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Stories from Month 14

Safranbolu, Turkey

Communication Challenges

michelleSchool children, shop owners, bakers, and young men called out Japanese greetings to me as we strolled through the narrow cobblestone streets of Sanfranbolu. I found the attention a bit unnerving since I don't speak a word of Japanese. I know the town gets very few foreign tourists but from the attention I was receiving I concluded the Asian tourists that do visit must be Japanese. My parents met in Japan, I have black hair, and I crave sushi often, but these are the extent of my Japanese ways.

Sanfranbolu is a town situated in northern Turkey near the Black Sea. Its old Ottoman wooden houses make it an Unesco World Heritage Site and the lure of fine architecture drew us off Turkey's main tourist trail for a visit. The houses sit on steep hills, looking down on the main square, a mosque, a two-domed bathhouse, and a 350 year-old caravanserai (a way-station for traveling caravans).

On our first full day in Sanfranbolu we spent the day walking through the streets observing the architecture, stopping often to look up. The houses are large 3-storey structures made of wood and plaster. The old plaster walls, overhanging bay windows, decorative iron handles on gates, and textured wooden doors made it a feast for the eyes. The roofs are made of rugged terra-cotta tiles, adding orange warmth to the already rich environment.

Most of the places we have visited in Turkey are popular tourist destinations and the locals have picked up enough English to communicate effectively with visitors. But in Sanfranbolu we found few that spoke English and for the first time we relied heavily on our Turkish guidebook's language section and found ourselves gesturing to communicate. Ordering food, checking into a hotel, catching a bus, and buying souvenirs became more like a game of charades than a business transaction. When gestures failed, we would draw pictures. Sometimes the business owners would bring out their English-Turkish dictionaries and we would teach each other words. The interactions made us laugh and we met many wonderfully patient Turkish people as we struggled to communicate. top

A several-hundred-year-old mosque in the Turkish town of Safranbolu. Safranbolu's historic architecture has qualified it as Unesco World Heritage site. A several-hundred-year-old mosque in the Turkish town of Safranbolu. Safranbolu's historic architecture has qualified it as Unesco World Heritage site. A woman walks down the street of historic Sanfranbolu. A sitting area inside a traditional Turkish home.

Istanbul, Turkey

A Ticket Home

michelleMy sister is expecting a baby and asked me to come home and help. She is the first sibling to have a child and it's a really big deal for the family. So I agreed to cut my trip short and fly home early. We agreed Tim would keep traveling until the end of the summer through Europe.

Upon arriving in Istanbul my first errand was to purchase an airline ticket home. The travel agencies were closed on Sundays and so I couldn't inquire about buying a ticket until Monday morning. I hoped to buy a plane ticket for the last day of June, leaving a week to tour the city and mentally prepare for my return home and separation from Tim.

Early on Monday we walked into a travel agency in the tourist area of Istanbul. Big colorful signs in the window advertised cheap international flights. The agents tapped at their keyboards, studied the computer screen, and made some calls to the airlines. Good news: there was a seat available (the only one in the next two weeks). Bad news: the flight left that night! Tim and I stared at each other in horror. I had to buy this ticket to get home but wasn't emotionally prepared to leave so soon. I was filled with conflicting emotions: sadness in leaving Tim and the travel lifestyle, excitement to see family and friends, surprise at leaving so quickly, anticipation of what life in the US would be like after traveling for so long. Reluctantly I handed over my credit card and within minutes I had an airline ticket in hand.

We set out into the city with a purpose. I had less than 12 hours to sightsee, buy presents, and pack. First we visited the Grand Bazaar, an indoor market of overwhelming size and merchandise. The bazaar began in the 15th century and since then, has only grown. Now it covers many kilometers and feels like a giant maze. We wandered for a couple hours looking at spices, clothes, Turkish carpets, lace, and an amazing selection of souvenirs. With only a little room left in my backpack I could only buy a couple t-shirts and decorative pillows.

We strolled through the park in front of the St. Sophia as the light glowed in the early evening. Then we ate a wonderful Turkish dinner on a rooftop restaurant. From here we could see ships sailing in the harbor, effortlessly gliding along the water. Brilliant sparkles shone off the golden spires of the nearby Blue Mosque as they reflected the setting sun. As our last meal together on the trip it was incredibly romantic and poignant. I kept taking deep breaths and looking around as I realized tomorrow I would be home and these were my final moments of this fabulous adventure. top

