Sojourn to Slovakia: Strolling Through Old Bardejov and Hitchhiker Woes

People, be aware: Slovakia—the entire nation of 5.5 million people—closes at 10PM. It doesn’t matter if it’s Friday night or Saturday or whatever. The stuff you want will not be open or available at night. In my experience, you’ve got to get your kicks before four hours after six or it’s no dice.

Can a Sleeper Get a Break Round Here?

Staying overnight in Bardejov was a near disaster. My bus reached this eastern Slovakian town around 10PM, which is right when its main guesthouse for cheapskates, like me, closed. I banged on the guesthouses door for 10 minutes, yelling for assistance, begging for a bed, but no answer came from the darkness. I then visited some deadbeat local bar and roused a band of Slovak young men by talking excitedly and waving my arms for ‘telephone, telephone’, and one of them let me use his mobile. While his friends were laughing about the strange cameo of a bearded blond man from America in their bar, I called the guesthouse in desperation. They actually picked up but the woman, who sounded like she was Ms. Swan from Mad TV, pinched out a response that basically said they were full up. So, I gave back the mobile and said goodbye to the confused Slovak men, and searched around for new options in some residential area to the north of the old town. I found another guesthouse but things were looking really bad; this one was not only dark, but it was gated and locked. I tried banging on the gate door and yelling, but it was just useless. Getting frantic can make people insanely courageous, so I found two guys on the street and butchered the Slavic phrases I know to communicate that I needed their phone to call the guesthouse. These dudes were kind of incredulous that they had been ambushed by a random American on Saturday night, but nevertheless they tried to help and contributed to the tiny noisemaking I had done with wolf-whistles and louder banging on the gate. This, along with incessant calling of the owner of the guesthouse, finally got someone to respond to our calls. Fifteen minutes after I had showed up, a thin man dressed in lycra biking shorts—like an athletic-looking Josef Fritzl—stepped out of the house and let me in. We negotiated a room on the spot, luckily it wasn’t a sporty dungeon, and thereafter I got to bed quickly.

Bardejov: the Sights, or the Lack Thereof

Bardejov is a lot like the town Bruges in Belgium: it’s the kind of place where you don’t really do anything except for wander around. Wander to the restaurant, eat some fried cheese, walk around the back alleys, see some more old buildings that are heavily restored, take a look at the church, wow it’s a church I’ve never seen a church before look a bloody man on a cross who is he, woah that’s a big pigeon, etc. Nothing struck me as notable about Bardejov, in comparison to other medieval towns with remnants of city walls and cute little timber-frame houses, except for its massive fucking town square. You could fit everyone who lives in Bardejov in that town square and still have room for a stage and a beer garden. It’s just ridiculous, and I can’t see how or why the medieval town planners thought that that would maximize space utilization in a time when cities needed to be compact to be defended well.

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After I tired of walking the same old cobbled streets, I spent an hour or so at the nearby spa town of Bardejovske Kupele where throngs of people had congregated for an early summer saunter and a taste of the town’s curative mineral waters. In northern Slovakia and southern Poland, residents flock to mineral spas (Not sauna/Jacuzzi spas) where the drinking the water is purported to be beneficial—healing digestion problems, gastrointestinal diseases, blindness, rabies, that kind of stuff. So I went for a little hike in the nearby woods and had a drink at the popular watering hole, where people are so crazy about this water that they bring 10 liters of empty bottles to fill for home. The water types even have names, like ‘Medical Water’, which suckers the people into thinking that they really do work. Yea, it’s pretty stupid, but people go nuts for unproven medical cure-alls all over the world, America included.

(Not) Hitchhiking back to Poland:

I was a happy man filled up with miracle water and ready to face the last and biggest challenge of my trip: getting back to Poland in one evening in time for work starting at 7AM the next day. Now here’s the background of this conundrum: for unknown reasons, the amount of transport between Poland and Slovakia is next to nil, especially in the border areas. This is bound to provoke head-scratching and maybe a curses from travelers without cars, and all you can really do is a) walk between the countries, or b) hitchhike. Well boys and girls, believe it or not but I had to walk into Poland because not a goddamn soul would pick me up!

From Bardejov, I took a local bus down the road north to a village coincidentally named Tarnov (Like my town in Poland) and got off there to go towards the border. It was 8km away and I was sure someone would pick me up as I walked along the way—how wrong I was. At least 30 cars zoomed by me into Poland that Sunday evening without even slowing down, and they were almost all guarantee-ably Polish. Although the weather was glorious and the musky smell of the country was a nice companion, my increasingly sweaty and lethargic walk northwards took me from feeling let down to straight up hateful at the Polish drivers and their lack of empathy for me. Each kilometer of distance doubled my antipathy for the cold-hearted vacationers, and thus I crossed the border in the deep of a forest on a road that I was forced to tread through alone.


In light of my irritating bad luck on the Slovakian side of the line, it was utterly amazing when after walking 25 meters into Poland, a Volkswagen slowed to a stop next to my outstretched arm and a pretty Polish woman leaned out of the window. “Can you speak English?” I asked in Polish. The answer – yes! Sure enough, this lady and her husband were heading right towards my waypoint home, being the resort town of Krynica. I gleefully jumped into the backseat of their car, and I bet those Poles could have smelled my excitement had the stench of my body odor not putrefied the interior. In spite of my stink, I cordially chatted with the wife while simultaneously reinvesting faith in the Polish people. Everything had become a-okay in the course of ten seconds, and the small talk about the woman’s work experience in England felt like a gift after hours spent frustrated and alone.

The two let me out at a pub in downtown Krynica and the scene was just about perfect: the summer hills were awash in sunlight and the traditional wooden homes stood warm and inviting all around me. Families of merrymakers were jostling down the park paths and boulevards with yipping children at their sides, and the restaurant terraces were slowly filling up with pleased-looking dinner guests ready for some pizza and beer. I scored myself a salami pizza and ate it with pleasure on the steps of the bus station, looking out over the town creek. From the moment those Poles picked me up, my problems seemed to disappear, and I got home safe and sound around 10PM feeling like my Slovakian adventure was a job well done. Everyone knows that ‘all’s well that ends well, so eternal cheers to whoever you are that let me stink up your ride!

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Sojourn to Slovakia: Little Levoca and Beastly Spis Castle

Levoca: The Accommodation Situation:

At 11:30pm on Friday the 3rd, standing before the blackened door of a dark guesthouse on a darkened street in a dead town, I rang the door bell and cautiously waited for an answer. I had just rolled in to Levoca on the last night bus from a nearby city, Prievidza, and was desperate for any kind of lodging that could be offered for less than the arm and leg charged by most standard hotels. I waited there in silence for about a minute, until some windows to the left of me slowly creaked open and a disoriented, bald man stuck his chrome dome out of the house and gave me an inquisitive ‘dobry viecor’ (good evening). I put on my best smile and gentlest voice to coo a horrendously broken request, in a Polish-Slovak mix that was insulting for both of us to hear, for one room please. The man looked me up and down, nodded his head, and gave a promising ‘moment’. A few seconds later, the lights went on, the front door opened and I stepped inside to find a smiling woman in a purple bathrobe standing beside the man. “Good evening! Would you like a room?” she offered, and relief washed over my tired bones. The woman turned out to be an excellent English speaker and an utterly polite host, who saw me to a spacious and cheap room upstairs and let me snooze away in peace.

