Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Hamam

Otherwise known as the Turkish Bath, the pictures sums is up pretty nicely:

First, you enter the building, which is really old and beautiful inside. Almost like a converted mosque.

Then, they instruct you to change. Strip down and put the towel around your waist.

You are directed to the sauna area by (in my case) a massive sumo sized Turkish guy speaking no English. Here, it was essentially one pretty decent sized domed room with a smaller domed room connected to it by a small doorway. In the middle of the big room is a massive square marble waist high altar. There are sinks lining the sides of the room, full of water. Pretty much instantly the sweat fest begins (…as if it wasn’t hot enough outside in regular 90 degree weather).

After sitting in this room for about 10 minutes and having no clue what the process is for this Turkish bath massage, the massive guy comes back into the room. This time, he has also changed into his towel. Needless to say, I was with a guy from DC and at this instant we both started laughing extremely hard, thinking ‘what the heck is going on here and what is sumo guy gonna do to us in that skimpy towel’.

He proceeds to give me a bucket and I scoop water from the sink and douse myself many times and am now drenched including my towel.

Next, he moves me to the altar and makes me lay down on my stomach. I have no clue what he wants me to do so he pretty much tosses me into the necessary position and moves me around (picture this while in my drenched towel). He starts by slamming his hands onto my back. Then, takes out a massive amount of extremely foamy soap. And starts rubbing the legs up and down (coming millimeters away from special region). But he is using some force with his grip on the legs, since the point is to really remove all the dirt and toxins out. Then, he flips me over, onto my back, and does the same on my legs and my arms and back. Then, he douses my head with shampoo and shampoos my head. Then, I am pulled up and brought back over to the sink where I douse myself with colder and colder water each time. Finally, I am brought over to an empty floor area and instructed to lay on the marble floor, which is extremely hot, where I rest for 10 or 15 minutes while the guy from DC gets his massage.

I don’t think this part of the massage was so relaxing, mainly because I had no clue what to expect and felt like a rag doll as I was being pushed around and maneuvered. But after leaving the sauna, you drink some cold water and then are served some awesome tasting Turkish tea, where we spent about 30 minutes in our towels in the lobby just relaxing. It kind of felt like I got run over by a truck, but in a good way. My skin felt really really clean and it was very relaxing in the end.

All in all a hilarious experience.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Skopje, Macedonia

Okay, people, Macedonia is a country, let’s get this straight from the first sentence. Since 1991. Macedonia is also a state in the north of Greece. These countries don’t get along. Greece will probably prevent Macedonia from joining the EU for as long as it can (although as I understand there is plenty of trade between the two countries, guess Greece might be a little hypocritical here).

I arrived in Skopje (the capital), 2 days after the government erected a 9.5 million euro statue of Alexander the Great in the very center of the city. Now this is not just any other statue. This is a statue you build to define your city or even your country. Like Christ the Redeemer in Rio. And, to piss off the Greeks. So, they are officially pissed.

9.5 million euro statue of Alexander the Great:

Skopje is a massive mix of cultures and religions. Mosques, Catholic Churches, and Orthodox Churches all next to each other in a small area. The city has the largest bazaar in Eastern Europe, which was really awesome and cool to explore. There is an old town that was created by the Turks during their long rule in Eastern Europe, so it still retains a massive architectural influence from the Turks.

Other than that, there was a ton of construction on new bridges, statues, etc, in the center of the city. A few people I talked to aren’t sure where the money is coming from or what the purpose is. To me, nobody knows of Macedonia or Skopje, so, it may give it a slight reputation, let along at least give tourists a surprise when they arrive.

Another thing I noticed in Macedonia is there is tension with Albanians. Macedonia has 25% population of Albanians. On the train ride to Skopje, the Macedonian guy, although he spoke no English, managed to point out many of the Albanian rural villages on the way to Skopje. I didn’t get a necessarily positive vibe in his reason for pointing them all out. I’m not too well versed on the history between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians, however, I am sure that the rights of these minority groups have changed a lot over the last 20 years. Wikipedia has a massive page on the history of Albanians in

Fun fact: Mother Theresa was born in Skopje. Though she was Albanian.

