I was sitting in the hostel bar recovering from my volcano hike when I saw you walking down the street, backpack in tow, wearing Teva’s, khaki shorts, and t-shirt–the uniform of the Western backpacker. In my six weeks in Antigua, I’ve seen literally hundreds of guys, dressed just like you. At this point, it’s a game. Where are you from? Americans almost always wear baseball caps, and I see no cap in sight. Canadians almost always have a maple leaf sewn somewhere on their pack. Northern Europeans and those from the UK are usually pale or sunburnt and you are neither. That leaves me to guess Australia or New Zealand, but those guys tend to travel in large packs, and you are alone. I’m intrigued.
I continue to stare, hiding behind my sunglasses and tattered paperback as you walk towards, then past me. I see you at the bar ordering a local beer. I turn back to my paperback–probably just something I picked up in the hostel lobby. You can find a lot of interesting books that way.
“Like what you see?” you say as you sit your beer at my table.
“Excuse me?” I stammer. One because you startled me and two because I felt totally exposed.
“Do. You. Like. What. You. See?” You repeated as if I were a toddler or someone who struggles with the English language. Cocky. I may have misjudged the American-ness of you. But your voice–it’s still not American.
I stammer and stutter, and actually make zero coherent sounds. I can feel my face flushing and it’s not from the drink I’m drinking. I find that I cannot make an English word. You laugh. And sit at my table.
I’d been in Antigua six weeks and planning to stay an additional two more before heading back to my temporary home in Mexico. I’d originally come to Antigua renew my tourist visa and check out the Mayan ruins [because #historynerd], but I was travelling for a much different reason. That’s the thing about travel–you can be anyone you want to be, or anyone you need to be. And at this point in life, I needed to be a confident, self-assured 22 year old, and so I pretended.
“Yes.” I replied, “I like the view. Do you?”
“Very much” you replied as you raised your Gallo and took a long swig. We began to talk and I discovered you were raised in Puerto Rico and South Africa with a little bit of the American heartland mixed in which is why I had such a hard time guessing your nationality. You we older than I originally thought–nearly 30– but I didn’t mind. We talked–for hours–about this and that, sports, and my go-to when I want to impress someone–Mayan art and architecture. (I can’t help it, I’m such a nerd at times).
Well after midnight and with the bartender eyeing us suspiciously, I got up to turn in for the night. You grabbed me by the wrist, pull me in, and kiss me hard–cerveza and tequila mixing on our breath. After what seems like an eternity we come up for air. I smile.
I wish you a good night, and turn to walk away. I don’t know if I’ll see you in the morning despite our hastily made plans, and truthfully, it doesn’t matter. You helped me forget–forget the one who hurt me a million miles away, but not that long ago, and for that, I will always be grateful.
At 19, I made my first trip across the Atlantic. It was to England; nowhere particularly exotic, but for my first trip out of the country, just the right amount of exoticness. At that point I hadn’t even been in 10 US states, so I was EX.CIT.ED. I was originally going to go with the boyfriend [who is now known as He Who Must Not Be Named], and in retrospect, I’m glad I ended up going along. Now my memories aren’t contaminated and being traveling solo was definitely the catalyst for a lot of other solo trips in my life. Without really knowing much about anything related to where I was, how once should ‘travel’, I had an absolute blast.
During that English summer I managed to do the following things:
hiked along parts of the Wales Coastal Path before it was fully completed
learned how to throw darts in a pub
read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in hardback whilst traveling by train [gah, I’m so old and if I still had that book…]
kissed the Blarney Stone and searched for the “Cliffs of Insanity” in Ireland
go to my first [and still only] EPL match in Manchester, England.
