Bear necessities

If you’re hiking in the Romanian woods and run into a bear, apparently you should play dead.

I’m not sure I’d trust my acting skills in such a dire situation. Then again, lying in foetal position in a frozen state of panic probably wouldn’t involve that much acting.

If the bear proceeds to try and eat you, apparently it’s then time to talk in a firm voice. I can’t help but wonder if he’d understand the Kiwi accent?

Bear etiquette 101. This was quickly googled after many a traveller returned from Transylvanian hikes proclaiming they’d smelt bears.

Yes, no joke. Apparently you can litterally smell them.

“What sort of smell is it?” I enquired, ever so casually.

“You just know. Go the other way if you smell them.”

Great. Very reassuring. Honey face masks probably not be happening this week.

But bears are not all grrrrrrrr. Sometimes they get depressed. I learnt all about it at the Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Brasov, Romania.

A lot of bears became depressed at the hands of cruel owners who used them to attract tourists. The bears would refuse to eat, or worse, self mutiliate – eating their own paws.

There were many other horrific stories as well. Bears with arthritis from being made to sit still for too long. Bears who had never been to the forest. Bears scared of other bears. Bears blinded from the flashes of tourist’s cameras.

When you see these fellas with their soulful eyes, playful paws and feigned cuddly ways you can’t help but feel incredibly sorry for them. But surely modern day tourists wouldn’t be so stupid.

At the sanctuary there were many huge signs, warning of the electric fences around the enclosures. Our guide kept reiterating not to get more than 1m close.

Next thing there’s a gasp, and everyone had gathered. As I got closer I realise someone had dropped their iPhone 6 in the enclosure.

“Who would be stupid enough to do that?” I muttered to myself.

“We did!” A couple next to me admitted sheepishly.

Opps. I feigned sympathy as they retold how he’d leaned too close with his phone, got electrocuted and phone went flying in.

Well at least now maybe the bear could take selfies? That seemed to help depressed people get a self-esteem boost.

I wonder what you should do if you come across a depressed bear in the wild? Give him a hug?

I’d like to hope they wouldn’t be depressed in nature. And luckily I follow the advice of google, not my desire to get the ultimate bear hug.

FullSizeRender FullSizeRender_3 FullSizeRender_2 FullSizeRender_1

Advertisements

Midnight in Shanghai

It’s midnight in Shanghai. My early night has failed miserably. The novelty of my own room has gone to my head as I luxuriate in a starfish across the bed.

And what’s this feeling – hunger? But I already ate. Jetlag. Time zones. Of course, right about now I’d be gluttening on dinner and half a litre of wine in Europe.

I set out from the hostel in search of a midnight feast. The first thing I pass is a man peeing in the alley. How delightful. But China has a safe feel, so I keep strolling.

The neighbourhood is very local and suprisingly quiet at this time. There’s only a few dubious food options still available. Everyone stares as I go past, the only Westerner and women roaming here at this hour.

I almost talk myself out of eating but I’m determined to finally get a good nights sleep. I order a noodle and vegetable soup. It comes with a free green tea in a plastic cup. Things are really looking up.

I sip my tea slowly enjoying the ambience of the concurrent coughing and soup slurping.

Tomorrow has great prospects – roaming the Bund, Nanjing Road and the French Concession but for now I’m happy in the backstreets of Shanghai.

My soup arrives. Compared to the rest of the food I’ve had it’s not the tastiest, but I feel quite chuffed with my late night solo venturing in a new country. There’s not many places in the world that’d be safe.

I head home stoked not to be in a dorm room for once. I settle in for a blissful undisturbed slumber.

The last thing I remembered is the feeling of my burnt tongue. 

Bulgaria

Roses, a UFO, Spartacus and Communists. What do all these things have in common?

A rather sizeable country in South Eastern Europe.

I never planned to go to Bulgaria, but I met a Canadian and a French guy in Lithuania and they just kept going on & on & on & on about it.

I guess it sparked a flame of interest.

I did a teeny bit of research, but pretty much just stole the Canadian’s itinerary.

I was pleasantly surprised it was my kinda place. And that’s not just because it’s old Thrace – the homeland of mega babe Spartacus.

The subdued romantic in me loves roses, and Bulgaria is the land of the rose. It’s one of the world’s biggest producers of rose oil, and they sell an abundance of rose trinkets, perfumes, jam, soap, liquor, water and skin products. Just seeing it all made my inner romantic bloom.

I’d never call myself a die hard sci-fi fan, but even I can appreciate an abandoned UFO. If I didn’t know it was a communist relic from the 80s, I would’ve been convinced the eerily derelict Buzludza was left by aliens. Trespassing through a tiny hole in the wall and climbing 31 narrow rungs of stairs in the pitch black was straight out of a movie.

And I hate to go on about food, again. But, it was pretty fantastic. Bulgaria shows neighbourly love from the Greek and Turkish – with Mediterranean veggies, cheese, cheese, fresh juices, grilled meats, cheese, yogurt and tasty stews. Cheese comes with most things.

