Krakon, Krakow

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Walking through the market square en route
I caught the 10:05 train with Jolanda and another guide friend of hers to Krakow, though it didn't show up until about 30 minutes after that. Which was good considering we had the slowest ever cashier on the planet. She's in Poland. Who knew? On the train ride there, they told me a bit about Krakow and what I should see, including the Wieliczka Salt Mines, and gave me some stuff to read about on the city and everything. I checked out a hostel called the Strawberry which looked quite unfriendly and was in the middle of nowhere, so I instead went to Kadetus hostel and checked in. Much more friendly, smaller, and a nice place, albeit more pricey. But for the location it was worth it.

A beautiful theatre
It was hot. And my hair had days ago become what we engineers like to call 'unmanagable'. So my first order of business was to finally get a hair cut. I walked into the place and asked the woman if she spoke English. A little. Good. I sat down. Then, inexplicably, she flagged someone else over to do my hair and scurried out the door. Leaving me with a very bored/angry looking girl who spoke no English at all. She didn't smile once. At me. She did smile finally when the other girl came running back and said something, but immediately after that, she bolted out the door, leaving me with half a haircut sitting in the chair awkwardly. She finally came back with no explanation whatsoever and finished my haircut. If you can call it that. Well, it's definitely a cut, and I guess that hair was what was cut, but it's not exactly pretty. It is short, at least, so it's not like it can be too bad, but I think this girl is part of an international chain of hairdressers who give tourists bad haircuts as some sort of diabolical plan to keep people from travelling.

The roof is on fire
I left the place and discovered immediately the reason she'd left mid-haircut... there was a fire four doors down from us - from the looks of it, a grease fire from the Sphinx Restaurant. I walked past the place as the fire engines arrived and into the market square, on which it sat at a corner. So I watched the fire a little more and it got quite large before they finally got things under control, and smoke occasionally filled the square, so I left and strolled around the city the rest of the afternoon, grabbing some perogies and white borsch soup for dinner and then I went out for a beer with two Scottish girls from the hostel before calling it an early night. We had to be at the salt mines nice and early, after all.

A grand room in the salt mines
So the next morning, we left for the salt mines, and though it was nice, it wasn't exactly early. We didn't get there until 11:00 or so. The salt mines are quite old, having been used since the 1200s, and were quite important to Poland at the time. Salt was rare then, in Poland, and in the world in general. So rare that it was worth more than gold at times. We descended the staircase (there were a LOT of stairs) into the mine, about 130m deep with our english guide, and he showed us around all the carvings and everything. There was an underground cathedral, ballroom, lakes, and all sorts of stuff there that was quite impressive. All carved right out of the rock salt. Aside from the carvings and massive ballrooms, this is much more what I imagined a mine like than the Potash one I was in back home. Small walkways, low timber beams, that sort of thing.

Afterwards, we came back into the city and I strolled around again, though it was too hot for this. 32 C today, supposed to be 35 C tomorrow, so I made my way back to the hostel. I was feeling quite wiped out and sort of in recovery phase from the sick, so I took it easy in my sweltering room, read a bit, and wound up asleep quite quickly. I woke up the next morning and discovered Jess sitting at the table eating breakfast, which, though I knew she was coming, was still sort of a shock. It's always so cool to run into someone and hang out, and I was quite sure we'd have a Jesstacular (tm) Time. Which we did, but more on that when I get to Sat night.

Auschwitz should have had this sign at the entrances too
Jess & I went to Auschwitz that morning and spent a good part of the day there. I had been to a concentration camp before, so it wasn't as depressing as I was afraid it might be, or maybe it was just because we didn't have a guide. Jess & I did buy a guide book though and work our way around Auschwitz I, and while I've said it wasn't as depressing as I was afraid it'd be, it was still horrible. The things that people do. They had rooms full of possessions of the Jews, Poles, political prisoners, and POWs which they kept for resale, not to mention their glasses, toothbrushes, and hair. Most of which was still there on display and quite disturbing to say the least.

The man in the yellow everything
We caught a cab to Birkenau, with a very unintentionally hilarious Polish driver in a yellow shirt who we couldn't understand at all. The odd words here and there, but a lot of it was over our heads. He did point out some things of significance on the 3km trip, but, to give you an idea how long he talked to us, it took about 20 mins. He talked about his travels to the US and Canada (after learning I was a Canadian), then about his family, and then... he brought out his photo album. And showed us his wife, kids, grandkids. Jess & I were smiling broadly and it was about all we could laughing whenever we could. We exchanged a lot of, "I can't believe this/This is hilarious" looks and finally left the cab. Well worth the price over the bus (which we would've had to wait 30 mins for), the guy was great.

