Posts Tagged With: South America

First Hitchhike Ever In Europe: Warsaw To Gdansk

On the road again...

The morning started with snowflakes dancing in the frozen air. It wasn’t the kind of day anyone in his or her right mind would pick to stand on a busy intersection with a weather-wilting cardboard sign to thumb a ride from a passing stranger. Earlier this year I had hitchhiked rides across South America – mainly in Argentina – but then it was summer and the weather was better. Nevertheless, I decided to cement my “roughing it” traveler cred – as in credibility – by attempting to hitch a ride from Warsaw to Gdansk, Poland. By car, the trip usually takes about 5 hours. I hoped to complete the journey close to that time. It wasn’t to be.

The night before, I had slept in the Praga section of Warsaw. It would take a tram, a subway train and a bus to reach the ideal spot at the edge of town to hitchhike north. That trip took more than an hour. Once at the spot, I was entered a McDonald’s to gather my thoughts and strategy. Should I wave my cardboard sign? Should I dance? Should I flash smiles or appear serious? Should I wave? Or should I just stick out my thumb and hope that was enough to have someone stop? I tried all those for the more than two hours I was standing there (the dancing was more to keep warm). My fingers and toes frozen solid, I decided to seek refuge in the McDonald’s. After I thawed out, it was back on, but this time I shifted to a new location  closer to the McDonald’s. Within minutes, an older gentleman pulled up, rolled his window down and said he was going in the direction of Gdansk, but only as far as his hometown Mława, a town in the north-central part of Poland, and scene of a reported massacre of thousands of Jews between 1939 and 1945 at the hands of German soldiers and Polish sympathizers. 

He said his name was Andre and that he was a carpenter and part-time shoe salesman. His car was full of shoe boxes right to the roof. The Audi was so loaded with shoe boxes that I could not get my backpack in the backseat. So Andre got out and help me shove it into the trunk where he had more boxes. At first the trunk wouldn’t close, so we had to give the backpack a few more shoves to make it fit, crushing some shoe boxes – and shoes – in the process. Then we were off. During the more than two-hour trip between Warsaw and Mława, Andre and I tried to communicate, with very little success. He spoke no English and I spoke no Polish. And the only other language he spoke “a little” was German. So for most of the trip we traveled in silence. But he was a nice old guy, about 65 years old. When he stopped at a gas station to buy some windshield washer fluid, he surprised me with a cup of coffee. He said – or at least what I understood him to say – is that I looked cold standing on the road.

As we traveled, he pointed things such as restaurants and sites along the way. And how many more kilometers were left to travel. Once we made it to Mława, he dropped me off at a gas station on the road, we shook hands and he smiled and said goodbye. I thanked him and went inside to use the restroom. Soon as I emerged, I walked up to a man pumping gas and asked if he was heading north to Gdansk. He said he said he was going in that direction to Elblag, about one and a half hours south of Gdansk. He gladly offered to give me a ride. It would take another 2 plus hours to get from Mlawa to Elblag.

My new ride turned out to be a 44-year-old regional judge from Elblag. He commutes between Warsaw and Elblag twice a week to teach law at the University of Warsaw, he said. He was a travel enthusiast who spoke some English. His name was Roman.

Roman spent a great part of the trip on cell phone talking to his secretary and others. When he was not on the phone, he was sort of quiet, perhaps because of his limited English and my lack of Polish. He managed enough English to say that he had traveled all over Europe and to parts of Asia. He said of all the countries visited, Italy was his favorite.

As we drove I knew it would be dark soon. I was thinking what I would do to reach Gdansk at night. Hitchhiking at night is not impossible, but not ideal. It just makes things tougher. But as we entered Elblag, Roman said he would drive me to the train station because it was dark and not good to be out on the road trying to thumb a ride. He didn’t give me an option as he pulled into the train station and bought me a train ticket to complete the rest of the journey to Gdansk. I was super surprised he would do that and of course thanked him. “No, it’s my pleasure” was his response. I was blown away by the generosity of the people I met out on the road, including a man who bought me a metro ticket in Warsaw because the machine would not take my credit card.

Hitchhiking, inherently a risky thing to do, actually can go the other way and show the goodness of people.

 

Categories: asides, posts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

First Mission In Europe: The United Kingdom, Stonehenge

Lots of time spent in Miami hanging out with CouchSurfers. That’s me on the right, front row, in the New York Yankees baseball cap. Respect!

Nobody likes a nag. So why is my backpack acting like one?

“Time to pack, Michael!”

“Get cracking, Michael!”

“Don’t wait until the last minute, Michael”

“You need to do this, Michael!

“I need your attention, Michael!”

Blah blah blah blah blah bluh bluh bluh….SHUT UP ALREADY!

Sorry, didn’t mean to lose my cool. I  don’t usually lose my cool. I have to be *really* pushed to lose it. I definitely shouldn’t let a dumb backpack get to me.

But Kelty– that’s my backpack’s name – is right to nag. I do need to get on with packing. Otherwise, I’m going to find myself up against a wall I don’t really need  to climb.

