All paths lead to Maastricht

I spent my final week in Europe in the city I love best with the people I love most - Maastricht. Eight exchangers planned to meet back in Maastricht after our individual summers of backpacking. Most of us had intercepted paths once or twice along the way - but everyone came back to Maastricht with stories to share. I came rolling into Maastricht after an overnight stop in Cologne, Germany:   We all meet by the Maas Lake and spent our first afternoon outside in the sun cheering as each new face made it to our meeting spot. Over mint lemonade and stroopwaffles we laughed, cried, and lived through the adventures of each other. Pat rocked up with painted toes: Pat's blue toenails are Read more

Alternative Culture with Berliners

Traveling solo is the least lonely way to travel. With each new city come new faces, new friends, and new adventures. In Budapest I met Cassy and Mitch form Australia. Then, I ran into them in Prague. In both cities, we had a wonderful time and decided to meet up in Berlin. Around 4am we met a group of Berliners and decided to all take our photo in a photoautomat - an outdoor photo booth popular throughout Berlin. Six people in a small photoautomat, especially when one person is approaching 7ft tall, proved impossible. Instead, we opted for a photo with the photoautomat. At 4am, you never expect plans to actually happen (or even be remembered) but partly out of politeness Read more

Returning to Berlin

I've said it before in my Paris v. Berlin post, and I'll say it again. To travel to Berlin is to be inspired - creative minds flock to Berlin. I made sure to again return to Berlin and explore all the history, innovation, and art in every form. Everyone, from every walk of life, can be found on the streets of Berlin. The sidewalks are shared by blue-haired punk-rockers, young German yuppies in suits, dreadlocks, piercings, covered in tattoos, the elderly in grayscale simple clothes, fashionistas, big thick framed glasses. It is an organic city – filled with thinkers and alive with new opportunities. Berlin is a city in transition, a city regaining an identity after its long, turbulent history. Read more

Czech out Prague

The day I arrived to Prague happened to be the same day a major heat wave engulfed the city. With relentless high temperatures and air conditioning but a luxurious dream, shade and cool places became the main tourist attractions. I chose my hostel based solely on its name - Czech Inn. The most clever punny hostel name of all hostels to ever exist! After booking the hostel, I discovered that it is considered one of the finest hostels in all of Europe. Indeed, upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised by the upscale bar area, luxury showers, and overall trendiness of the accommodation. Though, no air-conditioning. On my first day I planned a big walking trip of the city but could only Read more

Caving in Budapest

Budapest - the city of caves, stalagmites and hotsprings! After a big night out in Budapest I ambitiously started my day early and took a long walk through Heroes Square, the museum area and Central Park as well as to the Opera House and a second hand book store. I was exhausted by the time I arrived back to the hostel mid-afternoon. My intention was to take the rest of the day easy, which was really an unrealistic luxury at my particular hostel. Every hostel has a unique culture, and my hostel in Budapest (Carpe Noctem Vitae - highly recommend!) was all about having a good time. So, instead of relaxing, I found myself on a bus on the way to a cave. Myself, Read more

Budapest Thermal Baths and Ruin Bars

There are bits of travel books that I simply skim over, some parts I skip entirely, and some that I circle, highlight and sometimes even accidentally break the book spine by reading that page so many times.  The section on Budapest Thermal baths had coffee stains and crinkled pages because it was this section that I poured over when reading about Budapest. Budapest is known as the 'City of Spas' and this reputation dates back to the 16th century with the Turks constructed public baths throughout Budapest and other parts of Hungary. These baths are built over hot springs that bring mineral rich waters into the pools. Many Hungarians believe that these waters have medicinal powers to help ailment such Read more

Mizzou Collides with Budapest

Traveling long-term includes a conscious decision to push through exhaustion and continue forward with exploration, socializing and general traveling fun. When on short-term trips, you have the capacity and energy to travel 100% all day every day because you know that you can crash when you get home. Long-term travel is a different case - and I figured that out on my eighth day in Bulgaria. Besides my illness in Spain, I sacrificed no moment to sleep in or to excessively relax. Yes, I maximized my time in each location. But also, yes, I wore myself out. I had to spend a full day sleeping at Dilyana's apartment to recuperate. The next night I caught a night train back to Read more

Koprivshtitsa, Bulgaria

Dilyana said that the "spirit of Bulgaria" can be found in the small town of Koprivshtitsa located in the Sredna Mountains. The town was the center of the April Uprising in 1876 in which the Bulgarians carried out an insurrection against the Ottoman Empire. This time period is known as the Bulgarian National Revival, and Koprivshtitsa was the center of it all. The town now represents traditional Bulgarian architecture, way of life, and is the home to many monumental works of art and culture. The boy with us is Dilyana's friend, Gueorg, who is now a member of the European Commission. I had the privilege of helping him edit his English cover letter that he then used to be hired! He Read more

The Black Sea: Nessebar

  The city of Nessebar dates back 3,000 years ago with architecture reflecting the many different masks the city wore over the centuries. It is a UNESCO world heritage site.  Charming, traditional and serene - Nessebar earned a big heart around its dot on my tattered travel map. For my journey around Europe I hardly spent anytime shopping besides looking for one, elusive item: an apron. My mom's birthday was to take place while I was abroad and with her recent gluten-free cooking hobby, she had requested an apron for her birthday. First off, an apron might be one of the most difficult items to explain to shop owners with broken English and I with very limited foreign language skills. Second of all, Read more

All paths lead to Maastricht

Posted on by Reagan J Payne in Part II, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I spent my final week in Europe in the city I love best with the people I love most – Maastricht.

