Monday, January 31, 2011

Florida debriefed: An insider's look at America's wang.

I've never been one to take offense to anything. And that's probably a good thing, having been born, raised and continue to live in the great state of Florida. But as the joke goes: If Canada is America's hat, and New Jersey is America's armpit, Florida, naturally, is America's wang. And us Floridian's, I think, are ok with that. And therin lies the part of the reason why I like it so much here.


The US is a big place. And each state offers something different, be it atmosphere, attitude, architecture. And after having visited a majority of the 50 states, I can honestly say, I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. Sure, I'm a homer, I'm biased.  I can admit that. And I've known a fair share of Floridians-by-birth who hated it here and moved away as soon as they had the chance. I spent 4 months living outside of the state and couldn't wait to get back. Florida moves at its own pace, somewhat removed from the rest of the country. This is where people come to play, come to relax and come to die.


Only in Michigan are you closer to water no matter where you stand. But that's Michigan. You can't really enjoy that water when it's frozen over half the year. Here in Florida, you are never more than 60 miles (less than one hour) from an amazing beach. So let's start there:


Florida's Beaches
You can cut the state up into 4 distinct beach quadrants and each have their own personalities: Atlantic coast, Gulf coast, Emerald coast (in the panhandle) and Miami and the Keys. I currently live in Panama City Beach along the Emerald coast. The sand is snow white and the water an amazing mix of turquoise blue and green. Thanks to the climate, the beaches can be enjoyed year round. Even in the winter, when the water is too cold to get into, the sandy shores offer a peaceful place to sit and relax, or take advantage of the outdoors with a truly scenic jog. The tiki bars and restaurants up and down the beaches go without saying.



Cities and towns
Every state has a big city. Hell, Delaware even has Dover. (Delaware IS still a state, right?) But no other state has so many different, well known cities within easy driving distance of each other. California may have some exciting and big cities, but the distance between them isn't user friendly. Florida, however, is literally peppered with visitor-worthy locales.

-Thanks to Disney World and Universal Studios, Orlando is one of the most popular family tourist destinations in the world. I grew up in Orlando and, even after the Disney magic fades, there is still so much to do there I haven't even begun to cover it all. It's a playground, plain and simple. Orlando gives you an excuse to act like a kid again. At a price, of course.

-Miami, if you're lucky enough to not get shot or carjacked, has some really nice areas. Key Biscayne, just off the mainland, is the closest I've ever been to a real "island getaway." And South Beach with it's art deco buildings and music blaring out of every corner is definitely worth a visit, if not for the Cuban restaurants alone. Also, Miami recently was voted the nation's most beautiful city (people-wise), so it's got that going for it.

-The Keys. Visiting the Florida Keys should be a must on everyone's bucketlist. They're like being in a different world where time literally doesn't move. There are a number of keys between south Florida and Key West (which is the US's most southern point) and each are very relaxed and comfortable. Key West, however, is a circus, living a totally care-free life of it's own. If you really want to take a vacation from yourself, go to Fantasy Fest over a Halloween weekend.

-Gainesville. As a Gator Grad, you damn well better believe I'm putting this on the list of must-see Florida cities. Especially during football season. Whether you like the team (and/or the sport) or not, the vibe on a gameday Saturday is unlike anything I've ever experienced surrounding a sporting event.  Located in the middle of the state, Gainesville is a classic college town, built around the University of Florida and its 50 some odd thousand undergrad students. On a hot day, you can see wild alligators in their natural habitat, sunning themselves on the banks of the campus lakes.

-A city I've always enjoyed visiting is Tampa on the western side of the state. Two times a year, they have massive street festivals (Gasparila and Guavaween) that bring visitors from around the country. They also have an interesting and reliable public transport system linking three parts of the city: Downtown, Ybor City (where you can find unique Cuban food, cigar shops and night clubs) and Channelside (a popular young professionals spot of restaurants, shops and bars). The Tampa area is also home to professional football, baseball and hockey teams.

-St. Augustine is one of my favorite cities in the US. It's also the oldest. The Spanish fort, Castillo de San Marco, and surrounding old town is tiny taste of old Europe here in America. With narrow walkways and 400 year old architecture, you'll feel like you're walking through 17th century Spain. To our young country, THIS is history. To Europeans who visit, many live in apartment buildings far older. (And I complained that my apartment was built in 1987) I've been on many ghost tours throughout the country and St. Augustine's is by far the best.

