Tall Matt's Travels

The Blog

August 2007

Matt - Wed Aug 29, 2007 @ 02:42PM
Comments: 7

 Admittedly I've never been a big fan of family reunions. Some (a lot) of you know what I mean. It's a day or two of meeting (or re-meeting) people you should remember but don't, of paper plates and screaming kids, of baked beans and painful conversation, of watered-down tea and hot weather.

I'd try to make it to as many as I could, but to be honest, pretty much any excuse was good enough to keep me away. I'm not proud of it, but that's the way it is - and most of you know what I'm talking about.

Recently, however, a few things have started to chip away at my selfish attitude.

This summer, my grandfather passed away after a pretty long illness. It was a sad occasion to be sure. I loved him dearly, and think about him often. It's an interesting feeling when the person you are named after passes on.

Over those summer days, I was amazed at the attendance and support of our family members. From South Dakota, Colorado, Oklahoma and many more places they came. All to pay honor to a man they loved.

 In June of this year, I was able to connect with a cousin of mine who I hadn't seen for a good while. She has been doing missions work in Romania for the last six years, setting up schools for children with disabilities in and around Bucharest.

I spent about a week with Heather, easily the most time we've spent together in one stretch in our lives. It was absolutely great though. We talked and talked about family, about who was sick, who was well, who was having children, and who was in trouble. She even reminded me of things I'd long ago forgotten about; during a conversation in which she was introducing me to one of her friends, she mentioned that she was the flower girl in my parent's wedding.  Instantly a set of my folks' wedding pictures came flooding back into my mind, and yup - there she was holding the little basket in front of my mom. Wow.

Over that week, Heather went out of her way to show me around the Romanian countryside - taking me to see ruins of castles belonging to Dracula, old fortresses, huge dams and even a set of performances by the children of the local school. We had a grand time - one made even more special because we're family.

Most recently, I was fortunate enough to stay in southern Sweden with some family while I sorted out a few problems I was having with the Russian government. The amazing thing was, these family members put me up even though we'd never met before, and in my case, had only heard their names on one or two occasions.

 On a random Wednesday in August, my hosts, Arnt and Marianne (who along with my great Aunt Vivian are our family's historians) drove me out to the Swedish countryside to see a farm. Now this may seem a bit boring to some of you, but for me, it was a bit of a pilgrimage. This particular farm belonged to our ancestors, dating back to the 1600s. Generations of our family lived and worked here before some of its branches started reaching out to America. Many of my family members in the states had made this same trip in the past - I joined the elite company of Pat and Bill, Dick and Ann, Vivian and a few others who have set eyes on "the farm."

 Through the years, the farm has always been inhabited - first by our ancestors, and then a neighboring farmer who bought the farm in the 1800s. It is this family's descendants who live on and operate the farm today, and whose hospitality allows our family to make impromptu visits like today.

 We pulled up to the farm and were greeted warmly by Stig and Berit, who were in the middle of re-plastering one of the additions to the farmhouse. We were literally treated like family - Arnt and Marianne introducing me and explaining my lineage. And, for you family members reading this - you should all know that Aunt Vivian is pretty much the family celebrity - everyone in our family (and even those who aren't) on two continents seem to know Vivian. Once her name came up, Stig and Berit's eyes lit up in recognition.

I walked around the farm taking pictures while the others caught up. It was quite a feeling walking the same ground my ancestors had lived and worked on. Seeing foundations and walls which protected my family generations ago was humbling.

 

As fate would have it, I had the chance to meet Stig and Berit's daughter, who just happened to be visiting today, who, with another guy, were working to gather honey from a  bee hive located in back of the farm. Random? Yes. Interesting? Yup. She fortunately spoke pretty fluent English and translated everyone's discussion for me, and offered some explanations as to the farm's history, additions, notable stories, etc.

About an hour later we sat down in the back yard to a cup of tea and some amazing black currant pie which Berit had made earlier that day. And keep in mind - these people aren't technically related to us - they are just wonderfully hospitable, and know the value of showing people (in this case me) their heritage. 
 
 After we said our goodbyes, Arnt and Marianne drove me to a couple different nearby churches, where several of our ancestors are buried. They showed me their gravestones and told me about their place in the family tree. It was fascinating, and for the first time in my life - it really mattered. It meant something. We had a history - a lineage of which I was a part. It was like I just woke up.

Heather, Annika, Arnt and Marianne, thank you for opening my eyes. Thanks for showing me how important family is. We are all blessed to be a part of one, and we need to take care of it and understand it just like everything else we value.

Comments: 7
Matt - Sat Aug 25, 2007 @ 03:13PM
Comments: 2

Part 1

I really had the best of intentions, and thought I had "most" things planned out. However, the best laid plans... as they say. 

When I started planning the trip, I obviously did some thinking about the novel places I could go. When it came to Europe, I really wanted to explore the Eastern block a little bit, with the crème de la crème being setting foot in Russia. I'm old enough to remember the cold war, the suspicious animosity between two equally matched superpowers, the nuclear arms race, the actual Star Wars, the meetings of Regan and Gorbachev (and the birthmark), the fall of the Berlin wall... hell, I've seen Rocky 4 about 50 times. The thought of walking through Red Square and seeing the Kremlin was just too enticing to pass up.

