The End…in Iceland!

From Amsterdam, I flew to Reykjavik, Iceland for a 3-day layover to spend some quality time
with nature before touching down on USA soil again.  Iceland is surreal, almost like another planet.  I rented a car and drove to the south part of the island, full of glaciers, waterfalls, geysers, and random icebergs floating to sea.

I mostly kept to myself as my “yearlong journey” story was even starting to bore me.  I was also thoroughly mesmerized and somewhat speechless due to the sheer beauty of Iceland coupled with the down home niceness of its patrons.  From the gas attendant that gave me a free cup of coffee to the rental car administrator who extended my drop off time by 4 hours at no charge, everyone in Iceland is “midwestern” nice!  It was almost as if the whole country got together and agreed to be overly nice to tourists…as they put food on our table.  To think I almost skipped this country on my way back to USA.

Skaftafell Glacier Nat’l Park

In 3.5 days, I was able to see the Gullfoss Waterfall, an amazing geyser nearby, the Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon, the glaciers in Skaftafell National Park, and taste fresh sushi in downtown Reykjavik.  I even had time to relax on my way to the airport at the Blue Lagoon, a unique geothermal spa sitting in a lava field.

The pictures tell the rest of the story:

This last year has been truly epic in every sense of the overused word!  I have missed many friends and family, but at the same time, for the first time possibly ever, I feel like I have both feet on the ground and I am mentally strong to carve my own path, one with less ego and with more rooted passion.  I plan to spend the next 3-6 months researching some ideas I have drummed up along the journey.  Stay tuned for that.

Earth is an amazing planet with way too much to see.  I thought I would shrink my bucket list after visiting 21 countries, but it’s only grown.  I thought this journey would decrease my appetite to see the world, but it’s only made me hungrier.  I will probably never be afforded the opportunity to take a full year+ off again (while I have energy) but I know for certain my traveling days are not over.

As great and epic the places I ventured to during this trip around the planet, there is no substitute for the people I met or met up with along the way.  I’ve never traveled solo before this excursion.  Sure, it was tough at first but once I realized that people made the experience an experience, it became easy.  I was amazed at how many strangers were willing to help with directions, a ride, advice, a book, a warm meal, clothes, or even a place to crash.  I had no real plan, no expectations, no cell phone, and everything fell into place as if I wrote the script beforehand.  Just straight up living.  Without a doubt, the destinations will be lifelong memories.  That said, there is absolutely no substitute to the thrilling adventure of getting there and the countless human encounters along the way.  To all that I met or met up with along the way, much respect and many thank you’s!

Writing this blog was a challenge, especially with the lack of a good internet connection in most places.  I do not like to write but I do like to have written!  Thanks to all those following and commenting along the way.  I appreciate all the positive support.  Peace and happiness to all and…

…GET BUSY LIVIN’ OR GET BUSY DYING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

THE END BEGINNING!

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10 Days In The Hole!

Do you remember when you parents punished you by putting you in the corner with no talking for 15 minutes?  Imagine a similar scenario for 10 hours per day for 10 days!  According to a group of death row inmates in the documentary film, “The Dhamma Brothers”, “these 10 days were tougher than any time on Death Row!”

The Gong Guy

As mentioned in my last post, I decided to round out my journey by taking a meditation course called Vipassana.

Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of the world’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills.

Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation.  It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations within the body.  The end goal is to achieve a balanced mind, full of compassion.  Simple, right?  NOT!

Upon arrival, I felt like a wrongly accused man entering a prison.  All belongings and material items were confiscated and not accessible until the 10 days were complete.  During orientation, we reviewed the rules which included:

  •  No talking for 10 days
  •  No eye contact with anyone
  •  No physical exercise or any movements that may draw attention to yourself
  •  No computers, music, books, or writing utensils
  •  You must stay all 10 days

Vipassana Center in France

The facility is situated in the remote countryside of central France with a long tree-lined driveway leading up to the center.  A well-manicured garden provided a natural warm greeting.  Men and women were separated, except in the meditation hall.  There were walking paths flooded with tall, skinny trees, perfect for afternoon strolls.

