Friday, July 13, 2012

Adventures come in all flavors

Images this week are from various East European art galleries.
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Being teachers, Judy and I have had time for incredible summer holidays!  Some years I signed up for courses or workshops, but other summers we had time for travel adventures.  To finance our travels we saved our money, and drove old cars.   Still, we found that we could travel most anywhere.  I want to tell you in this blog about a few memorable summer travel experiences...


The first rule to travel on a budget is advance planning.  We depended on the 'Lonely Planet' book and the 'Harvard Student Guide' for information on the countries that we visited.  Once we reached our destination, we attempted to adapt to local standards as much as possible.  By visiting the less expensive Eastern European countries, we could also stretch our budget.  We often stayed with “Zimmer Frei” (“Available room” ) families.   When we saw a sign displayed in a window facing the street, we knocked at the door of the house and tried our best using local languages and sign language to negotiate a room.   Renting a bedroom in their homes is much more personal than staying in a hotel room, and it is an established  tradition in many parts of Europe.  An excellent breakfast of hot chocolate or coffee, crusty buns, cheese, eggs, sliced cold meat, and marmalade are almost always included.  Most of our Zimmer Frei experiences were marvelous. 

We stayed a few days in a farm in the Porto wine country of northern Portugal, where we slept in “Grandmothers room” with classic dark antique wooden furniture.  This estate had been in the same family since 1780.    Before dinner the owner gathered his guests into the patio to sample his wine served in wide shallow white porcelain cups,  served with tidbits of tasty  food.  It was like staying in a museum!  Here we were traveling with a rental car  so during the day we could explore the villages and natural beauty of the area.  It was the summer "fest" season with parades and special music in various villages.

In the far south of Greece in a small community of the Mani people... our room was off a courtyard with chickens scratching in the dirt  and dogs lolling in the sun.  We were in a beautiful location, our hosts were charming, the room was fine... until we went to bed and discovered that the bed was “U” shaped, with a deep valley in the middle of the bed. I finally got up and found cushions to make a bed on the floor.  Other than that, the town and its people were pure Mediterranean charm. The Mani people have a proud history of resisting invaders - they were occupied by neither the Turks nor by the Germans.
College language majors often spend a year or half a year abroad living and working in their new  language.  Our son took this opportunity to live with a family deep in the Tyrollean Alps of Austria.  This was too good an opportunity to miss, so Judy and I went to visit with his family and stayed in a fine traditional home in an Alpine mountain valleys.  It was a grand place to hike and climb mountains – but also to observe a traditional way of life, based on cattle, farming, on forests, and mountains... and to see the beauty of this life with nature.  One highlight for me was a full moon night-time climb to the top of a mountain -  it was tough hand over hand rock scrambling to get to the top, and we reached the top just as the sun was breaking through... it was glorious!  We broke out bread, sausage, cheese, chocolate, and schnapps! What a grand breakfast sitting on the mountain top.

 We visited our son another time when he was spending  two years in the Peace Corp in Kyrgystan in Central Asia...  There we stayed for several days with a Russian farm family who lived in a village on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul.  The life of the people here was basic.  Livestock in the farmyard came up to the open kitchen windows.  The family used and preserved much of the food they produced....since the opportunity to work for wages was limited.   Uncle Petro fished from the lake and preserved what he caught with salt.  He also made wicked home-made Vodka. We felt warmly received.

On another trip we were determined to reach the World Heritage Site of Hattusas Turkey, the original home of the ancient Hittite people.  It was a little surprising to be let out of the bus “ in the middle of nowhere” and the driver pointed us down a long dusty road. We soon found that there was no connecting bus or taxi available.  As so often happens, one of the locals heard our plight and said” I’m going that way – I can take you” We found ourselves in a charming very small town, with one simple hotel.  Our room was basic, but clean... and the hotel restaurant had outstanding local it was a great place to connect with other visitors.    We hiked and saw the ancient ruins of the Hittite people who were the first to master the making of iron. They built a high civilization on this site.  Now it is also a site for the weaving of carpets.  We stayed three nights and in the evening we sat on the porch of the hotel with other guests, drinking good Turkish wine, and watched the geese parading  up the street and tractors coming in from the fields with their loads of garbanzo beans. 