Eight exchangers planned to meet back in Maastricht after our individual summers of backpacking. Most of us had intercepted paths once or twice along the way – but everyone came back to Maastricht with stories to share. I came rolling into Maastricht after an overnight stop in Cologne, Germany:

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We all meet by the Maas Lake and spent our first afternoon outside in the sun cheering as each new face made it to our meeting spot.

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Over mint lemonade and stroopwaffles we laughed, cried, and lived through the adventures of each other. Pat rocked up with painted toes:

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Pat’s blue toenails are actually quite a bizarre but accurate representation of our summers. Each of us made it back to Maastricht slightly different. Subtle differences – all with a little more color and experience in our lives. In the schemes of the strange, exhilarating, and boundary-pushing few months, Pat’s toenails fit right in. With all the unique cultures and differences we experienced, we welcomed an odd toenail color. Pushing boundaries is pushing one’s perception of “normalcy” and when boundaries are expanded, so too are the differences between people that one can accept. It is such a wonderful perspective to accept people as they are, and grow from differences. In that sense, traveling is an accepting nod at Pat’s blue toenails. Traveling is bipartisanship. Traveling is embracing cultural differences. Traveling is loving others as they are.

I’d call us professional hanger-outers after the week we spent together in Maastricht. Kate captured some of our “hangout” existence on her photo blog, The Analogue Future:

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We spent lazy mornings in Annie, Casey and Jimmy’s apartment eating fruit and one morning really awful pancakes courtesy of Kate and me. During the afternoons, we roamed Maastricht; walking on the cobblestones that led to the places we had grown to love throughout the city.

The Meuse River:

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The Vrijthof

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Selexyz Bookstore – located in an old converted church:

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The Old City Wall

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De Hoge Brug leading to Center Céramique (Modern bridge)

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City Hall in Markt Square

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Asseblief for now, Maastricht, and thanks for an incredible half year. I could not have hoped for a better city to call home. More importantly, I could not have a better group of friends to call my family in Maastricht. Prost to growing together, to experiencing life together, and to all the adventures that our futures hold!

Cheers, Maastricht!

Alternative Culture with Berliners

Posted on by Reagan J Payne in Part II, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Traveling solo is the least lonely way to travel. With each new city come new faces, new friends, and new adventures. In Budapest I met Cassy and Mitch form Australia. Then, I ran into them in Prague. In both cities, we had a wonderful time and decided to meet up in Berlin. Around 4am we met a group of Berliners and decided to all take our photo in a photoautomat – an outdoor photo booth popular throughout Berlin.

Six people in a small photoautomat, especially when one person is approaching 7ft tall, proved impossible. Instead, we opted for a photo with the photoautomat.

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At 4am, you never expect plans to actually happen (or even be remembered) but partly out of politeness I invited everyone to meet at Burgermeister at 1pm the following day.

Burgermeister is one of Berlin’s finest dining experiences…located in a converted public restroom under the U-Bahn. It is a favorite among locals that I found my previous visit to Berlin. I thought it would be an easy meeting location since it is right underneath the U Schlesisches Tor U-Bahn stop..and frankly, it is delicious.

I arrived the following day honestly anticipating having lunch alone. To my surprise, the entire crew from the night before arrived! The tallest boy showed up with a professional camera, a huge bag that he would not disclose what was inside, and a very elaborate plan to show us around Berlin.

First stop was an abandoned warehouse in Kruezberg. The warehouse is part of a neighborhood entirely void of gentrification and inhabited by the anarchist punk community in Berlin, commonly known as the “archo-punks”. Neighborhoods like this one are at the heart of Berlin, yet not mentioned in any travel books. I’ve spotted the “archo-punk” type around Berlin but I had no idea of the sheer number of people who identify with this counter culture group. Frankly, I always though “punk” was just a fashion statement. In Berlin, “punk” is a way of life.

With dark eye makeup, colored hair, piercings, leather and studded clothing, drugs, loud music, gnarly gazes and overall griminess – the “archo-punk” community was everything I expected it to be. It felt unnatural to be in their neighborhood, yet slightly bizarre to realize that I was in a neighborhood. This was a community of people, doing life together, living by their own rules. As an outsider looking in, they did not live by my standards. Yet, as they peered at me, I did not live by their standards. I was an outsider in their world, and they intentionally chose to be outsiders from the mainstream world.

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The top of the beautifully derelict building – a spectacular view of Berlin!

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We finally found out what was in the huge bag Toby carried around all day…

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BAGPIPES. HE PLAYED THE BAGPIPES FOR US. These are stories that can only happen on the road.

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In one gaze I looked at the Fernsehturm in the Alexanderplatz and this anarchist community:

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Our Berlin friends also took us to a lake, to Curry 36 – the best currywurst in Berlin, and to have drinks by the Berlin Wall. A big thanks to our transatlantic friends for spending a day showing us around – the locals know best!

Returning to Berlin

Posted on by Reagan J Payne in Part II, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I’ve said it before in my Paris v. Berlin post, and I’ll say it again. To travel to Berlin is to be inspired – creative minds flock to Berlin. I made sure to again return to Berlin and explore all the history, innovation, and art in every form.

