Monday, September 2, 2013

When Hostels Go Full Retard

I faced a long journey home after the exploring the Baltics. I had to fly from Kaunas, Lithuania, to Dublin, to Boston, to Atlanta and then to Orlando. The available flights out of Lithuania left me with few options. The only direct, fairly priced, non-pain-in-the-ass flight was on Ryannair, direct from Kaunas to Dublin. The other options were a ten-hour flight from Vilnius with a layover in Helsinki or Copenhagen or an eight-hour bus ride to Warsaw to fly direct to Dublin. Due to the schedule of the flight out of Kaunas, I had no choice but to fly to Dublin and stay the night. At the time this sounded really great. I went to Dublin in 2012 after buying an Aer Lingus vacation package and had fun there, so I figured a layover was a great idea. And, after all that travel I figured I’d wing it when I got there and just find a hotel to stay in near the airport or city center and treat myself to a nice night out where I would reflect on all the good times had with Chris and Steven while drinking by myself.
Well, it turns out that Eminem fucked up all my plans. For the second time in my life I walked up to a tourist information desk (the previous time was in Amsterdam, first trip abroad, when all hostels I walked to were full) and I said, “I’m not sure if I want to stay near the airport or in the city.” The women behind the desk started to laugh. “You won’t be staying near either, I’m afraid” one said, “Eminem is in town.”
After some discussion of whether or not I had a car and what time I had to leave the next day, the women shot some ideas back and forth and one of them suggested Abbey Court Hostel.
“I’ll take a hotel. I have money,” I told them. But by then she was already on the phone confirming my bed and taking my credit card. Twenty-five Euros. Right on the river in front of the Ha-Penny Bridge on Bachelor's Walk. It sounded great at first. And when I got there, judging by the narrow fa├žade of the row house it occupies, I assumed it would be okay. But after checking in…
Basically, it benefits one greatly to do their homework and plan ahead if one is going to stay in hostels. What I encountered in this Dublin shit hole was so horrible in terms of facilities, bang for your buck and decorative taste I eventually ended up getting a hotel room a few doors down.
How did it suck? Well, they placed me in a thirty bed dorm in a basement, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the room was large enough to space the beds a comfortable distance from one another. But this room was like tenement housing (considering Irish history maybe the owners think the place is just fine), where when some Danish dipshit jumps down from his bunk at 4 am to take a piss, his boxer briefs and all the little ass hairs creeping out from the edges would be the face of not just the person sleeping on the bottom bunk but also in the face of the guy on the bottom bunk across from this Dane’s bunk bed, as well as in the face of each person sleeping on each bottom bunk that lines the walkway provided in this thirty bed dorm. 
Another issue with this hostel, and a dead giveaway that a hostel you are considering staying in or, if desperate, checking into sucks, is when the building is massive and has hundreds of beds. Mega-hostels are outright shit. On my last night in Melbourne, Australia back in 2006, I had to stay at a hostel that had around one hundred rooms, and I made the mistake of asking for “whatever was cheapest.” I walked into the room only to find that long-term guests—an Israeli and seven Irish chefs—had used any bunk bed frame, nail in the wall, hook or doorknob to hang their dirty work clothes. Imagine what a ten-foot heap of confiscated jackrags from Angola prison must smell like. Now imagine sleeping in a room with this scent and no ventilation for even a single night. Not worth it. And, so after hearing those dudes tell me about how one farts in his sleep and how another drunkenly pisses on the wall each night because he thinks he’s found the bathroom, I walked back to reception and paid two more dollars to stay in a nice smelling room full of Taiwanese kids that said nothing and just played on their laptops.
