Short story: Mountain Ambush in Vietnam, 1992

     Greetings from Sukhumi, Abkhazia. Abkhazia is a breakaway republic with no American diplomatic presence as I explained in my previous, award-losing blog post. Having to be extra paranoid about not losing my passport reminded me of visiting Vietnam in 1992, the high water mark for paranoia. The problem of not having a U.S. consulate, means, in practical terms, if I lost my passport, I would be in serious trouble with no simple, quick or inexpensive way to get out of the country.
     In 2016, I can at least communicate problems immediately via the internet, but back then, I was on my own. No consulate was one worry. Since this was pre-ATM, everyone traveled with travelers checks, but those couldn’t be used in Vietnam either. No debit cards, no credit cards, no cell phones, crazy-expensive international phone calls—–$3-4 a minute to USA, often—–and no one to turn to.

vietnam operation

     My feet went into a couple of sea urchins and I had to have a “small operation”. Vietnam was memorable, to be sure.


     The short story:
     In a country lacking any solid travel information (pre-Lonely Planet, too) the one thing all travelers in Vietnam knew was to go to the Prince Hotel in Saigon to arrange transport. When you had enough people to fill a van, you’d make a week-long trip up north. We were warned that the driver would only drive during the day because the night was unsafe. The days could be plenty unsafe, too, we discovered, when we came upon a gruesome crime scene.
     There had been an ambush on a truck on a mountain curve. Three were dead. Two lay under woven bamboo mats, but the third, the driver, was left intact, which was hanging upside down from the open door of the truck. His body had twisted as he fell out and was stuck. A long, wide trail of blood stained the road.
     It had very recently happened, we could see. Someone explained that the truck had just delivered a load of cement, and the attackers knew they had cash on them. Someone in our group asked how much cash, based on what a truckload of cement goes for.
     “About $200.”
     I had $800 in my pocket. We all had lots of cash. There was no other way to travel in Vietnam in 1992.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something witty on Twitter, check for a non-boring photo on Instagram, and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

Crossing the Russia-Abkhazia border without a visa

     I wanted to do it the right way.
     The right way is to go to the website for the government of Abkhazia and send an application from a buggy Word doc, then pray and hope that in seven business days they can produce a one-sentence letter I take to the border and get a visa. I wanted to go sooner—the next day—and a woman in my hotel said she heard of a French guy that managed to go through without it.
     Wait, what’s an Abkhazia? Abkhazia is a breakaway republic from the Republic of Georgia on the Black Sea. The only countries that recognize it are Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru, I believe. (Tried in vain to find the Nauru consulate here in the capital, Sukhumi.)

conifa

     Three weeks ago was the finals for the soccer World Cup of Unrecognized Nations in Abkhazia. It kills me I missed it. This Roads and Kingdoms article is a nice story.


     My hotel in Sochi was only five km from the Abkhazia border so I went to see what I could find out. I approached a police depot at the border and asked the first guy I saw, “Do you speak English?”
     “No,” he said firmly.
     I’ve got to stop asking this. Everyone says no, even if they speak enough. I could communicate in Russian that tomorrow I wanted to go to Abkhazia and I handed him my passport. He opened it, saw that I was from California, and his demeanor brightened. “California,” he smiled, and started to sing the song, “Californication.”
     Not what I was expecting! He took a break behind the guard post and I ended up spending close to an hour with the guy. We used Google Translate on his phone—I downloaded it immediately that night; it’s a godsend—and I learned all I needed to know about crossing the border. He was a funny guy with no filter and up for a chat.
     I learned that the Russians were OK with me trying to cross, but they couldn’t say what the Abkhazians would do, as if it depended on their mood. This surprised me. I thought the two were in lockstep. I assumed that since Russia was Abkhazia’s biggest benefactor, it’s reason for being, that there was a natural connection and coziness between the two, lots of warm and fuzzy feelings all around. The guard said to me, “Abkhazia people…are goat fuckers.”
     Oh.
     He asked how much money I made in America, saying he made $500 a month. I asked if it was enough to live on. He shrugged his shoulders. I also asked if he had to get (extort) money from travelers passing through to supplement his income, but he didn’t answer and it might have been imprudent to ask, so we moved on to other topics, like guns. He said Russian police weren’t violent and gun-crazy like American police. He pretended to point a gun at a colleague and yelled, “Shut up and get down, Motherfucker!” to the amusement of us all.
     I asked to take a photo with him and he refused, saying he isn’t allowed to be on any social networks. It’s probably for the better. I don’t dare say his name, which rhymes with “Doris.” Just kidding.
abkhazia white plate

     This standard Abkhazia license plate goes for about $50 on ebay.


It didn’t go as smoothly as I expected the next day.
     The next morning at the border, I didn’t expect to sashay through the Russian side, but I also didn’t expect to get the third degree from several officers and led around from one room to another. My passport has never been more thoroughly scrutinized. I didn’t emerge for nearly an hour.
     The officer in the booth kept me hanging for a long time, Russian tourists silently fuming as they waited behind me. I was then told to step aside until someone came for me and then the questions began: why I was visiting? Where will I go? How long did I intend to stay? What did I know about Abkhazia? Did I know I had to return to Russia afterward?
     Two officers unlocked a door and sat me down for an interview. One took notes in longhand while the other translated. The passport was pored over and a stamp was noted for Somaliland, another breakaway republic. I forgot about that one. (Thank God my Syrian visa is illegible.) He asked if I knew about the tiny islands in the South China Sea that China and Japan both claim. I said I did.
     “Do you have plans to go there next?”
     I laughed, but he wasn’t smiling. I stopped laughing.
     They asked me my job and I said I worked at Yahoo. I worked at Yahoo for only three months last winter, but for the next ten years I am going to tell any officialdom I work at Yahoo. Everyone seems impressed. They asked me what I did at Yahoo and I was tempted to say, “Janitor.”
     “Do you have a visa for Abkhazia?” I was finally asked, the one question I was waiting for, but then he asked another question before I had time to answer, and the moment passed.
     I was taken to another room where several officers handed my passport around. For each one I had to stand and stare at them while they looked back and forth at me and the photo. All of them used a monocle-like magnifying device to more closely examine it. The photo, one explained, was dark and not sharp. That’s true. My passport is 6 years old now and the photo is easily 10+ years old. It’s a small miracle they let me get away with it when I renewed. I am decomposing rapidly, and the fresh-faced ingenue from ten years ago is now a grizzled, homeless drifter.
     One officer asked if I thought Abkhazia was independent or part of Georgia. I said the safe thing, that if I am here to get my passport stamped, therefore it must be a different country. He told me that a Spanish cyclist came through recently and he said it was part of Georgia. What a jackass, I thought. You have to know who you are talking to in these situations, and that was the worst thing to say to the Russians. I assume they refused him entry.
     He continued, “What do Americans think of Abkhazia? Is it independent?”
     I gave an impertinent answer, saying that Americans don’t think of Abkhazia, that Americans don’t think much about the rest of the world.
     Everyone became satisfied or bored and they let me go. I was struck that the Russians were not aggressive or forceful in any way. They were professional and straightforward, they asked their questions, and if they chose to not let me through, that would have been that. No histrionics, no good cop, bad cop shenanigans.
abkhazia police plate

