Dancing in Dresden – Germany

,

The three of us looking out over DresdenMe and Irene went to Dresden because of Zhena. I met her three months earlier in Kiev at a Russian speaking club. We had a couple of amazing adventures together, and then we parted after three short days. It wasn’t all bad news. Me and my sister already had our plane tickets to Berlin, and I promised Zhena that we would see her soon.

As the date grew closer I kept in touch with her, exchanging several messages a week on Facebook in Russian. I told her that I had booked a hostel in Dresden, and she expressed surprise. Despite having a small apartment she was expecting us to stay with her. Excited at the prospect, I cancelled the hostel and told my sister about the change in plans.

It was raining when we arrived forty-five minutes late to the Dresden bus station. Seated on the second story I had my eyes glued to the station, feeling anxious that we had kept Zhena waiting for so long with no way to contact her. Stepping off the bus, swinging my bag onto my back, I nearly jogged over to where I had seen Zhena from the bus. She recognized me and we greeted each other with a hug.

“Привет! Как дела мой друг? Hey! How are you my friend?”

“Привет! Все хорошо, прости нас что мы так поздно Hey! Everything is good, sorry that we’re so late”

The conversation continued in Russian as we waited for Sergei to show up on a later bus. My sister stood next to us wet, sullen, and miserable as we spoke in a foreign language that she didn’t understand. The rain continued along with the conversation, and after half an hour we decided to give up and go back to the apartment.

Taking a break from Russian, I said to Irene “come on, let’s go. Zhena said her apartment is only ten minutes away.”

“About time” she replied with justified sarcasm.

The Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous

Zhena’s apartment put to shame everything that I had seen before it. With the help of her three roommates, she had transformed the tiny place into a den that any twenty-something person who drinks would be proud to call home. The walls were covered in posters and notes scribbled in different languages. Pictures from all over Europe gathered around the door frames. A plastic crate filled with pint bottles of beer was tucked against the kitchen door.

“Holy shit” I said as I stepped in “this place is freaking awesome!”

“Wow, this is really cool.” Chimed in Irene.

And it really was. I was impressed not only with the decorating, but with the quality of the place. For about $250 a month, Zhena and her roommates had secured a beautiful, modern apartment just a ten minute walk from one of the main areas in Dresden. In America, I had paid $300 a month for an apartment next door to drug dealers, and of such quality that we deemed it acceptable to shoot hundreds of paintballs inside.

Part of the charm of the Zhena’s place were her fantastic roommates. Victoria from Italy, Kaio from Brazil, and Gerard the German. In anticipation of our arrival, they had cooked a German dinner. After standing in the cold rain it was a treat to eat home cooked food. My grandparents on my Dad’s side left Germany just after World War II, and I considered it an honor to be able to come back to their country and receive such a warm welcome.

Preparing for the Night

The four of us getting wet in DresdenHaving arrived early in the week, we spent the first couple of days exploring the city. With Zhena leading us around, we marched through wet weather to see some of Dresden’s most well known monuments and buildings. Compared to other places in Europe such as Prague, Dresden doesn’t have an abundance of historical sights. They were methodically bombed out of existence during World War II, as detailed in Kurt Vonnegut’s gripping novel: Slaughterhouse-Five. Some buildings did manage to survive though, and what was left was magnificent.

As interesting as it was to walk around downtown, the whole time I had my mind on going out. Germany is renowed for its clubs, and in my opinion the country is currently responsible for the best house DJs in the world. Even though Berlin is the true hotspot, I none the less had high expectations for Dresden.

On our third day in Dresden we started the night with drinking games that had no winners, only losers and the laughing buzzed. Drinking German beer, with friends and neighbors arranged around the table, you could hear four languages at any given time. This Chex Mix of cultures is one of the reasons that I enjoy Europe so much. It’s nothing to have people representing two or three countries, sitting around and getting drunk together. In my experience this doesn’t happen in America. I think that’s unfortunate, as getting to speak to people from different backgrounds is an enlightening experience. Of course, none of this was on my mind as I pried the cap off of my second beer and resumed my seat at the table.

