A Travellerspoint blog

Dracula 2, Sombrero lovin & a brief encounter with Magyars

NOTE: Ths keyboard still has a really dodgy letter “I”, so f I’m mssng lots, ts not my usual terrible typng as normal, mostly at least. All other errors are my own incompetence

After finally working out that I wasn’t going to get cards any quicker or easier in Brasov than anywhere else and that it would work out easer to bounce stuff elsewhere (which turned out to be Warszawa) and continue my trip rather than hang around Brasov for 2 weeks and then have to shoot like a maniac and miss chunks later on, I actually left. With my feet still hurting like hell.

Sighisoara - Blister.JPG
My feet really didn't like me so much by this point...

My original intenton had been to bounce via Transylvana to Timisoara to catch up with an old frend, Ille, and then head via Eastern Hungary to the Ukraine for a week or so and into South East Poland. However a combinaton of lost days in Brasov, a short notice work trip for ilie and the fact that with no working bank cards until i got my replacements in Warszawa meant was on a short and very specific budget, and it wasn’t feasible. I hadn’t originally expected to go to Warszawa until the end of my Polish vst, but now I had to base all my plans around getting there as relatively cheap and easily as possible within a week.

I Had been ummng and ah-ng between Sighisoara and Sibiu previously, but wth Sighi on the way to Budapest anyway, the decision was made for me. The 2 hour journey was uneventful expcet that i had my second dodgy ticketting experience. I was sold a normal ticket instead of one with an intercity supplement as i‘d supposed – the fact that there was a rail strike with virtually only intercity trans running, and the next train to Sighi which asked for tickets for was an intercty seemed to by pass the woman n the staton, and I had thought the tcket to be absurdly cheap (about 1.60gbp for over 2 hours trip) – which meant that the friendly conductor on the train understandable wanted me to pay the difference. Honest mistake, so no trouble for me, and once he realised was a foregner, none for him ether. And true to form in Romania, as he had no desire to write out the supplement ticket for the extra (228,000 or about 4.50gbp), and I had no specal need for the tcket t wasn’t long before a mutually agreeablesoluton was reached, whereby I pad him 100000 and he ddnt have to write the ticket was arranged. And to thnk i couldnt even brbe the polceman togve me a polce report.

Sighsoara is a lovely little place, nestled in the valley, with a walled citadell and whilst not unknown, without anywhere near the number of tourists that were in Brasov. Despite that, for some odd reason it just didnt really jump out at me and go ‘wow’ as it possibly should have. Maybe I had just seen enough similar-ish places on the trip and previously, maybe it was something else, but was actually surprised that i did essentially feel non plused about it. However, it was really cheap and there was a great group of people at the small but friendly Nathans Villa Hostel.

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Notice in Nathans Villas Hostel, Sighisoara.

I hadn’t arrived that early, so after a quck trp around town and dinner, I returned to the hostel, and the hostel cellar became base for the nghts entertainments. Refreshments was mostly n the form of local Naroc (essentially meaning “Cheers”) beer, in plastic litre screw top bottles for 20000 (i.e.40p for a litre – although oddly the 2ltre bottles were prced at 44000. They haven’t quite grasped the concept here). An ever changing crowd included the now famous Warszawa trio of (very) English Craig, Dutch Jopp and Portuguese Paolo – of whom more later - and ended long after 5am (and a good 2 hours after everybody else had disappeared) and a very long, deep and waaay too serious conversation about military matters and cartography – and our general uselessness (comments on a postcard) - with a local (who worked at the hostel) and an American, who were both ex army and not always too impressed by people in my profession…

One of these days really will learn how to write consisely. Or even spell concise.

The following morning, I took a proper wander around the city and did the sightseeing thing with Adelaide, an American girl i‘d met in Brasov, and again I had the feeling that i should be more impressed than i actually was with the city. We went up the clock tower to see the museum and view from the top, up the covered stairs, got slightly bemused at the end of school celebrations, round the church and graveyard on the top of the citadell (allegedly the only currently – and continuously – inhabited one n the world which must admit doubt) whilst searching for that elusive panorama view which had to exist somewhere n town but we never found, and also a (very) quick look n the Torture museum, which was just funny. Not the subject of the museum, but the fact there were maybe 4 exhibits and it covered an area barely the size of the average bathroom!

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Sighisoara Citadell, allegedly the largest inhabited citadell in the world

After seemingly exhausting the basic sights, and with the scorching temperatures not condusive to hill climbing (WooHoo – maybe i‘m cured!), the two of us in the company of 2 Melbourne girls, Rachel and Melanie, took a wander to the swimming pool, recommended by all the hostel staff as the place to go/thing to do. It was slightly surreal to have a swimming pool recommended as a must see thing, but hey, why not? At the pool, we hooked up with the Warszawa trio, an English guy Will and briefly, the army guys from the previous night. It was basically an outdoor pool with a bar and grass area where everybody – mostly young people - were doing nothing much except sunbathing, swimming (or more accurately, diving) and drinking. And as they say, when in Rome…

Sighisoara..m below.JPGThe Tower in Sighisoara Citadell
Sighisoara.., Paolo.JPGAdelaide, Craig and Paolo at the Pool

Apart from the obligatory talking rubbish, watching the local nutters diving into the pool, drinking and laughing at Paolo (at his football skills which included taking a chunk out of a roof , his attempts at wrestling with the girls where he tended to loose badly – although as Adelaide’s foot was to discover, not before he tried to play hard - and just in general), we invented a game, which we feel certain should become an olympic sport and which basically involved guessing the age of random local girls and betting on it. The girls would pick a girl at random, the guys would guess the age and slam their money into the swimming pool (Romanian notes are made of plastic so non tearable or affected by water, and chucking it into water instead of on a table seemed appropriate) before muggings would then go and using a combination of English, Romanian (ahem) and gesturing start talking randomly to the ‘lucky’ girl to try and find out how old they actually were. I guess you had to be there for that to make any sense at all.

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Money being chucked into the pool

We went out to dinner at a restaurant based in a house where, allegedly, Vlad Tepes himself – aka Dracula – was born, and indulged in the odd game of Scaffold racing (another Olympic sport in the making) before retiring to the hostel cellar again, baring a heavily limping Adelaide who left on the night train for Budapest, but including the Tennesse music producer Nathan and Britney from Brasov, and a few others. An extremely entertaining night included asst drinking games, water fights, sombrero love, naked wrestling (and yes, Paolo was again embarrassed by the women), and blindfolded musical chairs and ended with a very serious competition between the Warszawa trio which involved vodka, bodily hair and a cigarette lighter. Yup, you got it.

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Sombrero Lovin' at work...
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Hostel nights in, including the Warszawa trio at their finest...

And no, today isn’t when i learn to be concise, although bet your wishing it was after reading all this crap for no apparent reason.

Out of sheer pig-headedness (yes, that does mean stupidity) i elected not to go overnight to Budapest, but instead stop off in Cluj Napoica (Cluj to everybody). It’s a major student centre and had been recommended by Oana and a few others, so figured I may as well have a look even though I wouldn’t be there for more than a few hours. So stopping only to burst the now humunguos blister on the outside of my right ankle, went to the station for a slow 4.5hour trip on the only 2 slow trains running in the strike gave me ample time to examine every abandoned industrial facility, hay stack and field in north west Romania, and was notable only for the reappearance of my own private thunder storm, who had been following me on and off for weeks being menacing and offering some great thunder and lightning, but never really getting serous with the rain.

The length of journey and inflexible departure meant I only had from about 7pm until 8am in Cluj (see, stupidity) and was notable only for meeting the only New Caledonian – Philippe - I have ever met traveling, the stupendous rain storm at dinner which broke through the umbrella (of the restaurant/beer garden style) in torrents and left the 2 of us and a stunning Belgian girl Elise looking comically like drowned rats, the most amazingly inept service in the same place (amongst others, Elise and I were told after Philippe had finished eating – and well over an hour after ordering - that our meals would take another 2 hours to do [pizza is not that hard] and perhaps we should order something else) and the evil hatred directed at me by the woman in the ticket office the following morning when I dared (a) try and buy a train ticket and (b) not speak Romanian. Oddly though, I did get the correct ticket, although i‘m sure she pocketed half of the cost of the scarily expensive ticket.

Budapest hadn’t been on my plan this trip in the slightest, as its somewhere know quite well and have been many times, but a combination of the Romanian rail strike, lack of straightforward alternative routes and a need to get to Warszawa on the Monday – as cheap as possible, and its now Saturday - to collect my cards meant that it made sense. Got to the Backpackers Guesthouse – a great place – where despite a little misunderstanding between them, Philippe (who had left on the night train about 2am the previous night) and Adelaide had managed to make me a reservation. Space was tight, so I ended up sleeping in a tent in the garden, but with the temperatures still high, was probably the best bed in the place, and absolutely no complaints from me.

