Tag Archives: Travel Story

Travel Story: When In Doubt, Follow Someone Else!

June 19, 2013

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European trains are tricky.  When you walk into a major train station you’ll likely find 15-20 tracks with trains going every whichaways. If you don’t know exactly what you’re doing, you might as well close your eyes and get on whichever one leaves next.  Either way you’ll likely end up stranded in some random village.  Before the dawn of the internet, massive and complex timetable books were published just to help people know how to get somewhere.  Even that could be an exercise in futility unless you had a master’s degree in map making, and were fluent in German.  These days, the internet makes using trains in Europe significantly easier and it will instantly tell you the best seven ways to get somewhere and how to do it.

Walking into Munchen Hauptbahnhof for the first time, I wasn’t exactly 100% prepared.  My travel buddy Bart and I wanted to jump a train to Fussen for a day trip visit to Neuschwanstein Castle.  I was a little rusty in “Train-ese” and decided I needed to get a second opinion on my route from the information desk.  Along with the correct directions, the young woman helping me also imparted one more golden nugget: “When in doubt, follow the Chinese”.

Getting to Neuschwanstein was easy, and the Castle itself is as much of a fairytale as the pictures make it out to be.  However, getting back to Munich that afternoon became much more challenging.

When my travel buddy Bart and I arrived back in Fussen ready to take a later train to Munich, the train station was plastered with fliers and yellow tape everywhere – the kind you’d expect to see at a crime scene.  Had I been able to read German, it would have told me that the train station was closed for the next three months while construction took place.  Unfortunately, my conversational German only includes “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Thank you”, and the ability to count to three while pointing at something (I never figured to need four of anything at one time).

Because it was later in the day and the rest of our trip’s itinerary hinged on leaving from Munich early the next morning, Bart and I start to freak out a little.  At this point all we know is that the train station looks like someone had just been murdered in there, and there were no Chinese in sight to help us out.  After literally running around the train station several times, we did the only thing you can do when you don’t know what you’re doing: we closed our eyes, climbed aboard the next bus leaving, and after 45 minutes were dumped off and abandoned at a train station in a random village.

Unsure that we had done anything to actually improve our situation, we started looking around.  On track #1 there were three abandoned train cars sitting there.  No locomotive…  No posted schedule.  Only a printed sign on the train car’s entry door that read “Munich”.  So we figured it was best to get in.  Half an hour later we felt the bump of a locomotive attaching itself, followed by the slow but steady movement of our train car heading out.  We weren’t positive that we were headed to Munich at first, but after following the route on paper as we went, we realized we would both make it back in one very relieved piece.  Waiting for us back in Munich?  Chinese tourists.

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Shh… Don’t Tell Anyone

March 27, 2013

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take-shorter-showers

Everybody looks like a complete moron once in a while.  People don’t generally share these stories.  They don’t make you look good.  They’re embarrassing.

But as stories go, they are also the funniest.

A few weeks ago my beautiful fiance and I are at her parent’s house and everyone is getting ready for the day.

As I step into the shower, my foot gives way just a little from leftover conditioner residue on the bottom of tub.  I regain my balance, but as I shift my weight to the other leg, there’s no friction left to hold me.  Have you ever experienced a moment when you realize your center of gravity is no longer held up by the laws of physics?  That brief moment in time – in slow motion – where you’re looking for something… anything… to hold on to but you come up empty handed and there’s only one way to go?  Yea… well, down I went.

While laying in the bottom of the tub, but before I could figure out if I was ok, the previously warm shower somehow transforms into a frigid waterfall piped in directly from the arctic, aimed directly at me.  So, I react the way any reasonable person would in that situation – by screaming… really loudly.

If that was the only thing that happened, it would be bad enough.  But it gets worse….

After hearing the thump immediately followed by really loud screaming, my soon to be father in law rushes into action and busts through the locked bathroom door to come to the rescue.  At this point I realize I’m not hurt and I’ve just managed to turn off the water, but now the only thing separating me laying naked in the tub from my future father in law is a shower curtain.  After a conversation that seemed to last for an eternity, I was able to convince him that I was ok enough to let me continue my shower.

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Travel Story: Losing a staring contest in Beijing

April 2, 2012

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After a few centuries of immigration, it’s easy to overlook the diversity of large US cities.  Everyone has their own heritage and the differences between us blend together in one large melting pot and no one really stands out in a crowd.  However in many other parts of the world, it’s quite the opposite…

It’s not exactly award winning investigative analysis to say that China is largely a homogeneous society.  Let’s face it, when a single fair-skinned, blond-headed, kid from Georgia climbs aboard the Beijing subway late at night long after the other tourists have left, you can’t help but notice one of these things is not like the other.