Alphons Mucha - art nouveau example
When we arrived in the town of Kecskemet in Central Hungary every room was filled.  Someone advised us that if we went to a certain address they were sure to have a room.  In was situated behind a working tire repair shop... It smelled of rubber tires, and was a bit noisy during work hours.  But at least we had a room to ourselves.  The town was build all in an art nouveau style, and  was the home of Zoltán Kodály famous for his innovative vocal and choral compositions, also famous for his statement that "it will be music that saves mankind from dehumanization during the technical age of machines."  Extraordinary town for art, music, and hot red paprika peppers.

While the communists were still in power, we visited Moscow, and stayed in a Soviet era hotel – and we were sure that there were microphones in each room and our every word was being recorded.  Also every floor had “watch-women” who noted the comings and goings of each person... Spooky!  There are however incredible sights to be seen in the grounds of the Kremlin and throughout the city.

Communist era art
When we were recently in Swaziland we visited one of my ex students who was in the Peace Corps living on a rural community.  The host family honored us by letting us stay in the “ancestors hut” – a round traditional hut with thatch roof and a bed that had seen better days – there were protruding springs – which we quickly learned to avoid... but the experience was grand and the people were wonderfully friendly.  When we walked anywhere, my student had to stop and greet, chat a bit, with each person we passed... it was expected.  

We joined a work project in the mountains above Oaxaca to lay a pipeline from a springs into a village some distance away.   There we slept on the floor of the local church ( after chasing out the scorpion first).  Each morning we would be joined by the local indians of the village and together we went to the construction site to dig ditches and lay pipe.  Come break time we shared our energy bars with the Indians and they shared their fresh tortillas and local cheese with us.  They are such friendly people!  I have never seem a culture where hugs were so sustained.

Mucha: http://en
Here in the US, the concept of the Zimmer Frei has been brought to the Internet with the airbnb system: You enter the name of a city and up pops all the available airbnb locations in that city.  Try it!  Rates are good! You stay in a persons home while they are at home – but you get a room to yourself, are generally welcomed into the living area and kitchen, and a good breakfast is provided.  We have used it a few times in America with very good results...and met wonderful outgoing people.  After you select a possible place, you can phone the owner to learn more before you commit.  Prices and the quality of rooms vary considerably.  

Beware of key descriptive words.  We stayed in one place that advertised a 4 posted bed - sounded good – but we got there and found the 4 posts were rough 4 x 4”s that went to the ceiling, and the bed was way high in the air so that we had to use a step ladder to climb into the bed.   I bumped my head on the ceiling every time I sat up in bed.  The area underneath the bed  was used for a desk.  Really nice people though.
Good travel adventures come partly from careful planning, but also  it is essential to be open to chance opportunities as they emerge.  They often come about by blind luck and the kindness of individuals.  Planning a trip around organized tours and pre scheduled stays in American style hotels, from my experience, just  eliminates  the possibility of adapting to what you find when you get to an interesting location.  It can be a little scary to go someplace with minimal advance planning - but then you are free to make the most of what you find.      Going this way requires a certain amount of risk taking, and a willingness to accept some lumps but it also leads to the greatest rewards.

Josef Lada
One tour that was an exception... we went to Tanzania with Heifer Project  to see the work they are doing with local farms to raise the standard of living by preparing and then giving livestock to poor farmers. This tour was well planned and extraordinary for the chance to see and talk with local rural Tanzanians (with an interpreter).  After the official tour we stayed on for another 4 weeks to see and do more around Northern Tanzania - we stayed in a hotel frequented by scientists working on the Oldevai gorge and some working on NGO projects in Tanzania.  The level of ambiance was far lower than the Heifer tour hotel - but we enjoyed the people that we met there far more.

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