Birkenau was massive. The scale of people they brought there and killed was incredible. Just acres and acres of row houses where people were crammed in. It was largely still in ruin, which I think is good, certain things you don't restore. We walked along the tracks and saw what there was to see, and made our way back to the hostel. We did have a nice Georgian meal, except our steak looked like, tasted like, and definitely was chicken, even after I'd showed her that one menu said a #7 was chicken and the other steak. Also, after insisting the cheese was on the side, it wound up right on my chicken. But it was good. We also came across a really out there but quite cool Polish ... band... I guess? Check out the video here (right click, Save As). I assure you it was even more hilarious and awesome in person, and we stood transfixed. It wound up being 38 C today, so again, we took the evening a little easy. I still wasn't feeling tops and Jess hadn't really slept in some time, so we called it an early evening in preparation for Saturday night.

Cool stained glass
Saturday day, we headed to the grocery store, built what may well be one of the most massive but tasty sandwiches ever created (we had people later asking us where we'd bought it), a couple beer and oranges, and took a bus to the lake where the locals all hang out, Krispynov. It was very busy but cool, and definitely refreshing after the heatwave we'd been having. It was 'only' 32 C today, and it was nice not to be sweating and soaking our clothes. We went for a swim and ate as much of our sandwich as we could (Jess has pictures of this momentous occasion) and actually fell asleep on the beach for an hour or so I think. Oh, I almost forgot that that morning, Jess was supposed to head to the salt mines and I was going to sightsee, and I did get a little sightseeing in but Jess ran into some problems with the guy insisting there was no bus to the mines and didn't end up going.

Dinner at the hostel
Then, Saturday night. Dinner consisted of the remains of our massive sandwich and a really tasty watermelon we'd bought. I spent an hour on my first ever VOIP phone call home, but it was great, I got to talk to everyone a little bit. Even Denise at the restaurant. Though, being that it was long distance, I was perhaps not as chatty as I might have been. I didn't even get to insult her. They were getting ready for Con & Tara's wedding, which it really was a pity to miss, especially with all the family that was back in Saskatoon for that. Anyway, we ate our dinner and watched the more than welcome thunderstorm pass by from the balcony. It was a nice evening in the hostel.

The four of us out on the town
Then, we went out on the town with an Italian guy and another Aussie. We started at a place called Carpe Diem, which is great, I imagine, if you go as a couple. The music is rocky but the beat is still a 2/4 type of swaying/slow dancing beat, and it was quite funny to dance to. We had a few drinks there and got to talking/joking around a bit with some locals (it might even have been flirting), but we wound up leaving rather soon for a place around the corner with much better music. The people here weren't quite so good as at the other place, but we all had a great time anyway. Jess got up and dancing in the DJ booth, we all had a few more drinks and stumbled home sans the Italian at 3 AM (he stayed out until 6), where Jess & I chugged one of our two litre bottles and called it a night.

Today, I'm off for either Zakopane in the Tatra mountains or else taking an overnight train to Budapest. Jess is off tonight for Vienna. Wherever I end up, I'm sure you'll be hearing about it all too soon.

<Krakow Photos>

Oh, Those Russians!

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Where I was to meet Catherine and gang
The evening in Warsaw was nigh, and I was to meet Catherine, Emma, and whoever else might come with at 9:00 or 10:00. The place? The base of the famed King Sigmund III Statue in the old town of Warsaw. I made it there for 9:00, scarfing down some trashy fast food that was definitely not delicious en route. 10:00 was the backup plan because I had no idea what time they would get in, so when nobody showed up at 9:00, I went on a very worthwhile hunt for internet to discover the latest news and meanwhile discovered instead that the old town of Warsaw is beautiful and full of photo-ops at night. I don't get to do enough night shooting, I think I've only done it in Lisbon, Prague, and now Warsaw. I hope that they can convey how great it is here.

Old Warsaw by night
Anyway, I got back from my internet hike at 10:05 with the message that they were going to be meeting me after all. It turned out that I caught up to them from behind walking to the statue, so I snuck up on them and snapped a picture as I yelled something more incoherent than usual. It was so good to see them again, really, I only knew them over 20 days, and I've only not seen them for a week, but hey, I missed them. Catherine, Emma, and Danielle had trekked it over to see me, which was very nice of the three, considering it was a 45 minute "Jane someone" power walk and they got my message just before 9:30. Which also explained why there were only three. I hoped. They were to bring me back to the pub where everyone was, but a drink/rest was in order first, so we sat in the old town square with our assorted drinks and caught up on each others' tours. Sounds like Russia is quite the place, with people absolutely despising tourists (and blatantly charging them double or worse, refusing entrance to people they don't like, and generally looking for excuses to earn a bribe). Things sounded bad but very interesting and that really only got me more excited to go/disappointed that I wasn't, but also convinced me that I was not going to go alone. So that decision's been made, for the time at any rate.

We grabbed a nice drink at one of these cafes
After our brief rejoinder, we caught the bus back to their hotel (yes, I admit it was a right turn, not a left), which, I should say, compared to our Contiki campgrounds and my hostel, is the Ritz. 4 Star, Jacuzzi, big comfy beds, sandalless showers, and towels provided. But more on that later. The pub we were supposed to meet everyone at was reputed to be pretty close, but we combed blocks and blocks where it was supposed to be and even where it wasn't supposed to be, if we heard music coming from somewhere, and did not find it. We had to give up, and so I walked back to the hotel (just to give you an idea how unused to hotels I am, I mistyped hostel right there) and bam, Darren in the lobby. And there were the four of us (Danielle had gone to bed when we looked for the pub), just like our cabin in Mo I Rana, except instead of cards, it was vodka, which they were now old pros with. They had some good Russian stuff, and it definitely was good. Man, it was good to see these people again!