Everyone, from every walk of life, can be found on the streets of Berlin. The sidewalks are shared by blue-haired punk-rockers, young German yuppies in suits, dreadlocks, piercings, covered in tattoos, the elderly in grayscale simple clothes, fashionistas, big thick framed glasses. It is an organic city – filled with thinkers and alive with new opportunities. Berlin is a city in transition, a city regaining an identity after its long, turbulent history. It is a city where people can have an impact, and where people go to impact.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the city seems to be in constant flux since. For 28 years, Berliners were heavily controlled, and now – Berliners control themselves. The pendulum of history has swung from the tightly controlled Berlin under the Third Reich and the Soviets and is now on the opposite side of the spectrum of total and absolute freedom of expression.

Graffiti covered nearly every square inch of the city, but the graffiti in Berlin has an identity that is entirely different from the graffiti you see in other large cities. Often, especially in times of economic struggle, graffiti marks a city as a desperate cry for political reform or covers buildings as a testament of outrage. Berlin graffiti is not vandalism, it is true art: surrealist paintings, incredible 3D images, and poignant political statements. City streets are like walking through a museum with the artists walking right next to you.

Berlin is a blank canvas, a massive blank canvas, with endless space for people to create and leave their mark. That is what Berliners do – create, and then create again. Think, and then think some more. Another artist covers one person’s graffiti art, and the endless cycle of creativity ensue. The graffiti in Berlin is just a small snapshot of the giant web of creativity and ideas that define the city. Ideas are almost self-destructive in Berlin – one idea leads to another and everything changes, rapidly. The Berlin you saw yesterday is not the same Berlin you see today.

The openness of ideas in Berlin is a direct response to the Berlin Wall. East Germany is still regaining an identity. While history might be the catalyst behind the now creative identity of the city, the prices make it possible. Berlin is unbelievably cheap. Housing prices are student affordable, and a nice meal won’t cost more than 4 Euros. This insanely affordable city attracts people from all over the world, and these ex-patriots quickly become Berliners. There is no definition of a Berliner; the Berlin community is like an island of misfit toys that, taken as a whole, have a bizarre but welcoming charm.

If you want to open a business – head to Berlin, real estate is affordable. If you want to sit in a cafe and think with other intellectuals – you can do so on every street corner of Berlin. If you want to visit a destination that is perfect for young travelers on a budget…Berlin. Students, entrepreneurs, artists, thinkers, lovers of ideas, creativity addicts and impactors – Berlin is your city.

Berlin, where even the dogs are trendier than you:

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A story I’d like to hear:

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Kreuzberg – the neighborhood just south of the River Spree and a must-explore location for anyone traveling to Berlin. A conglomeration of hippies, artsy folks, and high-tech businesses with art covering every inch of outdoor walls – Kreuzberg is the perfect neighborhood to get lost for an afternoon.

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Behind graffiti walls, a graveyard with tombstones from the 1800’s

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Berlin has over 2,500 parks and gardens throughout the city, and nearly one fifth of the city land is covered in trees. Check out the Berlin park listing here. In the summer, expect to find outdoor festivals sprinkled around the city:

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Travel should be enjoyable, but it should not always be easy.  The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a difficult but necessary experience. Architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold designed the memorial. Walking through the stark and enormous memorial creates a sense of the magnitude of the destruction from history.

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While I’d recommend skipping the Checkpoint Charley museum, a visit to the Berlin Wall is a must. I enjoyed walking the entirety of the wall, though bikes are also available for rent.

Surrounding the Berlin Wall are newly constructed office buildings. The new development reaches right up to the street across the wall, and challenged me to consider a difficult question: when does history cease to triumph the future? At what point is new development justified to replace history?

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If there is ever a city to a read a history book before visiting, it is Berlin. To help make sense where the city landmarks fit within the timeline of history, TAKE THE BERLIN FREE WALKING TOUR. Yes, it is long. Yes, it is probably hot outside. Yet, I cannot recommend the tour enough. My tour guide held a bachelor’s history degree and was able to answer all my questions with full answers. Hitler’s bunker is underneath an apartment parking lot. Buildings through Berlin have multiple purposes and uses throughout history – your guidebook will not do you justice as a source of historical information.

Make sure to take the tour that meets outside of Starbucks near the Brandenburg Gate. I’d recommend taking the New Berlin Free Tour first, then delving into another more time period specific tour such as:

  • Red Berlin Tour
  •  Best of Berlin Tour
  • Cold War Berlin: Soviet secrets, CIA spies & more
  • Third Reich Tour
  • Berlin’s New Architecture

Czech out Prague

Posted on by Reagan J Payne in Part II, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The day I arrived to Prague happened to be the same day a major heat wave engulfed the city. With relentless high temperatures and air conditioning but a luxurious dream, shade and cool places became the main tourist attractions.

I chose my hostel based solely on its name – Czech Inn. The most clever punny hostel name of all hostels to ever exist! After booking the hostel, I discovered that it is considered one of the finest hostels in all of Europe. Indeed, upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised by the upscale bar area, luxury showers, and overall trendiness of the accommodation. Though, no air-conditioning.

On my first day I planned a big walking trip of the city but could only last about 15 minutes at a time without needing to seek shade, rest, and drink water. Despite the heat, I did catch a glimpse of a few gorgeous Prague moments including this artist painting the Charles Bridge:

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The classiest couple in all of Prague enjoying cool refreshments:

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I spent the rest of my day escaping the heat -first, in the Museum Kampa of Modern Art. Then, at a surprising destination right outside of Prague: Seberak Lake.