However, wanting to get there and actually setting foot on Russian soil are two different things. Getting a tourist visa into Russia is difficult - even warranting special sections in many guide books to aid prospective travelers. While many things have changed in Russia, apparently bureaucracy is still thriving.

I've had a few people ask via email: "How do you do research on stuff like this?" "Where do you get a Russian visa?" or even "What the hell is a visa?" Good questions to be sure, as I was fairly ignorant on such things not too long ago.

First things first. A visa is essentially documentation from the country you're going to outlining the terms of your stay. In most cases it's a stamp or a sticker that goes in your passport, including the arrival date, the number of days you're allowed to stay in the country, and other such things.

Most of the countries you'd think of as "tourist-friendly" don't require visas for US citizens - the majority of Europe being the best example. They understand the more hoops you have to jump through, the less likely you are to come and spend money.

Visas vary in shape and size, with some being no more than an ink stamp in a corner of a page in your passport and a few hand-written notes from the immigration officer. Others, like Brazil and China are official printed stickers which take up a whole page.

In addition, there are usually charges for each visa, more or less depending on how long you want to stay or how many times you want to enter and exit the country. In some cases they are free. In some cases (Brazil) they cost over $100. It just depends. To make it even more fun, sometimes the immigration folks will only accept US dollars.

In terms of the length of the visit, most countries will allow you to stay for 30 days on a single visa. Some up to 90 days. If you're going to be in-country longer, you can extend it, but it obviously costs more, and there is more paperwork to go through.

In terms of research and finding out requirements for each country, guidebooks are invaluable. The good ones will list out entry requirements for each country, and explain the differences for US, UK, Australian, Irish and other citizens. Also, the book I've mentioned before, Rough Guide's "First Time Around the World" contains a primer on the same information.  Outside of guidebooks, you can always turn to the web. Nearly each country has a diplomatic website and more specifically, a website for each consulate in each country if it exists.

Once you figure all that stuff out, you have to figure out where to go. Now actually knowing where you can get a visa can be a challenge in itself. In places like Kenya and Tanzania, visas are available at the border. Just hand them your passport and $50, and you're in. In other places, they have to be arranged in advance, like Brazil, Russia, China, Vietnam, etc.

Now, if you're planning a one or two week trip to a country requiring a visa, like Brazil for example, you'd probably send all your paperwork, your payment and your passport to the Brazilian consulate in Washington, DC a month or two before your visit to have it processed and sent back in time for your trip. If you're a freak-show traveler like me, you have to get them on the fly.

To do this, you have to visit an embassy (aka "consulate") for the country you want to go to in the country you are currently in. As a recent example, I had to get my Chinese visa from the Chinese consulate in London. Let me tell you, there's good fun to be had in: finding out what city the consulate for your destination country is in, finding the address, then finding a map and then figuring out the directions to physically get there, getting an idea of the absolutely ridiculous hours they have set up to handle visas, noting the amount of time it takes to process the visa (as that time means you'll be without your passport), the cost, etc. And, to make things even more fun, in most cases you can't apply for a visa more than 90 days ahead of your planned visit. In other words, it would have done me no good to arrange anything in advance before I left the States.

Got all that? I had absolutely no idea about all this stuff before the trip. If you want to travel though, you have to figure it out pretty quick.

So now comes Russia. A place even the guidebooks warn about. And for good reason. To get a Tourist Visa to Russia you must have:

  1. A passport valid for at least 6 months beyond your proposed exit date, and with at least two blank pages remaining.
  2. A visa application filled out perfectly (and, by the way, the normal applications aren't applicable to US citizens - we have a special form to fill out)
  3. A passport photo meeting a whole bunch of anal requirements
  4. A letter of invitation from a tour group or a hotel in Russia
  5. A tourist voucher from the same tour group or hotel in Russia
  6. A fingerprint, blood, urine and stool sample

Right, well, they didn't actually need #6, but everything else is required. To top it off, it takes seven working days to process the visa. Seven! What the hell are they doing for seven days? It didn't take God that long to create the universe! A pain in the ass to say the least. I thought Brazil sucked at the time, but compared to this it was a breeze. Hell, I got a visa into communist China for filling out an application and throwing 30 British pounds at them. But Russia, with all its problems and struggling economy make tourist jump through hoops like no other place on earth. No wonder they lost the Cold War.

Anyway, after getting my Chinese visa from the consulate in London, I thought about applying for the Russian visa there as well. It was then I found it takes seven business days to process, which would push my plans out a little further than I wanted. Plus, there is no guarantee they will even give you a visa at the end of the seven days - all the crap above is just for them to look at it. To persuade me even further, I'd been watching the news for the past few weeks and had been following the turmoil brewing between the Russians and the Brits. Turns out they aren't necessarily on great terms at the moment due to all the spy-killing stuff going on right now. So, I figured I'd find another place to apply. I was headed to Ireland next, but didn't think I'd be there for a full seven working days. However, my next planned stop was in Sweden.

I've always wanted to hit Sweden. First of all, the ol' Olson family roots extend back to Sweden, and several of my family members have visited the old farm my ancestors used to call home in the 1600's. In addition, we have some family still there, which I had heard are extremely nice people and accommodating hosts. Add to that the fact that my sister had been in Sweden studying one summer, and a cousin of mine played professional football in Stockholm for a couple years and still makes frequent visits to see old teammates and coaches, I simply had to go.

