Countries Visited

Svalbard Spain United States of America Antarctica South Georgia Falkland Islands Bolivia Peru Ecuador Colombia Venezuela Guyana Suriname French Guiana Brazil Paraguay Uruguay Argentina Chile Greenland Canada United States of America United States of America Israel Jordan Cyprus Qatar United Arab Emirates Oman Yemen Saudia Arabia Iraq Afghanistan Turkmenistan Iran Syria Singapore China Mongolia Papua New Guinea Brunei Indonesia Malaysia Malaysia Tiawan Philippines Vietnam Cambodia Laos Thailand Myanmar Bangladesh Sri Lanka India Bhutan Nepal Pakistan Afghanistan Turkmenistan Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan Uzbekistan Japan North Korea South Korea Russia Kazakhstan Russia Montenegro Portugal Azerbaijan Armenia Georgia Ukraine Moldova Belarus Romania Bulgaria Macedonia Serbia Bosonia & Herzegovina Turkey Greece Albania Croatia Hungary Slovakia Slovenia Malta Spain Portugal Spain France Italy Italy Austria Switzerland Belgium France Ireland United Kingdom Norway Sweden Finland Estonia Latvia Lithuania Russia Poland Czech Republic Germany Denmark The Netherlands Iceland El Salvador Guatemala Panama Costa Rica Nicaragua Honduras Belize Mexico Trinidad & Tobago Puerto Rico Dominican Republic Haiti Jamaica The Bahamas Cuba Vanuatu Australia Solomon Islands Fiji New Caledonia New Zealand Eritrea Ethiopia Djibouti Somalia Kenya Uganda Tanzania Rwanda Burundi Madagascar Namibia Botswana South Africa Lesotho Swaziland Zimbabwe Mozambique Malawi Zambia Angola Democratic Repbulic of Congo Republic of Congo Gabon Equatorial Guinea Central African Republic Cameroon Nigeria Togo Ghana Burkina Fasso Cote d'Ivoire Liberia Sierra Leone Guinea Guinea Bissau The Gambia Senegal Mali Mauritania Niger Western Sahara Sudan Chad Egypt Libya Tunisia Morocco Algeria
Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Monday, August 29, 2011

Flashback: First Day in Ghana

The blog lives!

Andy and I have finally wrapped up our domestic travels (check out the "Where Have We Been?" column on the right if you'd like to know, uh, where we have been this summer) and made it back to New York...just in time for Hurricane Irene! Luckily, my parents' house was not flooded, which means that the meager remains of our worldly possessions are still intact.

Anyway, as we take breaks from looking for jobs, we hope to bring you a last few blog entries here, reflecting on our round-the-world experience and offering some final advice to those of you out there who are considering doing this one day.

Here's a brief entry to get things (re)started. I wrote this 250-word essay for a funny-travel-story contest sponsored by Budget Travel magazine...but then decided not to submit it, because apparently they take ownership of your writing and photo submission, even if you don't win, which means I would have to pay them if I wanted to publish them later in a book or something. Bah. But now that means you get to read it for free!

First Day in Ghana

Every time we go over a bump, the goats scream.

My husband and I are bouncing down the road in rural Ghana in a crowded minibus. Our hips dig into our neighbors’, our shoulders jostle for space, and everyone’s sweating—especially me and Andy, who failed in our mission to get window seats and are now cut off from even the tiniest breeze.

Bump. Bahhhhh!

Most of the passengers came to the station that afternoon with a few bags, like us, but one brought a dozen goats. With the driver’s help, he strapped several to the luggage rack up top, then started shoving goats inside, under the seats.

Now every time we hit a bump—about every 10 seconds, or just long enough for your brain to start recovering from the noise—the goats get jostled and bleat bloody murder. A year into our round-the-world honeymoon, Andy and I thought that we were used to sharing public transport with livestock (they don’t call them “chicken buses” in Central America for nothing!), but this is taking it to a whole new level.

Hog-tied and stuffed into a dark space, the inside goats protest loudest, but it’s the roof goats who take the ultimate revenge. A man at the end of our row, trying to get more shoulder room, has his torso hanging halfway out the bus when a stream of yellow liquid runs off the roof and hits him on the arm. Suddenly, we’re glad we didn’t get those window seats.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Obsessions of Asia

We are woefully behind on posting since we came back to the United States. Despite having almost constant access to computers and the Internet, we have focused our time on seeing family and friends. Even for me, it is hard to say, "Mom, I know you haven't seen me for two years, but I just have to get those Obsessions posts done..."