A view of light streaming through the window of Aya Sofia, the Church of Divine Wisdom, built between 527-565 AD by Emperor Justinian. Converted into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.XXXX(Also called Aya Sofya, Sancta Sophia, Hagia Sofia) A view of Aya Sofia, the Church of Divine Wisdom, built between 527-565 AD by Emperor Justinian. Converted into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.XXXX(Also called Aya Sofya, Sancta Sophia, Hagia Sofia) A view of light streaming through the window of Aya Sofia, the Church of Divine Wisdom, built between 527-565 AD by Emperor Justinian. Converted into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.XXXX(Also called Aya Sofya, Sancta Sophia, Hagia Sofia) A mosaic of the Madonna and child in the Aya Sofia, the Church of Divine Wisdom, built between 527-565 AD by Emperor Justinian. Converted into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.XXXX(Also called Aya Sofya, Sancta Sophia, Hagia Sofia) The lights of Istanbul's famous Blue Mosque (1616) attract many birds that circle overhead at night. The lights of Istanbul's famous Blue Mosque (1616) attract many birds that circle overhead at night. Light filters down on a bismillah in Topkapi Palace, Istanbul's home of the sultans for almost 400 years. Bismillahs typically read as a prayer to God, with meanings similar to Arabesque designs inside of Topkapi Palace, Istanbul's home of the sultans for almost 400 years. Intricate Turkish tile work and chandelier in Topkapi Palace's Sacred Safe-keeping Rooms. Topkapi Palace was Istanbul's home of the sultans for almost 400 years. The Sacred Safe-keeping Rooms still hold sacred possessions once owned by the Prophet Mohammed. An intricate ablution fountain in Topkapi Palace, Istanbul's home of the sultans for almost 400 years. Arabesque patterns of light filtering through a skylight in Topkapi Palace, Istanbul's home of the sultans for almost 400 years. Sun filters across Turkish tile work and mother-of-pearl doors in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul's home of the sultans. Sun filters across a red couch and mother-of-pearl doors in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul's home of the sultans.

Washington, DC, USA

Flying Home

michelleMy forehead pressed against the small window as I studied the green earth below. Farms and houses grew larger as the plane descended over the familiar Virginia farmland. Thirteen months ago I had flown over these exact fields, except then I was going up, not down. I was at the beginning of an adventure to see the world. Now, hard as it was to believe, I was at the end. The plane's tires hit the runway with a loud thud andà I was home.

Thoughts swirled in my head as fast as the butterflies swirled in my stomach. After a year of adventure, where every day offered new sights, tastes, ideas, and people, I wondered how easily I would adjust to everyday American life again. The life of work, rush hour traffic, shopping malls, and a self-absorbed culture awaited me. None of them sounded too appealing. But other things did appeal to meà varying my wardrobe so I had more to wear than a couple of ratty t-shirts and two pair of pants, seeing loved ones, eating without fear of sickness, and no longer living out of a backpack. I looked forward to sleeping in a bed with a familiar pillow, driving a car, and jogging in the evening.

I feel different inside. The person returning is a different person from the one who left. More at peace and with a calmer spirit I return. More educated about history, religion, environment, and culture, I feel closer to humanity and more connected to the world.

In the last year I flew on over 20 flights and each time went through a similar routine upon landing - I got my passport stamped in immigration, waited patiently for my luggage in baggage claim, then cleared my bag through customs. This time the routine was the same but the situation was different. I knew the currency, understood the language spoken, and my father was waiting to take me home as I walked through the arrival gate.

It was the end of one adventure, sure not to be my last. top

Istanbul, Turkey

Holy Relics

timTopkapi Palace in Istanbul housed the leaders of the Ottoman empire for 623 years, surrounding them in luxury befitting an empire that stretched from Hungary to Yemen and from north Africa to Iran. Its rooms shine with inlaid mother of pearl, rich Turkish tile work, Arabesque ornamentation, and silk Turkish carpets.

The family's living quarters, or Harem, display some of the finest workmanship. But the safekeeping rooms that house holy relics intrigued me more. Their bizarre collection had me guessing the authenticity of each artifact and left me wondering if the rooms were full of hoaxes or genuine items. There is little question the palace takes these items seriously, considering the rooms sacred. A imam even prays constantly from a booth in the corner of one of the rooms.

You be the judge. Is that stick really the Baton of the Prophet Moses? Does that bottle really contain The Dust Brought from the Tomb of the Holy Prophet Mohammed? Was that sword once owned by the biblical David? How about the gold-framed footprint... did Mohammed really make that? Do these gold-jeweled boxes really contain Mohammed's teeth? Are those curly hairs encased in blown glass really plucked from Mohammed's beard?

