Wednesday, August 01, 2001

Guess I'll keep on ramblin'

August 1, 2001
Los Angeles, California
"Guess I'll keep on ramblin'"
The last stop on my journey was a Metropolis called Los Angeles. I puddle-jumped from London to Amsterdam, and then sat in something called 'Tourist Class' for fourteen hours. Tourist Class is the Newspeak word for 'Steerage'. We were given a tour of bad American movies (Chris Rock's "Down to Earth" and "SpyKids") and single serving food items -what Chuck Palahiuk (author of Fight Club) would call plastic 'cordon bleu hobby kits.'
I sat next to group of Italian backpackers. After speaking to them in a weird, half-english, half sign-language, I discovered they weren't backpacking at all; they were emigrating. They said they had heard so much about the opportunities in America, especially from their relatives in Los Angeles. They were coming out to start a new life.
Before landing the flight attendants passed out the American customs forms. Thankfully the forms were available in English. In fact, English was the only language available. Thank God! It had been so long since I'd read any instructions in my mother tongue.
I started filling out the forms, but I hit a snag. I couldn't decipher the instructions! I studied a little English in school, so I could pronounce most of the words, but the sentences didn't make any sense. The forms threatened me with heavy fines or jail time if I didn't complete them correctly. I began to sweat. I was carrying tulip bulbs from Holland and I wasn't sure if they were defined as Section 5C "No plant or dairy products": or can they be declared as Agricultural by-products for non-commercial use of value under $100?
My friends told me later that the forms are written in Newspeak. Apparently, in America, all instructions from the government are hard to understand, and if you complete them incorrectly you pay a fine or go to jail. Even if you do the forms correctly, the government takes money from you. Apparently this happens a lot, usually around Easter.
Well, the plane finally landed and I was very excited! Fourteen hours is a long time to sit, and I was happy be on my feet and backpacking again. Thankfully the signs were all in English and I didn't have to pay to use the toilet. I didn't have any local currency. That would have been a problem.
At customs, the officer clicked her hot-pink fingernails on the formica and spoke to me in English, but once again I couldn't understand. I learned later from watching Jerry Springer that this woman was speaking a dialect called "Ghetto." Basically she was telling me that if I had any Marijuana, I should throw it out now. Apparently, tons of backpackers flying in from Amsterdam think they can hide weed in their socks and nobody will find it. But customs doesn't need sniffing dogs to find you, they just know from looking at your filthy new dreadlocks, your "I got High in the Low Countries" T-Shirt, and the odd assortment of hookahs and pipes "for tobacco use only" showing up under X-ray in your rucksack.
"I've got Tulip Bulbs," I say, "Do I need to declare this?"
She wobbles her head back and forth like a Jack-in-the-Box and says she doesn't know what custom section qualifies and tells me to go see the Agricultural officer.
The Agricultural officer has no legs and doesn't speak. Before I can ask him about the tulips he just stamps my card and suddenly I'm clear of customs.
I realized I'd just encountered my first bit of American Bureaucracy! I felt let down. After all that customs paperwork I wanted to see drug sniffing dogs and guys in clean suits geiger-counting my stuff. The only person stopping me from carting half of Amsterdam into L.A. was a bored guy in a wheelchair.
My buddy James picked me up. We jumped in his raised Toyota truck, rolled down Century Boulevard in the hot California sun, pumped some petrol at 1.70 a gallon, and then jumped on the 405 Freeway and sweated our way through summertime bumper-to-bumper traffic. If James hadn't picked me up, I was gonna try and take the Metro line, or maybe a bus. If I had, I would have discovered that the Metro doesn't come to the LAX, and the nearest bus station is an expensive taxi ride away. Clearly Los Angeles is not made for backpackers.
After about an hour I was home. I went inside, grabbed a Pepsi and some chips, plopped down on the sofa and got acquainted with my old friend Television. I am happy to report that Brandon, Dillon, Steve, Donna and Kelly are still my friends and forever will be in syndication.

