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Learning Ukrainian and practising Japanese

Posted: 2008-09-25 23:34:42, Categories: Travel, Ukraine, Hitchhiking, 980 words (permalink)

Time table of trains at the Solotvyno station, Ukraine. Trying to communicate in foreign languages or without any common language is often challenging but also one the most fun tasks when traveling. In Eastern Europe, the majority of countries have their own languages and Russian is the most widely spoken second one. Unfortunately I don't understand any of them much. In cities it's common to find someone who can speak English, and for all the other situations I carry a phrasebook and try to learn at least a few words in each local language. Drawing pictures and smiling is also always a good option.

Ukraine offered a pleasant surprise: the language I ended up using the most during my three day visit was Japanese. Besides that, I had plenty of opportunities to practise my few words of Russian and non-verbal communication skills as well. Lonely Planet had decided to include neither Ukrainian nor Russian in the Eastern Europe phrasebook, so there was room for improvisation.

After the Rainbow Gathering in Serbia I spent two days in Belgrade and a week in Romania, mainly meeting friends in Timisoara. From there I took a train north to Baia Mare, hitchhiked 70 km further to Sighetu Marmatiei and walked across the border to Ukraine. Border crossing was easier than expected. I had to fill in an immigration card and hand over my passport to get a stamp, but that was it. All done in 15 minutes, including 10 minutes of waiting in the queue.

Solotvyno didn't seem to be a very popular destination for foreigners except Romanians coming across the border for shopping. People were looking at me curiously and a few confirmed what they saw by asking "Turist?". Modern development had embraced the town with an ATM which accepted my credit card and spit out a bunch of hryvnias. Then I spotted railway tracks and followed them to find the town railway station.

I had minor difficulties deciphering the timetable (in the picture) but the station personnel were happy to help. When my understanding of both Ukrainian and Russian turned out to be limited they even wrote the same information in my notebook using beautiful cyrillic handwriting. After a bit of head-scratching I figured out that I was lucky. The train standing in front of the station would leave in two hours and arrive early next morning in Lviv, where I wanted to go. I went to grab some snacks for the trip in the town center and then tried to buy a ticket. "Katastrof, nema electricitet, nema computer" sounded like it could be a problem but fortunately it wasn't. I was advised to simply get onboard and the conductor would issue me a ticket in the train.

The 15 hour, 400 km journey cost less that 3 euros, so I probably got the cheapest or at least almost cheapest available ticket. The "platskartny" wagon was similar to sleeper class in India: open layout featuring basic beds which doubled as seats, no bedsheets. There was a bit more space than in Indian trains and the added luxury of a table between each two lower beds. On the other hand, the Ukrainian train didn't have any fans so it became quite hot inside.

My travel companions couldn't really understand why someone who had zero ability in Ukrainian and very limited skills in Russian would like to go to Lviv. They helpfully advised me that I could change the train near the Polish border and go directly to Warsaw if I wanted. Nevertheless, I stayed in my decision about visiting Lviv and announced that I wanted to learn some Ukrainian before arriving there. Using Russian and Polish I got translations to "Hello", "Thank you", "My name is Arto" and "Where is the toilet" in the local language, and drawing pictures helped to pick up a few more words such as train, car, bicycle, big and small. A ten year old girl was the most enthusiastic instructor and started teaching me the names of all objects which we could find around us. So I also learned how to say table, window and curtain in Ukrainian.

In the beginning the train was half empty but eventually there were almost twice as many passengers compared to the number of beds. The Ukrainians solved the problem by drinking enough beer and making noise until it didn't really matter how comfortable place they had for sleeping. I managed to get some sleep despite drinking only a little. Completely refusing the offered drinks would have been difficult and probably impolite. Luckily they didn't have any vodka. ;)

In Lviv I walked to a youth hostel which had been recommended to me by a CouchSurfing contact who was away and couldn't host himself. In the hostel I met Taka, a Japanese guy who already knew Polish and Russian and was staying in Ukraine to learn one more language. He spoke English too, of course, but was happy to find someone who could communicate in his own language. Taka offered to show me the city so I got a companion and guide for the weekend. We walked around, visited a couple of museums and had dinner in Криївка. It was a funny hidden restaurant which didn't have any kind of sign at the entrance but was full of people already early in the evening.