Spis Castle, Home of Legends and an Especially Good Audioguide Tour:

I awoke the next day with a sense of purpose that would lead to an incredible amount of sightseeing within the Levoca area.  Out of all the places I could see in Slovakia, it was this region that I had made my trip for: a place so stuffed with romantic scenery and mighty bastions of feudal power that a siren call of attraction had floated through my brain from the instant I saw my first photo of it. The main draw of the area was Spis Castle, whose location on a spectacular karst hill is enough to ignite sword-and-sorcery fantasies in the mind of a bewitched observer.


After enjoying a smooth cup of white hot chocolate in Levoca, I took a bus to the town that cowers at the feet of the fortress, known as Spisske Podhradie. There, following a delicious lunchtime meal of Slovakian meat dumplings in sour cream, I made my way past the charmingly-dilapidated homes of gypsies and local Slovaks toward the looming white hunk of stone above. The climb was a bit of a heavy breather, but going past the enchanting fields of yellow rapeseed and verdant grasses was a nice distraction. I finally clambered up through the remains of an 18th-century parapet into the main gate after 30 minutes or so, and suddenly went from isolation to small crowds. It was clear that the castle was a popular choice with local tourists; nearby to the East there’s a parking lot with a gentle climb to the castle, which many take rather than the peasant’s trek from the western side, and families were coming up and down the path on their enjoyable Saturday out. Nevertheless I got a hold of an audio guide and had a remarkably pleasant wander round the bleached walls of the roofless castle, just taking my time and getting the most out of the excellent guide and its collection of apocryphal tales about the castle’s princesses and kings. In a nutshell, Spis was desired by many and held for long by few. Its Romanesque palace and gothic apartments housed dozens of noble lines over the centuries and its walls defended them well, until intrigue or political strife turned the tables and a new owner took over. This all continued until the early Modern Age when the landed gentry felt more comfortable in country manors, instead of walking their keisters up a steep limestone precipice just to go home every day. So the castle fell into ruin and eventually was accidentally torched in the 1780s. Today, the grandeur of the interior may be gone, but the sense of power you get looking over everything is still breath-taking.

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In the summer, there are packs of roving medieval entertainers who hold comedy shows, swordfighting demonstrations, and musical performances at various locations in the castle for the pleasure of guests. Like with Bojnice Castle, I’m quite sure that bored-ass local youth swell the ranks of these troupes and they all seem to have a smashing time doing it.

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Nostalgic Spisske Kapitula and Levoca’s Sights:

Once I had taken one too many photos and climbed enough steps, I sauntered back down the green slope to Spisske Podhradie to see the walled bishopric known to locals as ‘Spisske Kapitula’. This place, rarely a tourist destination on many people’s maps, is a little diamond in the rough for its isolation and uniqueness. The complex is a still-active ecclesiastical Catholic site that boasts a decaying cathedral and a curtain wall to protect it. Both of these things give Spisske Kapitula an older vibe, like it’s trapped in time somewhere around 200 years ago, and the languid pace of life in the neighborhood is quite pleasant. I was let into the cathedral, totally alone except for the doorwoman, and got to see a freaking legitimate medieval library with its own enormous book of Gregorian chants. That was definitely worthwhile, as you rarely get to see so many rare books together in one spot!

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That evening, I caught the local bus back to Levoca just to stroll around the UNESCO World Heritage-certified town center, but it was unfortunately under the attack of full-swing renovation when I was there. I snuck into the Renaissance-era town center through an unclosed back door and was caught, although it was closing anyway, and then putzed around taking photos here and there of the walls and other landmarks. For dinner, the options seemed somewhat limited around the thinned-out town square but I managed to find a traditional place simply called ‘Slovakian Food’ that was nearly perfect. Part of the clientele was some big Slovak family filled with wailing grannies, singing out-of-tune folk songs that bounced around the wooden walls, and I loved it. The cheesy chicken I had was bomb and I felt fully satiated by the time I needed to get moving to the bus station.


Though spending less than 24 hours in the city, I can assure any traveler through central Slovakia that Levoca and Spis Castle are excellent choices for anyone looking for charm and history. At the very least, every traveler to Slovakia should get the experience of hiking up to the rugged heights of Spis Castle on a warm summer day. If the natural views don’t astound you as they are, throw in some imaginary dragons and armies of bloodthirsty invaders and that should do the trick!

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Sojourn to Slovakia: Hangover Recovery and Ghost Castle

Of all the destinations I’ve seen in Europe, no country has wedded human-made and natural beauty with such success as little Slovakia. There are few places in the world where a vacation among cities can also pass as an outdoor spectacle, but one of these can be found nestled within the back roads that wind through the verdant Carpathian Mountains in which Slovakia is situated. The land has unknowingly been tailored to become a romantic getaway for the 21st century traveler; its history as a violently-contested territory, vied for by a disparate amount of groups—southern Hungarians, local Slovaks, cold Poles to the north, and brazen Tatar hordes to the east—has birthed impossibly-majestic castles that loom over lazy hamlets of medieval charm. The timelessness of the area still ticks on, thanks to the isolation ensured by the rugged terrain, and one is comfortably shielded from the stresses of the outside world by the looming mountains and incandescent fields of yellow rapeseed.

Prievidza: Getting There

As could be guessed, getting to this backcountry wonderland from the capital of Bratislava takes a bit of determination and planning, so waking up with the worst hangover-induced headsplitter of your life is really going to limit your progress eastward. On Thursday morning, I came to with a start on my hostel bed, in my clothes, and immediately knew I had missed the bus to Prievidza, the cute castle town where I was supposed to be headed for the day. Grasping my temple, in which my brain was hard at work grinding its halves together down the Corpus Callosum, I got all of my crap together and made for the reception to check out and get new bus and trains times to Prievidza. Not only had I missed my best transport option, but the schedule disruption was likely to throw off my Couchsurfing host Eva, who was to meet me at the bus station in Prievidza round noon.

Waiting in the rain for the bus to the train station felt like dying from poisoning, and along with this I was all but sure I would miss the last morning train to Prievidza and thereby screw everything up royally. It’s hard to have any wiggle room when you are trying to see an entire country in 4-and-a-half days. Thus, I bolted out of the bus when it hit the station and got a ticket to some goodness-forsaken town that had a connection to Prievidza, and jumped on the train with naught but seconds to spare before the conductors hopped on.

The ride was a messy one for me, purely in the mental sense, as I couldn’t sleep on my awkwardly-composed backpack and had no water to sake my post-binge thirst. When the trolley man unexpectedly came by with overpriced water I was clawing my way through my bag for Euros before I knew what was happening. The drink helped immensely, but a new problem presented itself when the train dropped me off at the nondescript destination where I had my connection (Its name lost to the pages of history/Google search). I was minutes away from missing my connection, as the bus terminal was miles from the railway station, but the station’s sympathetic railmaster drove me to the terminal just in time. You can always count on finding good hearts on the road.

A few liters of life-giving water and a bus ride later, I was in Prievidza, and waited at the station for an hour-and-a-half until a girl with black hair—my host Eva—showed up searching for no one in particular. I’m currently armed with a high-powered beard and a pair of Indigo spectacles, which makes me look like a total stranger compared to my profile on Couchsurfing, so I approached her and introduced myself by apologizing for the wait. She was totally chilled out and didn’t mind a bit about it, and we got on to friendly conversation quite readily.

