Friday, June 11, 2004

Marcus Meets Europe! -- The Balearic Islands

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I arrived in Ibiza homeless. There are reckless adventurer backpackers who take pride in never booking accommodation in advance; I'm not one of them. It's because I've seen the consequences of winging it: backpackers going from hostel to hostel at 7 in the morning, freaked out that they don't have a safe place to sleep at night. They waste time moving around that they should be spending on seeing the sights.

I wish I could say I was homeless because I went the spontaneous route. Alas, it was a case of good old-fashioned stupidity. I've gotten used to just printing out the e-mails from my airlines and hostels, then using them to check-in. I booked a hotel in Ibiza, because there were no hostels in Ibiza. Hotels do things a little differently, knowledge I've since filed under "Things I Learned Too Late." I printed out the e-mail from the travel website without reading it, which was the mistake that got me into that mess. The e-mail had my hotel reservation info, but also said that I had to log into my online account and print out a hotel voucher.

I presented the e-mail to the front desk clerk. He looked at it and said, "Okay, where the voucher?"

"Where's the what?" I asked.

He explained that I had paid my money to the travel website, not the hotel. The hotel needed that voucher to get their money from the website company. A lesson in e-commerce the hard way.

When good things happen in your travels, they feel 100 times better, because you won't get those experiences back home. Life being a zero-sum game, however, means that the reverse is also true. Small problems--Shit! I'm out of socks!--can become one man's international crisis. At home, you know where to go and who to see when things go wrong. It's a luxury I've missed dearly while travelling. My fiction professor in England warned me, "You have to be prepared for those days when everything just seems to go wrong." She could have been talking of my first day in Ibiza.

The hotel clerk directed me to an Internet Cafe across the street. The problem would have been solved right then if their printer hadn't been broken. The clerk gave me directions to another Internet Cafe, further away. I found it and said, "No way in hell is my luck this bad." Internet Cafe #2 had gone out of business. Workmen were taking apart the inside of it. The third cafe was far, far away from the hotel. I tried to find Internet Cafe's along the way, but there were none to be found. Finally found one. I went in, logged on, found the voucher online, moved the cursor over to the File menu and . . . nothing. The computer froze on me. That was okay. The next computer printed out my voucher. Triumphant, I stepped outside the Internet Cafe to realize I was totally lost. I'd forgotten my map of Ibiza Town at the hotel. It took me 45 minutes to do a 10 minute walk back to my hotel. The interesting thing was that I found three Internet Cafe's on the way there. It's easy to get what you want when you don't need it.

In retrospect, I'm glad that fiasco happened when it did, instead of at the beginning of my trip. Back then, I was still the old Marcus that had to have everything taken care of in advance. Because once you're in a foreign country, you're helpless. I was very suspicious of simple faith in the past; I'll take hard planning and reservations, thank you very much. Then have a heart attack once something went off track. I've become more adaptable. Now, I just believe that I'll figure out a solution and things will always turn out all right in the end.

The first mission I assigned myself was to buy clubbing clothes. My long-sleeved shirts wouldn't cut it in Ibiza's hip discotheques. The area in front of my hotel turns into a cool sidewalk market at night. There were lots of boutiques to choose threads from. I saw a slime green sleeveless shirt on a rack. It was so ugly it had to be cheap. I flipped the price tag over: 83 euros ($100.45). A hundred dollars to scare away every fashion-conscious girl in the club?! No deal. At another store, I saw a simple white cotton button-down shirt hanging outside. It was an Eivissa (Spanish for Ibiza) Collection shirt made in a rough cotton weave, and almost transparent, like a Filipino barong. The price: 25 euro ($30). Style on a budget.

The clubs in Ibiza go from the a.m. to sunrise. Many clubs didn't even open until 1am and didn't really get going until 3am. A far cry from Norwich, England, where the clubs closed at midnight. This forced me to change to a Batman schedule of sleeping in the afternoon and haunting the clubs at night. I'm used to paying my entrance at the door. Ibiza was different. To get cheaper prices, it's common to buy tickets from a music store or bar before going out. I was relieved to find this out. I was worried about tight door policies. Like having to look like a Calvin Klein underwear model to get in. With a ticket in hand, entrance was guaranteed.

My first night clubbing wasn't that great. I was still recovering from jet lag and I didn't dig the music. As I left the club, I passed by the front counter. There was a stack of handbills advertising the next night's theme. The Spanish girl behind the counter saw my interest and pressed one into my hand. It showed a black guy in disco-era clothes, holding an M-16 in one hand and a cigar in the other. There was a gleaming white Cadillac next to him. Here's what it said:

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When I walked in that night, there was a big white sheet stretched across the top of the dance floor to show the movies. I caught the tail end of Cleopatra Jones and the first half of Truck Turner. The techno remixes of funk songs were off the hook! The music was at such odds with El Divino's location, which is on a marina surrounded by yachts.

The surprising thing I learned was that the big seven clubs in Ibiza were spread out from each other across the island. Pacha and El Divino were in Ibiza Town on the east side of the island. Eden and Es Paradis were in Sant Antoni in the west. Space was by itself down in Platja d'en Bossa beach. Privilege and Amnesia were between Sant Antoni and Ibiza Town. I had come before the high season of July to August, which had its pros and cons. The pros: shorter lines at the door, more space to dance, less tourists. The cons: the night Discobus wasn't running yet (expensive taxis were the only option), the best DJ's were still to come, and the crowds of young European partiers hadn't descended in full force.

Space was my favorite club. Huge dance floor, excellent house music, effective light set-ups. The big draw was the crowd. This was the first club in a long time where I've seen more guys on the floor than girls. Moreover, the guys were better dancers than the girls too. I didn't know that was possible. They were busting out Latin American-style moves like no tomorrow. Salsa, meringue, and samba at the speed of techno. I'm more comfortable dancing to techno now. Either I'm finally doing it right, or I've stopped caring if I'm doing it wrong. Still, I was intimidated by these guys. How can so many of them dance so well? Then I saw two guys holding each other close and dancing. Oh.

The person doing the spinning can make or break your night. At Pacha, the DJ was really bad when I went. She would try to bring the audience up and down by manipulating the volume of the music. The problems were when she lowered the volume. She would lower the treble and the bass, leaving us dancers stranded with nothing to move to. The DJ at Space always left the treble in when he did that, which increased the audience's anticipation for when he would crank it all up to full blast again.

I left Pacha and hung out at an Internet Cafe for a while. It was called "Cafe's Ibiza." Soon, two guys and a girl showed up together. We struck up a conversation of why the DJ at Pacha sucked. They were all from Montreal, Canada. I asked them about something curious I saw at Space. There were a lot of guys sucking on lollipops. Was that the latest fad? The girl explained that Ecstasy pills cause you to grind your teeth hard without you knowing it. Lollipops keep you from chewing up your gums and cheek. The things you learn travelling. It's been an Education for Outlaws.

Monday, June 7, 2004

Marcus Meets Europe! -- Austria

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Here's how I did Vienna in 24 hours. I didn't have that tight a schedule, but the friend I made there did. We were both taking a train from Linz to Vienna (RyanAir flew into Linz but not Vienna). Dan was from Minnesota and volunteering at a homeless shelter in London. He was only here for a short weekend, so he wanted to cram as much as he could into his first day in-country. I got swept along.

