Happy New Year!

Ok, maybe it won’t be so happy. I suppose we’ll find out as it unfolds… Yay for optimism.

I know I shouldn’t bother saying it, but yes, I realise it has been a while. Sorry.

Another roundup:

  • I got my new passport ($330 later, that is)
  • I got my new license ($130 later, that is)
  • The new reception is all for nothing, as we’ve been kicked out by the owners. We’re moving down the street.
  • I still haven’t been back to Juuksur.
  • Rob came to visit.
  • Suvi and Heli came to visit.
  • Emily came to visit.
  • My parents came to visit.
  • John came to visit.
  • Teo came to visit and didn’t do any magic tricks.
  • A friend from high school, let’s just call him McKinnon, came to visit.
  • Someone stole my iPod from the basement when I wasn’t here. I bought a new one. 160 gigs, woo!
  • Christmas was very quiet and boring.
  • New Year’s Eve was very loud and mental.
  • There’s still no snow but the temperature is finally sub-zero.
  • Marika and I are still together, even though I didn’t buy her a Christmas present. Old habits are hard to break.

I still haven’t learnt much more Estonian. I will have to try harder. Marika’s family gave me an Estonian/English pocket dictionary for Christmas. Subtle.

Yes, we’re moving out of Lai and down to Olevimägi. That’s right, opposite Levist Valjas. Uh oh. The building is great inside – newly renovated in fact – but probably won’t be very quiet during summer. Never mind, nothing ever is.

Our basement bar has also completely flooded with water and smells like death. Fortunately we managed to move out all the furniture just in time. Moving everything to the new building (everything that will fit) has already proven irritating but there’s not much left to take any more. Except heavy things. Like foosball tables.

At least we won’t have to carry the DVD player, since some stupid Erasmus students (I think) stole it. Idiots.

I still haven’t had a hair cut. Not for over a year-and-a-half now. I’m so wild. At least I cut off my beard every 2 weeks or so. Now for my fingernails…

We have a fourth Estonian working here now. Another young one. She’ll be remembered eternally for her New Year’s performance, but let’s not get into that on the Internet. Today there’s meant to be another girl coming to volunteer for 2 weeks. She arranged it months ago, when we thought we’d be staying in this building. I’m sure she’s going to be surprised.

In other good news: I don’t seem to have gained any winter fat. At least nothing obvious. Too bad I haven’t lost any, either.

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.

Fuck Easter

Isn’t it meant to be a holiday or something? Christ knows.

Yes, I said that intentionally.

I already wrote about my Friday morning in my previous entry. I got up early to check out even more bastards who were going to Helsinki on the 8am boat then succeeded in getting the laundry back in order. I had to sacrifice my bed for a Japanese guy named Shutaro (I think) who really wanted to stay with us even though we were overbooked.

Shutaro was desperate to do some shopping and get a belt. Adamant, you might say. He also shared with me that he’d never been backpacking before and this was his first trip to Europe. This meant he had plenty of questions about the best ways to protect your wallet and passport when you’re travelling. I gave him all the hot tips I could.

The afternoon was spent hanging around Lai street, mainly. We had to lurk around waiting for 7 people to arrive for Viru. By the time they arrived at around 12 all of the staff were reasonably intoxicated. I gulped down my second double gin and tonic while waiting for their credit card transaction to clear then led the posse of Aussies down to their beds only to drag them out of the building and take them to Juuksur.

The evening became more and more hazy with people disappearing and scattering off throughout the night. Eventually I ended up in Levist with a very sleepy Valerie who’d only just gotten back from Riga that afternoon and some Scottish girl called Lisa who I think was staying on Uus street, but I’m not sure. We finally dragged Val off the table that had become her bed around 6am before stopping for a smoke at Lai street. Lisa wasn’t sure where her hostel was and I was going home to Viru. I couldn’t be bothered working out where she was going or giving directions so I ended up throwing a mattress on the floor of the common room in the hostel and letting her crash there while. I had to sleep on the tiny green couch because Shutaro was curled up like a foetus on my bed.

Unfortunately, sleeping on that couch gives me head spins when I’ve been drinking. I don’t know why but it always happens. I had to drag myself up and towards a sink so that I could force myself to vomit in order to paradoxically settle my stomach and head. It worked.

