Hostel Survival Guide

I made it 30 days in an Eastern European Hostel and came out grinning like a fool!
Contrary to the psycho thriller “Hostel” and also to some people’s outdated opinion of hostels, they provide an excellent and safe option for those traveling on a budget. As far as accommodation goes, they are miles above camping, crashing in your car, or couch surfing. For those of you who aren’t familiar, couch surfing is an increasingly popular activity worldwide in which friendly locals host travelers on his or her couch or spare space for free. Both host and traveler will find each other on the website: http://www.couchsurfer.com where they can view profiles and reviews and decide if it’s a good match. Many people I met during my stay in Belgrade were avid couch surfers, and most of them had great experiences. From Australia to Bosnia to New York City, locals are opening their homes up for free to a traveler in need of a good nights sleep. Check it out!

For a stay longer than a few nights, hostels provide an excellent option, and can be found at a mere fraction of the price of a hotel or short term apartment. The first step is to do your research. I recommend starting on http://www.hostelworld.com where you can search by city, availability, and price point and you can compare hundreds of hostel reviews in one area. Feel free to contact the managers of a few hostels to bargain or ask specific questions regarding your stay. You should also inquire about the type of currency you will be expected to pay with. I came across an unexpected surprise in Budapest when the hostel owners wanted payment in Euros and I only had Hungarian Currency, USD, or Serbian Dinars, and couldn’t find an open exchange office on Sunday. Luckily at my “home” hostel in Belgrade, the management actually was extremely accommodating and offered for me to pay in American Dollars if it was more convenient.

Older generations of hostels were called “youth hostels”. Most people staying at a modern day hostel are “youthful”; however, you don’t need to be a college student to get a bed there. I saw several people in their 40s and 50s while hostelling in Europe, and no one blinked an eye. For today’s hostel; wifi, coffee and tea, bed linens, towels, a locker, and use of kitchen should be the norm free of charge. Anything less than this and you should shop around a bit more. If you’re lucky you can even find ones with laundry service, though in many countries this is still rare. If you don’t crave privacy, you can get a bed in a dorm style room for $10 or so in most large cities. I was even offered a discounted nights’ stay in Budapest in exchange for a positive review on a hostel website, which I was more than happy to provide. I stayed in a 12 bed dorm in a beautiful old, grand, building. The inside was renovated, clean, and decorated in matching Ikea furniture.

If you plan on staying a bit longer, as I did in my month long stay in Belgrade, you can opt for a private room. For $23 USD per night, I was able to get a clean, private, secure room, with all the amenities I could ask for in a perfect location – the heart of downtown. This is a steal compared to any hotel and was definitely worth it. The upside to staying at a hostel is getting able to meet all the zany folks that waltz through the place, staying a few days before heading off to another corner of the world. Perhaps you’ll meet a group of art students in town for an exhibition, or a young couple backpacking through Europe, or perhaps a group of professionals in town for the weekend from London, or a group of university students from Barcelona. I even met 1 American there, traveling with her friend from Seattle, who was a Balkan History major. Not only will you get to link up with all sorts of international adventure lovers and trade travel stories with free spirits, but you can also take advantage of the locals who work at the hostel. These people are generally well versed in the happenings of the city, and can be your best tour guide, offering suggestions for food, entertainment, and night life, and even pin pointing them all neatly on a local map. As for Belgrade, many expats from the country that now reside abroad were astonished when I informed them that Belgrade is now home to dozens of fantastic hostels in the city center. The city has really opened up recently, hosting young travelers and students from all over the world with top notch hostels and being extremely traveler friendly. So if you have doubts that your destination city won’t offer all of this, take a look first. Hostels are springing up all over the globe even in remote locations. Now this is all well and good, but keep in mind it’s a hostel and not a 1st class hotel, so take heed and follow these simple suggestions for ensuring a good time:

• Bring earplugs and wear them. With tens of young people vacationing in your hostel, you’re bound to hear a few rowdy guests returning home from late night debauchery.
• Bring flip flops for the shower! Roaming around barefoot is unacceptable in these types of public places unless you are fine with bringing home an infection.
• Bring a clock. Many cell phones don’t work internationally, and most hostels don’t have clocks in every room like hotels – so it’s a good idea to bring a small clock or watch to keep track of time.
• Lock up your belongings, even if you feel safe. There’s nothing worse than trusting your dorm mates only to find your camera missing the next day.
• Have realistic expectations based on your city. If you’re staying in a developing country, don’t expect 5 start Western style creature comforts.
• Get to know the others staying there, be open to meeting people and linking up for sightseeing and exploring, it’s a great place to make new friends.
• Please don’t be the ignorant American (Canadian, Foreigner, or whatever), by insisting on speaking English and having an arrogant bad attitude – remember, when traveling abroad, you are a guest in that country. Always be respectful and courteous.
• Befriend the people who work there – they will be your best asset in making the most out of your time there and gaining insight into the place you’re visiting.
• Follow the hostel rules, don’t ever forget your keys and clean up after yourself. After all, it’s not your momma’s house!
• If you store food in the community kitchen, be ready for it to go missing. It’s a “common” kitchen and who knows what hungry roommate might be eyeballing your stash of snacks!
• Overall, have fun, go with the flow, get out of your daily routine, and be social! Meeting people from all around the world is one of the most exciting things about staying in a hostel. It’s a good place to exchange ideas, stories, and cultural differences, and to learn about people from all parts of the globe.

At this point, I’d like to take a moment to give a shout out to the fabulous crews at Captain Hostel: Belgrade, Serbia, and the peeps at Maverick Hostel: Budapest, Hungary. You guys Rock! 🙂

Happy Travels to All!

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Notes on Famous Slavs

Though the history of the Balkans is full of colorful and important figures, a few standouts remain relevant and present in the collective consciousness today. In order to carry on an intelligent conversation with a Serb, you may want to familiarize yourself with a few of these or else risk sounding ignorant. Though volumes have been written about these significant people, I’ll contribute only a small blurb as a jumping off point; you can take it from there. A little homework on these famous individuals will go a long way when conversing with locals.

Nikola Tesla – Scientist, Inventor
Unfortunately, this eccentric genius sometimes is forgotten and seen as the underdog in comparison to his colleague, Thomas Edison. Tesla’s brilliant contributions to science are incredibly noteworthy and include the alternating current, wireless technology, hydroelectric power plants and even the radio among various other advancements in the field. Recently, the Serbs gave a respectful nod to this important figure by renaming their airport the “Belgrade Nikola Tesla” Airport. Belgrade also maintains an excellent Tesla museum complete with interactive electrical experiments, a guided tour in various languages, and a videography of his life.

Nikola Tesla

Vuk Stefanović Karadžić – Linguist
Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic is known as the father of the Serbian Lanuage. His main claim to fame is the standardization of the the Cyrillic Alphabet which is still used today. He also published the 1st Serbian dictionary and is credited with documenting hundreds of folk songs and stories that were previously perserved by oral tradition only.

Vuk Karadzic (knowledgerush.com)

Josip Broz Tito – Revolutionary, Statesman, Dictator
Also known as Marshal Tito or just plain Tito, this former Yugoslavian Communist Dictator was a supreme figure in Yugoslavians lives and held political power from 1943 until his death in 1980. He was a revolutionary, practicing a type of Marxism/Stalinism with emphasis on unifying the ethnic groups within the former Yugoslavia. He was known for his open borders in the country of Yugoslavia and for maintaining relatively friendly relations with the US, Western Europe, and a few 3rd world countries. He achieved worldwide popularity or notoriety depending on your perspective. This excerpt is from New York Times article commenting on his death. “Tito sought to improve life. Unlike others who rose to power on the communist wave after World War II, Tito did not long demand that his people suffer for a distant vision of a better life. After an initial Soviet-influenced bleak period, Tito moved toward radical improvement of life in the country. Yugoslavia gradually became a bright spot amid the general grayness of Eastern Europe.”

