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LONDON: DAY ZERO

Yes, London. At least, that’s where I am for now; in four days I’ll be in Paris – and yesterday I was not, as one might expect, in Seattle, but instead visiting family in Minneapolis. Thus begins my next adventure – an international melange of destinations that, when accompanied by the plane trips on either end, will end with me having circumnavigated the world.

To explain: Originally, there were to be two separate three-week trips – one to Europe, and one to India. The Europe trip was, until the end of 2009, a sort of floating exploration of the thing us Americans call “Euroland” or “the land of skinny jeans” – no specific destination was set, just a discussion about how I might be able to meet up in France with my friend –

Steven. Let me introduce Steven: many years ago, when I was still institutionalized in the school system at a small private school by the name of “Seattle Country Day School”, I met Steven. I don’t remember what our first class together was, nor what our first conversation was about – but what struck me first was that this boy was brilliant. At the time, that manifested itself as a predilection towards solving challenging math problems before they were halfway out of your mouth; but even now I stand firmly by that assessment as I have seen his talent spread towards writing, history, and (my personal favorite) board games. Now, I’m not talking about Monopoly, or Life, or Sorry!; I’m talking about board games not that you simply play, but that you seriously dedicated a few hours and a lot of pulled hair towards. They’re fun – but they’re hard.

The board games served as strong application of social glue; whereas during the course of my high school experience I fell out of touch with the majority of my SCDS friends, after the first invitation to play a game at his house (it was “Pandemic” – still one of my favorites) we started trying to make “game night” a little more regular. We even tried to expand it, once, but being the week before finals we had a small turnout (Alex, who, incidentally, got himself a copy of “Pandemic” afterwards); you would think that college students wouldn’t agree to any distractions before studying (in fact plenty of them rescheduled) so it’s worth mentioning that Alex’s last final was actually that day – and I should tell you now (or two paragraph ago) that Steven, much like myself, is taking a gap year.

Yes, in fact that does directly translate into “travel buddy.”

So as I’m getting ready to leave for, I believe, Frankfurt when we got on the topic of my travels, and the proposal to “plan something in Europe for a bit” was made. Time went by, and as I toured Frankfurt-Salzburg-Vienna-Prague (FSVP) (entries will be completed upon my return), Steven put together the “three-week budget dream trip itinerary” – and I cannot begin to thank him enough for doing all that work (not just the itinerary, but all the train and hotel bookings as well). How it shapes up is:

London: January 26th – 30th;; Paris: January 30th – February 5th;; Venice: February 5th – February 8th;; Florence: February 8th – February 11th;; Rome: February 11th – February 18th

It sounds amazing, and looks even better on paper – we have so many fun things planned, and I have my camera to capture every second. However, I have an eensy-weensy logistical error that could pose an issue, which has been the consternation of my mother and myself, as well as the reason behind those above-mentioned dates being a week earlier than originally planned:

India. My fourth and supposedly final trip this year is to India, with my mother, and I was planning on leaving for that trip somewhere around March 1st, and returning towards the end of March, or even April. We had those tentative dates at least set aside, but while I was on my FSVP trip my mother did some more research into my benefits, and we got a little concerned. Expect a side entry on how my benefits work, but the short explanation is that my benefits have two expiration dates – my 19th birthday (March 15th, 2010), if I’m enrolled full-time in college, or my 23rd birthday (March 15th, do the math), no matter what. We knew about this potential snag years ago, but we were hoping that with a physical letter of enrollment from my school, I would be permitted to continue using the benefits.

Well, 1) we don’t yet have our hands on a letter of enrollment from Willamette, 2) even if we did, processing could take a long while, 3) my benefits may be denied anyway until I actually physically begin attending classes in the fall, and 4) I’m not going to have any money left to travel with by the time India is over anyway. Since Steven’s schedule had been finalized, and I really liked it, we decided to move it up one week, and tack the India trip onto the end. Now, I’m beginning on a six-week London-Paris-Venice-Florence-Amsterdam-India-Nepal trip.

Please note, Amsterdam is a 22-hour layover where I simply meet up with my mother before heading on to Mumbai. Sorry to disappoint, but there will be no crazy Amsterdam stories – at least not of the variety that I’m guessing 90% of you readers are hoping for. But yes, India and Nepal have been added to my itinerary. I’ll go more into detail as those trips near, but in the meantime I have plenty more current events to discuss. The point is, I am coming home, and “staying home for a bit” (prepare to disregard that last statement when I figure out how to put myself on the next plane out of SeaTac) after my benefits expire on March 15th.

