Tag Archives: travel

Travelicious #4: Shiny!

I plan to have several entries regarding Budapest, considering that’s where I spent the bulk of my trip. They may be more impressionistic in nature rather than straight accounts of things that happened. After all, it has been almost a week since I returned and the days sort of run together. Fortunately, I have photos to jog my memory, or something.

I arrived in Budapest about 15 minutes earlier than scheduled. The plane landed, we disembarked onto the tarmac, and then a shuttle bus took us to the baggage claim area. There was no Skyway for whatever reason. While I waited for my suitcase, I pulled out some local money from an ATM. I must say, Hungarian Forints look more like real money than Euros. Euros look like Monopoly money. An observation about both of them is that they feel thinner and flimsier than US bills. I have my doubts that such money could survive a trip through the washing machine.

After claiming my suitcase, I headed for the exit. Almost all the signs in the airport were in both Hungarian and English, so it wasn’t hard to figure out where I needed to go. As I emerged into the arrival area, I saw a man holding up a sign with my name on it. Woohoo! He was, of course, the owner of the apartment I’d rented for the duration. He grabbed my suitcase and escorted me to his car, a small wagon that was nevertheless quite large compared to the other cars I saw. The rumors about cars in Europe being small are certainly true. I will say, though, that it was not uncomfortable.

My host talked to me as we drove off toward the city center. It was dark. Lots of things were lit up. One particular structure that caught my eye was the Dohany Street Synagogue. The golden glow of its two domed towers were very striking in the dark, so naturally I asked what it was, and he was happy to explain. As we drove, he pointed out other attractions I might want to see, and to be honest I forgot most of them almost immediately. I wound up seeing quite a few of them anyway, but he spoke so quickly it was difficult to capture everything he said. He pointed out West End as we drove past it, notable for the strobing lights all over the exterior. I feel bad for anyone who has to live next to that. It must be really annoying to have lights flashing in your window all night, every night. In any case, West End is a large mall with 4 stories and an imperial shit ton of stores and restaurants. There’s also a movie theater and an arcade. Many of the businesses use English signage and almost all the employees I spoke to knew at least enough English to take your order and otherwise help you out.

After about a 20 minute drive we came to Podmaniczky utca (street), where the apartment was located. One thing this area had in common with Brussels was the way buildings were pressed up against each other. No alleyways between them or anything like that, just wall-to-wall buildings everywhere. Totally understandable for cities that are hundreds of years old and densely populated.

We came in the front door of the apartment building and I was led to a small courtyard. It seems the interiors of most apartment buildings in Budapest possess such central courtyards. I’m not sure what the reasoning is. The building did look a little run down, with cracks in the walls and chipped paint. The courtyard wasn’t especially well cared for. But I can’t complain too much: the apartment was quite cheap and in a great location, close to many attractions.

The owner took me into the apartment, showed me the trick to locking the front door (it’s a little temperamental), gave me the layout of the place. It had a small refrigerator–bigger than a mini fridge but not quite full size, and with no freezer. There was a very small kitchen with a toaster oven that had a range top, a little sink, a coffee maker, an electric teapot, and some basics: salt, sugar, rice, olive oil. I had to taste test the salt and sugar to figure out which was which. D’oh. There were also plenty of dishes.

Next was the bathroom, which consisted of a toilet, a sink, and a shower stall. The shower got its water from a sink attachment, and let me tell you it had some crazy water pressure. It reminded me of that “Seinfeld” episode where Kramer and Newman don’t want the new “low flow” showerheads being installed in their building, so they buy black market showerheads from some Eastern European thugs. Apparently, there was some truth to that. This shower was crazy. I had to keep the water turned down to avoid being pelted with speeding bullets of water. Oh, it also leaked a little, so the floor got wet.

The living room/bedroom was easily the biggest room in the whole place. It had a queen-sized bed, a dresser with a little TV on it, a rocking chair, a small cabinet, and a couple nightstands.

I also forgot the dining room, which was separated from the living room/bedroom by a half-height wall and some posts. Said posts actually held up the loft, directly above the dining area, which had two very small beds. Those beds did not get much use. The stairs up to the loft were also quite steep and probably not worth attempting while drunk.