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Budapest Hostel accomodation

Had a wander through town with Phillipe, sorted my ticket for the following nights Warszawa train (again, too expensive, and cash reserves beginning to diminish), and watched part of an international dance/music festival going on around Deak Ter before returning to veg at the hostel, sitting outside on the covered stage type lounge in the garden and talking to random people. Where something strange happened. A scarily large chunk of people already knew about me, and most of my life story, or sot seemed.
Admittedly when traveling, you are prone to meeting the same people periodically, or people who have met people you have, and as South Eastern Europe has a limited number of hostels and fits relatively well into a fairly standard circular-ish trail for a while, this re-meeting is more constant. Also admittedly, there are relatively few Welsh backpackers out there, especially those who are Swedish based cartographers, and in the past couple of weeks have been bitten by a dog and had their wallet stolen amongst others, but the sheer number of people who knew the stories scared me a tad, although in a way I suppose its almost a good thing (is it? I don’t know) as it means I’ve made enough of an impression on people I met to then be talked about later (although i‘m beginning to realise why have such a hard time at certain border crossings), and in more details than the standard “I met this guy” way that tends to be used amongst travelers.

It reached its peak when I started talking to a girl from Melbourne, Melanie (I think, but really can’t remember – if you know who ‘m talking about and can confirm her name, please let me know). Random aside – why am meeting so many Melbourners???? So, far i‘ve basically been meeting Brits (unusual enough for me, as i meet surprisingly few Brits normally when traveling in Europe) and people from Melbourne in huge numbers, and very little of anything else. Melanie had met both Adelaide, whose foot was now huge, and Philippe in the hostel, but had also previously spent a few days with Katie (her of the bank card problems in Bucharest) and then with Camilla and Maaret from Brasov, and possibly someone else as well, and really did seem to know my previous months life n better detail than I did.

Stopping only to cunningly chuck my ordered (and part cold) lasange on the floor, and then wait for a succession of people to finally get ready, and hence miss the last tram into the city, a group of 7 or 8 of us including Melanie, Adelaide and Gary from Doncaster* (undoubtedly one of the best guys i‘ve met on the trip to date, despite being from Doncaster – its obviously well known to most of you [and if not, you don’t know me, so why the hell are you wasting your life reading all of this crap?] that have a warped sense of humor, most of which doesn’t work with many of you [almost certainly because most of it isn’t humoruss]. But with Gary it was great, as he was absolutely on the same wave length – scary thought, that, isn’t it? – and so we could bounce stuff off each other with alarming regularity, which is something that rarely happens with me, at least without being followed by people ushering me in to a padded room and giving me a trendy white coat to wear. *DISCLAMER – He might not actually have been called Gary, or be from Doncaster, [Greg from Sheffield?] but guessing that’s close enough, and I know he wasn’t called Brad or come from Wisconsin) wandered into town to cheaply see what Saturday night Budapest had to offer. Which turned out to be an assortment of abortive bus trips, an extortionate taxi ride and lots of walking in between two reasonably decent courtyard style drinking holes, although without the dancing possibilities requested by a couple, and without getting anywhere near where i was actually aiming for. And oddly, I singularly failed to manage to convince the 4 remaining others at the end (i.e. a taxi full) to get a taxi, even though one of the guys was happy to pay for it, as I was happy to walk. Which meant everybody then complained about the walk [i deliberately walked in the opposite direction to the hostel, heading for a night bus for a chunk of the trip when i realized this, but they thought just wanted them to walk further as punishment or some such]. And now time to sleep for all those not already unconscious.

Posted by Gelli 15:29 Comments (0)

Dracula 1 and the #4 bus in Brasov...

It had to happen once, and in fairness to get to 26 with all the travelling i‘ve done, and the number of odd places i ‘ve been without any problem (if we ignore the two farcial Geneva incidents), s extremely lucky. T happens top everybody, and sodds law says that it should have already happened tome at least a couple of times. Yup, i was pickpocketed and had my wallet stolen. But I’m getting ahead of myself now.

With the sheer coincidence that happens so often when traveling, I ended up in my specific seat on the train sitting opposite an Aussie girl, Tam who ‘d met at the hostel and was also traveling to Brasov and planning to stay at the same hostel. At Brasov we cunningly waved away the hoardes of people trying to offer us accommodation until we realised that 2 of them were actually working for the hostel we were aiming for. Doh! The hostel – the Korean named (obviously) Khismet Dao - was one of the most friendly so far, and included free beer, internet, laundry and breakfast amongst other benefits.

Brasov is a lovely old city with the central and old parts squeezed into a small valley, so easy to defend and of a Hapsburg style architecture. Very popular with German, Austrian and Hungarian tourists, and the Swiss/Bavarian style chalets on the green rolling hills outside made the setting look not entirely un-alpine. Surprisingly for a relatively large cty barely 2hours from Bucharest, the centre had virtually avoided beng scared by the standard communist era experiments with concrete, leaving the city core virtually untouched. Even the churches had ‘only’ been shut down and left to fall apart during Nickys reign, but a combination of sureptitious repair and good construction meant that they hadn’t fallen into total disrepair, so were easily restored and reopened n the 90s.

Brasov main square.JPG
Main square and back of Black Church

We took in some of the end of a 3 day folk festival in the man square, and went to meet Seb, a CSer i‘d met randomly n the CS chat room the day before when searching for some friendly Ukrainians for my upcoming arrival there. He had exams that week and wasn’t really able to host (his profile even says that in exams s the worst possible time and he gets very kranky, so figured i ‘d stay clear if at all possible - get blamed for enough without having people fail exams because of me) but was happy to meet up and play tour guide for a few hours, which was great. I‘d been my normal clever self and empted my pockets the previous day of all the random crap and forgot to take a note of his number at the same time, but at least one of us was being clever as he had mine and sent me an sms and arranged to meet in town.

So Tam and I spent a few hours being shown the sights of Brasov, up into a couple of the defence towers etc, and given some history etc to the city and area, before retiring to his favourite bar for a quick drink. Yet again, I was indebted to the amazing frendliness and knowledge of a local who has gone out of their way to show off their town to a stupid foreign tourist. The evening was manly notable for an American guy n the hostel who had more local wine than was good for him, as i passed him apparently trying to, urm, enjoy himself, with the star rail, and amongst other things who subsequently seems to have crawled back into the wrong bed…

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Subtle sign on hostel door

The following day, I climbed the hill to the radio mast (great views) and then in the company of a couple of guys from Swindon, John and Farid, I took a trip out to see Bran, the castle which is the alleged Dracula castle (we’re now deep into Transylvania). The trip itself was almost the most interesting part, as we were out in the delights of Romanian roads, driving standards and knackered old dacia’s, which always adds an extra layer of excitement or three to any trip. Whist the castle was a lovely building, it was conspicuously un-dracula like, lacking anything even vaguely dark/spooky (it was all white washed etc, and probably would have made a wonderful hotel), and not even having a single coffin, although in some respects, it was impressive that they hadn’t pandered to the normal tourists preconceptions as would be so easy, and had left it as it was. It was also interestingly situated n the base of the valley instead of on the steep hills on ether side, suggesting it was more likely a staging post/toll house originally rather than designed as an impenitrible defensive location. For any budding entrepreneurs out there, f anybody gets themselves a coffin, black cape and set of fangs and sets up in the car park, charging tourists to have their photo taken n the coffin, they would make an absolute fortune. You read it here first.

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Bran Castle, Outside and one view from the inside of the white towers

Admittedly the known links between the castle and Vlad himself are at best tenuous, as its believed he never lived there and his only link to it is that he tried to attack it once, but hey, who the heck am to get n the way of a good tourist trap? On the way back we stopped at a mountain fortress further down the valley – Cetalea Risnov – on the top of a big hill, with decent walls and over looking the valley with a great panoramic view. A proper defensive location. Oddly, the fort was half filled with lots of sled’s (a la Santa) for no apparent reason.

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Cetalea Risnov

And the following day, i was robbed. I have to really blame Camilla and Maaret, Danish and Finnish girl’s i‘d first met a couple of days previously. I was being utterly lazy and disorganized – big shock, huh? -, and quite happy just to sit outside in the sun, read and generally not do much for a good few hours, until they convinced me that i should move and sort out a train ticket, or at least see what was running during the strike. I eventually gave in, and the three of us, 2 Swedish girls and a Canadian guy just leaving got the #4 bus together to the station. Was standing in the middle against the side talking to the Canadian, and after a few stops the bus started filling up and suddenly became conscious that I needed to get my hand down from the railing i was holding on to, to my pocket, but due to the amount of people, this took a few seconds, and in that time, i felt a brush against my front right pocket.

It took a couple of seconds to register, but i knew there and then that my wallet had gone. It was only a small one, and incredibly, it was underneath the fake wallet that I carry for just such occasions, and which was ignored. As I hadn’t had my wallet out at all on the bus trip, and my bus ticket was in a different pocket, it was sheer opportunism, and the guy was good, i’ll give him that. As soon as i realised started making a fuss and noise, and the lst of suspects was just 2 long, and one of whom was a young kid who Camilla and Maaret had been sitting behind and sad hadn’t moved his hands from the rail, meaning my initial suspect was correct. Unfortunately however, n the few seconds it took to raise the alarm, the wallet had already been passed back (under an extremely suspicious and obvious scam empty carrier bag), and so the guy was only too happy to be helpful and be patted down. By then i knew it was too late, as it’s impossible to go and search a full bus load of people, especially when the bus s still continuing on its way with people getting on and off. 4 or 5 stops later, he got off, and as the bus moved away. I could see him hookup with 2 other people through the back window, open something, and look back at the now speeding away bus, and as soon as we had moved off an older local lady admitted that she had seem everything and our suspicions were correct, but she had been too scared to say anything in front of them. Bugger. But C’est La Vie.

