The good thing about visiting South America in the summer is that there are often clouds that protect you from the sun, especially if you shaved your head before coming to South America and now look like if Tobey Macguire got leukemia. In order to get from Guayaquil, Ecuador to Lima, Peru, I first had to stop in Sullana in Northern Peru for about half a day. On the way there, the border crossing went smoothly as the Ecuadorian check-out and the Peruvian check-in people were seated at the same desk in the same building, and didn’t ask for any departure taxes or fees. On the bus, I met a Swiss technical medicine student and a Kiwi who just had to hop the border because he accidentally would have overstayed his visa in Ecuador if he did not hop the border for a day.
I got no sleep on the bus, but was able to reach a state of prolonged, restful, semi-consciousness so I did not crash the next day. It is not as if that mattered, however, as I had from the time my bus pulled into Sullana, Peru at 9:30 am, to the time my bus out was to leave at 5:30 pm, to do absolutely nothing. Before the sun rose high enough to burn me, I mapped out the nearest park, a traffic circle with benches and a few shady trees, and made my way toward it. There, I sat for three hours reading and chatting with evangelicals in broken Spanish. When I grew tired of that, I mapped out another park with shady trees, walked there, and stretched out to take a nap, only opening my eyes when the piragua vendor walked by blasting his bike horn. When I awoke, I finished reading Slaughterhouse Five and began walking back to the bus station where I passed approximately 3 cevicherias per block. I did not come across any exchanges and I still had several pounds of pretzels, fig bars, and beef jerky in my bag from home, so I decided to have ceviche when I arrived in Lima the next day and focus on eating some of the vittles from my burden rather than dive into another full seafood feast, especially this far from any source of fresh seafood.
The date has come. I wake up before my alarm, triple-check my bag, and remember to slip a few allergy pills into my regular medication in case I need it. I am to catch Spirit Flight NK 1141 to Fort Lauderdale, then four hours later board another to Guayaquil, Ecuador. I have been planning this trip of trips for over a year. I have reconsidered different starting points, ending points, and everything between. Much of my plan is still up in the air (pun intended), but I have a rough itinerary that could very well keep me out of the country for anywhere from 6 months to two years in pursuit of visiting every country in the world, and learning as much as I can along the way.
Spirit Airlines, for those uninitiated, is its own small adventure. On my flight from LaGuardia, the flight attendants announce some contest where one lucky passenger with a yellow sticker on their tiny fold-down tray will receive a free flight. The cabin is not impressed, and when the winner is announced she seems wary. I have said before that Spirit is the only airline I have had the opportunity to fly with whose seats mimic both the style and comfort of an aging Norwalk City Bus. While the actual service and comfort offered by Spirit is consistently disappointing, the one thing that never disappoints is the affable, self-deprecating crew. When a woman in the seat ahead of me asked the flight attendant for a blanket, he actually says “what do you think this is, Delta?” While that most certainly wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, Spirit reminds me of all the shit I’d pull (and somehow get away with) while working at a movie theater in my hometown. The wage was minimum, so their standards were too. The atmosphere was electric.
The two flights averaged about 3.5 hours each, and when I walked out of the plane at 10:35 pm in the modern Guayaquil airport, I was setting foot below the Equator for the first time in my life. Not bad for a $138 fare. I breezed through immigration and began walking to the guest-house I had booked, which ran me only $8.50 and was a 25-minute walk from the airport. The person subletting the property had messaged me about my ETA, and wrote in native-sounding English, leading me to wonder what expat was renting a house on the cheap side of town. When I got there around 11:30 at night, a young-looking Chinese-American man opened the door and out bolted a German Shepherd, who immediately almost knocked me to the ground. Inside, signs with WiFi passwords and instructions to “please take off your shoes” were Scotch-taped to the walls in both English and Chinese and it seemed like the three of us, the dog, the subletter and me, were the only ones there. He explained that the dog was “probably just excited because they hadn’t had any visitors for the last few days.” Suspicion confirmed. This meant I’d get a 6-bed hostel dorm room with shower and bath all to myself for less than nine bucks. When I gave him a 20, he gave me back my change plus a one-yuan coin after I told him I was going to China at the end of the summer and could read a couple of the words in his Chinese signs. “You might be able to get a water with that,” he said warmly.