I received a lot of attention from the other passengers on the train when I first stepped on, but not in a threatening way.  After a minute or two most of them found other things to occupy their minds.  Except for one woman directly across from me.

I didn’t notice her right away, but it’s hard to shake that “someone’s staring at me” feeling after a couple of seconds.  I tried to catch her eye with mine as to acknowledge her and graciously end the uncomfortable interaction, but to no avail.  Little did I know this wasn’t just any stare – it’s the kind you’d give a car accident as you rubberneck by from the passenger seat.  The kind you give animals at the zoo.  Hell, it’s the kind you’d give aliens if they showed up at a bar.  You just can’t help it.  I tried to look back at her for a second or two again before I began to feel uncomfortable and looked away… again.  Why won’t this woman look away?  Has she never seen a white guy before?  Fighting back all cultural norms, I gave in and finally started staring back.  Our eyes locked in, and neither of us budged.

There’s no telling how long our staring contest lasted.  It’s almost as if time stood still, but eventually I broke.  I was no match for her.  A few minutes later my stop arrived, and I wandered off to catch the changing of the guard at Tiananmen Square.  Before I left the train, I noticed that her eyes had wandered off too.  I’ll never know why she was staring at me so intently, but I’ll never forget that woman or that slightly awkward feeling riding through Beijing.

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Travel Story: How not to travel by train to Madrid

January 13, 2012

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I had every intention of arriving in Madrid at a reasonable time, but didn’t think too much of it because things usually have a way of working themselves out – except for when they don’t.

Generally speaking, a train from Barcelona to Madrid takes about four hours, but by following a few easy steps you can easily turn a leisurely afternoon gallivanting through the Spanish countryside into a painful eleven hour ordeal.

Don’t make a seat reservation

You wouldn’t expect to need very many seat reservations while backpacking through Europe with a Eurail pass in January – especially for a train leaving at 2pm.  But you’d be wrong.  In fact the 4pm train was sold out too.  It was only a 6pm train that allowed me to leave Barcelona that night.  After killing four hours, I finally boarded the train, slumped into my seat, and popped in my earphones.

Don’t account for the weather

Two hours into the trip, the train began doing a rather horrible job of what it was designed to do – move.  Even though it felt like I could get out and run faster than I was otherwise moving, I hoped our speed would begin to accelerate at any moment.  Two hours later, after navigating ice on the tracks, we finally get going again, but don’t arrive in Madrid for another two hours.  What was supposed to be a four hour ride, turned into a six hour one.

Don’t have a plan once you arrive at your destination

Since I originally planned on arriving in Madrid around 6pm, I didn’t particularly plan out much.  I assumed I’d just figure it out once I got there.  Stepping off the train into a practically deserted station just before midnight has about as much appeal as you’d expect.  While everyone else hurried off to a waiting cab, the car of a patiently waiting loved one, or the subway, I just walked around aimlessly with my guidebook trying to come up with a game plan.  The only other guy in the station kept following me around trying to talk to me.  I wasn’t sure what he wanted, but I was positive I better come up with something quick.  I couldn’t just start showing up at hotels hoping they would have an extra room, so I found a pay phone and started dialing.

Don’t speak the language

A surprisingly small percentage of people in Spain speak English, and being nearly six years removed from the end of a three year career earning C’s in high school Spanish, I was beginning to get a bit concerned that my current telephonic skills would leave me no choice but to approach the creeper behind me for help.

The strangest thing then started happening.  As I called the first place in my guidebook, I began hearing words that I’d not heard in years – but this time I understood many of them.  While talking to the guy on the other end, I definitely had to ask him to slow down and repeat many things he said, but I understood what he was saying – even though I didn’t exactly understand all of the words he was using.  I even began saying words that if I had to think about it, couldn’t have told you what they meant if my life depended upon it – but they seemed to make sense, and the guy on the other end seemed to understand.  Unfortunately he didn’t have a room available, but the third hotel that I called did.  He gave me directions to the hotel, and I finally headed to the subway.

The guy I talked to on the phone must not have had much faith in me because when I showed up at his door, he had a look of complete shock and confusion that I actually made it.  It was closing in on 1am, but my day was finally complete.

While I would have disagreed at the time, my adventure from Barcelona to Madrid was one of my favorite stories from my European vacation.  The occasions where everything seems to go wrong almost always end up surprising you with things that you’ll never forget.  Cheers!

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