2008 Country Experiences and Impressions
Listed below are just a few of the numerous memories and impressions that I've picked up from countries explored during the past 12 months.
The western half of Peru is nothing but desert—not a pretty, Grand Canyonesque desert, but an ugly, post-nuclear holocaust wasteland, where practically nothing grows (except the sweeping expanses of garbage).
Every city looks exactly the same: Incomplete or crumbling buildings; dirty roads lined with chipped chunks of concrete and trash; faded building exteriors; and streets fill with packs of stray dogs, demolition derby-ready vehicles, and an excessive amount of small Chinese restaurants.
The truth is that western Peru pretty much resembles what most Americans envision the worst part of Mexico looking like, repeated over and over and over again.
As a society, Peruvians have some wonderful traditions and foods, and I know that they're capable of much better, but the mañana attitude is particularly potent in the country. No taxes need be paid on incomplete buildings, so many stay that way. Family takes a strong priority over living environment, and is a cultural sentiment only perpetuated by the degrading surroundings that families live in.
I stayed much too long in the capital city, though Tatiana and her family did their best to make it as enjoyable for me as possible. But the truth is that I'm done with Peru. I'm sick of looking at it. I'm sick of dealing with it.
Despite our close connections to Tatiana's lovely family in Lima, I really hope that travel to Peru won't be a regular part of my life.
Vivid memories: Making a plaster belly cast; Christmas and New Year's Eve craziness; the birth of my son, Aidric; debating my perception of culture and rape; building the new (WordPress-driven) travelogue; building the new snapshots gallery theme; the impressive U.S. embassy in Lima; purchasing my son's U.S. citizenship; enduring the international travel consent letter for children; taking family dog on walks; attending a wedding; neighborhood street vendors; being attacked by Christmas bugs; eastern medicine superstitions and pseudoscience; my favorite neighborhood chifa; a population imprisoned by home security; and an outrageous airport departure tax.
I think Ecuador has becoming one of my top Latin American countries, and really deserves more time than I've given it in the past.
Ecuadorians seem to have a more ecologically friendly demeanor towards their living environment than Peruvians; the entire population gives off a vibe as if they belong to an agricultural co-op. They're generally a peaceful, land-laboring bunch, and are simply the most impressive farmers I've seen on the planet.
The diversity of micro-climates in the country rewards visitors with tremendous variety. From the Galapagos; to the desert coast; to the dense jungle; to the green highlands; to the snow and ice-peaked Andes—there's a lot there for such as small country.
Ecuador certainly warrants a third visit.
Vivid memories: Carnival traditions that border on assault; padlocks; Loja's monument park; an abandoned gondola castle; Shanta's moustache; the food (and as always, the fantastic corn); and avoiding the most dangerous border crossing on the planet (from my personal borders crossed list).
The United States
These days, traveling in the United States is my vacation. It's an oasis of predictability and pleasurable excess. Life is easy and boring in the U.S., but complicated and almost always overpriced.
The bulk of my time was spent in the Miami area, which is not the United States. This part of the country has at least as many Cubans and Haitians in it as Puerto Ricans with relatives living in New York. I found myself speaking more Spanish there than English.
My next return to the U.S. will likely be in the first quarter of 2010, for my brother's graduation from his medical school program.
Vivid memories: Introducing Tatiana and our son to my family for the first time (in person); catching sharks with a rod and reel in the Florida Keys; feeling like a (bored) housewife; watching Memorial Day weekend turn Miami Beach into downtown Atlanta; Fourth of July fireworks; girls in bikinis trying to set a world record; all-you-can-eat Argentine steakhouses; Cuban breakfasts; aidric's first fever; the humidity; Aidric's first exposure to the beach/ocean; waiting for the public bus; having to walk to another hotel or the library to poach some Wi-Fi; watching Tatiana fire off a Glock 17; and tanning naked, on what's certainly one of the best strips of beach I've experienced in the world.