     This Abkhazia police license plate would go for at least a week’s salary for a policeman.


     I felt victorious to make it through the gauntlet and I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Walking on the bridge over the small river demarcating the border, I suddenly realized I didn’t know what I was going to say to the Abkhazians about being paperless. It’s good to have a game plan rather than give vague answers when they ask what you are doing.
Welcome to Abkhazia?
     The Russian border control is in a good-sized building, an appropriate size for such a place. The Abkhazian side looks improvised, just a couple of scraggly booths barely covered from the sun by an overhang. Everyone was going through quickly with their red passports, and then my blue passport gummed up the works. The guy took it and without opening it, he regarded the country on the cover and flipped it back and forth in his hand while contemplating something.
     He asked if I spoke Russian. I said no. He opened the passport and asked if I had the visa paper. I said no. He got out of the booth and had me walk within sight of a colleague twenty meters away to yell, in English, “Do you speak English!” but by now he was smiling and when the guard looked at him blankly, he started pointed at me and yelling to other colleagues, “Do you speak English!” and “DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH!” again and again maniacally to anyone within earshot like Brando screaming for Stella in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It was embarrassing, and I could only stand and watch.
     In an epiphany he turned to the Russian tourists behind us in line and tried again, but quieter: “Do you speak English?”
     A young guy said yes. The guard spoke with him and I was told that I had to go to Sukhumi, the capital, about three hours away, within three days to get my visa.
     I was in disbelief. Huh? What? Really? That’s it? I’m through? I half-expected him to change his mind, but passport in hand, I skedaddled out of there quickly.
     I’m in Abkhazia! That was excitement. That was fun. The English speaker showed me which rickety bus I needed for Gagra, the nearest town about an hour away, and I felt relieved to be sitting down. The gregarious bus driver entertained us en route by engaging everyone in a Russian geography quiz. Abkhazia! It’s a good start.
abkhazia ministry

     The Abkhazia Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sukhumi, the super-sleepy capital.


Epilogue
     I made sure I didn’t show my face at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs until the third day in case they freaked out about my being paperless, but the night before I finally got the visa letter in an email. It took four business days. I had tried the previous week, but my email bounced. I don’t know what changed.
     The visit was uneventful. The guy barely glanced at the paper. He asked how long I wanted to stay. I said ten days. He told me to go a bank about 100 meters away to pay for the visa, and when I came back, it took five minutes to get. They gave me ten days on top of the three I already had. The cost? 350 rubles, about $5.25. Incredible. Is there any other country on earth where the visa is less than $20? I can’t think of one.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION:
     The best days to enter are Wednesday to Friday because you have three working days to get your visa and it buys you time if you don’t want to rush to Sukhumi. It occurred to me, however, that no one knows when I left Russia, so how could they know when three days is?
     Most people do this charade on the Georgian side because you need a multiple entry visa for Russia to enter from there.
     The one concern I have is to be paranoid about losing my passport. There’s no U.S. consulate here. The only thing in my favor is I don’t have a Russian exit stamp, so if I could make it back to Russia somehow I could just say I lost my white migration paper, but if I got caught trying to enter Russia through the mountains…I might even get my name in the papers back home for that.

south ossetia plate

     The very-rarely-seen South Ossetia license plate, another breakaway republic from Georgia. Should I try to go there next?


     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something witty on Twitter, check for a non-boring photo on Instagram, and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

Coming “Home” to Califortugal

everything is a story

     Seen in Evora, Portugal


     If you drive through the desolate highways of Central California late at night, on the radio you only hear Top 40 hits, talk shows, country music and religious sermons, but you can also hear Portuguese radio. Many Portuguese have emigrated over the years, Basques, too, both quietly.
     I began listening for the novelty. It was my first exposure to Portuguese, and I was transfixed. I assumed everyone in the Portuguese world spoke as the people on the radio, who sounded like nasal vampires with swishy “sh” sounds and a ghoulish cadence.
     The language is really something for the ears to behold. Long ago I was in Brazil for three months and I learned some Portuguese, but I learned a Sao Paulo dialect that nearly everyone speaks (and few admit) which is a crunchy, sing-song, maybe irreverent way of speaking. Bringing that to Portugal was awkward, as out of place as a Chinese guy in a bar in Eastern Kentucky saying, “Top of the day, Gents! I’m feeling right peckish! Might you have some crisps?” but with worse grammar.
ceramic plates house
     Before I came to Portugal I told my Portuguese friend (why do I have only one Portuguese friend? I have a theory about this at the end) that I had low expectations for Portugal. I hadn’t been in 22 years and I imagined it to be Spain Lite or I don’t know what. I didn’t know enough to form an opinion (which doesn’t stop me from forming my wacky theory later.)
     The countryside felt like home. The land is very similar to California, right down to the vineyards. In fact, my grandfather grew grapes in the Central Valley and in Portugal they do the same trick of planting a rose bush at the end of a row of grapes because it shows the health of the vines: a sick rose means the vines are in trouble.
sagres cliff

     Sagres is the westernmost point in continental Europe. I was at the easternmost point of continental Europe, Narva, Estonia, just a few weeks earlier.


