My last trip to Asia was fun. But there is a ton that was hidden from the camera. This last trip really put me through the ringer. I just wish my luck worked this well on lottery tickets.
My first mistake on this journey was not taking my own damn advice - give yourself time! Everyday something was on the itinerary. There was no breathing room whatsoever. Since one of my many rules when traveling is to never visit the same place more than once, I wanted to make sure I could do as much as possible. I consider myself to be very disciplined to handle this back to back scheduling but it hurt me in the end. Museums, DMZ tour, temples, markets, fly out early in the morning to Manila, take a 10 hour bus to Banaue...bam bam bam. I mean it just kept going. I even had to cut short my amazing dinner with my friend Che whom I hadn't seen in years because I failed to give myself considerable time to catch the next flight out to Manila. But one must remember
Give yourself time
You haven't seen the world, yet you're still alive. You're not going to die if you don't see everything. Enjoy the moment. Traveling like a contestant on the Amazing Race can really suck out what you're supposed to take in.
The other part that made this trip the hardest journey in my life is that I caught a vile stomach bug from the underworld. And this is not the first time. I first caught one in Mexico. I was on a row boat in city called Xochimilco, México just 30 mins outside of Mexico City. On the banks there were farmers selling a drink made from a Maguey plant that is native to Mexico called Pulque. I had it a few days before and knew that I wanted more before catching my flight back to Nashville. Heartburn, sulphuric burbs, paralyzing cramps and violent hacking in the toilet the next morning before my flight almost made me miss the plane. I'll never forget it because Lauryn Hill was playing at the Ryman Auditorium downtown the night I returned. I was with my mom and started feeling better because I refused to eat anything. As I grew hungry I decided to risk it with a hotdog. Then that dreadful curse reminded me that it wasn't just a dream. It must have been the pulque that I got off the banks in Xochimilco. The farmer must have used local water to make that batch. That was the only unprocessed fluid I ingested. I ended up having to see a doctor to get it taken care of. Most Americans and Europeans are not used to non processed water. So water from naturally occurring sources can really harm us if we are not careful.
Similar story in the Philippines except it was rice wine from a local village that did the damage. Local water is used in the fermentation process. You'd think I'd have learned from the first experience but as one who's trying all kinds of different foods and fruits and exotic flavors, it's easy to forget. I say all this to say that
If you don't know where it came from, don't drink it.
Sometimes other countries don't have strict rules about prescription antibiotics and you can find them at a local pharmacy. In my case the pharmacist in Banaue, Philippines gave me what I needed right away. But I wouldn't ever risk that again. I imagine it's possible for certain places to not be as willing to give them out or to not have exactly what it is you need. Since my doctor knows that I travel, he gives me emergency antibiotics to have available in case situations like these ever occur. Stomach bugs are no joke. So it's a good idea to be medically prepared. And that's the next travel tip...
be medically prepared before you leave.
Another hurdle that I encountered during my return flight from Seoul to Nashville was a sinus infection. I know right!!!! I told you this trip was rough. I was so congested that my ears wouldn't equalize to the cabin pressure. One ear in particular felt like it was going to explode. I thought I needed to go to the hospital. When I landed in Seoul from Manila I told the nearest taxi driver to take me to the hospital. I didn't care what it cost cause I was in so much pain. I got to the hospital and I couldn't get fixed cause it was unbelievably expensive. 500 USD to be seen. 500 USD to get treatment. 1000 USD total to fix my ear before my outbound flight to Nashville. I wasn't prepared for that so I was on the verge of tears. But there was good news. Turned out that there was an emergency clinic on the bottom level of the Seoul airport. I wish I had known before paying the taxi driver 200 USD to take me to the hospital. I'm still sour as hell about that. I got to the clinic in the airport and the doctor checked out my ear and was like whoaaaa!! My eardrum was severely bulged like a balloon and full of fluid. She gave me antibiotics and a steroid to reduce swelling. She said in 24 hours I should be ok to fly. My flight was in 12. Oye! Total clinic cost 36 USD. Better than 1000 the hospital was asking for.
