Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Update

I'm going to deliver on something for which the readers have been clamoring . There have been cries for "where are you now?" and "what are you going to do next?" So here it is, the Update. The story that everyone has wanted to know. The answer to the question of "What now?"

Back to the world of the Ordinary.

I've been working at a full-time, salaried position (that's right, I'm a salaried man again) for ObjectFX. It is a good fit for a variety of reasons. The first is that they are a vendor for my previous employer. I was familiar with the basic operation of the software, and the expected results. Secondly, I was the second of what is now three former co-workers of mine that used to work at said previous employer. Third. It's about maps.

What's more fitting than that for a traveller.

Granted, they are only maps of the good, old U.S. of A., but it's still pretty interesting work. I get to use my math training more than ever. Of course, geometry was never my strong suit, but it's coming back with a vengeance.

I've also landed myself a pretty decent apartment. It's a great old place with an interesting layout. I took the lease over from a previous tenant, and I'm currently debating whether or not I should sign an new lease. It would force me to get all my things out of storage. I think if I did that, I could truly feel like I live in the place. Perhaps I'm resisting moving in completely. It would mean that the travelling is at it's end.

It would be nice to have all of my stuff, though. I'm starting to miss a few things. Mainly my whistling teapot...

I've also met a delightful, engaging, attractive, young woman named Jessica. The bonus? She tangos.

Where does all this Ordinary leave the blog? Well, the answer to that is that it will be put on extended hiatus. I don't plan to put it down permanently. It'll make a great archive for the stories, for one. Also, I don't think that I'm going to be quiting travel anytime soon. I'll be going new places soon enough.

I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Travel Burst

I recently spent a long weekend in Savannah, GA. It's a lovely, smallish city that lies on the Savannah River. The city center is full of beautiful, old pre-Civil war mansions, as well as a revitalized river-front of cotton mills - turned restaurants.

Further east lie a series of islands, some belonging to Georgia, others to South Carolina. We spent a day on Tybee Island, where many of these pictures were taken.

Savannah in late Fall has cool, but very manageable, weather. The island, on the other hand, was marred by high winds. This did not, by any means, ruin the experience.

The views from the top of the Tybee Island lighthouse were spectacular. From two hundred feet up, one can see for miles over the Ocean and the interior of the island.

It was a short, yet sweet and relaxed, trip to South. It wet the appetite for more travel. It already seems like it's been too long.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Heartland Tango

Heartland Tango Festival, originally uploaded by pschwarz.

It's been a long time since I've updated the blog. Mostly due to the fact that my vagabond ways are pretty much done with.

At least there is still some tango.

In early September I went to my first local tango workshop. It consisted of daily classes and nightly milongas for the full weekend (Friday, Saturday and Sunday). It was intense, exhausting, educational, and, most importantly, a damned lot of fun.

There were a three sets of instructors, with only one half of a pair from the Cities. One couple, Cecilia and Jaymes, reminded me of my favorite instructors from Buenos Aires. They had a fantastic report and lightweight, easy-going instructional style.

The weekend also got me started on improving my low-light photography skills. Namely by getting a friend to shoot them for me (as in the above photo).

Yet another thing to practice, practice, practice.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Off into the Sunset

Minneapolis, MN

I'm done with the travel game for the time being. I only have to find myself a place to call my own for more than a couple months, and then I'm settled. I'm stable, employed and sedentary.

So, now what?

Well, I still need to work on an afterward, I suppose. I mean, I'm still looking for a permanent place to live[1]. I'm still getting the hang of this whole "working thing" again. The transition from all-the-time-in-the-world to maybe-six-hours-a-day-plus-weekends is been tough.

The other questions that still need to be answered are: what have I learned, and have I really changed as a person. I'll have to think for a while.

I can't wait too long. Otherwise, all reflection will get lost in the mundane in and out of the new day-to-day. It's funny how fast memory fades these days.

[1] If anyone knows of a great apartment, with low rent and available now, let me know. It would be much appreciated. Please?

Pretty please?

Please, oh God, Please.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Back in the Land of the Softies

Yosemite Tramp, Chapter 8

Vernal Fall
Originally uploaded by RobFargo.
Having made our way back down Half-Dome, we rested for only a moment before heading back down to the valley floor. There was a cheerful spirit while we packed up camp, having just played the crescendo of the trip's little symphony. I, for one, was ready to return to the land of the Softies.

Frankly, I just really wanted a shower.

We miss calculated, in part, the number of lunch items we would need for the second half of the trip. We only had two cliff bars a piece - not quite enough calories for another four mile hike. Considering that we were heading mostly down hill, it didn't seem to be too much of a problem.

The route down took us down Nevada Falls and it's lower half, Vernal Falls. We were immediately surrounded by Softies, heading up to the top of the falls, or further, to the top of Half-dome. Again, we picked out those who would make it and those who would give up. Even though we felt a little under supplied for the hike, we were always surprised by the hikers heading to the top with only a small bottle of water, mostly empty due to poor rationing.

Both sets of falls were quite beautiful. They lacked the majesty of Yosemite falls, but they made up for it in volume. Both rushed down to the valley with amazing forth, and spilled out of their usual beds. The hike down past Nevada Falls was lined by a half-mile of stone steps, making for uncomfortable climbing, with little shade in the noon sun. The hike past Vernal Falls was a different story.

The trail next to Vernal falls splits into a foot path and a horse trail. It turns out that the horse trail would be preferable to those who did not what to get soaked head to foot. The foot path is, for a large portion, just narrow set of rock stairs along side a cliff face, overlooking the water fall. The spray from the deluge is tremendous, soaking all hikers in an instant. A good thirty minutes of this leaves one drenched. The name "Mist Trail" seems like an understatement.

One of the other down sides of hiking this particular trail has to do with the softies. They have a tendency to be very heads-down hikers, so careful with their footing that they are oblivious to people coming down. This is particularly annoying when the people in question are carrying heavy packs and have limited maneuverability when it comes to dodging clueless hikers.

Once we passed through the drenching section of the trail, and were much closer to reaching the bottom, I was feeling particularly excited about leaving the back country. I found myself whistling, talking quite loudly about the impracticality of the softies, and passing people left and right as if I was a small sports car (albeit with a heavy load strapped to the top). I may have even skipped a little bit.

We happily made it down to the valley floor by about three in the afternoon. We made our way over to Curry Village, the part of the park with showers, a camp store and beer. Picking up a celebratory meal, and more Fat Tire, we prepared for our last night camping in Yosemite.

Overall, the camp experience in Yosemite was much different then last backcountry trip in Glacier National Park[1] in the summer of 2005. That trip involved a straight, six day hike through the backcountry. Once we were two days in, there was always at least a two day hike to get back out. It required much more from us, since we had no choice but to push on, pain or no pain. Yosemite, on the other hand, safety and soft life was always a short hike away. We were never really more than four miles away from civilization.

While this closeness existed, we never let it change our backcountry experiences. It still felt like we were far away from everything and everyone. It was only more relaxing to know that if there was trouble, it was not going to be a terrible thing to get out of. I, for one, felt more relaxed and safe. In Glacier, once we passed that two day mark, and our party members knees[2] began to go, I was always a little nervous. Nervous about injury, nervous about food and water, nervous about bears. Just nervous, really.

Without all this nervousness, coupled with my overly relaxed personality after spending two months in Europe, Yosemite felt like more of a vacation than a hardcore test of endurance.

Still, I had a fantastic time in both parks, and am looking forward to the next ridiculous camp adventure, as sold to me and other hapless campers by Rob.

[1] Which, admittedly, I haven't really written about. It was pre-vagabond time. It does get mentioned here and here, as well as in some of the other Yosemite chapters.

[2] Why is always knees? Why not a finger, or an ear? It seems like those little hinges are always causing all the problems for the rest of the team.

Saturday, July 22, 2006


Yosemite Tramp, Chapter 7

Three-thirty am. We woke to the deep darkness of a moonless, early morning. The stars were thick, dense, bright, and beautiful. The campground was quietly sleeping around us, as we crept out to the trail.

After the previous night's bear incident, we were all a little jumpy. Any noise, any twig snap, any strange crunching sound and flashlights flicked through the woods, landing briefly in the holes of blackness, only find them empty. With only one muffled cry of "eyes", the hike proceeded without animal incident.

Sunrise Over Cloud's Rest
The goal was to make the top of the mountain by sunrise. Given that we really only had about an hour after we left camp to make the nearly four mile hike, we didn't quite achieve this goal. Enjoying the sunrise on the side of the mountain, was still worth while. The way the rays of light descend over the range certainly reminded me that this amazing universe of random creation has some fantastic structures.