     Hitchhiking around what was once The End of the Known World I came across the whole gamut of who populates the Algarve coast now. First it was a German woman who has lived in Portugal for 20 years, then an old Portuguese man in a sputtering car, then a Finnish family visiting the patriarch who had been living here but had a story that was only murmured to me in the backseat, much of it involving Cuba.
     A vacationing Irish couple pitied me frying in the sun and drove me a distance. The man’s first question was, “Are you ready for a Trump presidency?”
     I laughed and asked if he thought it was a sure thing, but he was serious to the point of bitterness and tersely replied, “Of course!”
cliff fishing

     That’s a solid 60-70 meter drop. That’s a dedicated fisherman.


last bratwurst

     Some German humor! “Last Bratwurst Before America.” Ingenious. Delicious.


lisbon jacaranda

     I had no idea Lisbon had jacarandas, one of my favorite trees. They make a sticky mess on the ground and on tops of cars, but that’s not my problem.


lisbon view

     Just one of many ho-hum Lisbon views.


old lady lisbon

     I feel for old people in Lisbon who have to negotiate these steep stony streets. Old people, though, seem to have pep beyond their years and are as laid back and good-natured as everyone else. That said, Portuguese are not morning people. Everything starts late; Spain maybe even more so.


bones chapel

     A chapel decorated with thousands of bones. in Evora, Portugal.


kob

     I intensely hate this restaurant name.


     Why do I have only one Portuguese friend? The companion question to this is why don’t Portuguese travel? My only Portuguese friend I met in Syria, of all places; a true freak.
     Since traditions live strong, I think the collective attitude is, “we discovered the world, it’s all been done, and now we will stop traveling and rest,” and they have been resting for 500 years now. How is that for a theory? Stunningly scholarific, right?
     One can hardly blame them. I loved Portugal. From my eyes it was Portuguese culture on top of California land, which should be OK in anyone’s book.
flamenco machine

     It pains me to look at this photo, and not just because it is blurry. This is a machine in the Flamenco Museum in Seville, Spain. It has a crank in the back and you can adjust the front setting depending on which kind of flamenco you want, and the wooden feet move to that rhythm. It’s the coolest thing ever. The problem is that this should be a video, but I can’t take video and crank it myself at the same time. This is why I have 3.5 billion ideas for video but can’t do it by myself and no one in their right mind has the patience to work with me. Frustrating.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION
wide toilet

     I stayed with a Couchsurfing host in Lisbon and they had this fabulous toilet. It’s wider than it is long! Incredible. Couchsurfing was very hard to manage in Portugal and Spain, but I found enough Airbnb deals to not mind. I don’t think I ever paid more than 15 euros to sleep anywhere, including Airbnb’s persnickety fees.


     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something witty on Twitter, check for a non-boring photo on Instagram, and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

Estonia Gushing

estonia plate

     Do you have any idea how much you could get for this license plate on eBay? Enough to pay for two to three weeks in India, easily.


parnu trees

     Hey Urban Planners, I’ve got a one-word message for you: trees! You want your city to look good, plant big leafy trees now. Name me an ugly city that has lots of big leafy trees. You can’t, because it doesn’t exist. Look closely at this. Parnu has the very seldom seen FOUR ROWS OF TREES ON ONE SIDE OF THE STREET!!! Urban Planners, buy a one-way ticket to Parnu now and learn something!


     Is it boring to read someone gush about a country? Are you suspicious that there might be unstated reasons for the gushing? I don’t trust anyone who gushes about Sweden at face value. There has to be something involved, a “Camilla”, say, or an obsession with priest cheese (really, you’ve got to try it), but I am gushing about Estonia, and while I do know three Estonian girls, they all moved away long ago and this isn’t about them. Also, Estonia is flat, and flatness is associated with boredom. The highest mountain (in all of the Baltics) is only 318 meters (1043 feet) but Estonia is an alluring Denmark flat (undulating land), not a harsh Netherlands flat (laser-sharp lines.)
     Part of the reason I love Estonia is due to my timing. Just like my visit to Bulgaria last year, it was just out of the clearly delineated “season”: warm, few people, off-peak prices, and altogether perfect. For the beach town of Parnu, especially, there is a rigid notion of when the season is—usually school holidays—with little flexibility. It could be snowing on June 1, but if that’s when the season starts, then all of the shops will be open. If it’s a balmy 24C a few days before June 1 with a few hundred people along the beach looking for food or drink, only one or two bars are open. If I came back to Parnu one week later, I might hardly recognize it through the bustle.
elephant slide

     The empty elephant slide in Parnu. In this part of the Estonia the water is shallow for as far as you can see people wading in it.


Not Much of a Border Story:
     At the beautiful Russia/Estonia border, Ivangorod and Narva Forts face each other with a small, meandering river and its grassy, green banks separating them. On the Russian side I tried not to laugh as a stout woman pored over my passport gravely, inspecting the added pages, and running her hand over the binding. I always have to suppress giggling when officialdom sees my passport—I would make an awful smuggler—because it is as if in this moment my traveling has to make sense to someone, and it’s absurd. In my twenties and thirties I got asked a lot about my job, how much money I had, my intentions, etc., but these days, hardly at all.
     She was checking the stamps page by page until she got fed up and reached for her phone, but after a while of fiddling with it she went for the walkie talkie. Something was said. She waited. The time dragged on; I made a point of not making eye contact with the the people behind me in line. Just when I thought I might be in for an interrogation, in her impatience she grabbed her rubber stamp and made a very good impression on the page with the other Russian stamp so the next border control agent can have an easier time trying to decipher it all.
     See? Told you it wasn’t much of a story. Same with the next one.
strawberry dairy

     Is there Estonian poetry about maasika kohupiimapasta? Songs? I guess haikus would be difficult.


