Tag Archives: Backpacker Stories

Walking Across Spain (El Camino de Santiago): Week 3

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Continued from previous post Walking Across Spain (El Camino de Santiago): Week 2

 

31 May

Day 15: Honturas to Frómista (32 km)

I left early again, not on purpose, but because Ethan decided to sleep in. The first half of the 30 km+ day was great. I felt as powerful as ever! Soon, I began to feel my blister coming in. Also, I didn’t eat anything for breakfast so I was struggling on the last 5 km to Fromista. Ethan arrived at the municipal about two hours later, and Jon about an hour after that. I took a majority of the day to rest in bed. I did not like the way I felt on the last part of the walk. We’re halfway there, body; just hold up a little longer, then you can relax back in Nepal for two months!”

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I had to wear a buff over my face for part of the day because it was getting mighty buggy!

1 June

Day 16: Frómista to Carron (18 km)

Today I woke up and ate an apple and a donut for breakfast, which seemed to help this time. The back of my left leg was still a bit sore, but I was able to power through the 18 km day. The sun was relentless and I had sweat dripping down my back and out of my armpits. I’m gonna have to figure out how to deal with the heat tomorrow as it’s a 37 km day in the sun! I made a dinner from scratch: rice with caramelized onions and green peppers along with a cheesy chicken on top. I thought I did quite well. Gotta rest for tomorrows haul. It may be the hardest day yet!”

 

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2 June

Day 17: Carron to Sahagun (37 km)

Today was long and hot! 37 km! I stuck my stick so that it was sticking up out of my bag and hung my rain jacket from it. It was like a canopy that protected me from the direct sunlight. I was also able to read an entire novel as the path was straightforward and without many hazards. My group of three also got split up. I made it to Saharan while Jon stayed in Terradillos (it was too hot for him) while Ethan stayed in a town (don’t remember the name) about 18 km back! He stayed behind for unknown reasons. No worries, we shall regroup once we get to Leon in a couple days. This may be good for Ethan to get a couple days on his own, actually.”

The novel I read was called A Girl On a Train, the only book in English I could find in the albergue’s. I read a couple chapters the day before and read the rest on this day, under my mobile canopy.

 

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3 June

Day 18: Sahagun to Mansilla (35 km)

Today hurt like no other day. I was moving at a brisk pace when suddenly my left leg (which has been sore for the last few days) said “no more’’. I took a pause in Regioso to eat and rest up so I could finish the 35 km day. Only about 6 km to go! I had a renewed, God given, strength and regained a pep in my step as I quickly made it to the municipal in Mansilla. There, I reunited with two pilgrims I met yesterday, Jake and Dan, who arrived shortly after. I made us all a pasta dinner and then hit the hay. My body needs rest. Tomorrow I will have an easy 18km day and will meet up again with Ethan and Jon. After speaking to Dan, it’s my left Achilles that’s paining me. He taught me how to stretch it out. Hopefully, it will help.”

Today was the first day that I spent the night apart from everyone in my group. Weird at first, but a good change of pace for a moment. I’m sure the others could have used the separation as well.

4 June

Day 19: Mansilla to Léon (18 km)

Jake and I had an easy 18 km walk to the big city of Leon. There, I reunited with Ethan and Jon, and we went tapas crawling. Many pubs served tapas when you ordered a drink. Our albergue reminded me of a military war hospital. And it just so happened that the loudest snorers on Earth were in our room. The city of Leon itself was much better than Burgos, but it was still no Pamplona. At 9pm, our group went to the albergue’s monastery for a special pilgrims blessing. Most of the sermon was in Spanish, but the list of it was a blessing for us pilgrims for our continued perseverance and guidance for the rest of our walk.”

I’m not a very religious person by no means, but I felt that going to at least one blessing along this camino would be neat to experience.

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5 June

Day 20: Léon to Hospital (24 km)

Jake and I walked 24 km to San Martin, our intended destination for the day, but instead went further to Hospital; an outstanding medical town that was much better than the previous cities. However, the walk today was the ugliest in the whole camino so far—industrial pretty much the whole way. Once I got to Hospital, I messaged Ethan and Jon letting them know that I went an extra town further. They persisted and joined me later on. I made a dinner for the five of us (Ethan, Jon, Jake, and other Dan), a special pasta with veggies, a creamy carbonara sauce and lots of grilled chicken breast. I think I may have outdone myself this time. The total day was about 30 km.”

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6 June

Day 21: Hospital to Astorga (20 km)

I hate to admit this, but I’m ready to be done! They say it takes 21 days to form a habit, but I’m just about over walking and never plan on walking again. I shall invest in a Segway after this. Today’s walk was a short 14 km into a rather larger city: Astorga. Found a comfortable hostel near the cathedral and just planned on doing nothing all day. Just relax, Youtube, and nap. No matter how much the others wanted to ‘do something’’, Today was my day to do absolutely nothing. I had no desire to see the city. My only desire was to get to Santiago, get outta Spain and continue the rest of my trip to far more interesting endeavors (Nepal, Germany, Africa, etc). Had done kebob for dinner. Met twins from England.”

 

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6 June

Astorga Thoughts

So. Everyone that told me they’ve done the camino before, told me it was one of the best decisions they’ve ever made. Mainly because of the people they’ve met along the way that has made their camino extra special. It’s day 21 and I gave up hope on meeting those special people. TBH, most of the pilgrims I’ve come across are rather odd or just too old with nothing in common with me. Besides a handful of gems, my small group, I haven’t really bonded well with the people here as I usually do on my other backpacking trips. It could just be bad luck or bad timing on my part. Or maybe because most of these pilgrims are first time travelers and I just can’t be bothered with their noobness. I’ve met amazing people during all my travels, but no one here really wowed me, save for those gems I mentioned. Also, waay too many old people who have no shame when it comes to walking around in their tighty-whities, farting, snorting, snoring, etc. I’ll reserve my final opinion until I actually reach Santiago. So far, it’s been mediocre.

