birthright backpacking breakdown

I find statistics fascinating. Therefore:

DISTANCE
17,490 kilometers
-or-
10,868 miles

DESTINATIONS

16 countries

Ireland
Northern Ireland
Scotland
England
The Netherlands
Belgium
Luxembourg
Germany
Poland
Czech Republic
Austria
Switzerland
France
Denmark
Sweden
Norway

32 cities
Clara, Ireland
Loughrea, Ireland
Dungloe, Ireland
Gortin, Northern Ireland
Glasgow, Scotland
Edinburgh, Scotland
Felixkirk, England
London, England
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Utrecht, Netherlands
Brussels, Belgium
Bruges, Belgium
Gent, Belgium
Luxembourg, Luxembourg
Berlin, Germany
Warsaw, Poland
Krakow, Poland
Prague, Czech Republic
Vienna, Austria
Salzburg, Austria
Überlingen, Germany
Kandern, Germany
Lucerne, Switzerland
Bern, Switzerland
Pontcharra, France
Paris, France
Hamburg, Germany
Copenhagen, Denmark
Charlottenberg, Sweden
Ås, Norway
Bergen, Norway
Dublin, Ireland

DURATION
May 16, 2012 – September 5, 2012
16 weeks -or- 112 days

EXPENSES
total: $1,650

TRANSPORTATION

hitchhiking lifts
125 total
91 men
23 women
5 couples
2 police (ha!)
2 forgotten

planes
Orlando – Dublin
Bergen – London
Dublin – Orlando

trains
Amsterdam – Utrecht
Brno – Prague
Arna – Bergen
London – Dublin

ferries
Northern Ireland – Scotland
Germany – Denmark
somewhere in Norway – somewhere else in Norway
England – Ireland

buses
London – Amsterdam
Gortin – Omagh

rideshare
Paris – Utrecht


ACCOMMODATION

couchsurfing hosts
23 total
18 male
4 female
1 couple

helpx host
Charlottenberg, Sweden

friends
Glasgow, Scotland
London, England
Utrecht, Netherlands
Kandern, Germany
Lucerne, Switzerland
Pontcharra, France
Ås, Norway

hitchhiking lift
Felixkirk, England

ferry port
Larne, Northern Ireland

Burger King
Cologne, Germany

camping
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Bruges, Belgium
Udevalla(ish), Sweden

 

a native American, awesomely

We got stuck in Prague. Our destination a mere three and a half hours away, an easy hitch for us veterans, and we were stuck at our starting point. The beginning of the day’s hitching venture was exceptionally entertaining. We made it to our hitchwiki-recommended spot and found three other group/individual hitchers. It was humorous seeing literally a line of hitchhikers. We took our place at the back and set up shop. It was difficult to say what would work best – we had never encountered contenders before. We opted not to use the sign, as a couple ahead of us was going to the same place. Before an hour had passed we were striking one ridiculous pose after the next, in attempt to stand out from the other hitchers, and to entertain both ourselves and the passing drivers. We definitely received more reactions than usual, but ultimately failed in the ride-acquiring aspect of our antics. It was a hot and sunny day, and I’ve come to the realization that heat is my personal kryptonite. My mood was hanging on by a thread.

Surprisingly enough, it was the police who brought hope. A patrol car pulled up to each group (to what I assume was a symphony of groans, and in one case was a stealthy fleeing). But they weren’t there to reprimand us. They reminded us to drink plenty of water! What wonderful people. I asked about walking to the nearest petrol station. It was a two kilometer walk. After hours and hours, the birthright team decided to make the trek. It was a miserable walk. I was literally dripping with sweat upon arrival. With no hesitation, my normally ‘umm…thrifty’ brain purchased a ginormous bottle of peach green tea. Best decision ever. We ping pinged about the place. From the petrol station, to the McDonalds, and back. Hitchers we had seen at our earlier spot were here, too. Once they disappeared we took their place at the exit. And waited. For hours. In scorching sun and light hail. Today was not our day. We discussed plans for camping in the field behind us. We pretty much reserved ourselves to that and hitching was a mere formality when finally, finally two guys stopped for us. Two blessed Czechs and their dog. They could take us to Brno, more or less our halfway point. It was a pleasant ride, and they were really cool guys. Unfortunately I needed to use the toilet before we even got in the car. Curse that overly-large green tea and my liter of water. It’s times like this when I fully understand my phobia of needing to use the toilet while traveling. They dropped us at a shopping center seemingly in the middle of nowhere important. It was still light, but it was getting late. I used the toilet and purchased bread, cheese, and a tomato at Tesco. For some reason this has become the most delicious food combination in my mind. I find myself craving it. Weird. Anyways, there was no decent place to hitchhike. The so-called petrol station had a car or two every fifteen minutes, and the cars on the highway were going far too fast to stop.