When he showed me the room, I was naturally nervous that booking the absolute cheapest (and apparently least popular) accommodation in Guayaquil would come back to haunt me. In fact, the room was decent though, naturally a no-frills establishment. There was no AC, which would have been a challenge for a a 6-person dorm room practically on the Equator, but two electric fans were provided, which I happily plugged in and pointed directly at my bed. “Not bad,” I thought. The room was supposed to come with breakfast (a perk of being a Genius Level 2 booker on Booking.com) but the subletter told me he stopped doing that, but would be happy to make me coffee or tea in the morning. After sleeping solidly through the night, I decided I should just go before the city got too hot. I was able to walk half the distance to the downtown before I broke down and hired an Uber, which ended up running me less than $3.
The driver let me off at the end of an extremely upscale block of hotels where maintenance people were watering the plants and cleaning the sidewalks. To the right the neighborhood of Santa Ana climbed higher than any of the hotels and, to the left, the Rio Guayas flowed swiftly but gently out to the Pacific, carrying large pieces of grass and plants in its murky brown water. Following the river, I reached Guayaquil’s long boardwalk, which starts in the north with the MAAC, a modern art and anthropology museum, and various amusement park rides, games, and stalls. As I walked, it became apparent that this was not what I expected. I had no idea that Ecuador would be so cosmopolitan, making the Jersey Shore look like, well, The Jersey Shore (2009-2012). To begin with, the entire boardwalk offered free WiFi and charging stations. As far as I know, few public places in the United States have even begun to figure that out. Unless it’s an area larger than a breadbox and smaller than a library, good luck finding a network to connect to in the U.S. that works, at least without paying. It was also surprising how clean the area was. The gigantic river was constantly bringing water bottles, plastic bags, and other debris from upstream, but at 9 am there were twice as many cleaning people as board-walkers picking up trash and sweeping to make the area look neat and appealing.
Next, it was time to find breakfast. An air-conditioned food court with a bakery, Chinese food restaurant (or “Chifa,” as it is known in South America), a KFC, and a couple of South American restaurants sat across from the entry to the amusement park, so I walked into the bakery to try to track down some local delicacy. However, I ultimately decided on a hot dog wrapped in biscuit dough and a smoothie, as my stomach was craving vitamin C and protein. The two items ran my 2.95, which I paid with a US 5-dollar bill, as American money is the official currency of Ecuador, aside from some of the smaller coins that they mint themselves.
The cashier gave me two presidential dollar-coins and an Ecuadorian nickel. I often wondered where all the dollar coins went. After Sacajawea it seemed like they tried to do the president thing and got bored, and they all just went into MTA machines. Well guess what, it seems they all went to Ecuador! I got back a John Adams dollar and a Martin van Buren one too. I need not mention the irony that Martin van Buren isn’t well known in the US, let alone in Ecuador where he is honored by placing his likeness on the day-to-day currency of that country. Way to go, Marty.
Passing through the amusement park section of the Malecon, or boardwalk, I came across miles of parks, statues, and a mall, all of which had WiFi. After the mall, the boardwalk turned into street, which I was to follow until I found proper lunch. The downtown first smells of gasoline, as the clean boardwalk disappears. But as you walk south, the chemical starts to smell sweet, and you start to think you’ve huffed too many gas fumes as it starts to smell like hot cocoa. Finally, the gas smell is gone and just when you think you are suffering from some sort of olfactory schizophrenia you come across a sign that says universal sugar.
You have arrived at Guayaquil’s chocolate factory....
On the ground floor, two cheery cashiers welcome me in and a guard takes my bag and seals it away in a locker. I am overwhelmed by the central air’s direct inundating of cold, chocolate-y air from the factory above. In my childhood (and who am I kidding, my adulthood, too) I would visit the Munson’s chocolate factory in Bolton, Connecticut. The store had the same smell, but not nearly as strong as these three floors of cooled confectionery particles, all pumped into a small storefront among bags of chocolates the size of 25-pound sacks of rice.
Three blocks and change downtown (and, unfortunately, upwind) is “Salchipapa ‘Boco’” which, if my high school Spanish and ability to create portmanteaus do not fail me, means “sausage-potatoes for the mouths of men.” It is a small corner shack, something that might have been the inspiration for the eternal New York City Papaya Dog/ Grey’s Papaya model. When I get my food I know my translation, if not linguistically accurate, is the best possible description of the food I receive. The fries alone are so salty and greasy that Ronald McDonald would blush through his white face paint, and so I am given a fork. As for the ‘chorizo,’ though most similar to a hot dog, it is redder and hotter than anything inside the Windy City, served alongside a creamy garlicky mayonnaise. The gigantic plate of salchipapas runs me a whopping $1.75. Picky eaters of the world: this is your heaven.