We arrived at the last quarter of the trail at about six in the morning. The surprising thing was that we were not the first group there. A group of hikers had woke left from the valley floor at midnight. They had hiked eight miles before most people in the valley had eaten breakfast. That, and they still had to hike back down to the bottom.

That last quarter of the trail is the hardest part. Of that group of four hikers, only one had the courage to take the top of the mountain. You see, it involves hiking up over eight hundred feet of elevation, with a very steep grade, using a pair of steel cables as hand-holds.

We sat for a few minutes and stared at those cables.

Half Dome cables
Originally uploaded by RobFargo.
We had come a long way for this, though. The climb had been the goal of the trip, the intended highlight, the true challenge of the week. There was no going back without conquering those cables.

At the bottom of the cables sits a pile of leather gloves for climbers to use. While climbing Half-Dome is a challenge, it still draws an amazing volume of traffic. That's the other main reason that we left so early. We didn't want to be dealing with traffic on those cables.

I grabbed a pair of gloves, grabbed the cables and started climbing. I had no desire to be stuck, frozen due to heights or the feeling of being exposed on the side of what was almost a cliff face. It turned out that I had less a fear of those things, and more a fear of tiring out. Climbing with the cables was nearly all arms. So I just kept going, with few pauses or breaks. I would climb from rest point to rest point[1], pause for a moment, tell myself I was doing good, and head for the next one. One by one, all the way to the top, in under twenty minutes.

This left me at the top, alone, waiting for the rest of my crew. I waited a good ten minutes at the top, wondering, listening for their arrival. I later learned that they had worked incredible hard to make that top. Rob followed up the rear, acting as a drill sergeant to get Jen and Liza to the top.

Halfdome, Conquered
On this particular climb, Liza and Jen are my heroes. Both of them were really in no condition to climb that mountain. Jen, with her bum knee, and Liza, with a back that had gone south of cheese, were in a lot of pain. Yet, climb they did and they reached the top.

We stayed up on the top for a about a half hour. Not long, given the difficult of getting to the top, but I, for one, was more nervous about the way down. I was right, in part, as the climb down took quite a bit longer then the way up. It's a lot more difficult finding footing when climbing down backwards (but there's no choice in the matter, there's really no way to go down forwards). It was more tiring as well, given that one is constantly lowering oneself to the then next foothold, solely with arm strength. I was very happy to reach the bottom.

We were buoyant, happy, cheerful, and practically floating down the mountain back to camp. It was only eight in the morning, and we were already passing throngs of hikers make their way to the top. People were surprised to see us already heading back. Knowing what we knew about the climb we all spent our hike back down picking out those who could and couldn't make it to the top[2].

We were back to camp by nine in the morning. We still had the hike to the valley floor ahead of us, but at that point we were still bubbling with the thrill of our accomplishment. Nothing beats the feeling of conquering a challenge.

[1] These were two-by-fours laid between the cable poles.

[2] I know, we're bastards. But I really felt like we had earned it.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Short Hike

Yosemite Tramp, Chapter 6

After such a long day, we woke up surprisingly late (~7:30 - oh, so late as camp sleep goes) in the morning, and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. We packed up and shuffled off early by nine.

Fortunately, having pushed on so much the day before, we didn't have very far to hike in the morning. Our destination was the Little Yosemite Valley, nestled in a shoulder between Half Dome, Cloud's Rest, and Liberty Peak. We were only about two miles away, so our hike time was short.

The Little Yosemite campground is just that: an actual campground. There were bear boxes, camp sites, and, most importantly, compost toilets. All the comforts of home.

The plan for the next day involved climbing up Half Dome early enough to see the sunrise from the top. We were pretty much left with a day to ourselves. Much cribbage was played, feet were soaked in the river, and naps were had. General laziness was the order of the day.

Leaving, really, not much to write about during that particular day. We ate dinner and went to bed at eight, looking forward to a three AM wake-up call for the eight mile hike in the morning. A quiet end to a quiet day.

...Until I heard some rustling outside the tent. It sounded like Rob had heard it as well, since he sat up to spy what was going on in our campsite. The only thing he said about it was "bear," loudly.

"Bear!" Pause. "Bear! Bear! Bear!. Ho Bear! Get! Hey, everybody there's a bear over here!"

I've never heard the word bear spoken so many times, nor about anything other than bears in the circus[1]. This was, however about the bear that was eating out of Jen's pack, three feet away from the ladies tent. Three feet. Just eating pack, minding his own business. Three feet away.

He just looked up from the pack at all the yelling with a distinctly questioning look on his face. Who, me? He looked a little surprised and a bit guilty, like a four hundred pound five year old with his face covered in chocolate. He dropped his head with shame and lumbered off through the campsite. He then spied another pack, poked his nose in it, looked up and said "how about this one?"

Not the kind of thing Rob was looking for, so he throws things at it. Throws things! At the four hundred pound bear. Did I mention the four hundred pounds? It's a bear! A big, fucking four hundred pound bear!

Well, it turns out that the park rangers recommend this sort of thing. Yell at them and through small items at them. They take the hint[2] and will usually leave. Although, I would have appreciated Rob not throwing my shoes at the bear, but I appreciated the fact that he kept his cool and got rid of the bear.

Looking back on it I'm a little angry that I didn't have my camera.

[1] Also know as the Russian Ballet. But I digress.

[2] Unlike unwanted house guests, gypsies, or Rocky Mountain Squirrels

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Strange Exercises


For anyone who's been following this blog, I've been slowly catching up with the dailies of the Yosemite Trip. It's been a slow process, given that work and my social calendar has been preventing me from writing as much as I would like.

Alright, I admit it. I just can't seem to figure out from what part of the day I can take the time.

One thing that has been a strange and new exercise for me has been trying to write accurate descriptions from what has become older memory. I've also been writing in installments, making for a more detailed (but still relatively short) travel work. This chapter style has been rather enjoyable, keeping the subjects very small and easy to manage.

The reflection on the events, from the vantage point of weeks rather than hours, allows for the inclusion of things that may have seemed less significant at the time come to fruit. It has allowed for more honesty, as well. I have been able to examine the happenings and for a more rational opinion. There are also things that seemed more significant at the time, but really were just blown out of proportion due to exhaustion[1].

But the daily writing has suffered. I miss it. I feel that to get it back I need to quit my job and go back on the road. Fortunately, people tell me "don't quit your day job."

Thanks, critics, for keeping me gainfully employed.

[1] The other possibility being that I was still affecting some remnant "softiness."

It was widely thought that softiness was a switch: one is either a softie or not (referred to in the scientific literature as "hardcore"). Recent studies have shown that this is not the case. Studies of people being shown photos of situations (hotels versus campgrounds, for example) that should only trigger certain brain locations for softies, tended to have gradations of firing.

These gradations also changed as the subjects were directly exposed to softie or hardcore environments. The more recent the exposure to a soft or a hard environment, the shift more towards one end of the spectrum or another.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Splitting Up is Hard to Do

Yosemite Tramp, Chapter 5

We had a new plan for the day. With a bum knee, we needed to somehow make it an easy day for Jen. We had seen Four Mile Trail from the other side of the valley. It looked worse than Yosemite falls; a veritable switchback nightmare. After much discussion it was decided that the best route to take back up into the mountains was via bus.

Having missed the ticket window the night before, Rob decided to start the day out by running to the Lodge. This was a good two miles from the backpacker camp. At first glance, this might seem like a good idea: last minute tickets require action to obtain. As it turns out, this was a little detrimental. You see, the tickets for the bus cost twenty dollars a pop. It was a tour bus, complete with little bits of information, and full of softies.

Rob and I decided that it would be best[1] if we hiked up the Four Mile trail. We got everything sorted out by mid-morning, and parted ways with the ladies at the bus.

It turned out that we needed to cross the Valley on foot to get to Four Mile Trail. With all the melt and run off, the river running through it was flooded. Incredibly flooded. We had to walk through a good three hundred yards of icy water. Stupidly, we chose to do this in sandals. Keeping those wool socks on might have been a better idea.

The weird thing about softies is that they take pictures of this sort of thing. "Look at the guys hiking through the water with those heavy packs! Jeez, they're real serious over there. Make sure to get me in the picture with them, ma!" The frozen feet, on my part, froze my sense of humor as well. I sort of broke, and double pumped the bird at some grandma[2].