A group on Couchsurfing.com created an event to meet at Seberak Lake to, “make music, drink beers, and try to keep cool.” The “try to keep cool” part is what got my attention so I grabbed a swimsuit and headed out to the lake. It took me about a half hour on public transportation; when I arrived, I was very pleased with the “off the beaten path” town. No souvenir stands, no fanny packs, no crowds – perfect!

The lake was an additional 10-minute hike through a dense forest and I enjoyed my time out of the sun under natcooling system.

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As I approached the lake, I snapped a few photos and took in how many people were congregated on the hill. I paid my two Euros to enter then headed to the bathroom to change into my suit. When I emerged, I started scanning the crowd for what would look like a group of couchsurfers. I spotted a naked man, and then quickly diverted my eyes. Then my eyes rested on a naked woman. Then another naked person, and another, and I could not divert my eyes fast enough to save myself from the sights that I will never un-see.

Turns out, Seberak Lake is a nudist lake. I had absolutely NO idea of this as I asked multiple people on the streets for directions. I was kind of laughing at the bizarre situation I was in, but I also needed to respect the naked sunbathers and let them enjoy their au natural afternoon. Everyone was comfortably naked standing very close to strangers in line for the showers, or simply laying down without even considering covering themselves.

I felt too uncomfortable to continue scanning the crowd for the group I was trying to meet up with, and I wasn’t going to leave because it was a very nice lake and took a lot of effort to reach, so I put down my towel and stuck my nose in my book – a comfortable place to keep my eyes.

A new thought occurred a few pages into my book – I was the only person in the vicinity wearing anything. A few suit bottoms were on here and there, but I alone was clothed from the waist up. I was alone, at a nudist beach, with people I would never see again – so with a quick inhale and a bold decision, I took off my top and for an afternoon basked in the sun with a group of about 200 people in the nude.

I never found the Couchsurfing group, but in the end, I just wanted my own privacy amongst hundreds of naked people. It was a lovely day sitting by the lake, reading my book in the buff, and stifling laughter every time I looked up from the pages.

I left the lake with sunburns on skin that never sees sun, a smile on my face, and a hilarious day accidentally spent at a nudist lake.

The Small World Effect defines that night.

I met some fun Australians in Budapest. We literally ran into each other on a busy street in Prague. It was like a cheesy Disney movie – we walked right by each other and then turned around shocked and embraced. The Aussies joined the group I was with from my hostel and we had a hysterical time catching up. We all did most of our site seeing after dusk because the temperatures became almost bearable. Maybe the daytime heat was a gift in disguise, because it led us to see the Charles Bridge at night – a truly spectacular site.

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Caving in Budapest

Posted on by Reagan J Payne in Part II, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Budapest – the city of caves, stalagmites and hotsprings!

After a big night out in Budapest I ambitiously started my day early and took a long walk through Heroes Square, the museum area and Central Park as well as to the Opera House and a second hand book store. I was exhausted by the time I arrived back to the hostel mid-afternoon. My intention was to take the rest of the day easy, which was really an unrealistic luxury at my particular hostel. Every hostel has a unique culture, and my hostel in Budapest (Carpe Noctem Vitae – highly recommend!) was all about having a good time. So, instead of relaxing, I found myself on a bus on the way to a cave.

Myself, my friend from England (who was to start studying in Maastricht this fall. Small world!) and another friend from Brazil lucked out and somehow managed to book a private caving tour. The only reason that there was an afternoon tour was for a group of 10 from another hostel, but this group didn’t show up so it was just the three of us with two tour guides.

Be it boredom with the same path, or a slight resentment to the three of us for forcing the guides to work the afternoon, the guides decided to take us on the advanced caving route. They reassured us that we were young and fit and could manage it. Feeling empowered by the prospects of adventure, we suited up with all the confidence and excitement in the world.

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The first thing we did was climb down a ladder – easy!

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Then we walked for a bit, occasionally having to crawl – still so easy! What fun to be underground! Then, we turned to the advanced path…

Our first obstacle, called “the sandwich” where the rocks are bread and you are the meat – and you have to make yourself very, very thinly sliced meat to fit through. The fitting, squeezing, scrunting, pushing and sliding wasn’t the worst part. In fact, I enjoyed all of it. The challenge came from having no idea when the end of the sandwich was. Our guide said it was a long passage, but when your body is jammed to the point of minimal mobility in the middle of the earth with no visual or idea about how much longer you have in your current position – the mind gets to working. A few times I had to stop my movement not from exhaustion (though it was quite difficult) but to just take a mental moment to reframe my mind from freaking out.

When we finally reached the end of “the sandwich” (a good 10 minutes which felt like ages) I could tell that the other two had struggled just as much as I did, if not even more. Our brazilian friend was buff, which in most physical activities is great! But in the case of caving, he had much wider shoulders to deal with fitting through small crevices and I could tell that he was worried about what else we were going to face in the cave.

After surviving the sandwich so early in the trip, I felt fairly confident when the next real challenging obstacle appeared. The whole trail was a challenge but about 6 times we reached climbs and crawls that seemed way, way out of our league and were probably too difficult for us to be doing – but when in Hungary! Safety precautions don’t dominate much like they do in The States. I felt safe with our very experienced guides, yet the danger of messing up was always very obvious (as in straddling a 40 meter drop into darkness obvious).