My GoogleMap of Guayaquil displays a thin sliver of green spanning across the river to Isla Santay, the area’s largest nature preserve. I have the afternoon to kill, and the sky is cloudy, so I decide to trek across this bridge and see what there is in the equatorial jungle on the island. When I get to the bridge, a young woman is renting bikes for 4 dollars, and I am relieved that I won’t have to walk with my fifteen-pound pack on a four-mile roundtrip journey through the humid rainforest. When I reach the other side of the bridge, I am stopped by a park worker and told that only one of the trails is open today. To the right, he explains, is the path to the Ecovillage, and I can take that if I’d like. I smile and say “gracias,” and press down the elevated laminate boardwalk to the end of the path.
The Ecovillage is a beautiful, modern, set of cabins on stilts above the marsh of the Isla Santay. The village children play tag, and a small child on a Fisher Price tricycle keeps pedaling backward then forward, backward then forward, into the railings that keep him from falling into the marsh. There is a woman telling me where I can lock my bike, a woman who sells bottled water and soda, and a third woman in another building who is operating a restaurant. As I walk into the the village a man stops me and shows me the way tourists are supposed to walked so as not to annoy the villagers. I ask if I can take pictures. He says I can and points to the area next to the restaurant where I can get a good shot. “And if you keep following the road there, he points, you can see the ‘cocodrilera.’” I knew this word. Where had I learned it before. I thought back to my high school Spanish classes but was drawing a blank.
“Cocodrilera?” I asked.
“Si,” he replied, holding his arms out in front of him like scissors, then clamping them together.
Ah yes, cocodrilera. Crocodile. I smiled and thanked him, following the signs to see some Ecuadorian crocs. At first, I just see two nostrils peeking out above the water, but the longer I stand, the clearer they become. One is hiding in plain sight, its camouflage perfectly matching the rainforest floor. Another has its head above the water, but its eyes closed and looks no different from a log. I am grateful for the four feet of boardwalk that keeps me from them. On the ride back to Guayaquil, I sweat perhaps a gallon of what was Gatorade the hour before, and feel the women secretly laughing at my soaking wet shirt as she takes back my bike.
I organize the rest of my day around where I can find air conditioning and water, as it is 93% humidity and I have been outside practically the entire day. I return to the mall and sit awhile, then continue on the the Anthropological and Contemporary Art Museum, which is free for all guests and displays many interesting pre-Columbian artifacts.
The sun is just about set, and my last critical tourist site is the parque seminario, which has a cathedral and several photo-worthy statues. However, it is most famous for housing several wild iguanas who get fed like pigeons from the local Guayaquileños. When I walked in, I saw pigeons picking at scraps, felt flies sipping the sweat from me, and heard birds of unknown species hiding in the trees above chirping. I took a quick look around and up and thought: “perhaps iguanas chirp?” I have never heard an iguana, and I could not recall being told in school what an iguana is meant to sound like. I settled down on a bench and looked right the way I was facing, and saw nothing unusual. Then, I looked left and saw some of the three largest goddamn lizards I had ever scene. One was being fed potato chips by a young man, who kept pulling back for fear the iguana would grip more than just the chip in its reptilian maw. I can’t say I am a lizard man. I also cannot say I am not a lizard man.
The truth is I have made it this far in life without forming an opinion on lizards, and I have to say I’m still on the fence. On the one hand, they are the much smaller brethren of Godzilla. On the other, they seem pretty slow moving, so if any of these little guys thought of terrorizing Japan, I am sure they would receive notice well enough in advance.
I walk inland to the local Red Lobster called “El Cangrejon ‘Mayrita,’” where they specialize in crabs a half-dozen different ways. I am hours away from my first night bus, so I order the filling boiled crab over rice. The presentation is great for a 10-dollar entree, and I down several super-sweet seventy-cent Cokes though the temperature has dipped to bearable levels. After dinner, I Uber to the bus station and board my bus to Sullana, Peru.
Like many Americans, I have wanted to go to Cuba for several years, but until now had brushed it off and being too difficult and not worth the challenge. If you have not been to Cuba, you may not know the extent of the economic sanctions the United States and Cuba have placed on one another. Even if you are aware of the two countries’ relationship, conditions may have changed since you were last updated, and may even have changed between my writing this and you reading it, as the Trump administration has recently been attempting to block Americans from traveling to the island for tourism. The notable exceptions being that Americans will still be able to travel there if they have family in Cuba, or otherwise book an expensive “People to People” tour. This would effectively reverse the changes the Obama administration made which allowed Americans to travel under the “Support for the Cuban People” category. This poorly-defined category assumes that anyone traveling to Cuba to financially benefit the people, businesses, and culture of Cuba is allowed to visit, provided they don’t give money to the Cuban military or military-run institutions. The underlying motivations behind this category, it would seem, involve sending American tourists to Cuba in order to encourage capitalism and thus undermine the Communist government.