——————-

If there’s one thing I like to do on a regular basis, it’s make people think. Well, not “make” – maybe, “encourage”? It’s a little hard to describe, what word or phrase would you recommend I use?

Yes, that was a cheap shot. Sorry. However, where this comes into play is that I have procured a set of mind-bending “Killer Sudokus,” a Sudoku variation that I recommend to people at every opportunity – you can check them out online. Another cheap shot – not so sorry this time. The point is that the man sitting on my right (we’ll call him Mr. 19C – can you guess where I was sitting?) began doing an evil Sudoku the moment he sat down. Naturally I invoked the above-mentioned rule of “Don’t Shut Up About Killer Sudokus”, which then spiraled off into a discussion about Sudoku (didn’t see that coming), plane travel, complex systems analysis, enzyme reproduction, technology, and business models. All before take-off. Better than the man sitting on my left – who we’ll call Comatose Carl. You can guess who was the pinata at our fiesta.

Actually, I joined the Legion of the Seriously Unconscious as Sergeant Pass-Out-on-Takeoff, a rank I proudly held until landing… in Minneapolis. Yes, Minneapolis, MN is a typical layover for trips to Europe, since it is a relatively major international hub – but I didn’t just have any layover, I had The Layover: Family Edition. Being located in the area where the rest of my Dad’s family lives, this special edition comes packed with genuinely fun extras like getting picked up at the airport by your aunt, visiting your grandmother, doing your grandmother’s exercises (my legs feel ten times stronger), and then getting the best gourmet pizza in recent memory at a place called “Black Sheep” – meatball, feta, and garlic, with an extra helping of incredibly delicious. And then, with two leftover pieces in hand, you get dropped back off at the airport for your flight later that evening.

Long story made semi-short, I got on my flight with no worries, and proceeded to fly to London. Upon my arrival, I grabbed my bag and decided to take the Tube to the hotel, the Royal Lancaster @ the “Lancaster Gate” station on the Central Line; I navigated this route with bravery and precision, arriving only a solid two hours after Steven and I agreed to meet (my plane was, in fact, delayed taking off) at the hotel.

The reunion having eventually been made, we promptly rested our weary feet in our wonderfully comfortable beds – I managed to completely pass out, while Steven rested for a bit and looked through guide book. By the time I woke up an hour later, he had some good suggestions for how we could spend the rest of our afternoon. The first idea, that we had discussed earlier, was to explore Hyde Park, a moderately-sized (relative to the rest of the parks of London) park across the street from the hotel; following this we would traipse to the Docklands, a new, vibrant social and business center by the Thames/ Tower Bridge.

Sounds easy enough, right? Well here’s how that actually happened: It’s just past dark (at five o’clock) when Steven and I cross the road and wander over to the giant map of the park. While perusing said map, I happened to mention how it looks like a beautiful park and I would like to walk around the lake (Serpentine, it’s called) – however, this is apparently the exact cue for some hitherto unknown source to send forth a car-mounted loudspeaker announcing that “the park is now closing” and to “leave immediately through the nearest gate.”

Next time, I’m going to say how much I hate the park, and maybe then it will stay open all night. Or we’ll just be accidentally locked in. Maybe I just won’t say anything, to be safe. So with Hyde Park having taken a good 99% less time than we were expecting, we headed to the Docklands, through a variety of subway stops to come out on Bank Street. For those that know London, you appreciate that, in fact, the Bank Street subway stop is nowhere near the Docklands. Map in hand, we weaved our way to the waterfront, in the dark, armed with cameras and giant flashing signs that say “tourists” – and, apparently, signs that said, “cars hit here,” London traffic being London traffic. As it was, we wound our down a back alley, up the same back alley, and across Tower Bridge. (good views!); hung a left at some crazy office building (it was either a tribute to, or in defiance of, Euclidean geometry; or both) and headed down the “Queen’s Walk.”

Keep in mind, the planning that was involved in this route was, “Hey, this looks good. Up here. Oh, how about there? Oops. Lets turn here. Oh hey, what’s this waterfront thing? The Queen’s Walk? Cool. Let’s do that.” We never did make it to the Docklands; but that doesn’t matter, because we found good food.

