Viking Hunters

We journeyed far and wide, across many an ocean to Iceland in search of their infamous Vikings.

There’s something about the urban myth of tall, manly, blonde, bearded men that makes a girl swoon.

Viking explorers were said to have settled in Iceland in the late 9th Century. But were they still lingering about?

And thus, two Kiwis quest to find Vikings begins – of course at a bar in Reykjavik. We eye the swarms of modern day bearded men with curiosity.

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“Are you a Viking?” my friend Michaela asks the older bearded man seated beside us.

“Yes, of course” he slurs in a thick Icelandic accent emphasised by his drunkenness. So far, living up to the reputation.

He insists on buying us multiple shots of Icelandic Schnapps the true Viking liquor.

Michaela notices that our beautiful bearded barman is in fact pouring shots of Jim Bean and Vodka. Viking credibility is deteriorating rapidly.

We get one over him by convincing him I am in fact Keisha Castle Hughes New Zealand’s infamous Whale Rider. They eat whale in Iceland, so he has no issues with animal riding ethics.

We stealthily slip away to the other side of the bar to research the younger Norsemen.

They’re not overly tall, slim bordering on skinny, and don tight jeans, beards and lush long locks that give me hair envy.

These urban Vikings are surprisingly Hipster, straight out of a cool cafe that serves on point espresso.

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Michaela interviewing a Cafe Viking

We befriend a Norwegian Viking, he’s a brunette not a blonde but has the beard and hair down pact. We even convince him to get into costume for the cause.

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A modern day Norwegian Viking

He displays a natural talent for finding hot springs which seems like a useful Viking skill. We document our findings happily over champagne, but are determined there must be Icelandic Vikings lurking in the wilderness.

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We enlist the help of another huntress, Nicki from Seattle who embarks with us on the Viking road trip quest.

We circumnavigate Iceland over five days. We drive the Southern coast, the Eastern Fjords, through the Snowy mountains and the Northern highlands. We leave no waterfall, beach, glacier or hot pool unturned.

We even scour an old Viking village.

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And yet, there seems to be a severe shortage of not only Vikings but people in general. We are shocked to learn there are only 3.2 people per square kilometre. That’s even less than our beloved New Zealand deemed the Iceland of the South by locals.

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Maybe we’d be better off searching for Huldufolk – the hidden people. Better known as Elves, it’s claimed 80% of the population believe in them.

The Huldufolk are known for their environmental lobbyist stance, they whisper in the ears of influential individuals and have been said to help drastically reduce construction in Iceland.

I’m not sure Elves are quite a sexy as Vikings. Although no doubt we could be swayed. Time to head to the local cafe in search of urban Hipster Elves.

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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.

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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.

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Cupid’s humour

Cupid’s depicted in a lot of art across Europe, and he seems to be a funny guy. I think that’s why as soon as I was more content in singledom, and not looking for a holiday fling that unlikely suitors appeared.

Just like in all the fairy tales, 3 suitors came, each from further away, and each more intense than the previous.

Suitor 1 was Italian. Incredibly deep, heart felt and a very good listener. He was eager to hear all about my relationship history; the ups and the downs, and yet I wasn’t fooled by the friend card.

When an offer for a midnight moonlight scooter ride arose, I refrained from raising my eyebrow and politely declined ignoring various attempts of persuasion.

Suitor 2, the Spaniard, you may remember from a previous blog “Memoirs of a Keisha”

What originally was a light chat banter suddenly became more intense. 20 successive photos of himself in a row I put down to cultural differences, but then poetry and several messages a day kept coming even if I didn’t reply.

“Roses are red, violets are blue. All of my thoughts involve you!
¡Buenos días princesa!”

Not saying anything clearly wasn’t working so I decided it was time to rectify the situation.

I wrote something along the lines of… recently single, enjoying travelling, not really thinking about guys, hope you can understand.

He replied: “Ok I stop messaging you in a sweet way, and just message you as friends. Kisses”

I sighed.

Suitor 3 I’d met in a group context, so I was relaxed and friendly. When I started to pick up an interested vibe, and he wasn’t picking up on my blatantly just want to be friends vibe I tried the cold shoulder with little success.

He messaged “I’m going past your hostel, do you want to come see my place and have a fresh lemonade”

“No thanks, I’m just relaxing and doing my taxes”

“Do it after, come now just for 1/2 hour”

“Sorry I’m busy, maybe later”

“I’m at your hostel in the courtyard. Come out”

I buried myself further into my bed.
“I want to read for awhile”

“Come read at my place”

“Sorry I just need some Kesha time”

“Okay, come over later, take your time”

I don’t reply. 10 minutes later I receive a photo of his courtyard and a jug of lemonade which I also ignore.

Several hours later the group is dining together again, but I keep my distance especially enthralled in everything the new girl from Melbourne has to say.

I dodge him for most of the night, but wake up to a drunk declaration of feelings. Unfortunately his message didn’t evoke any swoonery, it just made me feel a little ill.

I don’t reply. Next thing there’s a photo of his breakfast.

I reply. Something along the lines of what suitor 2 got.

I come back to my hostel and he’s waiting there. Seriously?! He insists on walking me to my taxi (to the next town – thank god!) and I escape with a slightly too enthused kiss on the cheek as a mutual friend walked past at the opportune time.

It seems to me the age old condition of wanting what we can’t have.

Why else would all these strangely persistent suitors appear (and not disappear) when I had virtually no romantic interest in them?

If hypothetically there was such a princess, I think in the fairy tale version they’d all fuck off and she would get to choose someone herself if and when she felt like it.

But then maybe this alleged hypothetical princess needs to worry less about hurting people’s feelings and be more assertive. Damn Disney, teaching niceties and
sweetness!

It would appear that Disney princesses would be very ill equipt for Cupid’s cheeky ways.

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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.

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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.

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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