They let me tag along on their day tour
So back to this hotel, well, it turns out there happened to be an extra bed in one of the rooms, and wouldn't you know it, they'd already worked out that I could stay there with them. Dean is at the Ritz, baby! Of course, I'd be using the same clothes tomorrow as all my stuff is locked back at the hostel, and I had to borrow Darren's spray deoderant and brush my teeth with their toothpaste and my finger, but it was the Ritz. Better still, I got a nice, cheap as free breakfast the next morning. And then Mel, their tour guide, actually remembered me from our 5 minute meeting in Helsinki (perhaps because she's also Canadian), and before I could ask to tag along for the day, she invited me. What a sweetie! I also got to run into the rest of the old crew this morning, which was a great way to start the day.

Statue of Boleslaw along Royal Road
I boarded their Contiki coach and there was Jolanda, a local guide for Warsaw, who showed us all the sites and explained their significance. Then, free time. I wandered around with the twins, Dave (ah, The Simpsons juices flowed once more) & Belinda, Rob, Catherine, and Emma. However, that number quickly dwindled as the twins did some errands, Dave & Belinda had lunch, Emma went shopping, and Rob took off for the Culture Center. So Catherine & I strolled down the Royal Road, where all the landmarks are pretty much just lined up waiting. The thing with Warsaw is that it was systematically destroyed by the Nazis after the Jewish ghetto here had an uprising and then the entire city had a second one. They wanted it gone off the map. 85% of the city was levelled, shelled, burned, and blown up. And they rebuilt it, in some parts like the old town, exactly as it was (based on old paintings and photos) but other parts with the benefit of foreknowledge of the automobile. Which means nice, wide avenues and a pretty good layout, and that the monuments, most of which were either destoryed or pilfered and THEN destoryed, could be built again and put somewhere convenient. The rebuilding of the old town was so well done that it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. So that's a little history to fill out this already sprawling entry.

The usual suspects
Anyway, Catherine and I passed the hostel on the way down our stroll, and I went in and negotiated to have the money I'd already paid go for a room tomorrow instead of today since she wouldn't give me a refund. It was quite the effort, but basically it meant I got my next night in the hotel free. And I could REALLY Ritz it up ala my own deoderant. That's right. I also tagged along on one of their optional excursions, to go see a Chopin performance, which was cool. The woman can tinkle those keys, let me tell you. Then, off to dinner with the usual suspects, and out for a night on the town with everyone from our tour that was on the Russian leg. Plus me. It was great to finally catch up with everyone else, too, I hadn't had much time up until then.

We only drove by this yesterday
The next day, they left at 8 AM, which meant I had to get back to my hostel at 8 AM, which was difficult considering I was tired and sick with a little bit of a stomach flu. Seems I caught the bug that went around their bus. I took some Immodium which did help (eventually) and got back to my hostel anticipating a nice solid crash. Instead, I discovered they had filled up the night prior and I couldn't check in until 2 PM. So no sleep for the wicked. So, I headed off and checked out some of the things we glanced by or missed the day prior, including the other side of town, which you could also call the other/wrong side of the tracks or the Russian district. It belonged to the Soviets and so it wasn't gutted and destoryed by them or the nazis, apparently, but it wasn't exactly the model of urban rejuvenation either. As well, I ran into the Contiki Eastern Europe tour and Jolanda again, and it turns out she's going to Krakow tomorrow as well, so we're going to meet at the train station and maybe I'll get some of the lowdown or a bit of a tour of Krakow. Or else some company on the train. Either way.

Anyway, as I mentioned, I'm a little under the weather but nothing bad, but I wanted to have an easy day (failed). So instead of going out tonight, I thought I'd finally see War of the Worlds. I went with the receptionist from our hostel (the one whom I negotiated my little reservation rearrangement) and quite enjoyed it. Spielberg did a great job, and Tom Cruise didn't even annoy me in any way. Also, I saw some of the previews for other movies and must say I'm quite looking forward to seeing a lot of those when I get back and maybe a few (King Kong) over here. And now, I'm going to bed. Tomorrow, Krakow, and then... the world.

Oh, and I just heard that Jess will be in Krakow on Friday night, so that's really great too, Contikites of Europe, unite!

<Warsaw Photos>

See Warsaw

Sunday, July 24, 2005

NOTE: All Contiki Blogs and photos are complete and posted, as well as a new sidebar section on the left for those late to the game. Check it out... if you DARE.

Back to Stockholm and the familiar green scaffolding
Well, I got mostly rained out of Stockholm (it poured the first night and was on and off the second day) but I'd not taken a three and a half hour train to get one more day in a Stockholm hostel, no sir. Or ma'am. As the case may be. It was also rather exciting as it was my first chance to use the little device on my backpack that covers it so the contents don't get soaked. And I got to unfold my rain jacket.

