Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Reading Abroad

One of the best things about traveling is discovering the voices and perspectives of people from different countries and cultures. If you’re in an extroverted mood and are fortunate enough to meet some locals, this can happen over drinks and a funny ESL conversation. If you’re on the introverted side, there’s nothing better than finding a foreign author you love. It feels good when you’ve dug into a foreign bookstore and found a new author or an English translation that’s not in the US. ‘Bookstores? Seriously?’ -you might ask. Even if your Kindle allows you to never set foot in any bookstore again, being in a foreign country allows you to come across books and authors that Amazon or Goodreads would probably never recommend.

I will skip some big names because, I assume, they are popular enough to have crossed your radar before. Authors such as Japan’s Haruki Murakami, or Nigerian born Chimamanda N. Adichie come to mind. There are many other seemingly foreign authors, like Jhumpa Lahiri, who are American yet have roots elsewhere. (They belong in an esteemed category of their own.)

The following are a few foreign authors I recommend checking out:
I came across his novel 'Me, You' in a bookstore in Trapani, Italy. The owner recommended this and 'Three Horses'. I enjoyed both of them so much that I’ll be searching for others the next time I’m in Italy. His simple, clear, honest style reminded me of Hemingway. His stories are timeless, and his themes are subtle yet strong.
He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, but few Americans have heard of this famous Egyptian writer. I happened to be in the American University bookstore in Cairo and, again, an employee recommended 'The Journey of Ibn Fattouma' and likened it to 'The Alchemist'. Honestly, I thought it was better than Coelho’s classic. I have since read 'The Search' and 'Miramar' and look forward to the next one.
This author was bartending in San Diego, California while his book was a bestseller in Bulgaria. I found it in a bookstore in Sofia. I may be a bit biased because '18% Grey' begins in San Diego, my hometown, and from there takes the reader on an 'Easy Rider'-like journey across America—through the unique, insightful eyes of a Bulgarian.

Of the authors mentioned here, Kadare is perhaps my least favorite because he leans toward the magical realism (or literary surrealism) that tends to lose me. The thing is, there’s something about his style—his poetic use of language—and odd, original story lines that keep me interested in reading another one of this famous Albanian’s novels.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Hungarian-Serbian Border Crisis

“As you read this… you may be sure that the same ghastly, shambling procession of people driven from their homes is filing in unbroken line along the muddy road to Macedonia.” Ernest Hemingway wrote this in November 1922 from Sofia, Bulgaria. He had just witnessed part of the forced expulsion of Greek refugees from Turkey at the border crossing near Edirne. Thousands of refugees—many of their family members recently killed by Turks—were fleeing for their lives. With ragged, desperate faces, they were not welcomed anywhere.

Now, with thousands of Syrians and Iraqis making their way into Europe via Bulgaria, Serbia, and Macedonia, it’s Greece and Serbia that are now flooded with foreign immigrants who are stuck in no-man’s land—compelled to leave their war-torn countries yet blocked from crossing Hungarian and Macedonian borders en route to Western Europe. A few humanitarian aid groups have recently offered to help these poor immigrants, but the ‘shambling procession’ is far greater than any non-profit—or one country—can handle (up to 2,000 per day). 

This past weekend I travelled by bus through Serbia on the way to Budapest and was shocked by the long wait at the Bulgarian-Serbian border, and the outrageous 4-kilometer line at the Hungarian border at 3am. When we hit the sea of red brake lights, it was as if the highway had turned into a parking lot. The lights and engines of cars eventually turned off and passengers pushed them forward to conserve gas. Outside the Serbian OMV petrol station, immigrants lingered and smoked cigarettes, waiting for who-knows-what signal to attempt to cross the new barbed wire border fence. Hungarian police were turning half the cars and people back. It took almost four hours for our small bus to cross, but only because we were lucky enough to be in the bus lane (and have Western passports).  Others must have been waiting for days—literally. We finally passed into Hungary at sunrise, when the light made the disgusting amount of litter on the side of the road all too visible. The discarded human waste revealed two grave problems: the lack of options for the refugees and the uncertain consequences of blocking EU borders.

