Monday, September 22, 2008

Box Dog "Rally Cat"

i had heard from Becky about the bike shop Box Dog Bikes' plan to put on a race. It sounded intriguing, and a really nice route. we scoped the route out on Wednesday preceding the race, and found that on "Old Railroad Grade", a firetrail leading up mount Tamalpais, there was severe construction, making the route almost impassable. We took a so called "short cut", which was essentially unrideable, and hiked around 3 miles uphill. This would not be a choice for the race.

Race day came around, i didn't manage to do any of the things i had wanted to do to my bike, (tire sealant, new brakepads, and pump tires). I woke up, realised my legs felt kinda weak, they seemed, as best as i can describe, "hollow". Never fear, I'll just ride it kinda mellow, not too much into it, treat it as a club or charity ride.

I missed to first bus into the city, because it's bike rack was already full, but managed to get the next one successfully. Sitting in bike gear, with weird clip-cloppy shoes, Lycra arm warmers and knee warmers made me feel pretty out of place. The bus i caught also happened to be the primary bus for the folks getting out of the "blue roofed hotel" aka Marin county jail. One after another former inmate got on the bus, some in prison issue speckled white sweat suits, though all with envelopes out of which they fished for bus fair, and with cheap clear plastic bags with muddled belongings. A pair of these sat down behind me, one chattering incessantly to the other. Numerous times they asked me if the bus went to the greyhound station, and each time i was just as sure and the next.

Eventually my stop came, got off the bus and pedalled off to fort mason. i found a (cassette? pelonton? murder? gaggle? of cyclists formed around the statue of some guy on the west facing slope of the park. Amongst the group were some friends, some acquaintances, and some unknowns. Many however, looked fast as hell. The standard of competitor was higher than i had anticipated. Bearing the bike shop's clientele in mind, i was expecting the group to be 50% fixed gear hipster, fauxrier types. Not So, 80% seemed to be the spandex crowd. This made me more concerned about the seriousness that the various races had in mind.

Tym, this new messenger, who keeps harping on about new york, literally every other sentence, was in attendance. I'd heard through Becky that he expected to do well, he wanted to be top 3. With the standard set so high, i was sure he'd get trashed. I would be happy if that was the case. Also of note was the infamous SuperMike, my former boss as Godspeed. I talked to him a little, he informed me that Brandon would be racing, the other founding partner of the just as infamous Godspeed Courier Co. Mike had won a couple Cycle Messenger World Championships, Brandon had done well is a lot of these too, coming in the top three a couple times too. Brandon had much more road racing experience, and (as i found out later) had won a couple Criteriums this season as a cat 3. He almost had the points to upgrade to cat 2, but disappointingly found out that he didn't get full points for a couple races because the races didn't have enough riders. The pointy end of this stick though, is that some seriously heavyweight riders were in attendance.

We paid out money, we got out manifests, we got our suggested route guides, and the time came. We rode out with the race organizer in front, he blew the whistle, and the race was underway.

Almost immediately, the the group got into drafting procedures, heading out past Crissy field. On the first climb, some chunky guy i recognized from the Soil Saloon races, broke his chain all the way of his bike, having it drop on the floor. Jokingly, i shouted out "you're going to need that!".
We were all very close to each other, and on the bridge, the ride seemed pretty scary. I was worried about the guy in front braking hard, or turning unexpectedly. We got off the bridge, rode through Sausalito. All the time my mind was on not getting caught by the cops. This was the most important thing for me on this ride. I think i still have an outstanding ticket in Marin, so i really, really don't want to get pulled over there. We headed down the bikepath, on the flats a few guys in front of me seemed really strong, and although i wanted to stay with they (which i did), i was anxious about stepping the pace up too much right away. This was a longish ride, with a lot of climbing. I did not want to burn out too early. I decided it was worth the effort to stay with them, sprinted to catch up and then drafted till we took the (smart) left turn onto miller. Dfl Brad and his group (with supermike, i think), kept going on the bike path, and ended up a ways behind us. I rode through mill valley, shouting directions from the rear of the group, and at one point the group in front of me took a different route from the one i had in mind, i took my own way, and ended up a full block ahead of them. They gained very slowly on me on West Blithedale on the way up to the turn onto Old Railroad Grade. I was ready to make the fast right turn when the checkpoint people shouted out behind and to my left. Damn, i had overshot the checkpoint. The checkpoint guy seemed to get to my manifest last, so i was again at the back of my group. On the climb i gradually gained on everyone in front of me, passing a couple people, but getting really, really tired. My guts and lungs ached, and i felt that i might be in for my first ever exercise induced puke session. The previous Wednesday we had come this way, seen the work, and turned around. This time the hole was just as big, but the diggers were gone, and the ground was much compacted. I was surprised. The Whole things was very ridable. On the way up i go talking to this guy from Santa Rosa, and we shot the shit for a while. He was fast, and a good companion. We got to the top in what felt like forever, but was probably around 35 minutes. The peak is 2500 feet, and mill valley can't be more than 100 feet off sea level.