Remember, folks, I am a stomach on legs. The place was “Cote Brasserie”; the crime was a delicious mussel dish followed by a equally delicious set of salmon cakes. The mussels themselves came in a delicious red sauce, which was completely misleading since I can guarantee that it was more white wine than anything; but they were incredible. All fifteen of them. The salmon cakes were, as I mentioned before, also delicious; as expected, they were half potato (after all, they were huge), but extraordinarily flavorful, on a bed of heavily sauteed spinach, turning the whole thing into a sort of salad (except tastier). The piece de resistance, though, was the chocolate pot. When Steven ordered it, I think we were both expecting it to be, well, particularly larger than a ping pong ball. We were wrong; and initial disappointment was replaced by nothing other than relief when we had each tried our first bite, and realized that if it was any larger we would both be experiencing diabetic comas. Let me make sure you understand just how rich this little pot of joy was: two teenage boys, splitting it 50-50, could just barely finish it. I think the table partly buckled when the waiter set it down.

After that, however, and probably because of that, coupled with jet lag, we decided to head back; and now as Steven gets ready for bed I sit here detailing London Day Zero. Let the adventure begin.

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Vienna – the Fourth

Today was just simply great. It was simple; it was great. I’ve been trying to find some way of adjudicating my day using big words and long-winded sentences, but really, that defeats the entire purpose.

This morning started off with a bang. And a crash, a few scrapes, and one or two “thuds.” One of my roommates is not exactly quiet when it comes to rifling through his stuff at seven in the morning, and by “rifling” I mean “throwing his backpack against the floor, table, walls, window, and most likely the ceiling”. Needless to say, I was solidly awake by the time he finished, and ready to greet the brand new day with a smile on my face!

If you know me, you know exactly what kind of animal dropped that last steaming pile of words.

Let’s try this again:

It’s 6:10 and my watch is going off; oh joy. I had some trouble sleeping last night (does laying in bed wide awake for three hour sound fun?) so with the 6:10 alarm I’ve gotten exactly four hours and fifty minutes of sleep. My rule in these situations is that [(if hours unconscious < 6) then (the world = not worth it right now)]. This applies to the fact that I was planning on exercising this morning, which is the exact reason why I was in bed at ten o'clock – so I could up at 6:10, work out, and have my day.

Well that's not happening folks, sorry.

It's 7:00 and the civil war between my roommate, Jason, and his luggage has begun; from the sounds of it, both sides are taking heavy losses. My other roommate, Taylor, is gone, probably to forage some food from whatever the breakfast situation is downstairs. I roll over to try and block out the sound of battle, but my precious sleep has already been claimed as a casualty of war.

It's now 7:20 and the war has just been won by Jason; to celebrate, he threw a parade, out the door, with his laptop and a new outfit claimed from the enemy. I'm celebrating by turning on the little lamp over my bed to try and motivate myself into waking up. Baby steps, people.

It's 7:35 and I am crawling out of bed; after changing clothes and drinking some precious water, I continue working until Taylor comes back from the hunt and announces that breakfast consists of “yogurt, bread, jam, and some other stuff but no ham and no cheese.”

———————–

An interlude: In the short time I've been over here, I've had some sort of bread (be it a roll, croissant, or some other lump of baked dough) with cheese (generally swiss) and sliced meat (generally ham) **every** single morning, and I'm really starting to like that habit. It's tasty, generally cheap, and has carbs, dairy and protein.

———————-

With the idea of food having been established in my mind, I head downstairs to find that there is a smörgåsbord of urprisingly decent food considering this is a cheap hostel – to begin with I see that there are both plates and bowls, which means that there are at least two types of food. Further down the line I see gigantic punch bowls (for lack of a better descriptor) full of yogurt, strawberry jam, packets of butter, packets of liver spread (some people are into that), curds, and finally, orange slices; around the corner on the tables facing me are coffee, tea, and hot chocolate jugs, and across the gap are baskets and baskets of bread. As an added bonus, behind the bread table are containers of cornflakes and milk.

Let's do this. I begin by stocking up with every tool they have to offer – tray, plate, bowl, knife, spoon – and begin with the yogurt. I love yogurt. One of my favorite tv characters loves yogurt (Michael Westin from Burn Notice). Everybody should love yogurt. ANYWAY, this being some weird-looking yogurt that I have never tried before, naturally I filled up the entire bowl. Now, I should quickly describe these bowls – when I say “bowl” you're probably thinkin something along the lines of “something mostly round that-” but let me stop you right there. Height-wise, the rim of the bowl is maybe an inch and a half above the bottom; seriously, this piece of glass is only a bowl by nature of the fact that it would mke an even worse plate. So when I say that I filled up my bowl with yogurt, I mean I took maybe a spoonful and a half. Moving on from there, in anticipation of the bread to come I grabbed a few packets of butter, with an experimental liver spread packet just for kicks, got a mug with hot water and a mint teabag, and metaphorically dove into the bread baskets. One basket was full of white bread, while the ther one had pumpkin, multi-grain, and basic brown bread; there was a tray of some sort of weird pastry thing; and again, natrally I took one.