Now, as some of you may know, Sweden isn't cheap. Pretty much all of Scandinavia is relatively expensive. And, after being on the British pound and the Euro for a while, I wasn't looking forward to getting hammered by another currency. So, I started looking for cheap hostels in Stockholm around the first of July. Unfortunately, the cheapest ones were like $50 USD a night. For a damn dorm room bed! Thanks, but screw you guys.

Besides, I had a couple accommodation angles I'd been working in the background for a while. The key was to set up shop in Stockholm, as that's where the Russian Embassy is located. The father of one of my good friends from work had a contact in Stockholm that he put me in touch with. The trick with them was that they were traveling between their summer house, and their house in Stockholm, so timing would be the issue. A second option was the friends of my football playing cousin. I was hoping to bum some floor space from them if the occasion presented itself. Thirdly, I met a cool couple from Sweden when I was in Costa Rica. Unfortunately they lived all the way over in Gothenburg, but I figured I might be able to stay with them if the opportunity came. Finally, my great aunt Vivian armed me with contact information of three or four different sets of relatives in Sweden. They too lived a good way outside of Stockholm, but I definitely wanted to meet up with them at some point. However, I couldn't help but envision the Griswold's visit to their relatives in Germany in European Vacation.

Ok. So, with the knowledge of the Russian Visa taking at least seven working days, I booked a flight to Stockholm on Thursday the 16th, hoping to drop off my passport on Friday the 17th, and picking it up on the 24th. Simple as that.

Now, flash forward to Dublin, Ireland. Stress levels have been elevated. I'm less than a week out from my flight to Stockholm. My first contact fell through. The couple from Stockholm wasn't to be back home until Friday (which would have worked), but threw out a little nugget about not having room for me due to other family being in the house. Crap. One option down.

My cousin's contacts still hadn't emailed him back. It's getting close to crunch time, and I figured I couldn't really count on them coming through. After all, they didn't know me at all. Option two on life support.

I got an email from my friends in Gothenburg, but unfortunately with bad news. They were just ready to head to the States for a months' vacation. They offered to leave the key with a neighbor and let me stay, but they lived all the way over in Gothenburg. Plus, I felt a little weird about staying in their house without them being there. Besides, I didn't really hear back from them after that anyway.  Option in critical condition.

There was one shining light in the darkness however. I mentioned I sent out a few emails to the family members in Sweden. Well, thank God, one of them replied. Annika Jorgensen, a relative of ours way down the line, sent a note saying she'd be happy to have a visitor from the family. Awesome. The only bummer was that she was all the way down in Malmo, Sweden, which is at the very tip of the country on the Baltic Sea.

I really needed to spend time in Stockholm to organize the visa, so I did another check of hostels in Stockholm, to find the ones which were available at $50 a night were now completely gone. Everything was booked up. Starting to get a little concerned.

Dublin, the 16th of August. All the other options had kicked the bucket. I'm about to get on a plane at 5:00 pm to Stockholm with absolutely no place to stay. Awesome. So, I worked out the following plan.

  1. Fly to Stockholm, getting in around 9:30pm. Stay in Stockholm - Sleeping/staying preferably at the airport, but secondarily at the bus or train station until making my way to the Russian Consulate at around 8:00 Friday morning. 
  2. Drop off my passport at the consulate and begin the 7 day timer.
  3. Find a bus to Malmo, Sweden to visit Annika and the rest of the family for a while, which seemed to be on track, and the only solid thing in my plan. 
  4. A week later, hop on a bus or train back to Stockholm, and hope that one of the other options in Stockholm opened up, or bite the bullet and pay for a couple nights in a hotel for $100+ a night 
  5. Pick up the passport from the consulate - hopefully with the visa
  6. Head to Finland for a couple days before heading into Russia.

Simple as that, right? Right?

To be continued...

Comments: 2
Matt - Sat Aug 25, 2007 @ 03:00PM
Comments: 5

Part 2 

I flew Ryanair to Stockholm, which meant it landed at a super-small secondary airport with only two gates about an hour outside of Stockholm. After hopping on a $20 transfer bus, I ended up at the bus/train station combo in the center of Stockholm at around 11:30. I started looking for a nice cozy corner to set up shop in for the night, and saw a few others doing the same. About an hour and a half later, a husky blonde lady in a police uniform started barking some Swedish at me. After discovering I'm uni-lingual, she told me in English that the train station was closing, and that I'd have to leave. Sweet.

So, 1:00am and I'm on the streets in downtown Stockholm. I walked across to a McDonalds which was thankfully still open. In fact, it turns out they're open until 2:00am. I treated myself to a McFlurry, and did a little writing while I waited for them to kick me out. Fortunately, others were apparently in the same boat. McD's was pretty well full of people with backpacks and suitcases. They probably all had the same idea as I did, and were as surprised as I was when the station closed.

At 2:00, I was again on the street. I wandered over to a 7-11 (yes, they have a few 7-11's in Sweden), and sat on a little concrete block next to an Indian couple who were sitting on top of their suitcases. There was a chill in the air, but fortunately it wasn't too cold, and the rain clouds kept to themselves. I found out from the couple that the bus part of the station opened at 3:30, as they start running buses to the International airport at 4:00. Excellent. Just have to make it for another hour and a half.

