I’ve decided to settle down in Bali which is not something I thought I’d ever do. In fact I clearly remember telling family members that Bali is crowded, the traffic is nuts, it’s not at all for me. That was before I discovered surfing. Now that I know this Indonesia island has some of the best waves in the world, well it changes things. Even if you don’t surf it’s worth coming here, but there is a way to do it right so that you get the most out of your trip.

See, the thing with Bali is that there is traffic, trash and tourists, the terrible Ts. But what’s so amazing is that there are also pockets of incredible beauty. There is a hidden beach on the far south end, a “secret” beach that you can find with a quick Google search, which is one of the best if not the best beach I’ve ever been to in my life. And I have dedicated a not insignificant amount of my life to the pursuit of sand and surf.

Bali has some of the coolest houses and apartments you’ll ever find. The best Airbnb I’ve ever been to (I’ve stayed in more than 50) was in Ubud. A studio apartment on the second floor, jutting out into the jungle where I woke up each morning with the sunrise and tropical birds sitting on the railing. Good God! The Balinese have a preternatural ability to create beautiful homes and majestic spaces.

The rice fields, of course, are astounding. Especially when you find the restaurants built into them. This one in Ubud, and this one in Canggu, are two of my favorites. Speaking of rice fields, last time I was in Bali I managed to find a half mile looping path running through one of the largest rice fields I’ve ever seen. No cars, no crazies, just this path through acres of rice fields. Incredible. I’ll keep that place to myself but if you try hard I’m sure you can find it. It’s not so far from that second restaurant I mentioned.

At the beginning of this short post I mentioned that I’d tell you how to get the most out of Bali. Well first off, the farther away you get from Denpasar the better, just as a rule of thumb. But more than that, the key to enjoying Bali is exploration. You have to rent your scooter and go out on an adventure without knowing what you’re looking for. Go down some side roads, follow traffic and see where it takes you, go to Ubud and discover the awesomeness of driving through the vine wrapped tunnel. There are so many beautiful, amazing places in Bali but you’ll never find them if you don’t venture far from your hostel. And if you’re really not into traffic and tourists, try heading to the far south, around Uluwatu. You’ll be close to the beaches and away from most of the bustle. That’s about where I’m staying, maybe I’ll see you there.

This story is part of a collection from my first self-published book, Three Years Abroad. It’s available on Amazon for $8.99 and if you have Prime then the shipping is free. I’d be thrilled if you wanted to pick up a copy. You’ll get this story and others like it, printed up and delivered to your door. Until then, please enjoy the story.

***

Lobitos is a place that you’d never hear about if it wasn’t for surfing. At the northern edge of town is a point break that at least one pundit has called the best surfing in Peru. Under ideal conditions the waves can reach seven feet although commonly they average towards five. The sea is murky, a greenish-brown inshore which lightens to a pleasant blue as the water gets deeper. Occasionally whales surface offshore by the oil derricks which dot the horizon. The town is very remote and I ended up there by accident.

Two months in advance I had reserved a small cabin in Máncora, a chic fishing village on the Peruvian coast. However, four days before my flight my accommodation was canceled. As I’d already bought a plane ticket to this far-flung slice of the globe I had to find somewhere else to stay. The best option was an upstairs room, in Lobitos, with a small balcony and a view to the ocean. Rent was three-hundred a month and the reviews were excellent. I booked it and four days later I was there.

I’d bought beer in town and on my first night I sat on the balcony drinking and eating tuna fish and watching the sun set over the water while surfers rode the last waves and mosquitoes feasted on my legs. The next morning Diego, my host, cornered me.

“What do you do?” He asked. A tall wiry man who smoked Pall Malls and had thick arms and shoulders which I would later come to associate with people who surfed constantly.

“I used to work for a startup in New York but I just quit. Other than that I don’t have a job at the moment.” I was fired with just cause for a gross lack of competence and an overall loose interpretation of what qualified as a working hour. But I didn’t tell people that.

“So what are you doing here?”

“I like the ocean and I wanted to be somewhere close to the beach. I’m also going to write a few things and this seemed like a good place to do it,” I said truthfully.

We were standing outside the small outdoor kitchen which everyone shared. The refrigerators weren’t much colder than a cool day in September and the freezer didn’t freeze as the entire place ran on solar power. The water came from a twenty-five hundred liter tank and was filled up once a month by a large truck. The whole compound could have been sucked into a hurricane and a not a single wire or pipe would have been pulled up from the ground, save for the one that took away the sewage.

Diego nodded. “A writer. We’ve had two writers here. One was a German boy who wrote about surfing. I think he sold many books in Germany.”

“Germans love to travel,” I replied, “they’re crazy. Wherever you go in the world you’ll find a German there.”

Diego chuckled. “Yes, they like to travel. Do you surf?”

“I’ve never tried it.”

“You should man,” Diego said with enthusiasm. “I have a board here you can use, the big yellow one. You should take it out and try to get some waves.”

In my younger and more vulnerable years I’d thought that I might one day learn to surf but that dream had been dormant for half a decade. I replied noncommittally, “I don’t know, maybe.”

“You should try it,” Diego repeated, “it’s a lot of fun. Surfing is the only reason that I built my house here and it’s the only reason anybody comes to Lobitos.”

“Is everyone here to surf?” I asked, gesturing at the other cabins.

“Yeah man, everyone.”

“Shit. Alright, well maybe I’ll try it tomorrow. Thanks Diego.”

“Hey, no problem man.”

After lunch the next day I put on sunscreen and took the board, which was nine feet long and as nimble as a hearse, down to the ocean. My training was sparse, I had none. My thinking was, as in so many endeavors in life, it is best to get involved with the activity immediately. After you’ve grabbed the bull by the horns and gotten the piss kicked out of you, then you can try to figure out how to do it right.

From noon till two I never came close to standing up on the board, let alone riding a wave. I got tossed and rolled and pushed so far off course that three times I had to get out of the water and walk back up the beach to try again. By the end of two hours my throat hurt from the saltwater I’d swallowed, my papery German skin was torched red and my arms felt like they’d been run over by a fat man on a Harley. I sat on the beach and stared at the surfers and dumbly speculated on what allowed them to catch the waves so elegantly while I floundered around like a whale with brain worms.

“Fucking bastards,” I said loud enough for them not to hear. Then I took the board back to the cabin and asked Diego how much it would cost to rent it for a month.

“For every day?” he asked.

“For every day,” I replied.

***

Save for bear wrestling and bull riding, surfing is the only sport where the medium is trying to kill you. For millions of years the ocean has been the spawning ground of hurricanes and the progenitor of tsunamis. The surfer seeks to tame this wily bastard. The closest approximate to riding a board down a wave is the feeling of stepping quickly down a moving walkway where each step is amplified and an external force drives you forward. Some people say that riding a motorcycle is like being on a roller coaster that you can control. That’s fine, but surfing is like standing on a roller coaster that you can control. It’s twice as satisfying and when you crash you don’t break your bones.

The better the surfer, the smaller the board. Large boards are easier to paddle and stand up on however they are ungainly and ugly compared to the small ones. With a small board a surfer can turn fast, jump waves and indelibly prove how cool he, or she, is. Small boards can also be easily carried on motorcycles, in the back of sedans, or on airplanes.

