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The locals I’ve met in Lviv have been uniformly warm, amiable and accommodating, but you wouldn’t know it from the buildingside plaques they use to commemorate seemingly very serious people… or that cat.

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Price of beer in a bar: US$1.14 for 500ml of draft

Song currently stuck in my head: Black Coffee In Bed (Squeeze)

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(I’m here, by the way. It’s a nice room, though crowded and bustling at the moment and the internet is awful.)

Sometimes you have to get by with less physical security than you would like. I went to Mardi Gras in New Orleans once with my neighbors, who had unknowingly booked a room in a particularly rough ghetto, even by that on-again, off-again (National) murder capital’s standards. Our motel room was broken into, naturally, but luckily we were gone at the time. When we got back, my neighbors insisted that we spend the night in the room anyway, even though the thieves had stolen our extra room keys. I couldn’t drive and had no where else to go, so I put a chair against the door, sat in it, and tried to get some sleep. Luckily nobody came back.

In 2007 I was passing through San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua and the two surfers I was sharing a room with insisted on leaving the door to our room open while we slept so we’d get a better breeze. I packed up my pack and slept wrapped around it like a body pillow. One of us woke up with all of our stuff the next morning.

In fact, I’ve never had anything stolen while traveling. I’m not bragging though, it will happen sooner or later. I’ve seen it happen to people I’ve traveled with quite a bit and last week it happened to The Girlfriend. We had put back several glasses of wine over at Buket Vyna, hit the street and, within minutes, I caught a small girl behind The Girlfriend with her hand buried in The Girlfriend’s day pack. It was a crowd of about 5 kids, 12 or under (or something) and a woman; seeming to match every imaginable stereotype of an Oliver Twist like group of Gypsies (“Roma”, if you prefer, though it lacks the literary allusion) right down to the setting, which was daylight hours on the old cobble stoned streets of a medieval city. They made off with a pair of freebie sunglasses and a sizable chunk of The Girlfriend’s self esteem as a seasoned traveler, even though the near worthlessness of their purloined haul is owed entirely to the planning and execution she put into organizing her bag, working ‘cheap to valuable’ in order of accessibility.

In the spirit of this example of security gone right and wrong, here are some of my tips for not getting burgled, robbed or killed. Employing all of these may seem paranoid and would often be overkill, but also keep in mind there are a lot of people out to get you.

Know where you are. Talk to front desk clerks, waitresses and other locals, especially younger women. They generally seem more aware of their security. Ask a few. Ask your front desk person or Airbnb host for a restaurant recommendation (even if you ignore it) and use that opportunity to ask about the safety of the area. Be specific and ask:

  1. Is the area safe to walk around in?
  2. Even after dark?
  3. Where around here is not safe?

Ignore other travelers who tell you things are fine; this observation has no value. Listen when they say things aren’t fine. Pay attention to the physical security of the neighborhood. Do the street level windows have bars on them? Is that the norm here or does that indicate a particularly high crime area? Are the newer windows free of bars? That’s a good sign, suggesting that the neighborhood has become better over time. Are there armed security guards in front of trivial stores or are they just around luxury stores and banks? Are there crowds? Crowds are good. Are local women walking around alone? That’s an excellent sign. Casually after dark without a quickened pace and an ongoing series of furtive glances? You’re golden.

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The lack of bars on the newer windows on the left indicate a neighborhood in transition

Secure your self and your belongings. In apartments I use a door security device, like a door jammer, to secure the place at night. There’s no telling how many copies of you keys are floating around. Unfortunately, most of these only work if the door opens inward. In Latin America there is a common type of door lock that allows you to tighten a thumb screw that renders the lock unopenable from the outside, keys be damned. I’ll rely on this if there’s no conceivable way someone can reach the lock from the outside (no window in reach, for instance).

