Friday, June 8, 2012

Iceland Bound!

The backpacks have been taken out of storage (aka Julia's parents' house) and re-packed. We've somehow managed to fill them almost to the top, which means we've packed more than we did for our entire SE Asia and Eastern Europe trips.

With Iceland's tourism season lasting about three months (primarily mid June - August), booking places to stay in advance was pretty much mandatory. We know where our base camps will be for the next two weeks, but we haven't gone much beyond that with our itinerary. Here's how it's looking:

June 9 - Arrive at 9am, grab a bus into Reykjavik and find our guesthouse. After that, it'll be off to wander the city and eat touristy Icelandic things like puffin, whale, hot dogs, and fermented shark. And we'll be in search of the perfect lopapeysa. I've come to love Icelandic music lately, particularly Soley, Of Monsters and Men, FM Belfast, and the always good Sigur Ros. Seeing an upcoming local band in the heart of Reykjavik is high on our list. Looks like a band called Vigri is playing this night at a German bar, and if we can manage to stay up past midnight, I'm hoping this is where we'll be ending the night.

June 10 - More Reykjavik. Maybe hop over to Videy island if we have time. Otherwise, explore the town.

June 11 - We get our Yaris and head for the Snæfellsnes peninsula in the northwest.

June 12 - We drive off to the northeast toward Akureyri, the second largest city in Iceland (~20,000 people). There's supposed to be a pretty awesome swimming pool here.

June 13 - We meet up with a guy from a tour company called Fjallasýn, who's actually going to drive us in his super jeep to Askja, a place I wanted to go before planning this trip, but became heartbroken when I found out most tour operators would not go there since the roads are still frozen over. NASA astronauts prepared for the lunar landing here because of the landscape. Looks amazing, and I can't wait to swim inside the crater.

June 14 - We explore Lake Myvatn, an area I don't know much about other than its crazy landscape. The most powerful waterfall in Europe is nearby as well.

June 15 - We head to the Eastfjords and stay in a quaint town called Seyðisfjörður. Don't know much about this place yet.

June 16 & 17 - We get our outdoorsy-ness on and stay at a guesthouse right outside of Vatnajökull National Park. We booked a four-hour glacier walk here.

June 18 & 19 - We base ourselves in a town called Hveragerdi. We chose this place because it's conveniently located in southwest Iceland and also has a hot pot (geothermal pool) in the hotel, overlooking a river. That just sounds cool.

June 20 - Back to Reykjavik for a final night, and probably hit up the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa that every tourist coming to Iceland visits.

...and then we go home. Boo.

Hopefully we get some pretty awesome photos posted within the next few weeks. On a sidenote, happy 64th birthday dad!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

New Design

With an Iceland trip coming up in about two weeks we decided it was time to fix up the blog, get rid of some of the funky HTML issues, and convert some of the old Flickr links over to Picasa. Stay tuned for some Iceland posts in June!

Friday, February 24, 2012

New Chernobyl Content

Not really new, but I originally wrote a long-ish post on Chernobyl, only to delete it a few minutes later and substitute it with a few words and photos. My memory of the event has gotten hazy after less than a year, and I figured I would re-post it before it was lost forever.

Original blog post with videos, photos and summary: http://www.fredandjulia.com/2011/04/chernobyl-most-romantic-honeymoon-spot.html
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(originally posted in April, 2011, and deleted by myself minutes later - my apologies for the unedited typos)


Well, huh, where to even start this one?

Get ready for a lot of photos (not typical Fred-style, I know), some videos from Youtube that are close to 20 minutes long (and repetitive for the average viewer). This was an experience I will probably never forget, but unfortunately not one that entirely fit my expectations.

...and how could it possibly do that? I've seen so many Chernobyl blogs and photos, especially of the amusement park and ferris wheel, that it became somewhat of a fantasy - something you need to see in person to really get the full experience. Let me preface this post by saying that it does and will not fulfill the image that most people interested in Chernobyl have of it. Maybe it is the tour's fault, or maybe it's the hyped image. Maybe it's the hours upon hours spent in a bus with only a short time to explore on your own time. Maybe it's the vast number of tourists (ok, 30) that snap photos the second they leave the bus and don't take the time to suck it all in with their eyes.

Yes, I took a lot of photos. More than I've taken in entire countries. Most of these were taken while walking and pointing and shooting (thanks to our new awesome Canon which makes me a little happy that our old Nikon broke) and that explains the sometimes blurry and not so artsy photos of the disaster zone that is Chernobyl. By the end of the trip, when I was finally given a half hour to explore a middle school in Pripyat (the closest town to the plant) I decided against taking photos and instead hit the record button on my camera and walking through it without much thought to what I was recording. This was what I wanted to see. It wasn't until we finished up and headed to the contamination checkpoint that I started to get a little nervous again.

Again, this probably explains why the video might be boring to most after a few minutes. To me, it was the most fascinating and exciting part of the ten hour trip. It wasn't just a photo opportunity to add to the millions of images that come back on Google when you search 'Chernobyl', but myself actually walking from classroom to classroom, seeing most of the same in each room, and getting a real chill of the events that happened here.