We continued through the last few stops to the rail station where in an office (it then occurred to us that we could have taken his picture, but in retrospect that probably wouldn’t have helped) i pulled out my phone and copies of the card numbers and promptly cancelled all my English ones, and then with the help of one of the Swedish girls in getting a useful Sparbank phone number, my Swedish ones as well. So within 20mins, everything of relevance had been cancelled and life moved on. I had had some euros and Lei in the wallet, but not so much (maybe 30 euro’s worth) that I really cared – interestingly, all of the others had significantly i.e. 4 or 5+ times more money in their wallets purses than I had – plus irrelevant things like oyster, K’stad and Skane bus cards, my TK entrance card and some odd receipts etc. The only things i was more annoyed about was my driving licence (because it is the only photo id apart from my passport i had) and a few email addresses i had taken down, but not yet transferred anywhere else.

The most interesting thing of the whole episode was peoples reactions. Especially after we had got off the bus to regroup, i was having to calm the girls down rather than the other way around. I remember being very surprised at just how calm and shit happens way I felt about it – probably because I accepted that i had been amazingly lucky not to have been done already, and knew law of averages said I should have been several times, but also as i knew exactly what had happened, there was no doubt that i‘d lost it/left it etc – and possibly my lack of anger annoyed the others even more!

The bank (Natwest) really did start to annoy me though, although by that point I was kind of expecting bad news to keep coming so I found t funnier than angry, despite the situation. I had always been under the now misplaced belief that i was being quite clever, in that i kept my Visa and Mastercard in different places, so that if did happen to loose one, I would still have the other one to use. Wrong. For some anally retentive reason that makes absolutely no logical sense, because they are on the same account, they had to cancel both cards. Allegedly its to stop the other number being used, but as the other number isn’t on the other card and wasn’t written anywhere, that makes no sense whatsoever. It seems to mean that if a couple have a joint account and one loses their cards, both persons have to be cancelled, which is obviously amazingly helpful. As such, I had no choice but to cancel both (although not happy at having to cancel the one card i still had for no apparent reason except beaurocratic bullsh1t) which changed the situation a bit, although as i also always carry a stash of hard cash in different places, enough to last a good couple of weeks if needed, i wasn’t overly screwed like virtually every other traveler met would be.

The Canadian left for his bus, the Swedish girls to sort out train tickets, and Maaret was feeling like crap so got the bus back to the hostel. Camilla, however, had the clever idea of retracing our steps to where they got off and walking back from there to see if the wallet had been dumped. It would be needle in a haystack searching, but the idea was very sound – pickpockets often dump wallets/purses after taking the money to avoid carrying anything incriminating. It wasn’t successful (unless it has gone into a hedge or bin within 50metres, the permutations are endless and chances tiny), but we spent a good hour or so walking back and hunting through rubbish bins, hedges and looking into drains – and even found 2 other empty purses - but I can’t thank her enough for the effort, help and almost scary willingness she showed to go through rubbish bins…

As in all such situations, other travelers rallied around and back at the hostel i was furnished with food and drink, a phone card, some euro’s and some bits of Romanian Lei, which was amazingly kind and touching, but also kind of embarrassing for me as despite the loss, I wasn’t entirely up sh1t creek or penniless. Spent a good couple of hours on the phone (my mobile bill will be stupendous, and not helped by a sheer inability to manage to find a helpful international operator from a pay phone, or make a collect call to free phone numbers, as they refused to connect me as i knew the phone number…) trying to sort replacements and gong around in circles. Looked long into getting an emergency card from Mastercard which they can send anywhere, and for which different addresses even in the same town can vary by up to a week. Got them to run the hostel address, and then Seb’s home address which worked out better, but then on closer inspection was gong to take 4 days anyway, coming from the US, would only be valid 2 weeks (including the 4 days transit) had no pin code, so could only be used inside banks etc and I was gong to be charged an utterly extortionate 300gbp for the privilage, so dropped that plan quite quickly… Not surprisingly, replacement cards had to be sent to the registered addresses, which obviously adds a couple of extra days to the timeframe, ignoring the fact i actually need an address to get them sent on which will be near at the correct time, so after much umming and ahhing about timescales, plus a really grateful offer, settled on Warszawa.

In the afternoon, Seb dropped his revision and came into town to meet me and help on my search for a police station/translation to report the theft and get a police number. Suffice to say that lots of walking, and 3 police stations later, it wasn’t possible. The utterly corrupt police system says that because i couldn’t prove t was stolen (6 witnesses aren’t good enough – only a photograph of them actually n the act would be good enough, and in that case we were told that the camera would have been broken or stolen anyway), they wouldn’t even give me a report number. Apparently the #4 is known for problems because of the fact t links the station and hostel and gets very busy, and chances are that the police have an agreement to take their cut in order to look the other way. These things happen. I knew that there was no chance in hell of getting my stuff back, back I just just wanted something official looking which said I had reported it, in order to use, for example, when i try and get my driving licence replaced. And incredibly, i couldn’t even pay/bribe for it. i probably should have just sat there and refused to move until got something or was arrested, but by then i just couldn’t be bothered. As with so many others, Seb had been amazing with all his help (although he went REALLY weird afterwards, more on that later) and efforts and kindness. That evening, with Maaret, Camilla and the Swedish girls all left on night trains, two top guys from Fleetwood – is that a contradiction in terms? - from the night before, Paul and Ian (now a Melbourner) kept up the trend of looking after the ‘victim?’ and happily kept me in beer, and we talked assorted shit alongside the American guy of the stairs incident, plus a Californian girl, Adelaide and musical couple from Nashville amongst others, whilst we all conspired to come up with the most odd, bizarre and evil requests/questions for the girl working there on her first night.

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Me, Maaret and Camilla, outside the hostel. Two great girls who helped lots after i had been pickpocketted, although Camilla seemed just a tad too eager to go routeing around in rubbish bins...

Morals of the story: Don’t carry all your cards in one place, have a stack of hard currency separate in case you need it, Mastercard and Natwest are polite if utterly unhelpful and try to rob you of lots more than you actually lost when you were robbed, expect no help from the police in places like Romania unless you are bribing them to look the other way and there are lots of amazingly helpful and generous people out there to help if things go wrong.

Posted by Gelli 15:28 Archived in Romania Comments (5)

My leg hurts...

Mother nature can be fickle.

Ever since i managed to squash the fly with my foot in Hvar, mother nature has been acting against me. I've been shat on by 3 pigeons and a seagull, taken my usual roll as Mozzie special feast and had an altercation with a cow amongst others, so i suppose it reached it's logical conclusion that i was biten by a rabid dog. But lets go back a bit first.

I love Romania. I always have, and i always will, so despite everything (anything) that happens i will keep going back. I'm even one of the very few travellers who likes Bucharest. Most people seem to think eeek or uck and leave straight away, many then pigeon hole the entire country as Bucharesti, but i think its the most amazing city. It's a huge, mad, chaotic, mismatched jumble, yet it somehow works.

After arriving overnight from Sofia (slow but ok), i chucked my stuff in the hostel, disspointed that the imnstructions of turn down the road with the Pole in didn't refer to Polish people. An hour or so later i met up with Oana, a local girl i'd been talking to on CS for a while. In itself that was a major acheivement - Oana works the kind off stupid hours i tend to during the TSM project, and has a similiar number (i.e. none) of days off. During TSM we even had a small bet as to which of us would have a day off first, which i lost, chickening out after only a couple of months... Amazing that someone would be prepared to waste their solitary day off by playing tour guide to a random foreigner.

(((Note – Apologies, but I’m havng serous problems with the letter ‘I’ on this keyboard, hence why it's missing in so many places!!))

To begin with, we took a tour of some of the more hidden treasures of the city, including a the few remaining small arcades and alleyways full of cool little shops, bars and café’s which of which the city had many before Ceauceascu’s family got hold of it, and the sort of place that f you don’t know still exists, you would never find them (as i never had before).

Bucaresti - Arcade.JPG
Arcades such as this are now very rare, to say the least

Of course we also took n the famous People’s Palace, designed as the largest bulding in the world and to be the centre pece of an area of the cty which had been ht by an Earthquake n (I think) 1979, and whch Nicky C used as an excuse to demolish almost a quarter of the city – includng lovely hapsburg style buldngs, arcades, shops and resdental areas - and dsplace huge numbers of people, despite the overall damage being nowhere near that severe. Ceauceascu had been very mpressed by the way Kim Jung Il had remodeled Pyongyang, and wanted to do somethng simlar, but on a larger scale.

Bucaresti ..alace 1.JPG
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The people's palace from 2 angles

Even now the People’s Palace is described as either the second or thrd largest buldng n the world (depending upon your source and pont of vew – the Pentagon is the largest offce buldng n the world, whilst i am farly sure the Boeing factory s actually the largest buldng, but how you defne large probably makes a big dfference – regardless, its stll enormous).

According to Oana, they hadn’t even fucked up the bulding n the way i had always beleved. Always thought that t was meant tobe the worlds largest and they’d got t too small somehow. However,she nfomred me that Ceaucescu had a competton of allthe archtechts to desgn the buldng according to the certan scales/guidelines, and the wnner – a recently qualfed woman – somehow fucked up her scales and t was only supposed to be a third of the sze!

