Things I have learned #3256…

I’m relatively sure it isn’t that many, but I lost count and couldn’t be bothered to go back through my posts to check how many TIHL posts I’ve made already.

  • When travelling by Amtrak in the US, always book a lower level coach seat. They’re no bigger or more spacious than the normal upper deck coach seats (or expensive, as far as I can tell), but they are in their own little compartment which is a dead end, so it has the huge advantage of not having people walking past your seat all the damn time, especially when you’re trying to sleep.
  • Check Greyhound and Amtrak prices before booking anything. While the Greyhound is often cheaper, it’s far less comfortable and for some reason Amtrak tickets are actually cheaper if you book ‘em the day before you travel (or I happened to get lucky/need a cheap route).
  • While we’re at it, if you’re near a major city or transport hub and need to travel from a minor outlying town to another minor outlying town, check prices for indirect routes into said major city and then out to the other town again, rather than minor town to minor town. Example, La Crosse to Iowa City – over $100 and a ridiculous 24 hour bus ride for some damn reason. La Crosse to Chicago to Iowa City – $72 (train for $60, express Greyhound for $12), and eight hours.

These things I have learned this time are getting a bit lengthy. Need to think of something short and pithy.

  • White T-shirts appear to be more slimming than black..?
  • Taking my laptop and camera out of my backpack and carrying them in a messenger bag doesn’t appear to reduce the weight of my backpack whatsoever, and yet it does increase the weight of my messenger bag exponentially. Physics, you’re doin’ it wrong.
  • Americans do not know that hostels exist in their country. At all. “Wait, whu? You stayed in a hostel? We have those here?” Yes, you do. Some of them are awesome, and they’re cheap (ish, certainly –er than in Europe).
  • I knew this one anyway, but I feel it needs advertising. I fucking love the album Swim, by July for Kings. Look it up on Grooveshark.com, it’s all there and free and legal. Do as you’re told. Go, now. Not you, parents.
  • I’m still good enough at Chess to beat a guy who sits on the street in Downtown Denver every Sunday and plays with other like-minded chess players. First game, stalemate, second game, won.

I haven’t learned anything else. I was quite knowledgeable to begin with.

Trains…

I spent 24 hours on a train crossing from Chicago to Denver a couple of days ago. The train passed through some of the states that make up the Great Plains of the US – Iowa, Nebraska, some other ones I forget specifically.  I’m actually on a train from Albuquerque to Los Angeles while I’m writing this.

Anyway. Watching the sun rise over the Great Plains was truly awesome, in the original meaning of the word, which means inspiring awe, in turn using the true meaning of the word awe, which is not what a lot of people think it is. Look it up. Oh never mind, I’ll do it for you – otherwise I know you wouldn’t.

Awe – noun \ˈȯ\
1: an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime <stood in awe of the king> <regard nature’s wonders with awe>
2: archaic a : dread, terror b : the power to inspire dread

Somewhat like if the train had somehow crashed and I’d been the only survivor out there, in the middle of nowhere, I’d be afraid. And die. Definitely die. Miles to anywhere of anything of any note whatsoever. I can walk a long way, but I don’t think I could walk that far.

Yes, the sunrise over the plains was a wonderful sight. I hadn’t slept too much during the night, and I was awake anyway as my train was meant to be getting in at 7am, so I thought I’d head up to the observation car to watch the sky. Sitting staring out the window at such wide open expanses was actually somewhat revelatory (sorry, Tink) in a manner which I may or may not elaborate on at a later date.

I’m sat in the observation lounge waiting for the sun to set over New Mexico at the moment. I may even post some pictures I’ve taken from the train, though you’ll have to excuse the damn annoying reflections of the sun on the windows. I have not a polarising filter so I can’t get rid of ‘em.

Three months on the road…

Yarp, as of today (19th as at posting) I’ve been away for three months. That’s one whole month longer than I’d been away from home ever before ever. And stuff.