I don't know. You'll have to decide for yourself. top

A view of light streaming through the window of Aya Sofia, the Church of Divine Wisdom, built between 527-565 AD by Emperor Justinian. Converted into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.XXXX(Also called Aya Sofya, Sancta Sophia, Hagia Sofia) A view of Aya Sofia, the Church of Divine Wisdom, built between 527-565 AD by Emperor Justinian. Converted into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.XXXX(Also called Aya Sofya, Sancta Sophia, Hagia Sofia) A view of light streaming through the window of Aya Sofia, the Church of Divine Wisdom, built between 527-565 AD by Emperor Justinian. Converted into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.XXXX(Also called Aya Sofya, Sancta Sophia, Hagia Sofia) A mosaic of the Madonna and child in the Aya Sofia, the Church of Divine Wisdom, built between 527-565 AD by Emperor Justinian. Converted into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.XXXX(Also called Aya Sofya, Sancta Sophia, Hagia Sofia) The lights of Istanbul's famous Blue Mosque (1616) attract many birds that circle overhead at night. The lights of Istanbul's famous Blue Mosque (1616) attract many birds that circle overhead at night. Light filters down on a bismillah in Topkapi Palace, Istanbul's home of the sultans for almost 400 years. Bismillahs typically read as a prayer to God, with meanings similar to Arabesque designs inside of Topkapi Palace, Istanbul's home of the sultans for almost 400 years. Intricate Turkish tile work and chandelier in Topkapi Palace's Sacred Safe-keeping Rooms. Topkapi Palace was Istanbul's home of the sultans for almost 400 years. The Sacred Safe-keeping Rooms still hold sacred possessions once owned by the Prophet Mohammed. An intricate ablution fountain in Topkapi Palace, Istanbul's home of the sultans for almost 400 years. Arabesque patterns of light filtering through a skylight in Topkapi Palace, Istanbul's home of the sultans for almost 400 years. Sun filters across Turkish tile work and mother-of-pearl doors in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul's home of the sultans. Sun filters across a red couch and mother-of-pearl doors in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul's home of the sultans.

Washington, DC, USA

Adjusting to Home

michelleI've been home for two days and little things fill me with amazement, things that I took for granted before I left. I feel like a small child walking into a toy store. In awe and excitement, I brush my teeth with tap water, wash my clothes in a washing machine (not a sink), and drink freshly brewed coffee. I use ice in my drinks, talk to friends on the phone, and use a hair dryer to dry my hair. Simple things and yet things I have lived without for the last year. I'm sure the novelty of it all will wear off with time. But until then, I will continue to "ooh" and "aah" with delight. top

Sofia, Bulgaria

Fresh Air

timMy night bus from Istanbul arrived in Sophia with the 5:30 AM sunrise. After spending the night on an 11-hour bus ride full of smoking Bulgarians, the crisp morning air that greeted me felt heavenly. A few deep breathes later I started walking towards town.

At that early hour, Sophia showed few signs of life - just random early risers, an occasional car, and shops clamped down for the night with rolled steel storefronts. I walked into an unlocked hostel and slept on a couch until the proprietor woke and gave me a bed.

Daytime Sophia greeted me with a whole new image. The sleepy town I saw had morphed into a city of contrasts, where the evolution from communism to free-market economy manifests itself on every street. Where a glittering upscale shoe store sits on the first floor of a grotty communist-era concrete building. Or a brand new Mercedes parks next to an old Russian Lada. The antiquated streetcars now scrape through a city in a state of change.

It didn't take me long to warm up to the city. Sophia's wide boulevards and light car traffic furnish it with an open feel. Lively street-side cafes serve espressos to people who seem to have an infinite amount of leisure time to enjoy them. The people are remarkably fashionable and the women are known for their beauty. In my aging travel clothes, I frequently felt like a vagrant at a black-tie affair. But no matter, I spent the day walking through historic churches and meeting new friends at the hostel. top

Caveat Emptor

timThe shady man approached me under the shadow of the former Communist Party headquarters building, where I sat by myself reading on a park bench. The little alarm bells that rang in my head when he made a b-line towards me clanged loudly when I noticed the Vegas-sized wad of US $20 bills in his hand.

He wanted to change his $20's in for US $100's, a denomination that hasn't ever seen my wallet. I was surprised he even asked me, as I do my best to prevent theft by looking disheveled. Nevertheless, I waved him off claiming I had no US currency. He switched tactics using local currency and kept badgering me until I showed him my nearly empty wallet. He spied a 20 and a 10 Leva note and tried his scam on a smaller scale. At about $12 it wasn't that much to loose. And besides, I was intrigued.

So I placed my two notes within my easy reach, far from him. He counted an assortment of five and one denomination notes and handed it over, asking me to count the pile. They added up and looked authentic so I started to think he had asked for an honest favor. But when I was done counting he asked me for the pile to confirm.

His slight of hand marveled the skill of any professional magician I'd ever seen. He counted with his hands in plain view, out in the open, and without any sleeves to hide cash in. When he returned the wad, abracadabra! I recounted and half the money had disappeared.

I slapped my hand down on my cash and threw his back at him. The shady man skulked away under the cackling laugher of an old man, who had witnessed the entire transaction from a nearby bench. top

A streetcar rumbles past a worn building in Bulgaria's capital of Sophia. A Rom (gypsy) child plays the accordion with his pet dog for change on the streets of Sophia.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

A Monk's Life

timThe Rila Monastery's cool alpine location and colorful buildings make it a popular tourist destination on the weekends. I visited on a Sunday and despite the hordes of other visitors making noise around me, I still sensed the underlying solitude in the fresh mountain air that drew monks to this location over 1000 years ago.

The monastery's four levels of rooms (300 plus) surround an ornate domed church housing hundreds of frescos. The whimsical architecture and patterns reminded me of an MC Escher drawing of real-life proportions.