I hope she got that photo.

We hiked up the trail pretty quickly after that. It turned out to be an easier hike, in terms of grade and number of switchbacks. The heat and our pace made it exhausting, though. We really pushed - minimal breaks and high speed walking. We were probably racing that bus.

We hit the top, only to find a visitor center, complete with concession stand. This was mildly disturbing, considering the hike it took to get there, but I suppose people could drive there. They need a destination, beyond a spectacular view.

The Face of Half Dome
Originally uploaded by pschwarz.
We reunited with Jen and Liza (who had, during the day, my camera - she took one of the best pictures of Half dome out of my set), had a sandwich and pushed on.

We still had a few miles to go to get out of the day-hiker zone where we could camp. We hiked along the beautiful Panoramic trail, which passed by a large water fall, and had views of Half Dome along the whole trail. Sloping down along a ridge line, it also provided fantastic views of the valley floor below.

We pushed on about as far as we possibly could that night (another three miles), collapsing at the first (and only) campsite we could find.

It was a bloody long day.

[1] I.E. we were cheap bastards.

[2] Ok, so it was actually aimed at Rob. The grandma in question simply got in the way of a misdirected double-pumping.


Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Happy Fourth

Rhythm and Booms
Originally uploaded by alumroot.
Flickr is great. Any event or holiday, one can find a great photo for it. No one needs to take their one pictures any longer. It's the one stop memory shop.

Of course, if we all just quit taking pictures, who would be out there creating those memories?

Oh, the great conundrums...

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Boulevard of Broken Knees

Yosemite Tramp, Chapter 4

Hiking back down the Yosemite Falls trail was painful. They had built all of these fake steps, as Jen called them, in to the steep switch backs. Going up, oddly enough, one doesn't notice them. The steps are wide enough, perfect for digging one's toes. On the way down, this is a different story.

You see, for most people, down steps need to be taken using the ball of the foot. This is the part of the foot that the majority of the weight is put on during walking. Without a step wide enough, balance is very difficult, requiring more attention to where the foot is placed. It's slow work and we had at least a mile of it.

I was quite pissed off at the trail.

I had less of a reason to be pissed at the trail than Jen. She blew her knee out. Fortunately for me, I did not see the actual moment of knee blowing. I don't really handle see friends pain that well, female friends in particular. I try to be as helpful as possible, but seeing any one on the verge (or actually over the verge[1]) really puts me on the verge of sobbing like a little girl.

Yep, I'm a big old softie[2]. Not the kind of softie that I'll describe in a minute, mind you. I hope I am never described in that fashion.

The best solution to that is really just send Rob and I ahead at our own pace. We made it down to the bottom pretty quickly, dropped our packs, took a drink of water, and headed back up. I'm really proud of Rob, actually. Even after some pretty long days of hiking, he still can be a gentleman.

We met back up with Liza and Jen after about fifteen switch-backs. In what took a little convincing, I was able to verbally wrestle away Liza's pack[3], while Rob took Jen's (I don't think there was a lot of arm twisting there).

We made it back down after the first of two treks into the wilderness a little bruised and broken, but otherwise in good shape.

We had a bit of a run-around after that, riding the shuttles around the park. This allowed for some interesting observations of life for the valley visitors. It was soft and I mean soft. They had hotels, shuttles (who needs walking?), restaurants and bars. We had, well, the stuff in our packs. There were so few backpackers riding around on those shuttles that we became an oddity, another attraction for the softies to photograph. I'm still surprised we never heard the statement "get my picture while stand next to them." Probably due to the smell.

The advantage to this was that the have Fat Tire on tap at the bar. This is one of my all-time favorite beers, and I only ever seem to get it when I'm on a hiking trip. It would be great if they would distribute here in the Midwest, but then it might lose it's specialness. It's become a little gift, a reward for hard work and too much mileage.

Ah, a tasty reward.

[1] What the hell is the "verge" anyway? How does some get on the edge of it. It seems like people hang out on the verge all the time, so is it really wide? Another piece of evidence that it's a really big place is that there are a lot of people on the verge of things: a breakthrough, a breakdown, madness, happiness. Maybe they just like hanging out there, like "he's on the verge, man."

The Verge must be a pretty cool place.

[2] Softie, /'sof-tE/, Etymology: 1soft.
1. a person who enjoys all the comforts of home, while surrounded by amazing natural beauty, which is meant to be explored and enjoyed through hard hikes, whilst carrying everything needed on one's back.
2. a softhearted or sentimental person

I fall under the second definition.

[3] In a fair, physical fight, I might put my money on Liza. The woman hikes on twelve Advil. She's a veritable pharmacopoeia.

[Note] Strangely enough, I didn't really take any pictures on this day. Probably due to the fact that we were climbing back down the same trail we took to get to the top in the first place.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

El Cap Nap

Yosemite Tramp, chapter 3

The Road to El Capitan
The brilliant part of backcountry camping is waking up to the sunrise and feeling like the only people on the mountain. We woke to the sounds of the river rushing below our campsite. The air was fresh, crisp and cold. Damn cold. Icy cold.

Yet another night of freezing my ass off.

I spent my previous backcountry hiking experience freezing nightly, to the point of breaking out the emergency blanket so I could sleep. While I slept soundly, my traveling companions were more annoyed by the crinkle sound the blanket material makes whenever there is the subtlest movement. This year, I decided to go a different route: bring things designed for colder weather.

The whole of the trip a learning process of how to sleep in the cold, while still being able to carry ultra-light equipment. On the first night in the brush, I used a silk liner sheet, and wore a stocking cap. Still, I kept waking up every fifteen minutes or so. My feet were cold. Lesson learned: wear socks.

We had decided the previous evening to do the ten mile hike to El Capitan, as a day hike, instead of hiking to North Dome, which would have been a ten mile hike with full packs. After the hard hike the previous day, we decided that a day hike would be preferable. Besides, we really liked our little campsite.

High Meadow
We hit the trail after the usual camp breakfast of instant oatmeal. The trail itself was relatively easy with pretty minimal elevation gain[1]. We passed by snow pack, and flooded meadows. We were all still tired from the previous day, but the excitement of being in the backcountry - again, as if we were the only people there - speared us on.

We stopped off for a hike up one of the peaks along the way. Here I made the mistake of climbing around the outside of the peak, dangling myself above a long drop down the face of the mountain. It made for a great photo op, though. Liza and Jen stayed behind at the fork in the trail, only to get tired of Rob and my childish need to climb up everything. At least they left a note, made out of pine needles[2].

We found the top of El Cap in only a few hours. The top wasn't really much to see. It was a long, rocky slope with few trees and little else. We did find a very nice little wind shelter, built around a small tree, that had been put together by some previous camper. We sat in the shade of it's tree and napped for a while.

The hike back was uneventful, simply passing back along the same trail. We spent another evening pleasantly exhausted, enjoying yellow curry and cheesy rice, with cashews, a nip of Scotch, and a few games of cribbage.

[1] Only 800 feet. This didn't really seem like much after the 2700 from the previous day.

[2] Somehow, that seems very
Hansel and Grettel to me.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Up the Falls

Yosemite Tramp, chapter 2

We woke up early in the morning to find that we didn't need to worry at all about rangers. The patrol rate of the rangers seemed pretty minimal in Yosemite. Glacier National park was crawling with them. They were almost as plentiful as the deer, and about as intrusive.

We needed to head over to the Wilderness Center to grab our permit and bear boxes. It seemed a bit odd that one has to hike in the backcountry with a personal bear box. These box turned out to be small canisters, with clever locking mechanisms, a little larger than a paint can. We needed two of them to cover our supplies for the first two nights in the backcountry.

In fact, we thought we needed three. The whole group seemed to develop a problem with knowing the exact day that a trip would end. Perhaps they caught it from me. So with an extra day's dinner, as well as all the breakfasts (yep, I forgot to even sort through those), we set out to climb Yosemite Falls.

The Falls
Yosemite Falls trail is a microcosm of American terrain. It switches to and from pine forests, through desert sands, and misty trees. Each area delights the imagination, conjuring forth different persons who lay in wait just beyond trees. I half expected to see Clint Eastwood burst from the brush, with Eli Wallach close on his heels yelling "Blondie" at the top of his lungs.

The trail itself is probably one of the most difficult hike in the park. It involves hiking up nearly 2800 feet of elevation over three and a half miles. Much of this climb is done in a series of very step and very short switchbacks. How I hate the switchback.