Hide your valuables. I use decoy ‘wallets’, a small stack of invalid credit cards or similar rubber banded together with a small amount of cash. I’ll put these in easy to reach areas of the home (near a window) or my luggage (exterior pockets) as a kind of canary in the coalmine. As The Girlfriend’s recent experience demonstrates, a layered approach to security is a must. If you do make a decoy ‘wallet’, be sure the cards you use aren’t simply expired, since they’ll have the same CC number as your active replacement cards.

Be on full alert on travel days. Travel days are the worst of all possible worlds along all possible timelines when it comes to the security of your person and belongings. You have everything with you and you’re usually advertising that fact by parading some candy colored luggage on your back or wheeling alongside you. You’re overloaded, physicall and mentally. You’re likely to encounter crowds, navigate unfamiliar locations, make your way during undesirable hours and come in contact with cab drivers, who are complicit in or directly commit the vast majority of robberies that I’ve heard recounted first hand. In the worst of these situations, like an unavoidable layover in San Pedro Sula (World) murder capital contender, I’ve been known to fold US$50 or US$100 dollars up very tightly and tape it to my body under a gauze pad, simulating a bandaged wound, just so that if I found myself stripped of my belongings I’d still be able to afford to sleep indoors and have a meal while I regrouped.

In impoverished locales, consider dressing down on these days. Walk the line between “presentable” (so as to not attract unnecessary attention) and “slightly down on their luck gringo” (there are a million of these to look to for inspiration). Old, nondescript luggage really helps sell this look.

Generally I’m very wary to let my bag out of my sight, like allowing it to travel under or on top of the bus. I’ve ridden for hours with my pack on my lap, especially on haphazardly run chicken buses. I’ll make exceptions for well organized, higher end touring buses with some semblance of a bag check system. All of the well heeled locals on those buses are wary of their belongings too, so sometimes I’ll let myself follow their lead.

Travel wallets, whether over-the-neck-under-the-shirt, over-the-waistband or around-the-waist, are to thwart pickpockets not robbers. Pickpockets take what they can get, robbers take your pants. Don’t laugh, I’ve heard of this first hand on several occasions. Okay, now laugh. My point is, travel wallets are for carrying things safely but not secretly. I recommend you break up your valuables across your pack and person, utilizing more than one location in/on each. Keep your hands on things that aren’t attached to you.

The prevailing philosophy in security is that you can never secure anything entirely. You can only make yourself a less attractive target than the next person and hopefully more trouble than you or your possessions seem to be worth.

 

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The first photo is our street in Krakow. The following three shots are of an area just across the tracks, literally, about 4 minutes on foot. That area is in aggressive transition and simultaneously houses a bunch of industry, perhaps mostly shipping and logistical, The Oskar Schindler Museum (highly recommended, BTW), some kind of tech hub and these rather upscale mid-rises; oh, and this seemingly abandoned industrial building overlooking this upscale restaurant.

The Girlfriend and I hit up Arriba Taqueria for their seasonal Thanksgiving Burrito.

IMG_20171123_104823A Hungarian Taqueria serving up a burrito made in observance of an American Holiday commemorating a fictional meal shared between Native Americans and recent (illegal) English Emigres. I challenge any one of you to find me another culturally appropriated retrospective prelude to genocide this tasty.

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Hey, we’re on the road. You take what you can get.

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They even come with pumpkin pie. All in, including a ‘large’ chips and salsa that we split, this costs us ~US$9.75/person.

 

Open Spaces

11.22.17

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Wawel Castle, a green area along the river walk and a very tall church near our neighborhood that we used as a landmark all around town to find our way home. I know this architectural style was intended to be grandiose, but that bottleneck toward the top of the highest steeple (right?) is just rubbing it in.

I’ve struggled with how I can best summarize our months on this trip. These Cities are large; Krakow is about 6.5 Granadas, pretty close to 1 Panama City. I never felt like I did PC justice in my Summary, not in the way I was able to capture the sum of our experiences in other towns like Esteli. The European portion of this trip could easily be a series of 8 (or something) Summaries about how I failed to fully grasp what was going on, but instead I’m going to rejigger the format a bit and provide a less authoritative recap of my impression. Here we go.