     In the excitement of being in a new-feeling country, I did the normal thing of first checking out a supermarket. So much can be learned from a country by its supermarkets. I saw this refrigerated strawberry thick paste/cream thing (above) and was flummoxed. I approached an older woman and just as I started to ask, I caught myself too late: older people in Estonia are much less likely to speak English, I’d read. However, it was as if this erudite woman speaking the Queen’s English hangs out all day in the refrigerated aisle waiting to educate bewildered foreigners about Estonian dairy products.
     “I don’t know if you are able to imagine,” she started in a slow, suspenseful tone, pausing long for effect while I wondered about the effects of aging in isolation, “but this is something very common in the Baltic countries. Perhaps you might be familiar with something similar in Germany called quark—”
     “Quark!” I almost shrieked, afraid that I might be stuck in the store for hours, “Yes, I know quark, I understand,” and profusely thanked her and bowed while walking backwards, which I learned from the pros, the Japanese.
     Maasika kohupiimapasta is delicious stuff. Tastes like quark.
leaning house

     The Leaning House of Tartu.


soup town house

     Tartu has a district called Soup Town where all the streets are named for soup ingredients. It’s like an enormous living history museum with old wooden houses and dirt reclaiming the pavement.


     Maybe being in big cities for the last three weeks made me open to something different, or was it the weather? That new car smell because it has been 20 years since I was last in Estonia? Whatever the reason, Tartu struck me as gorgeous with its big leafy trees, overflowing greenery in parks, a lovely river, young vibe due to it being a college town, even a little Cuban shack bar by the river adds to its character. I was immediately enchanted by all the old wooden homes, not spruced up, but lived in. Tartu is cozy.
     Parnu on the coast might even be more impressive given the summer crush of people: perfectly laid out, each park idyllic, everything just the right size, the beach has nice facilities, there’s plenty of beach volleyball courts; I saw a yoga group, a sports camp for young girls, and at least three different tennis clubs nearby.
     Another reason I enjoy Estonia so much is that it feels I am visiting in a special era, that it’s all going to change soon. I think years from now Estonians will become all nostalgic when I tell them I visited in 2016. “2016,” they will say, with a faraway look in their eye and a heavy, “We were young then.” (Israelis always get like that when I say I visited in 1992.) Parnu looked familiar, like a less-developed Jurmala, Latvia, where I was last fall. Change feels inevitable.
pood

     I hitchhiked from Tartu to Parnu, feeling very naked with neither my USA flag nor my “From California to Parnu” sign. It was slow, but traffic was light. Several women picked me up as well as this guy on his way home from fishing, who dropped me off in front of this shop called “pood”, which means “shop.” Now it’s my dream to open a shop in America called “Shop”.


MEMORY LANE:
     From my last visit in Estonia twenty years ago I remember only a few things: there were two main places to sleep: upstairs at the bus station (noisy) or the youth hostel that shared the same front door as a strip club. You walked in, and the right arrow was for the hostel, and the left, a strip club. Some travelers who seemed to ordinarily have an excellent sense of direction found themselves lost night after night.
     Also 20 years ago I found the worst toilet I have ever seen in my life at the border to Russia in Narva. This time my bus into Estonia also made a ten-minute stop at Narva, and I leapt out to investigate, but the old toilet doesn’t exist any more. Kind of devastated, I have to admit. Progress?
tallinn house

     Until you get to the capital, Tallinn, it’s nearly impossible to so see how this country was Soviet for fifty-odd years. Even in Tallinn, though, the Soviet apartment block crush is away from the old center. Tallinn is also nicely laid out: the old wooden homes of Kalamaja, train station, port, old town, bus station—all of it is within walking distance of each other, even the airport is only 4km away.


estonia airport toilet

     Tallinn Airport is instantly a Top 3 Airport for me. Wonderful place. I didn’t check if prices were rapacious, but there’s a free book exchange, giant chess boards by the gates, super-comfy chairs, clean workspaces, children’s areas, and these funny toilets. Can you read what is says?
     The airport is a microcosm of what I like about the country: it’s cozy, mellow, pretty, efficient, easily accessible, understated, well-laid out and thought-through. It brings out my inner design geek.


     I met Julie from Connecticut in Tallinn and we had a chat. She said she has been reading my blog for four years. The lesson is if I’m passing through wherever you happen to be, don’t be shy about reaching out. I like meeting people. When Julie emerges from her intensive psychotherapy I bet she’d agree.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION
     I’m using Airbnb a lot. It’s addicting to be able to find a single room for the same price as a dorm bed. What I often do is only book one night and then ask the host how much it would be if you can pay directly for subsequent nights. Airbnb is taking cuts from both ends, so they will always agree to this and it is always significantly cheaper. It could backfire if the host has a booking for the next night. This happened in Tallinn but my host agreed anyway, giving me his room and sleeping on the couch.
     There are several bus companies in Estonia and prices are low; hitchhiking should be done for fun, not to save just a few euros. Lux Express is spreading out its tentacles beyond the Baltics now. Booking is cheaper online. Parnu to Tallinn was almost two hours and only five euros.
estonian language

     What a jumble of a language. Fortunately, I could smell that this meant to be careful of wet paint. Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language, as is Hungarian (a language I lived inside for one year teaching English in Hungary) though the similarity is in sentence structure rather than words. Both countries have a similar snack, though: a refrigerated curd bar wrapped in chocolate. In Estonian it’s called kohuke. It’s better in every respect to the Hungarian Turo Rudi. (I just offended a proud nation of 10 million people, but they know where I stand with them.)


     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something witty on Twitter, check for a non-boring photo on Instagram, and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

From Prussia with Plov

     Note: sometimes the titles make no sense.
     I’ve been on a bad run of flights to the point that I now dread flying altogether, and I want to wring the necks of those inbreds who clap their hands when the plane touches down and shout, “Bravo!” Where are we, at a bullfight? I had two flights in a row where there was the announcement, “Is there a doctor on board?” Storms seem to find my flight path. Turbulence bothers me now. I must still be shaken from last year’s burning engine off Guam.
     I must be getting old, because the other thing I (internally) rage about is cell phone etiquette. Why can’t people can’t put their phone to mute? Who wants to hear an incessant notification tone? The real question is, why can’t everyone be Japanese? Japan, you have so much going for you, and so much not, but let’s flesh this out another time.
     I don’t know what I can say about Mother Russia that I didn’t say last year. I’m mostly struck by Russian people, and I can’t escape from the word that they are gentle. I can’t think of a better word if I must pick one. I am tentative because I need to get out in the hinterland and out of the big cities to really formulate an opinion based on wide, solid experience. Maybe this summer.

ww2 monument

     No one did war monuments better than the Soviets. I eat this stuff up. Victory Park, Moscow.


spb head

     They’re going to need to make this sign in Chinese soon judging by the invading hordes.


toilet throw up

     YES! Wait, what?


gorky park

     I made a size extra large mistake by missing the May 9 Victory Day parade, but I did go to Moscow’s Gorky Park in the afternoon to be with the masses and flowers.