Bucaresti ..m front.JPG
Bucaresti .. palace.JPG
Peoples Palace from the main approach and view from the bar on the top

I know its hard to ignore the past, but f you look at the palace from a now perspective (gnorng the total destruction in the area to make space for the palace, sheer human suffering and cost, monetary cost and gross stupdty involved), it isn’t really even an ugly building. Hugely oversized and out of place (and even now, unnfnshed) yes, but aesthetcally i‘ve seen many, many worse. The fact that t s well set apart fromany oterh buldng, and a large chunk of the other buldngs nearby are of a smlar scale and desgn means that t doesn’t look as daft as much of the cty centre wthch s hopelessly muddled n scale. Bucharesti is just that way – lots of vsually not unattractive buldngs, but virtually all ncomplete, hopelessly out of scale and stuated n the most stupd postons (i.e. n the mddle of a row of shops, or sandwchng a small brck church) whch make them seem even huger!

Part of the Peoples Palace has also now been turned nto a gallery of Modern Art (in the past couple of years i‘ve really started to love modern art,just for the comedy value) , allowing entrance without the main tour, but ths just seemed to make the whole experence dafter, especially gvng that they had swanky new glass elevators up the outsde of the building, metal detectors and security guards, but no cashier and barng us, no vstors! Of the 5 floors, 2 were closed off, and the top empty apart from a roof top bar/cafe whch we vsted after takng n the two open exhibits, an odd selecton of Romanan water features, and a seres of surreal videos made by an Estonan who probably should have been commted years ago.

Earler, i had been hugely honoured to receve an invtaton to accompany Oana to the private openng party of her Brothers frst restaurant, “Culmea Meche”, and depste beng amazingly out of place – the only foregner n 70+ people, knowng nobody bar Oana who I’d only met n person for the frst tme that day, and wearng trousers held together wth a safety pn [zp off trousers, and the rght leg zip had fecked up earler that day leaving the bottom attached, but mostly unzipped and stuck], t-shrt wth holes n and the standard rope belt and odd socks – it was the most fantastic evenng. Everybody was so welcoming and friendly to the oddly attired unknown foreigner n ther mdst, and i just wish that I spoke enough Romanan to converse or at least thank her famly properly for allowing me to be involved. The restaurant is specalsng in traditional Romanan cusne – something oddly lackng in the Romanan captal - and had been a stunning achievement to go from frmng idea rght through to opening n just 6 weeks, so as to open on their weddng anniversary.

Bucaresti ..taurant.JPG
Bucaresti ..ng cake.JPG
Oana and I in Culmea Meche, and the celebratory cake cutting

There was a band playng tradtonal music, and the atmosphere was amazng, although admittedly helped by the fact that as t was a frends/famly do, virtually everybody knew at least half of the other guests, and the food was utterly excellent, although slightly challenging in order to manage to at least try a bt of everything, as there were so many dshes. I later discovered that the head chef had n fact been the Ceauceascu head chef for a perod n the 80’s, whch was knd of scary until looked at vaguely logcally – Normal people had to make a lvng, and obvously the famly would only employ the very best, whlst i ‘m guessng that an ‘invtaton’ to work for the famly wouldn’t be easy to turn down unless he had no plans for along and prosperous life. And besides, t wasn’t as if Nicolae died of food poisonng…

Anotehr feature of thecity, and far more noticeable than in Sofia (and less friendly) for example are the huge numbers of stray dogs around. Much of the problem stems from the same 1979 earthquake and Ceacescu subsequently usng t as an excuse to demolsh a chunk of the cty. Lots of famly homes were destroyed and people located to concrete hgh rses on the outskrts where they had no room for ther pets, many of which had then just been set loose. And Bridget Bardot (i thnk?) hadn’t helped either. I had a friendly remnder of this the following day, when with Oana away to Cluj to vst frends, and me havng taken u my normal roll of wandering at random and on my return,a lovely black dog decded totry and take a chunk out of my left leg. I’m not sure f he thought I was scaryng away hs pigeons, worryng the nearby newborn puppies (not his, and wth lots of other people around), thought was gong to steal his ball or smply thougt would make a good meal, but he gave me a decent np. I was close to the hostel, and so had t cleaned out quckly, and the brillant (all along – more people like her and her famly should run hostels) landlady gave me antiseptic cream etc to smother over it, and so with a bit of luck, won’t die of rabies, although i probably won’t know how true that is for another few months…

On my wandering I had took n the city, took a trip to the stadum to be there for the early football celebrtatons as Steau clinched the title on the last day, and also receved my frst introducton to Cows. It was Budapest Cow Parade 2005, and whlst many of you have probably come across ths phenomenon before (much later research shows that they have been all over the world), t was my first ntroducton to it. Bascally, the cty had been dotted at random with life size cow statues, whch had been gven to local artsts to decorate/paint however the heck they liked. I though t was a brilliant idea and way of addng colour and surrealism to normal cty lfe.
Bucaresti - Cow 1.JPG
Bucaresti - Cow 4.JPG
Bucharesti..- front.JPG
Cows, from Cow Parade 2005

That evenng, after talking to the cool Zimbabwean tenns player at the hostel who had just demolished a random Brit 6-0, 6-1 n a challenger tournament (wonder if he could beat Cliff Richard as easly?), i was persuaded by Katie, a Canadan grl ‘d orgnally met on the train from Sofa to help her n her search for money. Kate had the nterestng problem that none of her Credit/bank cards seemed to work in Bucharesti for no apparent reason, so we’d all been tryng to help out and come up with cunning ways of getting her money. The prevous nght, we had taken a walk into town for a couple of hours and been amazed to discover just how empty and deserted the centre had been, bearing in mind it was a friday nght (there’s a story from that nght too, but that’s best left untold). And as well as the money aspect, we were interested to see if Saturday was any less of a ghost town.

The hostel owner had gven a tp as to a specific bank whch seemed to accept a much wder range of cards,and t was worth a try. Back past some cows to the machne we trawled, culmnatng n the ATM decdng that t was the moment to show that inanmate objects dd get the concept of comedy, but proudly displaying “out of order” signs. Determined to fnd something, we trawled through exchange machines, Atms, hunted casinos (they always fnd ways to let you have money) and tried to get cash advances at the Hilton and Intercontinental hotels and joined the Steau revelers at Placa Unverstai until fnally managing to get an advance from her card at a small change bureau, 2.5days after frst attempt. And being Saturday, wth money fnally n hand and Steau celebrating, we really had to find a bar, so headed to one i‘d passed earler and had wanted to return to.

Bucaresti ..hurch 1.JPG
Untouched church - A rarity in Bucharesti

I don’t know its name, but ts absolutely one of my favourte bars ever, and knd of sums up Bucharest properly. On one of the man shoppng streets, they had knocked down a building n the mddle of a terrace (but left thngs lke plumbng and some wooden beams stll attached to the buldngs on ether side hangng into thin air), and left the ground as a pile of rubble and broken bricks/roof tiles. On top of that, they had done the obvious thng and bult a Hawaiian beach style bar, complete with fake palm trees, BBQ’s (lit for smell and smoke only – no food beng cooked) straw brollies, and were playing music ranging from the utterly obscure (Johnny Clegg and Savuka, anybody?) to really, really bad Euro pretend pop and rock. The tolet was a hole across the street. Anywhere else it would just seemed wrong, but n the jumble of Bucharest it more or less fitted in perfectly, and i loved it!

I‘ve sad t before and will again, but I really do love Bucharest. It’s large, alive, mad, chaotic, jumbled and screwed up, but its a real city full of normal workng people and to me, utterly intoxcatng.

Posted by Gelli 02:57 Archived in Romania Comments (1)

Serbia and Bulgaria

After toying with a trip to Tuzla (Tuzla-Tulsa?) but deciding against it, i needed a plan. With a few days to use as i saw fit, I decided to head south instead of via Nis and Timisoara as I had originally envisenged. So i took a bus to Beograd. I had the first ticketing hiccup of the trip when despite asking - in my best Srpskan accent of course - for a ticket to Beograd and paying for it, i was actually given a ticket to Prijedor. Always helpful that, especially at 5.30am, written in cyrillic and only a few mins before bus left, so I didnt even check it.

Of course, on the bus when i realised, it was too late. Had an interesting discussion with the conductor type person (and rest of the bus, looking for any people with 2 words of the same language) and no Bosnian cash which lasted a while before we came to an agreement that i would get some cash when we crossed the border and they would make a special stop for me to exchange stuff. WooHoo!

And, as i have a feeling certain people who may read this would worry too much about it, i won't go into details about being shot at on leaving the country. It's a long story, and one probably best left to the imagination...

Bus went through Croatia for a bit and then i finally got my trips first passport stamp on entering Serbia, when i also managed to get enough money to pay the bus driver (with everybody watching me as though i was a convict), and a currency import certificate which said i was carrying 4500usd, so that i could export the same amount. Even though I had maybe 200 bucks.

On arrival in Belgrade, i did the obvious thing. I took pictures of the waiting RML [old style London bus for the unitiated, non-colleagues, non-interested or simply the normal people amongst you]. which will be passed on to all those that it is important to. Realised by looking at the blinds that i've been away from work too long. I can't even recall details of the route "Daisy", although the routeing of Marble Arch, Notting Hill and Oxford Street to Trafalgar Square suggests the driver may have been just as confused as me, hence why he ended in Belgrade (although you can help thinking that you would have thought that one of the passengers might have said something as they rounded Maidstone)

Took a 1 hour circular walk - i have some serious blister issues at the moment - to get to the ATM, which i discover 20m away from where i got off the bus, and a similarly long and winding walk to find the cheap hotel suggested which was just opposite and then full anyway, and then set off in search for a second place, a small hostel down on the river. A looong walk with feet REALLY not liking me and the only place within 300sq km not accessible by bus. Got kicked off a boat (the wrong one) and chased off a second one by a large frothy dog before getting lucky. The place was mostly empty, the owner dodgy as hell, but i'm not fussy and it worked for me.

