Friday, June 20, 2008

broke and bipolar

During my time in europe, I have been so careful about not spending too much money, since I still have 4 months of travel ahead of me and europe is unbelievably expensive -- I pretty much live on street food like doner kebabs, dunplings, pierogies, etc., and I couchsurfed in cities where I´d be spending more than 2 days so I could cut down on costs. I've bought a couple of souvenirs for Michael, but that's it. I decided not to go to the taj mahal because it was $25 to get in; similarly, I bypassed the kremlin in moscow because I deemed it too expensive. not to mention the tv tower and jewish museum in berlin, wawel cathedral in krakow, the list goes on and on. granted, I didn´t particularly care about going into these places -- the whole, 'if you've seen one castle, you've seen them all' and 'I'll see them next time' mentality -- but still, I caught a lot of flack for not seeing some of these cultural icons. unfortunately, all of my penny-pinching was blown in about an hour of shopping at 4 of brussels finest chocolatiers and biscuteries.

Belgium is perhaps the chocolate capital of the world, so Michael and I agreed that I should buy a few bars of chocolate for us to try together when we reunite. 'A few bars of chocolate' turned into:
9 mini bars of chocolate in assorted flavors from Neuhaus, the legendary belgian chocolatier;
2 huge bars of chocolate in milk and dark, a pot of praline sauce, and a small box of truffles from Wittemer, the best chocolatier in Brussels as reported by the two belgians who worked at my hostel;
250g of chocolate covered spice cookies, 250g of chocolate almond biscuits, and 100g of florentines from Dandoy, a little biscuterie with awards plastered all around the walls;
2 bars of chocolate in dark and mille feuilles, 2 tubes of chocolate covered pralines in milk and dark, and a small box of assorted chocolate covered pralines from Galler, a trendy boutique chocolatier.

Total for impulsive chocolate binge: €95. the exchange rate is $1.60 to the euro, I think you can do the math.

what went through my mind as I was spending more on chocolate than some families make in a few months? well, nothing, until I had just stepped out of Neuhaus -- it was the 3rd of 4 stops, and afterward I suddenly thought, shit, I think I've already spent €70 on chocolate. my next thought? 'oh but I told michael I'd go to 3 chocolatiers and that biscuiterie didn't count. so far I have Neuhaus as a control, but only one other brand of chocolate to compare it to. onward to Galler!' where I proceeded to blow an additional €25 on chocolate.

when I finally realized the insanity of what I' d done, I called Michael in near-hysterics, alternately flaggelating myself for how foolish I was, lamenting how he couldn't possibly want to marry someone who could spend that much on artesanal chocolate, and scolding him for not being here to stop me from such lapses in judgment.

the lesson here? don't bring your credit card to the chocolate shops of belgium.

(I almost took a picture to post on this blog, but considering how much money I spent, the chocolate takes up embarrassingly little space. tear.)

Sunday, June 15, 2008


I was in Krakow for a couple of days, and I initially thought that I would try to avoid Auschwitz, which is only an hour and a half away. I've been to the Holocaust Museum in DC, so I know what happened and I've seen all of the sad family photographs and personal effects of people who died. and I wasn't sure I'd want to see an actual concentration camp and retrace the footsteps of so many people who suffered - does it get any more depressing than that? but in the end, I was convinced by my roommates at the hostel that, really, it's my duty to go once in life. so I went, and even though I'm glad I did, I never, ever want to go back.

everyone knows about Auschwitz, so I won't bother rehashing the history of the place. and I hope you've seen Schindler's List or something, because I didn't have the heart to take pictures. but the first thing you notice about Auschwitz is that it is huge. logically it should be, but I guess I never thought about the scale of the operation when I learned about it. but it's at least a kilometer long and wide.

the second thing you notice is how quiet it is. Poland is a beautifully green and fertile country that oozes with life, and even on the bus ride to Auschwitz, I was surprised to see how many thriving communities we passed -- I just assumed that everyone would be too freaked out to live anywhere near it, but no, life went on. when you get to Auschwitz, you're dropped off at Auschwitz-I, which has been converted to a museum; to get to Birkenau, the actual concentration camp, you have to either wait for an hourly bus or walk 3km. I walked the 3km and it was one of the quietest walks of my life, despite the fact I was walking on a main road with the occasional car passing by. I just assumed that I was imagining how quiet it was because I was feeling really solemn, but I figured out what it was once I got to Birkenau. Birkenau is, hands-down, the quietest place I've ever been. don't get me wrong, I've been to deserted islands and I was just in mongolia, which is one of the most remote places you can go. I know what quiet sounds like. but what I realized at Birkenau is that life has sound, even if one never stops to notice. It's only once you get to a place as lifeless and awful and unforgiving as Birkenau that you notice how much more quiet a place can get.

for me, it wasn't seeing the old barracks or even the ruins of the crematoriums that finally pounded in the devastation of what happened. it was all of the smaller details that are overlooked in textbooks and museums. like I would walk down a gravel path, and there would be a sign informing me that Jews who were chosen to be sent to the gas chamber immediately upon arrival would be herded down this path. or you can still see a lot of scratchings on the barrack walls made by the prisoners. or the one that really got to me -- Auschwitz has no shade, and it was a pretty hot day, so I veered off the path into the trees to cool off a bit. at one point, I came across a sign saying that when crematoriums were full, women and children used to wait among the trees for their turn to die.