Our guides also took us to two challenging holes: Winnie the Pooh and Mother Nature’s Womb. The Winnie the Pooh hole is perpendicular to the ground and none of us could make it through. I got close, and then got overly determined and managed to wedge myself into the hole and couldn’t get myself out. One guide had to pull my feet to get me down, which was just down right humiliating and hilarious.

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I had to put up with a fair bit of teasing and a moment of uncertainty if the guides would actually help me out.

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I was the only one out of the three of us to make it through MNW, so I had some redeeming dignity after the Winnie the Pooh failure.

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But that is the thing with caving. You put yourself in absolutely ridiculous and vuldnerable positions and often have to rely on your team to give you a hand and then turn right around and have your hand ready for the next person. When you cave everyone is as strong as the weakest on the team, so you really work together to get through the terrain. Everyone is entirely focused on the tasks at hand and regards both their own safety as well as the teams safety with the highest attention. To some extent, we were working to survive, and even only 3 hours of working together to survive we emerged as a very close group.

Cramped together in the sandwich, pushing each others feet, you felt almost like one unit. But, caving also has an element of feeling like the loneliest place on the planet. We once all turned off our cave lights, and sat in total darkness. TOTAL DARKNESS. We were seperetaed by tons of earth and solid rock from any kind of light. It was an incredible experience to feel total, immersive darkness. Your mind ended up playing tricks on you. When I waved my hand in front of my face, I was convinced I could at least see a shadow of movement. That was just my brain trying to see what it should see – the darkness felt unnnatural and forboding.

But, the greatest feelings to come from caving are a mix of pride, awe at all the wonders happening beneath or feet, and shameless affection for everyone in the caving group. We went out for beers with our guides after, then we didn’t have time to shower before going out that nights. At the bars, I could easily spot my friends by finding the dirtiest heads. We were gross, but we had caved, so it was nothing but pride!

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Budapest Thermal Baths and Ruin Bars

Posted on by Reagan J Payne in Part II, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

There are bits of travel books that I simply skim over, some parts I skip entirely, and some that I circle, highlight and sometimes even accidentally break the book spine by reading that page so many times.  The section on Budapest Thermal baths had coffee stains and crinkled pages because it was this section that I poured over when reading about Budapest.

Budapest is known as the ‘City of Spas’ and this reputation dates back to the 16th century with the Turks constructed public baths throughout Budapest and other parts of Hungary. These baths are built over hot springs that bring mineral rich waters into the pools. Many Hungarians believe that these waters have medicinal powers to help ailment such as aiding spinal problems (perfect for a backpacker!)

I opted to visit the Gellért SpaDuring the Ottoman occupation this bath was the most popular amongst Turkish residence because of its large size. With mosaic floors and stunning stain glass windows, the Gellert Spa is characterized by Art Nouveau grandeur.

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With all the incredible architecture and serene beauty surrounding me, I was painfully aware of my rented swimsuit. In typical backpacker fashion, I left my swimsuit drying outside on a laundry line in Croatia, and since it was a Sunday and all stores were closed I had no option but to rent a one-size-fits all one piece swimsuit. The most ridiculous moment happened when I was swimming in the pool and waves turned on and starting rocking all of us swimmers. I was in my glasses, in this rented swimsuit, trying very hard to keep my head above water to not lose my glasses in the waves. After this, I decided that I should retreat to the women’s only area and spend the rest of my time relaxing away from crowds.

Inside the woman’s area I watched as locals gossiped and congregated together in different corners of the baths. It was like watching my sorority sisters sit at our respective breakfast tables and gossip about the weekend. Or my high school friends meeting at the back table at the Starbucks off Palatine Rd to order frappaccinos and gossip about Homecoming Dance dates. Under the adorned ceilings of a Turkish bath halfway across the world, I felt a sameness. The settings and people were different, but the exchanges between friends remained the same. I imagined women gathering in the same places during the Ottoman Empire, throughout WWII – throughout history these baths served as the place for friends to meet. For moms to relax. For stories to be told, and energy restored. That is where the real serenity of the baths came from for me – the sameness of people over time and over distance.

After the baths, I endulged in a massage. It cost about the same price as a night in a hostel – and was worth it. As a backpacker, it is so easy to get caught up in the ominous budget and chose to spend money on experiences and not on yourself. Mediocre matresses on bunkbeds, night trains, a heavy backpack and lots of walking does take a toll on the body, and that massage was the best gift I could’ve given myself.

Feeling indulgant and relaxed, I spoke with the hostel about where to find the best cup of Turkish Coffee in town. He pointed me in the direction of his best friends shop, and when I arrived it turned out that the man at the hostel had called his friend to tell him that an American was heading his way. I’m not sure if the store owner was just leaving his store, or if he had run to the store to greet me, but he was outside waiting when I arrived.

Between the hostel family congregated when I arrived at my hostel, to this shop owner literally waiting for my arrival at his cafe, I was having very personalized service in Budapest! I asked the owner for his favorite type of coffee, then he disappeared. That was it! He was there to greet me, then I never saw him again. Instead, a waiter my age refilled my cup and brought me water. He spoke fairly good English, and business was slow, so he ended up with his own cup of coffee sitting at my table for most of the night.

It was one of those nights where I would’ve been content to read my book and enjoy the solitude, but fate had a different plan for me. While the barista and I were sitting down talking, a very tall person walked in and sat down a few tables away from me. The waiter eventually yelled at the two of us to sit together then brought over three beers on the house. I was just there for a casual coffee to conclude my relaxing spa experience. But I went with it, and it turned out that the other boy was DUTCH.