Poland seems to have recovered wonderfully from the social and political burdens hung over its head some decades ago, but the duration and breadth of my time there wasn't enough to form many strong opinions on the place. Living outside the tourist bubble in Kraków and Zakopane, we spent our time exploring and acclimating to our new lifestyle of travel with an infant (such as handmade baby food preparation).
So, unlike most experiences folks have with Poland, ours didn't involve drinking alcohol and buying souvenirs. Every night we were secluded away from tourists, and thus, didn't get to know much in the way of tourist or local, save for some of their observed habits and behaviors on our excursions outdoors.
I've no qualms with Poland, though don't find myself drawn to it in any way. I'd journey back to it, but wouldn't go out of my way to do so.
Vivid memories: Our long arrival to the country/region from Miami; milk bars; myriad cheese delights; a six-month Aidric sleeping in his own bed; translating baby product packaging; Auschwitz; the beautiful apartment rented in Kraków; the zebra stripe effect of farming on small, narrow plots of land; getting soaked in the cold mountain rain while desperately room hunting; the devaluation of the dollar; and the most scenic border crossing I can recall.
A nightmare of a time in Košice found me oh so very close to dumping Slovakia when I first arrived in it. But by pushing off the traditional tourist trail and far into the northeast corner of the country we were able to create for ourselves what was arguably one of the best experiences Tatiana and I have had traveling together (since mid-2007).
Our time was split between two very tiny villages with populations of only 300-400 people, completely surrounded by beautiful stretches of landscape. Oddly, for a country that's supposedly one of the most saturated with castles for its landmass, we visited none. Life was slow and full of ripened fruit growing on the side of the road.
The Slovakians encountered were generally soft-spoken with big smiles and a thirst for beer.
I'd certainly return during the summer months to explore the remaining regions of the country.
Vivid memories: Small town life; fields of wheat; picnics; Russian champagne; "curative" mineral water springs; eating fruit off the branch/vine; slugs; living in a gentrified fire station; Aidric eating noodles for the first time; Aidric starting to roll regularly, fall off the bed; an overpopulated pond of trout; having to pay extra on city and longer-distances buses for backpacks and Aidric; accommodation problems in Košice; the best town square I've seen to date; transitioning to the Euro; Slovakians with Irish accents; women with unshaven armpits; the ugliest collection of gypsies I've ever seen; and sweltering, unventilated transportation.
Hungary, like many parts of the region, suffer from a complete disconnect between local famers and local grocery stores. Being surrounded by fields of sunflower and corn you'd think that both of these would be readily available for purchase at deeply discounted prices, but this is simply not the case. I couldn't believe how hard it was to buy an ear of corn in most every Hungarian town I visited.
Ah, but for lovers of wine and cheese, I can really think of no better place in Eastern Europe. It was simply full of wonder and delight.
For planning the logistics of travel, I cannot think of a better country than Hungary. Both rail and bus schedules are available online, and were always quite accurate. Unfortunately, this comes at a price, as both can cost excessively (though not that much so, when compared with regional neighbors).
For what it's worth, Hungarian girls can be quite gorgeous—and there's a large percentage of 'em in their late-teens and twenties that are certainly looking as much. I can't say the same for the men, though. It's a country where the guys really seem to luck out, as even the uglier ones score a decent-looking woman for their arm.
Hungary was a pleasure that Tatiana and I kept comparing the rest of the region to over and over again. I'd go back and explore the rest of it in a heartbeat.
Vivid memories: Celebrating 1000 days of travel; the onset of CouchSurfing; wine cellars; wine tasting; fireworks; expanses of sunflowers; breaking wireless WEP keys to check e-mail; Lazlo's haunted house and angsty father; the hospitality, home and food of Nora and Róbert; the breakdown of a passive-aggressive, cat-killing
wife; conversations with stinky backpackers; walking the streets of a small village with a laptop in hand, hunting for Wi-Fi; CouchSurfing bet-hedging lessons learned; Aidric's kitty friend that taught him to crawl; and the sexy/silly apparel of locals and tourists.