Though American politicians have their own reasons for allowing Americans to visit the country, charity and encouraging capitalist ideals generally do not appear on the list of reasons one would want to visit Cuba. Perhaps you have heard the island has soft beaches and baby blue waters. If that is not your bag, you have have almost certainly considered smoking an almost mythologized Cuban cigar or drinking Caribbean rum mojitos or the simple-yet-refreshing Cuba libre. Not to mention the beautiful old cars, ropa vieja, salsa music, rumba and so on and so forth. For the semi-adventurous American tourist, Cuba is the ultimate forbidden fruit. Hungover American college kids are strewn across the Caribbean from Cancun to Punta Cana, but it takes a certain mental fortitude to be able to handle a nation that makes it clear that they are not chomping at the bit to cater to Americans. Not only this, but the tourist card/ visa costs $50, which is not appealing to the casual kid who doesn’t care what island he is on, as long as there is beach and beer. I am not that type of person for two reasons. First, I am obsessed with culture and what makes each country, each island, or even each city different from the next. The second reason I am not that type of college student is because I am no longer a college student! I graduated UConn less than four days before this Cuba trip, which officially makes me no longer a student, but an unemployed homeless drifter who happens to excel at drifting far. You may be thinking: “Shouldn’t Victor be changing the name of this blog, as he is no longer enrolled in an academic institution?” The answer is no. I am still a scholar of the road. If anything I am more a scholar of the road because I don’t have to be a scholar of anything else.
As a graduation present, my parents were incredibly kind enough to pay for the trip to Cuba, along with inviting my best friend Will on the trip with us. Thankfully for all of us, their spending was limited by a nationwide ban on all American credit cards. That’s right, we made the rookie mistake of assuming that our credit cards and bank cards would work in Cuba, the nation notorious for that exact thing. Our error was, as it often is in groups, a result of miscommunication. Let that be a lesson in the benefits of solo travel, and also the importance of making everyone aware of the challenges a certain locale poses. In a group of four, there will also often be unforeseen challenges that stem from different skill sets, desires, and interests. Don’t be like us. Always have a hand in the finances of the group, and share the pertinent financials with everyone. Money, as we all know, can be a great stressor in life and in vacation. If you cannot handle it, there is always solo travel. It is the abstinence of avoiding travel woes, but more on that in future posts.
Regardless, the four of us had an incredible time. Will—a musician by trade—spent much of the trip clapping the clave, as there was an abundance of trios, quartets, and even one orchestra in the streets and restaurants of Havana. On the first night, we were lured in by a jinetero, or a street hustler, who took us to an overly-expensive restaurant for a cut from the restaurant. Another rookie move. We ate and drank, sitting alongside and listening to a couple of guitarists who gave my buddy Will a clave to play throughout the set. This was not even the first time he sat in on a band in Cuba. Over a lunch of ropa vieja at the made-for-tourists restaurant “El Rum Rum,” Will was also enlisted to play clave practically immediately after the blue 1957 Ford that the Airbnb owner sent to the airport to pick us up set us down in Old Havana. These would not be the last times WIll would play Havana. Over the three days, Will counted over ten times that he was invited to stand with Cuban bands and play percussion, likely making it his most grueling tour schedule to date. The ubiquity of live music in Havana is hard to comprehend; sometimes, in busy squares, there will be two or even three groups playing, evenly spread apart, yet competing to attract the most crowds and the most cash. Capitalist artist pigs.
The following day, after comically running around Havana searching for the impossible—a way to get money from the US to Cuba without wiring it to a local—we decided we would just have to convert our American money even though the Cuban government would impose a 10% tax on it. In the midafternoon, it began to grow especially hot and we walked into a Cuban art museum to take in some of the island’s visual creative works. The museum was four stories and extremely overwhelming, so my museum fatigue quickly manifested itself as regular fatigue and I sat on benches most of the time, staring at paintings of Che Guevara and Picasso-like portraits of what I think were naked women. We also tried to stop by Coppelia, the famous ice cream institution created by dairy enthusiast Fidel Castro, who was so fond of ice cream that he built what looks like a Soviet spaceship-style building dedicated to bringing the cold stuff to the Cuban people. Unfortunately, Coppelia was in disrepair and we didn’t think they’d be selling ice cream anytime soon (or anytime recently, for that matter). We walked to the road that stretched along the ocean and let the breeze cool us down instead. We saw people fishing, but not catching much, and I thought of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” That book took place somewhere out there, I thought. I doubted anyone ever caught a fish so big, at least not this century. I got the impression that fish was not something Cubans ate very often, unless they caught it themselves, and I imagined that much of what was caught (or likely imported) ended up on some tourist’s plate. Not once did I smell fish, or fish guts, and only once or twice did we come across a butcher or anyone with more than a few pieces of beef or chicken in their store. However, fillets and lobster abounded on menus across Havana, though we were often informed the restaurants had run out. In fact, many of the restaurants we visited would give us long menus, and then only point to two or three items that we could chose. Presumably, the government does not allot the good people of Cuba surf and turf dinners. To be fair, neither does Uncle Sam.