And this is when I was hit with the lunchroom dilemma. You know that little game that you play when you walk into a cafeteria and you try and decide where to sit, who to sit by, who looks friendly, who looks like they're going to eat you, etc etc etc? Well that game gets even more interesting when have the hostelling equivalent of the UN to choose from, in a strange country with strange people; not knowing who spoke what language, or who used what customs, I divebombed the last empty table and began to eat my yogurt.

Now I'm sitting here eating this yogurt (which is excellent, by the way) and watching the comings and goings of the arbitrary UN Council on Cafeteria Dynamics, when I see this American couple that I sort-of maybe had half a conversation with.

———-

Definition: “Sort-of maybe half a conversation”
A period of time where dialogue exists between two parties, but nothing important gets said. Generally takes place before introductions are made.

e.g., I'm standing at the check-in counter yesterday, waiting for the luggage room key, when Mr. American (a moderately tall, black-haired bespectacled boy probably about the same age as myself) approached the counter to check in and also asked if they could break a fifty-euro bill. The clerk said, “No, sorry, I don't have any change” which is a whole lot nicer than “Well I did have enough, but that jerk standing next to you waiting for the luggage room key payed with a hundred-euro bill and cleaned me out.” For the record, you can tell when an ATM is on it's period because it only spits out the largest bills it can find – you would think it would be consistant, but so far I have gotten my money out in only tens, only twentys, and a few mixtures of things, but this last one just spit out a solid hundred-Euro note. This wouldn't be so bad if I was buying something pricey, but I'm on a student budget – my biggest expense besides lodging is the 5 Euro that I'll spend on my next meal, and who wouldn't feel like a jerk in that situation?

Anyway, so he obviously needed some change so I enacted the half-dialogue:

“Hey, you need change?” Restatement of the obvious in a feeble attempt to break the ice.
“…Yeah” Recognition that indeed, you did just state the obvious; but wait, who the heck are you anyway and why do you want to know?
“I can do that actually; it's sort of my fault since I'm the guy that just took all her change.”
Insert feeble smile from the clerk.
“Oh great, thanks!”
Insert me smiling awkwardly at Ms. American standing behind me.

Yup. That was exciting.

—————————-

So I see this couple getting their food, and as they finish up I sort of half-wave (I don't think we need to define what that means) to try and get tehir attention. You know, nothing major, since I don't want to seem to desperate; but I'm not always so great at subtlty, and for some reason they didn't what really turned out to just be me looking like I was partially epileptic.

I love body language. Time to break out the bg guns – eye contact. So now in the midst of the UN Council of Food Consumption theres this American boy with his eyes locked on this couple and his eyebrows doing what can only be described as the funky chicken dance. Don't pretend you've never done that either. Eventually they saw that my table had lots of empty seats with one of them filled by someone who wouldn't eat them (see above note on the lunchroom game) and one simultaneous “Wouldyouliketositcanwejoinyouhere?” later, they sat down to eat.

At this point it would be typical to do introductions, but me being me I had to get cornflakes. Seriously. So I ran to go get another “bowl” and on my to get some milk I notice that in the refrigerated shelf where they're advertising soda and orange juice, they also had plates of salami and cheese for sale; not only was that exactly wht I was looking for, but 1,40 for six pieces of salami and five pieces of cheese isn't bad at all. So I dropped off my mound of corn flakes, ran upstairs to get a 2-Euro piece, ran back, bought the plate, and settled down to properly meet my compatriots.

Of course I was a little nervous about this – not because I don't feel comfortable meeting new people, I truly love it – but because they could turn out to be “my group” for the duration of my stay here, and hence my sanity is invested in this.

However, sometimes the ice breaks itself in these situations; for example, there's nothing quite like coming back to the table and hearing “I swear, Harry Potter **was** in our room last night” to really just set your mind at ease.

I'm going to enjoy these people's company, even if only for breakfast.