So, without anymore excuses, here come Asia's obsessions:

India- Spitting. An easy one. The average Indian might spit 1200 times per day. And we aren't talking about small little bits of spittle. We're talking about pieces of lung the size of a fist. Sure, lots of Indians also have a paan habit (think chewing tobacco, but different ingredients that also happen to make one's spit Kool-Aid red), but even those that don't chew still spit. And before the spitting comes a noise that sounds like the regurgitation of a cow. Wait, most Indians don't eat cow, so a goat. Like hawking up a goat.

Sri Lanka- Water tanks. What is a water tank you ask? Well, I'm going to tell you even if you didn't ask. A water tank is a man made lake. Sri Lanka has a lot of areas that are at altitude and are very wet for part of the year, but very dry for the rest of the year. So, starting a thousand years ago or more, digging giant water pits became the prerequisite for growing any large city that wasn't on the sea. And they did it with gusto. Some of the cities have dozens of lakes that are far larger than many dammed lakes in the US, and they were all dug out by hand. Or maybe with hands and a rock and maybe a chisel, but you get the point. Good job, ancient Sri Lankans!

Malaysia- Tourism posters. If all the Asian countries were elementary school students, Malaysia would get the "Tries Hardest" certificate at the end of the year. Not only are tourism posters in nearly every window of Malaysia, they are in nearly every hotel and vaguely related travel business everywhere in Asia. They must have printed millions of them. And that makes it even sadder that more people don't visit Malaysia, which really is a spectacular country.

Singapore- Rules. Singapore has rules for everything. And fines for not following most of them. The list of fines in the subway cars was as long as my arm. (We especially appreciated that one of the highest fines was for bringing the smelly durian fruit on the train.) If you like to conform, consider moving to Singapore. If you have ever voted Libertarian or are a card carrying member of the Tea Party, consider vacationing somewhere other than Singapore.

Indonesia- Cats without tails. Didn't see that one coming, did you? We saw hundreds of cats in Indonesia and every one of them had some or all of its tail missing. We can only assume that people think they should not have tails and take it upon themselves to cut off the tails with whatever sharp instrument is laying around when they see a cat with tail intact. We thought that we might see this in other countries, but it was really just Indonesia.

Thailand- 7-Eleven. Think of all the 7-Elevens you have ever seen. Multiply that number by 100. That is how many 7-Elevens are on the average block in Thailand. It used to be a joke in New York that Starbucks would often have locations right across the street from one another. 7-Eleven in Thailand might regularly have three stores on a block. I don't understand how they stay in business, especially since they are more expensive than most Thai businesses, but they all seem the thrive. Since I love Slurpees, I thank the Thai people for making cheap Slurpees available everywhere.

Burma (Myanmar)- Gold leaf. I had never heard of someone's job being to hammer gold until it was gold leaf. In Burma, that ranks as one of the most popular jobs. Where does all that gold leaf go? Buddhists in Burma buy the gold leaf and then rub it onto the Buddha statues (or anything else that they believe should be gold) at the Buddhist temples. This keeps everything bright and shiny. Oh, I should point out that only men are allowed to do this. Women aren't allowed to touch the Buddha statues, but can buy some gold leaf and have a manly man rub it onto the Buddha.

Cambodia- Angkor Wat. It seems sort of lame to be obsessed with your biggest tourist attraction, but Cambodia unquestionably is. It adorns the flag, half the stores in the country are named for it, and it inspired enough awe that even Pol Pot didn't destroy it. And Pol Pot destroyed just about everything in Cambodia.

Vietnam- Motor scooters. The average person in Vietnam has 3.2 motor scooters. Approximately. Through a quantum trick, they ride all of them simultaneously. So, while Vietnam has only 80 million people, 250 million people ply the roads on motor scooters at any given time. And most of those 250 million are going down the road that you want to cross. The streets of the large cities look like a moped convention.