-Just 20 minutes south of Tampa lies the mysterious town of Gibsonton. Supposedly, this is where all of the world's freakshow and carnie-folk go when they retire. The bearded lady, the lobster boy, the monkey-faced girl...this is their 'hood when they leave the circus. Even the local bank has a counter that is specially made for dwarfs. Elephants are allowed to freely roam the streets and yards. I took a date here one night back in high school. It was late, so there wasn't much going on. I remember only seeing the neon glow of tarot and palm reader signs in the windows of just about every home. Aside from that, it could've been any other neighborhood. We didn't stay long out of fear a clown car might've come after us. I'm sure during the day it's a lot more festive. And creepy.

All this and I haven't even touched on the state's capital, Tallahassee. Or the largest city in the country (land area-wise), Jacksonville. Or the Kennedy Space Center and NASA headquarters on Cape Canaveral near Cocoa. Or the numerous sleepy, beach towns that make up the Emerald Coast of the panhandle like Destin, Pensacola, Ft. Walton and Panama City. If states were people, Alabama would be the slow kid, being laughed at as he struggled to push the "PULL" door. Whereas Florida would be the cool, quiet guy at the end of the bar. The guy that everyone flocks to out of child-like curiosity, only to return emotionally ruined and confused. And yet, they'll keep going back because there's something strangely likable deep down. I've always admired that guy. Sure, there are oddities and strange stories throughout, so much so that www.Fark.com has mockingly created its own "Florida" headline tag. But us locals are ok with that. I think it's a testament to our relaxed state of mind that welcomes the bizarre and unique. Things are backwards here, I won't deny that. The further south you go in the state, the more northern the people are; transplants from New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The further north you go, you begin to get a taste of the deep south with hints of Georgia pine, sweet iced tea and twangy accents. Is "twangy" even a word? Probably not, but it's no big deal. And that's why I love it here.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Skin Deep in Prague

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a weakness for eastern European women. Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, Romanian, Polish. It's like God sprinkled the most perfect of DNA along the banks of the streams and rivers that come together to form the Black Sea. Something is certainly in that water. I want it bottled and shipped here to the US, ASAP. 
The Italian's even have a word for the natural beauty of the faces from that region. I can't remember what it is (and if I could, I'd probably spell it wrong) but it roughly translates into the "Round Face." For some reason buried deep in the most primitive folds of our brain, the bone structure of the eastern European face is universally, genetically pleasing. It's like the the Golden Ratio of human evolution. It's why we marvel at buildings like the Acropolis in Athens, at artwork like Da Vinci's Vetruvian Man, at songs like Pachelbel's Cannon in D. It's why we watch Anna Kournikova, yet have no interest whatsoever in the sport of Tennis. There's a rhythm to the beauty that resonates at a subconscious, yet pleasing, frequency within each of us. You can't deny it.


What I can deny however, is that I callously planned my first European backpacking adventure around this superficial interest. Prague, Czech Republic would forever be the first European city I stepped foot into. And, no, not because of the natural beauty of its citizens. I'm a history buff. And anyone who knows the history of the region would know that the little country of Czech Republic has been though quite a lot: Nazi control, Soviet control, the Velvet Revolution (and that's just within the last 70 years). Not to mention, Prague was one of the very few cities not to be heavily bombed during World War I and World War II, meaning much of its 1000 plus year old castles, bridges and cathedrals were still in great condition. I was there for the rich history. The women were just a nice backdrop. And let's be honest, if I had planned a trip based only on looks, I would have gone to their neighbor to the south: Slovakia. Even Lonely Planet shows the country is known for production of "hockey pucks and beautiful women." Something in the water. I can't make this up.


I was in Prague for a total of 5 days and absolutely loved it. During my stay, I was fortunate to meet and spend 3 of those days with a local named Dita. She acted as my translator, tour guide, and cultural liaison. With Dita's help, and my own sociological background, I was able to learn enough about the people of Prague to make some interesting comparisons with my own peers back in the states.