looked for Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest–Nottingham, England
walked along Hadrian’s wall
explored centuries’ old castles and church
found hairy coos and lambs galore
explored the not so ancient history of the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland
‘eloped’ to Gretna Green, Scotland
I often think back to that summer– I was 19 and clueless about traveling [and safety]–and wonder if I hadn’t had the courage to go through with this trip solo, if I would have ever done any of the others. My nearly 3 months exploring set the stage for my 18 months in Mexico (and Central America), my one month in Italy, my 16 months exploring South America, a different month in Europe and perhaps even gave me the courage to apply and actually join the Peace Corps
The second post in my series of haunted places…[in case you’ve missed it, I’ve featured cemeteries and other final resting places earlier this month]. This week it’s a story from a little place in Romania…
A story [based in history]
Once upon a time, there lived a prince in a kingdom called Wallachian. He was no Prince Charming. His name was Vlad Tepes. Stories of his cruelty and thirst for blood abound – stories that make even Stalin, Hitler or Ivan the Terrible seem compassionate by comparison…Vlad was a sadistic bastard and gained the name ‘Tepes’ (‘impaler’) honestly. His favorite form of punishing his enemies included driving a wooden stake carefully through the victim’s anus emerging from the body just below the shoulder in such a way as to not pierce any vital organs. Best to ensure maximum suffering prior to death and his methods ensured at least 48 hours torture before death.
Impalement was Vlad Tepes’ favorite method of torture, but it was by not his only method. The list of tortures employed by our sadistic prince included nails in the heads, cutting off of limbs, blinding, strangulation, burning, cutting off of noses and ears, mutilation of sexual organs (especially for women), scalping, skinning, boiling, exposure to the elements or to wild animals and burning alive. He was the one everyone warned their daughters about.
Now, to be fair, it is impossible to verify all of these stories. There was no such thing as facebook and blogs and cameras and such in the 15th century. Much of the information we have about evil little Vlad comes from pamphlets published in Germany and Russia and the German pamphlets, were probably politically inspired. In fact pamphlets were a form of mass entertainment in society when the printing press was just coming into widespread use. Much like the subject of Some Celebrity’s latest downward spiral into doom, the life and times of the Wallachian tyrant were easily sensationalized and given the numerous reprints.
Vlad– auf Deutch –was portrayed as an inhuman monster who terrorized the land and butchered the innocent with sadistic glee. The Russian version took a somewhat more measured view, however. Young Vlad was presented as a cruel but just prince whose actions were directed toward the greater good of his people. No matter what language the stories agree remarkably well as to specifics–Vlad the Impaler was a sick bastard.
How Vlad became Dracula:
His princely father, Vlad II, was called Vlad Dracul (from the Latin ‘draco’, meaning ‘dragon’) after the chivalric Order of the Dragon accredited to him by Sigismund of Luxembourg in 1431. The Romanian name Draculea – literally ‘son of Dracul’ – was bestowed on Vlad Tepes by his father, and was used as a term of honor. Another meaning of ‘draco’, however, was ‘devil’ and this was the meaning that Stoker’s novel popularized.
Bran Castle, situated near Braşov, Romania, is a national monument and landmark. It was built by the Teutonic Knights in (or around) 1212, after they had been relocated from Palestine to the Kingdom of Hungary. The fortress is situated on the border between Transylvania and Wallachia. In addition to its unique architecture, the castle is famous because of persistent myths that it was once the home to our villain, Vlad the Impaler. According to most accounts, Vlad spent two days in the Bran dungeon, as the area was occupied by the Ottoman Empire at the time. Because of the (disputed) connections between Vlad and the fictional character Dracula, the castle is marketed to foreign tourists as Dracula’s Castle.
The castle is open to tourists, who can view the inside by themselves or as part of a guided tour. At the bottom of the hill is a small park to which examples of traditional Romanian peasant structures (cottages, barns, etc.) from across the country have been moved.