The bedroom was divided up into “cells.”  Each person had a small sectional, more like a bathroom stall with dividers which did not reach the ceiling.  We had a curtain for a door.

Food was offered twice per day, once at 6:30am and again at 11:00am.  The food was 100% vegetarian and usually soup, rice or noodles, salad, and herbal tea.  At 5:00pm, a snack consisting of 2 fruits per person and tea was all you ate until breakfast at 6:30am the next morning.

So I was to live as a monk for the next 10 days.  They made it crystal clear that it was dangerous to leave at any time during the 10 days, which was a bit scary.  The explanation given was…”you are engaging in mental surgery…a mind operation…if this was an actual surgery, you wouldn’t leave halfway through…the same rationality applies here…you must not leave.

After noble silence was initiated, it quickly turned from the likeness of a prison to that of a cultish mental ward.  I felt like Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”.  Strangers walking around with their heads down.  Blissed-out volunteers with glowing eyeballs.  Eating across the table from a stranger without talking or eye contact.  There were over 30 males spanning all ages and very little noise existed outside of the faint zipping of a nearby fly or the rhythmic chirp of birds in the distance.  “What am I doing here?  I don’t belong here!”

The Meditation Hall

And the 10 hours of meditation per day were brutal, especially the first few days.  I can’t sit for 10 minutes, much less 10 hours!  Some intervals were 2 hours long.  From a technique standpoint, all we were asked to do the first 3 days was “OBSERVE YOUR BREATH, specifically within the nostrils, whether it be the left one, the right one, or both of them simultaneously.”  This became extremely frustrating.  My mind would wander within seconds.  And so the mind wandered…

Typical Schedule

…at first, I started quizzing myself on movie titles, sport’s heroes, names of all the random strangers I met on my trip, etc.  One day I was quizzing myself on actor names and I had an embarrassing brain fart on who played The Godfather!  I rambled through all the names that started with M.  Marvin, Markus, Milton, Morrey,…and finally after hours and hours, Marlon Brando surfaced.  I quietly raised my fist in celebration!  This was all I could do to prevent myself from going insane!

And so for the next few days, I talked to myself in my head at the meditation hall, the dining hall, the walking path, the bedroom, the shower, and everywhere in-between.

Walking Path

Myself and I talked about everything from the deepest childhood memories to what I did yesterday.  I also focused on my breathing but I found it impossible to avoid my mind from escape…it’s like my jump shot back in the day…you can’t stop it, you can only contain it!  :)

The instructions during each session were a recording of a man named S.N. Goenka, who is the current leader for Vipassana all over the world.  His voice guided us through the ancient techniques.  By day 4, we moved from observing the spot around the nose to observing sensations throughout the body.  Each sensation represents a past moment in

S.N. Goenka

life, usually one of guilt, fear, anxiety, etc.  In your mind, you were able to dive down to the root of these sensations…usually late at night.  The process started on Night 6 for me!

I fell asleep and at about midnight, I started conversing with myself.

Exiting the Meditation Hall

This is the part where each person’s Vipassana experience is different.  For me, I felt hypnotized, but in full control, and super aware of everything in and around me.  Each night, Goenka provided a 1.5-hour discourse explaining the wisdom of living pure.  Messages of impermanence, compassion, the laws of nature, etc.  I apparently was eating it up as his voice got into my head and Goenka and I discussed and debated various ways of living, all night long.

Day 7 to Day 10 were full of more conversations in my head as well as more consistent meditation sessions with less wandering.  When things became too intense, we were instructed to “be equanimous”, Goenka would advise, “all things pass.”