He visited Maastricht for a consulting case competition while I was studying there. It is so cliche to say but the world really is so incredibly small sometimes. We ended up having a really fantastic time talking about the Netherlands and academics and had lots of laughs. He was in town with his family who had all gone to bed, and he too was only at the cafe for a casual coffee.

The barista, on the other hand, was appalled that two tourists were in town who hadn’t visited the Budapest Ruin Bars yet. My new dutch friend and I agreed to both go for just a short while, so we committed to waiting around until the barista closed up shop to take us. After much waiting, we helped him stack chairs then the three of us headed off to Szimpla Kert:

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Szimpla Kert is an organic space where all the decorations might be one man’s treasure or another man’s trash. With a perfectly mismatched and chaotically decorated interior paired with cheap drinks – Szimpla has my vote as one of the top pubs in all of Europe. In the Szimpla garden tables and chairs surrounded the middle table that is fashioned inside of an old communist style car – so many eccentrics all around!

I was way more intrigued at looking at the decor than engaging in conversation for a good 15 minutes upon arriving. The eclectic design inspired me to redecorate our patio in a similar fashion when I arrived back to Columbia. Sometimes ideas and inspirations are like souvenirs from the places you visit. My Szimpla souvenir is explosively creative inspiration.

Here’s our patio decorated in Ruin Bar style:

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The concept of our patio, or the newly titled “Enchanted Forest” is that it is a place for everyone. Since this photo the wall with flowers has filled up with items that friends have brought over while other friends painted stars that now hang from the perimeters. Everything from trophies to bracelets to photos are now on that wall. The idea is that once you have something on that wall, it is your space. This, I believe, is fashioned off a similar culture as the Budapest Ruin Bars.

The Ruin Bars started as a cheap place to get drinks. Since, it has evolved into a space for everyone. Bizarre items that seem unnatural to be in the same space line the walls and because nothing truly fits the decor, everything fits. Just like everyone is welcome to Szimpla. I saw old men enjoying beers next to punk rockers smoking shisha. These ruin pubs are an open place for people to enjoy cheap beers and a night out. Everything goes, all are welcome. I simply LOVED the quirky environment that set a precedent that all are included.

To be honest, the decor is probably just remnants of a very humble beginning of a bar by a bunch of students with no money. But I could not be happier that the eccentric collection has remained, and that the doors are open to all.

Mizzou Collides with Budapest

Posted on by Reagan J Payne in Part II, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Traveling long-term includes a conscious decision to push through exhaustion and continue forward with exploration, socializing and general traveling fun. When on short-term trips, you have the capacity and energy to travel 100% all day every day because you know that you can crash when you get home. Long-term travel is a different case – and I figured that out on my eighth day in Bulgaria.

Besides my illness in Spain, I sacrificed no moment to sleep in or to excessively relax. Yes, I maximized my time in each location. But also, yes, I wore myself out. I had to spend a full day sleeping at Dilyana’s apartment to recuperate. The next night I caught a night train back to Belgrade and it was even less pleasant than my ride to Sofia. Dilyana and I had a very dramatic goodbye as we held hands through the window as the train pulled away – real Hollywood staged best friend stuff. Meeting up with friends in Bulgaria was the last planned encounter I had for the remained of the trip. From here on out, I was winging it by myself.

Until the next morning when my train arrived in Belgrade. I got off, had a coffee and connected to wifi. The first thing I saw in Facebook was that it was my friend Anthony’s birthday, and that a mutual Mizzou friend of ours had posted on his wall to have fun in Budapest for the weekend. Anthony was doing a summer journalism study in Prague and had decided to spend his 21st birthday weekend in Budapest. I sent him a message to see if he was in Budapest, he instantly replied that he was, so I hopped on another train to head to Budapest to meet up with him for his birthday.

About 7 hours later, bringing my total train time in 24 hours to around 16 hours, I arrived in Budapest and greeted Anthony at his hostel. It was so bizarre to be around a good friend from Mizzou while in Budapest, but even more bizarre to be surrounded by Americans in Europe. Traveling wtih Anthony were 11 other Mizzou students. Girls had on t-shirts with greek letters, others wore sperries, and everyone spoke of mutual friends and Mizzou related things that I had not thought about in half a year. This was my first dapple with reverse culture shock – and I felt like a foreigner with students from my own home university.

Despite how awkward I felt socially with the group, it was a really enjoyable and spontaneous encounter with Anthony. We went out to dinner for his birthday and the waitress was very accommodating in delivering him a surprise slice of birthday cake. Over dinner we had lots to talk about – and it was great to hear about the semester that I missed. That was when it hit me: things changed. Relationships ended. People scored great new internships, others dropped out of college. Names flooded my head and I had to really work to keep up with everything Anthony told me about because though it had only been a few months, what he was talking about seemed like a lifetime ago.

After dinner the group went out but I headed back to Anthony’s hostel to pick up my backpack and find  a hostel because his was booked. I still wasn’t feeling 100% so I opted to take an easy night. From the iPad I found the closest hostel, booked a room, and headed right down the street to it. It was in this beautiful old building and I had to climb a few flights of stairs to finally reach the hostel number. There was no number outside the door, but when I rang the doorbell a man greeted me and told me I was in the right place.