I climbed to east peak parking lot, where Wendy was waiting. She informed us that we had a 30 miles ride before the next water, and that we could grab one of the 15 "minus 20 minute" cards in we walk up the wooden ramp, through the chain fence, and find the hidden cards. I asked how many had passed her checkpoint. She said i was the THIRD. I was very impressed with myself. (i can't remember actually if she said i was the third, or if she said there had been three riders in front of me). I walked up the ramp, was introduced to Josh, who i had chased all the way up the climb (and just about passed), climbed through the fence, and hiked way past the cards. Luckily, someone below shouted that they had found them, josh and i went back down, got our cards, and were instructed to hold onto them. We had lost at least 5 places, but i didn't really care, it was only 30 seconds or a minute, and i knew i could get that back if they were on the same route as me. I got some water, and got going. The cyclo-cross guy from Santa Rosa found me somewhere on the road down Ridgecrest. We were 20 seconds behind josh and his friend. We caught up to the pair on the climb upto the radar base on the west peak. I let josh get away again, but had him in sight for the whole descent to the Pantoll turnoff. Amazingly the cyclo-cross guy (whose name i obviously have since forgotten), pretty much kept up on the descent. We caught josh again on the next set of hills (known as the seven sisters), but i almost always let him be out in front, pacing me a little, but also because i much prefer to be trailing someone than in front, constantly looking over my shoulder at them. Down the incredible descent to alpine dam, again, always with josh in sight. My cross buddy didn't take the descent as aggressively as i did, so we lost him a little here.
Up ahead i saw an orange cross bike, which i was sure was owned by this dfl guy known as Cam, who was the only person to pass me on the climb up tam. I was sure we couldn't take the descent here was fast as i could, because of his tires, the bike's geometry, and his brakes. As i passed him i was amazed to see it was none other than Tym. He was draggin' down the hill.

How did he get ahead of me? Surely he wasn't one of the two (or three) people who beat me up tam? Did he sneak by my while josh and i had gone to get 20 minute bonus cards? Or had he forgone the bonus for some insane reason and gotten ahead on the road? I dunno, but it worried me. I wanted to be WAY ahead of him, i wanted him to be way behind in the group. I guess i had underestimated him.

We got to the damn, and started climbing the other side. I looked over my shoulder and the cross guy was around a minute behind, ahead of Tym. I was very impressed. Josh and i climbed, i caught up to him, we talked. He said he was hurting and was tired from racing 'cross all week, i said i hadn't been on the bike all summer. Good, we both had our excuses. He said he wasn't sure if he'd make it, was almost ready to "bonk". I concurred. We climbed, i got ahead of him here. I descended with him trailing me. Got to Fairfax, and looked at my watch for the first time this ride. It was 2:30pm. We had been on the road for only two and half hours. Incredible. I found the checkpoint, and they said we were 5th and 6th through so far. Good. I was more than happy with this. If we could only get to SF without loosing any more places! We discussed a route, and worked together on the ride back. Honestly, i felt he had done more of the pulling on the flats, so in Sausalito, i told him that if we were to come in together to the finish, he ought to come in before me. He thanked me, but said ion the city "all bets were off". We got up Camino Alto, again, i lead on the climb, and down again. i was out of water, and we agreed to stop at the water fountain by the skate park. We watered up, and headed out. My legs were weak, and i charged for a second, then let josh do the work through sausalito. We climbed and i got away again leading to the bridge, and i managed to expertly weave my way through the pedestrian traffic. A Fast pace, though nothing dangerous. At one point, and lady 50 feet ahead of us grabbed her front brake too hard, or got something caught in her front wheel, because she did a slow motion header over the bards and sprawled out in the path. I weaved past her head and the utility box, and pushed on. Josh was keeping pace behind me. He lead the way through the Presidio, chose a 'cross oriented route, that (in my opinion, was around the same as the road route), and we headed out the Arguello gate, down Arguello, through the park to the panhandle, and blasting down oak. I Pulled us both down Oak at breakneck speeds, lanesplitted a couple times. We caught all the lights, including Divis, and i hung a right and wiggled through the Lower Haight. i lost josh, and caught sight of him again at Church and Market. He was ahead of me, and making the turn onto 14th. I had lost that spot. He was ahead, and i let him go. i took my time, made sure i didn't make a last minute mistake, or get busted. I saw Josh catch the lights at the bottom of 14th in front of the finish, and saw the lights change. i got across and handed over my manifest. I ended up with 6th. I was stoked.

Free beer and pizza followed, prize ceremonies, et cetera. I bumped into Damian and promised to hang out with him while he was in the city. Crazy as i am, i decided to ride my ass home, after the awards ceremony, and after *cringe* 6-7 beers? Another 25 miles home and my absolutely burning, aching legs (honestly, as they have never ached before) got to rest. Almost a 100 mile day. I slept like a log and promised myself that I'd take a couple days off the bike to let my legs repair themselves.

thanks for reading,

Friday, July 25, 2008

alive, in berlin

hi all,
so the hostel im staying at has wireless, but my computer (and apparently most other computers) dont agree with it, so updates have been few and far between.

generally, i have been doing a lot of thinking, have stayed out till the sun comes up a few times this week, have gradually started to really enjoy berlin (which really reminds me of SF), and gotten over some serious lethargy and lack of direction.

its become a scortching day here today, and i must find some sort of pool or water to laze in soon.
Spent my day yesterday checking out some bike shops, and the first one was one setup by an ex-messenger, who knew all the big characters from SF, most notably, my boss from godspeed, brandon, supermike, and eric zo. talking to him made me very nostalgic for being a messenger, and i had moments where i thought that maybe i should become a messenger again when i get back...not going to happen though.

havent ridden a bike in a very long time, about 3 months and am fantasizing #about getting back on one. really want to get deep into cyclocross this winter.

ok, that is about it for now.

i learned about this festival in portugal this morning, and i think i will be in spain at the time, so, maybe that is a stop on this tour....

also, in kreuzberg, the area im staying in, as a act of agression from the various extreme left residents (punk, skinheads and anarchists) 60 luxury cars and SUVs have been burned so far this year! cool!

i am taking pictures, but havent had much of a chance to upload anything so far.

btw, german keyboards have the y and z reversed, amongst other things, so bare with me.

thats it for now.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

exerpts from a letter to pops

So, i have only JUST applied for the EHIC (old name is E111)...after being decently sick at EXIT festival. Not more than 3 hours sleep for days, and tons of booze (and stuff).