To learn to surf is to learn to read the water, not all waves are created equal. The white froth of a broken wave can be ridden but is inferior and beneath the dignity of anyone save a beginner. Every surfer who wasn’t born yesterday seeks to ride the curl, the unbroken section just on the edge of where the wave crashes into foam. This is the fasted way to travel and on the largest waves in the world surfers can reach speeds in excess of forty miles an hour.

Unlike skiing, surfing’s primary demand is on the arms, shoulders and back. To catch a wave you have to be in the right position in the water and to get there you have to paddle. Sometimes thirty feet, sometimes hundreds of yards. This is a strain on the triceps in particular and they are the first muscles to go. The back also grows weary as paddling requires the surfer to keep his chest elevated off the board. The muscles strengthen in time but nobody can surf forever.

These are the facts that one picks up along the way. Following my first session I surfed twenty-nine days in a row and went from an unbalanced beginner to a man who was widely recognized as a wave rider. In my third week I accomplished my goal of surfing a wave from one side of the beach to the other and by the end of my fourth week I was doing it consistently. I attribute this to the enthusiasm with which I practiced, and how could it be otherwise? Catching waves is an addiction as real as the bottle. Lobitos is the town where I dominated my first wave and Diego is the man who got me started. When circumstances seat you at the table of life the best thing is to call for whiskey and eat heartily, chance opportunities are the banquets that define a man’s story.

***

Like this story? Want to read more like it? My first self-published book, Three Years Abroad, is now available on Amazon. It’s 10 short stories, including this one, about my time abroad, the people I met and the interesting situations I found myself in. It’s only $8.99 and if you have Prime then shipping is free. I’d love it if you want to pick up a copy. All proceeds will fund future adventures in off the map countries.

This story is part of a collection from my first self-published book, Three Years Abroad. It’s available on Amazon for $8.99 and if you have Prime then the shipping is free. I’d be thrilled if you wanted to pick up a copy. You’ll get this story and others like it, printed up and delivered to your door. Until then, please enjoy the story.

***

If you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there,” said The Cheshire Cat. I didn’t know where I was going so I went to Kochi. I stayed a month, it rained every day, then I went to New Delhi because it was cheaper than flying to Mumbai. My motivation in visiting India was two-fold. In the first case I had romantic ideals of the country, mostly from reading Shantaram. I thought that if I went I might meet my own offbeat Indian guide who would show me the real India. I would fall in love with a beautiful woman and when she refused my advances I’d lose myself in a string of opium dens only to be rescued by a charismatic zealot who would give me a horse, a rifle and a reason to live. I would look up to this man as a father, ride with him to Afghanistan and there we would fight a holy war whose origins dated back a thousand years. Or something like that.

Should this fail to materialize I had a secondary motivation. By eighteen I had in mind five things that I’d like to do with my life. By twenty-six I’d done four of the five, the last on that list was a motorcycle trip in India. To finish the list I had to find a bike. It took me two days. A rental shop the size of a bathroom on the second floor of an industrial complex in downtown New Delhi. The man who rented me the bike had a limp handshake and acted as though we’d known each other for years. The papers I signed said that if anything happened I was responsible and the $200 deposit I left supposedly guaranteed that I’d bring it back. Once the paperwork was in order I was given the keys and set loose on the streets of New Delhi. The ability to operate the bike was taken for granted.

By this time I was aware that everything I knew about driving was wrong. In India things are done differently. Most intersections don’t have a stop sign. Each driver approaches the crossroads and attempts to get through it without stopping. The losing driver, stewing in his cowardice, is the one who stops in order to avoid the accident.

Turn signals are optional. Some drivers will use them when they’re attempting a dramatic maneuver, like crossing four lanes of traffic in six seconds, while others never bother with them. You get the feeling that most car owners, were the turn signal stick to fall off, would not have it replaced. In lieu of signals and courtesy the Indian driver applies the horn. This warns other motorists of your presence and the effect is similar to a bat and his echolocation. A driver who fails to signal his presence with a blast of the horn is liable to be driven into.

Naturally the horn system is infallible and accidents happen. Not as many fatal accidents as one would suspect, looking at the exquisite insanity of the Indian road system, but small ones are common. Automobiles graze each other at walking speeds and the drivers don’t even get out to check the damage. It’s common to see cars with hundreds of scratches and gouges at bumper height. Indian drivers seem to be resigned to this, even the most conscientious driver will be the victim of scrape-and-runs if he does anything other than leave his car in the garage. The thought of driving a Rolls Royce through downtown New Delhi inspires the same feeling as hanging the Mona Lisa in a college dorm.

While teenage Sam hadn’t realized that driving in India was the real life equivalent of Grand Theft Auto, twenty-something Sam didn’t think this justified bailing on ambition. However, concessions were made. Instead of going to the Himalayan mountains, I would instead go to Agra, home city of the Taj Mahal and a mere one-hundred and twenty miles from downtown New Delhi. My bike was a Baja Avenger 220, the cruise edition, and my baggage was my backpack with a few days of clothes, two liters of waters, my laptop, crackers, two charged batteries for my phone and an appreciation of the absurd. I was wearing a lambskin jacked I’d bought special for the trip and in the pocket there was my phone, loaded up with Google Maps and Post Malone.

This setup worked well and on the morning of my departure it took me only an hour to reach the outskirts of New Delhi, a barren place overrun with uninhabited fifty-story apartment buildings, power plants and empty stadiums. It was ninety-five degrees and sunny, a beautiful day for riding. I covered thirty miles and as the buildings gave way to fields my confidence grew. The highway was three lanes wide, only a light spattering of traffic and I hit the throttle till I was doing forty. The countryside was a blur, for forty is quite fast in India where a 600cc bike is considered massive, when I drove over a screw.

The rear tire popped and the back of the bike started to flop like a landed fish. This terrifying sensation was so unexpected it took me several seconds to take proper action. Ease on the front brake, hold the handlebars straight, put down my legs to keep the bike balanced. Fifty feet later I was at a dead stop. My heart was working overtime and my body electrified with adrenaline. My hands were shaking, my breathing shallow and I felt lucky to have not left my skin on the road. I shut down the bike, took off my helmet and looked around. What I saw hit me twice as hard as the almost-accident I’d just survived.

The highway was built on an embankment and afforded a view over the surrounding flatland. Down the slope and parallel to the highway ran a dirt road. A dust cloud followed a man sitting on a wooden cart whipping a donkey. In the distance a half dozen farmers worked a pale green field which, to my untrained eye, looked inhospitable to vegetation. Further down the road three kids rode bicycles and shouted in Hindi. Of everything I saw, nothing suggested that the industrial revolution had reached where I was now stranded. Cold fear gripped me and I felt sick to my stomach. That moment, as the gravity of my situation sunk in, was the most alone I’d ever felt in my life.

I called the rental shop and was told to call a different number. I called that number and was given a different number. I called that number and the man said he didn’t know anyone that far out of New Delhi who could help. He kindly reminded me that per our agreement it was my responsibility to deal with burst tires and suggested I try talking to people. I hung up. If I waited by the side of the road I would wait until I died. I wrapped up my headphones, left my backpack by the bike and squeezed under the barbed wire fence. There was a road fifty feet away and I walked towards it. The upside to my situation, I reminded myself, was that most people in India speak English. Occasionally their accents are so fantastic that it’s impossible to understand what they’re saying but at least they can understand you. Down the road I only walked a hundred feet before a man on a motorcycle made eye contact with me and, as I was possibly the first foreigner to ever set foot on that desolate road since the time of Buddha, he stopped his bike to stare at me. I waved him over.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hello. How are you?” He asked.