A band playing outside the train station
I strolled around the town, hunting down my hostel for some time, with an American couple in tow who hadn't booked a place to stay. Sadly, my hostel had filled since I booked it, so they were off to try another place, and I searched even longer through the streets of Gamla Stan (Old Town) until finally I got a map and found it. I also hunted down an ATM, because my card hadn't worked in Goteborg, only to find that ATMs here wouldn't give me money either. I had changed the last of my money from Euros to SEK and it looked like that was going to have to do me. It was worrying/frightening that perhaps I'd already exhausted my monetary supplies. I obviously had no idea why it wasn't working.

Given that it was already early evening, I went out for a quick/cheap dinner, if you can call a McTasty that. And, I assure you, I can't. I'm not one to send stuff back, but the salt to beef ratio was high enough that a cow would happily munch down on it, blissfully unaware that there was a hamburger patty at all. The second attempt wasn't much better but I definitely wasn't complaining twice, plus the woman gave me a flurry while I waited, so I was full enough by then anyway to throw out the other half.

Sweden is full of pregnant ladies and carriages
I went out to a few bars, chatted with some guys from Africa, and then met two girls (in the washrooms' common sink, believe it or not) who invited me to sit with them. Now I know you're worried about me meeting girls in sinks, but they weren't the small imaginary variety, I promise. Anyway, I sat with them and their friends, one other girl and two guys, and wound up going to a house party with them. I'd heard the Swedish like their candles, but you should've seen this guy's house. It would be such a joke back home, it looked like a make out paradise. Except that it was completely normal for them all to just have a bunch of candles. I jokingly asked if he'd payed his power bill, and I cemented myself as most whimsical chap of the evening. Homer style. Anyway, I got home around 8 AM and grabbed two hours before checkout, then explored the town a little more. It was raining off and on again so I had little chance to take many photos, but I decided to take what I like to call, "Stockholm - the REAL story. The real people." photos instead.

The big Palace of Culture in Warsaw
Then, an overnight train to Warsaw, spending my remaining dollar (so my wallet was completely empty) on a snack that would have to pacify me until tomorrow where I HOPEFULLY would have some money again. Thankfully, I did get on the net and discovered I actually have more money than I thought, and also that my stocks have gone up quite nicely . Which means I should be okay for even longer than I'd thought! This seemed like terrific news coming from someone who thought they might somehow have been broke.

Anyway, night train to Warsaw, where I am now, leaving at 4 PM and arriving at 12 PM the next day. I was in a room with some Spanish kids, and got to catch up on my reading a little bit. Well, a lot. I bought another round of English books, having completed For Whom The Bell Tolls, How To Be Good, and Foundation by Ernest Hemingway, Nick Hornby, and Isaac Asimov respectively, thinking that Sweden would be an easier place than many others to get English books since EVERYONE speaks English. I bought Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of the Universe, a biography of Winston Churchill, a really interesting history of science and where we're at today, and some other book whose name is eluding me. I started the science history book on the train, which, again, is well written, funny, and as much about the characters that made the discoveries as about the discoveries, their meanings and implications, and am about 300 pages in of 550, so, considering I slept a lot on the train, it's obviously not bad. The train itself went pretty fast actually, and now I'm here at the Oki Doki hostel (sleeping in a room with a bunch of people who decided, with their extra sheets, that they'd make a little fort out of their bunks... I can't wait to meet them!) and will be meeting a few Contikites that went to Russia tonight who happen to also be in town. This is the beginning of my southern trek to Greece, I'm very excited to get there and see the fam as well as Johnny boy, not to mention Greece. But Warsaw seems cool so far, and I'll let you know all about it soon.

<Sweden Part Deux Photos>
<Warsaw Photos>

Sweden or Bust(s)

Friday, July 22, 2005

Our Contiki tour wrapped up nicely with a few days respite in Copenhagen. I stayed in a room with Nick, Steph, and Jess and hung out with them as well as Chad & Martymer for the next couple days and also got some serious updating done to my internet presence. The first day I mostly slept, awaking in time to get in on a pizza delivery order and watch part of a movie with Gene Hackman and Hugh Grant that looked spectacularly awful. The next day was a little more eventful. Chad cooked up a nice chicken dinner, and we went out for Marty's birthday to Absalon in Copenhagen. The barmaid took care of us, and the live acoustic act certainly catered to us, not to mention chatting with some Swedish girls in town for the night. All in all, it was a much needed breather, let me assure you.

Malmo is definitely into the music
It was sad to finally leave the campsite, I think that's when it hit that I'm alone again, but by the time I'd made the trek to the train station to get back into the city, the music was going and I'd forgotten my sorrow. I took off to Malmo, which was much less lively than expected, partly because it was too early in the week and partly because the students all go home over the summer. They have a good and well-renowned music scene generally. I met a Dutch guy named Inga (who is aware of his name's female implications in all languages except Swedish), who turned out to be a writer for a Dutch music mag and a bit of an electronica enthusiast/writer. We had a great time at the pub chatting but I'd decided it was time to leave Malmo by the end of the night.