Just being honest. Keeping an open mind.


One more camino post!

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Two Ways to Remedy ‘Travel Fatigue’ in Poland: Good People & Pączki 


I have to admit—nine months in, this quest to reach the seven continents is starting to wear me out.

I came to that realization when I was hanging up my wet (from being washed) clothes in Maria’s living room. Most of my shirts had holes in them and there was a permanent stink I acquired from Nepal and India that I couldn’t get rid of, no matter how many times I washed them. Not only that, but my wallet was falling apart, my bag was infested with dust and dirt all over and in it, and mentally I was exhausted. Packing, unpacking, packing, unpacking, long flights, motion-sick inducing buses, trains, boats, taxis, visas, language barriers, religions, superstitious beliefs, politics, this, that, these, and those. And then that incident in Ukraine happened.

The idea of going home, for maybe a week, to reset myself sounded reeeeal nice.

But, I cannot do that. I declared a pact to myself, a goal that I published here to the world, that I will not go back home until I reach all seven continents. As of where I am now, in Poland, I still have three more continents to go — Africa, South America, and the big one, Antarctica.

Since I can’t and won’t go home for a little TLC, I can settle for the next best remedy: my amazingly awesome foreign friends. I’m lucky enough to have them in all the right places, dotted all over the world, including here in Warsaw. My Canadian/Polish amiga Maria is one that I met while traveling in Peru back in 2011. She invited me up here before I made my way further west to Europe. I was happy to be there in the presence of a familiar face, where I didn’t really have to think or plan anything. I didn’t care what we did honestly, I was just happy to be there.

Just like most countries I’ve visited on this quest, I knew very little about Poland. From prior knowledge, I knew that they were involved in many important battles. I knew of polish sausages. I knew I had friends at home who would always rant and rave about their Polish heritage, but most importantly, I knew that pączki were a thing.

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We have those in Michigan, particularly during Fat Tuesday, but I’ve never had one, but it’s basically a cream-filled donut and I hate those things! I love most donuts, EXCEPT donuts filled with crap. Cream, jelly, whatever. It ruins them. But being since I was here in the official home of the pączki, I oughta give them a try. After Maria settled me into the comforts of Warsaw, she baton passed me to Janka, who served as my own personal tour guide while she went to work during the day. Janka knew I longed for a pączki and she just so happened to know the best place for that.

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Fresh out of the oven, warm, and just the right amount of fluff. I had two different pączki and they were delicious, even with the cream filling. It wasn’t too much.

Janka showed me all around the most populous area of Warsaw. I was surprised to find that the locals here were big fans of ice cream. There were ice cream shops around every corner! Not only that, but the cuisine was amazing. When we went to eat lunch, I asked Janka to order something traditional for me from the menu. She gladly accepted the challenge.

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She explained to me how Poland used to be a communist state. She also had an eye for pointing out the differences between buildings that were constructed under communist rule and others that were built during the democratic periods. Communist buildings appear to be drab, a dull tone of gray, and is mostly made up of cement building blocks that are pretty much always completely horizontal and vertical in nature—rarely curvature and intricate in architect.

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Janka passed me back to Maria who took it upon herself to show me around the city and to even more delicious foods. All I could do in return was to show her how to ‘dab’ because she had no idea what that was.

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That night, Maria invited me to a get-together she had with a group of her colleagues. One of them went out of her way to make dinner and supply a whole lot of alcoholic beverages.

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I wasn’t sure if I was drunk off the wine or the endless supply of sauerkraut. I didn’t think I drank all that much, but the mound of sauerkraut I vomited outside of Maria’s apartment, just a few meters away from her oblivious security guard, would say otherwise—much to Maria’s amusement. Since I’ve known Maria, she’s always been a puker. I consistently make fun of her for it and now was her opportunity to rag on me. Much deserved.

My time in Warsaw was extremely brief; only three days to explore, but I left on an uplifting note. Poland, from what I’ve experienced, is an easy and cheap country to explore with tons of rich history to dive into. There’s SO much more than just Warsaw, that I will have to invest more time into one day.

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As for me feeling beat? I still am, especially knowing what’s coming ahead. Seeing friends was a good, temporary fix. I’m still learning to deal. It just takes time I suppose. As I came to the end of this post, I do find that writing about the fond memories does serve a purpose, instead of concentrating on the tedious parts of travel.

Thank you, Maria and Janka, for giving me a taste of Poland!

Onward to another flight…

Has anyone else ever felt this way after extensive travel?

Two Ways to Remedy 'Travel Fatigue' in Poland: Good People & Pączki 


I have to admit—nine months in, this quest to reach the seven continents is starting to wear me out.

I came to that realization when I was hanging up my wet (from being washed) clothes in Maria’s living room. Most of my shirts had holes in them and there was a permanent stink I acquired from Nepal and India that I couldn’t get rid of, no matter how many times I washed them. Not only that, but my wallet was falling apart, my bag was infested with dust and dirt all over and in it, and mentally I was exhausted. Packing, unpacking, packing, unpacking, long flights, motion-sick inducing buses, trains, boats, taxis, visas, language barriers, religions, superstitious beliefs, politics, this, that, these, and those. And then that incident in Ukraine happened.

The idea of going home, for maybe a week, to reset myself sounded reeeeal nice.

But, I cannot do that. I declared a pact to myself, a goal that I published here to the world, that I will not go back home until I reach all seven continents. As of where I am now, in Poland, I still have three more continents to go — Africa, South America, and the big one, Antarctica.