What findings surfaced?  All I can say at this point is that I hope to live with less emphasis on me and more emphasis on nature and my surroundings.  Nobody changes in 10 days or even

Dhamma Bro’s

365 days.  But as Steve Jobs so eloquently explained in his Stanford commencement address, looking back, all the random events have meaning.  All the run-ins with philosophers, Gandolf-looking street mutes, hippies fashioning their freedom with dreadlocks, entrepreneurs, students, vagabonds, religious figures, and everyone in-between…all the encounters seem to make sense if you can apply focus.

After the noble silence was lifted, the 60+ individual strangers became one.  We all battled individually but became interconnected in the process.  Of course, many theories and stories were discussed through the night but one thing was certain, everyone felt like the personal gain was worth the hours and hours of pain.

The Eiffel Tower

After the 10 days, I stuck around and volunteered for 4 more days.  It was free, the food was great, and I was not mentally ready for the intense Paris scene.  Another traveler, Oliver, also stayed.  We were put to work digging up rocks and making walking paths of rock.

I eventually made it to Paris but, still somewhat blissed- out, the chaos of the big city made it a challenge.  My stay was brief.  From Paris, I made a random stop in Ghent, Belgium, mainly to relieve myself of the hustle and bustle of Paris.  Ghent, being small and quaint, ended up acting as a perfect “halfway house” between the meditation experience and western culture.

Ghent, Belgium

Castle in Ghent

From Ghent, I made it to Amsterdam to catch my next flight.  Outside a visit to the Van Gogh museum, I kept it local.  I was fortunate to reconnect with peeps I had met in Africa earlier this year.  Jaspar, who owns a local restaurant in town called IJ-Kantine, treated me to some

Amsterdam

high quality wine and food.  I was also able to reconnect with my friend Olga, who I met in Uganda on the plane from Zanzibar.

Both were successful in allowing me to experience local Amsterdam life versus the touristy party traps.

Amsterdam

The Mona Lisa @ The Louvre

Only one more destination before American soil remains on my journey…a brief stop in Iceland.  At this point, I felt light as a feather and mentally strong as a rock from the “10 days in the hole”.  Only time will tell how long this connection to nature and others lasts, but I can honestly say that ENDING my journey with this mental surgical procedure was an excellent decision.  The future is destined to be rewarding.  Stay tuned!

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London Calling!

London is one of the best cities on earth with endless things to do and see.  Thankfully, since I’ve been here before, I was able to skip most of the touristy stuff and focus on catching some of the Olympic buzz within budget and more importantly, reconnect with my VU (Volunteer Uganda) Family via our planned reunion.

Thames River, London

The VU reunion party attracted 15 VU family members who found their way to London for the event.  We met at a pub in Camden Town for a few frosty beers followed by a tasty Thai dinner.  We then hit up a popular night club featuring 80’s Rock.  The DJ routinely dedicated songs to “the people from Uganda” which would generate an over-infused eruption from our circle of sloppy dancers.  Late in the night, Robbie Dudley closed the night with a public display of his infamous “Dinosaur” imitation…soon to be a YouTube sensation.  It was really nice to see my Ugandan brothers and sisters again!  We all miss the warm souls of Uganda.

VU family reunion

The volunteer teacher that replaced me at my school (American Andy) held a fundraiser that generated $1000, enough to build a new classroom for Kazuru.  Andy and I watched the Olympics Closing Ceremony at a bar near the Thames River and we pondered about the future of the kids we taught.

Thunder Bolting at Olympic Park

The hyper-buzz of The Games was astounding.  We ventured over to the Olympic Village to see the aftermath.  It’s quite shocking how much development they put into this village…maybe they should consider a 3rd world country some day?

From a very brief London visit, I took a night bus to Luxembourg to see another Wilco show.  The venue was tiny allowing me to enjoy the show from the 5th row…  Yo, Tweedy, you recognize me yet?!!

