The white stuff… or goods.

It’s snowing! After winter! Yay? Yay!

It only took since November, but finally Tallinn is covered in a thick white blanket. I’d take photographs but I’m lazy. Well, I’m not that lazy, I’ve worked some wonders on the hostel recently. Excuse me while I pat myself on the back.

Cooking has become my passion, unfortunately I’m shit at it. Still, I can’t get enough of it. I always enjoyed watching cooking shows before, now I just lurk on cooking forums and recipe websites and watch any videos I can download to do with cooking. I’ve actually been making too much food for myself and it feels like I’ve put on a little bit of weight.

The desire to lose weight is the reason I decided to start running a few weeks ago. I still haven’t actually done it, but I did decide to. One step at a time. I am a procrastinator, after all.

Looks like the Tartu hostel might be soon underway, as the owners are going to sign the papers next month in order to buy the building. From what I’ve seen it looks pretty cool and pretty well located. Woo.

Maris and Britt left in a rather underwhelming farewell. No tears or anything. Just a goodbye and off they went. Suits me, really. Long goodbyes are never nice. By the way, I’d kill for an ice cream.

I think I’ll enroll in a cooking class, then run to each lesson. Then run home. I hope that’s possible. Then again, I don’t know if Estonian cuisine is something I really want to learn. Hopefully they can just teach me the basics of food preparation and cooking techniques.

Perhaps it’s just time I got a life.

Sleepy but searching

It’s 4:15 AM and I’ve been looking for new electronic (as always) music for the past four hours. It’s ok, though, because I had a 4 hour nap before I started. I think it was four hours.

Anyway. So far so… potentially good? I’ve only been hearing samples so far, but soon I should have some tracks to check out properly. Jolly good. I needed to add some stuff to my iPod, anyway.

Unfortunately I’m a real anal prick when it comes to organising my iPod. Really, really anal. I can’t help it. I can’t stand seeing lower case names and unformatted ID3 tags. There’s just something criminal about it. I think Media Monkey might make it a bit easier, but I’m yet to try it properly. I do like it, however, as a general media player. It’s like a more power-user-friendly version of iTunes (not that I like iTunes that much, it’s just convenient).

The last couple of weeks have been pretty standard. I made it back down to Tartu for the first time in months, then got rather sick for the whole time I was there. Jolly good. It wasn’t until I had to leave that I started feeling better. Perhaps it’s an omen. I hope not.

Lots of old time slaves and staff are leaving the hostel, or have already left. Fortunately we have two more who’ve just signed aboard recently. Tim the Englishman and Thomas the Belgian. Maris and Britt are leaving at the end of next month, so we’ll need some lovely, talented cleaners to replace them or all hell could break loose. Fingers crossed.

I still want to increase the Internet speed here. There’s quite a few laptops floating around and they all suck up the bandwidth rather effectively. Besides, it’s nice to have fast speeds, ain’t it?

My credit card expires next month. I have to get it replaced ASAP. Ahhhhhhh.

Oh yeah, I didn’t read anything about the Oscars. Maybe I should now. When is the Olympics, by the way?

Olevimägi is our new home

Yes, here we are at our new hostel building.

It really is very nice. Too bad there’s no Internet yet. Never mind. There are ways.

Almost everything has been moved here, except the foosball table and some speakers. They will come. Unfortunately the foosball table won’t come until I can find an allen key big enough to take the legs off the bastard. It’s so big we can’t get it out the door.

Anyway, most of the settling in and unpacking is done. Most of it. The place is already feeling very homely and cozy. Good stuff.

Ch-ch-ch-changes.

This post was inspired by palmy’s return.

I’ll give a quick summary again, as it’s been nearly 2 months (what a surprise).

Emily and I broke up in July. It was a bit messy but now it’s done. She went to Germany with her dad and I went to Berlin the week before on my own. I had a great time there, actually. I met some guys that offered me jobs and was close to accepting them until Hugo offered me a pay rise and more stuff to do here.

Sure, I’d probably make more money in Berlin doing stuff but I still love my Tallinn. I was considering even getting a proper job here for some firm like HP or Skype or something. Hostel life is still more appealing at the moment though.