Thursday, July 26, 2001

Bratwursts and Sauerfraut

July 26, 2001
Munich, Germany
"Bratwursts and Sauerkraut"
I knew I'd caught the right train to Germany because the little girls in the seats behind me kept saying "Kaputt" whenever they lost a hand at cards. Kaputt means something's not right. If your car breaks down on the 405, it goes Kaputt. I learn my basic words from listening to children on trains. Kids speak slow, loud, and they usually repeat themselves. By the time I reached Munich, I knew how to count to ten, hello, goodbye, and how to say "mommy, i need to go potty". This last one is important . . if you dont know how to locate the bathroom in a foreign country, very soon things go Kaputt.
Europe is crowded in the summer. My travel guide, Lonely Planet, lists a few cheap accomodation options in every city. When I call these places they are almost always booked. Why? Because we all bought the same Lonely Planet Travel Guide at Barnes&Nobles before we left. This is what happened in Munich. I threw myself on the mercy of the Tourist Office. The German behind the counter told me "VE only have vooms for 140 marks" (about 70 bucks). I asked him if he had anything cheaper. He frowned and said "Of course, there is alvays 'Zeee Tent'"
The Tent. 19 Marks a night. So I went. The Tent is actually a big circus tent on the outskirts of Munich. The Germans set it up in 1972 to move all the hippies out of town before the Olympics began. The hippies never left. Well, they did, but they got replaced by Oregon's finest. I showed up and found two big Circus Tents surrounded by a sea of little tents. People lived here. For Months. Years. The front desk (a winnebago) said they didn't have any more dorm beds. "But you can sleep on the floor. 15 marks a night, heres a mattress pad and a few blankets."
Cradling my bedding, I walked into the huge circus tent. Hundreds of mattress pads covered the wooden floor. All sorts of travelers scurried about inside, sleeping, packing, doing laundry, playing guitar, cooking hippy-vegan food, sewing, etc. I found a space in the corner between a locker and a bunch of Irish kids who looked like they hadn't been sober in weeks. I laid down on my mattress and tried to sleep. I couldn't. Some travellers were practicing Tibetan atonal horns. After a few minutes, it started to rain.
"So, you vant to go to zee Concentration Camp?" the tourist officer asked.
"No," I said, "I want to visit it."
Dachow is in the suburbs of Munich. It's hard to find. I walked down a nice street lined with new Irvine-type homes and found a guard tower at the end of it, and a chain link fence. I'd reached Dachow. There's only one English tour a day. By the time it started, my stomach was growling. The tour guide said the tour would take 3 hours. 2 hours into the tour and I was dying for a bratwurst and sauer kraut. Anything. Hunger. Walking through Dachow with a gnawing stomach. I realized later that this affected me the same way Lent does. I try to stomach a little suffering, I fail. I can't even wait the full 3 hours. How much harder must it have been for those how truly suffered? And in Dachow, they suffered alot. The neo-nazis say Dachow wasn't bad, because nobody got gassed here. True, but 35,000 prisoners died here from starvation, disease, and bullets. They showed us a field where 5000 Soviet POWS were gunned down by the S.S. for target practice. The lies were rampant. The front gate says "work will set you free" When the prisoners were led to the gas chamber, they were told they would be getting a hot shower, and afterwards some coffee and jam for breakfast.
I came to Germany wondering how could the people of Germany could let this stuff happen? How? Well, the nazis moved quick. The imprisoned all the opposition.
Dachow wasnt just for Jews. They sent everyone here; journalists, bankers, communists, priests, anybody who spoke out against the party.
Some guy on the tour asked "How do the modern Germans come to terms with this, this camp?" The tour guide said, "Life must go on. You can live with it, just do not deny that it happened."
The place swarms with German students. They are learning about it now, which didn't happen 20 years ago. Life goes on. Houses surround the camp. But the camp remains.
So does the good parts of German culture. Munich is Bavaria, the heart of stereotypic germany; bratwursts, liederhosen, and the Hofbrauhaus. The food is excellent, the people are friendly, and the city is the biggest small town in Germany. None of the buildings can be taller than the central church. The parks are full of biergardens. The streets are full of Mercedes. The smell of roasting Brats fills the parks, and people dance to Um-Pah bands and proudly wear there liedhosen.
I had only one day of sunshine, and I made it to the Gardens for all the fun.
Berlin is just the opposite. A brand new city since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city is skyscrapers, techno music, and sleek shopping malls. I arrived in Berlin during the "Love Parade" the biggest techno party in Europe. The streets were crowded with people wearing crazy outlandish costumes (no liederhosen in sight) everyone had died hair, glitter, and boas. What was going on? I watched about 10 floats go by, all the same, crowded floats full of ravers dancing away. There were 90 more floats on the way. It was quite a spectacle . . . very different than Munich. But I still was able to find a good Bratwurst. When my train left that night, we rode across Berlin and saw almost every major Plaza packed with people dancing. I wonder if these were the same people who loved David Hasselhoff a few years ago. Whatever they are, the Germans are very passionate, and they all seem to be very passionate about the same thing at once. And they make good food.