Wilco in Luxembourg, August 14, 2012

After Luxembourg, I trained it to Brussels, Belgium to taste their thirst-quenching Monk brew and amazing French Fries, which are better than American!  There was a 10-day

Mmm…Belgium French Fries

Music Festival in progress so I was able to continue satisfying my music fix.  I also met a few locals that told me where to go for the best Kesh and recommended sites around town, including the famous Brussels landmark…a little boy peeing named “Manneken Pis.”   I really enjoyed the vibe in Brussels.  Many believe that Brussels is Paris without the attitude! I’ve yet to hit up Paris but everyone here was very kind and hospitable.

Flower Carpet in Brussels (taken from Salvador Dali Exhibit)

Mannekin Pis

Fat Freddy’s Drop @ Zelt Festival

From Belgium, Doro was gracious enough to let me hang with her again in Germany.  We hit up the Zelt Music Festival that featured Fat Freddy’s Drop, a great live band from New Zealand.  They performed an epic set closing with their crowd pleasing “Shiverman” song that had the whole tent doing the pogo stick!  It was nice to relax and chill with daily dosages of Nutella before heading off to my last “real” adventurous activity just south of Paris…

…at this point, I’ve entered into a “wind down” stage of my journey and tension is building associated with what path I’m going to walk upon return to USA soil.

Per the recommendation of many grounded travelers, I signed up for a meditation course called Vipassana in attempt to ease my scatterbrained mind.  I’m a rookie meditator with 1 hour under my belt in Rishikesh, India.  Now I am going to attempt to live like a monk for 10 days…no talking, no eye contact, limited food, and 10 hours of meditation per day!

This should be interesting to see what’s upstairs calling me…besides London!

Camden Town, London

Olympic Village, London 2012

Luxembourg

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Turkey Talk

My first impression of Istanbul was: “damn, this place is massive!”  The city stretches over 30km and is loaded with buildings and people (13.5 million!).  After crashing near

Bird’s eye view of Istanbul

the airport (I will spare you the story of the taxi driver who got lost for 1 hour at 3am), I took Istanbul’s well-planned tram system all the way to the Sultanahmed Area (historical center), where my hostel was located.  Among my dorm roommates was an older ex-Olympic Turkish athlete named Nur who was full of local info on what to do in this country, which was great because I planned nothing!

For the first few days, I walked around Istanbul and eventually rolled into the famous Topkapi Palace which was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for approximately 400 years (1465-1856) of their 624-

Inside Topkapi Palace

year reign.  The palace and grounds are enormous…at it’s peak, it housed about 4,000 people complete with a Harem section and it overlooks the Golden Horn (name of the estuary/harbor down below).

I also sampled Istanbul’s famous nightlife and food by hitting up some bars on Taksim Square with some Aussie and French friends from the hostel.  Since it was Ramadan, thousands of people were out and about late into the evening.  Music was pouring out of the bars, often overtop one another.  Chaos!

Ramadan happens every 9thFull Moon of the year, so it was Ramadan month while I was there.  Devout Muslims fast from sun up to sun down (nothing allowed in their mouths…no water, no food, no gum, nothing!).  This tradition is exercised to remind them of their devotion to Allah.  Not an easy feat as the weather was sticky hot during the day.

The Blue Mosque

Inside The Blue Mosque

The Mosques were full of praying Muslims.  Frequent cat calls echoed from mosque to mosque signaling the public that it was time for prayer.  Much to my dismay, women are not permitted to pray with the men.  Instead, they have special sections, usually in the back as far from the front as possible.  When are these women going to rise up?!!!!!!

After 3 days, it was time to escape the vibrant city of Istanbul and head inland.  I took an overnight bus to the bizarre landscaped area of Turkey called Cappadocia, home of the famous fairy chimney rock formations.  The rock is soft volcanic stone that wind and rain have sculpted into fantastic clusters of multicolored spires and pinnacles.

Pigeon City in Cappadocia

This type of stone makes it easy to carve out caves and underground tunnels, which are at every turn.  I kept looking for Fred and Wilma but no luck!