So there I am, standing with a quizzical look on my face, when Mr. American turns to me and just says, “Well he was!”

To which, of course, the only proper reply is, “Well it sounds like magic was happening.”

Yes, the delegates from America are just that awesome.

——–

Over the course of breakfast, I learned that the Americans have names (Andrew and Rachel) and that they, too, are on a gap year – but unlike me they are using this year to study Spanish at a university in Granada. More specifically, Andrew is on a complete gap year, and has been already accepted and confirmed at Tufts; and Rachel is going to use the credit from her studies to transfer in as a Sophomore at the always popular TBD University (I was considering going there for most of my junior year). Both are originally from Chicago; both love music. Ironic because the last time I was in Chicago was for an orchestra competition, but it's always great to meet other musicians. Andrew plays the piano (pretty well, from what I gather) and Rachel sings (although she has tried her hand at various instruments, including the bassoon). This whole conversation came up from the question, “What are your plans for the day?” to which they responded, “We were going to see the Mozart House and then the Music Museum. What are yours?” to which I in turn responded to with a quizzical look (I'm good at that) and a “Oh, you must like music” (I'm also excellent at stating the obvious as well, in case that was not already…..obvious……damn it).

My plans for the day, as they stand now, are to see Schonbrunn Palace, a supposedly very beautiful sight that is the top of the tourist to-do list in Vienna. I invited them to come with me, but you know how musicians can be. Anyway, we discussed our individual plans for the rest of the week (and just so my mother knows, I have planned out what I am doing each day, when I am leaving, the subway route, my walking path, and the operating hours and admission at each venue I plan on visiting); but it turns out that these two are heading to Prague on Wednesday and now I am very tempted to scrap the aforementioned plan that took most of last night….more on that later.

I did discuss my plans for the reat of the week anyway though, and when gesturing wildly in the air (the always-handy and questionably-effecvtive 'air map') failed we went upstairs to find a real map twenty minutes, lots of storytelling, some planning, and a few pieces of Mozartkugeln later (you can't visit the Mozart House until you have Mozartkugeln), we parted ways – Andrew & Rachel to the Mozart House and myself to my room to gather my things, and then on to Scloss Schonbrunn.

—————–

Now I'm walking through the park trying to find the palace. “What park?” I hear you asking; and I can assure you that I'm asking myself the exact same question. Guess who left their map in their room; come on, one guess. Is it the guy who meticulously planned out each little detail of his day trips? Hm? Yep. He forgot to grab the map on the way out. Now I'm walking through a large, somewhat barren park – Schloss Schonbrunn is, according to the map, over one kilometer in ech direction and has a large park, and so logically I headed for the first large park I saw at the “Schonbrunn” subway stop. Something that large should be hard to miss; and yet, this is not the correct park. Go me.

It looks like there is a large somewhat ornate building up around the corner, maybe that's it.

Nope, that says…Technical Museum? Okay, where the heck am I now?? Wait I remember that the Technial Museum was a bit above the palace….so if I turn around and head south I should see it eventually. Let's try that.

Or I could just actually turn around, since the palace is now staring at me from across the river. I'm not usually this bad with orientation, I swear.

————

I'm just inside the palace now. I walked through a rather large courtyard, into a little side door, and was greeted by a massive line for tickets extending from the ticket booths at one end of the room all the way to the ticketing kiosks at the other. Yeah. So I bought my ticket, walked around the gigantic queue, and entered the museum no problem – and then got my audio guide and proceeded to waltz up the stairs, literally (because in Vienna, waltzes are the background music for everything).

But speaking of stairs, these were cool. Aptly named the “blue stairs” they were adorned with a royal blue carpet running down the middle of the marble steps that turned up to the second floor, Above us were tall windows with ornate framework (only one was restored to it's original gold covering) and above that there stretched a beautifully painted ceiling of some obscure reference to Austria's power (seriously, it was not described). The audio guide did say, however, that the palace was originally a hunting lodge that was later converted to a live-in palace; but even as a palace it was much less ornate until Maria Theresa and Queen Elizabeth of Austria (called Sissi) had it redecorated and maintained in a rococo style.

I'm not going to write a history paper here, so don't hold your breath, but I am going to go into detail so if you want to skip to the next part, scroll down until you see the dashes.