For starters, superficially, the women were all absolutely ravishing. And I don't even use that word. I use it here because "beautiful" is overused and diluted. "Hot" is cliche'.  "Pretty" would be an incredible insult. So "ravishing" it is. And I'm not talking about the typical, hardbodied 20-somethings giggling and texting their way through the shopping malls. I stopped dead in my tracks along Wenceslas Square where I saw 2 female traffic cops writing a ticket. At first I thought maybe I was back home and it was Halloween. But no, this was real life. Two sexy cops, just doing their job. Soon after, I saw an attractive female taxi cab driver. They were everywhere. All of them, worthy of being the next Top Model. Forget the world famous castles and cathedrals, my camera should have been focused on them.


Along with the pretty face, I noticed no one was overweight. Male or female. This, I attribute to genes as well. I ate more hearty meals of fatty duck and roast pork with heaping sides of dumplings and potatoes and downed more liters of golden pilzner than I have ever eaten here at home. I know the locals are getting their calories. But, so too with most European cities, the Czechs are much more mobile that we are. They walk, they bike, they play in the beer gardens, so those calories are more likely being burned off.


The third thing I noticed over there was the lack of plastic surgery. US women spend more money on cosmetic "enhancements" than any other society in the world. It was clear that most of the Czech women I saw did not have these same enhancements. And thanks to their natural beauty, it simply wasn't needed.


But as my college professor would say, "use your sociological imagination" to figure out how the superficial outside of the group effect the inside.  First, a man's look at women in the United States:


It's nearly impossible to find the perfect mix of beauty and personality. There are so few "perfect 10s" out there, that those who are lucky enough to fall into that category can afford to be picky. They can afford to be uninteresting. They can afford to be rude, stuck up and downright mean. They will still be desired by a large number of men, based simply on their looks. On the other hand, more unattractive girls (for whatever reason) are usually the ones men get along with the easiest. This is because these girls have had to adapt and develop interesting personalities and strong senses of humor in order to attract attention. But now, easy access to cosmetic surgery has been added to the equation. The once unattractive women can now change their looks and with it, their confidence and personality. They raise themselves through expensive augmentation to the level of those who never needed to form a personality to begin with. The sad fact is, as we mature, we learn that attitude and what lies within is what makes someone truly ugly or beautiful. Your plastic surgeon can't fix that.


Now before you get upset, allow me to point out the same goes for men. I'll use myself as an example: I've never had large muscles or flashy tail feathers, so instead, I've used humor and intelligence to further my social interactions. More and more men and going under the knife for the same reasons women do. Calf implants? Really?? Pathetic.


In a magical place like Prague, where everyone is naturally attractive, the girls there have had to adapt using different tactics. The playing field is genetically equal. Guys aren't having to fight for beauty, so there is no competition and, therefore, one can not be picky (or any of the other negative qualities listed above). They've instead had to focus all of their attention on the beauty that lies within. Personality. And when you have an equal biological playing field, and the need for cosmetic enhancements are removed from the equation, what you get is an entire nation made up of friendly, funny, accommodating, intelligent AND beautiful women. It's Heaven. And I will be back.


For the castles, of course.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Flashback: Cocaine Butterflies in the Florida Keys

Starting a travel blog has allowed me to relive adventures that I buried deep (and sometimes for good reason) in the back of my mind. This is one of them. What follows was written in May of 2004 after myself and a group of college friends got together for a weekend at a condo on Islamorada in the Florida Keys. Everything you read is true. Even the names...because there are no innocent to protect.



They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This particular one is only worth four, the sum of which explains the entire trip:

Too
Much
To
Drink


I'm pretty sure it all started as a normal night. 
I had put off drinking for the entire day because of the massive hangover I had woken up with. But it was getting dark. The hangover had subsided. Plus the dinner wait was a good 15 minutes and the view from the outdoor bar was rather nice.

Crown and Coke. 

I had the red snapper and crab cakes with a side of coleslaw. It didn't sit well and took some time to get down, but it was our last night there. Going home early was not an option.

We hit the tiki bar that we had partied at the night before. It was right on the water and had a good cover band, so we figured that would be a good place to start the evening. My voice was already pretty much shot from the previous night's sing-a-long to the likes of Bon Jovi and 311, but that wasn't enough to stop me from screaming at the top of my lungs to Outkast's Hey Ya.

Hey fellas...What's cooler than cool?