French Sailors
So the next day I was off to Lund for a few hours, a nice place but not much to see, and then I went up to Göteborg (yoo-te-bor) and found my way to a hostel. Which turned out to be the only one with an all night reception, but no rooms. He did offer me the coveted janitor's room, however, which I gladly took. It actually wasn't bad at all. I didn't get woken up, I had the room to myself, and, I slept better than I had in some time. I upgraded to a dorm the next night, and spent the day exploring. It's quite a cool city and very alive, I'd definitely recommend it to anyone travelling through Sweden in July. I took a guided tour on a boat and wound up in a café chatting with two guys and two girls for a couple hours. One of them offered me a ride to Stockholm today since she was heading that way anyway, but given that it's a 6 hour drive and a 3 hour train ride, I had to pass. I went to Liseberg, the largest amusement park in Scandi, since I had free admission, and did splurge on one ride - a wooden rollercoaster. Well worth the 40 minute wait and the 60 SEK which, for my own sanity, I will not translate into dollars.

I made my way back to the hostel to change for a night on the town and wound up hanging around and chatting with some of the other hostellers. Big mistake. I now had three tag alongs, one of whom was drunk out of his tree, the other two who didn't want to go where I wanted to. So we walked along a street nearby and were denied access to one place because the guy was too drunk (if you look the slightest bit drunk, they don't let you in here at all), another because the other guy was not 23, and wound up at this place that I found out from some locals I saw walking by is sort of a joke, called the Red Room. It wasn't sketchy, per se, but I get the feeling they'd use it in a sentence the way we'd use the Barry or something.

Visit to the Botanical Gardens
And now, today, I'm going to do a little more museum stuff until my pass expires and grab the express train to Stockholm. I've given some serious thought to picking up a phone over here, just because it would be very convenient for calling hostels, orchestrating meet ups, and even checking email away from these cafés I get trapped in. But I would either be paying roaming charges in other countries or changing my number all the time, so maybe I'll hold out yet.

That's all for now. The Contiki trip blog is finally finished. Whew!

<Sweden Part Deux Photos>

Cruising Back Home

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Who Needs Russia
With Christmas a distant memory, we headed for Helsinki on Boxing Day, though we were even more tired than before for the most part. I think the average sleep was about 3 hours, and I was below that. Even pancakes and gnutella couldn't bring us back from the dead. Helsinki, for its part, was awesome. It's an absolutely gorgeous city, parts of it modelled after St. Petersburg, but all of it with its own charm - definitely my favourite of the Scandinavian capitals. It also, by vote from both men and women, took the contest for Most Attractive Locals. Amazing considering the competition!

Church Built Into the Rock
We took a little bit of a tour today, seeing Upenski Cathedral, Church of the Rock (a very impressive church built right into the stone, with a ceiling made of 32 km of copper strips), Senate Square, and so on. Catherine & I strolled through the city and found the famous hot chocolate man, whom we've decided has earned his right to be famous. Then a stroll to Upenski, the harbour, the market (where we picked up some wild strawberries and a few Finnish peas), and ran quickly through Nordstan, a famous department store.

Dinner in Memphis
This was to be our last night with the folks departing for Russia, so we went out for dinner at Armadillo, which was reputed to have some tasty dinner. Unfortunately, we didn't book ahead, so we split ways for dinner. I talked to the staff there and they recommended another restaurant down the street with equally good food, called Memphis. I wasn't keen on the name, but about 20 of us went over there and discovered that it was quite tasty. I had a steak, which I'd been craving again (at the moment, I'm craving a cinnamon bun like crazy) and everyones' meals seemed quite good. Some even went back for lunch the next day.

Farewell Party
Despite the split, we did all meet (or, given the context, maybe that should be 'meat') up at a pub at 9:00 for drinks and goodbyes. It was a little sad to say bye, but c'est la vie. We walked back to the hostel much later that evening and I'm sad to say that I got us slightly lost, though I credit a large part of that to my own foolishness in asking a drunken Chad for directions instead of a sober one earlier in the evening. The rooms were saunas, and not much sleep would be had tonight.

Goodbye to the Russkies
In spite of sleeping in a steam room, I still managed to wake up and get outside to say a final goodbye to the Russkies the next morning, even though it was just in pajamas and sandals. Goodbyes aren't much fun, I should tell you, but I was determined to do my best. I meant to make the most of Helsinki by exploring that morning, but fell back asleep by accident until almost noon. So I grabbed a bite in town, strolled around, sat in the park, and then made my way back in time to catch the Love Boat.

On the Love Boat...
Ah, the Love Boat. There's not much I can tell you about it other than it's an overnight ferry to Helsinki from Stockholm, but is more like a cruise/party ship. And that's what we did. We sat on the deck in the sun, watching the islands of Helsinki drift by, with buckets of Smirnoff in front of us. We ate an all you can eat/drink buffet which culminated in me becoming general (ask when I get home) and Sean receiving a little pink in the hair, and then went to the disco to party the evening away. Gord & I hung out mostly, and man was he hilariously toasted. Like, let's chat up these two girls who are FAR too young, toasted. Like, walking outside, past the WC, turning the corner, leaning against the ferry wall with one hand, and taking a nice whiz in the rather public walkway toasted. So, it was good times. I didn't have to deal with a stalker (Juaquin), losing a dance off (Chad), or entering a karaoke contest (Anita).