They also have this great salty yoghurt drink which tastes about as good as it sounds. It’s like Kefir and said to be good for the heat, digestion and hangovers. I got to put it to the test of several occasions. It’s a really hot place after all. Scientists discovered Bulgarian yoghurt has its own unique bacteria that elongates life. I drunk it in bulk.

Along with wine. And since they’ve been making it since Thracian times it’s pretty great. Except the one homemade batch we had that tasted like detergent, unfortunately we’d ordered it by the litre.

And then there were the only in Bulgaria moments.

Getting to see the restoration of a 12th century monastery in process.

Exploring the same monastery, and stumbling upon a creepy room full of skulls, and bones in boxes.

The homeless looking local collecting signatures in his book, trying for the Guinness book of records.

The bus that was full but the driver let me on anyway because he felt sorry for me.

The many fun moments trying to understand the Cyrillic alphabet. Which for the record it turns out the Russians took from the Bulgarians.

All in all it ticked the main boxes for me. Cheap. Friendly locals. Not too many tourists. Sweet travellers on the journey. I unfortunately didn’t run into any Spartacus dopplegangas, but hey, you can’t have everything.

20150819-213032-77432716.jpg

20150820-165149-60709975.jpg

20150820-165328-60808683.jpg

20150820-170602-61562444.jpg

20150820-171557-62157023.jpg

e.a.t.

No wonder Italians have a reputation for being so passionate (and are rumoured as perhaps the world’s best lovers) they eat A LOT of aphrodisiacs. A lot.

That was one key piece of information that stood out to me on the Roman food tour.

When tomatoes were first introduced in to Italy in the 15th century they were initially banned by the Pope who believed their red colour indicated aphrodisiac properties.

Luckily he didn’t know the potent ways of truffles, spicy salami, aged balsamic, artichokes, basil or figs (to list just a few)

The food tour was quite possibly the most fantastic gourmand experience of my life.

Homemade pistachio coated cannoli at a Sicily bakery. Pizza by the New York Times acclaimed Italian Michelangelo of Pizza. Never ending offerings of wines, prosciuttos, salamis, cheeses, pastas, Caprese and gelato – all from various reputable stops along the way. Like a pub crawl, but I can relive all the key moments intimately.

My initial attempt at healthy eating was swiftly banished a few days after arriving in Italy. I was going all Eat, Pray, Love on it. In this case specifically EAT.

Time was limited, and so indulgences needed to be increased. Drastically. Gelato everyday. Pasta at least once a day. Sampling of little treaties at all the bakeries along the way. What budget?

Luckily the Italians seemed willing to help out.

People dined alone, but seemed less autonomous. I often chatted with the elderly man at the table next to me.

“Oh you haven’t tried this? But you must! Here have some of mine”

Or “Come no?” The waitor asked when I declined dessert after a huge plate of cannelloni. “How no?” (I love this phrase!) He brought me a free scoop of Limone gelato anyway.

Squares filled in the evenings with locals gathering for their aperitivo – a drink with free tapas to entice everyone to come together and unwind at the end of the day.

Us shoe string travellers took the aperitivo a little too seriously. Free food? That was surely an invitation for a dinner feast of epic bite sized proportions.

And so maybe not surprisingly the highlight of Italy was most definitely the food. I think what makes it so so so good is the fresh, tasty, rich ingredients they use. As well as the flavour pairing. No matter how much I savoured each morsel I still crave it.

But then there was Belgium with chocolate, beer, waffle and French fries heaven.

And then I arrived in Bulgaria and a free food tour literally fell into my lap. I was in my very happy place sampling the Greek and Turkish influenced Balkan cuisine.

My passionate ramblings led some Danish girls to quickly dub me the Foodie and Vino. I was quite happy with this title I thought as I sipped on my Bulgarian rose liquor.

20150812-234218-85338173.jpg

Ciao Bella

Italy is a curious place, let me paint a few images.

Two immaculately dressed Italian ladies on the ferry to the beautiful island Pocida casually toss their finished cigarettes into the ocean.

On the overflowing beaches old women with deeply tanned crocodile skin, show no signs of giving up sun basking.

A couple fight in Italian, flaying arms and gestural hands saying it all.

Another couple make out passionately on the same beach, he’s taken off her top and they writhe about. Standard behaviour for a public place?

Italian men stalk about in white speedos, populating Tinder with photos so posed it’s enough to put anyone off the app indefinitely.

Italian police officers pontificate about in uniforms designed by a clothes stylist. It’s all about the look.

There are midnight queues around the block for what was the best gelato of my life.

Everywhere you turn is something new to bedazzle. Grit amongst the glam, and passion in even the mundane.

20150810-205855-75535516.jpg20150810-210056-75656051.jpg

20150810-210903-76143385.jpg

20150810-212114-76874033.jpg

20150810-212556-77156764.jpg

20150810-212642-77202375.jpg

20150810-212739-77259495.jpg

20150810-212838-77318865.jpg

Homeward frown

And just like that, my journey home was before me. The only peculiar thing was I wasn’t going home. For those who knew me, this was actually nothing unusual. I was just as good at extending trips as I was at going on them in the first place. The art of life procrastination and travel maximisation.