Belgrade mean't I was back in depressing civilisation - lots of mcdonalds (bosnia has NONE!!) and no cevapi. Still, the now normal collection of broken arms, vw golfs and buses donated from Japan meant it wasnt completely over.

Spent a couple of days trying not to walk too much, and also dodging the now familiar Huuuuge black rain clouds which follow me - i'll actually miss him when he's gone - around Trg Republike, kalemegden, skardalija, the old castle district and up to Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) stadium to revive some old derby memories (another story which involves me being shot at. Can you spot a theme yet?) and randomly into the suburbs looking a buildings with big holes in the side.

Took the night train to Sofia (7 hours, delayed 5 hours and with 6 passport checks on the way for a jny of barely 350km), and spent a couple of days there getting very wet. In order to avoid ghetting quite as wet on the outside, an American guy Mike and I spent a good few hours getting wet on the inside instead, and playing some of the worse darts you have ever seen. And as anybody who has had the misfortune to watch me play before, you know how bad my average is...

Sofia is a strange place in that it doesnt really seem to know what it wants to be. It lacks any sort of central focus - no main street or square to draw people - and whilst its a very pleasant city, it doesnt make any great effort to bring out the few monuments and genuine attractions ot does have. Its the sort of place i tend to like because it is a real city, with none of this disney-esque fakeness that i think places like Praha tend to have.

Sofia is also marked by the huge number of Montreal size (allegedly) potholes, poor drainage/sewers not helped by the rain and also has a number of - normally friendly and well fed looking - stray dogs which add to its odd feel, as well as police boxes perched precariously over many road junctions to use as a spotting place.

On this trip, Sofia was marked out by just 3 things really. Firstly, the Japanese guy Keiko who managed to miss his train 3 times trying to get to Budapest and failing, and kept returning to the hostel with a sheepish look on his face and staying an extra night (or in one case, not getting up in time because his alarm clock was still an hour out after crossing the border). Secondly, by the sheer inability of myself and Arek, a polish guy i met, to find the Natioinal Museum, or even manage to locate it on the map, and finally by one of the daftest nights out i'd had in ages.

It was a wednesday evening, and the hostel owner, a lovely lady who's name i don't remember, decided she fancied joining Mike and I in going out. And having a local to show you where to go is always the best way. So we left about 12.30 and it started promisingly enough - lots of rain and a taxi journey of about 10mins to get about 200metres away (one way systems are great) to a tiny and cool wine bar, totally hidden away and seemingly in somebodies shed, where i sat under a drip in the roof. Then things started going wrong, funny and farcical in equal measure.

We were looking for people. The owner weas positive each time that she knew where the people would be. But something like 7 taxi rides and 9 bars later, we still hadn't found people. And we didnt even have a drink in any of them. And had got progressively wetter. We probably spent 2 hours, finding places which were either empty, closed, not admitting anybody except Police or forensics, or utterly out of place, during which time she was getting more and more annoyed with the world and Sofia! We ended up in another taxi going to a place deep in the suburbs which she was 100% certain would be busy, as a band had been playing, but we got there just in time to see the band drive off and the last 3 patrons close to leaving. Eventually, she called it quits, P1ssed off with a rainy Wednesday night in Sofia and a last taxi took us home. She went to bed, whilst Mike and I needing a drink, wandered into a quiet but open 24hour place and had a couple of scarily cheap beers (a litre each cost under 50pence). And then headed home to discover we had been carefully locked out, and the key left in the lock on the inside...

Posted by Gelli 06:29 Archived in Serbia Comments (2)

Herzogovina, Bosnia and Srpskan Republic

On leaving Dubrovnik, i did something that i had been meaning to do for years. Previously, i had always entered Dubrovnik by boat, but had always wanted to do the land journey. The reason for that is Neum. As a concession to the Bosnian people in the, guessing, 50's, Bosnia had been granted a short stretch of coastline off Croatia in order to give it access to the sea and for trade. This means that theere is no connected land route between Dubrovnik and the rest of Croatia to the North. And because of the mountains behind, in order to get from BiH proper to Neum, the main road takes you through Croatia anyway...

In actuality, much of the coast is of no use for a port, and Bosnia is not exactly world reknowned for the vast numbers of things it exports. All that has really happened there is the growth of a resort town (Neum) which has Bosnian taxes, and so attracts daytrippers from Croatia etc due to its cheaper prices.

The bus ride itself was uneventful, but i kind of had to do it once. At the southern end, there was a cursory passport check (he looked at my cover and ignored it), and the northern end, the guy did at least take it and have a quick flick, but thats it. Wasn't overly exciting, but another random quest ticked off!

Stopped in Ploce to change. Ploce is another place i've been curious about, despite it being essentially a sh1thole. It's got the only railway station between Split and Bar, so in Yugoslav times, was well used with holiday makers going to the resorts, or onwards to some of the islands. Now it kind of functions as the Bosnian port that Neum should have been. Had a coffee in one of the many coffee houses, all empty and underneath concrete tower blocks, in the centre, and wandered around the station, impressively large for the number of people around (i.e. me).

At 4pm, got one of only 2 international trains a day onwards to Mostar, in Herzogovina. Border control was non existent (nobody), so i entered Bosnia proper with no checks, but Neum with at least somebody having a brief look, which seemed odd. Between Ploce and the border, all of the local stations had been newly rebuilt, lit and 3 or 4 even had perfectly rebuilt station houses, with station staff. Bearing in mind the 8 (all local) trains a day and lack of passengers, that seems a little overkill, and i would put them forward as the most boring or waste of money jobs in Croatia!

Virtually as soon as the border had been crossed, we started winding up along the river valley. For some reason, i never seem to think (or remember) BiH as being green, but huge chunks of it are. So we wandered alongside the river up a very pleasant valley amongst lots and lots of green and some rocky outcrops as the terrain got hillier. Got to Mostar a bit later (huge, rebuilt concrete/glass station and just 4 trains a day, total) and was picked up by the only old lady there. As she was the only one, and i the only traveller, it wasnt a hugely difficult choice to make!

After checking out the room and leaving my bags, i wandered into town, wondering what i would find and how it had changed. I had been here once before, but it was several years ago, and only limited clearing work had been redone then, so it was a horrible dour mess, and the felling in the town had been one of despair and regret more than hope. Now, the central areas has been fully cleaned up, and the friendship bridge and old quarter, brilliantly rebuilt. The central street was filled with pavement cafes (the whole BiH/Srpska area is big on their coffee and cafes), but just looking above, there were several old buildings which had been destroyed or damaged beyond repair which were just sitting there, falling apart due to lack of money/will, or perhaps, as a reminder of the sheer destructiveness of it all. Outside of the central core, more and more sign damaged buildings existed, some with big holes in, others riddled bullet holes.

The first thing you notice about Bosnia, is the sheer numbers of (mostly late 80's model) VW golfs which are around. Its not an exaggeration to say that maybe half of all cars are VW golfs, and if you include the whole VW family (VW, Audi, Seat, Skoda etc), it covers probably 80+% of all vehicles. Whoever had the import rights must have made an absolute killing. In mostar in particular, the number of armoured vehicles and 'peace keeping' forces around was quite substantial, and forces from Italy, Chile, Croatia, Germany, Austria, Ireland and Portugal amongst others were in evidence, although mostly doing very little. A relatively high amount of police cars/officers were also on view, whilst the Croatian broken arm curse was also in effect here.

Because of its proximity to the tourist hub of Dubrovnik, it attracts a fairly large number of daytrippers and coach parties, but few who actualkly stay the night, so by the time i had arrived, they had all left, and the number of tourists around was few. As such, just sitting having a coffee or beer, it was easy to strike up conversation with the locals, which despite my lack of Bosnian (i.e. essentially Serbo-Croat) were not too difficult.

I really like Mostar. The general feel and buzz there now is one of hope, friendship and unity (again), and despite the fragile nature of the country and area, very little hostility, which was great to see and be a part of, albeit briefly. In addition, the fact that so many buildings, even central ones, are in a perilous state, and obviously because of war, you are never far from a reminder of how quickly it can all fall apart, and the sheer human suffering and tragedy behind it.

The following afternoon, i took a bus on the 2 and a bit hour trek to Sarajevo. Again, lots of green and mountains, and we followed the same snaking valley until climbing up over the mountains about 2/3rds of the way through, in the hands of a routinely-balkan (i.e. psychotic) bus driver. The trip, although hot, was wonderful in itself. As many of you are aware, I'm a sucker for mountains anyway and the trees, river and occassional gorge or small lake etc did me just fine.

Arrived in the adopted home of Bolero (1984) and found the hostel i had reserved after walking around it twice. I hadn't needed to bother, as i was the only guest, and had my pick of 30 or so beds. The member of staff working insisted i take a private room (no odds to me), although the traditional charge for sheets in hostel - i carry my own to avoid this - in this case included the pillow and blanket so i was forced to shell out the extra. I was on the 5th floor of a large tower block near the station, it was all brand new (or refurbed, i don't know) and included such interesting quirks as a bomb proof door, large windows which opened fully - perfect for that suicide or drunken attempts to fly to the concrete floor below - and hot water which had to be turned on 90mins before use to heat, but turned itself off after 60mins of heating...