The Party Continues Downtown

Pickled enough to handle public transport, we marched out of the apartment as a group and caught a tram in front of Zhena’s apartment block. Us, a bunch of twenty-something “adults”, plus my nineteen year old sister, free from America’s ridiculous twenty-one year old drinking policy. Being loud and rowdy on the tram, embracing the beautiful night and its possibilities.

Disembarking, we walked right into Zhena’s neighbors, drunk on vodka. They shouted in German from a distance, and then switched to English when they saw that we were in the group.

“Hey guys! How about a shot of vodka, who wants some?” Blank stares and polite refusals from the group. Having lived in Russia for eight months I considered it my duty to take up the slack.

Reaching my hand out, “I’ll take some man.”

Grabbing the bottle around the neck, I took a shot, feeling the clear fiery liquid burn its way down my throat.

“That’s the stuff!” I shouted to no one in particular. The sidewalks and road were held captive by other people our age, streaming towards the clubs and bars. It reminded me of where I went to college, save that everything was much nicer, and everyone was shouting in slurry German instead of drunken English.

Joining the stream, we arrived at the club several minutes after getting off the tram. The unimpressive outside belied the sleek interior. A long bar hugged the back wall, manned by several people dressed in black. To the right was a hall with a scattering of people and a DJ playing house. We started getting into it, putting our drinks on the shelf running along the left side of the hall. The group of us, dancing in the center of the hall while multi-colored lights flickered around the walls, and heavy bass poured from the speakers. I got lost, but before long everyone else was ready for something new.

Picking up our beers, we cut around to the second hall, which was already dominated by people. I was disappointed to hear top forty, something that I was hoping didn’t get played in Germany. Regardless of how I felt, people were into it. The medium sized hall was already two-thirds full, and we had to wade through the crowd to find a place big enough for us to create a circle.

Then we started dancing and we didn’t stop.

The hours fell off the clock, the hall filled to capacity, and still we danced. We had forgotten about alcohol hours ago. After going out to dozens of clubs I’ve found that outside of Russia, alcohol and true dancing rarely go together. In order to keep your buzz you can’t exert yourself. When you dance for hours alcohol quickly fades from the mind’s eye, and the natural buzz you get from having a great time take over. Even though I enjoy drinking, the conflicting experienced of being exhausted and wired is exhilarating. From New York City to Hanoi to Moscow, it’s a state that I enjoy being in.

Midnight came and past, the time for breakfast and coffee grew nearer, and it was time to leave the club. After dancing together for hours a camaraderie had developed. As a group we walked down the street with linked arms. I shouted the few words of German that I had picked up, everyone else spoke in that language that my Grandmother and cousins are fluent in, and I understood a sentence here and there. Like eggnog at Christmas, it was a treat to get to go out with the Germans and dance at the club. Even though we started off the night with unwinnable drinking games, we ended it sober, high on adrenaline and soaked with sweat from the humid club.

The End is a New Beginning

Different kinds of beer in GermanyThat was me and Irene’s last night in Dresden. In the morning we took showers and packed our bags. Sitting in the kitchen, I drank my first Früstücksbier with Zhena, a beer that you have for breakfast. Later in Koh Rong the Früstücksbier would become a regular part of me and Joanna’s ritual. In Dresden it was still novel, and as we walked to the bus stop I enjoyed the pleasant buzz.

After ten minutes of standing in near silence our bus to Prague arrived. Me and Irene said our final goodbyes to Zhena, and I gave her one last hug. Sitting on the second story of the bus, I could see her out the window, well below my seat. Tall and built like a soccer player. Shoulder length dark brown hair, straight and with an attractive luster. Zhena is a wonderful, generous person and we had the time of our life in Dresden because of her. Walking in the rain, cooking in the kitchen, and dancing at the club till morning.

