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The Journey So Far: Vienna -> Croatia

July 30th, 2009 Hari 1 comment

7/30/09, 1:30 pm

I’m writing this in the car again – we are headed into Southern Croatia, eventually to Dubrovnik on the coast, the ‘pearl of the Adriatic’ according to Lord Byron. The countryside could be classified as Mediterranean – lots of scrub, the occasional evergreen, low-lyiing hills, and squat box-like buildings built into them. Now is a good time to write about the places I’ve been so far.

I flew into Vienna on 7/21, from DC by way of NYC and London. My friends picked me up a few hours late, a consequence of road construction and traffic on the long drive over from Prague (things taking longer than expected has become a common feature of life on the road – despite the way our car eats km up, poor signage is common and we don’t always have clear directions on our atlas). I was pretty tired when they picked me up, so we spent the next day in Vienna while I recovered from the jet lag. Vienna is a beautiful and interesting city – lots of parks, lots of cool architecture and gardens. Of particular note was the butterfly house, a greenhouse with many different species of these colorful insects. There were many occasions where I saw a butterfly extending its long and delicate proboscis into the head of a flower or a piece of fruit, feeding before lifting off and fluttering away. I also enjoyed working my way through several hedge mazes located in the Palace grounds.

On 7/23, aD, T$ and I headed west towards Switzerland. Though away from our eastern callings, we had a few days to kill before picking up PP again in Vienna. The detour was well worth it – Switzerland is as beautiful as they say. We experienced alpine lakes, soaring snow-covered peaks (the Jungfrau), woods, brooks, and tourists! It’s easy to easy why this area is a playground of old Europe. In Lucerne, one of the towns we stayed at, we saw plenty of ads for paragliding, jumping (from planes and bungee-), river rafting, and zorbing (imagine being strapped inside a clear plastic ball, that is cushioned and itself secured inside a larger ball, and hurtling down a hillside inside it). Along with adventure sports, almost every Swiss town we passed through had its fair share of fondue (which we sampled one night, yum!), watch, swiss army knife, and fancy clothing stores. The latter seeem to be present in every European city and medium-sized town we’ve passed through so far – Europeans like to dress well I guess. We’ve saved a lot money thus far by staying in large public camping grounds, and the ones in Switzerland were particularly nice: clean, with hot showers, and laundry facilities. They’re also well-inhabited by lots of Europeans, with large tents (they seem fully-equipped, even with electrical hookups, folding chairs, tables, etc.). Our tents were much smaller than the average size here – but perhaps this reflects our own innate backpacking tendencies rather than any particular difference between American and European camping persuasions (it’s been years since I’ve been in an American camping ground).

(Intermission: took a break from writing as we stopped by Split, large coastal town on Adriatic. Lunched on fresh fish, olives, rice and wandered about the ruins of old Roman palace).

On our way to Switzerland, we also had our first brush with the law – we were pulled over twice by the German police. The first time, we had stopped outside a gas station jus as we passed Salzburg, Austria (birthplace of Mozart). Two men out of uniform but with guns and police IDs asked us to step out of the car, took our passports, and proceeded to search the car. They were polite, but serious, and they definitely seemed to suspect us of drug-running. They profiled T$, searching his bags but not ours – T$ admittedly looked a bit suspicious with sparse whiskers on his chin and Robin hood style hat. Of course, they found nothing and let us go. The second time, we were pulled over by Germans in a police car – they also started to search, but broke it off once we told them we had previously been searched the day before.

Other highlights of Switzerland: kayaking on Lake Lucerne, navigating the often frustratingly poorly-signed highways on our way to small Swiss towns, enjoying the groceries bought at gas stations (one of which also had a sex shop opposite the convenience portion of the stores – the prevalence of explicit imagery like this is far more accepted and prevalent in Europe than in the US).

On 7/27 we started the 860 km journey back from Switzerland to Vienna, where we were to pick up PP. This journey took us ~10 hours, longer as usual than planned, so we were ~3 hours late at the airport. PP, by this time, had enough – and had left to find his own accomodations in Vienna. We reconnected with him the next day, having communicated over email, and proceeded with him to Slovenia.

