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

 

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.

bodunas

By God’s grace, our CSer’s brilliance, or sheer luck, all of us made it to Warsaw in one day. Agnieszka (our host, whom we chose out of maybe ten people who had offered us a place) magically found me on the street. We went back to her place, where she prepared tea and sandwiches. I like Agnieszka very much. She has a calmly talkative manner, and an unspectacularly exciting life. A thread of combinations I haven’t really seen before. We went for a walk at dusk before fetching Christy and Valerie, who caught a train for the last leg of their journey. Agnieszka prepared a very typical Polish meal for us – potatoes with soured milk. It was really good!

I claimed the following morning as a recovery period from the previous day’s traveling fatigue. This is becoming a trend. The day ensuing a hitching day includes sleeping in, a shower, and mental reordering. The birthrighters chose to go to the Warsaw Uprising museum. It was a long walk (in the rain), but a very good decision. I can say without hesitation that it is the coolest museum I have ever seen. It resembled a waiting area in a theme park, and had a lot of cool features. My favorite was a mock sewer tunnel that you could walk/crawl through to get a feel of what many people had to go through. It was completely dark, and if I’m not mistaken, a bit damp. Despite the presence of others, and the knowledge that I was safely in present day Warsaw, it was vaguely terrifying. I had no idea how far it went, there were numerous twists and turns. It was cool. We spent several hours at the museum. I managed to ‘see’ everything, but I think I could’ve easily spent the entire day there. That was the only thing we did with our day. The four of us prepared a meal together in the evening.

From Agnieszka’s really cool guidebook as well as her advice, I had a few other things I wanted to do: eat at a bar mleczny (literally ‘milk bar’, a place frequented by students and the elderly for its cheap food), and see the view from the gardens on the roof of the university. Valerie wanted a personal relaxation day, so Christy and I left her sleeping. We found the bar mleczny Agnieszka had recommended and stopped at the window. There was a short menu with prices. Sadly we don’t know Polish. So we found wi-fi and translated the menu. After deciding upon our meal choices, we braved the supposedly unwelcoming atmosphere. Upon entry we found a much larger menu. So much for our choices. When we asked if the woman taking our order spoke English, she slid a menu in our direction – an English menu! My last hitchhiking lift had recommended several really typical dishes to me, so I ordered based on his advice. I got pierogi and since Christy got beetroot soup, I decided to try the sorrel soup (which, after trying, I realized Agnieszka had recommended!) Our entire meal – four dishes in all – cost about four USD. We spent the meal repeating ‘I can’t believe how cheap this is!’ and making plans to move to Poland for their delicious and cheap food. It was all so good, and so filling, and did I mention unbelievably inexpensive? Though admittedly, the filling part of that didn’t stop us from grabbing a chocolate, toffee, and cream cake from a cafe to take with us to the university gardens.

The university was stunning. It may well be my favorite building on the planet. It was all fascinating shapes and shades of verdigris. The gardens were lovely and the view was nice as well. My rebel dropout self was half ready to enroll in classes just to spend ample time there. On our way loosely from the university to home we came across buskers. Definitely the liveliest buskers I’ve encountered. We sat for a long while until they began packing up. Christy wanted a photo with them and we discovered they were Finnish travelers. This day in Warsaw was definitely one of my favorites from the trip until this point.

The next day we departed Warsaw for Krakow. Hitching took most of the day, but we didn’t have a host lined up, so I wasn’t terribly pressed to arrive quickly. The hitching included a stop at the always faithful Ikea for cheap food. We had zapiekanki, which is a Polish sort of pizza. I also had ice cream. They have a self-service machine, which essentially means that I had two servings of ice cream. Hitching also included an impromptu dance session across the highway to the tune of ‘Mahna Mahna’. Sometimes you just have to break the cycle of standing and hoping. It proved a good release, and I’m also sixty percent sure that it acquired us our final ride.

Sometime during the day we received a text from a couchsurfer who was willing to host us. Blaz (pronounced something like ‘bwah-jheay’) is a radio journalist bartender. He turned out to be a wonderful host. He made us several meals, including a typical Polish soup. He also took us to his bar (where we stayed out until the east of the dark sky was smudged with the murky paintbrush-water colors of almost-dawn), and to Zakrzowek (pronounced ‘zack-shoe-vack’). Zakrzowek was recommended to us by our last ride. He described it as a lake surrounded by mountains, in the middle of Krakow. Blaz couldn’t describe it much differently. They both finished with ‘you just have to see it’. And we did. It was gorgeous. The birthrighters went for a summer swim, and Christy and I jumped off of a not-too-high surface. A lovely late afternoon!