Once we made it into Hungary, our bus stopped at the first gas station to purchase a vignette (toll receipt) for the highway. At 6am, groups of mostly men huddled outside. The inside of the snack bar area was crowded too. With at least a hundred people out and about, this gas station seemed to be a meeting point for those who had crossed illegally and arranged rides. In the two minutes it took me to go to the bathroom, I saw quite a lot: Two guys were practically showering in the sinks of the public restroom. Three teenage boys sprinted through the parking lot as if being pursued. A destitute man slept face down on a cement parking space, covered with blankets. Dozens chain-smoked, in limbo—some seeming to cope with the situation better than others.

As our bus pulled away, I felt my frustration and annoyance—at being delayed for hours at the border, having sore limbs from 18 hours of idle sitting, and a looming non-refundable hotel room charge—quickly fade into something like guilt. When we made it to Budapest, our colleagues offered their sympathies after hearing of our long, exhausting bus ride. In retrospect, it was nothing. Tens of thousands are currently trekking from Turkey through the Balkans in search of a life where survival isn’t an all-consuming task. They have little or no support and everything to fear on the way. Indeed, there is a huge difference between travel inconvenience, and matters of life and death.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Albanian Riviera: Travel vs Tourism

To many Europeans, Albania is the poor, corrupt, crime-ridden, armpit of the Balkans. I’m sure some people, like Donald Trump—if he could locate it on a map—might even label Albania as a land of rapists! But what I recently witnessed while driving along the southern coast was breath-taking, beautiful views, pristine beaches, and kind locals. Albanians were nice-- very nice. And I'm even torn about revealing some of these true gems, fearful that the best beach towns will soon become overdeveloped and crowded. 
After a treacherous drive through interior Albania, I returned home and talked with a few curious people about my trip. I noticed that potential visitors want a thumbs up or thumbs down, but it's not so simple. 
Here's the seemingly basic question: Is Albania a place I would universally recommend?
For travelers, YES.
For tourists, NO.

The typical “tourist” wants to see world-famous monuments, unique architecture, or well-restored archeological sites. The tourist wants to be safely shuttled from one pretty place to another, always ready for canned photo opportunities, a polished centro historico, English menus, and a souvenir zone. So, I’m assuming, the endless unfinished/abandoned buildings, the roadside eyesores, the lack of infrastructure, disorganization, ubiquitous road hazards, and lack of Western hotel chains makes Albania a less desirable place for the average tourist.

On the other hand, Albania is great for travelers. “Travelers” tend to be interested in the reality and culture of a place, so potholes and shantytowns do not make them cringe. They are willing to hike an extra mile and explore on their own in order to discover a relatively unknown Roman ruin or an un-crowded, picturesque beach. Travelers also tend to be open to new experiences that might include waiting at a kebab stand to meet the old man owner of an unmarked B&B who speaks absolutely no English but is renting clean rooms for 25 euros, 10 meters away from the beach! Travelers will follow this old man down a dirt road while almost being hit by speeding cars and stared at by locals as if they are alien beings.
So, you decide.
If you are a traveler, here are some great reasons to go to the Albanian Riviera:

Ksamil: Small beach town in the far south (close to Corfu, Greece).  Interesting, multi-layered archeological site, Butrint, is 10 kilometers away. 

Sarande: Big beach town just north of Ksamil. Good for bigger hotels, ATM’s, nightlife, and cement slab “beach” bars.  

Himare: One of the most obvious, expansive beach towns on the drive north of Sarande. There are numerous undeveloped, turquoise sea coves in the nearby area.

Dhermi: A cool beach town. Wind down the road and enjoy the long, pebbly beach and the view of the mountains.

Note: There were absolutely no signs of crime, corruption, or raping while traveling in Albania. 
Want more details about travel in Albania? -click here

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Craft Beer Revolution: Dispatches from the Eastern Front

Jedna Craft Beer, Warsaw, Poland

The bartender’s long, Amish-style beard and thick black-rimmed glasses looked as if they could be purchased as an all-in-one Halloween costume labeled “The Hipster”.  I gave him a warm Western nod, ordered a blonde pale ale, and sat down at the permanently IPA-scented wooden bar. The barkeep’s pleasant demeanor faded as soon as I opted for the smaller sized beer—or maybe because I’d just ordered the blonde, the weakest beer on the chalk written list. I sipped and examined the empty bottles of Stone and Alesmith that were proudly displayed near the cash register.  Now, if you’re thinking that this is quite an unremarkable scene, you’re probably right—if it had happened in San Diego, California.