At 10:30pm it was determined that we would sleep under the stars in just our sleeping bags. It was a nice night for it, warm and dry, though with no promise of remaining as such. Still, in no hurry, we sat outside of our pseudo-gas station with our sign for ‘Wien’. It was the most casual of hitching, with a very infrequent flow of traffic. Earlier I had what I called ‘a freak spurt of hope (which doesn’t always come to fruition)’, but now I wasn’t especially hopeful of acquiring that ride. We had no way of knowing if the few cars that passed us were even going to Vienna. And if they were ordinary, non-creepy night dwellers. Wouldn’t normal civilians be hesitant to pick up hitchhikers nearing midnight? Still, we sat. Praise God, a non-creepy and in fact, entirely normal couple hesitatingly slowed and stopped. They would be passing through Vienna, did we want a ride? Yes. We squeezed into their tiny, non-air conditioned car and rode to Vienna in the dark of night. We passed a moonlit lake, and villages dotted with glowing specks that were ever so reminiscent of the E.T. ride at Universal Studios. The windows were down and the conversation ebbed and flowed comfortably.

It was 1pm by the time we arrived and met up with Onur, our Turkish host. I wasn’t a fan of this last minute, late night city arrival trend that was emerging. But despite our exhausting day, we joined him and his friends, flatmates, and additional couchsurfers in a museum courtyard where dozens of people were enjoying the summer night. I was glad for it. It was a nice evening, and we had arrived.

Our only day in Vienna unfurled lazily. We slept till midday. Onur took us for a casual tour of the city, along with his Croatian friend, whose name I can’t even attempt to spell, but sort of rhymes with Vladimir. It was a humorous and relaxed afternoon. We had amazing ice cream. I got poppy seed and elderflower, but the goat cheese was also incredible. We also visited multiple Starbucks for free water, interspersed throughout our [what I suspect was almost entirely fallacious] tour of Vienna. Well, our guides were Turkish and Croatian, I guess you get what you pay for. But it was honestly as enjoyable, if not more so, than some of our official walking tours. And why do I need to know the actual history of some random building in Vienna?

That night was the Euro 2012 final: Italy vs Spain. We went to a public viewing beside the river. Well, Onur and I did. Valerie and Christy went off in search of food and didn’t return for almost two hours. It was lovely weather, and there were tons of people watching the game. Everyone was happy and energetic. Onur was…thrilled about Spain’s victory. I didn’t mind either way. Afterwards, after we accumulated his flatmates and my travelmates, we all chilled back at his place.

We made it to Salzburg in two rides, sans ado. The difficulty came after arrival, because I had forgotten to get our host’s number and address. But in hindsight I don’t mind. If I hadn’t neglected to get Chris’s contact info in advance, we wouldn’t have spent a portion of our time in Salzburg quietly reading by the river. I wouldn’t have written these exact words, for pleasure, and not for the sake of writing before four days go by and I forget everything because a slew of other events and faces have filled my brain.

It worked out, as these things do (by God’s grace and not at all my effort). Chris messaged us back, and we speed-walked to the bus station just in time to catch the last bus to his place. So began our epic days in Salzburg.

magical caverns and decoy landmarks

In birthrighter fashion, our first entire day in Prague was dedicated to Sandeman’s free walking tour. Our tour guide was from Florida, of all places. It was a good tour, and Prague tested true in its beauty. Every traveler, it seems, is in love with Prague. I can certainly understand why. In terms of aesthetics, it is rivaled so far only by Bruges.

