Finding Nemo

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Riga: My New Favorite Place in the World

Picture perfect cobbletone Riga

So crazy. So fun. Riga, I don't really know you, but I love you. You got it going on.
Your little ancient downtown is cuter than even Tallin, more cobblestoney goodness even than Prague. Those narrow winding streets, a mix of sunlight and shadow and corners and hidden doors, that just invite a travel bum to get lost on purpose.

Your gothic church is so darn, well, gothey. After the climb up the spire, what a view! That fresh salty breeze from the Baltic ocean. The town square was bursting with open air tables and mugs of cold beer and street entertainers and joyful busker music. Perhaps the best part of Riga is the circle of green parks that surround the old town, with a river running through it all. Endless fountains and flowers and nooks and glens are to be found as one wanders aimlessly, lost in the green.

Shooting real Russian weapons under a school stadium is SOP in Eastern Europe

Another night at the hostel begins ...

Some warm-ups at the hostel, ... yeah, ...

I happened to arrive during a summer beer festival, which produced a grin on my face. "This is great!" I exclaimed to one of the locals. He looked at me funny. "We have beer festival every weekend in summer." A beer festival every weekend? I stared stupidly, eyes wide in puppy love. After oversampling the many many varieties of locally crafted beer, I stumbled back to my room to recuperate for the evening nightlife.

This truck serves hot food in the front and cold fresh beer in the boot. Of course!

Local craftmanship. Or something. I don't really remember this part. *Burrrp* scuse me


It seemed there were two types of women in Riga: 1) those with the Russian fashion sense (read: high heels, tight short skirts, bright colors and leopard print), and 2) those with a more funky Euro hipster look. And so, perhaps it is no surprise that something curious happens each summer throughout Eastern Europe. All the frothy lads in England and Australia have long heard the myth of the beauties of the East: how they (supposedly) love Westerners with their money and prospects. With the EU, no passport is required anymore to the Baltics, and these salivating packs of testosterone believe they can just show up in places like Riga, Krakow, Budapest, and the like, and they will be mobbed by gorgeous women.

Now, of course you run into Aussies and Kiwis and Brits and Canadians no matter where you travel in the world, and usually it's a true pleasure. Here you've been squinting at your word dictionary, trying not to choke on the Chinese word for snake soup, and a Westerner appears and says, "Good day chap! This place looks dodgier than a set of chuffed nuts!" And you look up, eyes wide, a tear forming in the corner of your eye, mouth forming a round "o" of joy. You realize you can have a real conversation in English for the first time in days. "Thank God bro! Hey man, is this the word for Snake Soup or Your Wife is Hot?" 

And so it was with not too much surprise when I arrived at my hostel to find a mob of Aussies playing various "get smashed boys, tonight we pillage!" games. Most of them involved a deck of cards, which after each play directed someone to immediately inhale a beer. Or something even more lethal. There are a few of these popular party-hostels in Riga. I joined up in the pre-gaming, and soon realized that the entire group of Aussies were from the single town of Brisbane. They had come together with one purpose: to smash exotic Baltic babes. In Riga, these hostels organize pub crawls every night of the week. Let me repeat: if you stay at this hostel, you do a lethal pub crawl day after day after day until your liver turns black, dissolves, and evaporates from your pores. Over the course of this first night, from one pub and club to the next, I ran into 3 other stag parties, all from England or Australia.

When you have long hair and beard all the boys want to size up your manscaping

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Reggae time, any country all da time mon

The night was a can of mixed nuts to say the least. Some young girls were definitely fans of the tanned, healthy, deafening lads, and I have to say it IS a lot of fun to surf a wave of merry drunk Aussies. A round of drinks were shouted out, and drank, and I couldn't help but notice a small group of girls head off as fast as they could to the other corner.


If you've ever been with an Aussie Stag Party in full hurricane mode, you already know full well that this didn't slow them down in the slightest. They spread out, like a pack of hunting lions. Or, maybe, judging by their wobbles, a pack of drunken hunting penguins.

And, just at the moment where the penguins were about to pounce and all hell break loose, Riga did something amazing. The DJ began to play "Macarena." Yes, that Macarena. The one we all did a line dance to back in ... when was it? 1996? Apparently that song was still cool in Riga 15 years later. All of a sudden, everyone in the club formed into lines and began the Macarena dance.

I couldn't believe my eyes. And, ooooohh yes, the girls knew all the steps. Well, that's all the encouragement any of us needed. Like any good Rigans, we jumped onto the dance floor and joined in.