Tito & Kennedy

Ivo Andric – Poet, Writer
The name “Ivo Andric” came up several times during my recent month long stay in Belgrade, and each time I was told, “Andric was the only Serb to ever receive the Nobel Prize, you know”. Yes, I do know! Andric was an influential poet and novelist, his most well known book being “The Bridge On the Drina”, a book of historical fiction explaining the complexities of war in the region over a period of several hundred years. This seems to be one of those books that every Serb must read in school, and I’m currently struggling through it myself. Not at all a light read, this novel is incredibly intricate and sheds light on a region that has experienced generation upon generation of suffering.

Ivo Andric

Novak Djokovic – Tennis Champion
Novak Djokovic has emerged recently as one of the top contenders on the tennis scene and is now accepted as the #2 competitor in the world. He boasts 2 grand slam titles and was a bronze medalist at the 2008 Olympic Games along with holding various other titles and championships. Lately he seems to be gaining momentum and his winning streak is a source of national pride for Serbs. Not only is he a stellar athlete, but he also has been named by a French organization as a “Champion for Peace” and seems to really believe in promoting a new positive image of his homeland.

Novak Djokovic

Momo Kapor – Painter, Novelist
Momo Kapor is a very well known Serbian novelist. Though he was a painter by trade, he went on to write dozens of short stories, essays, and novels. His fame allowed his books to be translated into many different languages. One that is quite easy to get a hold of is his delightful collection of essays entitled, “The Guide to the Serbian Mentality”, which illuminates Serbian lifestyle, traditions, culture, food, and society.

Momo Kapor (Vreme)

If you know only what you read here, you’ll still be ahead of many tourists visiting Serbia. Even a basic knowledge of these famous figures will serve to open the conversational door to even more interesting facts, stories, and tidbits about Serbia and the former Yugoslavia during conversation. Use this brief guide as a starting point in discovering the rich tapestry of Slavic artists, writers, politicians, heroes, and visionaries.

Sources:
http://badassoftheweek.com/tesla.html
http://glassrbije.org/E/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=10177&Itemid=29
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vuk_Stefanovi%C4%87_Karad%C5%BEi%C4%87
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josip_Broz_Tito
http://badassoftheweek.com/tesla.html
http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1961/andric-bio.html
http://www.novakdjokovic.rs/index.php?jezik=2

Jet Lag doesn’t have to Suck

There are countless suggestions on how to minimize jet lag, mostly involving tricking your natural rhythm to adjust based on sleeping pills, changing your sleep schedule in advance, and setting your watch pre-travel to mentally adjust. In my humble opinion, the art of avoiding jet lag can be much simpler. For me it was a cinch to adapt to the 9 hour time difference, and after contemplation, I believe it’s not so much an art as it is being lucky enough to be traveling in the right direction of time based on the culture from which you are leaving and entering. Or perhaps, you could just pretend that it doesn’t exist. Here me out:

I flew from Los Angeles to Belgrade, via Munich. So I went from Pacific Time GMT -8, to GMT +1 (Belgrade, Bratislava, Budapest, Ljubljana, and Prague). I left on a 9pm overnight flight (10 hour flight to Munich), and was able to get some sleep since it was my bodies natural night-time. After changing planes in Munich and flying to Belgrade and finally arriving in my hostel, it was around 10PM local time, or 1PM Pacific. Now here’s where the culture part sets in. 10PM in Belgrade is similar to 6pm in the US. Maybe you’re having dinner and thinking about what to do that night. Perhaps you take a shower, call some friends and get ready to go out. Then an hour or so later you go to your first locale for the evening. So when I arrived fresh and rearing to go, I had several hours of energy to get unpacked and settled in before sleeping till noon. I didn’t force myself to go to bed at a reasonable hour; I used my extra energy to my advantage, which was great since I was so excited about exploring and seeing the city. Sleeping till noon on a weekend is not an abnormal thing in Belgrade since many people have been up late the night before. So as my body naturally adjusted, I was wide awake very late at night just as the Belgraders were and therefore able to keep up with their schedule well. I was sleepy in the mornings just as Belgraders were. When I flew back to CA, I was waking up super early in the morning, say around 5-6AM, (which to me felt like a lazy 3PM), and I thrilled! I didn’t fight it, trying to stay in bed a few more hours, I used this time to get up, jump-start my day, and get going! This early start was compatible with “real” life back in the states. There, people are up before dawn hitting the gym for their morning workout, getting fresh coffee and breakfast, reading news online and responding to emails before starting their daily commute to work. I was naturally part of the rhythm of society both when arriving in Belgrade and arriving back in California. I hardly felt jet lag at all!
I think it would have been much worse say if I had gone from Hawaii: GMT -10 (a late night, lazy morning place), to Switzerland: GMT +1 (a busy morning place).

Another tactic I employed in my quest to deny jet lag, was to imagine that during my flight, I went through a wormhole in time, and when I popped out of the wormhole and into a foreign country, I just went with it, not ever thinking about what time it was back home and constantly comparing and monitoring my energy level. Besides going from the right place to the right place based on societies schedules, I suggest taking the obvious advice of trying not to sleep unless its night time wherever you are. And if you must take a sleep aid, I recommend an all natural one like a simple melatonin, its non addictive, available over the counter, and your body naturally produces it anyway.

Happy Travels! 🙂

Apologies, from, Yours Truly, the Comma Freak,

So many of you have probably noticed, grammar is not my forte in any language. I admit, I tend to add a few more commas than are necessary to many of my posts, and for this I apologize! Hopefully none of you are grammar freaks (like an unnnamed teacher at my Serbian school – Sorry! – you know who you are). So I hope I don’t offend anyone by my, excessive, use, of commas. Ok now that was just for show. Luckily I have spell check, but a for some reason, those pesky green lines on grammar check seem to avoid my little problem! Also, most of my posts that I wrote in Belgrade were written furiously in about 5 minutes standing up at my hostel computer between rushing home from school and rushing off to do homework or go exploring. I really didn’t edit them, I just typed like a maniac and hit post, I had more important things to do than waste precious minutes editing! So you’ll have to excuse the errors. From now on, I’ll try to do better.
Thanks for Reading! 🙂