Upon returning home, we were welcomed by a delicious vegetarian meal made by Hana. She had to leave, so we had a quiet evening to ourselves in her really impressively spacious and comely flat. Later we met her at a pub, where I sampled a typical Czech soda called Kofola. Not that I am a soda drinker, but it was nice. It tasted almost herbal to me.

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On the second day we birthrighters went our separate ways. I spend my day wandering. First I found myself at the impressive cathedral and castle that overlook Prague. It took a million and two-thirds steps to get there, but it was worthwhile. Next I slowly ambled toward the pseudo-Eiffel tower, which was predictably unimpressive. The area around it was gorgeous though. Long veiny trails through a mountainside forest, with glimpses of the expansive city through the leaves. I spent almost the entire day there. Several hours took place perched upon a very tall wall that cut straight down the mountainside. I peered down creepily on unknowing passersby, I listened to some opera (it seemed fitting somehow), mostly I sat in silence and absorbed the city view from my nature surroundings.

The birthrighters were meant to reunite at four at the astrological clock. My original plan was to leave my lofty perch at three, but then I considered my tendency towards arriving places far earlier than necessary. And really, secluded mountain wall hangout, or sweaty conglomeration of tourists? Yeah. Besides, I had a plan. I left at 3:30. Instead of taking the windy road to the bottom of the mountain, I decided to walk along the wall. Well, to walk on the wall. Much more direct. It was fun, too. And I was very impressed with my cleverness. That is, until I reached the bottom. The bottom stretched into a crumbling platform much too high off the ground to jump from. There was a window to somebody’s apartment that I could have easily climbed into, but I figured likely that course of action would be frowned upon, as tempting as it was. Curse my anti-norm-following ways! I considered my (few) options. Really there was only one. Unless I wanted to A) absolutely break my legs and potentially other body parts as well, or B) get berated in Czech and have the police called on me (thankfully not shot though – welcome to Europe, land of blessed gun control!), or I suppose C) shout for help, but really, would I do that? No, I ascended my wall path of cold pride. I didn’t climb all the way back to where I originally scaled the wall. Instead I found a place closer to the bottom, where the wall stretched a bit higher from the ground. Bad idea. I waited for an all-too-curious couple and their dog to pass before jumping. I’ve jumped from pretty high places before, but this was the highest. I landed on the ground with a surprisingly loud smack and an oof! for good measure. The couple turned from up the path and stared. My feet stung and my ankles hurt, but I de-crouched myself from my landing and walked on as normal. Sometimes the level of idiocy in my fairly intelligent self surprises me. I have no idea what I would have done for the rest of the trip if I had broken my ankle or something. But, all’s well that ends well, right? I had to speed walk to the astrological clock to make it on time.

We met up with Hana to acquire ‘hot carrots’. As in, an alternative to hot dogs. Her friend figured that people should have the option to eat street food that is not only cheap, but healthy as well. So, hot carrots. They offer about five different sauces (I chose a creamy one filled with herbs). The sauce is spooned into the baguette, where it is then joined by the peeled and cooked carrot, and voila. Hot carrots. They were really good. I would eat them again if I were to pass by the stand, and I just might make them for myself someday.

We had a third day in Prague, which is kind of novel for us. We did go into the city, briefly. Christy and I had our Czech pizza (we split a slice of gyro pizza). Midday we met Hana in celebration of her exam being over. She took us to a hidden little cafe, where I had a piece of [walnut?] cake. Hana said it was a very Czech dessert, so you know, I had to try it. We also had this awesome pickled cheese. Prague gets high marks in the food category! The rest of the day was spent just chilling at Hana’s flat. It was a very welcome flush of relaxation. For some time I perched on the balcony lulled by the music of Hana playing the piano gently filling into the calm evening sounds of the not-quite city.

detours, unappreciated

It was an interesting day for sure. We read that the five hour distance between Krakow and Prague can take ten hours to hitch. Ours started with a ride from a church worker graffiti artist with an unpleasant disposition. As we drove along, several times he pointed out his handiwork sprayed onto various walls. Fast forward three rides, and we are climbing into the impossibly high cab of a semi. Our twenty-three year old driver doesn’t speak much English, but his friend (whom we pull alongside eventually) is excited to speak to us via cv radio. An additional two rides later, and we are standing on the border of Poland and Czech Republic. The guy who stops for us informs us that he saw us a ways back several hours ago. His name is Salvador, and he is a very talented artist. He will be driving us for several hours, so we settle back and find our footing in conversation.