The short of it: Krakow is a historic city even by European standards and we found it affordable, charming, and incredibly easy to navigate, both geographically and culturally.

Pros: EU member allowing for visa-free travel within The Schengen Area, high availability of goods and standard of living, seemingly dependable infrastructure, very affordable, Poland is generally is considered one of the safest countries in Europe with regard to violent crime.

Cons: Tourist dollars set the agenda for much of the downtown, giving much of the entertainment on offer a disconnected, mediated feel.

Distortions: Renting via Airbnb saved us from having to arrange for utilities and complete other potentially bureaucracy heavy tasks. We visited in September of 2017 and stayed near the city center, 10 minutes on foot south of the trendy Kazimierz neighborhood, just over the river.

Overall: The Girlfriend and I agree that Krakow would be very easy to live in, if only for the 6 months out of the year that our tourist stamps would allow. The average monthly high temperatures range from 32 F in January to 77 F in July, making it similar to Chicago with a milder summer. Our credit card was accepted nearly everywhere with no minimums or service fees and ATM cash was easy to come by as well. Small grocery stores and cheap restaurants were ubiquitous.

Food and entertainment: One of the first things we evaluate when we arrive somewhere is whether or not there is cheap, filling food available nearby. If so, great, we can be a little more leisurely with getting our bearings and figuring out groceries since we won’t risk undermining our budget or going hungry. Krakow’s Milk Bars fit the bill perfectly. They’re a holdover from the communist era and provide authentic Polish food at minimal cost, usually around US$3.30/meal for me without be too selective about it. The prices really encourage you to experiment, since if you don’t like the result you probably haven’t blown your budget for the day. The experience from bar to bar will differ, but we always left feeling like we’d gotten value for our money. Our closest option was also one of the best reviewed, Krakus. I don’t know how I managed to post photos from 4 different Milk Bar meals without any perogies (dumplings), since they were probably our most common order, but it looks like it happened. Had we not had this option, we’d still have been fine. Corner grocery stores abound and the pricing fit easily in our budget.

Beyond the low cost standby, Krakow has a large and crowded nightlife district in Kazimierz, an old Jewish neighborhood before the local Jewish population was forcibly relocated by The Nazis. Jewish culture has experienced a renaissance in Poland generally and Krakow especially over the last couple of decades and its in full evidence in Kazimierz. You’ll also find picturesque cafes and bars (often at the same place in the typical European style), nightclubs, street food and all of the typical diversions you’d expect in a tourist heavy nightlife destination.

A slightly more upscale grouping of cafes, bars and restaurants can be found at the foot of the pedestrian bridge that crosses the river past the Southern edge of Kazimierz, amid what appears to be a gentrified/gentrifying neighborhood of newly restored and/or built mid rises.

Most of the local museums, of which their are many, offer a weekly free day. The Oskar Schindler Factory Museum is particularly good, covering far more Polish and Krakovian history than Schindler’s famed Nazi subversion.

We toured a few local gyms when we first arrived in The City, but decided to spend the month canvasing the city on foot as much as possible rather than pursuing our normal fitness routines. We liked Power2Fit, which would have run us about US$25-30/pp/month. Saturn Fitness was amazing, if small, but came in at about twice the price.

Our place: Our Airbnb rental had a combined living/sleeping room, a separate kitchen and bath. It worked great for the two of us for one month, though we’d probably want either a separate bedroom or at least a little more space to accommodate a bed and couch or set of comfortable chairs for longer stays. But overall we were very happy with both the rental and its location.

Infrastructure: We experienced no utility outages during our 30 days. Internet speed was about 20 Mbps down / 2 Mbps up at our rental.

Numbers: Our 30 days came in at US$1,512.62 covering two people all in, occasionally including simple healthcare but not accounting for insurance or major medical costs. Our Airbnb rental ran us US$665 of that. You can see a detailed enumeration and broad summary of our spending here. Be sure to look at both tabs.

 

Polish Erata 5

11.17.17

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Around town out of doors