Cevapi Sarajevo. Cevapi is a huge dish throughout Eastern Europe, but the Bosnians are considered to have the best. Thus you can find this 'Sarajevo' style everywhere. It is pretty much spiced meat (beef). Meat culture here is an understatement:
The fortress overlooking Skopje, also from the 6th century by Justinian:

A main street in the Turkish part of the city (of which many tiny streets come off of):

Entrance to the Bazaar:

This arched bridge is from the 6th century built by emperor Justinian:
Train stop near Serbia-Macedonia border. Patch of concrete with one run down 3 story building:

Tribute to Mother Teresa:

The People I've Met, Eastern Europe

Last year I made a small blog on random people I met while I was traveling. This summer also, I have met quite a few random people outside of those I have met through couchsurfing or just staying in hostels. For me, these people all have really helped to re-affirm that there are nice people everywhere.

On the train from Nis(Serbia) to Skopje(Macedonia), my couchsurfers introduced me to a Macedonian guy who was going home to Skopje. He had horrible English, but we tried to talk as much as we could on the unbelievably slow 7 hour train ride. He was studying in Skopje and had been traveling for a week in Serbia visiting friends. He was so kind that after we left the train, he asked to grab a coffee, so we had a coffee at the train station. There I discovered he was nuts for sports so I threw out a bunch of sports names and it turned into a real conversation. Lots of head nodding and thumbs up and down. I wanted to pay for the coffee since he was being so nice, but he continually refused and insisted that he pay. Then since it was late at night, he wanted to ensure I found my hostel alright, so he even rode in the cab with me (after selecting the one that doesn't rip you off) to make sure I made it alright. Now that is a nice person trying to make sure a foreigner gets along ok in their country.

On that same train, I met a guy who was about 21 or so studying psychology in Nis, who had reasonable English. He was going home to a small town in eastern Serbia. He talked about how his dad only worked when he could get odd jobs, and other than that, his family grew all their own stuff and basically relied on friends and neighbors, a repeated theme I heard in Serbia.

On the bus from Macedonia to Sofia, I met an extremely friendly and nice girl from a small town near Skopje that was studying in Sofia. She spoke English, Spanish, German, and all the Slavic languages. When we arrived to Sofia, she made absolute sure I knew what tram to take to my couchsurfer’s place. In fact, she decided to take the same tram as me to show me the correct tram, and then she transferred to another one, which was completely out of her way.

At the bazaar in Skopje, I was buying peaches, and the seller began talking to me. One of his friends was living in Minnesota. He couldn’t understand why I wanted to go to Macedonia haha. Friendly guy, though.

In Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria, I was walking around with another couchsurfer, and we sat down on a bench under a tree as it began to rain. An older guy sat down next to us. Having learned that sharing is a great way to be friendly, less selfish, and start a conversation at the same time, I offered a piece of watermelon which he readily accepted. Now, this guy may or may not have been a bum. The only words he knew we could understand were ‘Bulgaria’ ‘Macedonia’ and ‘America’ ‘Communist’ and ‘Albania’. But after a few handshakes he began to draw stuff with his hands on the ground, trying to explain something about the split of the states during Communism. Nice guy, possibly homeless, but nonetheless entertaining. Oh, and I don’t know what he was exactly trying to say, but he liked to say ‘America’ and while placing his two hands behind his head like he was getting arrested, then laugh, say ‘America OK’, and shake my hand.

I met a woman from Canada on the bus from Sofia to Veliko Turnovo. She had been living in Italy for 10 years and was working for the Atomic Energy Commission years as a journalist. But she had a massive motormouth, kept blabbering about socialism, and didn’t have too many positive things to say about the US. Anyways, after we arrived, I instructed her that she should always agree on a price before getting in a Bulgarian cab (as she was already once ripped off by a rigged taxi-meter from the airport), so she thanked me, we shared a cab, and she covered the whole bill . Now, the kicker of this story is that somehow, we had a Bulgarian, Canadian, and American in the cab and found out that all three of us spoke Spanish so it made for a magnificient cab ride. Maybe the simplest cab ride so far in Europe haha. When I arrived at my host’s place, my phone was not working, and the cab driver refused to just leave me there and so he called her from his phone! On top of this, the next day, I needed to take a cab to the bus station to get tickets, and bumped into him. So he took us to the station, and then even came into the station with us and helped us buy tickets! Such a nice and friendly cab driver. Lived in Spain for 4 years, drove trucks to Austria and Germany for 10 years, and had 20 and 26 year old children.