There are many things to do and see in Cappadocia but the highlight is the hot air balloon ride over the canyon, another first for me.  I was flabbergasted at how many balloons were being set up at the launching point.  A quick count…80 hot-air balloons!  With 16 people in each carriage at 120-euro per head, it’s a pretty good industry.  

We blasted off from earth at about 5:30am (sunrise) and we hovered over the fairy chimneys for a bit before ascending up into the sky.  Looking down on all the hot-air balloons was mind-boggling.  After awhile I forgot the purpose was to look at the rocks, not the other balloons.

I cannot figure out which photos depict the experience the most so I’ll post a few more than normal:

From Cappacocia, I took another long bus ride to Olympus, situated along the Aegean Sea.  After a few days chilling on the beach and tearfully parting ways with my broken flip

Flip Flopped

flops that had been with me since day one (I have attachment

Gullet

issues), I booked a 3-day “Blue Cruise” on what’s called a “gullet”, an old wooden boat.  The Blue Cruise zips around various stopping points along the Aegean Sea, such as Kas, a few beaches, and ultimately ends up in Fethiye.  It was super relaxing…something about having deep blue water available for submersion at any time of day felt liberating.  There were 12 other shipmates from Australia, Spain, Italy, and Portugal and we all got along splendidly.

Shipmates from Blue Cruise

Oh, and the salt content enabled one to float without effort!  Not quite the Dead Sea, but close.  I could start on my back and eventually my legs and arms would sink but my big fat hollow head remained buoyed above water, just high enough for me to breathe naturally.  With a small floatation device, one could relax for hours.  It was definitely clean living as the crew made 3 meals for you and the best part…we all slept on the deck under the stars!  Truly amazing.  If you go to Turkey, book a Blue Cruise!

“Pancakes! Yummy in your tummy!!” This guy was hilarious.

From Fethiye, I set off in the morning to the antique city of Ephesus to see the old Greek and Roman ruins.  Ephesus is an archaeologist’s utopia, highlighted by a massive Greek Theater and a restoration project where they are piecing back together the living

Patience is a virtue

quarters of some of the more dignified people of that time…think of a puzzle with 168,000 pieces.

Back in Istanbul, I spent a day on a water (Bosphorus) before heading off to the airport to catch a flight to London to meet up with my Volunteer Uganda brothers and sisters.

Turkey is an amazing country with great history from the Ottoman Empire, more Greek and Roman archaeological sites than Greece and Italy, diverse landscapes, a vibrant city, tranquil beaches, great food, rich culture, and very gracious, hard-working, and hospitable people.

No more Turkey Talk…just time to simply say, “thank you, Turkey!”

Cappadocia, Turkey

Cappadocia, Turkey

Ephesus, Turkey

Ephesus, Turkey

Ephesus, Turkey

Local Arts and Crafts – Istanbul, Turkey

The Blue Mosque

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Sicily!

Sooner or later, even hanging out on the beach all day gets old.  Brin and I decided it was time to head south from the Nice, France area to the Italian island of Sicily via ferry from

Island of Lipari sunset

Genoa.  We landed in Palermo, found a café with wifi and Peroni beer, and carved out a plan for this vast island off the boot of Italy.

Palermo happened to be holding their annual festival of their patron Saint (Santa Rosalia).  This celebration has been held in the city’s streets for the past 400 years so the air was abuzz with parades, fireworks, and traditional music.  After watching a few random musical performances parading through town, we found a cool bar serving intoxicating mojitos served by a hip waitress that advised us on where to go in Sicily.

The next day we set off to explore the rest of Sicily via rental car for the next 4 days.  We hit up Cefalu, a little vacation town on the northern coast with overcrowded beaches.

Cefalu’s overcrowded beach of Sicilians

We then traveled inland to the town of Nicosia, home of one of my great grandfather’s.  While Brin hung out in the main square watching old Sicilians talk with their hands, I walked around town searching for some kind of evidence of a Lofurno.  I looked at the names on doorbells, death notices at the church, store names, and street names.  After climbing a short hill, I looked up and found a little court entitled Lo Furno, which was cool.