Prievidza and Bojnice:

Eva was a great host to have. We spent the rest of the day just relaxing at her apartment, where she lives with her brother and mother, and talked about a hundred different subjects (e.g. Slovak culture, medical expenses, university, funny sounds in Arabic) until the sun went down. She made some really good cheesy chicken for dinner, which didn’t seem to be traditionally Slovak or anything but it hit my cramped-up stomach just right. Furthermore her two cats were a delight and I could feel the pet-deprived neurotransmitters in my noggin going crazy when I got to pet them and hear them purr. I treat everybody’s pet like my own, now that I haven’t got one!

The next day was castle time. Located nearby as the one saving grace of Prievidza, magnificent Bojnice Castle is home to the annual Festival of Ghosts and Spirits, an entertaining string of supernaturally-themed events that fuses just enough kitsch and artfulness to be a good time for local visitors. So what happens at a ghost festival? Well, special tours headed by a ‘parapsychologist’ are conducted through the uniquely-contrived hallways and chambers of the romanticism-inspired castle, which happens to be inhabited by mischievous ghosts that can argue, tell jokes, swordfight, sing, and dance. The local youth have a great time with it all as they constitute the white face-painted labor force tasked with populating the place. Eva recognized one of her high school classmates as a severed head which had a comic tussle with a murderous Mongol.


Along the way, there was the Addams family, vain ghost girls screaming about developing wrinkles, a flamboyant vampire that looked like a blond Liberace, undead burlesque dancers, and hilarious paper hydras suspended on poles by unenthused boys hiding under a low-lit railing. The finale of the event occurred when all the supernatural hosts had a ball in the castle’s main hall and, immediately after showing up, I was led away by a smokin’ hot lady-specter to join the fun. Well, I danced with her for about a minute, during which time I tickled the crowd with my best worst dance moves, including the unstoppable Back Bender (Back to back, you raise the gal up), and then I fled back to Eva’s side in the darkness (I seem to be a target for this kind of shenanigans, and something similar went down when I was hoisted up onto a fashion show runway in Turkey last year. Of course, I didn’t let the spectators down then either).


The tour ended when our parasychologist guide fell in love with a cowled ghost man who gave her a flower. Uh…right.

Despite this, and despite the entire thing having happened in the Slovak language, I really enjoyed it all and would recommend it to all possible visitors in the future. Just be sure to bring along a little Slovak girl to translate everything for you if need be!

Prievidza: Getting Away

Eva and I were waylaid by a Spanish man and his Slovak girlfriend on the way out of the castle for a picture, and I got the opportunity to show off my dreadful Spanish for fifteen minutes of strained talking, but it did the trick and we had a nice conversation about the Camino de Santiago and castles. I can’t say much in Spanish, but I can definitely make my love of ancient fortifications clear as day (OYE CHICO, ME GUSTAN LOS CASTILLOS MUCHOOOOO).


After getting some marginal Slovakian ice cream in cones that were disgustingly soft, we got back to Eva’s flat and then realized that the last bus to Levoca—my next town—was leaving in minutes. For the second time on my trip, I had to run my ass to a bus station, this time with Eva panting next to me, and I thanked my lucky stars for getting there about 30 seconds before departure. With one sweaty hug and excited goodbye delivered to Eva, I got on the bus and had another wonderful evening of confusing connections and waiting at bus/train stations. Still, any opportunity to listen to a random album like Electric Light Orchestra’s Greatest Hits to discover two awesome songs should be valued.

Coming Up Next: Final days in Slovakia in magical Levoca and Bardejov

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Sojourn to Slovakia — Got Those Bratislava Blues

The amount of holiday time European nations give their citizens makes American expatriates incredulous and envious. To live in Poland and watch people enjoy 12 guaranteed non-working public holidays, plus an absurd 26 days of legally-mandated paid vacation from work, plus weekends, in just one year causes your capitalistic nerves to erupt with bewildered indignation as you stand before direct evidence that the stereotype is true: the EU is just one big leisure fest, swinging in the hammock with too much heavy petting and wine to manage tomorrow with a clear head and fortitude for the nitty-gritty necessities of proper economic management. This feeling of rough-hewn superciliousness continues to course through your stars-and-stripes emblazoned ego right until the day you drink the Kool-Aid of extra holidays yourself, and instead of dying on the spot, fall in love with the idea and are amazed that America hasn’t followed suit yet.

Extra holidays mean more time for enjoying life, obviously, and goodness knows how many prematurely burnt-out American workers are just three weeks of chilling out away from not going psycho on their co-workers with an M4. This different philosophy, working to live, is one of the reasons why working as an English teacher is an occasional pleasure; around here, you aren’t expected to slave away 10 hours a day with Saturdays until you die of some work-related cancer that your insurance won’t cover. Taking a holiday is now and then expected, and sometimes even recommended. Last month, my boss actually suggested that I skip work to visit the city of Prague for longer. Many American firms would rather fire you and get a new warm body in at the merest suggestion that you could add extra days onto an already-egregiously long public holiday (it’s Socialism anyway!). Maybe this experience will hurt me in the long-run because digging myself into soul-crushing work holes is something I don’t have the patience for anymore, but screw it, I’d rather have to come back to Europe to live and enjoy myself than slave away forever in unrelenting American businesses where profit and output mean more than living your one life well. (Remember, bros and lady-bros, YOLO – Yugoslavia outsources little otters)

For my latest period of vacation indulgence, I spent five days in Slovakia, formerly the butt-end of the spelling bee monster Czechoslovakia. Since the end of the Cold War, this mountainous Central European jewel has been puttering forward, getting its act together along EU lines, and now looks far more developed than its shambolic Iron Curtain incarnation. Like what I’ve seen with Poland, the transport is modern, the styles are all Western, and the youth have a surprising command of the English language and as part of this are obsessed with American culture. The only big difference between Poland and Slovakia that I noticed was that Slovakia is worse-off economically, which means that the youth are also jobless and bored as hell, spending most of their time plotting ways to abandon the beautiful green mountains where they were born and raised.

Going by city, I’ll recount my experiences of the country as I went West to East across its captivating landscape.



Bratislava is Prague’s abused little brother. It’s hard to put this any other way, considering the aesthetics of Slovakia’s new capital and its history as secondary city during communist times. You see, Bratislava was caught in a communist-era planning struggle wherein Prague was to be preserved as the ‘historical’ cosmopolis of Czechoslovakia, while Bratislava was to become ‘futuristic’. So in true communist style, rife with disdain for anything bourgeoisie or pleasing to the eye, the authorities rolled in the wrecking balls and destroyed 90-some percent of Bratislava’s charming old town to install baleful apartment blocks in its place. The tragic result is that Bratislava now has a very wholesome old town about three blocks wide, surrounded by a wasteland of brown and gray rectangles that look like despair incarnate. A few graces happen to save Bratislava from utter ugliness though, and they include the well-rebuilt castle above the town center and the languid Danube river. Taking everything into consideration, I’d say this plain little capital is worth two days of your time, or perhaps three if you’ve got good company. You’ll be able to enjoy far smaller crowds than Prague, which is a bonus that shouldn’t be overlooked.