But this occurred in Warsaw, Poland two weeks ago at Jedna Craft Beer.
And I experienced something similar last week at Kanaal Bar in Sofia, Bulgaria. The only difference in Sofia was that I got to speak to one of the full-bearded brewers that night as I sipped his fresh, tasty IPA.  His name was Branomir, he’s Serbian, and he’s one of few craft brewers in the Balkans

Read more @http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2015/jun/03/craft-beers-eastern-front/

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Notes from a Bulgarian Hospital

It was a routine play. I was guarding a taller guy. When I reacted early to block his shot and he jumped into me, his shoulder hit me square in the nose. I immediately knew it was broken—not because of the pain or a cracking sound—but precisely because I felt nothing except for the release of blood from deep inside my nostrils.
I don’t know how the basketball ended up in my hands, but I threw it straight into the wall, pissed off that my face just got smashed at the end of a nothing game on a nothing play.
There was silence on the court.
I sat down on the bleachers and that’s when the blood started gushing. It was all over my shirt and hands.
“Lay down to stop the blood!” one guy said.
“Yeah, lay on your back,” another concerned Bulgarian told me. 
I did what they said and felt that everything would be okay because this kind of thing happened sometimes in the game of basketball.
Of course, most of the guys were gathered around, asking: “Are you OK?”
I’m not dying, but I’m far from OK!
I was only lying on my back for a few seconds when I felt what I thought was mucous gathering in the back of my throat. I was about to swallow it when I realized it wasn’t viscous enough to be mucous and it was collecting too fast. I started to choke.
I jerked to my side and coughed out a mouthful of blood.
I almost choked on my own fucking blood!
It felt scary.
It looked pretty bad too.
There were already two pools of blood on the gym floor.
One of the guys brought me a tissue. I thanked him and pressed it to my nose.   
“Hey,” one Bulgarian guy said, “Are your teeth okay?”
“Yeah, they’re fine,” I said.
“You are lucky to not lose the teeth,” he said in a thick accent.
I let out as much of a laugh as I could. “That’s funny,” I said. “I’ve heard that one before.”
I had.
Seven years ago I got in a surfing accident and the side of my face, near my left eye, was cut open. The gash needed ten stitches. And when people saw the damage a lot of them told me: “You’re lucky you didn’t get it in the eye. You could’ve lost an eyeball.” I guess when things are looking bad we say all kinds of things so that people don’t feel so shitty.

After a few minutes, the bleeding from my nose had slowed.
Another basketball player in the group offered to drive me to the hospital.
I walked out of the gym all right, but was spitting out blood as I went.
I was on my way to a Bulgarian hospital for the first time.
Tokuda hospital is known as one of the better ones in Sofia. Despite the language barrier, I got registered and was attended to without much delay. Blood had dried and darkened on my hands and face so I went to the bathroom to wash it off. I tried not to look at myself in the mirror too much—just enough to wipe my face and see how crooked my nose was.
Soon after, my face was X-rayed and they sent me down a stark, Soviet-style hallway.
I sat down in an empty waiting room for only a few minutes before Nurse Dimitrova brought me inside. She pointed me to a medical chair. She spoke a decent amount of English but didn’t waste time on niceties.
“Can you breathe through your nose?” she asked.
“No,” I said. It was all swollen and stuffed up.
Without any warning or brief description of the next procedure, she grabbed some thin, metallic pliers and opened up my nose. It didn’t hurt as much as one might suspect. What hurt like a medieval torture technique was when she shoved a thin metal pipe so far up my nose that it felt like she was hitting my brain. The thing had a trigger and she was using it to suck out the blood that had collected deep inside my nostrils. My body jerked and I griped the handles on the chair. It was an eerie, unearthly pain.
She removed the thing as hastily as she’d thrust it in.
She grabbed the pliers again to open up my nose and check inside.
She used a similar, seven-inch, steel tool to shove a wet gauze pad so far up into my nostril that it felt like it was in my throat. The liquid the pad was soaked with started dripping down the back of my throat. It was acrid and made me choke. Without a word, she did the same thing again—and then twice to my other nostril. The probing and stabbing didn’t hurt as much the second time because the bad part of the break wasn’t on that side, but the bitter metallic taste multiplied and made me choke even more.
I had to spit into a napkin in my hand.
It was mostly blood.
Nurse Dimitrova walked to a nearby sink and I began to feel faint.
I looked around the room and it started to go dark, though my eyes were wide open. I could see all the blood vessels from the back of my eye sockets. I told her I was about to faint or pass out, but I could barely hear my own voice. What I did hear sounded like a distant, muted voice in an echo chamber. I suddenly felt cold and clammy.
What the fuck was going on!?
Nurse Dimitrova guided me to a nearby table and laid me down.
She put a cold towel on my forehead. It was the first gentle thing she had done.
I regained normal functioning of my sight and hearing within a minute or two.
I rested there while she looked at my X-rays.
My nose was clearly broken on the upper bridge. But because it was almost midnight, no doctors were around. The nurse told me I’d have to come back the next morning at 8:30am to get my nose re-set.
She asked me to sit up and she pulled out the skinny, seven inch pliers and tweezers again.
I wanted to beg— Not again! Please!—but I didn’t say a word.  
She opened up my nostrils and pulled out the wet bloody cloths, one at a time, as I writhed in discomfort—though I must admit the abrupt removal felt better than the abrupt insertion.
I left the hospital with the bleeding stopped and the ability to breathe out of my nose, but couldn’t imagine how my nose “re-setting” would go down.
I didn’t want to go back there.