The castle passed through royal hands for many generations. For many years at the beginning of the 20th century, it was the principal home of Queen Marie, who, despite her British birth and upbringing, became quite a Romanian patriot. The castle is decorated largely with artifacts from her time, including traditional furniture and tapestries that she collected to highlight Romanian crafts and skills. It was inherited by her daughter Princess Ileana of Romania, and was later seized by the Communist government of Romania in 1948. For many years it was tended to erratically, but after 1980′s restoration and the Romanian Revolution of 1989, it became a tourist destination. The legal heir of the castle is the Princess’s son Dominic von Habsburg and in 2006 the Romanian government returned it to him (Habsburg is currently an architect in New York City and probably never designed something so fancy)
The story of how this fortress was constructed also involves a tale of revenge… Early in his reign, Vlad Dracula gave a feast to celebrate Easter. Vlad was well aware that many of these same nobles were part of the conspiracy that had led to his father’s assassination and the blinding and then burying alive of his elder brother, Mircea. Many had also played a role in the overthrow of numerous Wallachian princes. During the feast Vlad asked his noble guests how many princes had ruled during their lifetimes. All of the nobles present had outlived several princes. None had seen less then seven reigns. Vlad immediately had all the assembled nobles arrested. The older nobles and their families were impaled on the spot. The younger and healthier nobles and their families were marched north to the ruins of his castle in the mountains above the Arges River. The enslaved nobles and their families were forced to labor for months rebuilding the old castle with materials from a nearby ruin. According to the reports, they labored until the clothes fell off their bodies and then were forced to continue working naked. Yep, ol’ Vlad was a sick bastard.
Lake Vidraru–only 1km away from Vlad’s fortress…I might have impaled people too for that view…It’s amazing.
In the end, I learned a lot of interesting history–some of it quite disturbing–but I didn’t find any vampires, evil villains, or rich princes [Dominic must not have been home], but I did find Vampire Wine–[oh yeah, I bought some]
This was my introduction to Paris. And to be honest, it was a bit much. Beautiful, but excessive. I’ll be the first admit that I came to Paris, not wanting to like Paris. I knew it is an expensive city and I didn’t need yet another expensive city to be crazy about [London, I’m talking to you]. I didn’t know a lot about Paris before I came here, but I knew that if I didn’t resist its charms, I would regret it later. Sort of like that extra bottle of wine at dinner.
If cities were people, Paris would be a supermodel. Super hot, but incredibly high maintenance. It’s unreasonably expensive if you want to take full advantage of what the city has to offer. Compare that to Krakow, Budapest, or Prague; they are just as amazing– just not as famous.
Yes, Paris is beautiful. Gorgeous even. But still I think it’s overrated. But tourists seem completely infatuated with the city. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Eiffel Tower gets dry-humped a few times a day by overzealous tourists. [yes, I realize I am being crude].
Perhaps if Paris had been my first adventure instead of London [although to be honest, it took me years to warm up to London], I’d have a different opinion. Or maybe one needs to visit Paris as a couple. Or in the spring. Or perhaps I just have a completely different idea of romance than most.
Admittedly, I am sure I missed out a lot by not knowing French or not having a background in art history or not being a culinary snob. But I can see the city as a very livable city, if you are earning a local wage. The public transport system [it was free over the holiday, vomit-covered, but free] and bike-sharing system are among the best I’ve encountered.
Parisian Metro vomit–not quite the introduction that I was looking for
I can see the appeal of Paris as a vacation spot for tourists. Amazing art and architecture are everywhere so it’s like a massive orgy of tourism.
And I guess therein lies the problem. I stopped being a tourist about 5 years ago. My ideal way to travel now is slow and easy…to feel a city as a local. And when you try to do that in Paris, you feel like a serf. Cheap in Paris is still expensive.
In the two days I was there, I found people pretty helpful especially considering I can’t speak any French apart from “Bonjour, parlez-vous anglais?” and “s’il vous plait”. I mean strangers weren’t exactly inviting me home for glasses of wine, but I didn’t find them any more rude than say people in New York City. What I did see was rude tourists rambling on in English without any introduction. And if they weren’t understood, they would just speak louder. Parisians aren’t fucking deaf – they just don’t or won’t speak English.
My favorite parts of the city were Pere LaChaise cemetery and Notre Dame cathedral. Maybe it says more about me that I preferred hanging out with the dead than engaging with shopkeepers, waiter, or merchants.