The Serbian Cuisine: Espresso and Cigarettes

Serbian Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

Ask a Serb about typical national cuisine and you will hear endless stories glorifying meat. Cevapcici is probably the most famous dish and consists of seasoned, ground, mixed meat formed into sausage shaped cylinders and grilled. They are usually eaten with onions and or tomatoes. For some reason, the Serbs are completely obsessed with this dish, and I’ll admit it’s decent, but nothing to write home about. It certainly can’t compare to my hometown’s great BBQ. Another specialty is the pleskavica, which is resembles a thin hamburger patty the size of your head served in a fluffy pita like bun. Besides those meat dishes, Serbs love burek, which is a flaky, greasy, pastry served warm and filled with either meat or cheese. Serbian soups are generally blended, salad hardly ever has lettuce, and every meal is served with lots of bread. When people ask me what Serbian food is like, I generally explain that it’s the opposite of California cuisine. California cuisine for those unfamiliar is fresh, light, simply prepared items, focusing on fruits, vegetables, and possibly a very light meat. Serbian cuisine is everything that California cuisine is not. It generally consists of greasy meats and lots of bread and heavy dishes with sauces and cured and pickled things prepared as if they were always coming out of a year-long winter. It was rare to see a fresh vegetable or fruit, and even rarer to not have a bowl of bread with every meal. Want to experience Serbian food but don’t have time for an authentic home cooked meal? Stop by any of the countless fast food shops and you’ll find slices of cold pizza with a dollop of sour cream on top, or perhaps a ham and cheese croissant. So with all these heavy, highly caloric foods everywhere, and hardly any salads or healthy options, it led me to wonder how they all stay fit. Why don’t they balloon into shapeless human orbs, as so many Americans seem to do?
The answer is simple: Espressos and Cigarettes.
You see, the typical Serb doesn’t eat all this unhealthy stuff all day, though they probably dream about it and wish they could. No, restaurants are considered expensive, and probably a rare treat (much like in many parts of the US). So it’s probably foreigners that are frequenting a lot of these places. The typical Serb can be seen having a coffee and cigarette for breakfast, and repeating that meal every few hours or so until its time for going out at night. Then they drink their calories, dance them off, and hop into bed. The next day this pattern will be repeated, and throw in 5 or more miles of walking through the city each day and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a great looking body! So with all this coffee accelerating their metabolism, the cigarettes suppressing their appetites, and the endless hours of walking through the city (walking seems to be the main form of transportation in Belgrade), you end up with relatively fit locals. They do look cool in the cafes. So what’s better, a Serb with a caffeine and nicotine addiction, but who looks great? Or an overweight, non smoker American, that works out incessantly at the gym to help combat a sedentary lifestyle? I’d rather sip my daily espresso and stroll through the city looking chic than to clutch a sweaty water bottle working out like a rat at the gym.
Now I’m not going to go on and on about the Serb’s eating habits without bashing our own. Yes, Americans tend to have a pretty unhealthy relationship with food as well. We binge, diet, eat for comfort, and have absolutely no idea of portion control. We are obsessed with working out at the gym, fad diets, diet pills, and many have eating disorders on one end of the spectrum or the other. And yet, we still have problems with obesity, anorexia, and body image.
Well, we all have our vices, but at least the Serbs look cool while staying fit.

I’d Give You My Kidney!

Google “Kafana” and you’ll find references of ancient Turkish rule, male only bars, and old-fashioned stereotypes of down on their luck drinkers. Those stereotypes couldn’t be farther from the real modern-day Kafana. My experience with one in Belgrade was purely magical. I was drawn in there one quiet weekday night upon seeing 2 girls about my age chatting alone. I eyeballed them for a split second before joining them for a glass of wine and some forced Serbian practice. As soon as I was inside, I was hooked. 4 nights later all the bartenders were my personal friends, and everyone knew my name. I’m not kidding. By the time the weekend rolled around, I invited all my local friends and ended up with a small international posse who loved the place as much as I did from the start. The thing that sets the Kafana apart from a regular bar or nightclub is the music and the atmosphere. The music is the old traditional kind; usually played live, usually with an accordion (Serbs call it a harmonica), and hopefully a guitar, bass or some other instrument. Sometimes the band will sing as well, but even if they don’t the whole crowd will join in and drown out the band anyway. I had been sort of avoiding Kafana’s in favor of regular bars, lounges, and cafes since I didn’t consider myself a fan of traditional Serbian music. I was dead wrong. I wish I had been going to this place since day 1. The average age of the people there was around 30 years old and it was a balanced crowd of guys and girls. Mostly friends, having a good time after a long day, enjoying their company, the music, and a good drink. One man was studying orthodoxy and told me ancient stories of saints. He told me about how Serbs were good people, and if I happened to fall down on the ground in front of him and needed a life saving organ, he would give me his kidney without a second thought. OK, a shocking and humorous analogy, but you get the point, and he was serious. “I Give You My Kidney!” He shouted, through the accordion music and the singing, swaying crowd. “Thats how we are! We are good people!” And I agreed. Another man, upon hearing about my Serbian husband, kissed me on the head gently and said, “You’re husband is lucky man”. Then he proceeded to introduce to me to all his people at the bar as his newest friend, the American learning Serbian in Belgrade, who was married to a Serbian man in California.