Overwhelmed and frightened, angry that my bike had failed after only an hour of driving, I replied dishonestly, “I’m fine. How are you?”

“Oh things are going well, very well. Why are you here?”

I pointed at my bike, just visible on the highway above us. “Punctured tire. Do you know where I can get it fixed?”

The man on the motorcycle said something in Hindi to the guy sitting behind him who nodded. He turned back to me. “Yes, OK. Get on.”

“Where, here?” I asked, gesturing at the gas tank.

“No, there,” he replied, pointing at the back. His passenger scooted forward, I got on the last three inches of the bike and the three of us drove down the dirt road, through a dusty field to a small town where the most imposing building was two stories and made of concrete. We stopped to admire a hand-driven water pump.

“The best water in India,” my driver claimed, before we continued.

We passed naked children and dozens of buildings made from straw and mud. The mechanic had a garage at the end of town and didn’t seem surprised to see us. He was working on another motorcycle and shouted at my driver in Hindi who translated for me.

“He will be done soon. We can wait.”

“OK, that’s fine.” I looked around at the village which was really just a row of houses along the main drag. “Do you live here?” I asked.

“I grew up here but I live in New Delhi now. I visiting my parents this weekend.”

“Cool. What do you do in Delhi?”

“I play professional cricket,” he replied.

“Are you good?”

He smiled, “I very good. You come see me to play sometime.”

“Sure, why not,” I said. The situation was so surreal that I would have nodded and agreed if he’d asked me to be the honorary ambassador to Ecuador.

The mechanic finished his work and we drove back to my bike where in twenty minutes he took the back wheel off, pulled the screw out of the tire with pliers, patched the hole in the tube and put the whole thing back together. It cost $8 and although I was sure that I’d been had I gave him $10. I thanked my driver, we took a selfie and then I put on my leather jacket helmet and music and accelerated through the gears feeling very cocky. I’d been put into an unenviable situation, kicked the shit out of it and now I was off again, hardly an hour after I’d come to an unplanned stop. I made it ten miles.

The second time my back tire blew out was so unexpected it hit me like a teenager texting and driving. While I managed to wrestle the bike to the side of the road unharmed I did not escape unscathed, emotionally a toll was collected. For an unknown reason the second blowout sent a wave of terror through my brain where it became lodged. In one second an unbreakable association was formed between motorcycles and death and no amount of further introspection has ever successfully fixed it. And why should it? The connection is logical. It was as though my last five years of riding I had been blissfully ignorant and then after the second blowout I finally woke up to the truth, a motorcycle can kill you. I felt shell shocked and incapable of action. I sat down and looked out at the brown empty fields.

That I was so mentally impaired was not so good. I was still on the side of a highway in rural India, halfway between New Delhi and Agra, and I had nobody to call. I wish I’d never done this, I thought. I would give anything to just be a normal person who wouldn’t even consider doing this type of stupid shit. Why am I fucking like this? When this speculation failed to lead to a solution I decided the only thing to do was get on with it.

My immediate concern was the disturbing déjà vu of finding myself, again, on the side of the highway next to a dirt road without a town in sight. This time, however, there was no man with a donkey or friendly local on a motorcycle. Just empty fields and far off in the distance a row of mud huts. I put my helmet and bag on the bike, slid under the barbed wire fence and walked to the road just as a man was driving past. I waved at him but he shook his head and kept driving. I walked further and came to an underpass where two kids on bikes were talking to a pair of homeless men sitting on a tarp. They were unshaven and passing back and forth a jug.

“Hello,” I said to all four of them as I approached. They stopped talking and stared, they looked at me like I was the Prime Minister of India. What the hell, they must have been wondering, was a white foreigner doing under their bridge? I addressed the two homeless men first as I thought they might speak better English. “I had a tire puncture, is there a mechanic here?”

I might have had better luck speaking Mandarin. I tried a different approach. “Motorcycle, tire puncture.” I spoke slowly and tapped the back tire of one of the boy’s bikes. Both of the boys faces lit up.

“Tire puncture!” They said together, repeating it several times. “Mechanic, yes?”

“Yes,” I nodded. “Where. Is. Town?”

They ignored me and talked quickly in Hindi. The homeless men, who had been silent, joined in the conversation. This lasted thirty seconds then the taller of the two boys spoke. “I go town.”

“Awesome, thanks,” I replied. Selfishly I’d hoped one of them might make that offer, it wasn’t one I was planning to turn down. “I will wait here.”

“What?”

“OK!” I said with a smile and gave a thumbs up sign. He took off towards town. The homeless men cleared a place on their mat and I sat down. The conversation was limited as I didn’t know Hindi and their English was no better but when I took out my phone they were fascinated. They looked at it, pointed and said things I didn’t understand. I held it out but they wouldn’t touch it. The kid sat on his bicycle and gave me candy and used every word of English he knew which was very few.

The boy who’d gone to town came back after twenty minutes sweaty and satisfied and five minutes later the mechanic arrived on a beat up Enfield. In fifteen minutes he replaced the tube instead of patching it and I felt much better about my chances of making it to Agra. I thanked him the way I thought he might like best, with money, then I started the bike and everyone waved as I drove away.

The second blowout hadn’t rattled my nerves it had broken them. I was now jumpy and unhappy. Every few minutes I thought the tire was going to explode so that in the next couple of hours, twenty or thirty times I brought the bike to a stop on the side of the road. Before I could start again I had to slap my helmet like a quarterback psyching himself up for a third and tenth, then scream like a Celtic warrior going into battle. Only then did I get back on the road and rarely for more than a few miles. It took me four hours to drive forty miles.

By the time I reached Agra the sun was low in the sky and a routine three hour trip had taken me nine. I had made it though by God! My phone took me to within a block of my house where I could take a shower, eat dinner then take as much sleep as my body would allow. After one-hundred and twenty miles the last stretch should have been easy, just find the narrow alley marked with the blue sign, drive a hundred feet and shut off the bike because I’d arrived. Instead, I drove into a slum. Pigs rooting in silver-colored sewage that ran in six inch channels in front of the patchwork homes and piles of garbage burning gray sulfur smoke. It had taken only three wrong turns and I was engulfed in a poverty which would make any American trailer park look like a gated Malibu community. How had I angered Krishna enough to deserve this?

I drove in shapes for twenty minutes. When I passed the same noxious pig barn for a third time I was forced to admit I was lost. I shut off the bike and considered giving up on life. Whatever the world was planning to force upon me, it could be no worse than what I’d already done to myself. Laying down to die had its merits but I thought I had at least one more chance. I put the bike on its stand, walked up to a gaggle of kids and asked them how to get out. They laughed at me being there and told me in surprisingly good English to take this left and that right and when I followed their advice I found the main road in three minutes flat. An hour later I was having dinner at a rooftop restaurant watching the sun set over the Taj Mahal.

***

The highway I’d taken to Agra was different than what you’d find in America. Every mile or two was a pile of broken automobile glass, usually on the shoulder, sometimes well into the lane. That cleaning up these piles of glass might be an inexpensive way to improve the safety of their highways has apparently not occurred to anyone in India.