Because I also experienced this, my doctor prescribes me nasil steroids and antibiotics to alleviate any symptoms of sinus infection. This as well as Aphrin, an over the counter nasil antihistamine, solves the problem. I can say for certain that this works because on my last flight to Haiti in December I had a sinus infection and the steroids and Aphrin helped to allow my ears adjust to the cabin pressure.
Talk to your doctor to see if they can help you get antidiarrheal tablets, antibiotics, and inflammatory steroids. These are a good first aid. Aphrin is available over the counter at most pharmacies.
Philippines: Manila, Batad, Puerto Princessa
It was the night of December 23rd when I arrived it Rjeka. While I was on the train from Salzburg, Austria, my mom sent me a photo of her Christmas tree. I wasn’t missing it. I was not bothered by not being close to family for the holidays. Squint at it if you will. I was enjoying myself.
Though some of the most fun, Salzburg was cold. THIS was nice. Mid winter and the weather was great. A long sleeved shirt was all I needed. I certainly over dressed for a day’s walk. Rijeka sits right on the water. It’s cupped in an inlet of the Adriatic Sea. Kind of like the armpit of Croatia – physically speaking. Rijeka is not an armpit in the least. Rijeka is stunning. Especially Opatija, which was a short 30 min bus ride north of Rijeka. Not a single photo I took while walking along the coast did Opatijia any justice. The city put me in the mind of a tiny Barcelona at times. But not entirely. I say Barcelona only because it’s European and on the coast. But this city is not like any I’ve visited. Perhaps the holidays had something to do with it but the calmness left a lasting impression. It wasn’t overly energetic or lacking any vibrancy. It was peaceful. A place where I would frequently vacation if I lived in Europe. Warm, quaint, friendly.
At night, Christmas Eve, I was in the city center where tons of people were out partying and drinking in public. Carried away by wine and the festivities I neglected to take pictures. But I do remember being hungry. I was looking for food but everything was closed. The only options I had were the sausage stands that served hot dogs, and sausage with mustard. No ketchup! That was it. A herd of people crowded around one in particular and it peaked my curiosity. I ordered one hotdog. It came back to me as this gigantic sausage accompanied by a bun. The bun did to the sausage what a bowtie does to a person. The width of 4 or so typical Oscar Myer weenies. It’s a hotdog that I had to wrestle for one bite. Then it left me wondering how the line was justified. Basic the hotdog was. Also, ketchup would’ve been so nice. I can’t do just mustard only. I don’t get how people do that. Enough about the hotdog. I danced, talked, socialized as liquor usually inspires me to. But there was more to be desired in the city center.
The Hostel 1W is a place I would recommend for budget travelers. Each wing has a themed after a continent. Each bunk had its own power socket, closet and lamp. The bathrooms are private with heated towel racks. And the breakfast is superb. All for less than the equivalent of $15 USD a night. Remember to pack lightly because there is no elevator. There are tall spiral stares that make it quite the workout if you’re lugging.
A last morning stroll through the town and the coast before leaving for my afternoon bus to Zagreb. The bus station was close to the water. And maybe 300 meters from the hostel. The sun rise on Christmas day made it one of the best Christmases ever. Everything was overflowing with gold light. I regretted having to leave.That afternoon, it was a $20 USD, 3-hour ride to Zagreb.
I arrived at dark. The first thing I noticed was the difference in temperature from Rijeka that was only 3 hours away. Back to cold again. My hostel wasn’t walking distance to the station. I had to take a 10-minute trolley. But the ride was so spectacular. The city was brightly light with Christmas lights. It was beautiful. Something to see. The markets are so alive. From the window to window of the trolley, it was busting with energy and food. I was anxious to find my hostel so I could get up and out. From my stop the hostel was well hidden. An alley on what seemed to be a major street led me to the Swanky Mint Hostel. I would later find that this hostel would be among my top 3 favorite hostels. The service here is second to none. Music, a bar, lounges, swimming pool, open kitchen…help yourself to free food if you’re hungry. People from all walks. I immediately felt right at home. I slept in a room with bunks made of particle board but don’t let that stop you. Each guest in the room was given a key card for the room and a personal lock. The bathrooms were private with heated towel racks. I will say that the amenities were not as nice as the Hostel 1W in Rijeka BUT…the atmosphere is what makes this hostel so incredible. The hostel enriched my stay in Zagreb. Refer to Hostel World under the Travel Tips tab to read more about my experience at the Swanky Mint Hostel.