Laos- Fruit shakes. I try to find something deeper than a food for country obsessions, but fruit shakes made with fruit, condensed milk, sugar, and ice are what hold the country of Laos together and makes the whole country so friendly. That's pure speculation, but locals and tourists alike can be found drinking delicious and cheap shakes all over the country, and we were certainly fans. For those who are not feeling happy enough after a regular shake, many places seem to offer "happy" shakes, which come with whatever drugs they happen to have in stock (pot in most places).

China- Crotchless pants. No, China isn't turning into 1980s New York. Any child under the age of three in China wears pants with a giant slit down the crotch and no underwear underneath. This allows them to go to the bathroom anytime and anywhere they like. And I do mean anytime and anywhere. Let's say the kid is waiting in a busy ticket line inside the train station with the parent and needs to go to the bathroom--that's what those pants are for. Number one or number two? Doesn't matter. Does the parent clean it up? No. It stays there for others to step in. While China seems likely to take over the world one day, we hope they get rid of crotchless pants prior to that.

Mongolia- Chengis Khan. Yeah, I thought it was Genghis Khan, too, but not in Mongolia. This founder of the Mongol Empire is known for uniting the nomads of Mongolia, declaring war on anything that moved, killing about a bajillion people, and creating the beginning of the largest empire the world has ever known. That, of course, makes him the hero of Mongolia. Based on our experience, I don't see the second coming of the Mongol Empire anytime soon.

There you have it: the obsessions of Asia. Disagree with us? Too bad. Write your own blog. Or leave us nasty comments about how we disparaged your country. That's why our home address isn't on the blog. Well, that and we don't have a home yet...

Monday, June 27, 2011

From Rupees to Rupiah: Financing Asia

All through our travels, people told us how cheap Asia would be...and, looking forward to bringing down our average daily budget, we hoped that they were right. Luckily, they were!

Here are the numbers by country. In case you forgot how we do this, these numbers are for two people, including visa costs and all costs on the ground (and in the air if we took internal flights). Sometimes we also include the cost of a flight into the country if that was the only way to get there.

India: $53 per day. Visas cost $74 each at the embassy in Istanbul. India is one of the cheapest countries we've been to, so staying there for five weeks did wonders for our financial (if not gastrointestinal) health. Hotel rooms ranged from $10-$25 depending on level of comfort (except in Mumbai, where it's hard to find a double for less than $50); restaurant meals could usually be had for a buck or two, and street food for pennies; and train transport in sleeper class cost less than a hotel. Not getting ripped off on cabs and tourist excursions required some negotiating.

Sri Lanka: $80 per day (including flight from Chennai, India, which costs about $120 per ticket; $53 per day without flight). No visa fees. Sri Lanka's hotels and food were a little more expensive than India's, but it made up for it with what is possibly the world's cheapest public transport on a $-per-hour basis. If you plan to visit more than two historic sites in the "Cultural Triangle" area, getting a pass can save you $25 or more.

Malaysia: $47 per day. No visas. Some travelers complain about Malaysia being pricey, but as it turns out, the only traveler item that is really expensive in (Muslim-majority) Malaysia is beer! As long as you don't drink much, the country is terrific value, especially considering how developed it is. Air-con double rooms with shared (but very clean, hot-water) bathrooms cost $10-$15, and delicious, cheap street food abounds. Transport is a little pricier than some Asian countries, but you usually get comfortable, AC buses on smooth roads. We stuck to the peninsula this time and didn't do any fancy tourist excursions, but our memories of our previous trip to Borneo are that prices were very reasonable there, too.

Singapore: $111 per day. No visas. We only spent two days in Singapore, so this is kind of skewed, but it's certainly one of the most developed and expensive countries in Southeast Asia. Most of the cheaper hotels are in the red light district, where we found a decent private room for $35 a night. Public transport, museums, and restaurants are comparable to Western prices, but taxis (which are metered, hallelujah!) and street or food court foods are relatively cheap.

Indonesia: $102 per day. One-month visas on arrival at the airport cost $25 each. Indonesia was surprisingly expensive, though that's largely because we did a lot of pricey activities like SCUBA diving, chartering a boat to Krakatau volcano, and a few other organized tours. No-frills internal flights between the islands were a pretty good deal, usually less than $50 one-way and could be booked just a day or two before. Buses and trains on the ground varied a lot in price and quality. Hotel rooms for $10-$15 could be found, but were usually pretty disgusting; if we wanted cleanliness and AC, we usually had to pay at least $25. Cheap street food could be found in most places, though not so much in touristy Bali, where we usually had to shell out for real restaurants.