Fortunately, everything went fine, and other than a couple drunks walking by muttering to themselves, I was unmolested for the balance of the time. I followed a pretty large gathering of people into the bus station (most of them I recognized from McDonalds), and found myself a little bench away from the noise. With my arms around my two bags, I managed to get about an hour and a half of intermittent sleep. Not to bad considering.

Fortunately, the station was pretty nice, and had all the amenities. Unfortunately, few of them opened until around 6:00am. One thing that was open was the bathroom, which ended up costing almost a dollar to use. It was an interesting experience though. There was no male/female division in the bathroom. It was simply lined with about 12-14 stalls with full-length doors, in which men and women would take care of their business side by side. Call me old fashioned, but that seems weird.

Anyway, around 6:30 or so, things started moving in the station. I walked up to the domestic bus lines, and found a timetable for a ride to Malmo later in the day. I then headed to find some breakfast, then wandered to the metro system. Fortunately, I had done some research on the consulate ahead of time, and knew the metro stop and the street names. After a little deliberation with a stocky, dark haired metro attendant, I found my way onto a west-bound subway toward the Russian consulate. The only pain in the ass was the fact that I was carrying all my stuff. I had no place to put my bags, so I still had 50+ pounds of backpacks on me as I traversed the parks and streets of Stockholm.

I'm starting to get pretty good at navigating large cities, as I found my way to the consulate with little trouble. I reached the gates at about 8:00, and was the first one there, as it actually opened at 9:00.

About 20 minutes later, a little text-book Russian lady walked up. Short, overweight, dark hair and a scowl accenting a couple of large moles on her face. She was dressed up though, and looked to be trying to make a good impression on the consulate officers. I said hello in English, and to my surprise, she responded likewise, and actually flashed a yellow-toothed smile. We actually ended up talking for a good bit. She was apparently trying to move over to the US with her daughter, and was working on getting her exit papers from the Russian government. However, she'd been working on them for the last five months. When I told her of my plans, she recommended a bunch of places to visit in Moscow, and also some places to avoid.

As we talked, another five or six people joined our queue. And, as the Russian lady would say later, the people inside the consulate aren't all that interested in quick service, so it's good to be at the front of the line.

At about 8:55am a prototypical Russian guard came out to the gate. Stocky, buzz-cut hair, no smile and a puffed out chest. He stood in front of us for a while, looking us each over, then went back inside. At 9:00 exactly, the gate buzzed, then opened and we went inside. I headed straight for one of the three little booths, only to find they were all vacant. I then heard the people behind me pulling numbers off of a little paper-number dispenser. Damn! I hustled back over to grab one. Instead of first, I was now fourth. Not a big deal, but I was afraid my 10 minute visit might have just been pushed to a couple hours.

Fortunately, the people ahead of me were fairly quick, and about 20 minutes later my paperwork and I were buzzed in to booth number two.

Now, you may be asking, "did you have all the right crap to give them?" Well, yes. And, it was a pain in the ass to get. While in Dublin, I found the website for the Russian consulate in Stockholm. I downloaded the US application, and attached my passport picture to it. I then did some research into a place to stay in Moscow. The "Napoleon Hostel" seemed pretty cool, and I went with them. Plus, they offered tours to St. Petersburg, among other things. They offered visa support through a partner, called GetRussian. And by visa support, I mean help with obtaining the Tourist invitation and the voucher. So, I filled out the online form, and submitted my details. In return, I got a PDF of both documents, which I printed out at an internet café.

Back to the present - proudly, I handed over all my stuff to a dark-haired lady in her mid-thirties behind the counter. She smiled, and began to look everything over. She asked a couple rudimentary questions, and commented on the number of stamps in my passport.

I knew I was in trouble when she asked "and where did you find this company?" holding up the tourist voucher. I explained to her the hostel, and the visa support, etc. She said, "Yes, I know, I have dealt with them before." Crap. That didn't sound good.

"Do you have a receipt for your hotel stay?" This sent a wave through me. On GetRussian's website, it states plainly you don't have to have a hotel booked to apply for a visa to Russia. I explained this to her, and she started laughing. She then went into a long rant about how it is of course required, and that the tourist voucher I gave her says the hotel rooms are paid in full already. Now, I couldn't really know this, as it's all in Russian. She went on to say that it's pretty much illegal. Son of a...

"It says you are going to visit St. Petersburg. Do you have an itinerary for your trip to St. Petersburg?" Nope. This wasn't going well at all. I told her I planned on figuring that out once in Moscow. Again she laughed - "You cannot do that. We must have a detailed itinerary of every day of your stay in Russia." Seriously?

It was at this point I figured I was screwed. With all these questions, there was no way I was going to be able to submit my stuff. Two seconds later, she confirmed it.

"So, what to do, what to do" she said. She grabbed a piece of paper, and started checking boxes. "You must bring back all of this" - pointing to the boxes. "Since it will take at least seven working days to process, you must update everything with your entry date into Russia being no earlier than the 28th." Son of a... "You must bring back an updated application; get a new voucher with the updated entry date, a new invitation with the updated entry date, and a detailed itinerary of your stay in Moscow, along with travel and accommodation plans in St. Petersburg. You also need to submit a receipt for your accommodation from the hotel."