Sadly, life has a way of throwing curveballs where you don’t expect them. Less than a year after we visited Dresden, Gerard, one of Zhena’s roommates, would turn up dead. I know nothing more about it nor do I deserve to. We only knew each other for a few brief days. What’s so disheartening is that like Zhena, he was a great guy. Quiet, thoughtful, very polite with a reserved continence that always led me to believe that he had more on his mind than he was eager to talk about. It makes me sad to think that next time in Dresden I won’t get a chance to catch up with him.

Life is short, sometimes far shorter than we expect. You don’t know how much time you have, and you should take advantage of every day. Travel, do something exciting, go on an adventure. If you’re not sure where to go, start with Germany. It’s a wonderful country with some of the best people I’ve ever met! Throw yourself into the fray, and you’ll be surprised at what happens.

Drinking Jameson on Koh Rong – Cambodia

,

Joanna was the first person to tell me about Koh Rong. We were sitting together on my bed in Dalat, and she was pointing out the best places to visit in Cambodia.

“Siem Reap is ok” she told me “but I didn’t really like Angkor Wat. Everything was old and falling apart, and it was all the same color. I liked Phnom Penh, but the best place in Cambodia is definitely Koh Rong.”

“What’s that?” I asked, curious what the attractive, blonde Dutch girl sitting next to me would say.

“It’s an island just down here. You see it?” Pointing to a small speck on Google Maps, she tried to zoom in on it, giving up several seconds later. “Your laptop sucks” she said without laughing. 

“No, it’s the best laptop in the entire universe, you just don’t know how to use it” I said, defending my $200 investment from an entirely justified comment.

“Here’s Koh Rong, you have to go there. There aren’t any cars, no scooters, nothing. There isn’t even a road.”

Sold, I asked her how to get there.

“You take a ferry from Sihanoukville. You don’t have to book a hostel in advance, you can just show up and find something. When I went there I met a girl on the ferry and she told me about Ty Ty’s hostel. You should go there it’s awesome!”

After knowing Joanna for just an hour or two, I couldn’t have known that three weeks later we would go to Koh Rong together. We began travelling together in Saigon, and it wasn’t long after that we ended up in Sihanoukville. We bought our tickets in the evening, and the next day we boarded the ferry an hour before noon. Beers in hand, ready to leave the mainland behind. Before the breakfast beer dulled the attic, I counted my blessings that I was going to a tropical paradise with a girl who I was wildly attracted to. Sometimes things work out like that, and it’s beautiful when they do.

Stepping Onto the Beach

The beach is the road at Koh Rong. It emerges from the ocean and goes directly up to the steps of every hostel, bungalow, restaurant, and bar on the island. In some places the front door of a building is a mere ten to fifteen feet from the ocean. In other places it’s sixty feet. Nowhere is it farther than Tom Brady can toss a football.

We got off the ferry and stepped onto the dock, ignoring a man loudly bellowing advice about how to survive on the island.

“We don’t need him” Joanna said to me, briskly stepping past the shirtless alcoholic. “I’ve been here before, I know where to go.” So I followed Joanna. I’ve never met anyone in my life who walks as fast as her, and I may not ever meet someone again who does. She turned a three minute walk into a ninety second one, and we quickly arrived at Ty Ty’s. They had a room and we booked it for a week. After dropping our stuff off and stepping back out into the tropical heat, I looked around and shrugged.

“Well, let’s get a beer.”

Joanna smiled “let’s do it” she said.

With that the tempo was set. When in the tropics, drink like a fish. Given the Scrooge pleasing prices of alcohol in Cambodia, this was easy to accomplish. We grabbed a few cans and sat up on the balcony of Ty Ty’s, looking out at the ocean and watching drunk tourists walk below us on the beach. Despite having been in Asia for more than a month, this was only the second time that I felt like I was somewhere truly special. An island with no roads and no police. Cheap alcohol, sand whiter than a Swede at Christmas, the ocean clear as the screen on a brand new phone, and the company of a girl who I loved.