     I don’t know what to think about this video I took at the circus. It was arresting to watch it at the time, but I imagine a circus by nature involves a lot of “persuasion” to get wild animals to do anything, whether you have to drug them or not feed them or what. Is there such a thing as a humane circus?

singer building

     The stylish Singer Building in St. Petersburg, now a bookstore and cafe.


hooch

     No beating around the bush for Russians. Hooch!


kc red square

     Cheesy, I know, but how many Red Squares are there?


novodevichy cemetery

     One of my favorite graves at the Novodevichy Cemetery—maybe more interesting than Pere Lachaise in Paris—is an actor with his dog.


electrozavodskaya

     As a mass transit geek I unconditionally love the Moscow and St. Pete metro systems, and the stations are over-the-top fantastic, like this one at the deliciously-named Electrozavodskaya.


metro escalator

     The metro doubles as a bomb shelter so it is very deep. Thankfully, the escalators are fast, though old people can find it a challenge to mount. Some stations drip with atmosphere.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION
     This is the English website for the railways that shows how much a trip costs at a certain time. (Prices fluctuate based on demand.) You can see how much the 167-hour, Trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Vladivostok costs day to day. In late June I see $110 for a third class seat, aka The Hemorrhoid Express.
     This is a good resource for flights (In Russian, but you can get an idea of prices and then buy directly from the airlines.) Aeroflot.com is a clean and easy website to book. This isn’t your father’s Russia, I’m telling you!
     If going to Russia from the Baltics, Lux Express is a top-notch bus service with reasonable prices—reasonable considering you are crossing a border, which makes everything spike for some reason.
     If I head east, I’m looking to rely on the pan-European
rideshare website BlaBlaCar more than the trains. (In Russian. You can change to the British website on the bottom, but then everything is priced in pounds).
     Did you know there are plans for a 3000 bed(!) hostel in Moscow? I used Couchsurfing, Airbnb and hotels.com for most places I stayed. This hotel below, I wish I had seen the actual bed before I booked because this is the worst of both worlds: a footboard and a giant pillow. What dwarf invented these things?! Who needs a footboard on a bed? What purpose does a giant pillow serve other than to make the bed shorter? Mystifying.
bad bed

     At least they gave me a towel. Two towels, one for crying. I might be done with traveling soon.


moscow moldova

     2000 rubles (US$30) to go from St. Petersburg to Moldova is a deal. That’s a loooong way.


     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something witty on Twitter, check for a non-boring photo on Instagram, and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

Body by Yahoo!

yahoo sign

     To keep me off the mean streets of Northern California, I got a three-month job at Yahoo.


     Have you missed me?
     I’ve been quiet for two reasons: I haven’t been backpacking so everything else seems boring by comparison, and Yahoo told me 591 times that my work is confidential and I’ve been scared to write anything about my time there since I’d like to be able to return.
     But here I am. My contract is over, and I’m hitting the road again. I have a Russian visa in my possession—a three-year, multiple entry visa!—and only today did I realize that includes the 2018 World Cup in Russia. (I’ll be active on Instagram in Russia if you want to see some funny, vaguely provocative photos.)
yahoo front

     If Yahoo had a washer and dryer and if they’d let me sleep under my desk, I would gladly never leave campus. Free food, free gym, nice facilities—what’s not to like? On the other hand, as it was, I had friends nearby that I never saw and lived a Yahoo-only existence.


expectant mother parking

     I kept offering to get my colleagues pregnant so they could get these prime parking spots, but no one took the bait. (I guess, “Come meet me under desk A-3771 after work” isn’t very compelling.) The women of Yahoo, they’re very intelligent, I’m telling you.


     My title at Yahoo was Search Editor, but it seems to be an internal game that job titles are opaque and it’s a riddle as to what everyone really does. There is strict confidentiality even between teams and endless reminders to keep it that way. Too much is at stake for loose lips in the hyper-competitive tech world. (I sound so knowledgeable!) I will say that my primary duty at Yahoo (nervously looking over my shoulder) was to improve search results. Vague enough? Whew! That was a close one!
     I say this to people and I can see in their eyes the real question is how I managed to get a job at Yahoo with my skill set, which from all appearances is limited to hitchhiking and dumpster diving, but I’m here to tell you that I’m more than a pretty face, kemosabe. I’ve done a few different things in my life, and it’s no small feat to type 57 words a minute with a phone precariously held in one ear during an interview. I also used to work for a company that Yahoo bought, and I still know a few people here. And I have photos of all of them in compromising positions. Blackmail is a bitch.
     I was more interested in how I fit in with my co-workers. On my team I was a good 15 years older than anyone else, and sometimes it felt like I was Creed from the U.S. version of the TV show, “The Office”: a weird crank with a hazy past best left unmentioned. I’d be overcome with the delusion that they’d want to hear about the time I was in Syria just before the war and then I’d see the looks on their faces and realize I need to do a quick u-turn. As a solitary traveler, it was a nice change to be part of a team, so I tried to make myself useful and it was fun. Yahoo was fun. Working was fun. There, I said it.
yahoo view

     The yin and yang of my Yahoo life: the cafeteria on the right and the gym on the left. I swear, I worked out a minimum of one solid hour every single weekday, more solid hours every single weekend, and yet I weigh the most I ever have in my life. I’d show you a photo, but, um, my camera is broken.


     The food was incredible. Some days would see wild boar or chimichurri turkey legs or wagyu beef hamburgers. Anything on the daily menu where I thought to myself, “Wow, when am I ever going to have that again?” I had to try, which became virtually every meal. Somehow I seemed to be the only one at Yahoo without any self-control, and my weight spiked. How can you control yourself when every meal is an exotic feast and all of it is free? FREE!
     I can safely say that for the rest of my non-Yahoo life I won’t be eating chia seeds and quinoa in comparable quantities. Even in the humdrum snack rooms there’d be drinks that I’d stare at like a just-released prisoner, unable to recognize anything familiar.
yahoo food3

     Suuuuuuushi and mussels!


yahoo food1

     As I recall, this was a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich with grilled mahi mahi.


yahoo food2

     A simple caesar salad and prosciutto crudo. I never looked to see what desserts there were. Let sleeping dogs lie.