Then, while waiting for the midnight bus to Istanbul, it was just me and an old guy at the stop. So he started talking to me since the bus was late. He knew maybe 15 words of English, but it turned into a nice game of Charades. He was from Istanbul but living in Burgas, Bulgaria, and had two kids studying in Sofia. When the bus stopped for a coffee break he insisted on buying me a Coke. And then at the border when everyone had to pile out of the bus and go through passport control, he made sure I knew what was going on.

So in all these cases, it makes me happy that there really are friendly and genuine people willing to talk to bored strangers/foreigners and go out of their way to help out and give a great impression of their their country. Just need to be friendly back and it usually gets you a long way.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

My Favorite Chuch

This is a church in Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria

Looks like a perfectly normal old looking church on the top of the hill:

When you go in you are hit with incredibly modern artistry covering every inch of the interior. It is as if they asked a really professional street graffiti artist to come in and decorate the place. It really might be the most amazing church I have ever been in, simply because it is so different and unexpected.

And to complete the theme, even the candles are electric and the candle holders look as if they are stainless steel.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Matka Canyon

Matka Canyon is in a beautiful mountainous region outside of Skopje in Macedonia. It has a beautiful river running through it and the walls rise steeply from the water.

We (a negative Nancy Canadian guy and myself) tried to take a direct bus from the center, but being Macedonian buses, the 1130 bus was randomly cancelled. So, instead, after getting vague info from people on street, take a city bus to the end of its line, wait on a patch of dirt for 45 minutes hoping the minibus actually comes, when it does, proceed through windy roads and small villages to the Canyon. Ironically enough, some French girl hopped on the microbus in the middle of nowhere, so we hiked with her for a bit. A week later, in Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria, I bumped into her walking around the city.

Canadian guy waits in patch of dirt bus stop and nearly turns back due to being an impatient Sally:

Hercules visits the canyon:

Germany guy from hostel decides to test the rapids (a little bit nutso):

There he goes:

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Niš, Serbia

Nis surprised me not because it was a better city than I expected, but because the people I stayed with made it worth it to stay three times longer than I had initially planned.

Nis is known as being next to the birthplace of Constantine. It has a nice fortress like Belgrade, and some other notable historical sites, such as a tower the Turks made out of the skinned skulls of their victims. But otherwise, I wouldn’t say there is a huge amount of touristy things to see here. A nice stopover on the main route to Bulgaria.

My couchsurfing host was out of town but he had arranged for a close friend and couchsurfer to meet me when I arrived. Shortly after meeting Mirko, who is 24, that I was only staying one evening, it was an immediate reply that I must stay at least one more. Without a schedule, I didn’t put up much of an argument and said why not.

The first evening Mirko and his crazy little 11 year old brother took me to a small butcher shop for dinner. We chose out the things we wanted. Skewers of chicken wrapped in bacon, some Serbian spiced sausage, and a hot yellow-green pepper stuffed with this amazing cream. We moved next door to the grill, and they cooked it for free. Then, we moved next door, and enjoyed an amazing Serbian meal, leaving the three of us full with extras for only 3.5 euros!!

Choosing some meats for dinner:

Stuffed Pepper with more of this amazing cream on the side:

Mirko was a true character. Quite opinionated, always willing to give his opinions in heavy doses (but at least able to take criticisms). He lived in the US for 6 months (on one of these worker programs I have heard about so much recently where 10 foreigners cram into a room and work 12 hours a day) in Miami so he had some further opinions to elaborate on regarding the US. Usually, it was nonstop about the environment or being clean. Meticulous about turning the lights off, using an absolute minimal amount of water for dishes, saving energy, washing my hands properly, not wasting any food, and these sorts of things. In truth, in some ways it was annoying, but most of it was very true. And coming from his background in a very poor country as Serbia, I can see that too many of us take these things for granted in the US. He was also a springboard of energy, up like a lightning rod in the morning and certainly a challenge for me to adapt to.

We stayed at my couchsurfers place (Bojan), in a typical communist era building at the end of the pedestrian street of Nis, and the next morning we went for shopping ingredients for his mom to make lunch for us. This was entertaining for two reasons. First, Mirko only slightly accompanied me to the locations at which we needed to pick up ingredients. Instead, he gave me his bicycle and his little brother, who rode standing up in the basket with his hands on my shoulders, and directed me to the places. The second interesting thing, which leads to a whole separate story, is that we went to a dedicated shop for everything. For example, we bought eggs at a tiny shop that only sells eggs (and we got the good ones, with some blood on them (white eggs don’t seem to exist in Nis, probably for a good reason) to ensure they were quite fresh). Then, we went to the shop that sold just milk and cheese and cream. Then the bread store. It was very easy to tell that all this food was very local and real, the only way it is in Nis.