Friday, July 13, 2001

Is this Epcot Center?

July 13, 2001
Italy, Switzerland, Germany
"Is this Epcot Center?"

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of travel. I´ve been through Italy, Switerzland, and now I am in Munich, Germany. I had originally desired to travel further south into Italy, to see the ancient Roman wonders of Pompeii and Rome, but after 6 days in the T-shirt drenching region of Tuscany, all I wanted to do was go to the beach and relax for the Fourth of July. I decided on the Ligurian Coast, a little cluster of fishing villages known as the Cinque Terre. This mediterranean region promised beautiful beaches, excellent coastal hiking, swimming, and eating (Cinque Terre is the birthplace of pesto) This coastline was a hangout for those later romantic poets Lord Byron, Percy Shelley (um, Mary's husband) well it was there hangout until Shelley drownt on a ferry to Livorno. The Italians dubbed the gulf the "Golfo di Poeti" in honor of these wacky Opium-taking English poets. Now it is just another source of tourism. You can stay at the Shelley Hotel, or order the Lord Byron Pizza. Ridiculous. There are moments when I see the the ironic value of my English degree.
The Cinque Terre is five fishing villages, each connected by a long coastal trail called "Lovers Lane" . . . Paseo de Amaro. I warn you, on this path you will fall in love . . . no, not with any of the hundred odd tourists walking the path, but with the torquoise blue mediterranean water, the breathtaking views of the coastline, and the little villages and their colorful fishing fleets.
On the train here, I met Capt. Charles Robertson, a US Army JAG officer, who almost convinced me to come down to the Army Installation in La Spezia for the forth of July. He said they've got a beach called "The American Beach" and the 4th is a big firework spectacle. Cinque Terre was better. I watched a live band in Riomaggiore, the first of the five fishing villages, and the band played blues covers and they shot off fireworks, and everyone sang the National Anthem. I wonder what all the Italians thought of our nationalism, but then I realized they were taking our money with smiles, so maybe they sang along with us.
Italy has become expensive. They know we like their country. They are correct, the countryside cannot be denied, Tuscany is gorgeous, the old medieval feel of Florence is rare and packed with Art. But you can live and eat inexpensively, if you know where to look. For me, the key is asking some locals (usually older peopele) about where to get some good pasta outside the tourist center. Each time I succeeded in finding some out of the way trattoria or pizzeria, with good prices, no tourists, and funny Italians looking at you and wondering how you found them.
Italy is hot. And laundry is expensive. I spend 10 bucks on one load, but I needed to do it. I wore 2 shirts a day . . . walking around the Duomo in Florence, down to Pont Vecchio bridge, and then up the steep hill to Piazza Michelangelo, I was completely drenched. I go back to the river for refreshment, but mosquito swarm and I run away, breaking another sweat. The only way to beat the heat is Gelati. I am a convert. I dont go out much for ice cream back home, but I think I will now. Gelati is delicious and colorful, and it really cools you down (and adds on the pounds) I probaby had one or two cones a day.
Italy also had strange weather. On the night i uploaded my pictures (pics of spain-portugal) a freak lightening storm struck, and I thought the Italian air force pilot was breaking the sound barrier . . until I realized the Italians dont like to work, and probably dont have an air force (just kidding, chris) . . . the internet cafe lent me an umbrella, and I walked back to my hostel, buckets of rain pouring over my sweatshirt, I walked across the pont vecchio bridge (oldest bridge in Florence) and lightening crashed like a flashbulb, lighting up the River Arno . . . it felt like a snapshot . . .walking this old bridge in Florence, cradling my digital camera in my arms, drenched with rain, but my mind burning.
A combination of hot weather, too much pizza, and a big sunburn had me dreaming of something else . . . snow! I wanted a change. I took the train to Switzerland. I took the day train, because I wanted to stay up and watch how the countryside changed . . how does Italy become switzerland? These questions intrigue me . . . so I took the day train to Milan, and took the international train to Interlaken.
The first thing i noticed changing is the mountains, then the green. Patches of lush green, not the arid california type green of Italy. We scuttled along the beautiful and vast Lake Maggiore (the escape lake in 'A Farewell to Arms') and soon found ourselves in lush green countryside dotted with Swiss gingerbread houses. I'm not kidding. Switzerland is fairy tale. As soon as I crossed the border I had that good Disney feeling . . . Its the way I feel when I first enter Disneyland and walk up Main Street in the a.m., before the crowds and the heat, my heart anxiously awaiting all the magic of the rides, but my eyes still fresh and smiling at the quaint charm of Main Street.