I drove around town a bit, visited a church up on a hill overlooking the town, and snapped a few photos before bidding farewell to Nicosia.  It’s a rustic old town nestled amongst multiple hills in the path of a moderately aggressive wind current.   The people, especially the old Sicilians in the main square, seemed like they were living Groundhog Day, doing the same thing day after day.  I sparked up a conversation with a few of them but their English was “not so a gooda.”

Nicosia, home of one of my great grandfathers

From Nicosia, we fired over to Catania on the eastern coast.  Catania seemed a bit more gritty than the other places, both the infrastructure of the city and the people.  Thanks to

Mt. Etna (near Catania, Sicily)

the Lonely Planet, we immediately found a cool place to eat and hang out that night, full of hipsters.  The next day we went to the fish market and a few churches before packing up and heading to off to climb a volcanic crater, Mt. Etna.

Mt. Etna felt like hiking the planet Mars, with extremely dry air and constant wind, which made for a difficult hike.

The highlight was “moonwalking” (5 foot giant leap after giant leap) straight down the hill full of loose volcanic rock.  FYI, this should be an Olympic event!

Brin moonwalking down Mt. Etna

Oh, because I had just finished watching the “Band of Brothers” series (about WWII), we were chatting about war and I asked Brin, if he had to fight in one war in the history of the USA, which it be?  His answer, without hesitation:  “THE COLD WAR!!!”  I could not stop laughing!

From Mt. Etna, we hit up Taormina, where the pretty people go to shop, swim, and spend money.  We opted to

Teatro Greco in Taormina

stay at a little hostel outside of town called Gianna House.  The highlight here was the Greek Theater (Teatro Greco), which is situated atop a cliff overlooking the deep blue sea.  We just missed Sting by a week.  The theatre dates back to the 7th Century BC!!

Eventually, we ditched the tiny rental car and took a ferry to the island of Lipari where we rented some scooters and zipped around the island stopping at

Paunch and John

beaches and lookout points.   Tee up the CHiPS theme song.

From Lipari, we booked a trip to the island of Stromboli to hike up an active volcano.  On the way we were able to swim near a volcanic hole on the ocean floor.  You could feel the gravitational pull as you swam next to the boat, like swimming in place, with the smell of sulfur in the air.

The highlight of Sicily was clearly the active volcano atop Stomboli Island.  The hike is uphill for a few hours and you actually look down on the crater overlooking the sea.  One crater was constantly spewing lava like an open fire hydrant.  Every 25 minutes,

Active volcano on Stromboli Island

a distant crater would erupt with a thunderous roar and an explosive lava splash.  We were all wisely instructed to cover up from the ashes after each major explosion.

From Sicily, we took yet another ferry to Napoli and were treated with a guided tour by Brin’s buddy from Portland, Andrew.  He told us about how to find a proper pizza joint, introduced us to a tasty coffee beverage called Cafe Shakerato, and fed us information on how the mafia works.  We squeezed in a day trip to the island of Capri, which cast incredible views of cliffs overlooking extremely blue water.

Trio of bro’s in Capri:  Rob, Brin, & Andrew

If no number on the sign, it’s not authentic Neapolitan Za!

We also took a tour of the underground city within Napoli.  It starts in an abandoned apartment with a cellar door that leads down to caves and walkways which was once a Greek theater.  Over the past 2000 years, civilizations kept building overtop old remnants without destroying the roots.  These caves have had many uses over the years, including a WWII bomb shelter.

After a few days stuffing ourselves with the best pizza on the planet in Napoli (no joke, it’s amazing), I booked a flight to Istanbul and Brin went to Greece to meet up with his wife, Carrie.  I was excited to step out of “vacation mode” and back to being more of a backpacker.

Brin, it was great hanging with you and witnessing the transformation back to your old self.  Peace and happiness, bro, and be sure to wear your napkin!!