That night I couldn’t fall asleep because I couldn’t stop imagining that Clockwork Orange hospital—that same room—the next morning.  I kept replaying the recent events: coughing up a few shot glasses full of blood, long steel instruments being thrust deep into my nostrils, choking on medicated soaked gauze pads, momentarily losing most of my vision and hearing. I could only sleep in short spurts and, as I lay supine in the darkness, I became unaware if my nightmares were conscious or unconscious ones.

The next morning my girlfriend and I took a taxi to Tokuda.
Thankfully, she could communicate everything in Bulgarian, so I could make my one and only request very clear: Anesthesia! Please, tell them to drug me up—big time. I want to be unconscious.
Well, they didn’t exactly knock me out.
After two hours of waiting, we met the doctor—a fairly young guy wearing a surgical mask and cap. He led me to a light blue medical chair. He talked to my girlfriend, not to me, so I assumed he spoke no English. Then he turned to me:
“This will feel a bit uncomfortable,” he said in English.
He took those all-too-familiar stainless steel pliers and opened my nostrils one at a time. He took a good look in there before he stuck a small nozzle just inside my nose and sprayed some liquid anesthetic. It rolled down the back of my throat and tasted disgusting. But it wasn’t all that bad. I was just glad he hadn’t shoved the thing all the way up into my frontal lobe.  And good news: I could already feel the numbing effect.
It’s gonna’ work! I won’t feel a thing—or at least not much.
I was told to go back to the waiting room to wait for ten minutes so the anesthesia would be fully absorbed.
Things were looking up until I was called back in by the doctor.
“OK, so we now make an adjustment to your nose,” he said.
“How?” I asked.
“By hand,” he said, holding back a full grimace, but the sentiment was clear. “I will push it back and it will hurt.”
Mother fucker.
“But first we put this inside in case of bleeding.”
He picked up the pliers and the stainless steel tool with the wet gauze attached at the end.
No, goddamn it. Not again.
The doctor could see the fear in my eyes.
 “It will be uncomfortable,” he confirmed.
And so it went, just as the night before: Like my brain was being stabbed with a metal skewer—twice on each side. The suffocating feeling of the gauze. The acrid dripping in the back of my throat. The choking and coughing.
While I tried to shake off the pain and my gag reflexes, two other doctors come to look at my nose. One of them touched it gently and said, “Don’t worry. I’m just checking.”
I know this trick, asshole. You say it’s just a practice run; that you’re not doing anything yet, and then—when I least expect it—you’re gonna’ grasp and snap that thing back into place and it’s gonna’ hurt like hell. 
The guy pulled his hand away and nodded to the other doctor.
The first doctor who spoke English returned and stood straight in front of me.
“I will push here,” he said and pointed to his own nose, “...and then it will be straight. No problem.”
“Got it,” I said.
“It will hurt.”
“I understand.”
“Don’t you want to see the X-rays?” I asked.
He shook his head in that ambiguous Bulgarian way that could mean ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
“Not necessary,” he said.
I took a deep breath.
The doctor positioned himself on my left and widened his stance a bit.
I closed my eyes and felt his thumb press down on the upper bridge of my nose as if he were trying his hardest to push a thumbtack into cement. I let out a dog-like growl—the product of an agonizing yell that must have been muted somewhere between my diaphragm and the bulging veins in my neck. It was an excruciating five seconds.  