Thailand: $83 per day. No visa fees. Considering how many touristy activities we did in Thailand (diving, elephant training camp, etc.), this is a great average. Hotel and transport standards are pretty high, but competition for the tourist buck keeps prices low. Markets selling cheap local food are pretty easy to find, and even fancy restaurants are probably cheaper than the Thai restaurants you find at home. Just try not to get robbed, which could certainly send your costs soaring!

Myanmar: $77 per day. Visas cost $27 each in Bangkok. This average includes flights into and out of Yangon from Bangkok ($130 each roundtrip), which accounted for one-third of our expenditures there. Once you're on the ground, Myanmar (Burma) is super cheap in all categories, though its rough roads, ancient vehicles, and power cuts often made it feel more like traveling in sub-Saharan Africa than Southeast Asia.

Cambodia: $53 per day. Visas cost $20 each at the border. Cambodia is excellent value. $11 a night got us rooms with bathroom, AC, and sat TV in both Siem Riep and Phnom Penn, the two most touristed cities in the country. Markets and restaurants offer cheap food; bus transport and tourist site admissions are pretty reasonable. If we had stayed longer, or ventured out to less touristy places, it probably would have been even cheaper, but even so, Cambodia was one of the cheapest destinations on our trip.

Vietnam: $66 per day. Visas cost $45 each in Phnom Penn, Cambodia. Vietnam's one of those countries that feels more expensive than it is, probably because people are trying to rip you off almost continuously. But we did manage to stay in some pretty nice hotel rooms and eat decent food for not a lot of money. Trains cost more than buses but are much nicer (which isn't the same as saying that they're actually nice!), especially for overnight travel. Halong Bay overnight cruises can be an especially good deal for a decently swanky experience...provided your boat doesn't sink in the night, of course.

Laos: $57 per day. Visas cost $40 each at the border. Laos is pretty poor, so the roads and buses aren't always the nicest, but hotels were quite comfortable, food was inexpensive, activities like kayaking were very reasonable, and prices overall about as cheap as could be.

China: $92 per day. Visas cost $160 each in Vientiane, Laos--the most expensive of our entire trip. (They are about $100 less expensive for non-Americans, though.) Yunnan province, in southwestern China, was incredibly inexpensive; with $10 hotel rooms and cheap bus rides, it cost no more than Laos, where we had just come from. As we moved east and to the bigger cities, things got more expensive, though you could always find cheap and tasty food, even in Beijing. In general, China didn't feel overpriced considering the good quality of rooms, trains, and food that we got, and some tourist attractions, like the Forbidden City, were surprisingly reasonable.

Mongolia: $121 per day. No visas needed for Americans, though most nationalities need one. This number is high because we spent 6 of our 8 days in the country on a private jeep tour of the Gobi. If we'd managed to find a couple of other travelers to share the tour with, costs would have been halved. Otherwise, the country's pretty budget-friendly: In Ulaan Bataar, the capital, a hostel room with breakfast, Internet, and shared bath cost $15; there were expensive restaurants and cheap local-food canteens to choose from; and the 15-hour train from the China border cost around $9 for seats, or $25 for sleeper berths.

So, Asia had a few expensive countries, but was mostly pretty cheap for us. Hope that this post was slightly helpful to you if you're planning to backpack through Asia. If you have any questions, leave a comment and we'll do our best to get back to you!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Porking Up with Eastern European Food

We will now amalgamate foods of our last few countries (Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, and Poland) because, try as we might, we were unable to eat enough foods in the short time we visited to have enough pictures for separate posts. As always, we ate almost as much as is humanly possible to bring you, our loyal readers, the best of foreign foods. Let's see what we ate.