     Sleeping is the problem in Silicon Valley, which rivals New York City now for highest rents in the nation. I did it all: couchsurfed at a Nicaraguan girl’s apartment, slept on friends’ couches and spare rooms, and suffered through Airbnb.
     I think I have used Airbnb in California five or six times, and not once have I met the host. It’s all latchkey accommodation on the low end. I don’t mind an invisible host, but there are inevitable communication problems. (Of course, in their reviews of me, I am always a great guy, muy simpatico.) It’s a seller’s market on Airbnb in Silicon Valley. Look at this ridiculous “pod” for $33.
     Eventually I found an in-law room in Sunnyvale that cost $800 for four weeks, an absolute bargain. I shared a bathroom with a surly Chinese girl working at Google who refused to tell me her name. (How I found it was instructive. Instead of answering housing ads on Craigslist, I made my own “housing wanted” ad and found a Vietnamese widow looking for a short-term renter.
airbnb san jose

     For one night I was at this Airbnb in East San Jose: a makeshift “room” separated by bed sheets that I shared with an equally bewildered Indian guy whose “room” was off the kitchen. This was also the nicest place I stayed.


(NOT VERY) PRACTICAL INFORMATION:
     Do you know how hard it is to get a library card in California? They want official proof that I live somewhere, but I am always sleeping around or unofficially subletting and have no paperwork to support my claim. Frustrating. It is easier to buy pure heroin or automatic weapons than it is to check books out from the Sunnyvale Public library.
     I own a smartphone now. Check me out! I was hoping to be the only person working at Yahoo (or all of Silicon Valley?) without one, but I had to have it. A friend upgraded and gave me his Samsung S4 Galaxy. I’m instantly as hooked everyone else, to my chagrin, but the weird part is getting used to being accessible. I might be Creed after all.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something witty on Twitter, check for a non-boring photo on Instagram, and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

Witnessing American Football in the California Republic

ticket asian

     Oakland Raiders fans, they come in all styles, and yet, something about this Asian woman screamed trafficking.


     As we draw closer to the biggest sporting event in America, the Super Bowl, which is being played in three weeks less than five miles from where I live and work it is time to reflect upon the experience of seeing an actual American football game. I realize that few things make me sound more un-American than saying “American football”, but how many countries don’t call soccer “football”? Few.
     A friend in town suddenly “remembered” that she had a cousin who worked security for the Oakland Raiders, so she managed to nab passes to one of the hottest games of the year against the mighty Green Bay Packers. (How can you forget something like that? How? It’s like saying, “Hey, I just remembered, Mick Jagger’s my uncle. Want to go to the show?”)
     It’s hard to imagine that I would pay for an NFL ticket in any circumstance. Our passes didn’t have prices on them, but a ticket I found on the ground (ebay, I can’t quit you) with a face value of $120. It costs $35 just to park at the stadium! Food and drink prices were reminiscent of small-town Switzerland.
raiders tarp

     The Raiders have a diabolical arrangement where you have to pay for a “personal seat license” that in turn gives you the privilege of buying super-expensive season tickets to a perennially awful team that is always threatening to leave town. The Raiders have trouble selling out—tons of visiting Packers’ fans had tickets—and instead of copping to the humiliation of showing empty seats in the upper deck of the Oakland Coliseum, they cover them with tarps.


lost a bet

     The most rabid fans sit on the end of the field called The Black Hole, but they are everywhere, really, including Mr. Raider4Life here wearing a rival Pittsburgh Steelers jersey. He said the bet he lost requires him to wear this the whole season.


raiders prices

     I wondered which had the biggest profit margin. So much to choose from! I thought airports were bad, but this is another level. “Cheddar cheese sauce” is illegal in 23 states.


raiders stadium

     As much as you might think it is better to sit at home and watch the game on TV in the comfort of your dungeon while we suffer in the freezing cold and rain, there is something to say for the electricity of being at a live event and seeing the whole field, not a narrow TV screen version. Even in the cheap seats you don’t feel far from the action, and despite the Oakland Coliseum being a cesspool of a stadium, it is exciting to be in the energy of 55,000 rabid fans.


california republic

     The California state flag flying over The Eternal Flame of the Losing Season. (The Raiders lost 30-20. They always lose.) That’s a good-looking flag for a good-looking state. I, for one, am waiting for The Holy Mother of All Earthquakes that everyone predicts in the hope that California becomes an island and we can again be an independent republic. #49states


warriors floor

     My friend’s cousin also let us check out the floor of the Golden State Warriors who play in the adjacent arena. It was a great experience all around; my personal highlight of the day came when I saw former Raider great Rod Martin in the bathroom.


OAKLAND MEMORIES:
     It’s a local sport to pick on the shabby, derelict Oakland Coliseum, but I have only fond memories. I’ve been to at least 50 events there over the years: two Metallica concerts, The Who, Gold Cup soccer, and dozens of Oakland A’s baseball games, including this famous one from the movie, “Moneyball”, with Brad Pitt. (The real-life, less-Hollywood version of that clip is here.) I made over $100 selling those tickets on ebay, too.
     Last thing: I’m on Instagram! For frustrating reasons I can’t make a button yet where you would normally see it on my website, but this is the link. Follow!
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something witty on Twitter, check for a non-boring photo on Instagram, and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

The Kent-is-really-a-regular-dude mailbag

     Hello from California! I have no update other than I am eating as if there is no tomorrow. If I am traveling for ten months, being outside a lot, running around a lot, not having my own space, I can tell you I go into full hermit mode when home. And I eat chips and salsa too much. And I desperately need to redesign my website.
     Let’s jump straight to the mailbag:

french statue

     Seen in France.


From Geraldine in Country Unknown:
     You are a self proclaimed idiot. Your blog scream of that.

     This isn’t starting well.