Interlaken . . its between two lakes. And surrounded by Alps. The town is magic. The food is excellent (Fondu, Racclette, Rosti potatoes) and the locals are friendly despite the constant stream of American and Japanese tourists. I tried out my german for the first time, and I discovered I didnt know anything. But I kept asking questions, and soon I you get friendly locals helping you.
Interlaken is the extreme sports capitol of Europe. Bungey jumping, Sky diving, paragliding, river rafting, horseback riding, canyoning, hiking, it is all here . . if you can afford it. I chose River rafting, mostly because I loved rafting in Oregon, and I also have wanted to redeem myself for that horrible raft trip we took in Colorado when I was five years old. I was crouched in the back of the boat, crying.
So this time I sat up front, going down this rapids, and I loved it. The guides here are an impressive bunch of rag tag Americans, Australiasians, and Brits. They are wild, out-going thirty year old thrill seekers, who dont care about wealth or safety, they dont seem to have much money but they're rich in scars and broken bones. One texan guy I met pulverized his wrist when he jumped off a cliff on his snowboard, trying to impress his Austrian girlfriend. The texan was planning to head to Poland to score some cheap surgery to restore his messed up wrist. Poland? Surgery? I'm not that crazy.
Simon, the aussie sky diving instuctor, had broken his ankle jumping off the bar. That didn't give me much confidence in his sky diving abilities.
So Interlaken is at the base of the Alps. I used a collection of trains, cable cars and hiking trails to reach the top of Schilthorn, one of the many peaks. At the top I found a monument to James Bond. Apparently they had filmed "Her Majestys Secret Service" there it was only thing that ever happened there. At the top of the mountain I found a 360 revolving restaurant, serving the James Bond drink "vodka martinin shaken not stirred" and the James Bond burger . . . I even found an auditorium where I could watch clips of "Majestys" with the parts showing Schilthorn. Apparently Telly Savalas was the bad guy with the cat, and he lived on top of Schilthorn. The lights came on, the screens went up, and I looked out at the snowy alps while the James Bond theme pounded in my ears.
I didn't find any Bond girls up there, but I learned that the top of the world has wheelchair access. I shared the cable car up with a group of 20 handicapped children, and they were screaming murder every time we crossed a junction pole. A couple had a beautiful dog named max, and the children went mad for the dog. They kept chanting "MAX MAX MAX" and sounded echoed off the cable car windows. They loved the mountain view, they screamed and hollered, and loved the feel of the cold alpine breeze, and amazingly tiny villages down below. Most of the kids were wheelchair bound, and when we finally went back down the mountain, they smashed against the window with their a wheelchair legs stabbing my ankles, but my heart felt happy to see they could go up so far.
The next night I slept in the hay. I found a barn in Gimmelwald, and I slept in the hay for 20 francs. Gimmelwald is a remote little mountain village,and loved the peace and the beauty. Next door to the barn was the "Mountain Hostel" and inside I found a group of friendly Australians who knew about a firepit. So a group of 10 of us from the hostel walked down an alpen path to a stream, and built a fire, chopping world with the complimentary axe, and made s'mores. The aussies didnt know what s'mores are, but they were delighted to find out. And of course they wanted to know why we call them s'mores, so we told them, and they gave us that same dumb look we get when you first hear the stupid answer. So the Aussies ain't bad after all. After the sun went down, one Indian guy named Rojan told a ghost story. Something sinister and scary concerning the guardian of the alps, and mad Suisse log cutters . . by the time we was finished all the girls were covering there ears and freaking out. One aussie named ben successfully snuck away while Rojan told his tale, and ben came back screaming at the scariest part. He freaked everyone out. Good stuff.
We hiked back up the trail, everyone looking over they're shoulder for axe wielding farmers. The men were fine, I was laughing and throwing stones and freaking everyone out, and everything was fine . . . until I said goodbye at the barn and they all headed back to the hostel. So I entered the barn, and I didnt have a flashlight, and nobody else was there. But I walked around, peering into the corners, making sure there no mad suisse farmers were waiting for me. My night vision returned, and I settled down and stretched out on the straw and went to sleep. I slept through the whole night, and the alpine sun woke me up. I ate a big farmer breakfast at a picnic table and watched the alps.
So thanks, Switzerland.
I still have that Disney feeling.