better now, but at one point i thought my kidneys were about to fall out (but it turned out that it was just the muscles in my back right above the kidneys that hurt...from too much dancing!).
also at exit, i drank WAY too much dodgey sangria (which we made in the campsite) and ended up with a monster headache, and the shivers, for a whole night. The next two days saw me not able to go more than 3 hours without having an episode of the runs!

it was partly the lack of sleep, partly the excessive drinking, and partly the insane heat. Breathing dust and second hand smoke for 5 days didn't help either.

i updated my blog about Belgrade, a city which really surprised me. i had a really good time there. i was expecting a terribly depressing war ravaged place, but nothing could be further from the truth.

i'm back in Budapest for a day or two, and will be heading through Vienna to Prague and then to Dresden and onto Berlin to hang with a friend from SF who will be there on the 18th or so.

money is still ok. but somewhere near half of what i started with. there is so much more to do! so much i missed along the way. Part of me wants to stop somewhere and work there, but the other part of me knows that i'll earn more money in SF, can save more easily there, and then come back out next year for another big tour!

however, working somewhere is entirely different to just visiting. maybe i'm thinking unrealistically, maybe it's insane to try and work abroad when i can work at home for so much more.
for instance, in Belgrade the average job pays 300 euros a month. rent is about 200 a month. that doesn't leave much left over, and there is the initial setup cost of searching for a job, getting a house and stuff. also. i haven't found a city that i'd really like to live in, not that i think would practically work out. and a big part of me wants to live in the countryside too.

i am dreaming about living in west Marin and commuting for work every day i work in the city (though often i'll be working at home building wheels for people and such).

anyhow, ramble over, hope all is well at home, i'd imagine i'll be thinking about coming through blighty for a couple weeks in a month and a half, since by then i will have flown to Spain from Germany, probably gone to Ibiza, and then perhaps the south of France...and maybe Italy....hmmm. hard to gauge how long to money will last in western Europe, compared to eastern Europe. things are definitely more expensive in eastern Europe than i had expected. most things are a little cheaper, when converted to dollars and then compared to the same thing back home, but some things are about equal also (and still some more things feel pretty pricey!). to me, this just shows how weak the dollar really is.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The craziest 24 hours of my life ( time)

yes yes.

not sure where the 24 hours starts and stops, but, you'll get the picture.

i had been stranded in sibiu, romania, for an extra day, since after figuring out what the best way of getting to belgrade was, i managed to go to the wrong bus station in Sibiu. (which, in eastern europe is harder than you would think because the bus station is always next to the train station, but in sibiu, the one next to the train station is for one company of busses only, the others have to use other spots dotted around the city).
it's 23:30, and i catch my bus. The driver is completely insane, and all other drivers on the road seemed to be equally crazy. interestingly, Romania has a reputation for terrible drivers, but this was the first i had seen of this phenomenon. drivers would overtake on single lane roads, into oncoming traffic, flashing the highbeams, so that oncoming drivers had to pull half onto the should, and drivers in front the same, allowing for a sketchy middle lane created directly on top of the center divide. i only saw one car crash, and was actually impressed that no-one seemed to be hurt.
it's 5am. i get off the coach in Timisoara, Romania, and head next door from the autogara to the gara. (because they are next to each other, like a sensible town) and hope that the one train allocated for the day is doing ok. The train seems to be either running late, or was scheduled later than expected. i wait for 3 hours (instead of the expected 1), listening to music, taking pictures, and wandering around. i witness a sunrise without really sleeping at all on the bus. i wait on line 5, and a train pulls in at 8am. i try to get on but someone tells me that this train isn't moving! i panic, feeling like the train must have been re-assigned a new line, i run to the departures board (plecare) and see that it is indeed on line 5. i run straight back out to the line 5 and ask about Belgrade, someone tells me that the last half of the train will go to belgrade. weird. i get on a carriage and make sure that it will go to Belgrade. ok. panic over. there is only one train a day from Timisoara to Belgrade, and Timisoara has not much of interest, and there are NO youth hostels in town at all. the trip to the Romanian boarder is uneventful. the train is dirty and gross, smells terrible etc. this is all to be expected. the Romanian boarder patrol people look at my passport and the train leaves within 10 minutes. the train then stops again at the serbian boarder.
Much more depressing and scary looking. the people look more angry. there are several sets of guards and officials. one for passports, one for tickets and another for passports. one guy demanded to see my passport very impatiently, looks it over and just as it touched myt hand drops it onto the floor as we walked out the door, not apologizing, not attempting to pick it up...
after what felt like an hour, with a semi-thorough inspection or the undercarriage by two gun toting guards, we are waved onwards and the real fun starts.
After five minutes a (Serbian) inspector comes by to check my ticket, and harasses me for having my feet on the opposite seat. not nice at all like the Romanian officials.
After just fifteen minutes, three guys start running up and down my carriage, shouting to each other, and banging on things. after a couple more minutes of this i see one of them take out a crow bar and start leveraging the ceiling panel in the halfway, and the nails come out, the panel pivots and a huge bag of white powder falls on the ground.
"holy sh_t"
more panels open, more and more drugs come out of the ceiling. I'm trying not to make eye contact with anyone doing the impromptu carpentry. while this i going on, i am listening to music, and staring out the window, trying to think about something else. The next thing i know, and angry ticket inspector is telling me to get my feet off the opposite chair. i did it again, and this time he wants me to pay a fine. i try to weasel out of it, telling him i have no Euros, telling him i have no Dinars (both true), and eventually he gets someone from another car to change my 50 lei (Romanian) to smaller notes so that i can pay him 15lei (which ends up being cheaper than the 5 Euro he wanted in the first place). The comedy of the situation only hits me after her leaves. I was getting a ticket for having my shoes on the dirtiest train seat i've ever seen, while we can both see many KILOGRAMS of drugs being taken from the architecture of the train, with hammers and crow-bars!
Evidently corruption is rife in Serbia.
The train makes a couple stops, small teams of people load things onto and off-of the last carriage (mine) and it seems everyone on the train saw what i saw, but everyone is so nonchalant that it must be a commonplace occurrence.