The main bed was pretty comfortable. I’ve had better, I’ve had worse. I think it was originally a sleeper sofa and they put a thin foam mattress on top of it. You could kind of feel the bars if you laid a certain way. Still, I slept pretty soundly on it. Can’t complain.

This is all probably too much detail. Tough cookies, eh? With all this business about the apartment out of the way, the next can cover some actual sights, plus the highlights of using Budapest’s public transportation system. Woohoo!

Also, having been up for 36 hours by that point, I slept like a fucking baby. Holy shit, dude.

Travelicious #3: Fear and Loathing in Brussels

I had the better part of a day to spend in Brussels, so rather than waste it just hanging around the airport, I decided to go into the city proper. The first thing I noticed was that everything in Brussels is in at least three languages. Dutch is almost always first, followed by French, and then either German or English. I think I saw Italian in a few places, too. Seeing the same thing written in a few languages certainly gives you clues as to what it’s saying even if you don’t actually know said languages.

Even so, getting to the city center proved more difficult than anticipated. It wasn’t a matter of logistics–I knew I just needed to take a train–but rather that the way the train schedules were displayed was extremely confusing. At the train terminal below the airport there was a posted list of all the trains, when they departed and from what platform. Many trains go to the city center but most of them don’t stop there, and the digital signs indicate only the train’s final destination. On top of that, the track number specified on the schedule often didn’t match where the train actually appeared. So, does the train to Leuven that leaves at 9:58 from track 2 go to Bruxelles-Midi even though the schedule says that train should be on track 1 a few minutes later? There was no consistency at all. Eventually, I bit the bullet and just jumped on one of the trains going to “Bruxelles-Zuid” (South Brussels) and got off at the central station.

The trains were pretty nice, a bit nicer than the commuter trains you can take in New Jersey. Rather than everyone facing the same direction and packed together as if you’re on an airplane, the standard in Europe appears to be for sets of opposing seats facing each other, sometimes with a small table in between. You can fit fewer people on such a train but it’s certainly more conversational and inviting.

Once I got off at the central station, I walked through the station and looked around a bit. Much of the station is actually underground. It doesn’t look very big from the outside, and is in fact mostly dwarfed by the surrounding buildings. Above the row of ticketing windows is a massive digital schedule, which was quite impressive to see. They had trains going everywhere from Antwerp to Bruges. After getting a feel for the interior of the station, I went out to the street and looked around. Maybe other parts of Brussels are laid out more sensibly, but the area around Brussels-Central is an ungodly maze. I avoided wandering too far afield for fear I wouldn’t be able to make it back to the station in time for my flight.

Despite the somewhat insane street layout, I did find Brussels to be an attractive city. It was busy but not insanely so–certainly no comparison with, say, Manhattan in the morning. During the few hours I spent near the station, I found a nice garden (under renovation but still attractive), an art museum, a water display that had something to do with a salt mine (don’t ask me, I don’t know), a bunch of flags, the remains of a castle butted up against a modern apartment building, some cathedrals, and a lot of stairs and cobblestone roads. For my first taste of Europe, it was visually appealing if not viscerally impressive.

The most negative aspect of my time in Brussels involved a set of young women outside the aforementioned garden. At one end of the garden was a set of steps leading up to another area with a fountain, from which you got a pretty nice view. No doubt it was a tourist trap, and at the first landing on said stairs (quite a large area in itself) there were a handful of women with clipboards, asking people if they spoke English. And if you did, why, it’s your lucky day! They talked about the problem of homelessness in Europe and that if you would just be kind enough to put down your name and hand over 20 Euro, you can help stamp out poverty in the EU. The cynic in me said that this was a scam and I should get away as quickly as possible. The cynic in me won out, yes it did. Maybe they were looking for English speakers because they’ve heard of the famed generosity of Americans–or perhaps they’re familiar with the famed gullibility of Americans, and were looking to take advantage of same. Suffice it to say, I moved on quickly.