The hostel had the scent of freshly cut wood, and it looked extremely clean. It was also strangely quiet, and I even noticed that plastic still lined parts of the wall. When I told the man behind the desk my name, he shuffled through papers then said, “ah yes! Here is your reservation.” Behind him was what I presumed to be his wife holding a young baby and also another girl around my age. When I was showed my room, I realized that I was the only person in my room! Perfect because I really needed a quiet night in.

Even more than being the only person in my room, I was the only person in the hostel.

I was the first guest in the hostel.

Through broken English I found out that though their booking page was online, they were not actually opening their doors for guests until the following week. The family owned hostel was totally unprepared for a guest to make a reservation, but then I showed up! Staying at that hostel was everything I needed. The woman heard I had a bad cough and she made me tea. The following morning, I ate breakfast with the girl my age.

I’m really excited for this family. It was obvious that they poured a lot of their money, time and effort into this hostel. It is a great location, has excellent facilities, and the shower is handicap friendly which makes it the best shower I’ve ever had in a hostel. I would highly recommend anyone traveling through Budapest to stay at the Yolo Hostel – Budapest.

The following day I again met up with Anthony and the Mizzou group to explore the city. We hiked up for a fantastic view of the entire city, ate lunch and walked around. It was the first time I traveled with such a large group and it was an enjoyable change of pace. Though, it made me thankful that I was traveling solo and meeting up with only small groups at a time because coordinating with so many people takes more time than when alone and groups require compromises about activities.

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Even when we said goodbye that night Anthony and I couldn’t believe we ended up in the same country half-way around the world. It was fun to meet all of these people for the first time in Budapest, and they all make me smile when I see them around campus and remember our adventures in Hungary. M-I-Z-budapest-Z-O-U!

Koprivshtitsa, Bulgaria

Posted on by Reagan J Payne in Part II, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dilyana said that the “spirit of Bulgaria” can be found in the small town of Koprivshtitsa located in the Sredna Mountains. The town was the center of the April Uprising in 1876 in which the Bulgarians carried out an insurrection against the Ottoman Empire. This time period is known as the Bulgarian National Revival, and Koprivshtitsa was the center of it all.

The town now represents traditional Bulgarian architecture, way of life, and is the home to many monumental works of art and culture.

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The boy with us is Dilyana’s friend, Gueorg, who is now a member of the European Commission. I had the privilege of helping him edit his English cover letter that he then used to be hired! He is very passionate about the Bulgarian political situation and he was an excellent person to travel to Koprivshtitsa with. Gueorg often compared the current day issues with those at the time of the Bulgarian National Revival and he would share interesting insight into where Bulgaria was heading politically in the context of the history from the Bulgarian National Revival.

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We had intended to only make Koprivshtitsa a day trip, but we got too caught up at our dinner and did not watch the time. We were lucky to find a family who rents out a room in their home to us for the night. The family even set us up with a fire in their kitchen and welcomed us to sit around their table to talk long into the night.

The reason we lost time during dinner was that conversation was so GOOD. All of us shared the political situations in our own countries, with Bulgaria, Italy and America sitting around the table. We discussed history, and the best types of political systems. We talked about world issues, domestic issues in our respectful countries. Yet, even with this intense level of conversation, we LAUGHED and enjoyed each other. It was a special flow of table talk to have five minutes of very intense, almost angry discussion, then the next five minutes spent laughing after a toast of rakia.

We over ordered…fantastically.

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This dinner, that lasted hours on end, that endured the sun setting and the chilly night air joining as a dinner companion, was easily one of my favorite meals with my favorite company of all time.

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The generous space and fire that our hosts gave us to continue our conversation long into the night!

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Koprivshtitsa is the birthplace of the  famous Bulgarian poet, Dimcho Debelyanov who died during WWI. Here is one of his translated works:

The Hero’s Dream

The enemy fell back, the roar died away.

The evening breeze dispersed the smoke

Tired eyes were netted by sweetest sleep

And the battlefield was quiet again.

And he nodded off at once and dreamt,

leaning his head on his rifle butt

and it seemed he heard his mother’s voice

whispering honeyed words in his ear:

My son, don’t fear the enemies

Although you be the first to fall

Heed your homeland’s vengeance call

for five centuries soaked in guiltless blood.

If you die, you die in honour,

if you return, know all the nation

heaps praise eternal on her faithful soldier,

who’s staked his life for her salvation.

Now she fell silent.  He stretched out his arm

to hold her close, but with open eye

sudden he beheld the growing dawn

spread its red beams across the sky.

Once more the bugles sounded alarm

and he stood up bold in the fearsome fight.

He fell like any brave hero might,

fell with a smile, untroubled, calm.

The Black Sea: Nessebar

Posted on by Reagan J Payne in Part II, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

  The city of Nessebar dates back 3,000 years ago with architecture reflecting the many different masks the city wore over the centuries. It is a UNESCO world heritage site.  Charming, traditional and serene – Nessebar earned a big heart around its dot on my tattered travel map.

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For my journey around Europe I hardly spent anytime shopping besides looking for one, elusive item: an apron. My mom’s birthday was to take place while I was abroad and with her recent gluten-free cooking hobby, she had requested an apron for her birthday. First off, an apron might be one of the most difficult items to explain to shop owners with broken English and I with very limited foreign language skills. Second of all, aprons aren’t the most common item to find in a store. I’m still not sure if my mom knows all the trouble (but fun trouble) that I went through to find her birthday gift, but I found it. And I found it in a shop tucked into a city wall dating back thousands of years on the coast of the Black Sea, of all places.