Should you visit Paris? Sure, it’s definitely worth visiting. Especially if it’s your first time to Europe. Would I go back? Probably not, but I’d glad I checked it out.
If you’ve been to Paris, what did you think? Would you go back? What am I missing?
Budapest is an odd little city, and part of what makes it odd also makes it cool. Budapest is home to ruin bars, and a visit to the capital of Hungary isn’t complete without a drink (or two) at one of these bars which are unique to the city and unlike nearly anything else I’ve ever seen [and for the non-drinkers among us, most of these places have offerings such as fresh lemonade,coffee, or devine hot chocolate]. I visited my first ruin bar during my first visit to the city in January 2013. Back then, I did Budapest’s version of a ‘pub tour’ and got to visit quite a few of these establishments. My favourite by far is Szimpla Kert, a garden/pub/cafe/souvenir shop/farmer’s market/local hangout/shisha bar. Whatever you can think of, it’s happening here.
Budapest Ruin Pubs
Known by locals as ‘romkocsma’ (ruin pub in Hungarian), these pubs have been a part of the drinking culture for over a dozen years. Every one is unique but, more often than not, a ruin pub in Budapest will have a rundown and slightly sketchy exterior that completely contradicts the vibrant colours and unique ambience you’ll find inside. Filled with second hand furniture and nearly anything funky picked off the curb, these formerly abandoned buildings are now pretty integral to Budapest. And it all seems to have started in the city’s 7th district.
The neighbourhood was largely damaged and neglected after World War II and it’s said that ruin pubs are what changed the district’s future for the better. Where many saw abandoned factories and deteriorating apartment complexes, the people behind Szimpla saw potential. Over the years, the transformation of these buildings (and now others across the city) led to an entirely new concept in Budapest that is pretty darn cool.
The Story of Szimpla Kert
Szimpla originally opened in 2002 as an indoor cafe in a location a few blocks away from its current location, but the ruin pub trend didn’t actually begin until 2004 when they relocated to their current address at 14 Kazinczy Street. Before Szimpla moved in, the area was a relatively quiet spot in the VII District or Jewish Quarter,and the future ‘pub’ was a dilapidated building was a former stove factory. Through the magic of vision, it was transformed into one of the coolest, most eclectic bars I have ever seen.
It was first opened as Szimpla Kertmozi [kertmozi means garden cinema in Hungarian] and their large courtyard was the place to hangout and watch underground/indie films. While they’re still known to play the occasional outdoor movie, Szimpla Kert has come a long way in the last 13+ years.
One of the criticisms of Szimpla Kert is that approximately 80% of the guests are non-Hungarian. In fact, while the menu and signs were in Hungarian, the languages I heard most often were English [Australian version], German, and maybe Czech [I’m a little fuzzy on that one]. Nonetheless the place represents the rebirth of Budapest. It represents entrepreneurship and making use of the architectural opportunities of the city – even if that means the city’s ruins. Szimpla Kert changed Budapest’s international image and unintentionally created the “ruin pub” genre, for which Budapest is now famous around the world.
It’s hard to put the atmosphere into words but I’ll try… Narrow hallways and spiral staircases take you through the indoor/outdoor are where you’ll encounter dozens of rooms varying in size and usually with their own theme. When it comes to the decor, anything goes; don’t be surprised to see a bicycle hanging from the ceiling, a clawfoot tub being used as a loveseat, a robot dancing in a phone booth or a Trabant car smack in the middle of the garden. You’ll find graffiti, funky art and pretty much everything that doesn’t ‘belong’ in a pub. And yet, it all makes perfect sense. Everything fits. Even the row of seats taken straight out of a theatre. And the neon kangaroo that was probably once part of an amusement park.
Countless other ruin pubs have followed in the footsteps of Szimpla. So much so that there are now even specifically designed venues aiming to be romkocsma-esque. The idea of converting buildings that lay in ruin into lively venues seems so simple in its resourcefulness that the idea has taken off in other cities in Europe too.