And this is probably a good opportunity to begin my experience of the tour that is Chernobyl.

This tour had been in my mind for ages. It wasn't the reason for coming to Ukraine. But knowing I was coming, I knew I'd kick myself if I didn't see it for myself. The price was $150 - expensive by our standards. It included the bus ride from Kiev to the Chernobyl evacuation zone (which was about 30km long), lunch, and of course the tour itself.

Many people thought I was insane for doing this. My parents didn't express much concern. Julia's parents were a little different. Completely understandable given the circumstances. There weren't exactly many Ukrainians on this trip. A few crazy Russians, yeah, but mostly westerners and a few Japanese. When I first booked the tour, I was excited and prepared for everything to come. When I woke up in the morning and headed down to Independence Square to present my passport, pay, and hit the bus for the journey, I started to get a little nervous. What if... will I... ?

My memory sucks. Julia points this out every day. I don't remember where I was, but I can visually place myself in every spot I was at today. Most of the tour involved riding in a bus from Point A to Point B, viewing a few sights, a few leftovers from the evacuation, and a few things that were over my head from a scientific perspective. It didn't help that our tour guide left most of this to our imagination. Videos will help me remember some of areas that I'll soon forget.

I was underwhelmed and somewhat bored for the first few hours. When we hit the actual reactor that exploded, I was somewhat terrified. I got out, took some quick photos, and headed back to the bus. Not risking this one., We were supposedly 300m from the plant, but it looked a lot closer. The thing was massive, but I knew it was still leaking. Construction workers from across the globe were working to seal it off once and for all. It's only taken 25 years.

...and to make things even more fun, yesterday was the actual 25th anniversary. The president of Ukraine showed up. Today, they were many government officials in the area (or men with nice fitted suits - I'm just making the goverrnment official part up). There was a city within the evacuation zone, where heating pipes were built above ground to avoid the radioactive soil, where many people lived, slept, and worked in the area. It was odd to see the newly built houses surrounded by abandoned radioactive Soviet style apartments.

We saw the river that provided cooling to the plants. We saw other plants that weren't shut down until 2000. We saw random schools on a guided path. It felt like I was following a blog (just like you're doing!) and not really experiencing this thing myself. But all I really remembered was the amusement park with the creepy ferris wheel. You know the one. Everyone takes a photo of it. It's the Eiffler Tower of Chernobyl.

It felt like a roller coaster ride, except most of this ride is you going up, up, up until out of nowhere you take a huge downward turn and get hit with everything all at once and all too quickly. I came for the ghost town. For Pripyat. I wanted to see what life was like in 1986, when things stood still.

Let me get a few things out of the way. I think a lot of the Chernobyl experience is complete bullshit. There were creepy dolls everywhere, as if staged perfectly by some guy whose job it is to wake up before the tour buses arrive and carefully place all the eerie things in their spots. Records next to music sheets, stuffed animals in ferris wheels, magazines spread across the floor (I saw one with a cover advertising MP3 players - USSR must have been craxy advanced back in '86).

It was a facade. It was trying to hit us with what we expected and wanted to see. We wanted to see the most macabre images we could find. To me, it felt as real as the hill tribes in Southeast Asia.

..until we hit the middle school in Pripyat. This is where things became real. This is where the tour guide told us we had 30 minutes, and I was able to bolt out and try to explore the four floots of the school on my own. This is where my camera didn't take a single photo but instead followed me around (experience this by watching my long, long Youtube video). This is where walking through the hallways, peering into classrooms, bathrooms, and libraries felt like something stuck in time without any disturbances. I couild have spent hours here. Time passed by as I wanted so badly to open up the books fallen from the library bookcases and see a different world. Walking into the bathroom was both disgusting and somewhat fascinating.

Most of this place is imaginary. It was designed to thrill you no differently than a theme park. It was custom created to match exactly what you'd expect to see from a city evacuated and left to dust 25 years ago. When you ride into town and see a somewhat bustling town, you know things aren't exactly what they seem.
Despite the facade of the dolls and carefully placed objects throughout the grounds, Pripyat was still an amazing experience. I'll probably soon forget the whole Chernobyl experience, but I won't forget wandering through the school and rarely seeing another person. I didn't intentionally choose to ignore narrating most of the long video - I was just caught in the moment (and also watching my footing and my head to avoid stepping on too much glass and hitting my head against hanging lights).

Finally, I am aware of the pain this caused my new family and my wife. In my view, this place has been forgotten by the new generation living in Ukraine. It's more of a, 'why could you want to go there?' than a 'are you insane'' question. Maybe I'm wrong, but that was my impression. It's become a huge tourist attraction for both Ukraine and the city of Kiev. No doubt that the government is cashing in one this. I wish I knew the reason I wanted so badly to come here. I suppose it's a slice of history that few have seen. Or maybe it was just the ferris wheel. Aside from wandering the school, I thought the remnant shells of old communist buildings (restaurants, hotels) were the nost visually appealing places in the evacuation zone. Other than in North Korea, where else can you find these things?