Central Sarajevo is split into 3 distinct sections, whch literally start and end just like that with no overlap. The West end with the station (and where i was staying) is the business district, with a few glass high rises and some banks and stuff (which stay open until 8pm - why cant we do that in the west??!!!); then comes the old Autro-Hungarian sector, with a big cafe culture and streets and hapsburg architecture which would be in no way out of place in Wien or Budapest etc. Finally is the stunning old town, which includes lots of alleyways and wooden shops not dissimilar in style to those in German cities Xmas markets, plus a large mosque, lots of small restaurants and little local shops, and with a smell of cooked food not entirely dissimilar to a Morrocan Bazar.

As with Mostar, Sarajevo has a really relaxed feel to it, and a huge coffee culture, which means that even around midnight there are still loads of people just milling around drinking coffee, beer or just walking, which i think is great. Spent a couple o fdays wandering around being touristy. Went to a couple of the 1984 sites, the site of the Archdukes assassination in 1914 (museum shut), the stunning but derelict old town hall and just wandered at random. Again, Cevapici was the thing, with whole restaurants in the old town serving nothing but.

Left Sarajevo on the 5am bus (to all those at T-K in particular, i know the idea of me being up at that hour is laughable, but honestly, it is true), heading towards the Republic of Srpska. Srpska is a strange entity. Not quite a breakawy republic, but covering a large chunk of the North and East 'Bosnian' country. They are essentially more Serb than Bosnian, and use the Cyrillic alphabet instead of Roman (the Serb-Croat-Bosnian language uses both alphabets in different parts of the region). About half way through the 5 hour trek towards Banja Luka (and 5 hours on Bosnian roads is quite a trek - driving standards tend to be quite, urm, idiosyncratic), the signs suddenly started changing to Cyrillic text, whilst the cars on the rods suddenly contained huge numbers of foreign reghistered vehicles, as opposed to the Bosnian/Corp Diplomatique of Sarajevo.

Was met at Banja Luka by Ivana, a CSer i'd been talking to for months, and who had kindly offered to put me up and show me around. I have been fascinated (or, at least, intrigued) by the idea of Srpska for a while and Banja Luka is a strange place. The capital of a self proclainmed region, with a democratically - more or less - goverment of its own which isnt recognised by the Sarajevo/Bosnian central government.

The city itself is not insubstantial - 400,000 or so - but missed out on all of the fighting and shelling and so is essentially unscathed. Partly because of that, it doesnt fit the profile of how you imagine a Bosnian city to be like. The outskirts were filled with large annonymous aluminium sheds/out of town style stores which kind of seemed wrong to me, but also didn't feel as if it was in quite the right place. It did have an eastern feel to it, but if you ignored the Cyrillic writing, it could just as easily been a random town in, say, France, as in the Balkans. It just feels kind of annonymous, which interested me in itself.

Despite more rain during the couple of days, had a great time in Banja Luka. After the inevitable but still very tasty Cevapi (Banja Luka instead of normal, meaning they are blocks instead of sausage shape). Got to take a wander with Ivana over to her work on the Sat afternoon, so got to see the delights of where our taxmoney is going. Ivana works for a former British forces radio station, oxsigen fm, and still works on the EUFOR base there. As she was presenting a film show for a couple of hours, i had a bit of time to wander around and see what was going on. Security screening wasn't up to much - i realised after we'd left that i'd been carrying a camera around the whole time - and as with my visit to Miha's station in Ljubljana i was struck by just how small and seemingly insignificant a place radio stations are - it was 2 porter cabins squashed against the side of the storage terminal with a couple of antenae. Was given the low down yet again on the evil Sarajevo based bitch woman intent on closing them down, had a coffee in the nafi where i got to see a bit of sky sport cricket coverage, which was surreally both for the glorious British sun it was being played in, and for the fact that England+Wales were well on top and winning, and talked to a some random Bosnians and Brits for a while. And i didn't break anything or even start a new war.

We had a wander around Friday night B-L, visiting the Roman castle - huge area, so of definite importance - a couple of random riverside bars reached down an assortment of twists and turns that i never managed to follow (even by the end, i manage to acquire not even a basic orientation of the city. I was always coming out somewhere unexpected) and ended in the inevitable yet funny Irish bar. I tend to enjoy experiementing Irish bars abroad, just to see how they work (or otherwise) and how Irish they feel (not at all in this case).

This one had huge Budweiser adverts all over, a huge Russian flag pinned to the ceiling and band playing a combination of Croat and Serb folk songs with the occassional western (but never Irish) song chucked in for no apparent reason. Indulged my normal fascination of ordering a Guinness so i could watch somebody with no idea what they are doing pouring it very badly. In fairness, it didnt taste too bad at all, but whatever was served wasn't Guinness...

The following day saw the inevitable rain for most of the day, so we kind of wandered around, drifting between coffee places and just watching the world. For probably the dozenth time on my trip, i started pondering long and hard about calling it quits and buying an appartment or house. I really need to stop paying an interest in house prices on my travels or i'll end up with several by the time my trip is over. That evening, her family had returned, so i got introduced to parents and grandfather, who were extremely friendly if slightly bemused by the random foreigner, and who's mother did the same as every other mother (and host) i was subsequently to meet did - try furiously to shovel as much food and drink into me as humanly possible. During a break in the clouds, I cheated utterly (it wasn't my fault - i was quite happy to walk) on my hill quest and we were driven up to the top of the local hill to look at the world at a strangely communist looking concrete structure with helpful graffiti writen all over it (e.g. Go Scotland).

With all the family returned and a lack of sleeping space, i spent the night at another CSer's place and one of Ivana's DJ colleagues, Alex, who had just got back from playing a gig in Srebrenica, which i typically only found out about after it had happened. Predictable to a flaw. Unfortunately a lack of time between his return and him also having the lucky position of Breakfast DJ meant we didnt get a huge amount of time to talk, which as he seemed a really interesting guy was a shame.

And so Bosnian-Srpskan time comes to an end. Yet again i say the same thing, in that I really wish i could spend a proper amount of time in the country as it is utterly fascinating to me. Any country where everybody drives the same (and foreign) car, they eat Burek and Cevapi (which NEED to be brought to the wider worlds attention), buildings have big holes in them and a huge number of people have broken arms deserves more time. Unfortunately, i don't believe that Sten has plans to open T-Kartor Bosnia-Herzogovina just yet...
It is a stunning and utterly misunderstood country with some amazing people, but unfortunately, i think only a matter of time before it collapses in on itself once again. The hodge-podge of alphabets, ethnicities and religions can work together, but the people seem to have a great need for leadership of some description, and as such can be susceptible to the wrong kind of person coming in and "leading" them.

Oh well. Next stop wherever the heck i end up. Probably a Bosnian immigration jail cell.

Posted by Gelli 04:06 Archived in Bosnia And Herzegovina Comments (0)

Part 3 of a.... You know what i mean by now.

Dubrovnik

With Slobo and Mel having to leave to return north (the delay in getting here had eaten too big a chunk of time to be able to reorganise things), i took the boat south for the 4 hour trip to Dubrovnik. Played cards very badly with Aussie girls (if i remember correctly, Kristy, Gina, Sam and Tash, all Sth London based), happy i hadn't staked my life savings on it.

In Dubrovnik, was picked up by wonderfully cheery landlord Mladen (pre booked - and both his wife and 2 next door neighbours had arms in slings) who spoke at best, limited English, and went to his place in the hills. A lovely old house, where his family live, but which had also been converted into a number of flats, housing a good 30 or so backpackers.

After a wander around town (i never once went the same way through the alleys between Mladens and the old Town, and by the end i was actively trying to!), returned to shower and then went out into town with a cherry Melbourner, Scott. Melbourne seems to be the centre of the earth at the moment, with scores of people i meet either from there or going there, yet i havent met a single Sydneysider.

We went hunting the inside of the fort perimiter walls for one of the outside bars (i.e. you walk through the wall to a perched bar on the outside) which we found with relative ease - a nice place and idea, but dark with no moon, and kind of more romantic than either of us was ion the mood for - and remarked that the lack of a Chinese restaurant combined with the sheer number of cats in the Old Town really could not be coincidence. Moved on to the inevitable Irish bar - within the old town, there are no western fast food chains etc (in fact, there is no Maccy D's at all in Dubrovnik, which is great), and most shops are locally owned as well, although there were both Irish and English bars within - and met up with a couple of Irish girls and their cousin who Scott had met the night before.
Managed to collect an extra dozen or so Irish folk, and after discovering the club outside the walls was closed, went to a terrace bar nearby where we talked utter sh1t until being moved by the police around 6, on what was, strangely considering over 2 weeks had past, my first real night out.

The next day was spent mostly doing the touristy things in the old town, and also exploring the areas outside of the walls in teh rest of the city, which offered a strange contrast in teh most part. Dubrovnik's old town really is amazing, and they are rightly proud. A vast fortress, still entirely intact (or in allot of cases rebuilt after a year long and mostly spiteful seige by the Yugoslavs in the early 90's war), and not taken over at all by Western retailers or signs, so that it still looks authentic, at least in the main. Guessing it will be horrible with the numbers of tourists in the height of summer and heat, but in late May, it was still more than bearable. Only real point of note was that nature started her revenge for the fly by having 2 seperate pigeons cr*p on me barely an hour apart.