From “homeless and a hooker in america”(?!):
     india over manila..are u on drugs? slums in manila is not that huge and they are harmless and eventually relocated…and then u says makati is not as exotic? u are a very jelous white trash fag..its just that u cant believe that makati and beyond have such an amazing massive skycrapers that im sure your home city have nothing like that…philippines is booming since 5 yrs ago and our economy is 2nd highest in asia after china..so die of envy idiot fag white trash..dont ever come back to manila again..your not welcome here..idiot

     Sounds like someone needs a hug.

From Lucy in Kenya:
     I am not sure whether I loved or hated your blog.

     I’ll seeing that glass as half full! Let’s build on this!

From Silke in Germany:
     Hi, I found your blog as I was searching for some Information about the border crossing at Irkeshtam (Kyrgyzstan). I’ll travel from Osh to Kashgar and further on to Islamabad. Your blog is just great, probably the best I’ve read about traveling… and I simply love your point of view towards female solo travelers :). I always knew that I’m awesome 🙂 and finally somebody admits 🙂 just kidding, but honestly please keep on writing!

     I can’t find my email to Silke so I can’t remember how I responded, but I have never lost my admiration for solo female travelers. I’m on Reddit‘s travel pages answering questions and giving advice, and so many men AND women are anxious and scared to travel, much less to go alone, and this was before the Paris attacks which is making potential travelers nervous. Silke went to Pakistan on her own and had a fantastic time, she reported to me later, with not one problem. Well done, Silke!

From Robert in Hungary:
     Do you drink alcohol at all? It doesn’t come through in your blog entries.

     Not really. I don’t like the taste. I might drink a beer if I am in a crowd just to not draw attention to myself, but then everyone yells at me anyway for being unable to finish one bottle. What’s funny is that I will tell someone this and they will nod, but then they will encourage me to try their “special” local beer. To me, it all tastes the same. I certainly have been able to travel for much longer by not spending money on booze—but I miss out in a way, too.

tiny water

     Who says everything is big in America?


From India in England (she says her name is India; who am I to argue?):
     My friend made me trudge in the pissing icy rain to find that Hashem place (in Amman, Jordan) because she’d read about it somewhere. I was desperately hungry and kept asking why we couldn’t just go to one of the 450,698,216 falafel or shawarma joints we passed on the way. Only once I was full of Hashem’s hummus and fool did my resentment subside and I admitted it was worth the effort 😀

     I don’t give restaurant recommendations willy-nilly, you know. You’re welcome.

From Anya in Australia:
     Loved reading your blog. Like you I had been trekking in Nepal (with husband and kids) and had only flown out a couple of days before the earthquake. It’s kind of weird isn’t it, I’ve been reluctant to show off my holiday photos. I guess I should, the Nepalese really need their tourism. We spent a few days at Peaceful Lodge in Langtang Village because the owner was so nice and cooked lovely food. I couldn’t get over that BBC footage, so horrible and sad.
     I’m not usually to keen to stereotype nationalities, but I have to share this one. My youngest son ordered a bowl of noodles that he found too spicy. He played with it, dribbled into it and left it. An Israeli trekker (who was watching him) took the left overs and put them in plastic bag to eat later in the day!

     Aaaahahaha! That’s a funny story! Thanks for sharing it—although, of course, the guy could have been from anywhere. Of course!

hendrix stamps

     Jimi Hendrix on an official United States stamp! Who says America is a conservative country?


     I had another question from Nigel in England. I dutifully answered, and he wrote back:
     Thank you for your response. It is impossible for me to convey how happy it was too hear from you. It’s as (if) a fictional character spoke to me from out of a book.
     I’m just a regular dude! I have heard from several people who only know me through my website that they are shocked that I would take the time to reply and the idea of meeting me is an inconceivably big deal. I can tell you that everyone gets over it very quickly when they realize I am like everyone else who puts his pants on three legs at a time. I’m no big deal, and I answer 99% of my emails that are written by real people.
     So don’t be shy. If you have something to say, get your pen out and write me.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

What I Learned Traveling Ten Months Around the World

boracay sunset

     Another ho-hum Philippines sunset.


     Greetings from the land of sweet California sunshine! It feels like a long time since I was here, because it has been a long time since I was here. I was away exactly ten months. Last year I was away exactly ten months. Every single year of my adult life I have been at least six months away.
     I am unloading my backpack for the last time, sitting here among the motley assortment of flotsam accumulated on the road: Bulgarian sudoku booklet, Malaysian t-shirt, Turkish toothpaste, Jordanian water bottle, Filipino sweatshirt, German backpack—I am a post-modern Mr. Multicultural all by virtue of doing nothing more than buying plane tickets.
     So what did I learn from being away so long? I learned nothing. NOTHING! I do this all the time. This is all I do. This is all I know how to do. It’s like the movie “Groundhog Day” where the same events keep repeating themselves and like the TV show Seinfeld: no learning and no hugging!
     Wait, this is a good time for an emo Polish pop song from Myslovitz:

     Near the beginning of this trip in the Philippines I was talking with a woman and she asked how many countries I had been to. I said, “About 100,” and she said, “That’s too many!” That’s a funny response, and maybe the correct one.
     Another time while hitchhiking in Europe a Croatian driver interrogated me about my life and concluded, “I can’t believe someone who has lived such a harsh life looks so incredibly young.” HA! I assume he was driving to his eye doctor appointment and running late.
american machine

     Seen in Kathmandu, Nepal.


Quick vignette I never blogged about because I write too much about day-to-day events that bore everyone to tears:
     Two months ago I was hiking in the mountains of southern Bulgaria with a group of people and we came across a walnut tree on the edge of town. We made a stop and without a word being spoken, a guy climbed deep up into the tree and began throwing walnuts to the girls. The girls dutifully sorted and opened the walnuts, instructing me how to remove the bitter soft covering, and feeding me the best ones.
     That’s living off the fat of the land, and that is the difference between Americans and most of the rest of the world. Maybe I should only speak for myself, because I would look at a walnut tree and wonder if someone owned this tree, it the nuts were ripe, if they would be tasty raw, if it was safe to eat the nut, if this breed was edible, if I might get sick, etc. As an American I was impressed with myself that I could recognize a walnut tree.
     OK, so I learned one thing.
over new mexico

     Flying over a mysterious New Mexico landscape.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION
     My flight from Miami to Los Angeles was free, or, I should say, the fact that I sat on a plane with a burning engine between Guam and Manila at 3am to start this trip earned me a $150 certificate from United that I redeemed. The practical information here is to request to fly on defective planes so you can get airline credit. The more burning, the better.
     My next blog post will be a mailbag where I answer very random questions people ask me; if you have any questions for me, feel free to send them to me here or via email or Facebook or carrier pigeon—whatever feels right.
credit card apps

     This was my welcome home: 40 credit card offers from airlines.