Final Dinner at Rosie McGees
Chad did his best to keep the party going on the bus once we got off, but given our lack of sleep, it maybe lasted an hour. There was front-of-the-bus chit chat, impressions, microphone passing, and so on. Soon, everyone was making the best of our friends' departure... two seats for sleepery. Getting back to Copenhagen was nice, sort of a return to where we came from, older, wiser, and more sleep deprived than ever. We all went for dinner to Rosie McGee's, which was an Amigos style place (down to the Mexicana and live music) and pretty decent all said. The boys were presented with gifts and poems, and the rest of us with heaps of food, and then back to the camp for most of us for a final farewell party that never really got off the ground. I wound up finally talking to Andrea a little and going through all our collective photos, it's too bad that you talk to some people and not others, but it's a necessity on a 20 day trip, I guess.

Chad is determined to keep on partying
The morning breakfast was our final farewell for many more of these people, but they will always live on... in their respective countries. Where they will be victims of ceaseless emails and, when the technology is developed, smellograms. I had some doubts going into this Contiki trip, but all of them turned out to be unfounded. I was with 45 great people, had a great time, don't really regret missing Roskilde anymore, and saw some things I likely would've missed on my own. Thanks to all, especially Chadster, Seanovan, and Michelle for making it a great time. Now, back to our regularly scheduled European adventure.

<Helsinki Photos>
<Love Boat/Farewell Photos>

All Downhill From Here

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Back across the Arctic Circle
With our excursion to Nordkapp successfully completed, we were due south. Especially given that there are very few other directions we could travel from up there. So, in order to obey the laws of physics, we did just that. We took off in the morning to Rovaniemi, perched on the Arctic Circle in Finland. You may have heard of it... Santa has his village here. It´s a lot more convenient than the north pole and the reindeer are plentiful, after all.

Sooo tired
The trip was long and sleep was taken by many on the bus. As usual, I had to stay away, frozen in terror (see photo). Today was my day as cookie (cook), and we did up a nice chicken curry that was both tantalizing and tempting. As always, the credit goes to Sean for his wonderful cookery skills. Aside for non-Aussies: Cookery n - Food obtained after a night on the town. The 'r' should be rolled as though you're a pirate. Anyway, we ate some food and then Darren and I got to work on the pool table. Now here's the part nobody will believe, but it's true. After a little warming up had taken place, I proceeded to do the following two feats in one evening:

1) Clear the table on my first shot.
2) Sink the 8 ball off the break.

Needless to say, the crew was fooled into thinking me some sort of Pool God, and who could blame them? Perhaps someday, I shall reign again. I should mention that when we first showed up, I took a walk along the water with the twins, the Spaniard, the Rob, and the nemesis (aka Lee). I also took another walk a little later with Catherine, though the mosquitos proved to be a little vicious.

Hopping in the Sleigh at Santa's Village
We stopped the next morning at Santa's Village, where I treated myself to a new wallet given that my old one was unfit to hold even Canadian money ever again. It's nice and made of Reindeer leather, which also qualifies it as my first souvenier. We actually ran into the man himself at the village, Mr. Klaus, who was gracious enough to stop for a photo with Catherine, Emma, Belinda, Dave, and I, and then we headed off to Keuru. En route, we all wrote down and Chad read our trip highlights, which was at times hilarious and also very nice. Melissa had a certain indiscretion of mine as her highlight, which definitely makes a person feel good (thanks, Mel!). Mine was about the horrific movie in Nordkapp, which, really, was the hardest I'd laughed in some time.

Los Tres Amigos
That night, we celebrated Christmas a little early, and had a Secret Santa gift exchange which was a lot of fun. Would you believe that Jess & I bought the exact same thing!? I thought I would be the only one with a Scandinavia Disc, and certainly the only one with a Scandinavia 5 disc. Crazy! Plus we had a nice Christmas dinner courtesy of Sean. The night also marked the creation of Los Tres Amigos, and some horrifically amusing Mexican accents and ancestry. It's funny because something similar happened on our last trip, and neither time was it my idea. We all sported cheesy mustaches for the occasion. Finally, as with any Christmas celebration, there was drinking, and lots of it. Everyone had a good time, I think, whether it was plummeting through a veritable canyon between two boulders, shotgunning beer (and then reverse shotgunning them back again), or something else entirely, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.

<Rovaniemi/Keuru Photos>

MC Hammerfest

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Exploring Hammerfest
It wasn't on the itinerary, but on the way up to Hammerfest, we stopped at a place with some ancient rock carvings, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was a good call on Chad's part, because even if it turned out to be nothing too spectacular (and it wasn't) it wasn't really dull either... certainly better than a Shell station. We had a large Russian looking woman to tell us what it could be and also that it could be anything else. Meaning we walked around and she would say, "This may be a boat where they hunted the reindeer. But it may not be. Maybe it's just a reindeer with no legs." It was actually rather amusing and she endeared herself to us.