Little else tarnished my brief stay in Brussels. After a few hours wandering about and looking at pretty things, I went back to the station and took a train up to the airport. This was substantially less frustrating, since the digital signs would all say “AIRPORT”. While waiting for the train, a couple of German women came up to me and asked if I spoke English. While I could have pretended only to speak Esperanto or somesuch, my wits failed me at that moment and I tried instead to be helpful. They said they were trying to get to Bruges and wondered if I knew what train to take. Oh, of course not. I told them I was also confused by the insanity of the Belgian trains. They wandered off and probably wound up in Amsterdam.

Back at the airport, I finally got hungry. There was a place called “Quality Burger Restaurant.” I do love truth in advertising. I had a “beef andalousse” burger, which cost like 2 Euro and was smaller than the smallest burger they sell at McDonald’s. Oh, what the hell, Europe? They had bigger ones, but my God, they were like 8 Euro a pop! No way, dude. So I got one of those andalousse thingies and a side salad, which was actually very good and not at all like the side salads you get in the US. It had feta cheese and other things in it which I am now forgetting. And balsamic vinaigrette dressing. That was good. I paid 10 Euro for an hour’s worth of Internet access. It was laggy and sucked ass. What a ripoff.

Later on, I found out there was an observation level at the airport where you could eat and watch the tarmac. I had to get in on that. Since you had to buy something to get into the restaurant, I wasn’t hungry, and I wasn’t sure about trying Belgian beer, I instead bought a bottle of French merlot which was something like 12.5% alcohol by volume. I drank it, watched the planes, started to feel very warm and amused, then decided to go through security to get to my proper terminal and gate. Alcohol kept me from properly emptying my pockets so I kept setting off the metal detector. The security personnel were visibly annoyed and I earned myself a patdown from an American gentleman who was for some reason working in the Brussels airport. This is what I get for not drinking in a year and a half and being a total lightweight to begin with.

It took me a few hours to sober up, by which time my plane had come and it was time to be off to Budapest. The sun was going down, and I hopped aboard a Malev Hungarian Airline flight. They served us cheese sandwiches and tea. I napped a little bit, but then they rammed my elbow with the meal cart. Fuck.

Travelicious #2: Terror at 38,000 Feet

I departed Newark a little late. The plane didn’t start boarding on time. There was a lot of pre-boarding. People didn’t queue up in any kind of sensible fashion for general boarding. Finally, a bunch of other planes had to take off before we got our chance. We got into the air a good 45 minutes later than scheduled. The pilot hoped we would get a chance to make up some time as we crossed the Atlantic.

This was my first experience with Jet Airways. Knowing that they are an Indian airline but not much else about them, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Most of the crew and passengers were Indian. I found out the plane was stopping in Brussels on its way to Mumbai. For those continuing onward, that meant about 8 hours to Brussels plus another 9 hours to their final destination–way too much time on a plane for one day!

All safety instructions were given in Hindi, then English. They had a rather creepy safety video, done with quasi-anime CGI. I remember when airplane safety videos had actual human beings in them and I wonder why we don’t still do that. CGI is relatively expensive, and it’s not like it would be hard to do the videos in a real environment. Airlines already have access to planes, crew, and passengers, so just bring a camera and a script in there and go! Maybe give some people a first class upgrade for agreeing to demonstrate in the video.

Moving on, this cute Indian girl sat next to me. She wasn’t very talkative, although we were both polite to each other. It wasn’t until we began our final descent that she finally started to get chatty. She explained that she grew up in New Zealand but spent the last 11 years in New York City. She was on her way back to India to visit family. I told her I was on my way to Budapest and her reaction was like that of most people: “Hungary? Why there??” Ha! For anyone who still hasn’t figured that out, it’s pretty simple. Traveling to Europe is nice and all, but Western Europe is, of course, very Western. It’s not dramatically different from being in the US, in my opinion. The time I spent in Brussels (to be described in the next blog) seemed to bear this out. I wanted to go somewhere more unique and different. My friend Nikki had been talking up Budapest for over a year so I decided to bite the bullet and make that my first trip to Europe.