After a solid and refreshing 2 hours of slumber I was awoken by guests wondering where they could get some breakfast. Being the professional I am, I rolled over on the couch and gave them a recommendation and full directions, even managing a smile. They left and I dozed off for another 5 minutes before starting my day.

Fortunately, the morning was rather uneventful. Too uneventful. I was unable to leave the building or even take a proper nap as I had to make up a few different rooms and then wait for a guest who was arriving directly at 1pm. Or so she said. By 6pm she’d arrived and I was finally given the chance to go outside. I chose food and company over sleep, although I did end up with Valerie again and this time her friend Emer who was visiting. We ran amok all over town. Kinda.

Apparently I have a great smile and some Estonian kid wants to get a photograph of it. Flattering to hear but it’s not really what you want to be stuck with at 5am in Levist. I survived the ordeal and the three of us ended up in Old Club, of course. Poor old Val was finding her eyelids unbearably heavy and kept nodding off in the corner. Somehow I was on a second wind and felt fine. Emer was somewhere in between.

The big tough bouncer of the bar kept poking Val to get her to wake up. On the third strike he practically assaulted her, grabbing her by the harm (although it may as well have been her hair) and ripping her out of the seat and kicking her out the door. It was simultaneously one of the scariest, bizarre and hilarious things I’ve ever seen. We were too shocked to react. It was a good sign to wind down the night, so I walked back through some really cool morning snow that was falling. Before bed I had to clean vomit off of a toilet so that it’d be nice for all the guests to shit into in the morning. I got to sleep after 7:30.

Hoping to get at least 3 hours sleep proved to be a pipe dream. Shutaro kept waking me up asking me various questions before departing into the big wild world. I managed to get by on auto pilot until around midday when Ewan, one of our new volunteers, brought some guests down and then we left for McDonald’s to get some grub. I picked the shortest queue and lined up. Our cashier was about as green as you can get and continually balled up everything he did, even dropping my Big Tasty as he was putting it into a takeaway bag, meaning he had to ring up a new one. 40 minutes later we headed off to Lai street to enjoy our greasy McSludge.

The heavy food and lack of sleep combined to make me fade out of consciously at any given moment. Again, late guests were keeping me from getting any rest. They arrived two hours late at 5pm. Not too bad, really. I escorted them to their rooms in Viru and was greeted by a guest and her buddy who was some random prick from another hostel who’d helped himself to our Internet and kitchen. Normally I’d go off at people like that but our guest had a special type of booking that we’re trying to get good reviews for, so I let it slide. How’s that for fair? Money talks, I guess.

Stumbling around checking the kids into their room wasn’t so difficult, or unbearable. What really made it fun was to be made aware that the second toilet here was blocked. Completely. There’s already one that I can’t unblock because I’m too retarded and so now we were basically done for. With determination and grit, I wrapped my hand in a plastic bag and managed to get myself elbow deep in the bowl and wrist deep in the S-bend. After a bit of poking and rummaging around we were again flushing with great success.

I tidied up a little and then hopped onto my bed for a nap. Within minutes two of the Aussie girls started bickering with each other. I walked out to see what was going on and one was locked inside her room because the mechanism has decided to break while the other was standing in the hallway wearing nothing but a towel and surrounded by confused American kids who didn’t know what to do. Using a spare key solved the problem and I then had to wait for the girls to get dressed and calm down before experimenting with the lock and teaching them how to use it for now until we get it fixed. No worries.

Finally, I lay down to take a 2 hour siesta. Within 40 minutes someone was knocking on my door. The kids who’d arrived late had snapped their key off inside the lock of the door. Yep. These locks are designed and installed so that you can’t actually open them with credit cards or even unscrew them from outside the room. Normally I’d have just gotten a professional to come in or something but it was 8pm on Easter Sunday and on top of that I don’t know what the Estonian word for locksmith is.

We tried getting the broken piece of the key out with tweezers but to no avail. We even experimented with a bit of brute force and probably would have succeeded, except that the door itself and door frame would have been completely destroyed if we’d kept trying. Thankfully, there’s a frosted window between that room and another one which we managed to somewhat open. Unfortunately, while we were in the middle of rearranging beds and breaking through windows and walls, the four young students from Hong Kong came back and caught us red handed making a mess in their room. They weren’t upset, just very confused and startled. Their reactions were even worse when I told them I couldn’t give them change in Euros.