As outsiders, I think we will always be fascinated by a former communist town stuck in time - sitting just 100km away from a post-communist, bustling city.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Eastern Europe - Planned Route vs. Actual Route

We changed our minds about where to go on an almost daily basis while in Europe. We originally drew out a route on a map that we thought would hit everywhere we wanted to see while also getting us to Italy without having to backtrack.

It all goes to show that the best planned trip can't compete with the flexibility of making last minute changes.

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Original Route

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Actual Route (original route in black, actual in red)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Oh Noes - It's Over!

Until Julia's short post on Budapest last week, there had been a long dry spell in our blogging. When we hit Budapest and spent our week there, we entered some sort of 'this is coming to an end' personality change. There wasn't any sadness or daily crying fits, but we automatically and subconsciously started to transition ourselves back into our life in Chicago.

We saw a lot of Budapest and we loved a lot of Budapest. We did, however, download an entire season of AMC's The Killing and finished it in a few days (though we saw the finale in Italy, which made us hate that show forever). Blogging about this show didn't fit into the context of our blog description, though. We also just felt like living and lazily going through the final moments of our trip. You can also get this sense from the number of photos we took there. There was plenty to snap a picture of, but we just didn't feel like taking photos, and sometimes even forgot to take a camera with us. We apologize to those who may have been looking forward to a huge Budapest write-up, but we can attest to the city being awesome, even though it was one of our most expensive destinations. Ask us about Budapest in person and we'll give you a detailed run-down.

This entry is being written from Julia's parents' house in Arlington Heights. We move back to our home in Chicago tomorrow morning. This means the honeymoon is over - for now. We'll continue to use this space as our blog for anything and everything travel. We don't take too many Disneyworld-esque vacations, so hopefully it continues to be interesting reading material every now and then. We'll continue to write about long-term travel in general and link to other resources and articles as well. There won't be any leaving work and traveling the world for six months for a long, long, long, long time, but hopefully we can continue to inspire others with the same passion to jump in.

In general, we're both extremely happy we did this. We learned more about each other in the past six months than we ever could have hoped. It's all those small things, good and bad, that just never would have come out unless you spent every waking (and sleeping) moment next to one another and put into both extremely pleasant and extremely stressful situations. The stressful situations, especially, helped us see our own strengths and weaknesses. I, for one, have learned to never try to navigate us around a city that is not on a grid street system like Chicago. Julia would agree.

I'm hoping to conclude all this with a few more specific posts (what we liked best, how much money we spent vs. how we budgeted, where we spent our money, and what we would have done differently). Budget-wise, we came almost right at the number we planned for. While planning, though, we didn't expect more expensive places like Istanbul and Croatia. We disagreed on favorite place, but Bulgaria was the most interesting to me as a whole while Croatia was destined to be Julia's jewel. We both agreed our favorite city was Lviv, Ukraine (sorry Kiev). Our biggest disappointment was going to Serbia and skipping Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bosnia. Once I get our financial data organized on Mint.com, I'll be able to put together costs by country, but gut feel tells me that Ukraine and Bulgaria were our cheapest countries - even cheaper than Southeast Asia.

So despite the title of this post, there's still a little more to come - once we get the time and energy. Right now, it's fun being an unemployed bum, but work starts up for both of us too soon.

To everyone who has been following our blog since the beginning - thank you! While this blog will serve as a journal that we'll treasure for the rest of our lives, we also appreciate sharing it with an interested audience. Aside from close friends and family, we're not quite sure who has been following along and reading. If you're out there lurking, let us know!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Szia, Budapest!

We're back in Chicago by now and it's somewhat hard to get the motivation to remember what we did two weeks ago in a land far, far way. However, we spent an entire week in Budapest and really enjoyed the city, so here's a few interesting facts that we learned:

1.  Hungarian is a super hard language to learn.  We were told that the closest related language to Hungarian is Finnish, however, we're also told by a Hungarian that he doesn't understand a word of Finnish.  One of our tour guides told us that Hollywood sometimes uses Hungarian as a language for extra-terrestrials in movies.  For example, Yoda from Star Wars speaks Hungarian.  Finally, if you want to know some Hungarian, you can greet someone by saying, "see-ya!"  to say good-bye you can just say, "hello."  Makes lots of sense, right?

2.  Hungarians are very proud of their inventors. One of the most recognizable ones is the Rubik's cube. Another one is the hydrogen filled airship, which was later sold to the German, Zeppelin. Other notable Hungarian inventors are responsible for  telephone exchange, many parts of the Ford Model T and (co-inventor of) the assemble line, nuclear chain reaction,  Microsoft Office applications and the modern diesel engine.

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Saint Stephen's Basilica

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Széchenyi Chain Bridge over the Danube river

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The Hungarian Parliament Building

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The Great Synogogue