We arrived after about six hours of climbing. We were all in pretty decent shape by the end but quite exhausted. No one was terribly interested in hiking too far from the falls. Fortunately, we stumbled upon a really nice campsite, complete with fire pit, just off of the river.

After a brief nap, we headed to the falls to enjoy a well earned meal. Dinner and a show, actually. The Air Force's show flyers seemed to be doing some practice formations over the park. With all that Californian desert, we couldn't figure out why they choose a National Park as their training area. Still, there are less interesting things to see during dinner

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Flood Waters

Flood Waters
Yosemite Tramp, Chapter One

Let me start by saying, this trip was made on a bourbon-induced whim. The decision was made with the flippancy of one who's been traveling for months, and had no qualms about finding a new destination to keep oneself out on the road.

That being said, things started out without a hitch. The flight went well, we found the hotel, and took the train down to San Jose much earlier than we had thought. The plans seemed so solid, and so perfect that I was confident that it would be a perfect trip.

Hold on, let me back up for a minute. Unlike the rest of my recent travels, this one is a bit different. It's a group trip, one planned by my Friends Rob and Liza and accompanied by her friend Jen and myself. I've hiked in the backcountry with Rob and Liza, so I know their personalities in close-quarters. Having never camped with Jen before, she was a bit of a wild card. I had no idea what to expect there. As it turned out, not a problem. Going into the trip, everything else seemed pretty well planned, and I had no thoughts that it would go otherwise.

After the strange experience of visiting a local Greek festival[1], we headed for the park packed in to a van driven by Liza's dad, David. David is an interesting driver[2]. The mountain roads wound and snaked through the southern half of the park, causing some of the passengers to go green. It was a damn fun ride: tight turns, too-close passes, and wicked accelerations. Who needs Disneyland?

We only had the option of coming into the park by the southern entrance due to a massive rock slide. This disaster closed off the Highway 140 under tens of feet of rubble. The delay easily added an extra hour onto our travel time.

Here's where the first of the minor hitches in the whole plan cropped up. First off, the ranger stations all closed at 5:30. We arrived after 7 pm. This prevented us from getting our permit, which would allow us to stay in the Backpacker's camp. So, for the first night in the park: no campsite. The trip was already starting to look a little less perfect in execution.

The second hitch was the fact that the Backpacker's camp was flooded out anyway.

The water levels in the park were very high, due to record snowfalls and rainfalls this Winter and Spring. Many of the walking trails near rivers were flood over with at least eighteen inches of water. This causes some serious routing problems for people who plan to travel about by foot.

With no one wanting to ford a stream, in the dark, with packs, we made the decision to abandon any attempt. Luckily, we were able to find an unused spot in the reservation campground nearby. We only had to hope that we wouldn't run into any rangers before morning.

[1] This was a little fund-raising festival for a local Greek Orthodox church. Damn good Gyros.

[2] I.e. nuts.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Into an Hour-Glass


Oh, poor little blog. Neglected, lost, alone, wanting of updates, and information. My time for you is now limited, stolen away by that great sink hole named Work.

What have I signed myself up for?

It's day three of the new job. I'm still not sure how I feel about being back in the saddle. Partly due to the fact that I haven't really had a full night of sleep until last night. I flew the red-eye back from San Francisco, which denied me of a much needed nights sleep between hiking in Yosemite[1] and the start of a new job.

This lack of sleep and lack of time has really impacted my time for writing. I've started place a lot of importance on this. Heck, I'm on my lunch break at this very moment. The writing has to be crammed in to the day somehow. This leaves me wondering: how will I continue this in the future? Where will it fit into my life? When and where will I find the time to fill the need, and will the need remain with all the other concerns pushing it out of the way?

I had come to the conclusion that I enjoy the software business. Having just entered back into it, I'm left feeling like I've made a mistake somewhere. It needs a little time, to let the dust settle from the impact of what is, for the second time this year, a major change in my life.

On the positive side, I do feel like I have a clean slate - new job, new home, and new outlooks. I can make some changes in my daily life that would have been difficult to make before. But, more on that later.

[1] Which will be syndicated in seven parts, entiled Yosemite Tramp, or How to Lose Feet, Knees, and Avoid Bears with Neither.

Forthcoming from VT Publishing, Ltd.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Broken Vagabonds


The job problem has been solved. I've accepted one of the two offers that were presented last week. Funny, I think the one I wanted (and accepted) knew that I wanted it, and therefore did not budge on any of the terms. The other seemed to know that I wasn't thrilled with the company nor the offer, and, so, seemed to be willing to change anything. Too bad that wasn't compelling enough.

That's negotiation, I suppose.

It now official: June the Twelfth, I give up my short-lived, roaming lifestyle, and stay put. These vagabonds are broken, and I'm free to return to those of labor.

It's not so bad[1]. It really just ushers in a new chapter, with new work, new locations, a new home, and a new outlook on life. It's been a while since I've worked as a full-time employee. I have been contracting for the past three years. Perhaps I'll see something different, this time around. I've had some good career experiences since then, and some changes in the attitude which will make things go quite a bit more smoothly.

It does seem appropriate that I end my vagabondage with a trip. I'm leaving for Yosemite on Friday[2]. I'll have a Sunday to recover, before heading into the grind. I'll be in on the read eye.

Which brings me to one further subject that has not been touched on lo these many weeks. It's the question on everyone's mind: How's the Tango, since you've been back? Well, I haven't been able to make it. All that effort, wasted, you say? No, no. I'll be back out on the floor on that Sunday.

That's the way to end it.

[1] In other words, I should really stop being so fucking melodramatic.

[2] No, there probably won't be a post. There, there, don't cry. I know, it's hard, but time heals. Trust me.

shut up!

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Decisions, Decisions


Even I'm surprised by my Network. I had two interviews last week, as a result of openings passed my way by its members. The results came in pretty quickly: I had two offers sitting in front of me by afternoon Thursday. So now, I have been thinking through the process of deciding on which of the jobs I should accept.

It is not as hard as you think.

As it turns out, I really only want one of the positions[1]. They both have their reasons for interesting me. They both offer a competitive salary and benefits. They both come ready made with people I've worked with before (and, therefore, an easier transition into working again). One of them is just more compelling to work for, however.

One just has a bit more interesting work, is populated with a bit more interesting people, and has a more interesting location. Otherwise, it's actually hard to compare the two. They are apples to oranges, completely different jobs, targeting completely different types of software.

So the choice for me is quite simple. I just need to get what I want out of the company. This is the really selfish stage of job hunting. The potential employee (me) needs to try and get as much out of the potential employer (the people with the money) as possible[2]. Everybody at this stage is trying to get all they can out of the deal.

Sure, there is a little bit of compromise on both sides. I'm usually a pretty poor negotiator with, in the past, all the compromise on my end of the table. This time, I'm trying to move it back into the middle with some give-take on both sides. I'll give a little on salary, if you give a little on benefits.

I like to think that the last three months of traveling has emboldened me to think this way. I would like to think that I learned a thing or two about haggling, bargaining, and negotiating to get the best deal. I would like to think that it has given me more confidence to judge my value at a higher level.

Really, it's those two offers on the table. Says to me that I am one damned desirable little coder.

[1] I won't say which one. I don't want to tip my hand here. I'm still doing a little bit of negotiating. You'll have to guess, really. I'm hoping that I don't give too much away.

[2] With in reason, of course. It's not like I'm asking for a leased Porche, or a corner office. I'm just looking for a little more vacation time. I'm giving up my travel freedom that I get with contracting. I see that as a big sacrifice that I'm willing to make because I like the company, and feel like it would be a good fit. Otherwise, I'll just stick with contracting.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Stock Photography

Covered Stairs

I've been trying to sort through my pictures to find the decent shots. It's been taking a while. There are so many photos, that I'm a bit daunted. I took just short of four hundred pictures that need to be viewed, approved and made public in my photo stream.

That doesn't include the pictures of Scotland.

It's one of the few things I've been really procrastinating about. I know that people are interested, but I don't want to overwhelm them (nor underwhelm them - they need to be the best of the best). I think there are a few decent pictures in there. A majority of them have some decent elements in them, but perhaps need to be cropped correctly.

Here's the one major complaint I have about the camera that I used on recent travels[1]: the optical viewfinder is an asymmetrical cropping of what the lens sees. This really has ticked my off in the final evaluation of photos. Many that I thought were centered have a slight (like the one above) to seriously noticeable asymmetry.

This has created one of the major sources of procrastination: I don't really want to post-process my photos. If they didn't turn out well, then they get dropped into the archive.

