The World is a Circus

I see many strange things when traveling, things I’ve never seen before or never imagined. I had one day on the road that felt like all the people around me were part of a circus set that I had accidentally gotten lost amidst. There was a guy walking around with a (live) bird in a cup, for no apparent reason. There was a huge and hairy transvestite wearing a belly dance costume dancing to hindi music, but not for money (there was no hat), just for fun. Beside him/her were amputees begging, each with a few euro cents in their hat, behind me was a midget making gigantic bubbles with two sticks, some string and a soapy bucket, and a fully covered Muslim woman walked passed without noticing any of this. When I thought I’d seen it all, a 9 year old gypsy kid carrying a drum lit up a cigarette. Before I could remember where I was, I turned to the next ATM to maybe withdraw some money, but a bird had chosen to nest there for the day. Since then, I saw an Oklahoma license plate in Kosovo, and learned that the garbage trucks in Prizren sing songs… just like the ice cream trucks in Canada.

In England a couple weeks ago, I heard people speaking English that I couldn’t understand a single word of. I couchsurfed in Liverpool in an old brick factory warehouse where 10 or 15 people live semi-illegally. I tasted dozens of sour beers at a beer-festival In Manchester, since apparently sour beers are ‘in,’ but it tastes like rotten cider without any sugar and I’m not sure why everyone’s making it. The alternatives weren’t all that better, since the English like warm, flat ales and really dark and heavy stouts, but thankfully there was an actual cider brewer where I could taste something yummy and familiar.

The ferry from Liverpool to the Isle of Man takes 2 hrs and 45 mins because it can’t sail in a straight line; if it wasn’t for all the windmill farms in the Irish sea, the ferry could avoid its zig-zag course and get there in less than 2 hours. Sailing past gigantic, white posts with rotating blades standing in the middle of an open sea made me feel like I was on another planet.

And beyond all the strange sights is the strange world of money. The cost of things here and there and the exchange rates of currencies from different countries seems like a game of monopoly, or a gambling game that has no explanation. For example, from Reykjavik it’s faster and cheaper to fly to Manchester 1000 miles away than drive to Akureryi 235 miles away. A return ticket on the Liverpool subway is £1.80 but a one way is £1.75. Carlsberg is cheaper than a local beer in England, and Tuborg is cheaper than a local beer in Montenegro, when Carlsberg and Tuborg both come from one of the most expensive countries in the world, Denmark.

In Serbia and around, bottles of wine are more commonly in 1L bottles, and get capped with a beer tap instead of a cork. You can eat a whole meal for €1 but a coca cola might cost you €1.60. In the Balkans, a carton of cigarettes might cost 15 euros on the street, but cost 35 euros taxless in the airport duty-free… ? The taxi ride to a bus station or airport might cost you more than the bus ticket or even the flight, with Ryanair, Easy Jet and Wizzair all serving the Balkans with flights starting at £15.

But, without all these idiosyncrasies, traveling wouldn’t be traveling, since it’s the weird and crazy, nonsensical things that make it fun, challenging, and different than sitting at home. So bring on the circus, I’m sure they have space for another clown.

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The Ups and Downs of Traveling in the Balkans

yet another beautiful view

yet another beautiful view

Besides the narrow coast line of Croatia, the Balkans are a mountainous region with tons of ups and downs and windy roads. Between the valleys and highland plateaus comes mountain range after range, and without any major highways, the journey time from place to place is slow but breathtaking, and sometimes a little frightening. Add a lot of rain and some flooding, and traveling by bus becomes quite the adventure. On the tops of the mountains between Montenegro and Kosovo, everything was pines and snow, so a bus can even take you from summer to winter in a matter of hours.

This trip started in Zadar, on the norther end of the Dalmatian coast, where I couchsurfed with a dentist named Marko. After a couple days of pouring rain and stormy winds, and a few hours of sunshine, I couldn’t really complain about my broken umbrella or soaking shoes since it was still 20`c. The only regrettable thing was not being able to jump into the crystal blue Adriatic sea, since it looked so inviting and seemed to call my name, but it wasn’t quite beach weather.