In the evening, we found a $2 happy hour with salsa music, and a man and woman in all white who were offering dances to customers. After a quick Cuba Libre, which went straight to my dehydrated pores and my cerebellum, the woman curtsied to me and I accepted, never being one to turn down a dance. Needless to say, I danced terribly and sweat all over her. Partially to blame was the fact that the only time I ever salsa-ed was in my 10th grade Spanish class during foreign culture week, but I’ll happily blame sweat and rum whenever given the opportunity. I decided to call it a night and headed back to my blesséd air conditioned room until my parents returned.
Late at night, Will and I went to the water, as we often do. In Norwalk, where I live, we make it a habit of strolling down to the Long Island Sound and kicking our feet in the sand while we watch the water undulate darkly. Will and I even looked at water before I lived by it, though, too. In fact we almost got arrested looking at water one time. In our shared hometown of Wilton, at a small park called Merwin Meadows, a pond is surrounded by fine sand trucked in from somewhere else. Will, another boy, and I once walked into the closed-at-dusk meadows just to look at the dark water, like the hypnotizing darkness at the center of a flame, contrasted with the bright lights of the train stations and restaurants across the road. The Wilton PD, who routinely patrols the area looking for teenagers being teenagers (another offense we were guilty of), caught us standing and looking, then sprinting and running, and chased us down to the other side of the park. They called my parents. They were mad.
In the Havana night, there were more than the city’s fair share of lovers hugging and making eight-appendaged, two-headed spiders with the way they would embrace on the ramparts, embracing with everything but the arms and the legs. A homeless man came up to us, offered a sip of his liquor and a 3-peso note, explaining it was a gift to a couple of Americans from his country of Cuba. Then, he demanded we give him a gift from America. All we had was a quarter so we gave him that. After all, it is the thought that counts, right? He stumbled off in a huff, as he had spent the better part of a half hour telling us his story, sharing his philosophy, and buttering us up with his 3 peso ($0.12) gift. I honestly felt bad that he worked so hard in masking his sleight of hand only for it to not pay off. In this way, I saw how Communism truly isn’t fair to those who work hard. Such salesmanship should be on display at a car dealership somewhere, not hitting up tourists at 1 am by the docks in Havana.
The following day we opted for slow, cheap activities to stretch the pesos we had left. After breakfast, we eventually made our way East to the docks Will and I had visited the night before to see the Cuban Rum Museum. For those who have visited distilleries, breweries, or vineyard before, you are likely familiar with the story I am about to tell. You pay your money, they sometimes show a video in an air-conditioned room, they point to a bunch of organic matter, water, and barrels (not necessarily in that order) then you drink from a small plastic cup. After that, there is a gift shop where you can buy more to drink, if the sample did not satiate you.
It was hot, early afternoon again, and we returned to a waterside restaurant with outdoor seating. By the bay, the breeze was constant and the shade was substantial, so we easily overstayed our welcome by slowly sipping Cuban Cristal beer and sharing salads, paellas, and other seafood while watching a large Bahamian-registered cruise ship pull out of the docks and away. Even more tired by the seductive stint of relaxing and drinking, we made it barely a half mile through an historic Plaza de San Francisco before we came to another, shadier square where an entire orchestra was setting up to play. There we sat for their entire hour-long performance, bobbing our heads and tapping our toes sleepily as they played. In the late afternoon, our sun-stolen energy was returned and we came upon another historic square, this one the Plaza de la Catedral.