Still no sleep.
I realize that the time zone must have changed because we are nowhere near Belgrade at 10:50, our estimated arrival time. By about noon i was off the train, honestly tired and scared. I have had no sleep in 24 hours. I've just been poked and prodded by boarder control, I've escaped with my life after seeing a large scale drugs trafficking operation, i have no local money, i don't speak the language, i can't read or attempt to pronounce the characters on the alphabet, i have no idea where the nearest hostel is, and definitely no reservation. i walk past the hostel opposite the train station, which must be terrible and rat infested and wander around a bit. i spot a HI sticker and see if there is any room. hostel is clean and the guy behind the desk is nice, speaks great English, and is appropriately sketchy. the place is super new, 2 weeks old i'm told, is rather pricey for a hostel, but i just want some security, so take it. they give me maps and stuff.

I feel good after a coffee and some food. i use the computers there to find a cheaper hostel, and run around town a little. i bump into a girl i met at a hostel in romania, and we talk a little, i find out she followed my advice and stayed with the family in maramures i had recommended. i get some beer and drink it fast at the hostel before taking a nap. after an hour or so, i am woken by some french guys who wil be sleeping in the room. we talk, and agree to meet up at Underground, a club set into the ground. the leave first, i shower and change into whatever i hadn't handed over to the free landry service, which leaves me looking a little strange. i head out and get to the bar at 10:30. no-one is there. the place is amazing, but empty. the french guys are not here (though they set out before me). i havea drink or two, and wait for about half and hour for them. seems nothing is going to happen, i talk to the staff and they say there was a big party her last night (friday night) and that they expect tonight be be quiet. they recommend i go across the river to a boat. i'm a little hesitant, still feeling tired, but walk across anyway. i see a party on a boat, poppy music playing, and decide i could get into that if needs be. i get off the bridge and a car pulls.
they shout at me in serbian.
i go over to the car and ask what the hell they said.
"what are you doing todight?"
"oh, i dunno, wandering around"
"do you know where plastic is?"
"no, but i've heard of it" (which is true)

they offer me a ride to plastic if we can find out where it is.
The people in the care are really nice, warm folks.
Marija is driving, next to her is Boris. In the back seat with me are Ivana and Ken.
they ask me how i feel about magic mushrooms. i said they are cool. they said they have been eating mushrooms all day.
We ask about plastic and eventiually find it. There are tons of boats on the river, rafts really. we walk up and down, check each one out and trying to find plastic. we find it, realize it is empty so far (it's about midnight). we try to find another place to drink while plastic fills up and end up just going to plastic anyway. A beer magically appears in front of me (bought by Boris, who is obviously gay and obviously hitting on me). the mood is a little standard, marina-esque. everyone is dressed up fancy, and totally gorgeous.

We leave after half and hour, and try to find the car. no-one has any idea where it is. we talk, hang out, marija does her thing organizing, talking to people, and finding things out. i think more mushrooms. we come back and marija is gone. we call her and find she is playing soccer with some kids up the road. we find her, she remembers where she put the car and we are on our way. the music blasts, and we all sing. through some gate, pay a toll, and over a bridge. we are now on ada island, and are headed into gypsy territory. We find the place, try to park the car, and have trouble, we argue with a gypsy boy who is trying to organize the parking. marija wants to park in the skatepark, the boy wants her to park by this lamppost in the ditch. We argue, and she parks in the ditch. we got to this floating restaurant, with musicians playing traditional gypsy songs and we manage to get a table. the raft in halfway sinking into the river, and our end is the one that is the lowest. Marija tries to get a liter of Rakia, but everyone vetos saying that is way too much as we are all a bit drunk already. instead we get a half litre, and some beers, and a huge plate of food. Sausages and bread. wonderful. we drink, eat and the music is amazing.

At some point around here, i notice that the gorgeous Ivana has a strange lump on her back by one of her shoulderblades. i hadn't noticed till now, but it's quite distinct. She is tall, has bleached blonde hair, with a really cool cut which reminds me of the the way mine used to be. Long on one side and shaved on the other. It looks really good, and i am very envious. I shall ask her about how i might get one just like it.
A moment to describe the others in this posse. Marija is naturally blonde, a little shorter, looks a little Norwegian and well build, she has a rocker-ish vibe about her, and speaks poor English, but with a great accent and swears a lot.
Boris is very San Francisco Gay, wearing a wife-beater, has a poor complexion, and big chest. Black hair.
Ken is either black or middle eastern, i really couldn't tell. He had some good facial hair including a pointy beard. He was shorter and a little more mellow, and calm.

After the booze is gone, and everyone is all messed up, the music gets louder, we dance a little, shout and sing, and get out of there. i am convinced the sky is lightening, and the sun is about to come up. they tell me it's not happening. it's 4am.

We pile out and into the car, watching 4 gypsy guys fight over one girl, argue rather. this time the car is easy to find, as it was such a mission to park the damn thing. more singing to the cassette. Manu Chao was a pivotal moment, when everyone was vying to get their heads out the windows and sunroof. we go to the beach. This is a man-made beach on the River Sava, with bars lining one side. We wander onto the promenade, the sun is most definitely coming up. This is the second sunrise I've seen in as many days. To my utter amazement i see people on the beach, drinking and having fun like it's the middle of the day. not many mind, but a few. Increasing the amazement "you have got to be f_cking kidding me", there are people swimming! it's at least 4:30 in the morning. We go up to them and i tell them they are crazy. they reply "this is serbia, there is no such thing as crazy!" and i have nothing left to say.
I feel the water and am totally shocked. the water is a lot warmer than the air, and i'm wearing only a t-shirt. I immediately strip to my boxers and jump in. the water is amazing. like bath water, and it is insanely soothing. From my perspective at the water's surface, i see loads of steam rising from the water, lit by the now definitely risen sun. I can't believe it.