My introduction to the streets of Bratislava was quite an intimate one. It all started when my backpack became caught in a closing door as I exited the downtown bus, and my desperate push to free myself from the then-departing vehicle launched me head over heels into the grimy sidewalk. Feeling ridiculous for the collapse, I had to laugh in embarrassment, and luckily only two lucky viewers got to savor my disgrace. I sustained a rip in my pants and some smarting bruises on my foot and hip, but thanks to youth I rebounded fast and found my way to a hostel-sponsored pub crawl with a Scotsman named Neil for company. Unfortunately, the pub crawl was marginal as Tuesday night isn’t a very popular night for partying, although the other men in the crawl (Yes, a sausage fest) where replete with over-excited confidence, testosterone, and booze. The night became interesting once the organizers of the crawl, two Slovak college students who were almost as lost as we were, guided our drunken butts to a student party of epic proportions at a university housing complex north of the city. The entire area was infested with piles of rubbish and inebriated young people, and us crawlers were jumping at the prospect of landing some pretty Slovak gal somewhere in the chaos. Instead, we all got too drunk to function and spilled beer over ourselves dancing to bone-rattling drum n’ bass music for a good two hours. It’s hard to chat up people when a 60 hertz sine wave of bass doom turns all your eloquent speech into sonic diarrhea. Nevertheless, I danced until 4AM, at one point moving from the outside party into a club blasting vapid trance music. Once my feet felt like overused anvils, I caught a ride back to the city center on a crowded morning bus while talking to a Kenyan-Tahitian student about racism in Slovakia. As the sun rose, I returned to my hostel and fell dead sleep.

The following day was no less notable. With the Scotsman Neil, we woke up achingly late and ventured up to the kitschy ‘UFO’ restaurant that’s seated upon the top of the bridge connecting the banks of the Danube. The view from the top is quite unforgettable, and you can gaze out into Austria and southern Slovakia on a good day. I’d say the best part is the bathrooms; while you do your business, you can look down over civilization from the large windows that expose everything below to you (and I suppose likewise is true, too). If you miss out on those wonderfully voyeuristic bathrooms, I’m sorry but you have wasted a trip to Bratislava.


We also did the free city tour, as advertised all over travel internet sites, and had to sit through three hours of endless information told by a sporty Slovak girl whose explanations were enthusiastic but lacking in conciseness. Plus, the weather was a scorcher, and by the end of it everyone except for the bronzed Slovak girl was cultivating a gentle sunburn. I had heard far more facts about Slovakian heroes and dates than I cared for, and that’s saying something for a history lover like myself.


After providing the not-obligatory but totally-morally-obligatory tip to the guide, we got some traditional Slovak grub at the unpretentious “Slovak Pub” that really hit the spot (try the bean soup). A nap at the hostel later, and Neil and I were down in the hostel pub debating the relevancy and possibility of Scottish independence in between gulps of screwdriver cocktails. Neil got quite belligerent when I suggested that Scottish independence isn’t seen by all Scots to be a good idea, and somehow we got onto arguing over the necessity of central banks in loud voices that scared off all ten guests from the bar’s basement. Neil’s staunch hatred of central banking and currency not backed up by gold would have made Ron Paul quite proud, though his understanding of the exact mechanics behind money valuation and interest rates was drunkenly faulty (not saying mine’s perfect). In any event, we settled the matter, drank more to forget about it, and then scouted the streets for a good time.

Despite our energy, not one was found. However, as we went pub-hopping along the abandoned night streets of the old town, buying bartenders drinks and wasting about a few days of my wages in the process, a pair of short, overweight prostitutes suddenly pounced on us, grabbing us by the crotches with garbled coos of “YES make the SEX”. I was genuinely afraid that I was about to be robbed blind. We broke free, but the nightstompers found us nearby later and I literally ran by them as they approached, in fear of my nuts. Please, watch out for these predatory chunkers before they upgrade from grabbing bystanders to straight up sitting on them. At that point, none of us will be able to escape with our junk or money intact.

Coming up next: Rural Slovakia and its Magnificent Castles

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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Poland *But Were Too Ashamed of Your Stupefying Ignorance to Ask*

All expats must inevitably face intensive Q&A sessions conducted by curious friends and family about their adoptive homes abroad, and sometimes these question sessions can get a little goofy. Americans may be so unaware of the place you live that just getting them to pronounce the name of your foreign town or province deserves its own day-long workshop, and the lack of information they have about your land often creates odd questions that can oscillate from hilariously uninformed to downright racist. I enjoy these little cultural talks, however, and am always happy to clear up confusion with my experiences out in the thick of it. Today I’ve chosen to answer a few questions that the Average American Man—let’s call him Joe—would ask about Poland.

Krakow, a hotbed of culture


What kind of name is Poland? I mean, what’s a Po?
-Well, the country’s name comes from a medieval Slavic tribe called the Polans, whose name itself derives from the Slavic word for ‘field’ (‘Pole’). The good ol’ Polans lived in what is now central Poland.

Didn’t Germany used to invade Poland a lot?
-Yes. Germany has invaded Poland many times over a thousand years of history, most famously doing so in World War II. Other invasions were headed by German princes in the Middle Ages and the Teutonic Knights in the late Middle Ages. Prussia, once actually a fief of Poland, gained control of a huge chunk of the country for 123 years until Germany was defeated in WWI.

However, for most of the High Middle Ages Poland held its own quite well against Germany. Poland has invaded its neighbor with almost equal frequency, and in fact, the Polish leader Jan Sobieski was asked by German nobility to help save Western Europe from invasion by the Ottomans at the decisive battle of Vienna in 1683, and he led the defensive forces to a sweeping victory. Whereas Germany has merely exploited Poland in the past, Poland has saved Germany’s ass before!

Check here for detailed information.

But didn’t Polish people fight tanks with horses in WWII?
It’s very sensational, but this is just an enduring myth that unfairly evokes images of Poland’s perceived backwardness. In reality, Polish cavalry fought against German infantry during the 1939 invasion with some level of success, but on Sept. 1st a Polish cavalry force was busy routing German infantry near the village of Krojanty when it was surprise-attacked by armored cars. The cavalry units hastily retreated knowing full well how suicidal attacking tanks was. However, the German propaganda machine spun the heavy losses of Polish cavalry in the surprise attack for official use and here we are today, still dealing with this fabrication.

What about the country and communism? They were communists, right?
Poland was behind the Iron Curtain from 1944 to 1989, but no adult Pole I have talked to remembers the time fondly. Supply shortages for such things as meat and simple machine parts were commonplace and people’s curtailed political freedoms were highly resented. Only a fraction of the population were actual communist party members, and Poles refused to give up many aspects of their culture, such as their fervent Roman Catholicism, to the communist authorities. Today, Poles are solidly capitalistic and democratic in their leanings.

What’s this thing called Solidarity that I vaguely remember from high school history classes?
Solidarity was a trade union originally created by shipyard workers in 1980 that had a broad anticommunist agenda, but it was mainly set up as a coordinating vehicle for strikes against the government. Independent trade unions were illegal in communist Poland, but despite this, Solidarity grew quickly and represented the biggest popular organized resistance to the communist government’s economic and political policies. Through its leader Lech Walensa and various strikes and political actions, it brought the government into bilateral discussions to ease communism that eventually toppled the system altogether.

Anyway, Poland is in Eastern Europe—don’t people travel by horses there still?
Despite what stereotypes may exist, Poland is a well-developed country with all forms of modern transport that can be found in North American and Western Europe. People in my city, Tarnow, mostly travel by bus and train, although cars seem to be getting more popular.