I decided to take a look into the bar where everyone was gathered around, drinking and dancing. And I immediately found someone who was also interested in strolling through the Christmas markets. William from London. The markets and the city center were all within walking distance from the hostel. Mulled wine, cotton candy, ice-skating, churros, donuts. Santa hats, roasted chestnuts, glazed walnuts and pecans, candy apples, ice cream, snow cones, hotdogs (served with ketchup)…so much to stress out about at the gym. It is so easy to get carried away with the food. There is no stopping someone like me who wants to try everything. The churros were right on time. I’m a sucker for churros. Oh and chestnuts. I love it all.
The next day started early with breakfast. Outstanding! Cereal, waffles, toast, everything I needed for the day. The station wasn’t busy or crowded. After a short line I purchased my round trip ticket for the equivalent of roughly $15 USD. After boarding the bus I realized that I had eaten too much and it pushed me into a a coma for the better part of the 2.5 hours. When I arrived, there wasn’t much to see. There was a pavilion and a trail. The lakes were hidden. It wasn’t long on the trail before I caught a glimpse of something sparkling in the distance. Spectacular! Wooden planks that lead you through the lakes. The water was deep turquoise and still. Not many people. No distracting tourists that rob me of the authenticity. It was clean. Well protected. The air and wind and weather were all so tranquil, I knew I was going to spend the entire day here. It’s easy to take your time, and take in the sound of slow streaming water. My mistake was not bringing enough water. The water is so clear and appetizing; it’ll make you lick your lips.
When I made it back to my hostel I had one last night on the town. I wandered and found The Johann Frank, which is a restaurant and coffee shop. I know it to be a very unforgettable night club. Great music to dance to. People here dress up. Open dance floor. VIP section and waiters and waitresses who take your drink orders. It seemed to me like the place to be on any night. I will admit that stranger than normal looks were passed in my direction. I am used to standing out. I have been told I have that kind of charisma. But this was amplified on an exponential scale. After mingling with a gorgeous young lady she disclosed to me that not many dark skinned westerners are seen in Zagreb. Being rare, it was assumed I was “some celebrity from MTV or something” as she put it. That’s when I said, “oh you don’t recognize me? Kevin Hart is the name.” I have never been a fan of people comparing my likeness to his, so I ended the joke there. In reality I am a celebrity…just not yet. Without a doubt I had a fantastic night. If you visit Zagreb, you must come to this beautiful night club. It feels rich. It is a great place to enjoy yourself. And for me, the perfect spot to have ended this leg of my travels.
Croatia is an lovely country. The portions I got to experience were absolutely stunning and filled me with memories that I’ll forever cherish.
Peace. If I have ever experienced it, I experienced it here. Christmas was the perfect time to visit this magnificent place. As I recall back to winter of 2015, Slovenia was not at the top my list of places to visit before exiting Europe. It was supposed to be a pit stop before Croatia. Little did I know that this country was going to be a highlight of Europe for me.
The train arrived at a rickety old building that was supposed to be the Ljubljana station. Not a good first impression to the city. Cracked paint. Wooden supports exposed. But God forbid they forget the state of the art McDonalds. Priorities screamed, “’Merica!”
None one was waiting for me and none of the cab drivers around me spoke English. Sinful of me to expect them to. Hostelworld said the hostel was about a thirty-minute walk. I have always embraced exploration. Perhaps I’ll find some neat scarfs on the way. When I reached Vila Veselova, the kind hosts brought me to a room with bunks that had outlets, drawers, lockers, and night lights build in. The overall feel of the hostel was old apartment-like yet warm. I set my backpack in the locker part of the bed and rushed out. I tend to suffer from time-lapse anxiety. When I arrive at a new destination, I immediately expect a new experience. And when I feel I haven’t found a certain peace or thrill shortly after my foot has touched ground, I must find it before the day curtains.