Embracing the Lifestyle

Everything that I learned in college had prepared me for Koh Rong. I knew how to drink, how to make friends, and how to blow off all responsibilities. Most days began with breakfast prepared by the wonderful staff at Ty Ty’s. After that we would lounge around till ten or eleven. By then the boredom would set in and we would start drinking. Sometimes at the hostel, most of the time on the beach.

I had left my laptop charger in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, and I had no way to get any work done. All I had was my cellphone and a weak internet connection. That was enough to send out messages to my clients though, most of which went something like this.

“Sorry, I can’t do any work for the next week or two. I’m in a tropical island in Cambodia and I can’t charge my laptop. As soon as I get back I’ll be available again!”

Luckily they were just as agreeable to this arrangement as I was, and I didn’t lose any work during my tropical vacation from reality.

A picture of three people playing guitar on Koh RongWhat’s interesting about Koh Rong is the effect that it has on people. The locals who live there year round only make up a small percentage of the total population. The rest of the people on the island are tourists. There for a week, two if they’re lucky, and then back to the grind. Even though me and Joanna were by definition tourists, after a few days we had thrown off this label and we began to see ourselves as locals. We made jokes about the obnoxious, drunken behavior of the twenty-something travelers, even though we regularly made fools of ourselves.

Koh Rong has the potential to convince you that you’re special, a world apart from the other riff raff. It’s a unique feeling that I never fully experienced again. I don’t know if it was because I was with Joanna who already knew the island well, or if it was because of our hostel, which blended into the island like a chameleon. Whatever the reason, we carried ourselves with a certain amount of pride, even as we accomplished nothing.

Elevating Our Game

Five days into our tropical escape I made an exciting discovery. Not only is beer cheap, but you could get a liter of Jameson (my favorite liver-buster) for just $18. After convincing myself that this wasn’t some form of fraud, much the way you can buy a Rolex for $50 from the night market, I paid for a bottle in cash and walked out onto the beach.

Jameson Sam

Posting this picture on the internet will probably haunt me one day, but fuck it. It’s so blurry I can at least deny this is me at 10:30 in the morning

The best way to imagine my situation is to picture Jack Sparrow, marooned on that stunning tropical island with the beautiful Elizabeth Swann. Nothing in his hand but a bottle of rum. I walked up and down the beach with my Jameson, the way more sensible people were carrying bottles of water. I’m not particularly proud of the person that I became with that Irish whiskey, but nor would it be right to hide it. I took the bottle with me everywhere, from the beach, into the sparkling ocean, and back to the beach.

The culmination of all my efforts came to me shortly after noon one day. I had been drawing on the Jameson for the better part of two hours, while we sat with a few other guys. One of whom we would meet a month later, 1,400 km away in Pai. Joanna was playing her ukulele, and Eddy was on the guitar. Baked from the sun, I pushed myself to standing position to go for a swim with the Jameson. Standing shakily, I found myself completely unable to walk forward. Instead I ended up staggering ten feet to the left, before collapsing in the sand. Jameson in hand, sand on my cheeks, dignity lost.

After that day I didn’t buy any more liquor. Me and Joanna worked on the beer and enjoyed the water. Right up to the end Koh Rong maintained its magic. I would have been happy there for a month, but my liver and wallet couldn’t stand it any longer. We bought our ferry tickets, paid the last tab at the hostel, and departed the next day. I left with mixed feelings. It saddened me to leave behind an island where I had so much fun, and made such an ass of myself without consequence.

On the other hand, I was ready to see what was next. When you travel a lot you begin to develop an inquisitive spirit. Even though the conditions you’re in may be ideal, you still think about why the next place is going to be awesome. The ferry ride out of Koh Rong was sad, but then again, we had our travel beers to lighten the mood.

Joining the Real World

Back in Sihanoukville me and Joanna visited half a dozen computer shops looking for a charger so that I could restore life to my dead laptop. At the time I had no idea that a hostel in Phnom Penh was holding onto it for me, and I thought my only salvation lay in buying a new one.Joanna on a dirt bike in Cambodia For better or worse, that never came to pass.