Since I can’t and won’t go home for a little TLC, I can settle for the next best remedy: my amazingly awesome foreign friends. I’m lucky enough to have them in all the right places, dotted all over the world, including here in Warsaw. My Canadian/Polish amiga Maria is one that I met while traveling in Peru back in 2011. She invited me up here before I made my way further west to Europe. I was happy to be there in the presence of a familiar face, where I didn’t really have to think or plan anything. I didn’t care what we did honestly, I was just happy to be there.

Just like most countries I’ve visited on this quest, I knew very little about Poland. From prior knowledge, I knew that they were involved in many important battles. I knew of polish sausages. I knew I had friends at home who would always rant and rave about their Polish heritage, but most importantly, I knew that pączki were a thing.

IMG_7391

We have those in Michigan, particularly during Fat Tuesday, but I’ve never had one, but it’s basically a cream-filled donut and I hate those things! I love most donuts, EXCEPT donuts filled with crap. Cream, jelly, whatever. It ruins them. But being since I was here in the official home of the pączki, I oughta give them a try. After Maria settled me into the comforts of Warsaw, she baton passed me to Janka, who served as my own personal tour guide while she went to work during the day. Janka knew I longed for a pączki and she just so happened to know the best place for that.

IMG_7399

Fresh out of the oven, warm, and just the right amount of fluff. I had two different pączki and they were delicious, even with the cream filling. It wasn’t too much.

Janka showed me all around the most populous area of Warsaw. I was surprised to find that the locals here were big fans of ice cream. There were ice cream shops around every corner! Not only that, but the cuisine was amazing. When we went to eat lunch, I asked Janka to order something traditional for me from the menu. She gladly accepted the challenge.

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She explained to me how Poland used to be a communist state. She also had an eye for pointing out the differences between buildings that were constructed under communist rule and others that were built during the democratic periods. Communist buildings appear to be drab, a dull tone of gray, and is mostly made up of cement building blocks that are pretty much always completely horizontal and vertical in nature—rarely curvature and intricate in architect.

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Janka passed me back to Maria who took it upon herself to show me around the city and to even more delicious foods. All I could do in return was to show her how to ‘dab’ because she had no idea what that was.

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That night, Maria invited me to a get-together she had with a group of her colleagues. One of them went out of her way to make dinner and supply a whole lot of alcoholic beverages.

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IMG_7465

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I wasn’t sure if I was drunk off the wine or the endless supply of sauerkraut. I didn’t think I drank all that much, but the mound of sauerkraut I vomited outside of Maria’s apartment, just a few meters away from her oblivious security guard, would say otherwise—much to Maria’s amusement. Since I’ve known Maria, she’s always been a puker. I consistently make fun of her for it and now was her opportunity to rag on me. Much deserved.

My time in Warsaw was extremely brief; only three days to explore, but I left on an uplifting note. Poland, from what I’ve experienced, is an easy and cheap country to explore with tons of rich history to dive into. There’s SO much more than just Warsaw, that I will have to invest more time into one day.

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As for me feeling beat? I still am, especially knowing what’s coming ahead. Seeing friends was a good, temporary fix. I’m still learning to deal. It just takes time I suppose. As I came to the end of this post, I do find that writing about the fond memories does serve a purpose, instead of concentrating on the tedious parts of travel.

Thank you, Maria and Janka, for giving me a taste of Poland!

Onward to another flight…

Has anyone else ever felt this way after extensive travel?

Never, Ever, Ever Lose Your Passport in Ukraine

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To the Ukrainian man who wouldn’t give me my passport and tried to shove me into his car…Just what in the hell were you planning to do with me?!

After almost a decade worth of worldwide travels, with rarely an issue when it came to muggers and crooked strangers, my lucky streak came to an end in Ukraine. And it’s my own fault. Fair warning, this is a relatively lengthy post, lacking in photos. I was perturbed.

Let me start from the beginning.

Day 1 – “No one here speaks English”

Upon crossing the Ukrainian border from Slovakia, I unknowingly entered a world where the English language just doesn’t work. In Uzhhorod, NOTHING is in English or even uses the English alphabet for that matter. Nor, did I come across anyone who spoke even a sliver of it. I needed to get to the nearest train station and board the earliest journey to Lviv, one of Ukraine’s major cities. Luckily, there was a train station just a short walk away from where the bus dropped me off.

I kid you not, it took me an hour to figure out how to get a ticket. I’m not exaggerating when I say English was nonexistent there. Though, I managed to get a ticket using a combination of hand gesturing, finger-pointing, and charades. I was surprised by how cheap the ticket was. I stuck the ticket in my passport.

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It was detective work trying to figure things out there.

I waited for four hours until my train would depart. Meanwhile, I filled up on some food just outside of the station, in a ma and pa joint just across the street. What did I order? No clue, but it did the trick, whatever it was. A big piece of brown bread with some kind of gray meat tucked inside.

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I went to my train terminal, or what I thought was my terminal. I would have missed my train if it weren’t for one of the nearby conductors wondering why I was sitting on the ground. He motioned to see my ticket and pointed me to another terminal. I didn’t realize that my terminal number has changed. Whew! That would have sucked. I would have been sitting there wondering why my train didn’t come on time.

The train itself was quite all right. I had a whole cabin to myself. It would be about six hours until the train arrived in Lviv, so I found this to be the perfect opportunity to sprawl out and sleep, since I barely got a wink on the bus earlier. I set an alarm on my phone just to be safe.

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About a half hour, before I was scheduled to arrive, a cabin attendant woke me up and asked me something in Ukrainian. I couldn’t understand, but handed him my ticket which was folded inside of my passport. He glanced over it and said something along the lines of, “Thirty minutes until Lviv”. He handed me back my ticket and I stuck it back inside my passport and went back to sleep. I didn’t realize how tired I was. This train reached Lviv in no time.

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The main central train station in Lviv.