From Lviv I took a bus to Warsaw, queueing 4 hours at the border to get out of Ukraine, and continued by another bus to Lithuania. In Joniškis I spent a few nice days with my friend Dalia and her family before returning to Helsinki via Riga and Tallinn. I've been back home for a week and a half now. Compared to Ukraine, the temperature in Joniškis and in Finland was about 15 degrees lower and I got a flu. It already seems like a tradition when coming back from a longer trip in warm countries. Perhaps I'll learn some day how to avoid it.

How I became a child of the Rainbow Family

Posted: 2008-09-03 13:37:35, Categories: Travel, Ecology, Serbia, 1300 words (permalink)

Ola playing guitar in the Polish camp. The Rainbow Family of Living Light meets in different locations around the world, creating spaces for alternative living in natural surroundings, disconnected from the rest of society. This year the main European gathering was in Eastern Serbia, from 2nd until 30th of August. I spent two weeks there and will tell you about Wednesday August 13th, my third day at the gathering. It was just a day among others, but for me it was an important one.

I got up around 9, or perhaps it was 10, time didn't matter. The sun was already high but it was nice and cool under the trees where my tent was. I spent a good half an hour doing some stretching exercises to wake up properly and feel good.

I walked up the hill to the common kitchen, where brothers and sisters were preparing breakfast. Lunch might be a more correct word, as the first meal of the day was usually served after midday. Working in the kitchen was a good way to make sure that the meal would actually happen and a get a little bit of breakfast while doing it. I helped to cut watermelons and started digging a new compost because the old one was full.

That was enough work for the day. The compost was not finished but someone else would continue digging later. Just before eating I took a shower to wash off the sweat. Yes, there actually was a shower, at the end of a garden hose coming from a spring further up the hill. There was no shower curtain but being naked was considered perfectly normal at the camp, and there was no fear of paparazzis showing up to take photos.

About 400 people formed a big circle around the main fireplace, sang about the unity of the family and then ate together. Food was muesli and fruit salad. Towards the end of the meal people went around in the circle announcing the day's workshops or whatever else they wanted to say. Last, a small troupe playing cheerful music made a tour with the magic hat. Money put in the hat was used to buy ingredients for the common meals.

After eating I had a bit of rest in the shade at the Polish camp, called so because mostly Polish people happened to be camping under those trees. Ola had been learning shiatsu in one of the workshops and wanted someone to practise with. I volunteered and got a relaxing massage.

I didn't do much else during the afternoon except going for a short walk meeting new people. Evening came and there was a second meal with the usual rituals. Sun was already down but there was light from the almost full moon, stars and a number of campfires.

One of the announcements in the evening food circle was for angel walk. Participants stood shoulder by shoulder in two lines facing each other, leaving a narrow corridor in the middle. One person at a time walked slowly through the corridor, eyes closed, receiving hugs, gentle touches, kind words and other gifts of love from others. At the end, all came together for the big final collective hug. It was a wonderful experience, both drawing and giving a lot of energy.

Around the main fire, three drummers were pounding tribal rythms, together with one musician playing a large wooden xylophon. I danced wildly for a short while before walking back to the tent, exhausted but happy. It was clear sky so I pulled my sleeping bag out from the tent to sleep under the stars. That moment I felt Rainbow was a family I wanted to belong to.

When I talked to people who had been to Rainbow gatherings and searched for information online, the opinions varied wildly. The invitation would describe a paradise where everybody lived happily in perfect harmony with the nature loving each other, while critics would describe Rainbow events as bunches of pot headed survivors hanging around. The reality, not suprisingly, was somewhere in the middle, and depended greatly how one personally chose to live it.

I particularly liked the idea of no trade of any kind inside the camp. The only thing involving money was the magic hat, with both rich and poor being equally welcome. As time passed, the rule became gradually less strictly followed with local farmers coming closer and closer to sell their products and camp participants flocking to them to buy cheese, milk and other goodies not provided by the common kitchen. Still, it was certainly possible to live without using or thinking about money if one wanted to.