Isn’t life in Poland like the rest of that part of the world: poor, nasty, brutish, and lots of mud?
Poland has a “Very High” level of Human Development according to the UN’s 2013 report , and all the technology and infrastructure that people are used to in other parts of the West are an integrated, daily part of life here too. The life expectancy of Poles is similar to that of the Americans, albeit a tad shorter (~2 years), and unlike America there is an actual public healthcare system that doesn’t bankrupt families. Obviously, there will be deviations to the development of a country depending on where you are in it; Poland’s western part is noticeably more well-off than its east, for example, but that has parallels in the American North vs. South.

You didn’t answer my question about mud. I know the weather there must be bad, right, so is there a gloppy dirt problem?
Okay, it exists. Poland has a frosty and wet winter where the dead foliage really does mix up with the snow to create a nasty paste of shoe-sticking grossness. Things get worse when the snowplow trucks eject cascades of dirt for traction on the roads, and when all the snow melts there’s even more debris to deal with. This would all be unbearable torment if there weren’t enough sidewalks for us residents, but fortunately there are and avoiding the worst crud sinkholes is definitely possible. Although wearing white Kenneth Cole trousers is a horrible idea here: no men wear white pants anyway and they’re bound to get browned by what’s around.

I’ve heard jokes about Poles: they are usually lazy, stupid, and drunk. Is this true?
I grew up in a part of America where ‘Polack’ jokes were nonexistent and would have generated little amusement had they been heard, so I came to Poland not knowing these stereotypes. In its place there should definitely be a more positive perception of the Poles, as far as accuracy is concerned.

For one, let’s talk about their work ethic. Poles care about working hard so much that the country is shrinking because everyone is looking for work internationally. Already, everyman Jan Nowak and his sister Kasia Kowalska are abroad supporting the backbone of the UK through menial labor, and you can find Poles in every European country doing a mostly spot-on job in a responsible manner. There are even Poles in the friggin’ Faroe Islands in the middle of the Atlantic,  and who would even go to those seagull-crap encrusted islands for work?? (Actually, I would)

Somewhere in this picture, a Polish man is fishing for cod and thereby saving the Faroesian economy from doom.

As for drinking, I haven’t noticed any significant difference from drinking rates in other European countries where I’ve stayed such as Belgium. Every town is going to have its drunk bums and such on the streets after dark, of course, and Tarnow isn’t an exception. I saw a really scary hobo yesterday with a gaping face wound and a face tattoo, but a nastier version of him probably lives somewhere in America.

Additionally, people in this country seem to really care about their education. Now, some may say that an English teacher at a private language school is only going to see the shinier side of the coin, but all you have to do is ask regular Polish high schoolers about their exams and university to see their pure focus on getting their schooling right. All of my teen students are freaking out about the Matura exam (their final high school test) coming up and they spend an inordinate amount of time studying for it. To underline this point, the Polish government has ensured that public university is basically free for most students, as long as they can perform well enough.

So, put aside many of your preconceptions of Poles—they’re just average Europeans, doing what Europeans do. Yet I must add that on the whole, they are a reserved, more serious kind of bunch. Don’t come here expecting Spaniards!

Besides vodka and former German concentration camps, what else is there in Poland?
It’s true that these things can be found in abundance across the country (Stay away from mixing them), but Poland is more than a large distillery or sad history lesson. This country has thumping cities that are filled with awesome nightlife, like the cosmopolitan cultural capital Krakow (Crazy cool), and the real forte of Poland’s after-dark life is its virtuosic jazz scene. I’ve had the fortune to watch some great jazz in Tarnow and Krakow done by musicians who could make it in the States with the right marketing and management. If jazz isn’t your thing, there are clubs all over the place and the sizzling ladies and macho dudes should have something to offer.

For the sightseeing-minded, Poland has got its fair share of excellent renaissance architecture and many cities have utterly precious town squares that have survived centuries of conflict just to delight visitors like yourself. There aren’t so many cathedrals or really glorious churches, due to enthusiastic destruction by the Germans, Swedes, Russians, Tatars and other invaders in the past, but there some splendid palaces that are really worth checking out (Lancut Palace near Rzeszow and Lazienki Park in Warsaw are two I adore).

And, though the majority of Poland is quite flat, you can discover some breathtaking mountains in the south of the country along the Carpathians. The scenery is top-notch and there is a great deal of outside activity that can be partaken in: skiing in Zakopane or Krynica, hiking in the Southeast near Ukraine, or rafting near Dunajec gorge. I’ve yet to do the last of these two but I’ve heard nothing but praise for them.

And there are beautiful women, right?

For unexplainable reasons, Poland has been bestowed with really attractive members of the gentler sex. Oddly, my sources from the indigenous population tell me this hasn’t carried over to the male side of the fence, but that ain’t my problem!

Come on, tell me a bit about the booze. What’s on offer?
Wait for another blog post and I’ll fill you in on the intoxicating details of how to get drunk, enjoyably, in this country.

***Thanks for reading and stay tuned for posts about the city of Gdansk and Polish alcohol!***

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Done with Egypt!

Wow. After three months of torturous procrastination, I have successfully written all of the main events of my Egypt journey on this here blog. The lifting of pressure from my lazy-ass skull feels amazing, but I have to confess that this is what being an English teacher abroad does to you; slowly but surely, your grasp of time and outside-world obligations begins to get fuzzy and life becomes an endless cycle of throwing old dry-erase pens in the trash and preparing lessons on the finer points of gerunds. Combined with occasional city trips at the weekend and the demands of having to eat food and shower occasionally (occasionally), these things can relegate blog writing to the farthest back burner that can be found on the Great Stove of Life.

So, congratulations to all of you as well. You who stayed with me and waited diligently for this stuff to come deserve a round of e-applause, if you’re out there, and the future will see faster posting for both of our convenience. More adventures are on the way soon, and these shall come with the distinct flavor of Polish kielbasa sausage…


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Getting Luxorious — Jan. 23rd-25th

When I was a boy, I went on a family trip to Las Vegas that included a brief stopover at the glitzy gambling hall in Luxor Casino. As I was already obsessed with ancient Egyptian culture, nothing fascinated me more than wandering below the structure’s immense black glass ceiling and gazing up at the shiny graphite-laden columns that encapsulated the place. The experience set some pretty high standards for what real ancient Egypt would look like, and the subconscious connection between “Luxor” and the word “luxury” was firmly established in my mind.

Alas, I have recently discovered that the authentic Luxor, also known by its ancient Greek name Thebes, is not a glorified nightclub with 2,000 slot machines and 87 card tables for your gambling pleasure—truly tragic news. Plus, the name Luxor doesn’t even have anything to do with high class living—it’s just messed up way of saying “al-qusur”, which is Arabic for “the fortifications”. But the real Luxor is definitely still an entertaining place to spend money, albeit without the strippers and excess booze, and nothing can beat the authentic taste of ancient culture that it offers at its huge amount of funerary sites and temples.