Wombat's was one of the nicest hostels I've stayed in, second only to The Circus in Berlin. Clean, colorful, modern, and with a lively hostel bar. I met up with Dan at the reception area our first morning and started our Vienna-at-Mach-speed tour.

Breakfast was at a traditional kaffehaus. Although Paris gets all the press, Vienna is a top place for getting your caffeine fix. We both got coffee with milk. Dan had a croissant. I sampled the sacher torte, a gooey chocolate cake. The German girls I'd met in Lisbon said it was the thing to eat in Vienna. Dan's guidebook had some facts on Viennese coffeehouse etiquette:

--Only order pastries with coffee, anything else is an insult.

--You must linger at the table. No quick in and out American nonsense.

Every big city has one cathedral to see. Vienna's was the Stephansdom. We took an elevator to the top for a view of the city's skyline. The ceiling was a surprise. From the bottom, the church has a dark brown black ancient feel. The ceiling had bright green and yellow tiles.

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We were walking in front of the State Opera House when a man in a Mozart costume approached us. Would we be interested in seeing a concert in one of the great cities of classical music? He gave us two choices. The first was a Wagner opera for only 2 euro. The catch: it was for standing only, no seats, and the opera was 5 hours long. I could already feel the blisters forming. The other option was a 90-minute Johan Strauss concert, with seats, and ballroom dancers would perform too. We'd have something to entertain our eyes as well as our ears. The catch: it was 26 euro for a Section C ticket, the cheapest he had. Dan asked him if he could confer with me alone for a minute. We went about 15 feet away. Money or comfort? That was the key issue. We knew we'd be doing a lot of walking today. Ending the day by standing for 5 hours was not appealing. We went back and bought two Strauss tickets from the man in the Mozart costume.

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Schonbrunn Palace was Vienna's answer to the Palace of Versailles in France. It felt smaller and brighter than Versailles. We got there late because it took forever to find a place to get lunch in the area. By the time we got in, there was only time to see the gardens. We saw a private garden that was just for the royals, a hedge maze, and hiked up to a building on a hill. The top of that building offered the best view of the palace and gardens.

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We went to Kursalon, where the Strauss concert was. As we got in line, I noticed how out of place we were. The average customers were couples that had qualified for Social Security ten years ago. They were also better dressed, while we were in the standard backpacker uniform of t-shirts and jeans. Dan said not to worry, the important thing was that we were paying customers too. We entered a grand hall with five crystal chandeliers, one at each corner and a huge one hanging in the center. The seats were already filled with affluent older people. It took a long time to find Section C. We had to walk all the way to the back of the room. There, behind the acres of gray hair, were young backpackers! They were straining their necks around to get a view of the musicians.

"Got the Section C tickets, huh?" I asked.

They all cracked up laughing. Yes, we were that poor.

On the way back to our hostel, Dan and I took a wrong turn out of the U-bahn station and got lost in a bad neighborhood. Poorly lit, strip clubs, the whole deal. We turned around to walk back where had come from. As I was saying something to Dan, a man in black clothes jumped out from a corner and came at us. I instantly threw myself at Dan to push him out of danger. I brought up my weapon, an empty plastic bottle of Lipton Iced Tea. I'd been scared this would happen. My mind went blank, I was operating totally on instinct. I figured that the last thing attackers expect from a victim was speed. Victims are supposed to freeze up when confronted. I was about to throw the bottle in the guy's face and run like hell. It wasn't necessary, because the guy ran past us. Just a guy in a hurry. Dan, however, was really impressed. He said I'd moved really fast. I wondered if he thought I was from the mean streets of Honolulu now.

Travel may seem like it's full of adventure, but a lot of time is spent waiting. Waiting at the airport, waiting on a train, waiting for laundry, etc. A popular feature in most hostels are book exchanges. There'll be a shelf full of used paperbacks. Instead of buying new books and lugging them around, you just trade in your book for a new one.

I didn't discover how much my reading habits have been changed by Europe until I bought my latest book at Stansted airport. I was down to two contenders. The first book was "Chopper" by Mark Brandon Read. It was an autobiography of a homicidal psychopath who terrorized gangsters, sort of a real-life The Punisher, except he's Australian. Right up my alley.

The second book was "Globalization and its Discontents" by Joseph Stiglitz. This was going to be a boring economics book, I suspected. I skimmed through it and found it more fascinating than I thought. When I walked out of the bookstore, I couldn't believe I'd bought an economics book over an action-packed biography. What happened to the old Marcus?

Thursday, June 3, 2004

Marcus Meets Europe! -- Portugal

Lisbon--Monastery dos Jeronimos

I didn't expect to find the ancient version of San Francisco in Europe. Lisbon has a couple of things in common with SF: twisting streets going up steep hills, trolleys, and being coastside. I was interested in going to Portugal because it seemed like the little brother of Spain that gets overlooked.

Lisbon Postcard
Lisbon postcard of the city center

I've been forced to get creative with Lisbon and my next destination. RyanAir and EasyJet, my two usual low-cost airlines, didn't have direct flights to these places. I flew into Faro on EasyJet and took an EVA expresso bus for four hours to Lisbon. It was a pain in the ass, literally. But sacrifices are necessary.

The individual neighborhoods are landmarks in themselves. Baixa, the big people center, is laid out in a strict grid pattern. It's almost boring because I was walking in perfect rectangular routes. Lisbon is a bit dirtier than the other cities I've visited. It hasn't quite caught up to the rest of Europe. Certain parts reminded me of Los Angeles. The funny thing about the Alfama area was that I knew I was there because I had gotten lost. The Alfama is San Francisco's Lombard Street, blown up to an entire neighborhood. Streets snarl upwards and disappear. Old men sit on benches and chat. Half of the people who walked by me were old women with shawls wrapped around their heads.

After visiting this many cities, I got kind of tired of cathedrals and museums. There´s always one must-see church and museum everywhere I've gone. Since I was going through to the Alfama, I couldn't help but come across the Castelo de Sao Jorge. Might as well check it out. The interior was nothing special. The prize was in a small room off to the left of the entrance. There was a glass case about 10 feet fall and 6 feet wide. In it was a meticulously crafted model depicting a long train of people coming to make offerings to the baby Jesus in a manger. The lady at the desk told me it was called the Christmas Crib. A royal procession rode down a hill. Cherubs and angels smile down from the ruins above the manger. Villagers lined up with food in their hands.

I didn't bring my guidebook, so I've had to come up with all sorts of tricks to substitute for one. Getting a map from the airport, hostel, and/or tourist information office is one. A quick way to get a feel for what the popular sights are is to make the rounds of the postcard stands. Certain pictures will pop up over and over again. One that caught my attention was a castle-type thing near the sea. The great thing about this method is that I can use the postcard to ask how to get there. No language fluency required. I showed the postcard to the man behind the cash register. He said it was the Torre de Belem (Tower of Belem).

I took a bus to Belem from my hostel, Pousade de Juventude de Lisboa, the official HI hostel, the first and last HI I've stayed in. The bus dropped me off in front of the Monasteiro dos Jeronimos, a monstery I'd seen on a lot of postcards too. The Cloisters were beautiful. It's a gorgeous courtyard used by the monks for relaxation and meditation. A fountain was in the middle, with four paths radiating from it in each direction. Benches around the courtyard were carved into the rock. I sat there for a while, reading a book I'd bought at Copenhagen airport, "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy" by Greg Palast.