All we managed to find was a dirt bike, which brought me just as much joy as any charger could. We rode through the Cambodian countryside, discovering the most pristine beach I’ve ever seen in my life. We stripped down to our underwear and dove into the exotic blue water. All thoughts of Koh Rong and Jameson were washed away, to be tucked away into my long term memory until next time. Someday I hope to go back to that hedonistic island, and resume the suspension of reality.

Arriving in Hanoi – Vietnam

,

I touched down in Hanoi sometime around 11, and it took half an hour to clear customs. After being waved through the gate I found a taxi waiting for me, and I took the half hour ride to downtown Hanoi. I was surprised to arrive at the hostel because the area seemed so quiet. The hostel description said I would be staying downtown in the heat of it all, but the roads were empty.

Grabbing my three day old backpack, I headed inside. The cramped common room was stuffed with scooters and boxes, and I felt like I had made a mistake in coming. I did my best to reserve judgments, handing over my passport in exchange for a room key. Unlike the paltry common area, my room turned out to be large, and decorated with an inviting purple color scheme. I had a king sized bed, air conditioning, a bathroom, and a flat screen TV that mostly showed fuzzy Vietnamese soap operas.

The whole process, from airport to hostel, turned out to be less eventful than I had expected. Dubai, with it’s 90 degree heat, had prepared me for the weather. Coming off the flight and finding a taxi waiting for me had made the journey to a brand new city easier, and the deserted streets had lowered my expectations.

The City Explodes to Life

Riding a Scooter Like a BossThe next morning I woke up to the sounds of horns. I didn’t know what to make of it, last I knew I was in the suburbs where city noises didn’t exist. Nothing could have been farther from the truth, as I discovered when I pulled open the frosted glass pane covering my only window. Outside I saw a stream of scooters flowing past, going around the distant roundabout, the way water goes around a bend in the river.

I quickly dressed, stuffed my wallet into the back pocket of my shorts, and came down the steep narrow staircase. Giving a brief nod to the woman sitting behind the counter, I went onto the street and stood transfixed. I had never seen anything in my life that could prepare me for this. Dozens of rainbow colored scooters driving past every minute. Loud ones, quiet ones, new ones, ancient ones. Some scooters drove past with a single driver, some had four people on them.

It took me a minute to overcome the initial culture shock, and it took me longer than a minute to walk to the end of the block and wait for the crosswalk indicator to turn green. On my first day in Hanoi I still had a lot to learn about crossing the road in Asia. Walking down a street vertical to the one I had just crossed, I soon found out the real meaning of traffic. Where on the other street there had been dozens of scooters zipping past every minute, here there were hundreds. Nor were there any breaks in traffic. I saw the popular Hanoi lake across this seemingly insurmountable street, and I knew that I needed to get across.

How though?

Scooter Traffic on the Streets of HanoiThere were no crosswalks, nor any breaks in the traffic. The scooters came in merciless onslaughts, leaving no room for pedestrians to run across even if they wanted to. I leaned against a tree, equal parts frustrated and amazed, before I began to sense the solution. I started seeing local people wade fearlessly into the river of scooters without batting an eye. When they did this, instead of getting gored by plastic fenders and brake levers, the scooters moved around them the way water in a fast river moves around a large rock.

I needed to see a few people try this before I worked up the courage to do it myself. I’ve been conditioned my whole life to wait for a break in traffic before I ran across the street, and it was terribly difficult to overcome a lifetime of training.

After making a series of half-assed attempts, I decided to take Tyler Durden’s advice, gave up on everything, and pushed my way out into the fray. The scooters parted ways, and with an exhilarating feeling I made it across the street. The experience was burned into my memory, and it’s something that I think I’ll tell my kids about one day. Later on I recorded a video of me crossing that same street at night, and you can watch it here.

Although I now had the skills I needed to cross the street, I was still alone in a foreign country, and I didn’t know anyone on the entire continent. At first this was exciting, and I reveled in the new experience of being completely alone. After a few days I had had enough of the slow days and boring nights, and I knew it was time to make a change.

