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As I write this I’m winding down my time in Plovdiv and my time in Central Europe overall. Soon I’ll take a reputedly gorgeous train ride through Northern Bulgaria and Southern Romania, tour Peles and Bran Castles and then, after 5 days in Romania, board a flight to Hanoi (Vietnam) via Moscow. I’ll narrowly miss seeing Doug Stanhope in Saigon on March 14th.

I’m not sure what these posts will look like going forward. I intend for my Asian travel to move at a considerably faster clip and include far more activity, leaving scant time to maintain this. Now obviously I don’t put that much time into this to begin with, so maybe things won’t change much. This project began as a distribution group that I’d email as I was traveling, just keeping in touch and letting people know what was going on, similar to how people use Facebook, which wasn’t around then. Perhaps the content will revert to a similar form. 30 day summaries of particular towns do not fit with my current intentions, so if you’ve subscribed because of those round ups you might consider checking out for a while. Perhaps I can post overall travel cost info for each of the Asian countries I visit in spreadsheet form.

I know I’ve mentioned it, but I really, really hate using a laptop for this, even a good one. How do you people live like this? Nothing fits on these screens.

Here are a few items in my notes that never really fit in elsewhere:

Paddy from The Budgeteers put together a video with several prominent youtube travel vloggers giving their best travel advice.

Listening to podcasts on an overnight bus is a little like hearing Art Bell as a child on the Chicago AM frequencies strong enough to reach my hometown as a child. In that vein, here are hours of Ari Shaffir speaking with slow travel icon Colin Wright. Interview starts around 18:20, because Ari can’t help himself.

Take care of yourselves.

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The snow that I’d unintentionally but happily avoided up until now found me. Keep in mind it’s late Feb when this is being authored. By the time you read this it will be warm in Plovdiv and I’ll probably be somewhere even warmer.

But today, which was 10 weeks ago, I’m getting buried.

A dusting

05.09.18

As you can see in the second photo, we started to get a dusting of snow here in Plovdiv. This might be the first accumulation I’ve seen anywhere that we’ve stayed on this trip.

Jesus. There’s nothing I could possibly say.

Cats, food, transport, et cetera, et cetera. Hover and click for actions:

 

Initially we sought places that were near the city centers and/or the ‘Old Towns’, the historic cores that the cities grew outward from. I figured this would be a good proxy for urban density and, in turn, walkability. I was right.

But as eventually we started pushing a little further out and found better deals in similarly appealing surroundings. We could still access the Old Towns, but with a longer walk or a cheap 10 minute bus ride. If you want to dabble in this approach, I recommend relying on the Airbnb reviews to gauge the surroundings of the rental. Usually they’re very explicit about the distance to the nearest useful bus stop, restaurants, cafes and bars. They mention grocery stores less often, for that you should look to the listing details, google maps or message the host directly. Or just trust that you’re in a European City and there will be a grocery of some sort nearby, as long as you haven’t booked in some sparsely populated rural or semi-rural area.

Using this approach, we averaged ~US$17.50 per night for both of us, including all utilities, towels, linens and occasionally weekly cleanings. That’s not bad. Krakow was our first and most expensive rental at US$22/night. All of our other long term rental came in around US$16/night, give or take a couple of dollars.

We’ve had a couple of recurring issues with our accommodations. One: sewer gas. It seems like a lot of the plumbing, as least the exposed stuff, was done by amateurs who didn’t understand why your sink has a gooseneck under it. If you don’t know, that’s there to trap water at all times which prevents gas from coming up from the sewers and into your home. All the drains in your house accomplish this in one way or another. On several occasions we found appliances (dishwasher, washer, etc) that were not installed with a dip in the drain hose to trap water and, subsequently, we had terrible smells. It’s only smells, of course, but it’s also kind of poisonous gas. It was usually easy to fix once we figured out where it was coming from. In my current rental there’s a disused floor drain that I finally figured out was causing the odor, but all I can do is cover it and hope for the best. It seems to be working.

We’ve also had issues with moisture condensing in our rentals. This is more an issue for the host than us, but we try to be respectful of the places we rent. The exterior doors here are usually metal and ours were covered in sweat most of the time. This ruins plaster around the door frame and promotes agressive mold growth. In my current rental the kitchen windows are basically always sweating and dripping, no matter what I try. I have no idea how to deal with this, because nothing we’ve done has worked.