Next up was the Torre de Belem. It was a stone tower on the sea.

Lisbon--Torre de Belem

I think it was used as a naval defense post. I had to walk across an overpass over the train tracks to get there. Once inside, I peeked out through the windows. Cannons were laid at each window. I went to use the bathroom. I reached for the toilet paper, and horror of horrors, there was no toilet paper. I hurried up and talked to one of the employees.

"Excuse me, there's no toilet paper," I said.

"Toilet, yes. It's there," He pointed down the stairs.

"I know where the toilet is. There's no toilet paper." I made a motion of pulling a roll down and ripping off a tissue.

"No understand English." The last words I wanted to hear.

I went back to the bathroom. I paced around. Think man think! I searched my pockets. I found some napkins from the snack bar where I'd gotten a ham and cheese baguette for breakfast. It wasn't toilet paper, but I was going to make this work . . .

That night I made friends with two cute blonde German girls. I met them up on the top floor of the hostel, a meeting area that's always empty because it's far up. I went there on a whim and discovered them. They looked really young, so I made sure to act as a total gentleman. From talking, I found they had just graduated from high school and doing some traveling. We made plans to explore Lisbon together the next day. Downstairs in the TV lounge, one of the finals soccer games was going on. The Portugal team from Porto and Monaco. One girl wondered aloud who won. Just then, a cacophony of car horns and joyous shouts came from the streets below. Porto had won! The shouts lasted all through the night, ruining any chance of sleep. Lisbon is hosting the European Football Championchips later this month. This place will be soccer city then. Craziness.

We went to the Museum of Modern Art first. Some of the stuff was cool, like the collages of paper shapes, other stuff was just weird, like a wall projection of a photo of hands. My favorite place we visited was Parque das Nacoes, a park that Lisbon built for the World Expo. For 1996, I think. There was a huge shopping center, a botanical garden, a zoo, an aquarium, and rows of restaurants. We rode on a sky car that went over the entire complex from above.

On a sky car in Parque das Nacoes with Laura from Germany
Laura (Germany)

Laura's friend Kirstin
Kirstin (Germany)

That night I met Chris, from Melbourne, Australia. He was a really cool guy. Australians are the hard-core travelers. He had just arrived from Thailand after going through Southeast Asia. He was doing Europe, then going to South America. Wow. I really am a rookie at this travel stuff. Chris was doing 3 continents and I was only doing one. We went out to sample Portugal's famed seafood cuisine. I ate a seabass and he got grilled salmon. The fish was excellent. Only in Europe could I get world-class food at common restaurants.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Marcus Meets Europe! -- Denmark

Tivoli Gardens

I'm back on the continent again. I took my essay exam, sweating buckets because it was the one time where I could have flunked in two countries with one test. Afterwards, I rewarded myself by spending the afternoon with a cool friend of mine. I have the luck of hanging out with girls far more intelligent than me, and she was no exception. She talked of human behavior and her incisive observations on how to read people. My brain was fried after that test, so I listened more than I talked. At her apartment, she made us spaghetti for dinner before I left for the airport. What a great send-off.

The thing to see in Copenhagen is Tivoli Gardens, an amusement park. I wish I could tell you guys about it, but I didn't go. I heard about an amusement park for adults called Christiania, and went there instead. My hostel, Middlebrook's, is in a popular student area called Norrebro. Christiania was on the other side of the city entirely. The hostel manager said it was a great walk, since I would see all of Copenhagen on the way there. My inner tourist leapt with joy while my feet began to weep.

Christiania was a military barracks. Hippies moved into the abandoned buildings and created a commune. No kidding, I felt like I was in 60's California when I was in there. Dogs ran loose without leashes. They do cater more to tourists now. But it still looks like a homeless colony, so it hasn't lost its underground edge. Graffit was sprayed into the sides of all the buildings, making for excellent street art. I took a picture of a mural that acted as a giant sign for the WC (european for water closet, a.k.a. restroom). It showed a 5-armed green alien taking a piss and a deranged moose taking a dump. There were shopping stalls set up in a little flea market area. A couple of the stalls sold hash pipes and marijuana goods. When I walked out of Christiania, there was a sign overhead that said, "You are now entering the EU." Christiania wasn't just its own country, it was from another time period.


The common joke is that there are McDonald's everywhere. What I wanted to know was: what was the European equivalent of McDonald's? What could I find everywhere in Europe? I've come up with two answers. The first is Irish pubs. You can drink like the Irish practically everywhere. They've exported their pubs and beer to all corners. The second is Turkish fast food. I've found those everywhere too. They advertise themselves as Kebab joints. The bonus is that many of them also sell burgers and pizza. Three kinds of fast food, all under one roof!

The travelling is getting to me. I've gotten sick, which sucks to no end when you want be out and about 24 hours a day. I'm driven by that fear You've got to see everything because you'll never be here again! I consulted Dr. Mom. She prescribed sleep and drinking juices with Vitamin C. After a day of walking Copenhagen, I stopped at a corner grocery store. The cooler had 1-litre cartons of orange juice. I reached for that, then saw cartons of guava juice next to them. Even better. Reminded me of Hawaii. I took a carton of guava juice over to the till (British for cash register). While the Middle Eastern man was getting my change, I looked at the top of the carton. I was hoping the guava juice was from Hawaii. No soap, the letters weren't even in the English alphabet.

"Excuse me, could you tell me where this guava juice is from?" I handed him the carton.

"Hmm, Arabic letters." He examined the box carefully. "This juice is from Egypt!" He announced.

"Really?" I asked. I didn't know they drank guava juice there. I told him how I was from Hawaii and that I drink it all the time there.

"They drink guava juice in Hawaii?!"

That made us even.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Marcus Meets Europe! -- Scotland

Edinburgh Castle

The academics of studying abroad reared its ugly head, so I'm back in Norwich taking an exam for UEA. I was able to squeeze in one more destination, Edinburgh. The ride was great while it lasted.

I couldn't have asked for a better view. Castle Rock Hostel is immediately below Edinburgh Castle, allowing one to look at history every morning. A lot of the guests were long-term stayers, meaning Australians working for British pounds. They made the hostel a lot of fun to stay in.

I went on a free walking tour of Edinburgh. My favorite place we stopped at was the Parliament House. There was a large room called the Great Hall, a.k.a. "The Hall of Whispers." Lawyers would come in pairs to walk side by side, from one end of the room to the other, discussing their cases in whispers. The legal profession never looked so important and prestigious.

After the tour was over, I accompanied the two Canadian girls I met on the tour to Edinburgh Castle. I had a great time looking from the turrets and imagining myself defending the castle against my enemies. We got to see the Crown Jewels, which were in a glass case. The security guard kept anyone for taking pictures. The War Museum was an action movie fan's dream come true. Display after display of military uniforms, suits of armor, swords scored from clashing with other swords, old and new machine guns, it was awesome.

We arranged to meet up later with our tour guide at Rush, a bar in Cowgate. I looked at the menu of shooters. I ignored the drink names and focused on the ingredients. One drink had Kalhua, Bailey's, and cream. We have a winner. I called the female bartender over. "Yes, I'd like one . . ." What was the drink called? My eyes flicked back to the menu. "Give me a Blow Job please." The words were out of my mouth before I knew what I had said. I blushed a deep red. She smiled and made me the drink.