Anyway, yeah. Berlin was fantastic. One of my new favourite cities. I’m definitely heading back there some time… Maybe March next year for a month or two. It’s possible to rent apartments in the city for 115 euro/month. Tempting.

We had about 14 staff in the hostel in July. More than half left. We should be getting a few more soon, hopefully. It’s been fairly hectic on the farewell party scene of late, but fun.

I went to a folk music festival in Viljandi, a town in southern Estonia. The population of the place doubles for the four days of the festival, basically. It was really good fun. I camped out in the festival grounds in a shitty little tent and it only slightly flooded, so I was satisfied. The range of music was actually quite broad, and some other guys organised after-parties in a concert hall nearby each night. I really want to go again next year.

Oh, yeah, I finally went to Tartu, as well. Twice now. The first was for another one day festival that some of us hitchhiked to, then didn’t bother going into the place. We sat outside in a playground for most of the day instead. That was probably more fun, in the end. The second time was for a university party which was fairly tame… Partly because it wasn’t very big and partly because almost everyone spoke Estonian. Which is fair enough…

Speaking of speaking Estonian, I’m learning! Finally. It took me 10 months or so but I can now count and say numbers and also the days of the week. Basics, but basics I never actually had to use before. I’m getting a few more sentences and phrases ingrained as well. It’s fun. Too bad it’s almost impossible to replicate the vowel sounds, especially with an Australian accent. Ah well.

The hostel actually has a little bar now in the basement, too. Don’t tell anyone though. It’s a secret. We’re also owners of what used to be the second hand store and baby shop underneath now, so we can knock out some walls and connect the whole hostel together. We’ll move reception and the bar into there, too. I can’t wait, because it’s going to rock.

Last night I went to some multi-band concert called Polymer. There were about 10 bands playing throughout the night but I didn’t stay for them all. The venue was basically an abandoned factory out in the suburbs which is actually meant to be condemned. There were artworks and paintings and sculptures all over the place on display and all these funky little rooms. Reminded me so much of Tacheles in Berlin. Ahh, happy times.

Alright, enough crap for now. I’ve kind of stopped uploading photos onto my website because I use Facebook more and it’s faster than this host but perhaps I’ll slap up a few selections later on.

Balkan Bonanza

We didn’t make it to Romania. It would have been nice, but we didn’t have time with all the other places we wanted to see. Perhaps it was a bit of a bad decision in the end, as Varna was rather disappointing, although it did give us a chance to see the Black Sea. It wasn’t black.

We spent 3 nights in a cute little town just on the edge of Varna, the name escapes me but I managed to take some photos of the funny little old lady inhabitants. As soon as I find a computer that lets me copy off my pictures I’ll upload them and share them all with you, my loyal readers.

Actually, the best thing we saw in Varna was a local football match. The owner of the hostel took a few of us to a game and we got to see a near-riot, and that was just due to celebrating… before the kick-off. Thankfully, the home team won the match convincingly so only one plastic chair was set on fire and the flares and smoke bombs were only ignited in a pleasant way. I took videos of the crowd, it was fun.

We took an overnight train back to Sofia from Varna, it was rather uneventful but Emily failed to get much sleep, as trains don’t seem to do it for her. We had to kill an entire day in Sofia and it rained inconsistently, preventing us from simply sitting in a park and waiting. As soon as our train arrived that morning we thought we’d be good and organised and responsible and purchase our ticket to Belgrade immediately and some scummy little bastard led us around showing us the ticket offices and pointed us in the direction of a net cafe before demanding we pay him for his guidance. I threw some coins at him in disgust as I knew it would happen but we were too dazed from the overnight train ride to tell him to clear off when he first approached us.

It turns out the ticket we bought was only for the sleeper carriage, not for the journey. We discovered this 5 minutes before the train departed from the non-English speaking conductor. Basically we got ripped off not only for the price of the sleeper but also because we didn’t even get a ticket from it. With a little translation help from other passengers we managed to buy a ticket to the Serbian border from another conductor on the platform and then we would have to buy a second ticket once we got across the line.