It’s funny. It feels like I’ve been away and travelling for a while, and yet at the same time it totally doesn’t feel like I’ve been away for a quarter of a year already. Last time I did a lengthy trip (the two month trip around the US and Canadia, for those who don’t know) by the last few weeks, the whole thing was really dragging on me and my travel buddy, and we both felt very much along the lines of “fuck it, we want to go home.”

Not so, currently. I’m not tired or worn out, or sick of moving around a lot, or bored, or anxious or missing people at home enough to want to dash back immediately. Maybe this has been because over the last month I’ve been staying in the same place, with friends, and that’s been somewhat restful and relaxing. I know not having to pack my damn bag up every few days and cart it half way around another country is a pleasant break.

I have also become desensitized to the discomfort of being on transport for long periods of time, and re-learned how to sleep comfortably on a Greyhound bus (no mean feat, I tell ya). A few days ago I did a five hour stint on a train, followed by a short 15 minute walk (with bag on back), immediately followed by another five hours on a coach. Was fine. Barely cranky at all. The guy sat in front of me on the coach did have the loudest sneezes I’ve ever heard, though (picture, say, a small firecracker going off not next to you, but placed just inside your ear). He also had a cold. This was annoying, as a combination.

I’m contemplating taking a train straight from the midwest where I am now, alllll the way to LA, which would end up being something in the region of 48-72 hours solid on the train. It’s not like the coach where it stops every so often so you can stretch your legs etc. But, while I’d get to see a lot of the country through the windows, I’m less excited by that than getting to at least explore the myriad truck stops and dive bars I’d find along the way if I went Greyhound again.

Speaking of truck stops, on the way here I passed Iowa 80, officially the world’s largest truck stop. Of all the things I’ve seen, Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Sahara desert, that one has to be the most awe inspiring and breathtaking one. I mean, wow.

Wow.

Night train to Sarajevo…

That sounds quite romantic, doesn’t it? In all fairness, I think any post titled “night train to <insert somewhere suitably exotic or foreign here>” would have a certain amount of mystique and romance about it.

It actually was quite romantic, in a way. Riding parallel to the river as the sun rises over the horizon, with the mist creeping over the water, while passing through a country that was only a decade ago pretty war-torn and suffering and still showed quite visible signs of this.

But that was the high point of the journey after a night that I can only describe as “yes, this actually happened”. Every word of the following account is true, and I’d care you not to judge me for it.

First, though, let me tell you a bit about my day. I was going to do this in a separate post, but it seems unnecessary now. However, I’m meeting someone for dinner in 40 minutes so I’mma have to type quickly.

I am going to bow down to the wisdom of my elders and betters, and in this case both. A dear friend told me a week or two ago (no idea, see previous comments RE time) that the days when things go wrong or not as planned are usually the best, and it’s turning out to be true.

Yesterday I was meant to be getting the train from Zagreb to Sarajevo, and the internets told me it left at 11:03am and took roughly ten hours. Cool. I headed to the station at about ten because I’d much rather hang at a station for an hour than miss a train by a minute. When buying my ticket the guy looked at me kinda strangely and said “the train, is night train, leave at 9:20pm”. Oh. Well, damn. I had dressed that day for sitting on a train, so I was wearing clothes that otherwise probably should have been washed, and I had all my stuff packed up and on my back. Great, so now I have a day to kill with no home base, as it were.

It actually wasn’t that much of a problem. I called my hostel and changed my reservation and stored my stuff in a train station locker. I knew two friends from the hostel I’d been staying in were planning on taking a walking tour of the city that morning so I waited for them where the tour was meant to kick off.

