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. ThereƂ´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.