The Sunday Farmer’s Market
I’m a sucker for a good market and the city of Budapest has many. But most are closed on Sunday and only one is inside a ruin pub. Each Sunday, from 9am till 2pm, Szimpla Kert transforms into a garden of charming farmers’ market stands. There are several local vendors selling everything from fresh bread to veggies, organic spreads and even truffles. There’s also a new all-you-can-eat brunch Sunday morning in their salon upstairs with local ingredients served buffet-style.
Szimpla for Coffee
They have great coffee. They have free wifi. Need I say more? Most wouldn’t think to take an afternoon coffee break at a ruin pub but I actually think Szimpla is a really great place to visit during the day. You get a chance to see how bizarre some of the decor is and you’ll be sure to discover a corner or an entire room you might have missed while visiting at night. You can even bring your pet in with you (except during the farmer’s market). Another reason Szimpla Kert is great for that coffee date is it’s nice and quiet. Because silence is something you can bet you won’t find here on a Friday night. Or any night actually…
I hope by now you’ve come to realize that Szimpla Kert is more than just a bar. It’s an iconic place in Budapest with an obvious presence in the community and you can be sure if I ever find myself in Budapest again, I’ll be looking forward to seeing what cool and amazing things they have added there.
Szimpla Kert is cash only and for more information, opening hours and all current events, you can visit their website.
Charleston, SC–annually voted as America’s Friendliest City–is also home to the 3rd largest 10K in the USA…which is how I found myself back in this city along with 40,000 or so others. Charleston and I have a long, complicated history. I enjoy doing a lot of things; running is not one of them, but in a flash of what I can only describe as temporary insanity, I signed up for the 10K. The thinking was that if I knew I was going to run a race, I’d train for it. Ummmm… not so much. I don’t enjoy running, and I enjoy cold weather less so October-ish was the last time I did any real training.
Part of my issue with running is that I get distracted by the scenery… and this is why I make a much better traveler than runner.
We were up much earlier than the sun to catch the shuttle boat from Charleston to Mount Pleasant.
the bridge in the frosty moonlight… it was right around freezing when we headed over to the starting line
we got to see the sun rise over Shem Creek before the race started
I am not a fast runner; my speed is on par with a pack of turtle running through molassas so by the time I started, the winner had already finished. Even my friend DJ was finished or close to it by the time I was off. Since the main draw of the race in running over the Cooper River bridge, the bridge is the focal point.
it is a beautiful and architecturally interesting bridge.
Eventually I put the camera away, and concentrated on running. I finished at 1:20:59 which may seem slow, but considering I hadn’t run in over a YEAR, and had never ran more than 3.5 miles at once, I am beyond thrilled at my time. Any excuse to travel is a good one.
Charleston is where I fell in love with travel. I vividly remember an elementary school field trip to visit Ft Sumter, Drayton Hall, and the historic battery. It’s a short boat ride out to the fort, but my imagination stirred–what if we keep going? Where will we end up? What was daily life life in the 1700’s? 1800’s? 1900’s? As a self-professed history nerd, Charleston has everything. Pre-Revolutionary history all the way to today. Charleston is also where I fucked-up the best relationship I’ve ever been in. So now my relationship status with the city can only be described as “it’s complicated.”
While reminiscing through my history with the city, I ran, jogged, or walked my way through the 6.2 mile course, and when it was over, decided that this was one of the more stupid things I’ve ever done, and decided right then and there that this would be the first, and last 10K I completed.
The first time I saw you I was intrigued. There was something there that was definitely missing from the long term relationship I was in. We met at the most common of places: my work, not a crowded bar, not at a grocery store, and certainly not anywhere romantic, like a white, sandy beach. You were tall(ish), with black wavy hair, green eyes, and an olive completion. I spoke first–the most banal of opening lines–, ‘Can I help you?’ and on the surface, his reply was just as common– ‘oh, yes ma’am you can’. But it was the way he said it, the glint in his eye, the accented English, that flirty smile. I knew I was in over my head.