Upon arrival, I grabbed my bags and headed out into the station and into the city of Lviv. I was happy to be here because I never thought I would EVER be in Ukraine, especially from all the bad press it’s been getting lately. Besides my bizarre layover in Slovakia, the journey to Lviv was relatively smooth. I was ready to experience this country that I knew absolutely nothing about! My friend, Maria, would arrive the next day which meant I had the night free to settle in and relax. I reserved a hostel, just a few kilometers away from the train station, just on the cusp of the city area. I hailed a taxi that took me straight there. He didn’t know exactly where it was, but thanks to a map I downloaded from Google earlier, he was able to drop me off within walking distance.

I walked about five minutes in the dark to my hostel and went to the front desk. The woman there spoke a bit of English. I told her I had a reservation and then she asked for my passport. I patted my pockets. They were empty. I looked in the usual spot in my small backpack. Nothing there. I checked all inside my small backpack. Still nothing. I began to internally freak out as the woman sat there waiting patiently. I checked my pockets again. Still as empty as before.

The woman saw my plight and let me use an alternate form of identification, like my driver’s license, to check in. She showed me to my room and I set my things. I dumped out my bag just to triple check. Still no passport.

Think, Daniel. Think. Where could it possibly be? I’m usually so careful with it! I sat on my bed and thought it out.

I concluded that it’s either still on the train, in the cabin that I had (this is the last place I remembered having it) or it could be on the taxi that I took to get here or it could have fell out of my pocket on the brief walk from where the taxi dropped me off to get here.

It’s unlikely in the taxi. I never went into my bags or pockets in the car.

I doubt it fell out of my pocket during the walk. I retraced my steps just to check.

It HAD to be in my cabin on the train. That train associate came to me and handed me my ticket letting me know that my stop will arrive soon. I remember placing the ticket into my passport and not into my bag. It’s still on the train!

I hightailed it back to the train station, hoping the train would still be there, but it was loooong gone. Maybe someone turned my passport in?

I looked around for…I don’t know, an office or something, but everything was in Ukrainian and no one could understand me when I asked around for help. Eventually, I came to the train station’s police office. I went inside and walked right up to the desk window.

“Do you speak English?” I asked the officer sitting at the window.

He shook his head ‘no’.

That’s what I figured. I took out a color-copy of my passport I printed off before I left on this trip and held it up to the window.

“My passport,” I said while pointing to the picture. I then pointed in the direction of the train. “I left it on the train.”

He still didn’t understand and called for some assistance. An officer came from the backroom, who spoke some English, came up to me and explained that he will give my hostel a call by 3pm tomorrow. If he didn’t call, then come back to the station. Okay.

Back at the hostel, I went online to make an appointment with the US embassy in Kiev. I highly doubted the police would find my passport overnight, so just in case, I wanted to reserve an appointment to get a new one if need be. The only slot available was four days from now, so I had no other choice but to reserve it. It stated that I needed a police report for stolen passports. But my passport wasn’t stolen, just lost. Do I still need a police report? I sent an email to the US embassy asking if it was still necessary. Of course, there was no response.

The reason I am even here in the first place is to join Maria and her friend. I met her back in Peru in 2011. We’ve been friends since, visiting each other in Toronto and Detroit on several occasions. She now lives in Warsaw and is coming to Ukraine with a friend for leisure. She invited me to meet up with her and join. I arrived a day earlier than she did.

Now here’s why losing my passport at this particular time is the most horrible time when I could lose my passport during this worldly trip.

I’m not staying in Ukraine long. Just about five or six more days. We planned on taking a train to Kiev in a couple days and then fly into Warsaw, Poland. I would hang out there for three days and then fly to England and then Paris to meet a friend there.

But I can’t do ANY of that without my passport. My ticket to the world! Worst case scenario is that if I apply to replace my lost passport at the US embassy in Kiev, it would be about a week or two, meaning I would have to forfeit all of my flights and stay in Kiev. And then book a new flight straight to England and rush down to Paris. That’s the worst-case scenario.

Day 2 – “I need a police report, please.”

I waited patiently at my surprisingly comfortable hostel until around 3pm. “Did anyone call for me?” I asked the front desk. “No, I’m sorry.” I went back to the train station to find a whole new group of officers who had no idea what I was talking about. “Check your folder,” I said pointing to the yellow folder I saw them put my files into yesterday. There it was, my scanned passport copy and train ticket. “I just need to make a police report, please.”

“It’s not possible to make a police report here,” said the only officer who spoke any English. “You have to go to the local police station. I can take you there.” By the way, their English was not that perfect. No one I met while in Ukraine can speak adequately in those regards. But for the sake of your own understanding (you as the reader), I’ll save you the trouble.

The officer escorted me outside and I followed him about ten minutes to the most desolate police building I’ve ever seen. We went inside, he made small talk with the other officers there, and I followed him upstairs to an office to a man who was prepared to write my police report…except there was one stupid problem.

“He can’t write your report today,” said the officer that escorted me here. “He can’t write in English and we will need a translator.”

“Well, when can we get a translator?” I asked.

“In three days.”

“I don’t have three days…umm, can he just write it in Ukrainian or Russian or whatever and then I’m sure someone at the US embassy can translate it.”

“They can’t translate it there,” he said.

That doesn’t make any sense but whatever you say man. I sighed.

Then an idea sprung in my head.

“Can he speak Russian or Polish?”

“Yes.”

“Because I have a friend coming today that will be able to translate if that’s possible.”

“Yes, that will work. When will your friend come?”

“Later today. So if it’s okay, I can come back with her early tomorrow?”

“Yes, that is okay.”

Later that day, Maria and her friend Janka arrived to meet me at the accommodation we all booked (which was a pain in the ass to find, but that’s another story in itself). I explained my predicament to them and thankfully they were willing to do anything they could to help me with my passport situation.

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Our accommodation in Lviv.