This hostel in Dublin was labyrinthine, and in the process of climbing up a set of stairs and down a set of stairs and following arrows on the walls, which were decorated with artwork so bad it was embarrassing to even be associated with it when walking past, I began to realize that this place had made the mistake of going full retard. 
The hallways and room they put me in at Abbey Court had the jackrag smell, and a team of Eastern European women were cleaning, more like bleaching, my room from top to bottom. Their efforts were commendable, but again the stink and overall off-putting appeal of the place is the result of the hostel owner trying to maximize space and profits. I understand that real estate is most likely expensive right there on the riverfront, but sometimes a business owner goes too far when trying to make their nut. Think Paris and how the ham sandwiches only have a paper-thin slice of ham on them. Or like when they tried to bring back Woodstock in the mid 90’s and bottled water was so expensive the people rioted and looted all the vendor booths before lighting them on fire.
I tried to make the best of it. I found my numbered bed and stowed my bag in a basket with wheels underneath the bottom bunk, because there was no room for one to sit their bag on the floor and spread out their belongings, and went to take a shower only to discover that the owners are so cheap they installed push button showers to minimize water usage. An even bigger issue was that the water was either ice cold or boiling hot—I mean fucking scald your skin hot and nowhere to get out of its way because the shower stall is so narrow.
There was no comfortable temperature one could adjust it to in that thirty-second interval when water trickled out of the showerhead.
Of course, Abbey Court tried to personalize the place. I’m sure the owners strive to make it “funky” and “fun for everyone” but what utter failures of effort. The graffiti portraits of Marilyn Monroe
and Bono…
blek! And the bullshit attempt to make kids with dreadlocks feel at home in places like the hammock room….
Fuck off already.
And so, I got dressed and went looking for a hotel. And two doors down I found one, with an available room…one of the largest rooms in the whole hotel, for about $170. And, since I don’t HAVE to live like a backpacker but merely like to get by on a bargain when traveling, I paid it. And I went back and grabbed my backpack and threw it on the floor of a room with a king-size and a single bed, with a television, a fireplace, a bathroom with all the hot water I could savor, and a third floor window that overlooked the riverfront. 
The problem is, most backpackers don’t have this liberty, and shame on people like those who run the assembly line, factory format of backpacker hostels like Abbey Court. I was once a twenty-one year old kid who saved up for two years to go to Europe for the first time, and there are millions of kids just like that twenty-one year old me, who fall victim to the Mega-hostel… It can all be avoided with a little homework. Far better deals for the same price can be found if one just plans ahead. And, to be fair, Abbey Court’s youtube commercials like this one and this one indicate that they have single rooms and even apartments, but it’s the sheer size and the attempt to please every level of affordability and taste that the place goes full retard. And, you'll see that in their own commercial more images of all that I'm making fun of.
I knew I’d be taking the piss out of the place later on my blog, and it just wasn’t worth explaining to some innocent, freckled kid at the reception desk on why I didn’t want to stay there, so I snapped some photos of how much the place sucked and let them keep my money. I had the access code to get inside for the rest of the night which allowed me to go back and use the internet. But every hostel has Internet and Wi-Fi these days…so this isn't a selling point.
Let me commend the following hostels from my journey through the Baltics for being small, friendly, cheap, clean, quiet, and comfortable. For doing it the right way!