The Canadian girls, the tour guide, and I later went to a music bar. A band performed live rock, mostly covers. One of the Canadian girls kept buying me drinks, despite my protests about staying sober. She said she'd call me a cab if I really needed it. I wondered whether she was really that nice or just wanted to get me drunk. The last stop was The Liquid Room, a nightclub. The dance floor was small, so it reminded me of high school. I got my dance on, and all had a good time.

My biggest regret was that I didn't give myself enough time to see more of Scotland. I missed the Highlands and Loch Ness, because they were too far from Edinburgh. That bummed me out, because I really wanted to see that monster!

Sunday, May 9, 2004

Marcus Meets Europe! -- Germany

Berlin Wall

I went to Berlin and became a KGB agent. It happened so gradually, I didn't even know it until I left. Anyone who's spent some time with me knows I'm a huge spy fan. Berlin was the front line for the Cold War, so I was in heaven.

My first breakfast in Berlin was at Gorki Park, a cafe named after the famous park in Moscow. I was accompanied by 3 girls from London. I collected intelligence from them on my future destinations. They told me that one of the places I'm going to doesn't like Londoners, but that I should be okay. I've yet to meet anyone who hates Hawaiians. Actually, most people tell me that I'm the first Hawaiian they've ever met. I didn't expect to become a diplomat!

The highlight of Berlin for me was the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.

Checkpoint Charlie Musuem

There's a lot of photos and captions detailing the methods East Berliners used to get over the wall. People snuck out inside of cars, boxes, and even suitcases. My favorite story was of a man from Sweden who fell in love with a girl from Dresden. Determined to free her, he took flying lessons until he became a proficient pilot. He then rented a plane, flew into Czechoslovakia, picked her up, and made it back to Sweden.

For review, here's what I was told were the majority of backpackers I'd meet at hostels: Americans, Canadians, British, New Zealanders, and Australians. I've been to a couple of hostels, and I've adjusted that list. Take out British and New Zealanders; add Brazilians and Asians. I met 1 Brazilian guy in Barcelona, 3 in Paris, and a Brazilian girl in Berlin. It's interesting to find out which countries produce the most travellers. Australians are long-term expatriates. The Australians in their 20's I've met spend months away from home. One Aussie explained it to me: it takes so long to fly to Europe (around 20 hours) so that when they do come, they stay until they see it all. They're also usually working in London. Many work in bars, a couple girls do au pair work. The Americans and Asians are studying abroad. Americans study abroad in a variety of places, the Asians I've met are studying in England. I've met less Americans as time goes on, and more Canadians. I think it's because spring break in Europe is over after April for American students and Canadians take their vacations before the summer crowds flood into Europe. I've heard July to August are really bad times to travel here because everyone goes on vacation at the same time and that's when the weather is too hot and sticky.

My last night in Berlin, I set off in search of a bar with the Brazilian girl. We ended up at Kaffee Burger, a retro Russian disco. I didn't even know there was such a thing as a retro Russian disco. It sounded like 70's grooves, but all the lyrics were in Russian. I drank a pint of Jever Dark and watched slim European girls dance as they smoked cigarettes. I'm such an amateur at drinking. The Brazilian girl was done in no time while I was still had three-fourths of my glass left. German beer felt stronger than what I've had before. We talked about why we were travelling. She was a pre-med student taking a leave of absence before finishing her bachelor's and going to med school. The three factors were time, money, and friends to go with her. She had the time and money now, but no one for company. So she went to Europe alone. If she had waited for all three things to come together, she said she might never travel. I agreed.

There are times I wish I had someone with me, though. Paris was a city for couples, and it would have been even more enchanting if I had a girlfriend to share it with. I'm doing recon for my honeymoon, that's what I told myself. Travelling alone means I can never turn to someone and say, "Hey! Remember when . . ." because I was by myself. Or, the people who were with me are back home on another side of the world.

Aside from the language barrier, there are 3 challenges I have to deal with every time I go to a new country.

First challenge: finding my hostel. In the interest of keeping my backpack light, I didn't pack the thick Rough Guide to Europe 2004 I had. This is when I'm most scared. I've come off the plane in a foreign land. I have to start with being lost. I make sure to get a free map from the Information desk when I get into the airport. Between the map and the directions from the hostel, I can find my way after getting lost at least twice.

Second challenge: getting to the airport when I have to fly out. I love travelling but I hate being in transit, so fly as much as I can. The problem is that I have zero margin for error. With trains, if I miss a train I can just catch the next one. With flights, I have to make my flight or I'm screwed. I've had some close calls, the most recent being my flight out of Berlin. I was waiting for the S9 to Berlin Schonefeld airport. I got to Alexanderplatz station, and was on the right platform. But the S9 just wasn't showing up. I took out my map and tried to find an alternate train. A nice German girl asked if I needed help. I told her my problem. She suggested I take an RE train (international train) that stopped at the airport. Just then, an RE train pulled into the station. She blurted, "That's the one! Hurry! You can make it!" For a split second, I thought she might be scamming me. I made a snap decision. I ran down the stairs, across to the other platform, up the stairs, and jumped onto the RE train. My map only covered S-Bahn and U-Bahn trains, so the first thing I did was check the map on the train. I was really hoping I'd hadn't botched my whole trip. It did stop at Berlin Schonefeld airport! Whew. I didn't worry about tickets until the conductor came around to check. My ticket wasn't for the RE train. I read the fines for fare-jumping are like 40 euro. Oh crap, I thought, I won't be eating for the next week. He asked me for my ticket. Dejected, I told him I was just trying to get to the airport. "Schonefeld?" he asked. I nodded. He punched the buttons on his handheld and showed me the screen: 2.00 euros. I could buy a ticket on the train!

Third challenge: Leaving. I'm at my loneliest the first night in town. Eventurally, I push myself to meet people and make friends. It's always better to see a city with company. Farewells are so final because everyone's on different schedules and from different places, so the chances of reunions are nil. In Barcelona, a bunch of my new friends wished me well as I lugged my backpack out the entrance. Challenges like language barriers, getting lost, and constant blows to my confidence are the stuff of travel, but the most difficult challenge of all is saying goodbye.

Tuesday, May 4, 2004

Marcus Meets Europe! -- Ireland

Dublin Postcard
A postcard from Dublin

It was cool to go to a smaller place this time around. I was feeling a bit knackered, to use an English phrase, of racing from one famous landmark to the next. Dublin was a chance to unwind.

Being an English Creative Writing major, my first stop was the Dublin Writers' Museum. Tiny, only two exhibition rooms. I wondered how so many lions of letters could all come from so small a place. What was the common cause of their genius? Censorship seemed to breed great art, I found. All of the authors had issues with the virtual theocracy they chafed under in Dublin and vented their anger in their literary works. James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, two of Dublin's native sons, practically lived in exile and rarely visited their home town.