You may forget how infectious this song actually is. Something bizarre happened. I noticed that my body was putting my hands in the air and my mouth started shouting "Heeeeeeey, Macarena!" With that, I fell in love with quirky fun Riga just a little bit more.
People here were a marked contrast. The older generation seemed worn down and worn out. Yet, this young generation, recently freed from Russian occupation, were the opposite, They had a vibrant, bursting energy in themselves. The wore outlandish fun clothing, partied and danced and didn't mind being goofy and fun. As if they didn't have a care in the world. People seemed to really live in the moment more than almost any other place I'd ever been.

This contrast between the older and younger generation was jarring. And it struck me that perhaps I would find some answers in the Occupation Museum in town. What I found there, I will discuss in my next post.

I ended up the night having a deep talk with this guru

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Tallin: Return to the West

Feeling bullish in Tallin
Although Russia is thought to part of Europe, it isn't. Russia is its own animal: forever half European, half Asian, yet neither. When you look at Russian faces you can make out the just so slightly narrower eyes in both men and women. Perhaps this is an advantage in terms of beauty, as it gives an air of exoticism. Yet when you first meet a stranger, the eyes are cold. Not trusting. It reminds me more of China than, say, England or Spain or Brazil. Americans, perhaps the friendliest to strangers of any culture in the world, often complain of European 'rudeness'. (Europeans of course view the easy American smile as suspicious, ignorant, and fake, even if it may not be.)

Which is quite ironic. Because it is Europeans that often complain of Russian 'rudeness'. I was once in a high-end nightclub in Moscow, talking to a go-go dancer in a glittery short dress, who had just descended from her dance cage and spoke surprisingly excellent English. And she told me something that stayed with me. She said, "When you meet a Russian, they don't smile. But if they do eventually smile, you know it is real. Genuine. And once you become friends, Russians are the most loyal and true friends you will ever have."

Tallin whimsy
That stayed with me for a long time. Eastern Europeans and Russians have been through hard times. They do not present an easy smile to strangers. But they are fiercely loyal to their friends and family. I had deep respect for that idea. However, it is a situation that can be difficult for the traveler, who does not always have time to get past the initial cold stares.

So it was as if a weight was lifted when I finally arrived to Tallin in Estonia, one of the perfectly happy small little corners of Europe. In Russia, things can feel heavy. The machinery works but sputters. In Tallin, just a short jaunt from Russia, things suddenly felt clean and easy. Everything worked. The parks were green and pretty and full of fountains. The espresso tasted delicious and people were genuinely nice to each other. There was no crime to speak of. It felt almost Disney-esque, but without all the bullshit and plastic. Tallin was a little tiny utopia, dancing in the sunshine, a stone's throw away from a shadow.

At day's end, everyone piles onto the fun train to go home
Estonia's old town reminded me of Bruges. A supremely pleasant place to while away a few days, exploring the old cobblestones streets of the city center with its piles of outdoor cafes and beer trolleys. A day might consist of climbing a few gothic church towers, then plopping yourself at a table with tall cold Pohjala and listening to the cheerful little pop-up busker bands.

I stand by my claim that borders are wormholes. The distance you cross is nothing. Yet, each side is a different universe. It is always a bit jolting crossing these boundaries. Just as I was taken aback crossing from Mongolia to Russia, I was again feeling almost out-of-body bizarre in "have-no-cares" Tallin after leaving stern mother Russia.

Narrow old town streets

Proof I am definitely back into Western culture

Old and new

Best Cities in the World, part III

Queenstown: Best city in the world?
The candy spires of Moscow's St Basil. The wine, song, and tango of Buenos Aires. The trippy Gaudi art and nonstop party of Barcelona. The gothic beauty of Prague. The pure melting pot cosmopolitan energy of New York.

What makes a city special, unique, and wonderful?

What are the best cities in the world?

I've been to over 50 countries and there are certain places that imprint in your mind forever. Northern Zanzibar's pure, remote white-sand beaches. The humbling, awe-inspiring view of Everest from Kala Pattar. The overgrown romantic jungle ruins of Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia.

But there is something irresistible and exciting about landing in a new city for the first time and setting out to explore. Cities have energy. Bustling people. Incredible churches and temples. Famous museums. Architectural wonders. But most of all, cities are where you meet the locals. Wandering down into a cave bar in Prague, or getting invited to a table of raucous Chinese in Lijiang, or having a tall blonde beauty buy you a shot of vodka in St Petersburg and venting about the problems of Russian men. It is in cities where I have felt the most excited about meeting people and getting my first sense of a new country.

Captivating Capetown
Now, these are completely subjective rankings, and they are mostly "first impressions." I realize that you cannot truly understand a city in a few days. That said, sometimes meeting a new city is a bit like locking eyes in a bar. It's love at first sight. Puppy love, perhaps.