3 Rum Runners.

That did the trick. I decided to stick to those rather than the Jagermeister shots that had almost killed me the night before. So after belting out some Brian Adams we grabbed a cab and made our way a couple miles north to Hog Heaven. Billed as the only dance club between Miami and Key West, the Hog offered the best in today's hip hop and techno (try dancing to that in flip flops). Not to mention, the Hog is a very popular spot with the women.

2 Coronas.

I've never been too big on dance clubs. I'm much more of a bar guy. I did hear a good remix of 'In da Club' however. But after much debate we decided to call another cab and make our way further south to Woody's, the local strip club.

This is where the night took an unusual turn.

I've been to a number of strip clubs in my day, but this one was unlike any other. Take Porkey's, throw in some Blues Brothers and add a dash of From Dusk Till Dawn. Woody's consisted of myself, my two friends Scott and Steve, two guys who looked like truck drivers that had been sitting there since 1979, a waitress, a bartender, two 'dancers' and a band named Big Dick and the Extenders. Big Dick was a fat, toothless guy with a guitar who hated his ex-wife and sang songs about how much he hated his ex-wife.

2 Coronas.

I decided to sit in the back, away from the 'dance' floor, as the two stripper chicks scared me. I can't put my finger on the exact reason why, but let's just say talent this far south of Miami is probably hard to come by.
We sat in the back, sipped our drinks, listened to Big Dick and watched some boxing highlights on the tv at the bar. Between songs, Big would tell us stories about his evil ex-wife and how hot he thought 'Candy' the 'dancer' was. He said she was so hot that if she stood on her head "butterflies would fly out of her pu**y with cocaine on their wings."
Classy joint, that Woody's.

The boxing show ended, as did Big Dick's set, so there was really no reason for us to be in there any longer. We were a long way from the condo. The tiki bar had already closed. The Hog was an option, but we had just left there an hour ago. So we decided to take a walk. That's the cool thing about the Keys...you can walk around at 2:30 in the morning and feel safe. Try doing that in Miami. On second thought, don't.

About a mile up the road, we came upon a little hole in the wall called Slimey's. It was open so we walked in.

Corona. No lime.

About half way though the beer, the owner of the bar was looking for people who wanted to go with him down the road to a different bar. In my drunken state, I told him that we would gladly go with them. So we did. Without thinking, we jumped in some strange van with a group of strange people.
They seemed friendly enough....

We finally arrived at some other hole in the wall and offered to buy the guys a drink to thank them for the ride. It was here when one of them told us that he was part owner of of a number of bars on the island and pays for nothing. So he, in turn, ordered us something free of charge.

Random shot of something that tasted bad.

The place looked like a normal bar. A group of good 'ol boys not wearing any shoes playing pool. Welcome to the Keys, fellas.

Corona.

I pulled up a seat next to a video poker machine and set a new record on the erotic trivia quiz. After that, some guy started showing us his photo album. It was at this point that I thought I had maybe passed out at the strip club and all of this was a weird dream.
Sadly, it wasn't.
The photo album consisted only of pictures of women this guy had managed to convince to strip naked inside the bar. Could've been worse I guess.
As I got to the very end of the album however, I was informed that the last picture was of a girl that his friend had taken out on a boat, cut her head off and then threw the body into the ocean. I waited for him to laugh, but he instead took the album back straight faced and walked away.

Needless to say, the night quickly ended after that with a pay phone call to a local cab company.

We're planning on going back at the end of the summer. I hope my high score still stands.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Why did Constantinople get the works?

The following was written May 2010, shortly after  my return from Turkey.


I'll never forget where I was the first time I heard the Muslim call to prayer. 

It took about 45 minutes by tram to get from the Istanbul airport to the old city center of Sultanhamet where I would be spending the next 4 days. The first thing I came across while making the 10 minute walk to the hostel was the Hippodrome. This was originally the sporting and social center of Constantinople where the people would participate in and bet on chariot and horse races. Now, it's just an oblong park that holds 3 different monuments taken from Greece (the Serpent Column, c. 5th century BC) and Egypt (Obelisk of Thutmose III, c. 1490 BC). They were, up until now, the oldest things I had ever seen. The original 3 heads of the Serpent Column were destroyed over 400 years ago, but it probably looked pretty cool back in the day. 