Day 3  “Seatbelt? No need, because “This is Ukraine”.

Maria, Janka, and I went first thing back to the police station. Janka’s Russian really came in handy when we had to explain why we were there.

“They can’t do your police report today” Janka said. “The guy who does it isn’t here.”

You’re kidding me.

One of the officers said to her that there was another police station around that we could do it at today and he’s offering to drive us.

The man took us to his cop car as I tried to buckle myself in the front seat, struggling to find the belt buckle. He then put his arm up to me.

“No need,” he said. “This is Ukraine.” Suddenly he blasted on weird techno electro thunder music and started flying through the streets of Lviv! I looked behind me and saw the girls clenched to each other for dear life. I think this guy is trying to impress the ladies.

At this other, more communist-looking police station, we stood there for about an hour in a room with dirty old bums as Janka tried to explain why we were there and that all I needed was a police report saying my passport was lost. Just a piece of paper.

“They are saying they cannot write a police report because the chief is not here,” said Janka. “He’ll be here tomorrow.”

“No, we are going to Kiev tomorrow.”

The officer eventually wrote a receipt of some sort explaining that I did try to get a police statement. All of this stupid work for a stupid piece of paper.

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Maria and Janka. I’m glad they were here to help!

To get my mind off of the situation, Maria took us to a restaurant/bar where they served famously served all sorts of shots in chemistry test tube cylinders. I went to use the restroom and when I came back to the table, I saw they ordered 40 different shots. I couldn’t believe my eyes! How are we supposed to finish these without dying?

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“This should make you feel better!” said Maria with a cheeky smile.

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She ordered so much but we managed to finish it and I finally had a great night. For the first time in Ukraine, I was able to enjoy myself. Whatever happens, happens.

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Also, the traditional foods I’ve had here have been excellent!

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Day 4 – The Russian version of Facebook?

We spent the morning sightseeing, but I couldn’t focus properly when I came to the realization that I would be stuck in the Ukraine for up to two extra weeks waiting for a new passport, meaning I would miss my flights to Poland and England. All that wasted money.

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We took a blablacar to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine over the span of about eight hours. We checked into our hotel and went to get food down the street. Originally, we had all planned on visiting Chernobyl, the site of one of the world’s most notorious nuclear disasters, the next day but I had to back out because of my scheduled appointment with the US embassy there. Trust me, I was bummed about it. I didn’t want to sulk in it. I just wanted to get to the embassy, apply for my new passport, hope this stupid piece of paper would be enough, and get the heck out of the Ukraine.

Once we returned to our hotel, we called it a night and went to sleep. At some time an hour later, I woke up for no reason and saw a notification of a friend request on Facebook. From an Olya Stolichnaya (not her real surname, but similar). I don’t know any Olya, but my gut told me to accept the request. I normally don’t accept friends I don’t know.

Maria and Janka were fas asleep. Fifteen minutes later, I received another notification. This time, a message directly from Olya.

Here is an excerpt of our conversation:

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I was floored. I called the number, but to no response. It was 1:30am, so no surprise. I will call her back first thing in the morning. However, I was sure to follow up on the hyperlink that Olya sent me. That link led me to an app called VK, which I’ve never heard of and didn’t have downloaded onto my phone. Olya gave me the link to that woman’s profile. This woman who Olya claimed to have my passport in their possession. And so, I downloaded the app and found it to be some weird Russian version of Facebook. I created a quick profile for myself and was able to access the mystery woman’s profile. Her name was Mariya Provost (again, not her real surname but close enough). It was 1:26am, but I sent her a message anyway. She responded almost ten minutes later, but didn’t respond again until the morning hours. She went to sleep presumedly. She spoke no English but instead responded in Russian, in which I Google translated our entire conversation that continued the next morning.

Here it is:

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Day 5 – Buzz me in please!

I informed Maria and Janka of what happened while they slept, and asked them for their assistance speaking to this woman on the phone. She didn’t understand English, so maybe she would understand Russian or Polish.

Janka called the number, but it was no woman who answered. It was the voice of a man who indeed had my passport. I’m not sure how he got it but he claimed to have it. “Tell him I’ll meet him where ever he is!”

Janka wrote down his address. He’s back in Lviv.

“Tell him I am taking the earliest train there and will be there tonight.”

I took a risk skipping my scheduled appointment. If this was all a sham, it would mean I would have to wait in Ukraine even longer. I was willing to meet the mystery stranger who had my passport. I just gotta go all the way back to Lviv while the other two go to Chernobyl. If I get my passport in time, I can be back tomorrow in time for our flight to Poland!

I bought a ticket for the earliest train back to Lviv, an almost ten-hour journey. I had the address of the man saved to my phone. The address was outside of the city somewhere according to Google. I hopped on a taxi and directed him to the location. Once I arrived in the sketchiest part of town, I found that the address to the building he gave me was actually the address to an apartment complex. I didn’t have the apartment number. “How am I supposed to figure out which number belongs to the mystery man?” I can’t call him, my phone doesn’t have any data and there’s no wifi signals around.

I stood around for a moment pondering. You know what? I’ll just press every button until someone let’s me in. I’ll look like a fool, but at least a fool with a passport.

There were twelve numbers on the door, so I started with #1.

“{Inaudible Ukrainian} Hello?”

“Hello! Do you have Daniel’s passport?”

“{inaudible Ukrainian} ##%$%@^”

Click.

The person hung up on me. He obviously had no idea what I was talking about. I figured the mystery man would recognize me if I said my name and I was looking for my passport. I’d just look like an idiot eleven more times. Worth it to get my precious back. On to number 2.

“{Inaudible Ukrainian} Hello?”

“Hello! Do you have Daniel’s passport?”

“{inaudible Ukrainian} ##%$%@^”

Click.