On the following day, took a wander into town with Joanne, a kiwi-canuk girl and up onto the walls. From above, they are even more impressive. A full circuit was a good 2km, with a height difference of over 50metres between the tallest of (i think) 14 towers and the lowest point on the wall, and the battelements in the main were surprisingly wide as well. The view from above showed that the city was downset into the ground more than expected - i always expect the insides of forts to be flat - and also highlighted what an amazing job of repairing the extensive war damage they had done.

Had a great plate of the local speciality, Cevapicci (a kind of small kebab meat sausage), and then in the 35degree heat did the one thing i really shouldn't have, and made the walk to the top of the hill behind. Up a barren cliff on a zigzag road in the midday sun. Again it was worth it, although i again perfected my drowned rat look, and also wasn't overly impressed that within 3 minutes of reaching the bottom, it clouded over a bit, cooled down, and even rained a little. Bah! Met up with the Irish girls and Rada - a nice if slightly scary Serbian girl staying in the same small dorm - and passed out on the beach after my walking exertions.

That evening started talking to the guys in the other connected dorm (2x 3bed rooms plus kitchen, bathroom and balcony in our enclosed flat) and proved yet again what a small world it was, by discovering that they were from UKHO, and one of whom, Alex was likley to be showing (probably) Sten and the other T-Kartor guys around the Taunton facility the following week when they went over for tender discussions.

Showing a complete disregard for my own feelings, and thinking only of the interests of T-Kartor, i forced myself to go out with them and Rada that evening, and have a few beers. Again we went to the outside bar, and then found a true local place out near the old town harbour, where officially (or not) some locals had set up some music and a fridge of drinks and were selling to whoever as they set on the rocks watching the harbour, although it was only locals appart from us. Note to anybody reading this involved in the process of deciding payrises - even on holiday, i am the model employee, thinking only of the good of T-Kartor. Yes, i know. I know.

And that will have to do now. I know it is not in my normal style, but i'm suffering acute diahorrea whilst writing it (not connected) so just slapping it down as it comes out. Still several weeks behind, and still no pictures, but i will catch up and put lots of pretty images in soon, i promise. Doubtful that i'll learn how to type though!

Greetings all.

Posted by Gelli 06:58 Archived in Croatia Comments (1)

part 2 of what should have been a 1 parter.

I know it's delayed, but lots of things are getting in the way of mundane things like online journal - bloggy thing writing, so its had to take a bit of a back seat. I know it isn't good enough. I truly do. But thats just tough.

As we left off in Rovinj i won't start there. I'll start further down the road in Rijeka. As it was still low season the boat was only sailing 3 times a week, meaning that any plans to stick around would cost me a couple of days. In Rijeka had a couple of hours to kill before getting the overnight boat to Split, so had a wander.

It doesnt have the worlds greatest reputation, but to be honest, i've seen a heck of allot worse. Having said that, it was notable for only 2 things. Firstly, i saw the most beautiful woman i have ever seen (real life, pictures or tv). An absolutely stunning blonde. And she was driving a knackered old taxi. Where is the justice? The other point of note was the huge number of people who had their arms (mostly wrists) in slings. I'm not exaggerating when i say that in about 3 hours, i saw over 10 people with their arms in slings, and *THREE* seperate people who had both arms in slings. With my record and ability to break bones at will and in stupid situations, i knew it wasn't a good place for me to be.

It was European Cup Final night (none of this C lge rubbish), and oddly, i was in Croatia again. I've seen 3 of the last 5 in Croatia, for no apparent reason. This time it was on the boat. Unfortunately, we were just that bit too far off the coast for a perfect picture. We saw about 35mins of the first half, and missed all 3 goals. At half time, remarked that i wish i was near a bookies so could put a couple of quid on Liverpool, which most people laughed at. So wish i could have :( Then saw the first 2 liverpool ones before it went dead for good. From then on, a group of a good 25 people were relying solely on an intermittent radio contact, and mobile phones. By the time it got to penalties, it was just getting silly. Sms's going off at all angles after every pen, but a slight time delay meant that we were'nt always entire sure what the curent situation was until the end.

My cunning plan of cheap night sleeping on deck was slightly tempered by my being distracted by the football, and by the time i went to pick a good spot to avoid the direction of wind, it was too late - all the good spots were gone, and my sleeping bag was in the locked luggage room. Hence it was that i thought that instead of looking for shelter, the opposite might work, and rolled up in a ball on the center of the helicopter winchpad, much to the amusement of onlookers. And strangely, i had no trouble sleeping, baring the drunk local who thought it would be funny to fall over me about every 20minutes.

Got to Spilt at about 6.20, and it was already 22degrees. Had a trawl around the old Diocletian's palace before the tourists hit and by 7.30am, it had hit 30. And hotter it got. Chucked my bag (well, not so much a chuck, as an ungainly heave) and did the obvious thing. I followed my existing trend of climbing the overlooking hill, in the scorching heat. I didnt die of sunstroke or heat exaustion, which is probably the only bonus of the climb (not a bonus for you lot as you now get to read about it in excruciating detail), and in fairness, the view from the top was worthwhile. As i've been to Split a few times before, i didn't plan to hang around, and got the absolutely jampacked and broken airconned afternoon catermeran to Hvar Town. Suffice to say, that by arrival an hour later i looked not unlike a drowned rat.

Things went ok from there though, as i finally got some suncream after a week of looking and getting burnt just a tad more than planned, and we got picked up by an old guy at the dock area who had a free room in a really good location and with a view of the harbour area. Hvar Town was really nice. Not overly packed at this stage of the year, but lots of people just milling around taking it all in, and just by listening to the converstations and observing the meetings, you could tell that a large chunk were locals.

Hvar was officially voted in the late 90s as one of the 12 most beautiful islands in the world. Whilst it seems slightly suspicious to me that the list included only small, warm, holiday places (Anguilla, Bali, Bora Bora, Capri, Hvar, Kauai, Mykonos, Ponza, Upolo and Zanzibar) - what's wrong with, for example, Southsea? -
and it wasn't neccessary quite as stunning as all that, it was definitely not out of place on the list.

Ignoring another walk to the top of the cliff to go into the fort, did absolutely feck all except veg for a couple of days, although i also started my on running battle with nature, when i somehow managed to squash a (very) large fly by accidetally treading on it as it flew underneath. I guess he must have been poisoned by the smell...

A couple of days later continued onwards to Korcula, another island. Fecked up on the suncream front by missing a shoulder and then rolling my sleeve up, meaning i fast acquiired an evil left shoulder. Had a 50min drive right across Korcula from the catamaran landing at Vela Luka to Korcula Town itself, and along with an Afrikaaner, then managed to take advantage of the hoard of accomodation offerers and lack of backpackers by fighting them off against each other until we got down to 40 kuna (just under 4gbp, down from the normal 80-100). It was a strange old place, half a building site, but cheap and all i needed.

Korcula claims Marco Polo was born there, and whilst its true he was actually captured just off the island, nobody really knows where he was born. But its a selling point for tourists, so we did the inevitable Marco Polo Tower trip, which was just kind of pathetic, and then listened to a group of school girls singing acappela in a court yard with great accoustics.

The town itself was strange. Lots of money and effort has gone into making sure that it has been well landscaped and looked after, but many of the buildings seem to be eitehr falling into disrepair, or only now getting renovated. Guess they were waiting for foreign investors, but don't know.

That evening i met up with 4 Aussie girls i'd met in Hvar and on the ferry, and we went to a cool little rooftop cocktail bar - it's on the top of an old fort tower on the seafront, and is reached via a ladder and a hole in the floor, whilst the drinks are winched up the side of the building from below via a series of pulleys. Touristy and gimmicky, yes, but still worth visiting, although somehow we managed to miss (how can you miss it?) sunset.

Again, i'm warbling on waaay too much, so will stop now. Guess this 1 parter will end up with a dozen parts, but i suppose thats how it goes.

Posted by Gelli 03:25 Comments (0)

A month late, and no pics, but it's a start.

Only Part 1, despite meaning to do 2 parts today. You'll just have to wait i'm afraid for the exciting (ahem) continuation of my random trail of semi uncoherent babble.

I really should hate Romania by now. All logic says that i should. And yet i don't. I still love the place. And i'm not even particularly angry. People get bitten by rabid dogs and people get pickpocketed. These things happen. Why take it out on Romania? But i digress. And i havent even started writing yet. This may take some time. Long winded waffle for no apparent reason expect i have 3 hours free internet so i'm going to use it. You have been warned. And no, i've no idea how a blog is supposed to work or what to write.

I know i promised that this would be a kind of regular update, but as most of you are well aware i'm not always hugely reliable, and my time keeping can be hit and miss, especially if it involves mornings. But after increasingly less than subtle hints by the Daams brothers, i figured i probably should do something, and it may as well be on their site. This one, in case you hadn't realised.

To the beginning. Not a great place to start, but it will do.

Whilst most of this trip is very much a make it up as i go along jaunt, the first couple of weeks i knew were on the hectic side as i had lots of people to catch up with and chores to do before i really was free.

Utterly astonishing for so many reasons, but i left without a hitch. The train was on time, and so was I. Hassleholm was passed without incident (for those not in the know, its kind of a southern sweden version of crewe - and i know that also does help most of you - which basically means its a boring sh1thole with a railway junction, and somewhere i tend to get stuck at at strange hours. Even back to the Landy days, my single biggest travelling aim was always just to get past Hassleholm. And any number of people were betting i wouldnt get any further for weeks), and even Hoor - famous winter sleeping tunnel and all - was negotiated without a hitch. I was on a winner, and as if by magic, Denmark arrived.