Cheap food abounds in the countries we visited, and the best deals will usually be eaten standing up. Take away windows and bakery counters will keep you filled with Polish pizza bread (Zapiekanka), feta and spinach filled filo dough, hearty sandwiches, soups served in paper coffee cups, doner kabob in a million bizarre varieties (they’re full of french fries here in Plovdiv), grilled meats and lots of stuff I never figured out how to order and, therefore, never figured out what it was. These dishes will usually set you back less than US$2. Grocery store hot bars became another staple; dirt cheap buffet arrays that allow you make guesses about what a dish is by observing its appearance. We cooked more when our budgets were stretched and aside from a few bland lentil dishes that I put out, I was usually tickled with the results.

You’ll seldom hear me crowing about America being #1, but in all honesty American breakfast has no equal: it is best breakfast. Mexico deserves serious credit for the assist, but the Tex-Mex, Cali-Mex, Arizona-Mex and all the other variations are greater than the sum of their parts. Nobody does breakfast like Americans, at least nobody that’s ever served me breakfast. During our last long stay in Central America we encountered lots of American Expats who were interested in opening breakfast joints and Kathy’s Waffle House in Granada(Nicaragua) has been (doing it and doing it and) doing it well for a while now. While I was ale to find English and Irish breakfasts in Krakow, that’s the best I could do this whole trip and where I’m from that belongs on the children’s menu.

In other trips we’ve had no problem getting to know other relocated people and finding the places they congregate, but this time they were far fewer and further between. Perhaps they’ve left for the season. Perhaps we’re just out past the western expat curve on this one. Probably both and then some. But this has been an insular trip throughout. Local hospitality goes a long way, but not quite all the way. Some of our stops were well acquainted with tourists (Split, Mostar, Krakow), but the language barrier and insular social nature of this region prevented us from getting to know many locals. Perhaps we’re just not good at it; I have to admit, it can feel like a chore.

That said, English was largely on offer wherever we went. Less so in Lviv, but otherwise you didn’t have to ask too many people before one replied in English. Poland was one of our first stops and the Polish people were visibly unimpressed with my attempts at a simple greeting or thank you in Polish. The next stop was Lviv and Cyrillia-induced personal madness, so early on I established a trend of not even trying.

Violent crime is basically not a concern in the towns we’ve visited. When we arrive somewhere I always ask the host (and others) what areas of town we should avoid. On this trip the answer was always a slightly confused “No, there’s nothing like that here.”

“And at night?”

“No, nothing to worry about.”

The ‘intentional homicide’ rates back them up. By this metric, every country we staying in was safer than The US (admittedly a low bar) and a couple were among the safest countries on earth. Honestly, it will be hard to justify a return to the crime of Latin America after this experience, though my favorite countries there are doing pretty well.

What seems more likely to kill me and everyone else in town is the ubiquitous smoking. Going from (fallible) memory here: Lviv, Split and Mostar all allowed indoor smoking in public. Mostar was the worst; if you were indoors in public, you were going to feel it the next morning. I was a smoker back in the 90s and 00s and am generally empathic to smokers forced to huddle under awnings in freezing weather, but the thick second had clouds were just too much to bare.

Around Plovdiv

05.04.18

Assorted shots. Aside from all the cats in my neighborhood, just about every building has elaborate trellising for growing grapes. Nearly every driveway is covered, every back yard… often there will be a garage with a patio on top and a trellis over that. I took this picture because most of them don’t have growth yet (its Feb), but for some reason this house alone has a bunch of grapes.

Do you guys know about the situation in Nicaragua right now? A ‘ctrl+f’ for ‘nicaragua’ turned up nothing on CNN, MSNBC and BBC’s extensive mainpages, so maybe it’s not getting coverage internationally. Protests broke out weeks ago and the government opened fire with live ammo and handed out rocks to supporters to throw at protesters. The images of bloodied victims and video of police supplying rocks didn’t play well on social media, nor did the live facebook stream of a journalist murdered by an unknown gunmen (which is when I first became aware of the situation).

Observers say it’s unlikely Ortega will remain as president and indications are the military may not back any efforts to maintain power.

The article makes it sound like this reaction came from out of nowhere, but I’ve been hearing ‘Soy SANdinista, no soy DANdinista’ for years, a phrase that indicates even supporters of Ortega’s party were turning on him en masse.

I know I have some expat subscribers in Nicaragua; How are things over there?