     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

It’s, it’s, a Belgian Blitz! It’s, it’s, a Belgian Blitz!

     The end is near! Belgium is my last foreign stop before I fly to Miami, Florida, though is Florida really any less foreign? I made a quick visit of Belgium just before the long slog home.

ukraine intl

     I flew from Amman, Jordan to Brussels, Belgium via Kiev on Ukraine International Airlines. Even though I am into frequent flyer miles, I also like flying oddball airlines like this for the experience—if they are cheap. This was a strange plane and an awful, awful flight, a skinny Embraer jet that shook so hard in heavy turbulence for so long I had my recurring dream of living in one idyllic place and never flying again.


Hitchhiking in Belgium
     I wasn’t optimistic about it, but I tried hitchhiking from Brussels airport. I found a bad, yet quiet spot away from any police and threw my thumb out. Surprisingly, a car with diplomatic license plates stopped. That is very rare, and even more so since I hadn’t shaved and was looking grizzled. However, he was going the wrong way. But then another car with diplomatic plates stopped, and this time I went with them into town: two Burmese guys—do I have to say Myanmar? Myanmar has existed for so long now no one will remember it was once Burma—from the embassy. They were a jovial duo, entertaining me by mock-throwing their phones out the window every time it beeped with a message.
     Hitchwiki told me where to take public transport in Brussels to the best spot for heading west to the coast. I needed help from a gorgeous Congolese woman to figure out the ticket system, though I might have heard every fifth word while staring at her. Every time I am in Brussels I am struck that it must be one of the most international (read: least white) places I know; it’s no wonder little Belgium is such a hub for international flights.
     The hitchhiking all went quickly from Brussels: an African-Belgian guy took me to the first highway gas station, then I sat in a disgustingly filthy car thick with cat hair and cigarette smoke from a man with three kids in the back seat, and finally a Chechen guy drove me to Oostende on the coast. He couldn’t believe I was American nor that I was visiting for fun. I had already told him I was from America, but he looked me over and asked, “Are you Syrian?”
     “Nooooo!” I replied. I pointed to the American flag velcroed on my backpack and said, “California!” in the dorkiest way possible.
     He was confused. “You are on holiday in Belgium? Belgium?!” as if it was the most ridiculous idea. I assured him I had no other motives to be in Belgium and he let me out in Oostende, not believing a word I said.
     Sometimes I worry about getting robbed while hitchhiking, but any driver’s smartphone is worth twice as much as everything in my bag combined, and the driver probably quickly realizes it when meeting me. In almost all of Europe the balance is such that the driver is far more worried about you than you are worried about the driver. Whatever the dynamic, so far, so good.
burbling water

     Burbling water in Oostende. What animal could cause such a force?


     In Oostende I stayed at an Airbnb place that cost exactly $1 because the guy simply wanted to have guests. In Gent I stayed as a Couchsurfing guest, but I might be losing my Couchsurfing mojo. Lately it hasn’t been so easy to find hosts.
The Cheap flight—always the cheap flight
     My flight to Miami is with a Belgian-based airline called—ready for this? It’s unbelievably bad: Jetairfly. Ta-da! Is that not the worst name for an airline? Who thinks of these things? I am flying with them because $165 is crazy-cheap.
     I was all proud of myself that I found such a cheap flight, but these days they aren’t the only cheap game in town to cross the Atlantic. Jetairfly, Norwegian.com and Wowair via Iceland are the way to go, among others. Still, $165 including all taxes and a free checked bag is very, very hard to beat.
jetairfly

     I saw this ad in my mailbox, which makes up for the thousand other times I feel getting airline newsletters is a waste of time. I tried and tried to purchase it online, but wasn’t having any luck. I called my credit card company, but they claimed the problem wasn’t on their end. I tried calling the airline even though I knew I would be on hold forever and be a costly international toll call (and somehow you can’t use Skype to their landline). I finally discovered that you can’t buy a ticket with an American credit card, though they never mention it on their website and no one can explain it anyway. What the hell? Luckily I have a friend that trusts me and I used her credit card. (I have a friend!)


Blitzing through the US embassy
     I raced to the US embassy in Brussels just before my flight to get extra passport pages. You must make an appointment online, but then there is wiggle room if you call them and ask for other times. Like anything involving passports, it’s better to do it abroad than home because of the time and cost. If I wanted new passport pages in USA, the cost would be the same, $82, but I would have to mail it away (with insurance and a return envelope) and wait 4-6 weeks or pay an express fee of $32 if I went in person to a passport office in a big city.
     It rankles me that I have to pay $82 for something that used to be free and which takes minutes to do, but come the end of the year, the government will no longer issue extra passport pages. When your passport gets filled with stamps, you’ll have to buy another passport, which is about $140 now, plus photos, plus the interminable waiting time, etc.
extra passport pages

     My new passport supplement. While you are at it, ask for double pages as shown here. I used up my 45 pages in five years, so the 45-page supplement should be perfect as my passport expires in another five years. That said, now I have a massive passport that will be uncomfortable to stuff in my pocket while sweating in the tropics.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION:
     Pro tip: all those mangled US dollar banknotes that no money changer will touch, the ones with the rips, tears, spots, markings, and stains? The embassy will take them.
     For foreigners coming to USA, just because nowadays there are old and new types of banknotes for the same denomination doesn’t mean it’s a problem to use either one. In fact, every banknote ever printed in America is legal tender. Don’t come to USA with anything other than dollars. I have never, ever seen a decent rate for any foreign currency.
     How did I find an Airbnb place that was $1? By doing a search by map, putting my parameters as a place for under $10, and zooming out. You never know what you might find.
oostende

     Oostende architecture. This is all one building.


     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

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