View from atop Mt. Stomboli

Mt. Stomboli

Mt. Stomboli

Mt. Etna in Sicily

Brin atop Mt. Etna

Nicosia

Cefalu, Sicily

Napoli, Italy w/Andrew

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Vacation in the South of France

After all the beer gardens in Germany, it was time to “vacation” in the South of France along the Mediterranean Sea.  First stop, Nice, France.

Nice, France

Nice, France was okay but it seemed much more glamorous on paper than in reality.  It’s full of touristy vacationers, although there were pockets of cool restaurants and nightlife.  Brin happened to be heading through France (from Spain) so we were able travel to a few sites before he was off to Greece to meet up with his wife, Carrie.

On the morning we had planned to set off for Monaco, we stumbled on a place that essentially justified the added weight of the oversized “European Lonely Planet” book we

View from 20 Euro/night Hostel in Cap D’Ail, France

were logging around.  LP suggested a non- for-profit hostel called Villa Thalassa situated right on the Mediterranean Sea via a town called Cap D’Ail.  This place was amazing!  You could hear the waves crashing into the rocks as you slept…for 20 Euro per night, breakfast included!  They also had a communal dinner for a few extra euros which enabled the introductions of a number of travelers from all over.  www.clajsud.fr

It’s the type of place where you sign up for 2 nights but stay an entire week, which is what we did.  It was too good of a deal.  It was like the Mountain Hostel in the Alps, only on the water!  There was a walking path along the Mediterranean Sea to one of the wealthiest parts of the world, Monaco, where every other car was a Bentley or Porsche and the yachts were enormously oversized.  After being in India and Africa, the contrast of poverty and wealth was overwhelming.

High rolling cars outside Monte Carlo Casino in Monaco

We stopped into the famous Monte Carlo Casino and lost a few euros playing blackjack.  Since I was paying only 20 euro per night versus the 500 euro most people were paying, I easily rationalized the fruitless expense.

There were also several beaches within a 10-minute walk, with perfectly still blue water.  A typical day included breakfast, a short run followed by a short swim, a grocery store lunch, some reading and a nap on the beach.  Tough life!

Beach near Cap D’Ail, France

One of the highlights from a night perspective was attending The Nice Jazz Festival.  A band from New Orleans that I knew about was playing one night…Trombone Shorty!  He did not disappoint.  Brin and I dragged our new friends from France, UK, and Sweden to

Trombone Shorty

the show and ripped up the little dance floor in front of the stage.

After the festival ended, we hit a bar for a last drink and slowly realized that we had no way back to Cap D’Ail other than an 80-Euro cab ride.  It was late, around 2:30am.

Our new friends went back to a tiny apartment in town that did not have room for us so we decided to try to find food and then rough it till the first train, 5:45am!

After 30 minutes of striking out on food, I plopped down and leaned next to a boxlike structure in a little piazza just off the main road and promptly fell asleep.  Brin was not game!   I told him to pick me up if he found a cab.  50 minutes later, Brin wakes me up, irritated by the whole situation and amazed that I was willing to sleep on the concrete street like a homeless person.  I ignored him and went back to sleep.

About 1 hour later, I woke up and dusted off my jeans and started to scan the area to see if I could find Brin.  Within a minute I found him sitting in a little fenced-in tree lawn leaning against an oak tree sleeping like a baby!  I wish I had a camera…freakin’ priceless!

I followed my nose to score some greasy food and came back to retrieve Brin and head to the train station.  He thought it was the worst night of his life!  All the freaks were out that night, especially gathered at the train station and the smell of urine was unmistakable.  There are humans all over the world that do this every night, in much worse conditions than the warm night on the clean streets of Nice, France.  Just another example of how privileged we are to have a bed and roof every night.

The South of France was a great experience…great food, great music, great swimming holes, and again, great people, mostly those encountered from the best valued hostel on the sea.  It definitely felt like a “vacation” from backpacking.  It’s also a good example that with a little work, you can live like a king on a pauper budget!!