About half of the tolls, for reasons unclear to me, were only for cars. The bikes drove onto the dirt shoulder in order to avoid paying. There was no speed limit and if there were police they never showed any concern about the behavior of motorists. Barbed wire ran the length of the highway, from Agra to Delhi, and its purpose was to keep animals off the highway as well as stop people from using the road without paying. A fallible system, near the end of my drive I’d stopped to help two men pick up a motorcycle and shove it over the fence.

My reason for going to Agra had been to visit the Taj Mahal. On the morning after my trip from hell I walked to the entrance gate and read the sign. A ticket for Indians was 40 Rupees and a ticket for foreigners was 1,000. The thought of submitting to this injustice was inconceivable. On the principle that I had come to dislike India and refused to give them my money, I chose not to pay. Instead I had lunch on top of a tall hotel and enjoyed the Taj remotely.

After lunch I returned to my room and passed the day in a state of anxiety, nervous at having to once again drive the bike. I speculated about the feasibility of paying someone with a truck to drive me and the bike back to New Delhi but I had no way to set this up and I thought it would cost more than I could afford. Abandoning the bike in Agra, taking a bus back to New Delhi and leaving India on the next flight out also appeared as an option, but an unwise one at that. I was going to have to drive back.

The morning of my departure I ate toast with strawberry jam, a banana and black coffee. A fast shower then I sat cross legged on my bed and made a deal with the universe. If you just let me get back to Delhi safe, I promise I will never again rent a motorcycle in a third world country.

When I tried to start the bike the battery was dead. Two men pushed me till the engine turned over and exhaust shot out the back. I thanked them, drove to the gas station and then got onto the highway. I drove for an hour and then violently slammed my feet into the ground to keep from falling over. For those of you counting, it was the third time the rear tire had blown out. My hands were steady my pulse at resting rate. I had expected to be betrayed. At this point cursing the bike would have been like getting angry at a crying baby. My only wish, as I pushed that wretched son of a bitch onto the shoulder, was that soon it would be dismantled by indolent teenagers, melted down and made into a septic tank.

While I had grown accustomed to getting tires fixed in odd places, this time when I looked at the countryside I didn’t see anybody on the dirt roads or in the fields that stretched for acres by the dozen. There was no overpass with men sleeping under it. My best choice was a rest stop two miles away. I put the bike into first gear and it ran perfectly at walking speed while I walked next to it, my right arm stretched across the gas tank to reach the throttle and the flat tire going thwack thwack thwack on the pavement. It was a cloudless ninety-nine degrees and the sweat poured off so it looked like I’d been rained on. When I had just a quarter mile to go I had to stop and rest in the shade, so strong was the feeling that heat stroke was imminent. I rested for ten minutes, almost but for some reason didn’t puke, drank the last of my water then stood up and finished the walk at a brisk pace. Pushing the bike two miles had taken fifty minutes and in that time no person had stopped to see if I needed help.

At the tire repair shop I poured water over myself and lay sprawled on a filthy couch while three incompetent adolescents removed the rear tire and replaced the tube. Without confidence they reassembled the bike by trying parts in one position and then another. When the head mechanic finished he took the bike off its stand and asked me for more money.

“I want 800,” he said.

“We said 600! You agreed to that before,” I replied angrily.

“Yes but there are three of us, we need more money!”

I looked at the three guys. One had done all the work, another had watched and the third had gone to the pharmacy and gotten prescription pills which I doubted he had a prescription for. We were quibbling over $3, more money than the average Indian worker will earn in a day, but it was the principle God dammit! We stared at each other. He won. I handed over the money, walked over to the convenience store and drank a liter of water then got back on the bike which was hotter than a vinyl car seat in August. I felt good about the prospect of making it back. I saw it as highly unlikely that the tire would go flat again. Four tire blowouts in two-hundred and forty miles seemed improbable, even on the glass strewn highway. You chose this shit, nobody forced it on you, I reminded myself as if it made anything better. Then I started the bike and drove fifteen miles an hour until I got to my apartment in New Delhi seven hours later.

I was so dehydrated that I had a freshman’s hangover the next day but it didn’t matter, I had completed a motorcycle trip in India and with mixed feelings I realized that at twenty-six I had now done everything teenage Sam had ever hoped to achieve. A motorcycle trip in India, the final strike on the list that ended my adolescent dreaming.

***

The home I returned to in New Delhi was a single large room that had a balcony and air conditioning. My landlord described the neighborhood as posh although down the road was the burnt shell of a car and past that a public toilet you could smell from thirty feet. Next to the toilet a man sat on the sidewalk with his scissors barber’s chair and a torn robe. He would cut your hair for fifty cents or give you a shave for thirty. Other men had restaurants on the sidewalk and after you finished eating they’d slosh your dishes in tepid water and then somebody else would use them. I ate at such establishments often.

When I took a taxi and we stopped at intersections it was not unusual for beggars to tap on the windows, holding their hands out for money. Some beggars were women or transsexual men, it was difficult to tell which, done up in garish makeup. Others were waifish girls of eight or ten carrying infants on their shoulders. Their faces smeared with dirt, they made scooping motions with their hands that terminated at their mouths. If you gave money they yelled out and other children would come so that two or three sets of hands were reaching through the window and you felt overwhelmed and sad and wanted the light to change so that you could drive away and not have to think about it anymore.

People dumped their rubbish wherever was convenient. A man on the street in front of me was surprised when a bag of garbage landed on his head, a woman from a second story apartment had carelessly dropped it on him. The dropped garbage ended up in piles and the piles ended up in the water. The water in India was, in every case I saw, polluted black as Hitler’s soul. There was trash on the banks, stuck against concrete bulwarks and floating around in eddies. Sometimes I couldn’t smell the water and other times it reeked like capitalism’s hangover. Oily sewage the color of mercury ran in crevices between buildings and drained into rivers and canals.

It wasn’t the first time that I’d visited a poor country, Cambodia especially was polluted dirty and impoverished. However, India threw everything in my face with a previously unknown intensity. On a five minute walk in downtown New Delhi you could pass an outdoor toilet, begging children, piles of trash, a group of men who would unabashedly stare at you, every minute a horn blast so loud you wished you had ear plugs, water so foul it couldn’t technically be called water and then as you were about to walk in your front door some crazed maniac would come within inches of running you over. Also, it was one-hundred and two degrees so that any walk, even down the block to the bakery, meant sweating through your shirt. On this point, however, I reasoned it was still better than dealing with snow.

The highlight was the food which was, almost without exception, delicious. When I arrived in India I had no clue what any of the dishes were. As the menus rarely offered a description I would ask for something not spicy, the waiter would point at a name I didn’t know and I’d order it. If it was good I’d remember what he pointed at. Chicken mughlai, mutton shahi korma and butter chicken were my favorite dishes and I ate them with parotta and raita.

I have a friend, the smartest man I know, who enjoyed his time in India and I asked him why. He said he, “liked that everyone is sharing in the experience with each other.” I thought this a fine way of putting it. India is a tough country that’s ludicrously hot, overcrowded and extremely poor. People struggle daily to eat and the safety net is death. Yet the struggle is shared and anyone can turn his head and see millions of others living no better or worse than himself. It’s the bleeding edge, water splashed over crusty eyes, the illusion shattering truth of what life is like on the precipice.

Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice.

***

Like this story? Want to read more like it? My first self-published book, Three Years Abroad, is now available on Amazon. It’s 10 short stories, including this one, about my time abroad, the people I met and the interesting situations I found myself in. It’s only $8.99 and if you have Prime then shipping is free. I’d love it if you want to pick up a copy. All proceeds will fund future adventures in off the map countries.

Bogota appeared very unusual from the airplane. From the window I saw long stretches of land, flat as a cutting board, permeated here and there by land masses too large to be hills and too small to be mountains. These were extremely unusual in that they broke out of the land abruptly without transition. As large nails pounded through the cutting board. Total flat, then scattershot mountains, a unique combination. I was on the wrong side of the airplane to see most of the city.

When I finally got my Uber my driver yelled at me for waving my phone around and getting into the back seat. “It’s illegal here!” We drove several hundred feet then he made me get into the front seat and promise I wouldn’t hail people with my phone in my hand. I agreed. The roads from the airport to downtown were excellent. In India people honk for no reason, they enjoy the soothing gasp of the horn. In Bogota a bus cut us off and my driver didn’t honk. Surprised, I asked, “Is that illegal?” And pointed to the horn. “No, no, but he saw us anyways.” Lord save me, heaven.

In the morning I walked to the grocery store. Noteworthy, small mountains off to the right. Except for a few bare patches they are covered in trees, thick lush forest. Strange because almost everywhere else the city spreads and dissolves into the country over many miles. Here at least in this particular part of Bogota, there are apartment buildings then nothing, green. An extremely abrupt transition, very unusual. Strikes the senses as wrong, somehow. Can’t look away.

The coffee, sampled from Cafe Colo. Brilliant, a circus on the tongue, flavor for days. Small hints of electricity balanced with a fruity aroma. For the New Yorkers out there, it’s as good as Blue Bottle but a cup costs $1.40 not $32,839. How many bags can fit into my backpack?

In a way I can’t put into words Bogota reminds me of Kiev. Subdued but professional. A current of tension running through the affairs. I’ve been here twelves hours and I like it. With few exceptions the cities that I’ve liked immediately have stayed in my good graces for life and those that have drawn displeasure have never redeemed themselves. Except for maybe Bangkok, which I hated immediately but now feel ambivalent about. My recommendation, come to Bogota. I do not recommend the same for every city I visit.

When I learned Russian I was lucky to live in Moscow and Kiev where I could practice with native speakers. However, I’ve since learned that you don’t have to be in that environment to learn quickly. I’ve been learning German for about 14 months and although I’ve only spent six weeks in Germany, I can already speak it OK. This is my learning strategy and it can easily be applied to any language.

1. Learn the Pronouns 

The first thing I do is learn the pronouns, like I, she, he, they, their, his, hers, it, etc. This takes longer than you might think because you lack an ear for the language and words easily slip out of your memory. Once I’ve got a good grasp on these basics I start with lessons.

2. Skype Lessons 

I find my Skype tutors through a website called Preply. I love Skype lessons because they’re affordable (I pay $13 for an hour long German lesson and I used to pay only $7 for an hour long Russian lesson) and you’re the only student. That means you can dictate the tempo, ask for explanations, and generally learn quicker than you would in a group setting.

3. Take Notes and Translate 

During my Skype lesson I write down every word that I don’t know. After the lesson I’ll go to my dictionary, translate these words, then write them down in my notebook. I also write down examples of the words used in context. When picking a dictionary it’s important to use one that has pronunciations voiced by a human, not a robot. For German I use Linguee, although I don’t know if they have human pronunciations for every language.

4. Put Vocab Words into Anki

After I’ve written down all my vocab words into my notebook I’ll go through them one last time and put every word into an app called Anki. This is a flashcard program so you can go back later and review the words. However, I don’t usually do that. I find that the process of inputting the words is usually enough.

5. Do it Again

I go through a nearly identical process week in and week out. It’s not exactly exciting but I’ve found it to be very effective. Also, an important aspect of my study schedule is that I work with the language every day. Daily study is an effective way to learn and cuts down on the time to fluency.

Travel is one of the coolest things that you can do with your life and I’m thankful for every place that I’ve visited. I talk about this all the time though which is why I should mention a few of the disadvantages. Notably, these downsides are mostly associated with longer 6+ month trips, not two week vacations.

Relationships 

Friendships are like plants, they require water. If you go abroad for a year you might come back and find out that you’ve lost your social circle. A lot will have happened and you’ll be left trying to play catch up. Also, you’ll have less in common with your friends. You spent the last two months in Cambodia driving around a used scooter and getting tan. Your friends have been up to the usual and you’ve missed it.

Also, you might find that you’re not as interested in hanging out with your old friends. You tell them about how cool Spain is, they nod and smile but there’s no spark. You say that you should all buy some plane tickets and go to Colombia for a few weeks in the winter. They look at you like you’re crazy.

Family relationships can also suffer. When you spend a significant amount of time abroad you can fall out of step with what’s happening. Cousins get married, people move, drama ensues, etc. All that happens while you’re listening to techno in Berlin, questioning whether you’ll have any hearing left when you’re 50.

Temporary Friendships 

You’ll meet cool people who believe in adventure, have great spirit and think that Colombia in the winter sounds like a blast. Unfortunately, this person who you have so much in common with is going home in two weeks and they live 4,600 miles from you. You can keep in contact but it’s damn difficult to build a virtual relationship. It’s not impossible, but for any given person the chances that a deep and meaningful relationship form are slim.

Do it While You’re Young

These things happen but screw it. I combat it with a few simple things, like making an active effort to hang out with my friends when I’m home. I stay in contact with my family and keep them in the loop. When I go abroad I always try to visit a few international friends. I’m still an outlier in terms of normal lifestyle, but I make an effort to mitigate that.

All that being said, I think the most important thing to remember is this. If you’re traveling and you find it lonely you can always come home, you’ll have the rest of your life to enjoy long relationships. However, it’s much harder to settle down, create a life and then leave it all behind to travel for a year.

Red Square is a grenade, pushing away Moscow and leaving a crater. There’s a casual disregard for prime real estate. The square is large and inviting, and it’s easy to forget that you’re downtown in a city of twelve million, a pistol shot away from six-lane highways and the most fascinating metro system ever built. The people, the rough stones, the buildings.

The State Historical Museum

The best way to experience it is to walk past the statue of Georgy Zhukov and through the stone arches. Welcome to Red Square! Several football fields in front of you is St. Basil’s. At your back is the bristling, blood-colored State Historical Museum. To the left is the small Kazan Cathedral. Then there’s that building.. You know, the one you’re always hearing about?

Glance to your right, anywhere on your right, and you’ll be looking at the architecturally unknown, but orally famous, Kremlin. You won’t be able to see inside though, a high wall obstructs inspection. But you’ll know it’s back there. You’ll know that several hundred feet away men are drafting plans that will affect your children, and have made decisions that affected your life, and your parents as well. You’ll never know everything that’s gone on behind the burnt-red exterior, the truth is stranger than fiction.