For breakfast in Budapest, we bought a drinkable yogurt and cheesy bread for Tara and pink balls for me. Tara liked the yogurt but thought that the cheesy bread was dry. The pink balls turned out to be these weird iced rum cake things. I didn't hate them as much as most rum cakes, but they were not good. They looked so nice, though.
Budapest has a marzipan museum. I hate marzipan, but it turns out that marzipan is also an excellent building material. Here's Tara wishing that she could eat this 100% marzipan Hungarian princess. Despite my dislike of marzipan, I told them it was okay when they asked to make a marzipan statue of me...
Goulash comes in many forms, but the key ingredients are beef, vegetables, and lots of paprika. As with chili in America, Hungarians take their goulash very seriously and many have closely guarded recipes that they claim are the best. This one seemed basic but good.
Like the rest of Eastern Europe, Hungary loves bacon and bacon-like products. This pork chop with potatoes came topped with a bacon-fat starburst. No idea what it is actually called, but it is just fried bacon fat cut into a fun floral shape. We'll call it a bloomin' bacon. You thought the bloomin' onion was the least healthy dish on the planet, but now the bloomin' bacon is here!
This Hungarian ratatouille with sausage was not very memorable for me (probably because it was Tara's meal). I just asked her and she said it tasted of paprika and was a bit spicy. So, I'm sure that you can just taste it based on that description.
Slovakia has its own version of string cheese, which is made from sheep's milk and is smoked. It is called udene. Because it is cheese, it is gross. However, if I were to eat cheese, smoked cheese that tastes a bit like bacon (supposedly) is the way that I would go.
I don't remember what this fried potato bread is called, but they cover it in garlic, butter, optional cheese (no thanks), and optional sour cream (no thanks, again). It was sort of like fried dough without the sugar. An excellent snack.
Slovakia likes its heavy dumplings, and I like them, too. Here are some served with onions, pork, and some other stuff. Very good. Internet research seems to indicate that it is maybe called strapacky. Good name.
Tara had the cheese version, called bryndzove lausky, which is like a Slovakian mac and cheese. That means it uses sheep cheese and is gross. Tara, however, really liked it. The bacon-like stuff on top looked good to me.
This is called Christmas soup, or kapustnica. It has a whole bunch of ingredients, but the keys are sauerkraut, mushrooms, pork, and whatever else is laying around. Pretty good, but it didn't make me suddenly dream of Christmas.
Slovakia has its own soda, called Kofola, from Communist times when Coke wasn't allowed. It is apparently still far more popular than Coke and Pepsi. A bit like lightly carbonated, anise-flavored root beer, it is a very unique taste. Good, but I don't think that I could drink it all the time.
This delicious potato-batter fried pork was stuffed with butter and bacon. Very healthy and tasty.
Fried cheese cutlets? They have too much cheese in Slovakia. Our friend, Peter, loves these, but with my dislike of cheese and Tara's dislike of stringy, melted cheese, we both took a pass.
Apparently, it is perfectly acceptable in Slovakia to have a "sweet dinner", where you order sweet crepes or some other normally desserty item for dinner. This almost overcomes the love of cheese. Fortunately, I am not easily influenced by cultural pressures, so I happily eat "sweet dinner" often no matter the country.
From a previous trip to Vienna, I remembered having amazing sausages on the street. This bratwurst and currywurst (complete with heaps of curry powder) were indeed great, but they also cost about $4 each, which is pricey.
Peanut butter wafers are a popular snack in Slovakia. Our friends were kind enough to get us some for our long train trip to Vienna. Well, it was an hour, but Tara gets hungry easily.
Vienna has ice cream everywhere. Possibly as much as Rome, and certainly more than anywhere in the US. The most famous is probably Zanoni & Zanoni, pictured below. Very good, though we had some even more delicious cinnamon ice cream while in Bratislava.
Upon our arrival in Poland, we were surprised to find them selling bagel-like breads that looked a lot like Turkish simit. Tara bought a cheesy one while I bought a round thing covered in a sweet-looking icing. Neither was great. Thus ended our experimentation with Polish pastries. Why can't Europeans make good pastries? I suspect it is because they won't take advice from Americans.
While we were walking through the streets of Krakow, they were giving away free energy drinks. I had never tried an energy drink. (I normally have more than enough energy or am asleep. I'm binary that way.) The first sip was good and had a slightly grape soda-like taste. The second drink tasted like grape soda with a bit of pee in it. By the end of the can, it tasted like pee with
some poison added. And it did nothing for my energy levels.

