Planes Trains and Taxis / Absinth and Steel Monkey

I am writing this from on board a train from Budapest, Hungary to Bratislava, Slovakia. In all my years of travel, I think the only time I have ever really taken a train (barring when I was very young) somewhere was in Japan when I went from Hyama to Fukuoaka on a speed train.

While trains are obviously way slower than planes (unless it is a bullet train), it more than makes up for itself in convenience and overall enjoyment. I am currently stretched out in a large compartment all to myself… I boarded the train right in downtown Budapest (another nice bonus… not having to make sometimes long treks to airports well away from the city)… no security lines… nice views… fresh air (I would definitely choose to fly one airline over another one if they would actually make the air clean and healthy… this is one of the dirty secrets of air travel… they can make the air good on the flight, but it costs a bit more, so they just recycle the air until everyone is sick) and this train ride (about 3 hours) only cost $20… it actually cost more than that to take the taxi to the train station! Actually, I have found that in many instances, the taxi ride once you get somewhere costs more than the plane or train ride to get there!? Taxi’s in Budapest were very expensive… but taxi’s in Athens were very cheap… I find huge discrepancies in taxi prices worldwide… I don’t know how they even make money in places like Central/South America and Hong Kong… but in places like Budapest my taxi driver could retire if I took a few more short trips!

Anyway, Budapest was totally cool… man they have some big, scary looking, sovietish, but not-totally-soviet looking statues/landmarks… when I was leaving I was crossing the bridge over the River Danube and at the end of the bridge is two giant pillars with what look like huge mean hawks on them and in the middle is this big waterfall and on the top is this massive statue of a guy holding up a cross… it was quite grandiose… and all around the Danube are these huge buildings/castles… its all very imposing! I was imagining being there to see that in a time like the 1930’s or 1960’s at times when people in the West were scared of the East… that would definitely scare me a bit if I was there during those times!

I would have liked to spend more time in Budapest but I am running out of time in Europa and want to see more before I go. I will be in Bratislava today, probably for two days, then likely Vienna, Austria and Prague, Czechoslovakia for 2 days each… then probably Paris… then I will probably take the chunnel to London where I have a flight booked to Dubai for 2 days… Bangkok for 2 days and then Hong Kong… from HK I will be going to China for at least a few weeks.

Man… Around the world in 80 days? I think I have that one beat.

Oh, and about the “Absinth and Steel Monkey� I alluded to in the title… many of you know about Steel Monkey… but man, I was in a club called Rio in Budapest, right along the Danube, giant outdoor venue, totally cool place, and on the bar I see two bottles labeled “Absinth 80�… one was red colored and one was black. I had never seen that before so I thought I would order a shot of the red one… I figured because it was red it would probably taste like candy or something… the second I swallowed the shot my eyes started tearing up, I was bent over, clutching my chest… it tasted like gasoline and fire… I started pounding on the bar to the bartender “Water! Water!!!�… oh man… so anyway, if you see Absinth 80 anywhere don’t drink it… unless you want to die. I think I was drunk off that one drink though, so there is some economical savings if you survive.

McFarm?!?!

Day 2 in Budapest: I found myself at a McDonalds walkthrough window lineup at 4am last night and saw one of the most disturbing food related things I have ever seen.

Here in Hungary, one of the burgers is called a “McFarm”!?!?! Lol, I guess they are finally sort of admitting that the meat in the burgers is pretty much an assortment of a gumbo of animals and animal parts… most easily related by using a word that connotes an entire cross section of animals, manure, fertilizer and other unknown agents.

Even more worrisome, Google indexes more than 8 million webpages on the interweb and there is not one mention of McDonalds McFarm. Budapest’s dirty little secret?

Other than that meat related discovery… I had a good time in Budapest yesterday… I like it here… met a lot of Budapest girls, but none of them charged me $500 for coffee, so, so far so good.

For anyone interested in visiting Budapest, I find that most things are fairly cheap (food, drinks etc), but hotels seem quite expensive for what you get… I would have expected the hotels to be 30-50% cheaper than what they charge. But they are all full (I had trouble even getting a room tonight… ended up getting one at a spa/hotel called Hotel Normfa for about $120 CDN per night… decided to stay there because it was one of the only hotels I could get into, plus I intend to use all their facilities and have a good day of work and working out.

On another side note, for those interested in travelling and saving money on hotels… I have found that a lot of ‘hostels’ that you don’t find listed on sites like Expedia under hotels (but can find on sites like bootsnall.com and hostelworld.com) usually offer private rooms, which are essentially the same as a hotel room (sometimes less facilities tho… but I rarely use any hotel services other than tv and internet anyway). These hostels can be up to 70% less than regular ‘hotels’ and sometimes can be just as nice. My sidenote to this is, that in Budapest, I have found that most ‘hostels’ here aren’t that nice (see last story) so I am definitely staying in real hotels while I am here, although it is more than I like to spend… I think, because of this, I will likely leave on Saturday somewhere.

I have now decided (my plans change by the day) that I will likely train around Central and Western Europe for the next two weeks (Vienna, Prague, Munich, Rome, south of France, Paris) and then go to London from where I will take a flight to Dubai… then Bangkok… then Hong Kong and China by the 26th of September and then I will be in China for a few weeks looking at some business opportunities… from there it is fairly unknown… although I do need to be in NYC in November for a board meeting… from there I may go to Canada to renew my passport and then I might finally make it to Brasil where, if I like it, I may buy a small apartment or house on the beach there (its incredibly cheap… so good investment plus a nice place to have a place if you gotta have one).