In the meantime, an apparently possessed, psychotic, potentially violent, drunken woman kept looking at me as we discussed tickets, then followed Em and I into our sleeper carriage, all the while holding a glass bottle of some vodka pre-mix. At first we thought we were just having a ridiculously, pathetically, unlucky day. Being the kind and tolerant souls that we are, we quietly lay on our bunks, waiting for the nutbag to go to sleep. We changed our minds when she started examining her breasts in front of us in-between demented stares. I sent Em off to find the conductor while I lay nearly frozen in fear, attempting to protect our belongings. She got kicked out of the cabin and gave Em one of those smiles that simply say something along the lines of “I really like you, you’re nice, now let me cut your eyeballs out”. The door stayed locked the rest of the night.

I failed to fall fast asleep at all, half in anxiety and half in expectation of the quiet knock on the door from a Serbian ticket collector. He arrived and unfortunately he wouldn’t accept Bulgarian money, only Euros. I managed to scrape just enough together by trading currencies with the Bulgarian conductor and then we finally got some sleep, more than expected as the train was 2 hours late. We didn’t mind.

What I did mind was finding out that no one outside of Bulgaria will exchange Bulgarian currency. This was and still is very frustrating, as we now have the equivalent of 30 Euros that we cannot spend. Now we always exchange before we leave. Bastards.

Belgrade was worth the hassle, at least. I liked it. It reminded me of Sydney, kind of like how Zagreb reminds me of Melbourne. I don’t know why, they just do. Our hostel was very quiet but nice enough, apart from the mosquitoes. I’ll extrapolate in my next post, this one is long enough. Just to keep you all up to date, we afterwards went to Zagreb and now we’re in Sarajevo (I love it). Soon we’re going to Mostar before re-entering Croatia and hitting up Dubrovnik. Stay tuned.

-Estonia; +(Finland, Latvia, Greece, Bulgaria)

Hi again.

It’s been too long, once again. Let me fill you in:

  • Emily and I are back together and things are going well.
  • I left the Viru hostel a few weeks ago to do some travelling
  • Em and I spent some time in Finland with Heli and her family
  • Now we’re backpacking
  • Photos (somewhat unordered) can be found here.

Savonlinna was fun, met some of Heli’s uni friends and I made a shitty little clay turtle whose leg fell off. :(

Em and I both have house keys to the Salomaa’s now, so we’re gonna steal some shit when they’re on holiday. Suvi’s coming to the hostel to work over summer (haha). Em and I are going to be back there in mid-June for a month until we head off for the UK, or something.

We took a flight from Tampere to Riga and spent a few days there in the Old Town Hostel. It was fun catching up with our Latvian hostel cousins and there was even a big free cocktail party one of the nights, so I got rat-arsed. It was rather windy but not too chilly.

One night we checked cheap flights to the south-eastern end of Europe. We could have both flown to Istanbul for about $160 each and nearly did, except that the flight was taking off in 4 hours and we had no way of getting to the airport in time. Instead we booked mildly more expensive tickets to Athens that departed in a few days time.

To kill some time before we headed to Greece, we took a bus to Liepaja, on the Baltic coast. It was a slight nightmare, as we’d heard that apparently there was an old Soviet naval prison that had been converted into a hostel. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Unfortunately we had no map and managed to find tourist destination on only a whim and 40 minutes of walking.

After negotiating the bus system and which routes to take, we cheekily ran off without paying at what we 50/50 thought was our stop. It wasn’t, really. We did take some nice photos on the walk and nearly got mugged by young children on bicycles, so it was sort of worthwhile.

The prison hostel had no English speaking staff, the season had only just begun so they hadn’t reopened all their facilities, there was a primary school excursion occurring at the same time, we had to wait 30 minutes for an English speaker to tell us to come back at 9pm (it was 5:30), we got fined on the bus the second time for not having tickets, all the shops and cafes in town were closed, we had no dinner and slept in a freezing cold prison room with broken beds after a brisk 40 minute tour. Then we had to pay and get back to Riga.

Fortunately, I took a cool photo of Emily in a gas mask and it made it all seem worth the effort.

The flight to Athens was funny, mainly because the Latvian girl sitting next to Em had never flown before, nor seen mountains. She experienced both sensations by the time we touched down.

This southern end of Europe is already ridiculously hot. Being acclimatised to the Baltics certainly doesn’t help, but it’s still fucking sweaty here.

