cheeses, tomatoes, assorted pastries, milk, cereal, and eggs! Imagining anything like pancakes or omelettes means I’m being delusional, probably still dreaming from the night before, so I try not to think about them. However, there have been some great morning buffet surprises between here (Sorrento, Italy) and Chalkidiki, Greece. Itoro and I started ranking them yesterday and it came down to a split decision between Lefkada and Tropea (-because of the terrace view).
But today’s morning looked to be the worst of all: No breakfast!
Having overshot our budget for a few days, we’d decided to free camp in Calabria. We had the basic equipment and—despite Itoro’s discomfort with the general idea of sleeping in the great outdoors—the time to scope out a nice place on the beach that was desolate enough to set up a tent and be inconspicuous. The only problem with free camping was that there’d be no free breakfast—something we’d become accustomed to (along with a bed, running water, electricity, a shower, toilet, four walls and a front door). After a long night and early morning of unzipping the escape hatch, taking five sandy steps, and pissing in the dark, we woke up hot and groggy just after sunrise. Our tent felt like a greenhouse. My back ached like Grandpa Joe’s.
Like true vagabonds, we hit the road without any prep and planned to grab a coffee and croissant in the nearby town of Maratea. We also looked forward to using the bathroom there and washing our hands. The windy coastal mountain road to Maratea reminded me of Highway 1 in Northern California. The town, built into the side of a mountain, was sharply tiered. I parked the car in a space that felt close to the center, and we zigzagged up stairways, cutting between densely stacked rustic Italian homes. We searched for a central piazza, or any place that sold coffee, but everything looked closed at 7:30am.
With no cafe in sight and no idea where it might be, I asked the first guy we passed.
‘Buon giorno,’ I said.
‘Buon giorno,’ he said.
‘Dove possiamo prendere un cafe?’ I asked, which means something like ‘Where can we get a coffee?’
I’d either made the mistake of sounding like I actually spoke Italian, or the guy didn’t speak any English at all, because he proceeded to ramble off a few fast sentences in Italian. The only word I clearly picked up was ‘scendere,’ which means ‘to go down.’ But for some reason my semi-dyslexic, non-Italian mind translated this as ‘to go up.’ So my girlfriend and I walked up the nearest set of stairs.
‘Grazie! Ciao,’ I said to him.
The man looked at us kinda’ funny as we passed him going the opposite direction he’d advised. The top of those stairs—stairs that looked like any other sidewalk stairs in town—led to a terrace where people were sitting at tables, sipping coffee and eating breakfast. I smiled at Itoro. We’d made it to an open cafe, I thought.
I sat down and Itoro went to check out if there was a menu inside. The view from our table was spectacular: a dramatic mountain valley leading down to the Mediterranean Sea. When she returned to the table she said, “Hey, I think this is a hotel and these people are eating their free breakfast.”
“Did you say free breakfast?” I said, and raised an eyebrow.
Itoro gave me that look that said, ‘Please don’t play out your Chevy Chase, Fletch impersonation fantasies here at my expense. It’ll be embarrassing if we get caught.”
I smiled back at her. It was a confident smile that said, ‘I think we’re getting a free breakfast today, honey.”
And with that non-verbal exchange, we walked inside to the buffet table. While Itoro added only a croissant and yogurt to her plate, I went for my dreams. I decided if I was gonna get run out of town for ripping off a hotel’s breakfast spread, I was gonna go big. I piled it on my plate: Croissant, pastries, fruit, bread, jams, cheeses, and prosciutto. The only obstacle was that the coffee wasn’t in a self-serve pot. Instead, there was a small espresso bar and two baristas. An elegantly dressed woman stood next to the counter with some kind of a list in her hand. I guessed she was a hostess or manager of the hotel, checking off guests’ room numbers as they entered.
Go big or go home, I thought.
“Ciao, Buon Giorno,” I said to the barista.
“Buon giorno,” he said.
“Due (two) cappuccini per favore,” I said.
“Prego,” he said, writing down my order and heading back to the espresso machine.
I waited by the bar with my huge plate in hand, smiling and buon giorno-ing at anyone who passed by, including the well-dressed woman who worked there. I tried to pretend like I belonged, though I felt a bit grimy and greasy faced.
A minute later the barista placed two cappuccinos on a tray on the counter. I reached out for them and started with, “Posso... (I can...)”
“—No, no, please, Signore” he said. “I am at your service. I will bring them to your table.”
I brought my assorted food plate back to the table, the barista trailing me with his cappuccino tray. As he served us, I looked at Itoro and held back laughter. Though un-showered and a bit disheveled, we ate, drank and enjoyed the million-dollar-view—for free.
‘Why are you eating so slow?’ Itoro asked. ‘Hurry up.’
‘Why?’ I said.
‘We should get outta’ here before we get caught.’
‘Let’s just act natural,’ I said. ‘I wanna’ enjoy this.’
And I did. In fact, I think it’s been the best breakfast I’ve had on this entire trip—and not simply because it was free. Booking.com had nothing to do with our early morning feast in Maratea today, but as I sat and sipped and gazed at that sweeping Italian valley, if for only a moment, I felt like a genius.
Wednesday, July 10, 2013
We drove onto the docks in Corfu Town at 11:22 pm and asked about the boat to Bari, scheduled to leave in twenty minutes. We had tickets we’d bought in Igoumenitsa, Greece two days before, and hadn’t talked to anyone in Corfu, so there were questions: Were we in the right place? Were the tickets legitimate? Would our boat show up? —the type of semi-paranoid doubts that cross one’s mind when traveling in a foreign country with no knowledge of the language. ‘It’s all Greek to me!’ echoed the cliché-part of my brain. In broken English, the port authority officer told us to wait in front of a dark, abandoned building where only three other cars were parked. 11:45 came and went. Soon it was midnight. It didn’t seem right: only four cars waiting to make the ten hour journey to Italy, and the boat nearly thirty minutes late.