But anyway, thats the plan for now… all subject to massive change at a moments notice. Who knows, if the girls in Budapest keep treating me so nicely I might just stay here. 😉

Welcome to Eastern Europe

I was in Athens and decided to go to Budapest, Hungary and booked a place at a ‘hostel’ for the first night in Budapest. I looked it up on the net and it sounded really good. Said it was nice, friendly, had satellite tv and access to high speed internet. Everything about it sounded really nice.

They came and picked me up from the airport (for a fee) and seemed like nice people… even driving me around a bit to show me certain areas. Then we got to the place… it looked like an old building which was either being torn down or under construction.

It was very dark… we went past one gate, up a very dark giant staircase, and then the four of us crammed in an elevator the size of a phone booth, went up 4 stories (took about one minute) and were again in a dark large corridor (everything about this building was large… even the ceilings for each floor must have been nearly 30 feet high ie. nearly double north american standards).

He opened the door and it was basically a large apartment with three bedrooms… I had asked for a private room but there was no one else there that night so I had the whole large apartment to myself. It was a bit creepy, being in this big apartment, but not too bad.

He was about to hand me the keys when he called me over and pointed at a map. He said, “This area here. Be very careful. It is run by the Russian mafia.”… I was like, “ok?”… then he said, “there are girls there walking on the street, they will say hi to you and offer to tell you about the city and take you to a coffee bar for a coffee… then they will leave. Soon after you will get the bill for $500.”, he looked at me grimly, “If this happens to you do not call me. I do not want to talk with the russian mafia”.

LOL… so that was my first night in Budapest.

Other than that, it seems really cool… young people everywhere… some tourists, some locals… lots of internet cafes and cool little places. I went to their mall today, known as the largest mall in Central Europe… it definitely is huge… and incredibly nice (as nice as any mall I have been to).

So, in my first 24 hours, my perception of the city is that it is a former Eastern bloc country that is now enjoying its capitalism and growth and is quite vibrant… but don’t go for coffee with any russian girls in a certain part of town. 😛

I left that apartment today and am going to try a hotel today that sounds very nice… however, as I have found out many times, a lot of places aren’t as nice as they sound… and vice versa, many places you don’t expect much of, turn out to be very nice… As usual, my plan (if you can call it a plan… it is more like a non-plan) is just to show up in a city, book a place for one night, then scope the place out and figure out where the cool places are from then on.

As for my future plans I am quite split. I was thinking of staying in Europe until I have to go to HK and then flying direct from either Paris or London to HK… but I keep looking at that 12 hour flight like a cow looking at the electrocution room in a slaughterhouse. I have begun looking at some possible ways to get to HK which won’t cost a ton and will also break that flight up. This may include stopping in Turkey, Dubai, New Delhi (or Bangalor) and then to HK. But I have found that once you leave western Europe the flights are no longer cheap and easy… they become hard to find/book and in some cases, ludicrously expensive. I don’t think the Orient Express is runnign anymore from here in Budapest, but I wish it was… I think that might have been one of the best options to get to Asia… but I will figure it out and report back.

Now it’s time for a $500 coffee… that’s actually not that much worse than Starbucks prices actually… 😛

Santorini and Athens

I stayed in Santorini for 4 days… I spent the first night in a beach town called Parissa. It is quite nice there but it was a bit too quiet for me… plus the beach has no sand, just black rocks… which isn’t a beach if you ask me.

But the 3 days I spent in the main city of Fira in Santorini was great. Of the three Greek islands I went to (Mykonos/Ios/Santorini), I would have to say Santorini was my favorite, although I wish I had spent a bit more time in Mykonos. Santorini was really beautiful. As with all the Greek islands, it had a cool cobblestoned, very narrow alley, all white town… but this town is basically on a truly massive cliff overlooking the ocean and other islands. It is one of the best views and locations I have ever seen.

The island was very busy with tourists (but more Greek tourists here than on Ios, which was ALL Australians) and had a pretty active nightlife.

I have been in the Greek islands for a while now so I decided it was time to move on… I booked a flight to Athens and arrived here yesterday. I didn’t really know much about Athens and have been very nicely surprised. The city is totally cool… bustling with people everywhere at all hours of the day and night… but the coolest thing is all the famous Greek ruins are literally IN the city… like everywhere… like the cafe where I had dinner last night overlooks the Parthenon, which is up on a hill right in the heart of the city, all lit up at night… it looks pretty amazing. I was surprised how many ruins there are, and how they are just everywhere in the city… every second block seems to have some sort of ruin… its pretty cool.

I went to a club called Lavabore last night… it was jammed with people… totally cool vibe and everyone having fun… I don’t know if this was a coincidence or if it is normal, but literally every girl I talked to there was from Croatia… and they are very friendly!

I really like the vibe here and would actually like to spend more time here, but I kind of want to see a bunch of other places, and would prefer to get there in the summer time… plus I need to leave to Asia by the end of the month and will likely tour around Asia for a while, so I may not be in Europe all that much longer (3 weeks or so) and still want to see a bunch of spots (Budapest, Amsterdam, Helsinki Finland, south of France, Rome etc), so I gotta keep moving if I am going to be able to see all those places!

I have booked a ticket to Budapest on Tuesday… I am not sure how long I will stay there… I am considering going to Amsterdam on Friday, so if so I will only be in Budapest a few days. But if I really like Budapest I may stay longer… we will see!

As for Athens… I am going to keep this place in mind as a potential place to return to and stay for a while… what a cool city it is!