The in-flight food was, I must say, pretty good for food served on an airplane. You could choose between vegetarian and non-vegetarian. I went non-vegetarian as I am a vicious carnivore. Then they asked if I wanted Indian chicken or grilled chicken. Duh! I went for the Indian food. The chicken was chopped up and in some kind of seasoned brown sauce. In the dish was also rice and a single green chili. A small bowl contained chickpeas and baby corn. There was also plain yogurt (yuck) and rice pudding, the latter of which was excellent. Rather than being plain rice pudding, it had small bits of fruit in it–melon and some other things I’m not sure about. The only thing I didn’t eat was the yogurt. Just not a fan of plain yogurt, eh. I offered it to the girl sitting next to me but she didn’t want it either. To drink, there was apple juice and water.

Dinner having been served around 10PM New Jersey time, a few hours later we were served breakfast. It is very strange to lose 6 hours, let me tell you. Breakfast consisted of a raisin muffin and some mixed fruit. I also opted to have coffee with that, which wasn’t bad.

Since it was dark for most of the flight, I didn’t see much of the Atlantic Ocean–as if there is much to see in the first place. But the timing worked out so that I could quite easily see Ireland during the sunrise. I got a sense of how rural most of the country is, most of the landscape carved up into farmland, and the towns I saw were all pretty small. Britain was definitely more urbanized, at least from what I could tell from the air. As we descended, there were numerous ships in the English Channel. I’d never given much thought to how busy that bit of water must be, but it is very heavily trafficked.

At this point you’re probably wondering where the “Terror” in the title comes from. Well, it doesn’t come from anywhere… except my brain. Got you to read this far, though, didn’t it? You can’t argue with success.

There was some mild turbulence and we didn’t get to make up much time due to strong headwinds, none of which bothered me since I had a long layover ahead of me. Hitting the ground an hour late was fine with me, though I’m sure it was inconvenient for some of my fellow passengers.

As for the plane itself, the A330-200 is a pretty sweet aircraft. On the back of each seat is a Linux-based entertainment and communications terminal. There’s a (wired) remote that you can use to control it. On one side of the remote are the standard controls: volume, channel, home, play, stop, etc. Flip it over and it’s both a QWERTY keyboard and a game controller (d-pad and four action buttons.) Most of the games sucked major ass, though there was a 3D pool game which wasn’t bad. There was a selection of movies and music which wasn’t great but it was better than nothing. I got see Tron Legacy which I hadn’t seen yet, so that’s something. Way more luxury than I’m used to having on a plane.

I would also like to mention that it sucks trying to sleep on a plane when babies are breaking out crying every few minutes. Argh! I propose crying children be sent down to the cargo hold, along with their parents. The kid behind me kept kicking my seat, too. What the hell, kids? A couple dirty looks embarrassed her father enough to control her.

And there you have it, somewhat scattered ramblings regarding my flight from Newark to Brussels. Next up: Brussels, city of Dutch things.

Travelicious #1: The Departure

In using #1 to designate this entry, you might think I’m boxing myself in and indicating there can’t and won’t be entries that describe events prior to this, such as planning and packing and so forth. Oh, but you would be wrong, because #0 and #-1 and so forth are still available. If it’s good enough for comic books, it’s good enough for me.

That little detour aside, I am sitting in Terminal B at Newark Liberty Airport, waiting for my plane to be called for boarding. That won’t happen for another couple hours, so I have plenty of time to kill. I’m seeing if I can pull one over on my wireless carrier and tether my phone without buying a separate plan. We’ll see how that goes. Not that it will do me any good in Europe. Did I mention that’s where I’m going? Well, that’s where I’m going. I will land in Brussels tomorrow morning, have just about an all day to kill, then I will fly to Budapest.

About that tethering thing: it worked. Sweet! Not that you care. This is a travel blog, not a technology blog. Nobody likes technology blogs anyway, unless they’re Slashdot, and everyone hates Slashdot, too. So I’m told.