Christmas was in 3 days and the markets were alive and well. Out of all of the Christmas markets I visited in Europe, Ljubljana was by far the most Unique. Lights of different themes, outer space, Pokémon… and the stands were full of delicious foods like lamb burgers and barbecue. One thing to never miss while at a Christmas market is the Mulled wine. It’s wine heated like an herbal tea with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and sometimes spiked with something stronger.
Before heading back to the hostel I explored the Castle of Ljubljana. Once a defense fortress for Cornelia, it stands as a museum and citadel with a fantastic areal view of the city. I was on my way up when I met a fellow who was fond of American culture. I cannot remember how the conversation initiated. But it was a conversation that lasted a couple hours, till the castle closed for the night. Robert and I found common interests in music. He was extremely enthusiastic about American culture. Eventually I asked him what was the most important thing to do in Slovenia? He mentioned Lake Bled. Because Slovenia was nothing more than a pit stop, I did not do enough research to know what Ljubljana had to offer. The only plan on the agenda was to improvise. I took his word and ran with it.
On top of Castle Ljubljana (Excuse the quality)
The next morning I walked to the train station that happens to also be a bus station. The ticket to Bled was very cheap. I believe it was about 5 euros each way. The forty-minute ride through the countryside was something to see. The mountainous region with clear blue skies and carpeted with green. It looked like the landscape of a train set. I opened dialogue with a middle-aged woman who spoke broken English. I cannot remember what I said. But someone on the bus was being loud and I made a joke. It looked like I made her day. I moved from my seat, which was about two seats back to sit behind her. She was amazed at my being a lone passenger traveling through Europe as if it was something only couples do. She was telling me all about bled and what I must do before leaving. Bled cake!
The bus stopped and I immediately reached for my camera. This place was breathtaking. It was winter and it was as she said, "the best time to come because there are no tourists and it is quiet." When the bus left, silence and miniature ripples in the water were all I heard. All I wanted to do was walk. Meander slowly and take in the serenity.
As I walked, I saw there were boats letting people onto the river. The first one I found was small but I would have needed to wait 20 minutes because the driver wanted a bigger party. I had just arrived and wanted to see what else was in store. A quarter of the way around the lake I found row boats. Something I can engage in. A motorboat is too easy. I like the slow hike to my hostel, the long walk around the lake, rowing of the boat instead of a pontoon. I like getting dirty and engaging with my destination. I recall correctly, 15 euros got me an hour on the lake. The lady working the rentals walked me to my boat and gave me a time to return. No rowing introduction -- not that one was needed-- no do’s and don’ts, just a gentle push off the tiny wooden dock. I rowed and sweated a lot. I hadn’t been to the gym in about a week up to that point so I was really putting in work. Rowing is harder than it looks. Then, I rested. It was in this moment I felt special. Graced with something so divine. I still fail to put it in words. I was able to spontaneously embark and arrive at a location as glorious as this. The mountains surround me. The silence in the clean, fresh air. Everything had been given to me. If not before, in that moment. I was surrounded by beauty. Angels. “I’m truly blessed.” “Special.” Then I continued to row.
The island at the center of the lake has a church. They say if you make a wish and ring the church bell, your wish will come true. A 4 euro ticket led me to a small catholic sanctuary with a long rope hanging by the ceiling in front of the alter. But no wishes were really needed. At lake bled, the whether, my health, my sense of freedom all converged into this perfect moment in time. As if the veil of heaven had been pulled back for a few days. Far from sorrow, I could only wish for world peace and for more moments like these.