St. Basil’s Cathedral

Returning to your walk you’ll hear cameras and foreign languages, but with so much space you won’t feel boxed in. Walk for thirty seconds, look left and you’ll be staring at the GUM Shopping Mall. A conspicuous sign of capitalism, it’s blind windows stare at the Kremlin’s ballrooms where Stalin and Lenin grew communism. On the right you can still see the embalmed corpse of Lenin, if you don’t mind waiting in line.

Walking the length of Red Square takes several minutes. However, you’ll probably stop multiple times along the way. It’s not uncommon to spend fifteen minutes in the square before you reach the exit: a graded slope five tanks wide. Descend, with St. Basil’s on your left, and you’ll be back in Moscow. Chaos compliments of battered buses and wealthy men driving modern Mercedes. Back at it, пробка и людей. But Red Square, as always, remains.

My last Uber Chauffeur drove a black Corolla and was worth $10,000,000. He called himself Schlomo, a Jewish name that sounds out of place in South Florida. I didn’t bring it up, but the conversation came around.

Are you Jewish?” He asked me halfway through the ride.

Nope”. 

Not everyone can be perfect” He replied, smiling at me in the rear-view mirror.

This came up after I asked Schlomo how old he was when he moved to Venezuela. So far we had talked about the history of Venezuela, the daily corruption, his son’s successful career on Wall Street, and the advantages of living in a tropical climate. I rarely seek conversation with my Uber drivers, but this time I wanted to know more. Schlomo seemed to be in good spirits for a man who lost his life’s work six months ago.

A Fallen Country

People wait hours in line to get food and basic supplies

Venezuela is one of the most violent countries in the world at the moment. 2015 saw an estimated 27, 875 murders. That’s 76 homicides every day in a country one-tenth the size of America. Most go unsolved.  People wait hours for toilet paper, eggs and bread. Inflation is so rampant that it’s impossible to exchange the Bolivar for dollars. The inflation rate in 2015 was 180%, crippling buying power and forcing people to shop on the black market. Schlomo brought this to life for me by giving a first hand recollection of how Venezuela’s out of control government has affected him.

I know Venezuela like the back of my hand. I’ve flown all over, all four corners. It’s a beautiful country and I loved living there. 30 years ago I began my company and today, if I could sell it in dollars, it would be worth $10,000,000. I had hundreds of employees, it’s a big business! I owned apartments, restaurants and property. That’s all gone. I left it in Venezuela.” 

I ask: “If there is a change in government is there any chance you could get everything back?” 

“Maybe. But there will be no change in government. Venezuela is corrupt and will not change. That’s why I’m here in America now. I couldn’t stay in Venezuela any longer. They nationalized my company, they took away everything. I had nothing left to stay for.” 

This is life in Venezuela, and if you fight you can be imprisoned or killed. That’s happening today, in a country three hours from Miami. Nor is Schlomo the only affected Venezuelan that I know. Beatrice, the wife of my friend in South Florida, had her family’s chocolate plantation nationalized. Her family lost everything in the name of an ideal that has probably never existed anywhere but paper. It’s a terrible waste and a scarily accurate example of the world that Ayn Rand created in Atlas ShruggedSo while the chances of positive change in Venezuela are slim, the chances are much higher that Schlomo will remain the wealthiest Uber Chauffeur I’ll ever shake hands with.

1. New York City

Beauty at its peak

A survey of Americans asked which city they would most like to live in or around. New York was number 1. The same survey asked which city would be the worst to live in or around. New York was number 1. If you like cities, you love New York. If you don’t like cities, it’s the bottom rung of hell. What sets New York apart from other places I’ve visited is the density. There’s more interesting shit in one block of downtown Manhattan than there is in my entire home town.

Not to mention the skyline. It’s fantastic, especially as seen from Williamsburg or Hoboken.

The public transit system runs 24 hours and it’s significantly cheaper than most other major cities. New York is also one of the most diverse places on the planet. If you speak a language, you’ll find someone in New York to speak it with. If you love to travel, you can live in New York and feel like you’re travelling because people come to you.

The rent may be exorbitant, but the benefits heavily outweigh the costs. There’s a level of vitality in New York that is not to be taken for granted.

2. South Beach

SoBe has one of the best beaches you can hope to find

I like Miami, I love South Beach. The shoreline is beautiful, Italian super cars disrupt the peace, and there’s a fantastic Spanish influence. I thrive in diverse places and South Beach is a meeting spot for people from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Cuba, and more. To a lesser extent you also meet people from Asia and Europe. SoBe is not a well-guarded secret.

While some aspects of South Beach are heavily commercialized (the hotels and shops selling glamorous crap), much of it still retains an authentic South Florida feeling. There are hotels and bars that look like they came out of a Scarface set. Ocean Dr. and the park that runs along the beach is pristine. So long as there isn’t a hurricane, the weather is ideal. I would be happy to spend several years here, learn Spanish, and build a nice life for myself.

3. Berlin 

Berlin is a beautiful blend of old and new

The city is modern, but you frequently encounter historical reminders. Bombed churches, holocaust memorials, and the famous Brandenburg Gate. The metro is affordable (or free if you’re a delinquent American named Sam) and will take you anywhere you need to go. That’s helpful when you need to get to the club, which is a smart move because the club scene is second to none. Berlin has the best techno in the world and you can experience it in a wide range of fascinating spaces.

Not only is the city a wonderful place to exist, but I’ve consistently found Germans to be the most enjoyable people to spend time with. They’re fun, they love to travel, and they make great friends. I get a kick out of Berlin and I warmly look forward to spending many more months there, perfecting my German and listening to techno.

Honorable Mentions

Best cheap place – Kiev

Best beach – Koh Pha-Ngan

Best place to avoid at all costs – Bangkok

Best food – Dubai

Best insanely expensive place – Copenhagen

Costa Rica is a country rich with bio-diversity, flora, fauna, views that take your breath away, dazzling beaches and much more.  After all the name Costa Rica translates to rich coast, the truth is Christopher Columbus gave the name thinking the land was rich in precious metals, nowadays the land doesn’t produce many precious metals but does produce a lot of good times.

better-view-of-jacoThe most popular saying that you need to know when visiting the country is “Pura Vida” The saying is used for just about anything but translates to pure life which basically sums up life in Costa Rica.  For several years Costa Rica has made the number one spot to take the reins as the happiest country in the world.  There is something that is a little different about Costa Rica, it almost feels like you are on a different planet where time doesn’t exist and the people are care free, what a beautiful life.

So what else is so great about the land of pura vida?

Clean Energy

The country has an outstanding record for running on renewable sources of clean energy.  Between June and August of 2016, for 76 days Costa Rica was running 100% on renewable energy and they aren’t far from being completely self-sufficient with renewable energy, a goal that is within sight for the country that does so much for the environment.

Good Vibes

manuel-antonio-monkeyWhether you are chilling on the Caribbean side with the Rasta’s or on the Pacific side you will feel very welcome.  The locals are extremely friendly and will always greet you with that popular saying, pura vida.  Also there is a big community of expats from around the world so not only will you have fellow travelers to compare stories with but you will have expats that know the land like experts, and can point you in the right direction to the best secret spots.