Number 3 was the same and no one answered for number 4. However, on number 5 when I pressed the button, no one answered but who ever lived there just buzzed me right in without asking who I was.

Now that I was inside the complex, now what? I figured I would start at the top floor at apartment #12, knock on the door, and find the mystery man. This was going to be a very confusing and embarrassing situation, but necessary to find my passport and to get the heck outta here.

As I made my way up the stairs, a gentlemen walked down and noticed me holding my old expired passport in my hand. He stopped and started speaking to me in Ukrainian.

I’m not exactly sure what he said but from what I got, I think he told me that he knew about my passport and that the office downstairs has it but they aren’t open until tomorrow. That’s what I think he was trying to tell me.

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I carry around my old, expired passport as extra proof in “what-if” scenarios like these.

I went back downstairs and saw the office door and saw that it would open again at 7am tomorrow, meaning I would have to spend the night somewhere in this shit hole part of town.

Luckily, I found a hotel about 5 minutes walk down the road, one of the sketchier hotels I’ve stayed in but I wasn’t looking for luxury. First thing tomorrow morning, I’m going to that office, getting my passport and getting the hell out of here.

Day 6 – The dodgy, old man in the trench coat.

I had a crappy dinner last night: a pre-made sandwich from a corner store. I couldn’t find anything else. I felt it in the morning from that, coupled with a restless night, I was up and already out of the door at 7am sharp and walked back to the apartment. The office had a separate door adjacent to the main apartment, so I didn’t have to play the guessing game again. I entered the office and saw a lady there sorting and filing snail mail.

This is a post office?

I went up to the lady and asked about a missing passport, showing her my old one as I tried to explain to her that my passport was in this office. She had no clue what I was saying and continued sorting her mail. I tried to explain again but she practically ignored me. It dawned on me that the gentlemen who told me about the office yesterday probably thought I was trying to mail something. He doesn’t know about any passport.

I rushed back to my hotel to use the wifi to contact Janka so she could call the mystery man. However, the wifi wasn’t working. As a matter of fact, the electricity to the entire building was off. Frustrated wouldn’t even begin to describe how I felt at that moment. Someone at that apartment has my passport. I had to figure out a way to get someone there to help. I went back to the post office.

The clock was ticking.

When I returned, there were, even more, women who working, busy sorting and filing postage. I pulled up the conversation I had with the Russian woman on my phone earlier and showed the lady who had no idea what I was saying previously. Along with the message, I showed her the phone number of the man and gestured for her to call it. She understood and called the number. A conversation went on for about two minutes and then she motioned for me to have a seat behind the desk. I couldn’t understand anything, but I had a good feeling that she spoke to the man who had my passport and that he was on his way!

I sat there, twiddling my thumbs, while all the women worked. It was like being in the middle of a box of feverish, chatty hens. Twenty minutes went by, and I began to feel like I was in the way of their work.

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I motioned to the head honcho and gestured if I could seat outside the office. She escorted me to another office across the hall to sit and wait. Another five minutes, ten, fifteen minutes go by. Where the heck is this guy? The door swung open and the head honcho lady escorted me outside the front door outside the building and gestured for me to wait. I guess he’s here, but I don’t see anyone.

Now this is the part where things get weird.

From the corner of my eye, I saw an older man, wearing a beige trench coat and an old-timey cap, appear from the side of the building. I looked at him and he looked at me. Without saying a word, he nodded his head at me and motioned me to come follow him as he disappeared off to the side of the building, leading into a lonely, miserable alley.

A bit weird.

“This is where I get kidnapped and sold off into human trafficking,” I thought to myself.

I followed the man a few meters into the alley and saw a yellow car at the end, with the front of the car facing us with one of the backdoors open, engine running and what appeared to be two other men in the backseat.

I suddenly stopped.

“Sir, do you have my passport?” I asked without hesitation.

He didn’t say a word. Instead, he stopped walking, reached into the inside of his coat as he gazed at me and pulled out my passport from his inside pocket. How did I know it was my passport? Because my passport had an indistinguishable cover on it that I bought when I was in Cambodia a few years ago. It was a case recycled from an old cement bag with a red elephant on it. This was 100% my passport that I have been searching for days!

“Yes, that’s it!” I said, as relieved as ever.

He continued to hold it close to him, still not saying a word. A silent figure who wouldn’t budge.

Just give me my damn passport!

Maybe he wants proof that it’s me?

I pulled out my expired passport and showed it to him.

“Look!” I said while pointing at the photo of myself. “That’s me!”

He opened my passport and compared the photos, but still he wouldn’t hand it over.

Ugh, maybe he wants a bribe?

I didn’t want to resort to this, but I was running out of options. All I had on me was about 500 Ukrainian Hryvnia’s which equaled to about $20 USD, that I pulled out of my wallet and tried to hand to him in exchange for my passport. He took the money, shoved it in his pocket and then suddenly grabbed my left arm with his right arm and began a sudden forceful pace, pulling me closer towards the open door of his car as he spoke something in a rough Ukrainian.

My instincts totally took over.

Without hesitation, I snatched my passport out of his grasp with my free right hand, shoved him at his side, broke free, and took off! I didn’t look back. I booked it back to my hotel, gathered my belongings, and basically ran to the train station. Back to Kiev.

What the f**& was that!?????

I reunited back with Maria and Janka who were at a restaurant in town and explained everything that happened. They couldn’t believe it.

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They had a grand ol’ time at Chernobyl and exploring the sights of Kiev while I was busy trying not to get kidnapped. Basically, Ukraine sucked, although I’m thankful because things could have been tremendously worse.

Day 7  Goodbye forever, Ukraine!

I woke up and saw an email from the US embassy stating that a police report was not necessary for my case.

You mean I could have skipped going to all of those incompetent police stations?!