I actually had to endure less security for this flight than I did during my last trip to Indiana. Go figure. But then I had to present a passport, and they scan that upon check-in, which no doubt pulls up any naughty things I’ve ever done. As long as I’m not bad enough, I guess they will continue to let me through. The stupid thing actually wouldn’t scan at their computer terminal for some reason. Brand new passport, wouldn’t scan. Figure that one out. On the fourth try it finally went through and they sent me on my way. They assured me my one and only checked suitcase–containing my clothes and other essentials–would be forwarded along to my connecting flight without me having to do anything. I know with some international flights this is not the case when you have a connection, so I at least made sure to ask.

Items of interest: in this terminal, there are no restaurants and I didn’t see any particularly interesting stores. What they do have is a Samuel Adams bar (with just alcohol, no food) and a duty free shop with alcohol, cosmetics, and cigarettes. All things which have just so much appeal for me, you know. I was thinking maybe I could get something to eat here but evidently that is a non-starter. I might wander back up the corridor and see if I missed a place with genuine food. Or I’ll get drunk. Who votes for drunk? That’s the spirit.

Unsurprisingly, most of the people in this terminal are Indian. In case you didn’t know, Jet Airways is an Indian airline. The name isn’t Indian so you might not pick up on it. There is also “India Air,” which I bet actually flies out of Malaysia or something, just to throw people off. But no, I have an Indian airline taking me from New Jersey to Belgium. Try to figure that one out. Not that I am complaining, since I got such a killer deal on the tickets, without which this trip would not have been possible. I stalked the prices for weeks and happened across a fare that was about half the normal rate. Just couldn’t pass that up.

The cab ride to the airport was uneventful, moreso than usual. Traffic was only bad along one a short stretch of a notoriously-lousy highway. The driver was young, possibly younger than me. Not very talkative, either. I like a cab driver who will chat you up a bit. He asked where I was going but beyond that he didn’t seem to care much, so I daydreamed and took in the architectural wonders of downtown Newark. (In case you’ve never been to Newark: that’s a joke. There isn’t much to look at, unless buildings with shattered windows and ubiquitous graffiti are your thing.)

I had no idea the whole check-in and security theater proces would take, but I got through everything in maybe 20 minutes. I think it might have taken less time than a domestic flight, somehow. I didn’t have as many people to wait for in the security line. I also “accidentally” left my belt on, and no one noticed. Whoops!

It occurs to me that this particular entry may not be very interesting since I have not actually seen anything interesting yet. But hey, maybe my prose is enjoyable enough on its own.

For the traveler who has never been to Newark Liberty Airport, it’s actually pretty damn nice once you get to the terminal area. Very clean, and there are pillars with electrical outlets so you can charge up your phone and/or laptop. You also get a sweet view of the flightline, if you are into that kind of thing, which I am.

If you arrive at the correct terminal to begin with, you will probably find EWR very easy to navigate. However, if you must go to another terminal (there are three), you’ll have to use the AirTram system. The AirTram itself is cool, but the connective tissue can be a little absurd. You might have to go upstairs and then downstairs and then upstairs again. Parts of the airport resemble a maze. This is really just a failing of the airport’s central facility. The terminals themselves are much more logically laid out, which is why I strongly recommend just hitting the proper terminal right off the bat. It is a nice airport, but I would say it’s not as nice as Indianapolis International. Indy’s airport is much newer, though, so that’s to be expected, right?

Given that I haven’t flown on anything besides short-hop commuter planes since the late ’90s, I’m interested to see what an Airbus A330 is like. I’ll be on the 200 model. From Brussels, I’ll be on a 737-800, I believe. My first flight is a window seat. I can hardly wait to see all that ocean. Oh yes. My second flight, however, is an aisle seat. I guess I get to enjoy the immense variety of economy-class flying. Bwahaha.

My next update will most likely be from Budapest. I have no idea if I will have Internet access in the Brussels airport. And even if I do, I’d rather be poking around the airport and the city while I have the opportunity than playing around on the computer. Nevertheless, I plan to put up a blog every couple days, minimum. Worst case, I will take down notes and compose the blog entries later. But they will come. And pictures! Yes, pictures. Everyone loves pictures.

So, until next time.