Hostel Tabinoya in Tallinn, Estonia
Blue Cow in Riga, Latvia
The Monk's Bunk in Kaunas, Lithuania

While even the above hostels' websites might portray a little corniness, they are the fucking Taj Mahal in comparison.

And let me also say that there are more of these good hostels in Eastern Europe than Western Europe anymore, so if you’re traveling in Western Europe, especially a major city like Dublin, do your homework or suffer the scent of jackrag.

And if you made it this far and don't still don't get the "full retard" concept then here you go:

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Lithuania... Because Most People Don't Know Where It Is

 Unfortunately, my friend Tess was supposed to jump in on the journey after Steven left, but she had some trouble. Chris and I had to find our way to Siauliai (pronounced Shyowl-lay) where we found the one hostel in town. It was a college dorm building from the Soviet years. It looked pretty Soviet. The guidebook said it had been renovated with EU funds, but I felt like I was studying Agricultural Yield Analysis in 1962. That's our room above. Chris said the picture of the birch tree on the wall made him feel like he was right at home. I bet back in the Soviet days a guy would sit in each chair and share the same porn mag as his roommate while they both rubbed one out. Communism is all about sharing.
 Most people, before and after going to Siauliai, asked why we stayed the night. It's a boring place for many, with only one main pedestrian street with restaurants that play Bon Jovi non-stop. Well, I wanted to see the Hill of Crosses, and sometimes it's nice to see what small towns are like. The Hill of Crosses is about 12 km outside of town. We paid a cab driver $28 to drive us there and sit for an hour while we explored the area. The two hills were sacred even in pagan times, when pagans would place crosses there. But then priests came and Christianized the crosses, and Lithuanians continued the practice throughout the Soviet years as a way of protesting the oppression. The Soviets bulldozed the place three times, but the crosses always came back. Now, everybody and their mother leaves a cross. The ground beneath the crosses is just mulch of old crosses.
 I later learned that various regions of Lithuania have craftsmen who carve different styles of Christian statues and shrines and, like in pagan times, place them in the forest where few people will ever find them. The Christ and the little crucifixion chapel behind him are both examples of such work.
 Again, the Christ figure in the middle is yet another style of the craftsmen.
 People seriously pile so many crosses here that I began to just think of it as cross junkyard.
 Another regional style of woodwork.
 This is one of the chapels that they make and place in random, sometimes rarely traveled locations.
 If you forgot your cross, you can buy one.
 This is the college that owned the dorm that we stayed in. Unlike Tallinn, Estonia, the Lithuanians removed the Soviet symbols from the building.
 What they did not remove was the watermelon that some kid left in the dorm fridge back in 1954.
 When we got to Vilnius, the first hostel we checked out had bottle urchins and all sorts of other derelicts lingering around. It was a real shithole. So we headed toward another place closer to the Old Town and got the last two beds. It's a busy town in August but not as busy as Western European cities in August.
 Old Soviet sports stadium.
 I found a statue that I really connected to...
 This is the old brewer genius, Valentas, at Baras Snekutis. For every three beers he poured, he drank one. His beers were tasty and cheap. $2 for a half liter of beer that has recently been highly rated for using strains of yeast unknown in any other region of the world. I must say that whatever the yeast strain is, it gets you drunk and leaves no hangover.
 Lithuanian life...
 Probably the most sinister thing I saw in a museum the whole trip. It is no secret that Lithuanian Auxilliary Police aided the Nazis in killing Lithuanian Jews, but in 1972 a guy bought a home from a man who had helped in the killings. The new home owner found this knife sharpening wheel made from a Jewish person's tomb stone. I later met a Jewish couple that night from Russia who translated it for me. The kid's name was Mordechai, and he was 19 and a gentle soul.
 The last land to be Christianized in Europe was Lithuania, and Baroque churches are all over the city.

 This photo made my day. We were at a museum exhibit about Lithuania partisan fighters who lived in forest bunkers and fought the occupying Nazis and then the Soviets up until the 1950's. This is a photo of two of them celebrating Easter by playing a game we used to play with our dad called "butting eggs." My dad grew up in Baltimore as a poor kid played this game to hustle more eggs from other kids. I did some research and Baltimore adopted this tradition from European immigrants. Minutiae such as this makes traveling so worth it.
 I would have never survived living under the Soviet Regime. If I called something stupid, one of my dick head neighbors would have told on me and I would have ended up being followed and spied on and harassed and denied opportunities in my career. Above is a water torture chamber. The room was filled with water, so one had to stand on the circular platform where, after falling asleep from exhaustion, they'd fall into the water. You could hang onto the bars of the window, but you'd eventually fall asleep and slide into the water.
 We found a street plaza near the KGB museum where the mayor of Vilnius has legalized skateboarding and even modified the ledges so that kids can skate on them. Here is a local with a swellbow, and another boy is popping in.
 This little bastard went for it and pulled it.