It was cold. I stopped to open my backpack and put on my windbreaker, which would come in handy later on (and not just to block the chill in the air). I left the Hippodrome and, following the hostel directions, found myself on a road that ran directly between two of the most spectacular architectural works in the world: The Hagia Sophia (c. 360 AD) and the Sutlan Ahmed "Blue" Mosque (c. 1604 AD). They faced each other. They were massive. It's the type of thing that makes you stop in your tracks when you see it and just stare. 





It was noon. And that's when I heard it. The "muezzin". First it came from the left, then the right. Soon it was all around me, overlapping itself. It was eerie, but peaceful at the same time. When I got off the tram, I felt like I was back in Prague. This is the European side of Istanbul and, rightfully so, it looked and felt like a typical European city. But now I was being reminded that I was in a very different place. In the old days, the prayer-caller had to climb to the top of one of the tall spires, or minarets. There he would sing. 5 times a day. Now, though, there is a public address system attached to every minaret of every mosque. And there are a bunch of them. They all sing the same thing. The words are all the same. But they are all sung by a different person at each mosque and not always in unison. So the sound literally surrounds the entire city. By the 3rd day, I guess I was used to it to the point of not even really noticing it. 

In my ignorance, I expected people to stop what they were doing and make their way to the mosques. Some did..but not many. This is Istanbul, the most progressive city in Turkey, the most progressive country in the Muslim world. There were trinkets and pretzels to sell to the hoards of gazing tourists. No time for prayer. There was money to be made. And thus set the scene for my entire Turkish trip. 

I tried to keep an open mind. I tried to take the difference of cultures into consideration. I honestly did. Aside from Miami and the entire state of Alabama, I've really liked everywhere I've ever been. For different reasons, of course, but the overall feel of a city has usually been positive. My 2 weeks in Europe last year was a success. Two cities that I would gladly recommend to others, or visit again myself. So I naturally expected the same for this trip. I wanted to like the city of Istanbul and the people within it. But after being home for a few days and processing everything, I can honestly say, I didn't. 

I can't speak for Turkey as a whole, but Istanbul is like walking into a giant used car lot. Where the salesmen all have thick, black, 70's porn star moustaches, chain smoked, and wore a slick suit with an open collar dress shirt. In a word, they were slimy. Everyone. All men, mind you. I don't know exactly where the women were, as in 4 days, I did not meet or talk to a single local Turkish woman. More on that later. I guess everyone in Istanbul owns a shop. A shop that specializes in some piece of crap that you, as a tourist, do not need or want. I came across a shop that sold only buttons. THOUSANDS of buttons. Here, we have Walmarts and Targets. A one stop shop for whatever you want. Let's say, you want to make a shirt. Here, you can get everything you need in one trip. There, however, you'd need to visit the fabric guy. Then the scissors guy. The tread guy. And God help you if you don't visit the button guy. So these 70 porn star, slimy bastards all stand outside their shops, smoking their cigarettes. And they wait. Like lions hiding in the brush. And as soon as you walk past, they pounce. 

"Hello, my friend! Where are you from?" 

Some of them have evolved new tactics of surprise attack. They leave their storefront and find you where you're most vulnerable. I looked like a tourist, no doubt about it. We all do when we're tourists. I was trying to find my way into the Blue Mosque. Unlike the Hagia Sohpia which went from church, to mosque, to museum, the Blue Mosque is still an active, open place of worship. The infidel (me) cannot go in during prayer times. During non-prayer times, we can enter, but we must go through a special non-Muslim entrance. The signs weren't exactly clear, so it was nice when a local guy came to my aid. "Hello, my friend!" He lead me to the correct door and told me what was expected of me (I had to remove my shoes and place them into a plastic bag.) He was also more than happy to answer my question about flash photography and the like. Maybe this was the Turkish hospitality I had read so much about. But then, the pitch. It turned out, this guy owned a carpet shop (thank you for fulfilling a stereotype, you slimy bastard.) He explained that now that he had helped me, I was obligated to visit his shop. He pointed to the exit and told me that he'd be waiting for me to take me to the shop after I was done inside the mosque. I said ok and went inside. 