Having my fill of culture, I went in search of some mental junk food. I had seen some unusual films in Paris. One was a beautiful life story of a monk called Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall, Spring from a South Korean director who had studied fine arts in Paris. The other was Agents Secrets, a French spy thriller that I couldn't understand. I could understand individual scenes, like she's drugged the kids to search the house and he attacked the guy in the bathroom to steal his identity. But I totally missed the overall story. Now that I was in an English-speaking country, I was hoping for a Hollywood blockbuster. Unfortunately I got lost in Temple Bar and found the Irish Film Institute. I made the most of it and went for what looked like the most suspenseful movie they had, a documentary from Brazil called Bus 174. I've only started to become a fan of documentaries, after watching The Thin Blue Line and Bowling for Columbine. Bus 174 completed my conversion to the medium. It records the case of a bus hijacking that rocked the headlines in Rio de Janeiro. The film went much further, telling of the circumstances of the hijacker's life, interviewing the police officers and hostages, ultimately indicting the brutal prison system and police incompetence in handling the hijacking. Then it returns to the bus for the most nail-biting climax I've seen in a long time. In terms of emotional punch, Bus 174 has Speed beat hands down.

One of the good things of getting lost is stumbling onto great places I would never have found otherwise. I was wandering around Temple Bar when I smelled food. Good food. I followed my nose and went to Meeting House Square. It was like a gourmet open market. Booths sold top-quality cheese, meat, and other delights for the taste buds. I got a sausage dog from Hick and Sons Handmade Gourmet Pork Products. The sausage was lightly spiced and tender. Later, I was looking at a selection of desserts. The old Latina woman asked what I wanted. I said the chocolate desserts looked good, but I wanted something different. She recommended a slice of her 3-Leche Nicaraguan cake. It had condensed milk, evaporated milk, and regular milk. She watched closely when I took the first bite. Whoa. Much more subtle and flavorful than the usual sugar rush I go for. I said Mmm. She laughed and said "I knew it!"

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On a pub crawl in Dublin with a guy from Australia and Scotland

I wanted to go to some Irish pubs, but I didn't want to go by myself. Good thing someone invented pub crawls. The Backpackers' Pub Crawl was 5 euros and met at the front gate to Trinity College. We went to five pubs and two dance clubs, don't quote me though. The memory of that night gets foggy. I do remember meeting three Australian guys. There was also this older German lady who wore pink everything: jacket, skirt, stockings, the works. The second pub we went to was the smallest pub in Dublin. That was its claim to fame. One of the Australian guys said, "Marcus, I think the German bird fancies you." What German bird? I turned and saw the pink lady, who smiled at me. I hastily turned away and shuddered. Do not get drunk do not get drunk. Meanwhile, the Australian guys laughed at me. I was pretty quiet for most of the pub crawl, so no one expected a lot from me. When we got to the last dance club, I unleashed the wild beast I keep caged inside. A girl from New Zealand leaned to my ear. She said I looked like a good dancer. I thanked her. As we left the club, the Australian guys and one Scottish guy congratulated me. That was at the end of the pub crawl, though. I think they were amazed at how much coordination I had left, not my dancing skill.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Marcus Meets Europe! -- France

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What can I say that hasn't been said about Paris? The City of Lights and Rome intimidated me because the sheer number of monuments they had. If I tried to see everything Paris had, I'd never leave. But that's not such a bad thing.

My first night in town I met Hillary from Virginia. Sadly, that old backpacker pattern repeated itself: she was really cool but she was leaving tomorrow. Hillary wanted my visit to Paris to start with a blast, so we went to the Eiffel Tower. I swallowed my fear of heights and bought a ticket to the top. The payoff was incredible. We got to see firsthand how Paris got its nickname. It looked like the stars took a vacation on planet Earth. Below the summit there was an observation deck. Panels under the windows wrapped around the deck. They showed daytime photos of Paris from the Eiffel Tower with the major buildings labelled.

I spent the first day walking on the Champs Elysees. Coming from the Arc de Triomphe, the left street seemed to have all the action. Restaurants capitalized on the famous curb appeal with sidewalk tables. I liked this place; but I liked Las Ramblas in Barcelona better. There, the street seemed wild and brimming with energy. The Champs Elysees was packed with tourists sitting at cafes, thinking of how classy they were for just being there. I was sure the true hipsters were somewhere else. I probably set my expectations too high. The Champs Elysees shouldn't have a McDonald's and restaurants shouldn't have waiters serving bottles of Coca Cola. There's no escaping America sometimes.

I'm not a big fashion person, but I was interested in seeing how French women dressed in the style capital of the world. Would they all look like supermodels ready for the runway? I kept my eyes open on the Champs Elysees. I divided the girls into three groups: the leisure class, teenagers, and the career women. The leisure class were the classic model-types you see in fashion ads. Tight shirts, tight pants, high heels, purses that wouldn't hold a pack of matches, and sunglasses pushed up on their foreheads. Teenagers tended toward denim jackets and jeans. No hip-hop touches. The career women wore black dresses and overcoats with either a black or beige color. The dresses were for the office, but their purses and shoes were where they showed their style.

The Louvre was as massive as I've kept hearing. The Mona Lisa was not as impressive as I thought and really crowded. Heard those too and they were true. For me, the highlight was the halls for French large-format paintings. Literally wall-to-wall art. Some paintings were two stories tall. Battle scenes, portraits, biblical and mythological events, it was art heaven. I took the Metro to the Louvre because it stopped there. Better than that, as you get off the metro there's a direct entrance into the Louvre. No waiting outside at I.M. Pei's glass pyramid. There were ticket lines inside, but they were short.

Getting to Versailles was more complicated than I thought. I'm pretty good with subways. But longer-distance trains worry me because if you make a mistake, you're far away from the next station. Versailles was outside Paris so I had to take one. I got to a platform and didn't see a sign. I asked the Indian guy at the door if this train went to Versailles. He answered, but the train noise muffled his voice. I got into the train to hear him better.

"What did you say?" I asked.

"I said, this is the wrong train."

That's when the doors closed behind me.

Oh my God I'm so screwed I'm an idiot damn French trains I can't talk to anyone I want my English back! Then I calmed down. I asked the Indian guy what to do. He said I should get off at the next station and figure things out. I did so, and took out my train map as I walked away from the train. Okay, I got on at Invalides. This is . . . I looked up . . . Pont de l'Alma. I traced the route from Invalides to Pont de l'Alma. If I had stayed on this train I would have ended up at . . . Chateau de Versailles. What?! I was on the right train! The warning bells went off to signal my train was leaving. I spun around and ran back to the train full speed. I dove through the doors as they closed.

Versailles was even bigger than the Louvre. Inside, there were two areas to see: the King's chamber with personal apartments; and the State Apartments. The Personal Apartments were alright. They looked old but bare. Not where I expected the Sun King to live. The State Apartments rocked! I think there were used for public ceremonies, so that's why they were so grand. Sculpted marble, crystal chandeliers, colorful tapestries hanging down the walls, Louis XIV knew the meaning of pomp and circumstance. Next up were the gardens. They went on forever and ever. The gardens were the size of football fields. I should have taken another day just for the gardens. Each garden was a park in itself, some designed with a Greek myth in mind.

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French food was an attraction in itself. My new favorite snack is crepes. They're thin pancakes wrapped around a filling of your choice. I usually got chocolate filling and bananas or ham and cheese. I wished I had eaten more baguette sandwiches to taste France's great bread and cheeses. I remember reading a quote by a French leader saying, "No country with 400 kinds of cheese can ever be united."