The guy staying in the room with the broken lock was rather lanky and lean so he slipped through the crack between the window and the wall and unlocked the door from the inside. He was Spanish and couldn’t speak a word of English but he knew what he was doing when he unscrewed the lock on the door and literally took it apart, tumblers and all before recombining it and putting the lock back together in the door. He even left a spare part out. Nice.

I’d given up napping so I planned to quickly use the toilet before hopping into the shower. Someone else took the advantage and locked themselves inside the bathroom for an hour so I was stuck plodding around waiting to clean myself. When I’d finally started washing and enjoying the lovely warmth my phone rang from inside my jeans. I stood in the cold air, naked and with water pooling around me and answered. John had arrived.

If I was smart, I would have stayed in that night and slept. I was too fed up with my day though to surrender like that, so I went out for a few drinks in Nimeta and Molly Malone’s. We stayed watching the cricket until Australia won and ended up going back to Lai street for some food, since no one was fucking serving. John whipped up a bit of Irish tapas and I was back here in bed by 2:30am. An early one.

Now, I’ve already gotten up at 7am and 8am and then 9am today for brief stints. Everyone’s arrived, I just have to tidy up some rooms. Oh and the laundry.

Emily’s coming back here this afternoon. The ferry should have left Helsinki about 20 minutes ago. On top of all the other crap I’ve gone through this weekend, it all got magnified because we’ve broken up.

Plush in Parugia

Our hostel in Parugia was cheap, massive, had an amazing view of the town from its balcony, was immaculately clean and had a funny old man running it (that took 40 minutes to check the four of us in as he checked our passports and stuffed around doing something that I’m sure he thought was important but only seemed to make everything slower). It was also strict, with a cleaning lock-out from 9:30am until 4pm, the kitchen open from 7:30pm until 10pm, the balcony and upstairs area closed at 12am and a lockout at 1am. We called it the Hitler Hostel.

Parugia’s another university town. It’s beautiful and has a vibe similar to Bordeaux. We went exploring up and down the main street on the Saturday night when we arrived, nearly drowning in the sea of young people who seemed to only be walking up and down the road, eating gelato or sitting on the massive set of steps in front of some building that I never determined the purpose of.

We decided to treat ourselves to some pizza and beer on our own set of stairs before we practically crashed in our beds from travel exhaustion. It was probably a good thing that the curfew was 1am as it meant we made the effort to get to sleep earlier than we had been for the last few nights due to partying in Riomaggiore.

Kate’s Lonely Planet had a few suggestions for activies to try in Parugia for the next day. We ignored them and spent time sleeping in the shade by a church while a wedding went underway, then Al and I shared a big fat pizza then had a quiet beer from a vantage point overlooking another part of town. We thought the drunken South American we’d all met on the bus during the day who continued to try speaking to us even though we told him we couldn’t understand him would be the only oddball we’d run into. To our delight, Al and I got to witness an older man who’d come to the same overlook for a peaceful read in the shade. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t begin without a cigarette. He cheerily walked up to every single invidiual that passed by and did his best to beg for a freebie but time and time again he was refused a nicotine hit. Eventually, after spying two young girls who’d just sat down and lit up, he snuck up towards them using trees as cover until he casually walked past them and asked for a cigarette like it was sheer coincidence that they’d ever met. A little scared, the girls gave in to his request and lit him up. He sat down and contently read, never again bothering to move the whole time we were there.

That evening we all ended up drinking beers on the balcony in front of the amazing view. More people from the hostel ended up joining us and by accident we’d started a mini party. We chatted away the hours with more Americans, Swedes and Brits until midnight when we were kicked off the floor. I’d polished off the perfect amount of 660mL, 0.90 and 1 Euro beers so I walked up and back on the main street to clear my head and made it into bed before the curfew.

Alone in Paris

Bienvenue!

I can’t speak French, I can only copy what I see.

Compared to Incheon International, Charles de Gaulle is miniscule. Customs don’t even bother comparing your face to your passport photo, let alone stamp you into the country. They don’t even bother with declarations. I guess anything goes if you’ve got a history this long.

I had to repack my bags after I grabbed it off the carousel (yes, it arrived) so that I could attach the daypack, transforming my luggage into one massive, cumbersome, bulky travelpack breaking my back and an overstuffed green manbag hanging off to my side, the nylon strap digging into my neck.