The Blue Mosque was amazing. We call it "blue" because of the many blue tiles that line the inside. I had never been inside a mosque before. No seats. Just a very large open floor area with huge chandeliers hanging from overhead. It was weird to be in there, taking pictures and gawking with the rest of the infidels as some worshipers were kneeling and bowing. Sadly though, I couldn't enjoy it to the extent that I should have because part of me was trying to figure out an escape plan. How the hell was I going to avoid going to this tout's shop? I peeked out the exit door, and sure enough, he was there...waiting. A lion. A used car shark. An in-person telemarketer. I walked back to see if I could go out the way I came in. Not possible. I debated for a good 5 minutes about going out the Muslim exit. I was afraid to take the chance. But do you see what's going on here? I'm trying to enjoy a once in a lifetime experience, yet at the same time, I'm trying to hide from someone. This is an uncomfortable ordeal. I finally waited by the door long enough to watch him get distracted talking to someone else on the front walkway. This was my time for escape. I pulled the hood of my windbreaker up over my head and pulled the chords to tighten it around my fase, exposing only my eyes and nose. I put my head down and made a run for it. I made it outside of the Blue Mosque complex only to run smack into another. "Hello, my brother! Where are you from?" Allah damn it. 

Always "friend," or "brother." My first day there, I was uneducated, unsuspecting. And they could smell it on me. One fish restaurant owner extended his hand and a warm smile. As I walked by, I shook it. But he didn't release. He was physically trying to pull me into his restaurant. "My friend! Come in, eat! Comfortable seats!" 

"I already ate. I'm not hungry" That wasn't good enough. Telling these people "no" just isn't acceptable. I had to finally yank my hand away and walk off. On my 3rd day, I had an exchange with a carpet shop owner. (80% of these slimy scumbags own carpet stores) He asked me to come into his shop and look at the rugs. I said I'm not here to buy a rug. I was making my way down the sidewalk to buy a token for the tram, TRYING to mind my own business. When I made it clear that I was not interested, he got aggressive, almost angry and dared to ask "why not?" 

I stopped. I had finally had enough of these touts. "Why not?? Are we really going to debate this? I'm on vacation. I'm not here to buy a damn rug." 

I guess, in a sense, it's more like a Hooters restaurant than a used car lot. The seller uses whatever tricks they've got to get you to purchase something you don't really want. (I'd actually rather waste my money on an ugly rug than eat the wings at Hooters.) They act like they're your best friend and that you're the most important person in the world. Then, once you make it clear that you're just there to look, they turn ice cold. That said, I wouldn't have minded seeing a Hooters while I was there. Women were just nowhere to be found. Only chain smoking slimeballs with giant moustaches. I'm certain that if Dante had ever visited Istanbul, he would have had an entire level of his Hell reserved for these bastards. 

I mentioned this to a couple Czech guys that I met at the hostel. They pointed out that, even though it is a more liberal Muslim city, it's still a Muslim city and therefore much more conservative that what I'm used to. I did see a couple women in the head scarves, but not many. The females that we out wandering the streets were mainly tourists. 

In all honesty, Istanbul wasn't all negative. I was excited to think the friendly, funny owner of my hostel was a saving grace for the aggressive, obnoxious Turks I had come across. But it turned out, he was from Iran. Great guy, who made everyone feel at home in a great hostel. The sites that I went there to see were well worth it. Amazing architecture and history. The cruise up the Bosphorous straight, which separates the European and Asian continents and houses a lot of Ottoman-era palaces and mansions was nice. (More on this in a future blog) I'd tell people to go and spend 2 days seeing the major sites. Walk with your head down and never make eye contact with the bastard shop owners. Don't even look at a menu unless you're about to starve and HAVE to eat. I think it's important to point out that I never felt unsafe. Just annoyed. Really, very annoyed. Most everyone speaks English (especially the shop owners, who need it to try to sell you their crap) If you learn any Turkish at all, let me suggest: "Get the hell away from me." and "Leave me alone, you slimy bastard." 

I give the historic sites 5 out of 5. They didn't disappoint and I'm really glad to have had the opportunity to see them. I'd give the city as a whole 4 out of 5 (it's crowded as hell, but they layout is easily managed, the tram system is efficient and easy to figure out and it's safe to walk around pretty much everywhere, day or night. Another point, the whole city smells of a hint of apple because of their love for warm apple tea and the apple-flavored waterpipe, which they embrace after a long day of work like we do a cold beer for happy hour) The locals: 1 out of 5 (would be zero, but there was a guy who tried to help me on the tram when I had a question. He didn't speak English, so he couldn't help, but at least he tried. Had he been able to communicate with me though, I'm sure he would've told me about his rug shop) The women: N/A (I cannot honestly rate that of which I didn't see) Again, if you use this as any sort of personal travel guide for yourself, I'd say get a good guidebook and go see the historic sites. My pictures and words do not do them justice. But only go for 2 days. Unless you like the unwanted attention from aggressive 70's porn star lookalikes.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Travelers Travel

That's what they told me. A married couple from Alabama, now teaching English in Romania.