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a mini port in Zadar

The road from Croatia into Bosnia & Hercegovina was anything but direct, and we may have gotten lost a few times (I was roadtripping with 3 Croats who entrusted me to read the maps and roadsigns…). A few bus rides later I always seemed to be sitting near the one lady who got car-sick, and having someone puking repeatedly into a bag and listening to her heaving noises (one sat beside me and another time behind me) isn’t easy. When I was walking up the road to Ostrog Monastery in Montenegro, a car pulled over to let a woman out to spew throw up directly infront of me. Yum.

I enjoy walking around aimlessly, simply strolling the towns and city centres, but that doesn’t always end up so pleasant. In Sarajevo we nearly got attacked by 10 stray dogs, who seemed to think we had trespassed into their territory when walking past a Muslim cemetery too late at night. There are a lot of not-so-nice stray dogs, but mostly they’re harmless during the day. You’d think the same about people, but one guy tried to offer me a ride to the next town in broad daylight when I was sitting alone waiting for the bus. He was half my size and nearly half my age, so I said yes, only to be offered kisses and condoms and a skinny dipping adventure. No more hitchhiking for me I guess!

Thank you, EasyJet

Getting out of Iceland always requires a long-haul flight, and New York and London seem to be the main gateways out of here. But, with the boom in tourism the last few years, more and more airlines are flying to Iceland, from a growing list of cities across Europe and North America. But blah blah, the point is that it used to cost atleast 30.000ISK for a cheap one way flight, until Iceland Express started operating 10.000ISK flights to London. But that was maybe one seat on one fight a week, and now theres Wow air doing a similar thing, but EasyJet started flying to Manchester for only 40 pounds (8.000ISK) and when one can avoid any or all of London’s airports AND save money one a one-way ticket out of winter, I was sold.

the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool's ferry port

the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool’s ferry port

I have never been to Manchester, and Liverpool is less then an hour away. They’re both big name cities, but smaller and cheaper than London with the same goodies and Britishisms you need. I couchsurfed in both towns, with a commune of students and artists (and everything inbetween – I think there were 15 residents) in a converted warehouse on the docks of Liverpool, and with a public transportation planner in Manchester that was obsessed with bicycles and beer. And there was alot of beer, as I learned at the Indy Man Beer Convention. Then there’s the soccer teams, and the Beatles, and Wales and Isle of Man!

The Independent Manchester Beer Convention is held in the empty pools of the Victoria Baths

The Independent Manchester Beer Convention is held in the empty pools of the Victoria Baths

I’d never been to either, nor had any clue how to get to them, but its a travel friendly corner of England here, and trains, buses and ferries connect Liverpool and Manchester to Wales and Isle of Man. Isle of Man was a wonderful surprise, a pastoral island filled with pastures and farms, ports and lighthouses, stone walls and sea walls. It was backpacker friendly, bike friendly, and horse friendly… what more could one ask for?

this heritage steamtrain is one form of public transport on the Isle of Man

this heritage steamtrain is one form of public transport on the Isle of Man

I nearly got into a PhD program in Bangor a few years ago, and always thought it was somewhere near Bristol, but its at the very north west tip of the coast of Wales, where a local train can take you past Viking ruins and Medieval castles in a little more than an hours journey from Chester. Chester is a quintessential English town that borders Wales, and I also felt ignorant to have never figured out where or what it was.

the famous clocktower of Chester

the famous clocktower of Chester

I visited Bangor and Conwy in Wales, Conwy on the suggestion of a couple of friends. There a castle and a walled city filled with public houses, a tiny port, and the smallest house in Great Britain charmed the socks off me. Bangor was a quiet and quaint student town, and I could have definitely lived there with Anglesey, the Irish sea, Snowdonia National park and the biggest mountain in Wales all in the neighbourhood. But for now, a weeks visit will have to do. And thanks to EasyJet for this unexpected trip to some places I’d never planned to visit.