Exactly what you’re looking for

The climate has drastic differences from region to region, if you’re looking to relax on the beach in the sweltering sun you will have plenty of options to choose from including white sand, black sand and brown sand, the beaches in Costa Rica are nothing short of spectacular.  For some people the humidity and sun is a little much at the beach, those people don’t need to fret because the mountainous areas in Costa Rica are known to have the best and most moderate climates in the world.  The views from the mountains are like something from a story tail, it’s a magical sight to sit on top of a mountain taking in the scenery.  No matter where you are, at the beach or in the mountains the great thing is that nothing is far away, the cool mountain climate and the sizzling beaches are only separated by a short 30 minute to an hour and a half drive.  If you’re looking for snow, this paradise even has the cold stuff at times, the highest peak, Mount Chirripo will give you chills to the bone when climbing up to the top at 12,533 feet.

All the Activities

The variety of activities and tours has something to offer anyone from grandma to the grand kids.  For the older generation this is a bird watchers dream and don’t forget about all the other wildlife you will see like monkeys, sloths, Ocelots, frogs, crocodiles and more.  There are tons of guided tours that will have you in the care of experts showing you all the little things that your eyes will have a hard time catching.  The country is also perfect for the adventure seekers looking to get the adrenaline flowing and the heart racing.  Many people don’t know it but zip lining was actually invented in Costa Rica when biologists used cables to explore deep forests that had never been reached before.  With that being said there are bountiful zip line tours along with other tours like ATV adventures, kayaking, waterfall tours, rafting and much more.  For the guys trip the deep sea fishing is amazing and you guys can play a game of golf next to the ocean.  The surfing in Costa Rica is world famous and the country hosts several professional tournaments every year.  The movie endless summer released in 1966 is what put Costa Rica on the map for surfing.

The Food

Oh my god! Will be the words coming from your mouth when you bite in to a piece of pineapple, watermelon or one of the other exotic fruits that you won’t find at home such as Starfruit, Lulu, Passion Fruit or Cas just to name a few.  It’s the fact that everything is so fresh that makes the difference in flavor, when a meal is cooked with fresh ingredients it makes all the difference in the world.  Come try for yourself everything that this spectacular country has to offer.

Ross is an expat traveler from the USA who has settled in Singapore, Costa Rica and other countries.  Currently his website Vacation Rentals Costa Rica, LLC helps people when on vacation in Costa Rica. 

I decided to take the train into Hungary because to hell with flying. I’m disgusted with standing in long security lines, stripping the belt and shoes, then getting molested by some tattooed guy who thought that eleventh grade was “really hard”. All of that and the reward is getting corrective knee surgery from the seat while a the budget airline stewardess offers to sell me a can of Coke for $6. Thanks, I’m not thirsty.

So I stayed at Watergate in Berlin till 6am, got my bags, took the Metro to the station, and got on the 9am train to Budapest. I would arrive eleven and a half hours later, well past sunset and starving. Getting off the train and walking through the station I was struck by its opulence and size. Admittedly I’ve been to fewer train stations than airports, but I’ve never seen one larger than Budapest’s Keleti station.

Stepping Into the City

Before arriving, the only thing that I knew about Hungary is that they had an influx of immigrants. Hungary is one of the first EU countries that immigrants encounter after leaving Turkey, and there are some thought provoking pictures of the result. However, by the time I arrived on the second to last day of September in 2016, the country had returned to normal.

I didn’t have a strong initial reaction to Budapest the way I did to Kiev (Love it, wish I had more than three days), London (can I afford to spend a whole summer here?) or Bangkok (Help, get me the hell out of here!). Budapest seemed sort of like Krakow, sort of like Prague, sort of like some city that you might find in Ohio that starts with the letter C. The buses are neither old nor new, the streets are well paved but there are few bike lanes, and the civilian traffic lights will nearly get you killed.

Hungarian Parliament building

The Hungarian Parliament Building.

I had a 20 minute walk from the train station to my hostel and I took advantage of that. Walking through Budapest at night felt nice enough and I appreciated the laidback vibe and lack strangers offering to sell me drugs; a serious annoyance in Berlin. As a side tangent, don’t buy drugs from street lurkers. All health and moral points aside, I came out of the club one morning and saw a guy pouring powdered sugar into a drug baggie. We made eye contact, and then he tried to sell me the bag of “drugs”. Seriously. Anyone who is this unintelligent is as likely to buy rat poison to fill up the bags as powdered sugar. Don’t risk it.

Back in Budapest, halfway to my hostel, I found a small square with several dozen immigrants, the first signs I had seen of the influx of Syrian refugees. However, it was less than fifty people, hardly a drop in the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled towns like Aleppo and Damascus. Maybe the refugees have been dispersed throughout Europe, or they’re concentrated in different areas in Budapest, but on my 2km walk from the train to the hostel I saw scant evidence of the crisis that was making the news last year.

Touring Budapest

The next day I left my two backpacks (my entire life for more than a year) and started a self-guided walking tour of Budapest. Unlike people who go on guided walking tours, I get to see more and stay longer at the places that interest me. Also unlike the people who go on walking tours, a majority of the time I have no fucking idea what I’m looking at. This can be seen in my firm belief that that Hungarian Parliament Building was actually a church.

A bridge in Budapest

Getting a good view of this bridge requires a hell of a climb.

The next thing I wanted to see was Liberty Statue, which is also on top of a large hill. The mistake is in thinking that once you’ve climbed the hill to Budapest Castle you’re done. This is not the case. To get to Liberty Statue I walked back down to water level, to this ornate bridge, and then started climbing. With the occasional rest and picture break, it took fifteen minutes to reach the top. I was sweaty but the view was worth it. Budapest was sprawled out below and Liberty Statue was connected to the sky above. I sat for a while, took some pictures and then started back down the hill. It was close to 4 and Kenny was already on the way to Budapest to pick me up.

Discovering Papa

I have more in common with Kenny than any other person I’ve ever met. We both come from one-stoplight-towns 15 miles apart, we both went to the same college and had the same Russian teacher, we both lived in Moscow and speak fluent Russian. We both love to travel, we’ve visited about the same number of countries, and we both foresee a not-so-unlikely future where we end up living in Europe. It’s like meeting a carbon copy of yourself, and naturally we have a blast together. Kenny stayed with me in New York for a few days, and now it was time for me to return the favor.

He got to my hostel around 5 and we shook hands. Then we bought some snacks, the bags got loaded, sunglasses donned, and we drove out of Budapest to the setting sun. Kenny drifted into the position of English teacher in the rural town of Papa and that’s where we were headed. Along the way it was interesting to see that with the fields and rolling hills, the countryside of Hungary could have been easily mistaken for Western New York where we grew up.

kenny-with-champagne

$2 for a bottle of champagne, it’s a good thing.

Arriving safely in Papa, we visited the local supermarket and spent $20 on booze for the weekend, including this surprisingly adequate $2 bottle of champagne. Then we drove back home, turned the couch into a bed, and popped the cork on the champagne. In the morning Kenny woke me up at noon and I scolded him for the early alarm.

Several hours and cups of coffee later we climbed the bell tower for a scenic view of the town. Then we toured the Esterházy family palace which was impressive. It’s the type of thing I would be unlikely to do alone, but was enjoyable to do with Kenny and his Hungarian friend. I admit it’s interesting to see the rich history of European towns, and to think that my own country’s most famous buildings are merely children compared to some of the structures in Europe.