"Have a nice day."

I sat outside on the steps of the consulate office for a few minutes. Basically, I have to do everything over again, and resubmit it all right back here on Monday. And oh, by the way, I don't have a place to stay in Stockholm this weekend. Shit!!!! And, even if I do get to submit it all, there's no guarantee I'll get a visa. They could keep all my stuff for a week and then tell me to do something else. Son of a...

I got back on the metro, and headed back to the bus station. I called Annika, and told her the situation. We talked for a few minutes assessing the situation (Which I thought was very cool of her by the way, as she doesn't know me, and I don't know her, but we're related way down the line somewhere). We ended up thinking about geography for a minute. Malmo is just 20 minutes by train from Copenhagen, Denmark. Annika, sitting in front of her computer, quickly found that as I expected, the Russian Consulate for Denmark is in downtown Copenhagen. She said to just come on down to Malmo, and we'd figure it out together. Done and done. I booked the next bus out of Stockholm.

I had time to think about things on the bus. I'll give the Russian visa another shot in Copenhagen, but if I'm denied again, the hell with them. I'll just have to figure something else out - which would be a bummer for a few reasons, not the least of which was an already booked flight from Moscow to Beijing.

Over the course of the next couple days, I worried about it a lot, and got all the necessary paperwork, with no help from GetRussian, who apparently take weekends off. I had to get another set of documentation by paying again for it. The more I thought about the whole ordeal, the more I got pissed off. Nothing should be this hard. I mean, I want to come into your country to spend money, take photos and write stories to share with others. Secretly I was almost hoping to get denied a visa again so I could just stop worrying about it and make other plans.  And, of course, bad mouth Russia.

The following Monday, armed with great directions from Annika, I made my way to Copenhagen and found the consulate. To make a long story short, they made my decision easy. Again, the paperwork wasn't perfectly aligned to their liking, and they asked me to change a couple things and return the next day. The hell with it. I don't need to see the Kremlin that bad. 

I walked around Copenhagen sorting out alternative plans in my head. I was in Copenhagen, which isn't far from the eastern block countries. I did some quick mental geography, and then looked for an internet café. I spent the next couple of hours on the phone with Expedia canceling and re-booking flights. When I walked out of the building I had a plan, and actually felt pretty good about it. Instead of Russia, I'm now going to Poland. I'll spend a few days in Warsaw, then head to Krakow where I'll take a day trip to the Auschwitz camps. I'll then make my way to Prague, where I'll just hang out for about a week. Then, finally, at long last, I'll fly from Prague to Beijing.

In hindsight, I don't know if I could have done anything differently, other than go with a different hotel or join a proper tour, all of which would cost a lot more. And, all in all, the whole ordeal only set me back about $100 and a lot of headaches. A lot, but not compared with them taking my passport for a week, and me paying them another $100 only to be denied later.

So, there it is. The combination of accommodation problems and the travel and the stress of the visa made it one of the most difficult couple of weeks of the trip so far. However, I've learned a lot. The primary thing being, don't go to Russia.

Comments: 5
Matt - Tue Aug 14, 2007 @ 08:34AM
Comments: 2

 Every so often it's good to take stock of where you are and what you're doing. As I sat on a crowded bus rambling across central Ireland, I thought about my fortunes and how at this moment, I wouldn't trade places with anyone.

In March of this year, I boarded a ship called the Explorer bound for the Antarctic Peninsula. As much as for the scenery and wildlife, I'll remember the trip for the people I was fortunate enough to meet. Young and old, over 100 of us braved the elements (and the Drake Passage) to set foot on the white continent. Admittedly, it's a different type of folk who use their vacation time to freeze their ass off at the bottom of the world.

Two people in particular remained in my mind long after the trip. After we were under way, I sat down at a table with an older Irish couple named Brendan and Róisin who were sipping on some wine. We started talking about all kinds of things, including my trip, their home in Ireland, their daughter's upcoming wedding, and more.

As the boat is relatively small, we ran into each other several times. And, as fate would have it, we were even invited to the Chief Engineer's table for dinner one night. Needless to say, we became good friends in a very short amount of time, and as we pulled into Ushuaia, we had a final drink in the lounge before departing. We had a grand time - talking about our experiences crossing the Drake on the way back. Brendan actually fell out of bed and slept on the floor at one point! Brendan bought us a round of Irish Mist (appropriately enough), and we toasted to our wonderful trip to Antarctica. Before we left, they both insisted that if I were in Ireland, I simply must come to Galway to visit.

Fast-forward to August. About the time I pulled my backpack out of the bowels of the bus, a familiar sounding "Hello Matt!" hit my ears. There was Brendan, white hair and glasses, a khaki jacket and brown trousers. It was wonderful to see him again.

Upon our arrival at their lovely home, I met Róisin in the kitchen. She was all smiles and we greeted each other warmly. I was shown to a guestroom down the hall, and in a few minutes was ushered out to the back porch to enjoy the afternoon (as well as some smoked salmon and bread). They have a lovely garden, filled with beautiful flowers and some of the rocks which the Western Irish landscape is so famous for.

After catching up, they both recommended that if I'd like to stretch my legs for a bit after the long bus ride, I should check out the beach, which is just a short walk away. I agreed, and went for a stroll. It was indeed very close, and very beautiful. Full of people sun bathing, reading, flying kites, and just relaxing.