As soon as I arrived, I regretted my decision to visit as a day trip from Sophia. I'd spent over six hours travelling to spend only 90 minutes here, while I could have spent the night in a monastery room with attached bath for only $10 a night. I pictured the quiet scene after dark, with most of the people gone and the chilly air cooled down even farther. Like the monks before me, I'd search for peace in a simple room with rough hewn floors and a simple bed. Maybe next time. top

The Rila Monastery sits in a cool wooded valley only a few hours south of Bulgaria's capital Sofia. Its construction spanned the first half of the 19th century, but the monaster'Ys history goes all the way back to its foundation in 927 AD. Pictured here are the domes of the church, built between 1834 and 1837. The Rila Monastery sits in a cool wooded valley only a few hours south of Bulgaria's capital Sofia. Its construction spanned the first half of the 19th century, but the monaster'Ys history goes all the way back to its foundation in 927 AD. Pictured here are the domes of the church, built between 1834 and 1837. A priest walks with three men while gazing toward the courtyard of the Rila Monastery. The Rila Monastery sits in a cool wooded valley only a few hours south of Bulgaria's capital Sofia. Its construction spanned the first half of the 19th century, but the monaster'Ys history goes all the way back to its foundation in 927 AD.

Bucharest, Romania

By the Book

timI can not imagine calling Bucharest a picturesque town, but nor is it ugly - just a town full of large boulevards and hulking concrete buildings topped with company logos. Most of this ungainly architecture can be blamed on Nicolae Ceausescu's outrageous spending and failed plans to shape the capital into a grand Communist showpiece.

Nowhere can his overspending be seen more clearly than the People's Palace, now the Palace of Parliament. This massive building is second in size only to the Pentagon, yet unlike most of the architecture in Bucharest, the Palace of Parliament is more attractive and ornamental. Even the entrance hall is spectacular with glassy stone floors laid out in patterns of five colors, enormous carved marble pillars, exquisite gold and crystal chandeliers, and a gilded wood ceiling.

A huge marble stairway climbs up to the second floor, but sadly I never made it up there. Instead I fought with a tour operator who demanded that I ruin my expensive roll of 3200 high speed film by exposing it to their x-Ray machine. She was the first person in 13 months of travel to refuse my request for a hand search. I left the Palace fuming, having just paid money for a tour I couldn't take.

So much for freedom. top

Words of Wisdom

timRomanians have lived through some tumultuous years since 1987 - years full of political disarray, riots, strikes, food shortages, revolution, and the executions of former leaders Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife. And though more recent times have brought stability and relative prosperity, petty crime, and street scams still curse parts of the country.

These facts buzzed through my head when I entered a Bucharest camera shop and struck up a conversation with the clerk, who warned me about the unsafe reputation of the neighborhood. But when I mentioned that I lived in Washington, D.C., he awoke to a whole new level of fear and told me that Washington was a hard place to live - that it is REALLY unsafe. I laughed and realized, as I have so many times this year, that he was probably right. So many would-be travelers fear crime abroad and choose not to leave home, when all along they would probably be safer here than in their own backyards. top

A grand boulevard built as part of an ideal Communist city by former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.  Ceausescu and his wife bankrupted the Romanian economy and were executed by firing squad in 1989 during the Romanian revolution. The fountain remains dry.XXXXThe Romanian Parliament building (Parlamentul Romanie), formerly known as the People's Palace, is the legacy of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Its rich interior includes heavily polished marble floors and columns, exquisite chandeliers, and gilded wood ceilings, and holds the record as being the second largest building in the world after the US Pentagon. Its construction wasted millions of dollars at a time when Romania suffered from food shortages. Ceausescu and his wife were executed by firing squad in 1989. The Romanian Parliament building (Parlamentul Romanie), formerly known as the People's Palace, is the legacy of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Its rich interior includes heavily polished marble floors and columns, exquisite chandeliers, and gilded wood ceilings, and holds the record as being the second largest building in the world after the US Pentagon. Its construction wasted millions of dollars at a time when Romania suffered from food shortages. Ceausescu and his wife were executed by firing squad in 1989.

Sinaia, Romania

Moving On

timFate swept me quickly out of Bucharest. From trolley bus to rail station to ticket vendor to departing train, yesterday's departure conspired to whisk me away to Sinaia without delay.

Sinaia was everything a skiing town should be in July, full of bustling cafes and the feeling of leisure, but surrounded in green forested hills and the festive colors of summer. I walked through the town's center to its cable car and spent the night up high at 1400 meters in a nearly empty cabana. My only companion in the quiet 8-bed dorm room was a gas furnace hissing away in the corner of my room all night and warming the cold mountain air.

I hiked for a short while in the morning, near the 2000-meter terminus of the cable car. After soaking in the impressive 360-degree view of the surrounding Transylvanian mountains, I headed back down to town to see the Pelis Castle.

Pelis Castle is relatively modern, built between 1875-1914 as the summer residence of King Carol. But what impressed me most wasn't the castle's history, but its luxuriously rich decoration and architecture. I could see none other than a king walking over those plush red carpets, around the dark wooden walls carved with detailed ornamentation, and under the stained glass ceiling in the center of the room. (The ceiling actually slides open, aided by electric motors installed all the way back in 1883.)

Wood murals hung on the walls next to woven tapestries. The armory brimmed with antique guns, swords, and suits of armor. A beautiful wooden ornamental spiral staircase wound its way up to nowhere. Teak furniture and brilliant stained glass windows colored one room red, while a nearby room featured a gilded Arabesque ceiling and decorations modeled from Spain's Moorish Alhambra.

I left the castle impressed and headed off to the train station, where I waited hours due to a broken down train. Off to my next destination! top

The Pelis Castle, the summer residence of German/Romanian King Carol.  Built in the German-Renaissance style between 1875 and 1914. The Pelis Castle, the summer residence of German/Romanian King Carol.  Built in the German-Renaissance style between 1875 and 1914. A statue stands out front of the Pelis Castle, the summer residence of German/Romanian King Carol.  Built in the German-Renaissance style between 1875 and 1914.

Brasov, Romania

Dog Days

timI checked into a marvelously depressing one-star hotel in Brasov, where an old man who smoked quietly by the light of a TV set handed me my key. My single room hid at the end of a long dark hallway, the dismal surroundings reminded me of Van Gogh's famous painting of his rented room in Arles. Any week-to-week pensioner or starving artist would feel at home here, with a creaky wooden bed, aged wardrobe, lone chair, small writing desk, and sink all crammed into a tiny area.

Lucky for me, Brasov's streets excited me far more than my old hotel room. I spent hours in the central square, surrounded by the muted red, green, and orange colors of the nearby shops and open-air restaurants. The piazza swelled with community in the evening and provided me with free entertainment, watching young lovers share ice cream, men drink beer in cafes, and old ladies chat.

A small terrier and a large curly haired mutt ran through the piazza together, biting and snapping each other in play. They barked from time to time, but kept quiet for the most part. Then all at once, the small dog started a five-minute wild chase after the big one, running in between bystanders and circling around benches to catch up. The accompanied high-pitched yelping gathered the attention of the whole square and every head turned to watch the show. What was once a collection of small individual groups was now one large audience.

The two dogs flew through a leftover rain puddle and sent a plume of water up into the air, like a water-skier pulling through a tight turn. People comically dove out of the way to avoid being hit by the spray. The crowd erupted all at once in applause and laughter. Then as abruptly as it started, the show was over and the individual groups resumed where they had left off. top

A quaint cobblestone street in medieval Brasov, a town of over 300,000 located in Transylvania (Romania).

Sighisoara, Romania

Vampires

timI settled into an excellent room in Sighisoara, happy to rest in a peaceful little medieval town for a few days after too many days spent traveling.

The town's slow paced calmed me down perfectly, asking nothing from me than to admire its well preserved surroundings. I took a stroll through the bright streets of the walled in old section, looked down at the 360-degree view from the top of the town's clock tower, and read outside on a bench surrounded in sweet summer air.

But this little picturesque town has a darker and more interesting side, which I found with the help from a Brit named Jonathan.

After dinner, Jonathan and I drank a beer in the birthplace-turned-restaurant of Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, aka Dracula. Vlad was born here sometime in the early 15th century and earned his "Impaler" notoriety with his favorite torture method for Turks - driving stakes though their spines to assure long tortuous 48 hour deaths. His "Dracula" nickname merely means "son of Dracul", after his father Vlad Dracul.

They say he is wasn't a real vampire, just the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula. But I wasn't so sure. Jonathan and I left Vlad's home to visit a thriving local disco, where we stayed out till almost 5 AM. We returned to our guesthouse only after the disco emptied. Just like vampires, everyone fled just minutes before sunrise.

Coincidence? I think not! top

New Ideas and People

timTraveling frequently turns out to be an endless succession of meeting new people and entertaining new thoughts.

This morning a 10-year old gypsy girl approached me on the train platform and asked for a 500 Lei coin. She was a mess - dirt covered her clothes and her unwashed blond hair stuck heavily to her head. But her smile radiated hope and her eyes shined with the brightness of intelligence. Her inward appearance cut right through the filth of poverty and made me see nothing other than an extremely cute kid who could grow up to be successful if given the proper circumstances.

But as a gypsy, she will no doubt be treated like the rest of the people in her ethic group. As far as I've seen, that is about as well as African Americans were treated before the civil rights movement. The gypsies frequently are blamed for society's problems and resigned to the lower ranks of the socioeconomic ladder. On several occasions, I've been warned to stay away from them, because they will "lie, steal, and double-cross you without hesitation."

I peeled a 2000 Lei note from my wallet, four times what she was asking for, but still under ten cents. Her eyes bulged with amazement and her face lit up with emotion. Starting with an introduction in broken English, she then talked with me for the next ten minutes. I was looking in my bags for an orange to give to her when my train pulled up to the platform. As I ran down the track to find my compartment she ran along side me and then waved me off with a smile that could melt the most cynical person's heart.

Minutes later I started a conversation with a Romanian on his way home from Libya, where he worked as a chemical engineer in a fertilizer plant. With eight weeks in Libya and three weeks at home, he spoke highly of his working conditions, but was nevertheless anxious to return home to his wife and children.

His English was excellent, allowing our conversation to proceed farther than the basic, "Where are you from?" line of questioning I've become so used to.

Both the man and his wife lost their jobs with Romania's foray into the free-market economy, when former state sponsored business that relied on cheap oil from the Soviet Union shut their doors. Our train rolled by the chemical factory he previously worked in - the huge complex now laying in ruins, a communist dinosaur.

Though he considered himself lucky to have such a good job, he stressed that the transition to a free-market economy might not be the best thing for Romania. Crime and unemployment are up. Traditional values are disappearing. And while foreign goods are readily available, they are too expensive for a country whose average salary is just $100 month.

Not that communism was best. The man hated how they experimented with mind control, but added that the communists never succeeded in crushing the freedom of the individual. No matter what they tried, true freedom always existed in the mind - the communist games always remained external.

In many ways with mind control, capitalism succeeded where communism failed. My compartment mate reminisced about a time shortly before the communist fall, when an English friend forgot about Easter Sunday. Even with the communist state sponsored crushing of organized religion, no Romanian would possibly forget such an important Christian celebration. Capitalism crushed religion more ruthlessly by accident than communism did on purpose.

As my train passed though the rural towns of Romania to the cosmopolitan city of Budapest, the landscape whirred by like a chart of economic growth. From bucolic villages with red tiled roofs and fields of bright sunflowers, to advertisement ladened rail yards defaced with spray paint graffiti.

I pondered the path these countries decided to follow. The free-market brings riches, and with it the troubles of a consumer driven culture. Advertisers fill the streets and airwaves with messages promoting needs the people never knew they had. They now desire things that they can't obtain, or if they can, their satiation lasts only until the next desire takes its place.

It seems the nature of happiness doesn't lie in accruing the most stuff, but in learning to see beyond your manufactured desires and by living simply. Somewhere along my train route from rural Romania to westernized Budapest, there existed a happy medium between communism and capitalism, between simple and complex.

The trick is finding the balance in your life. top

Transylvania's Sighisoara clock tower, a 14th century building overlooking the birthplace of Vlad Tepes (aka Dracula). A window in the picturesque Transylvanian town of Sighisoara, the birthplace of Vlad Tepes (aka Dracula).

Budapest, Hungary

Walking

timWith 2 million citizens, Budapest's size compares to other major cities in eastern Europe. But it seemed much larger to me, with so much to see and do that I spent half my days walking, metroing, and bussing from place to place. Transportation issues rarely seemed a drag, but rather opportunities to see more of the city besides its high points.

After spending the afternoon visiting Castle Hill's gardens, avenues, stately buildings, art galleries, and historic churches, I headed to the Fisherman's Bastion for an excellent view of the city across the Danube - admiring the river boats gliding between the solid historic buildings that line the waterfront.

I found street performers every 20 feet in some areas of Castle Hill, but they were not your garden variety chainsaw jugglers. True to Budapest's love of the arts, they all played classical music. I passed two giggly young women playing a fast-paced classical duet on matching violins. Nearby the pair, a lone flutist blew a morose tune to himself.

In the mid-day heat I ducked underground to Castle Hill's spooky Labyrinth, a cold damp collection of caves and cellars converted into a cross between an art experiment and a haunted house. Strange noises such as heartbeats, drumbeats, whimsical music, and supernatural sounds echoed from the cave walls, which were under-lit by weak bulbs strategically placed to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. The exhibition started with reproductions from the Lascaux cave paintings in France. It then got progressively unreal, eventually highlighting archeological "finds" from Homo Consumus - an exhibit poking fun of modern humans by looking at us through the eyes of people 40 million years in the future.

Watching the visitors react to their unreal surroundings provided the most fun, especially when I inadvertently walked behind a young couple with my squeaky sandals and made them jump with fright. I laughed and said hello when I bumbled by, but they didn't shake off their look of fear. I didn't know I was that scary. top

Nighttime falls over Budapest and the Danube River, with the Erzsebet Bridge in the foreground and the Chain Bridge in the background. Nighttime in Budapest with the Chain Bridge crossing the Danube River. Nighttime in Budapest with the Chain Bridge crossing the Danube River. A view of Budapest's neo-Gothic Matthias Church on Castle Hill (Varhegy). To the left a statue of Hungar'Ys first king, St. Stephen (977-1038). A view of Budapest's neo-Gothic Matthias Church on Castle Hill (Varhegy) at night.

Szentendre, Hungary

Size Doesn't Matter

timFriends and travel guides raved about Szentendre, espousing the town's narrow winding streets and perfectly preserved atmosphere. But after I took their advice and went, I found that every other tourist in Hungary had the same idea. The narrow winding streets walled me in with crushing Japanese and American name-tag wearing tour groups playing follow the leader with an umbrella waving fast talker, and the atmosphere preserved scores of shops selling t-shirts, crafts, pottery, and knickknacks.

But I'm not being entirely fair, as the town did have a certain bit of charm. The view on Castle Hill floated me above a sea of red tile roofs and church spires. The haunting chants of a priest from the orthodox Belgrade Cathedral echoed in my consciousness all day. But of all things I saw in Szentendre today, the Microart Gallery won the award for coolness.

At just one room, the museum's small size was fitting for the type of art that they exhibited. You don't come here to see wall-stretching Guernica-sized paintings, but rather to peer through microscopes at bizarre works of art that could, and frequently did, fit on the head of a pin.

The first one I spotted featured a human hair cut lengthwise and used as a canvas, on which the word "peace" was inscribed in five languages. I might add that the handwriting on the hair looked far better than mine on a regular sheet of paper.

In another work, the artist placed four camels, a palm tree, and a pyramid in the eye of a needle. (I guess he proved in his play on words that a rich man could enter the kingdom of God.)

Sixteen perfectly formed chess pieces rested on a chessboard and modeled the real life match between two masters. The board was actually sitting on the head of a pin.

The artist drilled one human hair lengthwise, forming a tube in which he inserted a miniature rose.

In my rounds of the exhibit, the miniature gold padlock and key impressed me the most. The work was perched on the end of a human hair, which when viewed in the microscope looked the size of a large dinner plate. Not to be outdone, the artist included copies of the five moving parts inside to show you the finer details and to prove that it was indeed a working lock. top

A colorful street in Szentendre, a small Hungarian town on the Danube Bend.

Budapest, Hungary

Hot Night

timLike most of my days in Budapest, I walked all over town and felt in need of a little treat. What better place to go than the Szechenyi Medicinal Baths for a little dip in the city's famous thermal pools?

A short walk later, a cashier handed me a token and I entered through a turnstile. A gruff staffer in white pointed the way toward the men's locker room. I changed, an assistant secured my locker with a key, and I entered the maze of rooms.

The first room in the spa gave me an instant feel of what an ancient Roman bath looked like, with columns holding archways, carved marble ornamentation, and three pools of thermal hot water inviting me for a swim. I try two of them, one which was warmer than the other at a nice 100 degrees (38 C). The jet behind my back did a great job of knocking the accrued pains of travel from my sore back, but my curiosity grew after 15 minutes and I left the pool to have a look around.

The center of the large facility opened into an outside courtyard, surrounded by ochre walls and white archways. A semi-circular thermal pool sat adjacent to a square lap pool. Fountains sprayed bathers with hot water. A few pairs of half submerged men played chess on boards built into the poolside, while a much larger group watched on with unbreakable attention. Their deep tans suggested that they played here everyday. I wondered if their tans stopped at the water's level.

I walked back inside, dipping in and out of pools of various temperatures. Each room held a new surprise. The sauna opened into two rooms separated by a door. After a few minutes in the cooler room getting used to the temperature, I walked into the inner room and got hit with a blast of heat, like I had just stuck my face into a hot oven . I braved the whoosh of hot air in my face and read the thermometer on the wall, which read a blazing 150 degrees (65 C). Sweat poured from my body like someone was holding a garden hose above my head. After I couldn't take anymore, I jumped back into the 100 degree pool - to cool off.

I returned back to my hostel feeling great and ready to walk some more, which I did, photographing the magic of Budapest at night until 2 AM. top

Nighttime falls over Budapest and the Danube River, with the Erzsebet Bridge in the foreground and the Chain Bridge in the background. Nighttime in Budapest with the Chain Bridge crossing the Danube River. Nighttime in Budapest with the Chain Bridge crossing the Danube River. A view of Budapest's neo-Gothic Matthias Church on Castle Hill (Varhegy). To the left a statue of Hungar'Ys first king, St. Stephen (977-1038). A view of Budapest's neo-Gothic Matthias Church on Castle Hill (Varhegy) at night.

Split, Croatia

Down South

timMy train hummed through Hungary towards the Croatian border yesterday evening while a captivating sunset played across the ripe summer crops of the countryside.

I poked my head out of the compartment window to smell the freshly mowed hay and to watch the floating wisps of milkweeds dance in circles down the side of the carriage. The endless rows of corn created a strange visual trick, seeming to wave me on to my next destination as if they knew it was my time to leave.

When night arrived I slept well, but awoke to find that yesterday's lush landscape had been replaced by the arid scrub land of coastal Croatia - a climate filled with stunted pine trees, rocky soil, farmhouses, olive trees, grape vines, and hard scratchy desert vegetation as found on the Greek islands.

I stepped off the train in Split and was approached by a middle-aged woman with a lazy eye and leathery tanned skin who offered me a great deal on a "private room" - the area's choice budget accommodation. The owner of the room was a laughing old man with a beer gut and a knack for talking to me in Croatian despite the fact that I clearly didn't understand what he was saying. I unpacked my bags and after a well-deserved shower, walked around town exploring all day.

Out by the waterfront, an old Roman facade impressively lined the street and overlooked cafes, palm trees, and manicured grass. Little boutiques and restaurants filled the labyrinthine alleys of the old city, catering to the many tourists who holiday here in the summer.

The area attracts an international crowd, I learned quickly, overhearing conversations between Hungarians, Bosnians, Germans, Austrians, Slovenians, and Croatians simultaneously.

I walked leisurely though town and then stopped at an umbrella-covered table for a coffee and some peaceful time to write. As evening came, the streets swelled with people eating ice cream to the sound of hundreds of sparrows flitting above the city. top

A view of Split's harbor from above. The Romanesque arches of a historic building in Split, the largest town on Croatia's Dalmatian coast. A clock tower in Split, the largest town on Croatia's Dalmatian coast. An unusual looking tree that thrives in the dry climate of Croatia's Dalmatian coast. Two windsurfers float on the Dalmatian coast's blue water near the resort town of Bol on the island of Brac (Brach). Families on holiday soak up sun and swim in the Dalmatian coast's blue water in the resort town of Bol on the island of Brac (Brach).

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Cool Breeze

timDubrovnik distinguished itself on my visit for two reasons, the first being the spectacular two kilometer walk around the old town along its protective walls. The view from 25 meters high couldn't be better, with blue Adriatic water on one side and a skyline full of red tiled roofs, chimneys, and church spires on the other.

The second reason was Dubrovnik's availability of nude beaches. I decided soon after I read of Croatia's famed nude beaches that I'd have to go to one - visiting, of course, in the spirit of taking another new experience home from my trip.

Plus, I admit, I thought it would be fun to write about.

So I started with the best of intentions, but spent yesterday with a woman from my hostel who I didn't want to strip down in front of. But we did go to a beach adjacent to the nude one and I had a chance to see first hand what to expect out of a visit.

A naked man stood proudly upright a few feet from us on the regular beach with body language that screamed, "I'm free! Look at me!" He walked along the rocky coast with his hands on his hips. I thought to myself, "I guess that is where you put them when you don't have pockets."

Twenty other men and women on the beach went about business as usual, just without clothes on. They called themselves naturalists and they looked natural, so natural in fact that I kept seeing a family of primates on the rocks instead of vacationing Europeans. Forget the use of tools, I thought, the use of clothing really distinguishes us from the apes.

I walked to a different nude beach the following day in full anonymity, unhampered by the company of any people I didn't want to see me nude. I wondered along the way if I could go through with it. Getting naked seemed so natural, but yet, I seldom even walk through a gym locker room without a towel on. And hell, I'd hate to be caught in a Speedo.

I spotted the beach from the cliff above and noted that everyone seemed to have the same "Look at me!" attitude exuding from their body language. Hand painted signs along the threshold of the gate warned visitors that they were about to enter a clothing prohibited area and featured icons of bathing suits with slashes through them.

I didn't know if I had to take my clothes off as soon as I entered or if I could break in slowly once unpacked on the beach. I envisioned "swinging freely" across a crowded beach full of people. My heart pounded nervously and, even though I knew in my head that nobody on the beach cared, I reached the door and chickened out, instead deciding to swim at the beach next door.

Maybe I'll start out slowly. I wonder, can I buy a Speedo around here? top

American Politics

timI missed the whole American election while travelling - the campaign, the debates, the rhetoric, the vote, the talking heads, the post election fighting, the swearing in, and as of tomorrow, the first six months of Bush's presidency. But I have kept up on political events through the internet and discussed political affairs with both locals and travelling Asians, Europeans, and Americans.

After more than fifty conversations, I've met only two people who like our new president - one of whom was sorry he voted for him. Come to think of it, the other supporter wasn¦t much better. He was just a 12 year old boy in India who liked Bush simply because his older brother liked Gore.

I'm obviously working with a flawed statistical sample, but even so, how did our new president get elected? Perhaps the rest of the world isn't too pleased with our choice and Americans who travel are more likely to vote for democrats. Hmm... there is probably a strong correlation between U.S. passport holders and Gore voters.

I'll have to return home before I can get the real story! top

Dubrovnik's old town is surrounded with an impressive 13-16th century wall that is two kilometers in circumference and up to 25 meters high. From this protected vantage point, guards once scanned the sea for invaders. Dubrovnik's old town, surrounded with an impressive 13-16th century wall that is two kilometers in circumference and up to 25 meters high. Up to two-thirds of the red tile roofs in the town were destroyed during the war in Croatia, but the town has since been restored to it's pre-war beauty. Dubrovnik's old town, surrounded with an impressive 13-16th century wall that is two kilometers in circumference and up to 25 meters high. Up to two-thirds of the red tile roofs in the town were destroyed during the war in Croatia, but the town has since been restored to it's pre-war beauty. Un unusual tree grows in the dry climate of Croatia's Dalmatian coast. Dubrovnik's old town, surrounded with an impressive 13-16th century wall that is two kilometers in circumference and up to 25 meters high.