Later, Kenny’s friend bought Unicum, the national liquor of Hungary, and we toasted to the final night together in Hungary. The next morning I said goodbye to Kenny, both knowing that we’ll see each other again. Then the smallest train I’ve ever seen in my life pulled into the station, I claimed a seat and was back in Budapest several hours later.

The Drinking Culture

Unless Kenny had told me, I wouldn’t have guessed that Hungary has a large “drinking culture”. Places like Russia, Ireland, and Ukraine are well known for their alcoholic tendencies. In a place like Germany, where you can drink on the street, there’s evidence all around of alcohol consumption and it’s hard to imagine the nation as one that admires sobriety over a good night of fun. But the intoxicating fact is that Hungary ranks right up near the top for per-person alcohol consumption. Depending on whether you want to believe this source, or this one, Hungary is either the 10th highest consumer of alcohol, just ahead of Russia. Or the 8th highest consumer, 4 places below Russia.

It may be tempting to blame this on the bargain-bucket priced alcohol, but that doesn’t tell the whole truth. A salary of $800 a month is considered high. So while alcohol is cheap, relative to an average salary it’s still a decent chunk of change.

What causes the drinking culture then? I think one of Kenny’s students put it well when he said “There’s nothing here for us. We all just want to graduate and move somewhere else.” Often in countries where this is the sentiment you’ll find excessive alcohol consumption. Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, and so on. There are plenty of people who would trade all the beer and and vodka in the world for an American, Australia, English, or Canadian passport.

Should we make it easier for people who want to emigrate to do so? Currently the opinion seems to be that we shouldn’t. I’m not sure whether that’s the correct decision or not, as there are so many factors to weigh. But I think it’s worth remembering that the people who have the audacity to leave their country and go struggle to establish themselves in a brand new culture, tend to be hardworking, courageous, and success orientated.

The Standard of Living

Papa is old and beautiful.

Papa is old and beautiful.

Despite the drinking statistics, as far as I can tell people in Hungary have a good standard of living. Most of the trains are modern, the roads are well paved, and the cars are on average much nicer than what you can expect to find in Ukraine or Russia. People also live in nice houses and apartments. You won’t find the behemoth, Soviet Style apartment buildings anywhere in Hungary the way you will in Kiev or Moscow. People are also more friendly and say hi to one another on the street, something that happens only infrequently in the aforementioned countries.

So all in all I enjoyed my time in Hungary. Papa, while not a sprawling metropolis, has a rich history and wonderful old buildings. Budapest is beautiful and affordable, which aren’t two adjectives that always go together. Would I come back? I don’t think so, as there are other places that I still have to cross off my list. Would I tell my friends to come? Yes and no. If you’ve already visited some well known cities like Prague, Berlin, Venice, London, Kiev, Moscow, Madrid, France or Krakow, and you’re looking for something a bit different, Budapest may be just the ticket! But if it’s your first foray into Europe, maybe you should check out some of the big names first, and then come to Budapest. The city has been here for hundreds of years and it’s not going anywhere soon.

After visiting more than a dozen countries I’ve come up with a list of my favorite cities. New York, Miami, Kiev, Berlin, and Hanoi. I’d be happy to spend a good chunk of my life in any one of them. I’ve written about first impressions from Hanoi and Kiev, and New York and Miami require no explanation. So what’s up with Berlin, why does it make the list?

Use Less, Waste Less

As global warming threatens our planet, I like that Berliners use less energy. There are bike paths everywhere and people take advantage. The cars are smaller and plenty of folks drive motorcycles. When you go to the grocery store you have to pay for a bag, you don’t automatically get given seven of them for five items. People don’t have dryers, they hang their clothes out.

I realize these things exist in many European countries, and I wish that I could say they do in America as well. But they don’t. We drive large cars, dry our clothes in the summertime, and get our gallons of milk double bagged. So much energy wasted, so many plastic bags floating around getting stuck in trees.

Live Where You Want To

There are great neighborhoods in Berlin where young people can afford to live. Vibrant places with young couples, college kids and so much happening. I imagine places in New York like Chelsea and Soho used to be like this, until it got to the point where a studio costs $3,500 a month. Not so in Berlin! Regular people can afford to live in nice areas that are pulsing with energy. My favorite spot is Kreuzberg and I can get a studio there for less than $1,000 a month!

In general Berlin is easy on the wallet. Public transportation is affordable and it works good. Food is cheap and you can have a night out at the bar or club without taking out a second mortgage. Which leads me to the next point.

Go Out for the Whole Night

This is what it looks like when you leave Magdalena at 7am

This is what it looks like when you leave Magdalena at 7am

I already wrote a post dedicated to Berlin’s phenomenal night clubs. Now, several weeks later, I’ve gotten to go to a few more spots and I’m even more impressed. When an American thinks of a club he probably pictures lots of flashy lights, celebrities, bottle service, and some form of music. Berlin clubs turn that idea on its head. They’re often grungy and exist in old buildings, like power stations, old factories, or random spaces not designed for bass and beer. The result is a fantastic space which is exciting and chaotic.

Chalet has an outdoor garden with a koi pond and a small bonfire. Magdalena has an outdoor area large enough to fit several hundred people. Tresor is large enough to be a basketball stadium from the outside. Although admittedly, inside it’s slightly smaller. Also, the party doesn’t stop. Rare is the club that closes before sunrise, and rarer still is to find a place that doesn’t have inspired music.

Meet Some Amazing People

The River Spree Sunrise

Sunrise over the River Spree, as seen from Watergate

When travelling I frequently find Germans to be coolest people. They’re often respectful of the local culture, fun to hang out with, and they like to drink beer. It’s all you can ask for when you’re in Thailand and your greatest responsibility for the day is deciding what to eat for dinner.

In Berlin I’ve made some great friends who are a pleasure to spend time with. We’ve gone out to clubs, thrown impromptu parties in Doner-Kebab restaurants, and discussed the differences between American and German culture. I also get along with Germans especially well because they like to travel. When meeting someone we’ve often been to at least one of the same places and we have something to talk about. Further, I relish the fact that I know my German friends may actually visit me, whether I’m in New York or anywhere else, because they realize that any excuse for travel is a good one.

Study a Nifty Language

Learning German is like driving a tank through a field of daises. Learning Russian is like being a daisy while a tank is driving over you. While German isn’t the easiest language for an English speaker, it’s way easier than the the lobotomy inducing task of studying of Russian. German and English make sense together, like two friends from different neighborhoods who bond over shared interests. I don’t know how long it will take me to learn German, but with two or three Skype lessons a week I expect I’ll be able to hold a decent conversation within six months.

This will prove useful when travelling. Even though every German I meet abroad speaks fluent English, it’s always nice to surprise someone by saying something zany like Du bist ein Spast!

Realize the Goal

I rarely know where I’m going to be in three months, let alone a few years, but I would like to set the goal of coming back to Berlin and staying for a summer. I could perfect my German, make awesome friends, and spend time in a country that suits me. Or if that falls through, I’d love to go on a huge Eurotour with my German friend Michael.

Forgetting everything else, I know of at least one reason that I’ll be back to Berlin. Berghain, one of the greatest techno clubs in the world, denied me entrance more than half a dozen times during my month long stay. Until I find a way to visit Berlin’s Church of Techno, there’s no telling how many times I’ll be compelled to come back to this brilliant city.