Who am i, where am i, what did i do to get here? 24 hours ago i was getting off the bus in Romania. and realizing i have 3 hours to wait for my 4 hour train ride to serbia. Since then so much has happened, so much has changed.

I get a little cold and get out. the air is frigid, i put my clothes back on a try to get warm. it's not really working. Ivana manages to have someone at the bar to get me a towel (something they do *all* the time). This helps, but not too much, i'm just too damn skinny, when it comes down to it.
A beer materializes in front of me. We hang for a while, and Ken goes for a swim. As i shiver, we drink beer.
it's around 5:30am. We go to the car, and beers in hand, more singing, more heads out of winds. marija drives the complete wrong directions, inteding to get us lost, and finds an industrial estate, we drive through this, amazed at the factories and towers, and chimneys. we try to get out and find a gate. Boris and i get out and try to open the motorized gate by hand. everyone in the car is laughing like hell. Apparently my job was to stand on this red metal plate to somehow disengage the setup and boris can then push the gate back. this occurs and we drive on. I'm still really cold, but managing. We drive somewhere and drop boris off, we then drive through belgrade to the other side, to marija's house. As we walk up i realise it's one of the old communist era housing bloks, with "Alcatraz" written in grafitti in a couple places. I announce that i haven't slept in quite a while and immediately fall asleep on the couch. it was about 6:30am. They stayed up a little longer listening to music, and hanging out, right next to my sleeping body, i don't remember anything, and was definitly aslep, but they said that my feet were moving to the music. I wake up to loud music (everyone fell asleep with the music on). i get up, turn it off, and fall back asleep. The next morning, everyone is hungover, but i feel great. We have a breakfast of ham, cucumber, onion and tomato salad, soft cheese and bread. Typical fare for most of eastern europe i'm learning. OH, and really, realy spicy peppers, which were really amazing. Biting tiny chunks off and savouring the burn really set up up. Ivana and Ken had their bags packed, as they were going off to Bosnia this afternoon (morning was really about 1pm), to visit Ivana's parents.

We go into town, see them off and i manage to get back to the hostel. I am greeted by the owner/manager handing me a beer. it's 2pm and he has 3 or four 2litre bottles of his favourite Montenegrin beer.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Romania, so far... (unproofread)


Will-nilly, I dicided to leave Budapest, and go, well, somewhere else. I’d heard about a new bus company that was really cheap and apparently quite good, operating out of Budapest. One visit to and I had the astonishing realization that I could get into Romania, (only one destination is offered, the previously unheard of Cluj-Napoca) for 2900 forints. At 160 forints to the dollar that makes the 7 hour bus trip around $18. I was little dubious, but was ready to put up with almost anything.

How wrong could I be.

Orangeways is by far, and without doubt the absolute best coach/bus company I have ever had contact with, or even heard of. For my $18 I got a leather seat, free coffee (and good stuff it was too), a stewardess, the ability to recline my seat backwards 300% of what a normal airplane seat will do, TVs with dubbed movies dubbed into Magyar, and express border service (Orangeways has worked out a deal with every boarder they cross for expedited service). Truly amazing. If this company had service over more of Europe, I’d buy a season ticket. Unfortunately, they only have around a dozen lines that radiate from Budapest.

He trip to the bus was a little sketchy, I had to take the over-ground tram (which run in concentric circle around the center of Pest) to the third metro line (the metro lines radiate from the centre of Pest) and out to the stadium at Nagati (or something). The bus was waiting, the smartly uniformed staff attentive, the stewardess was surprised that I didn’t speak Hungarian (as I was the only one on the bus that didn’t), but marked my name off the lit and ushered me in. The website had had a virtual coach where seats could be reserved, so I proceeded to my pre-ordained position and ate the pastries I had brought aboard. The bus left precisely on time and got caught in traffic leaving the city.

After this the trip was fast and smooth, the coffee was often and good, and the other guests on the bus were quite pretty. Each seat had a headphones jack built into it, which played the cd the driver was listening to, the radio, or the TV’s audio. They gave out headphones, free of charge (though I already had some good ones, so I passed on these). The movies were the sequel to XXX and “Love, actually” which I was expecting to truly despise, but found (probably through the effect of the landscape, and 3 cups of espresso) to tug rather hard at the heart strings.

Cluj Napoca is the capital of Transylvania, and in the central-north-west of the country.
As we left Hungary and entered Transylvania, the flatlands broke into rolling hills, which in turn amplified into sharp mountains. The decent, through beautiful forested mountains, bedraggled villages, and sharp hairpin bends (taken very aggresivly by our driver), was an absolute dream. I was capitaved entirely. I felt as though I was undergoing an epiphany. The bus was powerful, and the driver was not very patient, and thus apt to overtake anything at all in front of him. On one such occasion, we shot around some truck, and I’m not sure if the driver had previously realized on not, but part way through overtaking, while parrellel to the truck, we both took a hard, blind left turn. So knows who might have been behind that corner. I think the driver had assumed the road was straighter for longer, or maybe he had seen further ahead on the right, but I was a little terrified.