Clocking in at over two months, Romania represented the most amount of time spent (to date) in a singular Eastern European country—although a lot of that had to do with the crippling injuries sustained to my feet/ankles that kept me mostly bedridden for three weeks (and inside for another two).
Much of Romania is crumbling, though sports the same lofty prices in line with the rest of Eastern Europe. Communism has simply ravaged the nation (taking with it the skill craftsmen), resulting in 15-year-old buildings that look like they're 150. The majority of folks encountered seem to think that traveling from Hungary to Romania is like traveling back in time 20 years.
The contrast between Romania from Hungary was immediately noticeable in the supermarkets. It was pretty depressing for us to be paying more in Romania for everything food and baby related, with a substantially limited selection by comparison.
Hungary was certainly a cheaper country for us to travel within, with better value at the supermarket and significantly less depressing architecture (city views of crumbling concrete bloc apartments aren't high on the lists of many). But Romania's an interesting place that has a bounty of horse-drawn carts and strange customs. Save for the acquisition of Western European cars at near-obsessive levels, many don't seem to be all that pleased with the E.U. membership at this point (as their population is mostly being targeted for their low-wage workforce within the European borders).
Vivid memories: The onset of winter (gray buildings and gray skies make a depressing combination); secondhand store shopping; breaking my right heel rescuing Tatiana and Aidric, the ensuing x-ray experience and weeks of pain; miserable, choking vehicular infrastructure; Communist-era apartment bloc buildings; crumbling everything; a sky of crisscrossing airplane contrails; water cooling towers; a dirty Peace Corps apartment getting Aidric sick; beaut
iful autumn colors in the trees; Stephan's musical abilities; the conclusion of my three-month beard experiment and cutting my hair off; cooking, wine and movies at Martin's; a courtyard barbeque and moonshine; chopping wood to heat the room; life with a mushroom-hunting pair of vegans; horse-drawn carts; imitation Hollywood signs; speaking German in a Saxon village and Tatiana's growing grasp of Romanian; Aidric's first girlfriend (and first girl kissed); Aidric's first steps; Piteşti steak and time-lapse photography; the fastest internet I've ever used; and our first real castle experience in Eastern Europe.
Travel in Bulgaria has been at a quicken pace—perhaps as a result of our proximity to Turkey and Greece. We've been cooking a lot less (often times getting fed by our hosts quite well), though have discovered that the supermarket selection of Hungary has returned in Bulgaria (but with generally the same, often spendy, prices found in Romania).
Winter is a terribly depressing time to be in this country, and I would never suggest such things if it can be avoided. With little to no motivation to endure the temperatures outside, our impressions of Bulgaria have been generally limited to those of our hosts and their home.
Vivid memories: Gargantuan concrete monuments perched on hilltops; snow; Tatiana's Thanksgiving meatloaf; empty Black Sea coast beaches; more gray buildings, gray skies; Boza drinking boza; Tatiana learning the Cyrillic alphabet; celebrating 100 nights of continuous CouchSurfing; visiting Veliko Tarnovo; some odd hosts; and good eating.
The Freedom of Choice
I have the freedom to travel wherever I want, limited only by financial and political complexity. When I'm in a country, I decide daily whether I want to keep investing in an experience in that place or not.
I'm accustomed to having the luxury of choice. Practically every day I have the opportunity to choose my home, my neighborhood, my city, my country, and my continent. With 673 countries, territories, autonomous regions, enclaves, geographically separated island groups, and major states and provinces in the world today, why would I waste my time in places that I don't want to be?
That being said…
- Countries that I'd have no problem revisiting: Ecuador and Hungary
- Countries that would take some convincing: Poland and Slovakia
- Countries that I have little to no desire to revisit again: Peru, Romania and Bulgaria