Again we had no accommodation booked in Athens and it took us 3 visits to different hostels and a metro trip across town until we found some. They were half the price of the original place we looked into, so it wasn’t so bad.

Athens is kind of a disappointment. There’s not a whole lot to see or do except the Acropolis and the Agora and we paid for neither. The country itself is expensive to boot and we still failed to find a respectable kebab house. After two and a half days of dicking around (and no souvlaki or olive bread), we took a train to Thessaloniki. We’re going back when we have money and we’re old to visit the Islands.

Thessaloniki was nice. We didn’t stay overnight but we did stay from 8am until midnight. In a park, mainly. We spoke to some funny old Greek fellow who was more interested in chatting with us about the town and whatnot than he was in helping his colleagues in fixing some public sprinklers. Who can blame him, really?

We took a night bus to Sofia, Bulgaria which departed 40 minutes late from Thessaloniki and arrived 30 minutes early in Sofia. Again without a map, we hiked in the 4:00am darkness trying to decipher Cyrillic street names until we found our beds. Well, more like our couches until our beds were ready a few hours later.

The Sofia hostel was really nice. Very cozy and kind staff. We even got some free breakfast. Not that we really needed it, most things in Bulgaria are so ridiculously cheap it’s almost embarrassing. We walked around in the morning, getting sunburnt and exploring the streets, seeing the old buildings and the fruit markets and ate two monster gelato ice creams for about $2 Australian each. We were pleased.

One of the days we took a trip up to the Rila Monastery, a beautiful little place up in the mountains, about 2 hours drive from Sofia. We grouped up with another Aussie couple and had lunch with them and more gelato during the evening.

After a lazy morning of chatting with the hostel owner about his future development plans, we took a bus up to Plovdiv, a cute little town in central Bulgaria. The hostel we stayed in was a very cute converted house that even had its own kitten. Needless to say, I didn’t really want to leave and if they’d had air conditioning I probably wouldn’t have.

On our second day there we went exploring with another Aussie guy we’d met named Jim. We checked out the ruins on top of the hill in the old town and on our way to the Roman theatre got side tracked by a massive, abandoned, stripped-out building on the edge of the old town that had fantastic views over one half of the city.

We tiptoed through the rubble and graffiti-stained concrete, half expecting a gang or a syringe-wielding junkie to jump out at us. As it turns out, a policeman called us out from the top instead, with poor Emily running down after us to let us know we’d been caught. The cop was pretty nice, he just wanted to check we weren’t using heroin or killing someone, then let us go. It was more interesting than the theatre.

In what already seemed like a random afternoon, we ended up speaking to an old Bulgarian who’d lived in the USA for 30 years before returning home to Plovdiv, then got asked to present a song for a Bulgarian music television station, then ended up sitting with the TV crew for an hour in the shade while they told us about where they were from and what they thought of life in general. They gave us free t-shirts.

Apparently, if we’re on TV at all, it’ll be on Thursday or Friday. Stay tuned.

After a tearful farewell, we left Zorro the kitten asleep on the couch and took another bus to Veliko Tarnovo. No photos yet but there’s some good ones to come. It’s a cool student town in an ancient location: apparently there’s evidence of people living here from 5000 years ago, if not more. The most important fact to know about this region, though, is that we’re very close to where Kotooshu was born. Apparently sumo wrestling is big in Bulgaria.

We’re likely to be headed toward Varna either today or tomorrow, so we can check out the Black Sea. Odds are we’ll then head up to Romania as now that they’re part of the EU we don’t need visas (yes!). A Romanian friend of mine that I met in Sofia said she can arrange a place for us to stay in Bucharest if we visit, so we might just do that.

Until next time.

Knobguide: How to be a backpacker

Someone asked me earlier today about some tips for getting around Europe as a backpacker. Since I’ve been over here nearly a year, both as a backpacker and as a kid working in a hostel, I feel like I may have some extra insight as to what you need and what you don’t.

Note, this is intended for first timers who plan to basically go hostel hopping over warm weather.