Sing to the Music

Though the music was as old as it gets in the Balkans, the young crowd brought life back into the songs. They were singing every word from memory and swaying together like old, old friends. The guy next to me was telling me how his grandfather used to sing this song, and his great-grandfather and great great grandfather knew this song as well. These were the songs that carried the country’s history and the country’s soul with them from generation to generation. The songs somehow survived all the struggle until they ended up in this Kafana, sung by young, vibrant Belgraders who were utterly connected to their past, yet looking forward with an optimism that their ancestors couldn’t have had. The energy of this place captivated me, like many places in Belgrade did, and I instantly felt at home.

The Kafana in Belgrade was a pleasant surprise. It was a goldmine of fun, new friendships waiting to happen, and the perfect window into the Serbian soul, Serbian music, and Serbian society. So if you’re ever in Belgrade, seek out a Kafana and join right into the merriment…. you won’t be a stranger for long, my friend.

The Belgrade Green Market: Serbia’s Microcosm

"Whole Foods Market" has nothing on Belgrade Green Markets. I'd choose these products over theirs any day.

One of the “Must See” items on my list for Belgrade was the ubiquitous Pijaca. The word pijaca has been translated to me as a “green market”, but Americans would refer to it as a farmers market. I’m a big farmers market fan, and Southern California my current home boasts a plethora of farmers markets. With our year-long growing seasons, stable weather, and society that has a thirst for all things “green”, farmers markets are available every day here. Even with this, SoCal has nothing on Belgrade when it comes to farmers markets. On a Belgrade city map, look for the symbol of a scale, and you will see that there are a handful of farmers markets open every day just in the city center alone. These bustling markets are microcosm of Serbian Society, and present a sensory overload for the easily stimulated such as myself. It’s quite fantastic! Go with your eyes open, smell all the aromas, hear all the exchanges, and feel the energy of the locals, doing business at their local pijaca.

Buy if you want, I'll just be here enjoying my morning paper.

For a Belgrader, the pijaca may be just one stop on their list of daily errands, but for an outsider, it’s a peek at Serbian lifestyle. My cousin calls these places “Gypsy Markets”, due to the majority of sellers being Gypsy, though all different types will be selling their goods there. Drop by here early one day and you will see all sorts of Serbs: kids dragged by their parents, hastily buying the family groceries, old retired folks haggling for a better priced cabbage, quirky individuals combing the tables for that unique find, and young people buying pirated DVDs. The market area itself is a maze of tables piled with fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, household items, cleaning supplies, clothing, random odds and ends, and even more tables full of junk. Literally junk. Some of this stuff is crafty, some of it historical, almost of a museum quality antique, but much of it stuff that I would expect to see on the bottom shelf of an old tired thrift store, stuff that no one had bought for years, but the staff had forgotten to throw out. You’ll see plastic parts of old cell phones, tangles of electrical cords with no components attached, broken picture frames and clothing that probably belonged to dead relatives. Old cassette tapes and torn up yellowed books and shoes that should have been retired years ago. More sellers plant themselves firmly in the middle of aisles, setting up shop on a cardboard box with a hand written sign, calling out “Fresh Lavender, Fresh Lavender”, or perhaps, “100 Dinara for packet of new lightbulbs…get it here…get it now”…And by your foot a grey poodle prances by, a baby cries, and money changes hands between the potato man and a beady eyed grandma.

Potato Man

Ahh…the pijaca. How I will miss you here…I will miss the life of the pijaca, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feel of the place. Instead I will shop at sterile grocery stores, where people quietly rush through their lists, refusing to look at each other as they stuff their metals carts full of frozen pizza, expensive sauces, organic imported vegetables, and individual processed snack packages, and wait in line impatiently to run their credit card before speeding off in their luxury car that cost more than most of these people’s homes….
Oh Belgrade, I miss you…