If I had to pinpoint a single place in Egypt where you can best see what all the commotion is about the country’s magnificent history, Luxor would be on the other side of my outstretched index finger. There are enough worthwhile sightseeing options to spend 4+ days in the area, not counting excursions to temples north or south of Luxor along the Nile, so I’ve listed a few of my favorite places to filter this process below:

1) Bewilderingly-enormous Karnak Temple, home to gigantic columns that resemble mini-factory stacks made of sandstone, is an exercise in personal humility as you cower beneath the mighty work of people long dead but still revered for their power. The additions of Thutmose, some of the Ramseses, and other kings over time have given the complex an eclectically-styled sprawl that is quite enjoyable to wander around in. The halls all have different characters, making it a premier destination for those who enjoy architectural history.

Be sure to get to the site early in the morning, before hordes of cruise ship Russians, Spaniards, and Chinese arrive to blot out the sunshine from your good times. A guide of some sort, audio or book, would also be advisable in order to help you understand the wacky-but-fascinating development of the palace.

2) Hatshepsut Temple is an Indiana Jones film set waiting to happen. Situated under the fiery cliffs of the Theban hills, the site is a graceful testament to one of Egypt’s best pharaohs and one of history’s most powerful female rulers. Queen Hatshepshut ruled alone for 21 years and improved Egypt’s trade relations with other countries, using this peace dividend to spend a heck of a lot of time building grand projects dedicated to gods and, of course, herself. This temple is the result of that hard effort and I highly recommend a visit. The ramps leading up to the temple and its unique geographic setting give it a wonder that would be a pity for a visitor to miss out on.

IMG_0963 IMG_0973

3) South of Hatshepsut Temple by a few kilometers, the Valley of the Workers is a seemingly-dilapidated collection of destroyed mud huts, a single old temple, and a few holes leading to underground tombs. Don’t be deceived, though: this place has magic. Just out of sight in the coolness of the tombs’ interiors, you can find some of the most excellent examples of surviving Egyptian art open to tourists. The Valley was home to the artisans of the pharaoh, including his court painters, and the gentlemen who had this title spent plenty of time perfecting their own tombs with vivid reliefs. Thus, in burial chambers of men like Sennedjem, the work is a joy to admire, especially because of the intimacy that the close quarters provide. You’ll definitely be struck by the gleaming yellow on the walls and the amazing freshness of the images depicting daily life in ancient Egypt, which are all original and have not had any restoration. I was induced into a trance of cosmic satisfaction by staring at these images, still bursting with life 3000 years on, for about ten minutes while a turbaned attendant stared at me like I was a bit nuts for spending more than sixty seconds down there.

The Valley of the Workers is more interesting than this photo Not the best preserved relief, but still pretty good

Sennedjem’s tomb — not my photo (Props to the Great Belzoni)

Though touring these treasures is a treat, be careful to respect their openness and refrain from touching the walls. Every year that tourists visit an Egyptian tomb, that location’s paintings lose a fraction of their beauty due to a microbial fungus emitted from human breathing that eats the paint. So, sticking your grubby digits all over what amounts to be a priceless work of humanity makes you not much better than a destructive microbe!

4) Medinat Habu, my last place to recommend, is simply big. Big walls surround a succession of big courtyards that are hemmed in by big columns. Luckily for you, the only thing that is lacking in size here are the crowds, who steer clear of the place and leave it in wonderful isolation.

Large and Unfortunately Not Free of Charge

Ramses III built the temple in the 12th century for himself, no surprise, and the blocky structure communicates the military prowess he used to crush a series of foreign invasions from the Sea Peoples and various other upstarts. One graphic relief depicts his army counting vanquished foes from Libya by piling up their severed hands and cut-off penises (hope they were dead beforehand!).

IMG_1104 Pretty Cool Right

The area seems to be much less visited than any of the other places in Luxor, like the Valley of the Kings or Luxor Temple, and that is definitely an added advantage to visiting. I bought a white chocolate ice cream bar from a nearby shop and just sauntered around the grounds of this goliath construction for about an hour until closing. So, grab a snack and get wandering!

To Sum Up:
There you have it: four places that deserve your remaining Egyptian pounds before you fly home, head to the Red Sea for scuba-diving, or get lost in the desert to the south. I purposefully left out the Valley of the Kings and a few other popular sights because there is enough information about them elsewhere. Plus, their stuffy crowds and the level of tourist control in these places can be a real put-off compared to the more isolated sights at Medinat Habu and the Valley of the Workers. Karnak and Hapshetsut may get traffic but their charms more than make up for the feeling that you are at an outdoor moshpit in the horrible alternate reality of Mosdridjing.

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Anti-Tout Bootcamp: Egypt Edition

The last days I spent amid the sands of sun-parched Egypt, I was in the tourist capital of Luxor doing two very important things: a) enjoying ancient history to the point of mental illness, like I always do, and b) conducting a groundbreaking scientific study on which strategies are the best for turning away Egyptian hawkers, with me as both the subject and tester. Pursuit A can simply be discussed through pictures and captions, but B deserves a complete exposition for the sake of expanding humanity’s knowledge base and the future well-being of unwitting tourists who will need to cross 500 meters of infested Egyptian boardwalk without breaking down in tears or going to jail for assault. I came close to both, so there’s no need for anyone else to suffer! My paper on the experience will be coming to a scientific journal near you soon, but until then I’ve reproduced the meat of it on my blog for your convenience.

Below are five rigorously-tested tactics to parry the verbal advances of the dreaded Tout, ranked on a scale of 3, estimated for average time consumption by seconds, and accompanied by a helpful explanation. And all of these methods were accompanied by a purposeful forward walking speed, without any unnecessary stopping along the way. If I had stood still, they would still be holding me up today.

Oh, and ground rule number one: TRUST NO ONE.


“No Thank You”:
 ♠ ♠ ♠ 5 seconds
By far the best way to shut down a tout without a struggle, a simple “no thank you” with a determined stride forward will have you freed up quickly. Giving eye contact to the man will add at least five more seconds to the situation, as he will then think you are instantly more persuadable. Just look ahead, give him the Arabic “La Shukran”, and keep marching. Arabic is the key here—throw in a “Khalas!” (Enough!) if he persists and you’re good as gold.

Silence: ♠ 30 seconds
Maybe not saying anything to a random man who wants to sell you shit you don’t want is your instinctive reaction due to annoyance or shyness, but this tactic really doesn’t work as well as the first, especially if you’re alone. By not talking back, the tout believes you are listening to him — like you’re his freaking psychologist! So he will give you the full run-down of his marginal services and will only leave once he is tired of talking or has gone beyond his general selling turf. Looking at him in the eye will double your wasted time to a minute, easily, because then you really seem sympathetic to his pathetic deals.

Whistling like R2D2: ♠ 20 seconds
One day, the sun fried my brain so much that I thought I was a three-legged servitor-bot from Tatooine.  So, how does the average hawker handle modulating whistles as answers to questions? He doesn’t handle them: he becomes confused and the remaining grey matter in his crusty skull lights on fire. Some of his ilk may instantly back off from you, others may look at you like you are insane—let’s face it, you kind of are—but nobody will play along and have a nice old robo-chat with you. Thus, if you’re at the edge of madness and you’re good at whistling or love Star Wars, this is a potential option.