Compared to Ecotopia, which I attended two years ago, Rainbow was less political and more spiritual. The setting was almost the same: camping in the nature with basic facilities, common vegan or vegetarian meals, decisionmaking in a circle and music around campfires in the evenings. However, while Ecotopia was full of workshops about learning ecological ways to live, co-operating with the nearby eco-village and thinking how to change the world around, Rainbow was more about creating an alternative world, being there and feeling it. Be the change you wish to see in the world, as Gandhi once said. There were workshops in Rainbow as well, but in a more relaxed schedule and focusing more on arts or finding oneself through meditations and spiritual exercises. Some interesting discussions about politics and about Rainbow itself happened under a big tree in the library, which also offered a selection of books to read.

The Rainbow gatherings got started in early 1970's in the U.S. from the late 60's hippie movement. Still the biggest gathering is in the States each July with over ten thousand participants. First European gatherings were in the eighties and now there are both local small meetings as well as big international gatherings on all continents. Curiously, the trend seems to be towards more small local gatherings while the number of people attending the big ones is in decline. The European gathering in Serbia drew about one thousand people, with the peak being around 700 during the full moon celebration.

Some people live continuously in the Rainbow way, either traveling from gathering to gathering or pursuing a similar lifestyle in one of the more or less permanent Rainbow villages. Most participants, however, have their regular lives in the Babylon, as the outside world is called in Rainbow slang, and the gathering is a temporary state for them. It can be about appreciation of the nature, survival without modern commodities, escaping hectic city live, partying, meeting old friends, discussing life and politics with new people, giving and receiving love, finding a personal connection with the divine, something else or all of the above. Rainbow gathering is a form of tribal living but members of the tribe are individuals, so the experience is at the same time a collective one and yet different for everyone. Some people who had been to many gatherings said that they come each time to feel the spirit of the Rainbow and try to carry some of it with them through the rest of the year.

For me, camping out in the woods was not new by itself, but Rainbow was a learning experience about how people do it as a community with as little organization as possible. The whole gathering wasn't just joy and happiness, I went through a short period of diarrhea and had my days of low mood during the middle of my stay. Overall, I still greatly enjoyed it. I'm too deeply rooted in the Internet age to seek for a life in a Rainbow village, abandoning all modern technology. However, it's very healthy to do it sometimes, questioning the values of the society around us. Rainbow gatherings are a perfect place to do it.

Five friends in the Buba

Posted: 2008-08-28 21:32:28, Categories: Travel, Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia, Hitchhiking, 728 words (permalink)

Maria, Thibault, Gareth, David, me and the Buba. I left Zelenkovac sharing a ride with Gareth, David, Thibault and Maria in Gareth's model 1966 VW Beetle, which we started calling as the Buba. It was a small challenge to pack in five people and all the luggage including three tents, but eventually we managed to make it even quite comfortable. Gareth had put the Buba together using parts from several different cars without adding a new layer of paint so the old machine looked like it could fall apart any time.

Watching locals' reactions was fun. People would wave happily with a broad smile on their face or just stare at us. David would wave back from the left front seat with both hands, which produced an additional shock as many thought he was taking hands off the steering wheel. The Buba was a British model so the driver was of course sitting on the right.

The police stopped us several times to see car papers. They complained about not seeing the license plate because it was under the spare tire we had tied with rope in the back. We fixed the problem by making a new plate using a piece of cardboard and attaching it on top of the tire. Recently expired green card was a slightly bigger problem. David's Serbian language skills saved us three times, but finally at the border they wouldn't let us through without corruption money or being stuck for long time waiting to pay a fine. Generally also the police was mostly amused of the whole sight of five people in the small car. One of them looked at us while browsing the papers and commented: "Oh, it looks like you have already enough problems with the heat :)"

We drove to Visoko near Sarajevo, where a couple of hills had recently been identified as possible ancient pyramids. For a non-archaeologist it was difficult to say from a few patches of stone wall exposed from vegetation. To be fair, we only visited the so called Sun pyramid, and some people said there would have been a bit more to see at the Moon pyramid. Three of us had already been to Sarajevo so we decided to skip the city and continued South-East to Montenegro instead. The Buba carried us through the beautiful canyon of the Piva river and further up the mountains to the Durmitor national park. For accommodation we always simply looked for empty fields where grass had been cut and set up our tents, asking locals for permission if we saw anybody nearby.