Monday, June 25, 2001

It's a dog's life

June 26, 2001
Paris, France
"It's a dog's life

Let's get into to it, you and I. Don't read any further if you're squeamish. If you're not, then let's talk about dogs. First off, I love 'em. I used to be afraid of them when I was younger, probably because one day when I was five years old the neighbors' German Shepard hurdled our fence and cornered me behind our fig tree. Thank God my mom was watching from the kitchen. She ran outside brandishing a broom and chased the beast away. I can remember afterwards walking to school with my knees knocking as I kept my eye on all the barking dobermans and German Shephards along my route, and I prayed the snarling beasts wouldn't jump their seemingly flimsy fences.

But later I grew to love dogs. I loved all my friends Labradors and Golden Retrievers and Beagles, and I especially love our own little daschund, Francis. She's gettin' pretty well on in doggie years now, but she's still pretty good at one thing, and that's leaving her calling card. That's right, her master bathroom is a patch of green grass in our backyard, and if you ever play a game of catch or pickle in my backyard I can guarantee you a 40% chance of stepping in a fresh deposit of daschund doggie doo. That's not appealing odds, and I can understand if you dont ever want to play catch at my house. I can't tell you all the hours I've worked away at the tread of my sneakers with a knife, digging like an archaeologist, and afterwards I just give up and blast the damn dirty shoes with the hose.

But, constant reader, I'm here to tell you that there are worse doggie-doo minefields then my backyard, and one of them is Paris. As you may know, the french love their chiens. They walk them everywhere. They take them to restaurants and on board trains. They treat them better than they treat tourists. You may have noticed that a new social ethic has crept into the city ordnances of many American towns, namely "thou shalt clean up after your dog with doggy wipes." Well, the French detest Americans, and they also detest any law that would stop them from allowing their prized pooches to crap all over a public street.

If you go to Paris, watch your step. It is a romantic city, but I'm sure nothing would sour your romantic mood more then sitting down on the edge of the Seine, digging away at your sneakers with a french fork. And if you need a hose, I don't think they would let your borrow one.