Eventually we pull into Cluj-Napoca (pronounced Cloog-Napoka) at around 23:00, which is 11pm for everyone who has no idea what military time means. I had left in a hurry, and though I had a boking for the hostel, I had no idea how to get there, and a vague memory for the name of the street. “how hard could it be?” I started walking in the obvious direction of town. One thing after another, I got the address from a saved file on my computer, asked some locals, who asked some other locals, non of whom spoke any English at all, and I was pointed toward the center of town with the best they could do for directions in English. “Big church, Turn Left”. I was stoked. What more could i ask for, and as it turns out, these directions were just about the most perfect imaginable. I get to the church, mak my left turn and stumble into the unmarked hostel building. I wander around, I go upstairs, I try one door. It’s locked, I wander onto the balcony, nothing, I walk the other way on the balcony…a light. I found it. The clock strikes midnight. After for lengthy dealings with Gabriel, the dorky guy on duty that night (and as it turns out, probably the brother of the owner/manager), I get in some much needed sleep.

I get some food in me (and some milk, which I felt for the rest of the day) , and wander around town. I’m a little un-impressed and disheartened to read (as I only did after arriving) that Cluj is really not particularly attractive, and is probably the most expensive place to live in the country, due to the student population (it has the biggest College there, Babes somethingorother) and the largest technology presence in the country.

The rest of my time in Cluj is spent fannying about, feeling lost and sorry for myself, unmotivated, and such. I should have approached the city and my stay there differently, but the highlights where…

-The Botanical Gardens, the biggest in Eastern Europe, with a very nice lookout tower at the top which affords a great view of the city.

-The Rotai restaurant, which was incredibly hard to find, but had some much needed Traditional Romanian food. I had the Sarmoles, which are little meat and rice sausages, wrapped in vine leaves, or cabbage leaves, then boiled. This was served with a little salad, and polenta. Quite nice.

-Watching the football with the bummies on the bench across from a café (Euro2008, Germany against Portugal, Germany winning).

-The perfectly symmetrical pair of building either side of the street that I was staying on

-The very friendly staff at the hostel, which was brand new, and giving my input to the future of the hostel

I could have gotten stuck in Cluj, which would have messed with my mood even more. I really don’t know what was going on, but I wasn’t in a good headspace. Lazy and apathetic. Whatever. Maybe it was the directionlessness, maybe the fact that I was in the middle of the country, and there was good stuff to the north, and to the couth, but I was in the middle, and if I was going to see the Maramures, and the “Transylvanian Alps” (the fortress at Sighesoara particularily) then I was going to have to make a messy route of it. And I didn’t speak the language, and felt a little lonely. I dunno.

After 3 nights in Cluj, I managed to escape, and walked across town in the blazing heat, with backpacks that really ought to be lighter, to the bus station. I had tentatively booked into a Pension in Vadu Izei, in the Maramures (pronounced Ma-ra-Moo-ReSH). The busses were quite disorganized, and non of them looked a tenth the quality of Orangeways, but I was fine with that, as the 7 hour bus ride north to Sighetu Marmatei (always shortened to Sighet) would cost me 30 Ron, or about $13. This bus smelt bad, was hot as hell as it waited in the yard, and was by my watch, about 30 minutes late starting. This was definitely not a tourist bus. I am positive no-one else spoke anything other than Romanian on the bus, but was quietly happy about this, as it seems everywhere I go, Americans are around the corner, waiting to lung out and make me feel really embarrassed for being there. Maybe it’s that I want to be the only one, and thus special, or maybe it’s that I don’t want to be lumped into a group, or maybe it’s that I want a more immersive experience, or maybe I just really hate most Americans…)

The bus got pretty full, which I was surprised about, but it kept pace, and managed to get us through the truly amazing (every better than the scenery seen on the Orangeways bus) surrounding. Romania, particularly the northern villages in the Maramures, are truly amazing. I love them. Steep mountains, windy roads, ram shackled houses and farms. Horses, towing carts, laden with hay, with people dozing in it! For real. Old men on 40 year old bikes. Wrinkly, incredibly wrinkly old women. Chickens, bulls, cows, pigs…and cherries. It must be cheery season here. The number of cherry stalls set up on the side of the road is unfathomable.

The bus passes through Vadu Izei, but I’m too shy to run up to the front of the bus, leaving my belongings (such as passport) next to the (obviously much poorer than i) guy sitting next to me, and try to persuade the driver to let me off. So I get of at the next stop, a good 5 miles past Vadu Izei village. I say fuckit, and start walking. After about half an hour, I stick my thumb out, and see if I can hitch a ride. No-one stops. I keep walking till I find the first pensiune (pension…not sure why there are two names for them) after about 45 minutes of walking back towards Vadu Izei, but the lady speak no English at all, and her husband, well, speaks no English at all. I could have stayed, and worked out the details through expression and sign language, but knew there were many more, so I decided to walk further on. The next one bore an uncanny resemblance to the one the managed at the hostel in Cluj had phoned for me, and bore most of the same name, but I’m still not sure if they are the same or not. After a little negotiation on price (them telling me how low it was, and me accepting), I dropped my bag off and ate some dinner. Home made Sarmoles, and some cheap from-a-tin chicken soup, bread and probably homemade fluffy cake. Rad. I attempted to wash my dishes but the hosts laughed at me, and I submitted after not being able to locate the dish-soap. A great shower and a little time with your good selves afterwards. No wireless within range, predictably, so this will have to wait till I next have some sort of connections.