Valerie and I spent our second day in Krakow not in Krakow. Instead we took a bus to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The sky loomed black and ugly above us, which we agreed seemed appropriate. It was weird being in a place I have learned so much about. I found the whole experience a bit surreal, but it also lent some gravity to my perspective of that particular portion of history.

In the evening we had our obligatory pizza and met up with a new host. Blaz wasn’t able to host us our final night, so Robert stepped in. We decided to be boring and stay in, and he accepted that very graciously. It was a pleasant and thankfully relaxed evening before our hitch to Prague the next morning.

the pursuit of enduring

After our reunion, we trekked to the home of Sebastian. His flat lay on a quiet, but lively street across from a park. The room we occupied consisted of tall ceilings and large windows. We sank with exhaustion into the mattresses. But alas, as it goes, he invited us to go see the German football match for Euro 2012. We followed him to a courtyard filled with people, beer and sausages, and a very large screen showing the game. We met some of his friends, cheered the German victory, and retired to a very deep sleep.

Every morning of our stay, Sebastian went out and bought us coffee and pastries. God bless people who provide chocolate and pastries! It’s difficult to please me more. Maybe not really, but I do have a special appreciation for the act of giving either. The first day in Berlin featured, of course, the free walking tour. We weren’t terribly impressed with our moody tour guide, but it was an enjoyable, if exceptionally hot, tour nonetheless. For dinner we paid €3 for ingredients and made soup with bread.

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We returned the following day to The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This is probably the most interesting memorial I’ve seen. Especially considering the fact that it is composed solely of blocks of concrete. Our tour guide had emphasized that the designer was elusive about any details regarding the meaning. It was made to inspire contemplation, and I found it thoroughly successful in this. Beneath the memorial was our real destination, though: the museum. As holocaust museums go, it was a bit hard to handle. The weight of all those words and colorless photographs felt as heavy as the concrete slabs above. It was definitely worth seeing, but I’m not one to wander into solemness and then bounce right back into cheery life-as-usual.

The birthrighters parted ways to explore the city individually. Christy went to a museum, Valerie succeeded in re-finding a cafe with cool swinging chairs that we had seen upon our entry into the city, and I, I just walked. Really far. Right where we where meant to be headed after we regrouped. Accidentally. Oh well. It was a nice explorative walk, but not as nice upon the second return when we were heading home. My feet hurt for really the first time this trip.

Anyways, upon recommendation from our Australian friend Scott, we spent part of the afternoon in Gorlitzer park. It was a very different part of Berlin than we had seen the rest of the trip. The neighborhood surrounding seemed really cool, but we didn’t stay long, and I wistfully passed up the delicious looking pizzas in cafe windows. I had already had pizza that day…a large, art-ified section of the Berlin wall was also in this area. It stretched far, and boasted the paint and imagination of dozens or hundreds of artists. It was definitely worth seeing. In the evening, we met up with Sebastian and his friend and we had a chill evening in part at a little table outside, and then, when the rain fell persistently, in a cinema/smoking room of a small bar.

Wednesday forecasted a long hitching day. We took a metro and a bus out of Berlin and walked to a service station recommended on hitchwiki. It did work out for us. It took awhile, and we made the decision to split up once again. I climbed into a truck, leaving Christy and Valerie behind to acquire their own ride. My lift took me almost halfway, to Poznan in Poland. He dropped me at a service station, where the realization that I was by myself in a country where supposedly only 24% of the population speaks English, trying to get a ride to Warsaw hit me hard. I asked a few drivers, and two of the four spoke English, though none were heading towards Warsaw. Still, the ability to communicate brought hope. I looked at the line of truck drivers and thought to give in and ask for a ride, though I considered it inoptimal. There was a car about to pass between the truckers and me, so I stuck out my thumb just because. The car slowed and rolled down the window. ‘Warsaw?’ I said. ‘Warsaw.’ he replied. He was dressed well, and as my brother would say, he had a ‘nice person face’. And he spoke English. Quite well, at that. He was very kind, and I learned a lot about Poland. He drove me directly to the cafe where we were meant to meet up with our next host, and let me use his phone to call the other birthrighters. They were in Poland, but still quite far. Not having any zlotys, the Polish currency, and failing to get money from three separate ATMs, I settled onto a park bench and waited.