At some point in our journey Sal points to a random mountain. ‘Shall we go there?’ he asks. I am inclined to say no, but you can’t exactly be demanding of a person who is giving you a free ride. We get lost a bit trying to find it, but eventually we arrive. He wants to get out and trek to the top. Again, I’d rather continue moving towards our destination, but he would like to, and Christy seems willing. We leave Valerie asleep in the car and ascend the mountain. At the top we find ruins perching firmly over a spectacular view of Czech Republic. Okay, so stopping for a mountain adventure isn’t the worst that could happen. I made the decision to relax and stop worrying about whether we would make it to Prague that evening – it is out of my control anyways. Still, I was grateful when we returned to the car and started driving once again. Only, we didn’t make it out of the village when Sal queried us about our hunger levels. We insisted we were fine, but he wanted food. Again, I didn’t feel able to object to a man’s hunger, so we obligingly climbed out once again and arranged ourselves at a table outside of the nearest restaurant. We didn’t have Czech currency, and we weren’t about to spend our money anyways. But Sal insisted on buying food for everyone – he wanted us to try traditional Czech dishes. We shared two soups, a huge plate of fried chicken and potatoes, a bowl of pasta, and a chocolate milkshake-ish concoction. I won’t deny the food was both good and appreciated. But by this point I was giving more credence to a not-entirely-comfortable feeling I had about being around Sal. When Christy and I crossed paths on our way to and from the toilet, I whispered that if he offered, I did not want to stay with Sal that evening. She agreed and we continued on our way. After we finally finished the meal we were once again in the car and continuing towards Brno, where Sal was to leave us. But, alas, less than ten minutes went by before we found ourselves stopping once more. We were driving past a wheat field, and he thought it would be cool for pictures. We had an as-short-as-possible, and on my part very unenthusiastic, photo shoot before we piled in once again with a stated no more stops!

As expected, Sal said that he would really like for us to stay in Brno that night. He offered to pay for our hostel and dinners, but I very firmly said no thank you. I found our time with him simultaneously very enjoyable, and very disconcerting. I wanted to get to Brno and continue on our way as quickly as possible. But when we got to Brno, he wanted to show us the cathedral and a load of other things. As much as an unassertive person is able, I tried to be very insistent about not wanting to stay, and not wanting a tour of the city. It was now 8:30pm, and it already seemed unlikely that we would make it to our destination. And as grateful as I was, I quite wanted to be out of Sal’s presence. While we were driving through the city of Brno he mentioned that train tickets to Prague would be pretty cheap. Normally I would be against paying for transportation, but given the circumstances, my opinion on the matter was swayed. At the train station we learned that it would cost us $10 each. None of us were particularly enthusiastic about taking the train rather than hitching, but all of us were enthusiastic about putting solid distance between ourselves and our insistent ride. We bought the tickets, donned our packs, and settled with great relief into our own cabin on the train. So that was our first, and Lord willing only, distasteful hitchhiking experience. I feel weird saying that about a guy who showed us a gorgeous view, bought us dinner, and drove us for miles, but I firmly believe in human intuition. And while I am certain he wouldn’t have harmed us, I don’t think his company was in our best interest.

So the train took three hours. We arrived in Prague nearing midnight. No idea whether The metro, bus, or tram was still running, and still no Czech currency. We fixed the latter problem at an ATM, and we asked a local about the former. Unfortunately, in order to purchase tickets for the (still running) metro, one needs coins. And we only had bills. And nothing was open. We decided to just get on. We had to get to our host’s, and we had no means of doing so legally. So we simply walked onto the metro, got off at our stop, walked onto the tram, and again departed where we were meant to. There have been a few times during this trip where we haven’t paid for our fares, and I am usually not a fan of this practice. But in this instance I wasn’t bothered in the least. In fact, I was very happy to be mere minutes away from a place with walls and a bed. We followed [our host] Hana’s very specific instructions, and made it quickly to her flat. Praise Jesus! This day was over.