Weeks later, after heavy flirting, I finally agreed to go out with him. The LTR was still hanging on by a thread, and you knew this and liked to tease me about this. ‘What would your boyfriend do if he knew you were out to dinner with me?’ you asked. ‘He’s not my boyfriend.’ I’d reply. “So it’s OK if I kiss you?” as you lean over to do just that. ‘Oh that’s definitely OK’ I replied as I kissed you back. In that moment, I fall in lust. It’s everything I’d hoped it might be and more, and it was so incredibly different than before.
Two days later, I finally end the LTR, and that weekend we were back together for another hot sultry summer night. We drove down to the river, and open the moon roof of the car. I crawl on top of you and we kiss, and occasionally, I stick my head out of the moon roof for a literal breath of fresh air.
“Come home with me” you implore. “I can’t do that. I have work in the morning” I try to explain, but you interrupt. “No, no, my darling Micaela. Come home with me to Cartago.” “To Costa Rica?” I ask. “Yes, mi amor. To Costa Rica. You will love it there.”
Suddenly I can’t breath. It’s as if all the air is sucked out of me. Despite the 80 degree temperature and near 100% humidity, I am shivering. Even the heady combination of tequila, salt, and sweat can’t shake this chill. Although the full moon is nearly as bright as the sun, everything in my world has gone dark. All I can hear is the sound of my own heartbeat echoing in my ears.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. You were a breath of fresh air. You came around just in time to save me from a catastrophe. You were supposed to be a short term fling. A summer romance. And now. Now you are asking me to go to Costa Rica with you.
In that moment, I hate you. You know my weakness for far-flung places. Places I’ve never been. You know how I hate monotony and routine. You know that I’ll say yes to Costa Rica even if I’m not exactly saying yes to you. You are a beautiful man. So sexy. So sensual. So what I needed in the moment we met. But I cannot go to Costa Rica with you. I. Can. Not. Leave. The. Country. Again. I haven’t even been back that long.
*** *** *** ***
Three weeks later I quit my job and I arrived in Cartago. I call you, and you seemed surprised to hear from me. A little distracted, perhaps, but you agree to come pick me up. I see it in your face: despite your words, you are not happy to see me. “What’s wrong?” I ask, as I reach over to kiss you. You turn your head and my kiss lands on your cheek. “I did not expect that you would come. Micaela, you said you could not come. You have work. You said you had no vacation available. I have many things going on. I have work…”
“But I did. I came to see you. I want to meet your family and I want to see where this goes.”
“But Micaela, where will you stay?”
“With you, of course”, but I knew as soon as the words we coming out of my mouth that it was not to be.
“Let me make a some calls. You stay here. Micaela, mi amor.” The way the said my name was almost a threat.
A relationship ending just as it’s beginning is never quite what one imagines it will be. One imagines it will be painful, and it is, but it isn’t painful all at once. There is the surface cracking… where all the hopes and dreams one may have had disappear shattering the illusion of perfection, and then there’s the deeper cracks. The things that pop up after the initial injury. The ones no one else can see, like the fracture of a bone. It hurts much worse than imaginable.
The next two days are torturous as we spend time together, each knowing that this–all of this– was a mistake. You show me the volcanoes, and around San Jose.
The volcanoes are beautiful, just like the beginning of the relationship, but there’s hardness here too. A stumble, a fall; it could be the end. And I’m acutely aware that I am in a remote place with a man that seemingly has much to hide. I don’t want to be here anymore. Not with him. I don’t want to look into the green-eyed abyss any more. I used to think that I could stare into those eyes for an eternity. Now those green eyes stare back at me with an emotion I can’t quite place. Not hatred. But certainly not the lust from the summer.
After coming back from the volcanoes, I say “I don’t want to be here anymore. Not with you.” Even though my heart is breaking, I refuse to cry. His jaw tenses, and he put his hand on top of mine.