What’s the Right Decision?

I had been walking around in the crowded nightlife of Hanoi for nearly and hour, and there was only one place left in the city that I still wanted to visit. It was a modern looking club with loud house music leaking onto the street, and I had just walked thirty feet past it.581869_10151545596094131_2135034605_n The rest of the night had held little excitement. After the initial wonder of the crowded streets and jammed bars wore off, I’d decided that tonight wasn’t meant to be and I’d started walking home. The problem I now faced was an intense inner battle between the side of me that loves adventure and new things, and my lethargic brain that wants to sit in an air conditioned room and watch Netflix.

Standing thirty feet past the club I felt lost in turmoil. I knew that if I went back to my room I would regret it almost instantly, but in the moment my feet felt rooted to the ground and I wasn’t prepared to turn around and dive back into the lights and crescendoing music. I took out my phone and looked at it lamely, then put it back into my pocket when it didn’t provide any relief. If something is scary, is that a reason not to do it? I pondered this a moment, thought about the words of Tyler, and then decided that I had little choice. Back to the music, back to the lights, walk back towards the laughter and the singing. If you feel self conscious, that’s nothing a beer can’t take care of.

Going to the Club

The first thing I did was order a beer. A Tiger, the national beer of Vietnam for all I’m concerned. I drank a third of it down before I looked around. The club was conspicuously trendy. It had recently been renovated, and there was a live DJ who looked like he was young enough to still grounded. The lights were flashing the types of colors you tend to see on acid. Walking the length of the bar, selling liquor, were the two most beautiful Vietnamese girls I’ve ever seen. Dragging my eyes off of them, I turned to my left and introduced myself to the only other non-Vietnamese person in the bar. That’s how I met Joe.

He was several inches shorter than my six feet, and had the first traces of wrinkles on his forehead, and around his mouth. On top was a forest of dirty blonde hair that went well with his Aussie accent. Joe gave me a firm handshake and I liked him immediately.

“So what are you doing in Vietnam?” I asked.

“I work in a bank in Saigon and I’m in Hanoi for a week to chill out. Sort of a vacation.”

“That’s cool. How do you know about this club, is it your first time here?”

Joe took a pull of his Marlboro Light before answering with a smile. “Nah it’s not my first time here, I know about this place because I own it.”

“No shit.” I said with a grin. “Cheers!”

Thanks to Joe’s easy generosity, my first drink was the last night drink that I paid for. The night progressed, the rum and cokes went down easy, and my tongue got looser. An hour later if you had stumbled into this bar you would have seen me and Joe, smoking hookah at a table with the two gorgeous girls, surrounded by a sea of young Vietnamese party goers. At the height of relaxation and enjoyment I could do little but thank myself for making the right decision, turning around, and going back into the trenches.

It wasn’t an easy decision in the moment, but it turned out to be the one that set the tune for the entire five month trip to come. When in doubt, don’t let the fear take over. Go back and do what’s right. I thought about this as I schmoozed out of the club, lazily walking the two blocks back to my hostel.

Paying for My Sins

The next two days I spent in bed, my health shattered like a wine glass on tile. The night before was the first time I had drank in two and a half months. My body quickly rebelled, and I had plenty of time to think about Joe’s bar as I lay in my air conditioned room. I certainly didn’t regret the evening, but I did learn that if I’m going to go sober for a while, I should ease back into the hedonism.

A Beautiful Shot of the Ho Chi Minh Temple in VietnamAfter three days I was better, and I felt good enough to get out of the hostel and explore Hanoi. I saw Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the oldest Buddhist temple in Vietnam, and the Vietnam War museum, decorated with all sorts of relics left behind by my countryman.

Hanoi turned out to be a beautiful city and I enjoyed my two weeks there. Later on it would be my tendency to embrace the unknown, and fight against my natural inclination to stay in that would give me some of my best memories from my months in Asia.