When it was over, I caught my breath. I was sweating.
A squatty nurse with acne scars appeared in front of me and patted my head with a cold wet cloth.
Kak si?”
Dobre,” I said. Good. It was all I knew how to say in Bulgarian and the worst of it was over. It had to be.
Wait, the gauze pads are still inside.
The doctor held the skinny, stainless steel, seven-inch pliers in one hand and the long tweezers in the other.
He opened up my nostrils and pulled them out, one at a time. I writhed in discomfort more than pain, since the thumbtack bone re-setting had just adjusted my entire pain threshold.

Two other doctors and a nurse took turns looking at my nose. One of them got a pencil and they took turns lining it up with the bridge of my nose, judging their work. Did I pass the pencil test? They conferred and declared it straight.
While the doctor who spoke the best English taped up my nose, I smiled inside because 1) I couldn’t smile on the outside because it hurt to smile, and 2) I knew that the worst of it was behind me.
It had to be.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Dear Guy with the Lonely Planet Guidebook:

I watched you drop your big backpack, sit down and pull out a 500-page Lonely Planet Thailand book at the Bangkok Airport last week.
You reminded me of me, 16 years ago...  
I was on my first big backpacking trip through Europe. I had an oversized backpack, a paper plane ticket, and a ‘Lonely Planet: Europe’ book that I held onto as I travelled through Italy, Spain, and France. I referred to that guidebook so much, I started calling it ‘the Bible’. Lonely Planet told me what to see, where to stay, where to eat, and offered miscellaneous travel tips with a touch of snarky humor.

Perhaps it served as a nice security blanket for a young traveller still wet behind the ears, but I’m not sure how they sell books anymore. Everything that the big travel guidebooks ($25-40) include can now be easily searched online for free—where there are more pictures, maps and videos of... well, everything. Also, no offense to Lonely Planet (which has plenty of LP Thai info online), but once you ditch the book and make your search more personal, your trips tend to get much more interesting.

Here are 5 reasons why you never need to buy a travel guidebook ever again:

Top 10 Lists: Not sure where you want to travel? Start with looking at broad lists like: 40 Places to See Before You Die, or Top 10 Cities to Visit in your lifetime. Then, once you’ve narrowed it down to Croatia or Vietnam, search for ‘10 best places to see in Vietnam’. (It’s really self-explanatory, right? I mean, the traveler I'm addressing this to was young, so why do I feel like I'm writing this for my grandma?)

Google images: I'm pretty sure you've heard of it. In ancient times, I used to check out the DK Eyewitness Travel books or travel magazines to see pictures of places I was curious about. Now, once you have a list of places, a quick search on Google images shows you the good, the bad, and the ugly. Does the place have only one good postcard angle, or is it a true gem? You be the judge if the water is clear enough or the architecture hits your travel fantasy G-spot, then book a flight.

Skyscanner: Of course, there are tons of sites where you can book flights. Expedia is a big one. I like Skyscanner. It’s frighteningly easy—much more convenient than driving to the closest STA or travel agent and buying a paper ticket (Is that even possible anymore?).  New scientific fact: Tuesday is the best day to book tickets online.

Booking.com: I remember standing in foreign train stations, straddling my huge backpack, combing through the “Places to Stay” section of Lonely Planet. I’m sure it made me stick out like a sore thumb-- but no longer (unless you're dressed like Rick Steves). On Booking.com, there are pictures of the rooms, details, and ratings that are based on a variety of opinions and experiences (not just a few LP authors). Also, the hotel/pension pages are connected to Google maps so you can see exactly where they are and get clear directions.

Eating:  If you really want to plan ahead and get online food recommendations, check TripAdvisor.com. If you’re vegetarian, check out Happy Cow. However, I recommend going Anthony Bourdain-style: walk around, look for crowded restaurants, ask locals, and take risks.
It’s more fun.

Americano Abroad

Pictures were taken in Koh Phangan, Thailand.