Insulting the Person: Varies Depending on Whether Mother is Mentioned and/or Occurrence of Physical Conflict
Every male tourist out there feels some sort of aggression when exposed to persistent touts, but please gentlemen, just bottle that fury up and tear a pillow apart with your bare hands back at the Four Seasons. You get three per bed there, anyway! Trading insults only happens when you can’t control yourself, which is a sign of a person of poor character, like me. I did this twice on my trip. I mentioned the first time a few posts ago, and the second was after a full day of hawkers asking me if I wanted to buy marijuana. Now, how could this make you crazy? Well, if being profiled ceaselessly for an illegal product that somehow all of your friends avoid being offered doesn’t make you grumpy, just imagine this whispered into your ear about 20 times a day in horrible Eengleesh:



Therefore, it was only natural that I answered one group of offending young hawkers by pointing a finger and declaring “You all smoke too much marijuana.”

They got angry. “YOU DIE!” came from one of the teens, to which I turned around and responded “YOU DIE! YOU DIE!” with a ridiculous accent, flailing my arms about like a fool. Luckily, no fight happened, but I probably just created three new members of a Westerner head-sawing terrorist cell that will be declaring jihad on The Imperialistic Great Satan as soon as they get enough cash for plane tickets to Pakistan. My bad.

The point is this: try not to get in a spar with a hawker. Especially do not mention anything related to Islam or their mothers. In that case, they’ll forget all about selling you that camel ride and probably offer you a neck-choking for free.

Talking About Particle Physics Education: 900 seconds
The final tactic involves taking a hawker and, with full eye contact, hand gestures, and expressions, delivering a riveting lecture on the mysteries of particle physics one quark and boson at a time. You can dive into any aspect of the field you feel is most valuable for a carriage ride salesman; I personally chose a discussion of the Large Hadron Collider and opportunities for international cooperative research on studying particle collision. Well, the fellow was rapt for about ten full minutes, walking a full kilometer with me and trying to add some irrelevant point about “Is very cheap” right when I was pontificating about recent efforts to detect the Higgs Boson at CERN. Once I’d made the basics of the field known, I recommended that he scrap his carriage business and use the cash for a bachelor’s in Physics at an esteemed European university. “With hard work,” I said, “you can even land an internship in Switzerland with the world’s best physicists!”

Well folks, this may not be the best way to shed a vexatious hawker, but if you want some interesting entertainment for fifteen minutes, spread the joy of physics to a tout. If you’re lucky, he’ll be so bothered by your deep questions, he’ll never talk to tourists ever again!

There you have my hard-earned research and all its illuminations for you, ready to be used by any future traveler to this fascinating country. If someone gives the “uhhhh” method a try–after every statement say uhhhh–I’d love to know how that goes, so please message me with any statistical analysis and/or results.

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Rest a While, In Style, on the Nile — January 21st-23rd

If you ask the average backpacker why they drag themselves through absolutely squalid accommodations and transport on their trips abroad, the answer is usually that it saves money. Keeping as much cash as possible in the unpredictably-expensive game of travel is the primary reason why people can be found catching atrocious sleep in 32-person hostel rooms where two of the crowd are having bunk-creaking drunk sex and six are snoring like machine guns. It’s why intrepid Western college students visiting Whereverstan crowd onto dangerously-packed local buses, some mechanical time-bombs bequeathed by previous colonial overlords, for cramp-inducing half day journeys on roads that feel similar to getting a body massage by an enraged silverback. And it’s the motivation for me, since I haven’t struck gold teaching English or finding a bag of Viking gems in my backyard, to go on the rougher side of the railroad tracks when I’m on the road. Skimping on the unnecessaries is not just my modus operandi, by my credo. That’s just a wankerish way to say I really avoid expensive stuff.

But good news for all of you who would rather be in the sauna drinking whisky at the Ritz-Carlton than stepping on tarantulas in your infested 4 dollars-a-night pension room: a place called post-revolution mid-chaos Egypt exists! What on earth could that mean? Well, right now, you have the unparalleled opportunity to get fantastically low-priced 4-star resort hotel rooms, tours, and other services just by showing up and showing off a bit of hard bargaining. Western tourist traffic has fled from huge tracts of the country due to fears of instability and Islamism, both of which are actually non-issues for tourists, and locals are now desperate for cash. It’s hard to celebrate this all without sounding disgustingly exploitative, but seriously, cut the whitebread scaredy-cat “Muslims are DANGEROUS” bullshit and come to Egypt for your next holiday. You can save money and have a hell-of-a-good-time here. Just be careful about those balloons (Kapadokya in Turkey is better than Luxor, anyway).

My trip was filled with plenty of solid deals, but the best one I walked away with was an awesome three-day, two-night riverboat cruise from Aswan to Luxor. For 150 bucks, the price of one night in many American hotels, I got:

  • All-you-can-eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner—check.
  • Gleaming private bathroom for a stinky backpacker—check.
  • Two double beds (If you want to make a fort, like me)—check.
  • Totally glorious sundeck and swimming pool—check.
  • Unforgettable passage down the timeless Nile with stops at epic archeological sites—check.

It was an un-passable bargain. Originally, I had been planning to hire some soft-spoken Nubian guy named “Honey Bunny”—I kid you not—to take me down the river in his felucca for an indeterminate amount of time until the wind pushed our boat into the banks north of Luxor. Not only was that more expensive than the riverboat option, but without a speedy southerly wind it could have been an abject failure. Nothing would have ruined my holiday more than missing my plane back to Poland and getting stuck on a glorified rowboat with Captain Sugar Hare. Except for dying while trying to get off said vessel.

In all my experiences going from foreign A to foreign B, that river boat interlude was undoubtedly the most luxurious I’ve ever had. I even felt excessive just lying there on my double bed(s), everything clean, no lingering cigarette smells and no wall-stains, so I spent my time on the sun-deck chilling with a groovy English bloke from Yorkshire by the name of James. He was courteous enough to share a few G&Ts with me, and by a good stroke of luck we discovered that we both harbored quite a skeptical streak regarding religion, pseudoscience, and the Evil Powers of Unreality and Antireason. So our conversations were thoughtful and far more interesting than I could have hoped for on the ship, and things got better when we met up with a spritely pair of Argentine ladies, a girl named Sigrid and her aunt, and went out to Luxor for shopping one night. Alas, the cruise wasn’t long enough to disconnect from reality forever, and I had to trudge down the gangplank and bid farewell on the 23rd. Smashing two nights though, nonetheless.


I may have hyped up the low cost of the trip, but you really can’t slap a price-tag on the ability to make time irrelevant to your ability to enjoy yourself. Even when people are travelling on an average holiday, keeping track of time becomes utterly essential for the day’s progression, transforming itself into a bothersome fetish that blocks your dopamine receptors with its anal-retentive girth. Example:

Marge: “Look Roger, let’s take a quick stroll through that beautiful park—“

That’s why boat trips are awesome: you get on, mindlessly eat food, and then chill until you have to mindlessly eat food again and then chill. Everybody needs a bit of that to stay sane in our hyperactively minute-minded world, so I recommend a lazy cruise down the watery heart of Egypt for any person—no matter your budget—ready to “Turn off time and float upstream” as the Beatles put it. Or downstream, like me!



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The Land of Ozymandias (Pt. IV) — Slow Life in Aswan: January 18-20th

One of my warmest memories of Egypt will always be my time in laid-back Aswan.