I had hiked an appetite. On my way back to the bus I was asking the locals about places where I could find the best Bled cake. Answers led me to Park Restaurant and Cafe. The atmosphere screamed wedding reception. Purple chairs. Purple table covers. Burgundy wallpaper and all those gazebos. I wanted to sit by the window to stare at the lake. Here, I ran into the same woman from the bus. Her name was a tad difficult to remember. The same lady from the bus invited me to her table to have afternoon lunch with her. She’s a sweet lady. Married. But enjoys being alone and visiting places like this. We had pleasant conversations before ordering. Bled cake comes in the shape of a square and was light. The texture still sticks with me vividly. The was like flan but much better. There is very little that I don't like when it comes to food. Flan is one of the very few food I cannot stand. It's the texture. Not the taste. The cream layer was light and frothy and complimented the custard layer beneath it very well. I do not prefer soft custard like pastries. I would have given the cake a thumbs down if it weren’t for the crispy thin layer of pastry and powdered sugar that decorated the top. That crunch on top was a necessary contrast in texture to the soft cream and custard below. It wasn't blowing me away. But I'm glad I got to try it.
It was a pleasure lunching with the nice lady. The bus had arrived and it was time to head back to Ljubliana. She asked me if I was stopping at Lake Bohinj or heading straight back to Ljubliana. I had never heard of lake Bohinj. She said it was a must see. A motto that I follow when traveling is “spontaneity is king.” My itinerary had another advent.
It was a 30 minute bus to Bohinj. 4 extra euros. When I got off the bus, there was no one in site. She was right. Magnificent. THIS was real silence. No wind. The water was still. No voices. I assumed they were at peace as well.
I started walking on a trail that wraps around the lake. It was hard to make progress because every few steps, there was an incredible vantage point to snap a photo, sit, and meditate.
I sat and witnessed clouds roll over the snowcapped mountains and hover just above the lake without sound.
I could feel it again. Except this time it is even stronger. Special. A gift from God to experience this unheard of crinkle in the map. It was like a treasure I had unearthed. Instead of gold, pure serenity and life. The silence still amazes me. I had never experienced such natural silence before in my entire life. It was truly profound.
After walking for about for 30 minutes I realized the size of the lake. It’s no joke. I tried to make it at least half way. But no. I didn’t even make it a quarter of the way around. The lake is deceptively massive.
An hour bus ride took me back to Ljubljana. I was so exhausted, all I did was blink and wound up there. When I had Wi-Fi at the hostel I saw that Robert had been trying to reach me. He told be come to the Christmas market where he and some of his friends were. It took me a 15-minute walk to get to the market. It was bustling with people. People laughing, drinking, music playing. It was like a citywide party in the city center. So much energy. It was beautiful. More beautiful than the night before. If that’s is what December 23 looked like, I would fly back just to see Christmas Eve.
When I found Robert, it was a party. His friend owned one of the stands and gave me mulled wine and alcohol to catch up with them. The mulled wine was absolutely necessary because it felt like negative 12 F. Bundling up in 4 layers and a parka was still no match for the Slovenian winter. Warm wine and so much fun. This was a great group of people. Loose on booze and wine, we shared laughs and times that alcohol can’t erase.
The next day, Robert invited me to his house to meet his family before I left for Zagreb. When I got there the door slammed behind me. And there was a little clown slowly eased into the fourier on a tricycle and said, "I want to play a game. "
Just kidding they were the sweetest people I had every met. His sister, Kleja, and brother, Kristjan, welcomed me and were delighted to meet me. Robert apparently gassed me to up to them. His sister made me some tortellini with salmon. It was the most delicious meal I had during my time in Slovenia. It was cheesy creamy pasta that was packed with flavor. To die for. We debated about music. New hip hop is better than old school hip hop. It's a debate I'm willing to have with anyone. That was almost 2 years ago. I can't defend the music of today. Puppy dog eyes then extended hugs. I told them that my stay in Slovenia was already impeccable. And that because of them, it's a place that cannot be topped. I rushed to my train.
Slovenia was not a place where I anticipated thrills and wonderment. But both exist here. Slovenia is a hidden treasure that I encourage you to explore if you haven't. Engage with your surroundings. Talk, laugh, open dialogue. Enrich your experience no matter where you go. But Slovenia particularly makes it easy.