 Chris and I didn't want to take our boards home, so we gave our boards to the local kids who needed boards the most. This boy above I named, "Molodoy Chyelovek" which in Russian means, "Young Man." I said, "Hey, Molodoy Chyelovek! Hold up your boards, so I get a picture." He was so pumped. His board and wheels were fucked.
 This kid had cracked his board, so he got mine.
 Later that night this showed up at our dinner table at Baras Snekutis. Lithuanians are keen on boiled pig feet and pig ears.
 On a train to Kaunas we saw these two hoodlums.
 Old Soviet theater now playing uncensored theater.
 This was some St. George and the Dragon shrine I saw in a church in Kaunas. Looked like something done by the craftsmen we learned about.
 Pederasto, he's got some sick style when it comes to graffiti.
 Graffiti in Kaunas...
 Punks Not A Dead

For our last night in Lithuania, we went to a roof top bar on top of an old Soviet shoe factory and washed away the sorrow that all good things must come to an end.

Oh, yeah, one more thing! So the only cool thing that the Grateful Dead has ever done was sponsor the Lithuanian team for the Barcelona Olympics. This is their shirt for the event. I wanted one, but they were $85, and I hate tie-dye and really think the Grateful Dead represent a demographic that would be the first to go to Siberia if I were Joseph Stalin.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Riga, Latvia: Where, If Your Country Is Going To Be Occupied, Nazis Are Better Than Soviets

 We started our first day in Riga with a walk around the city perusing the Art Nouveau or Jugenstils architecture. Some of these are were designed by Mikhail Eisenstein, father of Sergei, the Soviet filmmaker.

 Then we found a fake Mac store... It was the ideal place to buy Mac anything.
 More funny heads and hidden carvings.
 Riga is getting a face lift because next year they are one of the E.U.'s cities of culture.
 Art Nouveau cats.
 Steven sleeps with one eye open.
Central Market, Riga. This is inside of some old Nazi zeppelin warehouses. 

 Some people just set up shop on a stool like magnifying glass man.
 Well, where is it?

 General store.

 Butcher boy.

Huge men load hog carcasses... 
 Rabbit and pigeon can be found in the market.
 When the Soviets annexed Latvia, they imported Russians from all over the country. Here we have a bronze one.

And here we have a drunk one, doing the Russkie Doh See Doh...

And then there was this strange dance competition that kept old mens' attention...

 Menu from a local's cafe.
 I wonder who gave them the idea for this one.
 Monkey-face building.
 This is the Ministry of Science building in Latvia. It's one of the Stalin-era birthday cake buildings.
 Around the Stalin building the area is referred to as little Moscow where many gypsies and Russians live in old decrepit buildings. You can often find houses with only a fireplace for keeping warm but with a cable dish hanging outside of a window. The girl turning the corner in the upper-left was with a friend and they later reappeared and passed us with a bottle and plastic bag in their hand. They were huffing some glue or some paint.
 Soviet cigarette ads. RAI Cigarettes.

 Man leaving market with bags of cherries.
 Latvian landscaping.
 The oak tree has a sacred meaning in these countries.
 Right here is where about 25,000 Jews were marched out of Riga with the expectation of being taken away on a train, but the Nazis had groups of them dig massive pits and just shot them so they'd fall into graves they'd just dug for themselves. Then, the next group would walk up, cover the dead with dirt, be shot and fall in. And so on, and so on. The Latvians do say in their Occupation museum that only Nazi's killed Latvian Jews, and local Latvians helped save a few while others just worried about themselves. But, as we've learned down here in Lithuania, the Latvian auxiliary police definitely helped  them carry out the task.
 Blackhead's House. A 14th century merchant.
 Check out the nose on this cab driver! Amazing! What caused this? I couldn't resist...

Buses out of Riga...

And then we went to Lithuania.