Tara ate this mushroom and barley soup (or maybe some other grain since Tara doesn't really like barley) at a restaurant in Krakow. It was pretty good, but not amazing.We liked this sign for "Jewish Caviar", which is apparently chopped chicken liver. Not sure how that is at all similar to caviar, but it was advertised all over Krakow.
Let the pierogies begin! We tried several types and styles. These giant, buckwheat-filled pierogies were almost like small empanadas. Very different than we expected when ordering, but good.
I got some pork and dumplings that proved even better than the giant empanadas. The dumplings were almost like gnocchi.

We went to a restaurant in Warsaw specializing in pierogies (Zapiecek was the name, I think). We ordered some meat pierogies fried in bacon grease that were amazing, and some more ordinary mushroom ones that were served with butter. If we were to do it again, I think we would have ordered more fried in bacon grease.
This Polish pear yogurt was the last crazy yogurt for Tara for the trip. She thought it was a decent way to end her around-the-world yogurt trial.
The ice cream in Poland (and a few other countries in Eastern Europe) is often served in this fashion. I am a fan of very, very tall ice cream. In Poland, it sometimes tastes like frozen butter frosting from a cake, which is not a bad thing.
Europeans may not understand pastries, but Americans could learn a lot from Europeans when it comes to sausages. Take the lowly hot dog, for instance. This Polish hot dog would surely generate fewer jokes than the standard American hot dogs if this is what was being served on the street in New York.
Well, it appears that this brings us to the end of our final foreign food post. We are happy to have brought you foods from around the world for the last couple of years, and hope to continue to bring you updates from time to time. Thanks for reading!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Four Days, Four Countries: The Race Through Eastern Europe

Some people, when contemplating the final week of a two-year, round-the-world trip, might choose to go somewhere quiet, where they could take a little time to reflect on their travels and relax before rejoining the "real world."

Some people who are not Andy and Tara, of course.

We rolled across the Romania-Hungary border in the middle of the night on May 27, ready to embark on a whirlwind tour of Eastern European cities that would put us in four new countries over the next four days...not to mention empty our money belts of those pesky Euros we'd been carrying around since our early-2010 visit to Spain!

Our first destination was Budapest, capital of Hungary and a beautiful city. It was pretty much flattened in World War II, so most of the sights we saw had been heavily reconstructed, but carefully so as to preserve the historic feel.

When we heard that the main square was called Heroes' Square, we assumed that it was a tribute to resistance fighters fallen in WW2 or something. Wrong! It celebrates 1,000 years of Magyar conquest of Hungarian lands.

Behind Heroes' Square is a lake and a castle. The lake had a fun art exhibition consisting of floating cars and furniture and even a half-submerged house. We think it was installed to encourage people to rent canoes and paddle out to take a closer look.

Budapest is home to the second-largest Jewish synagogue in the world (the largest is in New York). Built in the 1850s, the Dohany Street synagogue is definitely the most ornate synagogue I've ever been to. It turns out that the architect was not Jewish, and that the building has some similarities to churches (like pulpits and an organ). It managed to avoid complete destruction during WW2, in part because the Nazis moved in and made it a local base.

The ark, organ, and Moorish-style dome of the synagogue. A non-Jew is hired to play the organ on the Sabbath.
Let's jump religions now and head over to St. Stephen's Basilica, Budapest's main Roman Catholic church. It houses a relic that may or may not be the 1,000-year-old hand of St. Stephen. The best thing about this relic is that you can put about 1 euro's worth of coins in a box to light up the hand for two minutes. We waited for someone else to do this before taking this picture.
The Hungarian Parliament is one of Europe's largest and prettiest. We heard that the inside is very impressive, too, but tours are really expensive (unless you are an EU citizen, in which case they are free).
The most fun fact about Budapest, in my opinion, is that it actually consists of two cities divided by the Danube river...and the names of those cities are Buda and Pest. The train station, most hotels, and many tourist attractions are in Pest, but the biggest castle and some nice churches are over in Buda, which you can see below.
The Matthias Church in Buda.
Only three hours from Budapest is Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Luckily, our friend Anna and her fiance Peter happen to be living there this year, and invited us to come stay. Our first stop with them was their local market, where we got to try all sorts of Slovakian delicacies, like these giant fried breads, that we'll write about in the next food post.
Here we are with Anna and Pete outside of Bratislava Castle. Andy was in Bratislava a few years ago, when the castle was gray and open to the public. Now it's white and closed for renovations. Like most of the castles in Budapest, the inside is used as a museum when it's open.
It seems that the rest of our Slovakia pictures are of food, which makes sense, since we spent most of our time in Bratislava eating. One day, we would like to go back and see the castle-filled countryside. Meanwhile, it was time to press on to Vienna, Austria, just an hour away by train.