We made it to our early morning flight to Warsaw, with my passport permanently glued to my body. I’m never leaving this baby again.

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Moral of the story: If you are gonna lose your passport somewhere, DON’T do it in Ukraine. 

 

P.S.

Don’t let this turn you off from traveling to Ukraine. Like I said, the food was top-notch and there was plenty to see. I felt relatively safe for the most part, other than that shady alleyway. BUT, if you do travel here, I highly recommend you come with someone who knows the language or you come through an English friendly tour operator. I believe if I spoke the language or if there wasn’t such a language barrier, a lot of the issues I had would never have happened.

 

My Super Strange Slovakian Night

my super strange slovakian night

What do I know about Slovakia? Not a damn thing.

For someone as geographically oriented as me (at least compared to everyone I know), I couldn’t tell you where Slovakia was on a map. Somewhere in Eastern Europe, surely. Apparently, it borders Hungary to the north; sort of on the way to Lviv, Ukraine, my next target destination. Google Maps indicated the best way to get to Lviv from Budapest would be via Flixbus to Košice, Slovakia, then another bus to Uzhhorod, Ukraine and finally a train to Lviv in the north. A 24 hour+ journey that I didn’t mentally prepare myself for.

I said my goodbyes to my hostel mates in Budapest and taxi’d it to the bus station. I took a taxi over the cheaper public transportation because I had plenty of Hungarian Forints left to splurge a bit. The Flixbus arrived at 5pm, right on the dot. This was by far the most comfortable bus I have ever been on; brand new, clean, wi-fi enabled, and only three passengers on the entire thing! I was able to sprawl and stretch my legs to my hearts content! About four hours later, we arrived at the Košice Bus Terminal.

Now, this is the part where my one overly cautious mistake led to a very strange night.

Google Maps suggested I prebook the 11:15pm bus to the Ukraine but I instead opted to prebook the 5am next-day departure. Why? Because I didn’t want to risk missing the 11:15pm bus if my initial bus from Budapest was late for some reason. (I still had Nepali time on my mind where everything was always hours late). I figured I can just chill and maybe sleep in the bus station. It couldn’t possibly be any worse than that one time I spent the night in that ridiculously awful bus station in Dallas, Texas.

Well I was wrong. Just like the Dallas Greyhound Bus Station (which I highly advise no one to ever take…trust me), the weirdos were roaming around, but this time they didn’t speak any English.

my super strange slovakian night adventure born

It was raining outside and I had to pee. For some reason, the restrooms in the bus station were locked and there was no one around to unlock them. Where do they expect people to use the toilet? No problem. Fortunately for us dudes, we have the privilege of finding a tree or bush outside to use. Only I had to take my giant stuffed bags with me because there was no way I was trusting anyone here with my belongings. As soon as I stepped foot outside, two ragtag adolescent boys ran up to me holding out their hands and saying something I couldn’t understand, in Slovakian presumedly.

“I’m sorry.” I said, with the sternest of faces.

They realized I spoke English and wasn’t from these parts.

“Me. Money.” said one of the scraggly boys.

I shook my head and and walked right back inside the bus terminal. Those boys looked about eleven or twelve and had splotches of dirt on their faces. I noticed they were only two of a larger group of boys with an older “ring leader” lurking about just outside the bus terminal.

There was an alternate rear exit that I took instead but another boy ran up to me and begged me money. I went back inside.

Damn, I really gotta pee but I keep getting ambushed by these little hoodlums!
I usually feel relatively safe while traveling in unknown parts and I’m confident I can handle my own if necessary, but I always feel the most vulnerable when I am walking around with my two heavy bags. My 85 liter bag on my back and a standard backpack on my front, both stuffed to the max. They’re so hefty that someone could push me and I would easily topple down, completely helpless.

I noticed there was a train station about 200 feet behind the bus station. It was filled with more people. There has to be a toilet there. But I waited it out, for the street kids to wander off. After a few minutes, I made my way to the train station, in the pouring rain. Inside, I found a toilet but learned that you needed to pay Euro coins to use it. One, I don’t have any Euros on me and two, I despise having to pay to use a toilet. With that, plan of action was to find somewhere secluded outside. On the way, I was pestered by a homeless man, asking for money in Slovakian. I played the “I don’t understand” card and went off. I found a little shack where I was able to pee, freakin’ finally! I went back to the bus station to find a spot where I could chill until 5am. I couldn’t believe the amount of drunks/bums/sketchy mofos creeping about.

Around 11:30pm, I looked up from playing on my phone and saw that the whole terminal was empty; just me and a drunk sitting on the other side of the room, who was struggling to keep his head up when dozing off.

The lights shut off and the security guard inside motioned that we had to leave. Alright, not a big deal. I’ll just go sit at the train station.

There wasn’t really anywhere I found that was comfortable to chill in the train station. Most of the seats were occupied by homeless people. I did sit next to them for a while, but they were speaking to themselves, yelling at each other, and staring me down. I got up and just stood around far away from them. There was this one guy, who appeared to be “normal” and looked around my age who was walking around the station doing laps. I paid him no attention.

I went downstairs and saw that the final train left, and the building was empty; except for all the homeless people roaming around aimlessly as if they were zombies. I made sure not to make any eye contact. I sat on a set of stairs trying to figure out what to do. It’s only midnight. My bus leaves at 5am. It’s raining bullets outside. That “normal” guy who was doing laps earlier came to the stairs and sat behind me. Still, I paid him no attention.

Security came to us, pointed at his watch, and pointed towards the door. He was locking up the station and all of us, including the zombies drunk bums had to leave the building. Shit, where do I go now?

I sat outside on small ledge, away from all of the drunks, underneath a small awning as shelter from the rain, but I knew it was only a matter of time until they would make their way over. I gotta think of something quick! The “normal” guy who seemed to be casually following me for the past 20 minutes sat down right next to me. This time I felt like I had to say something.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hello,” he relayed and then said something to me in Slovakian that I couldn’t understand.