We worked our way through the Guard room, where four mannequins were on display in various military garb – this was the room where the guards protected the emperor's chambers, and it was where anyone who wanted an audience with the the emperor (Franz Joseph I) had to pass through. Next was the reception room, where, as named, people waited for the emperor; it had a rather large pool table to entertain the guards. attached to this, but closed save but for viewing, was the aides-de-camp room, where the emperor's aides would wait to help the emperor for whatever he might need; and then there was the emperor's study itself, a beautiful room made of what must have been chestnut, with bookshelves, a simple yet regal desk, and a series of beautiful gold candlesticks “scattered” about. Apparently Franz Joseph I gave audience to over 100 people almost every single morning, and had an excellent enough memory to not forget any details. I was impressed.

The next three rooms were unfortunately under constructions, with the walls covered and the furniture removed; apparently they were the bedchamber of Franz Joseph (where he died), his latrine, and one other thing that I'm not too sure about. Past that were a series of three rooms that belonged to Sissi, the emperor's cousin and wife, beginning with a “closet” (that's what they call smaller rooms in the palace, but the rooms themselves are still rather large) that had a door to a deck on the right, and a doorway to the “Staircase Room” on the left (going forward was not an option since this served as a corner of the palace). The Staircase Room was Sissi's study, but named for the large spiral staircase that went through the floor into the empress's private bedchamber – however, this staircase was removed after the deposition of the last emperor. An interesting fact that we learned at this point in the tour was that Sissi was considered to be one of the most beautiful women in Europe at this time – and took great pains to keep it that way. She would pursue physical activites that kept her in shape (which was a little unusual at the time), she would more often than not completely skip dinner with her family so that she wouldn't eat, and she spent hours each day maintaining her ankle-length hair; and in the next room, her makeup room, I saw some impressive combs to match that statement. Past there was the family dining room, a beautiful white room with a large central table, fully set as if for an impending meal using the silver pieces from the silver museum collection.

After that, we saw so many rooms that the order now escapes me; but they were all beautiful, especially the ones built with Chinese art (there were two beautiful blue and white Chinese rooms, and one room with black lacquer panels with Chinese art on them). There was also one room in the palace dedicated as the “Napolean Room” where he stayed during his two occupations – but more than Napolean, his son Flancy was the subject of that room. There was a large portrait of him in the garden, and a bust of him on his deathbed at the age of 21 (taken by lung disease) – but what I've never seen in a museum before is that they stuffed and mounted his pet bird on a desk in the center. It was interesting, but unusual.

Overall, the art in Schonbrunn palace was fantastic, with many gigantic paintings renowned for their detail and accuracy, mostly depicting large ceremonies (i.e. weddings) in its history. Additionally there was quite a lot of history attached to each room (as opposed to the palace as a whole); for example, the Napolean room; the recital hall, where the six-year-old Mozart performed for what I beliee was the first time, then ran over to the queen, jumped on her lap, threw his arms around her and kissed her on the cheek. One of the China rooms that I mentioned earlier was used as a secret meeting room for the queen and some of subordinates for certain political matters. There was simply a lot of character throughout the palace, and I would recommend seeing it if you get the chance.

——————-

Now I'm out front the palace again, and I need to figure out how to get to the back; there are supposed to be some impressive grounds, although the maze & labyrinth are both closed (that's what they call it, but I'm not quite sure of the difference between the two).

——————-

Impressive, despite being a reltively strong word in the English language, is not half as descriptive as necessary to define the grounds of Schloss Schonbrunn. There is a cafe called Gloriette; on the map it is in the middle of the grounds, but in reality it is fifteen minute walk from the palace, and then up a six-story hill, overlooking the entire city, and every single step of the way is a beautiful aspect of landscape and architecture. Seriously, look at the hundreds of pictures I took when I post them. Just the lighting was a sort of religious experience, solely illuminating the palace when I reached Gloriette. I could go on and on, there are seriously not the right words to describe this event.

And on that glorious note, a happy ending to my day, I traipsed back over to the subway station, back to the Hutteldorf station, grabbed my token Durum for lunch (more on that later) and got to the hostel to shower and relax.

———-

A note about the showers at the hostel – you press the knob and have ten seconds of water. For a five minute shower, this translates to pressing the knob 30 times, at least; or at least that's what they want you to do. My way is a little nicer – take two shower curtain clips, link them together, snap one around the pipe that connects the front lateral pipe to the joint, and snap the other one around the handle, and take a nice 25 minute shower.

———–

Post shower, which is the point I'm at now, is going well – I'm chilling in the lounge off the lobby of the hostel, a raher funky room with orange and red cushioned chairs, well-designed lamps, and a rather cheery paint job – and I've been working, and will continue working until much later tonight.