It's also created a desire to drop some more cash on a new camera. I really would like to get a nice[2] SLR camera, with a set of lenses for varied zoom levels. I would like to be able to take more intimate photos while shooting street scenes, or at gathers. It seems to be the best way to capture natural emotions if the subject doesn't know that you're shooting them.

I could probably get by just with learning how to shoot around this particular camera's idiosyncrasies, but why "get by" when I could do it right? Or is it just throwing money at a problem?

[1] The Canon SD450. It a great camera for point and shoot, really.

[2] Digital, but not too expensive. I don't ask for much, really...

Monday, May 22, 2006



I've been making the rounds, since I've been home. I've been refamiliarizing myself with Minneapolis. I've been returning to old haunts, enjoying the a strong cup of joe. Checking in with people, catching up, and basically re-integrating myself back into society.

As a result, I've already another trip planned.

I know, I just got home, but I still have this fly-by-the-seat-my-pants mentality. Go where the wind and low cost airless will take me. That, and dinner and beer goes along way to convincing me that I should join a camping expedition to Yosemite.

Granted, it's only for a week. It's not some grand adventure. Although, if I go on the planned whitewater rafting trip[1], I might find myself dashed about the rocks. There will be some hiking and camping.

This does not mean that all's quiet on the job front. I had an interview this morning, which I think went pretty well. I'm not going to count it as won, but I'm sure I've made it past the first round.

The only thing here that really makes me step back and think about this position is that it would mean an end to contracting for the time being. I will lose the freedom that contracting provides to go on these longer term trips. It ties me back to the two or three week length vacation. Kind of puts an end to all the wandering.

I don't look at myself as a guy who does serious wandering, either. Most of the people I met in Argentina were on the road for six months to a year. Less so in Europe, only due to the fact that there are so many students who have finished up their study abroad programs. Then there is this guy, who has been traveling around the world for nine years. I have no idea how that guy can do it, but he must be making a living somehow.

I, on the other hand, am ready to get back to work. I've come to terms with the fact that I am a programmer. It's what I do and is what I'm good at.

Just one more little trip, though. I promise, it's the last one for a while.

[1] For those of you who I haven't caught up with yet. Patience people, patience. There's only so much time. If you all would quit your jobs and be a bum like me, it would be easy. That not being the case, you'll have to just hang on... I'm doing my best.

"Your best? Only losers whine about doing their best. Winners go home and f**k the prom queen." - Sean Connery, in The Rock.

Oh, the quotability of Michael Bay films.

[2] I'm freaked the hell out by rapids. I don't know why. They're a fear of mine. Water. Rocks. Brains being dashed out all over said Rocks by said Water.

Gives me the willies.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Punches Keep Coming


I feel almost Zen like in my ability to accept things that I cannot change. I'm not sure there's any problem that I couldn't pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again[1].

It turns out, I'm not starting work on Monday.

Apparently, one of the joys of contracting seems to be that things aren't definite until you show up, sit down and maybe write a little code. The contract I thought I'd be starting has been pushed out three or four weeks, due to another project that seems to be running long. This does not instill confidence in me about the fact that this will be the only delay.

Here's where that Zen attitude comes into play. I got the phone call about the extension in my car, on the way home from a lunch. When I got home, I sat down with my laptop and sent emails out to all the hits I had received whilst[2] I was away. By dinner time, I had another interview setup for Monday. All in under three hours.

Sometimes, I love the digital age.

So with emails fired off and a meeting setup with one of my pim...err...contracting firms today, I find myself less than worried about this whole delay. If I don't find a new gig in the next few weeks, the original contract should (as long as there are no further delays - I'm not holding my breath) start.

No worries, I'll be back in the ring soon enough.

[1] I'm ripping that one off from "Pick Yourself Up" by Nat King Cole. What a song writer, that Nat.

Whilst is a good word. I don't think people use it enough. It seems to fit in better than while when followed by a vowel.

Ok, so I think I might be just tripping on a little too much on my own vocabulary.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Weary Tappers

These guys have been through streets, mountains, and dance halls on two continents. They've been plodded along rough terrain and cobbled streets for what I estimate to be about 250 miles.

They are worn out.

This is a first really. I've never had to just throw out a piece of travel equipment due to extreme use. However, this pair has done it's duty and deserves to be sent off to it's final resting place.

I shall shed a tear for their tireless efforts.

Keep On Rolling On


Jetlag is a curious thing. It affects the brains ability to feel fully awake. It steals one's ability to sleep. It alters one's internal clock, to the point the one hour feels as good as the next. It steals one's car.

Wait. Steals one's car?

Perhaps I'm jumping the gun on that one, blaming Jetlag, and all his siblings[1]. It was incompetence that stole my car actually. Apparently, the security at the contract parking ramp where I stored my car felt, for the security of the other ramp users, that it would be best to tow it away. After all, it had been there seven weeks, it must have been abandoned.

Even though it had my license plates clearly in the place that license plates should be. Said license plates, again easily readable, also were listed on the contract. This did not deter the them from thinking it was abandoned.

Granted, this sort of situation would usually make a person angry. They would be in their right to be so. I noticed, though, that I was able to take this in stride. Backpacking has a tendency to really reduce the concern that someone has about something going wrong. While backpacking, more often than not, you are relying on public transport, publicly controlled attractions, and government employees of all types. In less developed countries, with decaying or poorly built infrastructure, delays are an expected nuisance. One just has to get used to the idea that more likely than not, something will go wrong.

In Paris, for example, I was kicked off the Metro. No, I wasn't doing anything wrong, everyone was kicked off. There was a lot of rather embarrassed and concerned looking maintenance people scurrying around the platform, trying to figure out what was going wrong. I tried to take the other line at that station, only to be told (I think) that the whole station was being shutdown, and I should find a different way home. So, I just walked, no big deal. And this was Paris.

One just has to roll with the punches. It's good when one returns home because, for a while at least, this ability to roll is great. Nothing really gets the blood boiling. This tends to wear off in about a week[2] or so, but it's nice while it lasts.

Err...So, What Happens Now?

Right, so, I do need to answer the question of what the hell am I going to do with the blog, give that I am going back to work. Well, the answer is pretty simple: I'll keep writing for a little while longer. How much longer is still up in the air.

Going back to work is certainly part of this whole experience. That transition back may provide something interesting to write about, or it may be as boring as watching any of the CSI spin-off/knock-off shows. I have been away from work for about five months now. I wonder if it's like a break up; perhaps I'll need a week recovery time for every month I was in it.

We shall see.

[1] Jetlag is a minor Greek god from the lesser-known family of second generation gods, the Annoyances, birthed parthenogenically via Eris. His siblings include Bloating, Irritability, Dry-Mouth, Pun, Film Criticism (originally know as Theatre Criticism - he recently had his name changed after a dispute with the Tony Award Committee), and, of course Incompetence.

Every one had always hoped that Incompetence would have killed himself in some sort of an accident with one of Zues' lightning bolts, but he was always too busy petting George, the lint in his belly button.

[2] Under less stressful environments, this can last indefinitely. As I do start work for another few days, and I'm not going back to G******ks (name hidden to protect the innocent), where high stress is considered "normal", I feel that I can keep this laid back attitude a little longer.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Last Stop


Back up in London town, after a surprisingly quiet and relaxed weekend Paris. It really was great to be back. I found that the parts I love best in Paris, where I felt most at ease. Montmartre, as neighborhoods go, is one of my favorite parts of town to just walkabout, have a coffee, and sit in a restaurant enjoying a meal. It also happens to be a great place for people watching.

Another great people watching area is the Gardens of Luxembourg. It's the park where the Parisians come to enjoy a sunny weekend afternoon. The occasional tourist wonders through, but they don't seem to stick around past a few snaps of their camera.

But here I am, up in London, with one more day. Which is a bit odd, actually. I thought I was supposed to fly out today. I thought I had planned it so that I wouldn't have to spend more than a few hours trekking between Luton and Heathrow airports. It turns out that I actually leave tomorrow. Fortunately I figured this out a few days ago. No worries on booking a hostel, getting into to town, not mistakenly heading to Heathrow, only to be turned back.

I seem to have a problem with keeping the last day of a trip in mind. Any trip longer than two weeks and that last date starts to become a little fuzzy. I have a ballpark figure in my head, but it's usually a plus-or-minus situation. This happened to me in China, as well. There I was thinking I left a day later. Fortunately then, as now, I figured this out a few days in advance[1].