I won't bother trying to analyze Auschwitz any further -- it's a personal experience that is different for everyone, and honestly I think it will take a long, long time to deconstruct everything I felt there. there's not much more to say about Auschwitz except that you should go once in your life, not only to honor the dead, but also to gain a new appreciation on the life you have.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


I grew up in Chicago, land of slaughterhouses, polish sausages and deep-dish pizzas so unhealthy they will make you cry uncle. and I was raised in a Filipino household, which is all about meat, meat and more meat, with rice to weigh it down in your stomach and vegetables served sort of as an overstewed afterthought. and I love to bake, so much so that I often bake too much and keep the leftovers in the freezer to eat for breakfast. so I like to think that I can hold my own when it comes to fatty, carb-heavy cuisines that lead to obesity and heart disease. however, Lithuanian cuisine has humbled me and my arteries.

I read about these kepta duona in the Lonely Planet, and they described them as "fried bread sticks oozing garlic." so I was envisioning some sort of pan-fried garlic bread, like when you grill a cheese sandwich. well, not really.

not only were they deep-fried so thoroughly that my jaw started hurting from all the chewing, but come on. does it really need to be smothered in cheese? even someone from Wisconsin wouldn't have the nerve to do something so gratuitous. since these are considered beer snacks, I was curious to see what the main courses were like.

this is the infamous zeppelin -- people at my hostel warned me that I would shorten my lifespan considerably if I ate one, and now I see why. it is basically a potato stuffed with minced meat and cream, and then doused in sour cream, butter and bacon bits. now these are all ingredients that I consider ideal in most circumstances, but in these quantities? do Lithuanians have no shame? I don't know if you can tell, but there is a layer of what I think is straight-up lard covering the plate. unbelievably, one zeppelin is considered a half-order -- I nearly threw up watching the woman at the next table eating a full order.

white nights = best insomnia ever

the White Nights are something everyone in st. petersburg looks forward to -- after a long winter where the sun rises at 9am and sets at 2pm, everyone is jonesing for some sun. well, 'some' sun is a bit of an understatement -- when I was there, the sun sort of set for about 2 hours before coming back up again at 3am, and apparently around the summer solstice, the sun stays on the horizon all night long. it's really neat, as long as you have some sleeping pills or nyquil handy -- my circadian rhythms were completely thrown off, and judging by the amount of people strolling the promenades and sitting in cafes, so was everyone else's.

11:45pm, the canals off nevsky prospect

12:15am, the rostral columns

12:30am, the museums across the neva river

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

what the Lonely Planet doesn't tell you about the trans-siberian

I broke up my trans-siberian journey into 3 different legs -- Beijing:UB, UB:Irkutsk, Irkutsk:Moscow -- and the first 2 trains were pretty tame, as I had expected from reading up on my trusted Lonely Planet. Maybe that's because there's only 1 express train/wk right now that stops off in UB between Beijing-Russia, so naturally it will be filled with westerners, and UB:Irkutsk is relatively short at 28 hours so perhaps that's not enough time to get into the full swing of train dynamics. But my journey from Irkutsk to Moscow was a 3-night/4-day slog through Russia, which afforded me plenty of time to meet/avoid various people on the train as well as curse my Lonely Planet for not better-informing me about what to expect.

Don't get me wrong, I loved the train ride overall -- there is beautiful scenery outside, ample time to read and listen to music, and great people-watching. and I don't think all trains are like this -- 2 of my friends from Irkutsk were on train #1, the Rossiya, which is as tricked out as you can get and costs about $80 more as a result. But if you take a regular express train, you can expect any/all of the following:

1) crazy Mongolian traders: I had no idea these people existed until 4 days ago, perhaps the LP writers lucked out and didn't run into them. the traders buy a load of cheap wares in China (jeans, shirts, tracksuits, blankets, etc), and then get on the train with not only boxes of this stuff, but mannequins for displaying the clothing. the train had been an hour late arriving in Irkutsk from Mongolia, and 2 friends I met on the train told me that it was because the traders took so long getting through Russian customs. apparently most of them pony up some cash for bribing Russian border patrol, but those who come up short are kicked off the train (but not before a lot of screaming and cursing apparently). furthermore, to avoid customs tax, the traders usually distribute their wares to other non-traders throughout the train car (who are also bribed) so that it looks like they have less stuff. if you think there's a lot of bribing going on, just wait.