“I’m sorry. Do you speak English?”

He did in fact and what a relief. It turns out, he missed his scheduled train and he too had to wait until 5am for the next one to come. We were in the same predicament. Sitting outside in the shivery, rainy dark.

“My name is Peter,” he said as he shook my hand.

I introduced myself and as I did, three scruffy drunk scraggly men, who reeked of cigarette smoke came up to us. My spidey sense was tingling. This was not good.

They started speaking in Slovakian and Peter responded in the calmest, yet friendliest demeanor. They said something to me but Peter informed them that I don’t understand and that I am from America.

Their eyes widened when they heard that I was American. Not good. Not good. It’s a stereotype that being American equates with being filthy rich which is so far from the truth, at least in my case.

They weren’t aggressive but they weren’t exactly exuding any warmth either. They would speak to me semi-slurred in their native tongue and Peter would translate, as I sat there going over the series of events that put me in this situation. I was supposed to be in Tajikistan right now, not Slovakia.

“He wants to know if you’re from Kenya, because you look like a runner,” said Peter, who seemed embarrassed to even tell me that.

I laughed. “No, I’m from the USA.” I thought we already established that?

“He wants to know if you can run fast?” said Peter.

“Yes, I can run very fast.” Which was a stone cold lie. I only said that just in case they did try to mug me and run off, I wanted them to think I could easily chase them down.

I was playing off of Peter’s body language. He didn’t want them there as much as I did.

“They are asking if you have any money.” he said.

I shook my head. “No.”

The man asking all of these questions, his name was Roman. He seemed like the leader of the drunks and constantly scolded or bickered at the others, who listened like his puppets. He was shaved to a buzz cut, tall, and smelt like an abandoned basement filled with dust and old junk no has touched for years. Yes, he was that close enough to me that I could smell his stench.

A wrinkly, elderly woman who reeked of tobacco then sat next to me and tried to give me a cigarette. I politely declined, much to her persistence that I must have one. I sat there looking out into the rain, surrounded by all of these creeps. I have four hours until my bus arrives.

I’m not sitting out here with these guys any longer.

I suddenly stood up and told Peter that I was going to find a hotel for a couple hours. He wasn’t comfortable around all of the increasing number of drunks around us either and decided to join me. We walked off into the rain, while periodically checking if anyone of them was following us. None of them were. Thank God. If there is one thing that always makes me nervous, it’s drunk strangers.

Peter and I checked several different hotels. Only one of them had a room available, but it was expensive. A whopping 115 euros for four hours worth of sleep. So then Peter suggested that we go to a pizza place he knew of nearby that stayed open until 4am. We could eat pizza and relax there. Sounds like a plan!

my super strange slovakian night adventure born

 

As we walked to the pizza place, Peter apologized regarding my first impression of his country. I told him no need to apologize. I’m sure Slovakia is a great country regardless of this. I ordered a chicken pizza and finished the entire thing. We still had a couple hours to kill so we sat there and played with cards that I had in my bag. Next thing you know, Roman pops in, along with his band of bums. He sees us and sits down at our table. The others sit at the table directly behind us. How in the world did they find us?

He says something to me and Peter translates. “He wants to know if you can buy him a small beer.” If a beer will keep him from trying anything funny then sure. I said yes and he gave me a dirty handshake. He ordered a beer from the waitress and she proceeded to bring out a tall draft. I swore he said a small one. I went to pay for it with a few Euros I got from the ATM just before. She gave me just a few Euros in change back. I sat down back at the table and I handed Roman the spare change. He shook my hand again, barely let go, and said some more stuff in Slovakian.

“He said this is a very good day for him” said Peter. “He never expected to meet an American from Kenya and he thanks you for your kindness.” I’m not from Kenya but whatever.

I expected Roman to pocket the change and save it for later but instead he went to the front counter and came back with a box of Marlboro Gold’s. I never usually give money to homeless people on the street. I always feel guilty about it, but this was just a reminder as to why I won’t give money to beggars. They buy really unnecessary things with it.

If someone told me that I would be drinking beer in a pizza bar at 3:30am with a bunch of Slovakian street bums and also a good-natured college student, I would actually believe them. How it came to be though, would be baffling.

my super strange slovakian night adventure born

In spite of that, it seemed things were under control. Peter and I would just have to wait it out, keep the drunks level, and then make our way to our 5am transportation. I’ve been fighting the urge to sleep since 1am. That in itself was a struggle.

my super strange slovakian night

After another hour of painfully trying to keep Roman and his gang in good spirits, 4am hit and I thought the train and bus stations had to be open by now, so Peter and I left the drunks to the bar as we quickly, yet stealthily made our way back out into the wet, empty streets of Košice. Just like I assumed, both stations were open and it was safe to wait inside again. I said my goodbyes and also my thank you’s to Peter. Without him, I’m not sure how I would have managed on my own. Could have been a completely different ending to this story. If you’re reading this, thanks for your company, Peter!

The little street kids were still there and bombarded me! I expected them to be long gone by now but no, here they were, as if they were waiting for me to come back. This time, I rushed through them and straight to my bus terminal marker, where other passengers were waiting. Those kids disappeared into the Slovakian streets. Why do bus stations always have to be in the sketchiest places?

I boarded my bus that arrived promptly at 5am, along with dozens of other passengers. I sat in the middle of the bus, without realizing we were assigned seats. The non English speaking bus driver motioned for me to sit in the back. Fine. I can finally relax and sleep.

But.

As it turns out though, my super strange night in Slovakia was just the appetizer—a small taste of what Ukraine was about to lay on me.

It would be about five hours until we crossed that border…

…five hours until one of my most stressful and surreal travel experiences ever!