So, here’s the quick and nasty of it:

What to bring

If you do it right, you can get by with an average sized travel pack. I bought a big 90 litre Macpac and while it’s great, it’s also so big it meant I took too much. Using a 60 or 70 litre pack should be plenty if you only take along the things you’ll actually use regularly, such as:

  • 5 t-shirts
  • 1 jumper or light jacket
  • 4-5 pairs of underwear
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 1 pair of jeans or long pants
  • 1 decent pair of sneakers (or boots if you’re going to do some hiking)
  • 1 pair of thongs or sandals
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 1 towel
  • toothbrush; toothpaste; 2 in 1 shampoo & conditioner; roll-on deodourant and shower gel
  • pocket mirror (try to find a thin plastic one)
  • pocket knife (it only has to come in useful once to be worth it)

Optional:

  • hair brush
  • speedos/board shorts/bikini
  • heavy/warm jacket (if you’re travelling in colder weather)
  • razors or an electric razor (they’re a bit heavier and take up more space, but are faster and you can use them whenever you please)

This is backpacking, not holidaying. You should be expecting (and prepared) to live like more of a grot than you normally would at home. That means recycling t-shirts and underwear for a few days at a time and not showering every day. It also means you shouldn’t expect to take great care of your hair. Only prissy girls take hairdryers with them (or really weird guys).

Don’t bother with a sleeping bag or sleeping sheet or any of that crap unless you’re actually intending to sleep in a tent occasionally. Most hostels can provide you with sheets if you want them, either for free or for a small fee. Personally I’ve never bothered using them. Sleeping on dirty mattresses is part of the fun. It’s good for your immune system, too.

Passport pouches and carriers are generally a waste of money. Just keep your passport and wallet in your pockets and be mindful of them. If you have pants with zippers on the pockets, even better. I used to carry around my valuables in a pair of cargo pants that had 6 zipped pockets and had no problems. If you’re a good clothes shopper, you should be able to find clothing that’s not only practical, but stylish. Just because you’re a dirty, smelly backpacker doesn’t mean you can’t at least look nice.

It’s a good idea to use a day pack, either separate or adjoined to your travel pack. They let you carry around whatever you may want during your sightseeing and day-to-day stuff, such as your camera, MP3 player, maps and whatever else. They’re also a good place to keep your pocket knife and other gadgets, especially if you don’t have many pockets in your pants or jacket.

Resources

You’re thinking Lonely Planet, or something like it, right? Wrong. Fuck them. They’re typically out of date or full of bad information. Most of the opinions in them on accommodation paint hostels in certain lights based off one experience and don’t always have the best ones listed. Sure, they’re good books if you want to read a bit on the history of where you’re visiting, what local phrases to use and what’s worth seeing. That’s great, except if you’re doing more than one or two countries you’ll either need a book for each place or a big fat regional edition which only has tidbits of information on where you are.

If you really want to learn about where you’re going or where you are, it’s easier to just read tourist information pamphlets, brochures and signs. You can even ask staff in the hostels you stay in because they’ll know what most people want to see when they visit, plus they probably know the cool local places to explore and check out that you won’t find in guidebooks.

Another option is to read about it on the web. Wikitravel and Wikipedia should have most of the general information that you could ever imagine, while tourism websites for cities and countries are only a Google search away and can provide you with any other specific details you were wondering about.

Beds and planes

For flying around, all you really need to use is SkyScanner. They take away almost all the hassle of finding cheap flights around Europe. Use them.

If you want to book hostels online, which is recommended if you don’t want to run around looking for a bed when you arrive (although it can be really fun and you might find a brand new, cool place that isn’t even listed on the Internet yet, during the summer months places are almost always full), there are two real options.

Hostelworld has a bastard of an interface, is horrible to administer from the backend for hostel staff and they also charge you a booking fee, but it’s also the largest hostel website and lists virtually everyone. Another interesting thing about Hostelworld is that most of the other, smaller hostel booking websites are actually run through the Hostelworld network, so any bookings made by them actually function as bookings made through Hostelworld.

Hostelbookers is a nicer, slicker website, is much nicer to run from an administrative point of view and doesn’t charge a booking fee; however, it isn’t as widely used.

Other hostel booking sites are either (as previously mentioned) run through Hostelworld, aren’t as popular and thus have less hostels listed and even less reviews.

That should be enough for now. If I think of more I’ll make a second edition, or something.