so once they get across the border, what happens? they sell the clothing on russian train platforms or from the train car during the short 20-min breaks we get every few hours. russians must come to the train station just to shop, because it is mayhem outside and there aren't very many people getting on the train. the traders bribe the provodnitsas so they can sell from the entrance of the train car, so if both doors to your carriage are blocked up by traders, well you're just shit out of luck and you're not going to get outside for fresh air until Moscow.

the traders also bribe the manager of the dining car so they can use the tables to prepare for arrival at each station, i.e. dressing mannequins, taping boxes, etc. and when they're not doing that, they're in the dining car anyway, getting wasted at 10am, chain-smoking, getting into fights, harassing their women, and generally being the source of eye-rolling from Russians all around. I thought the traders were Russian at first and I asked the dining car manager something about whether they live in Moscow, and he was like, "nyet, nyet, mongolian!" and gave me this look as if to say, we might like a bit of the drinky-drinky, but we're not bootleg heathens!

once the train gets to Moscow, the traders don't even get off -- they have tickets to go back to Mongolia on the same train. this repeats itself all summer long apparently, with traders getting off just to buy more stuff.

2) crazy provodnitsas: provodnitsas are the train carriage attendants who are in charge of distributing linens, cleaning bathrooms, and generally insuring your well-being on the train. I was lucky and had 2 really nice provodnitsas who were cool with my requests to borrow a knife, turn down the light, etc. but 2 of my friends in the next carriage over had fascist provodnitsas, who wouldn't let them off the train at stops and continuously locked the women's bathroom in the train car for their exclusive use. my friend Elsa told me a great story about how the provodnitsa was cleaning the bathroom, so she waited in the hallway until the cleaning was done. the provodnitsa noticed her, then locked the door to the bathroom and walked off.

3) lots of roommates: no one gets off the mongolian train carriages since they were mainly full off traders bound for Moscow, but I was in a russian train carriage, which is an entirely different story. most Russians thought I was insane for taking the train instead of just flying to Moscow; they were only on the train for 1 night max. as a result, I went through 12 different roommates in the span of 3 nights, ranging in age from 7 mos. old to mid-80's.

4) russian vs. mongolian train cars: if your journey originates in mongolia, you get on a mongolian train car, and if you start in russia, you get on a russian train car. I didn't think there was much difference until day 2, when it was swelteringly hot in siberia for some reason and none of the windows in the russian train car would open. everyone starts sweating, and when you're on a long-haul train with no showers, that is serious trouble. meanwhile, my friends in the mongolian train car were enjoying nice summery breezes.

5) nonexistent train platform food: I had brought limited provisions with me on the train thinking that it would be easy to find hot station food for at least one meal each day. after all, the LP said that the choice of fresh items on train platforms was excellent, ranging from grilled chicken, dumplings, forest berries, etc. well it turns out that LP is full of shit :) I asked about hot food at all the stops, but most of the them only had kiosks selling more ramen noodles and cookies. of approximately 13 stops between Irkutsk and Moscow, only the following stops had real food:
Zima -- sketchy looking fried pies sitting around at room temp for lord only knows how long, filled with an even more mysterious meat; one of my russian roommates advised avoiding them at all costs, saying they were probably filled with "sausage from cat or dog."
Novosibirsk -- my friends came back with succulent looking pieces of grilled chicken. unfortunately, I had been lounging in the dining car and mongolian traders were blocking both exits, so I couldn't get off the train.
Yekaterinburg -- I don't know if this counts, because I left the station and crossed the street to buy hot meat-filled pastries so technically it wasn't train platform food.

6) time zones: it's already pretty disorienting to go through 3 russian time zones in a day at the beginning of summer, when the sun sets at 10:30pm as it is and you're basically chasing the sun, elongating all your sunsets on the train. not to mention the fact that all trains run on moscow time, but operate on local time -- so if you're looking at your train ticket and it says your train leaves at 10:30 am from Irkutsk, because Irkutsk is 5 hrs ahead of moscow, you should get to the station for 3:30pm. but try going from Ulan Bator in Mongolia to Irkutsk, which is further west since it's in russia, yet you gain an hour's time. huh?

7) almost no westerners: I thought there would be a ton of backpackers on the train from Irkutsk to Moscow. but most people go in the other direction, so there were only 5 of us on the train. so don't go thinking that it's necessarily going to be a travelling hostel, because it might be more like a mongolian barrio :)
Lonely Planet, I am disappointed in you.