With our dwindling Cuban money and an American ‘20,’ we were able to negotiate with a waiter to give us four entrees for a mixture of Cuban and American dollars. A band played behind (and with) Will until he tipped them, and they scuffled away. In the evening we walked around the Prado and El Floridita (where Hemingway famously drank), and went to the top of a fancy hotel to get drinks, only we didn’t have enough money for them so we lounged by the fancy hotel’s pool and watched the rich business-people and tourists ignore the DJ and scream at each other over his music. Next to him, a strange glow-in-the-dark wire sculpture of the Cuban Capitol building with a building-sized woman laying down inside it sat for “atmosphere.” On the walk home, we bought a $5 bottle of rum which came in a vinegar-type plastic bottle, and went to the Airbnb to make alcoholic smoothies of our remaining breakfast fruit while watching a Spanish-dubbed version of Fifty Shades of Gray, due to the fact that we had lost the remote and grew too intoxicated for anyone to get up and change the channel. When my parents went to bed, Will and I tracked down an ‘underground’ club to which a guy on the street the day before had given us an invitation. It had no name, only a sticker on the door depicting an eyeless pineapple man. The cover was $5 apiece (the bouncer took American money), and and we danced, closely packed in, until two o’clock. After, we made our way to our Airbnb which was only a block away but felt like twenty. Oh to be young.
In the morning we broke fast on rolls, cookies, and fruit then caught a maroon convertible to the airport, first going to the wrong terminal because none of us had received any notifications informing us of our terminal. Or, rather, we had received them but could not open them. Cuba really felt like moving up a difficulty level in traveling. I have a carrier that gives me texts and lets me use data in over 130 countries in the world, and my ATM card works virtually anywhere but those places that block American cards. Reading this, I am sure longtime travelers are rolling their eyes at my having to use paper maps and learn to exist without credit cards. However, these things have made travel so tremendously easy to the point where one can hardly go wrong in many parts of the world that have adapted to contemporary technologies.
Despite the hiccups, Cuba is a tremendous destination and I recommend Americans to go. It can be humbling to find yourself somewhere you aren’t praised and welcomed as a tourist. Ultimately, it felt we were there as much to support the Cuban people as our own nation’s. In the crossfire of political entities, we forget that countries are just people and land, and should not be confused with the people who control them. Governments impede on people connecting, and borders make it easier for us to focus on what, both literally and figuratively, separates us and ignore the common ground. The mantra of all the Cubans who learned of our nationality was “I love Obama; fuck Trump.” Several times we heard this from different people, and their opinion is valid: the Obama administration reversed decades of hostility toward the country, making him a symbol of peace and international recognition. Trump’s reversal of this reversal paints him as someone who values ‘winning’ over mutual benefit and civility. I went to support the Cubans, but returned realizing how much we need support, too.
The Passport Health office had moved since the last time I went. The first time I was there it was far uptown. It has since moved closer to a second-floor office in a building on Summer Street. When I walk in, after feasting on a Compo salad and a slice of buffalo chicken from Planet Pizza, the Eastern European woman who gave me my second Hep A injection greeted me and shuffled me into her new office. I unloaded my issues.
“I’m looking to be the youngest person to visit every country. What else do I need other than the Yellow Fever vaccine?”
She explains the only thing I need is Yellow Fever, but recommends I get cholera, rabies, and Japanese encephalitis shots. I ask her how much these cost.
“They are quite expensive.” She taps a few things into her computer.
The spreadsheet on the screen breaks the bad news. The cheapest vaccine is the Yellow Fever at $303.00. Christ. I tell her that I will try not to get bitten by any dogs in India, and I will douse myself in Deet every morning my feet are on non-American, non-European soil. And should any of that soil get into a cut or scrape, I promise to get a tetanus booster as well.
Each time I walk into the travel clinic, I walk out with a ream of papers warning me of certain risks. Never has this discouraged me, and this time was no different. Though I did grow a bit worried. Am I running too much risk in not buying these shots? It would be at least another thousand dollars, which my insurance will no doubt refuse to reimburse, to get them.
The woman running the clinic wonders where I am going, and when I tell her “everywhere,” she is intrigued. I tell her I speak seven languages (which my therapists say I should be proud of, even though it isn’t technically true) and ask her in Russian if she speaks that language. She responds with a 'Da' and asks where I’ve been. I told her my last trip was Russia and the Baltics, and she asked which my favorite was. She had been in the Baltics and looked at those countries fondly. I agreed they were lovely, but didn’t press further as to where she was from. Was she one of the many ethnic Russians who lived in one of those countries, or one of the many more Russian-Russians who left the Motherland for a vacation, and felt most welcome in those colonially-Russophone nations.
I get my shot and walk out feeling accomplished, despite spending $303 to get a quarter-ounce of fluid in my arm. There is no turning back now; Africa here I come.