Today was honestly one of the best I think I may have ever had. Well, I’ll retract that a little, but it was, honestly, completely captivating. The family I am staying with in Maramures is Greco-catholic, and they invited me to come to their church in Danesti, about 30 minutes drive away. They promised they would all be in traditional garb, and that I would have opportunities for photography. Ok, i am open to absolutely anything. I am instructed to get up early for breakfast at 8am. I get up a little after that, to find a place laid for me, fresh coffee, bread, jam, local (if not homemade) butter and cheese, a sort of salami-sausage, a hard boiled egg, and a tomato, cut into 6ths. This was great. (I sampled the cheese, even though I knew that if I had too much I’d have terrible gas all day). We all hopped in the car, and I was introduced to the second daughter of the family Yani. Gorgeous, in a totally different way to her sister Claudia, who was my translator and liaison for my first night here. Yani’s English was not quite as good as Claudia’s, but as the day wore on, it got better and better. We drove to the church, with traditional music playing (though it had a heavier, more synthy beat), the countryside was spectacular, and I was stoked about the fiddle style in the music. As we pulled up to the church, I saw plenty of people (though not all) in traditional costume, and was surprised (and somehow proud) to find out that my host was actually a priest as well as a farmer, father, and pension host. He took some berries off the tree in front of the car, similar berries to the ones I’d been shown in his garden before we’d left, but these ones where a deep purple colour, and held a good resemblance to blackberries, only they grew on big trees with totally different leaves, without thorns, and fruit was a little longer. We waited for the service, I took a couple pictures as discreetly as possible, and then I got bored, waiting for the Romanian language service to end. The church was packed, so I was in the doorway with at least 50 others listening from a distance. I wandered over to the berriy tree, took an few more, and lay down under a tree staring into the sky, watching the clouds drift by as the summer air wafts over me, and the Romanian service floated by. Very nice.

After this we were all taken for a walk down the street, and ended up at a huge table, set for a small army, and we treated to wave after wave of incredible home-made food. I always feel a little self-conscious, and very touristy if I wave my camera about, so there are no pictures of this feast, but let me sum it up. First we started with deli type platters of ornately arranged ham, sausage, some sort of egg and mushroom quiche-loaf, and these little pakora type fried balls of wonder. Then came soup, the same type as I’d had the night before (I guess it is a local dish after all, seems a little out of place, thin chicken soup with noodles a little thinker than angle hair and a couple carrots). Next came an chunk of lamb, on the bone, tender and succulent, flavor exploding out of it. Some of the best lamb I’ve ever had. On par (though very different) with Richard Henry’s full lamb roasts, which is, dear readers, saying a hell of a lot. Finally there where a few platters of cakes and the like.

Throughout the process, I made great friends with the people around me, learned a little Romanian, they learned a little English, we all drank local Plum(?) Brandy, then wine, then beer, all of which were local. I felt so absolutely welcomed. So at home. I felt entirely at home. It was wonderful. Really, really wonderful. I haven’t experienced hospitality of it’s like in such a long time that I’ve forgotten when it might have been.

“Narok”! I would say, to my buddy next to me, and he would reply with a half remembered and mis-pronounced “cheers!”, as we sipped out brandy, wine and beer.

I also managed to have a very intelligent conversation with a doctor of vetinary oncology (in Cluj) about America, the next president, communism in Romania, communism in maramures (it didn’t really reach into the absolute boonies, and the commies didn’t care).

All in all it was a great, wonderful experience, and I can say that living in the maramures, while it would require me to learn Romanian, would be entirely satisfying, other than the fact that I would somehow have to satisfy the 80% orthodox Christian population.

Word and phrases I’ve learned so far. (often spelt phonetically, here, for easy of pronunciation, for you, as you sing along)

“Moots-oo-Mesk” – thank you

“mashina” – car

“gari” – station

“autogari” – bus station

“narok!” – cheers!

“da/noo” Yes/no

“casa” house

“tren” train

“Copii” child

“adulti” adult

“poilitia” police

“biserica” church

“frati” family/sister/brother

“mama” mother

“tata” father

“camera” sleep

More, actually, that I can’t really think of of hand, and more still that I can read but not pronounce, but understand….boy, I really love Romania.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


so i get of the bus, it's 23:00, in a little town in transylvania, romania, called Cluj-Napoca. I have the name of the hostel in my head, but no directions, i don't know the street it's on, and i don't have any romanian money (i do however, have Hungarian forints, British pounds sterling, euros, and dollars). I wander across the bridge, towards the railway station. nothing is in English. i fell very far from home, and completely absolutely amazing. THIS is what i came for, THIS is what i want. i wander around, pull out my laptop, onto which i had thankfully saved the address of the hostel. (but interestingly, Google maps does not ever have this city mapped out.,-95.677068&sspn=52.240038,87.539063&ie=UTF8&ll=46.776306,23.60429&spn=0.044556,0.085487&z=14

so write the address down

Transylvania Hostel
Str. Iuliu Maniu Nr.26, Apt 12, Cluj-Napoca.

and start wandering around town. by now it's at least 23:30. I see a sign for Luliu something. i walk that way. after 10 minutes, i ask some old guy on the street. he speaks no English. he gestures, but nothing that resembles directions at all. He starts looking around, and shouts down the street to two paramedics getting out of an ambulance (i stopped near a small medical facility). After a lot of arguing, the very kind lady says, as best she can...

"big church. turn left"

i give them all hugs and go on my way. i find a big church, i turn left, the street is correct, and i walk into this crazy courtyard. everything is quiet. i see no signs for a hostel. i wander around, go upstairs, and look for doors that don't seem painted shut or boarded up. i see light through a window, it looks like a hostel. i knock on the window. it's exactly midnight.


PS i've got more writing stashed away, and it'll come out eventually. i hope. and picture too. i hope...
but for now, it stopped raining, so i'm going to go outside and see this crazy place.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

New York

New York.
I was expecting to not really like New York, but within a week, I knew the subway system pretty well, knew the various boroughs, and felt almost at home. I enjoyed being in it, seeing how much more complex everything was. How much mor grafitti there was everywhere. how used and worn everything seemed. Who would have thought i would have enjoed that? In my mind, New York was the most intimidating city I could imagine, and it was, when I started out, but by the time I had to leave, I felt almost totally at home. Another city added to the list of those in which I might live in the future, though not for very long. a year or two at most.