Carissa in the booth of truth
We arrived mid-afternoon into Hammerfest, and I explored the surrounding hillside for an hour or two with Rob and then also with Juaquin and Gord later, before dinner. After dinner, it was on with the dress clothes and we packed on to the coach for the night trek to Nordkapp, leaving at 7:30 PM. The drive up was the first and only time we were allowed to drink on the bus, and it was quite a party as far as I remember. The coach trip has never gone so fast. There was something called the Booth of Truth, where basically anyone who used the washroom (impossible not to, incidentally) had to come to the front and answer three questions on the microphone. Questions of which nature I won't repeat on this family-oriented blog, but I'm sure you can guess. Needless to say I ducked out of my questions rather shamelessly.

Foggy days and nights
Today was the first day where it appeared the weather was not going to cooperate, which was too bad because I think it's one of the most important days to have decent weather, but given our luck so far, I wasn't too upset about it. We arrived in a thick fog and made our way inside the visitors' centre. We discovered a line in which we waited up to 20 mins for a movie which I consider to be one of the greatest travesties of our time. It was supposed to be on Nordkapp but instead was helicopter footage set to music over other parts of Norway, coupled with dramatic plunges into the sea to view... nothing... and then random closeups of flowers where the music would get all tense for some reason and then one of the screens would slowly zoom in. Being that everyone else was in agony and it was sooo poorly done, I actually found it to be hilarious and even took some video of the movie. We had some French people behind us badmouthing us 'English' and being a battleaxe, so when she'd finished the worst of it, I turned around and said, "Pardon". You should've seen the look of horror on her face. Priceless. Anyway, the movie was actually quite amusing, albeit unintentionally so.

The cloud lifts
We got out and went to the window. The fog had lifted slightly! So we went outside and got a few shots and noticed the fog continuing to clear. The clock neared midnight and with about 10 minutes to go, as though God himself had parted the cloud for us, we had the midnight sun shining through the clouds. We really were blessed with exceptionally terrific weather this whole trip. Seeing the sun at midnight was rather an undefinable but definitely amazing experience, even though we'd perhaps become accustomed to late night light already since we'd been winding our way north for over a week by now. We hung around for a little while longer and headed back on the bus at about 12:30 for the trek home, getting in just before 4 AM.

Working for dinner
After a nice sleep-in, I headed into town with Naomi and we hung around for awhile. She had some sad news on the internet front but I was happy to be able to help her a little. Then we split ways and I went to find my fishing crew. I was a little nervous about deep sea fishing and even the small waves on the way out did make me a little queasy. Thankfully, Carissa had some anti-nausea stuff that I took before which may have saved me. Once we got out, we hand reeled everything. It was really too easy. Drop in a line. Untangle it from someone else's. Pull it up. A fish. Maybe two (I caught two). Possibly three. I'll be honest, I wasn't actually a big fan of it, even catching the fish. It was neat to have caught it, but, I don't know. I wouldn't do it again, I guess.

A dip in the Arctic Ocean
We rode back in, ate our catch, and then it was time for the Polar Plunge. As in, swimming in the Arctic Ocean. Wellsir, let me just say that it is COLD. Like, much colder than I've ever swam at the lake or anywhere else. I tried three times to get in and get my head wet, which I had done no problem in Mo I Rana, and only succeeded because Juaquin and Chris decided I must and helped me along, if you will. Still, I did it and it did live up to its name for sure. Then we climbed back up all the rocks we'd had to climb down to get there, took a sauna, and headed into town. The pub was alright, not too shabby, and it was nice because a lot of people came out. I wound up sitting with a bunch of girls and Chris and getting the latest on the gossip scene for a spell, though I did sit with everyone sooner or later. There were some strange locals, some of which were hitting on Chris, other wouldn't leave us alone, and so on. We ditched the place eventually and headed back for the night around 1:30, under full light of day. Ah, the great light north.

<Hammerfest Photos>
<Nordkapp Photos>

Fjords, Glaciers, Bullfrogs

Saturday, July 09, 2005

A bridge in Trondheim
Today was a momentous occasion, for it marked my final day as a dishy (i.e. doing dishes). To celebrate, we did absolutely nothing, and what a great time we had! We left for Trondheim stopping first at a place called, seriously, Dumbass. Which was really just a souvenier stand/place to get some food and, in fact, the same one we'd stopped at on the way up though I didn't mention it then. We also stopped in Hell. Apparently, Norway has a bit of a confidence problem. It was a short drive to Trondheim, and we arrived with plenty of time to walk around.

Little building on the river
I quite enjoyed the city and would rather have spent more time here than Oslo, it's quite beautiful and used to be the capital of Norway once upon a time. I walked with Darren along the grassy riverbank (called a beach by locals) and admired the cute Norwegians. After exploring sufficiently, I found a camera shop that I was able to recover some of my hires photos that I accidentally deleted, though I ran out of time at the end. The guy who ran the store didn't charge me for using his computer or using the internet while the recovery software was running, which was very nice of him.