I'm not sure I'm ready to put in closing thoughts on this little vagabond tour. It's still a little open-ended. Not that open-ended, mind you. I actually start a new contract a week from today[2]. That has put a definite end to this whole voyage, err, adventure, err, epic expedition of Avoiding Responsible Adulthood.

Now the only question left is, what the hell should I do with a half-day in London?

[1] Would have been much more of a pain in the ass, since I would have been in Shanghai, 1800 miles from my flight.

[2] Chalk that up to some mean, international phone interviewing skills.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Bit of a Present


I had a problem. I couldn't fly back to London from Bucharest for less than 900 bucks. My inexpensive options were Bratislava, Slovakia, or Paris. Both provided cheap hops back to London.

I gave into temptation.

I've said before, Paris is one of my favorite cities. There is so much here I haven't seen. It has cafes, it has the parks, and it has great people watching. It really wasn't that hard of a choice.

There was on thing in particular that I gave myself, as well. I happened to walk past this place called Breakfast in America. As the name implies, it's a American-style grille. I haven't had a good, American breakfast[1] in a long time; eggs, pancakes, and some sausage. Man, it was tasty. I know, I know, I'm in Paris, and I should be sampling local cuisine, but I've been doing that for weeks.

Ok, so that and a trip to the Louvre. No trip to Paris is complete without it. I think I've gone everytime I've been here, and probably will in the forseeable future. I spent much of my visit this time around touring through the ancient artworks of Rome, Eygpt and the Middle East. These cover practically a whole wing of the building (which also exposed me to some pretty amazing rooms I had not seen before).

I stopped in the Italian Painter section, as well, for the obligitory viewing of the Mona Lisa. I had seen Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine in Krakow, and wanted to compare the two. I think the Lady is actually his best work. The museum had re-done the Italian section, rotating in different works, as well as moving the Mona Lisa to a larger room in the section. The Da Vinci Code Effect[2] strikes again.

It's a joy to walk around this city, again. It seems so familiar, yet there is always something here that suprises me. One of the surprising things is that it also has, apparently, a pretty good tango scene. Something to check out tomorrow...

[1] I really hope the NSA is monitoring everyone's reading of this. All this "American"-whatnot business will help your standings in the Not-A-Terrorist Department.

[2] Similar to the
Slashdot Effect in the way it increases traffic to sights in the novel.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Bucharest Blues


I'm determined to not let Bucharest get me down. It's gritty. It's full of awful looking communist block housing. It's been devastated by war, earthquakes, and Ceauşescu.

It bloody challenging.

Bucharest used to be called "the Little Paris" or the "Paris of the East." It turns out that I was wrong about this for other cities. They all aspire to have the reputation. Bucharest had it. So much of the construction around the turn of the century was designed to make the city a little duplicate of the French Capital. Unfortunately major earthquakes and World War II destroyed much of the great structures in the city. And only a few of these buildings continued on after the reign of Ceauşescu.

Another reason is that I think I'm starting to feel a little sick. I was quite relaxed in Brasov, ready to take on a new and challenging city. I might have gotten a little too comfortable there, and a little careless. I'm normally pretty good about food, but...

So Bucharest might not be much of a stop. I'm only here for a whole day as it is, since I fly back West very early tomorrow morning. Hopefully I'll be back on the healthy train, as well.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Transylvanian Hide-away


This is a pleasant little place. Well, it feels pretty small, anyway. Similar to Krakow, in a lot of respects, only smaller. The old medieval town center is still the center of commerce, at least as consumer business goes. The locals are quite friendly and I've had some of the best service at restaurants on the whole of my trip.

I think I might stay just one more night than planned.

I took a half-day tour yesterday to see the Bran and Rasnov Castles. Bran castle has the (false) reputation of being Dracula's castle, but is quite distant from the actual home of the historical figure, in Wallachia. It was used up through the Twenties by part of the royal family of Romania, which has left it in excellent shape, and with very modern interiors.

Rasnov castle is the much more dramatic of the two. Perched very high up on a hill, over looking the town, it is more of a old ruined citadel, than a castle. Inside is the remains of a whole town, some of which has been rebuilt to form the museum and the requisite tourist shops. The views from the top provide a dramatic panorama of the surrounding mountains, marred only be the ruined factories and nuclear cooling tower in the town below.

There are a good deal of other day-trips out of the city as well. Brasov sits in a valley in the Carpathian mountains. Many of the small towns surrounding Brasov still maintain their medieval flavor. I plan to take a day-trip out to a very well preserved town tomorrow, hence the extra day[1].

I've really enjoyed being back in a more rural setting. The mountains are accessible from the center of the old town, full of well maintained trails. It's been a really great break from the hustle and bustle of the cities.

[1] Ok, so the other part of that is that I have not heard great things about Bucharest. Everyone I talk to seems to say that you don't need more than a day or two there. So this way, I'm just shortening my stay to about 2 and half days, before flying back west.

Apparently, totalitarianism was not kind to Bucharest...

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Danube in the Night-time

The Danube in the Night-time
Originally uploaded by

This as up-to-date as it gets. I finally was able to upload a couple more photos from the Eastern Europe leg of the Journey.

I made it down to Brasov this morning on the train. It's a confusing little town, with winding, medieval streets. A Poor map and a hostel just off the map doesn't help.

The locals are pretty helpful, though. I'm amazed at how well (and willing) they speak English. I asked an older woman for directions and was suprised by the her skill. She actually left her shop and walked me half-way to the street I was trying to find.

Not that the town is that large that being off the map is a problem. Every thing (save the train station) is within a 15-20 minute walk. The town square is a small, but pretty part of town. Apparently it is the best one of its kind in the Romania.

It's on and off rainy here today, so the exploring might be minimal. Not a worry, though. I'll be here three nights before heading down to Bucharest.

Things certainly are winding down...

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Can't Stop, Won't Stop


I chose to spend an extra night in Budapest. It's such a great walking city, for one, and a couple of rainy days also made me think that I might need that extra day.

The rain did not stop me.

Slowed me down a bit, but there was no stopping. I think that it merely added a different flavor[1] to the city. The heavy rain and thick, low clouds reduced the number of people out on the streets, making for a more tourist-free scene. Most of the people with umbrellas looked like locals going to and from their daily routines. It gave the city a more natural feel.

I did take that breather with the trip to the baths, on the first of those rainy days. The public bath is an enormous complex with a variety of pools of varying temperatures. There are both indoor (which I used) and outdoor (which somehow I couldn't find) pools. I just alternated for two hours between the 38 degree C pool and the 50 degree C sauna. I felt so relaxed.

Even still, all relaxed and prepared to just hang out for the rest of the day, I did a quick walk up Gallert Hill, to the citadel. This is the highest hill in central Buda, which affords some great views of the city, including the castle from above. The citadel itself is only the remnants of a fortress, but now is the location of a World War II monument. It is surrounded by a massive series of parks that cover the whole of the hill.

The following day was filled with more museums, more monuments, and Roman ruins. The most interesting museum, based on presentation, was the Terror House. It covers the history of the Nazi occupation, the Arrow Cross Party (Hungary's own home-grown Nazi party), and the communist era. Most of the history surrounds the atrocities surrounding each of these regimes. The museum used a multimedia approach, with many contemporary art pieces to present the concepts. The only detractor was that only some of the videos had English subtitles.

Also had quite the run around to get tickets out of to Brasov, Romania. I lost a whole afternoon, going back and forth from the station. It's all squared away and I so I'll head onto my last set of destinations in Eastern Europe. The trip is really starting to wind down.

Maybe I'll take that break in Romania...

[1] The rain, unfortunately, also added a certain smell, a wet Budapest smell. It ain't like roses...

Monday, May 01, 2006

Public Holiday


May the First happens to be Labor Day in much of Europe, including here in Budapest. Most things are closed, but all of the state run entertainments are open - museums, baths, and monuments. But stores and many restaurants are closed. It's also a bit rainy. Really rainy. Damned rainy.

This is not a Bad Thing.

My dogs are tired. I have been hoofing it for well over a week now, doing some pretty intensive sight seeing. So the rain is providing a much needed day of rest. I may try to go up to the baths, today, but I'm not really going to push myself.

Given the holiday, I spent much of the day yesterday walking about the central park where fair-like tents and food stands had been setup for the holiday. There are rides, fair-food and a whole lot of music. It was Sunday, though, so it seemed as though it was only half setup. I actually feel a little sorry for the locals, missing out on today's holiday cheer due to weather.