Vancouver and the Canadian Northwest
A couple of notes:
1) It's only fair to rank major cities / capitals against one another, so I didn't include (in this list) gorgeous towns like Hood River (Oregon), Bruges in Belgium, Suzdal in Russia, or picture perfect Hallstatt in Austria. Hmm. It's clear I need to make this other list though! So many beautiful towns in the world.
2) I have a "1 city per country" rule because otherwise this list would get too long. Each city listed is my favorite of that country.
3) For the US, which has more amazing cities than I could possibly ever rank and list here, I have chosen "Southern California" as a placeholder somewhat arbitrarily. Seattle and Portland have better outdoor choices, San Francisco and New York are more true cities, but Southern California is not a terrible place with its perfect weather, beaches, mountains, wine regions, and up-and-coming downtown hot spots. This list is not to rank US cities; rather, it is to rank international cities against a pretty nice US region. Perhaps in another post I will rank US cities. (Feel free to swap "Southern California" with the US city of your choice in your mind.)
4) My taste in cities is probably different than yours, so it's only fair that I list my criteria. Basically, I take 5 categories and rank each city on a scale of 1-10, than just add up the totals to get my rankings. Simple. As you can see, for me, it's not just about the city itself. It's really important that a city is located in a cool region and has outdoorsy awesome as well. I realize that's not important for everyone, but for me, it's yuuuuuuge.

My categories:
1) Postcardiness -- is a city beautiful? Does it have lots of pretty parks, fountains, cool buildings? Does it have a certain charm and atmosphere? Does it make you fall in love right off the plane?
2) Things to do in the city -- is the city bustling with interesting museums, hopping bars, great food, trendy night clubs, and postcard attractions?
3) Beaches / mountains / outdoors -- is the city located in a region near beaches, mountains, or other awesome outdoor activities? (Queenstown, New Zealand gets a perfect 10 in this category.)
4) People / food / culture -- are people closed off and xenophobic or do you get hauled up onto a Yunnan stage and asked to chug beers? Do you feel like you are in an exotic place, far removed from your comfortable living room back home? Is there live snake on the menu?
5) Liveability -- does it feel safe to walk down the street? how expensive is the city? What is traffic like? Are there jobs other than selling coachroaches on a stick? Could I see myself truly living here, munching kebabs and mint tea, enjoying my airy man-skirt on the veranda?

That's it! Pretty simple right? Now, this is the 3rd time I've done a ranking like this, and as I've visited new cities it was clear that I had to update the list. If you are interested, here is my original ranking, and my 2nd update. I will have a 4th update after posting my travels through Eastern Europe and the Middle East soon ... for now, here is the 3rd set of rankings. Enjoy!

Time to pack my bags ...
Sooo many questions right?

I will try to anticipate a few here:
Q) Why did you rank Rio as a "1" in livability?
A) Rio is incredibly beautiful and fun. At the same time it feels fairly dangerous. When I swam at Copacabana I watched (and smelled) raw sewage flow right into the ocean.

Q) Why did Kyoto only get a "5" in livability?
A) Kyoto, and Japan in general, feels difficult for a foreigner to penetrate past the surface. There are certain bars and parts of the city where, as a gaijin, I will never be allowed. And Japan's cities are quite expensive. Despite all this, Kyoto came out near the top of the rankings so that says something.

Q) How dare you pick Munich over Berlin for Germany's best city?
A) I love Berlin, it's a riot. However, there is something very nice about getting a pleasant buzz at a centuries-old beer hall, then walking through a park with nude sunbathers to watch river surfers.

Q) Where is Seattle? Or New York? Or San Francisco? Are you crazy or just stupid?
A) Sure am! My blog is called One Dumb Travel Bum after all. Please read my notes above as to why I didn't include all these US cities ...

Q) Where is Copenhagen? Or Oslo? Or Dubai? Or Iceland?
A) I haven't been to these cities yet. Excuse me while I cry ... ok ... I'm back. Reykjavik, Copenhagen, you are both very, very high on my must see list.

Q) Va te faire foutre! How can the city of light be ranked as a mid-level city?!
A) Excusez-moi. Sorry to burst your bubble. Just kidding. I'm not sorry.

Ooooooo!!! This was fun! Excuse me, I need to look for houses in Capetown ...

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Top 10 Best (and Horribly Bad) Ways to Travel

Luxury Train: nothing beats falling asleep in a cloud of fluffy clickety-clack white noise
The following is my ranking of preferred modes of travel, from delight to outright terror, based upon personal experience:
1)      Deluxe sleeper train. I love you. Take me back. I won't leave you again this time. I promise. Why are you leaving the station, baby?  ... wait !!

Etihad: where skin-deep beauty still matters
 2)      First class flight on Middle Eastern oil-rich vanity airline (yes, I mean Emirates. Oh my god. I love Emirates. Etihad, close 2nd place. But you're no Emirates.)

3)      Crappy overflowing train where the toilets are holes in the floor and the only place to sit in between cars with legs dangling over the side. (Any train is a good train in my book.)