Located in the extreme south of Egypt on the spot where ancient Egyptians believed the Nile was born out of a mighty spurt from the ground, the sleepy city of Aswan competes strongly for the title of best tourist town in Egypt. For any visitor coming to see the iconic temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel, Aswan is a necessary stopover, but it is so much more than a place to pass out between sweaty tours. Thanks to its easy-going Nubian heritage and the scorching sun above that complicates any concerted effort outside, Aswan moves lugubriously like the lazy Nile alongside it. A chilled-out evening on one of the many riverside restaurant terraces has one watching felucca captains effortless maneuver their wooden vessels gracefully through the mighty granite boulders and isles that segment the waters. Hookah (Sheesha to you Europeans) gets started up upon nightfall and the beer—yes, there is beer aplenty—fuels the relaxation well into the eve. Furthermore, the locals are true to their humble roots and seem to be the least pushy folks in all of Egypt. The hawkers may even treat you like a real person!

If that doesn’t have you sold, the attractions around Aswan will. The plethora of tombs and temples in the environs of the town are absolutely worth a detour, including the ones at Abu Simbel, Philae, and the monastery of St. Simeon. It may not have the overwhelming archeological selection that Luxor has upstream, but it certainly makes up for the lack of places in terms of quality. Plus, it’s worth it to see the area’s monuments for the simple fact that they were all to be destroyed by the Aswan high dam and Lake Nasser, and were only saved through the inestimable efforts of an international UNESCO team in the 60’s. The temples and monuments were meticulously taken apart, stone-by-stone, and reassembled on high ground in the exact forms of their originals by archeologists collaborating together from all over the world. This success of international cooperation alone is enough to see places like the island temple of Philae.

The Journey South:

I got to Aswan by taking a 60 USD per-ticket night train south, which included but not drinks nor demanded tips from train personnel. This issue was actually quite a thorn in my side on the trip; each cabin is serviced on the Cairo-Luxor-Aswan sleeper train by ingratiatingly servile men who are literally trained to not look you directly in the eye without bowing and nearly whispering with reverence. You feel disgusting when addressed like this, as if you just beat the shit out of the fellow and he’s deathly afraid of round two. But it’s all a big ploy for them to get tips from you, and my attendant asked “What do you want for me?” at the end of the trip in an effort to indirectly get me to cough up change. I had nothing left (true story) so I gave nothing! Despite this, the train was a comfortable choice, although I had no other because the other passenger trains had been shut down due to a massively fatal train crash in Giza two days prior.

Aswan Highlights:

Abu Simbel: this awe-inspiring rock-cut temple of mighty Ramses II, featuring four mega-scale seated figures of the pharaoh and the gods, was originally built to scare the bejeezus out of invading African tribes from the north so much that they’d turn back home rather than face the colossal Egyptians. After being re-discovered in 1814 by an Italian traveler who saw the tip of the far-left head peeking out from under a sand dune, it became a hit tourist site. 150 years of Graffiti from careless visitors marks the torsos of the figures and parts of the interior temple, but the general beauty and pure strength that the structure communicates are totally intact. In the 60s, the site was moved to a man-made rock face to save it from Lake Nasser, and the movers did a damn fine job keeping it the way it is. I personally loved the temple to Ramses’ wife, which had much more intricate carvings than her husband’s!

Nearly every hotel and every tourist agency offers trips which start in the early morning (3:30-4:00) and arrive at the site around 7:00. Tourists are given a few hours to mosey round the main temple and that of Ramses’ favorite wife, Nefertari (Not to be confused with Nefertiti), and then the buses return to Aswan in the late morning. Tickets to the site are not usually included with the transport cost.

Philae: located on an island surrounded by Lake Nasser, this graceful temple provides repose from the hustle and bustle of an Abu Simbel morning. To get to the island, you need to pay 25 EP and get a private boat there. My travel mates and I haggled hard to 20 pounds for five people, but as a condition of the low price we only stayed on the island for around 45 minutes.
The temple, dedicated to various gods like Hathor and Osiris, has a unique asymmetrical layout and is fun to wander through sanctuary to sanctuary. One of the fascinating aspects to notice about the place is the brutal iconoclasm of early Christians, which destroyed many of the reliefs and left rough crosses carved into the limestone walls. However, I discovered a sweet carving of a monkey-dog playing a lute in the temple to the arts, and the huge-columned Kiosk of Trajan will forever change your perception of just how big a kiosk can get. I would have preferred a full hour or one-and-a-half to see everything, but I made do with the demands of our jilted boat driver.

St. Simeon Monastery: this early Christian monastery is the real deal when it comes to seeing the tranquility and roughness of monastic life in the desert. Although the structure is in ruins, its picturesque location and solitude really communicate the spirit that early Christians sought to better ponder God and Jesus.

The Ins and Outs of Visiting St. Simeon (And other tales):

It’s an unvisited place with crappy winter hours—only open until four—and transport there is a little more complicated than for other sights. I met up with a German friend named Martin and we took a swift felucca from the eastern bank to the western in about 25-30 minutes. The ride was awesome as we got to glide in between the currents of the Nile and the imposing boulders that are strewn about in it; felucca captains use a zig-zagging method of movement down the river to catch unfavorably-directed wind and use it to push the boat in the right direction. Our captain, “Nimo”, advised us to get back before it got dark (Jackal zombies, most likely), and upon landing we jumped out and trekked up purposefully the path towards the monastery.
The mud-brick complex sprawled across the empty wastes of the desert. It looked so cool. But it was all closed up. Damnit! However, we didn’t despair, and I found a low-level wall that my friend and I could jump over and we more-or-less broke in. Despite the questionability of this, we were both rational lovers of history and thus any damage to the site would be unthinkable to us. I wandered around on my own through some chapels, hermit cells, and the soft darkness of the main hall. The second floor was inaccessible, probably because stomping around in a 1600 year-old mud structure is inadvisable. Yet it was all really fun to silently admire, even though medieval Arabic graffiti is splattered all over many surfaces. In one place, the marauding Arabs never looked up (haha, stupid-heads!) and the original frescoes of saints remain on the 8 foot-tall ceiling remain intact.

We mounted a crumbling perimeter turret to watch the sunset and then got out without a soul seeing us from nearby. As hardy kindred adventurers, we decided that a saunter cross the desert back to the ferry loading point a few kilometers north of where our felucca dropped us off would be a most enjoyable idea. So we marched on over dunes and across an empty tract, before scaling the muscle-aching incline of a large hill covered in sand. Dripping with sweat, we got to the top and were struck by the marvelous view of Aswan in the fading dusk light, with the lazy Nile below. It was a great climax to an awesome day. On the way down, the going got bumpy as we were without lighting devices (Oh, that’s what the felucca captain was talking about) but we at least could go towards floodlights placed on the hill by the tourist authorities to illuminate some rock-cut tombs. These tombs also received a short visit from us, and I must say they looked deliciously evil with bats flying around in the dark and the pale crescent moon above.
We later caught a ferry and chilled out at Saladin restaurant, smoking hookah and discussing Western and Egyptian cultural differences, along with a pinch of linguistic chat thrown in there. Martin introduced me to the ugliest word I’ve ever had the misfortune to hear, which is “cuckoo clock” in some variety of Swiss German. There is not one but three iterations of guttural throat sounds in the word, giving it resemblance to an emphysematic’s dying cough.

And that was just about it for my time in Aswan. The next morning I ran around the city looking for feluccas to take me to Luxor like how people went the old days, but no cheap and quick ones were to be found so I settled for a luxurious two night Nile Cruise that shall be lauded in the following blog post. So, if you’ve gotten thus far, thanks for reading and check in soon for the ins and outs of my Death on the Nile experience without the death!

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