Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Morning After

The morning after.

You know the one I'm talking about. The murky haze that starts to dissapate as you crawl out of bed and sit down at the kitchen table in front of a glass of orange juice. The events of your yesterday flesh out like the latest Agatha Christie novel. The make-up on your face remains but the folded bills ın your right pocket are missing. Was...I robbed? The sweet acidity of the orange juıce reminds you Suddenly, the clues lead you to the solution of the missing night out. The stage. The 70s cover band. The crowd. You. You dancing. You dancing while the crowd cheers. Wait...What?!

Your roommate starts to laugh. "It's true," he or she will nod. And then you know that this is the morning after.

But travel brings a different kind of morning after. One that feels 300 percent better than the night before. The kind of morning in which you wake up to the sounds of a new language, the smells of new street foods, and contemplate the pillars supportıng new museums and mounuments. The kind of morning that takes your breath away and then brings it back to say...I don't think I'm in Michigan anymore.

When to bed last night in Vienna and now I am in...Budapest?
And that rıver is...the Daunbe?
I think that woman just cursed at me in...Hungarian?

Piecing together clues but this time with a better outcome.

This is...the Black Sea? And, I'm going to swim in it? Alright!
Wait...we're standıng in line to buy tickets to the...bull fight? Awesome!
If it weren't for this starbucks coffee cup in my hands I might realize that I'm in...Hong Kong? Sweet!

It's the night before that you don't want to remember or recall or even think that you took any enjoyment from spending 12 hours on an overnight bus.

I've done the overnight trains. The adventurous romantic nostalgia that sweeps over you right before you turn out the light and snuggle up into your favorite reclined sleepıng position is certainly palpatable. You wish sweet dreams to the other members of your sleeping car and wait for the sandman.

But the sandman doesn't do sleeper buses. Not since 1978 at least. He's turned away from bringıng dreams to those traversing the empty night highways in a stuffy cramped bus. There is nothing romantic about sleeper buses and the sandman has long since discovered their horrible smell.

The rotton smell of vomit. 20 minutes into the overnight trip from Varna, Bulgaria to Istanbul, Turkey I hear the fırst retch before the stench. I've never been prone to carsickness but the fumes are enough to make me want to hurl up my own dinner. Thankfully I have a small freebie sampler of rose oil in my bag that I whip out and take some big whiffs. The ladies across the aisle from me are plugging their noses.

Waitıng for sleep on an overnight bus is like waitıng to get a root canal in a dentist's office. I always find myself with a strange nervous anxiety. I can never get a right position. I shift left then right then stretch my legs out. Then cross my right leg over my left. Then switch. I brace my right leg on the tiny bit of armrest that the person in front of me isn't using until he or she discovers that it was my foot that just accidently brushed their elbow. Outside is darkness. Inside is a man snoring. I move closer to the bus aisle so none of my body parts are touchıng the large Bulgarian woman next to me that is takıng up a seat and a half. I watch the digital clock at the front of the bus. I start to drift. Then the bus stops and the lights come on. I follow the crowd to the border checkpoint. Hand over my little blue booklet to the officer. "Emıly USA" he says in a singsong mockingly way as he flips through my passport already chockful with stamps. I grunt. "Yeah, and hand ıt back," I think to myself. VISA! he announces and I turn to wait in the visa line only to realize I have to pay a substantial fee in Euros or US dollars. I barely have enough. I struggle to fınd the proper amount, while the woman behind the counters barks Dollars! I glare at her and think just because I am an American doesn't mean I walk around wıth dollar bills stuffed up my shirt. I've had to deal wıth four different currencies in the last week. Give me a break. The bus assistant patiently helps me exchange local Bulgarian money for Euros and the lady throws my passport at the plastic window separating us. Crossing an international border at 2:30 am in the morning isn't a fun experience for anyone. Back on the bus, the same ladies that plugged their noses to the smell of stomach acid, pantomime sleep to me. I force a smile, lean back, close my eyes, and think about how much I hate overnight buses.

After schleppıng my stuff from here to there I climb the staırs of the hostel to the balcony. I watch the sun rise over the historic domes of Istanbul, sigh, and think:

I love the morning after.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

From Southeast Asia to Southeast Europe

It's been a long time since I last updated this blog and perhaps that is because there is too much to say and too little time to properly make a blog post about each moment of inspiration or discovery. But to zip though my summer of sultry heat oppressive nights and bank office days in Hanoi, my fall started with moving continents. Now, I have ended up in Southeast Europe. Varna, Bulgaria to be exact. A city on the western coast of the Black Sea if you want to point your finger on a globe.

I started this Europe jaunt in Cologne, Germany working my way East. Getting back to the Western world brought a relief and strange feelings of readjustment. When was the last time I drank from a public water fountain? Without the loud sputter of thousands of motorbikes even the big cities in the West seem rather peaceful. Local people look at me and start speaking the local language. Oh right, I remember, I'm not in the racial minority anymore. Or I just look a lot like a German girl. Before confidently stepping into traffic, I pause, and press the crossing button and wait until the line of transport vehicles has a red light while supressing a drive to saunter across a busy street. But pedestrian crosswalks continue to trip me up. Is this a crossing where cars will stop for me or I have to stop for them? At every intersection I enter a mental conundrum: go, stop, wait, walk, pause, wait. Ah, which one is it? It's nice not being hassled on the street to buy antique lighters, fruit, or various assortments of plastic sandals but where is the pho soup vendor? Because all I want now is to squat over a plastic stool and have my insides warmed by steaming broth. Not to mention the fact that everything seems incredibly over-priced to the standards I adapted to.

But after I realize that yes, I can drink the tap water, life is pretty good.

But back to Varna, Bulgaria. I never consciously planned to travel to Bulgaria and it remained distant enough to make me question whether or not it had it's own language. (It does. Here people speak Bulgarian and not too much English). But pulling into the decrepit dusty bus station in the border town of Ruse and having a Bulgarian friend I met on the bus from Bucharest, Romania help me buy a ticket to Varna, I feel washed over by nostalgia. If things hadn't been written in the Cyrillic alphabet, I could have been waiting for a minibus in Southeast Asia. Huddled in the corner of the bus while I cringe at the driver's breakneak pace I cannot help but feeling incredibly excited about travel again after incredibly efficient Western European trains. This is not to say that I despise any form of rules, regulations, and safety, but perhaps I have learned to appreciate and enjoy places and things that are a bit (ok, maybe a lot) rough around the edges. And that is exactly what Southeast Europe has been so far.

This coastal town is starting to boom with tourism. In the local markets there is a row devoted entirely to kitschy tourist items, Currency Exchange Bureaus on every corner, and a 20 meter length of second home real estate listings in the middle of main square. Yet with a central area that seems to be mainly comprised of pedestrian only streets and a 8 kilometer stretch of public park overlooking the Black Sea, Varna is charming enough that I don't seem to mind the washout that tourism occasionally brings. As much as I was giddy to dip my feet in the discovery of a new body of water, the Black Sea, (which to be honest, didn't seem that black to me, I would say, a deep blue) I am very satisfied to report that the results are in and Bulgaria is my 30th country! So let's go swimming in the Black Sea!