One of the best parts of Trondheim is that we were in a hostel near the centre, which means going out without having to worry about metro shutdown times or cab rides home. We went back to the hostel and changed for a night on the town, and for some reason I didn't bring my camera with me, but most of us headed out for all you can eat pizza (a big competition between Gord & Juaquin ensued with Gord finishing 12 pieces in 20 minutes and Juaquin edging him out at 13) and then some 10 pin bowling. Both were a lot of fun, even if I was near the bottom with my awe-inspiring score of 76. We hit the town and partied together, then thanks largely to Juaquin's maneuverings, he, Gord, Rob and I wound up chatting with seven very cute local girls. I somehow ended up with the cutest, at least in my opine, whom we all agreed looked a little like Kate Hudson. I walked back to the hostel with Nick and we watched the sunrise at around 2 AM and then I hung out with Emma and Catherine in the lobby and chuckled impolitely at a couple girls' misfortune at discovering bedbugs.

The idyllic spot we picniced
The next day, July 7, was a long trek to Mo I Rama, broken up by a beautiful picnic spot. We were sitting right on the river with our feet in it admiring the tranquility when someone received word on their cellphone of terrorist bombings in London, it was a very surreal moment to be in this place of nature and thinking about the jungle of society and the degenerate scum that inevitably appear within. In any case, the lunch was nevertheless beautiful and we all did our best to thoroughly enjoy our stop there despite the news. As I sat there I suddenly saw something whiz by my face. A grape! I returned fire and then decided I would try to catch the grapes in my mouth from the riverbank. Soon there were several people doing it, though I succeeded only once.

View from our cabin
We had a beautiful cabin in Mo I Rama, right on the river. There was a big room and a small room, or rather, a closet attached to the washroom where someone had somehow fit in two beds. Darren saved me from this by claiming the top bunk in the big room as mine. The river was from a glacial melt in the nearby mountains, and no more than 7 dergees C, so some of us went swimming in it. It was bloody cold, but good fun. I had a competition with Melissa which I managed to win, somehow, and stayed in for about 20s before the stabbing sensation was too much. That night there was an 80s party hosted by Emma & Catherine that was a lot of fun! We sat on their porch and chatted and drank while listening/singing to 80s music and admiring the view. Towards the end of the night, the party was winding down, and I felt it my responsibility to revive it. So when Joy To The World came on, I 'sang' the first line at the top of my lungs...

Jeremiah was a bullfrog!

Apparently, it was funny, and I suppose I can see how given that it was pretty quiet at that point and, to everyone else, came out of nowhere. It became something I was famous for, put it that way, and the number of times I would hear this moment referenced throughout the remainder of the trip has become more uncountable than pi.

The hike to the glacier
The next day was rather relaxed. We left for a beautiful walk to see a glacier. We had to get on a ferry, cruise down a fjord, and then hike through some really cool metamorphose (thanks, Lee) rocks to get there for about 30 mins, but it was completely worth it. We were warned by the Chadster to not approach it nor stand on it (or do so at our own peril), but when you see this thing in person, you realize that you must.

So I did. I walked up there, ran into Lee, and we both touched the glacier. Then I decided to get in one of the caves quickly for a photo. I got a couple photos all of which were great. The glacier creaked overhead (Lee has a picture of this as well, she probably thought it would be an action shot of my demise) and I got out of there. Then I decided to stand on it and Lee again took a photo, but neglected to get in my feet so it looked like I was just standing in front of it. We became mortal enemies at this point (I sometimes think she took me seriously) and then hiked back together and joined the rest of the group.

At the Arctic Circle
Since it was a free day, Chad thought we might seek out some gocarts, and we looked for them but to no avail. It was a fun adventure through nowhere, though. We also crossed over the arctic circle and stopped at the Arctic Circle centre today since tomorrow was a long drive. So now I've done it. I've joined people like the Sea Captain in The Simpsons in crossing the Circle. We had a so-called beach party to which noone turned up looking remotely in the theme, but it was fun anyway. I had a good chat with Catherine, and Darren stumbled into the room drunk and singing as was his way, so I made sure he drank a lot of water and went back to the campfire for a bit before hitting bed. I also got to teach some people how to roast marshmallows properly and went through the entire bag I'd bought for the occasion rather quickly.

1 AM in Ramfjord
It was a good day to get no sleep, because the next day was called Marathon day, the longest single day trip of any in all the Contiki tours. I managed to sleep 3 hours of it on the bus for the first time, perhaps aided by Gord who is no stranger to a little sleep on the bus, as he was sitting beside me. We made it to Ramfjord and Darren, Emma, Catherine, and I played cards in the cabin before calling it an early night around 12. I wandered out of the cabin around 12:30 in my pjs because the sky was so cool and got a nice shot of what 1 AM looks like this far north. Tomorrow would be another long trip to Hammerfest leaving at 6:30 AM, so I toddled to bed shortly after.

<Trondheim/Mo I Rama Photos>
<Ramfjord Photos>