I spotted a store owner wearing a beautiful apron, and Dilyana inquired for me if the apron was for sale. The owner of the apron laughed and said it was not for sale, but pointed us down a cobblestone road in the direction of the store she purchased it. We took that road, and then turned, and took another road, down another alley, past more cracked walls and creaking doors, stumbling across the true colors of Nessebar along our way.

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We regrouped, got lost, tried again. Finally, we strolled up to a store with a barefoot older woman smiling out the door. Beautiful fabrics lined the store, and we determined that THIS was finally our destination.

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The woman out front flashed us a toothless smile and welcomed us into her shop:

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Inside another elderly woman sat barefoot in the corner sewing while another woman approaches as with a giant rug. I started to touch the fabrics on the table and everything my fingers even grazed drew the attention of the storeowner who would unfold it and show me the full garment. Through Dilyana translating and lots of animated gesturing we finally decided that the woman could turn any of the fabrics into an apron in 15 minutes.

I asked the storeowner to pick out her favorite and then turn it into an apron for my mother:

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She wasn’t shy and proceeded to motion for another photo and, for whatever reason, insisted we hold up another garment. We hugged and I ended up paying more than the asking price for the apron because she was adorable. Somehow, on the coast of the black sea, the perfect gift for my Mom was sewn by a Bulgarian woman with a lovely spirit.

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM!

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The Black Sea: Sunny Beach

Posted on by Reagan J Payne in Part II, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

From Sofia the three of us embarked on an adventure to… THE BLACK SEA! The sea’s name sounds like an appropriate place for an eerie relative of Nessy to live – and I was so excited to stand at the edge and look over what seemed to me to be one of the most foreign destinations on my trip.

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The ominous sounding “Black Sea” connected with the much brighter “Sunny Beach Bulgaria” which was our first stop on our journey across Bulgaria. This resort town is located near to the town of Varna and is one of the most affordable vacation spots in Europe. Popular amongst Russian families, and also a major spring-break-type destination for European students. There was a very bizarre mix of vacationing families and partying young people; a combination that seemed to work for Sunny Beach.

Children could get their faces painted next to booth for drunks to get regretful tattoos. Buckets of alcohol were sold at a cheaper prize than dinner at the sit-down Chinese food restaurant next door. Sunny Beach was one of those places that overwhelmed every sense in a way that you feel a mix of excitement and anxiety while your heart beats to the flashing lights of the surrounding advertisements.

We checked into our resort: Blue Summer

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Complete with our own patio, a bar and a swimming pool, it was unbelievable how many amenities we had for the price we paid. The majority of the other guests were Russian families that surrounded the perimeter  of the pool both day and night. The resort had a foreign yet comfortable vacation feel, and it was an experience to observe families laughing and celebrating each others’ company in a different culture.

Dilyana picked our accommodation and chose well – a note to all travelers: Stay at Blue Summer if you visit Sunny Beach, Bulgaria!

 

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We enjoyed a day at the beach, especially the many beach bars and restaurants! Everywhere was set up like a club atmosphere where you could lounge in chairs, enjoy the weather and tropical refreshments. Dilyana insisted that we try these fish that looked like someone just boiled a fish tank then put the fish on a platter…we honored her once then Cami and I opted to not touch them again! It was very special of Dilyana to take us to Sunny Beach. She has been vacationing there with family and friends her entire life and, like any frequently visited vacation spot, she has traditions that she does every visit. She shared all these traditions with us and gave us a real Bulgarian experience having us each the fish, drink rakia, smell Rose scent perfumes and relax like we’ve never relaxed before.

Loving life on the beach:

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THE BLACK SEAAAA!

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Our first night out at Sunny Beach Dilyana took us entirely off the tourist path. Which, considering the resort town is one of the cheapest in Europe, the entire town is really a tourist town. I had to borrow a dress from Camilla because the club we went to had a very strict, formal dress code.

 

The One is an exclusive Chalga music club. “Chalga is essentially a folk-inspireddance music genre, with a blend of Bulgarian music and also primary influences from GreekTurkishArabic and Serbian music. Primary influences as well as the using of the Chalgi maqam of Baghdad” according to Wikipedia, which is the most reliable of all sources to ever exist on the internet.

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Dilyana used to seriously model in Bulgaria and has all kinds of fun photos from her many shoots. Inside the club she explained to us how small the Bulgarian modeling/acting world feels because she ended up randomly knowing a few people from the field. We were able to get in and not have to pay the required bottle fee and all that – Camilla and I were all giggles as we stood behind Dilyana while she talked our way to a great table location.

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It is so much fun when you think you know everything about your friends and then something unreal happens like oh your best friend knows semi-famous people and gets special treatment at clubs in her own country. The joys of friendship!

We asked for a drink menu in English to which the server laughed and said they had no English menus. The One club was quiet hidden and difficult to get to, so it comes as no surprise that the menus do not cater to foreigners. Dancers lined the stage around the club and each group stood at their own table, it was a bold move for new people to walk up to a different table to start talking. Both the successful and failed attempts made the night hysterical and paired with the catchy and very different Chalga music we all had a fantastic time.

The next day we enjoyed more beach time, laughs and fine food. This was my dinner the following night. It cost roughly 4 USD. We followed dinner with a drink special of “Buy one get three free” which is a real testament of how commerce at Sunny Beach operates.

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