A big group of people gathered all waiting for the tour guide who decided not to turn up. My friends and I, as well as a couple of other people who were waiting for the tour that we got chatting to decided to walk around the city for a while ourselves and make up our own history for the buildings. The big yellow one behind the statue, for instance, is the yellowest because it is also the oldest and the paint fades, apparently. We walked around for a few hours, hiked up to see a graveyard (love me some graveyards), and then the group split and parted ways. I chose to go with the guys we’d met that morning, so there was me, a boy and girlfriend couple, and another guy. We walked around some more, then that smaller group split as well and I went with the solo guy. We went to a nearby quiet little cafe that was most definitely for the locals, and wiled away a few hours playing chess. He beat me four times to none, but that’s good because you don’t get better by winning all the time. I need to play chess more often.

Then I walked back to the station via quite an extended route to meet up with another guy who we’d bumped into waiting for the tour earlier in the morning, who was also taking the night train so Sarajevo that evening. We figured it’d be a good idea to grab a cabin together and then at least you’ve got company and someone to watch over your stuff.

We got on the train, took the first cabin using the logic “people will see it with two guys in and hopefully move down the train to see if any others are free, and not come back to sit here”. This, as you are about to find out, did not go as planned. We’d been sat down for five, ten minutes, put all our baggage in the overhead racks, and were just settling down to look moody at people who walked past so that we could secure the cabin to ourselves and have some room to sleep.

Then we were joined by two Croatian girls.

They had a beer each, and I’m talking Croatian beer, so the bottles are a litre each, none of that small bottle crap, oh no. They had a carrier bag with many other bottles. Now, Damian and I (names will not be changed to protect the innocent) were pretty tired after all day walking, and when you’ve been travelling for a while you’ll come to realise that sometimes the only way to deal with things that are annoying, angering, upsetting or anything else is hysterics. Oh yes, just breaking down into fits of laughter and running with whatever-the-hell is going on.

The conversation skipped straight from pleasantries, right over innuendo and suggestiveness to straight-up talk. Damian and I were just playing along because it is the easier route when dealing with drunk locals, and it was all in good fun anyway. The girls were forward, and in no way, shape, or form shy about expressing said forwardness.

* * * *

At that point in the writing of this post I took a break to meet Damian for dinner. We talked about the train journey and I was telling him I literally cannot think of a way to explain what happened to which he concurred as he had experienced the same problem when trying to recount the evening to a friend of his. I genuinely in my head cannot work out how things went from two sets of strangers in a cabin, to… what happened. There are no words. There are, however, pictures. But they’re on someone else’s camera who I anticipate never seeing or hearing from again, so there they’ll stay. We got barely any sleep, and I have a mysterious bruise on my back. I do not have the capacity to write about the rest of the evening. You’ll have to use your imaginations. That said, and knowing my readership, I’ll reign those in a little by clarifying that neither myself, nor Damian had any kind of biblical relations with the Croatian ladies.

Inverse Bell curve…

I have noticed that my mental state while aboard trains follows an inverse Bell curve of apprehension and anxiety. For the uneducated, this is a Bell curve. Flip it upside down, with time along the horizontal axis and apprehension/anxiety levels on the vertical.

The first 10-15 minutes are spent fidgeting in my seat, wondering if I’ve somehow managed to get on the wrong train, or sat in the wrong compartment, or whether my ticket has osmosed out of my pocket and is now lying on the platform still. Oh, then there’s the “am I gonna have a landbeast flop down next to me and wheeze on me the whole journey” worry.

Once that phase is over and I’m sliding down the curve I find myself entering a state of peace and calm and, almost, tranquillity. Leaning back staring out the window, the sounds of (hopefully just) the wheels on the track outside, watching the world go by. I can quite happily spend many hours on a train like this, just staring or thinking or letting my mind go blank.

Then arrives the last part of the journey when I’m climbing the curve again. Is this my station? Is the train late? Why don’t these damn stations have signs up telling you where you’re arriving into? I didn’t hear that announcement! Not to mention the whole “ok, so now where do I go” ten minute orientation thing once I’m actually off the train.

Why do I enjoy the experience of being on a train so much? I always have, and I’ve never been able to work out why. I can’t link it to anything in my childhood (that I can think of) to explain it, certainly.