Downtown Vienna is filled with impressively gorgeous old buildings, like the opera house.
Hanging out outside the opera house, and on this music-note-landscaped lawn, and pretty much everywhere else tourists go, are touts dressed like Mozart, trying to sell tickets to overpriced classical music concerts (where the musicians also perform in period dress). Much as Andy and I hate being harassed by touts, you kind of have to love a city where said touts wear wigs and tights and push high culture!
Vienna has an endless number of museums to choose from, but with limited time and budget, we chose the Albertina Palace, which combines art exhibits with 19th-century Habsburg staterooms. The exhibitions included excellent ones on the Blue Rider group (incl. Kandinsky, Klee, and the wonderfully freaky Alfred Kubin) and American pop artist Mel Ramos, and the staterooms looked like a mini-Versailles.
Vienna also has lots of churches to choose from. I forget the name of this one, but you can see we had a beautiful day for wandering.
Vienna's main cathedral, like Budapest's, is St. Stephen's. It may look like just another church from the outside...
...but the inside is psychedellic! (This is not just the effect of the stained glass windows--they're cheating with some colored lights.)
My favorite thing about Austria was all those funny German signs.
Hee hee.

On a less funny note, we grumblingly boarded the overnight train to Krakow, Poland, that night for our most expensive train ride ever. Over $100 per person for sleeping berths in an old, cramped, 6-person compartment. (For comparison, we spent less money on five weeks of train travel around India, including six overnight trips.) Welcome back to Western pricing!

The next morning, determined not to raise our spirits even a little, we headed straight to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps outside of Krakow. Though I have read and watched a fair amount of material about such camps in my lifetime, nothing quite prepares you for actually visiting one. (Possibly disturbing pictures to follow.)

You begin your tour by walking through the main gate to Auschwitz. The German over the gate translates to "work will set you free," which is total crap, since all the Nazis tried to do in this camp was work the prisoners to death, if they didn't just gas them outright upon arrival.
Many of the buildings at Auschwitz have been turned into small museums. Some of the most affecting displays are piles of personal possessions collected by the Nazis from incoming prisoners who were sent to the gas chambers. Piles of eyeglasses and shoes--adults', and heartbreakingly, hundreds of childrens'--are upsetting, but the items that affected me most were the collections of shaving brushes and shoe-polishing tins, because they really show how much many of the prisoners believed, until the last possible moment, that they were merely being resettled and heading for a new life where such everyday items would be needed.
I didn't expect Auschwitz to be so green. It's always harsh winter in all the movies, isn't it? But in springtime, 70 years later, the rows of trees and brick barracks buildings look almost peaceful and pleasant.

Until you take a step inside the gas chambers. They would actually paint these over after every round of gassing so that new prisoners being herded inside wouldn't get freaked out by scratchings and bloodstains from the previous victims.

The crematorium ovens were usually found adjacent to the gas chambers for the speediest disposal of the thousands of bodies. These machine-like aspects of the camps, and the amount of detailed planning the Nazis put into making them efficient, is unbelievably disturbing when you're standing in the middle of it.
Around three kilometers from Auschwitz--which was largely a work camp--is Birkenau, which was much larger and basically designed to kill people as quickly as possible. Special railroad tracks were built to bring cattle cars full of people directly into the camp.
If you've seen movies featuring Auschwitz-Birkenau, you may recognize the train-station layout, which you can see from above from the watchtower, though it was much greener at our visit than I'd ever imagined.
Over 1 million people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 90% of them Jews. Gypsies, Poles, and many others were brutalized and killed there, too. It's a staggering, mind-boggling legacy. I was glad to see so many people visiting and learning about the history on the day we were there. Sadly, as our previous visits to equally horrifying memorials in Rwanda and Cambodia showed, it seems that the world has not quite learned its lesson yet about preventing genocide.