Hope you enjoyed this entry, I know I did. There will be more, both about my time spent in Frankfurt, and the rest of my travels throughout the year. I promise you this, as well as lots of pictures.

Happy New Years!s

Ode to the Morning Walk with a Mute Girl

There is something Zen about insanity:

Everything is something, and nothing is

Everywhere is somewhere, and nowhere is

Everyone is someone, and no-one is.

These are not delusions, but facts;

Realities suppressed and rejected,

Superseded by a jury of “peers”

Could not be further from the truth

For those who know, watch, and listen.

It is their reality, their world. They find

Beauty where we see none; they find

Horror where we see joy. They find

Friends where they can, when they need

Support.

They exist, and we exist. Those are our facts.

We do not communicate well, and at the same

time we do not need to speak

to understand each other.

Ghana: Day One

[6:17pm, Sunday, November 7th]

Okay, now that I’ve gotten “Sweat” out of the way I can tell you about the rest of my day, from the time that the plane touched down until now, and probably through the rest of the night.

The plane landed safely. This may seem an arbitrary and unimportant detail in my journey, but trust me when I say that without it there would be a serious problem; but fortunately my journey was free of serious problems, and even moderate and minor ones (except for the taxi fare, apparently paid in gold); I chalk this up to the distinct possibility of some more exotic expiration that gets me in the middle of the trip. Better notify REI.

Let’s skip to the part where we caught the taxi, or in financial terms, where the taxi caught us: leaving the airport. The first thing you notice when you step outside the airport (if you use the forbidden side doors that we had to ask really nicely to be let out of so we wouldn’t be trampled by…everyone) is that the airport itself is one of the tallest structures in the immediate vicinity. It is a vantage point – which is saying something because it’s no more than four stories on a hill. I counted five skyscrapers – seven-story buildings – on the way to the orphanage, and a plethora of small walled communities (not “gated-neighborhood” walls, concrete “let’s not get robbed” walls), open space, and burned refuse. In my limited experience in temperate Third-World countries, this is the signature, what I expected from the rural areas – not necessarily from the country’s capital.

My next tourist thought was, “Ghana is not a pretty country.” I admit, that thought crossed my mind a couple times. Here’s the first major issue with that judgment: Ghana is not a hilly, verdant landscape replete with middle-class homes in nice neighborhoods, nice sidewalks (or sidewalks at all), copious amounts of lakes and streams, public art, and a visible, solid infrastructure. For those of you who don’t know, that’s Seattle. Ghana is not pretty, in my opinion, because my definition of a pretty city turned out to be Seattle. Whether that’s because I am predisposed to like Seattle, or because that’s where I feel safe, my definition of beauty will have to change a little bit more – which is not a bad thing. I’m not saying that I’m going to decide that Accra, specifically, is a beautiful city when I wake up tomorrow – I’m just saying I need to better define my criteria.

Enough self-righteous self-wronging. We arrived at the orphanage; we forgot to check the price ahead of time and was hit with 15 cedis fee (todays exchange rate is 1.4 cedis per dollar) when the fee usually costs less than ten. We unloaded the bags and the fun began.

First, we dropped our bags off with Samul (all spellings are phonetic estimates, with which the accent doesn’t help), a young boy at OSU who watched them while we paid a visit to the head of the orphanage, a stout Auntie (as all the older women are called) who after neither asking for my medical note (one of the requirements) or background check, nor asking/telling me what my duties were, gave me a room (the room?) for a rate I have to discern. The room in question is exactly that: room. Roughly 6.5x5x10 (w,l,h; in feet), I have enough “room” to stand, lay straight on the bed, and sit on the upper bunk (next to where I crammed my stuff). Yes, there’s a bunk bed, which takes up more than half the room; a mini, mini fridge (electric icebox?), which isn’t cold but serves as a great end table for one of my bags; and an upright fan to serve as my air conditioning. It’s broken, which is why I know the fridge isn’t cold – so now I have the windows (3×1.5, w,h, in feet) open letting in the cool night air (about 75 Farenheit). I’ve never felt safer, though, since I’m in the inner sanctum of what I think is, in fact, a guest house – the walls are about four to five inches of concrete on the inside, closer to seven for the outside wall, with burglar-proof windows and two currently bolted hardwood doors. I have a key, which is the only reason I haven’t termed my room “The Cell.” I was thinking more along the lines of “Emerald Fortress” – not because it’s protecting the guy from the green city, but because the only light in my room is a dark, vibrant green that makes everything  bit trippy. Yes, my Emerald Fortress is nigh impenetrable except for its Achilles’ heel, namely the light switch being outside the door, enabling a switch-happy kid the ability to render the Emerald Fortress into a normal, boring one. On a side note, I managed to st up some clothesline and my mosquito net using one string of rope, the doorknob, and a bedpost – not quite MacGuyver, but the point here is that I’m sleeping on the lower bunk, hanging the mosquito net from the upper bunk. This reduces the overall efficacy of the net by roughly 130%; for those of you not familiar with new math, we minus 90% because the net is against my skin (not so great for keeping those bloodsucking festerpools off my skin) and the other 40% because I’ve effectively cocooned myself into smothering immobility (I’m thinking they made this net out of kevlar – great if the mosquitos are packing heat, no so great for moving, breathing, or surviving).