Getting going:

Maneuvering traffic nicely with a bonkers 11 year old in the back:

We trekked up one of the massive hills overlooking Nis, where Mirko and his brother live with their mom. They are basically one of the last houses before the top. Think hiking up a steep San Francisco hill for about 15 minutes or more. I can see why Mirko bitched so much about the FDA in the US and asked what it actually does as an administration. Their family, like families with any space, is growing various fruit trees and vegetables in their yard, so they are almost always eating good, fresh food (and apples are half the size of supermarket apples in the US!). His main point about food in the US was that there are stores like Whole Foods, which claim to sell what should be considered real, normal food, but at 2 to 3 times the price of the regular supermarket. And that everything has corn syrup or some other unnatural ingredient in it. So why does an administration like the FDS exist if it doesn’t promote eating real, healthy foods, like whole foods says they sell. I agree, that eating these kind of foods that are not grown with tons of chemicals, would lead to healthier people in general.

Above Nis:

Mirko's families yard:

So his mom made an amazing lunch and served it with typical Serbian Rakia, which will really set fire to your belly and clear your stomach out. After, we went over to their neighbor’s house. They were incredibly nice. They spoke no English, but we sat for a couple hours just eating apples from their garden and drinking Turkish coffee (what they drink in Serbia). I talked with the dad about sports because Serbia is literally bonkers over sports. But the family couldn’t have been nicer and more hospitable. They even asked for my home address so they could send me a Christmas card! And this hospitality is something else Mirko commented on. In Miami, he missed the friendliness of the neighborhood. In Miami, he said his Cuban neighbors never said hi and just looked angry when he tried to talk to them. I suppose this could be true in many big cities in the US. Also, onto another subject, the neighborliness and friendliness is something that has, and still is, helping Serbian families survive. Unemployment is huge, and outside of Belgrade, when people don’t have money, many times they rely on friend or others to help them out. It is just normal. Even more so in the 90s, friends got friends through the really rough times. Even now, I couldn’t understand what Mirko’s neighbors did. They have 2 kids, and in 3 days, I never say the dad or mom working. Just hanging out, chatting, and relaxing. So it was a big ? as to where the money comes from. To pound this point into the ground, I met a Serbian guy on the train a few days later and he said the exact same thing. His dad only works when people call him for jobs occasionally, other than that, friends and families get each other through by relying on each other.

Starting the morning off with some rough rakia:

Lunch with Mirko's family:

Now, onto another interesting bit. When Milosevich was in power in the 90s, although Mirko was pretty young, but said he was involved in the political anti-Milosevich movements when he was about 12 or so. When NATO (otherwise known as the US as people have been telling me), was bombing places around Serbia, anti-aircraft guns were used on top of the hill where Mirko lives, literally a short 5 minute walk away. So during this time, Mirko said he has vivid memories of Serbian soldiers sleeping in his house because of its close proximity. Though they said the NATO planes flew so high that these anti-aircraft missles were virtually useless.

Mirko's 11 year old brother is a monkey. Jumping on trucks at the top of the hill:

The next morning I was convinced to stay one more day, so we did more grocery shopping and trekked again up to Mirko’s house and his mom made a ridiculously delicious Serbian breakfast. Again we started the day clearing our stomach with rakia. Nowadays mainly only grandparents are drinking rakia daily for good health as they claim, but when guests are present, it is always taken as a display of the culture and hospitality. Plus, this was home-made rakia, which every Serb re-iterated is way better than store bought. For breakfast, the mom and dad of the neighboring families joined us and we all ate on the patio. I then got the dad’s address so it looks like I’ll be sending a Christmas card to Serbia this year!

Another home cooked meal was for lunch, and this time, my host Bojan had returned from his trip and joined us, along with another of their friends. This other friend had an interesting story, as he was in the Serbian Orthodox choir. Recently he toured the US, mostly the Midwest, singing for various Serbian Orthodox Churches. He spent some time in Chicago, and it is impressive the things you can learn about your country from foreigners. I never knew there was a big Serbian community in Chicago but apparently there is.