Saturday, June 23, 2001

The Art of Eurail Travel

June 23, 2001
After five days of sun, surf, and sand in Lagos, I decided to get back up north to Paris and plan the eastern leg of my journey. Thus began my 24 hours of continent-crossing. I left the hostel at 6 am to catch the early bus back to Seville. As i walked along the Lagos rivermouth for the last time, I noticed the waves were actually breaking on the other side of the river. All week that upper beach lay quiet with a slight onshore breeze barely rippling the brillant mediterranean surface, but today I saw thick storm surf crashing on the shore, decent right-breaking sections and a couple guys were paddling out. So I snapped a few photos for the boys back home and reluctantly made my way to the bus station.
I had slept on the bus to Lagos, so this time i stayed awake and watched the Algarve coastline as we slowly made our way back to Spain. The Algarve is extremely beautiful; and there is much development along the coast ... newly constructed white villas with red tile roofs and shopping centers and gasp ... starbucks. It looked alot like recently developed south orange country, like Laguna Niguel, except for the occasional ancient castle jutting from a farmers field. In Lagos I did find some prime stretches of real estate on the cliffs overlooking the famous grottos, empty cow pastures with rotting abandoned cottages only a few miles out of town. If anyone has any venture capital they want to trust me with I think now is the time to start building vacation homes here for all the German tourists pouring into in Lagos every summer. The plan is to build now with escuchos and then sell next year in euros, once that currency is officially introduced as hard currency. So let me know.
We hit some bad traffic jams on the way to Seville, mostly farmers driving their ancient wagons to market on the tiny streets, and so I arrived at Seville at worst possible time, NOON. I forgot to tell you, Seville is hot. Hot dry, heat and it was 39 degrees C. 95F?
Imagine strapping 50 pounds to your back and hiking through Phoenix Arizona on a blistering summer day. Not very comfortable. I made my way by bus to the Train station and used my eurail pass for the super fast AVE train to Madrid. With the eurail pass I was able to get a 1st class seat, so I boarded the train dripping with sweat and take my seat, and plug in the complimentary headphones. After a few minutes I look around and notice Im sharing the car with a dozen businessmen in navy blue suits and I feel extremely out of place in my dusty cargo shorts and sweaty Tshirt. But that's backpacking. I ended up enjoying a nice airline food type dinner and watched Chicken Run in Spanish. Pollo Bilar? No, thats dance. My spanish is horrible.
We roll into Madrid about 6 pm, and I've only got forty five minutes to change train stations and catch the only overnight train to Paris. I didn't want to get stuck in Madrid for the night because of the heat, and I after two weeks of Spain I am was ready for something new: Fortunately, the Madrid metro line is new, clean, efficient and safe. I arrived at the train station with time to spare for a quick dinner, and then boarded the Paris train.
I had a bed in compartment that sleeps four. I shared the room with two long haired guys from Missouri who were sons of a pilot. They were huge metalheads, and I got to listen to endless barrages of Metallica and Iron Maiden escaping from their headphones. I admit it was fascinating to hear Maiden's Powerslave while watching the scenery from 'Man of La Mancha' roll by.
So now I am in Paris. I've been to Jim Morrisson's grave, the Effel Tower, Champs Elysee, and everywhere else. I'm staying in a dirty but cheap hostel on the right bank of the river, but I spend most of my time in the Latin Quarter, looking the million shops here or drinking coffee and trying to act French. Not really; though. The Parisiens have been nice so far, and everyone knows english, and if you really desperate to talk to an American all you have to do is wait a minute and you'll hear some Griswold type family stroll by on their way to the Louvre , father with the map, mom with a camera, teenage son frowning and listening to a walkman, and little ninos running off ahead and almost getting run down by mad parisien taxi drivers.

Tuesday, June 19, 2001

Why you can't watch American sports on European TVs

June 19, 2001
Lagos, Portugal
"Why you can't watch American sports on European TVs"
I'm sure you're sick of hearing about the Lakers' Championship run, but let me tell you my story. First of all, I haven't seen a game since the Sacramento Series, mostly because Europeans don't care enough about American sports to televise them, and also because of the slight eight-hour time difference. Tip off at Staples Center begins here at three in the morning. So last Friday I found myself in Lagos, Portugal, on the eve of Game Five Lakers-Sixers. Lagos is an ex-pat town, crowded with Americans, Aussies, Canadians, and Germans so my hopes were high that someplace, somewhere would be showing the game.
I canvassed the town with little luck. Most of the pubs closed at two. Finally I found out about an all-night discotheque that would be showing the game. So there I was at tip off, leaning against the rail of the second floor of the disco watching the Lakers live on five Sony Flat screen televisions with a sea of dancing bodies below me, oblivious to the implications of the game. Since I was the only person watching, I did my best to represent Los Angeles. I cheered for Shaq's dunks, Kobe's breakaway three-sixties, and Robert Horry's amazing string of three-pointers. As the second quarter began two Portuguese clubbers asked me "Who are dese Lockers?" I just pointed to Shaq and said "Watch!" By half time the two Portuguese were shouting "Abrigado" and the three of us raised our glasses and cheered the men in purple half a world away.
As halftime came to close, the five beautiful televisions flipped to VH-1. My heart sank. I ran downstairs and appealed to the bartender, the doorman, and finally to the DJ, claiming "Please change it back! It's probably the last game!" They all just smiled, shook their heads and said, "Who cares? This is Portugal." So I left, and walked the streets of Lagos at 4 a.m. and finding nothing open, finally retired to my room in the hostel eagerly awaiting my journey to the internet parlor the next morning to read the ESPN NBA section. Well boys, at least I tried.

I've been in Lagos for five days now and I'll probably stay longer. Lagos is called the bottomless pit of Europe and I can understand why. People come here and get stuck. As I walk these cobblestone streets I am met by dozens of Americans and Aussies working here, passing out dinner coupons for restaurants, drink specials, grotto tours, anything and everything. Most backpackers work in bars and internet parlours, earning just enough escudos to pay for their cheap apartment. Others play guitar in the streets, make henna tattoos, hair wraps, or a dozen other hippie enchantments.