So I got my room! While they were preparing it (I’m not sure what exactly they were preparing) we gave bread and fruit to the collection of boys who had gathered around us, and this is when I stopped thinking and started learning. If you only notice one thing about the youth here, it will undoubtedly be that they touch. Everything. I had the contents of my pockets examined, and then returned to me; I shook hands, gave hugs, held kids, gave piggyback rides, and carried little ones around with me; each one probably a hundred times over. While you’re standing and talking to someone, they’ll just keep on shaking your hand (which for the record goes broshake-handshake-snap) for minutes. All the kids come and touch you, even though they don’t know you – I was constantly holding hands. As I found out later, if you at ll bend down, sit down, or squat, you’ll induce a dog pile. I say “induce” because it borders on being one of the laws of physics – probably even more reliable. What’s fascinating about the whole thing is that touching is almost subconscious here; whereas in America we try to not touch, anyone or anything.

We began by dropping off our bags at the office, and then toured the infant’s house. These children are by far the cutest things you’ve never seen, hands down; but they are in these moldy cribs (by no fault of the orphanage – they have gotten some new ones in thanks to some serious fundraising, but not quite enough) with torn mattresses. We then visited the younger boys’ (6-12) house, and stopped by the older boys’ (13 and up) house where they were getting ready to watch the Manchester vs. Chelsea soccer match (soccer is BIG here – I’ll probably end up getting a lot of practice). Finally, we took some of the boys and went to…

…Celsbridge, one of the places (specifically a cafe) that will end up being one of my staples outside the walls of OSU. See, I don’t get fed here. I completely understand this, since the food should be saved for the children, but that leaves me with the following options (as best I understand them):

Celsbridge (the cafe): open air, very relaxed, this place is about 300 feet straight out of the front gate and specializes in meat. Well, supposedly. We ordered chips (fries), two sausages and one beef something-or-other; they were out of beef so we ordered kebab; turns out they were out of kebab, so we got the spicy chicken – and when I say spicy chicken, I mean a little chicken and a lot of spicy. I don’t believe I’ve ever tasted meat that was so searingly spicy before – I’ve done hot satays, I love kim chi, and I do like wasabi, but this was completely different. Good, but definitely an acquired taste; and speaking of acquired tastes, I was introduced to the joys of Malt soda, a barley-based carbonated energy drink, supposedly healthy and tastes like it.

Churchie’s (the pizza place): the second best pizza place, and where I think I’m going for breakfast tomorrow morning. Limited options, remember? It’s out the gate and to the left, down the street an indeterminate distance.

Novatel (the hotel): where the crews lay over, also known as one of my two lifelines – the other being the the American Embassy. I don’t know how to get to either one, yet, but I intend to find out. the reason they’re on this list is because they supposedly have the absolute best pizza, ever. I may have to check that out.

Frankie’s (the greasebucket): a hamburger and pizza place that was warned in earnest against visiting.

The Mall (…): It may or may not be close by, but it’s definitely overpriced. Still, I might stop by and get something to snack on.

Street Vendors (the natural selection): I’ll try these out when I’m ready to expire in the most grotesque display of intestinal fireworks. I think they serve goat, might be fun to try. Once.

The other building of note is the bank, where I’ll be changing my money tomorrow; out the gate, take a left, walk a bit, take another left, and walk some more. People here are reeeeal precise, let’s hope that doesn’t apply so much to the money exchange.

And after seeing all this, and learning all that, and meeting all of them, I retired to my room at one in the afternoon to blog, take a shower, and pass out.