Got to Odense as planned and met by an extremely happy Anna-lise. Had a wonderful celebratory evening (shes just finished her theses and is now officially a doctor of coral or seaweed or whatever the heck it is. I really should know these things) with the whole family. The thing about it being the whole family was that excepting one grandmother, it really was. All 48 of them. And me. Who everybody knew about, in waaay too much detail. Meaning i was prized exhibit, and being shown off to numerous random Danish people, all bar her parents i'd never met before.
Interest was high, as apparently i was the first bf that she had actually introduced to any of the rest of the extended family. I don't think i offended anybody too badly, but i almost certainly did. It was slightly on the overwhelming side having so many people coming up and being introduced, but mostly asking me the same things (no, we are NOT planning kids soon, regardless of how nice an appartment they were going to buy for us). I slept in a hedge as it was easiest.

Left the next day as planned, although i have had days i was feeling better. After an overnighter notable only for the fact i got a free upgrade from seat to bed despite me actually wanting the seat, caught up with Aldo in Vaduz as the end of a long running bet which we dont need to go into, and then after a nice breezy start (4.17am - yay) the following day, went to Wien. Stopped off for a few hours in Hopfgarten in the Tirol where i had a couple of beers with Colin, who'd i'd not seen in probably 18 months, and met his really cool new Aussie (Ozzie?) missus, Helen.
Trawlled into Wien aound 10, and over to Luca and Jelena's. An hour later, Jelena discovers she's pregnant. Wow. And huge congrats. The idea of Luca as a dad was just funny to begin with, but they should make great parents. We sSpent a couple of days doing nothing much in Wien, except some wandering around and a bit of touristy stuff including a trip on the Risenrad (the Ferris wheel in Prater), which oddly none of us had ever been on before, but was cool.

Wien - Jel.. Luca 2.JPG
Wien - Reisenrad.JPG
Went off to Cesky Krumlov for a night to be a stupid beer drinking tourist, and catch up with a few people. It pissed it down. This is to become a reccuring theme, and i'm not even anywhere near Tromso, Bergen or Wales. Met the first in a long line of people with connections (more later) to me or places i've been based, as the first backpackers i talked to were 2 guys, one from Hassleholm, the other Hoor...

C Krumlov ..tyard 3.JPGC Krumlov ..astle 3.JPG

Returned to Wien and things started to go wrong. Details aren't important, but all was not quite as happy in paradise as i'd always believed. Suffice to say that you really dont want to be trying to keep 2 hysterical people who are intent on beating the cr*p out of each other whilst screaming/crying/yelling enthusiastically in serbo-croat and brandishing knives/saucepans and lots of other stuff for several hours.

Took my leave the next morning and got to ponder the vagairies of life. There is hope, but they both need to be really careful they don't blow it completely. Went to Bled where i met Paul, a half czech guy from Newbury (groan) and tried to kind of get out of work mode by doing nothing - yes, i know thats is still work mode, but technically, there is a difference. Wandered up to the nearby Drustvo Gorge (worth the trip) after cunningly managing to get lost on a straight road. Came back a different route and were impressed by the sight which beheld us as we round a corner near the hill top. A good couple of hundred OAPS, all horribly drunk (it was barely noon) were dancing to local folk music, whilst surrounded by lots of acid smilie faced yellow balloons. They all seemed happy, although the combination of lots of drunk old people with scores of cars to get home off the top of a very steep and windy track was not one i particularly wanted to ponder long.
Vintgar 1.JPG

Continued as planned to Ljubljana, where things almost started to unravel. Slobo and Melanie were somehow stuck in Chicago for whatever reason, and been told they had to wait 2 days for a new flight. Which meant my free accom wasnt accessible. In my naivety, i'd assumed that finding a hostel or cheap bed in May in Ljub wouldnt be a majot hassle. 450 euros, or 70 euros in Kranj, 30km away said otherwise. After a short sms convo, Miha quite happily offered me his spare room, and it was gratefully accepted. With Miha still working for a couple of hours, the amazing Katja then welcomed me to their home - a stunning, large central appartment - despite never even having heard of me 20minutes peviously. The world is full of fantastic people. Later, the 3 of us hooked up with Bara (now finally offerd the Finnish placement she's been aiming for ages) and Igor on the 3rd official TT Ljubljana pissup, and i'm happy to report that i had no subsequent problems, unlike the first pissup where i was hopsitalised the next day in Fortezza and out of it for a week.

As Slobo and Melanie finally were offered London instead of Munich and so on their way, spent a couple of very pleasnat days doing trips around Slovenia with and without Miha&Katja, including up to Planica (the first time i'd seen it without snow and 20000 people - its the ski flying hill and season finale) and Skofa Loka which i'd never been, but was very pleasant. Did the first in what rapidly has become the other trend to date, and climbed the hill. I've suddenly started climbing every hill anywhere near a town, for no apparent reason. It was scorching hot, i didnt end up exactly where i was aiming (close enough) and perused some of the most amazing signposts seen - photos follow - up a mountain, all of which seemed to be taking the p1ss out of the people walking up, but which later dawned on me were actually part of a kind of fitness circuit half way up the mountain. Also, caught up with Ruzica for a few beers on Eurovision night (i just couldnt watch) and an assortment of her colleagues over for a conference, including people from Delft and town planners from Birmingham. The world is too damned small.
Skofa Loka 1.JPG
Skofa Loka 2.JPG
Skofa Loka River 1.JPG
Valley shot.JPG

Slobo - Mel update. They made it to London. Their bags didn't.

Took an early bus down to Rijeka in Croatia (2 buses and 3 trains a day, but 2 of the trains leave at exactly the same time as the buses, meaning it was useless) on which i was the only passenger for the full 3 hours, and after meeting Anna-Lise after her Edinboro trip, we went onwards to Pula via some typically psycotic bus driving. Broke my rucksack zip. Bugger. I like Pula, and the area, but i'm still not as impressed with it as the hype is made out to be. The Colloseum is in amazingly good shape, and stunning, and the central core is undoubtedly pretty, but... We had a stunningly amazing plate of squid, and finally started to properly relax and get into holiday mode.

Pula - Ampitheatre 1.JPG
Pula - Ampitheatre 5.JPG
Pula - Chu..d tower.JPG
Pula - Gateway.JPG

Slobo and Mel's bags had been found, and the cunning plan was formed of them flying into Venice where their bags would be forwarded onto the same day, and then coming down the coast instead of them going via Ljubljana. It worked a treat except that there is a slight different between Venice, Italy, and Venice, Louisiana.

Went from there up the coast to Rovinj, which i just love. I couldnt tell you why, but it just feels right to me, and the old town is wonderful and mostly unspoilt, although relatively small. Ignoring the fact that it (like all of the Istrian peninsula, even so early in the season was packed with Germans - menus in many places aren\t even in Croat or Italian, just German).

Rovinj - Town view 1.JPG
Rovinj - Harbour 1.JPG

Lucked out on accomodation and we got an appt for the price of a room as the owner prefered it to be used, meaning i could put my vast culinary skills to use, and Slobo and Mel finally arrived, with luggage and a hefty chunk of compensation, a week later than planned, and also heard that the result of Jelena's first scan was that she is carrying twins!

One of these days i will actually get to know a normal married couple, who have one baby at a time, with no complications, the parents are known, she's not a virgin, he's not sleeping with her sister or any other of the fecked up things that seem to keep happening. I'm convinced i will, but it hasnt happened yet.

Unfortunately we got the news that A-L's grandmother, the one i hadnt met, passed away, which kind of killed off the feel and effort that it had taken to get all 4 of us in the same place at the same time. A few hours later after arranging her short notice tickets to the Faroe isles - an interesting challenge in itself - we walked around town, figuring that it might help more than her sitting in the room in mourning. And as we walked around town i did something that i do far too often, and knew it would cause trouble.

I opened my big mouth. I kind of knew it would get me into trouble before i said it, but the warning from my brain didnt stop my mouth going for it. There was a stall type thing for Avon in the main square, with the slogan "Avon - the company for women", and i just came straight out with 'i thought that was Hoover'. Bad move. I'm not sure exactly what made it so bad, and am still trying to work it out now (did her grandmother make vacuum cleaners, maybe, or was an avon lady. I dunno?), but lets just say AL was not impressed and all hell broke loose.

We manged to get back to the room, but she refused all of anything, and shut the world out. She locked herself in and that was that. I couldnt talk to her at all, and the following morning she just left without saying anything. As far as i know she's still in the Faroes, but even a couple of weeks after, we've not talked (phone off or not answered), and all i've managed to get out of her is the occassional sms and a short, terse sounding (and Danish) email. It's a huge shame as something which could have been very serious looks over, and i've no idea why, but that's life i suppose.

C'est La Vie.

Your bored, aren't you? Don't blame me. I'm not forcing you to read.

I honestly will continue later, to get to the whole romania hating dog attacking pickpocketing type thing i promised earlier, via broken arms, UKHO, Strange Bosnians, VW Golfs, Ceaucescu's head chef and animal Karma, but i've run out of time, so it will have to wait.

Have fun all.

And yes, we all know that i can't type.

Posted by Gelli 01:53 Comments (8)

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