"Teachers teach. Travelers travel. And you guys are travelers."

They nodded toward myself and another guy we had all met at the hostel. He was from Connecticut, but studying business in London. "You know how we can tell?"

"How?"

"Because we're having this conversation sitting in a beer garden in Krakow, Poland."

Point taken. But even then, I didn't consider myself a "traveler." I mean, I enjoy traveling. I've seen the blue glaciers and orca whale from a cold boat platform in the waters off of Alaska. I've skied the fresh powder in Colorado and the icy slopes of West Virginia. I've been to countless baseball and football games in Atlanta, peeked into the window of the nation's oldest schoolhouse in St. Augustine, white water rafted through Eastern Tennessee and seen the grave of Elvis in Western Tennessee. I've toured the essential building blocks of our country in D.C., Philadelphia and New York City. I've caught yellow fin tuna off the coast of Key West, ate in an outdoor cafe in South Beach, watched the October leaves change color in in Maine, New Hampshire and the Carolinas. I've beaten the house in Vegas more than once and can walk the side streets of New Orleans with my eyes closed, guided only by sounds and smells.

I had spent the 5 days prior to this conversation losing myself in the narrow corridors of Prague.

And yet, I still didn't feel like a traveler. I'm not quite sure how to define it, but I was certain it wasn't me. There are people out there who have made a life out of it. People who have been to far more exotic places than I could ever imagine. People who have set their Myspace profile picture of them feeding a lion cub somewhere in Africa. People who have island-hopped through Greece and chewed on cocoa leaves in Machi Picchu. To me, THOSE are the true travelers.

So what makes a traveler? Is it a matter of time spent away from home? Or a minimum distance? The Alabama couple said even a day at a neighborhood park could make someone a traveler. As long as you have a desire to experience something different than the ordinary. Something out of the 4-walled comfort zone of your everyday domain.

I read a quote once that said "If it's hard to say goodbye, then you had a good time." Then there's the story of the guy who, after a good vacation, was sitting in the airport, waiting for his flight home. That morning, a massive snow storm had blanketed the east coast. He watched as the departure and arrival screens all flipped to "Canceled." Surrounded by angry groans and cries of disappointment, he quietly put on his backpack, stood up, smiled and calmly walked out of the airport.

So maybe it isn't about time or distance, but instead, the feeling you take with you. The memories and stories. Everyone has a place they've fallen in love with. A place that they cannot wait to get back to. I don't know if I fell in love, but I can say this: there is certainly a part of me that wishes I was still there. Still traveling. A New Zealand backpacker described it as a "schizophrenic chameleon: It's a party, it's an escapist, it's lonely as hell and it's beautiful." Someone from Scotland said "It intensifies every interaction. There's more urgency to become close and to create the familiar. This urgency is the most natural, exciting feeling in the world."

Maybe it was because I decided to go it alone, but I couldn't have found a better description. I'll blame it on my independent, yet selfish free spiritedness. It not only gave me a chance to do my own thing at my own pace, but it ripped me out of my Panama City Beach comfort zone and forced me to bond with total strangers from all over the world. I would recommend this to everyone...do it just once. Like cheering on your favorite football team in the middle of massive rain storm...it has to be done in life at least once. You might not know exactly what to think of it when you're going though it, but after it's over, you're really glad it happened. It's different. It reminds you what living feels like.

So...

I wanted to blog about my 2 weeks in Prague and Krakow. It's difficult to put into words. So, instead, I'll just list some things that I noticed:

-Europeans do not have personal space, but they absolutely will not make eye contact with you on the street. It was very odd walking around town and wanting to naturally smile and nod at the people you pass. There, it is considered weird because no one does it. Score one point for the South.

-Saturday Night Live taught me two things: Adam Sandler is not funny. And German men dance exactly like you think they would.