Now that I'm through with the glamorous stuff, I think this e-mail needs a dose of reality. There's something I want to talk about that I call The Walk of Shame. I've had to do it in Barcelona and Paris. My problem is pants. I only brought one pair of pants, the one I'm wearing. When I was packing clothes, I ran into an obstacle. I stubbornly refused to buy a backpack that was bigger than me, so my backpack couldn't hold all the clothes I wanted to bring. I ended up bringing half of what I intended. There was a lot of me throwing clothes back onto the bed and muttered curses. The choice was to either bring a third shirt or a second pair of pants. I chose the third shirt because shirts get stinky faster. It was either go to one place and change clothes everyday, or go lots of places and not change clothes everyday. I was not going to give up socks and underwear to make way for another pair of pants. I was willing to sacrifice some hygiene to go to more places, but not changing underwear everyday was where I drew the line. One pair of pants it was.

It wasn't until I had to do laundry in Barcelona that I had to do The Walk of Shame. I needed to wash my pants; but what was I supposed to wear in the meantime? Cut to me crashing through the backstreets of Barcelona in my pajamas and Surfah Hawaii slippers (flip-flops to you mainlanders), holding a garbage bag of laundry in one hand and a map in another. If I slung the bag over one shoulder, I could look like a homeless bum too. People gave me weird looks. I would have said "Estudiante" but I was too ashamed to look anyone in the face. I assumed all hostels would have laundry facilities. I've since grown wiser. And when I finally found the lavanderia, all the instructions were in Spanish. "Fun" has become my euphemism for "This is going to be unbelievably frustrating." So I think doing laundry in foreign countries is fun.

In Paris, I had a problem because the washers and dryers didn't have coin slots. Where do I put in the euros? A nice African man showed me through hand gestures what to do. All the machines, including the detergent-vender, were connected to one machine, "Centrale de Paiment." Punch in the number of the machine you're using into the payment machine, put in the amount of money it asks, and your machine starts the cycle. I thanked him and offered him some donuts I'd bought to make change. They were chocolate-covered, waffle-shaped, and delicious. He smiled, but shook his head No and pointed to a back tooth. Cavities. Ouch.

I've seen people bring traditional luggage and too much stuff. They've all regretted it. Hostels are never on the first floor (floor zero in Europe) and the streets are not the smooth pavement we're used to in the states. Luggage on wheels don't handle cobblestone well. Because people pack so much, they have a hard time fitting in the souvenirs they accumulate. Better to start with the absolute minimum and buy as you go. It's tough to throw away stuff you brought but aren't using. I didn't realize backpacking would lead to such a Zen epiphany: that giving up your possessions will set you free.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Marcus Meets Europe! -- Spain

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I left Barcelona yesterday and already miss it. Funky cool architecture by Antoni Gaudi and his contemporaries, tropical weather, and fun people. Time is going by too fast.

I lucked out and got free dinner my first night in my hostel (Itaca Hostel, recommended). A Swiss skateboard team and some German physics students were cooking pots of pasta. They had enough left over to feed the whole floor.

Later, a couple of us went to Maremagnum, a shopping/clubbing complex on the sea. We got to a club called Fiesta at 11pm. I think that's early for Spain because we had the club to ourselves until 12:30am.

I was impressed with the variety of street performers. The best ones I saw congregated around the Gothic Cathedral and the Portal del Angel. There was an awesome string octet playing classical music. A girl walked around the crowd selling their CD. The cover revealed they were from Moscow. Around the corner was a folk music band. One time I even saw breakdancers. They might have been too good, because they attracted a crowd that clogged the street. The policia showed up, and the breakdancers broke up fast.

One poster claims that La Rambla is "The World's Most Exciting Street." It's a long pedestrian thoroughfare that cuts through the city almost to the sea. Start at the opposite end of the coast and you'll pass bird sellers, florists, and portrait artists. Human statues and shell-game operators also work the tourists. Sidewalk restaurants line both sides of the street, affording the opportunity for rest, refueling, and excellent people-watching.

Barcelona Postcard
Barcelona Postcard

Food in a foreign country always presents a moral dilemma: do I go with what's familiar and safe (American food) or sample the local cuisine and risk an emergency appointment with Dr. Immodium, AD? This came to a crisis point because many bars served paella and pizza. I called up the courage to try paella. I opened up the menu and watched my 1.5 years of college Spanish go down the drain. When the waiter took my order, I simply pointed to the only paella that had ingredients I recognized. It was a Paella de Carne, with chicken and sausages. A tasty sauce covered the rice and there were chopped red and green peppers to keep my mouth from getting bored.

I was fortunate to have a friend studying abroad in Barcelona. It was great to see someone from University of Redlands. Jennifer knew the language, knew what places to go, and knew cool people. I wondered how I made it so far without her. She took me to Parc Guell, which was designed by Gaudi. Jennifer aptly described it as "Dr.Seuss on crack." Two gingerbread-looking houses with roofs like frosting frame the entrance. Then there's a huge white stairway split down the middle in curves. Jennifer took a picture of me on the stairs with the famous multicolored lizard.

Jennifer kindly invited me to join her and her friend Angel for a night of dancing at the Buena Vista Club. The scary part: salsa dancing. I'm reasonably competent at hip-hop, hula, skanking, and the most basic breakdancing. Salsa was totally foreign to my feet. Angel pulled me onto the floor and showed me the elementary steps. Then an instructor bounded onto the stage and led the group in two salsa routines. I tried hard, but I couldn't summon the Spider Man-like agility to match his pace. He moved like lightning, shouting "Uno!" "Mira!" and "Agua!" Afterwards, I ran into him outside the bathroom. He smiled and patted me on the back. So maybe I didn't suck!

On my last night Jennifer took me and her friends to The Black Sheep, an obscure beer hall off the Ramblas. I would have missed it because it's on a small side street and has an unlit door. It looked closed. Inside, there were a boatload of students talking loudly and cramming the ancient wooden benches. We got a pitcher of sangria. Sangria tastes sweet and we used small glassas, so I had the illusion I wasn't drinking so much. I got dizzy, but I prefer to think I was drunk on Spain.

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Monday, April 12, 2004

Marcus Meets Europe! -- Italy

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The first couple hours in a new place are the most terrifying. I'm getting better at choking back the fear. I take refuge in my To-Do List:

--Exchange money.
--Find my hostel.
--Eat dinner.
--Take a shower.
--Buy a phone card.
--Go to an Internet Cafe.
--Most important of all, make new friends.

Once I get all that stuff taken care of, I feel much more at home. Rome disappointed me at first because the first I saw of it was the Termini Central Train Station. The area around it is total slum. There were these bad-ass Italian guys in black jackets looking tough next to their scooters. Like every other place I've been to, I got lost trying to find my hostel (Gullivers House). Luckily, I walked past an Asian girl talking on her cell phone in Tagalog (a Filipino dialect). I introduced myself to her and she did more than give me directions. She walked me to my hostel.

Gullivers House is a very comfortable place. It's like staying at the house of your favorite aunt and uncle. The owners, Simon and Sara, do everything to make your stay easier. Whether it's a homemade map of all the monuments to recommendations for good pasta, they take care of you.