My first real day was spend simply walking around, getting lost and finding myself again, I stumbled through the east village, along Broadway to union square, then down through the lower east side, Chinatown, the other way again on bowery street, then through Soho to Downtown proper. I was looking for a cheap day backpack, but really wanted to find a $3 thrift store jobbie. To no avail, I ended up getting one in some downtown shop, cheap, and functional, but you know, made in China. As I was leaving the shop, directly facing the site of the old World Trade Center, I got a call from Roger. He just outright said it. “Kirk is dead, man”. I couldn’t believe it, I was sure he was screwing around, joking, because I was far away and had not way of checking is information. But no. It because evident that he had died, earlier in the morning, killed on his bike. I got off the phone with him, and then the phone kept ringing, and I kept phoning people I thought should know. Tara was my first thought. Thankfully she was available to call heather, Kirk’s girlfriend, whose number no-one I had talked to had had. She called and immediately went over to heather’s place and hung out with heather as much as possible.

As many faults as my sister has (and lord know I’d be the first to point them out) she went above and beyond the call of duty of this one. Last I spoke to her, she had been by heather’s side for three days straight. Exactly what heather needs, someone to be there, hang out, not even say anything, just to be around.

After this news, I sat a while, thoughts racing. I felt dull and fatalistic, as usual. Things happen, people die. We are remarkably insulated by death these days, what with modern medicine, warning on coffee cups, the, the proliferation of cops, etc. And thus, when someone does die, we all freak out. In the old days, people would die all the time, and those left were de-sensitized, de-sensationalized. Tragic non-the-less.
The rest of my day was spend thinking about this, talking with my half-sister Jessica about it, and imagining how it had happened, how everyone was feeling.

The next day I met up with my friend Emmie, whom I’d met at the warehouse party in SF a few months earlier. She lives upstate a little, but stays in the city all the time, and was selling all her things in preparation to live in LA for the summer. We met up at her friend’s house, and headed out to Brooklyn, in an attempt to sell some clothes to vintage shops in that area. The main place we tried was Beacon’s Closet, the trendiest, hippest hipster shop in town. They took our bag of clothes and told us to come back in three hours. At this news, we decided to head over to her friend’s house with a six-pack. Brooklyn Summer Ale was the obvious choice for the day as it was rather nice out. We walked to his place (even though we were told it was much too far) got the beer and drank in his yard. Eventually, we headed back to discover that the store had selected to buy only one of her things, and she had a measly $5. Bummer. Anyhow, she was hosting a little party that night, and we had to get back to procure some booze. It was her half-birthday, and the party would be a half themed party. Everyone had to be half dressed, we would drink white Russians with half and half, and the plan was rather half-baked. We went on a wild goose chase to get the damn booze, which was amazing to me, as liquor is everywhere in SF, but in NY, there are grocery stores, beer stores, and liquor store, and the three must not be mixed. Weird. The party was hosted in the apartment of her friend who was the son of a NYU professor, who lived on the 24th floor of a NYU faculty building. With a Picasso statue in the courtyard no less. We got vodka, Kaluha, half and half, and big ol’ box of beers. The party went, we all got drunk, and I ended up outside, admiring the Picasso before deciding to WALK home, from 5th and Bleecher to 119th and Lenox. A long, long way. I had music, and I was rocking out the whole way. I stumbled through part of central park, before realizing that some would say it is a bad idea to walk drunk, at 2:30am, through central park, but I just felt like walking, so my trip home took around 2 hours.

At some point, after stumbling upon the "lower east side festival" or somesuch, i walked past a pretty mirror lined booth just of the street, with music wafting out the doors. Inside all sorts of DJ equipment, records, computers, a dj, his homie, and his guest lay scattered around. This was "east Village Radio". I stood in the open doorway for a while listening, and getting up the courage to ask for a song dedicated to kirk. The DJ shifts changed. and i asked the new guy. He played some dark, synthy thing in kirk' honour, and made and announcement on the radio. I was hoping that just maybe, someone who knew him was listening in NY at the time.

Also while in New York, I managed to see a friend that I hadn’t talked to in around 5 years. I emailed Marian a while before getting into New York, but had not heard anything back from her, so assumed that I wouldn’t get to see her. But half way through my stay, we managed to meet up, walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, hang out in Dumbo, wave at people in England through a huge underground “Telescope”. Drink more beers, eat great hamburgers at Fives guy’s, drink margaritas, hit up their local “bodega” (read sketchy corner store) and … Play Rockband. Marian’s boyfriend peter had a sweet pad in downtown Brooklyn, with the full setup; Big TV, PS3, and Rockband. I tried singing first, was demoted to drums, and further demoted to Bass Guitar. On guitar, I managed to hold it together, and actually ended up getting pretty decent for someone as musically un-inclined as myself. The sun came up, and we all went to bed. I dragged myself up of the couch that next morning with some difficulty. Peter (Marian’s boyfriend) and I went out to Junior's for breakfast and hypothetical conversations. Junior's was pretty crazy. I didn’t visit the bathrooms there myself, but was impressed to hear, that although it was an average, perhaps slightly upscale diner, there was a Bathroom Attendant, who would soap your hands for you, apply cologne, and such like, in the hopes of getting a tip. Pretty cool.

I left, and hopped on the Q train to Coney Island, where I met up with Jessica. We went on the Cyclone, which was surprisingly good, whiplash inducing, but, you know, what self-respecting, 80 year old fair ground ride doesn’t give you whiplash. Next it was bumper cars. With tongues dyed blue from the cotton candy, we laughed. We hung out on the beach, got more junk food, and finally came back in, via, (predictably for Jessica) a great Vietnamese restaurant.

My Last day in New York was me exploring central park, hanging out, listening to music, and for the last hour before I had to leave for the airport, hanging out with Marian and peter again.

There were, of course lots of other adventures and weird sightings, but for the moment, those can’t be recalled, or won’t be told.


The Adventures of Fast-Boots

The blog of Peter Taylor, and ex-bike messenger from San Francisco, Traveling for a while.