That night I went for a drink with Bojan in a different part of the city, about a 30 minute walk from the center. Definitely not a place I would have ever found on my own, but a very busy area with lots of cafés and bars at a decent distance from the center. On the way back, Bojan wanted to show me some typical Serbian food (i.e grilled meat), so we stopped at a 24 hour meat grilling shop. Wow, these guys do meat almost as good as Brazilians.

Making some music with Mirko, Bojan, and another person I forget the name of:

Gotta take pictures of Yugos!

Mirko over Nis:

some of the city from the fortress:

Friday, July 15, 2011


I learned more about Belgrade talking to the girl working at the hostel than I could have learned from any museum here. In fact, there are not many historical museums in Belgrade. I really wanted to learn some stuff about Yugoslavia, Tito, and the wars in the 90s, since I am pretty ignorant about this, but Serbia really has not yet embraced this history as something to show off, so there aren’t really any museums.

The girl at the hostel was 12 when there was NATO bombings in Serbia in the 1999. She said that she and her family lived in the basement like everyone else for 3 months. They got used to having no electricity. She said it was kind of funny, kids in grade school almost enjoyed the time because they got 3 months off of school.

Going Where? How do I read cyrillic?

In this decade things are changing in Serbia but very slowly. Only until either 2007 or 2009 did Serbs not need visas to even go to their neighboring countries! Still unemployment is very high, and people from all over Serbia come to Belgrade to find work. At all levels of employment (including those with University degrees) employers many times only hire employees usually for 3 month contracts because they never know if they will be able to keep the person on (and it avoids having to fire someone). Her dad owns a construction company and she said when he has little money he just tells he workers he can’t pay them. After awhile, these people will just quit. But most likely they have no official contract. Like many things it seems like in Serbia, things are done under the table or just unofficially.

But the economy seems to be expanding at a snails pace and tourism is increasing. There were about 50 or 60 hostels to choose from in Belgrade, all of which have opened in the last 5 years. Serbia has a bad reputation internationally and it will take a long time to change, but it seems to be happening. The recent arrest of the general the led the genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovia was just arrested, however there are a few more people such as this that were responsible for genocide and it seems things are just going slowly. Belgrade really is not a dangerous city at all, and the people seem to be quite friendly. Of course there are crumbling buildings in some areas, and you can still see some buildings and embassies that were hit by bombs in the 90s, left as is.

It has a very cosmopolitan feel to it in some parts. The main pedestrian street is filled with cafés and they are full from 9am to around midnight. Dinner is not a huge meal here so you will see people sipping on espresso’s everywhere after 5pm. On the other hand, it feels very bustling and rushed and chaotic. Bus drivers drive fast, cars are honking, and it just feels like a mess of stuff in the city center between the buses, trams, and cars. It is also known within the Balkan region as the city that doesn't sleep.

Zoom Zoom:

Pedestrian and shopping:

One of the most interesting points in Belgrade is a massive fortress sitting in the middle of the center overlooking the confluence of 2 major rivers. The fortress has been around in various forms for centuries (maybe to even the 3rd century), and due to Serbia being a massive crossroads, it has been influenced by many cultures. Roman, Byzantine (Justinian rebuilt it), Bulgarians, Serbia, Hungary, Turkish(for 350 years), Austrian, and finally Serbian again (with part occupation by Germans during WWII). The fortress is so big there is an upper and lower town to it. Today they have turned a large part of it into a big park, and you can pretty much freely walk all over the walls and towers. Since Serbs are kissing in public nonstop, it is a famous place in Belgrade for people to end a date and watch the sunset from on top of one of the fortress walls. They have also added baskeball courts and tennis courts where there used to be moats (a neat idea I thought), added several interactive museum, and placed leftover tanks from WWI and WWII all over the place for exibit.

Fortress Sunsets:

Popular spot to watch the sunset:

Tennis Court next to fortress wall:

War Museum:

Random facts are that the Hitler gestapo was operated from the hostel I stayed in (which was actually just an apartment). Also, the train from Belgrade to Greece recently stopped (it goes without saying, but Greece has no money…).

Tito's grave:

Serbian Cevapcici:

Still not getting it....

This is the 'pope's' residence of the Serbian Orthodox Church (no clue what they actually call him...

I really enjoyed Belgrade and unexpectedly found it to be a safe city with lots of things to see and do. I'd go back without a doubt.