Shortly after Durmitor we left the car in Bijelo Polje near Serbian border because we wanted to go to Guča and insurance for Serbia would have been too expensive. Gareth, Thibault and Maria took the train, I hitchhiked with David. We won the race by one and a half hours and made a new friend with Slobodan, a Serbian van driver on his way back home to Belgrade.

Guča trumpet festival was a funny experience. Dozens of brass bands came to play in the small town of 2000 inhabitants which was completely taken over by half a million partying visitors. Five days of music and dancing powered by beer, rakia, grilled meat and more beer. Souvenir stands were offering small horns, cds, other Guča memorabilia and Serbian nationalistic T-shirts featuring pictures of Karadzic. I had less beer preferring instead to cook vegetarian food and sip sangria with a group of three Germans, two Italians and a Swedish girl who were camping next to my tent.

Friday and Saturday evenings featured the biggest concerts on the stadium, but I liked Thursday night best. On Thursday the bands were on the streets playing simultaneously over each other with bars blasting Serbian turbofolk from loudspeakers to the mix, creating a chaotic but happy atmosphere. There were already many people but still a bit more space to move than during the weekend. Overall, Guča was certainly worth seeing even for someone who is not specially a brass music fan, but perhaps it was enough to experience it only once.

Guča was the last place where out group of five friends was together. Gareth returned to Montenegro to pick up the Buba and continue towards Albania, Thibault and Maria took their own ways, while I and David headed to Eastern Serbia to the European Rainbow Gathering.

Slow life in Bosnian villages

Posted: 2008-08-07 21:21:50, Categories: Travel, Ecology, Bosnia, Hitchhiking, 808 words (permalink)

Main building of the eco village Zelenkovac, Bosnia. During one week I got an introduction to life in Bosnian countryside by visiting a couple of villages and the ecological community Zelenkovac. Work on the fields was more modernized than for example in Romania, but far from large high tech farms in Western Europe. People had time, nearly everybody smoked cigarettes constantly and guests were received by offering them shots of homemade rakia, a strong alcohol usually made of plums.

In Zagreb, Croatia, I took a train to Karlovac and started hitchhiking from there towards the Bosnian border. A man who built swimming pools for a living took me to the crossroads near Plitvice and a truck driver picked me up from there. It was my first ride ever in a large truck — cool to see the road from high up in the cabin. At the customs the truck had to stop and wait in line. I hopped off, crossed the border by foot and decided to walk to the first village, Izacic, and see what happens.

Hasan was sitting on the terrace of his house and waved me to have a seat beside him and take break. Soon his English speaking son Adis arrived and it didn't take long until I had met some of his friends and been invited to stay overnight. In fact I ended up staying two nights.

Life was slow, especially for the young people who were on holidays from school or university. They killed time sitting outside, smoking, sipping some coffee or beer, chatting and playing with their mobile phones. Inside they had TVs and Playstations but Internet was not common yet. Actually there was an Internet cafe in the village but the connection was broken. Nearest town was Bihac, where we had a picnic by the Una river. Quite a few people had friends or family members who were working in Austria or Germany. They came back in their home villages in the summer to hang around and show off their cars.

From Izacic I moved on to Zelenkovac in central Bosnia. It's a community founded 25 years ago by a painter called Borislav Jankovic, more commonly known as Boro. He moved out of the nearby village to near some old water mills, built a house and started inviting people to visit while working on his paintings at the same time.

Zelenkovac was a lovely place. A small river flowed in several parallel streams through a forest with wooden buildings scattered around. The water mills had stopped long ago but the funky and twisted main building was full of life, with both tourists and villagers coming and going, Boro and his son Alex welcoming the visitors and a few other regulars taking care of the bar. I stayed with some other guests on the second floor of the main building, which had a bunch of old beds and mattresses tucked in different corners of the oddly shaped open space. There was one more room still above the second floor, accessible by stairs outside in the open air like in a treehouse.