  

When I returned, I was treated to a glass of wine, and a wonderful home cooked meal. Chicken, potatoes, vegetables, you name it. As I've mentioned before, I have never had an appreciation for home cooking like I do now. Just travel for a couple months and you'll know what I mean. We had a lovely meal. Them catching me up on their daughter's recent wedding, me telling them about my travels since March.

The rest of the week entailed a lot of sight seeing and a lot of eating.

I spent the majority of Thursday exploring the city of Galway. Brendan gave me some pointers, a map and some directions, and dropped me off near the city center. It's a lovely little city with lots of chic little shops and restaurants, a couple of large churches, and a nice little square in the center of town. It's growing like crazy though. I read somewhere that it was the fastest growing city in Ireland, and the cranes all along the horizon proved it. Though a little touristy, still has a soul - for now anyway.

Back at Brendan and Róisin's that evening, dinner again was started with a glass of red wine. We sat down to a lovely meal of fish, potatoes, tomatoes and more vegetables. I hadn't eaten this well for a long time. I'm pretty sure my body nearly went into shock at the introduction of vegetables two nights in a row. To cap the night, I pulled out a bottle of Irish Mist which I'd found in town. We again said Slainte ("Cheers" in Gaelic) to our travels and our voyage to Antarctica. It was wonderful to hear their stories. Just when I think I've been to a few places, I meet a couple who has easily eclipsed me. No substitute for experience.

 The next day I took an organized day-tour the areas surrounding Galway, specifically into an area to the South of Galway called the Burren. It's an absolutely gorgeous place, but beautiful in the way that the Badlands of South Dakota are beautiful. Sometimes beauty comes where you least expect it. Creases of jagged, slate gray limestone literally fill the entire landscape. It's almost like being on a different planet. Super-hardy grass and flowers fill up the spaces it can, but the majority of the land looks simply un-livable. It's interesting too, because a majority of the Irish Catholics in the 1600s were forced here by Oliver Cromwell. It's better to hear it from a native, but this is the basic story:

"Cromwell tried once and for all to crush the Irish resistance by deporting thousands of Irishmen, using the catchphrase: "To Hell or Connaught!" At the sight of the poor and barren province, even one of Cromwell's own generals observed that there was "neither water enough to drown a man, nor a tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury him." From this time every conflict in Ireland has been fuelled by religious hate."

http://www.arvendalstudios.com/eire/tour2000/eire2000-16.html

 The people did an admirable job of transforming the land. Stone fences lined the rolling hills, creating small fields for cattle and sheep. Stone houses and small buildings dotted the green rows. Once in a while we'd drive by a great stone castle, still standing proudly against the shoreline.

We eventually reached the Cliffs of Moher, where green hills used for cattle grazing suddenly drop hundreds of feet into the Atlantic.

  

It is absolutely jaw-dropping. It's considered one of Ireland's show pieces, and even boasts a stone tower from the 1800's used as an observation area for tourists then. Even though it was raining, and somewhat miserable, the sight of the cliffs was stunning.

The next day Brendan, Róisin and I took a daytrip to the Aran Islands - a set of three islands to the west of Galway. We took a ferry out to the middle of the islands, called Inishmaan.

Just as the Burren seemed alien, even more so was Inishmaan. The indigenous population is very small, with very few houses and even cars on the island. However, it does leave the island relatively untouched, and somewhat preserved. Stone fence after stone fence divided the island into small plots, many smaller than most people's backyards.

We walked and walked, Brendan and Róisin leading the way, me lagging behind taking pictures like a true tourist. We went from one side of the island to the other, visiting a few farms, a church, a place known as Synge's Chair (the writing place of an Irish playwright) and a little coffee shop which served a pretty good vegetable soup.

It had been misty all day, but almost appropriately, as soon as we headed down to catch the ferry back to Galway, it started pouring rain. We took cover under the eve of a small shed and waited for it to pass. When it finally did, we were treated to a beautiful rainbow running from the land into the sea. An Irish rainbow. Lucky right?

Words can't express how much fun I had with Brendan and Róisin. They are wonderful travelers, wonderful hosts, and above all, wonderful people. I feel absolutely blessed to have gotten the chance to know them, and am honored to have them as friends.

Comments: 2
Matt - Fri Aug 10, 2007 @ 01:38PM
Comments: 1

 I ended up setting up camp in Dublin for a bit before heading on to Galway, and on up to Northern Ireland. I didn't really know what to expect. I hadn't read a lot about Dublin, and really didn't have any expectations coming in. And, after my visit - I can't really say a lot about Dublin, positive or negative. It's a nice city, but a fairly unremarkable one.

Very, very few of the city's buildings are over five stories in height, which makes the entire place feel much smaller than it actually is. It has a nice system of old and new bridges over the river Liffey, which runs through the center of town. And, as all good European cities, Dublin sports plenty of nice side streets to get lost in. But to be honest, it left me a little empty. After being in London for a couple weeks, Dublin is a little anti-climactic. Plus, as you might expect in Ireland, it rained pretty much all the time.

 

On Monday, I grabbed a map and walked the city for a while. I ended up covering the majority of Dublin's center in about five hours, which I though was pretty good. Don't get me wrong, there are definitely cool things to see - many old, old churches, some early  Georgian architecture, tons of little hole-in-the-wall pubs, etc.