Slovenia is gorgeous – full of mountains, lakes, woods, and fields. It was also cool – a welcome change after the heat of Germany and Austria. The first night we stayed in the small town of Bled, in the ‘Julienne Alps’, a beautiful moutaintanous region in the Northern country. Bled is an interesting example of a small European town just starting to experience the evils of tourism. Although relatively unpopulated and pretty small, it has a beautiful lake in the middle of town, an island in the middle of the lake, and a castle overlooking the lake. However, the town also had a Casino, complete with tuxedoed waiters and cigar-smoking clientele, and the campground we first tried to visit was hardly a pleasant space in the woods. When we arrived, a staff member was blaring MC Hammer tunes and entertaining a large group children with a microphone.

Further south, we finished up our stay in Slovenia by visiting the awesome Skocjanske caves. These were much more impressive caves than the lava tubes in the Mt. St. Helens area (Washington state) that I had explored in my youth. The caverns were enormous – stretching 10s of meters high and hundreds of meters in width, sporting an underground river that snaked its way through the interconnected limestone, and complete with massive stalactites, stalagmites, bats, and guano. If you should ever find yourself in Slovenia, go!

- Hari

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Initial Meditations on the Trip, 07/28/09

July 28th, 2009 Hari No comments

4:30 pm, local time

I’m currently writing this while in the car, finally full with all 4 of us and our possessions. We picked up Peretz Partensky (PP) in Vienna this morning, and are currently en route to Slovenia – had thought first about heading to Ljubljana (the capital), but now may divert to a national park instead. The car, a 1994 Opel Astra, is a blue station wagon, currently stuffed to the gills with tents, backpacks, carbs of various kinds, ice (and regular) tea, pillows, various electronics including PP’s mini laptop that I’m writing this on, the walkie-talkies that PP and Tristan Ursell (T$) are chattering on while in the car, many more items of various functions, and the 4 of us (PP, T$, me, and Amand Dunn, aD, who is driving). I’m sitting in the backseat, and am cramped but oddly satisfied. There’s something great about heading towards a country you’ve never visited before, could only vaguely pinpoint on a map, and *not* having a set plan. Why the trip? Where are we headed? Will the car break down? Will we be able to tolerate each other for the additional 5 weeks that I’m here?

Impossible to answer all these questions, at least right now, but I’ll take a stab at the first. This trip originated as a thought of T$s – he saw the Mongol Rally website (google it!) and we started discussing the idea, more as a joke than as a reality. At some point I looked seriously into the possibility of attending the ‘actual’ rally, and got an ‘official’ spot. Various friends seemed interested in attending the event at various points in the trip-planning, but several bailed when it came to committing to the event.Over the last year, the trip evolved into its current state – a trip as far east as we can make it (to Mongolia, or perhaps beyond) in our respective time-frames (6 weeks total for me, more for the others), but unofficially, not part of the Mongol Rally so the trip is cheaper and more flexible than allowed by the rules of that rally’m sure we all have different reasons for the trip, ranging from the mundane (a somewhat unconventional summer vacation in Eurasia) to the more complex (pushing personal boundaries and comfort zones, exploring those peoples, cultures, and countries that most of us couldn’t easily identify on a map). I’m still working out myself why I’m doing this – for now, it’s enough to say that I desperately need a break between my postdoctoral days and my new ‘adult’ life as a PI at the NIH. Despite my best intentions, I still find myself thinking about microscopy and research while on this trip, although the liberation and excitement of exploring the unknown (no fixed destination, minimal planning) are uplifting and invigorating.

H|

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Birthday

July 19th, 2009 peretz 1 comment

It’s my birthday.  It’s also the day I gave my “exit talk” which nominally crowned me with a p h d with a bit of champagne, but enough about that.  For the past two months, I have lived out of a backpack, practiced at being a nomad, wandered through three countries while preparing for this road trip through another ten.

I’ve identified some of the skills I will need to endure the road and came up with questions I would like to answer on my path.

  • How do I deal with travel fatigue, and how do my interactions with people I meet for the first time and for not more than a few days become something other than an protracted amorphous hello and goodbye?  I need to have my own center and goals, and channel that at productive conversation that I will be responsible for conducting from place to place, leaving and taking.
  • I’m curious how successful we will be at using CouchSurfing.com to identify individuals curious to engage and share their realities with us.
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