Zelenkovac advertised itself as an eco-village, although many typical features of ecologial communities, such as recycling, vegetarianism or environmental campaigning were missing. I saw it mainly as a place to be surrounded by beautiful nature, meet people and enjoy life. The eco aspect was to keep the area at least relatively untouched, live modestly and maintain an open-minded and friendly atmosphere, instead of destroying the site or turning it into a luxury holiday resort. However, Boro had wishes for enlargement and increased visibility. He was planning to organize international volunteer camps in Zelenkovac during summer 2009, which will hopefully succeed in developing the place further in a sustainable way.

In Zelenkovac I met also David and Gareth, two Englishmen who had arrived a couple of days earlier in a 1966 Volkswagen Beetle, or VW Buba in Bosnian. Together with them and Alex we went to the nearby village to help Boro's brother to collect hay. The brother had hurt his hand falling off his tractor so he was happy to get some help. Rakia had probably something to do with the accident — we had already learned that rakia was the fuel for people just as diesel was for the tractor. We managed to collect one and a half small fields worth before a thunderstorm came and made all the rest wet again. Boro's brother didn't seem to worry too much, we just went inside his house for coffee and more rakia.

Zelenkovac was a place I could have stayed in for weeks. However, Gareth was leaving towards the east and I decided to join him. David fetched two French friends from a town 40 km away. Then we packed the bags of all five of us and ourselves in the Buba and drove off towards Sarajevo.

(Slightly edited on 2008-08-09.)

Free hugs and free beds in Ljubljana

Posted: 2008-08-07 20:27:14, Categories: Travel, Hospitality exchange, Slovenia, Hitchhiking, 486 words (permalink)

Me with a free hugs sign in Ljubljana, Slovenia. After hiking in Triglav I stopped in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia for five nights. I met other travelers in Metelkova, joined a Free Hugs party and had one of the most extreme CouchSurfing experiences ever.

Ljubljana is nice and small for being a capital. The castle hill overlooks the city center which is crossed by the Ljubljanica river. Many buildings date back several hundred years but the center got its current look during the first half of 20th century, largely from the drawing board of one architect, Joze Plecnik. Stylish cafes populate the riverside which also has plenty of spots where street artists play music and show their skills every day. Only about a kilometer away there's Metelkova, a group of buildings squatted 15 years ago with funky art galleries, graffiti all over the walls and people hanging out drinking beer every night.

I had already walked the usual touristic trail with my mother and brothers two weeks earlier so this time I spent more time meeting people in Metelkova. I cooked with a group of Finns who were traveling from a festival to festival in an old campervan and listened to music with two French guys from Lyon. And in Metelkova I also met Andrej.

Andrej was the most active CouchSurfing member in Ljubljana and didn't have any guests at the moment so he readily invited me to his house. I was staying in a hostel but moved the next day. One day later an American guy and two Canadians arrived, also bringing in as a surprise four Danish girls who had been in the same bus and didn't have a place to stay. Andrej picked up everybody from the city center in his car and gave a city tour in the evening while still keeping his building maintenance business going at the same time.

Laurent and Gabrielle, the two Canadians got an idea to have a Free Hugs event on Saturday. The idea is simple: make signs which say Free Hugs in English, the local language and possibly other languages, smile and give a hug everyone who is willing to accept one. We met in the city center and started hugging strangers under the covered sidewalk by the market and on Preseren square, in the middle of rain. After two hours everybody was wet and happy.

While giving hugs we also met a group of French students who were looking for a place to set up their tent. They didn't have to: Andrej invited them in to have 12 guests in total and the day ended in a drinking party in his house 8 km from city center.

On Sunday morning everybody went in their own directions. I had planned to hitchhike towards Bosnia, but late Sunday morning apparently wasn't the best time for that. After a couple of hourse of waiting I decided to take a train to Zagreb, Croatia and spend the evening there.

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Copyright Arto Teräs <ajt@iki.fi>, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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