The Tango Report

Budapest actually has the best list of tango venues of any city I've been to. There are about five a week, but lessons seem to be harder to find. I checked out a venue last night, a place called Cinema Urania. It was a classic place, with architecture circa 1900, but wonderfully restored. The dance floor was on the first floor, above the lobby. It was also one of the youngest tango crowds I've seen outside of Buenos Aires. They played a great mix of classic and modern tango music, which is a first for me.

For a small milonga, it was pretty impressive.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Impressions of Budapest


First off, in comparison to Prague, Budapest is already a much more enjoyable city: a more social hostel, easier access to local night life, and fewer tourists. Given it's lack of colors on the older buildings, the city is much more reminiscent of Paris rather than Prague[1]. More cafés than pubs make it more to my taste as well. Think of it as Paris, with a Turkish influence.

The city is divided into two distinct sections: Buda and Pest. Buda is a hilly city, capped by the medieval Castle Hill. Pest is a flat city, where much of the business and industry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries flourished. The divider, the Danube, is one of the widest rivers in Europe. It is crossed by a number of impressive bridges, joining the two cities into Budapest.

There are two incredible fine arts museums in Budapest. The first houses a great number of European masters, many of them are Spanish renaissancee painters like El Greco and Velasquezz. The second is the National museumm, housing great Hungarian works of art from the early renaissancee through today.

The public transportation has been a bit trickier to figure out, than in Prague[2]. There is a metro system, a tram system, and buses, but they are not as well labeled, nor as convenient to transfer between. So, for me, Budapest has been more of a walking city.

A ridiculous amount of walking.

I have heard, in the past, Prague described as the "Paris of the East". I don't really think that it deserves the title. If it was based solely on the beauty of the city, then it's possible. If we compare the cities on a few other levels, we might get a better idea.


Beautiful and Well Preserved Buildings
Tourist Attraction Personell Rude to Tourists
Ridiculous Number of Expats
Locals Generally Friendly

Many Cafés

Great Art Galleries


So really, it's only half as good...

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Nouveau Tourist


I've always liked the Art Nouveau style. Great lines, cool use of symbolism, really cool in it's use of functionalism.

There was a Czech artist, by the name of Alphons Mucha who was a master of the art form. Initially based in Paris, he was a sensation in creating beautiful posters for advertisements for such things as theatre productions, as well as commercial products. He returned to the Czech republic after the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918. He participated in much of the city's artistic designs, including the new Municipal House, and stain glass in the St. Vitus Cathedral.

While the Municipal House was closed to touring, save on Saturdays, there was an exhibit of Art Nouveau in Croatia. While much of the paintings seemed to owe much more to French impressionism, with the Art Nouveau use of allegory, and the posters seemed to be weak imitations of their Parisian counterparts, the architecture and furniture pieces were the highlight of the exhibit. Fuctional, yet with great uses of lines, symmetries and asymmetries. Beautiful pieces of furniture.

Don't Say I Never Do My Homework

I did check in into the local tango scene here in Prague. There is a weekly class, as well as weekly milonga. I checked out both. The class, as it turned out, was very small - about four couples. I really couldn't find myself breaking into that. It felt almost intrusive, especially with my bull-like capacity for English.

As for the milonga, well, it was more populated with perhaps twenty-odd milongueros. But, let's be honest, at the best of times, I'm not one for going out dancing with out a wingman (preferably a wing-woman[1] and dancing partner). If nothing else, it's good to have someone to chat with between (infrequent) dances. Still, it was a nice space, and regular, making the local tango scene a bit better than Glasgow.

[1] Not a winged woman. This would certainly make for a memorable entrance, but may put off the rest of the dancers. I mean, how does one compete with that?

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A Buzz


Once the little secret of adventurous travelers, Prague has become the tourist destination. There are swarms of tourists, many from France, Italy and Germany. It's reached that point were the large majority of visitors are middle aged. The city is relatively safe and easy.

This has knocked it out of the running for Favorite City[1] in my book.

I had been warned, about five years ago, that it's almost too late to experience the Best Kept Secret that was Prague. I was told then that it was the time to go. I just didn't really take the chance to go until now. A bit too late, in my opinion.

Don't get me wrong, I still think Prague has a lot going for it. The architecture is incredible. I've never seen churches so bright and airy, nor with so much gilded sculpture. Prague Castle is absolutely huge; it's in the Guinness Book of World Records. The main cathedral, St. Vitus, rivals any other cathedral in size and beauty. Inside there are stain glass from many of the great Czech artists from the early 20th century.

As public transportation goes, Prague has a great system. Three underground lines, a myriad of street-level trams, and an extensive bus system. The narrow streets of the Old and New Towns require extensive use of a system like this - parking is just not an option for those who work in these areas.

Like Glasgow, there is an amazing amount of music here. Unlike Glasgow, the majority of it is classical. Most, if not all, of the churches have daily classical concerts. There are a large number of theatres in town with opera performances. In addition, they like their jazz here. Any bar downtown not into dance-beats or classical is a jazz bar. If you overhear anyone listening to music (particularly the bathroom attendants) they are listening to Billie Holiday or Benny Goodman.

The tourists have still been a bit of a problem for me. Perhaps it is because it is starting to become The Season. May is almost here, and with it brings the tourists. At least they're not the student tourists. I'm glad to missing all of the American backpackers, out to burn up a little time and money between graduation and Real Life.

Perhaps Prague is another city to visit in the depth of winter...

[1] The Top 5 list, currently, is as follows:

1. Paris, France
2. Buenos Aires, Argentina
3. San Francisco, California, USA
4. Babb, Montana, USA - I could live at the Cattle Baron Supper Club.
5. Istanbul, Turkey

Some where just below that is Minneapolis. I wouldn't live there if I didn't think it was so damn good.

And it's not like some of these cities are difficult, or hard to manage, or lack tourists. Take Paris, for example. It's very easy to navigate and full of tourists. Yet, there just a sort of je-ne-sais-quoi...

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Night Train Shuffle


I took a night train to Prague last night. A rather amusing experience, being packed in a little cabin with a Czech, a German and myself. The Czech was very friendly, very chatty. He even bought beer for his new friends. He was also the most racist bastard I've ever met.

Good God, he just went on and on about Muslims. I've never really encountered someone that racist, where there is obviously no way of convincing them otherwise. At least, for once in my travels, I was actually in agreement with a German on politics, foreign policy and acceptance of different cultures.[1]

He was, however, very informative on riding the night trains in Poland. Crime has dramatically risen on the trains. They only allow one door to be opened when the train is stopped, they tell you to lock your door at night. I never even knew that the doors locked. He blamed it all on the Gypsies (which there really aren't any in Poland, they are all in the Czech Republic - all the Polish Gypsies were exterminated in WWII).[2]

Prague is beautiful. The city itself escaped most war time damage and, as a result, the old buildings are all still intact.

I had a lot of time to kill before I could actually check in to my hostel. I spent it wondering around before the tourist got up, while the city was still quiet after a Friday night.

The buildings are incredible. There has been a remarkable amount of restoration work in the Old town. All the buildings have been painted to their original colors, allowing the tourist to imagine the city as it was all the better. The old town is full of narrow, winding streets. The shops themselves have become quite touristy, though.

I didn't spend too much time walking around before needing to head back to the hostel to sleep. I don't know what it is about taking night trains, but I always feel a bit of something akin to jet-lag[3]. Still after plenty of sleep, I was ready to head out to a bite to eat and watch the night life move from place to place.

Prague is supposed to be this city that keeps people: people come, people just don't leave. I'll be here a bit longer than most places on this trip, so we'll see what sort of impression it has on me...

[1] In the past, and I'm sure this is a bit of a generalization, but more often then not I've encountered German tourists who have felt like they had the right and duty to just try and show me how wrong America is.

It's as if I have never even seen a foreign country or thought about foreign policy. They feel like they should correct all the wrongs of the world by arguing with me.

Man, it's frustrating.

[2] Again, he was racist.

[3] Can I coin the term "train-lag"?

Friday, April 21, 2006



I didn't really plan on it. I didn't even know that it was near by. It was just one of those things one really should do if one is in Krakow. I debated and thought, but people kept telling me that I really should go.

I visited Auschwitz.

The day started like any other day: chatty, happy, out to see the sights. Once the first exhibits were reached on the tour - the gas chamber/crematorium of Auschwitz I - the whole crowd took on a very hushed and somber disposition. That lasted the rest of the day.