One benefit of flying the cheapest possible airline is that you often become very familiar with the major hub-cities of the airlines you fly most often. Our trip to Finland brought us to the Oslo Airport for only 4 hours, which my dad spent sleeping while I wandered from overpriced cafe to overpriced cafe, stopping at the duty free to find my favorite Scandinavian liquor “Gammel Dansk” where I calculated how many Norwegian Krona, and more importantly how many US dollars, it would cost for me to fill my backpack with it.
Between our return flights between Vilnius and Oslo and Oslo and New York, we had an extra two hours in Oslo airport. So, my dad talked me into taking the train into Oslo (a half-hour trip), just like we did the first time we took a father-son international backpacking expedition. At the train kiosk, I bought the tickets and was surprised to see that a two-person, round-trip ticket to downtown would be over sixty dollars. Even with getting a student fare for myself! Had the price been the same two years before? Perhaps I just didn’t notice in the wanderlust of a first overseas disembarkation. I reluctantly slipped my travel rewards credit card into the machine and made a mental note to factor in my student discount when I settled up with my dad at the trip’s end.
Once on the train, which left the station at precisely the scheduled time, I began flipping through the must-sees of Central Oslo. I realized we had not seen the city’s museum of cultural history, which we both assumed would talk about Norway’s national history and culture. While I wasn’t too enthusiastic (after all, we had learned so much history so far on this trip, and I was not eager to learn more), I decided I would humor my dad, who loved museums that have artifacts, clothes, war implements and the like. While the museum had some of these, the scope of the museum was more general, focusing on various different cultures of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Thankfully, I was able to talk my dad into just visiting the exhibits on Northern Europe and Scandinavia as well as the Inuits. The latter exhibit was a truly fascinating look into indigenous cultures across the North, from the Saami of Scandinavia to the Inupiat of Alaska. The exhibit had a small set of kiosks where videos of Saami people talked about their culture, language, and the difficulty of living in a ‘white’ Scandinavian culture and holding onto their native culture. One kiosk, which was particularly powerful, projected an interview of gay and lesbian Saami, who felt as if their sexuality was discriminated against in their ethnic community, and their race was discriminated against in their national community.
As one who feels ever aimless in a museum setting, I realized this was the epitome of what I’d learn in any museum setting. There is a current context for every historical exhibit. While it isn’t always relevant, the Saami exhibit offered tle unheard. Western culture is often defined either in relation to itself, or in relation to the East. The West is rarely defined in relation to the North. The story began with the mass extinction of the widespread disease and genocide of the indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere, and recalled the beauty of a life North of West. Curated exhibits displayed both the history of fishing and igloo architecture, but the tragedy of a near-global culture decimated and struggling to find its place in an even newer world than the one they were said to inhabit. I found myself asking the travel-obsessive question of “whay the heck is Greenland like?” I have admitted before that I cannot learn anything from museums. However, museums can get me asking questions, the answers to which can potentially be enlightening. In the “coins across history” exhibit, I dwelt somewhere between coins from the classical and prehistoric eras, scouring the internet for flights to Nuuk, Greenland, and Googling what life there entailed. As is the point of this blog (and my life, in essence), I figured I could visit every formal country and get a comprehensive idea of the many variations on the human experience that can be witnessed in 2019. Greenland, as many of my fellow geography nerds well know, is not an independent country but rather an overseas territory of Denmark. The consequences of this were fascinating, according to my Google search. For instance, a recent program has made it so that dangerous criminals in Greenland are sent to high-security prisons in Denmark. This means that Greenlandic felons, who may not have knowledge of the Danish language, are placed into long-term incarceration where they do not speak the language. Aside from the questions the museum spawned, I felt I learned nothing from the museum itself and remained steadfast in my opinions that I cannot learn from museums. Honestly, I just get sort of bored.
Next, we made a beeline east to Kaffistova, a cafeteria-style-yet-upmarket restaurant that sold three entrees: moose meatballs, normal meatballs of mystery meat, and salmon. The experience still fresh, we ordered moose and the glorious Scandinavian meatballs with lingonberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy. Under the umbrella term of “Swedish Meatballs,” it turns out, meatballs can take on any nationality in Scandinavia and still taste incredibly delectable. The Finnish-Swedish Meatballs exceeded expectations, while the food truck Swedish-Swedish meatballs I had tried in Stockholm nearly two years before tasted indifferentiable from New Haven-Swedish Swedish meatballs that can be acquired any day of the week from the Ikea across from Long Wharf. However, the genuine lack of pretense that Kaffistova’s Norwegian-Swedish meatballs provided was genuinely pleasant (if a touch expensive). I slurped down my prized mystery-meat and felt utterly satiated by Scandinavia’s most impressive addition to global cuisine.