I met Liz, a girl from New York teaching English in France. We became fast friends and spent the day walking around to the sites. The first couple places we saw weren't as well-known. Which was nice since we had the all to ourselves. The Colosseum was even bigger than it looks in photographs.

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It's the original stadium. Prague had these cool little parks with statues. Rome has little secluded parks within the neighborhoods too, except they have fountains.

The Roman Forum is an archaeologist's dream come true. Acres of towering columns and assorted sculpted rubble litter the landscape. Liz has a lot of experience with Romance languages, so she translated the signs for me.

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We ate lunch at a restaurant overlooking the street. I got confused when the waiter asked me what kind of water I wanted. Gas or no gas? Liz had been to Italy before and ordered the no-gas water for me. Turns out the Italians commonly drink carbonated, fizzy water. According to her, it's a nasty shock to the tongue when you're expecting a cool drink.

After walking to the Colossuem, we decided to sample the world-famous gelato. We skipped the places facing the Colosseum, working deeper into the neighborhood. We found a gelato bar. Indulge two sins for the price of one!

She got a coffee gelato and I got chocolate. It tasted like I was spooning a liquid cake into my mouth. It felt so fattening, but backpacking burns the pounds fast so I didn't worry.

Speaking of that, I'm more toned than I've ever been. All this walking and carrying a backpack and running up stairs has really got me into shape. I hope it lasts through next school year!

Here are more photos from Italy:

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The Leaning Tower of Pisa.

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On the water in Venice.

Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Marcus Meets Europe! -- Czech Republic

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The Charles Bridge in Prague with my American housemates in England: me, Dan, Ben, and Scott

Sorry this e-mail is so delayed. The keyboard at my hostel has Czech and English characters, so if any weiød symbols pop up, I apologize in advance. After a couple of fruitless attempts to learn it on my own, I had the girl at the front desk give me a little tutorial. But I still haven´t mastered it yet.

Prague wasn't originally on my list of destinations. But every backpacker I met recommended it to me: beautiful architecture, weak currency, and some of the best beers in the world on tap.

I'm really glad I started in London first. I would never have the confidence to come in cold and figure everything out. I don't speak Czech, so I'm forced to communicate solely through hand gestures and facial expressions. Good thing I took an acting class last semester. I did this a lot when I first got in, because I had to ask for directions every minute. The Czech people have been nice so far, and a little ashamed they couldn't have helped me more. I try to smile big in a way that says "Don't worry, I feel just as bad as you do that I can't speak the language."

The biggest difference between this hostel (Apple Hostel) and the one in London is the people. In London, most of the people were there to look for work, so socializing was at a minimum. Here, everyone is travelling to take advantage of Czech korunas (crowns) before the country goes on the euro. It's startling how cheap everything is. Girls have told me they're doing their big fashion shopping here, because you can buy designer labels at Wal-Mart prices. The guys are all about the high-quality cheap beer. The official beer of the Czech Republic is Pilsner Urquell. An interesting choice would be Budvar, the original Budweiser that was founded in the Czech Republic.

With its winding cobblestone streets and imposing buildings, it's easy to get lost in Prague, and I highly recommend the experience. Just when I think I've seen it all, I'll stumble into a little park with a statue that I missed the first couple times I've walked by. Prague's monuments are not as famous as those in Paris, but I think they're magnificent. And I still haven't seen them all.

Czech National Opera House
Czech National Opera House

Old Town Square
Old Town Square

The Charles Bridge is the big tourist attraction. There's scores of street artists offering to draw portraits and caricatures in under 20 minutes. When I looked closer at their easels, I noticed every artist has a blue laminated permit with their photo. I wonder if the government requires them to prove their talent before exposing them to tourists. Statues line both sides of the bridge, depicting religious scenes. There's one statue of Jan Hus that's special. He was the Queen's minister and confidant. The King suspected him or having an affair with his Queen. Hus was loyal to the Queen and did not confess, so the King had him thrown off the bridge. At the base of his statue, there's a rendering of his depontification (being thrown off a bridge). Supposedly, a halo of five stars appeared at the moment he touched the water. I've heard different superstitions about the statue. One says that if you touch all five stars on his halo and make a wish, it will come true. Another says that if you touch his likeness in the depontification scene, you're guaranteed to come back to Prague.

I got lost on my way to Prague Castle and found something equally cool instead: the Ledebour Gardens. It's a maze of gardens and stairways set against a hill below Prague Castle. The stairs go in circles and hit dead ends, but the fun is wandering all over the colorful structures.

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I'd look at a place I'd want to go, get on a stairway, but end up somewhere else in the gardens. It¨s wonderfully devoid of tourists. I only saw other backpackers there. There's scores of benches to sit on and admire the city's skyline.

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I think the most frustrating thing about travelling alone is that I'm confronted with my own ignorance over and over again. I don't speak the language, don't know my way around, don't know anyone, etc. I have to take this foreign alien place and somehow make it home for the next couple days. If I was with another American, we'd both be clueless and I wouldn't feel as guilty. There would also be someone to back me up if things went wrong. Alone, I completely have to rely on the kindness of the locals. My three-letter solution to everything is to ASK. In independent travelling, I'm learning that jerks don't last and only the humble survive. I constantly have to surrender my ego to get through the day.

The social life of backpacking is really fast-paced at times. When I meet a girl I like, I have to ask her out that second because I'll never see her again. I'm the nice guy that usually takes forever to ask a girl out. Now, I go for it by the end of the first conversation. When I got to Prague airport, I struck up a conversation with a Korean girl from Arizona. By the end of our chat, I asked her if she wanted to split a cab into town. She accepted, and we ate dinner at her hotel. We walked around the city that night, and I never saw her again. I became friends with an Australian girl the day she moved into my room. We went out to a beer hall for some pints within hours after meeting and had a lot of fun. She had to check out the next morning because my hostel was all booked up. On my last day, I met the most awesome French girl. She had a natural elegance that was radiant. I'm wondering if this trip will have a lot of revolving-door relationships?

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Thursday, April 1, 2004

Marcus Meets Europe! -- England

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Most of my major papers and projects weren't due until April 2 and April 12. I had a lot of free time. So I hatched a brilliant plan. In an unprecedented display of initiative, I finished my big assignments three weeks early and took off for London for a couple of days in my last week of class. It was hellish. I camped out at the computer lab the whole week before, cranking out pages. But who wants to hear about that?

The Travel Shop on campus got me a good price for a train to London. I booked a hostel online, St. Christopher's Village. My main reason for going to London was to have fun. The other, more boring reason was that I wanted to test out the backpacker lifestyle before I dived into my big trip in April. I'd have a chance to stay in a hostel, see how bad I messed up my packing, and learn basic navigation skills for a big city. This was going to be my last chance to do it in English, before I drowned in the wonderful world of Romance languages.

When I got to the hostel, I presented the confirmation e-mail they had sent. The guy at the desk then asked for a photo ID. I reached for my UEA student ID, but accidentally gave him my Hawaii driver's license. He asked how long it took me to get here. Humoring him, I said about 15 hours. He shook his head and wished me a good night's sleep. He issued me a key card and gave me a brochure with the rules of the hostel.

I thought I had gotten the wrong room. There were two girls inside. One was hanging wet clothes over the heating grate. The other was eating some salad.

I asked, "Is this room 16?"

"Sure is," one girl answered.