A person could be forgiven for wanting a drink back in Krakow after a day at the camps. If I ever open my own bar, I am totally naming it the Alkohole.
Krakow has a cute old city that largely escaped destruction in World War II. This cathedral towers high above the main square.
Though Krakow's Jewish population is much diminished now, it still has many old synagogues that you can visit. This one has uncovered some very old murals of prayers in Hebrew on the walls.
We treated ourselves to a nice dinner in a froufy dining room off the main square. Krakow is full of tourists, but we were the only diners that night.

The next day, it was off to Warsaw, the capital of Poland and--thanks to it having the cheapest flight route back to New York of any Eastern European city--the last destination of our very long trip. Skies were blue and the sun toasted us as we explored the heavily rebuilt old town (Warsaw was not as lucky as Krakow in WW2).
Pope John Paul II came from Poland and is still extremely popular there, as effigies and pictures in people's windows prove. I thought that this was a statue of him, but actually it's a different Polish Catholic figure, Cardinal Wyszyński, whom many want to see canonized. Bottom line: Catholicism is a big deal in Poland.
Most of the Eastern European cities we visited had cute little street trams, and Warsaw was no exception. We hopped on one once, and it took us so long to figure out what the system was for paying the fare that we reached our stop and got off before we ever paid it. Thanks for the free ride, Warsaw!
Here I am with the Vistula River, which bisects Warsaw. Guess it wasn't cool enough to be on the Danube like Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest, so it had to settle for a river that rhymes with connective tissue disease.

In addition for the awards for "free-est tram ride" and "best pierogi," Warsaw wins the award for "gayest statue we've ever seen in a Catholic church."
Short story: In Europe, hotels are very expensive, so Andy and I had been staying in dorms, where we still often paid $15-$20 each for a bed. The hostel where we stayed in Warsaw was at the top end of this range, but at least our room of six beds seemed clean and orderly when we stopped by in the morning to drop our luggage off. Unfortunately, when we returned in the afternoon, we found the rest of the beds in our room taken by teenagers on a field trip who had spilled soda and chips all over the floor and, despite many signs warning of an over-$100 fee for doing so, were smoking in the room.

Feeling an overwhelming sense of we-are-too-old-to-be-dealing-with-this-s**t, Andy and I marched straight to the front desk and tattled hard on those kids. They got in trouble with their teacher and fined for the smoking, and...we got upgraded to a private room! After weeks of communal living, it was a nice way to spend our final sleep on the road. OK, so we had to check our backs for possibly-homicidal teenagers every time we went down the hall to the bathroom, but other than that, it was a peaceful night.

The next afternoon, we boarded our flight to Reykjavik. Yup, the cheapest route home was via Iceland--sadly, not on a fancy, smorgasbord-serving Scandinavian airline, but on a no-frills, no-food, no-water-even-though-you-had-to-dump-yours-out-at-security airline called Iceland Express.

We only had one hour to make our connection, and were not-so-secretly hoping to miss it and be "forced" to spend a night in Iceland. Unfortunately, about half our flight from Poland was bound for New York, and they held the connecting plane. At least I had time to refill our bottles with pure Icelandic tap water in the snyrtingar before boarding flight #2.

I'm not sure that everyone's luggage made it onto the second flight, but we carried everything on, just like we had on our very first flight ...

(Portrait of two backpacks--Caribbean Airlines flight from New York to Trinidad, June 30, 2009)

(Same two backpacks, 74 countries later--Iceland Express flight Reykjavik to New York, June 1, 2011)
(Huh, I just realized that we were in seat 19 for both of those flights. How weird is that?)

So, amazingly, our backpacks made it all the way around the world...and so did our marriage. Look, still smiling!

We're back in the USA now, but that doesn't mean that we're finished blogging. We've still got some food to bring you, and several financial updates and obsessions posts...and hopefully, at some point, we'll reflect on our travels and bring you some deep thoughts (or at least best-of lists). Plus, we plan to travel around the states some this summer, so we may bust out the camera and work up some posts about the attractions of, say, Minneapolis and Denver, if our adoring fans demand it. So feel free to adore and demand in your comments below!