“Micaela.” Just the sound of my name in his accented voice almost causes the dam to break. “Micaela. I did not want to hurt you.”
I pull away from his hands, look into those green eyes, now heavy with regret, turn around and walk into the city. I do not look back.
I imagine, as I am walking away, that you feel sadness. Sadness of what was never meant to be. Sadness for taking a chance. Sadness for keeping secrets. Whatever those might have been.
*** *** *** ***
I head to the bus station seeking the first bus to the coast. Caribbean? Pacific? It doesn’t matter. I just want–no need– to be surrounded by salt water. I get seated on the bus, my backpack on my lap, and the tears start to fall. Slowly at first, almost as if they are waiting their turn, and then, much more rapidly.
I opt for the Caribbean side of Costa Rica’s and end up in the sleepy town of Puerto Viejo Limon. It is a hippy, dippy kinda of place where some people come to visit and never leave. It had a small guest house, a bar, beaches as far as the eye can see, and some very interesting neighbors.
The first two days I ate nothing but fresh fish, rice, and a variety of fresh fruit, and drank nothing but passion fruit and vodka. I tried not to think of him. I tried not to remember the way his green eyes sparkled in the morning sun. I tried not to remember how those green eyes faded to black when he saw me at the airport in San Jose. I tried not to remember how incredibly sexy he were, shirtless, brown skin glistening in the moonlight, down by the river on those hot summer nights. I tried not to remember that I was also shirtless. I tried not to remember how he took ice cubes and melted them on my skin. I tried not to remember how the coldness of the ice melting and the heat of his breath drove me mad with desire. I tried not to remember how time stopped when our lips met.
But remember I did. All these moments and so many more. No amount of passion fruit and vodka could make me forget. But I wanted to forget. I wanted to forget so badly, and so I looked at the bartender and said ‘Uno mas, por favor.’
*** *** *** ****
Somewhere around day 5 I notice you staring at me. You are definitely not Costa Rican or even Caribbean. I look at you and you stare back, our eyes locking.
“I’ve been watching you” you tell me. Your English is good. Definitely not North American, but it doesn’t sound quite British either. I tend to notice things like that.
“Oh? Seen anything interesting?” I reply.
“You’ve been drinking entirely too much vodka.”
“Obviously you haven’t been watching me too closely or you’d know I haven’t been drinking enough vodka because I still remember.
“What do you remember?” you ask.
“Everything. Everything I want to forget.”
“Walk with me” you implore.
“I can’t go with you. I know nothing about you. You could be a serial killer for all I know,” I reply.
“I’m not” you say. I notice that I’ve hurt you. The expression on your face is that of a small child who has just has his favorite toy taken away. “Walk with me.”
I get up… Slowly, partly due to the vodka, and partly because I’m just now noticing how attractive you are.
“But I still don’t know anything about you…” I say as we begin our walk along the white sandy beach. “Why are you in Costa Rica?” I ask, then ponder as to why that’s my first question as opposed to something more useful like ‘what is your name?’
To be honest, I don’t even remember your reply… something about Costa Rica and biodiversity and research. I realize I am drunk, and wonder how long the copious quantity of vodka I’ve consumed will stay down. I also wonder if you will kiss me. And if drunk vomiting is the worst turn-off imaginable.
“I need to sit down” I say, probably slurring my works. I notice you steering me towards another beach-side bar. There seems to be one about every 500 meters or so. “No… no more vodka” I muster. I noticed you talking to the bartender and you come back with water. Nice cold water.
“Why are you drinking yourself into oblivion?
“Because I’m trying to forget”
“Forget what?” you ask.
“The reason I’m in Costa Rica. Everything about Costa Rica. Just everything.” I look at him with sadness. There are no more tears. The sea has swallowed them whole, but there is still sadness inside.
At the random beach-side bar, where the not quite English, yet definitely not North American cute ecological researcher gave me water, I notice a dart board. Suddenly I’m feeling better. “Wanna play?” I ask. He’s not so sure about letting a drunk person throw sharp, pointy objects. “Where are you from, anyway? I ask.