-Eastern Europeans do not know how to stand in line. This is not a snarky observation, but a reality. I noticed as I stood in line, be it at a restaurant, a museum, or the train station, people would stand beside me rather than behind me. Some even blatantly stepped in front of me and thought nothing of it. It turns out, all those years under communism taught them that, after spending all day in line, it's quite possible to finally reach your destination only to find that they were out of whatever you were standing in line for. So if you wanted your bread or laundry detergent that day, you damn well better cut some people in line. 20 years later, this mindset still exists and it seems they have passed it down to their children.

-Judging accommodations based on a 2005, Eli Roth horror film is just ignorant. I would stay at a hostel again in a heartbeat. Nothing beats a full-liquor pub just a feet from your bedroom and having a place to sleep for just a few bucks a night. The people I met there were great. The Ozzy who got so drunk he literally shit his pants. The Brittish chick who fell face-first into our table of pilsner glasses. The German guy who did nothing but sleep and complain about how tired he was. The group of students from Warsaw who played the Hong Kong drinking game and introduced me to kebabs. The Italian guy who tried his damndest to communicate with me, to no avail. The Alabama couple and their local insight and the stories they shared of Romanian customs (more on that in a minute). The other Floridian with who I spent hours discussing the radio and independent music business. The Kiwi and her story about the mace she received at the train station. The Australian hostel worker who made me fried eggs and toast the second I walked in the door and forced me to try Vegemite (vile spread). His beautiful Polish coworker who taught me about her favorite types of vodka. The guy from Virginia who spent every evening grilling out for all of us. The chicken, hashbrowns and kielbasas were great. I would have met none of them had I stayed at a hotel.

-The death camp at Birkenau was massive. That's all I could think about for the 3 hours I walked around it. Nearly 450 football fields. When reading about it, everyone kept mentioning the sheer enormity of it. But those were just word until I actually saw it for myself. These words, and my pictures, do not do it justice and can in no way express the reality of the size and feel. And to think it was created for the sole purpose of killing people. If you travel to that side of the world, I think it is something you have to experience. I will always remember the smell that still lingers amongst the rubble and how odd it was to hear the birds peacefully chirping in the trees.

-On a lighter note, everyone in Prague looks like super models. Everyone. Even the female cops and cab drivers. There is no morbidly obese, like every other person here. People there actually care about what they look like. And right they should...although the Czechs are not known for their hospitality (some are downright rude toward tourists), among themselves, there is so much competition, they HAVE to be friendly and interesting. Here in the US, a super-model caliber woman is few and far between, so the real beautiful ones can afford to act like stuck up bitches and have no personality. There's no competition. In Prague though, this isn't the case. Every girl that passes is a looker. So much so that the local guys don't even notice them.

-Supposedly, Romanian females are taught not to wear short skirts or shirts that show their midriff. Reason being, (and doctors will corroborate) exposing your skin like that, in those areas, will cause the uterus to freeze and riddle a woman barren. Unable to give birth. True story. Also, Romanians have an irrational fear of the breeze. They refer to it as "the current." They believe, (and doctors will corroborate) that the breeze, be it from the air conditioning, a fan, or the wind itself, will cause illness. This belief is so stong, that they sit in school classrooms with no A/C and the windows shut in the middle of summer. They also drive their cars that way so that there is no contact with "the current." I'm assuming sunroofs aren't very popular there.

-Poles, like the Czechs, are very fashion conscious and the women there are quite beautiful. Krakow is a big university city, so I was able to experience some good eye candy during my visit. That said, there is an unseen dividing line that cuts the country in half when it comes to hair color. Most of the Poles from the north have blond hair, while the Poles in the south have very dark, almost black, hair. After my 4 days of completely superficial research, I have come to like the the darker-haired girls better. Dark hair + light eyes = natural beauty. And who am I to argue with nature?

-The Europeans have nailed it when it comes to outdoor drinking and socializing establishments. Here, we find a nice plot of land and put a bank or a Walmart on it. There, they toss out some picnic tables, a grill and a beer vendor and tell you to have a nice time.

-If you're using this as any sort of guide for planning your next get-away (which you shouldn't be) I highly recommend both Prague and Krakow. However, Krakow seemed more manageable, welcoming, cost effective and not nearly as "touristy." Prague is an amazing city with a ton of things to keep you busy, but it's a tourist trap, plain and simple. I felt totally safe walking around late at night, 3 liters deep in both cities.

They aren't like Miami, thank God.