And misleading them! 🙂 I kid. Here, leading a CouchSurf bike tour of South Beach. Photo swiped from Rob Greeley, whose camera needs a time check 🙂

This is my last full week in Miami, and I really should start packing this week. Next week I leave for London to restart my world trip. First big mission, a trip to Stonehenge and an attempt to topple it. Okay, Scotland Yard, that’s a joke. I will not attempt to knock down your piled on flat stones. Who do you think I am, Monty Python?

I just want to see this mysterious centuries-old structure. It’s just one of those ancient ruins (is that what it is?) I’ve wanted to see for as long as I can remember. For me, it’s a must-see wonder on par with others I’ve already seen:  the Eiffel Tower; the Leaning Tower of Pisa; the Statue of Liberty; Machu Picchu; the Great Wall of China; and others I’ve yet to see: the Egyptian Pyramids and so many others. And yet, it’s one of those that get an “awesome!” that you plan to visit, to a “why?” would you want to see that? And I must say, most of the negative feedback about visiting Stonehenge has been coming from people who are British and largely live in London. It’s a total bore, is what I’m getting. Really?  Maybe they need to stand on their heads and have another look 🙂

No matter, I’m still determined to go. If once I get there, have a look and yawn, so be it. I would have at least fulfilled a wish, even if I have to look at it from every angle, including on my head, to see something of significance in it. I am of the school that things aren’t boring, people are.

So since I expect to encounter all sorts of weather in Europe, even in full on summer, I need to start sorting out now what I will need to pack, and yet keep the stuff I intend to lug around to a minimum. Packing for all kinds of climates is a huge challenge. You need cool clothing for summer; warm for the cold and snow, and waterproof  for rainy days and London.  I plan to do some camping, so must make room for my tent. My hammock would be nice to have along, but that may be a luxury – and extra weight – my shoulders and back can’t afford. Hammock stays home. I think 🙂

And having a good time! Here, with the co-owners of the The Abbey Brewing Company in Miami Beach, celebrating the bar’s 17th anniversary. Co-owner Carlos is on the left in green shirt, and co-owner Ray in tie-dye shirt is next to me. The people in the middle, well, I have no idea who they are! 🙂 I joke. They are the contractors who built The Abbey 17 years ago and expanded it last year.

A rant about these past three months in Miami. I am really glad I came back and spent them in Miami and Miami Beach and places in between. Meeting old friends and making new ones showed me how much my year away in South America changed me. You can’t go away on a journey for that length of time and experience different cultures and not be changed, hopefully for the better. Miami allowed me to clearly see the good and the bad in people I thought I knew. When you’ve spent a year in the Third World, the negativity of too many people in the First World bursts forth with a bang. In these three months, I often sat listening to a friend or acquaintance go on and on about his or her woes and thinking in the midst of their baffling discourse: “You think you have problems, try living like most in rural Villavieja, Colombia, or urban Quito, Ecuador. I am, of course, not minimizing the problems people face day in and day out, but some of y’all need to get some real problems. In his song, “You Will Know”, Stevie Wonders rightly recites “Problems have solutions”, and indeed they do for most of us in the First World, with our First World educations and First World resources. But again, some just live for drama. They’re miserable without it. Travel makes you see that your “problems” pale and a positive outcome of that is that it makes you get off your behind, quit feeling sorry for yourself, and address the problems head-on with solutions.

In short, more than learning about friends, I learned something about myself: that I am a different person, more analytical and less critical, and far less judgmental. I returned to Miami, I think, improved as a human being, with greater compassion and caring for the planet and the people who live in it. At times I was tested. But I think I emerged on top and right. So now, as I continue this journey – this time across largely First World countries in Europe – I believe my year in South America will serve me well. My plan is to spend the rest of the year in Europe, and perhaps even the beginning of 2013. Brrrrrrrr…European winter, yes, I know.

As I make my way across the United Kingdom, up to Scotland and Ireland, I will have time to decide whether or not to return to London for the 2012 Olympics. London during the Olympics could be a lot of fun – or a huge mistake. One part of me screams that an international event of this magnitude is a big target for would-be terrorists, at worst, and at best, an overcrowded city overrun by chaos. But the Summer Olympics happens only every four years, so what a wonderful opportunity to experience it, no?  We’ll see. Plenty of time to decide.

So, I bid you adieu, ciao, goodbye, adios Miami. And I say hello Europe at the end of the month. I look… I mean I really, really look forward to seeing my friends scattered across Europe, who have been patiently awaiting my arrival. I know that because they keep asking me when will I get there! I can’t wait.

Categories: posts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mistakes, I Made A Few

Her backpack: Indigenous woman in Cotopaxi, Ecuador, several thousand feet above sea level where oxygen is hardly plentiful. And she manages to still smile

“Has it been a year?” a friend asked, as I stood in his dining room in Miami. “Yes, I’ve been gone exactly a year,” I replied, feeling somewhat uncertain myself.

