Thursday, January 31, 2008

**Shudder**

"MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russians visiting a health resort received a rude shock when a nurse used hydrogen peroxide instead of water to give them enemas." -Reuters

Oh, the Places My Passport Has Been

A simple trip from Baku to Ankara turned into an absolute marathon for my passport.

Baku -> London -> Brussels -> Istanbul -> Ankara

I assume DHL knows what its doing.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Internet at Home

After a week of trying to figure out what was wrong with my connection, I finally have the internet at home.

Perhaps I'll starting writing more frequently....

Monday, January 28, 2008

Series of Random Occurrences

1. I plugged in my laptop and the lights went out for 3 hours. Everyone else in the building had power, except me. And like a mouse that never learns, I kept trying to plug in my laptop every time the lights came back on. After three times, I concluded that there was a problem with the plug adapter. I bought a new one and now everything is fine.

2. I invigilated for the SAT subject test on Saturday. Three straight hours of doing absolutely nothing.

3. An old woman knocked on my door and asked, in Russian, if she could put her bag in my apartment for a few minutes while she went to find her daughter. Not being able to say "No" to old women, I kindly obliged. Of course, certain people I know suggested that the bag might have contained a bomb.

4. A few minutes later, a woman called to ask if my internet worked. I said "no" (I don't even have a modem yet, so it couldn't have worked to begin with), but she kept telling me, in Russian, that the internet already worked. I was extremely confused.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Retirement

I am officially retiring my first passport today. Every page has at least something on it, except for the very last page which I hear only Russia stamps. I never would've imagined at the time of getting it that my passport would be full in less than 3 1/2 years.

It has definitely been a good ride. The Canadian government will return it to me, so I can put it up on the wall of fame.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Dancing with the Oldest Profession

Or is it the second oldest? I can never remember. In any case, the club scene in Baku is as homogenous as rural Wyoming.

Most clubs are filled with men and prostitutes. Not all of the men try to pick up the latter, and vice versa, but a good few will end the night on a decidedly good note. As a foreigner, you reek of money. Spend three minutes on the dance floor and I can guarantee you that you will have a girl dancing with you in no time.

The girls will go to great length, too. They'll take off their clothes, your clothes. Whatever it takes to close the deal. It's a surreal experience.

I'm just glad they're not aggressive like Egyptian papyrus merchants. I may never go to the club again if that was the case.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Lodz

Creatively Painted Apartment Blocks

The Centre of Town (the statue is some Polish freedom fighter who fought with the Americans during the revolution)

Manufaktura (an old factory-turned entertainment complex)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Warsaw Uprising

When in Warsaw, go to the Warsaw Uprising museum. I implore you. Everything you ever wanted to know about the period of Nazi occupation during World War Two is on display (often with chilling realism). And while it may lack Louvre cachet or the Beijing Military History Museum propaganda blitz, it makes up for it with sheer effort and interactivity.

The first thing you see when you walk in is a giant wall that emits a perpetual heartbeat in honour of those who experienced the occupation. Also embedded in the wall are tiny speakers that play gunfire, music of the era, buildings collapsing, and radio transmissions. This exhibit is perhaps the most innovative and effective thing I have ever seen in a museum.

About five minutes in, an air raid was simulated. The speakers blared sounds of airplanes flying over head and bombs dropping. All of a sudden, one exploded violently. It all seemed so real that I went looking for cover.

The rest of the museum is equally fascinating. You can walk through a simulated sewer that is absolutely pitch black (i.e. you can't see a foot in front of you), step inside a prison cell, and go underground to see details of the resistance movement. There are even restored documents that people would fill in when they found a unidentified body.

The final exhibit is a small red hallway with one giant hammer and sickle. Need it say more? A rather apt pre-cursor to the soon-to-be-built Museum of Communism.

Monday, January 14, 2008

In and Around Warsaw

Warsawa Centralna Train Station

National Theatre

The Wedding Cake

Suburban Train Station

Church

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Warsaw

Warsaw was virtually destroyed during World War Two. This basically gave the Soviets a clean slate to work with. How unfortunate for the denizens of a city that was once like its fellow European capitals.

Now the city boasts a daunting wedding cake building (the Palace of Art and Culture) right in the centre of town, the ugliest train station imaginable (even the Soviets would be ashamed), and wide boulevards with tram tracks in the middle. Modern architecture can also be seen in the form of high rises and shopping malls.

What I did not know about Warsaw was that it has an old city and an old town square reminiscent of Prague. Many of the ancient buildings, like the Warsaw Castle, have also been restored. It all makes for a welcome change from modern Warsaw.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A Picture Lasts Forever. A Beer Lasts 15 Minutes.

Krakow is one of those cities that makes you wish you could go through university twice. It is said that the onslaught of students at the start of the semester is enough to push Krakow past Lodz as Poland's second largest city. This can only mean one thing, because wherever there are students, beer and beer-serving establishments are not far behind.