Next stop:  The island of Sicily.

View of Hostel from the sea

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Bavaria!

After leaving Heaven on Earth, I took a train to the Bavarian portion of Germany.  First stop was Munich, home of the best beer gardens on the planet!

Center of Munich

I found a place called Paulaner Brauhaus and treated myself to something called  Jungschweinebraten (oven roasted pork) coupled with dumplings and a smooth dark beer.  Ahhhhh!

I spent the next day walking around Munich.  I tried a walking tour but Munich does not have the vast history that Berlin has so it was not as exciting.

Munich

Eventually I made it to Elizabeth Park, where I read, took a nap, and then found some surfers surfing on a river.  Apparently, years ago, some rad American dude rearranged the rocks in the river to create a swell and surfers come here to practice their game.

Munich seemed to be a place of serious beer drinking and nice cars.  I noticed that about 70% of the cars there are Mercedes, BMW, or Audi.  The economy here seems to be okay.

Surfing the river

That night, I found the biergarten of all biergartens, Augustiner, a perfect venue to have pork and a huge 33-ounce beer while watching a EuroCup game.  There were about 1500 people!  There are so many beer mugs, they use a FLATBED TRUCK to transport them to the kitchen!

BEER!

One side note…after 9 months of crashing in hostels and being on the road for so long, it was REALLY nice to check into a proper hotel!  Everything was perfectly clean and the mattress was 3 times thicker than anything I have slept on in the past 300 days!

After 2 days solo in Munich, I was looking forward to having a “local” show me Germany.  It was Doro!  When I saw her, I had to make sure it was her as she changed her hair color from blonde to brunette.  Doro and I met

Doro

in San Francisco while she was on a 1-year contract working for the Bavarian State of Germany recruiting companies to expand their business here.  She was now back in her hometown, Kulmbach.

EuroCup 2012

Since Germany was playing in a EuroCup match versus Greece that night, it was a no-brainer to head to a beer garden again.  There were loads of people with painted faces, German jerseys, and German flags walking around.  It reminded me of Buckeye Game Day in Ohio.  Germany ended up winning big over Greece so the beer was flowing extra fast, creating many-a- stumble home, myself and Doro included.

The next day we set off to Koningsee to camp and to hike in the mountains of southern Germany near the Austrian border.  The campsite was mostly retired couples in their campers.  Retired people seem so relaxed.  I used to think they were bored but now since I have not worked for close to 1 year, I know that they have plenty to do…and they still have time to relax afterwards!

Koningsee

Doro and I headed off to hike in the mountains and we underestimated the difficulty of the hike chosen, magnified by the random, out-of-the-blue thunderstorm that drenched us from head to toe.  We made it with the help of Doro repetitively quoting Paulo Coelho, “if you only walk on sunny days, you’ll never reach your destination.”

Best beer on Earth

The next few days were authentic German.  We went to Kulmbach, a quaint place with extremely good bratwurst, beer, and ice cream.  One day we went to Doro’s parent’s house and had a full-on Bavarian home-cooked, 4-course meal.  Her parents don’t speak any English so Doro had to act as an interpreter.

Oh, and her parents are Polish, not German, which meant many shots were served, but not vodka…Schnapps!  It was as if there was an alarm clock signaling “shot time” every twenty minutes. Her brother, who towered over the rest of the family, did a few shots with us and suddenly started speaking English!  All in all, it was a very entertaining day and despite the communication barrier, we all got along splendidly.

The Moch’s

After we visited Nuremberg for a day, it was time for me to hit the road again, this time to the south of France.  It was very comforting to reunite with Doro, meet her family and friends, see her hometown, experience real beer and real beer gardens…and, of course, be treated to a warm meal by warm people in the warmth of their outdoor living room!

Prost to The Moch’s!

Nuremberg

Make a wish

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