I had no idea how to get a train ticket into Paris, I just knew where I wanted to go. In typical French style, the ticket vending machines at the international airport are French-only and accept only European credit cards. I found this out after I’d queued up and bravely attempted to purchase one.

Fortunately for me a middle-aged Englishman stood behind me in the line and ended up buying the ticket for me so that I didn’t have to queue in the other ticket line with ticket staff. He then took me down to the platform and caught the train into town together. We spoke about the packaging industry, rugby and university. Not something you’d expect as your first encounter in Paris.

I finally reached Gare du Nord and hopped off the train, confident I could somehow find my way to my hotel. Somehow, I managed to locate it without getting too lost or collapsing under my backpack. I checked in and took the 1m² elevator up to the fifth floor, found my room and gratefully dumped my bag onto the bed.

The bulkiness of my luggage had not only irritated me but it had made me concerned that I’d brought too much. I immediately unpacked my clothes and re-arranged everything I’d brought with me until I was satisfied that my new system was not only more efficient, it was going to be more comfortable as well.

I was forced to run a bath in my en suite as there was no way to attach the showerhead to the wall. I pondered for a while as I soaked in the steaming broth of my own filth as to what the hell I was going to do with myself this first week. Somewhat scared and in need of reassurance (and with the desire to let people know I’d made it safely), I rang dad and Emily and spoke to both of them for a little while. I ended up surrending to fatigue and fear of the unknown by curling up under my bedsheet and falling asleep.

By 8am the following morning I’d already bathed, eaten my supplied breakfast of croissants, bread and coffee and was out the door. I figured I’d go exploring incognito so I left my bag and camera in my room, only taking ,y wallet, phone, passport and a map.

It took me about 30 minutes walk directly south to reach the Seine and I followed it west until I wandered around the Louvre – it’s enourmous. I’m going to try and get inside on Monday as I heard the tickets are half-price then. Continuing my exploration, I sat for a moment at a fountain then kept walking until I crossed through the busy intersections surrounding the Place de la Concorde. I kept going all the way up the Champs-Elysees for kilometres until I hit the Arc de Triomphe and the terrifying round-a-bout circling it.

After taking my shoe off and adjusting my sock whilst sitting under the Arc, I casually followed my feet towards the Eiffel tower. There’s an abundance of streets and roads named after dead US politicians just opposite the tower, something I found out considering I was practically underneath one of France’s (and Europe’s) most famous landmark.

Before I checked out more of the magnificent, metallic monstrosity, I skipped down to the banks of the Seine and stuck my hand into the water for nostalgia’s sake. I walked back up from the artificial shore and admired the construction of the monument and the monumental queues winding underneath it. I touched the north-western buttress (if that’s what you call it) before I walked through the Champ de Mars and all the way back towards Notre Dame.

I gave in to exhaustion before I reached the hunchback’s residence and ended up dragging myself back to my hotel room for a 4 hour nap. When I woke I again ventured south to Cafe Oz, an Australian themed pub that was overcrowded and lacked seating. I drank my €6,50 pint of some mystery Aussie beer the barmaid thought I’d ordered and left.

I stopped by the Hotel de Ville and noticed some workers erecting an outdoor screen for what I assume will screen rugby matches for the local competition. It was still daylight at 8:30pm, so I walked around Notre Dame and continued into the Latin Quarter until I found the student restaurants and bars near the Sorbonne which aren’t any cheaper.

There are no cafes here, only restaurants and bars. It’s not cheap either and I’m being quite miserly. I walked all the way back from the Quartier and sat on the rock wall 2 feet above the waters of the Seine for a while to rest my weary legs. Eventually I made it back to my hotel room and collapsed into a hot bath in an attempt to numb the aches and pains I’d acquired from walking probably 30km or more during the day.

Driving.

I just went to Canberra and back (4:30am to 2:30pm) to submit my working holiday visa application. It went through alright but I won’t get my passport back until either Friday or Monday. Too bad my flight is booked for Friday. The nice man from STA travel said he can get me a flight next Wednesday on Korean Air instead for only a few hundred bucks more (Tahiti Air is all booked out now). I’ll do that when I visit him in a minute and make it a return ticket. Then I’ll have the pleasure of trying to find more accommodation for the new dates from the 8th to the 13th, probably. It may even work out cheaper in the long run, I’ll see.

There was a strange burnt smell in the car on the way back. I hope my little red mumcar™ isn’t going to die on me…