Lagos is a melting pot; a tiny Los Angeles. The Portuguese culture is hidden behind the blatant catering to Anglophone and Germanic Tourism. Signs are in written in ungrammatical English and Deutsche, and every attendant working here speaks both languages, as well as some French, Spanish, and Swedish. I ate dinner at a Gyro place, and as I waited in line for my kebab I heard the girl behind the
counter conversing in at least four different languages to various customers. "Ciao! Gratsi! Merci! Hej San!" I speak English everywhere and for the first time since London I am understood.
Should you go to Lagos? Definitely. The town is small, the streets are a maze of shops and eateries, and remind me of Indiana Jones wandering the streets of Cairo . . the same whitewashed buildings, the same dusty heat, the same baskets full of exotic wares. At the rivermouth you can hire fishermen to tour you through the grottos. That is what I did today. I signed on with a sunburned, scarfaced fisherman who looked like an advertisement for skin cancer. He buzzed us along the many private coves, hiding perfect white sand beaches, and the amazing craggy rock formations. When we reached the grottos he threaded the motorboat through narrow barnacled chasms into hidden grotto caves. The sea water in the caves glittered with the hint of buried treasure . . . and yes, it felt much like Pirates of the Caribbean, especially the beginning caves with the pirate skeletons and the piles of gold. I shared my grotto tour boat with a German couple, an Australian couple and so the Portuguese fisherman switched languages effortlessly. Such is the affect of tourism.

Friday, June 08, 2001

The Oldest Backpacker in Europe

June 8, 2001
Q: "Who was the Oldest Backpacker in Europe in 2001?"
A: Patrick, Age 70, from Northern Arizona

"Ya speak any English?" the old man barked at me. He sounded Midwestern, and by the Stetson on his old bald head I figured he was a Texan. "You bet," I said, smiling. I was happy to meet another American, even a 70 year old cowboy. "Son, that's the best thing I've heard all morning. Say, you know where I can get some French Wine? I wanna buy some before the train leaves?" I started to tell him about the supermarché right outside the Calais Train station, but he didn't hear me, I was talking to his bad ear. He switched ears and I started over but a little woman started hollering at him, "Patrick! Patrick! Come here. Train leaves now! I looked over and saw on old woman dressed in a purple jogging suit and a yellow bandanna over her hair. He laughed. "That's my girl. Always worried about the train."

I said goodbye and went to the ticket window to get a ticket to Paris. I bought a eurail pass and I wasn't exactly sure how to use it. Fortunately the French ticket handler knew what I wanted, and so he validated the pass and got me a reservation for the TGV train, the fastest train in Europe apparently. The route was Calais to Lille to Paris, and I had to change trains at Lille. So I took my bags and followed the French signs down to the trains.

As I was walking down the ramp I could hear Patrick ahead of me shouting "English is the best language in the world. These frenchies better start learning English . .we saved them in the war and they can't even bother to learn my language. Me and my wife, we're going to Germany lickidy split. Them Germans speak English. The Germans know who won." Patrick was chatting up a young brit couple on holiday. I joined the small group, and found out we were all waiting for the same train to Lille. After a few minutes the train arrived, and the British guy and I helped Patrick and his wife board the train and stow their luggage.

As the train rolled away from the station, Patrick saw I was reading "Tales of the South Pacific" and we had a long conversation about the war and the jungle. Patrick was in the Navy back in 1929, and said he saw USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor before the Japanese sunk it. He said the islands in the South pacific were beautiful, and told me to go sometime. I asked me why he was in Europe. He said they live in a small town in Northern Arizona and there's not much to do besides play bingo. His wife, she's a winner. She won 1900 dollars the week before, so they decided to pack there bags for a last trip. No travel agent, just up and went in the backpacker spirit. Said he wanted to see where his father was born. . somewhere in Austria. "I wanna see Europe, while I still can" he smiled. I admired his passion. Patrick is 78 years old.

The British couple had a similar story. They won free tickets for the Dover-Calais crossing, and decided to go to Paris for the weekend. So everyone was on holiday.

At the Lille station, the brit guy and I carried their bags to their train and helped them aboard. Patrick smiled and told me "ya see boy, I know how to travel. All I do is charm you youngsters and somehow I get by."

We said goodbye to the oldest backpackers in Europe and went to catch the train to Paris.