A trip to Dublin wouldn't be complete without passing by the Jameson Irish Whiskey distillery, and of course, the infamous Guinness Brewery. The brewery was indeed impressive. Unlike some other breweries which have turned their original buildings into museums and moved their actual operations outside of town, Guinness still does all it's brewing right in the heart of Dublin. I passed by huge brick buildings labeled "Vat 8" or "Vat 12," large, glossy black wooden gates with gold lettering, old brick archways and worn cobblestone streets. I'm definitely not a huge fan of Guinness, but it was pretty cool to be there.

I also walked through the trendy Temple Bar area, home to the core of Dublin's nightlife, as well as through the courtyard of Dublin Castle, which was hosting a set of sand sculptors. Not sure what the occasion was, but they were pretty good.

In the center of Dublin stands an absolutely massive gleaming metal spire. Apparently the source of some controversy (as is all progressive architecture), it's a landmark that's hard to miss, and one that's starting to become the default icon of the city.

My visit was highlighted by the chance to catch up with a couple of lovely ladies from the Antarctica trip. Back in March, during my little voyage to the White Continent, I met a ton of cool people, including a set of girls from Ireland. Four months and half a world later, Fiona and Shirley met me out for a drink on Tuesday night. We headed to a couple of authentic Irish bars, where I of course partook in the requisite pint of Guinness. It was great to catch up with the girls, and to talk about our trip to Antarctica.

In summary, Dublin was a good place to set up home base from, but not a city I'd add to my list of must-see's. Not to say that it's a bad place, because it definitely has its charming qualities. It's just that after seeing so many cities, there are others that I might be willing to spend a bit more time in.

Comments: 1
Matt - Tue Aug 07, 2007 @ 05:58AM
Comments: 2

 It's so hard to write about two wonderful weeks in London. It went by so fast. I felt like I did a lot, seeing a good bit of the city again, while at the same time catching up on some much needed rest.

What can you say about a city that really needs no description? I'll not bore you with descriptions of Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the Themes or St. Paul's. Besides, most of you who know me have heard me go on and on about London anyway.

However, this visit provided a couple extra experiences that Are worthy of highlighting:

1. Sushi. Yeah - I know. London is not necessarily known for its sushi. Fish and chips, Sheppard's pie, and sandwiches with copious amounts of mayo or butter is more their specialty. However, after a frickin awesome sushi dinner at the apartment of a Cerner associate, I will now beg to differ.

Admittedly, I'm not a tremendous fan of sushi. But with a spread like this, how can you not be?

  

It was absolutely amazing. No less than six different types of sushi with all the fixin's (can you say "fixin's" in reference to sushi?), along with an assortment of beer and wine. I couldn't believe it. Especially for me, the traveler, who hasn't seen a set table like this for quite a while. Nancy and Bill, it was tremendous. Thank you so much for including me.

What made it even more fun was the company. Turns out there were all kinds of Cerner people at the party, including Kristen and Mickey. I also got to catch up with Angel, who I hadn't seen for a long time, as well as Bubalo and his lovely girlfriend (Bubalo, it was great to see you man. Wherever you are, I hope your busted wheel is feeling better, and have a frostie for me). Needless to say, the party went on well into the night, and a good time was had by all.

 2. Star Wars. Yeah, that's right, Star Wars. I've been called a lot of things in my time, and "geek" is pretty high on the list. But I'm ok with it. In fact I embrace it. As an illustration, I was in Spain watching the BBC or something when I saw that Lucasfilm was setting up a big Star Wars exhibition in London. Secretly, I was really hoping to be there in time to see it.

Fast forward a few weeks. Justin, Bakie and I are marching across Westminster Bridge toward County Hall. We stop to admire the storm troopers guarding the entrance, then head in. It was a true haven for Star Wars fans of all ages. Full-size models of pod racers and star fighters, life-size puppets, costumes, original art, video, etc.

   

We walked around like kids in a candy store. Probably the most interesting pieces were the old storyboards from the original movies.  Hand-drawings were supplemented with checklists of pieces needed to complete the image. Explosions, star fields, laser blasts, etc. You could then go across the hall to see the 3-D pre-visualization work utilized by the new movies. Cool to see how the process has changed from models, matte paintings, and numerous plates to now terabytes-worth of rendering inside super-powerful computers.

At the end we sat through a performance of "Jedi School" for the kids. A couple of Jedi talked to the crowd, pulling out a few kids for some light saber lessons. It was entertaining to see some bad acting and some happy kids.

All in all, a good time for the inner nerd.

3. Orpington. A good friend of mine in KC put me in touch with some of his in-law's relatives in the London area. It turned out they were wonderful people who offered to put me up in a pinch. Since my wonderful friends in north London came through, I had the accommodation covered, but still ended up meeting up with them for lunch on Sunday afternoon.

I found a train down to Orpington, and Maynard met me at the station. After a quick visit to his church, we went to his house where I was treated to an absolutely wonderful home cooked meal with some great people. We sat around and talked for hours, even going outside to have ice cream in the backyard.

Maynard, thanks much for your hospitality. You have a wonderful family, and a great home. Please stay in touch.
 