It was intense. Absolutely, emotionally intense. It is a harrowing place. Nothing has ever really driven home the scale of the Holocaust before. There are actually three camps that make up Auschwitz - Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III. The Birknau camp was built solely for extermination. The scale of the place is unbelievable. The whole camp is over 400 acre. It takes 15 minutes to walk across the camp at a brisk pace from the train gate to the end of the line.

It was good to go out for a meal and a drink afterwards. It helped to remember that we are alive and lucky.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

A Little Farther East...


I flew into Krakow on Tuesday morning. Quite a change of scene, really. The architecture is quite different. The language is amazingly different. The history and old wealth is just incredible.

Old Krakow is dominated by a 15th century castle that makes the Scottish castles look a bit like a cabin up on Lake Mille Lacs. There is a distinctly eastern orthodox influence in the castle itself, but all the churches are Gothic cathedrals. It makes for a very interesting mix.

I am finding it a bit strange walking around town, passing statues of historical figures that I've never even heard of. I've been thinking a bit about why this is, and I think I know why. For those of us who grew up in the eighties and early nineties, these countries were still under communist rule. Much of the news reports that we got and the history that we discussed in school was related to the post-war period, with its emphasis on the Russian sphere of influence. Because of this, I've always had the impression that there is little in the way of architecture or historical monuments from outside the twentieth century.

It's something quite different and yet very similar. Oddly enough, I find that the bar culture here is more similar to that at home than the culture in Scotland. It's more laid back, and seems to be much less about the drinking, and more about the having a drink and a conversation. Only the visitors seem to really tear it up.

I haven't been terrible good with the language. There are very few phrases in my guide book (there isn't even a phrase for buying tickets). I feel a little bit of remorse for it. Like a bull in a china shop, throwing my English weight around, shattering that rapid flow of the natural language.

I'll head to Prague on Friday night.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Music City


Glasgow has been great for culture. Edinburgh has all the neat and pretty streets, the castles, the seat of government. Glasgow has the School of Art and so much music it hurts.

Well, it's loud.

I've seen a couple of shows, now, with another on the docket for tonight. The first was the aforementioned Charlie Winston show. Last night included a total crap band, a interesting band (We are the Physics), and a technically good band (the Science). I wasn't as happy with the show as with the Charlie Winston show. Partly due to the fact that the bands weren't great, partly due to the fact the venue was that great either. Too much bar, not enough band focus. The bartender wasn't terribly impressed with any of the bands, either. He described the middle band as a "Glasgow Flavor-of-the-Month" with their Franz Ferdinand guitar stylings.

As for a seeing the inside of museums, churches and whatnot, I haven't really had a chance to do that. With the Easter holiday, most things have been closed. Today is, in fact, a bank holiday, which means everything is either closed or on sale. I'm not sure which is which.

With the holiday, I did happen across a strange site: a motorcycle rally. Apparently, every Easter this huge group of bikers get together for a rally at the Children's Hospital, in order to bring treats to all kids. Unlike American motorcycle rallies, this was all colorful crotch rockets. Hardly a Harley to be seen. Damn whiney sounding, as well.

I did go to that tango workshop on Saturday[1]. It wasn't bad - not great, but not bad. There are better tango instructors in Minneapolis, that's certain. I also was not happy with being the youngest person in the room by at least five years. I did, however, enjoy the compliments about my lead. Felt pretty good about my ability to do basic tango, because of that.

Way to go, confidence level.

[1] Are you surprised? Have you looked at the title of the blog?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Onward to Glasgow


Skye was pretty, but due to weather, nothing to really write home about. Another case of being up on top of a mountain in weather that I probably shouldn't have been. Snow, rain, and high winds, but quite beautiful. As with all the weather of this sort, it's also peaceful with not too many tourists around.

So it was straight on to Glasgow. I'm rather glad I've allocated it as much time as I have. It's an interesting city. It's certainly not the neat and clean city that is Edinburgh (or most of Eastern and Northern Scotland, for that matter), but it has it's own flavor. It has a great music scene, as well as some interesting art exhibits and old cathedrals.

As for the music scene, I went out last night to check out a music club last night. I just sort of picked one rather randomly using the following criteria: first, that it was close; second that there were at least three groups playing - more bang for the buck; last, that it was cheap - not a lot of bucks.

I ended up catching the middle and closing bands at a bar called King Tut's Wah Wah Hut in central Glasgow. The middle group, which appears to be the headliner, was a guy named Charlie Winston and band. Mr. Winston played acoustic guitar or keyboards, while singing vocals. While the tracks were hit and miss, for me there was more hit than miss. The best numbers had a complexity of lyrics and great vocal change-ups. Mr. Winston's stage presence was great, with good audience interaction and high energy.

Particularly good numbers were his opening number with a political song about, er, well, the war ("Gone, Gone"), a song called "Finding Home" (simple, but good), and "Yes, Yes", which was a very high energy and humorous look at the male sexual response. There's a lot of potential in Charlie Winston's work. I'll have to keep an eye out.

As for the rest of the weekend, I'll try to see another few more shows. And hit up a tango workshop...

Yeah, I know. What the crap is that about? Tango in Scotland?

I wonder if they'll have some in Poland...

Monday, April 10, 2006

A Little Bit More on Orkney

Somewhere on the Scapa Flow.

Minor note on the date of this post. I wrote it on the ferry back to Scotland from Orkney. I know that I'm publishing it a bit later, but I figured I would still date it when it was written.

One of the beautiful things about Orkney is that it feels so remote. The windswept, treeless islands, the farms and their sheep, and the Orcadiams, with their fierce independent nature reinforces this feeling.

It is intensely relaxing.

The winds are incredible, causing remarkable rapid changes in the weather. I spent Sunday walking up Wideford Hill, just outside of Kirkwall, to get some panoramic views of the island. I started out just after noon under partly cloudy skies. As I made my way up the hill, I could see out into the bay where a wall of Storm was rolling in quite rapidly. By now, being a seasoned Orkney tourist, I figured that it wouldn't last. I kept on walking.

All the sheep seemed to lay down in unison. I think they're a bit more clever than I am.

It hit hard. Driving sleet and snow made the side of my face raw. Visibility dropped off to about fifty meters. I ducked behind a stone field wall to wait it out. Ten minutes later, there were clear, blue skies.

After that, it was a pleasant, although steep, softy climb to the top of the hill. It was worth the trip: the views were stunning. Those high winds threatened to blow me off the top, however - I almost lost my footing several times. Snapped a few photos, and headed back down.

On the way down I passed a footpath over to a Neolithic tomb. Orkney has the highest density of prehistoric sites in all of Europe. Just walking past a path to some tomb is not so surprising.

The path itself was exceedingly muddy and on the windy side of the hill. In fact, I had to try it twice, heading back once to avoid another snow storm that was strangely only on one side of the hill. Unfortunately, the cairn was locked up, so I couldn't actually get inside. Still, it was interesting to be the only person on the side of that hill.

It wasn't a terrible disappointment. I had gone on a tour[1] the day before of various Neolithic and Stone-aged sites. I had seen the inside of Maeshowe, the largest and oldest chambered tomb on the Mainland. More impressive of these sites was the Ring of Brodger. It is a huge circle of standing stone. In either site the fact that these stones were moved at all is impressive. Some weigh up to twenty tons, and were moved up to nine miles.

The hostel in which I stayed in Kirkwall was far from the town center (over a mile), institutional (it was like staying in an elementary school), and had few backpackers. So far, it's my favorite hostel in Scotland. The sole staff member, while a bit eccentric, was very friendly, and was enjoyable to talk with. He was very helpful with tips on where to go, and even offered to loan me his bike. The few backpackers were all early season travelers, so they were more laid back.

Overall, Orkney is a great stop on a s Scottish tour. It's a nice cultural change of pace and a beautiful place, as well.

[1] A note on tours: I usually don't go on anything remotely like a tour. I like to be self-guided. I'm starting to find out that this is not a good idea for two reasons.

First, I don't learn nearly enough about the place if I just look at it. The only exception to this, of course, is museums. They already have an explanation at each installation.

Secondly, often times things are spread out to the point that I can't walk to any of the interesting bits. This was definitely the case with the Orkney sites.

Radio Silence


I'm leaving Orkney this morning, heading back to Inverness, and then tomorrow I'll be heading to the Isle of Skye (I've been told it's worth the trip). So, since I'll be pretty much travelling for a couple of days, it might be a little while before I can put something up.

This morning is the first day with calm winds. Sure, there will be constant cloud cover, but it means that the ferry ride will be nice and smooth.