There is no point mincing words: go to Krakow for the pubs and bars. Sure, the city has spectacular medieval architecture and a classic old square. That's what your camera is for. The focus of your time should be spend sampling the finest brew the micro-breweries have to offer and feasting on traditional Polish culinary goodness. I think Jenny would agree.

Arrive in the wintertime if you don't mind the cold. Darkness falls at about 4pm, so the socially acceptable drinking hour is much earlier than you are probably used to. If all you can manage is the summer, no problem. The entire old old city square is flooded with tables and chairs, as the pubs spill forth from their walls. It may just be worth a trip back for this reason. 

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Looking Out Over the Bay

Baku From the Mountain

Krakow

Down by the River

Old City Fortress

Old Medieval City Square (apparently the largest of its kind in Europe)

Monday, January 07, 2008

New Neighbourhood

You know you're in the right part of town when all the prices are quoted to you in the old currency denomination. To which you must reply, "How much in the new price?" and trust the mental calculation abilities of the shopkeeper.

The Railroad to Nowhere

I should've learned my lesson after Egyptians would call and ask me which bus goes to the airport or go to get to this or that place: Don't put blind faith in locals...even if they are your good friends.

Marty has definitely been there. I once put him on the wrong local bus in Cairo. The guy told me it was going to the place Marty wanted, but apparently there are two of those places in Cairo. This bus was going to the other one.

Call it karma, call it the transportation ruling body exacting revenge, call it whatever you want. I put my blind faith in a local friend and ended up on the railroad to nowhere.

It started at the architectural catastrophe that is Warsaw Central Train Station. My friend had helped me buy my ticket and then took me to the platform. A train was sitting there. She was sure it was the right one (I even asked her for confirmation) and watched as I got in and sat down. A few minutes later the train departed with me thinking I was on my way to Krakow.

The train plodded its way through the Warsaw suburbs and arrived at a station called "Warsawa Wschodnia." I had no idea what the second word meant, but it didn't really matter. It did strike me as odd, though, that nobody was on the train. The conductor had said something about Krakow, but again I didn't understand.

You know that feeling you get when you know something isn't right? That's what I felt about a minute after the train left the station. We moved along at a snail's pace for the next five minutes, eventually coming to a stop in the middle of a train yard. "Oh no. This is bad. This is definitely bad," I remember thinking. What could I do, though? So I just sat there and read my book.

After about ten minutes, a group of engineers came into the car. One look at me caused them to make a bee line right to my seat and start yapping at me in Polish. I could pick out a word or two (thankfully, Polish and Russian are similar enough in this specific instance). It seemed pretty clear that the train was not going any further and that I had to go back to the previous station if I wanted to go to Krakow. One of the guys even summed up the courage to say, "Train finished," in his best Polish-accented English.

Another of the men called me over to the open door of the carriage. He pointed at an engine and yelled, "Mashina! Mashina! Warsawa Wschodnia!" I confirmed his command by pointing and asking, "Krasnaya mashina? (Red Engine?)" He replied, "Tak, tak, tak (yes, yes, yes)."

Out the door I went. I needed to cross about six different tracks before I could reach the desired train. What an adventure. I felt like I was riding the rails. It was quite a leap to get into one of the cars on the train the guy had been pointing at. Apparently it was about to start its journey to Berlin.

Ten minutes later I was on my way back to Warsawa Wschodnia (it means "Warsaw East" in Polish...Krakow is in southwestern Poland). There I reaffirmed my belief that language is almost never logical. The word for departure in Polish has a prefix which is the same as the preposition "from." Logic would tell you that this makes absolutely no sense. I had to find a translation somewhere to realize that I had been confusing the words for Departures and Arrivals.

It all worked out in the end. I ended up in Krakow a mere two hours later than expected. My friend's evil tendencies, however, know no limits.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Lithuania in Colour

Train Station at Sestokai on the Polish/Lithuanian Border

Trakai Island Castle

Train Station at Marijampole

Vilnius


My favourite thing about Vilnius is that it sits some forty kilometres from the Belarussian border. It is so close that there are road signs pointing to Minsk at many points throughout the city. Such proximity means that travel agencies have jumped at the opportunity to provide travellers with the means to go to Europe's last remaining dictatorship (subject to disagreement, I'm sure).

It is possible, I found out, to get a Belarussian visa within 6 hours and be on the train that evening. Three guys staying at the same hostel as me did exactly that. Simply remarkable. If there is one reason to return to Vilnius in the future, this is it.

Apart from this Belarussian detail, Vilnius is yet another Eastern European capital that has become exorbitantly expensive. Its feature attraction is an old city filled with churches. Why does that sound familiar? Oh ya, because every other European city boasts exactly that.

You can break the monotony by attending one of the many cultural performances or by taking day trips outside the city. Otherwise, you won't find much that you can't find in Riga, Prague, Warsaw, or Krakow.

Friday, January 04, 2008

New Years Eve


Too bad the rest of the Polish population didn't share my zeal for tacky 70s attire.

Polish Food Week


It is Polish Food Week over at my food blog. Check back often for dazzling meat poetry and one ridiculous twelve-course christmas dinner.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year

Best of luck to everyone in 2008.