4. Christy's visit. I ended up timing my visit to London to coincide with the visit of Christy, a good friend of mine from KC/LA/Portland/KC. This was Christy's first foray across the pond, and it was a lot of fun to be able to play tour guide. It's not like I've spent that much time here - just a few months, but it was great being able to show it off.

We hit all the highlights - Westminster & Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's, The Globe Theater, Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, Buckingham, St. James' Park, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square... you name it. It was great to see how much the city had changed in the last few years - and how much it had remained the same. Christy seemed to have a great time, and even suffered through some blisters on her feet due to all the walking we did.

 

 We also made time to drop by one of my favorite spots to eat - Bodean's, which is (I kid you not), a BBQ joint with Kansas City roots. Apparently a former cook from Oklahoma Joe's in KC came over here several years ago and started up this place with a partner. It's taken off, likely in no small part to the plethora of Cerner associates now over here. It's a great place to watch American football on Saturdays and Sundays, and provides some pretty damn good BBQ. For those Cerner Marketing and ex-Cerner Marketing associates who are wondering - yes, they have crack fries, but something gets lost in the translation to England. They're good, but not the true, withdrawal-inducing crack fries you'll find in a gas station in Mission.

Christy, I had a great time. I hope you did as well. Hopefully you'll want to go back at some point!

5. Jack the Ripper. Back in 2003, I found a company called London Walks who put together organized walking tours of various parts of the city. They had walks for everyone - fans of James Bond, haunted London, pub crawls, etc. I however, was interested in the darker side - the Jack the Ripper tour. A small group of us went, including Mickey. We enjoyed the hell out of it. As we did it in November, it was dark, cold and moody. And to make it even better, it was led by a virtual master of the genre, a guy named Donald Rumbelow. Ol' Don is the author of two books on the subject, and is considered one of the leading experts when it comes to Ripper lore.

So, when Christy asked what we should do in London, the Ripper tour was at the top of the list. We hit a tour on Sunday night, and were just two of close to 100 people who ended up following Donald around. His legend has grown a lot over the years as well. Other tour guides try to do Ripper tours, but you almost feel bad for them, with their little gatherings of 10 people.

Anyway, Donald did not disappoint. The tour was again creepy and disturbing, even though there was still a little light in the evening sky as we started. We toured parts of East London, visiting places where bodies were found, and where clues were left.

Now I'd certainly recommend this tour to anyone going to London. It's a can't miss for me. The bummer is that when we were talking to Donald after the tour, he said he's probably going to retire in the next few months. This sucks for anyone who hasn't seen him yet. So, if you're thinking about going to London, do it quick, and get on a tour with Donald. 

London is an amazing city. I know some don't share my love of it, but it's a place I could live if given the opportunity. Don't get me wrong, it has its problems - it's crowded, touristy and damn expensive (especially if you're on the dollar). But its history and charm will win you over. If you haven't been there yet - go.

Comments: 2
Matt - Mon Aug 06, 2007 @ 04:34AM
Comments: 7

Before writing anything about my time in London, I would be remiss in not thanking a few people. As I was working my way through Spain and The Netherlands, I kept a wary eye on the exchange rate between the Dollar and the Pound. It wasn't a pretty picture.

I had a couple contacts in London, and was hopeful that I might be able to find some floor space somewhere. However, a few emails would later reveal that they were either out of town, had guests already, or simply didn't reply.

Anyway, to make a long story short, a few of my good friends came through, and in a big way. Without their kindness and hospitality, I probably wouldn't have spent more than two or three days in London. And, to top it off, they showed me a wonderful time while I was there. So without further ado, I'd like to thank:

Justin. Justin and I go way back, owing our friendship to a couple jokers named Ressler and Gabrick, as well as to a little project in London in 2003. When I got an email from Justin earlier in the trip inviting me to come by if/when I made it to London, it was exciting to say the least. I ended up staying almost a week at Justin's apartment in North London, even some time when he was in Paris working on a new project.

Justin, thanks much for everything. Your apartment was a little place of Zen for me for a week, and allowed me to get a lot of much needed writing, thinking and resting done. Also, thanks for the use of the phone, the visit to Nandos, the chat in the bar before the sushi party and the geek-fest with Bakie at the Star Wars Exhibit and of course Transformers. I owe you huge man.

Mickey and Kristen. Mickey, Kristen and I also go back a ways. Mickey and I first met at a Cerner holiday party in KC many moons ago. Remember that, Mick? Since then, we also worked together on the now infamous project in London. Once back stateside, I was introduced to Kristen Mick's significant other, and now better half. I had completely forgotten about Mickey and Kristen being over in London. A few emails later, I had an additional place to stay for a while.

Mickey and Kristen, Thank you for your generous hospitality, and your wonderful welcoming attitude. Would you believe they even met me at the tube stop when I arrived? And to top it off, after a discussion on the value of a Chipotle burrito, Kristen organized a Mexican Fiesta with a group of Cerner folk one night. And, I'll speak for others - Mickey, you're a lucky man to have a woman that can cook enchiladas like that. It was absolutely great to spend some time with you, and catch up on things back home.

If I ever grow up and buy/rent a house some day, you're all coming over for a gathering of epic proportions. Or, at least a few tasty beverages and some pizza.

Thanks guys. You made a huge impact on my trip - in more ways than you know.

Comments: 7
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