All these doubts were forgotten when the huge ferry lumbered into the port ten minutes later. With industrial-sized engines blaring, the ferry backed in, lowered its loading hatch onto the dock, and the pedestrian travellers went in first. The semi-trucks backed in next, and we drove on last.
It was exciting—taking a ferry from Greece to Italy—but we dreaded it at the same time. Because the difference in price between a private cabin bed and a ‘numbered seat’ was 130 euros ($165), we opted for the budget choice. We figured it would be slightly uncomfortable to sleep sitting up, but the savings would be worth it. What was one night? We had no idea we’d be relegated to what looked like a refugee center.
The refugee lounge wasn’t all that bad at first. It reminded me of a conference room in a once nice, but severely dated hotel. Most of the passengers who boarded with us moved on to their private cabins in a different section of the boat, but we stayed with the refugees. The majority of chairs and boardroom tables were free, but the passengers who’d boarded in Igoumenitsa two hours earlier-- some with sleeping bags, others with sweatshirts on, hoods pulled over their heads-- were already sprawled out, claiming the few couches in the room. Small groups of travelers huddled together on the floor, curled into a variety of fetal positions. My girlfriend and I took a seat in the faded, armless chairs to let our new surroundings sink in. In those first moments of acclimating, one thing became painfully obvious: it was cold—very cold. The air-conditioning was pumping chilled air at full blast, and it didn’t seem accidental after hearing the PA announcement in Greek, Italian, and then English:
“Attention: Cabin beds are still available. Passengers in cabin C who would like to purchase a cabin should report to the reception desk.”
“I bet they do this on purpose!” my girlfriend said.
“Yeah, they’re trying to freeze us out, so we’ll cave in and pay for a room.”
“Hmm, maybe,” I said.
“Those bastards are trying to freeze me out!” she said.
The shameful idea of a ferry company intentionally making our already uncomfortable sleeping situation even worse (just to make 130 extra euros) seemed curiously plausible, but Itoro’s choice of words and tone were what really caught my attention. ‘Freeze me out?’ I’d never heard that phrase before, and she uttered it with such disgust. Indignant, she said it with the same traumatized emphasis I would expect to hear if she’d been attacked: ‘Those bastards tried to shoot me!’ It was as if she was accusing whoever controlled the AC of attempted murder.
As I set up two rows of four chairs facing each other to create a makeshift bed, Itoro went to talk to the people at the reception desk. She asked if they could turn down the air conditioning in the refugee lounge (Cabin C). They said no. She asked if she could have a blanket or go down to our car below deck to get a sweater. They said no. She asked if we could move to the warmer cabin near the cafe. Again, they said no, and added that the warmer section was reserved for those with private cabins. Salt. Wound. A minute later, Itoro told me about her reception desk rejection. By that time she had accepted defeat. I loaned her my socks, turned our backpacks into temporary pillows, and laid down.
“This is going to be impossible,” she said, as we squirmed to find tolerable positions. “They’re definitely trying to freeze us out,” she added, as if judge and jury had unanimously decided.
When I first closed my eyes, I imagined myself complaining at the reception desk on her behalf.
‘Can you please turn down the AC?’ I’d say.
‘No,’ he’d say, matter-of-factly, his English limited.
ME: ‘Do you realize what you’re doing?’
HIM: ‘Please, sir.’
ME: ‘You’re freezing my girlfriend out!’
HIM: What? Excuse me?
ME: You heard me: Freezing her out.
HIM: What. I sorry. I no understand.
ME: Never seen someone frozen out, eh?
HIM: No response. Confused look.
ME: Well, it’s not very pretty.
Now that I think of it, this imagined dialogue might have been a full-blown dream. And it might have been Jerry Seinfeld, not me, doing my end of the talking. I don’t remember much more of it because I soon fell into a deep Dramamine induced sleep. The only other thing I recall from the rest of that ten-hour trip was waking up every few hours to pee. I’d stagger down a fifty-meter-long hallway, almost hit my head on the ceiling a few times, and pee in a public stall before staggering back down the hall to our makeshift eight-boardroom-chair-bed. When I woke up we were five minutes from docking in Italy. Itoro was awake, shivering. Frozen and zombie-like from not sleeping more than five minutes at a time in that refrigerated room, she didn’t look happy. I felt an understandable hint of resentment and envy from her as I yawned, stretched, and tried to fully awake from my relatively good night’s sleep.
I didn’t realize how cold cabin C actually was until we walked down to the oven-like hull packed with cars. The temperature shock was welcoming. And the same loading hatch that we’d entered the night before lowered again, which meant we’d be backing onto dry land in reverse. It seemed a strange start to the day, but after dodging some luggage-toting pedestrians, I made a three-point-turn on the dock in Bari. First at the exit gate, an Italian customs official greeted us.
“Buon giorno” he said.
“Buon giorno,” we both said with unpracticed, unconvincing accents.
“Do you have anything funny in your car?” he asked. I think he meant ‘illegal.’
“No,” I said.
“OK. Ciao!” he said, waving us through the gate.
It was 10am and almost 33 degrees C (90 F) in Bari.
Itoro waited ten minutes before taking off her sweater, warm again, grateful to be back in vacationland.