Ironically, the days before I was originally flying home I no longer felt the pull to travel. 8 weeks on the road had left me tired. My senses were over stimulated. I was over making new friends each day. Over moving. Why was my backpack so full? And my toiletry bag, don’t get me started on that. I was going to throw it all out I kept telling myself, yet my shopping seemed to have the opposite effect.

I’d spent 4 days on the spectacularly beautiful Amalfi Coast. Sleeping in. Lazing about. Lying on the couch at the hostel. Lying on the beach. Willing myself to be more motivated to explore, yet mostly just motivated to try my next pasta dish.

I’d been away for two months, yet no epic travel romance has taken place. I now rolled my eyes at couples passionately making out on the beach. Didn’t they know I was trying to enjoy my lone wandering time and they were cramping my view? Did he actually just take off her bikini top?!!!

And since when was everyone in hostels like so young? And irksome? Had I gotten old without realising it? And did this mean I should perhaps throw in the travel towel? I’d had a good run. 50 countries. Perhaps it was time for the next phase. How did one go about getting a Swedish husband?

Moving to Sweden, now there was an original idea! Or Berlin. Or just go h o m e… For some reason going home never quite excited me as much as I wish it did.

I’d have to decide what exactly it was I was doing with my life. Whether to keep pursuing the film industry. Or something more creative? Writing? A business? And where to base myself for the near future? Auckland? Australia? Or further abroad?

And faced with the prospect of so many big questions was precisely when the next leg of my trip got exciting. I needed more time.

I began to research fervently and with extra care. Looking for hostels not just reviewed by the 18-24 age bracket. Two 25-31 year old Swedish men had stayed there in the last week? Very interesting.

My new itinerary was relatively slow and comparatively unambitious. Three counties, one month. 3-4 days most stops. 3-4 hours travel between places only. Plenty of time to take in the new sights and the sounds. Laze in cafes, meander about and contemplate life.

My budget was €1000 for one month. Easy for those parts I was told. Shopping was officially banned. Deluxe ensuite small dorms a thing of the past. Private rooms out of the question. The much loved Balkans were back in the game.

My last trip before I snapped out of Peter Pan syndrome and grew up! (Although that’s what I told myself before every travel adventure) but yolo’n my way through my 20s had served me well thus far.

20150805-215722-79042680.jpg

Augustine

I cannot fathom why even the third time around I love Italy so much. Partially I think it’s because it reminds me of my Grandfather, Augustine Koprda.

I’ve travelled extensively over Western and Eastern Europe, including the teeny tiny Slovakian village he grew up in – but strangely the people that remind me of him most are the Italians.

He was the European cliché – tall, dark, charming and too handsome for his own good. Passionate, loud, fiery but with a huge heart. Always a twinkle in his eye, and a spark of mischievousness that three wives perhaps attested to.

His heavy European accent was poetry to my ears. I was always darrrling. Everyone was always darling to him.

Maybe his Europeaness was exaggerated over time, in a fear of losing his culture.

Maybe it was the more than 50 years spent in the Italian communities of Australia, that he seemed to merge so effortlessly into.

Whenever I visited we’d be at the Italian or the Greek club, eating Mediterranean cuisine and I’d be getting lessons on life a la Europe.

“What are these shoes your Mother sends you in? No we must get you proper shoes, Italian leather.”

I know there was never anyone I looked up to or admired more. Maybe I saw a little of myself in him.

I remember as a kid being obsessed with this one book my mum had brought home from Slovakia, searching through the photographs for people that looked like me.

I never felt like I looked like the other kids at my virtually all Caucasian primary school. I was too olive, my hair too unruly, my eye brows too straight and too thick. My face too square, my features not quite dainty enough.

The first time I went to Europe I remember searching for faces like my own. And I found them. In Sleptany. A tiny village. My grandfather’s brothers, and their sons. They had identical eyebrows and eyes. It was uncanny. They cried when they saw me as the resemblance was so strong. I looked like a Slovakian man!

I remember going to Australia to visit my Grandpa a year later. The last time I saw him before he died. I played him a video I’d edited for his birthday. Little clips of his brothers, sisters and family in Slovakia.

I have no idea what they said, but he wept and wept like a broken man. Remorse for the family he’d left behind. The sacrifice he’d made for a new life. The old one he seemed so keen to leave behind.

Maybe that’s why he embraced the Italian way of life. La dolce vita. It was all the best of Europe, the sweetness without the darkness, deaths and horrors that were permanently etched in his mind from Communism and the Soviet rule.

As the story goes, he was almost shot when he escaped the border, swimming down the Danube river into Austria. His father was tortured by officials trying to get his whereabouts. It’s all hearsay now, as the very person I could’ve asked found it too painful to talk about.

But sitting in a square in Italy I think about him for the first time in years. He comes back so vividly, playing through my mind. Ironically he hated my love of travel, always telling me to stop wasting my money.

But the lure was too strong, the pull to explore this side of my heritage. There’s a darkness and sadness to his past that contrasts so starkly to Italy’s flamboyant lightness that would best be described as bitter sweet. My favourite type of gelato.20150802-093011-34211362.jpg