It was hard to believe that a year ago last month  I left the United States for Colombia, where I started this great global adventure. Hard to believe how much ground I covered by road and how many people I met along the way. How many lives I touched and how many lives touched mine. I am not the same person that left the United States last February. I am changed, for the better, I think. I know more about South America and South Americans. I’ve seen more. I’ve learned a thing or two about tolerance, and above all, patience. You have to be an extremely patient traveling for a year in the Third World. You must adjust to all sorts of situations and customs.

I bit my tongue – mostly – when someone tried to lecture me about the evils of the United States. I listened and nodded and sometimes even agreed with the disagreeable.

South America was great in so many ways. I am now back in the United States. In Miami, to be exact, nursing an injured knee, the result of a tumble in Chile.

My backpack: Compared to what she's carrying above, maybe I should quit whining... 🙂

The knee seemed to bounced back to health, but as I started to make my way across Argentina and Uruguay, with a backpack that seemed to weigh more with every step, the pain returned. So after limping around Montevideo for a while, I hopped online onto the American Airlines website and booked a flight to Miami. The plan: see a doctor about the knee, take it easy and start anew in Europe.  That was the plan. This month, my doctors have had a thing or two to say about that. After X-rays, physical therapy for up to three months has been ordered. I start April 9. Not exactly the way I had hoped things would turn out, but also not as bad as it could have been. No need for surgery, for instance. That’s good news. Bad news, I am in Miami instead of Brazil, which I had to skip to deal with the knee. No worries, new plan is Brazil has been appended to 2013, but more likely early 2014 given my detour.

Meanwhile in Miami, I’ve had time to reflect on the year that was.  What I did, what I would do differently. And with this entry, I hope you, dear future traveler, will learn from my mistakes. I list a few:

1. The Backpack: Mistake number one. I bought the biggest one on the market – 91 liters – but nobody told me that amount of weight is nearly impossible to carry fully loaded, uphill, up stairs, for long periods, especially for a man who weighs 170 puny pounds. (My weight at the start of my trip was more than 190 pounds, at times closing in on 200 pounds).

But I carried two backpacks, so there! 🙂
In Santiago, Chile.

Some might say I don’t have to fill the backpack with the kitchen sink, but another unforeseen problem with a pack that size is it has to have a certain amount of stuff in it, otherwise the fasteners won’t close properly. So then you are forced to load up with stuff you really shouldn’t be carrying. So my advice is buy a backpack built to carry the minimum you will need on the trip, not the maximum. You may find yourself wearing the same clothes more often, but your legs, spine and shoulders will thank you for it.

2. The Fights: So the stranger learns I’m American and I get one of two reactions – love or hate. The United States is not the most popular nation on Earth. That has been made very clear to me across South America, with one individual after another laying into me about Iraq, Guantanamo, American imperialism, 9-11, on and on. From Colombia all the way down to Argentina, I heard from individuals who really believe that the United States government blew up the World Trade Center and crashed planes into the Pentagon as a pretext to attack Iraq.  Really? These conspiracy theorists were fed this story line by conspiracy theorists in the United States. So I can’t really fault their ignorance.

Sometimes I would allow people to go on and on and have their say. Sometimes I would challenge their assertions. And that more often than not was a mistake. People form their own opinions and they won’t change it no matter how much rational reasoning you try to impart. So my attempts to set the record straight often ended in disagreement. Henceforth, I will just shut up and smile.

3. Voices Inside My Head!: As most of you know, I’ve been couch surfing my way around the world. It’s been amazing, but not always smooth sailing. And it’s been those times when I didn’t listen to that voice in my head that said “go to a hostel or a hotel”. When traveling in a strange land, go with your gut! It’s nature’s way of alerting you that something is amiss, perhaps even dangerous. The times I ignored that little voice inside my head I ran smack into trouble and had a bad experience. Nothing major, just unpleasant. When the voice told me to find someplace else to stay, I should have listened. When it told me not to attempt to go down that canyon, I should have listened. When it told me….well, you get the idea.

Knee Issues: Herein may have lay part of the stressed knee problem! Not enough leg room on some buses in South America for people more than five feet tall!
Two-plus hours on a bus - in this position - to Santa Marta, Colombia

4. Tentative – I bought a tent for this trip and it was one of the things I ended up shipping back to the United States because I was carrying way too much. I should have kept the tent! Housing is important and that tent would have come in handy throughout South America. I had used it only a couple of times and thought I would not use it again. Wrong! So many places that allow camping and it would have been great to have it and awake in some beautiful spots. The  tent stays with me on the rest of the journey.

5. Thanks For The Advice: When you travel you will run in to people who have advice as to where and where not to go. What to see and what to skip. Opinions, opinions, opinions. But it’s your trip and if you have your heart set on someplace, do not allow others to dissuade you. Do your own research and decided for yourself if it’s worth it. A couple of times, against my better judgment, I skipped a couple of places then heard from others that those places were phenomenal. For instance, I am hearing from some that the Egyptian Pyramids are a bore. No amount of criticism of the pyramids will keep me out of Egypt. I will draw my own conclusions about the pyramids.

Categories: posts | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Powered by WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: