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I’ve stayed at a lot of hostels over the years. Many are just places to sleep and many others are great places to meet fellow travelers and swap stories and travel tips. The most rare type of hostel, though, is my favorite: a place to meet other travelers as well as lots of local people. Art Hostel in Sofia, Bulgaria is just such a place.

Whether by design or happy accident, Art Hostel’s set up means that you have to be a recluse not to meet lots of interesting people while staying here. To get to most of the rooms, you have to leave the reception area and go around to the back of the building – right through the garden.

The hostel’s slogan is “Usually we spend our time in the garden”, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a very inviting place to hang out, especially at night when it is filled with backpackers, staff hanging out after work and local Bulgarians who just like the atmosphere of the place. Spending time talking to locals, as well as travelers from England, France, Germany, the U.S., and other countries has been a great treat. Many of the most stimulating conversations I’ve had in the past couple years have happened right out back in the garden this past week.

Ian loved playing in the garden after his morning nap. In the evenings, the place was filled with backpackers and locals.

Ian loved playing in the garden after his morning nap. In the evenings, the place was filled with backpackers and locals.

The bar here is also great and another excellent place to meet locals and backpackers. Down in the basement, it’s right next to the garden, so you can drink outside or in the bar. It has a variety of rooms, many of which have been decorated with murals by local artists.

And how many hostels can say that one of their owners is the host of an arts program broadcast on national television? Art Hostel can.

Boris Georgiev, a rather charismatic 30-year-old veteran of Bulgarian theater, hosts Antrakt on Probg, Bulgaria’s largest TV station. When he’s not acting or working at the hostel, he is often in – you guessed it – the garden, enjoying a beer with local friends and guests. He’s very easy to talk to and will welcome you into whatever group he is with. Great guy.

If you’re ever in Bulgaria and actually want to learn about the local culture, check in at the Art Hostel and have a beer with Boris. You’re also guaranteed to meet a lot of other interesting folks while there.

In all my travels, I have stayed at only a few hostels like this one. It’s a rare treat to find such a place, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. It was actually my favorite part of Sofia.

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For a heart-stopping moment, I thought the taxi driver was going to drive away with our stuff. I began banging on the trunk, yelling, “Get back here!” while I started to memorize his license plate number. Thankfully, the taxi stopped. I stepped aside and he backed up to the curb.

I stood in front of the taxi now to make sure he wouldn’t drive away. I also noticed there were some shopkeepers and shoppers who had come out to see what was going on.

“Excuse me, sir,” I called out to one of the shopkeepers. “Do you speak English?”

“A little.”

“This driver lied about the fare and won’t give us our stuff. Could you please call the police?”

All of this happened on Tuesday afternoon when KJ and I learned the hard way about the unpleasant manner in which a goodly number of visitors are welcomed to Bulgaria – taxi scams. Maybe we should have gone to Hawaii instead. The Aloha State’s custom of welcoming visitors with a garland of flowers sounds so much more pleasant.

My long standoff with the scam taxi driver began. His company’s agent at the airport had quoted us a price of 2 euros (about US $3) to get to our hostel in the city center. Hot, tired and sweaty, I guess I forgot that whole “If it sounds too good to be true…” rule. The woman at the airport’s Visitor Information desk had said the ride would cost 5 euros, but I guess we had wanted a bargain just a little too badly.

I asked the taxi agent three times on the way to the car if the price to get into the center was two euros total. Each time, he said, “Yes. Two euros.”

When we got to the taxi, he opened the back door for my wife. This seemed like a gallant gesture, but what it turned out he was doing was shielding the rate card on the rear passenger door window from our view. The one that said two euros per kilometer. Very slick.

I put our big backpack, one of our daypacks and our fold-up stroller in the trunk. I kept the daypack with our valuables on me and got in the back of the car as well. One more time, I asked, “So, it’s two euros total to get to the city center?”

“Yes,” said the taxi agent as the driver nodded. “Two euros.”

It wasn’t until we got near the hostel that it finally became clear we were in trouble. Looking for a clock to see the time in Sofia, I noticed that the taxi’s meter was running – and it was getting close to 60 leva, which is about 30 euros. I had a bad feeling suddenly, but I tried to cheer myself up with the notion that maybe the driver had forgotten to turn it off. Then I noticed that rate card.

When the driver stopped at our hostel, he told us the fare was 60 leva. I told him, no way. The deal had been 2 euros, and he just laughed. “This is a nice car,” he said. “You are crazy.”

And perhaps I was, but I told him we were not paying 60 leva. He kept insisting so I told him we should get the police. “Okay,” he said and started driving. “No problem. We go to the police.”

I had no idea where the hell he was driving us to now, and I ordered him to stop the car. “Park here. The police can meet us here.”

The car stopped and we got out. This is when the car started to go forward and I thought we were going to lose all our stuff.

It took ages for the police to show up. All the while, I stood in front of the taxi while the driver sat placidly in the driver’s seat. And, yes, I was very painfully aware that his driver’s seat was not just literal but metaphorical.

I tried to reason with the guy, but it quickly became clear he wasn’t the type who could be reasoned with. Hot, sweaty and tired, I lost my temper and argued with him instead. This attracted a small crowd of locals, all of whom were sympathetic to us. It seems these scams are common and the locals don’t like the bad image these scam drivers give their city.

I told the driver I’d give him 5 euros. No dice. He wasn’t budging from 60 leva, so I just looked at him and said, “I can stand here all day, buddy.” And that seemed fine with him.

Finally, two unshaven cops arrived in an aged car. They were a bit different from the police back home in a couple of ways. First of all, their shirts were semi-untucked after they got out of the car and they made no attempt to rectify this. Second of all, they smoked on the job. They both lit up a  couple of times during the long process of waiting for one of us to back down. The taxi driver lit up a couple of times, too.

I was quickly disabused of the notion that Sofia’s finest would make things right. After they checked the taxi driver’s ID and registration, they basically said they couldn’t do anything. Even the fact that his taxi company impersonates a legitimate taxi company was technically legal. In Bulgaria, as long as a scam taxi company changes at least one number in a legitimate taxi company’s phone number, they’re in the clear – even if they have exactly the same logo. As the taxi driver pointed out, “What I’m doing is legal until September.”

Legal until September. I like that.

One of the important things in life is to know when you’re beat – and this was one of those times. I dragged things out for as long as I could, but I ended up giving the bastard his 60 leva. The only satisfaction I could get out of the whole ridiculous ordeal was that I tied my driver up for close to an hour and a half. At least he couldn’t rip off anyone else during that time.

I guess we should have gone to Hawaii instead of Bulgaria. At least there, we’d have gotten leid instead of waylaid.

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I’ve just done about twenty-seven seconds’ worth of research, and here is what I’ve got to show for it: About three per cent of people have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Simple math says about 97 per cent of the population does not live with this condition. Well, if you’ve ever wondered what ADD is like, I have the perfect way for you to find out.

What you want to do first is travel to Rome with a toddler. Don’t leave home without him. He is essential to the simulation of ADD.

Next, you want to go to one of the many museums or churches in Rome which house an artistic masterpiece or two or a hundred. Caravaggio’s The Crucifixion of Saint Peter in Santa Maria del Popolo is an excellent painting for this exercise.

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter by Caravaggio

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter by Caravaggio

Once you and the toddler are standing in front of this astonishing work of art, lean your fold-up stroller against the wall and look at the expression on Saint Peter’s face as –

Oops, the kid is about to go down the steps from the alcove where the painting is displayed. Better go make sure he doesn’t faceplant on the hard marble floor of the church and crack his head open.

Got there just in time. He probably would have gotten down the steps okay, but it’s been a long, hot day and he’s tired. This is when he gets clumsy and accidents are much more likely to happen. You just can’t take a chance.

Once you’ve held the little one’s hand as he walks down the steps, and up the steps, and down the steps and up the steps yet another time, tell him he can’t walk down the steps again and pick him up. He’ll let out a loud shrieking wail of protest now, but just wait a few moments until it begins to decrease in volume and then threaten to put him back in the stroller or to give him a time-out – whatever works.

Hold your precious one now as you look again at the painting. It almost seems as though that’s a look of surprise on Saint Peter’s face – as if he didn’t expect crucifixion to be quite so painful. Or maybe he didn’t –

The toddler is squirming now and beginning to wail again. Better put him down before you get booted out. Say something like, “Okay, I’m going to put you down now, but I want you stay close to me, alright?”

He’ll do this for a short while and you can look at the painting once again. Those three workers hoisting the cross up into position look so ordinary, shades of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil theory. You can almost imagine them going out for a beer after their labors are finished for the day. Just doing my job, following –

He’s heading for those steps again. You say, “Wait!” and get there just in time again. Just like last time, you hold the little one’s hand as he walks down the steps, and up the steps, and down the steps and up the steps yet another time, tell him he can’t walk down the steps again and pick him up.

Oh crap. He’s done a number two. Time to grab the stroller, find your partner and leave the church to find a discreet place for a diaper change.

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Very Civil Unrest


There was a one-day transit strike in Rome on Friday. That in itself is nothing remarkable, of course. Transit strikes are common around the world. But this one was different from others I’ve experienced – bus, subway and commuter train drivers actually showed courtesy to the citizens who would be affected.

We’re staying at Camping Tiber, which is on the outskirts of Rome. The commuter train into the downtown area of Rome is what we depend on to get into the city, so when I heard there would be a strike I was very disappointed. As lovely a place as Camping Tiber is, it is no substitute for exploring the Eternal City.

Then I found out that there were two periods of the day when the strike would not be in effect: 8:30 to 10 in the morning and 5 to 8:30 in the evening.

This struck me as a bit odd. Why would the drivers work at all on a day when they were on strike for better pay and working conditions? It certainly isn’t how things are done back home.

I remember very, very well (and still a bit bitterly, yes) the four-month long bus drivers’ strike that caused so much chaos in Vancouver back in 2001. Getting to and from work was a challenge for thousands and many elderly and handicapped people experienced great difficulties getting around. It was an incredible hardship for the latter. As much of a pain in the ass as the strike was for me, at least I was able to walk the thirty blocks to work.

The morning commute was chaotic as, predictably, thousands of extra cars filled Vancouver’s streets. It was absolute gridlock every morning and evening. It didn’t take long before most people lost any sympathy they might have had for the drivers.

Maybe this is why Rome’s transit workers kept the buses, the Metro and the commuter trains running during the morning and evening commutes. But I think it’s more than that. I believe it reflects a certain decency and civility that seems to permeate life here.

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It is a curious fact that Russia produces plenty of chess grandmasters but is apparently unable to find anyone who can manage an airport. We learned this on our trip from Seoul to London on June 23rd, which included a three-hour layover at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

I’ve been to quite a few airports over the years, and landing at one terminal and having to get to another for my next flight is an exercise I’m quite familiar with. It has always been a fairly straightforward affair. Find out which terminal you have to go to, follow the signs to the area where you catch either a bus or a train to it, get on and get off. Sometimes you have to hoof it. But it is a pretty easy task.

Except at Sheremetyevo Airport, where they have found a way to make this simple procedure into an absolutely baffling experience.

As soon as we got off our plane from Seoul, we started to look around for a sign telling us where we had to go to catch our flight to London. However, there were no signs with this information. Instead, we ended up in an area which had several booths. Two of them were staffed by unsmiling women who seemed absolutely uninterested in the fact that a couple hundred weary travelers were standing around waiting for some instruction.

A few brave souls went up to them to ask where they had to go to catch their flight to London, Paris or Frankfurt. They were told to wait. In the absence of information from airport officials, we began to seek information from our fellow travelers.

KJ and I ended up talking to a blonde-haired British guy and a Middle Eastern woman with two small children in tow. We had a bit of a laugh at the chaos of the situation, and the Middle Eastern woman informed us that this was the worst airport in the world – worse even than the one in Baghdad.

After about twenty minutes of standing around and still no wiser as to where we needed to go next, I decided to budge up to the front of the line and ask one of the women. KJ followed and I carried Ian. “Excuse me,” I said. “Do you speak English?”

The woman nodded slightly.

“Where do we go for a flight to London?” I asked.

“For London? The woman is calling you now. Terminal D. Terminal D,” she said urgently, pointing down a passageway.

“Thank you,” I said and we started to hustle in the direction she had indicated.

This just seemed to make her agitated, though. “Not yet! Not yet! Wait here! Wait here!” Apparently what she had meant to say was, “The woman will call you.”

We went back to our new friends to share this bit of info. Amusingly, it seemed there was a high chance the information we had received from the airport official was incorrect.

“I was just talking to another English guy,” said our English friend, “and he said a girl told him a woman came to take people to the shuttle for Terminal D. He just went down there to find out if it’s true.”

Sure enough, it was. The second English guy, a dark-haired fellow, came rushing back to tell us that the London passengers were being taken to the shuttle right then. We all started to motor to catch up, afraid we were going to miss the shuttle.

The Middle Eastern woman had a very hard time keeping up, and whenever we turned a corner in the hallway, I waited for her to make sure she was still coming. In the end, though, we all made it and caught up with the other people flying to London.

After a few minutes, it was time to get on the shuttle bus. The young  woman who had led us this far was replaced by another woman. Our new boss was a middle-aged woman out of Central Casting. She was stocky and powerful looking, her straw-colored hair pulled back tightly in a bun, and she looked like she might have been top dog on a collective farm back in the day.

And she was obsessed with finding anyone who might be flying to Paris.

Once we were all on the shuttle bus, she stood up at the front. She looked like a kind woman, even though her eyes were narrowed and her lips were tightly pursed. “BAAA-ree,” she said, before adding, “shhhh.”

Nobody said anything. The woman looked about the bus suspiciously, and she reminded me slightly of John Cleese in The Life of Brian asking, “Are there any women here?”

“BAAA-ree… shhhh,” the woman said again. There was still no response, but she was determined. “BAAA-ree… shhhh. BAA-ree… shhhh.”

And still nobody said anything. We all just sat there looking at her as she grew more incredulous.

“BAAA-ree… shhhh. No?” she said, her voice going up. “BAA-ree… shhhh. No.” And this time her voice went down and then she took her seat.

The bus was absolutely silent for a couple seconds and then Ian said, “No?” his voice going up and, “No,” his voice going down.

The whole bus erupted with laughter. Maybe you had to be there, but it was pretty damn funny.

In the end, we got on our flight and everything was okay – but the whole process was so much more confusing and complex than it should have been. I don’t know if the Middle Eastern woman is right and that Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport is the worst in the world. But I do know it’s the worst one I’ve ever been to.

The Russians may be great at chess, but they don’t have the first clue when it comes to running an airport.

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So Long, Yangsan!


Well, the time has come to say goodbye to Yangsan, our home in South Korea since March 24th. And now the real backpacking begins. Three-month stays in comfortable houses are a thing of the past for us. From now on, my wife, our baby and I will be moving about much more frequently and relying on one big backpack, two daypacks and a baby carrier. 

For a lot of parents, the above probably sounds like a nightmare. It’s difficult just to go grocery shopping with an 18-month-old toddler. What kind of crazy person would want to go backpacking with one? 

It’s a fair question, and I’m entirely open to the possibility that we are indeed nuts. I’ll be honest and let you know that it all does seem rather daunting now that we’re only nine or ten hours away from our train trip to Seoul and just two days away from our flight to our next country –  and the beginning of our “for real” backpacking tour. 

I’m also really excited, though. Most of the best times of my life have come while living out of a backpack and exploring foreign countries. I’ve never brought a baby along for the ride before, but our little guy is pretty resilient and seems to really enjoy new places, people and things. I have a feeling he’s going to be an excellent traveller. 

We've "simplified" our lives to this: a travel backpack, two daypacks, a baby carrier and Ian's teddy, Hudson Bear.

We've "simplified" our lives to this: a travel backpack, two daypacks, a baby carrier and Ian's teddy, Hudson Bear.

 

That’s not to say there won’t be difficulties. Of course there will be. There always are, but it’s the difficulties that give travelling a lot of its flavor. In fact, some of the hardest times I’ve had backpacking are some of my favorite memories. The weekend I was homeless in Munich, visiting a war zone in the former Yugoslavia, a broken-down car in the middle of the Australian Outback – these are all experiences which I am deeply grateful to have had. The first two profoundly affected my life. 

There are also all the other experiences which go along with travelling: the amazing people you meet, the extraordinary art you see, and all the new cultures you get to immerse yourself in and learn about. This is what my wife and I really want for our son. They say the first four years of life are the most important, and we’re operating on the theory that giving him such a stimulating start to life can only be a good thing. 

Or maybe we’re just crazy. Who knows? We’re about to find out. 

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Fun With English


Faithful readers of this blog are well aware that my level of proficiency in the Korean language is just slightly above non-existent and well short of pathetic. From my fumblings, I understand how difficult it is to learn another language and how amusing the attempt may be to native speakers.  

It is a soothing balm to my ego, then, to encounter so much broken English here in South Korea, on signs and T-shirts and what not. I’d like to share some of my favorites with you now. They range from simple (but amusing) spelling mistakes to odd grammar and finally to the surrealistically poetic.  

If you enjoy these, then you will definitely enjoy a website called www.engrish.com, the king of broken English websites.  

If you enjoyed "Dances with Wolves", you'll love "Dances with Lilies".

If you enjoyed "Dances with Wolves", you'll love "Dances with Lilies".

 

What's the difference between a shark and a sturgeon?

What's the difference between a shark and a sturgeon?

 

Experts on sturgeon are impressed by the range of formatting they exhibit.

Experts on sturgeon are impressed by the range of formatting they exhibit.

 

This has got to be the world's most upbeat and eager-to-please chain of convenience stores.

This has to be the world's most upbeat and eager-to-please chain of convenience stores.

 

Very impressive indeed.

Very impressive indeed.

 

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