From there, we walked a few cloudy blocks to the Ibsen museum, which was tragically closed for renovations. We still had several hours until our flight to New York, so we headed to the frigid March harbor where we witnessed mentally ill Norwegians not only relaxing on a sauna-boat hybrid in towels, floating in the cold harbor, but also jumping into the Nordic Spring water in between stretches in the sauna. Wild. Though not one to gawk at half-naked blond Scandinavian men, I felt myself glued to the spectacle. Did they not feel the cold? Were they robots? Or are Scandinavians simply descended from some amphibious early ancestor of humankind that does not die when literally frozen? I don’t know the answers, but I bet 23andme.com is hiding some information that would help answer them.
After growing tired of freezing by the Norwegian waterfront, my father and I decided to put an end to our adventuring and hop the next train to the airport. After all, Norway was not a new country and each museum, meal, and practically each moment we spent there we spent a fistful of American money. When the plane left Oslo I wondered about the efficacy of layover tourism. I have always been a fan of the New York Times’ ‘36 Hours’ column, wherein an hour-by-hour breakdown of a 36-hour vacation in a given city is detailed along with maps and pictures of that city. The only problem is that few actually take 36-hour vacations, especially internationally, as a day and a half is much longer than the typical layover and no one I know will pay for a round-trip flight to a given location to only barely spend half a weekend there. Despite the impracticalities, I reaffirmed my belief that the layover trip to a random city is one of the greatest cheap opportunities that global travel affords us. Though the cost of leaving an airport should be a line that anyone draws in this circumstance, I realized that the re-experiencing of Oslo offered some insight into how far I had come as a traveler and how little can often be absorbed in a first look around a city. Not to mention, the first time I visited Norway’s capital I had been so jetlagged that I slept over 12 hours in my Oslo hotel upon finally falling asleep following a day of sightseeing. In high school, one of my social studies teachers defined documentary as “film that shows what you are not supposed to see.” I believe a layover trip does the same. We are not meant to leave the airport on long, indirect trips. However, is it not part of the experience to enjoy the journey—not just the destination—involved in going to a place? I may sound like a commercial for an airline when I write this, but my truth is that even flights, layovers, and long waits in airports should be regarded as part of the trip because it assumes that travel is not just vacation, but a method of learning to enhance life. This should not just be done on a beach in the Caribbean, or in a yoga retreat in the mountains of Guatemala, but at all times.
As my feet begin to hurt from all this country-hopping, I look up to the hills above and see the Lithuanian flag mounted atop a castle tower and realize I must overcome the pain to see this highest peak in the city. The Gediminas Castle Tower is opposite the Three Crosses of Vilnius, on a separate hill. From Užupis it was a fairly quick climb to the crosses, though my Sancho Panza of a father significantly slowed my errant post-lunch mountaineering. At the top the sun shone and it was actually somehow warm. I basked, briefly, in the rays before plotting a course to the castle. We descended our hill, then ascended the other and were mobbed by fellow tourists who were more eager than we were to pay five Euros to climb a brick tower.
From there, we descended from the tower, and went back to the hostel for a nap. In the evening I limped to a midrange Lithuanian restaurant as my feet ached from the week of Baltic city-slicking. I had just come off a New England winter where I practically never left the house for any reason other than going to work or school, and my feet were paying the price despite my insistence that I was too young to have “foot problems.” Next, I assumed, I’d be blogging about my retirement home’s yearly trip to Tuscany, or perhaps a cruise to the Caribbean. Or, perhaps it was my sneakers, which I had bought in Malaysia for 60 bucks, and had worn through the insolent insoles to the point that my left heel was touching rubber. I was determined to look into getting new shoes when I returned home.
The restaurant where we dined on our last Baltic night served a “crispy, melt in your mouth pork,” which I could find no better words to describe than those provided by the English version of the restaurant menu, as well as the national dish “cepelinai.” These potato dumplings, which derive their name from the zeppelin airships which their resemble, can be filled with mushrooms, meat, or cheese, so we ordered the sampler platter to taste all the country had to offer. As it turns out, the country offers potatoes in ample quantities, and in strange textures. When the first cepelinai hit my tongue I realized it too was a melt-in-your-mouth type deal, but in this instance the melted meatpouch simply became thick potato soup. As with nearly all things, I am glad I tried it once. Just don’t expect cepelinas to land at your local KFC any time soon.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.