"Oh, I thought--"

My confused face gave me away, because she said, "This hostel's co-ed, mate!"

We talked a while. They were both from Australia, coming out to England to look for short-term work. Bartending and waitressing-type jobs. Since the pound was stronger than the Australian dollar, they could save up some money, go back to Oz, and triple it from converting currency. England has favorable labor laws for Australians and Australians love to travel and socialize, so there are a lot of them in England. I thought hostels were mostly for travelling college students. But a lot of the customers were using the hostel as cheap temporary housing while looking for work. One Australian girl told me that in European hostels, the majority of people I'd meet would be American, British, Australian, New Zealander, and Canadian. I haven't met anyone from New Zealand yet, but after this stay, most of her story checked out. So I'll still have to make an extra effort to meet locals.

Even though I packed what I thought was the bare minimum, I still packed too much and didn't bring some essentials. What I brought that I wish I hadn't: a shoulder bag to hold my camera, a paperback novel, and maps. I was able to stuff the maps and camera into my jacket pockets. I didn't read because I was too busy sight-seeing. What I hadn't brought but wish to hell I had: ear plugs. Because there's always one snoring champion, doors slam, someone's cell phone/alarm clock will go off, noise from the street, and noise from the pub next door. The Australian girls told me that there's always a pub next to a hostel. That's probably where the hostel really makes money. Like how movie theaters make more money from selling popcorn and soda than from movie tickets.

I worried about getting around London. I've gone to college in California for two and a half years, and I can count the times I've been to Los Angeles on one hand. I didn't reckon on the excellent London Underground, a.k.a. the Tube.

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It's basically a subway that goes everywhere. It's fast, clean, and convenient. The longest I had to wait for a train was seven minutes. I got a pocket Tube map with my first ticket and used it constantly. Public transportation is top notch. Even though I've never used the Tube before, I figured it out very quickly. There were always signs to lead me to the right platform. Inside the train, there's a map of the route, an electronic sign that announces stops, and a computer voice that announces the stops too. Above ground, there's street signs pointing to the popular attractions. It was easy to find my way around.

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I'm trying to avoid getting sucked into landmark marathons while travelling. There's a big temptation to try to see all the sights in one trip. I knew if I did that, I'd waste most of my trip hurrying to the next line to wait in. I took a train to the center of the city and just walked around. The first place I hit was Oxford Circus. That place was a shopper's dream come true. Acres and acres of classy shops on every street. It was fun to window-shop and imagine what I'd buy if I were rich. Next up was Piccadilly Circus. I'd heard it be compared to Times Square in New York City, and I could see why. There were big-screen billboards advertising Vodafone cell phones and other products. It must look dazzling at night.

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On a hot tip from a British chap at the hostel, I took a tube to Westminster Station. He said that most bus tours were overpriced and that I could see a couple of good sights by just going to this tube. I got to see Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and the houses of Parliament. As I was walking alongside Parliament, an expensive-looking black car pulled up next to me. A man in a suit got out and opened the trunk. Two other men in suits, one young and British, the other white-haired and French, passed in front of me to the car. The British man wished the French man a good trip. The Frenchman smiled and got into the car. I thought about snapping a picture of these two bigshots. Then I went into one of my Writer Highs, where I imagine the most outrageous thing that could happen next: I take the picture, the British man assumes I'm an assassin with a poison-tipped dart in the camera and tackles me, I end up in a basement interrogation room where a balding man in a suit demands "Who are you working for, the North Koreans?!" and when I don't answer, he mashes a hot cigar into my forehead. Wow. I decided not to take that picture.

I gave in to temptation and decided to see one attraction while I was here. The place I wanted to see was near the Baker Street Tube station. Why did that sound familiar? I didn't realize it until I got to the station. In a nice little touch, the tiled walls of Baker Street station are decorated with the likeness of Sherlock Holmes, the world's greatest detective, who lived on 221 Baker Street.

What almost turned me away was the huge line of outside Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. They were a French school group and the line went around the block. I walked around, and found that they were in a line for groups. There was another line for "pour le jour" (for the day) customers. The line was short, so I got in.

Initially, I thought I got lost and had wandered into a high school dance. The first room was dark, with Britney Spears music blasting. Then I saw why: she was their latest wax figure! I moved to the next room fast. This one was filled with movie stars. I got a picture with James Bond (Pierce Brosnan).

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I had to ask a French student to take the picture. I also got pictures with William Shakespeare and Alfred Hitchcock. A great writer and a great director, just what I want to be. It was hard to get good shots, because the museum was crowded with people trying to take photos too. There was a huge figure of The Incredible Hulk, like the one in the most recent movie. The guidebook said it was so big it couldn't fit through the doors, so it had to be lowered down from a ceiling. I saw the most interesting poses when visitors took pictures with Adolf Hitler. People would act like they were punching him or giving him the finger or otherwise abusing him.

The best thing about staying in a hostel is all the cool people you meet. The worst thing is that because everyone is on a different schedule, people come and go so fast. One of the Australian girls I became good friends with my first night in London was gone the next morning. The other thing was that I met the most people on my last night at the hostel! Another valuable skill I learned was the ancient art of showering with one hand. The hostel's showers were either push-button or hand-held. Probably to encourage shorter showers because it's so incovenient to shower like that.

My last day in London, I went to go see a show. I felt like I would've been a real loser if I went to London without experiencing some quality theatre. I took a Tube to Leicester Square. It's in the heart of the West End, London's Broadway. Fortunately, the Society of London Theatre runs the "TKTS" Booth, where you can buy half-price same-day theatre tickets. It's the one booth actually in Leicester Square, and it looks like a clock tower. There are other shops around the area that claim to be the official half-price ticket booth. I was afraid of getting ripped off, so I stuck with the real thing. I looked at the listings board. I felt like watching a musical. Nothing looked promising except "We Will Rock You."

I asked the girl in the booth, "That musical, did they just take the name of the song or does it really--"

She smiled and said "All the music is by Queen, sir."

"I'd like one ticket please."

My ticket came with a map of the theatres in the area. The girl circled the TKTS booth, where I was now, and also circled the Dominion Theatre, where "We Will Rock You" was performing. The story took place in a dark future where a single mega-corporation controlled all music and made it into homegenized pop music. The funny thing was that I could actually see that happening in real life. It was a very smart show, loaded with references to music past and present, also with sly winks to current events: "We've bombed the whole planet of Mo, and we still have not located any [musical] Instruments of Mass Destruction." It was actually a cliched story. Anyone one's read Brave New World and 1984 or watched The Matrix and Brazil know how this story goes: in an oppressive society in the future, one man will rise up and challege the system. The music angle was what made it special. It drew a diverse crowd. There were young 20-something hipsters and old grandparents. A lot of the older crowd must have been fans of Queen as teenagers, because they sang the lyrics to all the songs.

And that's it for London. One more World Cafe left, and it's off to the rest of Europe. I'll be travelling to countries I've never been to before, so wish me luck guys. A lot can go wrong. I promise if I make it, I'll let you know how I'm doing. I'll have to go to Internet Cafes where you pay by the hour, so these e-mails might get shorter. I'll also be travelling by myself. I originally wanted to go with my housemates. But it's hard to reach consensus with three guys who've been dreaming of going to certain places their whole lives. Mission: Europe will be a solo operation!