Still better than a camel
4)      Commercial flight in 3rd world country where the airplane is 60 years old and the wings nearly flap and flop all the way to the tarmac during takeoff and landing. (Looking at you, 1-2-Go in Indonesia. What, you can’t even count to 3? No wonder your planes are death-traps.)

Meh. Still better than murderous camel.
5)      Back of moped in Asian country where traffic signs and lights exist only for comedic purposes

6)      Tuk-tuk, squeezed between highly explosive gas canisters.

Actual picture I took riding in legendary bangkok traffic on explosives-filled Tuk-Tuk
7)      Atop a sexually aroused elephant

Northern Thailand atop the 5-legged elephant. The 5th leg was not what you really want to see in decent company
8) Aboard a spooked horse that is about to run off a cliff. This happened to me several times in Mongolia. But... it's still better than ...

9) Clinging onto a smelly murderous camel in the middle of the desert
Camels are just really weird. Really, really odd. Like, stranger than your weird uncle.

And finally, my all-time least favorite way to travel ...

10) Buses: the unholy spawn of the Devil.

I took this pic 20 hours into a very traumatizing bus ride in Mongolia. I still have nightmares
I have gone on and on and on about the horrors of bus travel. So it was
depressing to find out that the only reliable route from St Pete to Riga was via coach. But little did I know that the route was serviced but what I am pretty sure is the greatest bus line in the whole world. The Lux Express, servicing the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania).

I can't believe it's a bus
Yes, it has plush bucket seats with leg-room. Yes it has plenty of room below and above for luggage. Yes, it has an onboard toilet, that is clean. With good soft toilet paper. Clean towels. And soap. And an attendant who shines your shoes. OK, that last part isn't true.
But here are the kickers... every seat has a video movie gaming console! And, the grand finale: a working self-service espresso / cappuccino machine on-board!!!
It was the greatest bus experience of my life. For once, I was ensconced in luxury, drinking fresh espresso, able to lean back, watch movies, and not once worry about my bladder.
I will miss the Lux Express. Truly the only great bus experience I have ever had.
Elon Musk, looking at you buddy. Can you bring awesome buses to America? Please. For the love of God. Please .........

Monday, April 18, 2016

Russian Ballerinas!!

The massive Mariinski Theater in St Petersburg
St Pete isn't just about glorious palaces and mind-blowing churches. It's also about glorious mind-blowing Russian ballerinas! I was guttered that I hadn't managed to make my way into the world-famous Bolshoi theater in Moscow. So it would take a bare-chested Putin riding a tiger to deny me entry into the (not quite) as-famous Mariinski in St Pete. A tip to the Russian backpacking novice: these theaters are INSANELY popular with both tourists and locals alike. Russians love ballet like the French love Nutella. Which, if you don't know, is like how Americans love guns. They hug them and squeeze them and ... oh wait, where was I?

The "Putin riding things" meme is endless fun. And did you know Bear-Sharks are surprisingly furry?

Lao Shen is the relatively unknown Vodka Dragon and actually has 7 nesting dragons inside

It looks so cute until it pees on Ukraine
Every show, afternoon and evening, for the entire week I was there was sold out. I nearly cried at the ticket office. The old babushka behind the window looked at me and asked where I was from. I told her California.

"California! American!" (This was before Putin's recent anti-American propaganda campaign.) She tapped on her computer a bit. And then, "For You. Ticket to Swan Lake tonight. You can go?"

"Da!!" In her outstretched hand, there it was. A golden ticket.

Now, there are basically three classic Russian ballets to pick from.

1) The Sleeping Beauty, composed by the rockstar himself Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1890,
2) The Nutcracker, also by Tchaikovsky in 1892, and of course
3) Swan Lake, by (take a guess?)           ... Tchaichovsky in 1895.

So getting a ticket to one of the Big 3 is quite nice. And unless you hate music itself, getting a chance to listen to a god like Tchaikovsky performed live is always a treat. But to hear his music in Russia?! Now that is like giving a dog a whole bag of Beggin' Strips. I couldn't wait.

The glorius Mariinski interior. Foto by Albert Knutsson
Swan Lake is classic story about how an evil dark princess/Voldemort/Vader secretly plots to take over power from the good prince/Dumbledore/Skywalker. Ha! Are you kidding no one cares about the plot. It's just a joy to watch the lithe dancers glide about the stage like actual flying swans. Fantastic. Mesmerizing. Wonderful. It is striking how wispy and thin they are, like the stalks of a dandelion. I couldn't help but think of the price they paid to be on that stage. They were insidiously, beautifully perfect.

Tchaikovsky realizing he forgot to record the new episode of "Game of Russian Thrones"
Leaving the golden Mariinski after the show