“Wales” he replies “It’s near…”. I cut him off and asked “beth yw dy enw?” His jaw dropped to the floor and said ‘You speak Welsh? Where are YOU from? I just smiled and said ‘I asked you a question?
“My name is Matthew. I grew up in Ceredigion.” “I’ve been there” I reply. You look at me, curious. Curious as to whether I am telling the truth or just trying to impress you. “It’s near Pembrokeshire” I reply. I can tell you are impressed. In that moment, I forget about Costa Rica, the reason I came, and everything that has happened in the last 10 days. I look into your eyes, green with a hint of gray, and kiss you. And finally, I forget.
*** *** ***
Two years later on a cold dreary November day, I hear the version of my name that only you used… Micaela.
I turn around and look for you. Two years have aged you a lot. I stare into the familiar green eyes and feel nothing. I always wondered what it would be like if I saw you again, and now I know. There’s no bitterness. No hatred. No feelings of lust. Just you, smiling, searching for something in my expression. He says hello, and I reply in kind. How about a drink, he asks. No thank you, I say for the first time. It was good seeing you. And it was.
I will forever be grateful that he came into my life when he did. Sometimes, even now after all these years, I wonder what he’s doing, and where he is. In my mind, the entire country of Costa Rica will forever be linked to heartbreak, a green-eyed lover, vodka, and the one who made everything OK.
Ah yes, the church of bones. I’d heard about it before and even visited other crypts and ossuaries, but I knew that I’d have to visit Kunta Hora if given half a chance.
Less than a day away from Prague, lies the hauntingly beautiful chapel of Kunta Hora–a chapel decorated with thousands of human bones. The Sedlec Ossuary is a chapel in a suburb near Kutna Hora about an hour’s train ride from Prague. Several travel companies offer packages from Prague but it’s none to difficult to go about it on your own giving you the benefit of doing what you want when you want.
Traveling in winter in the Czech Republic often leads to nearly empty streets and tourist free site, especially when you get away from the larger cities and more popular destinations such as Prague, and it being January, Kunta Hora was practically deserted.
Entrance to the Sedlec Ossuary is about $5 and in my opinion, totally worth it. It’s estimated that the remains of 40,000 people were used to adorn the walls of the chapel. The story goes that during the Black Plague of Europe, they essentially ran out of places to bury people. So they dug up the already dearly departed, and used their space to put the new, plague-infested corpses in. The solution as to what to do with all the much older dead was to use the bones (skin was already long gone) for ‘decoration’. To think that you were walking among real human skeletons was bone-chilling.
Being the #sciencenerd that I am, I tried to identify which bones were the most used. Clearly skulls make the biggest impression, but I found an impressive number of long bones such as the tibia, fibula, femur, and humerus. These long bones were used to make the ‘X’s and
After my self-guided tour of the chapel (you get a printed guide in the language of your choice as long as it’s English, Czech, German, Russian, and a couple other languages I didn’t recognize), I explore the town, the outdoor cemetery, and the impressive St. Barbara’s Church. If you know anything about me, you know that I love exploring a new (to me) city’s cemeteries, reading tombstones, and imagining their past lives.
The next spot that piqued my interest was the massive gothic style St Barbara’s Cathedral. Started in the 1300’s and completed in the 1800’s, the cathedral consists of several architectural styles, but gives off mostly gothic vibes.
It’s always a bit eerie walking around a deserted town in the snow and frosty temperatures, and it being January, most things were closed so you can imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon the amazing (and not because it was one of the very few options open) Pizzeria Piazza Navona Restaurant. A delicious Italian-like pizza in the heart of Bohemia was pure heaven.
Kutna Hora is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for both St. Barbara’s Church and the Cathedral of Our Lady at Sedlec. If you have a day to spare when visiting Prague, I recommend getting out of the city and exploring the odd and unique Sedlac Ossuary and with it the rest of the town, Kunta Hora.